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The Hemingway Resource Center Short Story Contest> Winning Entries>Less Far To Fall by Mark Falkin (Spring 2001)


Less Far To Fall


Mark Falkin


“You’re not going to believe this, but—” and then he proceeded in an oblique way, while shifting in jagged thrusts the ice and wilted lemon wedge in his iced tea with the straw he’d been chewing on because he was on a diet for the fourth time this year, while the underground mall hummed with the echoes of clicking heels and yesterday’s newspapers being flipped and folded and Musak and the mutterings of businessmen in gray or navy suits with perfect haircuts, haircuts that made you jealous, with equally perfect ties, who chewed their bite of lite-plate or taco salad looking like a cow chewing its cud, jaw moving almost in a slow circle, who wore looks of supercilious ambivalence at the moment when somehow your eye caught theirs, because they knew you were only temporary, that you weren’t a permanent fixture (you weren’t wearing a tie; you wore beige Dockers with coffee stains near the crotch noticeable only to you, and an oxford, the sleeves rolled up one turn and you glistened with sweat), so they looked at you almost like you were a ghost, another apparition among many here where all was lunch noise and smelling of exhaled smoke sucked in the by the somnolent revolving doors where the pale-faced smokers with too many useful items stuffed into their shirt pockets so that they sagged in front of their nicotine-beating hearts droned in and out, some wearing wan smiles, where  sun seeped through so bright that it almost hurt to look over at it, a hissing, dragging, turning door, repelling and ushering in and replacing cool processed HVAC air with hot fresh air, a turning circular door that lead to the world above (there were stairs that got brighter as your eyes climbed them) where lunches were eaten by permanent people, where tomorrow existed, while surveying the food court and trying to make eye contact with the DSL’s, shifting his gold-rimmed glasses square on his nose with his ring finger (exhibiting a brassy corded wedding band) because the sweat from the Szechwan sitting in a splayed Styrofoam box made them slip, to tell me that tomorrow is fiction, tomorrow is a dream, tomorrow doesn’t exist.

But I didn’t get it. Ric was always laying his heavy shit like that on you.

“Aren’t you married?”

“But I’ve got to have her. Ohhh—” Ric said. That was ‘Rick’ with just a ‘c’ as he’d introduced himself. Ric, who we would call ‘R-I-C-Ric’ for the rest of our time together, which was just long enough to retain memory of even the most bland of experiences.  Ric pontificated as a bird chirps and sings in the beginning of spring. His platitudes aside, I was concerned that he was going to actually get the attention of one of the women from the word processing pool who owned the DSL’s (a lovely R-I-C acronym for Dick Sucking Lips) and that she or they would come over in a flourish of flower-based stinging perfume and hairspray and sit next to me and my Ultimate Potato. It oozed industrial butter-product over and on to the tin foil, a fun little school project volcano, making it shiny, glinting in the light thrown this way in streaks by the revolving door, drawing attention to the fact that I had it piled high with enough pork and dairy products to fell a Clydesdale by just sniffing it. It dwarfed my Spork lying perfectly perpendicular and innocuous next to it on the pumpkin colored plastic tray.  My potato embarrassed me. Imagine what would happen if a DSL came over and tried to make mall lunch conversation that would no doubt soon hint at happy hour at a downtown saloon containing so much smoke that it would appear to have no ceiling, just a neon thunderhead cloud, a DSL sounding like what I imagined a whore sounded like when I first learned what a whore was from my older brother Tony: like Betty Boop: all tits, hips, lashes, and trilled voice. One of these women Ric stared down did come close to our table. She was alone and wore a purple pantsuit. Between the long red fingernails of her right hand she held out in front of her a Styrofoam box not unlike the one housing Ric’s sweat-inducing Szechwan. A second ago she was walking towards the main lobby where the elevators were, heading for yet another working lunch in one of the ant farms above ground. I imagined the elevators were like Willy Wonka’s; you could go sideways or diagonal to your destination from this central locale, like shooting through wormholes in space. She rubbed her lips together as she walked, spreading evenly the lipstick she applied while standing to pick up her order. Even I, not wanting to talk to strange women in this unlikeliest of pick-up venues, looked at her as she approached. I had to. Her clicking heels grated through my head. I had to see what it was that made that awful sound before I could continue with my life.  I say it was an awful sound, but really, it was a mating call. Great acoustics down here in which to execute a mating call. Once the head looks up, which it must, the purple hits you. Then the nails catching the light off the revolving door. Then the lips working over each other. Lunch, and what was contained in the Styrofoam box she held out in front of her like a new mother holds out her first dirty diaper as she heads for the trash can, was the last thing on her mind. I could see Ric mouthing ‘DSL’ out of the corner of my eye. My eyes caught hers for a second, but my glance was thrown back at me like a fisherman throws back an unwanted fish. Her neck craned all about as guys looked up from tofu to see what was making that noise, to see who was in heat today. She never got Ric’s vibe I guess. She just kept walking towards the tunnel that led to the escalators. To get to them, she would pass down a faux marble corridor with pictures of the city’s skyline at night, the way downtown looked in the late 1850’s, another in 1910, another during the war.

