(This is Part 2 of 2 of a short story. To read Part 1 click here.)
I could tell Max was teeing me up. He wasn’t looking at me but I knew it was coming. My notepad was black with marks from every time he’d said “you”. I was on the far left. He was staring at the center of the room. “I was about to ask you the same thing!” he said. Another mark and then I raised my hand. At the same time I saw something out of the corner of my eye on the other side of the room. Max looked over that way.
I saw someone stand up and heard him speaking. “I have a degree in psychology and have worked in the field for decades…” I craned my neck to see who was talking. I didn’t want to stand up. It looked like a bald guy, like me, but that was all I could tell. I looked at Max. He wasn’t giving anything away.
“Thank you sir. I did learn this from a psychologist, and I know it’s a way to build rapport and trust with a potential customer.” Then he started his wrap-up. He pointed to the product cases and binders he had stacked in the back. The starter kit. All for one low fee. I got in line and pulled out my checkbook.
I took the kit with me and loaded it into my rental car in the hotel parking lot like a lot of the real customers. Then I took a drive out to the boonies. Signs pointed to a zoo that wasn’t there anymore, and a campsite. I had a bacon cheeseburger and a beer at a place on the edge of town called Shylock’s. Shylock. That’s another name I’ve forgotten since school. Then I went back to my hotel room and took a nap in front of a cop show marathon. Every other episode in these shows there’s a guy who looks like me. Bald, maybe a little white beard, hunched over. At least I think he looks like me. I don’t spend a lot of time looking in the mirror. Sometimes he gets mugged, but he’s got these special cop moves he uses to protect himself. Maybe that’s why I never get mugged. I look like that guy. Maybe it’s because I don’t go out in the streets at night.
Quarter to eleven I went two floors up. Maybe it was the cop shows, I thought, when I thought I saw a guy coming out of Max’s room who looked like me. Same shirt, same slacks. His head was bent down. I wondered if this was the guy who stole my speech earlier. I gave the door our special knock. It opened and there was Max unbuttoning his shirt.
“Oh, Mike, was there something else? I thought we got all your expenses covered.”
I didn’t know what to say. “Oh, no,” I stumbled. “I just remembered what it was.”
“Yeah, good night then.” He closed the door. I looked at my watch. How was it eleven thirty already?
The room was full. Bigger turnout than usual for a weekday. I was in the back corner with the exit just to my right. Max was getting to the end. I could feel my blood pressure going up. Heart pumping in my ears. The whole room felt hot to me. He was wrapping up, and I froze. It was my job to raise my hand, but all I did was sit there with my palms on my thighs. Max pointed out into the middle of the room, not at me.
Someone stood up. I couldn’t get a good look. I heard them saying, “I have a degree in psychology and worked…”
“Who is that?” I muttered. I tried to stand up, but some guy next to me shushed me. I looked over at him and it was like looking in a mirror. He looked just like me. If I didn’t know better I would say he was me. “Who are you?”
He looked over at me. “Are you gonna shut up or do we need to step outside?”
Yeah, I would have said that too. Something was up here. I looked around. Every person in the room was me. It was a damn hall of mirrors.
I stood up and yelled. “Who are you? Who are all of you?” A hundred pairs of my own eyes looked back at me. Then the room rumbled with a hundred identical voices saying, “I was about to ask you the same thing!”
Max was up there on the stage grinning at me. He held out his hand.
I backed out of the room. Something funny going on here. Maybe I needed a doctor, but I thought I’d better lay down instead. I went out to the elevators in the hall and pushed the button for my floor. Then I changed my mind and punched the button to make the doors open. I walked to the lobby, brushing the wall with my hand as I went.
The lounge was a dark enclosed room just off the lobby. The bartender looked at me.
“Haven’t I seen you before?”
I didn’t know if he was being cute. If I thought he was in on it I’d have taken a swipe but instead I just asked for a Scotch. There was a buzzing in my ear, like bugs or something. I reached up to swat it away. Nothing doing. I decided to let it be.
“Are you all right?”
The bartender was looking right at me.
“You can sit here as long as you want, sir, I just want to make sure you’re okay.”
“Yeah, I’m fine.” I looked down at my scotch. Half melted ice cubes were floating in the glass. I pulled out a twenty and pushed it over to him.
“Keep the change.”
It took me about ten minutes to get everything packed. Then I got a taxi. No fooling with the bus this time. Max could take his whole cloak-and-dagger bit and shove it. At the airport I dropped off my rental car. Whoever got it next could have the case of Silverskin products in the back. On the house. I cashed in a wad of miles to get an earlier flight. With layovers it would be about the same, but I didn’t care. I wanted to be on the move.
The taxi dropped me off at the end of the driveway and I hoofed it to the door. The lock was sticky. Sometimes it does that. Humidity I guess. I jammed it and nearly broke my key. Inside everything looked the same. I hit the code for the burglar alarm. That was reassuring. Nothing had been touched, nothing had been moved. All my stuff was where it was supposed to be. Okay. I locked the door and took a nap.
I woke up in the dark. Max hadn’t called. I checked the caller ID to make sure, but nothing. I had expected him to call, but then I didn’t expect him to call.
A week later I knew he wasn’t going to call.
Sometimes I see someone who looks like me coming down the street from the opposite direction. I cross to the other side. Sometimes when Max is in town I go see him. The timing has to be just right. Too early he won’t open the door, even if I use the special knock. Too late and I’ve already been there. There don’t seem to be that many of me in the area. That makes it easier. Max doesn’t look at the dates on the receipts so he doesn’t notice I’m handing him the same ones over and over. Expenses plus the fee, just like always. It’s a little added income. In the spring I plant flowers. It’s good being me.