S H O R T S T O R Y
b y g a r r e t t r o w l a n ~ l o s a n g e l e s , c a l i f o r n i a
MIST COVERED the parking lot. I killed my engine, extinguished my lights, and followed the tread of feet and the vapory outline of bodies until, through the morning fog, I saw the building’s lights. Through round windows they had the milky glow of cataracts. Going through a sliding glass door, I walked across a polished marble lobby. People in suits and dresses and acoustic shoes passed me. The receptionist wore a blue dress and, like all of them, a badge with a name, picture and corporate logo. Her face thawed into a smile. Behind her, the corporate directory on the wall resembled the 99 names of God.
“Protean Corporation,” she said. “How can I help you achieve your dreams?”
The boilerplate salutation took me back, as did her resolute, fixed smile. “Personnel.”
She gave me a sticker and pointed across the lobby toward, I assumed, the elevator. “Third floor,” she said.
Putting the sticker on the blue lapel of my jacket, I crossed the glistening lobby whose ceiling curved in the manner of a rotunda. The echo of my footsteps and those of others resounded as small hammers tapping. Lost in this music of marble, I didn’t realize until I had reached the corner of the lobby that there was no elevator. Well, I saw an elevator, but it was obviously a service elevator manned, apparently, by an older fellow in the livery of a bellhop. He had the same guileless smile of the receptionist.
“Does this thing work?” I asked.
With a small bow, he reached over and pressed the button, then turned to me as if waiting for my reaction. The tall doors opened slowly to a large box, wood-paneled, with enough room to accommodate a grand piano. He beckoned. After a moment’s hesitation, I entered.
“Personnel,” I said.
“Third floor.” He pressed a button and the elevator lurched upward. He made a small bow, and the ID badge hanging from a string around his neck bobbed. The attached picture offered a duplicate of his small smile. His civility made me ashamed of the fraudulent nature of my enterprise. Feeling the need to confess and to make a human connection within this vast, impersonal monolith of a corporation, I cleared my throat.
“I’m not really looking for a job,” I said.
He stirred from a motionless attention to the floor. “Oh?”
I thought I might have said too much right there. “Well, I am unemployed and this seems a nice place to work.”
“It is, sir.”
“But it’s not the reason why I’m here. Well, not the main reason.”
The elevator rumbled upward. I knew we were moving by a small resistance of gravity, a tightness in the bottom of my feet.
“You see,” I said. “I saw someone.”
“Someone who looks like me. This was about a week ago. I had stood in a Starbucks to get a refill and a man passed by on the street. He looked in through the window and I looked back. I felt I knew him in some way.” I glanced at the elevator man; his was a gaze of quiet and fixed attention. “I knew him, you know. Like he was an old friend. I wanted to follow him but…it all happened so fast. He turned and left. Still, when I got back home I went through some old snapshots, college and suchlike, but I never saw his face.”
I felt vulnerable in the wake of my confession, and almost expected a button to be pushed, red lights to flare, and men with brown uniforms and truncheons to come storming into the elevator. Instead, the attendant only nodded and offered another variation of his small smile. I nodded back, a bit flustered. I hadn’t conveyed the essential mystery of my experience.
It had been a nebulous moment, though full of significance. Outside the coffee shop, dark clouds and thick dusky air had trapped the room’s reflections on the inside of the plate glass window. The images pressed from within on that pane were sharp, distilled, bright and thin as butterfly wings. I stood to get a refill. At that instant the man, walking along the street, stopped and looked in the window. His head and body filled the space outlined by my image. In the second or two that we’d exchanged a glance my face, body and everything around me congealed with his image to create another reality distinguished by the smallest gradation of shape and color. Only a molecular distinction separated our worlds.
He turned and continued walking. It was a mysterious moment, and yet it might have ended that night if not for the fact that, in the following days, the man plagued me with his presence, or almost-presence. I went to get a library book that was gone, an empty space in the spines. I sat down to eat and found a crumpled napkin, spoor of the departed. I pulled into a parking space and found freshly dripped oil. Sometimes he’d be just out of reach. I’d catch a glimpse of hair, a profile, a retreating stride. I’d park or cross the street and give chase, but he was always gone, slipped around a corner, a side street, or through a revolving door. My nemesis, as I began to think of him for some reason, haunted me.
