Spring 2017 – Vol. 6
by Jason Namey
The ways of the world never interested Paul as much as the ways of the squirrel. He watched them by the window every day at work while phones rang and computer keys teemed beneath fingernails. He pretended the squirrels were tied to his hands like puppets; if he stopped typing, their souls would go limp. He loved the light percussion of their feet skittering through the vents. He told Sylvia, the security guard, that he wanted a frolic of squirrels as a pet. She said, go frolic up your own butt.
Paul suffered from neck pain. A car had backed into him in a Dairy Queen parking lot. Laying on the hot asphalt, looking up, reminded him of his first locker-room shower; before he knew better than to wash the bottoms of his feet. Other customers had ringed around him and tried to help him remember the license plate number, but all he could say was “my mouth tastes like rust.” The doctor filled him with drowsy drugs until Paul decided that if she knew what she was doing, he would be healed by now; he was done with her pills. He was done with her pills because, if he could just work hard enough to get promoted to Team Lead, he could afford to move out of his ex-wife’s attic.
He worked in the collections department of a bank.
Paul dreamed of one day leaving it all to sail the world with a pitcher of G and Ts after he learned how to sail and what the “T” stood for. Maybe Sylvia wanted to see the world; there would be room. Maybe Sylvia had never seen Egypt, Puerto Rico, Timbuktu. He spent hours online searching for pictures of far-off places. Sometimes he stared at the same photo so long he fell asleep.
Sleeping is not dependable. I will stop falling asleep at work, Paul often thought before falling asleep at work. Before he chose to take his career seriously and flushed his medicine down the toilet.
For a long time after the accident, Sylvia had helped Paul with his backpack. He filled it with stones to prevent penile opinions vented from his inability to carry what couldn’t be over eight pounds. The backpack was mostly filled with stones. It was entirely filled with stones.
“What do you keep in here, stones?” Sylvia asked one day, shrugging it higher and pulling the straps. She smelled like oregano.
“Business documents,” Paul said.
“Pretty heavy for documents,” she said.
“Maybe for security guard documents,” he said defensively.
The next day she said, “Carry your own damn backpack inside.”
He said, “Want to get lunch?”
She said, “Nope.”
He looked out the window and said, “I wish I had a frolic of squirrels.”
She said, “Go frolic up your own butt.”
His coworkers were long since past asking him about his weekend plans; this saved Paul and them the embarrassment both. They just rapped knuckles on his cube’s furred wing and said “Till Monday, P-man,” and his every response missed ears too far down the hall to even hear if he got shot in the head.
“Some game last…” “How is the…” “Haircut!” These things Paul said to the blank echoing space.
Friday night found Paul pulling overtime, not that a lot of work needed to be done, though a lot of work needed to be done. There sat a countless account queue but it didn’t much matter what Paul the individual did because so many worked the same company’s same job. Like a factory but without the sunrise chance of a chopped arm retirement check.
No, tonight Paul worked overtime because he found he had lost the ability to move from the waist down.
I have a case of the iceberg lock-legs, Paul absently thought.
The office floor yawned so vast it felt lonelier lit than dark. Paul had seen this place dark plenty from unofficial early shifts that got him out of the house before his ex-wife or her new husband woke up and said to him words and sentences like “When’s that insurance money coming through?” or “Have you applied for government housing?”
He heard footsteps behind him.
“What are you doing here?” Sylvia asked. The sound of her voice shot a sensation up his throat that swallowed like a sideways pill.
What Paul had been doing was looking at Sylvia’s Instagram and thinking about how much she looked like his ex-wife. Paul didn’t have an Instagram and Sylvia didn’t have privacy settings so he would just google “Sylvia Weintraub” and it showed its skin around the fifth or sixth page.
Paul thought if he could be with somebody like Sylvia, somebody who looked like his ex-wife, then maybe he could be like his ex-wife’s new husband: the kind of guy who owns a home and a sailboat and knows how to use both of them.
He had quickly exited the web browser when he heard her voice.
“Overtime,” he said and spun in his office chair.
“You need to leave, we’ve got these exterminators coming—”
“—for the squirrels, and were you looking at pictures of me?”
The thought of dead squirrels wove twine through his chest, but he didn’t want Sylvia to think him weak, sensitive.
“No,” he said. “Maybe you need to get your lookers looked at.”
She walked over and opened a fresh Google Chrome window and checked the web history. “Security!” Paul called. An old joke. Her breath smelled like pepperoni.
She found nothing not work-related but didn’t think to look in the buried-beneath-the-start-menu Internet Explorer that Paul used for personal browsing.
Internet Explorer was your acorn.
What beautiful luck.
Paul couldn’t think of anything to say, but Sylvia still stood there, cross-armed. He didn’t want her to walk off yet.
“Can you wheel me to the bathroom?” he asked.
“Can you wheel me to the bathroom. I need to pee. You don’t have to go in, pull it out or nothing.”
“Pee at home,” she said. “No one is supposed to be here.”
“I’ll be quick. I just need help getting there. ”
“What’s the matter with you.”
“I need to pee.”
“What’s the matter with your legs.”
“You a doctor?”
“I might be.”
“Everything’s fine, everything’s plum, everything’s like everyone left it,” he said. “I just need you to open the door. She’s a puller.”
“Fine,” she said, “but do something for someone else someday.”
Paul locked his computer. She wheeled his chair down the hall. He felt her fingers brush the back of his shoulders.
When they got to the door, she opened it and rolled him in.
“I don’t have to check up on you, do I?”
“I’m a grown man,” he said.
“Because I’ve got work to do.”
“Do something fun this weekend,” he said and the door sprang shut. He grappled across the walls to the urinal where he unzipped himself and realized he did need to pee. He arced high but missed and hit the floor and chair.
He pushed off and the wheels slipped and he spilled to the tile and the pee found more places to wet. He stared at the ceiling that tapped tiny taps like it was raining which it might have been for all Paul knew, but he knew that the rain wouldn’t rain through the entire fourth, third, and second floors to land on the bathroom roof. That he knew, if he knew anything at all.
Lying hurt, staring up from the hard tile reminded him of the blurry sky he had watched above the Dairy Queen parking lot while every voice around him had sounded like it came through a phone.
Toilet water swirled at his starboard. Who was that? Nobody without the iceberg lock-legs would be here this late on a Friday. Nobody except a security guard or a squirrel.
The toilet flushed again then the sink started to drop water. The paper towel dispenser rang hollow and the man walked over and dried his hands on Paul’s shirt.
The man, Paul recognized him as the boss-man, stepped up to the mirror wearing a white undershirt and black slacks and began to watch himself slick his hair.
“Every Friday I say I’ll be gone by seven,” the Boss said to himself and made vacuum-bag faces.
He shook on a button-down and grinned wide to inspect every tooth, his gold molars. He drank water from the sink, swirled and spit. He looked at the tit-tatting roof. One of the ceiling tiles caved and five squirrels fell. The Boss chased after them, caught one, and took it squirming to the toilet, dropped it and flushed.
“Damn exterminators,” he said and fixed his hair. “Making us wait all week.”
The Boss walked over to Paul and grabbed him by the shoulder, propped him against the wall, looked at him. Paul could feel the Boss’s sticky breath, see the creases in his cinnamon skin.
“The truth is, Saul—“
“The truth is, Paul, we’re making across-the-board cuts. In fact, we cut the board too. Now that the economy’s sailing straight, we’re knocked off course. When the ship gets righted, we cut. Us collectors, when everyone starves we eat and when they eat we starve, to drop the nauticalisms. To drop all metaphor, we’re firing you. Well, the economy is. I’m a puppet. But the economy wouldn’t be doing so damn good if it weren’t for collectors such as yourself helping poor folks get on track with their payments. So, in a way, by firing you, I’m commending you on a job well done. But, in another way, you get almost no work done and sleep at your desk.”
“Sir?” Paul said, twine thickening in his chest again.
The Boss looked down at him and raised his eyebrows.
“Where is the best place to sleep in your car?”
“The back seat,” the Boss said, and patted him on the shoulder. “Do something fun this weekend. We’ll miss you on Monday. Though Mondays are busy, so it’s possible we might not get around to missing you till Thursday.”
He left whistling.
The squirrel had clogged the toilet and it began to overflow. The others danced through the water like marionettes. Hind-legging jigs to songs only they could hear.
Sylvia walked in with a basket in her hand.
“I’m sorry Paul…”
The water ponded around his pants.
“…but the boss said you need to clear your desk and be off the premises in fifteen minutes…”
He didn’t know how water could soak up past where it sat.
“…and I used two of those fifteen texting my mom back.”
She walked over, righted the chair, and grabbed Paul behind the shoulders like a drown victim to pull him on. At first, the chair kept rolling away but then she wedged her foot against the back-most wheel to keep it still long enough.
Paul’s dripping pants left wet streaks across the carpet as she guided him back to his desk. It looked like he urinated himself. Paul was aware that it looked like he urinated himself. He wished he had black pants on.
“Just call when you’re done,” she said and set down the box. “I’ll be right out here.”
He looked around at the empty grey, scented by the ghost of what wasn’t there. He pretended to pack handfuls of air. The desk drawers were full of 99 cent snack cake crumbs. He peered under the desk. Nothing but orphan fingernails. The empty grey.
“Can I keep the box?” he asked.
“It’s the only one we have,” Sylvia said.
“What am I supposed to do with it?”
“Leave it out in the parking lot.”
“What would you do if I took it?”
“Just please don’t take the box, Paul.”
It didn’t seem expensive. Flimsy plastic shaped like six-pack rings; if it fell in the ocean it would kill about twelve dolphins. Something about her using his name made him drop the subject.
“I’m ready,” he called.
She wheeled him outside.
“Can you take me to my car?”
“Sorry,” she said. “The parking lot is off company property.”
She shut and locked the door behind her.
“Don’t you want the chair back?” he called.
No answer. He couldn’t tell through the dark glass if she stood close or not.
“Hey!” he said. “Did you hear me?” He reached back to the door handle and pulled and pushed, rattling it in its frame, the metal clicking each time the lock caught. He put both hands on it and started rocking his whole body back and forth, bending his elbows, until the chair shot out from underneath him into the road and he landed on the sidewalk, scraping his forearm as he tried to brace for the fall.
He rolled onto his back and lay there, catching his breath. When he heard the van pull up, he tilted his head to look at it. Pictures of various vermin were stickered to its side and dashed through with red. It was parked haphazardly, and out came a heavily tattooed woman with a banjo. She made a pile of chopped wood and poured butane on top, then lit it and stepped back from the windswept flames.
She took out a banjo and began to play bluegrass. Each note snarled like the growl of a dying dog.
The squirrels ran from holes around the roof. A sound like damp trash. They came like cut veins. They bit and clawed, stampeding the broken-legged.
They leapt at the fire. It screamed at their kindling bodies, gasping as they piled on.
The woman played on even after they stopped coming, the squirrels. She played the flame-lit night. Paul began to crawl toward her while his eyes traced the smoke-dimmed stars, string holes in the sky.