Ric and I sat in relative silence for a few minutes. He mostly watched me eat my potato. I was starving and shed any inhibitions I may have had about it.  He stabbed his ice some more, ignored his Szechwan. Even at noon, his pores still emitted a sweet boozy sweat. The smell reminded me of my father coming home and giving me hugs that I always thought, even as a child and glad to see my daddy, were a little too enthusiastic. Ric had blue crescents under his eyes. I looked up at him and he smiled. The crescents spread thin and accented his eyes making him look jolly rather than exhausted. He was just another middle-aged guy I would work with this long itinerant year whose name I would forget as soon as the project was over. For now, he was a friend, a work companion, a colleague I guess you could say, although “colleague” may overstate things considering all we do is shoot rubber bands at each other in a benign attempt to hit someone in the eye while scanning documents all day. Over and over. Robot work. Monkey work.

When we were finished with lunch, I having eaten the potato and meat shavings down to the skin, so far that the brown shown through, Ric downed what was left of his tortured ice in a big glutinous gulp. It was the same technique I figured he used at his infamous happy hours he was always talking about. Even though it was only watered down iced tea ice, he drank it down like he was on a dare to out-drink someone in a flaming Dr. Pepper contest. He winced a little after he swallowed, eyes closed. I figured it was from the cold, but I also thought maybe it was habit.

Where we are: employment figures are at an all-time high. These numbers included temps. But temps don’t count. We went back up to our lair. Rows and rows of banker’s boxes eight feet high. The office suite in which we worked, a floor below the rest of the law firm, had four rooms full of boxes full of documents. Each box had Bates numbers on the side indicating the document range enclosed. A lawsuit. Two 900 pound behemoth companies going after each other with claims and counter claims involving fraud and breach of something called fiduciary duty. Six of us, a revolving six, never the same group two days in a row, never knew exactly what the case was about, not even in laymen’s terms. Not even Sal, the lawyer from another state who can’t seem to pass this state’s bar exam, knows what it’s about. He cheats on his wife. He has diabetic seizures sometimes when we work late, and the firm buys dinner for us so that we work overtime.

At a Diet Dr. Pepper break, Sal read part of a newspaper story about how the economy was starting to turn. Big people falling hard from high places. “Those guys have along way to fall,” commented Ric. “They got their IPO money and built those gaudy-ass houses you see in the gentrified off-downtown areas, completely ruining the neighborhood in my opinion, and now it’s all gone.  Poof. Me? All I got to do is take a seat when things get rough. No vicious plummets off buildings necessary.”

Temporaries let it spill. The work is monotonous and you’ll never see these people again, so we dump it out. I got the feeling that none of these things my co-workers said would be aired in their other lives. Between pulling files and checking for buzzwords in this labyrinth of documents, we are all our own analysts.

          We’re at the margins here. These people, I am. Temporary.

