Glen Pourciau

Altitude

 
Worst part of work is the meet­ings, ask any­body, and I always seem to find myself in one of them with my col­league with the mile-high view.  If he’s not try­ing to edu­cate us he’s try­ing to sell us some­thing, main­ly the wis­dom of his ele­vat­ed view­point.  I don’t know why he wastes his time on us when it’s obvi­ous he believes we’ll nev­er scale the men­tal heights nec­es­sary to under­stand him.  It must be cold and lone­ly up there on the moun­tain­top, see­ing the rest of the world below bet­ter than the peo­ple who live there.

He’s not the boss, but the boss nev­er tells him to shut up.  I’ve dis­agreed with him a num­ber of times and so have oth­er peo­ple at the meet­ings.  We keep chirp­ing away at him and he keeps answer­ing from his high­er lev­el, lean­ing way back in his chair and look­ing down his face at us.  If we ask the boss a ques­tion he answers, and if the boss dis­agrees with him he argues with the boss.  He can­not in good con­science remain silent, he says.  As if.

I have a rea­son for bring­ing this up.  I reached my lim­it and popped off at him.  He popped back in his supe­ri­or way, and I in turn popped back, but he remained unper­turbed and unscathed.  To him the sub­ject was the bud­get, but to me the sub­ject was peo­ple.  He want­ed to lay off some of our best peo­ple because of their high salaries.  A hard deci­sion, he said, but the way he talked about the deci­sion it didn’t seem hard at all.  To him they weren’t skin and bones.  I called him a man with­out the rank to act like God, a fan­ta­sy galaxy mas­ter at the con­trols of some video game in his head.  He chuck­led, hold­ing his hand up and wig­gling his fin­gers like the legs of an insect.  What was that about?  Was he say­ing I was some crea­ture crawl­ing beneath him, an ant on an ant bed or what­ev­er?  What he did with his fin­gers was a new one but his chuck­ling wasn’t.  Chuckling was his answer to every view­point but his own.  He’d chuck­le at what you said and he’d chuck­le at what you replied to his answer to you.  I’d told myself before that if he chuck­led at me or any­body else one more time he was going to have a prob­lem with me.  It was his chuck­ling togeth­er with his wig­gling fin­gers that made me decide to act.  Nobody at work had ever stood up to him in a way that mat­tered.

I could imi­tate his voice, and I’d had plen­ty of prac­tice walk­ing around the office mock­ing him.  I hatched the idea of call­ing his wife at work and pre­tend­ing to be him.  Easy to get the phone num­ber, the place she worked had come up in con­ver­sa­tion.  I didn’t like involv­ing his wife, but I assumed he’d con­vince her he’d nev­er called and he’d be left with the thought that some­body had done it with no oth­er motive than to make trou­ble for him.

I rehearsed at home, work­ing from a writ­ten script that includ­ed some of his pet words and phras­es.  I didn’t want to get into a spon­ta­neous con­ver­sa­tion and be exposed so I planned to cut his wife off if she tried to inter­rupt.  After a few days of prac­tice I shut my office door and made the call.

I hes­i­tat­ed when I heard her voice but pressed ahead.  I told her that his life seemed too small for him and he want­ed to live on a broad­er can­vas, a favorite word of his.  It was dif­fi­cult for him to talk to her this way, but he couldn’t in good con­science stay silent.  His life suf­fo­cat­ed him, his mind envi­sioned hori­zons that his cur­rent life could not dupli­cate.  He need­ed to move far away and start his life over on a new fron­tier.  Have you met some­body else? she asked.  Let’s just say I see a new begin­ning for me, I answered.  I told her that he knew this infor­ma­tion came as a shock, but he hadn’t want­ed to share his thoughts until he was sure of the final direc­tion they’d take.  Rather than have a long dis­cus­sion while she was upset he want­ed her to think about what he’d said and come to an hon­est con­clu­sion about whether she believed his present life was a good fit for him.  Was it a big enough life for a man of his inner dimen­sions?  He said he’d talk to her more about it lat­er, apol­o­gized for the pain he was caus­ing and hung up just as she began to tell him how full of it he was.

I was exhaust­ed after talk­ing to her, trou­bled by an unnerv­ing anx­i­ety that I’d made a huge mis­take.  I reproached myself for mak­ing an inno­cent per­son suf­fer.  During the con­ver­sa­tion I almost broke it off a cou­ple of times, but the thought of com­ing clean and humil­i­at­ing myself with an expla­na­tion over­whelmed me.

I opened the door to my office and tried to main­tain my com­po­sure as I hur­ried to the restroom, a sense of pan­ic ris­ing up at the aware­ness that I had no con­trol over what I’d set in motion.  I was hot, my stom­ach clenched, and my mind raced with ideas of what could hap­pen next.  Would she call him back?  Would she leave work and have an acci­dent on her way home?  Was there some way he could fig­ure out who’d called?  I want­ed to go home and be alone, but if he heard I’d left work ear­ly he might sus­pect me.  I tried to pull myself togeth­er and fin­ish my work­day, but my men­tal state was show­ing through.  I said I had an upset stom­ach and went home.

The next day when I came in he was sit­ting in a chair in front of my desk, seething.  I sat down behind the desk.

I didn’t come by your house because I didn’t know for sure, he said.

Looks like you had a rough night, I said.

Did you?  I heard you went home sick yes­ter­day.

Something I ate upset my stom­ach.

Something upset me too, he said.  And my wife.

Can I help?

Do you want to help?  You seem uncom­fort­able.  Why is that?

You’re accus­ing me of some­thing?

You know what I’m talk­ing about.  I can see it.  The ques­tion I have is how far you’ve tak­en this.  Did you have me fol­lowed?

Should I have had you fol­lowed?

I didn’t invite you into my life, and I want you out of it.  I have a daugh­ter and she over­heard the con­ver­sa­tion.

I didn’t answer.

You know, don’t you? he said, the air hiss­ing out of him.

I wait­ed for more, remem­ber­ing his crawl­ing fin­gers.  It shamed me to hurt his fam­i­ly, his daugh­ter should have no part in this, but I had him squirm­ing.  Surely his wife had an idea what sort of per­son she was mar­ried to, and if I’d helped her come to a deep­er con­scious­ness of regret was that a bad thing?  Was it my fault his daugh­ter had over­heard their con­ver­sa­tion?

Don’t do it again, he said.

Don’t do what? I asked.

He tried to sum­mon his air of supe­ri­or­i­ty, but it had aban­doned him.  He sat with a kind of naked­ness in front of me.  I’d nev­er met his wife but I imag­ined myself in bed with her, both of us unrav­el­ing our resent­ment toward him.  He couldn’t think what to say or do next, the chaos in his imag­i­na­tion dis­ori­ent­ing him.  How could one phone call top­ple him from his moun­tain­top?

He stood and start­ed away, shrink­ing from me.  I imag­ined him fal­ter­ing, sink­ing to the floor, my eyes above him.  My chest tight­ened, chok­ing me from inside.

~

Glen Pourciau’s first col­lec­tion of sto­ries won the Iowa Short Fiction Award. His sec­ond sto­ry col­lec­tion is forth­com­ing from Four Way Books. He’s had sto­ries pub­lished in Mississippi Review, AGNI Online, Antioch Review, Epoch, New England Review, Paris Review, and oth­ers.