Oblong

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Chapter 12

Double A’s blaring alarm sounded, and she sat up in bed feeling out of sorts. Then she turned to see TF staring up at her with a grin of gratification.

“It was nice to hear you say ‘wow’ last night for a good reason.”

“It wasn’t that great, Mr. Smug; it’d just been a while for me is all.”

“Well either way, I was glad to be of service.”

“You could be of service by not going around the office, running your mouth about how you bagged the like one black girl at work.”

“Who am I going to tell, the old man?” he asked.

“I’m still not convinced that when I leave the building all you whites don’t get together and gossip about me.”

“We do, but I promise not to share my piece...that I got a piece.”

“Your morning breath is foul, and I’m pretty sure you snore. Do you want some breakfast?”

“I could go for some bacon and eggs.”

“Does this look like Denny’s to you?” she asked. “I’ve got cereal or toast.”

“We could go out for breakfast?”

“Go out? What are you talking about? I’ve got to get to work—it takes me over an hour to get to the office by bus—and you have to go home to change before you go in.”

“I’ll drive you, and I can just wear the clothes I had on yesterday—nobody will notice.”

“You think nobody will notice us pulling into the parking garage together and you wearing the same clothes as yesterday? The whispers would be deafening—you might as well smack me on the ass next time we have a meeting in the boardroom.”

“Fine,” he said. “I’ll have some toast then, since we’re in such a hurry.”

“Okay, but first I’m going to hop in the shower...I suppose it’d be a more efficient use of our time if we showered together.”

* * *

“You’re late.” TF had the same gratified grin when Double A finally arrived at their mentor’s office.

“The bus was running behind...and my shower mate was dirtier than I expected.”

“Well, without our usual banter slowing us down, I was actually able to make some headway. In fact, I think we’re pretty much done here. I even followed your advice and stopped sorting through those pens. I just took them all down to the supply closet, which is more of a supply cavern...that room is—”

“Cavernous?” Double A said somewhat crossly.

“I was going to say big. Are you okay? You seem creased about something.”

“Why wouldn’t you wait for me so that we could finish together?”

“You mean like I did in the shower?”

“I’m not joking.”

“I can tell,” said TF. “I thought you’d be pleased. You were pretty fed up with this project yesterday.”

“Yeah, but now they’re going to make us sit at our desks and read training manuals or something.”

“We don’t have to tell anybody that we’re done.”

“Right, I suppose that’s true.”

“We could—”

“We’re not doing anything like what we did in your car or my apartment...or in the elevator up to my apartment.”

“—listen to some music, is what I was going to say if you’d let me complete my own sentence.” TF pulled two pairs of earbuds from his pockets. “What do you have on your phone?”

“You want to listen to the music on my phone? Why, what do you have on your phone...country and western—or are you one of those white boys who only listens to black music?”

“Take my phone and find out for yourself.”

“Okay.” Double A skeptically accepted his phone. “And you want to hear what’s on mine?”

“Yep.”

She unlocked her phone and handed it to him. “Just my playlists though...don’t go snooping around in my email.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it...by the way, what’s the password for your banking app?”

“We haven’t gotten our first paychecks yet, so there ain’t no money in there anyhow.”

* * *

Double A glided around the office, moving to the rhythm of a song that moved her. She opened her eyes to discover that TF was watching her from the desk chair. She pulled out one of her earbuds. “Some of your music is okay.”

“Thanks.” TF turned down the volume on her phone. “I didn’t sing the songs or anything.”

“What do you think of my stuff?”

“What’s not to like? You’ve got terrific curves, and you know how to wiggle them.”

“I meant my playlists.”

“Yeah, terrific stuff there too.”

“I haven’t noticed you moving around any.”

“You mean like dancing?” he asked.

“I mean like moving. All I’ve seen you do is bob your head occasionally.”

“That’s pretty much the extent of my dance repertoire.”

