Raoul and Merriam lean back into the arc of their smooth black leather office chairs. The top floor of the Manhattan branch is an icy room sheathed in tall glass and centred with a dark, long, marble-esque table. Shadowy suits swim in and out of the boardroom, guiding austere reports to the sides of the attendees and their strategically placed laptops. The bleached sigh of afternoon daylight treats the room with a cold fatigue that diminishes the cone of light beaming out of the projector. The fishy smell of office equipment and waxed upholstery is either lingering unduly or constant.
Raoul has just emphasised the need to advance actionable principles that leverage the firm’s core competencies. Merriam is lightly twirling the top of her pen in the corner of her mouth, a subtle grin of admiration for Raoul’s ability to both scale-up and gain alignment across the board. As the expressions in his last motioning signals begin to die down and his hands level with the arms of his chair, he lurches forward once more
“…of course we need to unpack these concepts in a time-sensitive manner that both conforms to the needs of the client and respects the shared values of our central ethos”
A synchronised hum of uncontroversial acceptance rises and falls at a rate that is welcoming and uncondescending; a simulacrum of the humane. The motions through which the meeting moves are of the same vague sequence as those that have flowed through all successful meetings in this generally consistent financial year. The averted eyes of indifference along the table are a sign of grace under professionalism and an indication of things going well and boats generally left unrocked. Collars left cool. Hairpieces/vain accoutrements unruffled. If the pair can close with the full force of their pitch intact and maintain this current level of good will, then it’s back to workstations and All Systems Go.
The acrid purr of the chairperson’s voice slithers down from the head of the table
“Well Boys and Girls it sure seems as though you’ve got all your bases covered. Great to see that your team has maintained the kind of helicopter-vision inherent to a strong company with a clear MO.”
Raoul and Merriam reciprocate flashing grins that completely avoid the kind of naïve sycophancy that corporate patriarchs and old owls prey upon.
“…of course you kids are kinda new to this level of play, but I like what I’m hearing and I’m feeling generous today, so I want to give you a shot. You wanna take the helm on this one? It’ll mean taking a step up though, if you know what I mean…”
The old hand motions with what looks like a complexly-textured golden fountain pen towards Merriam, indicating an assumption that needs to be picked up on for lack of recalling a name or better articulating the point. The very offer seems to slowly stretch both the boardroom and the table for miles, as if the generosity so casually discarded required the distance suited to a reaching hand of God or Moses descending with the holy tablets. This means Promotion.
“Uh, huh…I mean that would obviously be above my usual station. But I’m sure I can…” she searches.
“Well I’m sure you can too, honey, and we need to actuate these initiatives in some capacity, ASAP. As my brother in law back yonder would put it, ‘I’d tell if you were whistlin’ Dixie’, you can bet on that!”
This overcompensating, tortured signalling of corny, hometown bonhomie gave the offer an approximated gesture of warmth. Merriam saw the end of the table draw closer. It was just a normal gold coloured pen, it turned out. Situated around the less regarded, more inconsequential corner of the table, co-worker Ed glares down at the desk, his hand balled into a tense fist of frustration, his mouth tight.
These days, it’s hard to find a place where I can eat my lunch alone. At 12:15 pm I find myself staring intently at the crack in the classroom door, a gently swaying gap between the dull green frame and the door itself is awash with golden light. The gunmetal grey ether of the classroom starts its slow retreat at the lip of the entrance, as dust swirls within the leaking warmth that threatens to spill like a quart of honey over desks, chairs and heavy eyelids. At 12:30 pm the bell rings and I stride with haste and focused intent towards the door and pull it open. The brilliance of the light dilutes and dilates and drains me to a skeletal white that overwhelms in the communion of first contact, yet disappoints in the parched and dry brush strokes of its conclusion. The ghost of such emotions only ever catches up with me by the time I’m sitting on the rough bench outside, cradling my lunch.
