November 24, 2020 § Leave a comment
Coach Milton climbed the bleachers overlooking the football field where on crisp Friday evenings in early Autumn the Fighting Bluejays of Middlesburg High battled other local teams on the gridiron to an insufferable soundtrack of current pop hits arranged for marching band. This was, however, early Spring, a period that marked the beginning of track and field season. At the top of the stands, Coach Milton had a commanding view of the dirt ring that orbited a green sea of turf where an assistant coach led a new crop of would be sprinters, high jumpers and pole vaulters in calisthenics. Watching the gawky teenagers struggle with the coordination required to perform jumping jacks, brought to mind an analogy between track and chorus. It wasn’t his own, he knew next to nothing about music, but was tendered to him by Mrs. Blackmore who at the time was Middlesburg’s chorus instructor. That was in the early part of his teaching career when a new school year promised a fresh start even though they all ended very much the same.
Track is to sports as chorus is to music, a dumping ground for students eager to participate but not talented enough for the football team or the concert band.
How did it go? He lifted a pair of binoculars to his eyes and fiddled with the little wheel between the lenses to bring into focus a distant point. What emerged from the blur happened to be the shapely rump of a girl genuflecting in a hamstring stretch.
Track is to music, no, that wasn’t right. The looming sky looked as if it could have been an artist’s interpretation of sorrow done in charcoal. He searched it for the answer like a bad student consulting his crib sheet but heaven held no inspiration.
He took another peek at the girls bottom. Oh, yes. Track is to sports as chorus is to music, a dumping ground for students eager to participate but not talented enough for the football team or the concert band.
At first the observation had pissed him off and he had wanted to punch Mrs. Blackmore’s sad, weary face that was made all the more unattractive by her jaded attitude and an enduring puffiness caused by too much wine and sodium. However, each school term since had come to an unwavering conclusion, bringing the idiom into perspective.
He sighed and brought his attention back to the business at hand. In the lenses of his field glasses stood the magnified image of Wilton Brown, his lean regional champion of the 400 meter hurdles. A senior now, he would surely go All-State this year. Coach Milton made a habit of observing his best athletes from different vantage points in order to spot potential weaknesses or strengths that could be exploited. As of yet, he had seen nothing but perfection from his star runner. His measured steps between hurdles were swift and consistent and he leapt over the obstacles with the ease and beautiful grace of a deer hopping a fence. Watching this youth excel reminded Coach Milton that there were indeed rewards to his job.
But just as Brown cleared the final jump and sprinted the remaining stretch to the finish line, the coach felt something tighten in his chest and he grew short of breath. At first he thought he was having a heart attack but seemed to remember hearing somewhere that cardiac arrest always starts in the left arm. He flopped down onto the smooth wood of the bench under the crushing weight of an unpleasant epiphany as lethal as any infarction, albeit much slower, painful and cruel.
It was an utterly banal reflection for a track coach. Nonetheless, he had never thought about it until this moment. All of his life up he had been going in a circle, an endless loop of years. It didn’t matter who came in first or dead last, we all end up right back at the beginning to start all over again. Worse still, he was teaching young people the same circuitous pattern that would lead them spiraling to their own unfulfilled existences until they disappeared like water down the black hole of a drain.
He jumped to his feet, allowing his binoculars to slip from his grasp and go crashing through the crisscross of steel support beams that held the tiered seating erect. He descended the stands at a clumsy pace that nearly caused him to trip twice. He darted to the school parking lot and his dumpy Ford Fiesta with faded paint and a squeaking fan belt that needed changing. He jumped in and raced home.
His wife, who was not expecting him home so soon, was interrupted from her afternoon routine of Boone’s Farm and self pleasure. She wrapped herself in a bathrobe and concocted a haphazard lie about being under the weather as an excuse for her unkempt appearance. Coach Milton took no notice as he pushed passed her into the bedroom without saying a word. He wrestled from the closet the same Samsonite that had carried his things to Myrtle Beach on the couple’s honeymoon years ago. He tossed it into the middle of the sagging mattress and began filling it with items from his chest of drawers.
“Aaron, what on earth are you doing? Do you have a track meet out of town or something? It’s not on the calendar. Aaron?” His wife, still groggy from the effects of wine and mechanized ecstasy, watched her husband’s erratic packing in an indifferent stupor that suggested she didn’t really care if he answered or not.
From behind the screen of the front door she watched Aaron Milton fling his single piece of luggage into the gaping rear of the hatchback and drive away. She waited for him to return the next day and the next. After two weeks she called her friend Sandy at Coldwell Banker and put the house on the market.
March 3, 2015 § Leave a comment
A while back I started working freelance so that I might untangle myself from the corporate day-to-day. It wasn’t the life I expected. In fact, not much changed except that I lost my insurance and other benefits associated with full-timers.
I wrote this story during my last gig.
It takes place in the distant future but, as you well read, nothing much has changed.
Manhattan was beset by a cold and gray afternoon. Clouds drifted by the streaked windows of the 45th floor like lost spirits. Weighted down with despair, they slowly fell to earth where they mingled with the fog that haunted the wet sidewalks. Red brake lights retreating north, amber headlamps advancing south reflected their colors off the slick and glistening pavement. The Hudson was a lifeless slab, a vanity mirror for the leaden sky to gaze at its somber face. On the other side New Jersey was all but forgotten behind a drab stage curtain lifted just enough to view a sliver of the complex urban set constructed behind.
In the corner of my eye Lawson grew larger, his hazy shape forming into solid contours as he scurried to my desk. Harried as usual, be shook a piece of paper like Chamberlain just off the plane from Munich. Lawson was beleaguered and gaunt and I wondered if the same cancer that ate Neville’s bowels bad begun feasting on Lawson’s. The paper was not for me, thankfully, but he held it within close range of my ear so that I might experience its abrasive noise as it crinkled in his nervous clutch.
I had grown accustomed to Lawson’s blustery ovations to otherwise trivial matters. Had anyone else approached my desk in such a wide-eyed state I would have been dreading a pronouncement of consequence, knowing what pronouncements of consequence usually held.
“God awful weather, eh?”
I nodded, “Terrible.”
“It’s a beautiful day at my desk. Let me see.” He dragged a rake of five boney fingers through a head of ashen hair, an action that produced a squall of dandruff that dusted the top of my desk. “My Eco is set on A, no C19: San Francisco harbor, sunny, no fog.”
“Mine was the dreary East when I came in this morning. I can’t change it.” I feigned a long sigh in order to blow away the debris from Lawson’s scalp.
“Call our systems support outlet.”
The scene outside was the perfect pairing for my mood, or maybe it had created my mood. At any rate, there was no strong urge to make adjustments. I yawned, deeply.
Lawson hushed the agitated paper by laying it out before me. What was once a crisp, white sheet was now a corrugated mess. He attempted to smooth out some of the wrinkles that his worry had rendered. His crooked index extended, he delivered a quick succession of taps to the bold print that read: Notice of Compliance Failure. It was a pronouncement of consequence after all but one that concerned Lawson and Lawson alone.
His face was a mask of dire predicament. “Apparently I have scored too low on my last CSE. Do you know what that means?”
