Now step. Breathe deeply. Exhale the anger out. Relax. Enjoy the
moment. Pay attention to what's around. Pay attention for once, you
idiot, repeat, repeat. Now there's a mantra. Try chanting that one. Focus,
step, breathe. Because whenever you pay attention to what goes on on
the outside, ever notice what happens? Pay attention to little things, birds
and flickering leaves. Or the color of the sky from gray to blue to gray,
sun-yellow to orange. Thinking about it, looking at it, nothing's so bad
anymore. How does that happen? Focus and behold a gorgeous morning,
a warm sun, pleasant, not too hot today. Look at the gardens of the
landscape, the mottling of the patches. Good for the eyes and nose.
Where are all the students now? Preparing. Soon it's back to autumn
quarter. Happy school year. Most of them sleeping now. Remember the
fun in that? Doing whatever, whenever they want. Brats. Some even on
campus by now. Mostly the fit and thin at this hour. Jogging athletes
inhaling more of that air. Fresh. You could call it that. For the city. Not a
bad city. Not too much oxygen but certainly enough.
As he headed north through the Oval, the library at his left,
University and Bricker Halls straight ahead - peace. Can't control this
warm feeling. Don't try anymore. Know it won't last. Let it go if it will.
Enjoy it while it's here. The Oval, where all things come together. Rich
symbolism. So this is what I'm missing. No inner Oval, no center. No
interconnection, nothing attached right inside. Keep listening to the
morning sounds, list them: birds, wind, chatter, plop plop plop, trot trot
trot. Some joggers coming up behind. Voices. Girls. Get off the
sidewalk. Let them pass. The courteous thing. There are benefits to
letting them. Get a good view. Those fit legs of young women. What's
better than that? Put my mind at greater ease. Firm. Can tell by looking.
Doesn't hurt to look, does it? Hell, probably improves a man's health.
Wine does, alcohol. In moderation. So does looking. At least it isn't a
poison. Healthy. Normal. They like it too. Do the right thing. Be a good
Three of the girls passed him, giggling. What's so funny? Maybe they're
A grab from the side startled him, two arms were suddenly around
his waist, and the girl who had just begun to hold him kissed him on the
cheek, then let him go and continued jogging. Though she appeared
unfazed by her own actions, one of the girls turned around in time to see
the kiss. She let out a squealing laugh. What happened?
Their jog was relaxed - none of them had been out of breath. The
one who kissed him caught up with the others. Charles tried to grasp
what just occurred, but it was too much to take in, too sudden, too
strange. Stunned, he could hardly walk. Who is she? Do I know her?
What the hell did they just -
The girl who saw it seemed amused and falsely appalled. "Oh my God,
Kim! I can't believe you did that!"
Somehow, intuitively (or maybe they all saw it? or maybe it was
planned? maybe they discussed it all beforehand?) the other two started
laughing. "Leave the poor guy alone, you slut. You're gonna get us in
Panic displaced his peace. He had an abrupt feeling he had lost
something, that something was stolen. Still there, the wallet? Good.
Kim (so they called her) now trotted in rhythm with the others and
smiled openly. "What's the problem here?" Her confusion did not seem
sincere. "The guy looked like he needed a hug. Hey!" she shouted back
at him, still grinning. "Smile! God loves you!"
Within seconds they had gone many feet ahead of him, turning left
in front of University Hall, then around to 17th Street until they were out
of sight. Damn it. He did notice now that he was smiling, but only from
complete puzzlement and embarrassment. So self-conscious, aren't you?
Who saw it? Look behind. Anyone? Nobody's there. Thank God. Does
it really matter? What's the worst? Who gives a shit? No one. I do. His
face felt flushed with blood, hot and prickly.
Soon tears came into his eyes.
Was this a gift or a mockery?
For some reason, it felt like a broken promise.
Before going upstairs, he stopped in the restroom and splashed
cold water on his face. God. Very red. Look puffy. Grimacing, gonna
bawl like a baby. Get a grip. It was nothing. Stop being so sensitive. Be
a man. Be tough. Gotta be. Because everything's so fucked up right now.
It's getting to you. Don't have to let it. Do you? Shit.
He took the elevator upstairs. Five minutes late. Always try to be
punctual, a good boy. You can't make it on time every day. You haven't.
