I had turned to James, one of my proofreaders, to guide me in matters of love, to keep me from making mistakes. This now, in itself, seemed to be a mistake. On top of this, his work had begun to suffer.
So I called the jackal on the phone and ordered him over to my office, where he might not be so comfortable, where I might pull his forearm hair or pinch him with my staple remover. But when he was actually sitting in front of my glass desk, he said he was having a blepharospasm and asked to use the washroom. His left eyelid was winking spastically.
“No,” I said. “Relax. It’ll pass.”
He sat back in his chair, stared at my phone.
“Look at yourself,” I said.
James did. He pulled his striped shirt away from his chest with thumb and forefinger. He looked over his knees, at his scuffed loafers. I could see them myself, beneath my glass desk.
“What do you see?” I asked.
He looked up at me, his eyelid twitching still. “A fuck-up?”
“You’re looking at me.”
“Isn’t that my job?” He seemed about to smile. “To keep you from making—?”
“Forget about it,” I said. “We’ll pay for it. You made a mistake. You wouldn’t get up and open a goddamn dictionary, and now we have to pay to fix it. Fine. What are you laughing at?”
It was barely a smirk, but as if to prove me correct, it puffed into a quick, coughing laugh. He said, “It was only one word, two letters.”
“You’re a goddamn proofreader!”
“Chief, we both know your real issue here.” He relaxed in his chair. His poise infuriated me. “I’ve been talking to Joan.”
“Does she know you’re going to be fired?” I asked, and the more I thought my face might be blushing, the more I could feel it blush.
Joan works in the Art Department. The previous Saturday afternoon, she and I had gone for a walk along the Charles, from the B.U. bridge to the Harvard boathouse, and then back to her apartment on Trowbridge Street.
“She talks to me,” he said.
“What is it with you two?”
“We’re friends.” He said this like it was something I would never understand. Like I had never had a single true friend.
“What’d she say about me?”
“Really, not that much. Not that much you shouldn’t already know.”
“What’s with your eye?” I asked, though the fluttering had stopped. I thought that in order to regain my advantage I would have to get it going again. It reminded me of my own tendency to become very dizzy while thinking about things that are very important to me yet are in severe doubt, that demand immediate resolution yet appear resolvable only after long and uncertain effort.
“Chief, really, I—”
“Why do I listen to you?”
“You trust me.” His smirk came back. “You’re not yourself right now.”
“What’d she say?”
“When?” He grinned sheepishly, lifted his palms. “When?”
I stretched my forearms onto my blotter. “Tell me what she said about me. Say it. Let me know.” I karate-chopped the desk. I fixed him with my stare. I heard the sound of my nose breathing.
“You probably don’t want to know now,” James said, and he raised his hand over his mouth, as if he might burst out laughing.
Despite the fact that a non-temporary romantic relationship had been my primary goal in life for more than twenty years, I had failed to achieve it. But the more I let James get involved in these matters, the more out of control he became.
“If you don’t tell me…,” I started—but I couldn’t formulate a credible threat.
After the walk, Joan and I had decided to go out to dinner at this Chinese place in Harvard Square. It was a spur of the moment decision. She’d proven a fast walker and we’d worked up a sweat. She invited me up to her apartment, to shower and change. I could wear a pair of her jeans and a T-shirt, she said. I thought I could just as easily go home and change and meet her, but this was a promising sign, and James had said she liked spontaneity. I wanted her in the abstract, I know that for sure. Her appearance, her accomplishments, her toothy smile. She had been a ballet dancer and knew four languages. Her personality was surprisingly bland, though. I didn’t know where her personality was or if it had the tiny hooks my Velcro personality needed. After we’d reached her place, we started kissing. We were next to each other, with not much to say, in the little hallway by her kitchen, and she asked, “Do you want to take a shower?”—which should have been very arousing. Actually, I wanted to suggest we have a drink first, but I knew that James would consider this a mistake.
“All right,” James said now. “She’s sort of confused—” My phone rang and James reached over and answered it. He leaned back with the handset against his face. “Yeah, he’s here,” he said. He laughed and his eyes flitted to the ceiling. Covering the mouthpiece, he whispered, “It’s not her.”
“Who is it?” I whispered.
“Chuck,” he whispered back.
“Give me that!” “She hung up.” And he put the handset back in the cradle.
“She hung up? That was her?”
