Sunday, June 26, 2016

Perception Precisely Reflected V

Perception V

The hours that morning were hollowed out by the sentence, “he strangled her in her pajamas sometime in the middle of the night.”  Every time I focused on work, a terrified, contorted face would insert itself into my thoughts and make me a little sick.  I knew Bell detested his mother; he made no secret of it.  He often disparaged her as a self-centered, materialistic woman who complained and carped about how the neighbors’ wives had better houses and cars and clothes.  Her husband worked as an accountant, but never earned enough money to satisfy her wants.  Her children possessed average abilities, which offended her sense of dignity.  Bell was one of three children, each born five years apart.  His older sister and brother seemed to have no interest in him and he clearly cared little for them.  Both of them left the house for college after high school never to return.  Bell himself attended an average New York State college, achieved an academic level of mediocrity then decamped for San Francisco, where he lived for about ten years.  

I had heard all these facts from Finn years before.  When Finn was still on friendly terms with Bell he asked him about his time in San Francisco, but only learned that Bell had found and lost the great love of his life while he lived out there.  Bell spoke in a strangely nostalgic tone about San Francisco, but also remained secretive about his years there.

I arrived at our lunch table to find Finn and my other colleagues already there.  They had just sat down and were waiting for me so Finn could begin telling us what he knew of Bell’s situation.   

“Welcome to our little lunch group,” I said to Finn as I sat down.  “You already know Nabokov and I guess you’ve met Nancy, Olivia and Erica,” indicating our redheaded, well dressed and reticent colleagues respectively. 

“Yes, I’ve worked with all three on various projects.  And they regularly join us for drinks at Crowley’s on Friday afternoon.”  The ‘us,’ Finn meant, comprise a rather hard drinking crew of warehouse employees.  The “drinks” suggested a far more moderate consumption that was actually the case.  Finn and his friends would descend on Crowley’s around four and carouse till four or five the next morning.  
The thought of these women drinking with Finn startled me.  They were too reserved to mix with such inveterate drinkers.  Did their polite, demur behavior at the office reflect who they were or did their drinking and presumably riotous revels denote them?  

Finn drank some water and said, “After Bell was fingerprinted and booked yesterday, he called me from the Nassau County police station.  When I saw the caller ID I immediately figured it must be him.  He knows I have friends who are criminal attorneys.  He apologized right away for bother me but said he was in a bad way needed my help.  I told him I’d do what I could and he asked me to get one of my lawyer friends to represent him.  I told him I would call one right after I got off the phone with him and he thanked me profusely.  I could tell from his voice that he’d been crying; it kept cracking when he spoke.  There was an awkward silence for about a minute, then he said he’d talk to me soon and hung up.  

“Didn’t he say anything about his mother or whether he was guilty or not?”  Nabokov arched her eyebrows as she demanded this information.  Finn just shrugged his shoulders and shook his head no.  

“He only asked for the lawyer.  I thought he would have said more.  Maybe he wanted to, but couldn’t.  I don’t know.  My friend said he’d take the case.”

“But why do you think he’d do that to  his mother? I just don’t understand it.”  This was the second time I heard Erica speak. Nothing like aberrant behavior to draw a shy person out of her shell, I thought.

“Well, I am no shrink, but I think it might go back to Bell’s childhood and how she treated him as a little boy. I really don’t have many details; Bell used to  describe his mother as a cruel person who alternately ignored him or belittled him.  He told me that his mother never said anything nice to him and that she would sometimes call him stupid or useless if he did things he wasn’t supposed to.  I don’t think she hit him, but it sounded like she was verbally abusive.  Jim do you remember, I think it was about twelve years ago, a group of us from the building were at Crowley’s and Bell was there too, and he was pretty plastered?”

“Yes, very well.  He went on a tirade about how much he hated his mother.”

“That’s right.  He said she was grossly obese.”

“I believe he said she was a fat pig,”  I interjected.

“Yea, and he told me that she spent all his father’s money and she was the most selfish woman he’d ever known.”  So, I think his motive for strangling her runs deep.  He seemed obsessed by how much he despised her.”
“Oh my God, he sounds really sick. But it seems as if his mother almost drove him to it.  I don’t mean to excuse what he did, but I can understand it,” Erica said.

“Erica, Jim was real pals with Bell before Finn and I came to work here.  Tell them about Bell’s friendship with the woman he retired fifteen or so years back,” Nabokov said.