“Then I remembered that he was wearing a badge and a logo, two crossed wings, and when I saw someone else wearing the same badge, he told me that the crossed bars were the symbol of the Protean Corporation.”
“The interlocking of destinies,” the elevator man said. “The crossed bars, the possibility of change, progress, fusion, transcendence.”
“Right,” I said, after a moment. He’d burst into that sudden spate of eloquence and retreated into a servile stillness. “That makes sense.”
“It makes sense. This building is only a half-mile from the Starbucks where I was. It’s logical that an employee of the Protean Corporation would pass on the street, probably doing some holiday shopping. So I decided to apply for a job. I was hoping to see the man I’d seen before.”
“And do what?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’d tell him that only a small accident of fate and destiny separated him from me. I’d tell him that he should be grateful for his success and for his family.”
“How do you know he has a family?”
“I feel like he does. Maybe I’d solicit advice, career counseling. He could tell me what he’s done to make his life turn out better than mine.”
“That’s quite a lot to expect from a passing glance.”
“I know, but there it is.”
The man nodded, tight-lipped. The elevator made a rumbling in its tracks as if a strong gust of wind had passed through the shaft.
“Anyway, I am unemployed, have been for several weeks. Not that the last job I had was all that great. I was a waiter, but I suppose it beat sitting around or walking the streets and wishing my life had gone differently.”
The man nodded. A minute passed, maybe two.
“It seems like we should have gotten there by now,” I remarked.
Abruptly, the elevator stopped as rough and abrupt as a train juddering to a halt in a shunt yard. “Third floor,” the attendant said. The door opened.
“Which way?” I asked.
He pointed. As I walked down a long and apparently endless corridor with bright, barren white walls, I thought of the folly of my enterprise. What made me think I’d find the man in this huge building, assuming that he was even here? Feeling like a fool, I turned a corner and saw a door. It hovered in some middle distance. Crossing what had seemed the length of a football field, panting slightly, I reached the unmarked entrance and turned the brass knob. The room’s white walls were bare. Above, fluorescent lights shone through mottled glass, sending down a diffuse glow. I saw plastic-covered magazines in vertical racks and, in one corner, a bald man sitting with folded hands atop an empty desk.
“Personnel,” he said, dialing-up a smile. “How can the Protean Corporation help you to achieve your dreams?”
“I’m looking for a job.”
He reached into a drawer that was empty except for one clipboard with an application form and a pen attached by a string. “Fill this out,” he said. I took the clipboard back to a chair, going along with the charade. Crossing my legs, I looked up and faced the room’s one, round window. It was set at the level at which the fog had settled, and the thick miasma was such that it seemed as if I were sitting in an ocean liner and facing a large porthole at sea level. I saw blue sky above and gray haze below, and in the middle a sycamore leaf fluttered, as if floating on the mist.
I turned my attention to the application form and became aware of the possible criminal implications of my enterprise. Pretending to look for a job under false pretenses, wasn’t that a violation of the Patriot Act? I decided to forge a name, Owen Wisteria, a birth date near my own, and an address in a better part of town. Pleased with this start, I concocted an extensive educational resumé, steadier than my own spotty schooling had been. I chuckled to myself as I scribbled down my postdoctoral work, and looked up thinking that the man behind the desk might have heard my giggle. Instead, he scribbled on some papers he’d pulled from inside an old Pee-Chee folder, his mouth pursed in determination. He seemed to have forgotten me. I turned back to the application form and decided to be an engineer, and I fabricated some work experience. Yet the funny thing was that as I proceeded I wrote with decreasing hesitation, as if I were not inventing but recalling.
At last, I took the form over to him. He put his Pee-Chee folder in the side drawer with what seemed like excessive concern that I shouldn’t read what he’d written. He perused my application, and as he did I turned away, watching through the window that single sycamore leaf floating on the fog. It defied gravity with a little rocking motion like the flutter of wings.
“CalTech,” he said. “You did your graduate work at CalTech.”
“That’s right.” I saw my illusionary education in a montage of false images: the view from high up on Millikan Library; swimming laps in the pool to let my thoughts cool; breakfast in the Pie N’ Burger after pulling an all-nighter studying.
“And you’re married?”
“Almost ten years now.”
“Emily, six, and Robert, four.”
