The writers were the first to go, the most easily outsourced. They were followed in short order by Legal and HR, those services absorbed by existing divisions at the headquarters of the new owners, a media conglomerate in a bigger city in another state. Most of Editorial and IT and Sales jumped ship before they could be laid off, the building leaking personnel all through winter and into spring until there was only one car left in the lot. This car belonged to a senior accountant named Ernest Fry. He let himself in each morning, his loafers echoing him across the abandoned lobby. Alone, he rode the elevator to his office on the sixth floor. Nobody would have noticed — or cared — if Ernest had moved into one of the executive suites on nine or ten, but he knew where everything was in his desk drawers and he’d grown partial to his view, a satellite university campus across the street, students in their backpacks slouching off to class.
Time zones being what they were, it was not infrequently the case that his first task of the day was logging into Zoom for his meeting with Fatima Reddy, head of the Mumbai team. They would be taking over bookkeeping and payroll and it was Ernest’s job to bring Fatima up to speed. She had an agile mind and wisps of hair like sideburns at her temples, and he looked forward to their meetings. During one particular session, a Thursday in late April, he was clarifying the nuances of revenue recognition when he noticed how tired Fatima’s eyes looked behind her glasses.
“Is everything all right?” he said.
Her eyebrows pinched and her face drew back a few inches from the screen. Fatima stared directly into the camera when she replied.
“It’s just — ” He stopped himself. The last thing he wanted was to offend her. “Here,” he said instead, “let me show you something.”
He unplugged his laptop and clutched it against his chest, camera facing away from his body. “That’s my desk,” he said. “That’s my diploma. That’s a picture of my family.” He carried the laptop over to the window and held it close to the glass, though he doubted she could make out much detail. “That’s my view,” he said. He was moving on impulse as he walked her out into the hall and let her look through open doors, an occasional stray something left behind — a mateless bookend on an otherwise empty shelf, a framed Employee of the Month certificate hanging crooked on the wall. “This is Pete Wu’s office or it was, and this was Margot Pratt’s. She’s the person who hired me. That seems like a long time ago now.”
“What are you doing, Ernest?”
He rotated the laptop so that he was looking at the screen, Fatima’s expression difficult to read. His own face wobbled in its box, his hands unsteady. “Listen,” he said, raising the laptop over his head like that might amplify the silence.
“I hear nothing.”
Ernest lowered the laptop to eye level.
“I know,” he said. “I’ve got the whole place to myself.”
Fatima blinked and tugged at her earlobe, a habitual gesture, always reaching her right hand across her throat to her left ear. He felt a flicker of concern that he’d miscalculated, but once he’d returned the laptop to his desk and steered the subject back to revenue recognition, they fell into their usual rhythm, and before long, their hour together had passed and Ernest busied himself with the final quarterly report until it was time for lunch. He favored a sandwich shop near the university. They served excellent chicken salad and the students paid no attention to the accountant in the booth by the window with his napkin in his lap.
In the afternoon, Ernest checked his email, answering the ones that needed an immediate reply — there were fewer and fewer of those, it seemed — and deleting the rest, including one from a headhunting service he’d reached out to last November, back when the slow march toward dissolution was just beginning.
Before the company was sold, he’d never paid much attention to the content in magazines they published, but there was a fan of back issues on the coffee table in reception and he’d taken to flipping through them when he had time to kill. His favorite was a travel and lifestyle monthly called Retreat. Spreads on exclusive resorts, features on vacation homes. He’d noticed that there were rarely any people in the photographs, rooms deserted to showcase the décor. Here, for example, was a daybed on a screened-in porch, book splayed on the pillow, a glowing bent-neck lamp, as though someone would be returning any minute to pick up where they’d left off.
At five o’clock, he stowed his laptop in his bag and headed for the bank of elevators. Not so long ago, there had been enough traffic going up and down that he generally had to wait, but today, the elevator on the left opened as soon as he pressed the button, the very elevator he’d ridden up after lunch, and it dawned on Ernest that he’d been using the same elevator for weeks, the other two lodged on nine and seven all this time.
