Hey friends, I'm dipping my toes in the fiction waters. Here's an excerpt from the working novel. Think I'm going to call it The Sign...

Traffic is backed up on Cedar Avenue, indicative of the evening rush. The sound of a horn interrupts Toby’s train of thought, and he glances up--a woman in a spotlessly white Toyota Corolla wearing a burgundy blazer, an awful matching shade of lipstick, and a look of pure obliviousness is playing with the radio dial, not realizing the lane of cars stalled behind her as her vehicle is standstill at a green light.

 He wonders how often she gets the Corolla washed or has someone get the Corolla washed for her. He considers the absurdity of the woman washing her car herself, and this makes him let out an unwarranted half chuckle alone on the sidewalk, imagining her in burgundy yoga pants to match that horrible shade of lipstick. He momentarily sits mentally in her passenger seat; his right fist clutching the handlebar above the window--the oh-shit handle, is the phrase his brain knows as the technical term for this interior feature--silently bemoaning as she reaches for the knob while the DJ reminds them for the hundredth time that hour that they are listening to KFAI over the opening chords of “Song 2.” Toby lets out a hypothetical groan deafeningly loud to anyone, yet unregistrable through her oblivion manifested into selective hearing when she switches the station to Cities 97, increasing the volume as the lyrics “No one’s gonna drag you up to the light where you belong,” resonate throughout the vehicle. Why did this song suddenly become so popular again? 

 

There is still a hint of summer humidity in the air as the cool autumn breeze blows a flyer for a lost family dog past Toby’s feet. He reaches to button his faded black peacoat, surprised by the unanticipated briskness, before remembering he is almost at his normal evening destination: The Top Hat Tavern. Like he has so many times before, he thinks about the name of the long-standing dive, never remembering to ask where it came from after ordering his first of several drinks for the night.

 He pauses as he notices a small burn on his sleeve, taken aback by not having any recollection of it being there or where it came from. Was it from a cigarette? It couldn’t be--he had stopped smoking long before he bought this coat. Hadn’t he? Maybe it was that night at the bonfire, which was still fuzzy in his mind, but wouldn’t he have remembered if he had put out a small fire on his own coat that night? Where were all the missing gaps coming from as of lately? He is known for his spotless memory. He thrives on recounting every detail, despite how infuriating everyone in his life finds it to be. 

 

There was that time last Thanksgiving when he interrupted his younger sister Penelope in the middle of her speech about her boyfriend (who she was eternally grateful for) as they went around the table giving thanks. He sipped his wine and reminded her that she and Constantine hadn’t been together for a full year because this time last year she was crying while scrubbing turkey grease off of a pan, pining over Gabriel. It was the first holiday they had been apart after the three chaotic years they spent together. 

Penelope and Gabriel would always be in a subtle argument, spatting transparently through euphemisms during pleasantries. Their allegedly under wraps dispute would always end in them going out to the back porch of his parent’s house, their voices reverberating throughout the otherwise sleepy neighborhood. They would only return back inside upon making up or agreeing to pretend they had made up while the family waited for them to delve into the pumpkin and marshmallow pies. 

Out of all of Penelope’s boyfriend’s over the years, Gabriel was by far the worst. He was the type of guy who overcompensated by suffocating every room he walked into with the scent of his Hermes cologne he couldn’t actually afford. In the three years he and Penelope were together, he was constantly talking about an upcoming promotion from his current sad sales position that always seemed to be “in the works.” 

Toby’s general life approach was to write off anybody who uses the phrase “in the works;” however, when he realized Penelope wasn’t planning on ending things with him, he was overtaken by his Midwestern manners that everyone misread as his best big brother efforts to let Gabriel into his life. He invited him to trivia nights at The Top Hat Tavern, although Gabriel was not only bad at getting the answer right, but also insistent his answer was always right (even when Toby knew it wasn’t), writing it down anyway. 

There was that time Toby had an extra ticket to the Twins and Yankees game and when his dad wasn’t able to make it, he decided to invite Gabriel along instead. Despite having lived in Minneapolis his entire life, Gabriel spent the game cheering for the Yankees and complaining the entire drive home after they’d lost. 

