You might have seen me at happy hour nursing a low-calorie beer or at the gym fighting flab on the treadmill. Malone. Ordinary to a fault. Manager of managers in a business involving the trade of insurance policies covering the loss, damage or otherwise unforeseen devaluation of assets.
It wasn’t a charmed life, but it was consistent, and this was what crumbled when I realized that people passing in the corridor were glancing at their shoes a half step before a greeting or nod was compulsory, had they not avoided eye contact.
I heard laughter in the break room, which quieted as I stepped in for coffee and resumed as I walked out. I felt pressure on my chest, like a small child held a hand there and was pushing mightily.
In the conference room, I went over notes for the meeting. Attendees trickled in, clutching coffee, heads bowed to smartphones. A few nodded. No one looked at me.
The opposite wall held two widescreen monitors with teleconference streams from our offices in Boston and Chicago. In the Boston conference room, Taylor arrived and waited for me to begin. She wore a pantsuit and had a thick mane of brown hair. She sat stone-faced when the meeting commenced. A few minutes into my presentation, she leaned forward, brow furrowed, about to ask a question, before she relaxed and reclined again.
Others began to shift in their seats as I elaborated on the pivot tables and pie charts. A few checked e-mail. When I finally reached the end of my presentation, I solicited questions.
“I have a question,” announced Taylor. There was a brief network issue and everyone in Boston looked pixelated for a moment. “What exactly are you trying to accomplish with this meeting?”
I was prepared for any question but this one. I rephrased it aloud. “So the question is… what purpose does this meeting serve?” An ambush of course. I stammered. “The purpose is to review our metrics from the previous week and make sure we understand and agree on where we are and what our weaknesses are – both organizationally and in the marketplace.”
“Sounds fine,” said Taylor, “until you dissect it.” A few staffers in Chicago snickered. “On the one hand,” she continued, “was last week really so long ago we need a recap?” More laughed. “On the other, what of your ‘opportunities,’ AKA weaknesses, have you really addressed?”
The high-definition faces in the monitors and the higher definition faces physically around me looked mesmerized. Whereas no one had really watched or listened to my presentation, all studied me closely now, awaiting my defense, savoring the public flogging.
“Of course we all remember last week,” I said as calmly as I could. “What I am trying to do is aggregate and to summarize details to see if patterns emerge.”
“The forest for the trees,” she offered. She closed her laptop lid and pushed away from the table. “Except it really takes time and detailed analysis before meaningful patterns emerge. Wouldn’t you say?”
She had cut off all paths. “I appreciate your point,” I demurred. “I’ll work on a revised format.” I adjourned the meeting.
I returned to my office and sat in silence, gazing at the smudged fingerprints on my computer screen and at the pictures on my desk.
In the photos of my children, I sensed only their distance. Vivian, age seven, smiled in her practiced way, showing just the right amount of tooth, her mysterious blue eyes peering at the stranger behind the camera. In his baseball picture, BJ, age nine, crouched on one knee in his white pants and cleats, his gloved hand resting on his other knee, vaguely squinting in the sun.
I could no longer tell what went on in the minds of my children and wife. When had it happened? In the family picture, my wife stood apart from me, something about her stance and the slight tilt of her head suggesting aversion, maybe even resentment. How had I not noticed before?
My mind returned to my humiliation at the meeting. How had I become so universally maligned? It had happened literally overnight. I pressed a key to activate my computer, but was unable to concentrate. I considered resigning for the first time in my career and wondered about the terms of my non-compete.
I was flipping through drawers in search of my employment contract when I ran across the bottle of vodka. Like Taylor’s interrogation, it seemed to come from nowhere. I unscrewed the top and took a swig. Once I got past the burn, it strangely hit the spot. I wasn’t much of a drinker, but it seemed like a good day to get started.
I turned it up for a longer taste when the door opened halfway and my boss, Reid, peaked into the room.
I swiveled in my chair and tried to sneak the bottle back into the desk.
