Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Charlie Dickinson 

Alroy left Olivia’s, went home, and didn’t know what to do. With one gesture, her hand on his back, and her words he should visit her in Dallas, she had promised him the keys to the Golden Kingdom, his fantasy-in-residence for much of the past year brought to life. 

Except … it was contingent upon his going to visit her in Dallas, a five and one-half hour bus ride each way.  

What was he to do? 

All of sudden, he was the one who needed a telephone counselor, or at least someone with whom to sort things out. He could have everything if. The if, the big contingency, was the problem. His comfortable life in Galveston, spending his free hours studying to pass the next actuarial exam would be disrupted. What if he went ahead and reworked his study schedule? Taking the bus when he wanted to be with Olivia would be a one-way time sink. It would carve out weekends, easily. He’d throw away hours to gain those minutes with her? He might shave a half hour off the travel time to Dallas if he broke down and bought a car. But the cost/benefit ratio? Forget it. Any car was a decision he’d resolutely resisted once he moved to the oh-so-flat island. Plus, riding his cargo bike, who would ever blame global warming on him? 

But given the green light to possess Olivia, he couldn’t let go one briar-patch thought. It was as if every erotogenic chakra in his body pulsated with desire to be satisfied. His throat felt dry, and his breathing labored. 

About six, he sat down dispiritedly to dinner. He had no appetite. A paper tray of microwaved penne Florentine, he idly rowed his fork through, not sure what was in his future if he went to Dallas and claimed his prize. 

His arm and chest muscles were tight as wooden barrel bands. He mechanically finished what he could eat and left the rest for compost. He had to leave his room, go out for a walk and shake up his body, get it moving. Sitting around, he was just going to seize up, or blow gaskets. 

He walked down the front driveway. It was dark. Just fine, he thought, I need to concentrate on where I’m going. Get my mind off this mess. Yet the lack of light merely took away the customary distractions of historical houses, lush vegetation, trees, and neighborhood odds and ends he liked to look at. No, instead there was nothing to keep him from imagining a scale, weighing the conflict in his head: the right hand of the scale was winning the MegaBuck lottery, worth millions of dollars, well, not literally but it might as well have been because in his mind it was what Olivia’s favors had to be worth. On the left, the sinister side of the scale, so to speak, were all things that might go wrong.  

Unlike Gary, he and Olivia hadn’t started a relationship. But what, if like a guy, she simply wanted to try before she buys? What if Olivia were to tell Alroy in a few months, it’s all too much trouble. I want to do more on my own time than entertain a visitor from Galveston. Something callous. Here was a woman, calculation her gift for sure, who after only two years on the job decided her future at AGI was confining and bolted. 

Surely, a huge debit for the proposed interaction would be less time to study. What if he lost enough of an edge he didn’t pass the next exam? After all, Duncan’s prescription for exam success included no sex for at least a week. When Duncan gave him the advice, it was sort of laughable, given Alroy’s sputtering social life. But with Olivia? How could it work? He could see himself going down in lack-of-preparation flames.  

Also in the debit column was his nagging suspicion what would happen might disappoint. Being with Olivia, enjoying intimacy, might be a one-time shot, might not be sustainable, which was something he’d like to have if he were to go all in for a five-hundred-seventy-eight-mile-round-trip relationship. 

He walked for blocks and blocks. Then saw across Broadway, the Old City Cemetery. Six weeks ago, he and Olivia had walked through there under a full moon. His mental weighing of pros and cons collapsed. He was taken by the quicksand of a memory, one of the best he had since arriving on the island. Being with the woman he desired from afar, the two of them walking among reminders of departed souls. Life was transient. Seize the day. Why reject joy in life? The special feeling they felt walking under the moon. Wasn’t this all he needed to think about? They would feel that way again, if he went to Dallas. 

Having seen the graveyard that night, Alroy decided the walking wasn’t getting him anywhere. He’d go back to his place. Maybe take a sheet of paper and write things out. 

Back in his room, Alroy wrote out the pros and cons again, but without avail: His indecision led him to see he was up against an inescapable fact: His desire for intimacy was trumping every logical argument the other way, as if she were the only woman on the planet with whom he could have a satisfying relationship. It was irrational. 