She took back her phone and swiped at the screen until she found the song she was looking for. Then she returned it to him. “If this song doesn’t make you want to move, then I just don’t know what’s wrong with you.”

“You expect me to dance for you?”

“Expect and demand...I promise, I’ll make it worth your while.”

With that, TF hopped up off the chair and started moving to the beat. He gyrated and flailed about as if angry at the immediate area around him. He didn’t look so much like he was dancing, but rather like he was mocking the art of dance, though Double A was entertained nonetheless. “You’re not dancing—you’re just humping the air.”

“I told you I wasn’t any good.”

“I didn’t say it wasn’t good...just surprising—and funny. I like it...but maybe don’t bust out those moves at a club.”

“Copy that.” TF sat back down. “So, what was that about you making it worth my while?”

“A promise is a promise, but what I had in mind would be out of line in a dead man’s office. I’ll give you some topnotch attention later—just don’t let me forget.”

“Not much chance of that.”

* * *

TF sat in their mentor’s chair, scrolling through photos on Double A’s phone as she sat on the desk and explained what he was looking at. “That’s my mom’s older sister.”

“The one who married the dentist? She looks different here than she did in the family reunion picture...like she got a haircut.”

“She did, but that’s not why she looks different. She had some work done for her fifty-fifth birthday.”

“Yeah, I guess her face does look a little changed...not younger really—but altered.”

“My aunt had that same hairstyle for years. Then she went on ’vacation.’” Double A made air quotes with her fingers. “That’s when she got her surgery done and her hair done. When she got back, everyone assumed she looked different because of the new hairdo.”

“That’s pretty clever.”

“It was her plastic surgeon’s suggestion. He and my uncle traded procedures on each other’s wives. His wife got a new set of veneers.”

“I’m surprised he didn’t barter a deal for himself.”

“Why do you say that?” she asked.

“You told me he’s the one who’s sensitive about his nose.”

“No, I told you he has a sensitive nose...always wears a mask around his patients—even when he doesn’t have to—just so he can’t smell their breath.”

“Ah.” He swiped to the next photo.

“That’s me crossing the finish line at my last race...broke my P.B. It was a good day.”

“You look fast.”

“They used to say that I could outrun a rumor.”

He looked up at her. “You’re too young to sound so wistful.”

“Running isn’t the same as a team sport. You and your lacrosse buddies can play a pickup game, then go drink beers and brag about the size of your 401ks.”

“You know we’re enrolled in the same 401k plan, right?”

“It’s different with running. I mean I could go to the high school track down the street, but it wouldn’t be the same.”

“You could run a marathon.”

“I was a sprinter,” she said, “a damn good one.”

“You could run in the Olympics.”

“Okay, not that good.”

“You could take up a different sport—lots of sports need fast runners.”

“I’m not going to start playing soccer just so I can run up and down the field, but it’s okay...everything ends eventually. I’m glad, and maybe also a little sad, that for a short time running was such a big part of my life.”

He swiped to the next photo and turned the screen sideways to get a better look at the crowd shot.

“Why did you turn my phone like that?”

“So I could see more of the image.”

“It’s just a picture of me standing with a bunch of other people I ran with...I’m barely in the photo.”

“I wanted to get a better look is all. What’s wrong with that?”

“Did you know that you can tell how interested someone is in you, if you give him your phone and he turns the landscape photos sideways?”

“That sounds made up,” he said. “I just really appreciate digital photography.”

“So that’s why you had like four pictures on your phone?”

“I really appreciate other people’s digital photography.”

“You’re going to play it that way, huh?”

“You don’t have to be Ansel Adams to like an Annie Leibowitz pic.”

* * *

Double A spun a globe atop a filing cabinet. “Do you think we were hired because they see us as antipodal?”

“I’m not anti- anything...I might even be pro-podal, if I knew what a ‘podal’ was.”

