"Did you remember to take out the trash, Craig?" her voice filtered down the stairs into my little home office, interrupting the rapid click-click of my fingers on the keyboard. She really had an uncanny knack of bothering me when I was in the middle of something important.
"Yes, honey, I did," I yelled back. "You know I'm workin' down here, sweetheart!"
"Oh, sorry," she said, poking her head through the door at the top of the stairs. I looked up to catch a glimpse of her long, brown hair and her doll-like face. She was scowling, but on her, a scowl was only a crinkled button nose and a delicately scrunched eyebrow. "I'm always so tempted to talk to you because I know you're so close."
"I know, babe," I said. "Just try to pretend I'm not here."
"Well, I'm going out now, anyway," she said. "I'll bring some dinner back."
"Bye, darling," I said. I cringed a little, fully aware that I'd used four different pet names for her in as many sentences. I found myself hoping that she would ignore it this time, even though we were both aware that the pet names usually only came out for two occasions: when I was irked, and when I wanted sex. The gentle thud of the front door told me that she had ignored it, and I laughed aloud at the folly of my mixed messages, mostly to fill the silent space with something before I returned to my work.
The annoyed "sweetie"- and "honey"-ing had been going on for the past month, ever since I started working from home. I had been "decentralized" from the media and publishing firm where I used to work, which meant that it wasn't worth the price of overhead in this energy market to keep writer/editors in cubicles. They actually sold the whole building, mostly to pay the bills that had accrued during the transition from print to electronic media. A number of my colleagues were downsized as a result. In the small favors category, while I wasn't technically "downsized," my job functions were. I used to be full time, but the work they sent me was often not enough to fill more than half of any given week. And editing is still one of those jobs that pays by the hour, unless you're some kind of superstar.
I really feel like I inhabit my world right now, which is an interesting sensation for someone who had always felt like watching the nightly news was akin to sitting in the back row at a huge, foreign sporting event. When people realized that gas prices weren't going to go back down anytime soon, commuting essentially became obsolete. Now, working from home is not unusual among my friends and former colleagues. I move less during the day, and I eat less, but my meals end up costing about the same as they did when I bought them from the hot truck three times a week. Such is the life of the middle class American these days, according to the CNN.com "iReporters." Such is my life.
On my last day in the office, I was browsing the jobs in the back of one of the commuter rags and I found an interesting little ad. "Wanted: Testimonial Writers/Must have firm command of standard English/Multiple dialects and Internet speak a plus/Creative, self-starter, work from home/negotiable rate based on fiction portfolio." I was going to be working from home already, so I ripped out the ad and put it in my wallet. It only took me a few days of running out of firm work and being bored out of my mind before I sent a portfolio of my short and flash fiction to the email address in the ad.
Not to brag, but they hired me within minutes. I negotiated a reasonable per contract/per hour rate and signed and faxed back the employment agreement. The next morning, the work just started rolling in. It was every creative writer's dream job, really. They would send me information about products or services, and I would write glowing testimonials from satisfied customers. Occasionally the contractor would ask for a couple of testimonies with reasonably bad grammar or spelling, just to lend them a little verisimilitude. Sometimes, they'd ask for a negative one, but it always had to point to another of the company's products as the eventual solution to whatever problem the product in question was supposed to address. Dishonest? It was fiction like any other, and as long as I didn't think too hard about it, I didn't really care.
I'm mostly just thankful that I was able to get a second job at all, considering the economy. It makes little difference to me, as a writer and editor, how many jobs I'm working, as long as the work is sufficiently stimulating and it fills the days as well as it fills my bank account. But for some reason, I was still unable to tell my wife about it. When she asked, I told her I was writing "freelance ad copy for small publications." I love her, but I didn't want her to know exactly what I was writing to supplement our household income. Maybe it was misplaced machismo, or maybe the dishonesty of it rankled on some subconscious level, but then, I've always been secretive about my creative work. In a way, getting to know my characters often felt like a betrayal, no matter how unattractive they were to me. It was the intimacy of it more than anything else, and I loved her too much to confront her with all of that.
The loose timeframes on the work allowed me to really inhabit these imaginary customers, and I slowly built a stable of distinct voices that could be called upon to testify whenever their expertise was needed. There was "Maryann," the mother of three whose children always had some ailment and were always too obstinate to bend to conventional remedies. Then there was "Steve," the average guy who was always on the lookout for better, easier, and faster ways to do his dreaded household chores. "Tara" desperately wanted a magic weight loss bullet, and "christine" only used the shift key on her keyboard to type out emoticons. "Peter" often had problems with products, but was always able to recommend an alternative. "Jack," "Lily," and "Dee" mixed modifiers, dropped verbs, and sometimes misspelled words. If any of my characters, even the one-offs, had to claim to behave in an unusual way (for example, eating only one meal per day), I'd give them a compelling reason to do it (violent reactions to eating before or after sleep). I often had to let them be gullible to make them beguiling. I loved these characters, even if their purpose was slightly less than ethical.
That evening, I emerged from my office and greeted my wife with a kiss. "You know I had an appointment today," she said, half asking, half telling.
"No," I said. "What sort of appointment?"
"With Dr. Bhat," she said.
"Didn't you just see her?" I asked. It was odd for her to go to the internist any more than she had to. She had a fear of doctors that she would never admit to, but she'd never had a proper blood pressure reading in her life. She was perfectly healthy, but her blood pressure skyrocketed every time they slapped the cuff on her.
"She asked me to come back for a follow-up," she said, sitting down in a kitchen chair. My wife was a small woman who was always bubbly enough to fill a room. But right now, she looked even smaller than her five-foot-two.
"What's the matter?" I asked, reaching out and rubbing her shoulders gently.
"I have a tumor," she said.
"Not..." I didn't want to say "cancer" because that word reeked of finality.
"No," she said. "Not cancer. It's just a tumor. But it could grow. And it could become cancer."
Relieved, I choked, "Oh! So you can get it out, right?"
"Yes," she said. "I could. But I'm not sure I want to."
"What do you mean 'you're not sure you want to'?" I asked, incredulous. This was not like having your tonsils out because they might get infected again in the future. This was a tumor that could eventually kill her.
"I've been reading about some other options," she said. "People have shrunk similar tumors with dietary changes, exercise, and herbs."
"Oh, honey," I said. "You can't believe everything you read on the Internet."
"But some of these stories! They're so compelling!" she exclaimed. "I have already ordered a few things."
"Oh, no." I could feel my stomach falling into a deep, dark pit.