He puttered around studying with listless intent, but about eleven, went to bed. 

A mistake. The same dialectic: To Dallas, not to Dallas, kept coursing through his mind. His brain stubbornly refused to turn off and let him sleep. Then he decided if he got up, opened the fridge and ate something, it would shunt the blood flow toward his stomach and its digestive chores and away from his overactive brain. 

Worked like a charm and shortly after midnight, he fell asleep. But two hours later, he awoke not able to go back to sleep. Eventually the sun rose. 


Two hours sleep left him enervated. As if his body was deciding. Forget the cogitation on pros and cons of seeing Olivia again. His body said he couldn’t go on like this. It openly rebelled. 

He got up. A hot shower did nothing to get his blood circulating. He came out of the shower, dressed, had breakfast, and still seemed as bleary-eyed as ever. He made a quick cup of instant coffee, hoping to jolt himself awake. He got out the door walking to work. He prayed his diurnal body rhythms, rising through the day, would pull up the slack. 

At AGI headquarters, he entered the lobby doors, waved his pass at the security guard on duty and walked straight for the bank of elevators. Next stop, the sixth floor, and the Life Actuarial Department sans Olivia. He’d adjust.  

One elevator car door was open, going up. He snuck in.  

Emma. Alroy was awake. 

She stood beside the bank of floor buttons, her index finger hitting 6. He didn’t even have to tell her. 

What was there to think about? He started talking. Chatting with a purpose. “So when are you taking lunch today, Emma?” he asked. 

She blushed, probably not used to a guy’s interest before eight in the morning. “Oh, I’ve been leaving about eleven-thirty lately. What about you?” 

“Same here. Trying to get a jump on the noon crowd. Say, why don’t we meet outside the cafeteria door, we could have a nice chat about the mysteries of death certificates and their authentication,” he said, a skip in his voice. 

“That’ll be fun,” she said, playing along with the premise. She stood there, the smile on her face as bright as klieglights, unquenchable. Alroy suddenly felt awake, bleariness banished, every fiber in his body singing with electric desire for the woman who watched the elevator car door open at the fifth floor, who stepped out and turning her head slightly toward him, as if to say bye, raised her right hand, her coupled fingers bobbing ever so slightly at him, her face still radiant with joy. 

The car door closed and Alroy’s back fell against the wall. He’d done it. Asked her out, well, if only to lunch in the cafeteria. Still, he had let her know he enjoyed being with her. That was how it had to start.  

Alroy got off the sixth floor in a daze, but not from lack of sleep. No, he entered his work room, unencumbered of the past, the past few days, to be sure, and was looking forward to a new romantic interest. 

He looked at his wristwatch. Three hours, twenty-seven minutes to go and he would be down there, next to the cafeteria door. 

He sat down at his workstation. 

Looked across the room, saw Tuan already at work, next to him an empty chair. Where Olivia sat. 

Time flew by, as Alroy plowed through state compliance forms, one after another, filling out the blanks with the needed information to qualify FirstLife for sale in each market. Duncan or Irv would have to electronically sign off on every form, but a mere formality. The forms were so much alike. Read one, you might as well’ve read them all. 

Before he knew it, it was eleven twenty-five. Alroy tidied up his desk and stood, looking over at Duncan. “Early lunch, I’m taking off.”  

Duncan nodded. “Enjoy,” he said.  

Alroy smiled. No way could he know the lagniappe he had in mind with his lunch. Emma. The name alone got him moving with a hustle to his steps for the elevator. 

Life was simple and beautiful when you had a plan. And Alroy had a plan. Emma. He would forget all fantasy about Olivia, Olivia in Dallas, the coaxing fingers at his spine in her apartment, and the tempting torment, which impaled him after leaving her. Why put up with it when there was Emma? 

Admittedly, she was younger, fewer life experiences, no actuary, a cog in the insurance home office machine, maybe, but still young, attractive, with her dimpled cheeks, and, well, easy to talk to. He stepped inside the elevator, surrounded by three others, all apparently headed to the first floor, no other buttons were pushed, and let the space they allowed each other compress, confine his internal delight at what waited for him once the elevator doors opened again. 


Alroy and Emma had a nice lunch together, penne rigate, shrimp salad. 

