By Michael Onofrey
A desk, a few filing cabinets and a half dozen folding chairs constituted furniture, all of it gray and mostly made of metal. The walls, too, fell into this color scheme, off-white with a tint reflecting gray as opposed to brown, and the same could be said for the room’s vinyl flooring, light gray. There were two windows and three doors, windows with gray mini-blinds, blinds half-open, which allowed for angled sunlight to mix with fluorescent lighting coming from a couple of overhead fixtures, fogged plastic of a semitransparent variety buffering the fluorescent.
Grant had just come through one of the doors, and after waiting for his eyes to adjust, he kind of shook himself, because the interior of this room, minus harsh sunshine, was hardly different from outside, which was where a brand new industrial park dwelled, concrete buildings, concrete gray. Adding to this was decomposed granite as filler where grass or shrubs once might have been cultivated along the base of buildings and in wedges of dead space in and around a couple of huge parking lots. The decomposed granite, a peppered gray color, was probably in consideration of the prolonged drought that was torturing southern California, water having become a monetary-slash-political concern.
The pavement of the parking lot, though, was black, not gray, but offsetting this in an eye-contact sort of way was the sparkle and glitter from that new pavement as can sometimes occur with virgin macadam. Also, the yellow-gold lines designating parking spaces were sparkling too. As for vehicles, there were only two parked cars, one next to the other, both reflecting needle-like glints thanks to chrome and glass. Taken altogether, Grant’s eyes needed a rest, and they almost got it when he entered this room, but not quite.
“Can I help you?”
She was nearly inconspicuous behind the gray-metal desk with its flat-screened monitor and thin keyboard and low-lying telephone. What seemed to be a smartphone was also on the desktop. Her complexion, like that of a chameleon, conveyed gray, and the same could be said for her hair, a salt-and-pepper pageboy with cute hints of shag. Professionalism hovered in her vicinity, yet there was the nagging issue of age. Her voice, though, was unquestionably young and clear, and in the wake of this Grant understood that she was indeed young, perhaps very young. But then there was her hair and its falsified coloring, as well as a cream-colored blouse under a petite gray vest, thus adding years to her manifestation. Could it be that she was trying to be older? Or maybe she was trying to be “professional.” No nail polish, no rings, no visible tattoos, but along the edge of her left ear four silver studs winked like naughty investments. Age-wise she seemed too young to need glasses, thus her eyewear, rectangular and sleek, suggested academia, as if the look of education were vital. When she nominally smiled, white teeth appeared between pink lips, coloration of those lips modest yet glossy. It was a half-smile.
“The unemployment office sent me.”
Her light blue eyes, abandoning “first glance/first impression,” went down to Grant’s sports shoes to begin at the beginning. The footwear wasn’t real bad, as in shabby, but it certainly wasn’t off-the-shelf new, and it certainly wasn’t black leather, nor was it oxblood. To name a color, the shoes were powder blue with a scuffed Nike mark. Loose khakis with a vertical crease, intent on passing for chinos maybe, were on Grant’s long legs. A thin leather belt went through belt loops, buckle negligible. His blue, short-sleeved shirt had a button-down collar, but there was no necktie. As with his legs, his arms were long, and of those appendages there were raised veins. No wristwatch, but he might have had a smartphone in his pocket that would tell him the time. No tattoos. An overall assessment said, “rangy,” which continued onto his face, an oblong configuration, disturbing signs of weather and sunshine blatant. Maybe he didn’t need to see a dermatologist immediately, but he certainly needed to be deliberate about sunblock. On his boney nose there were glasses that looked too large for his face, and of lenses there was a well-defined horizontal line declaring upper and lower prescriptions. Mild flashing, the result of reflected light, was pestering those antiquated bifocals. Starting high up on his skull, russet hair, thinning and dry, was combed straight back, furrows of a comb serrating a drab hairdo.