“‘Antipodal’ means diametrically opposed, like the North and South Poles.”

“No, I don’t think we’re antipoles or whatever.”

“I didn’t say we were. I asked if you thought that the people who hired us think we are.”

TF shook his head. “My answer is still no. We’re like cupcakes. Between two cupcakes, you instinctively choose the one that looks the most appetizing—in which case, my money would’ve been on you getting chosen; however, between the dozens of applicants they must’ve considered for our two positions, they chose us because we were different from all the others. Your metrics change when you’re given too many choices—you start to look for things that set some cupcakes apart from the rest, like colorful sprinkles or a gilded wrapper, rather than which is the biggest or has the most frosting, since many of them are big or have a lot of frosting...but just because we’re outliers doesn’t mean we’re opposites.”

“That’s interesting, but it makes me feel bad for all the people in the middle—the inliers...like maybe all the best jobs are being given to the children of the elite and the kids from the impecunious part of town.”

“Yeah, it seems the middle of the pack has become the bottom of the barrel. I bet there’s a line worker at the Dearborn plant who would make twice the executive that I’ll ever be if given the chance, but he’s surrounded by too many other similar cupcakes for him to get noticed.”

Double A nodded. “And don’t forget about racism.”

“Well, I won’t, but I think class is more at issue here than race.”

“You don’t think racism plays a role?”

“I didn’t say that, but statistically there’s a better chance that this hypothetical line worker I was referring to is white. He isn’t not going to become an executive because of his skin color but because of his station. If you could magically end racism overnight, the lives of poor black people wouldn’t be radically improved tomorrow—things would be better for sure, but not in the same way as if you could magically end poverty overnight, in which case the lives of poor people—black and otherwise—would be dramatically improved tomorrow.”

“I’m curious how a white boy from a rich family thinks he knows all this?”

“It’s because I’m from money that I understand so well that it’s always about money. Our mentor was right—my great grandfather was a segregationist...separate but equal, though as far as I’ve ever been able to determine he was more concerned with the former than the latter. Despite being the reason that my family has a name that opens doors, he’s been an embarrassment to every generation that followed him...my dad never even talked about him until I brought him up a couple of years ago. But even with all those changes of hearts in my family tree over the past few decades, we’re still the ‘haves’...and as clear as its been made to me that I should always judge people by the content of their character, it’s been made even clearer how I’ll be judged if I become a ‘have not.’”

“I understand your perspective, but I still think you’d be better off white and poor than black and poor.”

“Probably, but if I was white and poor do you think I would’ve gotten this job...the same job you have?”

“Probably not, but I don’t agree that racism isn’t a factor in poverty.”

“I don’t either,” replied TF. “I just don’t think it’s the biggest factor. My point is, and it seems absurd to actually say this out loud, that money is the biggest factor in poverty. Take the Rice Krispies you had for breakfast. Why did you buy that box?”

“Because I like the way they taste.”

“No, I mean why didn’t you buy generic? Working here, you won’t be poor for long, but given that you don’t have a car, that your apartment isn’t in the nicest area, that—”

“I get where you’re going.”

“So then why not save a couple of bucks and buy generic Rice Krispies? The cereal is just made from rice and sugar, after all...they’ll still go snap, crackle, and pop in milk even if there aren’t elves on the box. Some people are racist, and some people aren’t, but money is important to everybody—both having it as well as feeling like you have it. You don’t buy generic because it makes you feel less than at the checkout line or when you open your cupboard, but you might be surprised to know that rich people buy generic all the time? What’s on the box doesn’t add value for them. Since they know they’re not poor, they don’t have the same instinct to spend more on non-generic options with colorful packaging to make themselves feel unpoor.”