By definition, we are in the margins. We don’t flow with the rest of the crowd. We don’t fit into a class. You hear the term marginalized, but when you work as a temporary, you understand what that means. There is a caste system in this country. Temporaries are its untouchables: There’s Dorothy. “God is not rational. And if he is, then I don’t want to be here.” Dorothy says she has done bad things. She says she wants to sue. She asked her church to return the money she donated in the silver tray. The church said it would if she went back to the husband who beats her. She is well read but she’s obviously schizophrenic. She cusses at strange times. She laughs out loud at nothing. Mutters to herself. She says she’s writing a book on domestic violence and karate. She saw her mother try to kill her father with a butcher knife. There’s Richard. A sour old man who curses under his breath. He moved here from California. That’s all I know of him. He lasted only two days. You arrive the next day, and a member is missing and there’s this new face.  Alfonso is an older man, a Sicilian émigré. He is totally confused by American culture. His accent is from a movie. I was convinced for the longest time that he was faking it. He says he saw Americansa landa ona Sicily ina the war. He saw womena raped by Americana soldiersa. He saw Generala Pattona.

Listening to these temporary mutterings, I sat in my usual corner by the window, sun on my face. Glancing up from my stack of meaningless documents, I can see the whole city from here. From twenty-five stories up I can hear the self-appointed Town Crier on the corner pronounce in muffled hysteria to an equivocal bus stop crowd “We live in a Christian nation! Wake up America!  This is a Christian nation!” This he repeated all afternoon, a madman eventually making sense by repetition. Hearing him repeat this, I thought about my drive home yesterday. I pulled up to a stop. Radio going mid-blast with 80’s Hair Band. To my immediate left, startling me with his closeness to my open window, stood a panhandler. I determined through the dirt and the street on his face that he was about my age. He looked me square in the eye, and I him. He saw what I saw: me if this temp assignment ended right now without immediate reassignment: that we could be the same person. I wondered then if looked upon a ghost of the future. A long, loud, exasperated honk from a SUV behind me. The stoplight had gone through a whole cycle. The fleshy ghost said, with the long honk as background music, with an unexpected angelic tenderness tempered with thick irony, “Isn’t it a great life?”           

          At the bar downstairs at 5:05 p.m., Ric ordered a Sidecar. I ordered a Harvey Wallbanger. Retro drink for the new millennium. We waited for our co-temp Charlie, the picture-happy Vietnam vet. We did not talk. I was numb to the limbo of my life, finding conversation pointless. Would I forget all about this experience? And what was this experience? We stood at the bar as Barry Manilow performed Copa Cabana in what sounded like an attached ballroom. I was dreaming. Was this song really playing here, right now, while the neon tempest above the pool table in the back was making its way towards us? Was I really waiting for somebody I’ve only known for sixteen working hours, standing next to this R-I-C-Ric while holding a Harvey Wallbanger? Had my life fallen, or rather slipped sideways, underneath my own radar, to this point? Which was? We waited for Charlie to show up with his camera around his neck and, no doubt, a fresh roll of film. Ric downed his drink like he did all his drinks and winced. It was habit. He then picked up in mid conversation where he left off at lunch as we were so rudely interrupted by the purple man-eater with the Styrofoam box. He talked and I listened, again, to this running monologue that must play like a constant tape in his head about how tomorrow doesn’t really exist. I smiled, getting a little tight now. Here came Charlie with his camera around his neck, lens cap dangling off, smiling up a storm, cell phone to his head, jawing. In the other ear, Ric, pressing play again about how tomorrow was fiction. Charlie got off the phone just as he arrived at the bar where we stood and as Barry Manilow reached the the Copa! we fell in love...(something about tomorrow being a dream), and told us the job was over. The case had settled. I looked at Ric. We gave each other a look that said we both knew we’d never see each other again but that it didn’t matter. He laughed and pointed at Charlie’s face, but looked at me, and said “— which is what I started to say in the first place.”



The End


 © 2001, Mark Falkin



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