"I still can’t believe that worked!" Jack roared, startling a couple of MIT students a few tables away. They glared at him, but he showed his teeth and they quickly returned to their discussion of the relative impacts of Archimedes, Shakespeare, and Sergey Brin on Western civilization. "When I saw you run into that building, I was sure I was going to have to find another favorite project manager." He took another long pull of his coffee-colored stout ale. "In case you were wondering, I would have chosen Miller."
"Thanks, Jack. It’s good to know I would have been missed," Stephen replied sardonically. He sipped gently at his own beer, an amber with just a hint of blackberry. He hadn’t been drinking much lately, since it got in the way of his training. In the two months since “The Waxed Cheese Event,” as they had taken to calling it, he had started running seriously again. He knew he’d be watching the Boston Marathon on television this year, but he hoped to be ready for New York in the fall. He had little hope of actually qualifying for Boston as a competitive runner, but stranger things had happened. In fact, if he managed it, that would be the least strange thing that had happened this year.
Stephen looked around. This had to be the smallest project wrap party ever: just him and Jack. There would probably be another gathering when everyone got back to town, but Jack hadn’t been willing to wait. "A project like this deserves at least a couple of beers to celebrate its passing," he had growled, grabbing Stephen at 3:00 in the afternoon and dragging him out of the office. Now, as they sat at the bar at the Cambridge Brewing Company, Stephen had to agree. Though the project had actually driven him away from drink, thinking about it certainly made him glad to have a cold beer close at hand.
"I wanted to thank you, by the way, for sticking around in LA until everything wrapped up," Jack said, punctuating his gratitude with a relaxed belch. "I know that it must have been difficult for Jenny and the baby."
"Oh, no, they had a great time out there," Stephen demurred. "I mean, how many feet of snow did you get in those two blizzards?"
"Three-and-a-half," Jack grunted sourly, "and my snow blower broke after the first one. I had to pay a kid twenty bucks to dig out my driveway. Can you believe that? It’s extortion, taking advantage of people with weak backs."
"Or large stomachs," Stephen grinned as Jack scowled at him. "The snow had all melted by the time we got home, though I hear that my neighbor ‘borrowed’ a backhoe from his company after the second blizzard and dug us all out, anyway."
"Right, so as I was saying: thanks for getting a tan on company time. We appreciate it."
"Don’t worry, I worked my butt off, but at least the baby got to see sand for the first time while I was doing it. I had to stay for a couple of weeks anyway. Until the investigation was complete, the police politely asked us not to leave town."
"Well, once they stopped shouting and threatening to shoot everyone in sight, yes, they were quite polite to everyone except Richard. Though I can’t blame them for being a little upset, especially when they found out that they’d called out half of the LAPD over a couple of blocks of cheese."
"So how much time did he spend in jail?"
"Just a week. Rod let him cool his heels there for a day or two before Miriam convinced him to set his pack of lawyers on the case. Turns out that it’s a federal crime now to call in a bomb hoax. Dan visited Richard several times in jail, and now I hear that they’ve cooked up a whole new career for old Sgt. Dick. Dan’s booking him on the inspirational speaker circuit, telling his tale of how his time in the military left him paranoid and delusional. I hear he’s a big hit at peace rallies and West Coast high schools. There’s a rumor that he might even swing through New England during the next election year."
"All that trauma from two years of ROTC?"
"I assume he shapes the facts to fit the narrative. People hear what they want to hear, Jack." Stephen took another sip of his beer. It tasted better than he remembered.
"At least Stu managed to avoid joining him in prison. I’d hate to see those two as a double bill."
Stephen nodded. “He was so embarrassed by all of the attention that he just wanted to get out of there after the police released him. He harvested his garden, loaded up his bike, and took off. Last I heard from him, he was somewhere in Louisiana. He says thank you, by the way, for letting him know that he’s welcome at ADD if he ever wants to return, but I don’t know if we’ll see him again. For now, it’s just him, the road, and his funny little bike."
"He’s a little crazy, but he’s a good engineer." Jack sighed. "Funny how often I say that, but it’s true: as long as they deliver the code, I don’t care if their hobbies include sword collecting, medieval re-enactments, or naked line dancing. If we only hired normal people, we’d have the dumbest engineers on the planet. Which reminds me: when are our other strange birds flying home to roost?"
"Well, Ricky’s back already -- "
"Right, with orders to avoid all airports for the next six months if he wants to keep his job,” Jack interjected. “That guy’s a PR nightmare!"