She lived in an old church that had been turned into condos. The entryway was very nice—stone steps, stone walls. But once you were in her apartment, you couldn’t tell the building used to be a church, though I knew we were hovering somewhere high in the nave, the space I always used to stare up at when I was a small person. I knew how much Joan was making and I knew it would be hard to pay to live that high up by herself. I thought of our age difference. Thirteen years. We were kissing there. And she wanted to shower, and then we did shower together.
“What are you doing answering my phone?” I asked James.
“She was calling for me,” he said. “She just had to tell me something. She knew you wouldn’t mind.”
I squinted at him.
“I ran into her on my way over,” he said, explaining.
“Did you tell her you’d made an important mistake?” The word was Pharaoh, misspelled P-h-a-r-o-a-h. It could have singlehandedly destroyed our credibility as a purveyor of educational materials for children.
He smiled faintly.
I wanted to tell him to leave, but that’s what he wanted to do and I couldn’t let him do what he wanted to do. I had to find out what it was he didn’t want to do and then somehow get him to where he’d have to do it.
“I’ve let you become my friend,” I said.
“But I can’t have you messing with me. You still work for me. I cannot fathom why you would answer my phone—and not let me talk to her.”
“Did you want to talk to her?”
In the shower with Joan, a lot of soaping went on between us. Sometimes her soaping was matter of fact, as if she were cleaning me, and other times it was not, as if we were having a sensual experience. “Relax,” she said, but finally I could not stand it. I stepped out of the tub, dripping wet, still foamy in certain places. “Ray?” she said. Her voice was strained. “The way you were soaping me…” I mumbled. She laughed in an exasperated way. I stood at the sink and splashed water on myself, to wash off the remaining suds, holding a towel to catch the water. Finally she stopped the shower and opened the curtain. She was fabulous. I thought maybe we could try again, without the soap. But she grabbed a towel and cinched it around herself and took another for her hair. She did a turban faster than I had ever seen one done. Maybe she felt rejected. Maybe she was starting to suspect that there was something “off” about me. She headed for her room, got me some clothes, including a pair of men’s boxers, and let me dress in her living room while she dressed in her bedroom.
“You’ve got a lot of explaining to do,” I told James.
He allowed a pained smile and scratched the back of his neck.
“I can fire you,” I said. “You can fire me,” he said, sing-songy. ”
All right, you’re fired.”
“Hey, now, Ray. She wants to talk, but—”
“What makes you think you can torture me? Haven’t I fired you? What’re you doing here? Haven’t I fired you?” ”
I just wanted her to call because—” His eye started up again.
“You know, I don’t care? You’re making mistakes, and you’re jerking me around.”
“It was just going to be a joke. Honestly, Chief, you take things a little too—”
“I think you’ve been fired,” I said, in a phony, nonchalant voice. The room was wavering. My head felt wrong. “Yes. Please leave now.”
He got up, headed to the door. “You won’t fire me,” he said. “I’m a good proofreader.” His eyelid was going like a hummingbird. “You’ll be up to your neck in mistakes.”
“I like mistakes,” I said. “She respects you. She said that.”
“But you can’t see why.” “I’m a good proofreader, Chief.”
But I knew he’d made mistakes.
“You don’t want to fire me,” he added quietly. “You need me.”
“I do need you, but I’m firing you anyway. That’s the kind of son-of-a-bitch I am.” I had no conviction behind this. I smiled. It was a fatuous smile, but I couldn’t stop it. I saw what I was doing to his life, but then again I couldn’t stop myself. I had to nail down this situation, somehow.
He pressed his mouth shut and left my office. As soon as he was gone, I hesitated between calling her office number or her home number. She was the last person in America without a cell phone; she said she didn’t want one. It was almost 6:00 PM. If I called her office number, she might still be there and I would talk to her directly. Right then I thought it would be better to talk to her machine. So I called her home phone and told her machine: “Yes, always. And then some, you know it, and then some.”
But she picked up.
“Is it you?” she said. “Wait, I just walked in the door. Is it you?”
“Not exactly,” I said. I was so thrown off. Had James seen her before he came to my office? Had my phone even rung, or did James only suggest that to my memory by picking it up?
“What’s up?” she said.
I could hear my nose-breathing, could hear it in my office, could hear it in the phone, could hear it in her ear, could hear it in the nave of the church.
“Did you call my office a few minutes ago?”
“James wanted me to. He’s so weird. He gave me his cell and told me to call him in your office—so you guys could hear the sound of me riding my bike home.”
“You expect me to believe this?”
“Are you all right?”
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to find some way to fire you.”
“It won’t be easy for me.”
“Listen, don’t be so crazy. It was just James.”
