09/27/2021

Glen Pourciau ~ Three Short Pieces

Dement

Please close the door and have a seat, Mr. Dement. I real­ize I’m inter­rupt­ing your work­flow and your ongo­ing men­tal nar­ra­tive by tak­ing this time to speak to you. I can near­ly always tell by the sneer­ing look on your face that you enter­tain your­self with an inner nar­ra­tive in which you have your say and your way, devel­op­ing a self-per­pet­u­at­ing view of our work­place in which we are all at the mer­cy of your point of view. You may think your inte­ri­or world with its fan­ta­sy dia­logues and wit­ty obser­va­tions are none of my busi­ness, but cer­tain aspects of your behav­ior do trou­ble me. I don’t mean to imply that every­one here is expect­ed to like me, yet there is a stan­dard of behav­ior every­one is expect­ed to fol­low, even those who are not by nature fol­low­ers. I am aware you imi­tate my walk in the work area. I see you swing­ing your arms and tilt­ing your head up, ele­vat­ing your nose as if sniff­ing. You’re mak­ing com­ments to your­self right now, mak­ing inner faces at me. Can you tell me I’m wrong? Don’t both­er to shake your head in mock­ery. I don’t believe you. I’m also aware of your nick­name for me. I hear you say it under your breath and hear the laugh­ter of col­leagues when you go into your act, imi­tat­ing my voice and demeanor. I can guess you may have suf­fered bul­ly­ing in your younger years because of your name, and as a con­se­quence you may feel a need to get even by nick­nam­ing peo­ple you don’t like. If your class­mates hazed you by adding a cou­ple of let­ters to the end of your name I can under­stand your lin­ger­ing pain. In addi­tion to your imi­ta­tions of me, your sar­cas­tic looks and com­ments at staff meet­ings have added to your aura of antag­o­nism. And I’m not unaware that laugh­ter in the break room some­times stops abrupt­ly when I walk into the room, the eyes of oth­ers avoid­ing me, you sit­ting there grin­ning as if you’re keep­ing some secret. I under­stand how hard it is for you not to act out your habit­u­al urge to be a wise guy. Having a vicious sense of humor is hard to sup­press. Maybe deep down you can’t help being who you are, but who you are is not a good per­son, and you should con­sid­er some behav­ioral edits to com­pen­sate for your true nature. I find I’m remind­ing myself con­stant­ly not to judge you too harsh­ly. I can’t know what abus­es you may have suf­fered as a child, just to name one pos­si­ble rea­son for your being the way you are. Authority fig­ures in your home or church may have abused you and you may feel a need, con­scious or uncon­scious, to retal­i­ate against author­i­ty for the mis­treat­ment you suf­fered. I can be empa­thet­ic and still assert that your per­son­al his­to­ry and past griev­ances should not affect me or this work­place. If I’m on the right track, I ask you to ques­tion whether your method of retal­i­a­tion serves any fruit­ful pur­pose or helps make you a bet­ter per­son. You may ratio­nal­ize that you won’t be fired for your thoughts or for exer­cis­ing your right to free speech. True, we all have our pri­vate thoughts and a desire to express our­selves. Insubordination, how­ev­er, is a valid cause for fir­ing and in cer­tain cas­es can be sup­port­ed. Just an idea for you to keep in mind. Maybe you’re burnt out, Mr. Dement, maybe you’ve been here far too long. Your work is good and a per­son of your abil­i­ties could find a bet­ter fit some­where else. I’d be hap­py to give you a rec­om­men­da­tion based on the qual­i­ty of your work. I’m will­ing to grant that I don’t know the rea­sons you use your charis­ma and wit for destruc­tive pur­pos­es. Many of us have a dark side, though we can still behave our­selves and wish each oth­er well. I will admit I some­times think of you walk­ing down the steps when you leave the build­ing every day. I even think of it at home and have dreamed about it occa­sion­al­ly. I sup­pose it’s a form of wish ful­fill­ment. I have nev­er stood at the door and watched you descend those steps, yet the image has stuck in my head and won’t let go. I don’t intend to keep you here all day, Mr. Dement, in case you’re won­der­ing. I do want to urge you to try to reha­bil­i­tate your­self. Look at who you real­ly are and con­sid­er who you’d rather be and what kind of trail you want to leave behind. It won’t be easy to change, because being a wiseass is deeply embed­ded with­in you. Be care­ful on your way down the steps when you leave today. Hold the rail and don’t let what I’ve said and your reac­tions to it be a dis­trac­tion on the way down. I see you smirk­ing, which doesn’t sur­prise me. I could be wast­ing my breath on you, giv­ing you more cred­it than you deserve, but in hopes that I’m under­es­ti­mat­ing your fun­da­men­tal nature, I’m going to ask you to do some­thing. When you get home, spend a few hours brood­ing on my words and make some hard deci­sions that could reduce the ill will you car­ry and the dark­ness it emits. I hope you will arrive at a place where you look upon your sur­round­ings with less sub­ver­sive, more peace­ful thoughts.

