White paper; black ink.
The skyscraper sat empty, silent and still as a tomb. The only sounds that accompanied him were the clicks and clacks of the keyboard as his manicured fingers hit them. Looks mattered, he always knew. His old mentor had taught him that on his first day. Women primp, tuck, and lift, George O’Bryan used to say, and men suck in, suit up, and manicure.
“Most men don’t admit to that last bit, but a polished hand is a hand grasping for success. Money and power don’t go to men with dirt under their nails.”
And his mentor imparted that wisdom, along with many others, right up until the day he took over the man’s job, office, and dignity. He didn’t know where George O’Bryan was now, and once in a while he wondered if he should care.
His phone vibrated — a quiet, soft hum that drew the smallest of glances from him. The caller’s name appeared on the screen. Barbara. No frills. No hearts. No sweet little nickname like he’d seen other men designate for wives and lovers. On her phone, he was “hubby<3”. On his phone, she was merely Barbara.
He tore his gaze away from it to go over the contract again. Eventually it stopped. She left a message. Her second one tonight. He made a mental note to get to it when he finished the next five pages.
The company was a growing one, recently featured in a number of prestigious financial magazines, business blogs, and one mainstream news program. It occupied three floors of the most sought-after building downtown and was rated one of the best places to work in the state two years in a row. Promises were made when he joined up, and most of them came to fruition with time and hard work. He was proud of his hard work and seeing his achievements and promotions stack up gave him a thrill in his lower regions that Barbara could never quite arouse to the same effect. As he poured over another contract, his phone buzzed. Short, almost angry sounds as Barbara’s text messages came through, one after another. He would read them as soon as this next contract was done.
Emails came through. Black letters on a stark white screen. He went through them one after another, providing answers and statistics with practiced efficiency. Though the city around him slept, the greater world did not. Tokyo, London, Beijing, Cairo . . . Deals to be made; lines to be signed. Reply, forward, CC, BCC.
This one was different. A personal message from a board member, signature dashed gallantly across the white screen.
Saw your response to Lagos. Good work. The chairman has been hearing good things about you. There’s a get-together Friday. Black tie optional. I’ll have Deb send you the details.
And he felt it again. That heat. That excitement. It burned through him from his chest to his toes. He shivered and let a smile creep across his face. His phone vibrated again. Short, abrupt buzzes that he ignored.
White shirt; black tie.
He was shrugging into his suit jacket. She was packing the matching luggage they bought ten years ago for their honeymoon. It had seen them through Hawaii, the Easter Islands, Paris, and Hong Kong before Lizzie was born. Then, it had seen them through Disney World, San Diego, and the Grand Canyon. They hadn’t traveled much lately. For the past two years they’d sat in the back of the closet while Barbara tended to their daughter alone, ate dinner alone, and cried herself to sleep alone. He had moved them once, to avoid their corners wrinkling the expensive new suit he’d bought for the last company party, the same suit he was putting on now.
She said nothing, and he did the same. Lizzie’s voice was the only thing heard in the meticulously decorated loft apartment. The five-year-old was expressing her displeasure with all the passion and ardor of her age. Why do we have to go to grandmother’s house all of a sudden? Grandmother’s house smells like feet. Addie gets to go to the circus. Why can’t we go to the circus? What about daddy’s party? Why can’t we go to the party with daddy?
Barbara answered her in a quivering voice, like a shaky dam holding back torrents threatening to spill out. He straightened his tie and looked himself over in the mirror. He would take the car. She would take the station wagon. He offered to help her load the luggage but wasn’t surprised when she brushed him off.
“When we rise high, she will have all that she wants. The best home, the best schools. She will be the envy of her peers, and she needs a good education.” He said this when she rolled down the passenger window.
Barbara pursed her lips as she began to pull away. In the back seat, Lizzie’s face was melting slowly with understanding as reality sunk in. She began to weep as her mother rolled the window back up.
“She needs a father.”
White limo; black dress.
He was certain the path she had taken to the party was different from his. People like her did not drive their own cars, nor did they take back roads filled with traffic — cars full of eager children bound for the circus. The circus that Lizzie had fussed so much about going to. Perhaps Barbara would take her, seeing cause to distract the child from their bleak circumstances. This woman lived in town, he was sure, and was making deals and schmoozing clients in the back of her limousine, lounging with phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She looked like she stepped straight out of an old noir novel, the kind of woman described as a “dangerous dame with gams for days.”
She glided to him, hair shining like oil and dress clinging like a second skin. She had eyes like a queen and lips like a streetwalker, a formidable combination that could wreck a lesser man. He hoped he was not lesser, though he was not quite sure.
“Mr. Jeppson.” His name coming out of her mouth was the purr of a lioness. She held out her hand. He took it, debated for a moment if he should kiss it, then shook it politely instead.
“Ben, please. Lovely to see you, madam chairman.”
