Silas works at a social-service agency. He sits inside a cubicle, behind a metal desk with a simulated-wood surface. One by one, people — mostly old women, but some old men, too — come and sit on a metal folding chair across the desk from Silas, where they weep and whine and struggle to maintain their dignity and finally grow vexed and demand their Social Security checks.
On his first day, Linda, the receptionist, took Silas to a bare, carpetless room at the end of the hall. “This is where we go to cry,” she said, her voice echoing into the empty room. “Or, if you’re too manly to cry, you can tear your hair out in here.”
Silas laughed. Linda was pretty, in an office-furniture sort of way.
After an hour, Silas knew the crying room was no joke. His first client was a thin-faced, birdlike woman with a narrow mouth from which all the lines in her face radiated. Silas was sure she was telling the truth — she was too old and too pitiful to be lying — but the increase she needed in her monthly checks was impossible: the records of her dead husband’s alleged extra earnings did not exist. Nothing could be done.
It was obvious the woman had told this story many times to many caseworkers. Her manner was that of a schoolteacher instructing a slow and wayward child. Silas grew impatient. He thought of the other clients waiting in the lobby. He was expected to process at least two people an hour, preferably three. He opened his mouth to speak, but at that moment the woman turned a bony shoulder toward him and wept.
Silas almost walked out of the office, almost emptied his pockets onto the desk and left. What hope was there for this woman? What hope was there for him, or for Linda, or for all the other people in all the cubicles filled with piped-in music?
Silas maintains his sanity by pressing his knees against the metal insides of his desk as he listens to the men and women and their frail rage against the system. As the pressure increases, his legs begin to jiggle continuously, a kind of joyless masturbation.
One night, after a visit to his ex-wife’s house to see his two teenage boys, Silas collapses onto his bed, fully clothed, and dreams of being at a party attended by vibrant young people with dangerous, exquisite laughter. He is a stranger at this party. The young people are polite to him, but not affectionate. He leaves and walks down the hall to the bathroom: a gray, gleaming chamber with mirrors everywhere.
The only other person there is a heavyset, balding man in a wheelchair who is having trouble negotiating the entrance to a stall. The man’s face and shoulders are rigid with rage and frustration. Silas looks away and hurries into a stall. He does not want to see the crippled man. He wants only to finish here and return to the party.
Silas hears footsteps stop outside his stall. The latch turns, and the door opens. The man, no longer in his wheelchair, is standing there in a faded flannel shirt and worn khaki pants. He turns his back and lowers himself onto Silas’s lap with a solid, heavy surety. The man’s weight is suffocating. No, it’s not possible! Silas thinks. He opens his mouth to scream, but only breath comes out. Already the crippled man possesses Silas’s voice.
Again Silas tries. His throat aches with the effort, yet only a ghost of sound escapes — a hiss like steam from a pipe. Slowly, the man turns. Silas has never been this close to another man’s face. The man snarls.
I deserve this, Silas thinks. I deserve this.
He awakes. His bed. His house. His windows. His trees in the moonlight. He stumbles to his bathroom and sits on the cold, gleaming seat.
He tries to analyze the dream to make it bearable, to distance himself from it. But when he closes his eyes he remembers the face so close to his, the flannel and khaki so wrinkled, so real.
Silas works at a social-service agency. People try everything on him: pathos, madness, superiority, camaraderie, righteousness, tragedy, dignity. He does what he can. He watches out for cripples.