“You didn’t study.”
A flash of consternation crumbled into the exasperated look of an earnest man suffering the fool. “You know you can’t study.”
“So, you’ll take it again.”
“Three chances then you’re out. Gone. Transfer or contingent leave. I have two left.” Staring blankly across the expanse of office floor 45, “I don’t even know where I would go.”
And with that he was gone, stumbling absently back to his view of San Francisco to fret over the soiled notice he had left behind.
A helicopter buzzed through the gloom, northbound, following the tail lights on the north side highway, over the toy boat ferries, to destinations unknown even to the coded functions in the Eco’s elaborate guts. I chose C19 on the keypad: stormy New York persisted.
I had been determined to allow myself the luxury of wallowing in self-pity all morning but my own glum mood had been spoiled by its confederation with Lawson’s residue of disconsolation. My suffering had become a crashing bore. I was eager for brighter surroundings. In seconds I was speaking to someone who introduced himself as Kelvin, J.
“Thank you for contacting your systems support outlet. May I have your user ID and security code, please?”
Credentials provided and problem described, Kelvin began his diagnosis.
“Okay. Looks like I see you in New York, stormy. And you’ve tried steps 2 through 7 in your Eco’s operation manual?”
Confessing I had not, I was led through a series of procedures designed to eliminate the probable cause of malfunction. He typed as he spoke and the plastic clatter of keystrokes punctuated his instructions. Click, clack, click, clack. A sudden flash of white was promising but otherwise, no improvement.
“Well, I can go ahead and change your Eco from here but I will have to dispatch a member of the ground unit to switch out your hardware. It might take a day or two; we are kind of backed up. What would you like on your Eco? Something nicer, I’m guessing. How about tropical?”
As pleasant sounding as it was, Kelvin’s suggestion seemed far too wet at this point. The desert I thought and requested.
“Uh…okay.” There was an extensive list from which to choose and each included such parameters as, season, time of day or evening. “Mojave, Gobi, Painted, Sahara?”
I requested Death Valley, my saturnine disposition not fully lifted. My choice included several specific points within its enormity. Having never been, I picked the alluringly named Artist’s Palette. My first glimpse of the desert’s majesty lasted only seconds. The tender petals of an indigo bush trembled in the breeze and vanished into crackling static. Then there was nothing but space: empty, void, nada, zilch – zero.
Kelvin J. was silent. Had it not been for the moist ebb and flow of his breathing I would have thought he’d joined New York and the desert in oblivion.
“Nothing, huh? That’s weird. Well, a functioning Eco is important so I will escalate this issue to, Tier 2. Meanwhile, I’ll go ahead and expedite your hardware exchange.”
Tier 2: I imagined the system support team arranged on a ridiculous étagère. A ticket was issued, a random alphanumeric sequence that signified nothing to anything but the matrices of system support where endless troubles and resolutions were chronicled – short tales of woe and happily ever-afters. Call completed.
With no Eco I had the unique opportunity to use the gigantic window for its original purpose. I stood looking out our vast universe. Overhead, Earth was a point of light in the endless black. Below, Mars, a pocked bloodstone marbled with veins of rich crimson and pale yellow wrapped in a lambent, copper haze.
A full year, Earth not Martian, had elapsed since I began my contract with the interplanetary corporation Galaxy Sunn. This period of time was nine months longer than the agreement stated when it was signed – by me, one year ago. A series of work extensions and certain difficulties posed by a distance of 43 million miles had kept me long past my release date. And, while my compensation had accumulated nicely, further interest in the position had not; I was more than ready to sever the relationship.
However, a voluntary resignation would place the burden of paying for my own accommodations while waiting on the next available transport, also out-of pocket, back to big, blue Mother. ”Next available” could mean days, weeks or months while my debt to G.S. Inc. for room and board accrued. A normal contract termination was more agreeable since the corporation picked up the tab but this formal release had not been issued and, as the extensions piled up, I feared it never would. Certain parallels could be drawn between my situation and those of the penal colony occupants digging in the rusty Martian soil.
I carved a question mark in the rime of frost my weary sigh – not feigned – left on the glass. Had there been some guidance for resolving my dilemma, it was not in the heavens. Nor were the familiar vistas and skylines of earth available for contemplation with Eco defunct. Instead, inspiration came from the crumpled receipt of Lawson’s failure.
The Core Stress Evaluation was one of many periodic tests The Inc. maintained as a bulwark against liability. Low scores were an early indicator of a decline in skill sets that could potentially place revenue, property and lives in jeopardy. Whatever threat Lawson posed to any of this capital was ponderous. He was, nonetheless, now referred to in certain database circles as Lawson, the risk. My colleague was determined to improve his standings in this clique; I was determined to do irreparable damage.
Unfortunately, my contractor status made me exempt from such things as the CSE. And so, compiling a list of alternative methods that could achieve a blemish substantial enough to warrant a discharge without ruining future prospects elsewhere or becoming entangled in legal troubles consumed my free time. Blank was how my list remained over the next few days. Lawson, in contrast, had achieved strike 2. Effortless.
Set against the colossal blackness of space his lanky frame seemed to deteriorate before my eyes as he stood in front of my Eco-less window. Gustav Holst: his Planets, Neptune the Mystic, the final movement and its choir dissolving into the realm of the inaudible, this was Lawson’s own voice – fading into nothing.
Wringing hands: “I don’t understand. I’ve never had problems with CSE. I can’t go back to blue Mother. What would I do?” He paced.” How do you stand it without an Eco? Without day and night I wouldn’t ever stop working. It would drive me insane.”
“I opened a ticket.”
“Ticket, ha! Tier 1 or Tier 2? Oh, it makes no difference. Those guys are kids, I have shoes older than most of them. They don’t know how to do anything. I’d go down to support in person and ask for a Team Lead.”
There were no Team Leads on duty when I arrived at my support system outlet on level 22-F. Kelvin J. was not there either. Lawson had been accurate about this department’s youthful composition; the support representative who assisted me could have easily been younger than Lawson’s footwear antiquities. She introduced herself as Hope, no last initial.
Click, clack, click, clack.
She entered the ticket number I’d produced into her computer console. Blank. “That’s weird.” Head scratched, she retyped the entry, this time slower, careful, deliberate. Blank, still. A third try returned the same.
Eupeptic and eager, “Well, I’ll just enter a new ticket and expedite it for you.” Personal details taken, she asked me to describe my technical issue.
I felt the words Eco and Broken and Hardware taking shape behind my teeth as Hope’s fingers drummed lightly on the keys waiting for instructions.
“CSE. I haven’t received my notice for the CSE. I think I might be past due.”
Her petite nose almost touched the display and its glow highlighted her features with a bluish tint as she scrolled through the list repeating the letters CSE aloud as if to conjure it up.
Cheerfully, “Here it is: Core Stress Evaluation.” She sounded out the syllables in a measured tone so there’d be no confusion.
She leaned back in her chair out of the monitor’s corona. Her expression had changed from winsome to worry. The timbre of her voice darkened, “But this says you’re exempt.”
I mirrored her concern and added disbelief. Barefaced, “But I took it six months ago, as instructed.” I conflated my lie with a poignant recollection of how the same thing had happened before and what a time I’d endured.