“Again?” he asked. He stepped inside and shut the door behind him. “I warned you about this already. I like a stiff drink too, but you can’t do it in your office. It’s Monday morning for Pete’s sake!” He approached my desk and crossed his arms appraisingly. “You need to come with me.”
By noon, they disabled my keycard and scheduled a time for me to return after-hours with security to collect my personal things. I declined the exit interview. All I could think about was what to tell my wife.
Of course, my wife, Angela, had no reason to resent me. I never asked her to have a career or not have a career. I never asked her to stay home with the kids or enroll them in daycare. I never asked her to clean house, cook meals, volunteer for charity or teach Sunday school. As far as I could recall, I allowed her ambitions, destiny or whimsy, whether it be new houses, vacations or non-profit work, and yet somehow when I got home, she blamed me for every frustration, obstacle and missed opportunity in her life. I had dealt her a junk hand.
I heard her on the phone when I opened the door. Her telephone voice was distinct, her diction precise, her volume elevated. The conversation drifted into the foyer from the kitchen. “That’s excellent advice,” she said. “I never would have considered that.” After a beat, she said, “I have had literally dozens of consultations, and you are the one person I trust to handle this.”
I didn’t know at the time she was conferring with a divorce attorney. I only sensed she was mad for some perceived or imagined slight, which I could not guess or uncover, but which no longer surprised me, given the day’s events.
“I’ll keep you posted,” she continued. “Thank you again for everything. You’re a godsend.” She ended the call and I gathered my courage to face the culmination of my day’s failures and the one person in the world who could possibly make matters worse.
She acted nonchalant. “Oh, you,” she said. Her tone was flat, her syllables short. “I wasn’t expecting you so early.” She stood by the butcher block in dark blue jeans and wedge heels, thumbing a message on her phone. She wore a blouse of thin, gauzy material, tied loosely at the waist.
I wished I could be like a leading man on the big screen and go straight for the liquor cabinet. I would pour whiskey into a rocks glass, tilt it toward my mouth and let it run through my back teeth, the slightest hint of a grimace. Unfortunately, we didn’t keep booze in the house. Instead, I leaned against the counter and slid my hands into my pockets.
Her phone chimed and she walked out of the kitchen. In the office, she opened the desk drawers and began pocketing every USB flash drive I owned.
“My lawyer told me to do this.” She reached for the drawer that held my banking records. “And to tell you to leave.”
“Leave? Why? What’s this about?”
“You need to leave right now.”
“Are you insane?”
“Yeah, and you drove me there.” She seized the drive that contained my bank account logins.
“Can we talk about this?” I asked, trying to remain calm.
“Not without my lawyer present,” she said and left the room.
She watched me pack. At the height of my confusion and despair, my mind spinning out of control, my interview suit draped over my shoulder, I asked her, “What gives you the right?” I shoveled socks and underwear into my bag. The bedroom seemed more distant each moment. “Everything is mine as much as yours.”
She waved her phone like it could shoot bullets. “My lawyer will be in touch.”
I went into the bathroom and scooped everything from my side of the vanity. “You have to leave me something to live on.”
“You can live on your charm,” she snarled.
I attempted a mental checklist of what I needed. Deodorant, shaving cream, nasal spray and prescription bottles lay before me. I needed that flash drive more than the pills for my goddamn headaches.
She tapped her foot on the tile floor.
I stopped packing and looked at her foot and then at the pocket where she held the drive. She stepped back. “You touch me, I call the cops.”
“Angela! I would never hurt you…”
“Oh, yes, you would. You’ve done it a hundred times.”
She removed the drive from her pocket, tucked it inside her bra and leveled her eyes at me. “I will crush you,” she said. With that, she ripped the front of her blouse open, scratched herself on the arm and bolted from the room, kicking off a shoe along the way. I heard her call the police.
I used a credit card for a hotel. I was unemployed and broke and facing misdemeanor assault charges. A restraining order prevented me from contacting Angela or my kids. I stopped asking why and busied myself with the goal of securing income.
