“You Arrive at Plan B” was the first place winner of the Dallas International Book Fair short story contest in 2008, originally published in Al Amanecer (“At Dawn”), a literary journal that defies Google. Thanks to Miriam and the Dallas Public Library for running the contest, and to my friend, Denise, for suggesting I enter.
When you walk into the bar your friends have chosen, it reeks of Baylor McFadden’s girlfriend’s perfume and of pretension. You didn’t know that you knew what Baylor’s girlfriend smelled like, but now you do. The pretension, though, you’re familiar with. The bar smells like a Macy’s changing room—like sweaters and nice silk and industrial carpet and price tags. It doesn’t smell like a bar, where things like drinking and smoking and fun and darts would normally occur. You are on notice.
You or someone else says, “This is a…place.”
You or someone else is being funny, and these are the people who will get you or whoever said it. These are the people you have the most in common with at the moment. You walk in the same front door every morning at about the same time. You get the same knowing look from the receptionist when you are three minutes late. You wait for the same slow drip of the same coffee maker each day. Later, you all line up for the same tepid water from the water cooler after someone finally changes the empty five-gallon jug. You all line up for coffee and for water with the mugs you’ve brought from home to make your days a little better. (Your mug has World’s Greatest Dad on it, though you are not a dad. Some people ask about the mug. Some people do not get you.) Around noon every day, you or one of the others start to mill around the halls hoping that someone else is also hungry, and then you blast out the same front door as though you’ve been holding your breath the whole time. You don’t wait to start complaining about the insufferable people you all work with because if you wait until you’re seated at the Thai place or the pizza place or the sub place that’s two-for-one on Tuesdays, you will have waited too long. One of the insufferable people you all work with will be seated two tables over and you will have to talk about something else. You will have to watch what you say. You will have to talk about not getting Cubs tickets this season or how little you’re looking forward to your in-laws coming into town because it means you will have to go to the top of the Sears Tower again. These are the people, there at the table in the sub shop and now here at the slick table of the bar that does not smell like it sells beer—these are the people you can count on. For now.
Baylor is there. His girlfriend. Tevi from accounts. Jedediah and Marcus from creative. Joan and Kathy and Preyah and Ashley and someone Ashley is seeing, sort of, but not really. All people your age. All people who drive a car that is not much better or worse than your car. All people who live in neighborhoods that are not much better or worse than your neighborhood. Their jobs are all just like yours—a pull-off on the road toward something better. None of you know where the something better is. All of you use your work computers to search for new jobs.
You or someone else says, “Didn’t this place used to be different?”
It did. You and everyone else agree. You and everyone except for the guy Ashley is seeing, sort of, agree. The guy has only joined this group today. Jedediah, who is in love with Ashley, is watching every movement the guy makes. You and everyone else are watching every movement Jedediah makes. You are not sure yet if you will use the information you gather about Jedediah tonight to taunt him about his love for Ashley or, when he starts to make an ass of himself, if you will throw yourself across the table to save him. It could go either way.
The bar was different the last time you came in, but now it is well lit and clean and free of smoke. The booths are bright yellow wood and carved into slopes that threaten to throw you onto the floor. Your elbows will not stay put on the table.
You or someone else says, “Didn’t this place used to have beer?”
You and everyone else except for the guy that Ashley is seeing, sort of, also agree on this. Jedediah and Marcus go to find the beer. They pass through the well-lit room into another well-lit room. You and everyone else watch them go. You could really use a beer.
The guy that Ashley is seeing, sort of, stands. You all turn to him, as though expecting a speech. He tweaks Ashley on the shoulder and heads to the bathroom.
You or someone else says, “Remember the last time we were here?”
You and everyone else do remember. Baylor McFadden and his girlfriend glance at each other. Tevi nods. Joan and Kathy and Preyah and Ashley nod. You nod. No one wants to talk about the last time you were there, before the place was fixed up, before it was renamed and polished and made to look like a showroom for a product to be added later.