Not today, for instance. Who can? Forgive yourself. A lot of shit you're
going through. Some self-pity is called for. No one else around to do it,
right? Better than hating yourself. Because his office was laidback, he
knew his lateness would not be a problem. No one bothered him about it
the few times it had happened before, and during the break between
summer and autumn quarters, the phone hardly rang. It was not a high
paying job, but it was easy. At the onsite interview, they told him to
bring a book. They told him they hoped he would not be bored: most of
the time, it was going to be slow.
He could feel that his face was still flushed, and soon he noticed
his hands were shaking. He immediately sat down behind the desk,
feeling more self-conscious than usual because of the shaking and the
flushing and the sweating and whatever just happened. Damn. What the
fuck? Won't stop. Relax, relax. Nothing's going to happen now. Safe
here. No girls. Not the same type. Won't treat you the same way. Of
course, everyone's mean and confusing. But no one will embarrass you.
Not intentionally. No hugs and kisses. Yeah, other things will happen,
one of those days. Someone will call, and you don't know, and you
can't— Cool down. Breathe. It was funny, right? Yes. They wouldn't
have done it otherwise. Fucking hilarious joke it must have been.
Laughing about it. Squealing. Shit, running and laughing like that, must
have really been in shape. Should be happy to oblige. Yeah, a good
laugh over me. The unfunniest clown, but people still laugh. Am I good
for anything else? What? Girls goofing around. Just nothing. A victim of
that before. Nothing special about it. But no one's ever kissed you like
that. Why aren't you flattered? You'll get over it. Tell it to your
His supervisor Deb walked by his desk a few minutes after he
arrived. "Good morning."
He forced a smile. "Hello."
She examined him with a squint, then frowned. "Charles, you
don't look like you feel well. You OK?"
"Yeah, I'm fine." She kept frowning. "I'm fine, basically."
"Yeah, there's just stuff I have to deal with. Some stressful things.
Sort of. A little stressful. Nothing much."
"You need some time? Do you need to..."
"It's personal. I can deal with it."
"Ah, I see. But if you need any time off, let me know. I don't think
Mary would have a problem getting the phone if we need her to."
"Thanks. But I'll be fine."
"It's break anyway, so it's not like the phone is ringing off the hook.
Wait till autumn quarter starts. That's always a fun time." She smiled
"I bet it is."
He snickered as she left. Deb was always thanking him for nothing.
It must have eased her anxiety around him. It wasn't simply a quirk of
personality, because he never observed this in her interactions with
anyone else - coworkers, the students, her superiors. But with Charles,
every conversation was required to end in a brief word of gratitude. So
polite. Was the thanks real? Who knew? She had no reason to be fake.
Charles was taking someone's place, someone named Amy out on
maternity leave. Twelve weeks. Good deal for her. From the beginning
of the assignment, they warned him she may be back part-time, but he
could definitely still be granted full-time hours. Lots of little things he
could do for the next few months. Phones to be answered. Envelopes to
be stuffed. That was what Deb told him, but in spite of her good
intentions, he didn't count on it. He had heard promises just like it
before, and he knew how well they were kept. In any case, the snicker
was entirely involuntary. Being thanked for sitting is funny. So what?
One rule they have. You can't sleep. Probably they'll let you go for that.
Sometimes a hard day's sitting, huh? So far no bruises on the ass. He did
hope Deb never noticed his snickers. He would hate for her to think he
was mocking her.
He sat there and waited for the phone to ring, and whenever it did,
he did what they taught him. Flash. Speed dial. Release. Such a primitive
phone for the modern receptionist. No transfer button. Made in the '70s?
Maybe '80s, low-end. He almost never had to answer any caller's
questions, which was fine, because he would have rarely known the
answers. People just asked to speak to Deb, Mary, Michelle, Joanne, or
Joan and only occasionally someone higher up than these five, such as
the vice provost himself. No one asks for the President. Who answers the
phone for her? Not the President. Her own receptionist. Full-time too.
Better pay. Civil service. For the state. Hard to fire you. What I need.
He tried to distract himself by thinking about his coworkers. These
five women were at least tolerable to work with.
