Sunday, June 9, 2013


At the office

He was wearing a polyester suit from the thrift store. It had past lives. 

He had bought the suit because he thought it was funny. Or because he thought it was perverse. It wasn't a nice suit like you'd wear to a job you cared about. It was off-white, or had once been white but was now stain-colored. It had a faint rust-orange plaid printed on it in a sort of fake embroidery pattern -- dashes, like someone had known only part of the Morse code. (A zero was five dashes in Morse code; he had Googled that after buying the suit. Maybe the suit had Morse-code zeroes printed all over it, end to end.) The lapels were comically wide and the pants flared out at the bottoms. It was practically a Halloween costume. Which would have been fine except that he wore it to work one day after he realized that he no longer cared.

The office wasn't the kind of place where you could get away with eccentric clothing. Not like some creative place, one of those dot-com joints of yore where twenty-somethings in jeans would bat around a beach ball all day. And besides, this wasn't eccentricity. Morrison wasn't the kind of guy who wore Garfield ties, had a desk covered with bobble-head dolls, cracked jokes at meetings, dressed like a pirate and passed out chocolate doubloons on National Talk-Like-A-Pirate Day.
He wasn't that guy. That would have been one thing.
He wasn't the kind of guy you noticed or remembered for anything.
That had been the problem.
Well, that plus habitually turning in sub-par work about a week too late.

When he showed up at the office wearing the suit -- he worked at the international headquarters, in the office park just off the Interstate, a sprawling labyrinth of gray or beige cubicle walls, meeting rooms labeled by letter and booked through Microsoft Outlook, all of it awash in greenish-lilac light, you know, the same place you work, the same place everyone works -- no one knew how to react. Was he going postal? 

Kind of, yeah.

* * *

"Morrison. How ya doin'."

He'd noticed that before, how people here said "how are you" but never as a question.

Fred parked his can on the corner of Morrison's desk, one leg straight to support him and the other leg swinging jauntily. Fred was one of the crossovers, not as uptight as the others on the company's expansive executive team. (There was a vice president here for everything. Vice President of Printer Jams. Vice President of Bobble Heads.) Fred was VP of Human Resources, which always sounded frighteningly Orwellian to Morrison, like how you'd label food for some future alien overlords. As far as Morrison knew, Fred's job consisted mostly of making you watch videos about embracing cultural diversity and giving you un-failable tests about which Myers-Briggs temperament type you were.

Fred was the one they sent when it was time for you to go.

"Morrison." Fred was one of those people who said your name a lot. He had probably read to do that in one of his HR e-newsletters, to make people subconsciously feel endeared to him. "Let's go to my office and have a little chat." 

They walked down the gray or beige hall with its teal or maroon carpet and Morrison thought about how little this surprised him. It probably wasn't even the suit that was getting him sent to HR, a.k.a. the principal's office. The office was bad, but it wasn't that bad; it wasn't the fucking fashion police. Maybe he'd sensed that this was going to happen and he'd worn the polyester suit the way a debutante wears a fancy gown to a cotillion -- a "coming-out" ball, he'd heard it called.

Things in Fred's office: photos of his wife and daughters in little gilded baroque stand-up frames, an electronic hamster in a grass skirt that did a hula dance when you flicked a switch to "On," a mini Astroturf office-golf set still in the box. Morrison wondered if Fred had an expense-report category just labeled "morale-boosting whimsy."

Fred liked for you to think of him as your pal. He didn't wear a jacket like the other execs, and his sleeves were always rolled up; he was the kind of guy (for some reason Morrison thought he might be from the Rust Belt, some hardworking place) who chided you if you were not using enough "elbow grease." 

Fred sat on the corner of his own desk now, still with the one leg straight and the other leg swinging jauntily. Morrison tried to think of what shape his legs looked like, maybe a very angular lower-case "h," or the hands of a broken clock. Fred had a look on his face now like someone who has been told a very long joke and is waiting for the punchline.

Where was the punchline?

When Morrison said nothing, Fred spoke.
"A lot of folks here are concerned about you." Fred was the kind of person who said "folks" a lot. "Everything OK, buddy?" 
"Yeah, fine. Why?"
Fred's tongue was still lodged in the side of his mouth as if he were trying to pry a sesame seed out of a crevice in his back teeth, his head cocked, looking now like someone had told him the punchline but he didn't get it. 

So Fred went ahead with the termination. All of the appropriate paperwork was signed by the end of the day.

A different HR person escorted him out; Fred always sent an underling to do that. It wasn't that Fred wouldn't do his own dirty work. It was just that he was soft-hearted and hated good-byes, even when he barely knew the person. Or so he told himself.

The HR underling was a little Jewish woman from Boston with permed, dyed-blond hair and wide, perennially scandalized blue eyes (you always thought of her hearing some half-accurate scrap of office gossip and saying, "No! Really?!"). Morrison handed her his electronic key-card to the building before walking to his car. She said to him, "May Gawd be with you." She stood there like a little Grim Reaper.

As he drove away, Morrison thought that maybe Gawd had a plan for him after all. That would be nice.

* * *

What was this thing that grew inside him and uncoiled, unfurled like a fog, like when you drive to work on a foggy morning and all the boring office buildings and industrial parks are now suffused in an earth-bound cloud, and it all suddenly looks like a fairy-tale place, like noplace real? Life had started to look like that.

* * *

Sometimes Fred couldn't sleep after he fired someone, especially if he'd seen pictures of the person's spouse and kids, or sometimes even just of their dog. But this time he felt OK. Morrison seemed to have no one but himself. Maybe he was some kind of psycho. And besides, he'd worn that crazy suit. Wasn't that like wearing a big sandwich board that said "Fire me"? 

