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.