John entered the building furious and took the stairs to the first floor where the company suite was. He passed the desks of his employees with his intimidating soldier-like gait and didn’t even take the time to mumble, “Good morning, lads,” as he would normally do. He just rushed into his personal office and snapped the door shut behind him.
“Be careful with that door,” said an unknown man that was sitting in John’s chair with his legs on John’s desk. John took off and hanged his coat as if he hadn’t heard anything.
“That thin plasterboard is not expected to stand your temper,” continued the man who looked identical to John and was dressed exactly alike. “If you ask me, I preferred it as it was before. When we shared together with the ‘lads’. And Jane, of course.” He stood up and approached John who had remained still and silent by the hanger. “Don’t tell me it wasn’t better with Jane sitting by your side. But you had to find a – how did you put it – Ah, yes! ‘A fast, cheap and convenient solution’ to split the place so that you can have a private office.”
“You never seem to get the message, do you,” said John.
“I get the message all right. It was so cheap that made you lose the little taste you have.”
“I don’t waste money. I’ve already spent a fortune to lease this rat hole”.
“You could have stayed at the upper floor of the factory. We had a lot of space up there. But you couldn’t stand the smell of leather and the noise of the machines anymore, could you? You had to move downtown. Well this is Manhattan and you have to pay for it!”
“There was nothing wrong with the smell and the noise. You know I had to move downtown.”
“I don’t believe what I am about to say but I am not sure it was just the money,” said the man and smiled.
John owned a factory, located on the outskirts of New York, which made belts and other leather accessories. His first job, as a laborer, had been there. A smart brain coupled with long hours and he had bought it in less than ten years. He recently had started working with some famous fashion brands and needed something in the centre of Manhattan that would serve as a connection point. But John hated spending. He could not accept the meaning of demand when he was a buyer. A glass of water was a glass of water for him whether he was in the desert or by a lake. The lease of this small room was not cheap, given the size of it but was as close to a reasonable price as it could be given the size of it. John couldn’t ignore this great deal in the centre of Manhattan and this is how he, Jane and his four ‘lads’ ended up in this ‘rat hole’. The place, of course, was cheap because it couldn’t really serve as a workplace of a medium sized company. The second time John had turned something down as ‘too expensive’ and didn’t offer to pay for their coffees the real estate agent got the message and started showing places that would be ideal for a doctor’s examination office, his secretary and the waiting room. Things got worse for Jane and the ‘lads’ when John needed a private office and raised the plasterboard. There are army barracks in Russia which are more spacious.
It wasn’t easy for John either. His new private office was one tenth of what he had in the factory. If it were in his hand he would make these fashion freaks come all the way down there to meet him. But this is not how things work and he knew it. Perhaps this had been the first time in his life that he wished he could just ignore the money. But this was out of the question. Especially now that the sales were down and the whole market was suffering he couldn’t just let these clients go. There was a lot to make out of the fashion world. These people didn’t seem to care about how much they paid for manufacturing the stuff. They would put their tag on it and then sell it for so much more. John could sell to them a glass of water as if they were in the desert although they were sitting by Lake Michigan. And he knew how to do this better than anyone else. He far from liked them but he loved the money to be made from them, no matter how much his stomach ached.
“For God’s sake stop thinking about the money you get from them!” said the man who had now once more made himself comfortable in John’s chair. John was walking nervously up and down in front of his desk. He abruptly stopped, turned and burst.
“Why are you even here? Why don’t you just go?”
“Keep it down. This thing,” said the man, pointing to the plasterboard, “is too thin. They will here you. She will hear you! It won’t be easy to explain why you are shouting out loud alone, definitely not to her.”
Jane was his personal secretary from the first moment John became the boss. That morning, and any other morning, his walk and the way he slashed the door were more than enough for her to know how tense he was. On a scale from zero to ten, this was a nine. It would have been a ten if he had left the door open and asked her to join him. And it should have been. When John was under great pressure, normally he would reach breaking point within a week, spill it all to Jane, and then things would ease. But it had been a month since the current bout started and he had still not asked for her help.
“I am not thinking about the money I make. I am thinking of the money I lose,” said John in a milder voice.
“Nonsense. There is nothing to worry. It will be all right and you should just forget about it until it’s over. It may take some time but there is nothing to do but to patiently wait for-”
“There you are ready to start your philosophical speech. This is the real world! We have bills to pay and we are losing money!”
“You start shouting like this every time my words go against your financial calculations,” said the man calmly.
“This is pure nonsense and you know it!”