You look through the well-lit room to the other well-lit room hoping to see Jedediah and Marcus coming with a tray of beers. The well-lit rooms are crowded with well-lit people. Oh, you think. We are the product that has been added later.
Jedediah and Marcus return with beers. Everyone gets a beer. You wrap your hands around the beer as though it is hot chocolate and you have just come in from the cold. You have spent much of the afternoon in your cube thinking about this beer. Not just any beer, but this very beer, this beer that has been brewed, cooled, poured just for your lips. If only you had your World’s Greatest Dad mug so that you could drink it from that. These people would understand. They have their comforts, too.
The guy that Ashley is seeing, sort of, comes back from the bathroom. He reports that the bathrooms have cloth towels instead of paper. He looks around the table at all the beers. There is no beer for him.
Marcus glares at Jedediah and slides his own beer across the table to the guy Ashley is seeing, sort of. “We miscounted,” he says, and heads back into the other well-lit room to get another beer for himself.
“Cheers,” the guy says to Marcus’ back and then to all of you, his glass raised. You raise your glass, though Jedediah looks at you with wounded eyes.
You never say things like cheers, but you are willing to nod and tip your glass because it gets the beer up to your lips, finally, at last, and your weekend is now underway.
The beer tastes like price tags.
You put the beer down and look around. No one else seems to notice. You think that maybe they are having a different beer than you are, although you know that this isn’t true. The first round, the round that everyone drinks, is always the cheapest swill the bar offers. Second round, which only a few people stay for, is ordered to taste. You hardly ever stay for second round, but not because you don’t want to take your turn paying for it. You would, gladly, because these people have salaries that are no higher and no lower than your salary and they always buy you a round. You hardly ever stay for second round because your wife is already home from work by the time first round ends. You stayed for second round and third once, one time, and when you got home, your wife was crying. You stayed for second round and third one damn time, and by the time you got home, your wife was contemplating the dissolution of your marriage. You know that it doesn’t make any sense. You believe it easier to go home after first round than try to come up with an explanation as to why your life seems so fragile.
“How did you find this place?” asks the guy that Ashley is seeing, sort of.
Joan and Kathy and Preyah and Ashley smile. “There was this guy—” one of them begins.
You and everyone else do not want to hear this story.
“He found this place first,” another says.
“It was different then, though.”
The beer tasted like beer, for instance, you want to say. You do not say this. Everyone else is drinking beer thoughtfully. They are already remembering what you and everyone else do not want to remember.
“It was totally different,” one of them says.
“It had a name.”
“What was that name? We never called it that name, though.” Joan and Kathy and Preyah and Ashley are tumbling over one another to tell the story that no one wants to hear except the guy Ashley is seeing, sort of. Ashley lays a hand on the guy’s arm. Across the table, Jedediah winces.
You or someone else says, “It was called Bill’s Bar.”
“Oh, right. Bill’s. Except—”
“Except this guy—”
“He used to work with us—”
“He was in accounts—”
You look around. Only those trying to tell the story are even listening to the story. You and everyone else know how this story ends. The guy died, of course, of course. How could a story like this go any other way? You don’t want the story to get to that part. You don’t want to have to hear about the car wreck and the funeral and how the older women in accounts cried at the staff meeting though they’d given the poor guy a hard time for being so young and inexperienced and idealistic for the three months he’d worked there. You don’t want the story to get to the part where someone turns to Tevi and points out that Tevi has the job left by the guy in accounts who died.
“I got a new job,” you say. “My last day is in two weeks.”
You and everyone else cannot believe that you have just said this. You take another drink of your beer. Your beer tastes like sales receipts. You put your beer down on the table, harder than you had planned to. Joan and Kathy and Preyah and Ashley, all lined up in a row on the other side of the booth, jump.