It wasn’t exactly true that he had the building to himself. He was aware that the new owners had hired a security firm to cruise the parking lot at night, and there must have been somebody around to cut the grass and change the light bulbs and empty the trash and so forth, but he never saw anyone else. A For Sale sign had appeared out by the street, but no potential buyers toured the facilities, at least not while Ernest was present. The building itself was beautiful in its way, ten stories of steel and glass, its windows reflecting a plaza with a fountain where employees might enjoy a little fresh air during their breaks. The fountain, of course, had long been drained.
His wife, Mallory, was packing when he got home, overnight bag open on the bed. She hadn’t heard him come in and he stood at the door and watched as she moved from the closet to the full-length on the wall. She held a blouse against her chest and sucked her cheeks and narrowed her eyes, smoothing the fabric over her stomach. Herself and not herself. The woman he had married and the woman she imagined herself to be. Then she spotted his reflection in the mirror and her face reconstituted, those familiar dimples, that skeptical smile.
“Would you check on the kids?” she said. “They’re supposed to be packing but last time I checked Lauren was messing around on her phone.”
He could hear in her voice not irritation but anticipation, a bright wire beneath the words. She was taking the children to her parents’ house that weekend. Her father would be 70 on Friday. There would be a dinner at her parents’ club. Her father loved to celebrate himself. The children — Tanner, 14, and Lauren, 12 — were looking forward to the trip, in large part because Mallory’s parents lived three hours south by car and they would be allowed to miss half a day of school so they could arrive in time for the festivities. Ernest had begged off, citing a conference call with higher-ups at the new home office, a progress report, impossible to reschedule, and wouldn’t it save a little money, he’d argued, if he stayed home to look after the pets rather than shelling out for a kennel? All of which was more or less accurate on its face. He really did have a conference call, and the pets — the dog, two cats, a guinea pig — really did need looking after, but they could afford the kennel easily enough and there was nothing pressing at work, not anymore. What Ernest could not bear, however, was the thought of an entire weekend spent explaining himself to Mallory’s father. Ernest didn’t owe anybody anything, her father maintained, least of all the company that had rendered him superfluous, a sentiment Mallory repeated in more private conversations.
“And make sure Tanner packs something besides T-shirts and athletic shorts,” Mallory said to his reflection. “He’ll need a decent outfit for the party.”
“Coat and tie?”
“If you can talk him into it, sure, but a button-down and khakis will do.”
Across the hall, Lauren’s door was open but Ernest knocked on the frame and hesitated a moment before stepping into view.
“How was school?” he said.
“Disaster,” she said, her thumbs pecking away. “Messaging Ky right now.”
Her life was too complicated to keep straight, all her friends, their alliances and betrayals. He’d heard the name Ky many times but it conjured no actual human in his mind. Male or female? Ernest had no idea. She was sitting on her bed with her knees drawn up, her back propped against a nest of pillows. Lauren had strung the walls with Christmas lights and something like a clothesline to which she’d clipped vintage postcards and snapshots of her classmates, all of which combined to give her room a hectic but homey feel.
“Time to get off the phone, okay. You need to pack.”
“In a minute,” she said. “This is crucial.”
Disaster, crucial. She talked as if her world was always on the verge of ending. Lately, she had begun insisting that they call her Rena, and while Ernest couldn’t see the harm, he’d had trouble breaking the habit of her given name. He looked at her, her eyes glassy with blue light from the screen, and repeated the name — Rena, Rena, Rena — three times in his head before moving on to his son.
By comparison to his sister’s room, Tanner’s quarters had the bland, inoffensive look of a moderately priced hotel: white walls, tan comforter, matching desk and bureau, everything selected by his mother. He was lying on the floor when Ernest entered, chest-passing a basketball toward the ceiling and waiting for gravity to return it to his hands.