After nearly two weeks of resumes, headhunters and phone calls, I finally got an interview. I arrived a bit early. The reception room was circular with a carpet in the colors and design of the company logo. Under the watch of the receptionist and security guard, I slouched in an armchair and surfed the web on my phone. When I got tired of that, I flipped through a magazine, stopping maybe too long at advertisements with pretty models. The security guard lurked and the receptionist spied with distaste over her cat eye reading glasses.
The VP finally came down and I rose to catch his handshake. He applied the right amount of hand pressure and made eye contact for an appropriate length of time, long enough to exude confidence, charm and conviviality without lingering. His poker face was the best I had ever seen. I couldn’t detect even the slightest whiff of contempt or arrogance.
I followed him through glass doors. As we walked past the first floor offices, I heard the monologues of people wearing headsets and the staccato of heavy-handed typists. Here and there was office banter, throat clearing or the haiku of someone’s smoker’s cough.
Rising to his office, the elevator stopped for no apparent reason at each level, repeatedly opening to empty vestibules, where whoever or whatever had caused it to stop had vanished. The VP did not seem perturbed. “We must have taken the local,” he said and tapped a button to no discernible effect. The doors closed languidly and opened again on the next level.
On the fifth floor, the doors revealed a young man in a slim tailored suit. The VP held his finger patiently on the Open button, waiting in deference. The young man did not speak at first and appeared not to notice the VP at all. He squinted obtusely at me. “What are you looking at?” he asked me.
The VP cleared his throat. “Are you coming aboard?” he asked the young man, humor in registering in the brightness of his eyes. In poker, this would be his tell.
The young man glared at me. “Actually, I’m on my way down,” he said.
“Alright then,” said the VP and released his finger from the button. When the doors clamped shut, he said, “You certainly have a way with people.”
“I’m a born people person,” I agreed.
“That right?” he said. “A wonderful quality to have.”
He glanced at his colossal Rolex and declared that the day was getting away from him, still without a hint of frustration, a statement of fact, that this day like every day was too short for his responsibilities and pleasures. His collar fit neatly around his tanned neck without actually touching it. The leather of his belt was the same color as his loafers and its silver buckle matched his cuff links. He looked sidelong at his reflection in the elevator’s stainless steel walls.
His office overlooked the flagpole and a manmade pond. Black and red numbers covered the whiteboard, plotting sales, commissions, expenses, taxes and revenue. He had no personal effects whatsoever. Several packed boxes were stacked to the left of his ergonomic workstation. A colorful array of graphs appeared on his monitor when he jogged it from sleep. He checked his calendar, which was a puzzle of blocks, snapped together as tightly as he could fit them.
“Let’s see now,” he said, opening my resume and scanning with disinterest. “Uh-huh,” he said and muttered softly the names of my previous employers.
He read some e-mail and worked on a few more tasks before turning back to the so-called interview, which was evidently more of a game or perhaps an experiment.
“I don’t really care for most interview questions,” he said. “It’s all kind of rote, don’t you think?” He seemed to be winding up for a curveball or perhaps a left hook. “In fact, I only have one question for you today.”
I braced myself.
“If you were a tree, what kind do you think it would it be?”
I felt my face turn hot and the bile well up. “That’s your one question?” I asked.
The expression on his face was unbridled mirth. His teeth gleamed.
The list of tree species I could name was relatively short. Should I be a spruce or pine and stay green year round? Should I be a giant oak and hold a rope swing for a big family in the country? Should I be a palm tree basking in the warmth and breezes of an island paradise or a Sequoia redwood standing for generations in Yosemite? Maybe I would be a cherry tree in a Kyoto garden or a magnolia providing shade on a desperately hot southern plantation.
No, I would be none of these. I had no inclination toward wisdom, beauty or charity. I was angry. “I would be a sweet gum, dropping prickly brown balls on your yard in winter,” I said.
He chuckled and started reading e-mail again.
