“When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.”
……………….~ Wallace Stevens, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird
Jackson ignored the knocking and gave his coffee a few slow stirs. After rinsing the single-serve filter, he shook his hands dry and listened to the doorbell chime. He counted to five as his eyes settled on the orange and yellow lights of an abstract Bourbon Street against a black-blue night. The sky was textured, but there were no stars.
Chris had just turned seven the year she picked out the painting, after deliberation over a dozen or so that all looked the same to Jackson. He remembered leaning on the counter near the cash register, watching as his young wife crouched with their daughter to help, offering suggestions that were promptly dismissed. In the end, Chris chose the one with the darkest sky and brightest streetlights. “I like the contrast,” she surmised. The shop owner patted Jackson on the back then. “Contrast! What a concept for a little girl.”
She would’ve grown up with the gift of artistic understanding—a thing Jackson was readying himself to envy. Taking bitter sips of black coffee—he usually took milk but hadn’t bothered with the grocery this week—his eyes shifted so that he could see the woman’s shadow, soft and short, outside.
He imagined this shadow morphing: thinning, elongating, and hunching slightly forward. He could see it becoming smaller, rounder, and unable to stay still. The woman moved, and the shadow disappeared from view. She knocked again. The phone began ringing. Jackson saw her peering in the window one last time before turning to leave. Mercifully, he answered the door.
“Hello, Mr. Waters?” Jackson nodded. “It is a pleasure to finally meet you. I was beginning to think I had the wrong house, or that you didn’t exist. People say that you don’t, you know.” She smiled, waited for a response. Had Jackson been a kind man, he’d have said something like, “Well here I am, myth and legend.” But instead, he let her squirm.
She was a short woman, as her shadow had suggested, and she had a crop of hair that was light brown and lightened to blonde in thin streaks around her face. She straightened her shoulder strap and waited for an invitation inside. Jackson led her to his office.
“Your home is immaculate!” she said. Jackson said nothing. He had three spreadsheets open on two screens in his office. He was always working. He gestured toward them as Olga examined the room. “You have a lovely home,” she tried again.
Jackson counted to ten; he could do this. Indulge her. Be a gentleman. He said, “Thank you. As you can see, growth rates are stable but steadily declining in the market over the next two years, the short-term as we define it for the purpose of this study, and it is my job to find opportunities for this client; more specifically, to find data that will shift the down arrow up, and it is an impossible task. It boils down to integrity.”
“Yes, Mr. Waters. I understand your position can be challenging.”
To Jackson, Olga’s words were visible, coming out of her mouth in precise, rounded shapes that slowly disappeared as they made their way toward him. His ability to visualize so precisely had served his career well over the years. His specialty was measurements and instrumentation, micro technologies, but he was a mathematician at heart. He knew the micro machinery market more intimately than anyone, could see the data formulating and extending itself long before his computer could catch up. He was the go-to if companies had questions about the way multiple sensors worked within intricate machinery, and he consulted when new functionalities were introduced. He knew the mechanical ecosystem inside and out. He saw the inner-workings of everything and, so he thought, everyone.
But clients wanted him to fabricate, exaggerate, and he couldn’t stomach them. His boss wanted him to present at trade shows and travel the world—a thing he used to do when he had a family; choices that made him physically ill to think about now, so many choices to be away for work. He resented his job, his boss, himself.
Every year during his review, Mr. Martin extended restrained praise, asked him to offer trainings at the office, asked that he go to Europe a few weeks. Jackson had always said yes, but now that he was alone and had every reason in the world to go, he couldn’t leave the house. He couldn’t leave the painting of Bourbon Street. He couldn’t leave for fear that he’d return and forget the stories of things.
No, mistakes had been made and now Jackson was content to stay put in his little corner of the Midwest in a solitary home office where he could actually get things done. Mike, one of the junior statisticians Jackson spoke to via Skype on Fridays, told him that the newer employees speculated he was actually a robot or that there was a team of underpaid specialists out of the Iskandar office doing the job under the umbrella of Jackson Waters. He never showed face at functions or holiday parties. He never showed face, unless he was on assignment.