“All set for the weekend?” Ernest said.
His son resembled Mallory or, more specifically, Mallory’s father and her brothers. Blond, long-limbed, already taller than Ernest. All those years ago, when he’d learned his firstborn would be a son, the idea had filled Ernest with a deep mingle of eagerness and dread. It would fall to him, he thought, to show the boy a path toward manhood, a task impossible not to botch, but even as a toddler, his son had moved through life with an air of dreamy unconcern, Ernest’s attention and advice beside the point, and Tanner seemed content, there on the floor, to let the evening slip by exactly as he was, one foot bare, the other still clad in a sock, both pointed toward the ceiling in a loose and lazy V.
Up went the ball and down again. “Pretty much.”
Ernest could see no evidence to support this statement, but he gave the frame a rap and said, “Your mother will be steamed if you’re not packed by bedtime,” and then he drifted down the stairs to the living room. The cats, Buster and Onion, were curled up in the armchairs with the best view of the TV. When he tried to lift Buster to make room for himself, the cat hissed and sank his claws into the upholstery, and Ernest gave up without testing Onion and stepped through French doors into the yard. The pool, the privacy fence. Hummingbird feeders. Somewhere, a woodpecker knocking. A lawn mower. The dog had wedged himself between the gas grill and the house. Shadow was a greyhound rescue, afflicted by fear of hummingbirds and woodpeckers and cats and children and television and flushing toilets and wind and thunder and falling pinecones and lawn mowers and the automated pool skimmer, among a host of other terrors known and unknown to his master. Ernest had hired a man to build a climate-controlled doghouse but Shadow was afraid of that as well. He found a stick in the grass and tried to tempt Shadow from his hiding place — under the right circumstances, he could be quite the game retriever, though those circumstances were unpredictable and rare as an eclipse — but the dog just gnawed his paws and refused to look at Ernest.
At its peak, the company had employed 32 people in Accounting alone, but that number had been whittled down to 11 by the time the new owners made their offer, software doing half the work, subscriptions in freefall, no one indispensable. Ernest counted himself fortunate to have held on so long, a feeling he’d never quite managed to shake. Even now, at his desk in the quiet building, having endured Mallory’s scolding because neither of the kids had packed, having completed his conference call with the higher-ups, even now, with the rest of the day yawning before him, he felt a kind of drowsy satisfaction. He’d assured the new owners that he could have everything wrapped up by June.
He stood and stretched and walked over to the window. From this height, he could see out over the library and down into the quad, shirtless boys spinning a Frisbee and girls sunning their legs. Ernest wasn’t so old that he’d forgotten how it felt to be that age on a spring Friday, the weekend at your fingertips, the semester nearly at its end, certain that the future would take care of itself.
With his hands in his pockets, whistling for no good reason, he strolled down the hall and let the elevator on the left carry him up to ten, where he wandered from office to office, opening drawers and file cabinets, poking around. In addition to paper clips and thumb drives and dongles, he found a gold lapel pin shaped like a torch, a half-empty fifth of small batch bourbon, an unused can of tennis balls. He located a tote bag on a hook on the back of someone’s door and dropped what he’d found inside and slung the bag over his shoulder. He could hardly believe he hadn’t thought of this before. He repeated his search on nine and eight and seven. Three inhalers, two rolls of antacid, a ceramic antelope figurine. He found a pocket-sized Book of Mormon, a tourist’s guide to Northern Italy. He found a self-help book called simply How to Change. When the tote bag was full, Ernest rode the elevator back to ten and dumped the contents on the table in the corner conference room, the one with floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides, the air stuffy and stale, dust swimming in the light. He adjusted the thermostat, then returned to the bank of elevators and slid down the innards of the building to five — he bypassed his own floor — where he unearthed a sheaf of letters bound with a purple rubber band. He skimmed the first and part of a second, enough to warm a blush across his cheeks. The letters were from a woman he’d known in Legal to a receptionist in Sales, both married, the affair itself less startling than how frankly the writer had described what she wanted to do with her hands and where she wanted to put her lips. Who wrote letters anymore and why and weren’t they concerned they’d be discovered? On four, he found a hairbrush, a coffee mug, a man’s wristwatch. At first, Ernest thought he’d found a Rolex but he remembered that the second hand on the real thing glides rather than ticks around its face. A knockoff, but he dropped it in his tote bag anyway.
