MAY 2007 – NO. 15
Be Your Animal
The first short story selected by Guest Fiction Editor Michelle Wildgen
Things she could talk about on the road: the new inter-office email system, the blizzard that had hit New York City that very morning.
No. Forget the email, Karen thought. That one would be over before it started. And what was there to say about snow other than that it was messy or pretty, or that she wondered if it would delay their flight home? She had to think of something good. In a pinch, she could ask about his son; people like him loved to talk about their kids.
She exhaled, then opened the passenger side door and stepped into the white convertible.
"Thanks for asking me to come," she said, buckling her seatbelt.
"My pleasure," answered Miles. Miles was her boss.
The entire department had been flown from New York to attend the teambuilding conference, held in a hotel just outside of Miami. Each night that week Miles had taken different employees out for one-on-one meals in proper restaurants away from the hotel, and she had envied those he had favored enough to ask. Tonight's invitation had been a surprise; it was finally her turn. David Bower is the one who told her. The crown-prince has summoned you.
Karen had been a company floater when Miles hired her as his permanent assistant after just one day of try-out. Before she started working for him, she had crowned herself the queen of bad employees. She'd ordered fancy lunches and charged them to randomly picked project numbers; she'd added fraudulent overtime to her timesheet nearly every week. She'd stolen a hundred-package box of Cup-a-Soup from the office pantry, ordered another box, and then did it again. She loved being bad. She thought it was hilarious that her resume said proficient with Microsoft Access and Microsoft Excel when she didn't know how to use them at all.
Nobody knew or nobody cared; she wasn't sure which.
Now, for the first time in her life, Karen wanted to be good. As soon as she got hired on, she forced herself to stay late for three days in a row — past the time the cleaning ladies emptied the trash — and sat through all of the Microsoft Office tutorials. I can tell you've got skills, Miles had said at the end of her first week of work, but more important is that you're smart, which is rarer than you'd think. She'd replayed the compliment in her mind in Florida, when several people in the department asked her where she'd gone to college.
"I hope you didn't tell anyone we were going," said Miles. "I don't want people to be jealous of our feast while they're eating dry prime rib and canned peas."
Miles was dressed in chinos and a white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to show his forearms, which were thick and covered in light brown hair. He reminded her of a slightly paunchy but still dreamy lifeguard. He was a big man with a perfect handshake, wavy, gray-brown hair, and large but crooked teeth that were so whitely self-assured that they made straight teeth seem like a biological error.
Miles never flirted. Not with her or with anyone. He was a good person, truly. The only one she thought she'd ever met. It was only after working for him that she realized she'd hated every boss she'd had before, and only flirted with them because she also pitied them. Even the drinks she had after work with them, even their fingers she let touch her earlobe — all of it was pity. Until now, pity was part of every job she'd ever had.
"Where are we going? Miami?" She glanced at the digital car clock. It was just past six o'clock and the sun was still hot and yellow. The air around them hung heavy and wet, slightly sweet. Palm trees were planted in regal pairs around the perimeter of the parking lot, but all of them looked diseased to her, like the dried-out fronds given out at church on Palm Sunday.
"I thought we'd go north a little ways," he said. "I know of a Cuban place that's supposed to be very authentic."
"Spicy!" she said, hoping to sound enthusiastic.
Miles didn't acknowledge her, and for a moment her face went hot.
He pressed a button and the car's vinyl top rolled back and away.
"Are you having a good time this week?" He grinned benevolently.
"Yes," she said. "This is great!" She felt like she had back in high school when, once a year or so, the principal would place his big hand on her shoulder for a second and ask how her classes were going. And even though she was always on the verge of failing, she would look at his moustache and say really good.
Only now she wasn't lying quite so completely.
"This place is such a dump," Miles chuckled.
She laughed back, carefully, so as not to imply she didn't appreciate being there. She did. But it was a dump, and she was glad to leave the hotel behind, if only for a few hours. Everything about it was off in some way. She had hoped it would be close to the beach, but it was a dozen miles inland. The carpeted hallways smelled like a mild but chronic illness. A single, hostile maid — with glittering, fierce eyes, and tribal x-marks carved into her brown cheeks — skulked around the corridors.
Miles pulled out of the parking lot and turned on the radio — a crackling, old-fashioned country music station that he turned up, in a gesture that seemed to her to be a joke. She hoped he would keep the music on.
"I've always thought that lobsters got a bad rap." He looked at her sideways, his hair flopping over his close-set eyes. "They shouldn't have to sweep the ocean floor. They're too delicate. And great with a squeeze of fresh lemon."
Miles was teasing her, which made her feel more at ease. During that morning's exercise, the facilitator made everyone line up and pick an animal. The first thing that pops into your head, he'd said. When it was Karen's turn, she said lobster.
The facilitator had lined them up in size order, and she, the lobster, was the smallest, after elephant, rhinoceros, tiger, horse, bear, lion, hawk. Miles said wolf. The facilitator stood with his hands on his hips. Now, you are your animal. Be your animal. Everyone except Karen began giggling, posturing, growling, neighing. How about you, lobster? The facilitator smirked. What do you say?