Outside Jane and the four ‘lads’ stared at their computer screens as if dedicated to solving a complex mathematical problem. But they were not really working at all. When your boss is shouting his head off, all on his own, there is plenty of reason to worry. They knew that nobody had gone inside before him and they were almost certain that he wasn’t talking on the phone. They would have heard it ringing behind the thin plasterboard. The tone was set to its loudest because of John’s hearing problem. Not something permanent or untreatable; he suffered partial hearing loss due to excessive and intense use of his cell. He would clamp it to his ear when talking with a big client. The doctor had said that the damage, though serious, would go away if he reduced its use. Unfortunately, John had misinterpreted this clear advice to slow down and focused on the temporariness of the condition. Confident that he could accurately identify when the point of no return would come he continued using the cell with no restraint.
And he wasn’t talking on the local line either. Such a call should have gone through Jane and this hadn’t happen this Friday. Contrarily to his obsession with control John had assigned to Jane the task of receiving his calls. This was not an easy decision. His psychiatrist insisted that he had to delegate responsibilities as a means of reducing his stress levels. The shrink, of course, had in mind a sincere change of attitude rather than something like the phone calls. Yet this was as far as he could go and John was suffering to convince himself that it was working. But he couldn’t fool himself. It was torture to wonder whether certain people he hadn’t talked to hadn’t actually called or had just been filtered out by Jane.
“Jane?” George, one of the four ‘lads’, asked. His voice was barely heard. Like the voice of his soul still asking himself if he should proceed and ask Jane whatever he wanted to ask.
Jane did not respond. She was awkwardly clicking the send/receive button of her emails again and again as if she was expecting an important message. What is wrong with him?
George left his desk and approached hers. “Jane?” he repeated a little louder.
“Should I go inside?”
He was hoping for a negative answer. Everyone in the office consulted Jane, often in a childish manner, in the event of a crisis. Jane would have normally told George to wait. But she still hoped, against all the odds, that George would get inside and another man would walk out, or that George would have to wait because John had a meeting with someone called something like Mr. Smith.
“Yes,” she said.
George returned to his desk, took a green dossier, and slowly moved toward the door. He stopped, took a deep breath and waited for a break in the voices. Despite the total absence of soundproofing, he leaned forward his head and almost touched his ear on the door to make sure that he couldn’t hear anything from the inside. He then knocked once. His pulled his hand off the door so fast as if he got electrocuted when he touched it. He wondered whether this knock was heard inside so he took a deep breath and prepared to try once more.
“Yes, who is it?” John said form the inside.
The door opened and George’s head appeared slowly from behind it. “Good morning, sir. I was wondering if we could have a look at the-”
“Not now, lad. I will see you later,” John cut him off.
George knew he shouldn’t say anything else. Before closing the door, he rapidly scanned the room to make sure that nobody else was inside. He then returned to his desk with four pairs of eyes following him.
“Nothing, guys. He is all alone,” he whispered once he’d sat.
“Are you sure?” Jane said.
George nodded. She pursed her lips and made a slight move with the intention of standing and going inside John’s office but stopped. Her body never actually left the chair she was sitting on. She then took a deep breath and shrugged. Gifted with patience, she chose to wait until– Well, she didn’t know until when to wait anymore. She just hoped that at any minute John would ask, in his own peculiar way, for help. Focus! She thought and then started working again. This was the silent signal for the ‘lads’ to also get back to their activities. Jane was the lead mare of their herd, the beating heart of the business.
Did he notice that? I hope not, she wondered about this synchronized return to their routine. John would normally spot this sudden resumption of normal activity. But not now. He was just too absorbed in his argument.
“You shouldn’t talk like this to your employees,” said the man. They’d now swapped places and John had occupied his natural position behind the desk. “The poor guy was so scared that he wouldn’t dare to insist even if that had been something important.”
“It was not,” John said firmly.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because I know what he wanted me for.”
“I see,” the man said. “It must be one of these stupid things that have to be approved by you.”
John had to personally check everything, including the annual office supplies: paper, toners, even the number of paper clips they would use for a year. He would spend a disproportionate amount of his time on such trivial issues. He seemed to almost masochistically enjoy this process, in contrast to the quick solutions he pursued for serious matters.
“Was it the toilet paper this time?” the man mocked.
“It was the paper clips. I hope you don’t mind!” John said, grasped a vase and threw it at him.
The vase passed through the man’s body as if he were a ghost and smashed against the plasterboard.
“Nope, no problem at all,” the man said evenly as if an object hadn’t just penetrated him. He sat at a corner desk by a pack of dossiers with different colors.
John regretted the relief he felt at getting rid of the vase. He had hated the modern, unusual shape of it and, above all, its strange intense smell that wouldn’t go away with time. Yet he loved the big client, a famous brand, which had sent it as a Christmas gift. He had to bear with it on his desk so that the weird guy they had as a manager would see it whenever they met.
Outside John’s office, the sound of the vase smashing on the plasterboard sounded like a desperate call for help in Jane’s ears. Yet something held her back. If she had been obliged to go in, she should have done that earlier when John started shouting. She was just hoping that John would call her inside and explain what troubled him. She would then, as usual, offer a satisfactory solution. John would then say something like “How I didn’t see this!” never accepting that he actually needed help. Not even from Jane, who had wholeheartedly offered, beyond her hard work, the patience and kindness that John badly needed. Jane cared about John and didn’t mind if he never gave her any credit for her invaluable service. For her, it was enough to help and, most importantly, calm him as much as John could calm. She just hoped – a hope that turned into certainty over the years – that John appreciated her help.
