(a short story)
I open my mouth, wide and toothy, and yawn with a sound like the wail of an unpracticed trumpet. The interruption makes Ray stammer and pause just as he's getting to the salient part of his presentation, and he looks up at me from his spot at the head of the table. I hold my gaze on his, projecting something fierce, and when I'm satisfied that he is sufficiently cowed, I nod approvingly. He nods back, like an actor acknowledging his cue, and turns to the sheet of notes in front him, shuttling his ring finger across the page, seeking out the spot where he got lost.
Meanwhile, a menacing quiet has filled the room, and the people arrayed around the conference table cast timorous glances at me, their bodies shifting nervously in their seats.
"Here we go." Ray mutters to himself, as he jabs his finger at the sheet and resumes.
The drone of his voice is already making my eyes heavy again. I wet my lips extravagantly against my tongue, and glance around the table, settling on the décolletage of the new sales associate opposite me. Her name is Isabelle - though I am certain that it's not - and for the last week she's occupied the cubicle across from mine.
As I'm raking my eyes over her, a skein of gossamer black hair falls over the hollow above her collarbone, and I note the diffident way she tucks it back behind her ear. Her face has the texture and aspect of a store mannequin. It's one of these faces that always look like there are words in them that want come out, and that never do.
I am so terrifically bored; the shackled sameness of this meeting corrupts my restless energy. I want to hunt and kill something that is lovely.
"Tom?" I hear Ray say.
"What?" I demand, my gaze fixed firmly on the cleft of Isabelle's buxom.
"Uh, I- do you want to talk about the McMahon account?" Ray sputters.
"Not particularly," I say, tracing the network of blue-green veining above Isabelle's mammillae.
My ears, however, are tuned to everything, and I can hear Ray's forced smile stretch across his lips, like wet leather; the electric rustle of his occipital nerves, as he performs saccadic eye movements around the table; the gulping undulations of his larynx.
"Why don't you just say a few words, Tom," Ray finally says, his voice pregnant with need.
I'm admiring the tumidity of Isabelle's blouse and the way the buttons cling tragically to their eyelets.
"Please, Tom. If you wouldn't mind," Ray says.
I look down, sigh exhaustively, and cock my head to scan the faces around the table; examining each of them in turn; cataloguing the weak and the less weak; and when I'm done with this, I feel a brief pang of loneliness.
Still, I fix the room with what I'm certain is a disarmingly impish smile.
"The McMahon account," I begin cheerfully.
Back at my cubicle, I'm listening absently to a voice on the other end of my headset, while I cast my eyes at the cubicle across the aisle.
Isabelle - or whatever - sits with a dancer's posture, replenishing a kitschy mug in the shape of a Valentine's heart; adding in a few new Sharpies and a pair of heavy industrial scissors with wide red handles, intermittently eyeing the glow of her computer monitor with an aspect of bewilderment.
"No," I say into the phone. "No. No. No. Let me tell you something. That is a problem you do not want to have, lady. If I don't have a check in my hand by Tuesday, I will cut your throat," I'm saying into the phone. "Yes. You heard me accurately. No, it is not an empty threat. What? No. I will actually come to your home, and do this. Uh huh. Yes. Yes. I don't think it's inappropriate at all. I'm the one who is offended. Uh huh."
I'm engulfed in the carnality of the pink gloss painted across Isabelle's lips, the sleekness of her gams.
"You will do it," I say into the phone, "because I have said you will. Yes. Good bye, Mother," I push a button and kill the circuit.
Isabelle takes this as a cue and swivels to me, and says, matter-of-factly, "So, the McMahon account."
The sound of her voice disrupts my reverie, and I look up at her and glower.
"What?" I snap.
She starts at the sharpness of my voice.
"The McMahon account," she rasps, inflecting like she's asking a question.
"Yes," I say. "What about it?"
"I was just curious. It's so impressive. How did you do it?" She asks.
"Because I am strong, where others are weak," I tell her.
She looks befuddled, and says, "Well. That is really impressive, Thomas."
I can see the envy undulating over her like phantasms of heat jouncing over the desert floor.
"You're going to do really well here," I tell her, and turn away.
You're not going to do well. You're going to work hard and make sacrifices, certain that all this effort will yield returns, because that's what everyone has told you is supposed to happen when you work hard and make sacrifices. But, you'll never quite apprehend why nothing you do is ever enough; no matter how earnest your efforts, you just go on flailing and failing and falling. Finally, a sententious internal voice is going to tell you that the pursuit of money is not a life of happiness. Secretly, though, you will know this to be false, and always be haunted by the secret knowledge that makes the world taste so good.