The conference room looked out in the opposite direction from Ernest’s office, the old oaks and fading Victorians on the fringes of downtown and then the taller buildings stabbing up over the city, and above all that, like a portent, parallel contrails drawn on blue sky, an equals sign in vapor.
It wasn’t often that Ernest registered the scent of his own house — a must of laundry and cat litter and cold fireplace and something else, something particular but hard to define, something he could smell seeping up from his own skin. He stood at the island in the kitchen and sniffed his forearm while Onion and Buster bullied around his legs, demanding to be fed.
His phone jittered on the counter.
“We made it,” Mallory said on her end of the line.
“How’s your dad?”
“In high spirits,” she replied, which could mean that her father was drunk or happy or both, but there was only pleasure in Mallory’s voice. Mallory was the youngest of three, the only girl, and her parents fawned over her. Onion lifted on his hind legs and clawed at Ernest’s knee and Ernest kicked him away a little too hard. He examined his slacks for damage — there was none that he could see — and the cats prowled out of reach, wary, waiting for him to drop his guard.
“Tell him happy birthday for me.”
“I will,” Mallory said. “You don’t forget to feed Peach.”
Peach was the guinea pig. Her cage was right there beside the coffee maker but it was true that she had slipped Ernest’s mind. She was so modest, so still. She demanded nothing of them and would have expired unobtrusively among the cedar shavings had Mallory not remembered to feed her.
Ernest stepped out back to check the pH levels in the pool. He rarely swam himself — the chlorine burned his eyes — but the kids enjoyed it. They’d just taken the cover off last week and, despite the warm weather, the water was cold on his wrist as he dipped the test kit. Shadow had tucked himself behind the shrubs along the privacy fence. Ernest called but Shadow refused to join him on the pool deck. The solution swirled in its tube. The pH levels were just fine.
Back in the house, he fed Peach, as instructed, then dumped more kibble than the cats needed in their bowls and did the same for the dog. He grabbed his pillow from the bed and a sleeping bag from the hall closet and packed a duffel bag with enough clothes and toiletries to see him through the weekend. He made sure the doors were locked and set the alarm. He was already behind the wheel when he had second thoughts, so he let himself into the backyard through the gate at the side of the house and dragged Shadow, trembling and resisting with every step, out to the driveway and lifted him into the backseat — the car was one more thing that terrified Shadow — and drove to the office, winding through neighborhoods like a fugitive instead of taking the direct route down the interstate.
Shadow, it turned out, was also afraid of polished concrete floors and elevators, so Ernest hung his duffel on one shoulder and his work bag on the other, their straps like bandoliers over his chest, and clutched Shadow in both arms as they crossed the lobby and ascended.
A curious thing happened on the tenth floor. Ernest set Shadow down on the carpet outside the elevator, and after a few tentative paces, the dog took off like a bullet down the corridor and disappeared around the corner. There was nothing special about the carpet — low pile, industrial gray, exactly like the carpet in office buildings everywhere — but apparently Shadow was soothed by the rough weave of it and by the long straight passage and the near perfect silence in the building because he rounded the corner back toward Ernest with his whole body poured into the running.
How full of hope Ernest’s collection looked on the conference table. Even the hairbrush, especially the hairbrush — strands snagged in the bristles, dyed auburn but gray at the roots. Who had this person wanted to impress? What private vanity had they served? He lowered the blinds and washed the coffee mug in the break room sink and splashed himself two fingers of the small batch and cracked open the can of tennis balls. He ordered a pizza from a place popular among the students. Shadow feasted on the crusts. Finally, Ernest settled on the floor with his pillow and his sleeping bag and his laptop and streamed a travel show about Mumbai, formerly Bombay, while tossing a tennis ball for Shadow, who bolted after it so swiftly that he tracked it down, every time, before the ball stopped bouncing away.