“Oh, yes, I spoke to Ms. Munoz on the phone.” She looked at the flat-screened monitor. “Eighteen minutes ago. You must be Mr. Finn, Mr. Grant Finn.”
Her eyes returned to Grant, appraisal/review resuming. Grant was still standing near the door, which meant he was well away from her desk.
She cleared her throat audibly, and this told Grant that she had probably been expecting someone younger, an expectation that didn’t surprise Grant, for he had been sitting next to Ms. Munoz’s desk when Ms. Munoz called Enterprises And in regards to an entry-level warehouse job, chance of advancement noted. Thus Grant had noticed that Ms. Munoz didn’t say anything about Grant’s age, legal considerations probably coming into play, age discrimination a factor. In all truthfulness, though, Grant would have liked for age to have been mentioned because then he wouldn’t have to be feeling like a novelty item under this woman’s scrutiny.
A nameplate on the desk said Ms. Davis, and this was significant because Ms. Munoz wrote Ms. Davis on the slip of paper, a small form, that she handed to Grant while telling him to ask for Ms. Davis and to give the form to Ms. Davis. The nameplate on the desk strongly indicated that Grant was in contact with Ms. Davis. Nevertheless, given the proprieties of business, or what Grant considered proprieties, he said, “I’m to ask for Ms. Davis.”
An overt pause, and then: “I’m Ms. Davis.”
She gestured to indicate the nameplate as if maybe to test Grant’s literacy and/or intelligence, or maybe to insult him, which in turn might serve as a weeding out procedure, legality regarding age discrimination not at risk, for maybe Grant would get pissed off and walk out. He looked like that kind of guy.
Grant, thinking to assert quickness on the uptake, said, “Well yes, but there is the possibility that Ms. Davis might have left her desk for a coffee break or something, and someone was filling in for her.”
Grant grinned, but it was a crooked grin, and he was aware of the crookedness because whenever he grinned or smiled or laughed his face went aslant, childhood accident having pinched a nerve, which resulted in a flaccid left cheek as opposed to his right cheek that moved just fine. Naturally he was aware of other people’s reactions, vis-á-vis his twisted countenance. People, such as Ms. Davis, who weren’t privy to the backstory, might translate Grant’s crooked expression as a smirk. Of course there was no telling what Ms. Davis was thinking because that was part of the business model she was modeling. One thing for sure, though, she was looking at Grant’s tangled grin.
While pulling the piece of paper Ms. Munoz had given him from his pocket, Grant walked up to Ms. Davis’s desk. He held the slip out for Ms. Davis to take and said, “Ms. Munoz told me to give you this.”
Ms. Davis took the slip of paper and set it down on her desk and looked at it. After a long moment, she said, “Right. We need to have you fill out an application form.”
“I have a résumé.”
“We still need to have you fill out an application form.”
Ms. Davis opened a drawer on the right side of her desk and extracted a sheet of paper, which she handed to Grant.
“Fill out both sides of the form in either black or blue ink. You may have a seat over there.” She gestured toward the folding chairs that were along a wall.
Grant went over and sat down. Fortunately he had brought a hard-plastic case, rectangular and thin, a couple of résumé and pens inside. He could now use the flat surface of the case to back the form while writing. After he started writing, he heard Ms. Davis’s voice. Looking up, he saw Ms. Davis on the phone. Following a few words, she returned the receiver to its cradle and stood up and walked to one of the doors and opened it. Slipping through that opening, she gently closed the door behind her. Grant went back to writing, but then heard something. Ms. Davis was emerging from the doorway, from which she returned her desk. The room was absolutely quiet and its temperature was absolutely nice, air-conditioning unit silent and performing well, wherever it may have been.
After five minutes Grant was back in front of Ms. Davis’s desk. “Here’s the application form and my résumé.”
“Thank you very much. You may again have a seat.”