Reassured and generously pitiable she began typing. It was good to see her chipper nature return.
”Well, there were some updates to certain divisions recently. That could have affected your account. I’ll just change your status then and add your CSE.”
In moments I was the recipient of a new alphanumeric code and Hope’s promise that I would see a notice from Galaxy Sunn compliance to complete my CSE within two business days.
The gravity generators could have crashed for all I knew as I practically floated back to my desk to wait like a school boy on Christmas Eve. Soon I could begin failing three times, all the way back to blue Mother.
What came in two business days was indeed a notice from the compliance office of Galaxy Sunn Inc. I was congratulated and thanked, personally and profusely, by my Team Lead and his Team Lead on behalf of the Interplanet Security and Intelligence Division. Through my efforts, a gaping hole, in an ominous sounding bit of gadgetry that I never knew existed, had been discovered and patched against possible catastrophic breach. My contributions and value to The Inc. were such that my contract was extended for six months, Martian not Earth.
My Eco was restored shortly after my pronouncement of consequence and upgraded to boot. Poor Lawson, strike 3 and his desk was clean before the sun set on the San Francisco harbor. We shook hands for the last time at my desk that overlooked the Hudson and New Jersey. Manhattan was beset by a cold and gray afternoon.
June 26, 2014 § Leave a comment
As it is now officially sum-sum-summertime I offer a bit of light prose for a lazy afternoon in the hammock or on the beach.
It includes infidelity, descent into madness, heroism, crime and a trip to the seashore to boot.
You can read it all right here or you can download the PDF and print it out for reading offline just in case that summer thunderstorm knocks the power out in your neck of the woods.
Click the link for the file: A-Pier-at-the-End-of-Summer-JohnTruelove
A Pier at the End of Summer
Drake Mathews opened the door to a balcony overlooking mountainous dunes, covered in thick blades of grass and golden sea oats. Beyond the dunes, the beach stretched into the endless waves of the Atlantic. On the horizon, green clouds had massed and the strong breeze that blew through his hair and into his stuffy hotel room smelled of salt and the approaching storm. Drake had not bothered to close the front door when he’d carried in his bags and the squall he created blew it shut with a violent bang. The sudden noise startled him and he jerked around, expecting to find something worse than a darkened foyer. He parted the dense curtains that covered the large picture window and the afternoon sun spilled over the room’s modest furnishings. He had rented an efficiency apartment that came equipped with a refrigerator, sink, stove and a small bar with two stools that served as the kitchenette’s dining table. There was a full-size bed, a heavy looking love seat, and a wobbly coffee table of artificial wood, all facing a television. Below the window, an air conditioner was fitted neatly into the wall, but he preferred the natural air and the ocean noises so he left the unit off.
From the suitcase he’d thrown on the bed, Drake removed a short stack of shirts he planned on hanging up, a toiletry kit, and a Colt .45 handgun, placing the items side by side on the stiff mattress. The duvet and pillow shams were dark blue with a seaside print of white shells, fish, sea horses, star fish, and life preserver rings. He laughed to himself when he realized that he had laid the pistol directly on top of a life preserver and he returned it to the suitcase beneath his boxer shorts.
He slid a bottle of bourbon from brown a paper bag and absently tossed the empty, wrinkled sack on the floor. Leaving the bottle on the bar, Drake took what he figured served as the room’s ice bucket and went to find the hotel’s ice machine.
Drake Mathews made the trip from New York to the coast of North Carolina in a little less than ten hours, stopping at intervals only long enough to refuel, buy coffee, and use the bathroom. Ultimately, he was more interested in leaving the city in the shortest time possible than he was in reaching his destination. He had called the borough of Queens home for over twenty years – until a series of events sent him spiraling into a crisis that caused him to make less-than-pragmatic decisions.
He found the ice maker humming alongside a Pepsi vending machine tucked away in a stifling little room under a stairway. It was a hot, late-summer day and on the west side of the hotel, without the immediate benefit of the coastal breezes, the heat rising form the black asphalt of the parking lot was suffocating. By the time he got back to his room, both he and his ice were sweating profusely. He found a glass in a cabinet above the kitchen sink, filled the bottom with a handful of watery ice, and put the rest in the freezer. He gave himself a good sized pour from the new bottle and took a seat on the balcony, watching tendrils of lightning sizzle in the approaching clouds.
The beach was deserted by the time the first big drops of rain began spotting the sun-baked crust on the top of the sand. Drake went inside and made another drink. The film of water on the ice had refrozen quickly and the cubes were now fused into a solid brick, which Drake chipped at with a fork. A resounding explosion of thunder ripped the air like cannon fire through the walls of a paper castle, and the sheets of rain that followed were so dense they obstructed any view past the first foothills of dunes. Tiny pebbles of hail ricocheted off the window and Drake propped himself up on the bed to watch the storm through the rain-streaked glass before falling asleep.
When the divorce papers sent by the firm representing Mrs. Drake Mathews arrived at his office, he was expecting them. Their previous marriage-counseling sessions revealed in minute detail her festering dissatisfaction with him. The therapy was refereed by a female psychologist in her late fifties who sat comfortably in an oversized armchair with her legs tucked beneath her as if she were watching television. She listened intently as each partner spoke, hoping to hear among the accusations and criticisms anything that could be salvaged and used to repair the couple’s union. Drake’s wife did most of the talking, though, and she was so forthcoming about their private matters that he felt very little inclination to speak himself. During the time his wife had the floor, the doctor’s impartial gaze would often shift its focus to him. She studied his facial expressions and body language for anything that might have betrayed what he was thinking. One particularly heated diatribe culminated with his wife admitting to having had an extended affair. When this admission came to light, there was no need for the therapist to interpret Drake’s feelings; without a word he had stood and left the room.
What Drake did not expect was to be told that the position he’d held for fifteen years had been eliminated as part of a corporate downsizing initiative. Even more unexpected was having the news delivered by his regional manager, the same man who had been sleeping with his wife. The lawsuit he filed against his company was settled out of court and in his favor, but the proceedings had been humiliating and rumors circulated through his industry. And as he began his search for new opportunities, he discovered that the stigma attached to his name left a cautionary flag on his resume and always preceded him to interviews.
During the tumultuous legal proceedings, Drake began to notice a hollow feeling above his stomach. He assumed he’d developed an ulcer and joked with his regular physician that part of his soul had been sucked out; a battery of tests was conducted. His doctor had offered up Brazil as a fine destination when Drake mentioned he might take a long vacation. He was actually reading a copy of Frommer’s guide to South America when the doctor called to tell him he did not have an ulcer and suggested a specialist.
When Drake woke, it was still light outside, but the brunt of the storm had passed, leaving in its wake a fine drizzle that misted out of a gray sky. The temperature had fallen considerably and the hairs on his arms rose as he shivered against the chill drifting in from the balcony. He got up to close the door and felt the spongy carpet beneath his bare feet. Some of the storm had found its way inside and soaked a large area of the floor. He noticed the empty glass on the bed and hoped that the damp spot on the crotch of his trousers was only spilled whisky and melted ice. He shut the door and went to the bathroom to take a shower.
