From over the wall of my cubicle, I hear my boss say to Jerry that from now on all of the duties and responsibilities of a supervisor are his, congratulations. Wow, I think. Jerry? Really? The guy who eats from the seven-layer dip in the breakroom with his hands? The guy who parks in two spots so no one will come near scratching his very very nice expensive, in his words, “Pussy Magnet”? The guy whose existence rips at every thread of the fabric of my own morality, my compassion, my sanity? Also, my cube-neighbor?
I go outside for a smoke; I don’t even smoke. The woman from whom I borrow a cigarette laughs to herself when I light the wrong end, then hands me another. I’m not an idiot, I say. I tell her I know how to smoke; it’s just I’m distracted. She says, aren’t we all. I don’t know her name, but I know she works in Customer Service, so she has the propensity to be polite, to serve, when dealing with some milquetoast who wants something from you. I tell her, you know, this is nice, I think I can get used to it, the smoking, the inhale, the exhale, the time away from the desk. She says, you know what I enjoy about smoking? The Quiet. Those poor customers, I think.
Back inside, I go into the cafeteria and get in line to order a big Meatball Parm sub. That’s it, I think. This is what will make me feel better––lava of mozzarella cheese rolling off meatball mountains, all nestled between a cove of white Italian bread like a warm hug from Mom. Maybe I need a warm hug from Mom—but she’s gone, so then who? The Indian gentleman from IT standing in front of me in line? I imagine holding him from behind, booking a reservation for one at a table at Le Bistrot Du Human Resources. Maybe Marcia, the HR director, would then hug me, say, “Nico, my corporate son. Things have been rough. Yes. Come here. It’s okay. Sh. Sh. Sh.”
I’m at the register when I realize I can’t pay for the sub, not even a single meatball, so I tell Lucia I’m sorry for the mix-up, and she just smiles, says, “Nico, my hero,” with her eyes and “Es no problem,” with her mouth, because I know that I just fed her, because I know that the food handlers save the unwanted food for themselves, because I know that my lack of funds just fed her family; I make this mistake daily.
On my way to my cubicle, Jerry pops up out of his chair and says, “Big guy, we’re doing drinks and apps tonight at Boylan’s. Celebrating me, have you heard?” I tell him I haven’t and think that the only thing I hate more than him calling me ‘Big Guy’ is Boylan’s, a dim lit bar with Mobster memorabilia all over the walls. He says, “I’m now your supervisor. You’re coming out with us tonight. That’s an order.”
“Oh boy,” I say. “Wow, congrats, Jer Bear. I’ll be there, yeah.”
“Or you’re fired,” he says, then slaps my shoulder.
He laughs and I die inside, trying to think kind thoughts about Jerry, like how once he too was a small boy in a world so vast and wondrous, nothing short of magic was possible. I hope it still is as I fall into my rolling desk chair.
Lunch time. I pull out the Tupperware bowl of chili I prepared last night and realize its green lid. I’m a dunce—red lids, my food; green lids, Fin’s, my labradoodle, my little prince. I open the lid and yup, there’s his dog food, some Purina Beef & Chicken Medley. Hope he likes my chili, I think. I’ll ask him when I get home. My stomach makes a sound like my landlord, belching and yelling upwards at my floor. It seems I have no choice here. I dig in my white plastic fork and lift out nothing that looks like beef, or chicken, or medley. Its taste is chalky, and yet, somehow, gooey. I note, cook Fin real food, my prince. Just as I dig for a second bite, Jerry pops up again above my wall.
“What in Trump’s nation is that smell? That you, B.G.?”
I feel the chow bleeding through my teeth as I clench a smile.
“Christ, Nico, eat that sock-smelling chili in the breakroom, will you?”
I say sure, and picture Jerry being rocked to sleep by his daddy.
Eating alone at the wobbly table in the breakroom, I count each one of the ways in which I hate Jerry and forgive him for every single one. His perfect hair, forgiven; his sculpted chest, forgiven; his verbal abuse of women in the office, Agh, forgiven; his nice shoes, forgiven; his loud electronic music that overflows from his headphones, forgiven; his right-wing political stance, forgiven; his awful opinion on most things, forgiven; his inappropriate humor, forgiven; his deviancy on the internet, his gym obsession, his self-obsessed arrogance, his narcissism, his pseudo-intellectual podcasts, his cheating on his wife with my ex-wife, forgiven, forgiven, forgiven, forgiven, forgiven, forgiven. It’s the only way that my online therapist says I will get rid of the rage within my heart. Like cholesterol? I asked her, jokingly via Skype. “Rage is much worse,” she said. Now that I have forgiven Jerry for the day, I can eat my lunch—a Tupperware bowl of dog food.