In the meantime, John was regretfully examining the pieces of the broken vase. His back was turned to the man that had once more put his legs on John’s desk and was about to light a cigarette. The click of the lighter made John stand, ready for a fight, but he didn’t yet turn to face the man. He had never allowed smoking in this room and was not going to start now. The man brought the lighter closer to the cigarette between his lips, held it there for a while and smiled faintly with his narrowed eyes fixed on John’s back. Out of sympathy rather than fear, he left the lighter and the unlit cigarette on the table. He then leaned back in the chair.
“You are not thinking of firing these people just because sales are down, are you?” the man asked.
John stared at the pieces of the vase in front of him for a while and then slowly turned to face the man. This was the first time the man had ever said something like this.
“This is my fault, letting you intervene in things,” John said, pointing at him.
“I could say exactly the same,” said the man, who rose to his feet unexpectedly fast. He stared strictly at John, a total change in his demeanor in a fraction of a second. John noticed these eyes that were exactly like his. Except that they looked so much brighter and full of life. He suddenly felt so jealous that he couldn’t hold the man’s gaze. The man, like a father that had just scolded his child, slowly moved around the desk, approached John and tapped him on the back.
“Come on, let’s have a look at the numbers,” he said and walked toward the desk at the corner of the office. John followed him, like a newly tamed tiger that was still fighting his impulse to attack.
“You know that if I break the mirror you will just vanish?”
“But you did that at home. And it didn’t work. I-”
“It was a small mirror.”
“–am still around!” the man said. He turned to face John, opened his arms and smiled. Just like a vanished magician that has just reappeared in front of his surprised audience. “Besides,” he continued, “I don’t really think you want to do that, do you?”
John grasped him by the throat with his left hand and threatened to punch him with his right. This was the first time he had had actual physical contact with the man. So he could touch him. He was the only one to see, hear and touch him after all! He wondered what would have happened if he had used the vase as a stick instead of throwing it at him. He decided to do so the next time he had an excuse. The man didn’t react. He remained with his hands wide open, still smiling.
“Come on,” he said calmly. “Let’s have a look at the numbers.”
John gradually retreated. “There is nothing to see in the numbers. It couldn’t be worse. They suck!”
“They don’t look that bad to me,” said the man, opening a red dossier. “It’s just a drop in the profits, that’s all.”
“How can you say that? I am losing half of my profits!”
“To be precise you had a 40% drop in turnover,” the man said evenly.
“Corresponding to a much larger drop in profit, you idiot! Isn’t this a good reason to at least get worried?”
“But you still have profits!” said the man, throwing the dossier clumsily back onto the corner desk. He then walked toward the windows. “It is a crisis, it will go away. You will just have to settle with less for a couple of years,” he said raising his shoulders.
“It is not that simple and you know it!”
“It is as simple as that.”
John picked up the dossier and began to carefully go through it.
“It is not that simple, not that simple at all,” John mumbled. He scratched his left ear, stressed, as he once more scrutinized the numbers. “I am losing so much and there is a decreasing trend!”
“Perhaps, but you are still earning a lot more than you need or will ever spend. I wouldn’t worry about the decrease.”
“It is not just a ‘decrease’. The term is ‘decreasing trend’. It is used to imply that it will get worse!” John said.
“For God’s sake, you have made so much money all these years. What’s to worry about?”
“You are not the one to judge what is a lot or not!”
“You have obviously forgotten what is not a lot! Anyway, at least you accept that you don’t have a negative return?”
“Not yet,” said John. He left the red dossier on the desk and approached his alter ego. They both fell silent for some time, staring out of the window.
“You know that I have to do something about it,” John said.
“I told you, I just hope that you are not thinking of firing these people.”
John didn’t answer but started tapping the rhythm of a rock song on the glass of the window.
“I just hope that you are not thinking of firing these people, especially when you are still earning so much,” repeated the man.
John kept silent.
“You wouldn’t dare fire your colleagues after you have made so much out of them all these years,” the other man yelled now.
An evil smile started forming on John’s face. He really enjoyed driving the man mad.
“They are not colleagues. They are under my employment and did what I was telling them to do. As simple as that,” he said.
“No need to devalue their work to justify your deeds.”
“That’s definitely true. The numbers perfectly justify my decision.”
“Somebody had to turn your ideas into profit. They did that. They are worth something. And you know they contributed more than this!”
“Exactly my point: somebody, anybody!”
“So you want to throw your ‘lads’ on the road just like that?” the man asked, sad.
“Not the lads. It is just her.”
Dead silence spread through the room.