1. Deb's awkward gratitude was nevertheless nice, and she seemed
to care about him. It was as if she didn't want him to leave this
assignment. Thinks I'll get a better offer? Doesn't know me. In any case,
he must have been a good receptionist, which was pretty easy work
when there was no one to "receive."
2. Mary had the appearance of an eccentric librarian: striped
stockings, corduroy skirts and never a smile on her face. Of course.
Afraid of men. Must be. Maybe afraid of women, too. We have a lot in
3. Michelle was a graduate assistant who worked fifteen hours a
week alone in her cubicle, where she was constantly on the phone.
Doing what? Compiling data. For what? A database. He didn't pretend
to care, but she generally caused him the most work. The only one
without voice mail. Messages the old-fashioned way, pink papers on her
desk. He left her messages very frequently because she was never there
more than fifteen hours per week, most of which were spent on the
phone returning her calls. Nice girl. When you've talked to her. Hot too.
He suspected she didn't like him because he was too quiet, whereas she
was outgoing and sophisticated. From Philly. e East Coast girls are
hip I really. I'm too slow for her. Annoy her. Asks a question and
before you can answer, What? What? Rattling off whats. An East Coast
thing. Remember that guy from New York? Midwesterners. So stupid,
aren't we? Slow. Being near a saline coastline makes them smarter. Have
us all figured out. She's a future Ms. Magazine, isn't she? Go-
getter. Go get her. She'll skyrocket up. Break the glass ceiling. No glass
for me. The white man. Can't get that high. Not good enough. Born that
way. Defective rocket. Bad genetics? But I'm still the enemy, right?
4. Joanne was short, orange-haired, soft-spoken, in her late fifties
(he guessed) and inept with computers. She was also the nicest of them,
having solid, admirable values and a vital faith. Unashamed to hang
items from various Catholic sources in her cubicle, she also had one
"interfaith" item: a poem/prayer for a peaceful world. The Kingdom of
God. The mystical path. Must be. Like you can pretend to know what it
means. As nunly of a woman I've known. Except married with children,
grandchildren. Grandma Joanne. Character formed by spiritual exercises.
Daily Mass and rosary. Her gentleness made his work there more
bearable, although her coworkers mocked her behind her back and
sometimes to her face. Too religious. Too inept. Says more about them
than her. Brownies to repay good for evil, the path of good brownies.
5. Joan. In spite of the similar name, Joan was very different from
Joanne, although they did seem to share a talent for baking. Joan's hair
was gray, her sunken eyes sagged with premature age (from all the stress
and the cigarette breaks every half hour) and she had a gravelly voice
that was almost manly. Whenever she laughed Charles thought he heard
phlegm gurgling in the back of her throat. She was pleasant to his face
but she couldn't talk softly, so he knew this was not the case when she
thought you were as deaf as herself. Once, when Charles transferred a
call to Joan intended for Joanne (and the caller did say Joan, so the caller
was at fault) this was Joan's end of the conversation: Oh, oh, you
want to talk to Joanne. That's all right. We have a temp up there. A man.
Well, you know how they are. No. What did she mean? Am I
incapable of transferring calls correctly because I'm a temp? A man?
Both? Two strikes against me, man and temp. Am I a bad combination?
He wanted to go ask her but he never did. In any case, these comments
made it difficult to be kind to her.
While doodling on scrap paper, he listed their names. From school. A
game. The square poems, remember? When was it, fourth grade?
There's Deb, Mary, Michelle, Joanne, Joan.
A fine first line. Two ms and js together. Alliteration. That's good.
He jotted, playing with their names, erasing, rewriting, and scribbling
along the margins. After five minutes, he came up with this:
There's Deb, Mary, Michelle, Joanne, Joan.
Deb listens every time Charles coughs.
Mary wears large stockings that are striped.
Michelle prefers her sandals to her socks.
Joanne shares her brownies cut for each.
Joan coughs striped socks each hour.
A funny one. What next? Not this all day.
His normal obsessions during the workdays were Tara and his
likely divorce, but the event occurring earlier was becoming today's
obsession. Count them. Four girls total. How old? Think. Make a guess.
Between eighteen and twenty-six. Nice and broad, you idiot. Narrows it
down, doesn't it? With people that age, hard to tell. You're barely older.