Um…nothing, she said, looking at the clock, cupping her hands into claws. Lobsters are pretty quiet. The facilitator took a thoughtful grab at his beard. Let's see…they hide under rocks, they…wait, I've got it, he said, a smile of satisfaction on his mouth. He handed her a toy broom. Lobsters clean the bottom of the ocean.
Now, she turned to Miles and smiled. "I've never actually eaten lobster," she said. This was a lie. She didn't know why she said it. She'd had lobster several times, but never understood what the fuss was about. A lot of fanfare for bland softness dipped in warm butter.
"Are you kidding? Never? That has to change. You'll try one tonight."
"Where? At that Cuban place?"
"No, no. Not there. Change of plans." He veered off to the right, taking the next exit. "It's a crab shanty I went to one time back in college. It has this thatched roof and the tables are sitting out on the sand." The convertible U-turned south on the highway back toward Miami.
"Do you think it'll still be there?"
"I'd bet on it. It's sort of an institution."
For a long way, the view didn't change. The road was flanked by resorts and gated retirement villas, the same fast food restaurants done up in spotless stucco, with skinny Italian pines planted at the doorways.
"How far is this place?" she said, brightly.
"It's on Islamorada, one of the first few Keys. We'll be back by nine-thirty or so."
"The Keys? I've never been there." This was true.
"Perfect," Miles turned to her, nodded. "Something new."
And then he faced front, his hands resting on the wheel. They sat side by side, watching as the sky of the southernmost part of the state came toward them. Karen slipped off her sandals and pushed them forward with her bare feet. She relaxed into the seat, the leather conforming to the backs of her legs.
Soon the buildings began to disappear, leaving the land to auto body shops, fruit stands, then nothingness. Tall, damp grasses grew with abandon on the sides of the road. Tires, viciously road-torn and abandoned, littered the asphalt like snake skins.
A boiled peanut truck, parked on the grassy shoulder, was closing up shop. As they drove past it, the man in the truck caught her eye, nodded and saluted at her; it seemed to her that he'd done this in slow motion. She turned her head, hoping Miles hadn't noticed.
The man disappeared behind them now. Karen had found that when she looked around, some man was often looking her way, and if their eyes met, and he didn't look away, she felt pleasingly obligated. Yes. Yes to whatever. If she said no, she would feel bad for them. Karen didn't want to do this anymore. She hoped that the snowstorm would delay their flight home the next day, or cancel it completely. She was supposed to go to Jimmy's Tavern with her friend Melanie. It used to be their biweekly Saturday tradition, one Karen started, but she had cancelled the past few weeks. Every other week they'd get dressed together, put on their makeup together, get to Jimmy's early, buy their first rum and Coke or Jack Daniels and ginger ale, and wait. Drink after drink after drink were bought for them, and when it was closing time, and they had lost track of each other, after the bartender wiped down the taps, some guy took Karen by the hand and led her outside and down the back street or into a car or to his place. And there in the dark, he would touch her under her clothes with fingers still cold from being wrapped around a glass.
Melanie was pissed at her these days. She said they never did anything anymore. A snowstorm would be an excellent excuse.
"In just a few seconds, you're going to be officially off the continent." Miles raised his eyebrows. "We'll be driving down a string of islands. I can't remember what that's called."
An archipelago, she thought, and then said aloud. The word came out of her mouth like a gift; she hadn't known that she knew it until she said it.
"Yes. Clever girl," said Miles.
She caught her reflection in the mirror; she was beaming.
His hand pulled at his shirt collar, letting air in. "It's almost scary, when you think of it. To drive over the ocean. So much of the world is water, but we can't survive in it. It's almost as if we're not quite really supposed to be here. Do you know what I mean?"
She couldn't fully understand what he meant; she was too worried about how to respond without sounding as if she didn't.
"You mean we should be in a boat? Instead?" She bit her lip, hoping she'd said the right thing.
"I don't know if that's it. More like…more like all that water would kill us, if it could. Only we've mostly figured out how to stay out of its way. Make sense?"
She nodded, but was worried that she had disappointed Miles, until he looked over and grinned.
"Don't mind me. I'm probably just weird." He shrugged. He looked at her and opened his mouth, as though he were about to say something important and official, but he closed it again. Karen remembered, suddenly, a DHL package that was supposed to go out last Friday. She remembered filling out the form, but didn't remember the pick up. She worried that she had left it in the drawer instead of leaving it out for pickup, and wondered if Miles had gotten a call from his overseas client that he hadn't gotten it and that Karen had wrecked the whole deal. She would be fired. And maybe not just by Miles. Maybe Fable, Gloss & Jacobs would can her altogether, and he was taking her for a meal to tell her.
No! Because she did remember to send it. She could see it now, the slim DHL package, sitting on the receptionist's desk, which was the right place for the evening pickup.
"You're doing a good job," said Miles. "I just told HR that I am pleasantly surprised. The last two assistants I've had were out to lunch, so to speak." He turned to look at her. "So keep it up." He reached over and turned off the radio and then leaned back, whistling to himself.
