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.”
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.