"I'm working now."
Corrine turned away from her husband's gentle gruffness and the phrase he always used to turn off her concerns, her thoughts, the day-to-day things that had to be discussed to keep the household going, even her breezy playfulness. She'd come to hate that sentence: "I'm working now."
Max had explained it patiently. "I have to make enough money for us to live well. Since programming pays by the hour, I have to work the hours so I can bill for them. What you want, darling, and what Geoffrey needs, are important, and have to be done, but I'm afraid life isn't billable." Then he'd look back at the computer screen. "I'm working now."
Corrine's friends thought it was wonderful that her husband was home all day. "He must help with everything! You're so lucky!" Well, he did do the laundry and rarely dyed the underwear blue from a new pair of blue jeans tossed in with the socks and shorts. He was happy to walk with Geoffrey in the middle of the night, since he was often up anyway, pacing as he mentally designed the user interface for his latest program.
Also, he left the running of the house completely to her. She controlled the money, bought furniture, invested in stocks, even chose the car. She consulted Consumer Reports on everything and had gotten quite adept at finding bargains. He only had to come along when he needed clothes, and it was a relief to finish, not to have to watch him standing there, forlorn, while she chose something else for him to obediently try on and show to her.
But always working. If he wasn't programming something new, he was contacting a potential customer or researching on the Internet. Always busy in his tiny office in the spare bedroom. "Life is not billable." What a disastrous mantra!
One of the advantages of Max's obsession, though, was that he took off for holidays. "If I worked on Thanksgiving, I'd have to charge them double time. Not fair to the client. Nope, nope, nope." Besides showing that he'd seen The Land Before Time with Geoffrey too many times, and that he cared for his customers, this belief gave him to Corrine for all the major holidays and many of the minor ones. Over the last six years she had brought the holiday count to 13.
But if she just wanted to spend an evening with him, she was out of luck. "I'm working now."
This Christmas, though, she was going to implement her plan. She had concocted it last April while doing the taxes, and spent the year perfecting it. She hoped.
Christmas was on a Wednesday this year, so Corrine couldn't find a way to convince Max to take off the day before. Christmas Eve wasn't important to him, although he loved Christmas morning, reveled in opening his own presents ("A 10x CD-ROM! Too cool") and enjoyed her awed excitement when she opened a perfectly wrapped box containing a cashmere sweater in exactly the right shade of green to set off her fiery hair and gray-green eyes. How did he do that? When did he take time to do that?
Geoffrey cuddled against Corrine, then toddled over to Max, back and forth between the opposite poles that guided and controlled his life. Corrine smiled as Max stood, tossed Geoffrey into the air, then snagged him carefully and cradled him in a wild swoop around and around in a circle.
The morning always ended with exchanging the Christmas letters. Max's was always the same in spirit: the most spectacular use possible of the latest technology. He once admitted that the Christmas letter, though not billable, was good research for additional services he could offer his clients. This year, she followed him to his office as he pranced there with Geoffrey first held high, then dragged along upside down, heels bouncing on the floor, head thrown back in an unending squeal.
"Look at this!" Corrine and Geoffrey watched the computer screen change colors, psychedelic, then coalesce into a reindeer.
Geoffrey squealed again, this time with recognition. "Rudolf!" The nose glowed like a surreal ruby, then grew to fill the screen as Rudolf seemed to come toward them off the screen. The singing crescendoed into the song. As the traditional story unfolded in color and song, Geoffrey watched, entranced.
Max pressed against Corrine's side, puppy dog warm, his lips brushing her hair, and whispered, "Of course you couldn't do this through the Internet with less than a T1 line. I'm doing it through the LAN, as a test. I think I can do some compression algorithms that'll make it darn near this good with ISDN, and not bad at 28.8." He kissed her earlobe. "Great, huh? Oh, and the music is MIDI, no actual instruments or human voices."
Geoffrey insisted on watching it again. Then they strolled back to the living room, Max's arm around Corrine as he filled her in on the technical details of the "letter."
At the doorway, Max dived toward the tree, stomach sliding along the polished wood floor. "Dolphin man! Searching for an incoming letter!" Geoffrey ran and jumped on him and they dissolved in a noisy intertwining of arms and legs.
Max picked up the envelope and sat on the sofa, Geoffrey squeezed beside him. "Okay, what have we here. It's addressed to me." He looked down at Geoffrey. "But what can it be?" Geoffrey shrugged elaborately and reached up for it.
Max elbowed his hand away. "This one's mine, old buddy." He read it. His eyebrows came together. He read it again, then looked up at Corrine, still standing in the doorway. "What's this?"
Corrine smiled brightly. Would he buy it? "I found you a new job. Work you can bill!"
Max read the card aloud. "You are now on retainer to the company of Corrine and Geoffrey. For your standard rate, you are obligated to drop all other work, up to three hours a day, up to five days a week, to be with them." He looked back up at Corrine. "That's silly. Besides, you can't afford it."
Corrine took a step toward him. "Actually, I can. I've gotten very good at investing the last few years, and it's been an extended bull market. I know you don't care about that, but Max, I made more money in stocks last year than you did programming. So, you see, Geoffrey and I can afford you." She took another step, then stopped, waiting, heart pounding.
Max narrowed his eyes and looked into the distance -- a programming, life isn't billable, I'm working now expression -- and then read the letter again. Then he mussed Geoffrey's hair. "So, what you want to do tomorrow, boss?"