I cringed at the false implication and glanced menacingly at Nabokov.  “Finn, he always confided in you, even after you had been transfered to the warehouse.  But I witnessed some revealing behavior myself right at this office.  I had been working at the company for few years and became friendly with an older woman in a another department.  At the time I knew Bell only by sight, I hadn’t spoken a word to him.  Sitting at lunch one day in the staff room I was enjoying a quiet moment alone with my thoughts when Bell pulls up a chair, introduces himself and joins me.  I politely acknowledged him and continued eating.  After a few awkward minutes of silence, he began to question me.  Where are you from?  Where did you attend college? Are you married?  The barrage of interrogation caught me completely by surprise and I scrambled to keep pace with the stream of questions.  Luckily, the older woman I just mentioned arrived and sat with us and I got a glimpse into Bell’s mind.  The moment she sat down Bell fixed his full attention on her.  She spoke to us both equally, talking lightheartedly about all sorts of topics and I enjoyed the conversation and her company as I always had.  But Bell’s disposition changed.  To every remark I made, or joke I told, Bell sneered most viciously.  All of a sudden he seemed to loathe me beyond any reckoning.  I quickly became confused and rose to leave the table.  The older woman asked me to stay longer, since the lunch hour was only half over.  I excused myself, saying I had too much work to complete and hurried away from her and that dark and disturbed creature sitting with her.  Later, another colleague explained to me why Bell behaved as he did.  It seemed he had attached himself to this woman like a barnacle to a ship and when anyone drew her attention even slightly away from him, he had to annihilate the person out of existence.  Although I didn’t know it then, I had seen the edge of the sickness that would drive Bell to destroy Driscoll and murder his mother.”

“So you’re the one who actually knows the facts of what Nabokov has been telling?” Erica sputtered.

“Yes,” I calmly replied.  “Nabokov is the narrator, the bard, but I am the author of everything you have heard.  Witness, participant, adversary and finally author.”  Our three young colleagues looked back and forth from Nabokov to me as she and I shook our heads in subtle complicity.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Perception Reflected Precisely IV

I returned to my desk and stared at the documents that had piled a foot high in the metal ‘to do’ tray.  Most weeks I quickly dispatched all I had to review and evaluate.  But over the past few days I had trouble concentrating on work; my attention would continually drift away from the tasks in front of me, back to Nabokov’s tale.  My young colleagues were gripped by suspense as they waited for Nabokov’s next chapter.  I already knew the tale well, having witnessed its original unfolding.  There was nothing in it to surprise me and the initial shock of all that happened had worn off years ago.  I still, however, remained appalled by Bell’s behavior and wondered what shapes and images the memory of his actions fabricated in his mind.  Had time enabled him to see the turpitude of his conduct?  Had his conscience finally overcome his instinct for self-preservation or did he still see himself as the victim of persecution?  I remembered how he ranted violently as he spewed obscenities at the company’s executives when they confronted him with physical evidence of his crimes.  At one point, his screams could be heard in the outer offices as he accused them of plotting to destroy him because he had grown too popular among the clients and staff.  As that scene replayed itself, I stared at those documents and knew that the basic moral elements had never entered his mind; he possessed an insatiable ego, which viewed everything in terms of how it affected him.  The consequences of his actions, the effect they had upon others never occurred to him.  He and he alone was the measure of anything and everything.  As a result, nothing he did could be forbidden, taboo, or immoral.  His desire superseded all moral boundaries; it ruled him as absolute sovereign and in his judgment granted him canonical authority and justification for whatever he did.  What he wanted he had a right to have; what he said was the final word on a subject.  Those who disagreed with him or even suggested that his opinion or behavior might be wrong were dismissed as ignorant.  When anyone refused to submit to his view, he wasted no time smearing that person with the vilest rumors he could imagine.

I looked again at the pile awaiting my attention and realized I had to shake off the memories that kept invading my thoughts.  I walked over to the coffee pot, which someone had just brewed, poured myself a large mug, and returned to my desk eager to drink the black liquid and determined to devour that pile before the day ended.  I set to work and didn’t raise my eyes until one document remained in the tray.  I picked it up, stood to stretch and saw that all my colleagues had departed.  To my astonishment it was already eight o’clock.  I let the papers slip back into the tray and walked out of the office.  I was especially satisfied with the work I had completed, since it was nothing more than the usual useless data analysis that management required us to do. 

When I entered the corridor, I encountered two night crew cleaners, leaning on their brooms, talking and laughing.  As I passed, I heard one of them mimicking their supervisor.  Apparently, he demanded too much of his workers when he expected them to diligently clean the areas assigned to them.  Whenever he chided them about their slackness, they promised to be more thorough and while he watched them, worked furiously.  Once he left they lapsed into the languid routines they solemnly observed. 

Their laughter followed me to the exit and ceased when the door clicked shut behind me.  In the warm night air crickets chirped rhythmically; I knew that sound foretold that fall would soon silence them.  Once in my car, I turned my thoughts to my three young lunch colleagues.  I had enjoyed watching them work tirelessly at their jobs and remembered that same cheerful energy I once had.  Back then, the senior colleagues seemed much older than I thought I appeared to be. I tried to imagine how I appeared to my lunch companions, but I could form only vague impressions of what they might see.  By the time I arrived home, night had expelled the day and darkness covered both the outside and inside of my home.  I entered the house, and turned on the lights in the front parlor, the kitchen and the den.  Too late to prepare and cook dinner, I made toast and tea and read Trollope’s Barchester Towers.  I read for two hours, and felt revived after the tedium I had suffered all afternoon.

The next morning, I drove to work early and expected the parking lot to be empty, but one car was already there.  It was a black BMW and Jonathan Bell sat behind the steering wheel.  I often went to the office earlier than my colleagues and I had never seen Bell at our building that early.  In fact, Bell usually appeared twenty minutes late and strolled casually through the main entrance.  Ever since he failed to get a promotion he believed he had deserved, he relentlessly found ways to show his contempt for the company’s management.  There was no supervisor he did not passionately hate and he enjoyed denouncing them all as stupid and incompetent. They feared him and did anything to appease him whenever they had dealings with him. 