Grant went back to the hard-metal chair and sat down, from where he then watched Ms. Davis scrutinize the application and résumé. The room’s coolness was working on Grant in a soothing way, so it was almost jarring when Ms. Davis looked up from the papers to look at Grant, and to say, “Everything is in order. You filled out all the blanks.”
Grant attempted a smile while wondering what he was supposed to say to this, for it seemed like a compliment, but it struck him as a weird compliment. To settle the quandary, he said, “Thank you.” But this, too, seemed weird.
“I’ll just take these in for Mr. Smith’s perusal. Please excuse me.” Ms. Davis looked at Grant, and kept looking. Again Grant didn’t know what to say or do, for there was the way Ms. Davis had said “Please excuse me,” statement rising at the end, followed by her prolonged looking at Grant, which implied that she was waiting for a response. Grant said, “Okay,” which seemed to satisfy Ms. Davis, for she half-smiled and stood up.
As Ms. Davis walked to the door that she had gone through before, Grant logged the rest of her outfit: low black pumps on her feet, gray skirt to just below her knees, skirt and vest a matching set. Grant wondered if the cream-colored blouse had come with the vest-skirt ensemble, a three-piece collection.
Her absence was brief, fifteen seconds at most. Back at her desk, her eyes went to the flat-screened monitor, silence prevailing, which left Grant with nothing to do but to look at grayish walls and/or Ms. Davis. Now and then there was a click from her keyboard or mouse. Grant started daydreaming, and part of his mental creations involved Ms. Davis.
After ten minutes there was a pleasing tweet that prompted Ms. Davis to pick up the receiver of the telephone.
“Yes?” And then an interlude, which ended with: “I’ll show him in immediately, Mr. Smith.” Ms. Davis delicately placed the receiver back in its cradle.
“Mr. Finn, Mr. Smith will see you now. This way, please.”
Grant got to his feet and followed Ms. Davis to the door she had gone through twice before. Ms. Davis opened the door and motioned for Grant to enter. Ms. Davis followed Grant into the room, and while leaving the door open, Ms. Davis said, “Mr. Smith, this is Mr. Finn. Mr. Finn, this is Mr. Smith.”
Grant’s eyes went to Mr. Smith who was sitting behind a gray-metal desk that looked just like Ms. Davis’s desk, computer monitor and keyboard and phone on the desk. But the whole thing was off kilter for more reasons than the duplicate desk and its accessories, for Mr. Smith was wearing sunglasses, lenses black and shiny, opaque black plastic framing the lenses. The sunglasses dominated a thin ashen face, and Grant’s first thought was that Mr. Smith was blind. He quickly corrected this, though, because Mr. Smith had supposedly read Grant’s application and résumé, neither of which were in braille. In need of more information, Grant turned to look at Ms. Davis and found that she was smiling, but this time it was a full, one-hundred-percent smile, and it was gorgeous.
Ms. Davis graciously gestured for Grant to take a seat in front of Mr. Smith’s desk. The seat was a replica of the seat Grant had sat on in the other room, a folding metal chair, but unlike in the other room Mr. Smith’s room had only one chair like this, and it was strategically located before Mr. Smith’s desk. As for Mr. Smith, he was sitting in a swivel chair, black upholstering, which made Mr. Smith’s chair the same as Ms. Davis’s chair.
Grant walked over and sat down, and as he was settling he heard the door close. Ms. Davis had abandoned him.
No handshake, no smiles, no words. Silence ensued. It wasn’t particularly unpleasant, but neither was it pleasant. It was simply there, and it was simply nothing, so “nothing” that Grant couldn’t even daydream.
Mr. Smith was older than Grant, which would have made Mr. Smith old enough to be Ms. Davis’s grandparent. So, as it was, Mr. Smith and Grant and Ms. Davis represented three generations.