This year, Olga was making the trip in place of the yearly phone call with Mr. Martin. She was the result of an initiative to improve employee relations. Jackson had been told she was also working for HR. In other words, she would be firing, determining fate. She shifted on his stiff office chair—the one he never used. The one that had been abandoned since Deb used to sit there and work the crossword or practice her vocal exercises as Jackson worked, quick to ask him for answers to questions she knew he’d know. She indulged him like that and probably didn’t realize he noticed. He loved her for it.
“This is a lovely chair. Is it vintage?” she asked.
“Probably,” Jackson said, noting that this was the second time she used lovely, a word with a wide shape that moves inward, hits like a soft punch. Lovely was too formal and inaccurate a word for that chair, he thought. Deb had been lovely, her chair a throne.
His stomach grumbled. He wanted this woman out of his house. He counted to twenty, thinking, organizing his thoughts. “Can we do this elsewhere?” he asked at last.
He suggested Phil’s on 14th Street, a place he’d ordinarily go to sit in a tattered red booth by the window and eat two eggs over-easy, a glut of hash browns, and inch-thick rye toast with strawberry jam most Sundays. This was the closest he’d come to an excursion, grocery shopping after and running simple errands. Phil’s had, at one time, been a regular family outing after hikes or soccer practice.
Olga looked hesitant but said, “Sure. Can I use the lady’s?”
He pointed down the hall. As he put his computer to sleep and slid his chair under the desk, he heard a swooshing sound and turned to find all of Olga’s papers scattered across the dark wood floor. He imagined her in there staring at the hairbrush and barrettes left out on the sink. They’d been there since the accident.
As he shuffled the papers back into a pile, his stomach grumbled like an old coffee maker. He could hear the water flowing from the sink as he spotted his name, Jackson Waters, with a red outline on it. Most of the names had green or yellow, and he knew what red meant. He saw a write-up in his file in response to his request for leave.
Plane accident on August 16, Q4, 2015 verified. Notes: The accident was highly publicized. Deborah Waters was a newscaster on Channel 4. Employee took only a few days bereavement. Refused counseling or additional time off. Productivity did not suffer, but other behaviors are concerning. Client complaint in Q1 about inattentive manner. Vendor and important client (see complaints and feedback file 344) mentioned without closing project or altering business. Recommendations: Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). One year probation to ensure employee is able to fulfill tasks.
There was far more, but this was enough. When the door opened, Jackson was waiting with a neat pile of papers. “Your files fell out. You might want to put them back in order as we head there. I’ll drive,” he said. He noticed Olga was wearing fresh lipstick now, a dark pink color unnatural to anything save a flower.
Shelly, a petite woman who taught jazz on the weekends and had, at one time, been Chris’s instructor, greeted them with a smile. She wore white tights and red shoes on a black and white checkered floor. “Hey, Jackson. Didn’t beat the rush today, eh?”
The rush comprised twelve people between the tables and bar. Jackson said, “Hi, Shelly. Two today.”
“Good, good. Got ya’ll. Follow me. You know, we have a new pancake today, a peanut butter and chocolate pancake that we make with whole wheat flour.” She smiled widely and waited for them to react. “You know, whole wheat for balance.” She laughed a little. Her laugh made her sound like a seal, a wet hand rubbing a balloon. She was always kind to Jackson but never pried when the news was citywide and the rest of Toledo seemed intent on pitying looks and inane questions such as, “How have you been doing?” All she’d said is, “I’ll miss them,” then left it alone.
“Pancakes with peanut butter. No, wait, eggs,” Olga said with a warm voice and cool eyes. Jackson kept forgetting she was there. He was so used to being alone. She clutched her files tight to her side as though fearful they would again expose her. They both asked for coffee with cream, no sugar, to start.
After placing his file folder on the table, Olga told Jackson about the company’s new agenda to become more involved in employees’ lives. She sounded like a recording, spouting company-approved lingo and tempered optimism with the requisite threatening undercurrent. She said this initiative was part of a trend among high-performing corporations.
She explained everything as Jackson listened to both her and the rest of the restaurant, taking in the concert of atmosphere: Quarterly numbers were not as great, but as you know this tends to be the case Q2… these eggs are runny, gross, look! … the initiative is based on a triangular model of optimization. That waitress has a nice ass … Stop teasing your brother! … after some resistance … and then she told him she was married … has already proven successful as proven by numerous studies … you make it to the pork festival last weekend? Bet they’re still using the bacon … year-over-year sales performance … team player … margins, margins … here you are, and would you like ketchup? Sugar-free syrup?