“Why are you staring at me like that?” said John, forcing himself to hide a smile. Not a grim smile, just a spontaneous unreasonable smile like the ones that could get out in funerals. “It’s the best choice. I am paying her double what I give the others and she does practically nothing, nothing more than the others, I mean. I will assign George to receiving my calls. Even better, I will start taking calls on my own. Forget what the doctor said. Letting her go means saving more and at the same time only one person gets fired. This is the best choice. Even you can see that.”
“It’s the best of the worst choices. Couldn’t you just forget about firing? How much are you going to save? Is she more than 1% of what you make? Is she?” the man asked.
“Less profit means that you have to cut expenses. It is a matter of principle, as simple as that.”
“Not the kind of principle we were raised by. You are saving pennies by firing her. Pennies!” The man was almost begging.
“Are you suggesting that I should fire more?”
“You make me sick! I wonder if we grew up in the same house!”
“Ha! It’s perfectly reasonable for you to wonder. You were never around while I was busy building all this.”
“That’s true. I would never use this plasterboard for a start,” said the man, moving toward the door.
“Where are you going?” John asked. Contrary to the relief that he normally felt whenever the man left he seemed to desire a little more of his presence this time. John could see things about other people. He could catch the thoughts of his ‘lads’ in the air. He definitely couldn’t be fooled by himself.
“Where are you going?” he asked once more though he already knew the answer.
The man stopped and turned to face him.
“I am leaving, John. I don’t think there is anything more to say. You don’t need me anymore. You have selected a path that not even your own ghost can follow.” The man walked slowly preparing to go through the door.
John raised his hand and was about to speak. But the relieving promise that the man had just made stopped him. Was he actually never to see him again? He definitely hoped so, though he needed their conversations in a way he couldn’t explicitly describe. He never liked, just needed them. Like a child that doesn’t like the grouching of his parents, but this doesn’t mean that he wishes to be an orphan. He slowly went to his chair, closed his eyes and stood still for quite some time. When he abruptly opened them it looked as if it had been hours. Did he actually take a nap? He couldn’t tell. Perhaps for a couple of seconds he did. He took a deep breath and turned to his computer to check, once more, the notice of termination he had written for Jane. It was based on a sample he had found on the internet but forced himself to add a few lines of his own at the end. John finished reading it and added a comma in the line the last of his persona lines. Then saved it and programmed the email to be sent on Monday morning. He was at the factory on Mondays. No way would he give this personally or even be around.
“Jane, ask George to come inside please,” he said over the intercom.
He didn’t have any more of the day to lose.
The woman looked as if she were Jane’s twin sister and was dressed exactly like her.
“Do you really need this?” she asked.
Jane didn’t respond. Lost in her own world, she closed her eyes to feel with her fingers the red leather of the new bag from a very famous brand. She then bent, gently touched her nose to it and took a deep inhalation of the just-varnished leather.
“Jane,” the woman insisted, “do you really need this bag? You have bought four of these in the last month and they all look the same to me.”
“I want it. We need what we like not the other way around,” Jane said, grasped the red bag and moved toward the cashier, leaving the woman behind.
The lady at the cashier’s desk greeted her warmly. She had a tag with her name on the chest that Jane didn’t have to look at to remember her name. She was a regular at the store and considered her a kind of friend as they seemed to share the same taste in fashion. Only that she was selling and Jane was buying. No, Jane couldn’t know if she was real with her or just a sales expert. She hoped that she did enjoy their chats and at the same time, in a way, she didn’t care. Leather bags and accessories from very famous brands weren’t cheap, especially when they came out for the first time. The price was practically the same everywhere, not that Jane ever looked at it. The least she could do for herself was to buy them from a place she liked and where she was treated in a way she really enjoyed. The lady gave to Jane the bag she had just elegantly parceled, they exchanged a few more words and that was it for this Friday. Off home for a hot bath, a glass of wine, a book, and her new bag of course. Her place was only a few blocks away but she would have walked even if it were miles. In a good day she would often zigzag and even make circles to stay out as much as she could. These Friday afternoon walks downtown had been an exhilarating indulgence and over the years seemed to be the sole reason for living and working in this trap of arrogance and vanity.
When the woman suddenly appeared by her side she didn’t feel the slightest surprise. She had started to kind of expect this uninvited and unwanted presence that had been of increasing frequency, for quite some time now. Especially during Friday afternoon walks. The best she could do was to fight the impulse to panic whenever this ghost chose to join her. No she wouldn’t do her the favor and take a taxi. This would remain a relaxing stroll no matter what.
The woman glanced at the bag that Jane was holding and then, as much as she could see through the wrap, the bag that Jane had just bought. They were both red.
“They both look the same to me,” she said, and smiled.
“You look exactly like me but we are not the same at all!” Jane sighed and started walking faster. The woman followed her.
“Does this mean that you bought it for me?” she said.
