The Land of Steady Habits: A Novel

The Land of Steady Habits: A Novel by Ted Thompson

Book: The Land of Steady Habits: A Novel by Ted Thompson Read Free Book Online
Authors: Ted Thompson
silent ambulance whirling its lights. It was three o’clock on a December Saturday, prime shopping time, and down by the water, a line of cars crawled along I-95 like engorged insects.
    Charlie’s door was open. The room was dark except for the glow of a ceiling-mounted TV. There must have been thirty cards in there, some of them attached to balloons, and an entire bedside table loaded with games.
    “Charlie?”
    He had his knees up on the bed and was drawing furiously in a sketchbook in his lap. “Hang on.” He let out a groan of frustration and began erasing. Finally, he looked up. “Oh,” he said. “Yeah, my parents aren’t here.”
    “That’s good. Is my wife around?”
    Charlie stared at him. “I don’t see her.”
    In the odd androgyny of a hospital gown, he looked small. His face was drawn, and in the light from the TV, it was hard to distinguish the shadows under his eyes from half-moons. His forehead was shiny, and his hair, which had grown in angelic ringlets when he was a boy, was now an oblong frizzled bush.
    “How are you feeling?”
    “Awesome,” he said.
    “You look okay,” Anders said. “The way people were talking, I thought—” He didn’t know what he’d thought. That Charlie would be hooked up to machines? He had thought there would be at least one machine.
    Charlie went back to the thing in his lap. “Do you have a balloon for me or something?”
    “Here,” said Anders. Before he’d come in, he had grabbed one of Howard’s books, a heavy volume on Paul Klee. In the car it had seemed the newest of the bunch, colorful and strange and hefty, but in the blue light of the TV, you could see, its jacket was scratched and dinged. “I thought you might like this.”
    “What is it?”
    “It’s some art.”
    Charlie took the book and flipped through a few pages of paintings, their tight little shapes creating what looked like patchwork villages—houses, streets, the moon—that were, despite their precise boxes, coming apart at the edges and falling into a jumble.
    “This is pretty sweet,” he said. Then he flipped to the back, where, Anders hadn’t noticed, a manila sleeve was glued, a library slip still in it. Charlie looked up at him. “Did you lift this?”
    “I—” There was nothing to say. “Not from a library.”
    “You brought me a stolen library book?”
    “I didn’t actually know that.”
    But Charlie was laughing.
    Of course Howard had taken his fine modernist tomes, his props of good taste, from the library.
    “I love it, dude. You show up at the hospital to give me a stolen library book.”
    “Here, I didn’t know. Give it back to me.”
    “No way, man, this is my favorite present by far. By far; I love it.”
    “It’s not—” Anders shook his head. “I’ll bring you something real. What can I get you?”
    “Nothing, nothing at all.”
    “Well, listen”—he scribbled his number on the back of one of the old business cards that were pressed in his wallet—“if you need anything, you know.”
    Charlie looked at the card, its heavy stock and the raised seal of the Springer logo.
    “So what happened to you?” Charlie asked.
    “What do you mean?”
    Charlie flicked at the corners of the card. “Vice president, securities division.”
    “I retired.”
    “Why?”
    “It’s complicated.”
    “Try me.”
    “It sucked.”
    Charlie broke into a huge grin.
    “Yeah,” he said. “I get that.”
    “And a bunch of other reasons.”
    “I have to go to rehab.”
    “Yeah,” said Anders. “That’s usually how this goes.”
    “I’m not even addicted to anything. My parents are just Nazi assholes.”
    “They’re worried.”
    “They’re embarrassed. There’s a difference.”
    “Well, you did a stupid thing.”
    Charlie looked up, his eyes suddenly hard. “Seriously? I’m getting a lecture from you? ”
    “I’m just saying—”
    “No, no, I’m interested, considering you were high as balls.”
    Anders lowered his voice. “Look,” he

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