Ray's buttonholed me into his office for the second time this week, eager to let me know how much the firm appreciates me. His fawning praise drags on, while I trace the saturnine sweep of the afternoon moon over the downtown skyline in the window.
"Tom," Ray says, forlornly.
"Uh huh," I reply.
"Tom, have you ever worn a chastity device?"
It takes a moment to register, and when it does, it is like I'm standing in a belfry listening to the peal of the church bell. My eyes swoop down on Ray's, suddenly very alert and eager.
"Say that again," I demand.
"A chastity device? Have you- Have you ever worn one?"
"Ray," I say in a measured voice, "are you wearing a chastity device?"
Ray considers me for a moment.
"I- Just between you and me, right? Just between us friends? Just between us old pals?" Ray asks.
"Always," I lie. "If not two old friends, then what are we? We're nothing."
Ray hesitates, scrutinizing the leather blotter on his desk, absently brushing away motes of lint with the edge of his palm.
"It's Emily," he says, finally, fingering the sharp edge of the cherry wood desktop. "She's- she's going in some interesting directions, sexually."
"Uh huh," I say, leaning forward, tongue dangling from the corner of my mouth.
"She- Well, she insisted that I wear it, Tom, and, well- I just don't know. I just do not know."
Ray sighs, his eyes downcast, his lips pouting.
"Let me tell you, Ray, that you are a lucky man," I tell him.
"How's that?" Ray asks.
"Do you love your wife?"
"I- Yes. Yes. I do."
"Then, isn't it true that what she has asked of you is not that you think less of yourself, but that you think of yourself less?"
"Well," Ray considers, "Yes, I suppose that's right."
"Raymond," I say in a level voice. "That you are distraught now, is not because your cock and balls are in abeyance-- "
Ray winces and shifts in his seat.
"--but because you are wracked with guilt for having been a poor husband," I say.
"My God. My God, Tom! Do you think so?" Ray asks, feeling a sharp pang of guilt he wasn't aware existed.
"I know so," I say emphatically. "It is you, Raymond, who is keeping her locked up."
"You are," I reply. "I am disappointed in you. You are many things, Raymond, but an abuser of women? I did not think you could be that."
"No, Tom. I've never touched- "
I hold my palm up to silence him.
"Stop right there, Mister," I demand. "You've been an emotional abuser, Raymond. No less than if you had struck her with a golf club or a baseball bat or a tire iron or a ballpeen hammer or a lawn dart or a rubber chicken or a sandwich board or a nunchuck or a broomstick or an oar or a bicycle pump or- "
"Tom," Ray says sharply, truncating the long list of blunt objects flitting through my head.
"Excuse me," I say, gathering my breath and composing myself. "Where was I? Right. Shame on you, Raymond."
Ray covers his mouth and widens his eyes, mortified. "You're right, Tom. I've really screwed up. I've really screwed up. I might as well have hit her."
"With a crossbow or a shower rod," I say, to belabor the point.
"I'm a terrible person. I'm so ashamed," Ray says.
"You have to do the right thing, Ray. I know, deep down, that you are a good person."
Ray nods broadly to himself, a scintilla of insight burgeoning across his aspect.
"So?" Ray asks. "So, there is nothing wrong, you think, with a man - a strong independent man - you know?" Ray asks, vaguely gesturing his chin at his lap.
I am inebriated on copious amounts of serotonin flooding into my circulatory system. Colors are more vivid. The supernal skies of the summer gloaming in the window astonish me. For reasons I can't explain, I want to howl at that spectral moon in the window.
"Not even a little bit," I lie, and suppress a grin.
"I can't believe I didn't see it before, Tom. I have been dishonest- "
"Abusive," I remind him.
"Yes. Yes. I've been abusive. I have been the worst kind of monster; an abuser of women."
"There you go, champ," I tell him.
"I'm going to fix this, Tom. I am going to fix my marriage," Ray proclaims.
"I believe it," I say.
"Thank you, Tom," Ray says, rising uncomfortably from his chair, and proffering his hand. I take it in both of my own, and shake it encouragingly.
"Good luck, Raymond. I believe in you," I tell him.
As I pull the door open, I hear him say, "Great work this quarter, Tom. Keep up the good- "
The door falls shut before he can finish.
