Standing up front with a mic in his hand, Andy is in his element, the MC, a happy go lucky Irishman gripping a tumbler of Johnny Walker. He’s relishing what’s coming: it’s time for the new hires to haul their asses up front and humiliate themselves. It’s the skits.
I strain to bring him into focus and then give up and stare over toward an empty wall, which appears to be pulsating. I feel the first faint stirring of the beast and its ominous rumblings. Everything has shifted to one side. I’m sitting totally still — I’m almost certain of it — reasonably contained as I watch that nincompoop Todd, down at the far end of the table, reach out his sledgehammer jaw and stare hard and yet empty-eyed at Andy.
“Pick a number,” Andy says again.
Todd is a massive Kansan, none too friendly. Beside him, his dour-faced wife who hasn’t smiled or had a facial expression the whole evening (even when Todd lovingly wrapped his arm around her) looks down at the remains of a wedge of blueberry cheesecake on a desert plate in front of her, then lightly slams an elbow into Todd’s ribcage.
“Gimme ten,” the big man says.
“All right,” Andy replies and reaches into the baseball cap full of small scraps of paper and pulls out number ten. “Burn the U.K. flag,” he reads, his grin stretching out to unnatural proportions. “You’ve got to burn the U.K. flag.”
It’s just a joke, there’s no University of Kansas flag, but Todd’s fleshy face reddens. He glares at Andy, nostrils trembling. I can just about hear the scream of a train whistle somewhere off in the distance, but I know it’s all in my head, the beast seeking to breathe life into something, anything, which is what it does.
Todd sits unmoving but his eyes are speaking volumes. They’re telling Andy that he’s relatively small as humans go, that it would be easy, even enjoyable, to dislocate just about any part of his body. His eyes have narrowed down to Bunsen burner-like flames.
Andy, all smiles, isn’t fazed. “Just kidding, I love Kansas! Kidding, come on, Todd,” he says. And the truth is, he probably does. Not because he’s been there, though he may have been, but due to the loyalty of the gridiron. Andy is all sports, all the time. Plus, he doesn’t care. Like most of the people at this gathering, Andy lives to drink and toss off one-liners and watch sports and spew out pretty much whatever nonsense bubbles into his head. But even with his disarming charm, the concrete pillar in the too-large jacket and tie across the table doesn’t see the joke.
As for me, I am wavering in an icy indoor wind, shackled to a wooden stake, feeling the flames start to crackle at my feet. I know, I know. I’m just sitting at a table, heavily sated from a free-of-charge meal, awash in hooch like everybody else. But the rumbling is starting to radiate out to my appendages.
Dottie sits across the table from me, squirming beside her husband Rob, fifteen years her senior. Rob is shielding his eager, smiling face behind a huge digital camera he is pointing everywhere. Dottie, poor Dottie, is so tight her cheeks are about to split open. She’s praying she won’t be called on to do one of the skits. She’s painfully shy and no wonder, what she must have endured over the years, burdened by an unbroken landscape of acne, even now at fifty-three, which has ravaged much of her face from chin to scalp. On winter days her cheeks glisten with the sheen of a medicinal cream that reflects the overhead fluorescents. Oh, Dottie. Poor Dottie. But she’s not without her defenses. There’s danger in her eyes, if you look closely: a moist, malevolent cat-like gleam, a formidable power in the laser-like pupils which float in milky fluid behind the large eyeglasses. Every once in a while she will lash out when she’s pushed too far, her eyes flush with unblinking malice, her stare murderous, only to retract into passivity in a lightning flash, the explosion quickly pulled back into the dark.
Dottie’s eyes grow large. Then the pupils shrink down again.
Everyone stares at poor Dottie. Immediately, involuntarily, she’s gone. She’s taking a little trip back in time. She’s huddled down in her family’s basement, crouched in the crawlspace beneath the stairs, out of sight of her father, soaking in a novel in the flashlight beam, imagining herself someone, anyone, who’s living life instead of running away from it.
Her face has become blank, for no one’s home; she’s not even in this city or state or time zone, she’s flown somewhere tropical and exotic, where she gets to be sexy and bold, or impish and coy. It’s a place perhaps drawn by Graham Green or Michael Ondaatje. Away she’s gone, away, down the pages, across time.
“Dottie!” Andy roars. “C’mon! Don’t be a spoil sport!”
She returns with a crash and a look of surprise. Big Kansas watches her, slit-eyed, from two seats down. He doesn’t give a shit about Dottie. Crazy old bird, he’s said many times, hippie chick from Northampton. She’ll never figure into his life and so she doesn’t exist for him. But his companion, the wife, enjoying Dottie’s twisted grimace, smiles ever so slightly.
“No way,” Dottie mumbles through clenched teeth.
The chorus of C’mon Dottie’s grows louder.
Her husband Rob chimes in. “C’mon, Dottie.”
Aghast, she swivels toward him, leans over and whispers in his ear. Quickly he straightens up and stares straight ahead. To the crowd, Dottie says, “Don’t even try.” She’s been here before.
The jeers leap and dance and jump and spin through the air, the room now shrunk down to claustrophobic dimensions. Rob carefully places the camera with its massive lens on the table, beside the To Go box with its chocolate cake, two pieces untouched.
“You can do it,” Rob urges.
“You obviously don’t want to get laid tonight,” she hisses, loud enough for everyone to hear.
The ensuing silence is gravitational and all-consuming, draining the oxygen from the room. Tumultis interruptis. Howard, one of the sales guys, unable to hide his horrified expression, snickers, “TMI!”