~

Don’t Say

Jerry and I are on our screen porch with Phil and Rochelle. We’re into our sec­ond bot­tle of red wine, though Jerry, who doesn’t like to drink and talk, has switched to water. When spon­ta­neous con­ver­sa­tion is in the air, Jerry tight­ens up, and Phil and Rochelle have been around us enough to notice when Jerry’s mode changes.

Are we mak­ing you ner­vous, Jerry? Rochelle asks.

I make myself ner­vous, Jerry says.

Are we con­tribut­ing to you mak­ing your­self ner­vous? Phil asks.

Not in any spe­cif­ic way, Jerry answers.

I’m lost, Rochelle says.

Jerry feels bet­ter with his silence and his water, I say. I think we should trust his judgment.

I trust my silence more than my mouth, Jerry adds.

I also tend to pre­fer not talk­ing, Phil admits, yet I fear being judged as unso­cia­ble. How many times have you heard me say, Rochelle, that I wish I hadn’t said that?

Some of my worst moments have been spent talk­ing, Jerry says, and drink­ing makes me talk more.

Does lis­ten­ing to us make you want to talk? Rochelle asks.

I don’t want to make you uncom­fort­able, Jerry answers.

Don’t wor­ry about mak­ing me uncom­fort­able, Phil says. I’m just about always uncom­fort­able any­way, with or with­out wine. I’m not look­ing to put words in your mind or mouth but many times I find myself sup­press­ing what I’m real­ly think­ing. I med­i­tate every day to help me calm down the loud talk­ing that con­stant­ly runs through my head and to remind myself that the noise is com­ing from me and not from some out­side source. I can’t loud talk out loud or even say the same words I’m think­ing in a nor­mal voice. I know I’d regret it if I did. I’m not say­ing this to try to get you to speak.

I don’t mind, Jerry says. It’s refresh­ing to hear what you’re say­ing. Like you, I find it best to keep my thoughts to myself.

I con­fess that as a rule I find it gru­el­ing to lis­ten to peo­ple express their opin­ions, Phil says. I don’t like hear­ing their know­ing tone when they come out with them, not to men­tion the under­ly­ing bias­es and prej­u­dices their opin­ions often reveal. Even when some­one tries to seem diplo­mat­ic, I get ran­kled at how con­trived their diplo­ma­cy sounds. And it’s even worse hear­ing me express my own opin­ions, which I can’t avoid tak­ing per­son­al­ly. Of course, this is just my opinion.

Maybe you need to switch to water too, Rochelle says.

You know I con­stant­ly sup­press myself. This is no sur­prise to you.

You don’t have to tell us all your men­tal process­es, Rochelle tells Phil.

That’s exact­ly what I’m say­ing, Phil answers. I have two sis­ters, both inner loud talk­ers who are angry on the inside and the out­side. I can’t talk to them or lis­ten to them with­out agi­ta­tion. I don’t want to hear what they’re think­ing or to tell them what I’m think­ing, espe­cial­ly when it has to do with what they’re think­ing. The pres­sure gets to be intolerable.

I have one broth­er, Jerry says, and we don’t speak with each oth­er. Our prob­lems are main­ly to do with pol­i­tics, but that’s symp­to­matic of dif­fer­ent ways of think­ing and see­ing the world.

I have a daugh­ter from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage that I have no rela­tion­ship with, Rochelle says, and I can’t stand to talk to my moth­er. They both enjoy telling peo­ple off, and I find myself on the receiv­ing end when they ful­fill that wish. And I will say I dread speak­ing to some peo­ple whose agen­da seems to be to suck infor­ma­tion out of you so they can spread it around town. What about you, Phoebe? Are you talk­ing to anybody?

I have one sis­ter I speak to and one I don’t speak to and who I don’t like to dis­cuss. I know what you mean about the infor­ma­tion suck­ers. I encounter acquain­tances who seem to know things about me I would nev­er have told them, and I can’t imag­ine what route the news took get­ting to them. Jerry and I speak, but I don’t always tell him what I’m think­ing and I’m sure he doesn’t tell me every thought pass­ing through his mind.

I couldn’t do that to you, Jerry says. But I’m afraid what I’ve said has us head­ed in a bad direction.

I’m the one who’s been talk­ing us down this road, Phil says. I should fol­low your exam­ple and keep qui­et. Liberating sup­pressed thoughts can strain the veneer that holds us together.

Are you say­ing only some bulging veneer keeps you civ­i­lized? Rochelle asks. I’d rather not say what I think of that.

What if we all let our mouths run and act­ed on every impulse? Phil asks. Where would that leave us?