Mr. Smith, like Grant, was clean-shaven, but Mr. Smith’s pale face didn’t seem to possess the potential of whiskers. Mr. Smith was wearing a long-sleeved white shirt and a black necktie. A gray sport coat hung from the back of Mr. Smith’s chair, and this was the only hint of informality in the room, for the room in its entirety was exactly like Ms. Davis’s room, minus five folding chairs. If Mr. Smith was wearing cologne or aftershave, Grant couldn’t smell it. The room was silent and odorless. On Mr. Smith’s desk two sheets of paper sat, presumably Grant’s application form and résumé. Grant’s only thought was: How long is this going to last?
Finally, something happened. Mr. Smith stood up and went to one of the room’s two windows and stood, to look out through the half-open mini-blinds. Mr. Smith’s white hands were clasped in a loose fashion behind his back. Grant had a clear view of those hands. Gray slacks and black-leather shoes rounded out Mr. Smith’s attire. On his head there was short gray hair that was combed straight back. Grant waited.
After a lengthy minute or so, a reedy voice began, direction of that voice aimed at the window and its gray mini-blinds.
“I often stand here and look out, which explains how I know you arrived on a bicycle.”
Grant, feeling the pressure of a congeniality, said, “Oh?”
Still facing the window, Mr. Smith said, “I saw you dismount from the bicycle, and I saw you check the address against a piece of paper. I saw you lock the bicycle up with a cable, and I saw you take a handkerchief from your back pocket, and I saw you use the handkerchief to wipe sweat from your face. I saw you put the hankie back in your pocket, and I saw you draw a black comb from your back pocket and run the comb through your hair. I saw you put the comb back in your pocket, and I saw you unleash a bungee cord from the rear rack of your bicycle, which freed a plastic case that you then held in your hand, and I saw you wrap and hook the bungee cord to the rack, and then I saw you walk in the direction of . . .”
Mr. Smith trailed off, and it seemed that he was fishing for words, yet at the same time there was the question of a response on Grant’s part. Fortunately a clue was hanging, and it had to do with “naming,” or maybe “direction.”
“The door to Ms. Davis’s office.”
“Yes,” Mr. Smith said. “The door to Ms. Davis’s office.” The intonation of this was of a congratulatory nature. Grant felt proud, but then quickly questioned the feeling.
Mr. Smith turned from the window to look at Grant, or seemingly to look at Grant, for the sunglasses made the direction of Mr. Smith’s eyes a mystery. With the pasty light from the window silhouetting Mr. Smith, the sunglasses on Mr. Smith’s face were starker than before, and what came to Grant’s mind were the optics of an insect. Grant, under the scrutiny of those glasses, was tempted to shift his weight, but the hard seat of the chair thwarted this. Instead, he smiled.
At first Mr. Smith only stood, but then he leaned forward, lenses of the sunglasses leading the thrust of that pose.
“Did you suffer a stroke?”
“No. I fell off a swing when I was four years old and a nerve got pinched, which resulted in the left side of my face going slack, you known, paralysis. The right side of my mouth moves up into my right cheek, and my right eye squints when I smile, but the left side of my face doesn’t do that.”
“Yes, I see that now. But it looks like the right side is off.”
“If the left side moved, there’d be balance, and the right side would look okay.”
Mr. Smith straightened and returned to his desk and sat down.
“I was tempted not to believe this,” Mr. Smith said, and indicated the résumé and application form. “But then I thought, even if you had spent the last thirty-plus years in prison, you wouldn’t have concocted something like this—Europe, North Africa, Israel, India, Pakistan, Malaysia—no-nothing jobs here and there.”
“Why’d you come back?”
“My mother is old and sick. I’m the only one.”
“So this address is actually you and your mother’s address?”
“And the bicycle?”
“She’s going to pass away someday, and with that her Social Security will stop, so I’ll have to reduce expenses, downsize so to speak, because it’s her Social Security that’s paying the bills. If I can live without a car, I can save a lot of money. So I want to get a job within bicycling distance.”
“You have a car now, though, don’t you?”