You are hoping that someone will think of something to say, though you know how difficult it is to think of something. When the last person to leave made the announcement, you had been at this very bar. The last time you had been to this bar, before it was renamed and polished and made to look like a showroom for a product to be added later, one of the group (whose name you have never spoke since) sat up straight and told you about the new job, the new house in a new area of the city. You and everyone else would have been very happy and jealous but happy, if only the person had been able to stop talking. “I made the decision to leave,” the person said, “when I heard.” She meant when she heard about the guy in accounts who died.
She meant that life is short, some lives shorter than others. She meant that life is too short to be hanging around in a cube that was no bigger and no smaller than the cube you and everyone else have. Life is too short to have a salary that was no higher and no lower than your salary. Life is too short to live in a neighborhood no better and no worse than your neighborhood. Your life, though it might not be short, would be no better than anyone else’s.
This woman and your wife used to get along famously well at the office holiday party. Now when you would like to stay for second round and maybe third, you think of what your wife will ask when you get home. She will ask, “Was she there this time?” And you will explain that, no, once you have left the company, you have left the group and you do not return. And she will say, “Exactly.” And you will pretend not to know what she means and explain instead that these are not the rules. There are no rules. You will explain, hoping that she will be derailed from telling you how you must really get around to finding another job, a better job, so that you can buy a house in a better neighborhood, so that you can think about putting some kids behind that World’s Greatest Dad mug. But she is never derailed. She has a plan, and second round is not a part of it.
The guy that Ashley is seeing, sort of, says, “That’s great, man. Congratulations.”
Baylor McFadden and his girlfriend look at each other. Joan and Kathy and Preyah and Ashley nod and murmur and coo things you can’t really hear. Marcus clinks his mug of beer against the rim of yours. Tevi shifts uncomfortably in his chair. Jedediah won’t look at you, but you think maybe it is because he is staring across the booth at Ashley. Before you know it, the table is quiet again. Before you know it, the table is too quiet.
You say, “It’s a really good job.”
You say, “We’ll probably be able to buy a house.”
You say, “We’re probably going to look at the suburbs.”
The table stays silent. You and everyone else take a drink of beer. You realize that you sound exactly like the last person to leave the company. You cannot stop yourself. You want to stop yourself. You don’t want these people to come here in a month or two and look all around and say, “Remember the last time we were here?” You don’t want that moment to happen. That moment is not fun. You should know. You don’t want everyone else to think of you only as the guy they used to work with. You don’t want there to be a story about you that no one wants to hear. You take another drink of your beer to tell them so. Look, you’re about to say, it’s fine if you never say my name again.
Your beer tastes like argyle socks wrapped in tissue paper. For a moment, you cannot imagine swallowing your mouthful of beer. And then you do.
“What did that guy call the bar?” asks the guy Ashley is seeing, sort of.
“What?” you or someone else says.
“That guy you were talking about. You said he had another name for the bar.”
Joan and Kathy and Preyah and Ashley nod and smile. They remember him. Jedediah and Marcus nod and smile. They remember him. Tevi does not remember him; he knocks back his beer and waits to hear the answer, too.
You say, “He called it Plan B. The Plan B Lounge.”
You and everyone else remember the guy you used to work with quite fondly for a moment. You think of how he decorated his cube with pictures of guitars, how he was often the first of you to wander around the halls at lunchtime, hoping someone else was hungry, too. He was a good kid, you think. You feel lucky to have known him. You wonder what, if anything, everyone else will remember about you.
You say, “I feel lucky to have known you all.”
Everyone else, except for the guy Ashley is seeing, looks startled. You are breaking the rules. But there are no rules.
You stand, and everyone turns to you as though expecting a speech. You will not give a speech. For a second you will not know why you are standing. You will stand at the end of the table and look each of these people in the eyes this last time, because there may not be a next time, and then you will turn and walk through one well-lit room into the other well-lit room. You will buy second round.
-Chicago, July 2008