Must have been students. Undergrad or grad. Maybe neither. Church
buses parked everywhere. Young kids staying in the dorms. A
conference going on. So many suits around. Girls maybe with the
conference. Church or business? Can't say. They know. Didn't ask. Did
what they wanted. Stood there like an idiot. Predictable. Puzzled.
Controlled again. Wouldn't have asked anyway. Too much of a coward
to yell a question. Just kept running away. Maybe girls from the
neighborhood. The south-of-campus girls. People do live there. Some of
Her name was Kim.
Short for Kimberly. Very fit, wasn't she? Not out of breath. None
of them breathing heavily. They were going pretty slow. Probably a
cool-down. Maybe a warm-up. The shorts. Red, blue, yellow, red again.
Primary colors. Interesting. But useless, trivial. Not interesting at all.
Wonder if they planned that. Probably not. Kim in red shorts. Common
colors, aren't they? All wearing t-shirts. Any words? Didn't read them.
Two blondes I think. A brunette. Then Kim, Kimberly, Kimmy. Her
hair? A redhead? Describe it. Weird color. A reddish-brown brunette.
What's it called? Auburn. Is that it? Is English your native language?
Describe her. More of a brunette, officer. Warm, too. Heat leaving her.
Why it's called a cool-down. After intense exercise. Warm body, warm
personality. But I don't even know her. The embrace. The kiss. The
running away. The blue eyes. Flirting with me. For Christ's sake,
weren't they? Wasn't she? That doesn't happen. Wishful thinking. Can
still feel the touch. Still warm on me. It can't be. All in your head.
You're going psychotic. Where she kissed is still tingling. God, am I a
loser. Feels wet, too. Her lips were dry, weren't they? How pathetic is
that? She was warm. She was nice. What you want to believe. Sure,
fucking magic, wasn't she? Listen to yourself. Blue eyes. Memorable
blue. Memorable like yours are, those freakish eyes. But hers are
gorgeous. Hardly notice eyes. Man or woman. That's funny. Familiar.
Those eyes and hair. Aren't they? Why does it seem I know her? I met
her before. Must have. I'd know why the joke was funny. Need to place
her. Where? Why do what she did? Use logic. Recognized me, too,
didn't she? Like to pick on you. Almost everybody. Usually I can deal
with this. This Kim person. Probably does stuff all the time like this.
Don't overanalyze. Stop this train in its tracks. Dumb craziness. Looks
like someone you know. Not even that. Someone you met. Or saw. A
cliché. What she said. Heard it all the time growing up. In Michigan.
Probably a cliché here too. Had to be. She reminds me of somebody,
really. The way she acted. Her looks. The linguistics program. That short
week before dropping out. The short one. The smoking fat girls. The one
from Canada. The hair was darker though. Who else? Too long ago.
Wasn't one. I really doubt she was. Was she? No, somewhere else.
Kim. Kimberly. Kym maybe. Seen that spelling before. Kymberly.
Although she was not conventionally attractive, something about
her charmed him, that curly reddish hair or that nose, thin and small in
contrast with her large blue eyes. She had something he tended to notice:
freckles. Dark ones on pale skin. A lot more than I have. Not pitiful
spots. Not miniscule. Hers you could see. Makes her really - Wow.
That's why you can't stop, isn't it? Can't get her out of your head now.
What a freak I am. Freckle fetish. Why you fell in love with Tara.
Probably. Plus those legs. One of Tara's better features. Hers just like
Tara's. I know her. God, she seems so - I do. How could I not? Just can't
place her. Stop letting it bother you. Met her just once. Something about
the skin. Probably didn't meet her. Mind spinning out again. Academic
Support, Charles speaking. Hello, is Mary available? One moment.
Flash. Speed dial. Release. Pay attention. You can do it. Want a woman
bad, don't you? Going girl crazy.
Randolph. He'll get a kick out of this. That will make it easier, get
it off my chest. At his next break he called Randy, who was as much of a
friend he had managed to make at the university. Charles used to work
with him at the college as his fellow support technician, and Randy
taught Charles everything Charles knew about doing tier-1 tech support.
That knowledge was not useful enough for Charles to land a job, but it
did teach him enough to help the people on his floor. It made him smile
to himself, knowing what a dunce he was to administrators and
developers, yet to orange-haired sixty-year-old ladies he was a miracle
"Charles, hey! What's up?"
"You want to get lunch today?"