“Yes. My mother’s car. I’ve switched it over to my name. She’s incapable of driving. When she passes away I plan to sell the car.”
“You put on the application that you possess a valid California driver’s license.”
After this there was nothing more, so again they sat, looking at each other, which continued for an indeterminate length of time. The room had no wall clock.
“We have a very unique situation here, Mr. Finn.”
“Let me show you something.”
Mr. Smith stood up and gestured for Grant to follow. They went to the third door, and when they arrived Mr. Smith opened the door.
“This,” said Mr. Smith, “is a warehouse.”
The room was huge and expansive, flooring concrete, a cavernous space. No lights were on, but a few distant windows allowed for enough light to see.
Mr. Smith closed the door, and Mr. Smith and Grant returned to their respective chairs.
“Ms. Munoz,” began Mr. Smith, “has sent all kinds over here in the last two weeks. Those interviews didn’t go very far. Actually, many of those people didn’t make it past Ms. Davis. You, too, almost didn’t get past Ms. Davis, and you probably know why. But of course we can’t discuss that. You, like the others, almost heard: ‘If you don’t hear from us within a week, you can assume the position has been filled.’”
A half-smile rose on the right side of Grant’s face. Mr. Smith took a moment to look at that.
“Call it coincidence, Mr. Finn, the way I happened to be standing at the window to see you arrive on a bicycle. But then again, I saw the others arrive too, didn’t I?”
Grant’s half-smile remained.
“The others arrived by car,” Mr. Smith related.
“And then this,” Mr. Smith said, and tapped the application form with his index finger. “Employment history,” he enunciated, which ignited a narrow smile on his narrow face, teeth too perfect, dentures perhaps.
“The job description that I and Ms. Davis formulated and forwarded to Ms. Munoz calls for a warehouse worker, advancement a possibility.”
Grant was watching Mr. Smith’s mouth move. But there was more to it than a mouth moving because every once in a while the tip of a pink tongue would flash, a reptilian image.
“What do you think of Ms. Davis, Mr. Finn?”
Grant needed a moment. “Well . . . very professional.” He added a grin.
Mr. Smith seemingly looked at the grin.
“Yes, that’s what I thought, too, when I interviewed her. Ms. Munoz sent Ms. Davis over. This was a little over two weeks ago. Ms. Davis, and this might surprise you, graduated from high school three weeks ago.”
Grant tilted his head.
“I finally had to ask her about the way she speaks and about her apparel. And do you know what she told me?”
“She recently read a book, a self-help type of book about landing a job, about business, and about getting ahead and so forth. A counselor at her high school recommended the book.”
“Yeah, I know,” Ms. Smith said. “But the whole thing was so apropos of the business climate these days that I couldn’t disturb it. As a matter of fact, after meeting and talking with Ms. Davis, I decided to assume that persona myself. Beginning with Ms. Davis’s employment, which began the day after I interviewed her, for I hired her on the spot, I started modeling myself after her.”
Grant looked at Mr. Smith, with renewed interest.
“Except for the sunglasses,” Mr. Smith said. “After I moved into this office, I found it necessary to don dark glasses due to the quality of light.” He waved a hand to indicate the room, but perhaps it was also to indicate outside, for the gesture seemed to take in the window that he purportedly spent time at.
“During my interview with Ms. Davis, I asked her what she saw in her future, you know, where she wanted to be someday. She sat right there where you’re sitting, and she told me that she wanted to be sitting where I was sitting. So I got up and stepped over toward the window and gestured toward my chair and told her to have a seat.”
On Mr. Smith’s face a half-smile adopted a touch of vigor.
“So she stood up and circled around and sat down in my chair. So then I asked: ‘What now?’ She looked at me and said: ‘I don’t know.’”
Grant was tempted to chuckle, but instead he reduced this sentiment to a new half-smile. Half-smiles seemed to be prevalent and appropriate.
“But you, Mr. Finn . . . You’ve exhausted such possibilities, haven’t you?”