His eyes seemed fixed on an invisible object somewhere in front of his car and I was able to pass by him unnoticed.  It was just as well; I preferred to avoid talking to anybody in the early mornings, and knew that if he initiated a conversation I would be detained for a very long time.  I made it to my desk without seeing another person, and worked on the remaining document from the night before.  After, I drew up plans for the projects I would be working on over the next two weeks.  In my youth, I had enjoyed preparing ahead any assignment I had.  I would formulate the methods I would use and even imagine each step the project would take.  Nabokov would needle me about my “schemes,” as she called them.  “Still writing those plans?”  She would laugh and tell me to “Give up that Frivolity!”  I sometimes agreed with her and wanted to break from the habit, but its grip on me was too strong and like the alcoholic whose dependence on drink overpowers every intervention, I continued to plan beyond appeals to reason. 

At ten o’clock, Nabokov appeared at my office door and signaled for me to come immediately to her side.  “What do you need?”  I asked when I reached her.

“You must come to the conference room and see this.”  Her urgent tone stirred my curiosity and I went with her quickly down the corridor to the room she’d mentioned.  Once inside, she led the way to the windows, which looked out on the front drive of the building.  Outside there were two police officers conveying Jonathan Bell, who was shackled in handcuffs, toward a waiting police car.  Startled by the sight, I gasped, “What has happened?”

“I don’t know.  Nancy (our red-headed colleague) saw the cops leading him through the halls and ran to tell me about it.  I can only guess what legal entanglement he’s gotten himself into.  It’s surprising, but hardly shocking.”  I continue to watch the police cars.  The officers got in and drove out of the parking lot. I followed their progress until the road curved with the landscape and they disappeared into the tree lined street leading Bell to his incarceration. 

Everyone was stunned by Bell’s arrest and keen to hear what had precipitated it.  Nothing like it had ever happened at the company before.  Sure, there had been incidents the management had dealt with.  A young male employee, for example, had been mysteriously “let go” one day, never to be seen or heard from again.  It was said that he had an uncontainable penchant for the underage girls who interned regularly at our offices, and when the parents of one such girl threatened to call the police because he wouldn’t leave her alone, the management thought it best to take quick action.  Other employees had been suspected of similar inclinations and some even married young women who, as teenagers, had been their interns.  Stories circulated about these men and often they would be seen benevolently guiding their young charges, a hand resting on the young girl’s shoulder or touching her wrist.  Once, a young man who worked with Joe Schmitt in Algorithms and Measurements was overhead ardently imploring an intern not to leave him for another department.  It was unclear whether she had altered her career goals or found fault with the way he mentored her.  Either way, she severed the association and quit her internship abruptly one Friday in the spring of that year.  As far as the management was concerned, if they heard nothing, they saw nothing; it was a policy that reflected the expedience of their ethics. 

As usual, I went to eat lunch with our little story “club.”  Of course, we talked about the morning’s event and spent almost the entire lunch conjecturing about what he had done to bring the law down upon him.  Nabokov alluded to an act of vandalism Bell committed during his connection with Don Driscoll, suggesting that maybe he had committed some similar crime.  But when Nancy asked what Bell had done back then, Nabokov waved her off and said something vague about property damage.  None of us knew about Bell’s life outside of work, so we had no information to direct our guesswork.  Realizing we were getting nowhere, Nabokov suggested we bring Finn into our lunch group; if anyone knew about Bell, it would surely be Finn.  We congratulated her for this flawless idea, but I could tell the three young colleagues were also disappointed that our lunch had slipped away without another segment of the Bell and Driscoll tale.  Nabokov assured them that she would finish that story and added that now we had two compelling narratives unfolding simultaneously.  They laughed and Erica, the young, quiet woman with no opinions, said she never thought going to work could be so interesting.  “Interesting, but so strange too,” Nancy replied.  I was glad to finally hear Erica speak; I had begun to think she might be mute.

Nabokov asked me to call Finn that night and invite him to our lunch.  She knew he would not hesitate now that Bell was no longer in the building.  When I left the building Bell’s car was atop a flatbed tow-truck, which was driven by a heavily tattooed woman wearing a railroad engineer’s cap.  She winked at me when our eyes met and smiled a little too invitingly.   I fumbled for my keys as quickly as I could, and ducked into my car.  Later that evening, I called Finn and left him a voicemail to ring me back, which he did shortly after midnight.  “Hey Jim!  I just got your message.  Obviously, it’s about Bell.” 

“Yes.  We’re all in the dark about why he was arrested.  And Nabokov asked me to call you for two reasons.  Now that he’s gone, how about joining us for lunch; and maybe you can shed light on what he did.”