He came to groggy from bourbon and deep sleep and a dream about — what? He couldn’t recall the details but the muddled, otherworldly feeling of it stayed with him as he put on a pot of coffee in the break room and fashioned a leash from an extension cord he found in the supply closet and led Shadow across the street to do his business. It was still early and it was Saturday, so the satellite campus was deserted, and after a while he untied the leash and let Shadow roam. The dog was nervous at first, keeping Ernest close, but he spotted a squirrel and gave chase, some dormant instinct overriding his fear, and though the squirrel escaped up a tree, Shadow was released from himself after that, ranging from flower bed to parking meter to patch of grass, sorting a new world through his nose.
Mallory texted party photos, one of Lauren — Rena, he reminded himself — and Tanner with their grandfather, his face florid under his white hair; the other of the whole family, Rena and Tanner and Mallory and her two brothers and their wives and kids and Mallory’s mother, probably taken by a waiter at the club, her father beaming like he owned the place.
Ernest hearted the second image. Looks like your dad had a great time.
He waited for Mallory to reply with more details but she did not.
At a coffee shop near campus, he bought a croissant for Shadow and a blueberry muffin for himself. They dined at a table on the sidewalk, Ernest and his greyhound, like a scene from an old French film.
They were already in the elevator, headed back to the tenth floor, Shadow poised apprehensively but willingly on his four paws, when it occurred to Ernest that something was wrong. They were in the middle elevator, the one that had been lodged on seven for as long as Ernest had had the building to himself. That could only mean that someone else had used the elevator on the left, that someone else was in the building. It was probably just the cleaning service and no matter who it was, it would have been easy enough for Ernest to explain away his presence, but even so he felt this realization like a chill. When the doors slid open, he gripped Shadow’s collar and peeked around. Nothing. He checked the displays above the elevators. The one on the left appeared to be stopped on the third floor. In a rush, Ernest snagged the trashcan from the break room and swept the conference table clean and put the trashcan back where he’d found it. He tossed the things he’d brought from home in the supply closet and checked the elevators again. The one on the left was rising now — six, seven, eight. He dragged Shadow around the corner to the stairwell, the elevator dinging at the exact instant the door closed behind them.
Ernest considered retreating to his office but he figured that whoever was in the building had already stopped on three and was more likely to visit a different floor than retrace their steps. So down they went to three. Ernest took a position in the hive of cubicles where he could stay hidden but also keep an eye on the elevator display. Shadow, a veteran seeker of safe places, seemed to understand. He tucked himself under the desk and didn’t make a sound.
At last, the elevator descended, paused for a few minutes on eight, began again. Ernest held his breath until it had moved past the third floor and down to the lobby. Feeling foolish, he crept over to the windows that faced the parking lot. Another car out there, just a few spots from his own. How could he have missed it? A man in a blue blazer emerged with a folder under his arm. He was followed across the plaza and past the drained fountain by a second man and a woman who was talking with her hands. The man in the blazer referenced something in his folder and then the three of them turned for a last look, the woman shading her eyes. Could they see Ernest? He didn’t think so. Even if they could, he would have been little more than an apparition from that distance. The man in the blazer beeped the car unlocked and dropped into the driver’s seat and the other two climbed in back. A real estate agent, had to be, giving his clients the tour.
Ernest hurried up to the tenth floor and dashed off an email to Fatima Reddy. I hope I wasn’t out of line the other day. I’ve enjoyed our time together and — He deleted the last four words and replaced them with — working with you and look forward to our meeting on Monday morning. The Mumbai of the travel show hadn’t appealed in the way that he’d expected. It hadn’t even seemed particularly exotic. Traffic and noise and street vendors, the financial district on the bay. Thirty million people — 30 million! — and somewhere among them the recipient of this email, the tired face on his screen.
