Conference

They all knew of his instinct for mediocre success, but of all Allen’s colleagues, it was Tom who would discover his capacity for mediocre victory. Tom was surprised when he received an email announcing that Allen would be receiving the conference with him. He had known Allen mostly from coffee-break banter or from the occasional Friday happy hour when, lips stinging with salt from peanuts tossed back, beers nursed, and grievances aired, a clutch of middle-managers would laugh in bemusement at the man who had failed sideways, from one stem to another on the company’s byzantine management structure, until, by dint of patience, being rewarded with a salary bump and superior office.

Because Allen’s office was located down a wing away from the main looping corridor, Tom rarely saw him. When he did, it was in the hallway, and Allen invariably threw Tom one of his infamously noncommittal smirks, a half-nod accompanied by a half-wink. It offered itself as solidarity and sympathy, were there a conspiracy fomenting of which Allen were ignorant, or were there some source of bureaucratic irritation to which Allen, in his strange corner office, would be immune, and yet it also, it its complete absence of substance, afforded the luxury of disavowal, were the higher-ups to suspect him of taking sides.

Since Allen’s role at company meetings consisted mostly in running team-building activities conned from YouTube, Tom was surprised to learn that his “portfolio of responsibilities” justified his attending that conference in Connecticut. There, buyers and sellers would attend seminars on strategies, market trends, new opportunities in logistics, and would groggily stand in circles in the early evening, uneasily displaying social personalities that, in these days of middle-aged family life, rarely saw service among strangers, and creaked with bad jokes, misapplied sarcasm, and the occasional drunk lapse of taste. Maybe, Tom thought, as he spotted Allen’s thin mustache, stippled with gray, across the hall of the train station, he was being asked along to build better camaraderie than twelve-dollar martinis had done in years past.

“Tom, how are you? My taxi was caught up in the traffic, but still time for a sandwich.”

He nearly bounded away. Tom had never seen him with such energy or, odd to think, grace. But it was grace too with which he returned and, undid a silk scarf from around his neck, threw off his coat, and stood gazing at the board of the station. Tom did not know what to make of the scarf, having never seen it on Allen, or anything like it on anyone at the work. More surprising still was the bow-tie Allen wore beneath a crisp navy jacket. He was slightly shorter than Tom, but considerably thinner and he chest now pointed out heroically, as if towards the future, as he caught his rolling bag and walked toward their track.

Few words had passed between the two when the train arrived. Tom stared vacantly ahead, eating from a large, half-empty bag of Utz pretzels that he had brought for the train ride. Allen breathed exuberantly through his nose, and his eyes narrowed as he stared down the track.

On the train, Tom dozed, then stirred and walked to the café bar for a beer.

“I guess it’s the only way to get through these conferences,” Allen spoke, with a sparkle. “The early afternoon drink. I thought about having one myself, but I want to stay fresh and that will put me right out.”

In response, Tom said what was expected of him, and asked Allen if he had been to many conferences.

“I go when I can—when the big bosses let me get away. It’s one of the perks. When I heard about this one, I couldn’t turn it down.”

Tom, perturbed that any could find the conference a perk, nodded and rested his head back, and, with an excuse, took from his battered computer bag a thick folder and reviewed some documents, circling numbers fervently as he grew wary of Allen’s serene gaze into the landscape, which he caught from his eye’s corner. Only Allen’s fingertips stirred, as he brushed them to and fro along his mustache.

The hotel, a short cab from the station, was in the same casino as the conference center. Tom applied his nametag, and Allen did the same, before turning to Tom and with a urbane variation of his usual hallway smirk and nod, apologized, “I am just going to settle into my room for a while and eat my sandwich there, so I’ll miss the afternoon meet-and-greet, but I’ll be sure to see you later at dinner—now, good luck!” He spoke the last words with a portentous raise of the eyebrows, as if to say that Tom would need it.