I feel like I'm floating across the blue-gray patchwork carpet, down rows of office cubicles, through the din of people gathering up their belongings after a day of work. I feel their awe-struck miens casting in my direction, enfilades of envy arcing across the cubicle farm towards me. I smell the redolence of their aggregated neediness. My ears overflow with the delightful melodies in this fantasia of weakness.
I'm opening Google on my computer and pointing and clicking at the search field, while, across the aisle, Isabelle - or whatever - hunts-and-pecks letters on her keyboard.
I'm about to enter a search query into my computer, when I'm suddenly aware of a caustic musk wafting towards me. When I look up and sniff the air to seek out the source, I see a brown face, effusing bad breath, emerge over the lintel of my cubicle wall.
"Hey hey, Tommy boy!" Raj exclaims.
I turn back to my monitor and type: C-H-A-
"You fucking killed it this quarter!" Raj says, jutting his fist in my direction. S-T-I-
"Uh huh," I say. T-Y
"Big baller!" Raj yips. "Fucking America rules!"
If I don't give him what he needs, he'll be here until he is just a pile of bones, so I lift my arm and cock my elbow back, wheel around towards Raj's swarthy face, and smile as I hammer my fist into his. There is a sickening clack of bone on bone.
"Thanks," I say. "Keep up the good work, Raj."
"It's- It's 'Sanjeev'. My name is 'Sanjeev'." Raj rasps, struggling to conceal grave pain pluming up his arm, lachrymal welling in his eyes.
"You da man," Raj croaks.
"Uh huh," I tell him, returning to my monitor. D-E-V-I-C-E
Raj submerges under the wall and disappears, leaving behind the sickly redolence of his ancestral DNA, suffused with scarcity and fear. Nothing made from his flesh will ever thrive among wolves.
"Holy shit!" I exult, watching as a grid of thumbnail images proliferates across my monitor. It is a digital menagerie of male genitalia captured behind Lucite enclosures, stainless steel rings distorting amorphous mounds of flesh, styptic constraints of gleaming steel crimping urethral maws to sphincter-like constriction.
"Excuse me, Tom," I hear Isabelle say.
Before she can continue, and ruin the spell, I stab a forefinger into the air, holding it there until I've scrolled to the end of the page, and, satisfied, I shove away from the desk, and wheel my gaze around towards Isabelle's lap.
"What?" I demand, immediately fascinated by the dark grotto made from the defile between her inner thighs and the taut hem of the skirt.
My fingers begin to wriggle involuntarily against my armrest.
"I- Well- I- "
She crosses her legs and breaks the enchantment. I look up at her and glower.
"I'm waiting," I remind her.
"It's just that, I don't understand this computer and I- " she pauses as her gaze drifts over my shoulder to my computer monitor.
"My God," she rasps suddenly, averting her eyes. "Oh my good God. What is that?" she says, pointing a palsied forefinger in the general direction of my cubicle.
"Cocks and balls," I say, matter-of-factly.
She casts her eyes sidelong, through parted fingers, and says, "W-Why, Thomas?"
"Because I feed on human weakness," I tell her and grin.
Traversing the third floor of the concrete parking structure, I'm listening to the clacks of Isabelle's footfalls parroting mine.
"Thomas?" I hear Isabelle ask from somewhere behind me.
"What?" I say, accelerating into a light canter.
"I'm sorry if I'm being a bother."
"Uh huh," I say, shortening my strides, and smirking as she adjusts her gait.
"Can I tell you something?" she asks.
I stop abruptly and wheel around.
"Sure," I answer brightly.
"I just wanted to thank you, Thomas."
"Yes. You are welcome," I say, hefting my phone.
"Don't you want to know what for?"
"Uh huh," I say, scanning my email inbox.
"For making this such a great first week," she says, with a cloying smile.
I stare at for a pregnant beat, smirking, because she is so fragile and weak.
"Isabelle!" I roar, suddenly.
She starts and staggers backwards. I lurch at her, and get in close to that mannequin face. Her eyes go as wide as krugerrands, her lips trembling.
"Wh- What?" she asks.
"Are you a lion?" I ask. "Are you a lamb?"
"I- I don't understand," she says, her voice quavering.
"Answer me, now! I must know, Isabelle!"
"I'm- I'm a lamb?" she bleats.
