We were the only two at work that afternoon. Everyone else was out on appointments, out sick—or, in the case of the boss, out shopping. I was sitting on the edge of the microwave cabinet. My feet were on the chair Jack kept next to his cubicle; the last remaining relic of a more genteel time, when he’d still had an office.
“Do you think—I mean, could it be that there’s a finite number of ideas?” I asked. “Have we just reached a point where nothing else is possible, and that’s why everything keeps getting recycled? Could that be it?”
It was not a new discussion. Jack was making what I thought of as The Listening Face, head tilted to one side, eyes squinting as though against the sun.
“Well, you raise a good question,” he began. “That’s something I’ve often asked myself. But the human capacity for creativity and innovation is epic. I mean, even my cynical old mind has to see that, my child—”
My face grew warm and he made a wide, sweeping gesture with both hands.
“There is so much more.”
I rubbed the end of my nose. “So we’re just not reaching. Not pushing ourselves. Right?”
He nodded, shifting in his chair, which he’d straddled, pushed at the headrest that stopped at the middle of his chest.
“We’ve become consumers of the highest order. We get everything fed to us. And as a result we’ve grown disgustingly complacent. We not only accept the dog shit on our plates—we now actually expect it. We comment on the flavor and texture. We’re connoisseurs.”
“The thing that gets me,” I said. “People—and could it be just Americans? I’m not sure. But they don’t know that they’re pawns. They don’t even know there’s a game. They believe they have minds of their own. They think they’re choosing to want the things they want and to, to—value the things they value.”
“A very wise observation,” he said. There was a smile rising to the surface. He leaned back, crossed his arms, waited.
“And so,” I said, encouraged, “They listen to their radios, they buy the cars and the clothes and the toys they’re told to buy, and they go out in public on the weekends sporting all of this, this—answer to a question they’ve never been able to formulate, much less articulate. And they never quite figure out why nothing changes. Why, even after they’ve gotten everything right, whatever wasn’t there still isn’t there.”
Jack jumped up and began the one-step-forward, one-step-back ritual he performed when he was riled up.
“I agree,” he said. Nervous energy fell away from him like sheets of rain. “I agree completely, and you know what? This is why, despite how liberal I may seem, this is how I have come to realize what a fascist I really am. Let me tell you, if I ran the world—”
“I know. Organized snipers.”
“On every corner.”
“Yes. No reproductive rights for people who don’t meet the criteria,” I said.
“Yes. A test: Do you understand that you will be responsible for these children well beyond the first two years of life? Do you possess critical thinking skills? How’s your bank account?”
“And no one can be married before they’re thirty. Wait, you were way younger than that the first time, right? What were you, like twelve or something? Seriously, how old were you when your son was born? Twenty?”
He shakes his head. “I was a child! Yeah, twenty. Wait. Yes. I was twenty.”
“I can’t imagine. I can barely keep my laundry under control, and I’m hitting thirty here in a couple of years.”
He laughed, looking up at the tiny porthole above his desk. Like the front window, its blinds were closed to keep out the glare he hated so much. I had begun to refer to him loudly as Sweet Melinda, the Goddess of Gloom, and he pointedly ignored me when I did it. No one else got the Dylan reference, but they didn’t ask anymore about the weird things we said. You guys don’t have a secret language, the office manager had said once. You have this whole, like, secret world.
From the liquor store below, a big rig honked.
“Listen, let me ask you,” Jack said, straightening up. “Why would we have told Procter and Gamble that eighty percent of our readership is left-wing Democrat?”
“Well… I think we’d have to find out who said it and why.”
“Your youth is showing itself.”
“Really.” I crossed my arms.
“Oh yeah,” he snorted. “In your desire to track down that information and point the finger. We don’t give a rat’s ass who said it and why. We’re not interested in prosecuting whoever it was that said it. That’s not going to help us.”
His smile was infuriating, and I remembered a bad day about a year earlier. An audit, nightmarishly tense. Blame thrown my way from the top, morphing into a heated, company-wide discussion, had culminated in that bane of the working woman’s existence: office tears. Afterward, Jack had asked me to go outside with him while he smoked a cigarette. Silhouette sharp against the gray sky, he had said matter-of-factly Let’s talk, kiddo.
I had stared past him, blinking, before finally saying, Look, I get that you’ve got way more experience than me, okay? But you smirked after everything I said. And you had this look on your face the whole time, like, Aw, isn’t she adorable? Like I’m five years old. And then when you asked me how fair I think life is? Give me a break. You know better than anyone here that I have no illusions about life being fair. I mean, please. How insulting.
He had apologized for the look on his face, for making me cry, for everything.
I could see you were holding things back, he had said, and I was just trying to get you to shake them all loose. I’m so sorry. It was the wrong thing to do. Forgive me. I don’t think you’re five years old. It isn’t that at all, it’s just that I could see you were finally grabbing the ugly monster by the horns. You were getting angry and dealing with it, and I was glad, and I was trying to help move you down that path. But it was the wrong way to go about it, and I’m so sorry, kiddo. I was wrong. Can you forgive me?