Three o’clock, a calendar request comes in from Darnell, my boss’s boss, and it says I’ve been invited to a four o’clock meeting with him, Sheeba Watts, Yung Mei, and Timothy Gibbs. Wow, I think. All big wigs. Big Kahunas. Head honchos. Yung Mei drives a Maserati. I start to sweat, thinking maybe it’s my time; that maybe Jerry got the low-level promotion; that all of my work has been recognized. I imagine a fist-bump from Darnell on the way into conference room Q-647, Sheeba standing there holding a plaque that says “#1 C.E.O” on it, Gibbs dropping down to his knees and kissing my Cole Haan’s, Yung Mei handing me the keys to a new ride. “Why what’s all this?” I say. “For you,” they say, in unison like a choir, “Our new C.E.O.” I can feel my cheeks rising at the revelry, then Jerry sends me a link to a man in a bear costume getting his penis stuck in a honeycomb. I think about four-year-old Jerry’s toes in wet sand at the shore. “LOL, Jer.” I type back. “You kill me.” Please do, I think. Then I think, bad thought, forgiven.
Before I go to the meeting I stop at the restroom and find Roland, the janitor, on his hands and knees picking up tissue paper, paper seat covers, and candy wrappers from the floor around the toilet bowl. “Aw, Geez, Rolls,” I say. “You all right?” He slithers through the bottom of the stall, then comes out through the door that was locked. “Just another day in paradise,” he says, tinkering with one of the knobs on the plastic box he carries on his hip. Roland is a former nuclear engineer who once helped develop a healthy way to power turbines; he’s a certifiable genius. Worked all over the world. Except folks in Russia didn’t like taking their orders from a Black man, so he ended up back here in New Jersey working for a chemical plant. Two years later he suffered something called “The Widow Maker” and could no longer function as a nuclear engineer or survive without carrying this box on his hip that controls his oxygen and blood levels. He calls it his “Speaker Box,” and says he loves the one tune it plays: life. So, after all that he’s here doing just about the only thing he is physically capable of doing: cleaning toilets at Americorp. And you would never know it, his history, unless you ask, like I did. He told me that not many people do, ask, that actually, he feels invisible in this office; the irony of a nuclear physicist reduced down to feeling like a particle isn’t lost on him, he says. So, whenever I run into Roland, I make sure he feels appreciated. After I pee, I tell him thank you for his hard work and that if I get this promotion, he is drinking nothing but the finest wines the French have to offer.
He says, “Boy, your breath stanks. Like my dogs.”
I tell him about my lunch, and we laugh. He calls me a good kid. I want to hug him, but he’s holding a mop handle. He hands me a breath mint from the front pocket of his jumpsuit.
In Q-647, my stomach hardens and slowly rises; I’m afraid I might throw up all over the conference table. It could be the dog food, or what Yung Mei just told me. She says I’m fired. Canned. Terminated as of immediately. Timothy Gibbs never looks up from his cellphone. I ask, “How is this possible?”
“Turns out we did some auditing,” Sheeba Watts says. “And, Mr. Restrepa, it looks as though you’ve been deliberately ordering food and not paying for it. Just leaving it to be taken home by the food service employees.”
My leg shakes. I ask, “And this is a, uh, terminable offense? Forgetfulness? Being penniless?”
“No, Mr. Restrapa, it’s more than that. It’s theft. You’re a thief. You exchanged your forgetfulness for a meal ticket and cashed that in to feed our employees!”
Gibbs raises one eyebrow, looks skyward, then nods.
“A debt of 1,500 meatball subs! Excuse me, $15,000!”
“But,” I say.
“And we also found out that you were giving company pens to Roland Jefferies, a contractor of all people. And feeding the birds in the parking lot with company-bought bagel bites. And purposely giving Maria your individually prescribed seat cushion with your name on it—”
“She has a bad back!” I protest.
“Enough,” Mei says. “It’s settled.”
“Security will escort you out now,” Sheeba says.