At some point, Alroy mentioned to Emma he had a cargo bike. It was his way of getting around the island, of shopping for groceries. He said he was doing without a car for now. He lived so close to work–only a walk away. He asked her if she had a bike. 

She nodded a No. 

“That’s too bad,” he said. 

“Why do you say that?” 

“I was just thinking if you had a bike, the two of us could go bicycling along the Seawall some weekend.” 

She blushed, smiled, her cheek dimples taking shape. 

“Well, I know how to ride a bicycle, I just don’t have one,” she said, her voice rising. 

“Oh, no problem, they rent bikes down at the pier on Twenty-first. The weather’s supposed to be nice this weekend, what do you say? I’ll rent you a bike. Go over there, reserve it.” 

She pushed around her salad, isolated a shrimp she picked up, pulling off its finny tail, plopping the rest in her mouth for a satisfying, it seemed, last delicacy of the salad before going back to the lettuce, the dressing, the rest. “This weekend, we have visitors, I’m busy–” she said, sounding a bit coy. 

“What about the next weekend, the weather should hold?” he asked. 

“We might talk next week, when it’s closer,” she replied. 

Alroy savored internal joy at the sight of Emma, obviously alive to this game of ping-pong negotiation about what was to be their date. He knew she would say, Absolutely, but she also wanted him to work for getting everything just right. Just right, the one thing he knew about women. Things had to be just so. 

Alroy sat there finishing up the pasta on his plate, awed by what he’d done. He’d banished the torment of Olivia by simply getting something going with Emma. All it took was an elevator encounter to put her into his life, his social life. He wanted this to go right and he knew if he were sincere in his intentions toward Emma, of the gleeful dimples across from him, it would. 

In her all-American sort of way, Emma was every bit as attractive as Olivia. She just wasn’t exotic, no Sri Lankan Chinese-American by way of Vancouver, British Columbia. No, Emma was the girl next door, probably BOI–Born on Island–down the street at UTMB and raised right, on the island.  

And as far as Alroy knew, things were unlikely to change. Emma had no overriding agenda to skew any relationship they might develop. She was not, like Olivia, fishing around to leave town for another job. She was not, like JoBecca, wanting some guy to help her bury the past and a philandering husband with an appetite for young blood. No, Emma represented an unalloyed simplicity, no agenda, no obvious personal problems. Things were promising for what he saw across the table. 

“Oh, look at what time it is!” Emma said, looking at her wristwatch. “It’s twenty-five after.” She hurriedly gathered the last of her salad on her fork, eating it hastily, arranging her plate and silverware and napkin on the tray to take back to the self-busing bins. Alroy was puzzled because like him she must be salaried, exempt, and if she ran a few minutes over on her lunch hour, what would be the harm? She wasn’t punching a clock. “My supervisor Deborah is strict,” she said, as if reading Alroy’s thoughts. 

They took their trays to the bins where a kitchen assistant was removing a full bin for dish washing, swapping out an empty one. Alroy looked at Emma and said, “I’ll go with you to your office, I need a little exercise to walk off that pasta.” 

She glowed. “Really?” 

They got into the elevator car, which was busy with workers on their lunch hour, going between floors. Alroy turned to Emma beside him and said, sotto voce, “What about lunch like this same time next week? We can discuss the biking.” 

“Sure thing. Nobody likes to eat alone.” She chuckled. 

This from the woman who when he first noticed her was going outside with her sack lunch to eat on the Gulf-side plaza, “To enjoy the fresh air,” she said then. Well, if bicycling along the Seawall is not conducive to enjoying fresh air, he didn’t know what would be. The more he thought about it, the more biking with Emma had an inspired sensitivity to what she enjoyed. 

He walked her to Room 308, the Claims Department, and said, “I’ll mark it on my calendar. Next Tuesday.” 

“I will too,” she said, those fabulous dimples he couldn’t separate from evident happiness flashing. 

Alroy walked past the elevator, pushed open the exit door for the stairwell. He had done it. He had relaunched his social life. It was as simple as looking around and seeing Emma again. Maybe their meeting in the morning was meant to be. Who said, There are no coincidences? 