The next morning was cool and breezy, with billowy clouds floating in a peaceful sky. Drake walked down a path cut into the dunes that led to the beach. At the entrance, the local police department had posted a sign that warned of strong rip currents. He was headed toward a fishing pier that he could see from his room. When he had checked in to the hotel, the desk clerk had given him a brief overview of the nearby businesses and attractions. The pier was open to the public and was attached to a shop that sold fishing supplies and groceries. The shop also ran a short-order grill and Drake was able to purchase a Styrofoam cup of coffee and a pair of glazed donuts wrapped in a thin membrane of clear plastic. The massive wooden pilings held the pier’s wide deck high above the crashing breakers and the gentle, green undulations above the deep. The worn older planks, cracked and warped by the costal elements, were interspersed with newer replacements but all bore some scar or stain left by fishermen and the life they wrestled from the ocean below.
At the end, where the pier widened into a rectangle, a colony of sportsmen tended several lines. Some leaned on the railing and others sat on the tops of large red and blue Igloo coolers. By the look of the group, Drake reasoned they had been fishing all night.
Drake also noticed a fierce looking gull busy trying to make a meal out of what might have been the dried viscera of a fish. The bird pecked at the spot, circling around it on rubbery feet. It paid no mind to him as he took a seat on a tall bench nearby and propped his feet up on the railing. He set down his cup and fumbled in the pocket of his shorts for a pack of cigarettes. Drake had given up smoking years ago but had picked up a carton at a gas station in Virginia along with a disposable lighter that he held in the shelter of his cupped hand as he lit the tip of the cigarette and inhaled deeply. He had already smoked half of the pack – they were incredibly fresh and delicious – and a bargain by New York City standards.
At forty-seven, Drake found himself without a relationship or a career. The hollow space inside him remained, promising a dismal outlook on his future health; he had neglected to contact the recommended specialist. The studio apartment he had moved into after the separation from his wife seemed to decrease daily in size as though it were shrinking while Drake slept. There were days when he would not leave his room at all. Instead, he tried watching the walls for any movement, but reasoned they might have been moving too slowly to be perceived by the naked eye. He remembered as a teenager watching his stepfather mark the level of booze in his liquor bottles to deter uninvited potation. And so, with a ruler and heavy pencil, he employed a similar method of surveillance by drawing firm ticks on the hardwood floor an inch from the baseboard. He would check the marks mornings and evenings with the ruler to record any activity. It was hard to be certain, but there was either no change or the gradation of his ruler was not precise enough to measure distance on such a small scale.
He had inherited his .45 pistol from an uncle and had lived with it in violation of New York City handgun laws for many years. He enjoyed shooting as a youth and considered himself a good shot, although this particular weapon had remained locked in its case and hidden away since the first day it came into his possession. Once he was again living alone, Drake took time to clean and oil it properly as he became reacquainted with its solid weight, the diamond-patterned grip, and the tension of the trigger by firing imaginary rounds into the plaster of the encroaching walls. When the muscle in his forearm grew too tired to continue he would lift the barrel to his temple and give the trigger a final pull.
He was thinning out years of financial records from a file storage box when he came across a postcard sent to him years ago by someone with whom he’d since fallen out of touch. “Greetings from Poseidon’s Oceanfront Hotel – Cypress Island, NC” was printed on the front above a cartoon sea god wearing a pair of sunglasses. On the back was a blurb about the hotel and the island community. He researched both in greater detail the following day.
Anything that did not fit into the trunk of his Toyota four-door was carried to the curb on trash collection day. He left the same night feeling better than he had in months.
Drake finished his breakfast and carried the litter to a garbage can chained to a light post. He lit another cigarette and was about to make the trip back to his hotel room when he heard a commotion at the end of the pier. The group of night fishers had congregated on one side and were looking down at the water as one pointed to a piling where an inflatable raft with the print of the North Carolina state flag was snagged by its tow rope. A few yards away, directly below where Drake was standing, a woman clung desperately to a piling as white-capped swells washed over her. A crowd had gathered on the beach and an old man in bib overalls and a John Deere cap joined him at the railing, mumbling something about rip tides and drowning.
Drake handed his wallet, room key, cigarettes, and lighter to the man. Stepping out of his flip-flops and removing his shirt, he climbed over the side and jumped in feet first. The ocean swallowed him whole and its waters closed off the world above him, shutting out all light and sound as his plunge took him well below the layer holding the sun’s warmth and into a black, cold vacuum. For the instant his body remained in place, neither sinking further nor rising, he wondered if it felt something like this in the end.
When his head broke the surface he was facing away from the pier and it took a moment to establish his bearings. The ocean was calm but the sea was lapping at his face as he treaded water to keep afloat. It was difficult to see. The tiny droplets clinging to his eye lashes distorted his view – tiny, inaccurate lenses that refracted the light bouncing off the surface. He looked up and saw the old man on the pier and traced his position to where the woman hugged the piling. When he swam close enough he could hear her whimpering in panic. He coaxed her into taking his outstretched hand and when she had released her hold on the pier, Drake dove and swam underneath her. He surfaced again behind her and quickly wrapped his left arm around her neck and began towing her to shore. The barnacles encrusting the piling had lacerated the woman’s arms and legs badly and, as Drake swam, she left a trail of blood drifting behind the two of them like scarlet ribbons fluttering in the breeze.
The crowd awaiting them on the beach included two paramedics and a police officer. Three men had waded into the surf and they helped Drake and the woman out of the water. Exhausted, he found a spot just beyond reach of the incoming tide and sat down in the dry sand. One of the rescue workers began treating the woman’s cuts while the other examined Drake and asked if he needed further assistance. Drake waved him away and the medic returned to assist his partner. Among the gathering was the fisherman from the pier, who had brought Drake’s things down to him in a grocery bag. He also carried a roll of paper towels and pulled off several sheets for the dripping hero.
While Drake wiped his face, he noticed that a pair of brightly polished black shoes had appeared beside him. Looking up he could see his soggy reflection in the dark sun glasses of the police officer. It was peculiar to see someone on the beach so formally dressed. Drake knew that he must have found the full uniform uncomfortable, judging from the beads of sweat that dotted his pink brow and the oily rivulet that trickled from the thick stubble of his crew cut.
When the officer asked for identification, Drake retrieved his wallet from the shopping bag and extracted his New York driver’s license. The officer read Drake’s information into a walkie-talkie and in a few moments a hollow, disembodied voice spoke back in police code that Drake couldn’t understand. From the rear pocket of his blue trousers, the officer produced a thick tablet and took down some details on Drake’s license before handing it back, along with the pink copy of a summons.
As it was explained to him, jumping or diving from a fishing pier was in violation of town ordinance and was clearly posted on all such structures. Drake could pay the $150 fine in person or by mail, and if he wanted to challenge the citation, he could appear in court at the time and location printed on the ticket. Drake was too tired and dumbfounded to protest. He was parched and a sudden wave of nausea only added to his weakened condition. He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to stand, much less stumble back to his hotel room. The fisherman, whose principles of justice and civic duty had been challenged, came to Drake’s defense. But his initial appeal was ignored and further, more pointed indignation only bounced off the back of the retreating officer and was silenced by the sand where it fell. Drake, now fully prostrate, could see the old man scratching at the shaking head beneath his John Deere cap and heard him muttering colorful phrases about local law enforcement.