"Today? Don't know about today."
"I still need to pay you back for a couple months ago. It's on me.
Today would be perfect - pretty nice out. Been outside lately?"
"We could get some subs and sit out at a picnic table somewhere."
"Ah, I can't. I got an appointment with ..."
"No problem. Later then. There's something else I was meaning to
ask you. Do you know - is there anyone at the college named Kim? Or
Kimberly? Something like that?"
"Well, yeah, sure, let me think. At least a couple, Kim Caldwell and
Kim Smith. Can't think of any others. There might be more, though."
"Yeah? You think I met them when I worked there?"
"I don't know. Probably. How am I supposed to know that?"
"Where do they work? What departments?"
"Undergrad, both of them."
"How old are they?"
"Don't know. Thirties maybe. Wait, no—Kim Smith might be
somewhere in her forties. She has a kid in high school. Why?"
"Why are you grilling me? What's this to you?" He laughed.
"These are weird questions, man. Taking a census of Kims or
"Yeah, I know, they're weird questions but I just had this weird -
bizarre - experience today. With a girl named Kim. It feels like - I mean,
I think I've seen her before. And she did something to me that was - I
don't know. Surreal."
"Surreal? What happened?"
"This girl was running past me, then she stopped, hugged me and
kissed me on the cheek."
"What? Then what?"
"Nothing. She just kept running."
"Are you serious?"
"Yeah. Weird, huh?"
"Was she by herself?"
"No, there were three others. All laughing about it."
"Wow. That's strange. They were picking on you, man. Were they
cute? God, that's really funny. That's all? Did they say anything?"
"Yeah, she said, 'Smile, God loves you!"'
Randy started laughing. "Holy crap. You're right, man—that's
odd. One of the weirdest things I've ever heard. Hey, maybe it was God.
God Herself. What did you say?"
Randy kept laughing. "I'm sorry, but I can imagine your face after
it happened and - that must've been hilarious. Was she cute?"
"It was a little funny, sure. Just weird. The whole thing. She was
kind of cute. Not, I don't know -"
"A little plump?"
"No. Thin. Athletic. She looked like a runner."
"Well, I've seen a lot of fat runners in my day so -"
"No, I know. But I mean she looked athletic."
"It's definitely none of the Kims working here, then. Can't imagine
them doing that. They wouldn't do that. Nah. They're not crazy like
"Just trying to think if I met this person before. I mean, don't you think I
must have met her before?"
"Holy crap. I just thought maybe you'll end up on TV. What's that
show called? Let me think - damn it, what's it called?"
"Man, I hope it's not going to be on TV somewhere. Don't you
have to sign something? A release?"
Randy cut himself off. "Gotta get to Dr. Lumbert's office real soon.
Maybe later for lunch. I'll call you sometime."
He took his apple outside at noon to try to relax and enjoy the
weather. He sat on a bench outside Bricker, watching the people walking
through the Oval. Some pretty brisk, huh? Purposeful. The library, the
girlfriend. Should be a word for it. Make one up. Briskwalking? Not
speedwalking. Beautiful pedestrians and their habits. Gorgeous people
here and there. Not one of them. Never have been. Never will be.
Invisibility. A recessive trait. Inherited from a forgotten grandmother.
That and the environment conspires against you. Erases you. How it's
always been. No one notices, cares. Not that they should. Not that I want
that. What about this morning? Someone noticed you. For whatever
reason. Invisible made visible. By needs and desires. Theirs. Not mine.
By whatever they want from me. Money. Brains sometimes. Work. Snap
your fingers, there I am. Never been any different. But no one's ever
snapped for kisses. Or hugs. Not sex. But kicks. Yes. Fun. It'll keep
being that way. You'll be decrepit soon enough. They'll legalize
euthanasia, too. Don't worry.
One person notices. One out of four. Ain't bad, huh? The bodies
of cheerleaders, too. They notice out of need. Like everyone else. For
what? Avoiding a collision. Hey girls. Watch your step. A carcass in the
way. Big and soft. Fat and ugly. Less slippery than dogshit but just as
disgusting. And more dangerous. So was today different? No new
beginnings. A bad thing. But normal. A reminder. A breathing bad joke.
