Literary Fiction by Dave Housley
Gibbons finishes his coffee and thinks about going for more. It is eleven, coffee borderlands. He could get another and maybe feel a little too caffeinated for lunch. He could wait it out and have one in the afternoon. He looks at the computer, taps his hand on the desk. He picks up his fidget spinner, a half-in-jest gift from Nancy that he enjoys more than he would ever admit. The little machine feels good in his hand, the pleasant feeling of motion, of solid craftsmanship, the amazing open horizon of possibility in the fact that this machine did not exist a few years ago.
He will get a cup of coffee. That should take up a good fifteen minutes, and then it is just about time to figure out what he will have for lunch. He is relieved to find the kitchen empty. Somehow it seems like Garner is always in there, washing something or other, preparing some kind of elaborately preserved microwave lunch. Gibbons has no idea what to say to him after the lottery. On the one hand, it is admirable that the man came back to work. It says a lot about him, about work, the value of it all and blah blah blah. On the other hand, why not just buy a campground or a sailboat or a ticket on some cruise?
He washes his coffee cup and inserts the K-cup into the Keurig. At first he bemoaned the transition to the little machines but now he enjoys the small ritual, his own version of a Japanese tea ceremony. He runs it through the eight ounce and then adds two Splendas and a creamer and runs the same cup through the four ounce. The machine makes a pleasing hum and then he is sitting back at his desk, hands wrapped around a warm cup of coffee.
He opens his email. Two new messages. Meeting invitation, Slack notification. He opens Slack. He has been tagged in the campaigns channel, a note from Dorsey in Creative. They will not have the ad banners ready for the new deadline. Same old story: capacity issues. There is another note from Jennings in Accounts about the client becoming impatient. They are all being very polite but he can read between the lines. He will need to set up a meeting and let Lawson know what is going on before anything blows up.
He could go to the mall, the food court. The Asian salad place — California something? — has a great Chinese chicken salad. The pizza place is actually good, much better than you would expect from mall pizza. He could drive into town and get a gyro, or phở, or a fancy sandwich at the place by the Taco Bell.
He looks behind him, scans the cube aisles, and opens up Instagram. He doesn’t really understand Instagram other than it is not quite Twitter and not quite Facebook and mostly pictures, but the chicken place by the grocery store posts their specials there every day. He leans back, checks the aisle. There seem to be very few people in the office lately.
The heart of the ship, the heart of the ship, you are working in the heart of the ship.
He could go to the sub place, but parking is a mess. He could go to the burrito place but it will be jammed with students. He could go to the Chinese place but he finds it to be kind of desultory during the day. He could go to the hippie coffee shop but if they don’t have veggie chili today, he will have to panic order and last time he did that he wound up with some kind of paste and vegetables that were delicious but he was so hungry he had to stop and buy a gas station meatball sub halfway back to the office. He could go to the Korean but it is expensive, the Indian but it seems like a place you should go with other people, the burger place but it is next to the sub place and same issue with parking.
A Slack message appears on the campaigns channel, Creative pushing back on Accounts. One more message and supervisors will be added, the whole thing will blow up into something that gets to Lawson and maybe even Sarah.
He has Instagram up on the desktop. Thursday special: boneless chicken breast medallions in your choice of sauce over brown rice and quinoa with spicy broccoli. The chicken place it is.
He checks his email. Nothing. He checks the calendar again. Two to four in room 5 a/b.
The fastest thing will be to post to Slack, spray some water over this thing before it blooms into an all-out fire. “Hey guys,” he posts. “Totally get both sides and we will definitely figure this out. Tough times and I know everybody gets it on up the chain.” Good to recognize what was about to happen, but this is really for Lawson when and if this whole thing gets escalated. He is demonstrating belief in his supervisors, in their ability to recognize the difficult situation and work with everybody to come up with solutions. “Will get a meeting scheduled asap so we can talk this through in person.”
They have the best sauce at the chicken place, kind of Asian but not straight sriracha, kind of American but not straight buffalo, something different and buttery and sweet and spicy all at once. He clicks submit, picks up his keys, and walks for the side stairs.
