As a young, healthy man with a loud voice, Emmanuel scores the job of dispatcher with little difficulty. Competition is close to nonexistent. Most job-seekers in the freight company want to work in the inner offices, with the benefit of more paperwork than actual work. Emmanuel, whose education stopped somewhere in his teenage years once his parents started getting sick, is happy that he has received a job at all.
And as a dispatcher in this company, one only needs sharp eyes and a loud voice.
“A stable job,” Emmanuel’s mother had praised. “A good job. It will keep you honest.” She had patted Emmanuel’s hand in subtle consolation, for his is a lonely career. He can barely make friends with anyone, isolated he is in his little microphone booth.
“Sure, maman,” Emmanuel had laughed.
He goes to work. His uniform is cobbled together, khaki trousers that are never free of dust, a collared shirt that used to be white, and a necktie from his father. He maintains a completely solitary presence in the office. Everyone else seems to arrive to work too late to say hello, or they leave too early for Emmanuel to try and tag along.
He leaves work early once, trying to join a group of friends heading to the local bar. It hadn’t turned out well after Emmanuel figured out they wanted to saddle him with their tab.
Events hadn’t ended in a bar fight, but Emmanuel—buzzed on three bottles of beer, outrage, and little else—had almost let himself start it.
Several months into the job, Emmanuel actually sees someone walk past his booth. The man, his co-worker, is clearly an office clerk. He’s dressed sharply, if plainly, and his empty expression matches every feeling Emmanuel had heard about the inner offices. Emmanuel has no idea where the man’s heading. Out of the office, sure, but this way out of the quay leads only to a mess of roads best traveled by car.
“Hey!” he shouts through his opened window, not expecting the man to come back. Yet he does. The man reappears right in front of him, lazy curiosity on his somber features. Emmanuel blinks and tries to remember his earlier thoughts. “You know you need your car to drive out this way, right?”
The man cocks his head. “I don’t have a car.”
Emmanuel laughs, a little confused. “Well, how’d you get to work?”
“I walked.” And weirdly, the man seems like he is telling the truth. He looks absolutely guileless. He looks like someone Emmanuel could trust not to cheat him, of money or of trust. So, Emmanuel gambles again with his friendship. It’s noon, close to the lunch hour, and soon there will be a truck heading in the way of Céleste’s.
A freight horn sounds in the harbor. “You know,” says Emmanuel awkwardly, “there’s this great place for lunch. Céleste’s. Wanna know how to get there fast?”
With little hesitation, the man says, “Sure.”
Emmanuel stands up—to his consternation, he’s shorter than his co-worker—and starts tidying his work area. “You’ll have to wait for a few minutes.” He raises his eyebrows as a challenge, pausing his straightening of dispatch notices. “Unless you’re too hungry to wait.”
“No.” The man studies Emmanuel and says little else. He doesn’t question much. He hasn’t even offered his name. All Emmanuel has to work with is a taciturn, straightforward office clerk. Which, he supposes, is a lot better than a two-timing conman.
While Emmanuel is shrugging on his jacket, his co-worker has turned his back on the booth and is staring out towards the harbor. A cool breeze ruffles the neat side-part of the man’s dark hair. After Emmanuel locks the booth and goes to stand next to the man, he holds out his hand. “Call me Emmanuel.”
“Call me Meursault.” He glances down at Emmanuel’s extended hand and shakes it.
“Well, Meursault,” says Emmanuel. He cheerfully ignores the stilted action and opts to peer down the quay for the scheduled vehicle. “Ever jumped a truck before?”
This gets the clerk’s attention. “No,” he says warily.
“Not even as a kid?”
The truck’s rattling becomes audible, and Emmanuel starts shifting his weight from foot to foot. “How ‘bout it?” he asks, eyes focusing on the rickety thing. He usually aces the jump onto the truck bed, but it wouldn’t do to embarrass himself in front of Meursault.
When the truck passes them, Emmanuel starts sprinting after shouting a hasty ‘Go!’ to Meursault. It is a mad dash through the machinery of the docks, cranes and winches necessitating an athletic ability to leap over or duck under.
Surprisingly, Meursault jumps first, and instead of wheezing for breath where he landed, offers help, heaving Emmanuel up with an extended hand. Emmanuel, collapsing onto his back, face turned up to the bright blue sky and the sun’s warmth, starts to giggle. He can feel Meursault, who is in a similar position of repose, startle in confusion. Meursault doesn’t voice his questions, but Emmanuel feels them nonetheless.
“It’s just,” wheezes Emmanuel, “I didn’t think you could run in those shoes. Worn through the heel yet, Meursault?”
Meursault actually lifts his head to squint at his shiny wingtips, so unlike the cracked leather of Emmanuel’s work boots. “They’re still intact,” he offers. “How long to Céleste’s?”
“On this truck?” Emmanuel thumps the bottom of the bed with a fist and gets a shouted expletive from the driver. He’s not bothered. He’s hitched a ride to Céleste’s with this driver ever since he’d had to help the driver reattach a wheel on the side of the cobblestone quay. “Ah, we’ll be there in less than ten minutes. What’s your favorite food? If it’s anything not potatoes or seafood, you’re fresh out of luck.”
“Potatoes are fine.”
“Yeah? My maman makes the best potatoes this side of Algiers. As good as Céleste’s, but don’t tell him that. His pride’s all tied up in his potatoes.” Meursault makes a sound, and Emmanuel can’t decide if it’s a sign of interest or the opposite. Wagering Meursault preferred bluntness to anything else, Emmanuel adds, “If I ever get on your nerves, you should probably tell me. I know how to shut up when told.”
“It’s fine,” says Meursault. “I rarely have anything to say.”
“I’m sure you do,” comforts Emmanuel. “You probably just like having time to think about what you’ll say. My maman would like that. She thinks I say things without really thinking.” He keeps on grinning, his blood still rushing. The background noise of the rattling chains and coughs of the engine replace their conversation, dropped by the absence of Meursault’s response. It’s the first comfortable silence Emmanuel’s shared in company.
Yes, Emmanuel decides happily. Meursault is the kind of man to befriend.