After a few days of debating how to handle the situation, Drake finally decided it would be best to settle the matter in person. He had done his best to try and forget about the whole incident and enjoy himself. With complete abandon he indulged in activities and substances a man his age would have normally avoided or at least taken in moderation. He partook of the culinary offerings around the hotel with ravenous gluttony, surviving on a diet of cheeseburgers, fried food, and doughnuts, finishing each meal with a delicious cigarette. He swam at his own risk, walked for miles on the beach without the aegis of sunscreen, and drank heavily from the whiskey bottle that was soon replaced with another. However, his recent misdemeanor remained an irritant and the pink ticket served as a constant reminder. He had fastened the summons to the refrigerator by a flexible magnet advertising a local restaurant, presumably left behind by a former tenant. The slip had an unpleasant chemical odor that Drake inhaled every time he needed a cold beer.
He appointed a date for himself and on that morning he made himself presentable by showering, shaving, and dressing in clean, pressed clothes. He chose a short-sleeved shirt with a square hem that hung a few inches over his belt, allowing the generous yellow linen to move freely. He left the top two buttons undone to further accentuate what he hoped was a casual demeanor.
Police headquarters was a short drive from the hotel and was set up in a squat cinderblock building that also housed the island’s volunteer fire and rescue. The only person in the building was a chipper civilian office clerk who greeted Drake with a big smile and offered to help in any way she could. He asked to speak with the officer whose name he remembered stamped on the gold plate above his badge and whose signature, written neatly on the ticket, greeted his trips to the refrigerator with a cruel smirk. The clerk said she was waiting for his return from a local eatery where he’d gone to pick up coffee and a ham biscuit for himself and an egg sandwich with ketchup for her. Drake was more than welcome to wait, which he did, passing the time by reading the notices pinned to an enormous bulletin board.
There was an electric eye at the front door which triggered a mild, little beep that announced the station’s comings and goings. When Drake heard the alarm, he turned to see the policeman carrying his takeout order in a small cardboard box printed with the name of a snack cake. His eyes were not hidden behind the dark frames of his glasses and grew wide when they saw Drake approach him from the bulletin board. The officer dropped the box but before he could bring his free hand to the gun in his holster, Drake was already aiming the .45 he’d kept concealed beneath his shirt. He fired two shots directly into the officer’s chest and the force of the pistol’s caliber sent the policeman’s limp body crashing into the wide blood pattern that splattered the wall behind him. The clerk sat frozen behind her desk as the report reverberated around the room. She had turned white and seemed to be choking on a scream stuck in the back of her mouth, hanging open on the hinges of her slackened jaws. He delivered two more slugs into her soft abdomen, knocking her out of the chair.
Drake looked down at where the box of food had hit the floor. The lid of one cup had come off on impact and coffee – with cream – had spilled into a light tan puddle on the linoleum. He tucked his .45 back into his belt and picked up the other cup. He removed the lid and blew lightly on the black coffee before taking a sip. He peeled the foil wrapping from the sandwiches, smelled both and selected the ham biscuit. When he stepped outside, the only thing that noticed him was the electric eye as its high-pitched tone bid Drake farewell.
The ham biscuit had given him a bad case of heartburn and he crunched on a chalky antacid tablet as he walked out to the end of the pier. Drake deftly folded the pink ticket into a paper airplane and launched it out across the ocean. The weightless jet teetered on its makeshift wings until it was caught and blown backwards by a strong draft, forcing it to make a crash landing in a bait tank. A cluster of silver fish pecked at the fuselage as if the wreckage were a morsel of food. Drake plucked the dripping paper from the tank and deposited it into a trash can.
The television brought the evening news and the day’s gruesome headline into his room with all the sensationalism the networks reserve for unthinkable crimes committed in small towns where nothing much ever happens.
Drake thought it was all very entertaining as he alternated between the whiskey bottle and a can of beer. The only progress in the investigation was a series of still images taken by a security camera. The grainy black and white photos captured the lone gunman committing his crime as it progressed in ten-second intervals. Drake wanted to take all of the photos and bind them into a flip book so he could watch the murders like a silent movie, as his thumb releasing frame after frame after frame.
It was hard to see his own likeness in the photos, but he wondered if the hotel manager had recognized him as the tenant in room 222, and was, at that very moment, calling the hotline number listed on the bottom of the screen. He picked up the unloaded .45 and squeezed a few empty rounds towards the imaginary strike force kicking down the door. Then he aimed and fired at the blonde anchorwoman whose beauty was spoiled by her solemn recitation of the grisly details. He continued firing phantom bullets randomly throughout the room, piercing the metal skins of the stove and refrigerator, exploding the lamp’s earthenware base into jagged shards, and leaving the walls riddled with charred, smoking holes.
A chimerical blast chased after each make-believe slug like a harried messenger too late with the news of its deadly arrival. The concussions echoed off the walls and gradually dissipated into the soft thud of ocean waves striking the shore. Soon, the voice of the Atlantic was the only sound to be heard in the apartment, and into the ringing ear of Drake Mathews it whispered, “The end, the end.”
November 14, 2013 § Leave a comment
Charlie Moses loves cigars. They make him feel like a big shot. Even with dark crescent moons of dirt beneath his fingernails he puffs away like a robber baron behind a big oak desk. The sight of a sea lion basking on a rock often prompts Charlie to remind those around him that if he were ever to adopt a sea lion he would name it Stogie due to the animal’s resemblance to a fat, brown cigar. His brother, known to everyone as Crash, suggests the ripe odor as another reason.
Charlie likes oysters, too.
“You know that old saying about only eating oysters in a month with an R in it? Well, that’s why I like February – there’re two Rs. I reckon that means I eat double,” he says.
I had been searching for Charlie and Crash all day. When I finally found them they were no longer on their boat but seated at a dockside table of the 6 Belles Tavern overlooking the bay and the fishing boats moored in the harbor. I was now eavesdropping on their conversation.
“It’s a good thing February is a short month,” Crash says, “Else you’d eat yourself to death.”
Charlie Moses laughs, pats his enormous gut and sucks another briny slug out of its half shell, washing it down with a hearty swig of beer. Then he gives his cigar another puff and produces a fetid billow that drifts across the table like fog over the bay.
Crash motions to the waitress for the bill. I would have to speak with them later, in a less public location.
The Moses brothers inherited the fishing trade from their father Luther Richmond Moses along with his boat the Barnacle. It was a humble craft that took its name from what Moses senior considered to be the boat’s primary catch. Validation came at the conclusion of every fishing season when a bountiful harvest was scraped from the hull.
The elder Moses never expected his sons to follow in his wet footsteps into the family business. He expected to become a wealthy man, sell the Barnacle and retire young. I confess I am to blame for that fancy.
I first met Luther many years ago before Charlie was old enough for school and Crash was earning his nickname through repeated failures at taking his first steps. It was the height of the season and nearly every pot was brimming with crab and those being hauled to the surface by the Barnacle were no exception.