Adrift on the flood of maroon carpeting, Tom stood blankly, and then, as he was taken into the wake of passing parties, now gaining momentum towards the large banqueting hall, realized how strange Allen’s gesture of the eyebrows had been, extending sympathy for the social ordeal; on the train, Allen had glibly celebrated his luck at attending the conference, and now he smugly flaunted his escape. Maybe it was Allen being himself, which to say being no-one at all, but being in league with whatever portion of the world was nearest, provided the world didn’t ask for action or real support.

Over a glass of tepid and tart white wine, Tom listened to Cornelius, an elderly, sinewy, and broad-chested Dutch seller, talk about his time in the States, nearly ten years that had done little to diminish a thick accent, and his hope that he would find time to play the roulette wheel. “Unfortunately, the program is rather full, and I grow tired before it is late—but perhaps tomorrow night. You could join me of course, if you’d like.” And Tom nodded. He saw his pale reflection in a mirror along a pillar against the wall, and he felt his skin sag from his face, his brown hair parted sloppily, his shirt too dark a green for his tie. He wondered where Allen was. It had been nearly an hour, and he imagined Allen in his room, presiding through his window over the adjacent woodland, counting birds, stroking his mustache.

He wished Allen would join him, not because he missed Allen’s company but because he wanted to see its effect on others. Beneath the stolid, beefy, conventional population of thoughts that occupied the suburbs and centers of Tom’s mind lived another population, impoverished, accustomed to the darkness of basements and catacombs, which sometimes forayed into the light; it was doing so then, and Tom smiled as he spotted their faces, old-friends as they were.

He went to pour another glass of wine, and, looking up, saw him at last. Allen, his silk scarf blossoming from the pocket of his navy jacket, and one hand on the shoulder of man to his left, while another flourished to the laughter of a circle. Tom approached; Allen, lifting his hand from the shoulder extended it towards Tom, “But here he is—Tom has been with us for seven years, isn’t that right Tom? His children are four and seven, so he will understand just what you’ve been saying, Perry—Tom, Perry’s children are both sick with strep, but he couldn’t miss the conference—so he has to go to his room to skype with them once an hour every day.”

The shock of Allen’s knowing so much of his story was as great as the sudden embarrassment of having nothing to say in response, to or about Allen, and so he muttered his condolences to sympathy and laughed with a nod that meant nothing. Even after an hour, Allen remained unfathomable, only now Tom saw that he was capable of charm and exuberance that he had never thought possible, not only to the others in the room, but to him.

Then, pulling Tom aside as they made their way to dinner, where a plenary speaker was scheduled to speak, Allen whispered, “I know, I know” and he broke into a giggle and boasted, “I know what you must be thinking,” his smirk now a grin through which his tongue flickered, as if he were relishing and feeding on Tom’s surprise. He waited, and Tom felt that Allen expected congratulations, and when Tom could offer none, felt nothing but further embarrassment at his inadequacy before what Allen had become, Allen surprised him further with his most gracious and intimate gesture yet, taking hold of Tom not by one but by both shoulders, shaking him slightly, and said, “Oh, it’s alright. I understand.”

Tom was not seated near dinner and, drinking too much, was exhausted by the time the plenary speaker began. He could not pay attention. His mind wandered, he pecked at a half-eaten roll, and he glanced occasionally to see Allen, rapt. Amidst the applause, he walked quickly out of the room, pushing, almost rudely, through gatherings and drifters, and he found himself alone in the elevator. He would see Allen the next day; he was too tired now to think straight, so tired and so alone.