If there was a bandwagon driving down Cedar Avenue at this very moment, Gabriel would be the first one to jump on it. He always sided with whoever was speaking the loudest in political debates, spewing out his opinion which was really based on the headlines he had read about an issue while barely skimming the Star over coffee--(something Toby always imagined as an image Gabriel imagined to create the quintessential morning look of a man perpetually on the verge of big promotion). 

[Toby often contemplated about how complicated it really was being Gabriel; that is, exerting so much effort into “being ‘Gabriel,” the man who spent all of his time collecting torn off snippets from others developed Kodak film to create the man he thought the masses would be relentlessly charmed by. The self-created Gabriel was an intricate lie that probably started as a few minor fibs and transformed into the only thing he honestly put his energy into doing, and-in doing so-was unable to accomplish any of the “big things” always “in the works” that self-created Gabriel spewed to unraptured audiences about as months turned into years...]. 

There was that night at trivia when Gabriel had far too many shots and kept calling Penelope “Helena.” Toby caught on immediately but only told his friends about what had happened that night. When Penelope eventually found out and ended things with him (which was isolated standalone as the only argument they had that Penelope didn’t try to mask from their family) Toby pretended to be in shock like the rest of his family, never revealing to her how he felt about Gabriel. 

 

The two of them were maybe close when they were younger, Toby and Penelope, but had never tried much to build a relationship after Toby left for college. Despite both living in the city, they saw each other once every few months at their parent’s house for a birthday, a holiday, or the death of an extended family member. She would tell him about the new books her company was publishing, about the mind-numbing antics of her parakeet Champion. They’d discuss the Twins or the Vikings or the Timberwolves, in respect to the time of year. She never asked about his personal life and he never offered any information about it without being prompted. It was another rule he tended to follow in life. Perhaps it was, again, the Midwestern manners instilled into him like a red wine stain unnoticed until he took the shirt out of the dryer, but Toby typically only talked about himself when someone asked him a question. Even then, the details were spared. 

 

When he reminded Penelope that Constantine was still a novel addition to her life, his mother interrupted before he could go any further. Sipping her brandy, she interrupted with a sharp, grating, “Alright, Toby. That memory of yours, well I’ll tell ya…”
As she trailed off into what would otherwise turn into a babble he didn’t have the patience for, Toby looked over at Constantine, “So what are you thankful for, Constantine? Also, I’ve meant to ask, where did the name Constantine come from?”
Constantine answered with a naive glimmer in his boy scout green eyes, unable to catch the sarcasm in Toby’s question, smiling over at Penelope while she glanced toward Toby. He may not have been very close with her, but he knew the “cut the bullshit” look she had mastered better than anyone in the Twin Cities. Constantine's voice resonated in Toby’s mind, a tone of [was it?] pride in the explanation of Greek origin and how its best translates into “steadfast” until Toby’s thought patterns transitioned into all the nicknames he loved to make up for Constantine when he was cluelessly babbling on. Finally, Toby was interrupted by a much more welcome voice.

 

“Hey, hey. My guy.” 

Almost startled to find himself already sitting down on the barstool in front of the draft beer selection, Toby tore his attention away from the scorch mark and backlog of his brain, glancing up and back into reality. 

“Jack, good to see you,” Toby said as he shook his longtime bartender and even longer-time friend’s hand across the freshly wiped down mahogany bar top. “How about that close call victory against the Bears yesterday? I’m predicting Johnson is going to at least bring us to the playoffs this year.”

“Certain enough about that to start putting money on the season yet?” Jack asked while cleaning off a glass before scooping it into the ice bin. The lines on his face lifted with his smile, always eager to bring their sports banter to gambling grounds. 

“The time will come, my friend, but it’s too early in the season for me to be reallocating my drink money into your personal pocket and not into The Top Hat’s cash drawer.”

      Jack set down the whiskey ginger he knew Toby was about to order in front of him. Although his attention span was perpetually being redirected by his neurosis, Toby’s need to crack his knuckles lessened and his eyes were able to focus into the setting he was presently in once situated into a setting he knew as familiar. In fact, his demeanor has been assessed personable and easygoing at times, something he sometimes revels in as a remarkable choice of adjectives.  