I’d had no idea what to do with that. I had stood there in my black leather coat and red scarf, looking at the ground. Finally, my voice, awkward and gruff: It’s not even anything that needs to be forgiven—
He had stopped me.
No, it is. Will you forgive me? Can you forgive me? Making The Listening Face.
After a couple of seconds I’d let it go. Of course I forgive you.
He had smiled. Do you want to come with me to get coffee?
Okay, I had sniffed.
Feeling younger than I’d ever felt, before or after, I’d walked across the parking lot next to him, watching the pavement, a shadow next to a much bigger shadow.
Now I cocked an eyebrow at him.
“Your age and cynicism are showing themselves in your answer.”
He was grinning now, gearing up for a good one. Stepping forward and back. Running a hand through the hair that stood straight up and made him an even six-six.
“You’re assuming that I’m looking to blame someone. In fact, my point is merely that if someone here told an advertiser that eighty percent of our readership is left wing Democrat, maybe there was a reason. Or—and this is actually far more likely—maybe someone just pulled that little nugget out of their ass. I’m keeping all of our options open. I’m not looking to prosecute anyone. And I’m almost thirty.”
His eyes crinkled and he reached a hand out as though to pet a kitten.
“Oh, your little peach-fuzzed face is—”
“Yes, I can’t grow a beard yet, but maybe one day I’ll be able to. Like maybe after menopause. I’ll keep you posted.”
His jaw dropped. “You’re under arrest.”
Score one for me. I curtsied.
“And another thing. What is this constant peach fuzz crap? And calling me and your son the bambinos. I’m sure he doesn’t appreciate it, either. When do I get to be an adult, for the love of God?”
“Sorry,” he said. “Never.”
“What? That’s retarded.”
“Not my fault. You were born twenty years too late to ever get to be an adult.”
“Seriously, Jack? Seriously?”
“You know, this self-esteem tumor you have—“
“Self-esteem? This has nothing to do with my self-esteem!”
“It has everything to do with your self-esteem. Just dig it out!” He made digging motions with his right hand, grinned, laughed at the look on my face while I spluttered.
“I wish I’d known you back when you were a little punk rocker,” he says.
“You would have hated me,” I said. “You want to talk about tumors on the self-esteem—“
He smiled big then, and I swear there was a twinkle. A fucking twinkle in his eye.
“Yeah, but I bet there was a lot of over-compensation,” he said.
Score one for him.
Back at my desk I smiled a little, even as my eyes stung. Soon this would be my past. No one else would call me Kiddo, ask me if I needed money when I left for lunch. No one else would remember the names of my friends, what they did for a living, how I’d met them. No one else—ever—would buy me coffee every single afternoon, and sometimes a pack of tiny, cellophane-wrapped donuts, too. No one would show my how to fix the printer, praising my skills with the screwdriver. Tell me stories about Antarctic explorers. Teach me the best way to sell magazine ads, or how to buy an electric guitar. Or be grimly furious upon finding out that for two days I hadn’t known about the rapist loose in the park behind my apartment building. No one would tell me, every day, for no reason in particular, that I was wonderful. Amazing. A champ. Not without expecting bits of my soul or body in return.
I’d been locking this stuff up tightly for months, wondering how much of it would keep.
“Hey, you,” he said, filling the doorway.
“Yes?” I raised my eyebrows.
“I’m going downstairs for a smoke. You want coffee?”
The grungy pizza place next door made terrible coffee. But they put on a fresh pot whenever Jack ordered.
“I would love some coffee.”
“Let me give you some money.”
“Get out of here.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“You got it. You want those awful little donuts too, probably,” he said, squinting.
“Perfect. And if they don’t have chocolate, then the crumb ones.”
“Not the powdered-sugar kind, you hate those.”
“Okay. Be right back.”
“You got it.”
I knew he would wait outside while the coffee brewed, pacing, looking around every couple of minutes like he was expecting trouble. Sunglasses. Cigarette between the fingers of his left hand. Once the coffee was ready he would cross the parking lot to the liquor store. He’d buy another pack of smokes, a pack of mints, and cellophane-wrapped donuts.
If I had a daughter, he’d said once, looking over at me casually, I would absolutely make sure that I told her every day how completely irreplaceable she was.
He locked the door behind him. I sat and waited for his knock.
Photo by AlicePopkorn used under a Creative Commons license.
Emma’s unofficial motto has long been “PUBLICATION OR BUST!” Jack Move is her fifth from-scratch magazine. A writer and creative gun-for-hire, she’s had a hand in all types of media, at every step in the process. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son. Follow her on Twitter (@ealvarezgibson) and find out more at www.emmaalvarezgibson.com.