Sleep arrived almost instantly, but not for long, and waking, seeing it was past midnight, he was overcome by a wave of loathing, then another wave, hot and irresistible so that he ran his hands over his skin, pulling at its sweat and curling himself up, feeling then the fat on his sides fold into itself, the thinness of his thighs, the coarse hair on his back as he reached around, and turning on the light, he sat up, shaking, wondering how Allen had come to possess such charm, and how it could be turned so sharply against him. Allen, he felt it, and he felt it in the touch of his flesh, was directing it all at Tom, was performing as a way of punishing Tom for what he could not be or do: find joy, or exuberance, or ecstatic self-presentation by willpower alone, when necessity or at least circumstance required it. Allen had been saving himself, must have calculated how much he had to save, in order to expend and consume his personality more brilliantly, whereas Tom’s spilled haphazardly, fueled inconsequential moments, nugatory satisfactions, and indiscriminate pursuits. These were not suppressed thoughts, exiled or ignored; they were spontaneous and original to his mind, and terrifying as a consequence.

He fumbled, still tipsy, certainly parched, for the drawer, thinking he might find there a Bible. He half-recalled that it could contained words about redeeming the time, that it offered something real, but it was not there, and he lay his head back, in sorrow, and then, without any awareness of its overtaking him, sleep. Waking, he stumbled to the toilet, forgetful of the night. Seeing himself in the mirror, toothpaste descending a corner of his mouth, he remembered, and felt foolish; returning to the room, finding the drawer next to his bed still half-open, he dismissed the entire episode, since any that culminated in a search for a Bible must have been animated by the residue of a dream.

But at the breakfast buffet, when Allen stood next to him with his bowl of melon, some notion of the feeling returned and warmed his neck, which he rubbed, without thought. His plate of eggs in hand, Tom accepted Allen’s invitation and walked self-consciously behind him, as he nodded openly, committedly to the faces that had, apparently, grown familiar. Allen was seated at a table with two women and two men, none of whom Tom had seen the day before, but whom Allen introduced as Bernadette, Gail, Richard, and Mike, before launching into a humorous recounting of their post-plenary pub gathering, where they had met an adjacent table’s mild obnoxiousness with witty recriminations, and so on. Tom half-listened and half stared at Allen’s shirt, a paisley statement complemented by a dark tie, entirely out of touch with the mood of the conference, but going entirely unremarked by attendees as they stopped to greet him good morning.

The sessions had seemed interminable, and lunch barely registered on the taste-buds, and by evening Tom was relieved. Once more, he mostly lost sight of Allen for the day, but he continued to dwell on him, not thinking head-on, with the fear that he might recover some belief in what he had met with the night before, but casting oblique glances towards his happiness at breakfast, and when he saw him from afar between panels and talks.

At day’s end, he returned to his room, phoned his wife, told her he missed her voice and spoke briefly and hollowly to his children. He lay on the bed, half-dozing, sports news faint on the television. Beneath him, the entire structure of the hotel could almost be felt to pulse, until he realized it was his own pulse he felt, reverberating through the mattress. The air unit hummed. The stale smell of the air could have been in any hotel, and he thought of one near the airport in Prague, where he was forced to layover after a missed connection; then it was a hotel in Los Angeles, where he had stayed for a conference several years before; then it was in Toronto, where he had travelled with his wife, who had left him alone because he had expressed such “callous indifference” (the phrase stuck with him, almost became a joke between them, but didn’t actually become a joke between them); and he was in all of those places, lying down, half-dozing, and each was disconnected from the present, just as each was irrelevant to all of the rest, and the time that had passed between them, and all it contained, was irrelevant too, as he listened to his heavy breathing.

A knock at the door startled him upright, and, walking to it, he came into a fuller sense of himself once more in the blurry reflection of the window’s tint, darkening only the warm dusk. He opened it, and Allen was there, a new tie against the same paisley shirt. “Tom, I thought we might head out to dinner. I’ve gathered an interesting little group, collected them from session to session today, and I thought you’d enjoy their company—they’re really the sort who you’d get a kick out.” Tom blinked. His eyes struggled to resume normal functioning in the glare of the shirt. They moistened.