"Did he really try to get himself deported?" Stephen asked.
Jack chuckled. "Yeah. Strangest case our lawyers have ever had to handle, with a client fighting for deportation. The LAPD gets one or two crazies at every major incident, so they assumed that Ricky had just come to preach. He could have walked away if he hadn’t insisted that, as a member of multiple oppressed minorities, his civil rights had been violated. He even called the ACLU! We finally got him to calm down and come home by offering to make Multi-Ethnic Day a new company holiday."
"Ricky chose the end of March. There’s a dry period there in between President’s Day and Memorial Day."
"I look forward to celebrating it. Maybe I’ll track down my ancestors, too, and find out how many different counties in Ireland we cover." Stephen took another swig of beer in tribute to his forefathers. "Anyway, everyone else who’s coming back will start trickling in within a couple of weeks. They all needed some time off after we wrapped the project, so I told everyone to take a couple of weeks’ vacation, on the company. Hope you don’t mind." Stephen sipped his beer innocently, knowing that, at least for a week or two, he could do no wrong.
Jack made a half-hearted effort to look annoyed, but he was too pleased to pull it off. "Fine, take advantage of me while I’m in a good mood, since we both know it won’t last. You did good work, though, kid. Not only did you keep everyone alive, but you even delivered the application on time.”
"Nothing like a life-threatening crisis to focus the mind, I guess. Even without Stu, we were able to bring the product live two days before the deadline.” Stephen waggled his fingers in the air. "The magic of software development: it all comes together when it has to."
Jack took the last swig of his porter and, noting that Stephen’s glass was empty, too, signaled the bartender for two more. "Impressive. Too bad it never saw the light of day."
"Not true, oh cantankerous one," Stephen replied, feeling a warm glow in his stomach where the beer sat. "Our site was live for a whole week before they ran out of money. It was a heck of a launch party, too: simulcast video from both the New York and LA offices with a cash bar, live bands, and dancing all night long. I’m pretty sure that I even saw some of the Oscar losers drowning their sorrows with Robert and Brad at the oxygen bar in LA. At least, I assume that was oxygen coming through the respirator masks. I didn’t try it myself."
"But they never got any customers, right?"
"Well, no. They used Gotterdammerung to produce the commercial, so it was this strange mix of web memes, World War II file footage, and women in body paint singing opera. They got a ton of traffic the first couple of nights, but judging from the emails most people thought they were hitting some kind of fetish site. They were extremely disappointed, to say the least, and not inclined to provide their credit card numbers. CouldBU spent the last of their cash on the commercial and the launch parties, so now they have until the end of month to liquidate the office furniture and clear out their offices."
"Brutal," Jack murmured wiping a brown foam mustache from his upper lip. "Extraordinarily dumb, but brutal."
"Rod came out unscathed, of course. He made Chuck Marquette the new company president one week before the product launch, and I assume one day after seeing the current state of the finances. He’s already moved on to his next company, some Australian sport fishing company that’s trying to open up new markets in Alaska and Greenland."
"And Brad and Robert, the self-appointed brain trust of CouldBU?"
"After the fight with the mime, Brad’s parents cut him off. He had a choice of coming home and working in the family business or striking out on his own. Last I heard, they had him working an oilfield east of Austin. Robert’s salvaging what he can from the wreckage, once again with Dan’s help. The brilliant little worm bought all of the surveillance tape from CouldBU, which included all of our video conferences and conference calls. He and Robert edited it together into a pilot for an Internet-broadcast pseudo-reality show that they’re tentatively calling Programmer’s Paradise. They already have the first season sold, though I’m not sure what they plan to do for a second season. They offered us scale for our parts in the show, as long as we agree to film some pick-up scenes and record any additional dialogue that they write to flesh out the plot." Stephen shrugged. "It could be enough to pay for Sarah’s piano lessons in a few years."
Jack grunted, "I expect a thank-you in your Emmy acceptance speech."
"I’ll try to remember," Stephen grinned and took another swig of ale. "The Fab Four did a little trash-picking, too. They bought all of CouldBU’s intellectual property for around $10,000, so now they own all the source code and ideas for the product and infrastructure."
"Why would they want that?" asked Jack. "They barely worked on it."
"Exactly," said Stephen. "They own the rights to whatever they worked on while employed by CouldBU, which was primarily their casting company and production studio portal. They’re litigation-proof."
"Not bad," said Jack, impressed. "I’d ask them to come work for us if this weren’t further proof that they’d make lousy employees."
