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!”
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.