Marie’s hovering, Ron’s cock-blocking and Mom’s ghost is squat-thrusting. Marie’s my boss and we’re in secret love, Ron’s a new-hire hunk, and Mom’s been dead a month. We’re gathered around a stack of paper that’s scaling my cubicle wall.
“There’s nothing wrong with help,” Marie says, pointing at the paper mountain I’ve failed to summit, laying her other hand on Ron’s triceps. Ron’s jazz hands brush Marie’s side-boob.
“She’s lying,” Mom says. “Help’s for losers. Flash Marie your balls and tell her she’s the one. I’m almost at goal weight and I swear to Leo if you keep me here.”
Leo, the afterlife gatekeeper, hates mothers and the overweight, but pretends he’s doing Mom a favor by making her fulfill her wants before he lets her in: thinness and a married son.
“Almost caught up,” I say.
“Bro, I’ll finish in three hours,” Ron says. He reaches and I roll in front of the stack. Mom kickboxes a roundhouse to his junk.
“My bad,” Ron says, backing up.
“Ron, give us a sec,” Marie says.
Ron mimes relinquishment of a steering wheel. He leaves, Mom travel-lunging at his heels. “Do it now, puss,” Mom says. “I’ll keep an eye on mister meat slab.”
Mom thinks if I make my move, Leo will consider me on track to wed.
Marie leans in.
“Ron’s not your enemy,” she says.
She smells like a flower.
“Ron is fast, but his mistakes are copious,” I say.
“We all have strengths, Arnold,” Marie says.
Her teeth gleam.
“What’s mine?” I say.
“You work hard, but slow,” Marie says.
“She’s right,” Mom says, re-appearing, dumbbells curling. “You’re slow like Dad.”
My drunk father hid in the bedroom half my childhood and weaved head-on into an eighteen-wheeler prior to the other half. My seatbelt saved me, but when the headaches start I can’t see straight. They say it’s not my fault, but it was me who begged until he couldn’t take it, me who said the mall was too far to walk.
“I’m staying late,” I say.
“Suit yourself,” Marie says.
“Wait!” I say.
“What?” Marie says.
Her chocolate mane engulfs her shoulders, her green eyes pierce my soul, and her manicure makes me wish I were born a scratching post.
“Nothing,” I say. “I’ll get it done.”
It’s just me and the stack. I adjust my chair. I breathe deep. I plant my feet. I Google productivity tips. I play a round of e-solitaire. I stare into my screensaver and see Marie laying with me in pixilated fields beneath a trademarked sun.
Two hours gone. Don’t ask where.
“You’re biting your nails instead of working and your beloved is in her office with Mr. zero carbs,” Mom says, struggling through sit-ups. My gnawed thumbnail resembles an OSHA violation.
Mom applied Bite-No-More to my nails Fridays after kindergarten, back when she did tenderness. She’d blow on my fingers to dry the polish, then massage my palms. One Friday, the serum slid from her hand and she followed it to the floor, flailing. I dialed 9-1-1. Later, I asked Dad what would happen and he asked why the house reeked of shellac, then had ten beers and passed out on the porch. I dialed those three numbers for Mom again last month and thought she’d be okay again.
“I can’t concentrate, Mom,” I say.
“Whoa,” says Ron, apparently released from Marie’s office and eavesdropping in his cubicle. “Let’s keep mommy issues low, bud.”
“Eat shit, Ron,” Mom says.
“Snoop less, Ron,” I say.
“Call me when you give up,” Ron says.
I don headphones and take a piece of paper off the stack.
“Attaboy!” Mom says.
The stack grew while I slept.
“I tried to wake you,” Mom says, her medicine ball landing near my feet.
“Fuck,” I say, mopping drool.
“How is this bigger?” I say.
“Are you okay?” Ron says.
I’m haunted, broke, terrified to tell Marie I love her, and exhausted from contemplating the void at night.
“Fine,” I say.
“Fine,” Ron says.
“I’m starting to think you need him,” Mom says. She stops exercising and her eyes fill with love I recognize from years ago.
“Mom, I got this,” I say.
She’s trying not to cry.
Six o’clock coffee equals a sleepless night. If I start now, I’ll be done before the morning bustle and still have time to sneak a nap on Mom’s yoga mat.
“Quick!” Mom says, and I follow her voice to Marie’s office, where Mom is doing chin ups in the doorframe.
“Still here?” Marie asks. I walk through Mom and sit in Marie’s corner chair. “Could you look in that cabinet for the contracts file,” she says.
I find it. I write “I love you, Marie” on a Post-it and stick it to the file.
“Lame!” Mom says. “Abort!”
I put the file on Marie’s desk and wait for fireworks. Suddenly, Ron is laughing in the distance, then he’s at the door. “You’re fucking right,” he says into his air pods. Before he sees me, he says to Marie: “Hey babe, ready?”
Mom tries to grab the note but she can’t grasp things outside her realm.
Marie laughs like a loon. Ron sees me and shits.
“I was talking to my girlfriend on the phone,” he says.
I grab the file, but it slips. I dive at the fluttering papers, and gather them into a mound atop of which I hunker. Before I know what’s happening, Ron is peeling the Post-it from his shoe.
“No!” Mom says.
Ron reads it aloud and his bray-laugh stings.
I played peewee football when I was five. The one time I tackled an opponent Mom took me for a chocolate shake.
Reaching from the rug, I yank Ron’s wrist and pull him down. The Post-it flies and I grab it. Hardly a tackle, but I’ve regained possession. Mom claps, Ron checks himself for bruises, I run, Marie gives chase.
“Arnold, please keep this to yourself,” Marie blurts.
“Him?” I say. “What about us?”
“I’m sorry, Arnold…us?”
I place the stack on Ron’s desk. Mom says Leo can fuck himself and I say Marie can too. Home, we mainline cookies and try to get some rest. I can’t sleep because I’m trying for the millionth time to remember what I’d wanted at the mall.