“I would love to eat with you guys.  And I can shed some light.  I won’t tell you everything right now, since it’s too late.  What I will say is what I heard from a friend of mine who works in the precinct where Bell was taken.  Two nights ago, Bell killed his elderly mother.  Apparently, he strangled her in her pajamas sometime in the middle of the night.”  I was speechless for several moments, and then told him I’d see him tomorrow at lunch.  That night I tossed and turned and went without sleep.   When the sun peered through my bedroom blinds at dawn, I got up, showered and fixed myself coffee.  I knew I would accomplish nothing at the office that day, so I lingered an extra hour at home trying to chase from my mind the images Finn had put there the night before.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Perception Precisely Reflected III

The rest of the afternoon past quickly, and I decided to leave work early.  Weaving quietly between the desks, I ambled toward the door unnoticed. All my colleagues’ eyes focused on the computer screens in front of them.  The management often boasted about how the technology they provided refashioned our tasks and enabled us to achieve greater productivity than previous generations in our fields.  I managed to read some the screens as I walked and noted the typical sites colleagues searched.  I saw various shopping, news, and gaming sites.  My colleagues knew well that every keystroke could be monitored, yet they could little resist the temptations of innovation. 

I left the office and entered the north corridor that led to the parking lot.  The walls of that corridor had been painted gray the previous year.  I remembered the notice we had received telling us that the painting project would take place and when the painters finished I asked one why they had used that color.  He told me that the director of buildings had learned that the particular shade of gray had been shown to raise serotonin levels in laboratory rats.   “Predictably odious,” I remembered thinking.  I emerged from the building into the warm, afternoon sun and a sparrow darted across my line of sight and skimmed the uncut lawn before arching up to the electric wire out of reach of the feral cats that stalked the property.  The lawn mixed promiscuously all kinds of weeds and grass and the dandelions sprouted everywhere, higher than the rest and claimed brief dominion there.  One of the company’s most intelligent decisions was to prohibit the application of pesticides and weed killers on the property.  The result was a thriving and untamed parcel.

I spent the evening finishing bills that I had ignored too long.  I had liked to suppose that if one ignored a bill long enough, the sender would eventually respond in kind.  This supposition articulated what my imagination had sown among the many thoughts that vied continuously from my attention.  Needless to say, I had to spend considerable time sorting through second and third notices to reconcile what I thought I should pay and what my accounts insisted upon receiving.   I finished, then went to bed and fell immediately and deeply asleep.

At lunch the next day, we resumed our places around the table and Nabokov began retelling what Finn had described to her about that annual autumn meeting.
It took a few minutes for Finn to realize Bell had abruptly stopped speaking.  When he looked at Bell, he wondered what had stalled his monologue.  Bell’s expression was blank, his eyes moist and motionless, his mouth slightly pursed with his tongue rasping along his teeth.   Suddenly, a violent ripple lunged through Finn’s solar plexus and into his throat.  Finn clamped tight his jaws and swallowed hard to prevent last night’s remnants from erupting.

“Excuse me,” he hoarsely whispered and began walking quickly toward the auditorium exit.  As he did, he turned to see whom Bell watched.  He beheld a tall, thin young man with prickly spiked hair, dressed abominably in a khaki suit.  The young man stood, hands in trouser pockets, affecting an air of poised confidence.  His eyes roved the length and width of the room.  Finn recognized at once that the young man wasn’t interested or curious about anyone in the audience.  Instead, he was searching their faces to determine if any of them had noticed him.  When Finn glanced back at Bell, he knew trouble would follow in the days to come. 

Nabokov paused at this point to fetch herself another cup of coffee, giving us a moment to relax our attention.  As I relaxed, I thought about Finn’s account; though I heard it all before, it obliged me to admit how little our clever designs shape the events that encircle our lives.  Nabokov returned, and continued.
Finn’s position kept him removed from the main building and he didn’t encounter anyone from there for two months.  But little time had passed before he began to hear rumors about Bell and Don Driscoll, the khaki clad young man.  People had always gossiped about Bell, especially dwelling on the clothes he wore or his physical appearance.  He had a habit of wearing old denim and faded tee shirts and he colored his hair chestnut brown.  Lately, he’d begun donning small, tight knit wool caps, a different one for each day of the week.  It seemed he wanted to refurbish his image, to jazz up his customary blend of working class drab and rock n rock groupie.  This new equipage commenced only days after Driscoll joined the company.

Anyway, Bell and Driscoll started having lunch together shortly early in September.  No one knew who initiated the pairing, but the two could be seen striding briskly to Bell’s tan convertible thirty minutes before noon each day.  They ate at the same, old diner that most employees defected from after rats had been spotted shimmying up a drain pipe at the back of the building.  One morning, Joe Schmitt, from the algorithm and measurements department, encountered Finn in the main building.  “Finn, what brings you here,” he asked him. 

“I needed to drop off a form to human resources.”

“Listen, have you heard about Bell and the khaki kid?” What do you think is going on with them?”

“You mean Driscoll?  Yes, some things.  But I haven’t the faintest idea and don’t want to know, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Really,” Joe remarked.  I thought you took an interest in Bell.  Aren’t you and he close?”

“No,” Finn tautly replied. 

“Well, everyone’s talking and Bell better watch himself if he wants to get that promotion he has been angling for.” 