Robertson rounds the corner and stops. He nearly drops his coffee and smiles, thinking about what a cliché that would be, what a sitcom move. Be cool, he thinks. He probably just wants to talk. He nods and walks to his workstation, notes the screen has gone to black. He had been half-finished configuring a virtual machine and Garner just wouldn’t stop talking in the break room and now he is timed out. His notes sit off to the side.
“Make yourself at home,” Robertson says. He sits in the guest chair, the one nobody ever sits in.
Chad Stephenson is pecking at his phone. “Sorry,” he says. “One minute.”
Robertson reaches across the cube and wiggles the mouse. He types in his password.
“Sorry,” Chad Stephenson says.
Robertson’s work is still on the screen. He clicks save and sits back down in the guest chair. “How can I help you?” he says.
Chad Stephenson taps at his phone and turns toward Robertson. “Andre?” he says. “I’m Chad.”
“I saw you the other day,” Robertson says. “I get it.”
Chad Stephenson smiles. Robertson has the feeling that he’s about to make the namaste hands and he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to contain his contempt for the gesture. “Cool,” Chad Stephenson says. “Very cool.” Up close, he is older than Robertson had taken him for in the All Staff Check-in meeting. His hair is dyed an unnatural dark brown, the hair color of college football coaches and state senators. There are lines around his eyes, his mouth, the skin pulled tight. Today he is dressed, again, in his Steve Jobs cosplay outfit: black pullover and jeans, New Balance sneakers.
“So you’re here to …” Robertson says. He has four more virtual machines to set up this morning.
Chad Stephenson leans back and crosses his legs. Robertson figures he is dying for him to comment on the New Balance sneakers and he wishes he didn’t know what brand of shoes Steve Jobs wore, but there it is.
“My job is simple,” Chad Stephenson says. Robertson has the feeling he is about to give a monologue he has given many times before. If he reaches under Chad Stephenson’s shirt, he wonders if he will find a TED Talk lanyard. “All I do is watch.” He pauses for effect and Robertson understands that he is to give Chad Stephenson a push here that will get him to the next part.
“Really?” Robertson says, hating himself the minute the words come out of his mouth. He should be throwing Chad Stephenson out of his work space but instead he is lobbing alley-oops, prolonging this whole…whatever this is.
“I just watch,” Chad Stephenson says. “And I listen. But mostly I watch.”
Again, he pauses. This is the point where he would walk from one side of the TED Talk stage to the other, leave his audience waiting for the turn into unexpected wisdom. Robertson watches the screen behind Chad Stephenson go dark again. “I really need to …” he says.
Chad Stephenson sits up and braids his hands together in one fist. It is better than the namaste hands, Robertson thinks. “And when you watch,” Chad Stephenson says, “you see.”
“Right,” Robertson says. “Cool. Hey I really have to make some virtual …”
“You see who is in, and who is out. You know what I mean?” Chad Stephenson says. “And let me tell you, what happened here? This? There are a whole lot of people who are out. Checked out. Punched out. Left out.” He pauses, looks Robertson right in the eye. “Out!” he says, practically shouting.
Robertson nods. It is the most accurate, interesting thing the man has said. “So you noticed that, huh?” he says.
Chad Stephenson sits up. “But not you,” he says. “You are still here. Present. And that is …” He gestures to the chair, wiggles the mouse, and the screen comes back on. “That is interesting.” He stands and waves at the chair.
Robertson sits down and swivels to watch Chad Stephenson striding out of his work area. He stops and turns around. He makes the namaste hands and Robertson wonders if Chad Stephenson can read his mind, if he is being gaslit, trolled. “We will talk again soon,” Chad Stephenson says. He winks, points his hands at the screen behind Robertson. “Better get going on those virtual machines,” he says.
Yoder wakes up on his feet again. It is dark. Night. He is in a kitchen. Why always a kitchen? He leans against the counter and takes stock. His Achilles tendons ache. He can feel his arms, his chest, his penis, legs, but he cannot see them. In the movies, ghosts are always able to see themselves at least, even if others can’t. Another bullshit expectation they programmed into him at some time or another.
His life. He had tried to be a good person. He worked hard, did his best. Sure, he drank a little too much, but what harm did that do anybody, a forty-five-, fifty-, fifty-nine-year-old bachelor drinking boxed wine in an apartment by himself. In the end it was all bullshit. Every diet, salad, trip to the gym, new car, report, project, performance review. What did it all get him? He is a ghost in some stranger’s kitchen, some asshole who probably won the lottery.