"It’s a good thing that they figured this out," observed Stephen, "since they already have over a million dollars in revenue. They’re planning to launch it in a couple of months, after the dust has settled, and are already thinking IPO in a year or so."
"Which also explains Mark’s -- sorry, Mary’s -- decision to join them, I suppose," Jack said glumly.
"That, and their benefits," Stephen agreed. "All of the rest of her treatment and operations are covered under their medical plan. They’re very open-minded about that kind of thing, as you might imagine." Stephen took another sip, while Jack nodded his agreement. "It’s more than that, though. She wants to start a new life, and doesn’t want to spend the rest of it listening to people like you and me calling her ‘Mar-- Mary.’ Plus, I just think that she likes California. The climate agrees with her." Stephen was very proud of himself for getting through the entire statement without tripping over his pronouns even once. It seemed that he was adjusting to his friend’s new status more quickly than he’d hoped.
"Whatever." Jack dismissed Mary’s new life with a disgruntled wave of his hand. "I just want to know who’s going to keep Frank in line now that Mark’s gone."
"I’m pretty sure Connie will take care of that," Stephen said with a grin. "She’s already had a remarkable mellowing effect on him. You’ll barely recognize him when you see him. He smiles."
"Ugh," Jack recoiled in mock horror, "I don’t know if I’m ready for that."
"Neither was he, but spending a day at death’s proverbial door seems to have clarified his thinking, too. He’s planning to bring Connie back to meet his parents when he comes back to Boston."
"Great," muttered Jack. "Everyone gets a happy ending, but no one comes back to work."
"They’ll be back, don’t worry. Where else could we have this kind of fun?"
"Nowhere outside of a mental asylum, as far as I know."
Stephen smiled and turned back to his beer, and both men sat staring contemplatively at the TV above the bar for a few minutes. The Red Sox were in spring training and it looked like they were going to have a good team this year. The pitching was suspect, as usual, but he hoped that they’d purchased enough sluggers in the offseason to make up for it. What they really needed was a good closer.
"What was it about that last project that finally pushed you over the edge?"
Jack gave Stephen a sidelong smirk. "Worried that you’re getting close?"
"More like worried that I might already be gone. They say that the craziest guys don’t even know that they’re crazy."
Jack turned to face Stephen, a serious look on his face. "Take comfort in the fact that you’re still asking the question. When you decide you’re the only sane person left in the building and the rest of us need some forceful correction, then I’ll start worrying about you.”
"Is that how you felt, just before you jumped that customer in the conference room?"
Jack rubbed the back of his neck ruefully. "You want to know the truth?"
"Well, that’s kind of why I’m asking. Look, if you’re not comfortable talking about this, just tell me. I don’t want to send you back into another year or two of therapy."
Jack laughed. "No worries there.” He looked around the bar before he continued. “Don’t tell anyone, but the whole ear-biting thing never happened. I just couldn’t take the pressure anymore: all of the customers wanting everything right now, changing their minds at the last minute, never understanding that they were undoing months of work in the process. I was afraid that I might snap, so I walked into James’s office and told him that I quit. He talked me out of it, said that we’d find a role that took me off of the front lines. We made up the story to explain the change so I wouldn’t lose the developers’ respect."
Stephen gave Jack a strange look. "Does it bother you that biting off a man’s ear seemed to be a better explanation than simple client fatigue?"
Jack shrugged unrepentantly. "I have to manage over fifty engineers. Can you think of an explanation that would have made that easier?"
"You have a point," Stephen conceded.
"Keep this to yourself," Jack warned. "I have an image to maintain."
"My lips are sealed." Stephen downed the last of his beer and stood, pulling on his jacket. "Thanks for the beers, Jack, and for your support. I don’t think I would have made it through this without you and your Polish grandmother’s stories."
Jack stood, too, though he didn’t finish his beer. He showed no signs of leaving yet. "Yeah, about that…"
Stephen raised a hand to forestall another confession. "Stop! Let me believe, Jack. She helped me through a tough time, so I choose to believe in the power of your Polish grandmother."
Jack chuckled. "Glad she could help. When will we see you again?"
"In a week or so. I want to reacquaint myself with my family and see all of the amazing things that my daughter can do. Jenny tells me that Sarah’s singing opera now."
Jack raised an eyebrow. "Really?"
"Yep. Just yesterday, she swears that Sarah sang three or four measures from Bolero right after I left for work."
"That must be something to hear."
"I plan to find out." With a wave, Stephen put on his jacket and left the bar.
It was time to go home.