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.”