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.
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.
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.