So awful you're sometimes funny. Randy thought it was. Always been a
fucking gag to him. Why'd you call him? He's an asshole. Don't want to
eat with him. Just send him the cost, your share of the pizza. Pay off
your debts. Better to eat alone. Knew he'd be a smartass. Not understand
the situation. The gravity's too subtle. Just stay invisible. Can you live
otherwise? Wouldn't know how. Lonely but comfortable. Who threw
paint on me? Try to enjoy it. As if that's possible. But you liked it. On
some level. A little. It won't happen again. Not for a while. Don't worry,
He waited, and looked for, something or someone in the landscape
to clue him in, maybe a female, maybe Kim who would approach him
and say, Hey, remember this morning? Let me explain. What are the
chances? Done on a dare. Just your everyday mockery. What else?
People are cruel, inventive. Confusing others is fun. Jokes. Practical.
Creative. Original. Weird too. See? Fun is a need. A desire. Human
nature. Just like you could annoy them. They'd notice you then, too.
Watch and see. You'll get the finger in your direction. And called stupid.
They'll curse and spit. It's standard after all. People testing pranks. A rat
in a lab when they need you to be.
But is this right? Doesn't fit. Too silly. Too spontaneous. Or too
sincere? Were they? What's wrong with me? So many people. A lot for
the break too. Still can't get rid of that girl, can you? A blonde over
there. A hottie, too. Was she looking at me? With a smile? You're
imagining. About something else. A funny thing she heard. A happy
memory. Her boyfriend, her doggie. What if she's one of them? In on it?
Could be. Doesn't look familiar. Stop being paranoid. She wants the
bench. That's why she looked. But wants a free one. Where I'm not
sitting. Creepy man I am. Probably stink too. Think about her anyway.
Perfectly fine to think about. But no. Instead the small-nosed girl in your
head, freckled with reddish hair, bobbing as she ran. Small breasts?
Didn't notice them. The blonde's bounce nicely I bet. Good if they're
real. Not picky. Not worth it. Can't afford to be. Why think about them?
Never get your hands on them. Not a good idea. But a sculpture. She's
what? Cement, yes. Better, not warm at all. Scratchy, greenish. Mossy
perhaps. Gray. Yes, gray is death's favorite.
Kim. She looks like - What was her name?
Wow. She really does. Could be her. Hell, why not? She's hardly
aged if it's her. Long time since I've thought of her. Couldn't be her.
Almost forgot about her. Shit, what if it's her? Why is she down here?
What are the chances? Still saying her favorite phrase. Spreading the
gospel. God loves you. Probably says it all the time. Not her,
necessarily. Think about names. So many Chrises play guitar. Happens
all the time. More accurate than the Zodiac. Kims say God loves
you a lot. Why not? Can't be the Kim I knew. That Kim was trash. I
liked her though. Too much. But she was garbage. So the world would
say. Worthless. I didn't judge her. Or I tried not to. Who died and made
me judge? Sure am pisspoor at it. She was a real outcast. Cast out of the
canning factory. You are a bad bean, I spit thee out of my mouth, so
saith the foreman. Didn't slip by like the others. She wasn't trashy, the
girl this morning. Athletic. Similar bodies, faces. Look alike.
Environment, important as ancestry. For plants and animals. One pink
hydrangea, one blue. How long has it been? Nine years since then? My,
my, time flows and flows, on and on, no turning back. Not like a river.
You can't dam it up. No pauses. Wish there were. Just sleep and wasted
time. Hope it dries up like a river though. Some things should have
never been. Many things. Better off when they're gone. But they all
leave marks. Beds, canyons. Had another name, too. A nickname. Can't
think of it.
This Kim and that Kim. Alike, that's all. Not very much. The same
favorite slogan. Positive, upbeat, optimistic. Theological. Funny way to
put it. Nothing more. Getting fired at the factory. That takes a special
sort. And everyone talks in that town. Had some balls. The girl this
morning was special. But a different girl. They both have balls. Guts, not
balls. Charles saw on the Oval a young man and woman raising a kite.
Knew it was a good day for that. Think of the self as a kite. Reel it in.
Control it. Reel in ideas. Be a man of no ideas. Focus and pay attention.
As soon as Charles walked through the office suite door, Deb
"Boy, do you look better! You got some color back."
"Yeah, I'm feeling better."