Jane didn’t respond, just sped up. The woman kept pace. When they were just a couple of blocks away from home, Jane walked faster and faster until she started running. The woman didn’t try to follow her. At the last corner Jane stopped and looked back. Her mirror image, with her hands in the pockets, was whistling and staring at the colors of the buildings under the last beams of the setting sun. Bitch, you ruined this once more! With the exception of the punk attitude Jane would have been staring these buildings. She was paying a lot of these flat just to be able to live in a neighborhood that had just come out of the sixties, preserved in the very centre of New York. She then started running again. Few meters from the front door, she looked with trembling hands for the keys in her bag, opened the door, hurried in and locked it. Catching her breath, she checked through the peephole to make sure that nobody was in the corridor. She sighed in relief. It was the end of a hellish week at the office. It was not the amount of work that troubled her. Her boss, John, had not been well lately. He was always tense and speaking to himself, even shouting, shut away alone inside his office. Jane cared about him. Seeing him fall apart was not something she could just ignore. Yet she knew that there was little she could do. John would only listen to himself. Unless he decided to do something about whatever troubled him unless he convinced himself that he should ask for hers or any other’s help she couldn’t do anything.
But Jane had had enough of this endless thoughts that led nowhere for this week and the weeks before. This weekend would be only for her. She didn’t have any particular plans but was determined to enjoy every single minute of her sweet loneliness every drop of her excellent dry wine, and every line of the novel she had bought, starting from tonight.
It was dark when the woman reached Jane’s apartment. She kept walking as if there wasn’t a locked door in front of her and stepped through it like a ghost.
Jane, relaxed after a hot bath, was in her bedroom with her robe on. She stood in front of the mirror almost sensually enjoying how the new bag looked on her. She then opened the cupboard. It was full of bags, small bags, medium bags, wallets, all kinds of bags and most of them red. She tried to find some room for her new gift but it was impossible to fit it in there. For tonight she decided to sleep with it but she already knew which pieces of her collection would just throw next morning to make some room in the bag vault. With the new pride on her shoulder, she made an impressive entrance into the living room. Like a top model in a fashion show she narcissistically smiled to the reporters that were not sitting on her coach and were not taking any pictures. She went up and down the corridor between the living room and the kitchen twice with the necessary poses one in front of the microwave oven and one in front of her framed M.B.A. degree from Harvard. When the imaginary cameras stopped flashing she sat on the couch, picked up her book and soon got absorbed in the romantic love of the modern princess that she resembled so much. A few pages later, while she was affectionately patting the new red bag at her side, she blindly reached for the glass on the table in front of her. Her heart started racing as she glimpsed a blurred figure sitting in the chair opposite her. Jane didn’t have to look to make sure. The glass fell from her hand as she stood up. “What are you doing in here?” she shouted.
“Not much more than you,” said the woman.
Jane was shivering. “You don’t have the right to be here!”
“Darling, I wouldn’t be here if you didn’t want me. Relax and get us a glass of wine since you spoiled the last one.” She looked at the glass on the floor, her left eyebrow raised. Jane remained idle.
“Come on, get me a glass of the wine you are drinking and let’s have some girlie talk,” the woman continued playfully. “It’s Friday night and I am not leaving you alone”.
Jane, as if hypnotized, went to the kitchen and came back with two glasses of wine. She left them on the table, sat down and put the book back on her knees. She slightly bent her head and lowered her eyes on the book narrowing her broader visual field not farther from the broken glass in front of her feet. The woman could see Jane’s eyeballs that were outlined under her eyelids moving fast from left to right killing the lines one by one. But there were only ten lines in the last page of the first chapter and Jane had read more than a hundred. She bitten her bottom lip and forcefully put her point finger on the first line of the last paragraph. Then the second and then the third and then-
“Come on,” said the woman. “Leave that book. Let’s play a game.” She paused to indulge Jane, who had her eyes rolling form left for right again and again her finger know stack on the fifth line.
“You will find it interesting,” the woman insisted.
Jane realized she couldn’t avoid it. “Okay, what is this game that you want to play?”
“It is really nice. I give you a number that corresponds to something very specific that I have in my mind and you try to find out what that is. You can ask whatever you like and I have to answer every question you ask. But you must find it within one minute. The one that finds the most is the winner. What do you think?”
“Go ahead first.” Jane sighed.
“Is it a thing?”
“Is it a person?”
“Does it have to do with time?”
“Yes, you are really good at this!” The woman laughed.
“The seven days of the week,” Jane said.
“That’s great!” said the other woman, excited. “Your turn now.”
“Sixty-five,” said Jane, raising her eyebrows.
“The number of times I have visited you this year. You have to do better than this, honey, if you want a chance to win. My turn now. Twenty-six.”
“The number of bags I have bought this year,” Jane responded quickly.
“Forty-three,” the woman said even though it was not her turn.
“Six thousand,” the woman said.