“Your pal,” I said, very low.
“What?” “Let’s back up for a minute,” I said. I lifted my hair off my forehead and pulled it back taut with one hand, toward the center of my head. “Why did you ever want to go out with me? I really need an answer to this.” “You seemed like a nice guy,” she stammered. “We’re not that serious. It was just to have some fun.”
“Joan”—I had said her name—“Joan, we…” But because I was still at work in my glass office, I couldn’t remind her we’d been naked together—and that she had soaped me. “I just want you to know that I haven’t been able to show you the real me.” “I know, I know,” she said, suddenly sounding very tired.
“Does that bother you?”
“It bothers me a lot, Ray. Listen, I know I probably shouldn’t say this, but do you ever talk to somebody? I mean…”
“I talk to our friend James. And he talks to you. Isn’t that enough talking?”
“…I mean like a counselor? I’ve done it. It’s—”
“I’ve always hired my own proofreaders,” I said. “I’m not going to fire you. That would be low. You’d lose respect for me. You do respect me, don’t you?”
“You can be a sweet guy, you really can. Listen, let’s just cool it for a while. Let’s just maybe have lunch, maybe next week, and we can talk then. Or something.”
I hung up on her.
Before I could congratulate myself for not firing her, I remembered years of perfumes, handbags, stockings hanging over the back of a wooden chair. I remembered aborted Christmas cards, botched hugs, petty criticisms I’d made, heavily redacted transcripts of horrific arguments, leaden conversations, and various groping clenches. I hated the idea that your character stays basically the same and that it follows you around your whole life.
I didn’t want to be alone with these thoughts. I looked over the list of employees in my division, imagining their faces and what I had most recently said to each. Most of them I’d never tried to be friends with. I decided to write a brief memo to myself before I left the office. “Ray,” I wrote, on a piece of company stationery, “try to be a little bit more friendly around the office.” I knew I was sinking into something bad when I edited my note in proper proofreading style, making a careful caret and cross-out mark over “friendly,” and then in the margin I wrote “congenial,” for insertion, though I instantly knew it was not an improvement, so I put dots under “friendly” and crossed out “congenial” and wrote “stet” next to that, which meant leave it the way it was. I folded the paper once and put it in the top drawer of my desk, where there were other notes I had written to myself.
It was dark out now, the work day pretty much over, and through the air, across city blocks, other tall buildings stood at odd angles; I could see into them, and see other offices and cubicles, though not many people. In some elaborate office suite somewhere, hovering above the city, an executive was taking a private shower in a windowless bathroom. There was some comfort in this. Honestly, it was hard to leave my office at the end of the day. It seemed as if it wasn’t actually possible to go.
I thought about Joan saying “Let’s just cool it for a while” and basic hopefulness froze up in me. It was like when you’re working on a computer and all of a sudden the cursor stops beating and you know the thing has crashed. I was thirty-eight years old. It seemed obvious that I would never establish a permanent loving relationship with a woman. I was frozen. I needed someone, someone I could trust, to help me leave the office, to help me get to my car.
For a second my head felt detached, like a balloon someone had just let go, and then a strong wave of dizziness hit. The corners of my mouth watered. I spread my hands on my glass desk and placed my forehead on the blotter. The desk soon seemed to be spinning. I slid out of my chair and lay down on my stomach and let my cheek rest on the carpet. I closed my eyes and that helped a little.
I told myself I wasn’t that upset. The dizziness was just a state of mind; there was really nothing wrong with me. All I needed was a little compassion, to steady me. Maybe someone could find me face down on the carpet, yet not be tempted to use that against me. Maybe an understanding person, a compassionate friend, could put a head in my office and say, “How’s it hanging, Chief?” or, “Are you parked in the garage? I’m headed that way myself,” as if lying on the floor was the same as slouching at your desk after a long day. Was that too much to ask? When had I forfeited the chance for a kind word from a friendly head?
I heard a vacuum cleaner in the distance. It seemed to be slowly working its way closer.
James, good proofreader, I thought, all is forgiven. I turned against myself and I hurt you. Come back, James. Come back! I will never fire you again.
Andy Mozina has published stories in Tin House, The Southern Review, McSweeney’s: The Small Chair, The Missouri Review, Ecotone, and elsewhere. His fiction has been named a Distinguished Story in Best American Short Stories 2005 and received a special mention in Pushcart Prize 2006, 2008 and 2010. His story collection, The Women Were Leaving the Men, won the 2008 Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award for fiction.