Gibbs, still looking into his phone, kicks out an empty box towards me from underneath the table. I envision the three of them as newborn triplets, glossy and shimmering in the clean light of a hospital’s Pediatric Intensive Care Unit; their parents lightly tapping on the window from the hall.
I go to my desk and pack my things—my framed picture of Fin, my faux succulent plant, my unwashed bowl of dried crusty oatmeal, my Roget’s II Thesaurus, my inscribed journal that says, “N” on it. My corporate life packed into a small cardboard box. As I start to feel as if I were fading away, Jerry’s head pops up.
“Heard you got the boot, Big Guy. I didn’t know you were such a badass.”
“I don’t feel like one,” I say.
I want to tell him that I feel so low, I might not make it home tonight; that I might as well step in front of a train at Dunellen Station. Might as well drink bleach. Might as well eat a bunch of pills, like Mom. Rest her soul. But I think of Fin going hungry. I think of Roland and his speaker box. I think of Jerry, and that if I’m not around to forgive him every single day then no one else will; Jerry will be damned without me, and I feel even worse for thinking that.
“Hey, hey, are you crying?” He asks.
I tell him it’s just dust in the air, that he knows about the air quality in this place.
“Well, you should still come tonight for happy hour. Gonna be the tits.”
“Yeah, all right,” I say. “I’ll see you there.”
Beneath a large framed photo of Ray Liotta and Robert DeNiro, Jerry hands me my seventh beer with the foam spilling onto the floor. Boylan’s is busy; there’s a crowd around the bar, most of the people are from Americorp. An 80s rock song plays over the speakers.
“See,” Jerry says, glancing at the row of women near the bar. “The tits.”
I don’t have it in me to follow my online therapist’s orders. I cannot picture my rage as a puppy with a big bark; instead, I feel like a pit bull. All the years of despair, as feeling split in two—an innocent self, born into this world and the spirit of that self, broken by the same world it was born into—feel as if they are adding up inside me. As Jerry stands beside me ogling over the women at the bar, I am overwhelmed by grief. I can’t picture Jerry as someone’s child, I can’t picture him innocent or naive. I’m too low to empathize. His grin, my mother’s death, my loneliness, me getting fired, my divorce are all igniting something deep within me, a boiling hot liquid slowly rising from my gut. I see Sheeba Watts, Yung Mei, and Timothy Gibbs, on a yacht, clinking champagne glasses. I see Jerry in the office getting paraded around. I see him and Celeste in bed, him biting her neck, her moaning his name. I see his cock in her mouth.
“Jerry,” I say. “Fuck off.”
“Come again, fat boy?” He says.
“I said, ‘Fuck off,’ man.”
Jerry rears back and punches me in the teeth; it feels incredible. My head jerks back, smashing into the glass of the Goodfellas portrait. Again, my mind says. More. I throw a lofty punch, missing on purpose. Jerry’s other fist connects with my stomach. I fall to the floor. Yes, I think. This is what I deserve. As he kneels over me, I call him a piece of shit and a motherfucker.
His fists collide with both of my cheeks, one then the other. I spit blood out and let it drip onto my chin. This is what I need. Now he is being held back by some guys. I stand and swipe at my mouth with my sleeve then charge at the three of them. We crash onto the pool table, all four of us, their weight and my near four-hundred pounds, and roll over the other side onto the floor. I’m yelling at Jerry to hit me more. Blood spews with my words. He calls me crazy then strikes me in the nose. I fall backwards in a hazy bliss; Jerry is my God. I roll onto my stomach and watch from the floor as he goes around the other side of the pool table, then lifts it, flipping it onto my back. Things go dark.
My eyes snap open to see his Chukka Boots walking away towards the bar. You’re not done yet, I think. I need this. Then I stand and start to walk. With the pool table on my back, I imagine that I am carrying the Customer Service Smoker, and The Indian man from line, and Marcia, and Lucia, and Roland, and Maria, and Darnell, and Sheeba Watts, and Yung Mei, and Timothy Gibbs, and Jerry, and Celeste, and my dead mother, and Fin, and every single sufferer on this planet; and with each quivering step they are all saved; that by the time I reach the exit sign, they will be in a better place; that it will be because of me and my penance, and my overwhelming amount of love for them all; that everything I’ve done will be worth it and remembered.