Jackson slapped the table to break the sound. “Formality is a waste of time, and you sound like you’re reading from index cards. I’m on a performance plan; I saw that when you dropped my file, and you’ll be back in six months. Got it.” Her face was a pale square, her rehearsed words: rectangles that feel, inconsequentially, to the floor.
Olga cleared her throat. “Quite frankly, Mr. Waters, we cannot continue to overlook your lack of vision in the future of the company. The nature of the micro-machinery business is volatile and, accordingly, we need timely research and analysis that is willing to bend logic in order to find the logic of tomorrow. More importantly, we need happy clients. Do you understand? Our clients are forward-thinking, and our deliverables must meet expectations in order to maintain accounts and attract new clients. We cannot forecast to five years anymore. We must forecast twenty years, twenty-five. These are the topics we’ve been covering in our weekly meetings, and we see you have not attended virtually as requested.”
“Bend logic in order to find the logic of the future?” Jackson said as Olga’s scrambled eggs were placed before her. “Fuck you. How about that logic?”
Jackson decided that when she stormed out, he would finish his breakfast and stop for cream before heading home. He was dressed for it, and maybe it would clear his mind. Olga was sitting toward the edge of the booth. Another person could easily be positioned next to her. His daughter with her chocolate chip pancakes and uncanny ability to balance the salt shaker in a tiny mound of salt.
Olga didn’t move, didn’t waver. He needed this job. He had bills, a mortgage. He got regular settlement checks from the airline, but he didn’t want that money, tore each month’s check into eight even parts that he’d ceremoniously flush down the toilet, watching them swell and swirl.
“Quality is something you have pride in. I am here to recommend a course in near-future employment. When we give clients favorable results, they lend themselves to more similar results. It’s about being future-focused. You work hard, and that is what is expected every time. So let’s just have a chat about where you see yourself in the future of the company,” Olga continued.
“Did you hear me say fuck you?” he asked. “Let’s not bullshit clients. Let’s tell them the truth.”
“I’m here to help to guide you. The company wouldn’t send me here if they didn’t want to retain you.”
“Retain, Mr. Waters. Are you ready to talk now?” Her cheeks reddened for the first time as she paused. Her tone shifted then. “You know, this is my first time in Toledo, or Ohio, for that matter.”
Jackson sopped up yolk with a toasted piece of rye, noting Olga shifting in her seat, edging closer to the middle. He watched as she pressed her napkin against her white toast to sop up some of the butter. A blackbird flew into the window beside them, making a loud smack. They looked outside to find the bird flying toward them again, head-planting, thwacking against the glass.
“They do that because they see their reflection,” Jackson said.
“We need to stop this,” Olga said, tapping the glass, then knocking on it.
This woman was the opposite of Debbie, who had rarely worn makeup, or noticeable makeup, outside of work. She often complained that they slathered her in the stuff before she went on air, and her skin needed to breathe. “I feel like I’m made of plastic when I wear all that,” she would say, kicking off her heels and clearing he space. She jogged but never turned down a piece of cake, she played Scrabble with the kid for hours, said she’d soon give up caffeine every day as she drank her coffee. Debbie lived in comfort and offered it in turn.
“Radiant,” he used to whisper as he combed her hair with his fingers, when she complained about the station—which wanted her to lose five pounds or get a mini-lift or shoot her face with poison. She was going to quit soon. She’d always wanted to write instead.
“I’m going to recommend you return to the office,” Olga said, interrupting his thoughts and reassuming her matter-of-fact tone. She appeared plastic, a middle-aged Barbie, a smattering of paints and dyes and tricks. She was tired beneath her mask though; she kept glancing outside. The bird was perched in a tree across the street, likely stunned. Jackson stared at it as he responded.
“Nope. You might as well fire me.” He ate his last few bites of potatoes with pepper, took measured bites as she stared out the window at the bird, too. He knew the company didn’t want to lose him. He could imagine Olga getting orders to come up with a result, to change his behavior but not let him go.
