Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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Quotes in an office:
“I used to see a large box by the railroad, six feet long and three wide, in which the laborers locked up their tools at night; and it suggested to me that every man who was hard-pushed might get such a one for a dollar, and hook down the lid, and so have freedom in his love, and in his soul be free.” Thoreau, Henry David
“Without the most profound inward calm I could never have found my way out.” Kafka, Franz
“I have become comfortably numb.” Floyd, Pink
Man in an office, on the day he is to be fired:
If he were younger, he would quickly say, “Fuck it. Let’s rock and roll.” But he is not younger.
He is a Southern suburban white boy now all grown-up, born too late for Vietnam and not late enough for high-yield T-bills, so he is stuck somewhere, an underground movement of one. That suits him fine. His name is Mark Goodfellow, just turned thirty, one of two or three “creative types” in his company, a developer of Florida real estate.
It is the middle of the end of a workday, three-thirty-two on Thursday afternoon . . . now three-thirty-three. Digital time sneaks up on him before his very eyes. Thursday is newsletter day; it has been written, approved by seven men, and is currently being printed by the Creative Services Department secretary on the takes-up-half-a-room Xerox machine downstairs. The secretary’s name is Alice Throne. She is fifty or so, intelligent and open, and sexy in a rumpled, still-confident way. Goodfellow has seen her many times running off the newsletter in the copy room, alone, unaware of him standing in the hall. She always hums something melancholy but nice that has no melody except to her, while the newsletters shoot through the machine and are spit noisily into a perfect stack. Goodfellow finds her irresistible, a friend from a different age. She can leave a room while standing in the middle of it, the perfect secretary for Creative Services, a land of make-believe with make-believe employees.
If he were a Taoist, he would simply say, “Be.” But Goodfellow is a failed Taoist, whipped around by his own psyche.
He sits at his typewriter and writes a note between thoughts, then rises and slips it under his closed door.
EVERYTHING IS DYING AT HOME, BOB. NO MATTER WHAT I DO.
He doesn’t like it, but he had to do something. He expected a visit from Bob, since he refused to open his door for the company president earlier in the afternoon. But he has no explanation, really, and has stalled for hours, sitting in his chair reading Time.
Bob Smith, the director of Human Resources, sits just on the other side of the door, uncomfortably arranged on an artist’s stool. The note about everything dying is unseen. Bob wears a confused but genteel expression, as if he didn’t quite understand a joke but laughed anyway. The Creative Services Department is a carnival to him, an uncomfortable room without proper form. He is here to fire Goodfellow, commanded to do so loudly. “The guy’s gone too far,” the president boomed. Bob did not move for a long time. Now being frozen irritates him; his short arms hang like a monkey’s at his sides; his suit is limp. His pale gaze will not leave a black shoe smudge on the wall, at eye level. He cannot, in this trance, seem to move his head. The white note peeks under the door, as if it were looking up and watching Bob. It is, ha ha, it is.
Goodfellow paces inside, tall enough to cover his office in two strides, turn, and do it again. His shoeless feet, the socks a purple check pattern to match his tie, pad silently on the worn carpet, between the love seat where he sleeps and the desk where he sits, has sat for the last nine years. He walks hepped-up, a frantic stroll. His hair sticks up, chopped like Ivan Lendl’s, but his face has gentler, less competitive lines. He wears a braided rat-tail, thin as a snake down his back, and after five years of growth it now touches his ass. His clothes, increasingly, look like “something a rock singer would wear” — his mother’s words. To him, David Byrne is a hero; Kafka is a god. He spends more and more of his time in the office, reading. He earns his salary as the manager of Internal Communication, his sixth promotion in nine years.
He twitches as he walks, at the neck and shoulders, and finally he stops, letting his head fall against the wall he has covered with quotes on sheets of white paper. Without looking, he reaches over and turns off the lights, and immediately his skin (or mind) can feel the slight drop in heat. Two inches from his eyes lies:
“I’m a ridiculous man.” Dostoevsky, Fyodor
I’m not alone, he laughs to himself.
Outside the building, the six-week drought rages on. Heat smothers the earth, and the sky is as blue as the blue in flame. July is supposed to be the season of thunderstorms in Florida, but no. The contradiction between what is supposed to be and what is turns everyday life quietly mad. Details are taken care of but smiles are forced, faces are dry and anxious. Nothing is green.
Inside, it’s three-forty-nine.
Goodfellow decides what the second note to Bob should say, and lifts his head from the wall. At the typewriter he reminds himself of an old man sipping tea.
Tap, tap. . . .
THE GODS ARE PISSED OFF, BOB. I’VE DECIDED TO SACRIFICE MYSELF.
He stares at the words and does not like them again, but pulls them from the machine and rises to his full, six-ten height, flipping his tail from his shoulder. He places the second note carefully beside the first, then pauses close to the floor, fearing nothing and everything, a consciously expressed thought.
Now two notes rest unseen beneath the door, watching Bob.