I saw them in a flashing instant, and Patricia beside them, smiling.
Thus the interview went. It was a virtuoso performance of improvisation, and yet of creation, too. My spoken words produced an inward illumination, flares that lit the landscape of an imaginary past, one that I had seamlessly joined to mine. With each flawless fabrication I felt my insides changing, a small metamorphosis that altered the world, too. The barren walls had pictures now, landscapes and seascapes. My bald interviewer had hair. He seemed impressed.
“You should really speak to the people on the fifth floor,” he said, picking up the phone. “I’ll tell them you’re coming.” He spoke to someone for a few seconds, uttering a few words in what appeared to be a foreign language, or else some species of corporate-speak. “They’re waiting for you,” he said, hanging up the phone. “Take the elevator to the fifth floor.” We shook hands, and as I left the office I saw that he’d returned to writing in his folder, the tip of his tongue protruding with his concentration.
I wandered from his office, bearing with me false memories as precise as polished tiles: a playground swing, a mother’s smile, a bride’s white wedding gown. Dazed by these visions, by the surfacing of strange and banal images, I got lost. I must have left by a different door than that by which I’d entered. I found myself in a maze of intersecting corridors with closed office doors and angular cul-de-sacs. Frustrated, I tried to knock on or open doors. They were all locked, and my knockings, then poundings, produced no corresponding scuttle of footsteps. I wandered on, only able to orient myself by the occasional mounted marble busts of corporate leaders, who gazed out from low wall niches. I couldn’t find the man with the service elevator, at least in the incarnation in which I’d known him, though passing one of the busts I saw his stone face staring out with an imperial frown. I never found him or the conveyance he manned, though I did at last find a real elevator. It was automatic. I pushed the button and the doors opened. I went up two floors. I wandered another corridor. I was supposed to be looking for someone but the man in Personnel hadn’t said whom. I came to a long office with several desks, each was divided from its neighbor by moveable partitions covered by tightly stretched burlap. Walking past each, I saw rounded shoulders and bent necks, each person carving out their own sector of information. At last, a little disconcerted by the lack of reception, I sat at an empty chair. It was in a small carrel with a desk on which a blueprint had been unfolded. It depicted an airplane or missile of some kind. In the desk’s corner was a picture of a blonde woman with two children. I knew their names.
I sat there for five, ten minutes. Someone in an adjacent carrel played the radio, and the soft strains of an orchestra lulled me. I must have drifted off, for when a hand tapped my shoulder it seemed to have awoken me from a shallow but nuanced dream.
“Owen,” a man said. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I’m okay,” I said. “Sorry. I just went away for a bit. I had the strangest dream.” I recalled walking through blank corridors and looking for my office. “I was someone else looking for me. I can’t explain it.”
“I can,” Terry Forbes said. “You’ve been working too hard. Take the afternoon off.” He adjusted his glasses. “You look bushed. You’ve got some time coming. Go home, make love to your wife.”
“I have to buy her a birthday present,” I said. “I’ve been so busy I haven’t had the time.”
“Don’t worry about it. We’ve got the approval for the project. That’s all that matters right now. Everyone knows this place shuts down for Christmas.”
I rolled up a couple of blueprints and took them with me. I left the office and the building. Walking across the parking lot, I found that the foggy morning had yielded to a hazy winter afternoon. It was fine day, not too cold or dry. I drove out of Protean’s vast lot and parked a half-mile away. On Main Street I wandered from shop to shop, and in a J.Crew outlet I bought Patricia a sweater and a smaller one for Emily. When I emerged, dusk had fallen on the street. It was that time of day when the shop windows trapped reflections in detail. Everything was bright and clear as if another world had nuzzled next to mine. For some reason, I began to think of the dream I’d had when I was dozing at my desk. I had seemed to be looking for myself as if I had been mislaid. I had been in a bad way, desperate, and the recollection made me think of my own life and the small grace notes of fate that had given me this existence, for which I felt blessed. Buoyed by a small gust of joy, I headed back to the parking lot. On my way, I passed a Starbucks. As I did someone inside returned my glance. Someone who looked like me, I thought. Maybe I’d known him somewhere. Looking at him, I felt trapped by some deeper recognition, but I couldn’t place it and I soon forgot him as I hurried on, going home and bearing gifts.
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