Dungeness crab is a delicious treat and they are easy enough to catch yourself should you be so desirous but when someone like Luther has done the work of luring them so conveniently into a cage, resisting the urge not to pluck one for yourself is difficult. I was in the process of doing just that when the block and tackle aboard the Barnacle groaned into motion. To my horror I found my hand trapped between the bars of a cage being hauled in and I was part of the days catch. I broke the surface and found myself face to face with Luther Moses who hung over the stern with his mouth agape. He halted halted his machinery leaving me and the cage in the water and I thrashed desperately to escape. “I was putting up quite a fuss,” to quote Captain Moses.
I have friends and relatives who are vociferous regarding our superiority over Earth’s other creatures and while I can’t say I disagree with most of their points, I have a more humble opinion about myself personally. Still, I felt slighted at Luther’s casual reaction over his encounter with a beautiful, enchanting mermaid; he was more concerned over the pilfering of his crabs than beholding one of nature’s most reclusive creatures. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was in the presence of a man so coarse he would lambaste a unicorn if he caught one in his lettuce patch. His accusation of me being a thief was justified – at that moment at least – but I am far from being common. Is it bromidic to say my ego throbbed as much as my poor twisted wrist? He activated the ship’s grinding winches once again and I was lifted fully out of the ocean, swinging from that monstrous cage of indignant crabs. Water dripped down on my tangled hair and my tail flapped helplessly in the air like an ordinary mackerel – it was humiliating.
Flotsam and Jetsam, indeed. Luther welcomed me aboard with a few more prosaic bon mots that sounded as if they’d been borrowed from the churlish mouth of a picaroon. I sat on a slimy deck that reeked of vanquished sea life and only slightly less sour than the barleycorn on Luther’s breath.
“I guess I hooked the mother lode today, huh, my little fish?”
I wasn’t too sure what he was implying. A twinge of fear prickled at the end of my fin when I considered the fate of the other captives, completely helpless now even behind their spiny armor. He seemed all too eager to sail me back to the docks and flaunt the prize he’d snatched from Neptune’s realm. Some cabal of greed and lust covered his eyes in a vitreous glaze transforming them into portentous mirrors in which I saw a reflection of myself gutted, stuffed and mounted like a barracuda. They caught a splinter of sunlight, flashed and the scene changed to one of me swimming in a subaqueous freak show staring out at grotesque, contorting faces pressed to the glass walls of my aquarium prison.
Judging from the smile it was evident that he realized the worth of his unusual catch but I quickly apprised him that the value of my release would be worth far more than anything he might be dreaming about.
“Then the legend is true?” His smile widened, the corners of his mouth disappeared in a forest of whiskers, possibly touching behind his head.
“Yes, well, depending on the legend you have heard.”
“In my legend, I get 3 wishes.”
“One… wish, actually. But it can be anything you desire so consider it very carefully.”
He sat down on the crab pot and gave his stubbled chin a contemplative massage until he’d rubbed the smile into a worrisome scowl. Despite my first impressions of Luther, I could see that he was a thoughtful man who did not take ponderous decisions lightly. We sat for a good while as Luther considered whatever angles his schemes might take. Except for the gentle, wet slapping of waves against the hull and the occasional screeching gull, we sat in ruminating silence.
At last he chose wealth and this is where the story takes a sad turn. I was young and inexperienced; I had never granted a wish before. Looking back, of course, I should have consulted with an elder member of my kind. But to be young is also to be brazen and so when Luther wished to die a rich man I thought my job was all too easy.
“What is your name, gentle fisherman?” I asked.
“Luther. Luther Richmond Moses of Inuit Cliff, California.”
“Then free me Luther Richman Moses of Indian Clip, California. Free me and your wish will be granted.”
He grumbled something about trust as he pried my sore wrist free from the bars. I flopped starboard, threw myself over the gunwale and swam away. Fifty yards out I surfaced again to wave a final goodbye but Luther had his back to me, bent to the chore of emptying his crab pot.
That was the last time I ever saw Luther and there was certainly no reason for a reunion but I was always curious how his life had turned out with the great wealth his single wish had brought him. You can imagine how I felt when I learned that instead of enjoying a life of luxury he had toiled for the next 30 odd years on the Barnacle and had died with next to nothing. Worse still, he was interred beneath a modest headstone donated anonymously with the inscription: Rest in Peace – Luther Rich Man Moses. I was mortified.
“Well, that is some story,” says Crash as he waves away a rancid cloud from Charlie’s Honduran.
“Are you sure we can’t get you something?” asks Charlie. He lifts a can of beer out of cooler. A shard of ice still clings to the metal and Charlie plucks it overboard.
I found the Barnacle and the brothers a mile or two offshore and introduced myself. I was welcomed aboard; Charlie helped me over the gunwale. Crash went below to retrieve a piece of lawn furniture that unfolded into a chaise lounge. The chair was more germane to a summer patio than the deck of a fishing vessel but it was very comfortable and allowed me to recline fully.
Veneration for phenomenon was apparently not a family trait and my ego experienced a familiar pang from the time I’d met the elder Moses. In their defense, I reasoned the boys had heard the story since childhood and were partially insulated from the full shock of a mermaid in corporeal form. They were a good natured pair and bore me no animosity considering their Father’s tragedy for which I was responsible. They even found humor it.
“We always thought it was one of the old man’s fish stories. He had quite a few.” Charlie let loose a loud belch. “Pardon me.”
Crash shook his head in agreement, “Something he made up to entertain us kids. But when that headstone showed up…”
Charlie finished for his brother, “It gave us pause.”
“A damned good laugh, too.”
And they chuckled again together.
I had come prepared to make handsome restitution but to my surprise the brothers were hesitant to accept. In light of past events they were concerned what form the remuneration might take. It was only after I assured them that I had learned from my mistakes and guaranteed periodic audits of my handiwork that they finally acquiesced, albeit with lingering trepidation.
Charlie still loves his cigars. And although his tastes have become more refined, the higher quality leaf does not emit an exhaust any less offensive according to his brother. Charlie still loves oysters, too. Only now he is less likely to limit his indulgence to months with an R in the name.
The Barnacle was sold and the Moses brothers quickly acclimated to their new lives as men of leisure. They had plenty of time for cocktails at the 6 Belles Tavern every afternoon and would often discuss the validity of their late father’s other fish tales especially one he told concerning a unicorn in his lettuce patch.
May 16, 2013 § Leave a comment
Our building had a rooftop garden where, during nicer weather, many took their lunch or bronzed those portions of their hide left exposed by summertime fashion. Levi used the area in all weather as a sanctuary from his hectic duties and tormentors. Because of his calm demeanor, I sometimes pictured him sitting cross-legged amid the potted plants, meditating and practicing deep-breathing exercises to find an inner peace. In reality, he used these brief respites to release the anger and frustration that accumulated with each phone call or capricious agenda from Ms. Hooper. I imagined a clever mechanism of behavior-regulating valves rigged up to Levi’s innards by a pipe-fitters union working on behalf of some cosmic anger management organization.
As we emerged into the muted, gray afternoon, Levi twisted the first valve, which let loose an explosive tirade.