He was reading the love letters, fished from the trash, when Mallory called, her voice bright and drawling at the same time. Her second glass of wine voice. A voice that often signaled a fight or sex on the horizon. When he heard the tipsy drag in his wife’s hello, he decided that he would tell her one honest, carnal thing. How long had it been since he’d startled Mallory with his desire?
“I can’t talk long,” she said. “Dad’s grilling lobster.”
The impulse crumbled in his chest. He closed his eyes but he felt weightless and invisible in the dark of his own mind so he opened them again.
“Is that something one does to lobster?”
“It’s something Dad does. He’s built this huge new outdoor kitchen. Lots of stone. His birthday present to himself. He’s also doing grilled corn on the cob.”
Her father had made his pile renting dumpsters to construction companies. He was retired now, his sons running the firm, but he’d offered Ernest a job when he and Mallory were newlyweds. Ernest had turned him down. He’d wanted to make his own way, find his own place in the world. At the time, he’d believed, his wife had been impressed.
“You’d think it would dry out,” Ernest said.
“He soaks the husks first. Dad says grilling brings out the sweetness.”
When they hung up, Ernest ran the love letters through a shredder and ordered carry-out from a restaurant called Porte Cochere — medium-rare T-bones, marinated asparagus, potatoes au gratin, crème brulee. He stopped at the liquor store for two bottles of overpriced pinot noir on the way to pick it up. No more student food for Ernest. He and Shadow ate like kings, Ernest at the head of the conference table, Shadow underneath, wolfing his own steak on his own plate on the floor. When there was nothing left but blood and bones, Ernest opened the second bottle of wine and they went from floor to floor turning on the lights — forsaken lamps, overhead fluorescents, can and track lights in the lobby. They rode the service elevator to the basement and found the controls for the fountain, neatly labeled beside the fuse boxes. They adjourned to the plaza, Ernest with his pants rolled up and his feet in the water, sipping wine out of the bottle, Shadow circling, amazed but skittish. The building gleamed like a spaceship, water leaping in the light.
Eventually, as Ernest had anticipated, a security guard pulled into the parking lot. Shadow barked at the guard’s approach, his bark muffled because he refused to release the bone he was holding in his mouth.
“I work here,” Ernest said. “I’ve worked in this building almost 20 years.”
“There’s not supposed to be anybody on the premises.”
The guard was heavyset, about Ernest’s age, a silver patch shaped like a badge on his uniform shirt where the breast pocket should have been.
Ernest said, “I’ve got a Zoom meeting with the Mumbai team.”
“It’s nearly midnight on a Saturday.”
“Morning over there,” Ernest said.
The guard stared at him, thumbs hooked into his belt.
“You brought your dog to a meeting? And wine?”
“The dog doesn’t like to be left alone at night.” He had no explanation for the wine so he moved on without acknowledging the subject. “I’m authorized. You’re welcome to call whoever you need to call.”
For a few seconds, the only sound was water splashing into itself. Shadow flicked his gaze between the men.
“That won’t be necessary,” the guard said. “Just be sure to turn out the lights.”
When he was gone, Ernest undressed and folded his clothes and piled them on the ledge around the fountain and lowered himself into the water. He felt charged, invigorated. Like he could do anything he wanted in this place. He tried to coax Shadow into the fountain with him but that was asking too much too soon, though Shadow did drop his bone long enough to brace his front paws on the ledge and bend his neck to drink.
On Sunday morning, he rolled his sleeping bag and collected his toiletries and made sure the tenth floor was as it had been. Shadow hopped into the backseat as soon as Ernest opened the door. They were home in plenty of time to feed Peach and the cats and give the litter box a thorough cleaning before Mallory and the kids arrived. The house was so quiet he could hear the steady tink-tink-tink of Peach lapping at her water bottle.
