Bill Gunderson was more than a coworker to me, in fact I’d gone kayaking with Bill maybe three weeks before they chucked his severed head off the 29th floor of the Pemberton Building. He was our top seller the year before that ordeal, three out of four quarters. The guy was a data security sales machine. It was a windy evening this happened. I remember his head making a sound like an empty coconut when it hit the concrete and bounced twenty feet in the air, coming to rest directly in front of my girlfriend, Veraldine, whose exquisite face elongated soundlessly. We were in shock, of course. We looked at each other like what on God’s green earth? I nudged the head away from her with the toe of my oxford and when it rolled over so we could see the face, I said, “Oh my God, that’s Bill Gunderson.”
This was all over the news. Someone posted footage from a street camera on YouTube and last I checked it had 2.7 million views. You remember this from the news? I haven’t checked the YouTube video for months now. But it shows everything. At least the part about Bill’s head.
How this came about, Veraldine and I happened to be shopping downtown by the Pemberton after having an early dinner on the north side at Hooligans III. Yes, that’s correct, Hooligans III between the check-cashing place and the furniture store that used to be nice. I had a whole thing arranged with the server at Hooligans III; the ring would be at the bottom of a ramekin of ranch dressing.
Do you know Terry? That’s the server with the big curly hair, with a big, broad, beaten face, kind of wide and bovine. A nice guy. Just looks like he’s been compressed somehow, into something impenetrably dense.
Anyway, Veraldine and I were making small talk, catching up about our days and I just felt like she was acting funny, like she was gathering up the courage to say something to me? It was making me nervous. You know me. My mind immediately goes to a dark place. I was wondering if that day of all days was going to be the day she was going to acknowledge I’m really not that impressive of a person. Paranoid, I guess. I tend to feel subpar. So when I saw Terry over her shoulder heading our way with the Lava Hot Spud Skins and ranch I waved him away as nonchalantly as I could. He turned around, thank God.
I needed to know what was what before I went through with this ring business, right?
Well it turned out this was the deal. Veraldine had big news indeed, but nothing to do with me. Whew. She said, “Simon & Schuster is going to publish The Bird With the Prismatic Eyes!” Holy shit, I thought. Simon & Schuster is going to publish The Bird With the Prismatic Eyes!
I said, “Honey, that is fantastic!” and I took her hands in mine and it occurred to me I better not steal her thunder with my whole deal about wanting to spend the rest of my life with her. I figured I should delay that whole extravaganza for a least an hour. So I said hold that thought I want to hear all about Simon & Schuster but let me use the bathroom first.
I found Terry in the hallway between the kitchen and the bathrooms and I said, “Let’s fish that ring out of the ranch dressing and you can put it in the tiramisu later.”
He nodded seriously. I can always count on Terry.
So back at the table Veraldine and I were in a celebratory mood.
I mean, I’m so proud, right? She’s so creative. She let me read multiple drafts of this thing before she ever sent it out and I have to tell you it is really good! Like each time I couldn’t put it down. It’s about a man with a kind of kaleidoscope vision who sees people as tightly interlocking puzzles of individual molecules and each molecule is kind of its own entity with even smaller molecules and so on. The guy is a detective and he uses his kaleidoscope power to solve mysteries but he has a mystery of his own: the mystery of his personal origins. His parents, in other words. That’s the main thrust of the book. All he knows is someone left him on a church doorstep in a cardboard box with this strange little bird figurine. So he’s obsessed with that.
Simon & Schuster!
Anyway, I was proud of her because for the year and a half we’d been dating she’d worked on this manuscript feverishly every day while still somehow making time for me. I don’t think she sleeps.
There was an easiness between us. People noticed it. And I’m a big reader.
So we were finishing a second round of cocktails and beaming at each other in a kind of speechless delirium when Terry brought out the Lava Hot Spud Skins, sans ring. I was trying not to screw things up, trying to make sure she knew how happy I was for her. And I really was. Am, in fact. I always will be proud of Veraldine, I swear it as I sit staring at rows and rows of bottles in the manner of a crumbling statue.
I was figuring dessert was going to come at exactly the right time. We made it through the appetizer and another drink, laughing, and split a Caesar salad after that. Got cozier and cozier. And I’m high on all the love and spirits, thinking the rest of my life begins at dessert. Then I saw Terry coming our way shaking his head and I said to myself fuck.
Not only were they out of tiramisu, they were out of the only other dessert Veraldine and I like, which is peach cobbler. So I was going to have to explain to her why I was ordering us the coconut cream pie, which neither of us cared for too much. Too gelatinous. Weird flecks of something chewy.
“I think I’ll just skip dessert,” she said in her high, hoarse patter.
I told her I’d have her for dessert and she giggled and coughed into a fist.
I said, “Let’s drive downtown, look at the decorations.”
The lights were up for the holidays and the shops were open and I said I wouldn’t mind stopping into Swenfield’s to try on some slacks I saw online.
She was in a fine mood and said, “You read my mind.”
She’s like that. We were like that. Everyone said we were like psychic twins.
Terry slipped the ring back to me when I paid and wished me luck. Under his breath, of course.
Veraldine and I drove downtown. It took forever to park but the lights were magic. I had an idea on the way over. I was thinking, they put up a huge Christmas tree in Swenfield’s every year and I figured it would be pretty classy to get down on one knee in front of it. It’s twenty-five feet tall, right there in the middle of the store, under a big domed skylight. Everyone knows the spot.
I was sweating bullets at this point. I felt completely out of control. The ring-in-the-ranch-dressing plan had been rehearsed in my head (and, honestly, recited to Terry) over and over for weeks and there I was improvising. As Veraldine and I strolled, arm in arm under the downtown Christmas lights I thanked God for those three drinks we had at dinner.
We were two blocks from Swenfield’s when this little old man called out to us. He was bent over and bald in a dirty plaid suit and I was thinking he looked sort of like an urban leprechaun as he scuttled over to us in front of an upscale furniture store on the first floor of the Pemberton Building.
He said, “This is the best block” and swept his spiny little arms around without moving his head, like an arthritic tour guide.
Veraldine smiled at him, her teeth bright against the dark plum lipstick that drives me wild with longing even now when I see her across a packed bar with a large group of people I don’t know. I mean who are these people? Are these people from work? New friends from some literary cabal?
So I said to the old man, “We’ll take your word for it but you’re right, it’s pretty fancy, sir.”
He pointed at Veraldine and said, “Not as fancy as this one.”
I said, “She’s a famous author, too!” and we all had a laugh.
It would be weeks before I’d wake up in the middle of the night and remember what Bill Gunderson said after we’d demolished a case of Bud and he seemed like someone else. His face leered out of the darkness, the campfire written crazily across his sweaty forehead.
“Sometimes you just take what’s yours. You don’t wait for someone to realize it’s yours and give it to you. You tell them with your actions,” he said.
So Veraldine and I parted ways with the little man in front of the furniture store and started walking in the direction of Swenfield’s, electricity and a thousand little lights singing in the sharp evening air. I felt the ring in my pocket. I couldn’t stop running my fingers over it. Over and over and over. This was the single most important thing I was ever going to do and no god damn missing dessert…nothing was going to stop me. And I’m sorry if I’m getting emotional. I just miss Veraldine. I miss her so much.