“It says right there on all those laminated placards from the State Board of Employment in the kitchenette that I don’t have to take this shit!”
I was only able to make out a sentence or two before it turned into an incomprehensible rant akin to a sermon preached by a homeless person in a deep state of agitated passion.
Working in tandem was a sort of intake valve. This he used to pull the fragrant smoke from his special cigarette deep into his lungs where a spicy cloud remained for longer than I thought humanly possible. Little wisps of smoke would trickle out through tightly clenched teeth while his lips mouthed the syllables of the unbroken anathema, his voice no more than a choked, wheezy buzz. A long suspiration carried his final incoherent rambling mixed with a ghost-colored plume of effluvial exhaust to join the metropolitan smog.
Levi offered the cigarette to me. It was rolled by the nimble fingers of an expert, using a blend of tobacco and hashish. A delicate tendril of smoke curled from the ashen tip and I placed the moist end to my lips and took a drag. I began to cough almost immediately, while I struggled to keep from wasting our receptionist’s precious anodyne.
Whatever his system was, it had restored Levi’s calm composure and my spasms had helped return his convivial smile. I passed the smoldering narcotic back and took a cleansing breath.
“Did I ever tell you about my piss test?” I asked.
“I don’t believe we’ve had this conversation.”
Employment here was contingent on the successful completion of a drug screen and background check. I presumed that we had all been subjected to the same humiliating experience of reporting to a diagnostics lab and supplying a technician in scrubs and tacky jewelry with a fresh urine sample, although I found it difficult to understand how our Human Resources department had received a clean report for a candidate by the name of Leviticus Johnson.
“I couldn’t go, couldn’t perform. I seized up under pressure. Shy bladder, they call it.”
Levi took a drag. He spoke while holding his breath.
“Bladder. You can’t pee around other people or in strange places.”
The idea seemed to amuse him more than my inability to hold smoke. The cigarette dangled from the corner of a grin that had grown slightly sadistic and he made motions with his hands for me to continue.
“No shit. Go on.”
I had not always had this problem. It had developed somewhere along the timeline of traumatic events that marked my life like mileposts on a crooked highway. It was an inconvenience, but I had developed a few tactics to manage my handicap. For instance, whenever a trip to the physician required urination on demand, I made a point to consume as much coffee and water as I could hold beforehand – to the point where I would be cramped and desperate upon arrival to the examination. Such was my strategy that day, yet I remained uncomfortably full for several hours after two failed attempts to deliver the goods.
On the day of my test, I took the paperwork sent to me by the Human Resources department to a lab in my area. I had not been required to make an appointment; patients were handled on a first come, first serve basis. I located the suite number and entered a narrow, somber waiting room. The space was sparsely decorated with a row of well-worn chairs that ran along the wall. Above them a few framed prints portraying pastoral scenes on yellowed paper were hung. At the end, opposite the door, stood a high counter that was deserted except for a sign silently commanding all patients to add their name to a list and wait to be called. Although unattended, the sign made the desk an indomitable figure in the space. A ballpoint pen was tethered by a piece of string to a clipboard holding a form in the tight grip of its metal clamp. The form had suffered the long-term effects of inaccurate photocopier reproduction. Each generation had introduced a slight deformity into the original and the column headings for Name and Time of Day along with the ruled lines on which to enter information had taken on a wavy appearance. I made note of the hour and jotted it all down before taking a seat. I thumbed through a soiled, out-of-date magazine full of smiling Hollywood buffoons to take my mind off my swollen belly. Periodically, an expressionless lab technician would appear behind the counter, consult the list and compare the number of entries to the population of the waiting room.
My name was called by a Puerto Rican woman with an immaculate manicure and more gold jewelry than a lineage of monarchs. Her only identifying marks that she worked in the medical profession were her pink, surgical scrubs and a photo ID. She gave me a stubby bottle accompanied with a baffling set of instructions that seemed overly complicated for peeing in a cup and pointed to unoccupied toilet.
It felt as though my excess water would cause a severe rupture or take a more dramatic exit by leaching out through my pores when the normal exit route refused to operate as designed. Both of the times that I came sheepishly out with an empty cup, my technician greeted me with the type of admonishing glare an exasperated parent reserves for a naughty child. She offered no empathy or comforting words of assurance and encouragement – only a stern warning that after three failed attempts the test would be cancelled and I would have to return in 24 hours to try again.
I stood frozen above the gaping maw of the porcelain bowl on my third and final try. It seemed to be mocking me and I felt my manhood shrivel. Humiliated and dejected, I was about to admit final defeat when I remembered a bartender friend’s passion for bizarre tales. I figured this qualified so I dug the cell phone from my rear pocket and dialed his number. His sonorous chuckling, made raspy by a two-pack-a-day habit, got me laughing so hard that I would have wet my pants had they not already been unfastened and dangling around my knees. With smug triumph, I presented the bottle containing several ounces worth of drug free evidence at a fresh 98.6 degrees to a caramel-colored hand. She screwed the lid on tight and carefully affixed a sticker that held my identifying information around its fat middle. Over the top she ran a piece of tape with some laboratory data and flattened the ends down to either side. This was evidently to prevent tampering with my watery testament and it reminded me of an unopened bottle of liquor. I was amazed that her long, glossy fingernails allowed her to perform these duties so deftly. I signed a form and was free to go.
Levi drew the word out as if he was holding a musical note for several bars.
“And I thought I was uptight. Come on let’s get off this roof. There’s probably something I’ve got to clean up by now, anyway.”
The cigarette had burned down to an empty paper twist and Levi flicked it with his thumb and index finger into the wind. Its tiny white body was just a spec but I tried to follow it as it flew from the roof joining the snow flurries that had started to swarm in the growing darkness.
The partygoers had abandoned the conference room leaving behind the scattered debris of plastic cups and dishes with the remains of food, balled paper napkins, crumbs, and empty bottles. Levi dragged the large chrome waste can out of the corner and began to fill it indiscriminately with the waste he cleared from the table.
“Another L.A. office party.”
I had been to Los Angeles on a few occasions but there was nothing about this party that even hinted at having a California theme with the possible exception of the guacamole dip or the odor of reefer which had entangled in the ropey wool of my sweater along with the February cold.
“Lame Ass, is what that means, if you were wondering.”
The CD we’d left playing had reached its end and the only music to be heard was someone in the distance whistling the Cornell fight song, if such a thing still existed. The greasy, fetid stench of fast food drifted in, comingling with the lingering post-party smells.
“You ever ask yourself, ‘Why did I put up with that kind of crap just so I can get a job working here’?”
I held up a wine bottle to the light. It still had a good mouthful or two left swirling around inside the tinted green glass. I considered upending the thing and finishing it off.
“Every day, Leviticus. Every day.”
February 7, 2013 § Leave a comment
“This is a story about an office worker who questions the value of his new job after relating a humiliating experience he endured in order to be eligible for the position.”