“Hey, man, I have actually been meaning to ask you--” Toby started as two women took the bar stools near the jukebox. 

Jack, holding up a finger in his trademark mannerism to hold-that-thought, hazel eyes brightening, approached the ladies to take their drink order. Toby thought about how difficult it must be for those who can’t easily hold their thoughts to maintain a conversation or a friendship with Jack as he watched the two glasses being placed with flirtatious skill on the counter in front of the women. Jack, turning to reach for the Sky vodka, snuck a glance over in Toby’s direction, his expression as familiar as the hold-that-thought gesture to Toby at this point. 

Be it at The Top Hat, a house party-hell-sometimes even at Rainbow Foods when they were stocking up on beer and snacks before a game, there was always a girl that Jack knew from somewhere who he wanted to take out on his next night off. Unlike Toby, Jack was always dating someone. Even since they became buddies in Pre-Calc their junior year at Edison High, he’d always have a date lined up for sometime that week. 

Samantha had somehow fallen into the circle of locals after moving to Minneapolis to take a job doing maybe marketing at maybe some company that had maybe something to do with maybe Kellogs. Toby felt no sense of alarm not being able to recall the specifics about Samantha’s drunken introduction of herself the first time she showed up at trivia night. Some information can be filed as forgettable upon receiving it.

“First round is--” Toby heard Jack begin his sentence as Samantha’s maybe roommate made her first selection on the jukebox. Ace of Base drowned out the background chatter of the regulars trickling into The Top Hat.  

“The song that just won’t stop playing,” Toby heard loudly from behind him as Brendan knowingly weaved through the semi-crowded bar and unconventional high top arrangement. 

“Man, even if I were blacked out and blindfolded, I’d put money on making my way from that door to this barstool without bumping into a damn thing.” Brendan talked over Toby’s quick comment where “gambling addiction” was thrown into a sentence that would have been question marked if the infliction hadn’t been so hypothetical. 

“I mean, it doesn’t even make sense. This song came out five years ago. Why has it…”

“...made this huge revival in Minneapolis as of lately?” Toby finished his thought, just as clueless. 

  “How’d you sneak out of the office so early today?” Brendan’s voice echoing envy with a tinge of abandonment, “Gerard’s got me on some bullshit story about diet pills. Can you fucking believe he put me on some bullshit story about diet pills?”

 

Although Brendan and Toby were both from Minneapolis they didn’t meet until attending the school of Journalism and Mass Communications at The University of Iowa. After graduation, they both took internships at Star Tribune back in their shared hometown. Six months of brewing coffee and ordering office supplies eventually lead to their paid staff writer positions.

 On the surface, their friendship seemed baffling to others; however, the all-nighters at The Daily Iowan, the Friday nights spent sneaking into bars that didn’t card, and their road trips back to Minnesota for the holidays (filled with sometimes hair rock but mostly a grunge soundtrack fueled on Surge and Gushers) fostered the bond between the two. Besides, Toby sometimes found himself explaining, the trajectory they had for their lives respectively was incredibly similar. They both knew they would have to put in a few years working for a local paper before Toby landed his dream job at Rolling Stone and before Brendan would be commuting into DC from Virginia every day writing politics for The Washington Post. 

“I predicted Dole would be the nominee for the bastard Republicans before he even announced his platform, and here I am asking bogus failed chemists about their new diet craze invention. And get this--get this shit, when I proposed to Gerard I do an investigative piece about how the whole product is a scam, he shot me down. So then I say--hey Jack, thanks man,” Brendan pauses his rant, acknowledging the Budweiser Jack set down in front of him before returning back to Samantha, taking a generous sip before finally returning the pint glass on top of the coaster with a little less than half of the beer remaining. 

“So then I say how about I take this shit. I’ll take it for however long it is supposed to take for these things to work and I will keep eating what I normally eat and I can prove this is just another diet fad money scheme that is draining the bank accounts of the beautiful women of this state, and the entire country for that matter.”

“And as the American flag billows in the wind behind this nation’s most groundbreaking journalist--” Toby starts with benign mockery before pausing to take a long gulp of his carbonated ginger ale spritzed whiskey.