Whose kitchen? This one seems modest, normal, orderly, no beer cans or bottles of tequila along the counter, no dishes in the sink, no Best Buy or Amazon boxes lining the walls. Just a normal kitchen owned by apparently normal people. On the refrigerator there are two pictures. He gets up close enough to see. Corgis. Jesus Christ, he is in Garner’s house.
It is midnight. All is quiet. No music or shouting or four-wheelers. He walks into the living room. Again, nothing. Just a normal living room. He wonders how many emails Garner sent about the lottery, how many tickets he bought, scanned, emailed out to his little group with the note that started “When we win …”
Yoder sits down on the couch. From somewhere down a hallway, he hears a dog whimper and then bark. Could it be true that animals can sense him, or even see him? The couch looks like leather but it feels like plastic. Fucking Garner. Maybe he can get himself something other than a pleather couch now that he’s a goddamn millionaire. Is it better or worse that Garner hasn’t apparently gone on some kind of asshole spending spree? Cowens with his KISS Kruise, Pappas with his virtual reality headsets, Mowery with his four-wheelers and sad indoor hot tub. And Garner is sitting on his plastic couch watching a twenty-two-inch television.
It is worse. Much worse. Who the fuck does Garner think he is? He was always quiet, polite, a little weird, nerdy enough that even Yoder felt kind of sorry for him with his flip phone and belt buckles and center-parted hair. He was good enough at his job. Reliable. Yoder always thought there was something else there, though, some kind of condescension buried deep behind those “how you doings” and “looking forward to the weekends.”
He remembers exactly when he stopped playing the lottery, the day after his fiftieth birthday, the invitation from AARP sitting on the kitchen table. He had been purposefully neglecting to do the math until then, but with fifty behind him it seemed finally time to see how he was positioned for retirement. Maybe he was a little hungover. Maybe still a little drunk. He had a feeling about what the numbers were going to look like, a buried pulse of hope that they were going to be better than he could have imagined. He plugged his savings to date, plus the retirement, plus his age and location into the calculator. He did it again. Googled and found another retirement calculator and did it again. They all returned the same result.
He broke into a cold sweat and then a deep blush. His glasses fogged. He didn’t shout or go lash out at somebody’s Internet comment. He just sat there, wiping his glasses and looking at the numbers on the screen. He would be able to retire in forty years. At the age of ninety. It was the first time he thought about killing himself. He googled it quickly and then closed the page, wiped his history clean, bought a box of wine and had his first glass with lunch.
From there he focused on saving, paying down credit cards, getting rid of unnecessary luxuries. He downgraded his boxed wine, started buying Dockers from the Goodwill, cut out even the two dollars here or there to play the office lottery.
And now Garner doesn’t even have the good sense to go and get himself a new goddamn couch? There is a plastic vase on the coffee table, dog magazines stacked neatly. Yoder throws the vase against the wall and it makes a hollow knock and then bounces into the kitchen. From down the hall he can hear the dogs going crazy, their high-pitched bark and whine, and then Garner speaking calmly. The door opens and Yoder freezes. He checks again to make sure he is invisible. A ghost. A whatever.
The dogs are fussy and cute, fuzzy, with little stumpy legs. They move through the room, sniffing, their noses ticking up and down. Garner follows. He is wearing a bathrobe and slippers, rubbing at his eyes. “Okay guys. See? Nothing here,” he says. The dogs circle the room. One hurries into the kitchen and the other stops near Yoder. It turns to look right at him. It sniffs, turns its head, and then barks. Yoder backs up. He takes his feet off the floor and sits on top of the plastic top of the plastic couch. “Really, Hermione?” Garner says. “Barking at ghosts again?” He turns to the kitchen. “Come on, Harry. Back to bed.”
Of course Garner would name his dogs Harry Potter names. Hermione continues to stare right at him. He waves a hand and her attention stays in the same place. She can’t see him but she knows something is there. Interesting.
Garner pats her head. “Come on, girl,” he says. “Back to the big bed.”
The dog continues staring. She barks. Yoder is just about to reach out and touch her when Garner takes control of her collar and leads her down the hall. They walk past the vase.