I desperately wanted to wipe the smile from his face. Like an answer to my prayer, his power supply beeped and his PC turned off, taking down his colorful graphs and spreadsheets. His reflection stared back in surprise from the blackened monitor screen.
“Hope you had everything saved,” I said.
He rose to his feet, looking miffed for the first time. Then he seemed to catch himself. He sat back onto his Herman Miller chair and tapped a button on the desk phone. “Security will see you out.”
It was apparent I wouldn’t find employment in the traditional sense, given that I seemed to inspire immediate loathing in everyone I encountered. I needed income that didn’t involve face-to-face interaction. The obvious venue was the Internet. One look through e-mail or perusal of social networks and it was clear thousands of people earned money every day without uttering a word. I joined their ranks without too much difficulty, soliciting funds for a non-profit, which paid on commission.
I tried not to venture out at first. I had groceries delivered. I played online poker or read e-books about finance and stock investing. This loner lifestyle was far from ideal. I craved human contact. I wanted to golf with friends, tailgate at ballgames or grill burgers in the back yard.
One Sunday morning, I decided to attend church, hoping decorum would at least dictate civility. I picked one in a nondescript suburban neighborhood. I arrived early and selected a pew on the left side, not far from the back.
The chapel smelled of polished wood. It had generous arched windows, recessed lighting and a low-pile carpet. The pews were light brown oak, upholstered in blue. There weren’t any images of a bloody Christ. He was instead depicted with caring eyes and a healthy Caucasian glow.
As the congregation arrived, the seats near me stayed empty until most of the hall was full. Shortly before services, a young family entered and hastily occupied the open space between me and the aisle. The mom wore a teal dress and had a rather striking figure. A brother and sister in Sunday best sat to her right, followed by their father in a double-breasted suit. I’ll admit I was envious. Here was the life I wanted. The attentive wife and mother, the well-mannered children and the dashing father, arriving fashionably late to worship.
Everything went fine until the sermon ended and they passed the collection plate. I deposited a $20 bill. A moment later, the young mother stretched across her children to whisper something to her husband, who locked eyes with me. The mother led her children away and returned a moment later with an usher.
“You need to come with me,” said the usher. When I hesitated, the husband and two other men joined him in escorting me from premises, while the rest of the congregation gawked. The men were tall and broad with dark gray suits and muted ties. I asked them what I had done. In the parking lot, the usher said, “Kindly return the money you stole from the collection plate.”
“There’s a misunderstanding,” I said. “I gave money today. I would never steal.”
“Turn out your pockets or we’re calling the police,” said the largest of the men. I did so and out came the $20 bill. I could have sworn I placed it in the collection plate. How did it get in my pocket?
The usher scooped the money from the asphalt. The others dragged me to the edge of the property and flung me onto the right-of-way. The dashing father stood over me. “And if I ever catch you ogling my wife’s breasts again, I will have to beg God’s forgiveness for what I do to you.”
Desperate for human contact and something to do, I enrolled in continuing education classes at the local college. Having majored in business as a youth, I studied liberal arts for a change. Of course, the other students avoided me. Professors wouldn’t call on me and graded my exams harshly.
My ethics professor was an especially tough grader and flunked my final term paper. It was hard to believe the world’s hatred extended even to my written words. After class one evening, I approached the ethics professor and requested a word in his office.
“What can I help you with Mr.… uh…” he fumbled for his class roster.
“Malone,” I said. “I want to understand why you graded my paper an F.”
“Hmm,” he said. He didn’t know who I was or remember my paper. “May I see it?” He held out his hand. He put on reading glasses and skimmed its pages. His hands tremored slightly. “What we have here is a carefully reasoned piece of rhetoric, which argues quite absurdly that one can justify deleterious behavior in the name of one’s own financial survival.”
