Ralph had been missing for two days. He had not come in for bus passes, canned goods, or dish soap. There were no requests for leftovers from lunch or burned DVDs. Not once had he stopped by the office for a cup of coffee and a separate cup of sugar and creamer filled to the brim.
Something was definitely wrong.
After reviewing the facts of the situation, or lack thereof, I left the office to further investigate the situation. I envisioned a car accident or beating, he was likely hurt and holed up in his apartment, too weak and injured to come out for help. It was time to check-in.
I jogged up the creaky stairs and down the hallway, dodging dust bunnies as they rolled across the dusty hardwood floor. Worry and dread propelled me towards Ralph’s apartment door more quickly than my usual leisurely stroll.
I tapped at his door and waited. Hearing no noise from within, I tapped a little louder. Shave and a haircut, two bits. I put extra emphasis on the two bits. Still no response.
“Ralph,” I softly called. “Are you in there?”
Suddenly, the sound of footsteps started up the stairs. My co-worker, Mr. Jay emerged from the stairwell and proceeded towards me and the unanswered door.
“Still not answering?”
I shook my head. He pounded on the plain, white door. Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang, Bang. The sound reverberated down the hallway, triggering a sprinkle of plaster chips to fall from the ceiling. There was no mistaking that someone was at the door. One might even think it was the police from the aggressive knocking.
A chair scraped across the floor and someone limped towards the door. My suspicious were about to be confirmed, I grimaced and braced myself for the worst.
“He’s in there all right,” Mr. Jay said with a knowing nod and left to return to the office.
The door knob turned and the door opened a crack. A dark eye peered out, recognizing his visitor, the door opened a little wider. A sliver of face appeared through the crack.
“I’m sick,” Ralph whispered.
Long fingers wrapped around the edge of the door and a bare shoulder appeared; it was the same smooth brown as his face.
“Are you hurt?” I asked.
“It’s just an old injury,” he said, evasively. “I haven’t been able to walk for the past few days. Sorry I haven’t been into see you,” he apologized.
“How did this happen? I asked.
He looked off and away, “It’s just an old injury. I’ll be better in a few days.”
“Did someone do this to you? Tell me who did this to you. “
I demanded names. He naturally refused with a sad giggle.
“Could you send Mr. Jay back up here? I need to talk to him about something.”
“Of course,” I agreed, “I will send him right up.”
I left, certain of a break-through in this mysterious case. We would get justice for Ralph. Whatever crimes had been committed again him would not go unpunished.
“Mr. Jay, Ralph wants to talk to you, man-to-man. I think its something important.”
Mr. Jay stood with a stoic face, already understanding the importance of this request, “I’m on my way.”
He returned no more than eight minutes later. It was enough time to go up the stairs and down the hallway, knock and wait for Ralph to answer the door to reveal a terrible secret and to return.
I met him just inside of the door in the office.
“Well, everything ok?”
There was a lot of buildup to this moment, I felt anxious and excited, ready to spring into action. Some things can only be shared man to man. I respected that space and stepped back to let the mutual sharing take place.
“He asked if we have any extra pizzas,” Mr. Jay said in an irritated voice. “He just wanted pizza.”
And so it goes.
Thanks Vonnegut for providing the only possible phrase to end this short story.