I study her aspect for a moment, hoping to draw some kind of conclusion from the curl of her lips, the gauge of her eyes, the furrows upon her brow, and, seeing the faintest glimmer of something I recognize, I say, "Huh."
I reach to tuck an errant hank of her raven hair around the fetal pinkness of her ears.
"Come with me," I enjoin her.
"Now," I say, patting her on the swell of her rear for emphasis, and loping away.
I can sense that she's vacillating, the sensation of my palm lingering like something caustic, and a moment later I hear the clack of her Leboutins close behind me.
The bartender - a zaftig blonde with a myriad collection of tattoos - lines up the shots of tequila along the edge of the bar. I proffer one to Isabelle, who accepts and stares at it tentatively.
"I don't usually drink," she tells me.
"Drink it. You're going to like it," I tell her.
I clink a glass against hers and stare expectantly while she studies the shot, and glances at me for reassurance. I smile and nod, and she hefts the shot to her lips, and tosses it back. She winces and covers her mouth with the back of her hand.
"Good, right?" I say.
She nods and I take the empty glass from her and return it to the edge of the bar, along with my own.
"Isabelle- " I begin.
"Why do you- " she pauses, unsure of herself. "Never mind," she says.
"Speak," I demand.
"Well- I mean- I don't want to embarrass you."
I'm not like the others, Isabelle. I am not afraid. I do not acknowledge the lines or the walls. I am like a thousand vampire bats disgorged on leathery wings from the maw of a cave.
"Just be gentle," I implore her.
"It's just that, you keep calling me 'Isabelle,' and, well, that's not my name, Thomas."
"I see," I say, sheepishly. "I'm so ashamed," I lie.
I lower my gaze into her lap and examine the crescent of pink-white flesh above the lace cuffs of her stockings.
"It's okay. Really," she says. "I- I- shouldn't have said anything. I'm sorry."
I reach for another shot of Tequila and proffer it to her.
"Will you forgive me?" I ask.
She hesitates for a beat and, disinclined to decline such an earnest offer, she takes the shot in both hands.
"Yes. I forgive you," she says, smiling.
"Good. Let's drink to it," I say.
When the lip of her glass touches her lips, I ensconce my hand on her knee, and can feel the rest of her judder in electric surprise.
"You're sure you're not upset?" I ask, Tequila spilling over her tongue. Shaking her head in response, she struggles to get the booze down, and dribbles expensive Tequila over her chin.
"Good," I say.
She makes an exaggeratedly pinched face, and gulps the booze down. She hesitates before reaching down to move my hand off her knee, but it's no longer there.
I'm taking my first nip of Tequila and savoring the complex intermingling of wood and Agave notes. I smile waggishly.
Isabelle oscillates in the passenger seat, like a compass needle with no true North. Her world is spinning and hot and populated with bright colorful forms that struggle to hold shape.
I play the new CD of a metal band I hate, and raise the volume until the windows rattle with a sound like the killing floor of an abattoir.
I jerk the steering wheel severely, jinking around slower moving cars, making tight turns around corners.
"I don't feel very good," I hear Isabelle mutter.
"What?" I yell, over the bovine screams and pig squeals.
"I- I think I am drunk," she stammers.
I nail the brakes and screech to a halt along the curb in front of a McDonald's. White smoke fills the rearview mirror, and the air in the car takes in a rumor of burnt rubber. I douse the music, and the silence is staggering.
"Did you say something?" I ask.
"I- I don't feel so great, Thomas."
"I'm not surprised. You really put it away tonight. A real party animal, this one."
"I'm sorry," she says. "I- I think I'm going to throw up."
"No. I disagree," I tell her.
"I- I really think I'm going to vomit, Thomas," she says, raising her hands vaguely to her lips.
"No, you will not! You absolutely will not throw up in my car!" I scream at her.
"I'm sorry," she says, her hands covering her mouth.
I lunge for the passenger side door handle and, taking the opportunity to press my profile into the supple swell of her breast, I push the door open and shove her in the direction of the curb. Her head and torso slumps over the asphalt and she begins to convulse violently.
While Isabelle retches onto the macadam, I lean back into my seat and turn to a game of "Angry Birds" on my phone. I love this game and sometimes I daydream about the highest levels beyond what everyone else knows about; exclusive secret levels visible only to people who put up big numbers and hold secret knowledge; forbidden levels where the refugee creatures of the earlier levels have taken heed of the lessons of their fallen brethren and built more substantial defenses to protect their cities, civilizations, infrastructures, all of which I will lay to waste with catapults and slingshots loaded with fierce nuclear birds.