Yes, it was like that, Fred thought as he drifted to sleep next to his wife that night, the cat warm at the foot of their bed. It was like euthanasia.

On the road

He sat on the motel bed and opened the nightstand drawer to find the Gideon Bible he knew would be inside.

Morrison flipped to a random bit of divine scripture as if checking the newspaper for his horoscope.

"And the house of Israel called the name thereof Manna; and it was like coriander seed, white; and the taste of it was like wafers made with honey."

What the fuck?

Morrison was hungry. He thought he remembered seeing a Subway at the gas station off the Interstate exit. He thought he could walk there from the motel.

The highway divider was overgrown with weeds. The sky was appropriately ominous, reinforcing his solipsism, his feeling that nature was like one of those theater-tech kids in high school waiting in the wings for the director's cue to rattle sheets of aluminum to create thunder, waiting for the cue to create a mood. 

Morrison imagined flipping through books randomly -- the Bible, the dictionary, an encyclopedia, the phone book. A pointillist approach to accumulating the knowledge of the world.

Dot dot dash. Dash-dash-dash-dash-dash.

* * *

There was a world out there that was real. A world where you were closer to the earth, where you acted on passionate impulse. A world the opposite of paperwork and Garfield ties, of human resources and expense-reported whimsy. Maybe he should go there.

But he had already tried that.

In his mid-twenties, Morrison had moved out of his generic one-bedroom apartment and into the guest room of the most interesting and un-bourgeois character he knew. The un-bourgeois guy had neatly labeled filing cabinets filled with S&M toys in them, and a revolving harem of "playmates," some local and a few who visited from places like Germany or Los Angeles. Then the un-bourgeois guy got a girlfriend, and she moved in, and the two of them started asking Morrison to join them in a threesome, and it just got too weird so Morrison moved into another apartment. He never did join them in a threesome, although he fantasized about it sometimes when he got off. (Why didn't he join them? Because he was "all bark and no bite"?)

Around that time he had also made a point of working (part-time) at a used bookstore, which he had somehow thought would be the opposite of having a job in an office for a big corporation.
He worked at a musty, forlorn little bookstore just long enough to become an expert on mysteries written from the point-of-view of cats. He worked there just long enough to miss health insurance and lazy afternoons spent secretly surfing the web. 

One other time he went to a group interview for a job that had sounded, from a friend's casual description, like social work. The city had a crew of (un-licensed, un-degreed, low-paid) "advocates" who checked up on the local homeless people, chatted with them, made sure they were doing OK, called 911 if anyone appeared passed-out drunk or dead. Morrison liked the image of himself standing on some downtown street corner, steam rising up through vents like they do in nighttime scenes on gritty cop shows, ambient sounds of sirens in the middle distance, talking to a homeless man who was so crazy that he made perfect sense. Maybe he would write a book about it, maybe it would make him rich and famous. He mentally reviewed the good photos people had taken of him, wondering which one to pick for the "About the Author" shot on the inside back flap.

During the group interview at City Hall, which felt more like some mandatory driving class you'd go to after getting too many speeding tickets, the man in charge showed the applicants a map of the city. It was studded with red pushpins. The pins represented all the homeless people clustered around downtown. The man said the crew's goal was to drive the homeless people
away from where they might scare off the tourists -- Morrison was never clear about exactly how -- into other areas of the city. Later, a friend of Morrison's who did a lot of drugs said the "advocates" were more like professional snitches -- they gave the cops reasons to cart the homeless people away. Morrison didn't answer the voicemail from the recruiter asking him back for a follow-up interview.  

Oh well. None of that mattered anymore. He was away from the Garfield ties now. He just had to find where things were real.

* * *

Morrison eased back on the polyester motel bedspread in his polyester suit. He was still wearing it; he had taken off the jacket for the drive but put it back on in the room. It seemed emblematic of something.

Was he on a vacation, or was he running away? He thought about a judge making a decision about bail, trying to decide whether a felon was a "flight risk."

He thought about how all that fakeness felt more real than the suits that the executives at his old job wore. Their suits were made out of real wool, and they wore the suits with real cotton shirts, real leather shoes. He decided that realness was not the same as authenticity. "Real people" couldn't afford some of the "real" things in life -- real cashmere, real diamonds. So they had to settle for fakes.

Morrison decided to order up some porn to congratulate himself for his deep thoughts. 

He sat up on the motel bed, a confetti heap of excess lettuce piled up on a crumpled Subway wrapper. The TV was inside an oaken-looking boxy piece of furniture. Sliding doors made it so you could pretend the TV wasn't there. The room looked a little classier when you pretended the TV wasn't there.

He picked up the remote control. He found a menu of porn selections. He thought he would try them all.

Some of the porn was working for him and some of it wasn't. He wished he could take his favorite bits and pieces from each one and make a sort of porn patchwork quilt -- this chick's ass, but in that position. He worried that he was a dog for thinking of such things, then decided that in masturbationland everything is allowed as long as no one's getting hurt. Finally he fell back on the storehouse of images in his mind. Most of them were scenes from other porn, the more tailored-to-his-tastes porn he was able to find with the Internet right in front of him, or from movies. There were a handful of memories in there, too.

"Uhh!" screamed the girl with the fake tits who was really getting reamed in the ass. Her fake climax happened at the same time as Morrison's real one, but that was just a funny coincidence.

"Tomorrow I keep driving toward the border. Or I chicken out and go to Kinko's and polish my résumé
. Or I go home to Mom and Dad."

Was he a flight risk?

Maybe he would flip a coin.

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