Bob believes the shoe smudge was put there in jest, one of Goodfellow’s karate kicks. The young man can be — and used to be more so — very funny and inventive, and ultimately kind. Now Bob, who has always considered him something of a friend, understands what the other executives sometimes see — an arrogant bastard not on their side. Bob sees it objectively for the first time. He has a master’s in psychology, and Goodfellow is his favorite subject. It’s true what the other executives feel; Goodfellow is turning arrogant, not with malice but with pure indifference. And it also seems that he is close to the next logical stage: complete rejection of everyone but himself.
Bob wants to help him but has no confidence. Staring deeply into the black spot on the wall, he remembers a similar situation several weeks ago — a strange, one-sided conversation. Bob remembers thinking Goodfellow was temporarily insane, and that he was an intruder, barely acknowledged. It came suddenly. They had been discussing, rationally, Goodfellow’s recent, consistently late work.
Goodfellow’s eyes lost their focus.
“This is too much for the human mind to grasp. Don’t you think, Bob? All this? That’s what Albert Einstein told Thomas Mann at a party once, talking about Kafka’s stories. That’s incredible to me . . . to be incomprehensible to Albert Einstein. What I want to know is how the hell do you go about getting on the A party list? I don’t really mean to put anyone down who works with us, Bob, but I have yet to find someone who likes to talk about Kafka over cocktails. Too fucking preoccupied with work. And I don’t need them to be brilliant like Mann and Einstein. Just a few unknowns would be OK. I can’t seem to find them, Bob. Where are these people and how do I get there?”
Bob stared at him, could do nothing else.
“Anyway, the problem, Bob, is intense boredom. So I’ve got my own little party right here on the desk . . . the wonderful Mister Kafka and the rest, and I spend a little time with them every day to maintain interest . . . a lot of time, actually. That’s what I’ve been doing. So see, it’s not really fucking off.
“For instance, Burroughs here” — he reached for a book — “is a valuable man to have around, very cold, like nothing exists but bones. Burroughs doesn’t satisfy his readers, Bob, because he doesn’t give a shit about embellishing what isn’t there, you know. He hardens his readers, and there’s nothing quite like feeling good and hard and alone, is there, so I guess you could say his books are satisfying, huh?” He got a kick out of that which Bob didn’t understand, and then his face fell.
There was silence and stillness in the room. People talked in another office. Then Goodfellow’s lips barely moved. “I’m sorry. There’s no reason you should be interested.” He closed the book. “I’m very, very, very sorry. I don’t mean to be an idiot.”
Goodfellow never looked at Bob. He was apologizing to himself.
Bob had no words. Finally he tried, “Don’t worry, Mark. Give it time. And remember one thing. We’re always behind you. I’m always close by.”
Bob remembers a little wince in Goodfellow’s sad blue eyes.
He tried once more. “Goodfellow,” he said as a joke, “you have succeeded in your wish to be incomprehensible. Congratulations. Now get back to work, turkey.”
Goodfellow smiled, and life returned to his face. “I am sorry,” he said again, and looked at Bob for the first time. He spun slowly in his chair and considered the paper on his desk with a sigh.
“Between me and you, Bob, eh?” Without looking up.
Bob nodded compassionately and left, re-closing the door behind him. He thought, walking back to his own office: I have done my job under extreme circumstances. I am very good at what I do. Goodfellow will be all right.
Goodfellow kneels in the familiar position between his desk, down on all fours, butt in the air, head squeezed sideways into the narrow vent at the base of his window. The air from outside blows softly against his face. It is only a trickle, but more intense in its weakness. The blue from the arid sky is in it. Goodfellow breathes it in.
So many days have passed this way. Four-sixteen.
He lights a joint and breathes it in.
Goodfellow is an admired man. He walks, moves, dresses, and thinks like a white boy cool enough to have excelled in the black, rhythmic world of basketball — which is what he was back in high school in Atlanta. Now much older, in spirit if not in years, he remains religious to the underside of things, and seems to others cool and thoughtful, possessed, as when five players on a court are unattached to life, and the wood beneath their feet allows them to fly. It can be accomplished alone as well, with effort. Goodfellow learned a great deal spending time with blacks who knew how to fly: always fly. He hopes his old friends did not try for the white business world, a place without height. He has not been in touch with any of them since.
“The last thing you want to do is mess with a shooter’s head.” Tarkanian, Jerry
Goodfellow hits the joint a second time.
Once when he was playing ball, after a practice, he tried to explain what was wrong to a black friend who lived in the projects. Goodfellow’s family was comfortable, secure. He told his friend, while they got high: “It’s like there’s nothing and dope turns nothing into something. It’s like a . . . a cored apple, shiny on the outside and hollow in the middle. It just doesn’t seem like anything worth busting your butt for, you know?”
His black friend did not know, going home to concrete barracks each night. He laughed and said only one thing before hitting the joint and passing it back: “Goodfellow, man, you are one fucked-up motherfucker.”
Goodfellow laughs twelve years later, and takes another hit. His brain swells and suppresses all details except its own rising.