"Good. Joanne was asking for you. She's having trouble printing
again. I know she's a little crazy, but you could solve it in a second.
Mind taking a look?"
"Of course not."
"Such patience," she whispered. "Thanks."
Charles smiled and knocked on the wall of Joanne's cubicle.
"Oh, hi, Charles. This printer - it's giving me problems again."
She rose to give her seat to Charles.
"Well, looks like your queue is clear," he said, talking his way
through troubleshooting, a habit that made him feel social. Joanne
nodded. Probably doesn't understand. OK if she doesn't. Abraham
Lincoln wouldn't. Or Jesus. No one holds it against them. "You're
printing to the right port. Let me download a new copy of the driver, and
we'll see if that works."
"OK. It's really nice of you to do this." Cute for an older woman.
Big glasses. Soft-spoken. Gentle. A geek if younger. "This is such
prompt service. Better than calling the tech support guys. It takes them a
couple of days sometimes."
"Yeah, I know. They're really busy all the time." Too old for you.
"I'm gonna grab some cookies. Want any?"
Slow connection today. He waited, grew bored, and started to read
the poems and prayers on her wall. One was especially prominent,
elegantly framed and written in large calligraphy. This particular text he
remembered from a Catholic cemetery: the Prayer of St. Francis:
Lord, make me a channel of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that I may not so much need to be consoled as to console.
To be understood, as to understand.
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Spirituality. That St. Francis. Idealism. Service. Laying down your
life for others. Loving the good God's creation, the moon and all the
animals. Friend or foe. He saw that it was very good. Very, it says. She
loves things I could never. Not in a million years. Or does she only want
to? Nuns and monks and saints can. Doesn't matter what religion, does
it? Think Joanne loves everything? Loves you? Really? Maybe she does.
Before we even met. To give it all up for something besides herself. She
might be at that point. For what? Eternal life? What does that mean? Life
that goes on and on? Life beyond time itself. Who wants to live forever?
Hope it's not forever trapped in time, even endless. Otherwise heaven
can't be great. Has to get boring. If space and time, then boredom. Not
even thirty and bored with everything. You're pitiful. Pathetic. Because
you're a coward. And an idiot. Joanne isn't though. Everybody seems to
think so. Look at her reward. Everyone's ridicule. Maybe she's a
different kind of idiot. She's mocked for being a better person, I'm
mocked for being half a person. Your Father who sees in secret will
reward you. The Lord will defend her. Vindicated. O Lord, wipe out
Thine enemies. Thine are mine. Throw the chaff into the fire. Along with
me. And while I'm burning the Lord will laugh, too.
Joanne returned with the cookies.
"Here ya go. Have you had any yet? They're tasty."
"Joan's such a good baker. It's a real gift she's got."
"Yeah. You're all set."
"Thanks, Charles. You're becoming my hero!"
The smell of the litter boxes overwhelmed him when he opened the
door. Do something about these cats. I need to. Painful to live with. A
reminder. Of her, of us. Of what we do best: failing together. I'm sick of
them. They're Tara's anyway. Or were. She was the cat lover. Wanted
them all and saved them from shelters. Fuck her. Doesn't give a shit,
does she? About them. Or anything else. Not anyone. Not even herself.
Too bad. Not their fault. But how can I handle it? Taking care of all
four? With the stress. No. You have to sell the house sometime. Can't
have the litter smell then. Think about it. Open houses. Cat smell and cat
hair everywhere? Sure, Tara. Go ahead, you bitch. Abandon them. Now
it looks like my fault. You're good at that. Pisses me off. Just more of
her escaping from it all. Us all. What a load of shit. Too bad she's crazy.
Used to be beautiful. Those were the days. You'll be better off without
"Come on, Canhead. In you go."
Canhead, Chewy, Grubby, and Star all allowed him to crowd them
into the large cat carrier. Their trust turned to anxiety as he took them to
the car. They yowled loudly the several minutes to the shelter.
"Shh, you guys will be OK. I'm taking you to nice people. Where
you'll find someone better for you than Tara. Or me. No, no, it's true. I
know you miss her. She misses you too. Deep down. She has to. Hate to
do this to you, but I can't really do— I don't have many options. Don't
you understand? No, you don't. Try, oh try, to understand. You're all
pretty smart for cats."