"Are you done yet?" I demand from Isabelle, careful to signal a note or irritation.
She responds with another spasm, and I enable the recording function on my phone, direct the microphone towards her, and studiously watch the acoustic signature spike across the screen with each of her sloshing discharges.
Isabelle, at last, slumps back into her seat, the whites of her eyes cracked like glass with fine claret veins, her skin wan.
"I feel better," she says, hoarsely.
"What do you want to do now?" I ask, adjusting the ringer settings on my phone.
"What?" she rasps.
"I said," I yell, as if she is hard of hearing, "what do you want to do now?"
"I- I need to go home, Thomas. What- what time is it?" she asks.
"Eight-thirty," I reply, off the top of my head, and certain that it's much later.
"I should get home," Isabelle says again.
"I understand. Let me take you to your car," I say, staring expectantly.
"Thomas, I- "
"I can't drive like this. Not in this condition. Can you drop me at my apartment?"
"And where is that?" I ask.
"Studio City?" she says, as if she doesn't know.
"I see," I tell her, rubbing my chin and nodding in contemplation.
"Please, Thomas?" she mews. "I really don't feel well."
I park at a curb in front of a post-modern art deco apartment complex in Studio City. Isabelle scrabbles her hands over the door until she finds the handle.
"Thank you, Thomas," she says. "I feel better now. I really am sorry. I'm not much of a drinker. I don't know what I was thinking."
"Yes, well, we all make mistakes," I say.
"Thank you, again," she says, pushing her door open.
"I'm feeling a little unsteady myself if you must know," I tell her. "I suppose I'll wait here before I make the long long drive home. Yes. I think I'll just wait here."
"Well- I suppose- Do you want to come up for a few minutes?" Isabelle asks.
"Exactly," I say, bounding out from behind the wheel.
Isabelle and I are negotiating the flagstone walk to the entrance of her apartment building, when I hear the squelch of something wet and viscous displaced under my shoe.
A neon flamingo on the stucco façade radiates garish pink light over a lawn of Buffalo grass and rows of Birds-of-Paradise lining either side of the walkway.
I'm repulsed by the dusky floral carpeting in the fifth-floor corridor, and the senescent moldiness of the building wafting off the walls and floors and ceiling, when Isabelle and I find the rust-colored door to her apartment.
"Oh no," Isabelle says. "My purse. I forgot my purse."
"Where could it be?" I ask, with a slight lilt.
"I think it's still in your car, Thomas."
"It's not," I tell her emphatically, shaking my head.
"Can we just take a look? Just a real quick look? All my things are in there. My phone, my keys, my makeup are all in my purse."
"Isabelle, you are talking crazy talk," I say, measuring a dollop of menace into my tone. "Do you think I capable of an untruth?"
"No. You're right," she yips. "I'm sorry. I'm sure I left it in my car."
"I'm certain that's where it is. As a matter of fact, I saw you put it there. I remember it better than if I had put it there myself."
"Really?" she asks, brightening.
"Let me tell something, Isabelle. I have done the Harvard MIT Memory Acuity Assessment. You've heard of the MMAA?" I ask.
"I think so," Isabelle says, nodding vaguely.
"I am certified with one-hundred percent recall, and I am certain that your purse is in your car, just where you left it."
Isabelle sighs, relieved.
"Thank, God. Thank you so much, Thomas."
"Uh huh," I say. "Now what about this door?"
"We have a spare," she says and extends herself to the door's upper casing, fumbles her fingers over the narrow edge, and pulls down a tarnished brass key.
I'm considering the "we" in her statement, when she turns to me and says, "We have to be quiet, my roommate is probably asleep."
I lock my pursed lips with an imaginary key and pitch it down the corridor. Isabelle casts a saccharine smile at me, and fits the key into the door. I follow her inside while she flips a light switch and removes her heels, and sidle past her into the living room.
The apartment is tidy and furnished mostly with second-hand stuff. There is a dense weathered coffee table near a futon couch and a frayed purple chaise.
Something still lingers on the soles of my shoes and I scuff my shoes across the floor as I head towards the picture window, trailing green-black something over the taupe colored carpet. In the windowpane I see the reflection of a snarling man-goat beast with gnarled claret-colored horns curling into the air like fingers of smoke, which I've seen before and look through to examine the expansive glittering tract of The San Fernando Valley.