 

Most of their colleagues at the Star cleared the break room or rolled their eyes behind their computers when Brendan started one of his indignant Gerard-doesn’t-know-shit-how-the- fuck-is-this-guy-editor tangent, but Toby embraced every word Brendan let spill from his mind out of his mouth, only ever pausing to take a drink of his coffee or beer (and never to remember the fact that most people interact with others vis a vis a much stricter filter).

“That’s actually a really great idea, except--” Toby started.

“Not at the Star.” Brendan finished Toby’s sentence before finishing his Budweiser.

 

Jack returned to their part of the bar, this time making two whiskey gingers. Brendan’s routine had been carefully calculated for as long as Toby could remember: taking the post-work edge off with a Budweiser finished in record time before switching to liquor, typically whiskey.

“How about this hotdish weather?” Jack asked, skilled in the way bartenders tend to be by making small talk light enough to reset the flow of a conversation but still interesting enough to successfully switch the topic (or even just take the intensity down a few notches). “Next thing we know, we’ll all be out with Toby’s dad ice fishing on Lake Prior.”

“Here’s a question for you two...”

 Like the other two, but with a bit more self-awareness, Toby hears himself prompting one of own his signature tropes (as he would describe them to himself when lost in his own self-analysis and to the few girlfriend’s he has ever let in enough)

“Have either of you ever actually made hotdish?”

 It’s the loaded question that is completely inconsequential, one of Toby’s most favored ways to interact with others, one of the things that may make him seem-at times-...personable. 

  “I mean, it’s so simple and all I ever want to eat once we all become vampires in the winter, but I don’t think I have ever had the thought, ‘Tonight I am going to go back to my apartment and make some hotdish before Seinfeld comes on.’”

Jack opened his mouth to offer what they could only assume would be an earnest answer, and probably a “yes,” for that matter. Likely the “yes” would involve a story of a brief lived romance with a tourist or a woman in town on business, one who he would invite over to his apartment to make her homemade hotdish, but before it would finish baking they would have already made their way to the bedroom. The anecdote would probably end with the fire department showing up at Jack’s apartment because of the smoke alarm triggered by the burnt casserole unnoticed and unheard by Jack and his current fling. 

There would be details Jack could have skipped on sharing with them (but inevitably wouldn’t) before staring off into the crowded bar at nothing, in particular, sighing and saying the name of the tourist or businesswoman. One in every four or five times Jack would end one of these stories that way, but then he would pause and say, “Or was her name…” and Toby and Brendan would race to say “anyway” to change the subject before there was a related follow-up story.

 

      One of Toby and Brendan’s favorite drunk topics was being mesmerized about how Jack had grown into existing in his adult life as the epitome of the “that guy” stereotype.

“I know he’s one of our best buddies, but how are we friends with that guy?” was a popular line of this commonplace conversation piece. The running theory remains that he must have been raised on John Hughes movies, but sometimes they come up with alternative ones, often asking Jack his take on their analysis. He would sometimes mix in a new response with his otherwise pre-existing rotation of generic reasoning. That is the sole reason they have not gotten bored with the topic: the unanticipated curveball response from Jack. At this point, though, they had perfected the art of cutting him off before he had a chance to delve into some story from his serial dating lifestyle.

Brendan interrupts the answer Jack is intending to give, moving the conversation in a more suitable direction.

“Just because it’s funny on Seinfeld when they talk about banal shit doesn’t mean it’s funny to try and recreate it in our own lives, Toby. We’ve been through this again and again.”

“But that’s the genius of the show. It’s hilariously depicting the nothingness of our day to day mundane routine. It’s the first show to ever be about nothing, and it has succeeded with that pitch. ‘Hey, uh, so let’s make a show about nothing. All I really have in mind so far is that the characters don’t know how to cook, so they eat all their meals at the same diner. And let’s set it in New York, so the audience thinks the characters are interesting people because they live in Manhattan even though all they ever really do is eat diner food every meal of the day.’ It’s meta, man. Plus, Elaine is such a babe. I don’t know how I can put up with living our boring lives here when it ends.”