He could not help but feel guilty and sad, although, on reflection,
there appeared to be no reason for this. He was told it was nearly a no-
kill shelter that only euthanized the unadoptable. Being humane. Why
they call it that. Putting them in good people's hands. Better than
shooting them. What some people do. Even as a matter of course. That's
cruel. Grandpa used to. Mom told me once. Better than drowning them.
Put the cats in the bag and throw them in. Too many ways to kill them.
Used to be a venerable pastime. Catkilling. Didn't it? Pretty fucking
despicable. Not how I am at all.
He parked the car and carried the cats from the back seat and
through the intake/medical door. A young woman sat behind the counter
and greeted him shyly. "I'll be with you in a moment, sir."
He waited a few seconds, tapping his fingers on the countertop,
pretending to stretch his neck.
"Do you have some animals to drop off?"
"Yes, I do."
"No, my wife's."
"What is your reason for surrendering them?"
"No. Not that. Let's see - how can I put it?" After a few seconds,
he blurted out, "She died."
"Oh." Her face fell. "I guess I'll just have to - " She paused as she
wrote deceased in her pad, then murmured awkwardly, "I'm really sorry
to hear that."
He smiled a little, trying to soften the moment. Such a liar. Normally bad
at it. But better for people to think she is. For me, for her. Death is not
embarrassing. The truth is. Besides, it's not a total lie, is it?
"What are their names?"
"This one's Canhead."
She laughed instantly. God. Good to see someone laugh. So
"This one's Chewy."
"Yeah. Plus he likes to chew on everything. Or did when he was a
"I see." She put them both into a cage in the back, still smiling.
"This one's Star."
"Oh, she's pretty. A gorgeous white. Is it a she?"
"Yep. And finally, Grubby."
"Grubby? Not into grooming, huh?"
"How old are they?"
"Three, three, eight, five."
"That's not too old, is it?"
The young woman looked concerned. "Well, we should be able to
find a home for her. If she's in good health, I think."
Charles started to feel nervous. "She's a really nice cat. At her last vet
appointment, they said she was very healthy for her age."
"That's wonderful." He suddenly realized she may have some
insight into the bizarre incident earlier. About the same age. Maybe a
"Hey, do you mind if I ask you a question?"
"I had this really weird thing happen to me this morning. This
girl" - he gestured with his hands to show the position of an imaginary
girl - "ran right by me on campus. I work at OSU, OK? Then she came
up to me and kissed me on the cheek. Don't even know her. Have no
idea who she is. Then she just kept running. And all her friends were
there, too, laughing about it. Isn't that weird?" Freeze your hands,
Charles. Could you look any stupider?
"Wow, that's really weird."
"Then she looked back and said, 'Hey, smile! God loves you!'
Something like that."
"That is really weird." She repeated herself, entirely nonplussed.
"Really weird. Weird."
"Yeah, I know. I'm totally confused. Any ideas?"
"Oh, I don't know. Maybe it was a sorority thing. Sometimes they
do some crazy things. I don't know."
"Yeah. A sorority thing. Are you in a sorority?"
"Um, no. I'm not in one. Not me personally, but - " The question
made her uncomfortable. Too personal? Why'd you ask that? Then she
smiled goofily. "Maybe it was an angel or something. I mean, if you
believe in angels and stuff. I do, but - " She stopped herself and
"Yeah, maybe. Funny you say that. My friend said maybe it was God."
"No, no, it wasn't God." She said this adamantly, averting her eyes
to the counter. Religious, probably. You blasphemer. "My guess is they
were in a sorority or something. They do stuff like that."
"Yeah. Should have thought of that, being on campus."
She tittered and shrugged again.
"Well, I'm off." He waved at her and the cats in the back.
"Have a good day, sir - a good evening," she said, correcting
herself. Blushing, isn't she? Always happens like that. Keep your mouth
shut. Used to be quiet. Why'd you change? Something unhinged in your
head. Now you open your mouth more. Still sir after all that.
Home to an empty house. Me and my bacteria. They'll be better off here.
How fucking pathetic. The lowest maintenance animals. Clean up their
hair, their box. Feed and water. Why? For the best. New life awaits. Get
a goldfish someday.
She gets all the attention, white and pretty Star. That's it. Kim's
nickname. White Kitty.