Jerry nods, his lips pursed as if tast­ing sour words.

We should encour­age them to remain at least part­ly sub­merged, I say to Rochelle.

Let’s get togeth­er one day next week and vow not to speak, Rochelle sug­gests. If we want more wine, we don’t say so. We point at the bot­tle or lift our glass.

We could get an ear­ly start on that, Jerry says.

Phil grows silent, per­haps already talk­ing loud­ly inside his head.

Rochelle holds up her emp­ty glass.

~

Stir

Saturday after­noon, noth­ing in par­tic­u­lar on my mind except walk­ing into my favorite Mexican restau­rant for lunch. But as I enter and greet the host, who picks up a menu and starts toward a table in the back, I see a for­mer boss of mine seat­ed in the cor­ner booth with her hus­band and anoth­er cou­ple. I haven’t seen her in ten years, not since I retired. We’d had a good work­ing rela­tion­ship, enjoyed each other’s com­pa­ny, no under­cur­rents of ten­sion I was aware of, but when I look at her she averts her eyes, gri­mac­ing, and the oth­ers stare at me as if my pres­ence offends them.

The host puts my menu on the table, and I sit fac­ing the booth, not want­i­ng my back to them. I’m think­ing my for­mer boss saw me through the front win­dow as I approached and made some com­ment about me. What could she have said? I failed to attend her retire­ment par­ty five or six years ago. Though I would have gone, I’d been away on a trip, and the invi­ta­tion was in the mail when I returned the day after the par­ty. Did she inter­pret my absence as dis­re­spect or indif­fer­ence? Would she still hold that against me and would that cause her to look at me in a way she nev­er had before?

A serv­er comes by with a glass of ice water and I order my usu­al, my eyes on the booth. If she’d been annoyed at me for not attend­ing the par­ty she could have men­tioned it to some­one there, per­haps an ene­my of mine, who could have said some­thing about me that stuck in her mind. Maybe oth­ers at the par­ty heard this per­son, who took the oppor­tu­ni­ty to turn me into a top­ic and oth­ers built upon what­ev­er was said. I’m not an angel, I admit, and I can think of peo­ple I would apol­o­gize to if I were a bet­ter per­son; but apol­o­giz­ing to ene­mies can open up angry wounds and for that rea­son and sim­ple cow­ardice I’ve been reluc­tant to do so. Should I approach the booth, say hel­lo, intro­duce myself to the oth­ers, and feel them out or even ask if I’ve offend­ed her or some­one she knows? It could be they were dis­cussing a trou­bling issue in their lives. I could have appeared at an awk­ward moment and they expe­ri­enced my pres­ence as an intru­sive inter­rup­tion. I doubt that’s the case and fear they’re talk­ing about me right now, and I’m tempt­ed to leave rather than endure more dis­com­fort. If I go to her, what will she say and what will I answer when I hear it? Will it do any good to leave if I con­tin­ue to think of their faces? Will leav­ing make me seem guilty? A few peo­ple look­ing at me with dis­ap­proval doesn’t mean any­one else has been talk­ing about me. Sit here and see what hap­pens next.

Before I can swal­low my first bite of just-served enchi­ladas the group in the booth ris­es. As they exchange depart­ing words, my for­mer boss peers toward me. Here she comes, her hus­band with her, the oth­er cou­ple head­ing for the door. When they reach my table she asks how I’ve been, her hus­band not offer­ing a facial expres­sion or a hand­shake. I ask how she’s been doing. “Haven’t seen you in some time,” she says. “Have you been hid­ing?” What does she mean by that? I explain to her why I missed her retire­ment par­ty, and she acts as if she doesn’t remem­ber I wasn’t there. I search their eyes, my silence mount­ing. Is she on the verge of broach­ing a sub­ject, rip­ping off the veneer, or is she wait­ing for me to speak? She tells me in a per­func­to­ry tone that it’s good to see me, and I say the same to her, try­ing not to mock her tone. They go on their way.

I con­tin­ue eat­ing, miffed they’ve caused me so much wor­ry. Why did they look at me that way? Did I want to imag­ine ask­ing them a bunch of ques­tions and in the process bring up sub­jects I’d pre­fer to put behind me? To hell with them. I come here for enchi­ladas and wind up caught in a web of tor­ment. It ran­kles me I ever regret­ted not attend­ing her retire­ment par­ty, and their dis­ap­prov­ing looks will be rec­i­p­ro­cat­ed if I ever cross their paths again.

~

Glen Pourciau’s third sto­ry col­lec­tion, Getaway, is forth­com­ing from Four Way Books in September. His sto­ries have been pub­lished by AGNI Online, fail­bet­ter, Green Mountains Review, New England Review, The Paris Review, Post Road, The Rupture, and others.