 

Brendan indulges Toby’s version of thought-spewing in the same manner Toby appeases Brendan’s no filter diatribes. Brendan acknowledges Jack has set down another round of drinks in front of them, but the bar is now too crowded for him to continue participating in their conversation and they turn the topic back to the Star.

“So, seriously, Gerard rejecting our ideas that could turn the paper into something worth reading. It’s such bullshit.” Toby appreciates the subtle nod of solidarity from Brendan without pausing.

 “Right, so I pitched a great feature idea about Bob Dylan’s obvious influence on The Wallflowers, but going deeper. Arguing the perspective that The Wallflowers are a standalone band that would have existed probably by some other name formed by some other musicians even without Jakob. Here’s the best part: they still would have been strongly influenced by Bob Dylan.”

Genuinely interested, Brendan gestures for Toby to go on while no longer making eye contact. Toby briefly wondered about the last time he ate, because maybe he was already feeling drunk, before wondering when the last time Brendan ate was because his behavior seemed off (but perhaps it was also the alcohol hitting him more rapidly than the norm). Toby, having all these thoughts within under a second, simultaneously noticed Brendan’s gaze at a rare standstill, eyes locked in on the bar entrance like he was waiting for someone he knew would be arriving at some point. Brendan always maintained an accidental aloofness besides when he could feel the warmth of alcohol tingling in his bloodstream: was he nervously awaiting the arrival of Olivia? Oliva, another fellow Star writer who seemed more interested in meeting up with them than usual, yet, rarely showed up despite how regularly Brendan invited her. 

Only a few more seconds were lost by this train of thought while Toby finished his drink before continuing on, “It relies a lot on the whole theory that certain bands were bound to happen no matter who formed them. If George, Paul, Ringo, and John hadn’t started The Beatles--”

“I love the order in which you listed them,” Brendan interjects, his head remaining tilted in the direction of the entrance, “please, continue.”

“Right, so,” Toby now compelled to glance toward the door that still hadn’t opened since Brendan turned to it, “some other guys would have formed what would be the equivalent to The Beatles and for all we know it would be called Canarymania or something. And whoever the orginal drummer was that left The Canaries would be regretting it for the rest of his life while some guy named Phillip Marker would be going by, I don’t know, Phillsay Marzz or something akin to Ringo Starr, just smiling behind the drumset merrily keeping rhythm to the LSD pumping soundwaves into his fingertips and...Brendan, who the hell is supposed to be walking through that door at any given moment?

“I, uh, I’ll have to tell you about it tomorrow or something. I’m not exactly sure, but now isn’t the best time to bring it up.” Brendan’s responded, harboring far more mystery than his straightforward norm typically tended to allow. Starting on his fourth drink of the night, Toby unintentionally shut off the curiosity that overwhelmed his sober self, brushing off Brendan’s odd behavior as a side effect of the alcohol in combination with the amount of stress they had both been subjected to at work recently. 

 

Before circling back to The Wallflowers piece, the first few seconds of the song that seemed to be playing everywhere at all times for the past four years started up, yet again. As the unmistakable first chord blared through the jukebox, Toby let out a groan similar to the one when he was hypothetically in the Corolla before getting to the bar.

“In our version of hell,  we’ll be stuck in limbo for eternity on the It’s A Small World ride, except “The Sign” by Ace of Base will be playing.” Brendan speculates, finally turning back to Toby. 

“The devil’s double torture method: forcing us to listen to this song on loop and forcing us to try and understand why it’s still so popular. Perfect way to unravel our sanity.”

“Do we get to go to heaven when we finally realize that life is demanding without understanding?” 

“Only if we see the sign. But we actually have to open up our eyes and see the sign. It’s not the case of us being able to outwit God or who-the-fuck-ever into making them think we saw the sign. We actually have to see the motherfucking sign, Toby.”

“Alright, but what if instead of letting ourselves be brainwashed into seeing the sign and making it to heaven where arguably we would probably still have to listen to this song at least once a day, we outsmarted the devil somehow.”

“Sure, because the devil is conniving enough to fall into some sort of a mind game with us, but he would know what we were doing, right? I mean, I’m not sure that we have it in us to outdo his evil and somehow escape limbo, but, please, go on.”