In his room a week later, Alroy was about to crack open his Life Contingent Risks textbook, and jump on some work problems when his phone rang. 

“Alroy, it’s me, Olivia, calling from Dallas,” he heard the familiar voice say.  

“Sure, hi, how’re you doing?” 

“Oh, work is exciting, I couldn’t ask for more. Lots of travel ahead.” 

“Well, things are the same here. Except no one is sitting at your desk. We miss you,” Alroy said, wanting to hear why she was calling. Hadn’t they said good-byes in her apartment? Now, did she want to see him? 

“I’m sure Irv will hire someone before long. He probably has a stack of resumes.” Her voice sounded indifferent, as if she had no nostalgic feelings whatsoever for working at Atlas. “You’re probably wondering why I’m calling–” 

“Yeah, as a matter for fact, I was about to say, What’s up?” 

Hmmmmmm,” he heard. Her easing into telling him why. “Tell you the truth, I’ve only been here a week and it’s a much bigger city than Galveston, and it seems hard to get to know people, they’re all in such a rush. I’ve felt lonely away from work.” 

Alroy said nothing.  

“Well, anyway,” she continued, “I got to thinking about what we did together, walking in the graveyard, going to Rosie’s place, that sort of thing, and I thought it would do me a world of good if you’d come visit. Will you?” she said, an obvious plea in her voice. 

Alroy held the phone away. What was he hearing? He realized he was just listening to a voice, solo voce, a disembodied voice. No voluptuous, curvaceous Olivia attached to the voice. The body he’d fantasized about for most of a year was not there on his phone. Just her voice. Pleasing, dulcet tones, yes, but she wants to see me

“When were you thinking? Alroy said, playing along. 

“What about this weekend? Come up Saturday, I’ve got a couch you can sleep on, so no hotel bill to pay, What do you say?” she said, sounding upbeat. 

“Don’t think I can, I’m already planning something.” 

“You can’t get out of it?” she said, pushing. 

“Sure, I suppose I could get out of it, but I like to be a man of my word, not let somebody else down.” There was no need to explain he’d promised to reserve a bicycle for Emma, or she would be hurt if he bugged out. 

“I’ll make it worth your while, Alroy. I want to see you,” she said, an undertone of seduction creeping into her words. “My couch or my bed, you choose, Alroy.” 

Did she have to make it plainer? Had big city loneliness driven her to offering her body as an enticement? Alroy’s thinking was about to short circuit if he didn’t say stop. 

But he didn’t want to hurt her feelings. He didn’t want to come across as a blunt, boorish lout. He’d have to be gentle with her. After all, he’d spent countless hours of fantasy contemplating her body, trying to divine her mystery. But this wasn’t fantasy; this was reality. 

“Oh, Olivia, I’ve given it much thought since you left. The question whether we should try to keep seeing each other. I knew going to Dallas would be unfamiliar to you at first, just like my coming down here almost a year ago. But the more I thought about it, the more I saw it as complicated–” He paused, letting her react. 

“What do you mean complicated? We like being together, at least I thought you did–” 

“I just think the time we spend together will seem tethered–” 

“Tethered? What do you mean?” 

“I mean, spend half day getting there. Okay, do something that night, but next day, we have to keep in mind when I leave to catch the last bus back to Galveston, cuts things short–the time pressure would feel tethered.” 

“I’d do my best to get you to forget time pressure–” she said, again slipping into a dulcet, seductive voice. 

“It just was different when you lived here,” he said, exasperated at her refusal to see the burden of trying for a long-distance relationship. 

“How’s so? I’m the same me, there, here,” she shot back. 

“I know. It’s just things seem more sustainable when we live in the same place.” 


“Okay, convenient. Like if I want to see you when you were here, it was no big deal.” 

“So it’s a big deal, an inconvenience to see me here, to spend this weekend with me, in my bed, that’s what you’re saying,” sarcasm slipping into her voice. 

“No, don’t misunderstand me,” Alroy said, slipping past exasperation. He wanted to say out of sight, out of mind, but he wanted to keep it rational and not personal.  

“What’s there to misunderstand, I offer you everything and you turn me down, like it’s not convenient home-delivery pizza,” she shot back.  

Alroy said he had to get back to his studies and he’d call her later, no time specified. 

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