Just then Mike Holcomb joined them, slapped Finn on the back and blurted loudly, “Hey Finn, what’s up with Bell and that Driscoll character?”  Finn liked both of these colleagues, but wanted nothing to do with the subject they felt fit for public discussion.  He remembered that autumn meeting and decided to peel himself away from these two.

“No idea,” he stated, and said goodbye as he walked away from them.  With each step he counted himself lucky to work at the warehouse, out of range of the tick tock time bomb he knew would detonate before long.  To comfort himself further, he resolved to lunch only at the Starbucks that opened recently two towns away from the company offices.  He believed he’d be safe there, able to sip his coffee and smoke his cigarettes far from the combustible mix and Bell and this Don Driscoll.  On a Thursday, three weeks after his conversation with Schmitt and Holcomb, Finn drove over two towns to Starbucks.  He had enjoyed peaceful lunches, alone as he always preferred.  He entered the Starbucks, and detected a scent he had long wanted to forget.  Opposite the barrister counter, Bell and Driscoll sat talking and laughing.  Crumbs and crumpled napkins littered the table and two over sized drinks, filled with concocted blends of coffee, cream, flavoring, sugar and other jaundice inducing ingredients sweated condensation that collected in little pools encircling the base of each plastic cup.  Finn hesitated a second too long and Bell saw him and called for him to join them at their table.
Nabokov again stopped her narrative, as the lunch hour had dwindled to its final few minutes.   We all stood, stretched and departed for our respective offices.
At lunch the next day, she resumed her story. 
Finn went to Bell’s table and pointed out that it accommodated only two chairs. 

“Thanks for asking, but there isn’t room.  I’ll sit over by the door.” 

Before Finn could move, Bell spun around, and snatched a chair from the table behind him.    As its legs scraped the floor, he announced, “Mind if I barrow this?”  

The young woman, who was sitting alone, smiled and raised an eyebrow at Finn.  Even though Finn had witnessed Bell’s habitually abrupt and peremptory behavior before, his cheeks reddened with embarrassment.  Nevertheless, he sat down.  He had looked forward to eating, but now he felt too queasy for anything but coffee.  “What will you have?” Bell asked as he pulled his wallet out and extracted a ten from it. 

“Just coffee, black.”

Bell extended the ten toward Driscoll and asked him to get Finn his coffee.  Although Driscoll appeared uneasy about the command, he complied anyway and went to the service counter to buy the coffee.  As he walked away from their table, Bell’s eyes followed him; then he looked at Finn and spoke softly.  “He is really a remarkable young man.  You should get to know him.  Everyone at the office loves him.  And he’s brilliant at his work.  A real star!”

“That’s good,” replied Finn, as he looked back at Bell and for a moment almost felt sorry for him.  In the past, he had seen Bell gush over another young worker who stirred in him a fervor that unbalanced him till a court restraining order set him straight again.  

“Don is really so delightful too; he’s such a warm and kind person.  I think he might be the best person I’ve met in my life, and I’ve met quite a lot of people.   We eat lunch together each day and are becoming best friends.  You should join us.  Do you eat here often?”  Finn remained silent and thought, “Yes I do and I’d preferred if you and your new best friend would go elsewhere.”  Finn waited a moment more while he observed Driscoll walking back to the table with his coffee.

“Oh almost never; I usually eat at my desk.  You know how it is; always need every minute to squeeze in all the work I have to do.”  As Driscoll sat down again, Finn remembered that Bell’s previous “young man trouble” had also materialized instantaneously upon meeting that individual.  In that case, the young new employee, guileless and gullible, fell under Bell’s control through no fault of his own.  But as Bell’s relentless attention grew more aggressive and despotic he became very frightened.  At the time, it was Finn who secretly advised him to seek protection from the legal department of the company’s Human Resources, which he did.  Bell was ordered to keep away from him, but the young man resigned his position and moved out of the state.  Finn thought that Bell’s desires might have abated some after he had turned fifty or he hoped that perhaps the previous experience and humiliation might have tempered him by instilling in him a degree of restraint. But it was obvious that the predilection had mastered him; had ignored overtures to reason, if there had been any in Bell’s conscience; and had justified for him any behavior or action that might deliver to him what he had to have.  Finn also noticed that this Driscoll was no amateur himself.  He played at being the novice employee, but his conduct betrayed his artifice.  Finn understood this type of person; he’d seen his kind perform subtle subterfuges to get what he wanted.   It was clear what Bell wanted: someone devoted to him, someone under his control and, in ways unspoken, much more.  What Driscoll wanted eluded Finn, but the sight of these two, each performing an act for the other’s benefit and each believing his performance would yield special advantages or privileges, soured each sip of coffee Finn swallowed.  Finally, enough time passed for Finn to excuse himself and head back to work.  Never had the idea of work offered such joy.  Once in his car, Finn blasted his favorite music, performed by a group known as “Phish.”

“He listened to ‘Phish!’” I spouted when Nabokov paused for a moment.  They’re reprehensible!”

Well, “De gustibus non est disputandum.”

“I disagree!”

The trio of our young colleagues asked, “What does that mean?” 

“That Nabokov reads voraciously!” I exclaimed.