"So," I hear Isabelle say, as she returns from the restroom, color returned to her face.
"Yes?" I reply, turning to Isabelle.
"I had no idea it was so late, Thomas," she whispers, affecting a yawn. "I better get to bed, if I'm to get to work on time."
"I see," I tell her.
"I don't want you to worry. I'll just call a cab in the morning," she says.
Poor, poor, Isabelle. Still? Can't you see the reflection in the window?
"Do you have anything to drink?" I ask. "It's a long drive and I'm parched."
"I'm so inconsiderate! I'm sorry," she says, flustered. "I should have offered you something."
Tarrying in the kitchen, nipping at bottled water, while Isabelle's eyes stutter with fatigue, I sense how my insouciance dazzles and frustrates her. She is full of angry things that can't escape the tight plastic pores of her mannequin face. She just wants to go to bed. She just wants to sleep. She just wants to be new in the morning. She just wants to make a fresh effort in her new jungle.
Don't you see that all your efforts are in vain? Don't you know that the secret knowledge presents itself to a few and scoffs at the others?
"Thomas, It's very late. Perhaps you would like to just sleep on the couch."
"Exactly," I say, noting the rumor of disappointment in her aspect.
When she disappears into her bedroom, I return to the living room. When Isabelle returns a moment later, a folded blanket and pillow proffered in both hands, like a sacrificial offering, I'm kicking off my shoes and loosening my tie.
"I suppose this works out well," she whispers, still smiling. "Now we can drive in together tomorrow morning."
"Uh huh," I say, accepting her offering and tossing it onto the stained carpet.
"Do you want me to pull the futon out for you?"
A glance at the chirpy red, white and blue polka dot cover over the misshapen mattress sends an inexplicable frisson up my spine. For reasons I can't explain the colors make me flush with febrile warmth.
"There is something I would like to tell you, Isabelle," I say, pulling my tie through my collar.
"Oh?" she asks, her eyelids heavy with exhaustion.
"I think you are someone special," I tell her.
"Well. Thank you. Thank you, Thomas," she says.
"Your efforts this week have been exceptional," I say, twisting shirt buttons loose.
"Do you really think so?" she asks.
"Certainly. I admire your work ethic," I say, shrugging out of my shirt.
"Th- Thank you. That means so much," she whispers. "Well. It is late, Thomas. Good night," she says, turning midway towards her bedroom door.
"You have what it takes, Isabelle," I tell her, pulling my undershirt over my head.
She glances back and says, "Thank you, again. I've been working so hard, and it's nice that someone has noticed. Good night, Thomas," she says.
"Furthermore, I can see that you are one of the firm's bright stars," I continue, unhooking the latch of my belt.
"I- You- Thanks. Really. Thank you, Thomas. I'll see you in the morning," she says, her cheeks blooming, her gaze stuck between the safety of her bedroom and me.
"Isabelle, listen to me," I tell her.
"I'm- I'm sorry, Thomas. I- " she stammers, as she drags her aspect towards me.
"This is important, Isabelle. I don't say this with a loose tongue. Are you listening?"
"I'm- I'm listening," she says.
"You will be successful," I tell her.
The patter of her hummingbird heart and the staccato soughing of her breathing as she stifles a sob, rustle in my ears.
"I'm working so hard, Thomas," she whispers, her voice quavering. "I just want to do well and have nice things and be fulfilled. I'm working so very hard."
"Yes. I know this. I believe in you, Isabelle," I tell her, stepping out of the pants and boxer shorts that sit collapsed around my ankles.
"Thank you, Tom. Thank you so very much," she rasps, just before a scintilla of realization bursts across her aspect, and she reels away towards her bedroom door.
"Oh my!" she bleats. "I really- I really do need to get to sleep. Good night, Thomas."
Isabelle lurches through her bedroom doorway and pulls the door shut behind her.
For a long moment there is nothing but the chafing of Isabelle's feet across the carpet, until the strip of clearance under her bedroom door goes dark.
I flip the light on in the kitchen and rummage the refrigerator, finding a magnum of champagne tucked away in the back of a shelf, behind a box of baking soda and a dead chicken. Inspecting the card tied to the neck of the bottle with a length of curlicued lavender ribbon, I read: "Congratulations! Love, Mom," and cringe.
