At Six O'Clock
Loneliness calls in at six o'clock. It dials the number from the sticky booth on First and Third, amidst the cigarette butts and wads of discarded chewing gum. Roy always picks up the phone on the second buzz, before he's remembered that he shouldn't answer and after his ears have caught the shrill birdsong of the ring.
Loneliness calls in at six o'clock first, but it waits until seven before phoning back to let Roy know it will be late. Then eight. Around when the hour of nine rolls up to the door, fat as a bellied barfly, Roy has already taken his jacket off the hook and has gone outside to walk.
This isn't, technically, how it's supposed to happen.
Roy Mustang has a phonebook of numbers. Seventy percent of them are lies. The true names are littered in with the rest like land mines, sowing identities of women among the false chemicals just in case someone pilfers his research and wants to check. At any given time, he can pick up the phone and call. He can dial himself out of his own isolation.
He can punch numbers all night long, and invariably find a living voice on the other end. Even if he runs out, his finger can spin the circle from zero and the operator's tinny words will blare at him from the other side, asking what kind of assistance he needs.
It isn't supposed to be that a man that's half the playboy he's rumored as has empty evenings. People expect his weekends full. And Roy, even as he thinks about the concept of visitors, even as he watches the clocks tick in a living room gone dark from the sun setting and his lack of turning on the lights--Roy knows he does not like the idea of someone constantly in his home. In his life. There are far too many secrets; there are things he does not want to speak about, things that leave him waking from the dead of sleep gasping, convinced that he can still hear the insect-chigger of distant gunshots. He can still smell the fire.
Roy does not understand how these long-string weeks can be happening. He cannot be lonely. That emotion should be reserved for people who have no other options, and Roy has a booklet full of them, pages that he can turn and read between the lies.
If he chooses to remain alone, Roy reasons, then he cannot be regretful when it happens.
The furniture in Mustang's living room blurs together in shadow as the night crawls in. They melt. Roy can turn on all the lights if he so desires, invite numerous women over for a drink and faux-witty conversation. He could go to their houses. He could fill his eve with all the trappings of an energetic life, the same kind he dresses in when he puts on his military uniform and struts down the halls.
But his home is full of secrets that stink of ash. He is one of them.
Roy closes the door behind him when he leaves and walks down the grey-stone streets, fingers crabbed in his pockets against the security of flint-lined gloves.
. . . . .
Across town, Liza Hawkeye watches the evening pass unremarked.
If the forecast were rain, she could blame the hush in her apartment on the weather. If it were midweek, she could claim that no one had any business on frivolities, and the fact that she is sitting home alone again would be comprehensive.
Outside, Liza can hear the chatter of foot traffic. Tomorrow is the weekend. People are not thinking about the affairs they have left in their offices; they are escaping the toil of their jobs, and gathering together for drinks.
Liza's apartment is kept neat because there is no cause for disarray. She buys milk by the pint. It used to be that she would order in thick gallons, but the contents would spoil with just her drinking it, so Liza has regressed to half-gallons, and then finally the smallest containers that the local grocers allows.
Having to feed only herself, her groceries are slight. Sometimes she buys more when she is feeling ambitious, when she places stock in potential guests, but at the end of every month Liza watches the white fluid of spoiled milk go glutting down the drain as she pours it out.
Liza locks both bolts in the door whenever she leaves her apartment. She does this out of habit. Nothing in her home is uninsured if it is important; the appliances are too heavy for casual theft, and the small knick-knacks around her home are kitsch.
Her mother sends them to her. Smiling cats. A repulsive sprig of dried flowers arranged over a watercolor picture, intended for jaunty display on Liza's fridge.
The guns underneath her bed and in her closet are the only possessions Liza might miss, and even then, Liza knows the relevant makes, calibers, and clips well enough that she can rattle off the details hand-in-hand with her own serial number. This ability warms her at night. She speaks the intimacies of her guns aloud at times when she is cleaning her apartment, wiping dust off the pristine furniture and holding conversation with empty air.
Liza did not think, when she was younger, if this was the life she would win. She was too busy in drills to place stock in a future uncertain. Those who doubt themselves will slide behind. Only pure confidence will elevate you through the ranks.
During duty hours, this rule is easy to follow. Hawkeye keeps her mind on her job. But when work is over and the soldiers are dismissed for the night, Liza finds herself standing in her front hall and listening to the silence.
Her muscles are stiff by the time she finally remembers to move.
It is not raining tonight, so there is no excuse for staying inside. There are no plans.
Liza drops the keys into her pocket once she is finished sending the bolts closed, to keep company with the crumpled receipts and reminders that she needs more ammunition.
. . . . .
Roy Mustang and Liza Hawkeye meet as an event of chance. This occurs with detachment at the intersection of Grand Street and Fifth, when Hawkeye is crossing the street and Mustang is already leaving it. One of them greets the other on sight. The other remembers to return the words, shrugging as they make commentary on the average weather, the average traffic conditions and average gas prices.
There is an awkward display of silence when neither has anything to say.
They have dinner by accident. Both of them hungry out of force of habit alone, suggesting restaurants that they pass with no real interest for the listed choice entrees. They duck into the nearest that has a minimum of wait time and does not require reservations; the less small talk, the better, or so is the rule unspoken.
Hawkeye orders something with clam sauce. Mustang chooses the house special.
Their meals arrive together, slid onto the table for two. Other couples have filled in the neighboring seats. Talk is loud. The foreign conversations leak in like fireglow, regaling Mustang and Hawkeye with details of other people's lives, mundane events which are dipped thick with emotion by the speakers.
The house wine is blush bordering on white. It goes poorly with either of their choices. Mustang orders two glasses; Hawkeye refrains after one.
Having nothing to discuss, the two officers naturally fall back to work. Mustang rallies a quip on the latest sergeant from Intelligence, the one who thought that pigeons were a security hazard, and Hawkeye dismisses the joke appropriately. Mustang laughs, a dull sound that reveals he left his enthusiasm on his desk along with his unfinished paperwork.
The acuity of Hawkeye's perception takes in the way that the man looks at everything without really seeing it, the glassy coating of his eyes. He stares through the table, through the waiter, and avoids looking at her directly as if aware that it might be an insult to also stare through his dining partner.
They finish dinner without tasting it. Mustang starts to pick up the bill automatically, but under protest from Hawkeye, compromises to letting her cover the tip.
The restaurant door swings closed behind them as they exit into the hour of eleven o'clock. Neither of them suggest calling a car. Relative safeties of their neighborhoods do not bother them at this point of night.
They part ways. They go home.