These colleagues, all young women, had been mesmerized by Nabokov’s artful tale and I was delighted by their youthful curiosity.  One of them had thick, red hair that snarled and twisted every time it rained.  She tied it back on those days to restrain its recalcitrance.  Next to her sat her close friend and constant companion who observed the principle that no garment, regardless of how stylish, should ever be worn twice.  Apparently, the hours she shopped commandeered her weekends from Friday night till Sunday afternoon.  The third woman who sat with us spoke rarely, dressed plainly and, as far as I knew, possessed no opinions whatsoever.  Perhaps she did, but remained reticent for reasons I couldn’t surmise.  We accepted that our hour together had concluded and left the table still greedy for more of Nabokov’s narrative.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Perception Precisely Reflected II

When we returned to the office, Bell had gone, but something of him lingered.  It wasn’t the foul odor of his food that, to our relief, receded.  Before I could comment on what seemed to hover about the room, Nabokov Said, “Smell that?  That cloying scent?  That’s his cologne.  I don’t mind cologne, but why does he have to soak in it, for Christ sake?”

We all reseated ourselves around the table.  Everyone was quiet for a couple of minutes and I became eager for Nabokov to begin her tale.  I was not concerned about the time remaining in our lunch break.  We could take, as long a lunch as we wanted. Our supervisor, Dan Orchid, was working at regional headquarters, as he did every Wednesday.  We were dedicated to our jobs and even periodically loyal to Dan, though not at all on Wednesdays.  Dan wasn’t a terrible boss, but his mannerisms did irritate most of the members of our department.  His slightly curved posture sent his face far forward ahead the rest of his body, which strained to catch up to it.  And his habit of scurrying among the different departments on our floor, his eyes sliding rapidly right and left, made many people uneasy.   His ambition fueled his frenetic movements, though he rarely accomplished any genuine work.  When in our office, however, he possessed preternatural vigilance monitoring each one of us while we worked.

“Well, are you going to tell them about Bell?”  I asked her.
“Yes.”  She replied. “Just give me a minute to clear my head.  After sneezing a few times, she began her tale.  “Ten years ago…”

Finn O’Brien had been standing at the back of the corporate auditorium waiting for annual autumn meeting to commence.  Finn had worked at the company for eighteen years and had witnessed the staff expand and contract as the whims of management fluctuated from one business philosophy to another.  Of course, some of the staff had to be asked to leave for various ethical or criminal violations.  Naturally, when offenders balked or threaten to sue, management provided positive recommendations even for the most salacious behavior.  Fear of litigation or any stain of ignominy always terrified the bosses and blunted the edge of their occasional resolution.

Finn himself once tiptoed along the precipice of dismissal guilty of chronic lateness to the office.  It seemed his nocturnal poker games plundered his hours between midnight and morning, and made arriving on time to work a feat beyond even his prodigious endurance.  We used to amuse ourselves watching him speed his old Ford through the parking lot, jump from his car and run toward the main entrance, his long hair in tow flowing straight behind him.  Bill Headly, our supervisor back then, saw something worthwhile in Finn, and saved his job by reassigning him to the company warehouse down by the river.  At the warehouse, no one cared who came late, or early or in between.  Finn had found his perfect perch, happy among the gulls who fed upon the debris that collected behind the building and along the river.

As he stood there, Finn surveyed the seats on the off chance that somewhere in that crowded auditorium he would find a single seat between two individuals he did not know.  Finn was quite sociable, even gregarious, but on that morning his hangover was particularly acute as it splayed tentacles of pain up the back of his head, over his scalp and down his forehead into his eyes.  Finn would have enjoyed “chatting up” some young attractive female, had not his typical morning disposition extinguished even the whiff of sensual desire.  Just then he noticed the perfect spot to plant himself and drift off to sleep. He took a step forward, but was arrested by a hand gripping his left arm.  “Been a long time, Finn.  How have you been?”  It was Dr. Jonathan Bell, his eyes fixed firmly on Finn’s face.               

Finn said, “Fine,” but before the sound of the word attenuated into silence, Bell embarked on a monologue of his assorted summer travels to exotic countries in tropical climates.  Finn knew it was too late, that he was trapped; he cursed himself for not moving faster to the seat.  What intensified his anguish was he knew Bell would share stories of the intimate encounters these travels freed him to indulge in.  To Finn, it seemed that Bell didn’t realize how much better it would be to keep secret behavior that would, if discovered, have gotten him jailed even in those exotic lands.  But Finn supposed that the compulsion that drove Bell to engage in this behavior also compelled him to tell someone about it.  Finn had a weakness for gambling and drinking, but unfortunately he also suffered from that execrable flaw of having too much kindness.  Regardless of what people told him and despite the extent of their immoral behavior, Finn would never criticize anyone, no matter how far that person strayed from morality or even common decency.  And naturally, people sought him when they needed to reveal what should have remained secret.

But suddenly something happened to save him from hearing Bell’s more troubling and sordid details.  Through a side door of the auditorium strolled a young man dressed in a khaki suit.  Though Finn did not notice him, his presence immediately captured Bell’s attention.  


Nabokov broke off her narrative at this point, and along with my young colleagues, I wanted her to continue the tale.  “Why are you stopping now?” I stammered.