His family returned in a clamor, his children bickering, Mallory launching into a long, detailed complaint involving one of her brothers and the half-bathroom at her parents’ house. His wife didn’t want to cook and the children didn’t feel like going out so Ernest fixed scrambled eggs and toast and sliced apples, and gradually his life became itself again. After dinner, the children retired to their rooms and he and Mallory watched a documentary about an octopus on Netflix before heading up themselves. Mallory vanished almost instantly into sleep but Ernest’s mind kept spinning, unable to find purchase on any one concern but equally unable to be still. After a while, he swung his legs around, careful not to disturb his wife, and tiptoed past Lauren’s room — Rena’s room, he reminded himself — and Tanner’s room and down the stairs and slipped into the backyard and stretched out on a chaise longue beside the pool. Shadow skulked over from wherever he’d been hiding and nudged himself under Ernest’s chair.
No one would ever know he spent the night out there. At sunrise, he dragged himself stiff-necked into the shower. Mallory was awake by the time he’d finished shaving. He could smell coffee brewing in the kitchen. He felt a fizz of anxiousness in his chest. He drank his coffee and kissed his wife and dropped the children off at school and parked his car in the empty lot as though nothing had changed. Only a weekend had passed, but he was disoriented by the sight of the sixth floor. It was as if the office belonged to someone else, and he supposed it did. It wouldn’t be his for much longer at any rate.
He opened his laptop, logged into Zoom. It wasn’t like Fatima to be late, but 9:00 a.m. came and went. Ernest watched himself run his tongue over his teeth, rub sleep out of his eyes. At 9:17, a second box appeared. Inside was a man with a mustache, his hair parted down the middle.
“You must be Ernest,” he said. “I am Dhruv.”
“Fatima will not be joining us.”
“Is she okay?”
“Fatima has informed me of your progress,” Dhruv said. “I have been asked to proceed on her behalf.”
He was smiling, polite, but no more forthcoming. Ernest was struck by the words I have been asked. By whom? By Fatima herself? He could hear his own voice ringing in his ears — I’ve got the whole place to myself — and the memory made his neck prickle. He’d only intended to reveal something about his life so she might feel comfortable revealing hers. If that’s what she wanted, if some burden was weighing on her. He was out of sorts for the duration but Dhruv went on smiling, taking notes, asking questions. At the end of the hour, Dhruv said, “Until next time then,” and for a long while after he’d left the meeting, Ernest kept staring at his own image, his chin and lips and nostrils, his broad forehead, his ordinary face gone strange.
The satellite university bought the building and the grounds. They needed the space to expand their nursing school. No one bothered to notify Ernest but he was gone long before they began remodeling. He’d accepted a position with a nonprofit specializing in fundraising for the arts. He handled payroll, performed the necessary audits. The nonprofit was situated, coincidentally, in one of the fading Victorians Ernest had looked down on from the tenth floor, his new office tucked away in back, somebody’s bedroom once upon a time. They subscribed to a number of periodicals, literary and cultural journals mostly but also Architectural Digest and Retreat, all of which were arrayed on a credenza in the hall. Best Ernest could tell, no one ever read these periodicals, but when the new issue of Retreat arrived, he would fish the old one out of the recycling bin and steal back to his desk and close the door and pass an hour paging through an article about some island refuge, some mountaintop hideaway. The magazine hadn’t changed much in the transition. Even the ads were beautiful, Ernest thought, austere but alluring. Take this one: a leather chair with a blanket draped over the back, the lighting low, calm. Impossible to tell if they were selling chairs or blankets or lighting or some stylish afterlife until you read the fine print. Turned out they were advertising the paint on the stucco behind the chair.
Michael Knight is the author of three novels, including The Typist and At Briarwood School for Girls; three short story collections; and a book of novellas. His most recent collection, Eveningland, was awarded the Truman Capote Prize for Short Fiction. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Southern Review, among others. He teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee.
This article is featured in the September/October 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
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