Then they kept on moistening. Allen’s mustache quivered; his lip moved to speak. Tom’s eyes filled with tears, but he was not sure whether Allen could see it happening. “Allen…” Tom spoke quietly, and then, anticipating him with kind manners, Allen interrupted him, “Tom, would you mind if I sat down—all this running around today, my feet are so sore. I only bring these shoes out for special occasions and I’m not really used to the way they pinch my toes—just there,” and the toes were pinched tight, Tom saw, his eyes lingering on the leather that Allen playfully moved back and forth, till taking a seat and resuming “It feels like we’ve barely had time to chat since the train. The wife is doing alright, holding up without you at home? Or maybe glad for the break” and a hint of a giggle, then silence.

Tom wanted to giggle too, for the trust he felt. But he could not break without sounding it the sob that had lodged in his throat. He waited for it to subside, coughing to press it down, so he could speak: “Allen, would you mind my asking—it’s something I need to talk to you about…” He trailed off in hope that Allen would know what he needed to say better than he needed it himself.

But he was met by silence and an open grin, a tongue flickering back and forth, relishing. Heat curled rapidly around Tom’s neck, down his back, he reached around and rubbed it. “Is there a sort of restaurant you’d like to avoid, or…Bernadette’s comment from the bar last night? It was a bit racy, but she won’t be like that at dinner…unless we have trouble prying the wine away from her again,” Allen put forward, to Tom’s stunned disappointment.

Tom stood. “No, Allen, no, it’s…” and the heat grew and Tom silenced himself until, looking at Allen, the swirls of Paisley, the aggression of the smile, he stepped forward and took Allen by the chin, harshly as the smile faltered, and he said, “this, this, this” again and again, and his hold softening slowly until he moved the back of his hand down over Allen’s paisley shirt and felt the warmth of his body through it, and the tie’s silk between his fingers, and without wanting to say it, “This. How much did it cost? Where did it all come from?”

Allen sat still, no longer smiling, but content, like a dog being pet by a stranger, unsure of what satisfaction he would derive and proud to have elicited attention and touch. He stood then, and took Tom by the arm, and, gently in comforting earnestness, answered: “You’d have to ask my cousin. She bought it for me last year on my birthday. I think you’re really going to like Cornelius—I’ll make sure you sit next to him at dinner.”

That night at dinner, Tom drank more than he should have, and his anger at Allen surged upwards. The party had lingered over over-dressed salad leaves, and Allen’s lobster order had prolonged the main course; Tom restlessly sipped red wine, laughed politely, but remained fixed on Allen, both ashamed at his earlier attempt at crossing the gap of understanding, and still, continually perplexed and rebuked by the distance that remained, with Allen frolicking on the distant shore, dandified and delighted at his performance. Cornelius remembered him and tried several times to take him up into conversation again, but to no avail; Bernadette glared at him in cold disgust, which melted into laughter when she turned to Allen. But it was never jealousy he felt, never a pang at being excluded from the attention that Allen received; it was shame, continued shame, which faded on the scrappy fringes into envy, for Allen’s being so able to transform into something that, no matter how ridiculous, superficial, supercilious, and preening a creature, was proof of some precious element of personhood that Tom lacked. It was the difference that Tom stared in the face and that, whatever way Allen was looking, most of all when Allen was looking elsewhere, that stared him down in return.

Dinner had ended. He dreaded that Allen would offer to pay the check, or a round of drinks, and felt profound relief when he didn’t.  Then, as he was about to make his excuse, Allen took him by the arm and addressed the party, “I know we have one last morning of sessions, but we also only have one more night—dare I suggest: the casino?” Tom was helpless in the pool of pattering assent.

Allen, chest forward, seeming to lower in stature as he gained in confidence, led the way, over the seas of carpet, a diminutive hero seeming aware that, mock-epic or not, the poem he lived was the highest order. He strode past the slot machines, not even glancing at the destitute elderly, eyes fixed on the fields beyond. Tom, hands in pockets, lolled his eyes from side to side, chewing stupidly on the thicket of lights, perfume, bells, and cheers. Allen soon had them purchasing a pile of chips and then, as they followed him without question, led them to a blackjack table.