The metal muselet comes loose easily and I wedge my thumbs under the cork's corona, forcing it up until it pops and caroms off the ceiling, leaving a scalloped impression in the plaster. The frothy effervescence gushes from the bottle and slops onto the linoleum floor, and, once the wine settles, I upturn the bottle, take a long pull, and smack my lips.
In the living room, I examine some framed photographs arrayed on a console table. In one photograph, Isabelle huddles cheek-to-cheek with a comely yellow girl with hanks of peroxide blonde hair tumbling down her shoulders. In another photograph the bikini-clad peroxide blonde strikes a jaunty pose against an ocean backdrop. The image of her lissome body inspires a half-erection.
I lope to the roommate's presumptive door and jerk it open. In the ambient moonlight, the ridgeline of the roommate's silhouette rolls over her calves and thighs, and rises over the dune of her hip, and down the steep grade of her flank. I amble around her bed and loom over her sleeping profile, absorbed with the steadiness of her breathing, and the vague whistling sound of air venting from between her lips. I reach down and fold the coverlet past her hips.
She stirs and mutters something, and turns her bleary eyes towards mine. "Who are you?" She mumbles.
"I am the goat-man," I say, in a dulcet whisper.
She mutters something unintelligible and her eyelids fall shut again.
I take a pull off the bottle of champagne and rake my gaze over her skin, a torrent of blood pulsing into my loins. A phallic shadow bounces vaguely over her slack aspect. I guzzle champagne as the shadow of a fist moves back and forth across her profile, like the stroke of a piston at full throttle.
Several minutes later, I pull open the door to Isabelle's bedroom and, before I disappear inside, I note the gibbous moon in the picture window, just arriving at its apogee. Later, when I return to the living room to dress, the moon is gone and there is a vague notion of blueness in the window.
The next morning, I'm navigating the torpid flow of freeway traffic, when a gap emerges between cars dawdling North in the fast lane. I swerve past the gap, across solid white lines, and into the roaring carpool lane.
Having witnessed my deft maneuver from a few lengths back, a police motorcycle cop sidles up in the fast lane and casts an accusatory scowl at my empty passenger seat. I look up from my phone and meet his gaze. He's shaking his head disapprovingly, and I grin at him and return to the screen of my phone, accelerating to pull ahead.
I sense, without needing to look in the side-mirrors, that he is dumbstruck. I know that his finger is near the switch for his sirens. I know that he is enraged that some people color outside the lines, and live outside the box, and go back for seconds and thirds and fourths even after they're full.
Just as he's about to make the world right, there is a terrific crash of metal and glass two lanes over, and suddenly he's veering off in the direction of that noise, sirens ablaze.
In the parking structure, I park horizontally athwart three of the spaces that will later in the morning be scarce and coveted, and heft Isabelle's purse from the backseat. As I meander across the concrete, I'm pushing the alarm button on Isabelle's remote key fob, until a late model Honda Accord begins to wail. I unlock the car and set Isabelle's purse on the backseat.
"Tommy boy!" Raj exclaims. "Yo bro, where's the new girl?"
"Maybe she's washing my cum out of her hair," I say, pecking out a response to an email.
Raj is repulsed, and still he smiles and snickers, and says, "You! You are a cut up, my man! Only in America, am I right?"
Ray sidles up to my cubicle, glaring at Raj severely.
"Don't you have something to do, Sanjeev?" Ray asks Raj. "If I had the numbers you've had this last quarter, I would choose to spend my time doing something other than talking nonsense. That's for sure."
"You're right. Definitely. I- I'm on it, Ray," Raj stammers, and shuffles back on his feet until he's gone.
"Tom," Ray says, significantly, "you got a minute?"
I look down and sigh.
"Am I to carry everyone's burdens, Raymond," I say to my desk. "I am busy. Yes. I am busy making numbers to eat," I tell him.
"It's important," he says, his voice full of portents. "Just take a minute."
I sigh dramatically to signal my vexation.
"Very well," I say, pushing myself up from my chair. As I come around my cubicle to Ray, I cast a fleeting glance at Isabelle's empty chair.
Ray is somber when he closes the door to his office, and he winces as he gingerly lowers himself onto a doughnut-shaped chair cushion behind his desk. I stand against the wall, tapping out an email on my phone.
"You and I," Ray begins, "I'd like to believe we're friends, Tom."
"Uh huh," I reply.
"I'd like to believe that we - me and you - could talk about things that perhaps others would consider inappropriate in the workplace, e.g. our previous conversation."
"So, what I'd like to ask you, Tom."