He looked at me over his reading glasses. “I thought I made it perfectly clear in my lectures that there is no defensible basis for discarding ethics, especially not for the profligate concerns of a single individual, no matter how badly you need money.” His eyes returned to the paper. He flipped through its pages, studied them curiously and then continued his critique. “While your paper is eloquent and obsessively argued, the thesis you are working from is fundamentally flawed and all that follows is therefore hogwash.”
What he described was not the paper I remembered writing.
“Mr.… uh…” He looked at the title page. “Mr. Malone. I am an old geezer and don’t typically worry about my personal safety, having cheated death many times already, and feeling I am not long here anyway. Nonetheless, I have to admit that I find you a bit frightening.” He handed the paper back to me. “Do you plan to harm me physically because I flunked you?”
“No, of course not,” I said. “That would be ridiculous. I am just trying to understand your reasoning.”
“Very well then. I apologize for leveling an unfair accusation at you. It’s just that you have a look of… malevolence.”
I don’t recall feeling angry or doing anything he might perceive as threatening.
“My apologies,” he finally said, “but an F is an F.”
He rose to show me the door. On his way, he tripped over an upturned corner of the rug, tumbled with force and collided headlong with a bookshelf. He struggled to a sitting position, leaned against the wall and looked at me with confusion and dread. He pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and applied it to his bleeding cranium. “Who are you?” he said. “What have you done?”
I tried to imagine how I would explain this to campus police. No one would believe a word of it. I decided to get out while I still could. I took the stairs to the ground floor and exited through the back.
I began to frequent a bar on the northern outskirts of town, a nameless, cash-only business with illegal gambling. The proprietor was some combination of man and woman, advanced in age, who kept a shotgun on the back wall.
Canned lights flickered in the drop ceiling. The concrete floor was sticky with years of spilled beer, and my shoes made sucking sounds when I stepped across it.
The darts were crooked, dull and wingless and the cue sticks were warped. The pinball machine had outlived the rubber bands and metal triggers that kept the silver ball in play. Only the gambling machines worked, and they sometimes even paid out, at least enough to keep people feeding them money. In the back room, men played Texas Hold ‘Em without humor or civility.
I sat at the same wobbly stool every night, running my fingertip along the grain patterns in the plywood bar top and sipping cheap beer. I paid no mind to the other patrons, who milled by the alleyway door or stared into poker machines.
I had accepted the solitude and boredom, to the degree that I didn’t think anyone would ever speak to me again, not until a man I had never seen before stepped purposely from the back room and walked over to me. He had a bad toupee and a fat, round face, scruffy with gray whiskers. He must have been a lousy poker player because desperation was written in the lines of his forehead. For a moment, I thought he was going to proposition or panhandle me, especially when he said in a monotone drawl, “Can you help me please?”
He gave me a bear hug, and I realized that something had changed, and it was then I felt the wet spot in the gambler’s lower back and discovered that he was bleeding out. My beer shattered on the brick-red concrete floor as we collapsed in an embrace.
I knew how this would look. A broken bottle in my hand. A man impaled, his blood gushing, the two of us in a heap. You would probably say that I stabbed him with the broken bottle. You also think I’m a drunk and a misogynist and that I assaulted my wife and conned people on the Internet to cover my gambling losses. You would say I stole from the collection plate and pushed my ethics professor. To this, I say you’re just like everybody else. You look at me and see what you hate.
The world is full of malice and I am alone in it.
For a moment, I felt connected to someone. The gambler needed help and I was there to provide it. “Yes, I’ll help you,” I whispered in his ear. “There’s still time – for both of us.” A windless cry emerged from the back of his throat, followed by a gurgling sound. He convulsed and tightened his grip like I was the last thing in the world that mattered, like he was a tree falling in the forest and I was the one person to hear it make a sound.
Michael Sadoff is author of the novel The Greatest Unit of Value (Working Class Press, 2012). His short fiction has appeared in The South Carolina Review and his news articles and features have appeared in The Charlotte Observer, Creative Loafing and Gaston Gazette. He has an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and was selected for the Wildacres Residency Program. He currently is working on a collection of short stories.