“Right, so maybe it’s not the final step of the plan to exit limbo, but it might be a start? Not sure, but the idea is we somehow persuade him he has to be as sick of Ace of Base as we are, and we get him to change the repetitive soundtrack of our damned eternity to something else. Like ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ or ‘Gimmie Shelter.’” 

“I see what you're getting at. Is it just this song or is it if we heard any song, regardless of the quality, constantly for the rest of eternity, would we despise it?”

Brendan grabs his drink, with a look of pensiveness that might just be drunkenness in his eyes, and unintentionally chugs.

 “I don’t know,” he finally finishes the thought sincerely, “but I think if we were going to execute this plan, we should get the hell DJ to put on the longest live version of ‘Dark Star.’”

Clinking their glasses in honor of this idea, they hear a woman a few seats down tell Jack she just loves this song so much, leaving Jack with yet another very familiar expression of simultaneous defeat and contemplation of if he should ask her what she is doing after his shift.

 

“Alright, back on track here-let me guess, Gerard wasn’t interested in your Wallflowers pitch?”

 Brendan doesn’t have to guess because he already knows the answer. Without letting Toby respond, he continues.

 “He’s such a piece of shit. It has all of the elements of a great feature piece, including Bob Dylan. You know everyone in this state would read an article about our beloved Duluth hero Bob Dylan.” 

“Or Prince. But instead, he assigns me some ‘local beat.’” 

Toby exaggerates the air quotes his hands instinctively make when referring to one of Gerard’s ‘local beat’ assignments.

“Local Woman, 88, Wins Five Straight Games of Church Bingo. Dies Peacefully in Her  Sleep?” Brendan letting incredibly dark humor to the surface, the most obvious measure of how the two of them are beginning to lose track of the amount of drinks on their tab, indicative that it was about time to head home for the evening.

“Local Editor of Paper Fails to Pursue A Fulfilling Life, Turns to Diet Pill Addiction,” Toby pauses, fighting back the next faux ‘local beat’ headline on the verge of slipping out, “It’s about a taxi driver hitting a pedestrian in a school zone. Non-fatal, no serious injuries, not a student, not during school zone hours.”

“Really juicy beat you got yourself there, Mr. Jensen.” Brendan is channeling his best Minnesotan accent to drive home the sarcasm. 

“Why, thank you, Mr. Lanson.” Toby matches, dragging out the “o” sounds, although he actively practiced saying certain words without the signature Midwestern twang for as long as he could remember.

“So, like you know it always goes, he rejected the looking into what goes into being licensed to drive a taxi spin, the possibility that the DOT isn’t clearly posting signs or marking walkways angle, the tracking down the passenger for their perspective idea, and the potential  that the pedestrian could just be pulling some insurance fraud intentionally.”

“Yeah, he wants you to just explain what happened, which you could fully articulate in under ten words if you wanted to.” 

 

As the two notice the bar getting louder at about the same occupancy, they realize most of the 9-5ers have closed out their tabs and sacrificed their seats for their comfortable apartments as the college crowd opts to escape their dorm rooms to hit the local nightlife scene. The Top Hat has always been a chameleon bar depending on the time of day, making it the premiere enigma haunt of downtown Minneapolis. 

Toby knows that once the flannel and dark colors of happy hour are replaced with flashy neon colors and plaid skirts, the entire atmosphere will miraculously shift. It’s typically around 8:00 pm when the established rapport between those who wake up around daybreak--longing for the days of comfortably hitting the snooze button, but instead settling to wearily brew a pot of coffee because they know the caffeine jolt of their first cup of the day will at least be a bandage for the feeling of pending despair they will let their quarter-life crisis define the remainder of their existences--wraps up. 

There is a brief overlap where Jack says goodbye to his preferred clientele while pouring house tequila shots for the next wave of customers. Toby thinks back to the days before he was 21, home from UI for a long weekend or his mom’s birthday. He and his high school friends, including Jack, would swing by The Top Hat after their parents had turned in for the evening. He froze for a moment, shutting his eyes, thinking of all the times he would question who leaves the bar before 10:00 pm. The night had just been getting started. Howcould people be leaving at that hour?