“Because I have work to do and can’t spend all afternoon sitting here with you three.”  We must have appeared inconsolable, since she looked at all of us and then said, “Listen, we can continue tomorrow during lunch.  Besides, there is so much to tell that we will need several hours if I am to describe fully the best parts of Bell’s story.  With that she rose from her chair and walked away with incontestable pride and dignity.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Perception Precisely Reflected I

I thought I had extirpated the sadist in me long ago through prayer and meditation.  But that changed the day he joined the department.  Almost from the start, the sight of him made me desperate to grind my fists into his face.  He didn’t do or say anything to offend; he was polite and pleasant.  I guess it really began when I noticed the way he walked.  As he stepped, he seemed to saunter, and though each foot scuffed the floor with an imperious click, his shoes left no discernible mark anywhere they went.

I wondered why an otherwise innocuous man with a slightly particular gait would summon from me such detestation.  After all, I rarely felt one way or another about the people I worked with and made it a point to ignore all their traits and idiosyncrasies.  Finally, one day I mentioned to him that he scuffed his feet and perhaps he could place each foot squarely and silently on the floor as he walked.

 He looked confused, smiled and said, “He’d do his best to be quiet.” 

I knew he didn’t mean it, and I thought that there was no chance of finding the peace that I had enjoyed before he joined the department.  No matter what I said, no matter what I did, his manner of walking would remain as he planned it.  It was a movement that might draw contempt from anyone who heard it, but who knew enough to speak to him in a language that I knew should convince him?

One day, shortly after my appeal to his common decency, I unburdened myself to a reliable colleague.  I told her of my distress.  Sympathy consoles and composes better than any tranquilizer.  Her response exceeded my hopes. She told me that everything the man did deserved contempt, from the hair style he wore to the clothes he bagged his body in.  My relief was total, even though her disdain for people might be described as universally limitless.  I knew I found someone whose perception reflected reality precisely. 

When sunlight at last surrenders to darkness, I usually feel free from the irritations that each day ineluctably plots for me.  But that evening was different.  The contentment I had after my colleague quieted my resentment faded before the final squibs of daylight disappeared.  It seemed that my Poe-like confession and her Nabokovian affirmation concealed under our mutual amusement what was inescapably true as much as it was inescapable.  So again, the anger slowly began tightening the muscles in my jaw.

And then the phone rang.  It was a retired friend who had worked with me years ago.  Happy to hear his voice and delighted to be distracted from unpleasant ideas, I knew not to mention the "scuffer."  My friend didn’t know him or of him and I didn’t want to distress him with something so terrible.  I let him, as I always did, lead the conversation where he wanted to take it.  That was the direction it always followed anyway.  When our talk turned to politics, he proceeded to assail both political parties, the state government, the mayor of New York, the local town and village boards, and the school boards of education.  I disagreed with nothing he said, and enjoyed the rapid back and forth we exchanged.  At one point, I alluded to a college friend, who has endured the plight of being a middle-aged, white male, a status that has conferred upon him membership in a group that has suffered so many injustices.  

“How did he come to feel victimized?” My friend asked.

“Too many days spent idling in his police cruiser, listening to Limbaugh,” I responded.

He snorted, “That gelatinous drug addict?  Your friend must be an idiot!”

“No doubt.”

Our conversation then dipped into books, with him observing the emptiness, the uselessness of most contemporary writing.  

Too tired by that time to assent or dissent, I listened to him expound on the state of culture, the never-ending bigotry in the US, the plotting of the country’s military industrial complex and the rapacious greed of Wall Street.  Eventually, he tired too, or at least I think he did, and we finally ended our phone call.  Later, when my head rested on the pillow, I thought of what we had said, but even more about the way the conversation dashed from point to point, indifferent to eloquence or structure. How different it was from conscious style of my conversation with my Nabokovian friend when we dissected the character of our promenading work colleague that morning.  But sleep was loosening my consciousness, till I imagined another walker wearing each day a different hat atop his rather unusual and disturbing head. 

Driving to work the next morning I envisioned a day of mental torpor, since the firm’s management had scheduled professional training sessions in which experts would teach us novel techniques to perfect our profession.  Though we always grumbled that these sessions provided nothing novel beyond new terms decorating old ideas, our supervisors delighted in discovering colorfully designed innovations they knew would transform the methods we had been using successfully in our fields forever. I knew the day would drag, disfigured by every speech, lecture, and power point presentation they would make us suffer through.  But what I resented most was the money wasted on these visiting mountebanks.  I once suggested dropping these sessions and using that money to buy edible food to replace the processed gruel dished out in the staff dining room.  I believe the regional administrators read my memo with care, though I never received a response of any kind.

To my surprise, the first session slipped quickly by. I remember the presenter was a skittish, young woman who shrieked whenever she tried to talk above the incessant chatter that mixed with the humidity in the airless auditorium the building’s brilliant architects forgot to supply with air-conditioning.  While I sat there, perspiration beaded then dripped down the back of my neck, and my eyes closed every few minutes.  The heat together with her cant made me drowsy and the drone of chatter would have sealed my sleep, had not her periodic screeching shaken me out of my slumber.

