Bob had known that his t-shirt wouldn’t be for everyone. Charles Ash’s casting as Fireburn had been a little controversial. There were a number of rumors and calls for different actors, but Bob had thought that Ash brought a level of genuine depth to the role and to the reboot of the franchise more generally. It was true that Ash’s understated performance wasn’t like a comic book, but it wasn’t supposed to be. It was meant to make the character and his universe more realistic. The costumes reflected that, the set design reflected that. Even the lighting reflected that.
If someone had argued that the bright colors and big personalities of the comics had been what drew them to Fireburn in the first place (“The name’s not subtle, so how can the character be?” they would say), Bob would nod and say, “I get that, but if they’re going to do a reboot, then they should be doing it differently. That’s why Ash was so perfect,” and, eventually, they’d agree, or they would respectfully agree to disagree. And Bob understood that this was part of the spirit of casual Friday, having fun and laid-back debates over little things. That’s the whole reason why he wore his Ash-as-Fireburn t-shirt.
So Bob knew that some people would give a groan or roll their eyes when they saw the t-shirt (he expected a lively debate from Doug, who had a variety of comic book character posters on the inside of his cubicle), but he wasn’t quite prepared for the frowns and headshakes that he got when he got off the elevator and headed to his desk. There was a lot of muttering, too. Bob started to feel uncomfortable, not casual at all, because he wasn’t sure what the source of everyone’s disdain was. Eventually, Jesse stopped by his desk. Quietly, Jesse said, “Dude, you didn’t see the headlines?”
Bob stared at Jesse for a moment, then he shook his head. Jesse looked around the office, said, “Google Charles Ash” and walked off. Bob pulled out his phone and did so. He almost immediately felt sick. There were a number of articles about Ash going on a racist rant while being recorded by a fan. Bob couldn’t believe it. How could someone capable of giving such a deep, soulful performance say such vile things (Bob only watched half a minute of the tirade, but it was clearly vile)? And yet, there it was, caught on video. Bob was lost in the headlines when he heard a scoff from someone walking past his desk. Bob looked up and said, “I didn’t know.” A few people looked at him and then looked back at their desk. Debbie at least gave a start of a smile before looking away. Maybe she didn’t know what the controversy was.
Bob decided that he’d have to go to the bathroom. It was near his desk, so he quickly made his way there. As soon as he was inside, he quickly turned his shirt inside out. At least then he wouldn’t get new headshakes and angry scowls. Maybe on lunch break, he’d duck into the Walgreens a couple of blocks away. They typically had generic t-shirts. Bob went back to his desk, a little shaken but feeling like the worst was already behind him. He stepped out of the bathroom and looked around the office. He seemed to have gone back to being a background player instead of the focal point of everyone’s attention. That was comfortable.
Bob sat down at his desk and logged on. Surely diving into his work would distract him and keep his mind off of Ash’s tirade. He got back into the report that he’d started yesterday. Bob read and reread the opening paragraph for about five minutes before he decided to pull out his phone. He started to draft a Facebook post denouncing Ash, but then he deleted it. A lot of his coworkers weren’t Facebook friends with him, and, if he posted his statement, some of his former high school classmates would probably ask where this was coming from. Bob put his phone away and said, “Shit.” He looked around the office, wondering if he could call everybody’s attention and make a statement that way. But it would be out of character for him. Bob liked short, informal chats or just listening, not taking a substantive, meaningful stand in a very public setting.
He tried going back to the report. Intellectually, Bob knew that he should care about the work that he was doing much more than a celebrity’s status, but it was hard for him to not say something after the barrage of stares and headshakes. He tried to come up with an explanation for the tirade, wondering if Ash had been doing some kind of method acting exercise. Of course, it would be hard to excuse that, and Ash would need to show remorse. Bob brought his phone back out and searched for “Charles Ash public apology”. Instead of finding a response to the racist incident from the previous night, there was a mix of tangentially related reports and a couple of references to minor apologies for drunk and disorderly behavior. Bob was surprised that he didn’t know about that part of Ash’s background, but the surprise certainly was nothing compared to the filmed tirade. He looked back on social media. Ellie McAffe, Ash’s main costar in Fireburn, had posted a vague but generally supportive message.
That made Bob think that maybe his wearing the shirt wasn’t that big of a deal. Surely Ellie wouldn’t toss her own reputation out over someone who wasn’t decent on some level. Maybe Ash would be able to apologize and recover. He might be able to do some kind of redemption arc. Like Ellie’s character, in some ways. It made Bob wonder if, perhaps, this was all part of an elaborate publicity stunt. Perhaps it was all to raise awareness of racism.
Before Bob could get too far down that path, Stevenson stopped by his desk. “Heard about the shirt,” he said. Bob nodded. Stevenson generally didn’t talk to him much. Typically, if he did, it was something objectionable. Stevenson continued, “I can’t believe HR made you turn it inside out.”
“They didn’t make me. I just kind of figured.”
Stevenson watched him for a moment. “I guess. Can’t give them another reason to write you up.”
Bob nodded again. He wondered if Stevenson had gotten written up several times before. Most of the women they worked with seemed to avoid him. But Bob also didn’t want to be on Stevenson’s bad side. Stevenson could very likely be an asshole if he wanted. Probably if he didn’t want to either. “Yeah,” he said. “I just didn’t want to hear about it today, you know?” Bob looked around the office. Some of the headshakers were watching the interaction carefully. They probably were wondering if they’d had Bob pegged wrong all along, not realizing that he was some kind of racist dick in his off hours.
Stevenson nodded, creeping Bob out. “I get it. Some snowflake says something, another piles on, and pretty soon you’ve got a blizzard of bullshit.” He scratched his gut a little. “Well, anyway, if you want to turn it rightside out, I’ve got your back.”
Bob quietly said, “Thanks, man. I appreciate it.” Stevenson patted Bob’s shoulder and moved on. Bob made eye contact with Debbie and rolled his eyes. She smiled a little. Debbie was likable. If she stuck up for Bob, maybe he’d be okay. Surely, she could be his savior.
Bob smiled back at her, then he went back to the report, though his head was still spinning a little. There was so much to consider. Was this a publicity stunt? Would any Black celebrities come to Ash’s side? What did it mean to have Stevenson in his corner? It was a surprisingly complex issue. It was too bad that there wasn’t a real Fireburn. He would be able to put Ash in his place, if Ash truly was a bad man. Bob let the scenario run through his head, Fireburn taking Ash aside and setting things right. This background clip let Bob move past the frustration, get back to work. He felt like he could finally focus and enjoy casual Friday.