Images flow into the room’s collective mind, of Dottie’s skinny body with its knife-edged angles enveloped beneath the expansive Rob, his fleshy rolls absorbing her like a Boa Constrictor absorbing some innocent little creature. The images crowd out all thought and sensate data, obliterating the hard-won drunken buzz. My nerves jangle. The beast lolls in the discord. The walls are leaning inward now, pulled toward the center of the room, and Dottie, oblivious to her fax paus, is puzzled by the stunned silence and nervous chuckles. In her mind she’s succeeded; she’s fit in. She sits up straight and triumphantly and smiles in that modest way of hers that doesn’t stretch the skin too much.
The empty space between the people seems to speak now, if I could only understand …
The whole crew—boss William, his coquettish wife Connie, the new sales guy Bob, Michael and his blandish Barbie date—none of them care about any of this. They are unable to follow much that’s going on. Their words are garbled, bubbling up as if from underwater. I think they’re talking about wandering out of here after dinner and heading across the street to The Iron Horse, a rowdy bar, but I’m not sure. I’m dealing with my own problems here.
“Rubio!” Andy bellows out from up front. Dottie is off the hook, and settles back in her chair.
All eyes turn to the only man of color in the room. Rubio’s personal life is too complex to comprehend, we only know there are multiple ex-wives and kids and former employers and states around the country that pull at him for reasons financial and personal. You get the feeling that the smirking, pencil-stashed Rubio has always done something that’s pissed someone off. On the other hand, he’s a technical genius, a big earner for the company, and clients always want him to develop software for their critical back-end systems (unlike Todd, who can only do routine patches).
“Six,” he calls out jovially, and Andy plunges his hand into the baseball cap and reads from the slip of paper: “Sing a song about the company.”
Cheers all around. Oh, this will be good. We all want to see Rubio do something, anything. He’s razor-tuned to what people want, what they expect, you never have to worry about Rubio being contrary. He’s a pleaser. And he’s pleased a lot of folks — at least at the start. You get the notion that follow-through may not be his strong suit.
“No problema,” he says confidently as he begins to scrawl lyrics on a napkin.
The woman sitting beside him, his wife/girlfriend/ex-wife/date/hooker, who is a lot more human being than her spaghetti-strapped red dress can contain, grips his upper arm and tries to drag him up front. The crowd is back to cheering and hooting now that the disturbing (but typical) Dottie interlude is over.
But Rubio’s not getting up quite yet so his lady sashays up front, clears her throat, and belts out a drunken song about the way her dad had turned into a bitter old fart, how he tried to keep her from going out on her own, and how Rubio saved her from all that. Totally inappropriate. But she’s brilliant.
A minute later, Rubio tears up his napkin in frustration and throws the ragged pieces into the air, which rain down like spent fireworks onto the table and floor. He walks up front, gently pushes aside his date, and he now starts to sing — and he’s even better than her. He sings about us in the room, it’s funny and improvisational, and his voice is amazing.
“Dot-tie!” Michael, a consultant, starts to chant, and the gears start to turn as people consider whether or not to push poor Dottie again. Wouldn’t that be fun! This is a tough crowd. Her face is frozen in a horror stare, like someone has plugged her into a million watt socket. But the group decides not to venture any farther into her goulash, and Michael’s urgency peters out as he hoists up his beer to, well, anything. Fuck it. He starts talking to the long tall woman in the black dress sitting beside him who hasn’t said much all night.
The managers — Bob, Michael and William sitting up at table one — they’re all successes. Big houses, BMWs, pretty wives. They breathe, eat and dream business. It wakes them in the middle of the night, their subconscious minds chipping away at supply chain problems. They are machines. Money making machines. They take notes at 3 a.m., you find emails tagged 4:33 a.m. in your inbox the next morning. The rest of the crew are the working class, though everyone’s on a level playing field tonight.
“Iron Horse!” Michael says to the room, as if expecting everyone, even Dottie and Rob to shout out, “Ya mon!”
Soon everyone is donning their coats. We pass through the lobby and step out into the forbidding nightscape, not exactly a warm and welcoming place. The sidewalks are thickly coated in ice, we shuffle forward into the howling wind, and I have the unsettling feeling that the air is laughing at me as I pull out a tube of moisturizer and attempt to stave off the drying of my hands.
The restaurant’s glowing red sign above us shakes violently in the wind as if trying to break loose and crash down on the oblivious creatures beneath it. The sign holds. None of these folks, my coworkers, would care if it fell and hit them. That would be great. They don’t care about much of anything right now. Not the wind, nor the cold, nor the next moment coming up to meet them. What they do care about is the money. The money and the booze, the laughs, the ball games, and whatever else happens to be flying around at a given time. They know in the end it’ll all be fine — exactly what I don’t know. As I watch them walk off laughing into the night, slipping on the ice, falling down, clutching at each other for a lift up, pulling that person down, laughing some more, too numb to care, I think: what a useful skill is this business of looking at something and seeing just what you want to see.
Dottie and Rob grimace goodbye and start speed-walking toward the parking lot, and I wonder what that drive-home conversation will be like.
I take a long inhale. My nose hairs freeze up. I click the remote for my car’s lock, hoping the vehicle will announce itself from somewhere in the vast asphalt expanse. I hear the distant chirp, determine the direction. Though the cold starts to penetrate my wool coat, I drink in an unfettered breath, feel the comforting spaciousness and start on my way.
Images: from the Hubble telescope