“The money I have in the bank,” Jane replied as though she were being interrogated.
The woman stopped and looked Jane in the eyes. She slowly reached for her glass and, with her eyes still on Jane’s, had one swallow and then another.
“You spend so much money on these things,” the woman said in a soft voice.
“It is my money. I have worked for every penny of it and I am not going to ask you how to spend it!”
The woman left the glass on the table stood up, slowly approached Jane and grasped her hands tight. “Yes, dear,” she said. “It is your money and you have worked for every penny of it.” She stopped and looked Jane in the eyes. “But do you really need all these things?”
“I like them,” Jane said. She tried to release her hands expecting that the woman would apply more force not to let them go. But the woman loosened her grip when she realized that Jane wanted free. Jane wasn’t expecting this and just left her hands lying on the now open palms of the woman.
“What about tomorrow?” the woman said.
“What about it?”
“You have nothing put aside.”
“Yes I have, six thousand. You just made a question in your silly game out of it.”
“That is nothing compared to what you make. Or what you may need in the future. What if-”
“No worries,” Jane cut her. It wasn’t the first time the woman had ‘what if’ her and she knew how she was going to finish this sentence. “I am good at what I do and you know that this is an understatement. I will always have a job,” she said and withdrew her hands with a move that started up from her shoulders. The woman closed her eyes, sighed and leaned back on the couch.
“I hope you do,” she said.
“Don’t hope. It’s a fact not a wish.” Jane stood up and pointed at her. “A mere fact of the future! A fact of the future!” she repeated and made three steps back still pointing at her. She was expecting for an answer but the woman remained still and silent. She just opened her eyes and froze them on Jane, wide open, as if she were dead. Jane looked at what it first seemed to her as an expressionless face. She then thought that the woman was strict, then that the woman was smiling and finally that she was about to cry. She was like these old pictures they had at her grandfather’s house that used to be sad when she frowned and smiled back at her when she was happy. Jane, as a child, used to be terrified by these pictures of the First World War heroes of her family. She grasped the book and left the lounge fast. The woman had never followed her into her room and had never messed with her sleep. Locking herself inside her bedroom and the den of Morpheus was the best, if not the only, way to get rid of her. The woman, turned to stare the closed door. A few minutes later, one page was heard getting creased under the weight of the book as it fell to her chest.
The woman turned her head straight and had the last of the wine in Jane’s second glass. Then looked at the broken glass on the floor. “You cannot predict the future,” she said. Her voice echoed as she faded away.
John would never leave earlier on Fridays. It was a matter of principle and management. George was certain that this Friday and many other Fridays he was just waiting inside for the clock to hit five. But this Friday the last minutes before 5.00 p.m. were like hours to George. Once John left, he stood up and approached Jane, who was calmly checking ‘a few details’. This is how she referred to the tasks she dealt with when everybody had left. She never left right after John like the rest. It was a matter of principle for her too. This was the best time to tidy up her desk so as to be ready for a fresh start on Monday. Besides, there wasn’t much waiting for her at home this Friday, or any Friday.
“Jane?” George hesitated as Jane looked at him questioningly. “I was wondering if you would like to join me for an early drink.”
Jane smiled kindly. She knew that George was interested in her but she would never do anything with him. It was not a question of whether she liked him or not. She had always ruled out the prospect of getting involved with somebody from work.
“I am sorry, George,” she said. “I already have plans for tonight.”
“Perhaps we could have a quick beer now?” George’s deodorant was about to lose the battle with his frantic sweating. “There is a new bar right on the corner.”
“I am sorry, George, I really can’t. A friend from college has just arrived from Washington and she is staying with me. We hardly have a chance to meet and this is the first time she’s come to visit. I really wouldn’t like to leave her alone for long. I am sure she was out all day shopping and having fun but I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving her longer than I have to.” Jane didn’t lie except in situations like this but she was always verbose when lying. George nodded in understanding. And relief.
“She asked me to give her a call when I was about to finish. In fact, I should get in touch with her right now,” Jane continued and looked for her phone as if she actually had to call someone.
“That’s okay,” said George and retreated to his desk.
“I am sorry,” Jane repeated with a forced smile, the smile of her innocent lies. She squealed with fake enthusiasm over the phone as if somebody had actually responded to her call. She had rung her number at home. With the smile unnaturally frozen on her face, she started talking to no one, arranging where she would never meet her friend that was miles away. She now had an incomprehensible message on her answering machine.
George grasped his coat and left. At the elevator he made a nervous gesture with his right hand.
“Leave me,” he shouted as if an invisible man was trying to grasp him.
There was, indeed, such a man that only George could see and talk to.
“Go back and say something to her,” the man encouraged George.