My brother will be sitting at home on the couch like he has done every day since the accident. His hands will be at his sides, clutching tightly to the mottled brown fabric and foam of the seat beneath him. His back will be straight, his blue eyes set forward and unblinking, the thin brows contorted. The only movement will be the occasional quiver of his lips and the pooling, drying and reddening of those eyes as the upset of his predicament washes over his mind like a salty sea. The raw throbbing of his throat can be ascertained from the height of the point of his Adam’s apple, a fruit born from a fluttering deep in the darkness of his lungs and heart. It has been three months since he lost the ability to speak, and now his limbs are beginning to cease fully. This is the second stage of the illness; a contracted virus that is slowly overwhelming his brain and seizing all communicative activity.
This has become a familiar experience for many of us in Parkersberg, West Virginia. And it is getting worse. The disease is spreading. Nearly everyone here knows somebody who’s got it, whatever it is. The doctors don’t know what it is, the scientists don’t know what it is, although they’ve given us some reasonable guesses. The external symptoms, however, are horrifyingly apparent. First to be affected is the voice; it’s been discovered that the first sentences and words that disappear are those related to abstract concepts. Patients observed under fMRI show reduced blood flow to cortical regions associated with higher-order cognition and thought. They begin to lose the ability to construct sentences that relate to anything beyond their immediate perception; speculations, beliefs and propositional attitudes, figurative language and metaphorical turns of phrase, creative production and eventually logical deduction become at first truncated, then damaged to incoherence, then totally erased. Continued deterioration begins to show loss of blood-flow to Broca and Wernicke’s areas respectively, and eventually all verbal communication is rendered mute.
It is then only a matter of time before the motor cortex appears to be affected and motor commands fail to be sent to the limbs. I was informed however, that this was where things became odd, and scientifically inexplicable. Only communicative gestures were inhibited. My brother, for example can walk, pick things up and put them down, and essentially do all of the physical activities that sit outside the sphere of direct communication.
It becomes apparent however, that whenever he dares to defy his circumstances and attempt communication, his limbs immediately shudder, contort and twitch in a way to render his attempts incomprehensible to those around him. All forms of circumventing this behaviour have been tried: arrangement of benign objects in communicative fashion, ball throwing activities with targets corresponding to letters, eye tracking software typically used in patients suffering from Locked-in Syndrome (an initial hypothesized diagnosis, since refuted). All attempts immediately arouse the distorting behavioural twitches, exhausting my brother and reducing him to tears.
The only communication left then, is this; inadvertent and unintentional. The language of pain and the destruction of all intention and direct expression. The conclusion drawn thus far has been to suggest that there may be a psychological component, or interrupting inhibiting trigger that frustrates deliberate movement before it can be processed in the motor cortex. Our actions seem to be processed and initiated before they come into conscious awareness. On the last family visit a psychologist thrust a thick stack of papers towards me, citing Benjamin Libet and deterministic theories of mind, perhaps to distract me or broker an intellectual distance between the implications of the disease and the pain of the reality. I have not read them. I just want my brother back. The final stage of the disease can only be described as zombification and we expect it any day soon.
As I sit on the fraying green timber of the school bench and hold my gaze at roughly 45 degrees ahead of me in order to avoid eye contact, I feel the wind lightly lapping at my face as I try once again to figure out why. The ghost of the barren light released from the hallway finally seals the threat of settling in my bones and I feel sick and stricken with an anaemic melancholy. I try to figure out why we deserved this, but what I don’t need to figure out, is “why” in the literal, causative sense. Nor guess as to whom is responsible.
We all know the answer to that.
When Ed got home the realisation finally hit him: he wasn’t coming back from this. The hour and a half spent in the boardroom had started to dissociate into opaque fragments of impressions in his memory as the constellations of his language loosened tether and left him mute. He paces back and forth in socks and loosened tie across the varnished wood of his one-person apartment, in and out of the lamp light. Such fragments are like formless canopies in a night the moon cannot illuminate, islands travelling far and further distant as a breath tangles in vapour only to die at the tip of a tongue. The irony of the situation is not lost on him.
