I’m working with a couple of people I know, but I can’t remember their names. I guess at the name of one of them, but I’m wrong, and he won’t tell me his correct name. I’m sure I’ll remember his name later, though too late to use it with him.
The work I’m doing is fact checking. I’m paging through manila folders filled with papers, looking for a word, or forms of a word, on each sheet. These documents are old and worn, and the ink is gray and blurry. When I’m finished, I realize I’ll have to go back and look for something else: another word, or another form of the original word. I want to do a thorough job, so I start again.
The bosses aren’t around. There are two of them. One likes me; the other doesn’t. Unfortunately, the one who likes me is leaving the company. When she’s gone, I suspect, things will go badly for me.
I walk to the back of the office, to an area where things are stored, and see a book lying on a cardboard box. The book contains a history of the company, and it’s thick, about a thousand pages long. I’m thinking the book is so thorough, I must be mentioned in it. But when I look in the index, I don’t see my name. I thumb through and see that the people who are covered made big changes at the company: They steered it in a new direction. Customers will use the services these people developed. As a result, the bottom line will go up.
I didn’t help with those changes in business — I didn’t implement a new process or develop a new product — so it’s no wonder my name isn’t in the book.
On my last day of work, I visit a place where I didn’t spend much time. I ride the elevator to a kitchen on a different floor. I went there with a guest speaker who was teaching a one-time class. He’d wanted coffee, and he’d asked the people in the workshop if someone would get him a cup. I was the only one who’d volunteered. I brought him to this kitchen and showed him how to operate the machine. “You can get a full cup, or a portion of a cup,” I’d said.
“Not a full cup,” he’d said. “Three-quarters.”
“It’s going to be strong.”
“That’s good,” he’d replied.
We returned to his class, where his main point was that staffers do better work as a team than they’d do as individuals.
On this last visit, I look around the kitchen. It’s a small room, with a refrigerator but no food to be shared. The only offerings are hot water and coffee. I don’t make myself a cup of anything.
For a moment, I wonder what I’ll do. Fear hits me in the pit of my stomach. But I keep it down. I don’t want to alarm anyone around me.
I realize I’m not stuck because I own a car. It’s the same one I owned in the mid-1970s. It has a slant-six engine and a push-button transmission, and it rattles when it runs. I haven’t driven it since then. But I’ve had no need for a car in the years since.
I have the car keys — not on my key chain, but somewhere, maybe in a dresser drawer. The car is parked in a garage somewhere and has been sitting there a long time. I must owe a lot in parking fees, if the car hasn’t been towed away.
I have to go out and start the car, just to keep it moving. The engine needs to be turned on so it doesn’t seize up. All I have to do is remember where I parked the car. I think it’s in a municipal lot, one only a few blocks from our apartment. I can walk there easily.
I locate the car and learn there is no parking fee because the car isn’t worth anything. But the ignition key works, so I set out.
Driving is difficult. Emergency vehicles block the street, and I am forced to take a detour. I find myself in the middle of a street celebration; I’m moving through a crowd. I go slowly, and no one tries to stop me. Luckily, I don’t hit anyone. At one point, I pass through the spray of water shooting from an open fire hydrant. The blast is so strong it arcs from one side of the street to the other. The water is no problem; the windshield wipers work like crazy. Traffic is blocked, but I’ve gotten past the barricades. Around me, people in costumes twirl, and musicians play brass instruments.
When I get home, I tell my family I have a plan. I’ve identified alternate sources of income, and I’m going to tap into them. These sources might be temporary, but I’ve identified others that I can use if the need arises. I’ll have deadlines, but I’ll be able to meet them. I’m keeping every possibility, every eventuality, in my mind.
I’m containing the fear. It has changed from a feeling in the pit of my stomach to a more general soreness, tenderness or vulnerability. I am reluctant to venture into the unknown, because that can bring on more fear. But I’ll do it. I’ll go out and see people — the most frightening activity I can imagine — and hope the fear corrects itself.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of six books, most recently Border Crossings, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers Workshop’s members’ choice award, and his book Guess and Check won the Electronic Literature bronze award for multicultural fiction. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. His mother, Chia In Wang, is a Chinese immigrant to the United States.
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Also by Thaddeus – Slip of a Knife
Image: Sergio Calleja/Yue Minjun CC2.0