“You mean, sitting in your chair?”
“I don’t see that on my horizon.”
“I kind of knew that. Nevertheless, it’s a fair question—what’s on your mind, Mr. Finn?”
“Mr. Finn, I am prepared to offer you a position. Are you prepared to accept it?”
“I am prepared . . . But what’s the position?”
“The warehouse is empty. There’s nothing in the warehouse.”
“Precisely, Mr. Finn—the warehouse is empty. And that will be the first order of business for the person who accepts the warehouse position.”
Grant started to raise a hand for some reason, but the gesture failed him because his mind was failing him. He wasn’t sure if it was Mr. Smith’s discourse or the flickering pink tongue that was confusing him.
“What order of business?”
“The order of business of deciding and determining what sort of business the warehouse will adopt.”
“Well, what kind of business do you have here?”
“That is the question, Mr. Finn.”
“Don’t you know what kind of business you have?”
“If I knew, it would already be in operation, wouldn’t it?”
“Perhaps a few more details are in order, Mr. Finn.”
“The person who accepts the warehouse position will arrive at work at eight in the morning and punch in. There’s a time clock in the warehouse. After punching in, that person will sit on a chair in the warehouse, a chair taken from Ms. Davis’s office, a chair exactly like the chair you are presently sitting on. This will provide the warehouse person with time to think. The warehouse person will be charged with coming up with a business proposal-slash-idea relating to the warehouse, which in turn will define the business of this company, providing I accept the idea. Since most of the company’s activity will occur in the warehouse, the warehouse person is the one who can best ascertain those activities. Do you see what I mean, Mr. Finn?”
Grant sat, looking at Mr. Smith—dark sunglasses, pallid complexion, pink tongue.
“There will be time for thought, Mr. Finn. But a clock will be ticking—a time clock, and perhaps an internal clock.”
Mr. Smith smiled a half-smile that conscripted a row of white teeth.
“When the warehouse person comes up with an idea for a business, he or she will inform Ms. Davis that he or she wants to speak to me. Ms. Davis in turn will inform me that the warehouse person has an idea for a business, and that he or she desires to see me in order to present that idea. If I’m not busy, Ms. Davis will escort the warehouse person into this office, and the warehouse person will sit where you are now sitting, and will present the idea.”
Mr. Smith smiled anew, which was the same as all his smiles, a precise half-smile.
“If I accept the idea, Mr. Finn, not only will that idea take on shape and physicality, but the warehouse person will get a twenty-five-cent-an-hour raise.”
Grant nodded slowly.
Mr. Smith waited.
“If I am not mistaken, this job begins at minimum wage.”
“Yes, Mr. Finn, it begins at minimum wage, but it can increase rapidly, depending. The idea alone warrants a twenty-five-cent raise, but as the idea grows into a profitable enterprise further raises will be in order, just as the hiring of more workers will be in order, which will automatically create the position of a warehouse manager.”
“Mr. Finn, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. You can go from one end of this metropolis to the other and I am confident that you will not find another position like this one.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“Just think, Mr. Finn. If profits soar, you will benefit. People in the warehouse will look to you for direction, and you will be the beneficiary of respect. And . . . Ms. Davis will look at you differently than the way she looks at you now. Imagine that.
“Furthermore, there might even be occasion when you and I will go out for lunch—at the company’s expense, Mr. Finn.”
The sunglasses, the blanched face, the pink tongue. And then a half-smile.
“You will be able to purchase and maintain an automobile, Mr. Finn.”
Michael Onofrey’s stories have appeared in Cottonwood, The Evansville Review, Natural Bridge, The Offbeat, Road to Nowhere and Other New Stories from the Southwest (anthology, University of New Mexico Press, 2013), Snowy Egret, Terrain.org, and Weber – The Contemporary West, as well as in other fine places. A novel, “Bewilderment,” is forthcoming from Tailwinds Press in 2017.