The L.A. Office Party
Preparations for the L.A. Office Party began in the morning and included collecting proceeds from the entire office staff to fund the event. It was intended as a celebratory sendoff for two people I’d never met, much less ever worked with, yet before me stood the soiree’s two organizers holding a child’s trick-or-treat bucket made from orange plastic and molded into the shape of a smiling jack-o-lantern. By the time the pair of young women had worked their way through the labyrinth of cubicles to my desk, the garish, fake pumpkin head was lined with wrinkled bills. I tossed in the requested cover charge and they shuffled on to the next desk where one of the girls picked through the Halloween gourd to make change for a twenty. Going desk-to-desk was a popular strategy here whenever a barrage of e-mail invitations to a corporate function was met with little enthusiasm. I had witnessed the same tactic employed during the holiday season after a string of e-mails, decorated with holly and candy-cane clip art, had failed to generate enough interest in the office’s Secret Santa. No one could refuse two beaming young ladies with hat in hand and a wholesome, company sanctioned purpose and so I watched everyone in my row, even the people who would never attend, ante up.
I had no desire to spend an additional hour with co-workers after the whistle blew, drinking cheap beer while nibbling on corn chips in the vain hope that the explosive crunching noises in my head would drown out the banal small talk. I was already spending a full nine hours sitting in a small cubicle, lit only by the light emanating from my computer monitor. On the day I started, the fluorescent tube overhead had buzzed for a brief period, sputtered, and gone dark. It had remained that way ever since. I should have taken that as a portent, packed up my stuff and gone home, but instead I dutifully reported the malfunction to the office manager who assured me an electrician would be hired to make the repair. A full six months later and I was still spending my day in a cramped, dark pen and drawing parallels between my life and that of a veal calf. It was hard to imagine, in the difficult economic times of the day, that it would be such a challenge to find someone with a pair of wire cutters and a roll of electrical tape who needed a little work. But I reasoned that any electrician worth his salt was too busy making real money helping desperate landlords rewire their buildings to burn down for the insurance money.
I rode the elevator two floors up to another department where people would migrate as the working day lumbered to an end. The spread was laid out on the table of a conference room beneath a skylight that framed the bleak, winter heavens. I took a quick inventory to see what my money had bought me and decided I’d seen more promising fare at high school keg parties. Party-sized bags of junk food had been opened and their contents shaken out into a matching set of four plastic bowls ordered from an office supply catalog. The large containers formed a semi-circle around two smaller vessels. One was nearly overflowing with artificially red salsa that had come from a jar with a label sporting the bright national colors of Mexico. The other held an unctuous, chartreuse blob that I figured was somebody’s version of guacamole dip. The empty chip bags were crumpled in the waste basket, but for some reason the jar remained on the table with a few globs of glistening salsa clinging to the inside of the glass and around the rim. Its top, however, was nowhere in sight. A board with an imitation wood-grain finish was piled high with rubbery cubes of yellow and white cheese. Some of these had been speared with toothpicks as if to suggest the proper etiquette for eating this particular savory. A few bottles of red and white wine towered over neat rows of domestic and imported beers. By the look of the condensation beading on the brown and green glass, they had almost come to room temperature in time for the arrival of the first guests. I chose what I thought was the most expensive brew and wasted no time getting the coldest part inside me.
People began to filter into the board room in groups of three or more. Formal organizational charts be damned; the real structure of the corporation was comprised of these tight-knit units: tiny confederacies and alliances forged from common interests, departmental membership, or out of office political necessity. They circled the table like gastro-aficionados carefully mulling over the generous choices set before them, but in fact this was simply the ritual dance people perform when overly self-conscious about displaying their gluttony in front of one another. Two people joked about the vintage of a certain Shiraz while another attempted to extract the cork. A man I recognized from a desk near my own dipped a large corn chip into the bowl of salsa. His scooping action sent a wave of chunky sauce over the edge of the bowl leaving what might have been enough for another chip on the table. Like blood being spilled, it was a sign to the others to descend upon the kill.
I took another beer while there was still an opening and got to work on making an exit before I got boxed in by the swelling numbers. Quite a crowd had gathered already, so I had to flatten myself against the wall and inch along toward the door like a man on a narrow ledge. Outside, a few people were standing in a circle, looking at pictures of a newborn on a proud parent’s cell phone. According to one of them, she had her father’s eyes. Music was playing from a set of computer speakers in a cubicle that was abandoned except for Levi whose attention was focused on reading the insert of the CD that was presumably the thing providing the party’s background music.
“We have it on good authority that the baby has her father’s eyes.”
“Huh?” Levi glanced up from the little booklet at the circle and resumed his study of the CD credits. “Oh, that. Shit, people are full of it, all babies look alike.”
Leviticus Johnson, Levi for short, was our receptionist and general office factotum. He was ordered around by nearly everyone but never more unreasonably so than by the office manager, Ms. Selena Hooper, whose diurnal harassment he endured with the serene composure of a Buddhist monk. I liked Levi and we got along nicely. Having been a receptionist once myself, I empathized with his situation and never bothered him with inane requests or complaints. When I first shared this information with him, we connected in the same way that two soldiers might after surviving combat together. We were also the same age in an office with two predominate populations. The first: recent college graduates who used the word “like” in every sentence – it was the “uh and um” of a new generation. The second was a population of professionals. Well into their careers, they too had developed their own esoteric tongue by combining business speak and the dialects of domesticated suburbanites.
When I reported for my first day of work, Levi was the only person that knew I was starting, aside from the human resources department that operated out of corporate headquarters in another state. Nonetheless, he had a building ID, surrendered by my predecessor, ready for me. He had carved out a temporary space and even convinced the bitter, exasperated desktop support specialist to loan me a laptop to use in the interim until a new computer arrived. By the end of business, all of the necessary paperwork ensuring I would receive a bi-weekly check, had been faxed off to payroll due to Levi’s efforts, alone.
Levi Johnson was a longtime denizen of our alienating metropolis. Many years ago, the promise of fame and fortune had drifted from the big city to Johnson’s tiny hamlet in the South East and, like thousands of young people before him – and since – he’d boarded a Greyhound with little more than a change of clothes and the dream of becoming an actor. He had held down a series of menial jobs to support his passion and, while he had gained a wealth of experience and insight into the ugly gears and guts of the business world, he’d met with very little success as a thespian. So, with his mid-thirties fading, he had scrapped what was left of his dream and enrolled in an MBA program.
I pointed over my shoulder with a half empty bottle towards the conference room. “Have you joined the party, yet?”
“You have got to be joking. I’d lose a finger if I stuck them into that feeding frenzy. You’d think these people hadn’t eaten in days the way they pounce on free food. It’s chips, for Christ sakes.”
The low rumble of unintelligible voices vibrated through the walls of the conference room like a massive engine in endless, groaning toil. Occasionally, a louder voice would rise above the drone before sinking back into the cacophonous throb.
A heavy set man with a shining, bald head and a ridiculous, salt and pepper Van Dyke emerged from the party shouting into a cell phone. He pressed a pudgy index finger into his other ear to block the sounds of celebration and surveyed his immediate surroundings for a quiet corner. He squinted at Levi and me as if the music that hummed around us was of a blinding volume and took off down the hall in the opposite direction.
Levi threaded the CD’s liner notes back into the case and slid the package along the smooth desktop like a hockey puck. “Come on man, let’s grab a smoke.”
(to be continued)