“Hold up,” she said, “you’re telling me that Snap, Crackle, and Pop are elves? First off, I did not know that. Secondly, I see your point about the way poor people are manipulated into buying expensive crap to prove to themselves that they’re not poor. That’s just another example of how people with money spend less and get more—from buying in bulk to paying lower interest rates—but they don’t have money because they’re Costco members or they can refinance their homes...they got the memberships and the houses because they already had the money. Third, Rice Krispies isn’t my cereal of choice. I like Coco Pops better, but I won’t buy them because there’s a monkey on the box. Why is it that the mascots for the white cereal are white, but the mascot for the brown cereal is a damn monkey? Are they trying to tell me that there’re no black elves? Guess what, there aren’t any elves—they’re all make believe, so why not make up some black ones? Racism is why.”

“I hear you.”

“What do you hear?”

“I hear that we’re saying different versions of the same thing.”

“And what are we saying?”

“That shit rolls downhill,” he said, “but that money only trickles.”

* * *

Double A and TF shared a set of earbuds, each having one bud in an ear. They listened to a song they both had on their favorite playlist, slow dancing just behind the door so that if it was abruptly opened it would bump them and they could unhand one another before they were seen by the interloper.

He smelled her neck. I should tell her how good she smells. What’s the best way to say that? You smell ‘redolent’...or is it ‘resplendent’?

She felt his shoulders. His back is so broad. I wish I’d seen him in his lacrosse gear in college. I wish we’d left the lights on last night.

She told me she didn’t want to fool around in the office, but maybe I should suggest a trip down to my car.

Maybe we could move a chair in front of the door, and I could revise my stance on no funny business in a dead man’s office.

“Maybe we should check to see if Oblong’s morning story is up.”

“I was just thinking the very same thing.”

Thursday Morning Story by Oblong

Mouse was angry at mice for reasons he could not articulate—mostly it had to do with feeling slighted...not in any specific way, though there had been incidents, but more in a general way. For instance, there were those so-called prominent mice who enjoyed right of first refusal from the forages to the kitchen above, and he was pretty sure if anybody bothered to do the math that they’d gone on far fewer of the dangerous scrounging expeditions. Then there were those disadvantaged mice whose problems seemed to get a lot of attention from the community, but he had problems too and no one seemed to care.

The inexorable stream of anger that Mouse felt sometimes made his blood run hot and other times made him feel numbly cold, but most of the time he just felt bad. Even during moments when he shouldn’t have been angry at all, such as after a particularly good forage or when a sugary liquid spilled in the kitchen and leaked through the floorboards, he felt the angriest. He’d watch the other mice during these supposedly joyous occasions, looking so self-satisfied and superior.

Mouse had grown tired of living, and so he made up his mind to die. All that remained was to decide how and where to end his existence. Perhaps in a darkened corner so that his death would go unnoticed just as his life had, but then he thought maybe he wanted his death to be witnessed—a death out in the open...say in the middle of the kitchen, alerting the homeowner to the colony of mice living beneath its feet.

Mouse thought on his decision, though mainly he thought about his power that he’d only just discovered. The day before, and all the days before that, he had felt unimportant, but now he saw the enormity of the impact his death could have. Mice might curse him for the rest of their days—as they were slaughtered by the poisons the homeowner would probably use, or the terrible cat it might bring home, or the spine cracking traps it could set...all to rid the house of an infestation it didn’t known existed until it saw one dead mouse out in the open—but at least the mice would remember him and that would be something.

It wasn’t very a difficult decision. Mouse crept away one night. He crawled through the crack in the floorboard behind the kitchen cabinets. He climbed up to the countertop. He planned to scurry as fast as his feet could carry him and jump right off the edge. From that height, he figured his brains would be dashed across the hardwood flooring, and he’d never feel a thing...though he’d leave one hell of a mess.

Mouse prepared himself for his last run, but then he hesitated a moment. He had seen the kitchen floor many times before, but he’d never ventured up to the countertop, and he wanted to have a final look from his now elevated vantage point, so he cautiously moved to the brink of the counter. He felt the updraft on his whiskers. He’d never experienced so much wide openness, having spent most of his life in confined spaces.