“I hate my job,” Olga said, rubbing her index finger against a small patch of scars on her upper cheek. He hadn’t noticed them before. He wondered what it would be like to lean over the table and hold the back of her head, pull her toward him, to kiss those scars gently. He then became sick with the thought, and took a long drink of icy water.
“You seem good at it,” he said.
“I feel like a reaper. I don’t feel like I’m doing any—any one thing of value, just telling people to do better and sign papers. I’m walking red tape. I determine the monetary value of people for a company.” Her words tugged at his chin, lifted him from the booth. Jackson imagined pushing the ceramic plates from the table and tucking his foot behind her stockinged knee. He imagined Debbie telling him to go ahead, that she wanted him to reconnect with the world, too, with anyone in the world.
Olga looked him in the eyes for the first time, and he felt shaky. He wouldn’t know Olga’s story but imagined she touched that tender place of honesty for a reason, maybe because she figured he’d barely register it. She must’ve thought him insane and, for some reason, this made her feel safe.
He counted to thirty. He’d be up to a hundred by day’s end. He counted when he needed to reorient, to engage. He’d had to do it when working occasionally but more often when interacting.
“I understand,” Jackson said, actually moving his foot around her leg, actually leaning in to test the reality of the situation; his imagination invaded reality. Small talk, he told himself. “Do you like San Francisco? You are based there, I assume.”
“Um.” She pressed her leg into his foot. “Yes, it’s lovely. I’d rather live somewhere quaint like this though, less driving.” She glanced outside again and her cheeks drained, her face fell. “If you won’t come back to office, you’re fired. I have direct orders.”
“Quaint is one way to look at this town.”
Something broke in the kitchen, and a small girl jumped up on the booth behind theirs and stared the way of the sound, peering beyond Jackson. A woman began to tickle her, and she slid back down into her seat. Chris had been an adult before her time, not the kind of girl to jump up on a booth seat, though she would’ve wanted to investigate. She would’ve glanced over at the kitchen doors, maybe tell Jackson something along the lines of, “Someone will be paying for that!” Jackson would nod, tell her he was thinking the same.
“Look, Mr. Waters, I can’t tell you what to do,” Olga went on, “but I would recommend going to the office, to get out of your routine. Doing something. You’re good at what you do, you need a nudge. I say that unofficially. I say it because I’ve lost someone, too.”
“A nudge.” Jackson pushed his plate away, glanced outside. The blackbird was perched on a higher, thinner branch, calm now, watching the street with a tilted head. Another bird joined it, and there was ruffling and rippling of feathers.
“I’m going to quit, Jackson,” she said, “as soon as I find something better. So I can be very honest here. And yes, a nudge.” There was no shape to her words, but there was truth. Loss was nothing more than absence—he lived inside of absence. Their legs intertwined. Hers were stockinged and strong.
“I work at home because it’s quiet,” he said. “The Toledo office is tiny and loud. I work at home because my family still lives there, through the things that surround me.”
“Don’t sign then. Did you hear what I said? I don’t really care. You can live however you’d like, and the company can pay for our breakfast, and we can move on. Both of us. Whatever. I think, however, as a person with no right to say this, as a mere observer, you need to change something.”
He reached for the paperwork. “Maybe I’m going to quit too, he said.” He counted to forty, he counted to fifty; his stomach tingled as though gravity had just caught up. The counting was a technique a therapist had taught him. It centered him. Visualizing words made them seem more objective. These were his tricks.
The blackbirds danced and fought and flew, traced the edge of invisible circles. The restaurant bustled. Their legs were pressed at the thigh.
The two shook hands over the table and wished each other the best with requisite formality, but their hands—soft, cool—locked tighter when they should have released, remained intertwined long enough to silence the background and tell of a future with a different slope. They scooted out from the tattered booth and paid for the check with a company credit card. For the first time in a long time, Jackson wasn’t ready to go home.
Jen Knox is the author of After the Gazebo (Rain Mountain Press, 2015). Her short fiction can be found in The Adirondack Review, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Crannóg Magazine, Gargoyle Magazine, Istanbul Review, Room Magazine, and The Saturday Evening Post. Jen lives in San Antonio, where she teaches creative writing and directs the Writers-in-Communities Program at Gemini Ink. Connect with Jen here: http://www.jenknox.com