It was as if he could see the mental map of memories separated into different age clusters on the back of his eyelids. He scoured the 17-21 neighborhood, searching for who it was that first discovered they didn’t check IDs. In the middle of having that thought, it dawned on him that whoever it was had been long before his time. It has been the longest-running, best kept secret everybody knew about. 

 

The scent of menthol and raisins preceded Brendan’s voice.“ You alright, man?” was muffled somewhere in the cloud of smoke as he exhaled his Marlboro 27. 

Instead of confessing the incredible sense of time slipping and the recent months of letting that thought overtake him suddenly, he revisits the pedestrian getting hit by the taxi article he was working on.

“Gerard finally told me to find a way to get in touch with the guy, the one who got hit by the taxi. Hours after shooting down all my ideas for the story. He called me at home about it.”

Hiding one hand in his pocket from the much colder air than the afternoon had offered earlier in the day, Brendan half shrugs, the length of their Monday finally taking over. “Did you drive here or walk?”

“Walked. But listen, the guy seemed off. I mean, he wasn’t from around here, had an accent I couldn’t really pinpoint. Maybe from somewhere in the Northeast? And he was willing to talk to me when I told him who I was but reluctant to really tell me anything. He kept wanting to talk, though. I tried to ask him if he lived here or if he was just visiting. Couldn’t get a straight answer. He said something about it all being in the works. He kept saying that phrase ‘in the works.’ At one point, he mentioned something about the monumental clock. What is that?”

Brendan flicked his cigarette as his shoulders stiffened, but they were both too exhausted to let the curiosity overtake them. 

“Let’s take lunch out of the office tomorrow. Maybe he’s just a weirdo, but there is something else I’ve been wanting to tell you about that seems...uh, I don’t know, off. We can’t talk about it at the bar or paper, though.”

Brendan reached for the keys to the Chevy he’s had since their junior year of college, “I’m down Riverside. I’ll see you tomorrow. Get some sleep, buddy.”

 

A distant sound of a dog barking echoed into the city lights as Toby drifted onto 3rd Street and up the stairs of his apartment building. The New York Times is still on his doormat, having rushed out of his apartment without remembering to bring it with him to work. Unlocking the door to discover the kitchen light still on, he set the paper alongside the keys on the beige ceramic countertop, glancing at the front page although he had already consumed the day’s headlines twelve hours prior. 

Catching the flashing light on his answering machine and pressing the play button as if on autopilot, the refrigerator door suddenly opened by a movement of his hand unintentionally, listening to his dad’s voice muffled. He figured as much--every Vikings game they didn’t watch together typically resulted in one of the two leaving a lengthy commentary of their thoughts on the other’s answering machine. What was he looking for in his fridge again? Determining there was nothing of sustenance until his next trip to the grocery store, he hears the local pizza shop guy’s inside jokes about their most frequent, lonely, bachelor customers rattling in his brain with the very thought of ordering. This hypothetical insult, though, sharply interrupted as an unexpected beep indicates a second message now playing from his machine.

“Hey, Toby. It’s Rick, uh we met at that bonfire a little while back. I was with Allison, I don’t know if you remember me, but we talked for a little while, and you mentioned you knew that guy Gabriel. I was wondering if you’d wanna grab a beer or something and talk. Give me a call, 612-...”

As the rest of the digits rattle against the apartment walls, Toby reexamines the burnt sleeve of his peacoat. Did he remember who RIck was? He knew Allison; she and Penelope had been friends since they were all kids. The connection to Gabriel makes sense, but it washed over him in an unsettling rush, so strangely off-putting that this guy RIck brought him up on the message. Especially since he was just thinking about Gabriel for the first time since Pene and Gabriel’s break-up today on the way to the bar. 

The idea of pizza no longer sounding appetizing; in fact, the unease prompted without a pinpoint weakened his entire body. Was it from the whiskey or from the series of abnormal occurrences all day? Deciding it was time to forfeit it, switching off the kitchen lights before setting his alarm for the next morning, he notices the date he made it through the past 16 hours without noticing on the clock before finally closing his eyes for the night, 9-8-97.