We sat down in my small office, our faces lit by monitor glow.
“Here are my notes,” Steve said. “How do you want to do this?”
“One at a time?” I asked. “I’ll bring each one up, then we can talk about it?”
“Sure,” he said, and so we did.
I’d been expecting the bulk of the comments to run along the lines of, “This looks terrible next to the others — make it not-terrible,” or “Can you make this not-great illustration look less sucky by doing the color differently?” And he had a good number of comments like that. He also had some good notes on easy ways to improve the artwork, which was cool.
But a good number of comments were just differences of opinion as to how something should be colored. It soon became clear that there was too much for me to correct live, with Steve there watching, so instead of piloting Photoshop while he commented I instead took notes on his notes.
“I think that should be red,” was the general class of comment, “and not all this muddiness there.”
“I don’t think it’s muddy,” I’d say, for example. “It’s got some subtlety to it, sure—”
“Red. Make it red — really red.”
“Okay. Um, you know you can’t just change all these shaded maroon-like pixels to red pixels.”
“Can’t you simply fill it with red and clean up the shading?”
“It doesn’t quite work that way. There are edges along the black lines of the art, soft gray edges—”
“Anti-aliasing,” said Steve. He generally knew the technical details of everything his business depended on, and what he didn’t know he always tried to learn.
“—yes, and we need to be careful about preserving all the soft grays along the way. It doesn’t take long to do the right thing, but I can’t just use the paint bucket tool to dump a bunch of red in here and presume I’ll have picked the right shade of red, and then apply shading with the couple of other shades of red that will give it depth.”
“No browns. It needs to pop. It can’t be muddy.”
“It’ll be fine. There’ll be highlights, too.”
Steve sighed. “No pink,” he said.
I blinked. “Why would I use pink?”
“Light red is pink. Dark red is brown. I can’t have any of those here.”
I’m not sure how long I left my mouth open before closing it.
“Here’s the next one,” I said, turning back to the display.
“Did Jeff do this one?”
“Yes,” I said. I had to do less clean-up on his art than I was doing on Rick’s though Rick was improving more quickly than Jeff.
“I thought so, because it’s not one of the worst ones.”
“Rick’s getting better,” I said.
“Here’s what I had on this one,” he said, and then he told me.
Clearly, I wasn’t going to be done with this first batch of images tonight, maybe not even tomorrow. Clearly, Steve would need a second review of all the updates before signing off on them. My sense of the time we’d need to do all the work zoomed away into the distance, well past our firm deadline. A printer had just committed to a window for production, and if we missed it we’d be out of luck. We had to do this more quickly.
Clearly, it was up to me to put in more hours.
After reviewing the art for about two hours — I figured we spent nearly ten minutes on each one — we decided we were hungry.
“Sushi?” Steve asked. “Doug Barnes was stopping by. We were planning to get something to eat.”
“Sure,” I said. “If Rick’s still here, I’ll bring him along.”
At the restaurant, we paired off in conversation, Steve with Doug and Rick with me. Rick looked a little wary of the whole thing.
“I’ve never had sushi before,” he said.
“Really?” I said, then realizing that Mentor was the one who had actually introduced me to sushi, a few years before. “You’ll like it.”
“So, you said you and Suzanne went out the other night?”
“Yeah,” I said, smoothing out the napkin in my lap. “Yeah, it was good to see her, grab some food. We don’t hang out enough.”
“But you used to.”
“Oh, yeah — like six years ago, we dated for a while.” When she was about Felicity’s age. “We stayed friends, which I feel really lucky about, and then two years ago we were housemates for a couple of months. That was cool.”
“And,” he said, “why don’t you….”
“I mean,” he said, “you’re single, and she’s—”
“You know,” I said, “when we broke up, it was because she was seeing somebody else, and while—”
“Say no more.”
“No, really — seriously, she’s one of the most trustworthy people know, I swear. I’d trust her with anything, absolutely. She’s one of my best friends. But I just don’t think I can trust myself to go there anymore, if you know what I mean.”