“Ah, hello sir,” the dealer greeted Allen.

Tom’s mind stopped, the cud in place. Allen, apparently, had found time to visit this table and dealer before.

“This is one of the hottest tables in the house,” he whispered over his breath with a wink at the dealer, “but don’t tell him that.”

And Cornelius eagerly took a seat, followed by two others, while Bernadette stood, nearing Allen with her bare shoulder. “Tom?” Allen nudged him with a lift of the chin, and Tom, at a loss, sat to play.

Allen remained standing. After the first round was dealt and Tom had lost twenty, he turned to see Allen watching. “Do you want…” Tom moved to offer him his seat, though several others remained open down the table.

“Ah, no, I’m more of a roulette man. I just like to watch the game, the pace of the action, the surprise turns. It’s not “the beautiful game,” as they say of “futbol,” but it is a beautiful gamble.”

Tom stared, and stood, the heat rising, his mouth parched suddenly from the wine, which he thought must have stained his teeth. “Allen, what the hell is wrong with you. Sit down and play a hand.”

Allen smiled to Bernadette, and she spoke, “Tom, you don’t have to play. Maybe the slot machines are more your pace.”

Allen joined in. “I’ll just wait for the clinkety-clink of the roulette wheel, Tom. Really, it’s fine. But play another hand here. I’m telling you, this is a great table to work.”

Cornelius then: “Tom, sit, sit, you need to play at least ten before you can see which way your luck is running.”

The others stared as Tom, voiceless, sat. He had taken three hundred in chips, and he put them all on the table, as the other players clucked quietly, embarrassed at his sudden eagerness.

“Tom,” Allen spoke, hand on his shoulder again, “don’t feel like you need to make a point. Live within your limits—bet within your limits, I mean.”

And Tom shook his shoulder and the dealer set down the cards. At fifteen, he took another hit, and went over. Softly, over the felt of the table, the chips were whisked away, and stacked near the dealer with near-silence.

Without a word, and with nobody saying one to him, Tom stood and wandered off. When he returned, his pockets were full of “five hundred in chips, Allen—I think we should try the roulette wheel.”

Allen chuckled, slapped together his hands, excused himself from the table, “just as it was getting interesting,” and walked away, leaving Bernadette to watch carefully since “he would be wanting a full power-point presentation on who how the bets had gone.” She laughed.

Tom told Allen he was rusty on the best way to make bets, and asked Allen to go first, explaining that he would follow his lead. Allen set down the most modest of sums, and Tom mirrored his placement but doubled the bet, so that when Allen won, Tom won twice as much, and when Allen lost, Tom lost twice as much. After eight or nine spins of the wheel, Allen was up twenty and Tom forty. Tom offered to buy Allen a drink; Allen accepted.

When Tom returned, balancing the whisky sours, Allen was red in the face. He had lay down a substantial bet—at least quadruple what he usually would—and it had paid off. He was jubilant, with an uncharacteristic volume in his voice as he announced the win to Tom, taking his whisky sour and toasting his win, and telling Tom he would stop there, and walking sideways back towards the blackjack table, where Bernadette had noticed his excitement and started to approach him.

The next morning, Tom saw Allen at breakfast once again. Allen seemed fresh. Tom had slept poorly, having returned to his room after finishing his drink, waking around two or three in the morning, albeit without coherent thoughts of any sort, only a vacant wide-eyed exhaustion that he wore down by the flicker of sports news. He sat at Allen’s table in subtle terror which he did not fully perceive until his legs pressed against the chair. His hands trembling as he prodded the dry chalk of egg, he watched a piece of honeydew carried towards Allen’s tongue as Allen, meeting his stare, projected it further, as if towards him in greeting. It held there, showed off a slick roseate edge, plucked the melon from the prongs of the fork, and withdrew. Half-chewing, half-sucking the pulp, Allen reached for another piece and Tom waited to see if the tongue would wave at him again.

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