by Martha Clarkson
I’m sitting in a swivel seated task chair with no wheels, waiting to discuss my transfer (and promotion) to Category 5 Light Investigations. I believe the chair is circa 1960. It is September, and the leaves outside are oranging. It is my season of conflict – the beauty of the colors, the inevitable gloomy harbinger of winter.
“What did you do all summer?” my boss asks. He runs his life by the school system, behaving like a fall teacher, even though I’ve been working all summer. He never starts a conversation with the meeting’s reason.
“Umm, well, I drove with the windows down,” I say, straightening my posture, “to lash out at the hermetically sealed world we live in.” I sidelong glance the inoperable windows of our office.
“Well, surely you must’ve done something more than that,” he says, slightly accusatory in tone. “I mean, where did you go in the car with those windows down, you know, on vacation, or to a swimming hole?”
“I don’t know how to swim,” I say, a fact I’m not proud of but too afraid to change.
He looks over my left shoulder, his gaze vacant. “My family, we love Kauai.”
“How was it?” I say. For four weeks I’d worked down in Records, in the window-free basement, so maybe then he’d gone, though I still got emails from him during that time.
“We didn’t go. We just like it.”
“About my transfer upstairs,” I say. “Is the paperwork done?” I’d been made email promises by this man, my boss, and his boss, a man I’d never met, who worked in the Annex. He had a white goatee, I’d seen in a newsletter several months ago, and an expression you might have when you were ice fishing without the proper jacket.
“The temperature is always the same, and the snorkeling–I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“I’m talking, um, about, you know, the transfer you promised.”
He looks right at me, with a question mark face, like I’m new to him. “Promise is a big word, young lady.” I am only two years his junior. “But I’ll see what I can do. Just as soon as we log the Jensen files.”
I fidget with imaginary lint on my plaid skirt. Maybe my outfit is too school-girlish to get what I want. I’ve been wrong about outfits before. “The Jensen files are huge, they’ll take months. We already talked about Benji doing them.”
“An archive’s an archive,” he said, which was his usual mantra. The people who’d left the department–in droves, some said–called him “Teflon,” because nothing stuck.
“Did you know coconuts float?” he said, gazing back over my shoulder as if summoning a welcome interruption.
I felt the welling behind my eyes, the thing I always tried to keep down, in the office or in movies like E.T. The air-conditioning was cold on my open knees, above the socks. “I guess it’s time to go, maybe we can meet another time,” I said, standing and not waiting for an answer, but looking forward to seeing the comforting face of Ruthann on my way out, his old dog secretary, with her reassuring bowl of black licorice nibs.
“Don’t forget the Jensen files need spiral bindings,” he said to my back.
I pretended to be fine when Ruthann blanketed me with kind remarks, and I ate a nib. Two others stuck to it and dropped off before they reached my mouth, and I left them on the carpet. In the bathroom, down the skinny hall in the old section of the building, where they’d run out of budget to modernize, I spit out the small nub of tough licorice into the corner, where the tile was loose. I climbed up on one of the old pedestal sinks, realizing it might pull off the wall under my weight. I reached for the latch of the wire-glass window, and flipped it up, pushing the pane out with a palm. A snap of chilled fall air awakened my face from a space just big enough to crawl through. The fresh air felt like freedom.
Martha Clarkson manages corporate workplace design in Seattle. Her poetry, photography, and fiction can be found in Monkeybicycle, Clackamas Literary Review, Seattle Review, Alimentum, and Elimae. She is a recipient of a Washington State Poets William Stafford prize 2005, a Pushcart Nomination, and is listed under “Notable Stories,” Best American Non-Required Reading for 2007 and 2009. She is recipient of best short story, 2012, Anderbo/Open City prize, for “Her Voices, Her Room.” More information is available at www.marthaclarkson.com.