Soon he has to steady himself at the corner of his kitchen counter as his introspection pulls a shard of memory toward him. The impression of his closed fist, his sight diffuse and sickly begins to rise through the heat of an uncontrollable anger. The tinder of his attention suddenly catches alight. He remembers the words and sentences swarming around him like antagonised bees smoked out of a hive.
“…can someone tell me exactly what the fuck we are talking about here”
“…Ed? What’s the matter? Can you…elaborate?”
“ I just want to understand what we are actually saying here, because it means nothing to me”
“Ed we can give you a heads-up later if you don’t understand, as you could tell some pretty important issues are being decided right n…”
“Perhaps you can spare me and everyone else here the finer points of your incoming promotion for now as well, Merriam. I’ve understood that much, just tell me what we’re doing here”
“Son, whoever you are, or think you are, you have no right to be talking to a lady this way…”
“Just stop with your false fucking displays of dignity! What the fuck is this ‘time-sensitive’ message you’re getting from Raoul here? What the fuck is our ‘central ethos’? You don’t even know my name. How could I share anything with you? What core vision? What capacities? And what in a Christ-loving clusterfuck is ‘helicopter vision’? We will all leave this meeting none-the-wiser and resigned to the same barren cubicles with our empty brains and nothing, absolutely nothing, to say. We have the smugness and audacity to sit here prim and privileged and speak gibberish and insider business-speak to each other while people of ill-health and misfortune suffer and die underneath the shadow of this building. Underneath the shadow of all of the shit we should have said and done but didn’t, and haven’t…and so now we can’t. Underneath the shadow of the connections this very business has…”
“Who in the hell are you to malign our work and my name with such insubordination, you little shit. You sure as hell tar with a wide brush for someone seeking clarity. You’re barely talking sense, yourself.”
“Yeah and fuck me, too, right? I’m not counting myself out, we’re all condemned. We’re all suffering here but at least I’m trying. Everyone in this room has heard about the incidents in West Virginia. It’s been going on for years. Who has the audacity to say otherwise, huh? Who wants to say they don’t know?”
Ed’s mind begins to feel the swirling, slowing motions of the boardroom’s silence. A rapid flash of a fist opening, crumpled paper dropping, flashes in and out like a glitch in transmission. The signal breaks through and the paper falls in air, drifting down soft and slow. Another hand seeks to meet its descent.
“…no takers… well that’s a good start. So I presume we’ll all be on the same page in acknowledging the fact that this company has merged with a large corporation being investigated by the EPA that is currently being sued to high heaven for dumping contaminated and toxic chemical run-off into Parkersberg’s waterways, and that we could have raised this issue a million times over at these depressing, ridiculous meetings, yet we have said, and continue to say, nothing
…how do we all feel about that?”
The frosty lustre of the office winds down to a permanence of pace more befitting to aeons in the passage of time than the bustling pace of life in the city far below. The silence welcomes in the aching, wandering strings of a setting sun through the glass, the deep red carves into the space like a single note droning on a violin, massaging the corners into flourishes of wild crimson and yellow. The once crisp, hard interior begins to trickle and drip. The iceberg melts, snaps, and crackles under the breach, crystalline droplets roll and slither into the cracks between the worlds of what can be said, what should be said, and what is passed over in ordinary meaning. Veins of a shared history trickle through the defences, through the cells, through the teeth.
The paper is still falling. Now it meets the hand, the older hand. The memory is slow and dim and wants to fade away. Ed cannot see over the brim of his own tears. The older hands are like those of his father. They open and smooth out the page. Now Ed closes his eyes and braces himself tightly, he draws in the memory of the words on the page, scrawled and full of errors, simple and beautiful like those of a child:
Long time nd no see. It has been many yrs since we have caught up. I am beginig to write now as you can probly tell. Mother is so excited. Shesstill angry you ran. you leftus. I must see you I am alive I can almost talk again I can write!
Love you brother
The apartment is dark. The islands of thought recede and the wisps of things that cannot be said abate. A boy is holding his lunch on his lap, as white as a ghost.