The session ended shortly before noon, and I headed back to my department’s office.  Once there, I poured a cup of coffee, collected a sandwich I had prepared the night before and made my way to the small, open area that occupied the center of the office.  As was my custom, I ate lunch at a table joined by three or four colleagues.  These lunches gave us a chance to talk over important issues and ideas.  Among the four colleagues sitting at the table was the “reliable Nabokovian.”  The conversation had begun before I sat down, and the subject was the “skittish” presenter from that morning’s training secession.  Through the rest of the week I would hear an assortment of comments that followed the tenor of those whispered during that lunch: 

“Insipid”; “Moronic”; “Cretinous”; “Dried dung heap.” 

The litany might have continued all through lunch had not Dr. Jonathan Bell bustled into the office carrying a brown paper bag in one hand and his coffee mug in the other.  The moment he entered, the conversation broke off and everyone at the table stared in his direction. 

“Good morning,” He sang out in his terribly adenoidal voice. 

One or two of us grumbled, “Good morning.”

“May I heat my lunch in your microwave?  Ours is broken.”  He held the lunch bag aloft like a ritualistic censer, and the clothes he wore clearly projected the impression he desired to convey that here was a man of transcendent importance and power.  Someone utter approval and he went into a small, back galley kitchenette that contained a refrigerator, a coffee pot and a microwave oven.  Though we could not see him, we could hear him tapping the temperature level and time sequence for his food.  

No one had uttered another syllable; but what we were all thinking was plainly discernible on our faces.  Ten years ago, Bell had been ascendant in the company hierarchy.  It seemed only a matter of time before he rose to president, an idea that troubled many of the experienced employees.  But then he met his nemesis, and his descent had been far swifter than his rise.

Only the Nabokovian and I knew the details of his tumultuous collapse and the how much its reverberations shook the firm.  The three young colleagues eating with us knew little of Bell, besides the obvious psychological debacle his daily attire suggested.  While we were silenced by his looming presence, an image of a man striding aggressively down a corridor, on his head a tight fitting knit cap, broke across my mind.  I had thought I had managed to banish to the deepest caverns of memory that image, but here again it surfaced.  Just then an odor of fermented putrescence pervaded our space, and one of the younger colleagues yelped, “Jesus Christ!  What the hell is that?”

Simultaneously smote by an infernal stench, we all sprang to our feet, and hurried to the door.  None of us stopped moving till we reached the main building exit and zipped through those doors desperate to breathe again.  Once outside, we gasped, cough, and choked away the stench that had infected our nostrils.  After a minute, Nabokov screamed, “What the hell is the matter with that man?”  We all knew what she meant.  Two or three times in the past Dr. Jonathan Bell had managed to evacuate his own department by exposing them to his carrion cuisine.  Our three young colleagues had heard about these incidents, but this was their first exposure. Seeing their disbelief and fear, Nabokov said she would tell them all about this man, once the air in our office became safe for us to return.

Monday, May 16, 2016

When the Wrong are Still Wrong

Ross Douthat’s “When the Wrong Are Right,” (Sunday Review, New York Times, 2016/05/16 considers how liberals, by focussing solely on the racist or xenophobic motives a Trump’s supporters, have ignored the possibility that his supporters nevertheless have legitimate grievances against many of the policies Washington has implemented over the past three decades.  Douthat does not deny that Donald Trump’s victory in the G. O. P. is in part a driven by the anger of “white-identity politics,” and by racially motivated people. 

In fact, he readily concedes that a considerable number of Trump supporters are bigots, “nativists” and “xenophobes.” But he warns liberals that if they fail to understand the anger and anxiety of Trump’s supporters they will not recognize that despite indecent, vulgar and hateful motives these supporters have suffered as a result of politicians who in the past ignored the layers of truth buried beneath their bigotry.  He cites examples of when bigots were accurate in their criticisms of bad or weak policies regarding crime or trade agreements.  His examples include the “appeal to racists” of the “Willie Horton” campaign ads, “Pat Buchanan’s nativist brigades,” and the European far right’s clamor over the “Mass immigration now destabilizing Europe’s liberal order.”  He also claims that the debate over transgender rights is a “forward-looking example” of bigots who may not be wrong in their reaction against the regulatory actions of the Obama administration insisting that transgendered individuals be permitted to use the bathroom of their choice.   

Of course, it is true in that the bigots get some facts correct regarding the issues that unsettle them.  And it  certainly can be argued that the left and the right’s approach to issues such as crime, trade policies, and immigration has inspired little confidence.  However, like so many (on both the right and the left), his argument slips into the faulty perception that one’s opponent is trapped within a furrow of single-mindedness.  Of course, Trump’s thinly veiled appeal to racists and xenophobes stirs decent minded people to rally against him.  But those who object to Trump do not do so solely because his racist demagoguery.  His relentless vulgarity, his ridiculous policy ideas, his endless revisions of what he has said or proposed to do are enough to unify Paul Krugman, David Brooks, William Kristol, Katrina vanden Heuvel and George Will.  Whoever imagined that such an assortment of pundits could agree so strongly on one issue?  Could it be that they see and remember all too clearly the dangers posed by the racists and xenophobes who blighted much of the previous century?  

 See Douthat’s essay: