I woke up this morning to the sound of goat’s hooves across my porch, click-clack, click-clack. Once I swept the cobwebs from my head from my head I realized it was Brownie, stepping off toward the parking garage in her high heels. This was my wake-up call. I stumbled to the blinds so I could check out her Monday attire: black leather miniskirt with brass buttons, a beige mock-turtle sweater. She was nearing the corner of the garage when she snapped her fingers and turned. In my rush to close the blinds, I managed to get it stuck open. Then the doorbell rang.
I panicked for a long second, wondering if I should just pretend I wasn’t home. I covered my mouth to make my voice sound far away from the door and said “Just a second!” I slipped on my bathrobe and breathed once, twice for good measure, then unlocked the door.
“Oh, uh, hi,” she stammered “I’m Sheila, your next-door neighbor?”
She didn’t seem angry, but she was reaching for her purse. Mace? Stun gun?
“Are you Michael?” she asked. She knows my name, I thought.
“Um… yes, I am.”
She drew something from her purse. I flinched. She handed me a small envelope.
“They must have, switched these in our mail.”
At this point, I was unable to start my sentences without rehearsing the vowels.
“Oh, uh, ah, yeah,” I said. “Thanks.”
“Have a good one.” She spun on her heels and skipped down the porch. I stood there like a deep-frozen jerksicle, but at least I got to watch Brownie walk away.
Work. Everything seemed pretty normal today. Naomi was clothed like a jungle elf in zebra-stripe polyester. I was unusually charged up for my work. I sat at my cubicle and studied a stack of green contract cards.
“Ah’m gonna get you suckahs.”
“Did you say something?” asked Naomi.
Vowel rehearsal! “Oh, uh, ah, no.” I pulled out all my stamps and prepared to send out car titles.
“Michael?” Naomi again, leaning over the partition.
“Mr. Cunningham said he wants to see you in his office. Right away.”
“Oh, uh, okay.” What kind of manager interrupts a guy when he actually wants to do some work?
I threaded a rat’s maze of cubicles to the office of Michael Cunningham, vice president, operations. Nice guy, generally. Leaves his door open, just to make sure we know what he means by his open-door policy. Thinks of himself as still a darn good softball player – misses all the practices, plays in the games, makes a lot of errors and sits out the rest of the season with that darn hamstring problem. I mostly wish he would stop palling around with us and just be a big shot. When I entered, he was on the phone.
“Yeah. Yeah, Doris, go ahead and send out the repo squad on that. We’ve been trackin’ this lady much too long.”
He hung up, then turned to me. “Michael, Michael, Michael, always good to have more Michaels in the office. Grab a seat.”
I pulled a chair next to his desk and let myself down, not entirely sure what to do with my limbs. I crossed one leg over the other and pulled my foot back toward me with both hands. This kept everybody busy.
“Naomi said you wanted to…?”
Yes, yes. Sorry about that. I was talking to Naomi about something else and just figured I would…” He paused, then picked up his paper clip holder and held it like a small pet. “Michael, do you have a college degree?”
I was stuck. He seemed to know anyway, so why get caught in a lie?
“Yes, I do.”
“What in?” he asked. “If you don’t mind telling me.”
“Journalism! Excellent degree. Useful in many fields.”
I looked past Mr. Cunningham’s head to a softball trophy on his shelf. The plaque read Summer 1978.
“So why did you not pursue journalism?” he asked.
I was quiet for a second, studying the laces on my shoe, the one in my hands.
“I’m not sure.” I retreated to a set line I give to people at parties. “I guess it took me four years of journalism school to figure out that I didn’t want to be a journalist.”
He smiled. “I’ve always thought that’s what bachelor degrees are for, actually. My own major, believe it or not, was psychology.”
“I believe it.”
“It’s been pretty useful for management work, working with employees, trying to get them to do their best.”
He set down the paper clip holder and stood, pacing to the window, which looked out on a field of cubicles. “That’s why I wanted to talk to you, Michael. I’ve seen the things you’ve written around here, the party invitations, the softball reports – oh, and that amusing memo you composed for Roxy about our sick leave policies.
“And I’ve also seen your theater reviews in the Eagle.”
“Oh, that’s just a hobby,” I said. “Just keeping my hand in.”
“No, no. The writing I saw was not that of a hobbyist. The review last week on that Chekhov play was a fine piece of work. But that’s beside the point. I guess what I’m trying to figure out, Michael, is… why aren’t you using these obvious skills of yours to get ahead?”
“I didn’t think it appropriate to my talents.”
“Talents, shmalents. You’ve got a head on your shoulders, Michael. That and a Swiss Army knife is all you need. Anyone who can graduate with a journalism degree can learn the credit department. It’s a cinch. And who knows? In a couple years you could work your way into management. We’re talking long hours and tough work, but the payoff is excellent. Look, you’ve got a girlfriend, right?”
He didn’t give me a chance to answer.
“You’ve got plans, right? Maybe get married, maybe have some kids. Hell, maybe send them to college. You’ve gotta have money, Michael, you’ve got to get out of this accounting department graveyard.”
I was no longer listening, really. I stared at my shoe and pretended to find a smudge, wiping it off with my finger. Mr. Cunningham let my silence reel out for a while, then wrapped up his presentation.
“Look, Michael, I’m not asking you for some immediate answer. These are important, complicated things to consider. But think about it. I’ve got good jobs for college graduates here. There will always, at one time or another, be a spot open for you. Think about it.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I will.”
“Now get out there and send out some titles,” he laughed. “Roxy’s probably pissed at me for slowing you down.”
I spent the late afternoon flying a kite down at the community center. It was a dragon kite, a twenty-five-footer. I bought it the week after my first breakup with Stacy. I flew it next to a sculpture there, this odd metallic pretzel called The Cosmos and Everything. I looped the stick around the corner of the sculpture and sat on the grass, watching it whip its tail in the wind. Down by the pond, an old man in a tattered gray suit had set up a feeding station for the Bachelor Ducks. From his pathside bench, he reached into a loaf of day-old bread and threw bite-sized chunks into the flurry, delighted at all the fuss he was causing. A young woman jogged by with a golden retriever, sending the ducks scattering. The old man sighed and looked at his watch.
I didn’t get much done today after my meeting with Michael Cunningham. A half-hour and eight contracts into the pile I found a title with Stacy’s name on it. I stared at it for a full minute, searching for instructions beneath the surface: treble clef, crescendo, fermata, anything. I signed it illegibly and threw it on the stack.
Photo by MJV