Oblong

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Chapter 4

Double A and TF waited in their mentor’s office. “It’s almost ten,” TF said. “Should we tell somebody he’s not here yet?”

“That feels a little like tattling.”

“Maybe he called in sick?”

“Who do you think senior executives call to tell they’re sick?” asked Double A. “Anyway, if he did call in sick, I’m sure he would tell whoever he called to let us know.”

“Should I go check the breakroom?”

“I think he’d come to his office first—at least to turn on his computer. Maybe we should go back to our desks.”

“But I don’t think he knows where they are.”

“That’s probably true,” said Double A. “It is rather labyrinthine over there.”

“Besides, he told us to meet him here...nice adjective, by the way.”

“Thanks, I almost used the word ‘byzantine’ instead, but then it occurred to me that could apply to the whole organization—not just the cubicle warren.”

There was a knock at the office door. The two junior executives exchanged quizzical expressions.

“Come in,” TF finally said, making it sound like a question.

The old man entered the office. TF stood at attention. “Sit down, son.” The old man slowly walked behind their mentor’s desk and sat in his chair. “I’m afraid I have some lamentable news to share. Your mentor died at home last night of a heart attack.”

“Wow,” Double A said

“That’s awful,” TF added.

“Yes awful, though not altogether surprising. Given his health challenges these past few years, some of us had encouraged him to take an early retirement. Perhaps if he had heeded our advice, he’d be on a golf course right now...or perhaps not—one never knows. I can’t blame him for wanting to feel useful until the end. You might think it insensitive that we don’t close up shop for the day to grieve, but it’s always been my family’s belief that we honor our departed coworkers best by continuing to work...the show must go on.”

“Is there anything we can do to help?” asked Double A.

“As a matter of fact, I’d be grateful if you two would pack up his office. As you might imagine, his widow is quite distraught and has her hands full planning the funeral service.”

“Of course,” said TF, “we’d be happy to pack up his things...I mean not ‘happy’ but rather—”

“I know what you mean, son.” The old man stood to leave. “I’ll have some boxes sent over. Don’t bother trying to organize anything—just box it up. Your mentor was many things, but orderly was not one of them. I’m sure you’ll find years’ worth of odds and ends stashed in his desk drawers and filing cabinets.”

“Sir,” TF said as the old man walked to the door, “will we be assigned a new executive mentor?”

The old man held the doorknob in his hand. “That depends. Your mentor was integral in your selection process; he thought a great deal of you two, even though some felt that one executive trainee this year was enough. He believed you both had exceptional potential and the capacity to understand what makes for a successful executive. Your time with him was short, but what would you say is the most important lesson that you learned from your mentor?”

TF opened his portfolio to consult his notes, but Double A quickly spoke up. “He taught us not to bullshit each other—to save that for the customers.”

“That’s exactly right, young lady—you have just demonstrated that you’ve successfully completed your executive training. You’ll make a fine addition to the PR team.” The old man opened the door. “You two will be assigned offices in your permanent departments at the end of the week.”

* * *

TF struggled to transform a large square of cardboard into a medium-size box. “I don’t understand how you’re supposed to make these damn things three dimensional.”

“Just push it out.” Double A used bubble wrap to pack up the framed pictures on the desk.

“Push what out?”

“Push out the bottom flaps and then fold them together.”

“What flaps? It’s all one, flat piece.”

“You’re looking at it the wrong way,” Double A said.

“I’m glad box making wasn’t part of the interview process.”

“Yeah, I don’t think your particular ‘exceptional potential’ is in the packing and moving field.”

TF sat down dejectedly behind the desk. “I need a break. Is it too early for lunch?”

“Probably, but it might be late enough to read a story.”

Tuesday Morning Story by Oblong

A farmer awoke in the middle of the night to a bang followed by a high-pitched screeching sound. He got up, grabbed the shotgun by his bed, and walked downstairs to investigate. He wondered if there’d been a car accident, but then there was hardly any traffic to speak of as far away from town as he lived—especially so late at night. But perhaps a drunk driver had gotten lost and crashed into a telephone pole down the road. The farmer hoped not, since he would feel obliged to help, though he really didn’t want to get involved. There was a reason his life of isolation suited him. He looked out the window in the living room and didn’t see any head or taillights in the distance. All was darkness and quiet.

The farmer considered that perhaps he’d only dreamt the noise, though he didn’t remember having a dream. He recalled someone on television—a PBS program, the sort his wife used to enjoy and that he now liked to watch when he drank alone—saying once that people don’t usually remember their dreams, but then he figured if he’d dreamt a noise loud enough to wake him, he ought to have remembered something about the dream.

The farmer looked out his kitchen window and didn’t see anything in the field except corn. He filled the glass by the sink halfway up with water and drank it down, setting it back exactly where it always went. He decided to return to bed. He’d have to be up in a couple hours, and his body felt like it could do with some more sleep.

As the farmer climbed the first step of the staircase, he heard the screeching noise again. He thought the sound had come from the front porch, but when he looked through the small window inset in the door, he didn’t see anything...but he’d definitely heard something. He opened the door for a better look.

What the farmer saw was a bat stuck to the outside of his screen door, though he didn’t understand how the bat could’ve flown into the door. “Don’t they use echolocation?” the farmer asked himself—something else he’d learned from PBS. The big bat’s little claws were stuck in the screen. Its wings were outstretched, and he could see tiny veins in the bat’s thin skin. The farmer didn’t mind bats; they ate mosquitos. He didn’t want to kill it, so he took his truck keys off the little table near the door and unfolded the small blade from the pocketknife attached to the keyring. He tried to poke the claws back through the screen’s mesh to free the bat, but it let out a screech so terrible that it startled the farmer half out of his wits.

The farmer decided on a different approach. He took the broom from the closet near the kitchen and gave the screen door a good whack. The metal screen shuddered, and the bat thrashed, screeching so fervidly that it began foaming at the mouth. Now the farmer was concerned that the bat might be rabid. He returned the broom to the closet and rummaged around for something heavy. He found an old croquet mallet from an incomplete set. He couldn’t recall anyone ever having played croquet on his farm before.

“It’s nothing personal,” the farmer said to the bat as he approached the screen door, “but you’ve gone and got yourself good and stuck. I can’t get you unstuck from this side, and I’m not about to open the door to try to get you unstuck from that side, since you seem like you might be in a state of mind to bite the hand that tries to free you.”

The farmer raised the mallet and readied himself to swing it. “What every animal has in common—from the smallest bug to the biggest beast—is that each of us meets the same end...we’re all connected by the loneliness of death.” He swung the mallet, hitting the bat on the chest. The bat screeched in agony, beating its wings ardently against the quivering screen.

“Sorry, my aim was a little off. I’ll try again.” The farmer raised the mallet once more and swung. This time the mallet connected with the bat’s head. All the tension left the bat’s body; its claws detached from the screen, and it fell to the floor of the porch. The farmer looked down at the bat through the screen and felt sorrow.

Two men stood over the farmer in his bed. The one holding his shotgun and his deceased wife’s jewelry box said to the other holding the bat, “I don’t think he’s dead yet—hit him again.”

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