But this new perspective ultimately did not affect his resolve. Mouse backed away from the edge to make his running leap; however, as he reached the middle of the counter, the overhead light flicked on. The sudden brightness momentarily blinded him, and he scurried this way and that trying to find the edge again before he was ignobly squashed by the homeowner.

“Huh, I didn’t know I had mice,” said the homeowner.

Mouse heard the homeowner rummaging around in the cupboard above as he regained his sight. He could just make out the blurry end of the counter and the nothingness beyond, so he sprinted for the edge.

“Whoa, little guy.” The homeowner brought an overturned water glass down on top of him, trapping him inside. “Take it easy. You almost fell off there.” The homeowner leaned down to examine its captive more closely. “Don’t worry...I’m not going to hurt you, but I’d better keep you under here for now so that you don’t do something foolish and wind up injuring yourself. You sure are cute.”

Mouse had never seen an upright up close; it was hideous. Its mangy facial hair was disgusting; its fur didn’t even cover its whole face. Mouse watched as the upright opened the refrigerator and pulled out the biggest wedge of cheese he’d ever seen. The upright peeled away the plastic covering the cheese and then set the wedge in the middle of the floor.

“For you and your buddies,” the upright said.

Mouse looked on as the upright opened a breadbox on the far counter and took out a loaf. It undid the twist tie and turned the bag upside down—all the slices of bread fell to the floor.

“I imagine your friends would enjoy something sweet to drink too.” The upright took down a bottle of wine from a high shelf. “I was saving this for when my wife came back, but she’s...well, you all should have it instead.”

Mouse watched the upright as it unwrapped the foil from the bottle and then struggled with the cork until it finally sprang out with a splash. The upright set several small bowls on the floor and then poured bubbling wine into each of them.

“That should make for a nice feast for you and your pals.” The upright began to walk out of the room. “I’ll be back soon, so don’t go anywhere.”

Mouse thought a long time had passed before the upright returned. Its eyes were wet when it reentered the kitchen, and it seemed...different—grim and resolute. The upright placed a stool under the ceiling fan, knocking over a couple of the little bowls on the floor. It climbed atop the stool and grabbed the ceiling fan, lifting its feet up. Satisfied that the fan could support its weight, the upright stood once more on the stool. It took the end of the orange extension cord dangling from its neck and tied a knot around the fan. Then the upright knocked the stool over with its toes. The stool shattered one of the bowls, making a loud clatter.

The upright twisted and kicked at the air for a while, its face swelling. Just as it stopped kicking, it looked down at the counter. Mouse thought he could see an apology in its eyes. Maybe it was meant for him, as if the upright was trying to say, “I’m sorry I forgot about you.” Or maybe the apology was meant for someone else. Either way, its eyes soon went dim and there was no more anything in them.

Mouse pushed against the wall of his enclosure with all the strength he could muster, and the glass slid a little...and then a little more. After some time and much effort, he was back at the edge of the counter. He looked down and saw the whole community of mice on the floor below, scampering from bread to cheese to wine. They were feasting and getting drunk. Mouse watched them from above and felt joy, or at least that’s what he thought he was feeling—whatever the feelings were, he welcomed them.

Mouse wanted to be down there among the other mice and tell them that he was the reason the upright had put out all this food. He wanted to eat his weight in cheese and swim in sparkling wine. He pushed the glass a little more, trying to get enough of it over the edge while he stayed on the countertop.

Mouse thought one more nudge ought to do it. He pushed, and the glass teetered over the edge of the counter, but it reached its tipping point sooner than he’d anticipated—the back of the glass hitting him from behind. Mouse tumbled inside the glass as it fell from the countertop. He could see the oblivious mice below through his own panicked reflection in the bottom of the glass...and just as Mouse had figured, he felt nothing when his were brains were dashed across the hardwood flooring.

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