“It’s too late now. Besides I have to be at home by eight.” He took the stairs to avoid any further talk with the man. It was just two flights to the underground parking lot. He opened the door leading to the garage and stopped to look behind him. Nobody was following. He sighed and closed his eyes. This was a fake relief. The man never actually followed him anywhere. He just seemed to appear suddenly out of nowhere. But George thought that it was always worth checking that he wasn’t followed. Somehow this was a, though strange, effective way to get rid of the man as he had never appeared when George was alert.
But, seen or unseen, this man was always absently present. George was certain that he was behind the red lights at the corner just outside the underground parking. Not once, since the man first appeared, had George found the lights green. It was always red as it was right now; brightly red that looked exactly like the tiny, elegant red tables of the pub that had just opened on the corner. The pub he had in mind for their hypothetical rendezvous with Jane. The pub he wouldn’t have ever noticed if it weren’t for the red lights. George looked at the tables and then at the lights. Thanks to these red lights he had seen the old store closing and the new pub opening. He was there when the sales sign was put on the old coffee bar and when it went down. In fact he was there waiting for a green light even when the agent shook hands with the new owner. He then had the chance to watch day by day the transformation of the place to this French style pub. It was a beauty. Every time he stopped and enjoyed the view as if hadn’t lived the gradual change but had just found the new in the place of the old overnight.
“We can still have that beer on our own, you know.”
George popped up and almost hit the top of the car.
“I don’t want to have a beer! I have to meet with the clan,” said George and looked through the mirror at the right back seat, where the man was sitting.
“You can meet them from the phone and still have the beer,” said the man. George kept looking at him through the mirror, silent.
“I see, you have to be in front of your computer screen. Well better move if don’t want to miss this green light,” said the man and pointed with his eyes to the traffic lights.
George looked at the lights and made an abrupt start. The man got sacked in the seat and vanished as if he was glued on this specific point of the road. George saw him through the mirror still seated on the same spot with the cars passing through him. He was still there when he made the turn.
When parked he looked again through the mirror at the back seat. It was empty. Forcing the fake feeling of relief on himself once more, he got out of the car and walked to the convenience store on the corner for a sandwich. Salmon, $5.10. “So expensive,” he muttered, grimacing. Still, definitely less than the drinks we would have had with Jane.
George paid and headed home. Once inside, he threw the keys on to the small table by the door and went straight to his room. He moved the mouse to activate the screen of a computer that was never switched off, quickly checked the status of his fleet and then looked at his watch. The meeting was in fifteen minutes. Enough time to grab a beer from the kitchen and eat his sandwich, sunk in front of the game.
When he returned, the invisible man was right there enjoying his dinner.
“Leave that,” George shouted and tried to grab the sandwich. But he only grasped air as the sandwich had miraculously turned into a hologram. George remained speechless. This was the first time that something like that had happened. Yes, the man always looked like a hologram – he had tried to punch him a couple of times in the past and hit air instead – but this was the first time that he’d picked up something real and turned it into this barely-there state of himself.
“It’s really nice,” the man said and took another bite. “You should have brought two. You knew I was coming.” He smiled sardonically.
“I paid $5.10 for that!”
“It’s a fair price given the taste of it.”
“It was not a fair price on the first place and it definitely isn’t now that it is not – not what it was!”
“If you had bought two I wouldn’t have touched yours.”
“Since when do you need feeding and why should I pay for it?”
“What do you mean? Everybody needs to eat,” said the man raising his shoulders.
“And must pay for his meal if this is going to be the case!”
“Come on, don’t make a scene. Let’s say that you were buying a newspaper everyday, which you don’t, and there you are! You buy a meal to your best friend with the New York Times of the last three days!”
“You are not my best friend!” George pronounced each word slowly and clearly as if he was forcefully typing them with his teeth.
“How much did you pay for this game this week?” the man asked, pointing with the hologram sandwich at the computer screen.
“Now how did you get to that? You now start making thought leaps as long as it gets where you want no matter what. You just can’t lose a second can you? You are going to start lecturing again. Well, I am not going to take any more of this from you!” said George.
The man raised his shoulders. “I bet it’s more than what this sandwich costs,” he said. “Now, $5.10 would have been a lot if this sandwich were immaterial in the first place, if it was air, like it is now that I am holding it!” He started pacing the room like a professor lecturing his class. “But I can’t say it is a lot for something that was supposed to feed you.” He took another bite. “What the hell! It still isn’t a lot as it feeds me now!” Little pieces of hologram bread sprayed at the computer screen.
George took a napkin and tried to wipe the pieces off the screen but they had retained their hologram structure and could not be removed. He was more furious than terrified.
“Can’t you just vanish? If I need your opinion on how to spend my money I will ask for it!”
“I am just saying that you shouldn’t complain about the cost of this great sandwich, when you spent so much more on these things.” The man used what the sandwich once more as a pointer to indicate the computer screen.
“It’s more than triple the price of what the stuff in it costs. Do the math! Is it still cheap for you?” said George.
“A lot of people worked to have it served ready to you. What about the cost of your game?”