He didn’t mean to purr her name the way she did his, and he felt cheap as it left his lips. She leaned in and he felt her hot breath on his ear briefly, and her apple-red nails slid over his forearm. His would not be the first ear on the board to touch her lips, nor would he be the last. The fast track, as most in upper management knew, ran straight through her bedroom. Talent and dedication weren’t the only qualifications for a seat on the board.
She smiled at him. He smiled back. She was a stunning woman, but her looks were irrelevant.
They sipped bubbling Brut, nibbled on toast points dipped in delicate, salty caviar, and talked business. The booze went easily to his head. She knew her way around a bottle better than he. She asked about his place. He suggested hers, making the excuse that he lived too far away. She seemed aroused by his boldness, not knowing he couldn’t bear the thought of laying her down on the bed that still bore the imprint of Barbara’s suitcase.
The limo took the long way to her villa. Her fingers found their way around his buttons and seams with surgical precision. His eyes remained on the city passing by outside the window. A clown girl dressed in yellow and white stood at a busy intersection, juggling a cardboard arrow with the words “CIRCUS IN TOWN!” in large, red print. A little dog danced at her feet.
White sofa; black cat.
He woke still in his dress shirt, though not much else, laying splayed with white leather sticking his privates and a ball of black fur purring away next to his head. Peeling himself off the sofa that probably cost more than his annual salary, he sat up and tried to decide what to make of himself.
She was already in the bathroom, dressed to the nines, touching up her brow with one hand and smoking with the other, both with practiced efficiency. In the time he took to clear his head, she trotted past him, purse in hand. She made no small talk; stunning women with power do not make small talk with one-night stands. He might as well have been a piece of furniture, a bobble she purchased as an afterthought.
He tried small talk. She replied. They chatted a bit about business, then she said she had somewhere to be. The cat circled his ankle, bumping its head against his leg to be scratched. The housekeeper made her way in, gathered up laundry to be washed, and made her way out, giving him the same polite nod she must’ve given to John Peters, the last member to be inducted to the board. And Henry Singh, the one before him. And Mary-Anne Sardar, the one before him.
She smiled and told him the housekeeper would whip him up some breakfast. She smiled and said she had a great time and thought his ideas will have great impact to the company. She smiled and said she had to go. The smile was painted to her face and never faltered. She smiled when she told the housekeeper to remember to put out the cat when she saw him out. He half expected her to smile and slip a twenty into his pocket for his services.
He went home. Breakfast had never sounded less appetizing.
Purple crayons; green scissors.
He sat among the things his daughter left behind. The silence was deafening. Once he had thought her too loud, but the echo of her absence was louder.
Empty closet, where Barbara’s yellow dress used to hang. Empty counter, where her cherry lip-gloss used to lie.
He dialed her number. It rang and rang.
He dialed it again. It rang and rang again.
He looked in the mirror, at his disheveled white shirt, black tie. At the red lipstick on his collar that screamed his regret like a whore screaming her ecstasy.
His phone rang. He shook, lunged for it, and nearly dropped it, only to see it wasn’t her. It was Henry Singh, congratulating him on his new position on the board, just announced this morning. He hung up without saying thanks. Victory had never felt so hollow.
Music flowed in. From where? He was unsure. He went to the window and opened it a crack. The music grew louder. Circus music. Cheerful music. Happy music. Music full of joy and laughter. His body wanted to smile at it, though his heart did not. He felt his face crack into a smile, desperate for a sliver of joy the rest of him did not feel. The circus was miles away. How could he hear music?
And yet, it called to him, loud and clear as day. Come, it said. Be happy. The circus is in town.
Red nose; blue hair.
Lizzie Jeppson, now Elizabeth Jeppson-Howard, tightened her grip around her son’s hand when the clown approached. He was smiling and handing out balloons to passing children, and yet something about him was off, unsettling. Her son, five-year-old Ben, named after the father she hadn’t seen since she was his age, peered at the mass of cotton candy hair curiously. She had intended to hate her father for the rest of her life for putting his work ahead of his wife and daughter, but resentment faded with time, slowly eroded by a vague sense of regret at not ever having a chance to mend the fence. Naming her son after him had at times felt like an empty gesture, but most of the time it gave Elizabeth a mild satisfaction at having done her best given the circumstances.
The clown offered a balloon. Ben shirked away. The painted smile turned to Elizabeth and she found herself thinking for a moment of the suitcase her mother packed on the night they left home. Were his eyes familiar? She couldn’t imagine why.
“Didn’t you want the balloon?” she asked little Ben as the clown shuffled off. The boy shook his eyes.
“He’s telling lies, mama.”
“With his eyes. He’s playing happy with his face but his eyes aren’t. I don’t like sad clowns, mama.”
She started to agree with him, but the words trailed off as she watched the clown’s retreating back. For a moment, just a moment, she saw him wearing a white shirt and black tie.