"Uh huh," I say, hitting the send button.
"Have you ever been fucked in the ass?"
The bell in the belfry peals and leaves me dumbstruck and eager. I glance up at Ray with eyes full of bursting stars. I lap my tongue at the froth gathered at the corners of my mouth, lurch into the chair across from Ray, and lean forward with big expectant eyes.
"Raymond," I say, in a measured tone. "Did Emily fuck you in the ass?"
Ray stares at the blotter over his desk and nods vaguely. A single tear falls onto the blotter, and Ray angrily stamps it with the side of his fist.
"It's called- It's called a strap-on, Tom." Ray says, looking down at his desk in shame.
"I see," I say. "Raymond, did I ever tell that you I consider you to be a lucky man."
I am awash in dangerous levels of serotonin, when I type "strapon," and "strap on," and "strap-on" into a Google search field on my computer and am rewarded with a surfeit of thumbnail images featuring phallic shafts of colorful latex.
"Thomas," I hear Isabelle's voice say.
"Not now," I snap.
"Yes. I'm sorry. It's just- do you- can I ask you- Please?"
Something in her voice ruins the enchantment, and I look down, sigh, and swivel around.
"Yes, Isabelle," I say.
"You see, Thomas. I have a concern," she says.
"Uh huh," I reply, noting her haggard and disheveled disposition.
"I'm actually very very concerned about something that I think has happened."
"I see," I say. "May I ask you something?"
"O-Okay," Isabelle says.
"Isabelle, do you think it's right that you fail to arrive to work on time, when others do not?"
"What? No. I- Someone unplugged the alarm and- My roommate had a nightmare about a goat-man- It's just- "
"Do you think it's right to come late and then proceed to distract others from their own earnest efforts?" I ask.
"No- God, no," she stammers.
"Perhaps, it is your contention then that everyone here should pool the efforts of their labor and share its fruits among the able and the unable equally?"
"I don't understand- I just wanted to ask you about- "
"Is it socialism that you want, Isabelle? Are you in fact a communist?" I demand to know.
"When I woke up there was- "
"Because, let me tell you, sister, I will take to the streets! To the fucking streets, to defend my way of life," I declaim in stentorian voice.
"Something sticky everywhere, and I think it- "
"My army and I will march with arms bared for war, lady! You hear me?" I thunder. "War!"
"Yes, Tom, I'm sorry. I didn't mean- I'm so sorry."
I fix her with blazing gimlet eyes. Her face, still a mannequin face, and yet, something dangerous and beautiful radiates vaguely underneath.
"I'm- I'm sorry. Forget it," she mutters.
I maintain a withering gaze on her for a long pregnant moment. When my eyes inadvertently glance at the leather bag by her feet, I exclaim cheerfully, "Hey! You found your purse."
She nods vaguely and rasps, "It was just where you said it was."
"Superb," I proclaim. "Now, you were saying something?"
"Nevermind," she says, and turns away.
She powers her computer up and, while she waits for it to boot, she hefts her phone from inside her purse and slides her finger across the screen. The moment she sees the new background photo that someone has also emailed to her entire list of family, friends, and acquaintances, her scream pierces the cubicle farm like a thousand fleeing bats. The phone falls from her fingers onto the patchwork carpet, and she stares at it the way she would stare at a dead rat, still slick with sewage, laying on the floor of her cubicle. For the first time, there is something in her mannequin face that begins to radiate.
"Must you make such a racket?" I ask, pecking out an email on my computer.
She looks up at me, glowering with eyes like red-hot coals.
"You," she says menacingly.
Something in the tone of her voice makes me swivel around to face her.
"Did you say something?" I ask, suddenly aware of some familiar and recent quality in her mannequin face.
She snatches that pair of heavy scissors with the red handles from her kitschy heart-cup of pens, pounces across the space between us, and lands astride my chair.
Huh. You are no lamb.
I feel a wash of happiness roll over me, just as Isabelle - or whatever - sinks the shears into my heart, because I am at last among my own.
When Isabelle's nearly done murdering me, she pauses, sprays of blood soaking her wrinkled blouse, and she drops the big shears to the floor. She yawns and stretches her arms at wide semaphore-like angles, making a sound like the plangent open note of a trumpet. She is grinning eerily when my eyelids fall shut, and I'm still smiling back at her when I'm just about dead.
The last thing I hear is my phone, ringing its new ringtone, which sounds distinctly like a girl retching on the side of the road.