“What about it? It costs the same everywhere!”
“What costs the same everywhere?” asked the man.
“The game! Are you deaf?” George shouted.
“What exactly is it that had cost you today and everyday more than what this sandwich did?”
“It is what I like!”
“It is the only thing you like. You click all day and you even click for your hobby for God’s sake!”
“I work hard and long and I can do whatever I like!”
“A lot of people work harder than you. Ha! Now that I am thinking of it, the people that made this sandwich that feeds you – ”
“– worked harder and I am sure they earned less than what you earned today. How much did you earn today George? I bet it was more than $5.10, a lot more actually.” He ate the last bite of the sandwich.
George turned his back on the man. Once more he tried frantically to get the pieces of the hologram bread off the screen.
“You shouldn’t complain about the price of this sandwich since you earn so much for –”
“My salary is a grain of sand to the profits I create!” George ground his teeth as he forcefully kept trying to clear the screen.
“The salary of the people that made that sandwich is a grain of sand to your big grains of sand,” said the man.
“I worked hard to get where I am!”
“I am just wondering whether we should pay just a little bit more the people that make things.”
I have had enough of this. If going out means getting rid of him the hell with the game! George got up, put on his jacket and started looking nervously for his keys. He was too furious to remember that he had left them by the door. The man stared in surprise. Was this the beginning of the change he was hoping for and at the same time he feared as it would be the beginning of the end for his existence?
“I didn’t mean to insult you. Yes, you work hard every day,” the man hesitated but decided to keep on. “I am not questioning your work. You must be paid well for knowing what to click in front of your chaotic screen. It is a sophisticated click. I was just saying that perhaps we should just pay a bit more, that we shouldn’t mind paying a little more, for the guy that waters the corn used to make the bread of this sandwich or the fisherman that captures the salmon in it. Shouldn’t we give just a little more to the people that prod–”
A buzz from the computer interrupted him and struck George who had found the keys and was about to open the door.
“Leave me, we have to look into our strategy,” George said and sat with his jacket on and the keys still in his left hand in front of his computer.
“–uce,” the man finished. He lowered his head and touched his eyebrows with his hand. He then began to fade because he knew that once George got absorbed in his game he couldn’t hear anything. Not even himself talking.
The pieces of the hologram bread also vanished from the computer screen. Just in time before the meet up began. George took another napkin and cleaned the whole screen fast before he connected to the rest of his clan.
John, Jane and George
Monday morning 9:30 a.m.
She couldn’t see her. If there was a day she was definitely expecting the woman to show up this must had been it. But she wasn’t around saying ‘I told you so’ or something like this. Jane was walking down the road making circles around her dearest blocks with the big fashion stores. She didn’t want to go inside, just liked to walk around. The sun, the people everything was so disgustingly beautiful. She sat on a bench to admire this forest of people and cars, moving fast and unsynchronized. This strange sea of pointless misery relaxed her. She had just come out of that sea. She had swum for fifteen years in that sea, a castaway not looking for land. That email today gave her the island she was not hoping to find but so much needed. She smiled. Leaving the office so easily was not something she was expecting. She would never believe that John could do something to make her unable to forgive him. Yet, she also never thought that John could do something that she would never forgive and at the same time thank him for. Was she still shocked, not realizing that he has just fired her? Did she still not believe what had just happened as she would do if she had heard something dreadful like John’s death? She didn’t care. For now, she was enjoying this feeling of freedom she hadn’t felt since the last long and mindless vacation she had twenty years before. But something was telling her that it was not the shock but the relief that caressed her. A drop of tears left her left eye and travelled through her smiling cheek to the cold pavement. It was a tear of regret for the lost years, which had just left a smiling face for the earned years ahead.
Monday morning 9:37 a.m.
This was a strong pain. His first thought was of the doctors at the emergency room whenever he visited fearing that his heart was abandoning him. He now knew what they meant. This was not a panic attack. He was perfectly calm trying to stay conscious and reach the factory that was a couple of miles away. But this was a really strong pain. He pulled over and reached for his phone. Touched it and then left it. Everything got black. No time to think, not time to choose of what to think, no time. There was just no more time left. And then there was just nothing. Nil.
Monday morning 10:30 a.m.
Was he feeling happy? Damn it. He was feeling happy. Was there something wrong for feeling happy about your boss’ death? Yes, there is. He felt guilty for feeling happy. Just for a while and that was it. The news definitely shocked him but the truth was that he could now check the status of his fleet freely. With John dead he could have wide open the screen on his game and check his fleet. And you know what? He couldn’t have picked a better moment to die! This Monday morning they were all about to reach their target as planned at their Friday meeting. George had, of course, offered and taken the lead role because he knew that John was at the factory on Mondays. But no matter what, it is far better to know that he is dead than that he is just absent. There may be a Monday that he could just pop up but there is no way that he could come back from the dead and ruin this crucial mission.
– THE END –