Exhaling the smoke, he returns the joint to the screen and looks outside. It is a squeezed, narrow view — the vent is only four inches tall — but he can see for several miles, to where the houses and palm trees and golf courses end, and heat and mist blur the horizon, churned and floating above the Atlantic Ocean. The serenity, though, is disturbed — something odd and frantic that is buried in the scene but coming out. Goodfellow focuses his eyes; the sky moves. A commotion of birds flies toward him, and faintly he hears their honking and quacking and screaming, a great flock so thick its only discipline is saturation. They grow with each second. They sound like ducks, grackles, gulls, and jays. The western sun strikes them fully, giving brilliance to the endless procession advancing. They are being chased, a way of fluttering, jostled white. Goodfellow does not move.
A black storm is overtaking the sky behind them. In its deepest center lies impenetrable blackness. The drought is ending. As the storm cloud grows, an illusion of sun makes it seem that the sea of birds is illuminated even more, almost blinding.
Goodfellow shimmies away in sudden fear, his heart racing. His stoned mind echoes his heart. He stands at his typewriter and with deep breaths, types:
BOB, ARE YOU STILL THERE? IF YOU ARE, THEN I WAS JUST KIDDING ABOUT SACRIFICING MYSELF. NOT REAL SURE WHAT I MEANT, ANYWAY. WHAT WAS I GOING TO DO? JUMP THROUGH THE WINDOW? BOB? ARE YOU STILL THERE? BOB?
Now there are three small notes.
Bob straightens his tie. He has clarity of thought. He is a businessman again, knowing what to do. Every corporation has someone like Goodfellow and always will. He is not unique. Just a little more tolerance and care, and they will continue to produce. Bob has a good relationship with the president; he will explain his reasons in the morning. He lifts himself from the stool and brushes down his suit, then walks with certainty across the room. He returns to Goodfellow’s door with a jar of cleanser and a rag.
He pours a bit of the cleanser onto the rag, and the dark black smudge begins to vanish underneath his circling hand.
“Goodfellow, you still alive? Listen, I don’t know if you knew it or not, but Jim wanted me to fire you today . . . very pissed off. And I don’t know why, but I’m not going to do it. I’ll talk to him in the morning. You’re a good man, Mark, and we need you, even with all your shit. But you’ve got to straighten up and fly right, man, or I’m not going to be able to cover for you much longer.”
No response from Goodfellow. The shoe smudge is now a clean wall. Bob gives it one last swipe and turns to leave.
“I’ll see you tomorrow then, OK? And Goodfellow, remember one thing, turkey, something I thought of and wrote down a couple of weeks ago. . . .”
Bob is pleased with his final words. They sound as if they could have been written by Goodfellow. As he walks to his office, then goes down the elevator, then out the front door and onto the sidewalk, he tells himself proudly: I have done my job under extreme circumstances. I am very good at what I do. No one can ask anything more. Goodfellow will be all right.
At the window, Goodfellow’s arms are locked behind him; he watches the storm and the birds. Their cackling now, with his window vent closed, is a distant hum. The storm’s thunder breaks through infrequently. He lowers his gaze to watch Bob. The top of his balding head. The wind swirling leaves around him. His suit blowing open; he buttons it. Then he suddenly stops and looks up, as if he just noticed the sky. His eyes hold a childlike amazement, and they follow the birds past the building, coming to rest, precisely, on Goodfellow’s window. Goodfellow knows he isn’t seen but still waves, then Bob says something to the sky, an innocent, childish, happy phrase. Goodfellow reads his lips.
Hello, Mister Duck.
Bob laughs and leaves.
Goodfellow laughs with him, and turns away back into his office. For the next four hours, he works.
Alice Throne returns with a huge sigh and says, “Good night, strange boy, staying late?” But Goodfellow only says back, without looking, “Good night, Alice.”
He takes a short break and opens his door, picks up the notes he had forgotten, reads them, crushes them gently, and shoots them at the trash with a sky hook. One out of three. Not bad.
The black storm at last releases its rain in huge torrents against the building. The birds have long since escaped. They would have been pounded by it. Goodfellow ignores it.
Night moves in and the fluorescent light shines brighter.
At nine, Goodfellow leans back in his chair and smokes a cigarette, pleased with his accomplishment, the determination required, the excellence of it. Mountains can be moved. He decides to tack a new quote on his wall.
“You are the symptom, I am the cure.” Smith, Bob
Bob can surprise you sometimes, Goodfellow thinks. Then he sits back down and resumes what he was working on.
For another two hours, his mind never wanders, and near midnight, feeling the weight of sleep, he decides to call it quits. He stacks his papers neatly to one corner of his desk, turns his calendar to the next day, stands, and stretches his long frame, touching his hands to the ceiling, turns off his typewriter, the lights, and his calculator, walks out the door, patting his chest, feeling his heartbeat, and just on the other side of the door, wheels with a quickness completely foreign and kicks the shit out of the wall.