“With her,” Rick added.
I nodded, even though I wasn’t sure I meant specifically with her. I think I meant that I couldn’t actually go there at all anymore, with anyone. I didn’t want to.
The evening had been great. I’d picked her up, we’d driven down Barton Springs and grabbed a table for two at a decent Italian joint and talked and laughed and caught up. It’s funny how you can work with a person every day, even someone you really like, and not talk deeply with them.
She’d worn a dress. I thought that was unusual, but I didn’t say anything.
I didn’t try to hold her hand. I didn’t give her a hug. I was all smiles, and no kisses. She was smart and beautiful and she was sitting in my car — what else did I need?
“Mmm, I don’t think it’s in the cards. Besides, I have too much work to do at the moment.” I thought about it. “I think I need the seasons to change. I need it to be cold again, for a while.”
The waiter populated our table with the usual sushi accoutrements. Rick poked at a little wasabi ball.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“For the sushi,” I said.
“What do you do with it?”
“Oh, you eat it,” I said with the straight face that I’d always thought my friends understood meant I was joking. Then Rick popped the ball in his mouth.
“Motherfucking wait—,” I said, hands up in warning, but it was too late.
After a couple of minutes and a lot of water, Rick looked as though he felt a little bit better.
“I’m really sorry,” I said. “I’m so, so sorry. I was totally being a jerk for no reason, and I’m really sorry.”
“No,” he said, waving me down. “No, no.” But I couldn’t imagine on what grounds he could possibly call me off from apologizing.
As Rick’s face had turned red, and he’d gobbled a couple of glasses of water, a brief montage played back in my head of friends saying, “No, I didn’t know you were kidding,” in response to some absurd thing I’d said or done. I thought I was just being clever, when I was only being an asshole.
I’d shown up as a jerk, when what Rick needed was a mentor.
“The tuna is really good,” I said, blowing past his obvious caution about every word that fell out of my mouth. “But they sometimes slip a bit wasabi underneath it, between the fish and the rice, so be careful.” He nodded. “The rolls are clearly marked spicy or not, so you can really easily judge how strong something’s likely to be.”
“Okay,” he said, scanning the menu.
“I am really sorry,” I said. It seemed like the wrong time to bring up the coloring, but I began scripting what I’d tell him in the morning that would accelerate his Photoshop improvement. I’d been assuming he’d improve because I knew he would. I forgot how much faster things go when people help point the way.
On the way back to the car, I got to catch up with Doug. “Things are going pretty well,” he said, sighing. “I still have Patch and Felicity on the floor of my living room.” He looked up at me and smiled. “So that’s interesting.”
“I can only imagine,” I said, working hard not to imagine. I had other things to think about, anyway.
Later that night, when I got home, the house was dark but silent. The industrial fans had been taken away and the dried-out carpet re-stapled. I walked out onto the concrete slab in the back yard to look up at the sky.
I really somehow thought I was being funny all these years, when I was just being a jerk. I was making sounds out of random license plates in my head, and the universe did not give a shit because I was literally making no sense.
I began to wonder if Cookie had been right. What if I really was crazy? Not just a little crazy, but seriously so.
Turning to go back inside, I saw the hollow-point bullet set neatly on the back porch, deliberately placed to point in toward the house. Living with archeologists and their friends around, at least these people in that time in our place, meant giving careful consideration to anything that in your own home you might ordinarily confuse for a random pile of stuff, because it might instead be a little shrine or an offering of some kind to any number of hopefully reasonable spirits. Two days before, when I’d first found the bullet, I’d left it where I found it. Maybe it was someone’s good luck charm. Then the day before, when it was still there — right where someone would step when coming into the back yard — I’d slapped a sticky note on the outside of the sliding glass door, which read “Is this somebody’s?” That night, I could tell that someone else had written a graceful curling question mark beside my note, meaning it wasn’t one of ours.
Minutes later, when the police arrived, they explained to me that it was a common death threat.