She took this as a sign that he wanted to stop talking for a little while, to take in the world outside of the car. She didn't mind. It was beautiful and warm, and everything she saw was something she'd never seen before.
Off in the distance, she noticed a tall white water tower, which made her think of the water tower at the top of her apartment building. She often imagined herself swimming in it; she held such a clear image in her mind that it seemed to her she really had. It would be dark, except for the slightest hint of sunlight in a ring around the very top. Her breath would sound loud and wet. She imagined that something might be swimming in the obscurity beneath the surface — a small whale, not yet aware of her.
The sun had disappeared under a thin cloud cover, but the sky still held a dull light. She was aware of her hair flying behind her. She leaned back, and opened her mouth, taking the damp air into her lungs. She wondered if the people in the few cars passing by thought that she and Miles were husband and wife.
A few months ago, at a street fair in her neighborhood, a fat-nosed old man with a white flower in his lapel had pulled her into his arms and taught her to foxtrot, right on the sidewalk in front of the bandstand. He danced sedately but gracefully. He felt fragile and solid to her, smelling of not-quite-clean bedding, of the cotton candy and the fried peppers of the street. As the song came to an end, he danced her over to the other side of the street, where an old woman stood waiting, leaning against a steel walker. You done with him? the woman shouted to Karen over the noise. This poor old fool loves to dance. And shame on you, she laughed, turning to the man. I'm sure this nice girl has a husband of her own. She doesn't need two. Isn't that right, honey?
Now Karen looked at Miles, wondering what it would be like to be married to him, to wait for him to come home each night, or to watch him from the kitchen window as he mowed the lawn. To have children with him. She imagined it would be a quiet life, but happy and good in a way she felt she couldn't quite imagine. His wife's name was either Virginia or Victoria; Karen would have to get that straight. She felt slightly uncomfortable when she saw her picture on his desk: shiny black hair, a content set to her mouth, clear brown eyes that, to her, said I always try to do the right thing.
"So Karen…what is it you really want," Miles said, without turning to look at her. "Out of all of this? Out of work."
"You mean…what do you mean?"
There were now only a few cars on the road, which was flanked by painted wooden signs, advertisements for motels, she-crab soup, conch chowder, gasoline, slush puppies.
"After this job," he gestured, with one hand, toward the lavender sky. "Think in terms of where you want to ultimately end up."
"I don't know."
"Sure you do. At least in the back of your mind. When you're done with being an assistant, and you're doing your own thing, where do you see yourself? Close your eyes. Just try to picture it."
They passed a car, maybe a station wagon, burnt out and sitting on the shoulder on the other side of the road.
"I don't know," she said, "yet."
"No. You do. Maybe not for sure, but you do know. In some capacity, you do."
"I guess I might start a business someday," she said. It came out of her mouth sounding so natural that she wondered where it came from. And then she realized it: a tiny new café had opened on her block, with red brick walls, a marble counter, two miniscule tables. A single woman ran it alone, arranging the plates of brownies and molasses cookies, filling the cups with steaming liquid, manning the cash register, taking her time doing it all. It seemed peaceful. She would like to stand at her own counter, too, arrange things, be in charge of herself, make small things happen throughout the day.
"A little one," she added.
"Well," said Miles. "That's a good plan. I bet you'd have some good ideas for it, too."
She turned her face away from him and smiled, and for a moment saw the future. She didn't recognize herself.
"Hopefully not any time soon, though," he added. "You need to save up your money. Save whatever you can. That's the way you'll find the freedom to do what you want."
And they were quiet again. He was right, she knew, but it made her feel bad to think about it. Buying lots of shoes was something she wasn't finished with yet.
Soft, tiny drops of rain began to fall, warm and pleasant. She looked at Miles to see if he wanted to put the top up, but he gave no indication that he even noticed it. He seemed far away now, as if he were thinking about something else entirely, something that required quiet and concentration. She wondered what it was.
The road was now nothing but a bridge, with slate-blue water flanking both sides. Miles pointed to the horizon; the sun was quickly disappearing.
"If you look closely at the water," he said, his voice seeming loud and sudden, "you can see right down to the reef. Quick, though. Before we're back on land."
"Wow," she said, but she hadn't turned around in time; she hadn't seen it.
And then, the road was over land again — another island.
Quickly, the sky had darkened to a velvet navy blue. This was Islamorada, but Miles seemed to be looking only straight ahead of him, and not at the signs displaying the restaurant names.
"Could that be it?" she said. "Lorelei's Cabana Bar?"
He said nothing back; she wasn't sure if he'd heard her.
She could already see the lights of the next island in the distance.
Just after the road hit land again, Miles placed his hand on her forearm for a moment, wrapped his fingers lightly around it. "Look at that," he whispered, slowing the car. "Wow." The white backside of a deer bounded away, soundlessly. He pulled his hand away, slowly; his heavy, cold fingertips lingered over her skin. It was a familiar kind of touch. She never knew how to respond; there was always a chance it was innocent.
"Are we still going to get dinner?" she said. "I think we're off Islamorada now."
"Oh. Sorry. I spaced out." He shook his head apologetically, slapped himself gently on the forehead. "It was probably ten or fifteen minutes back."
"I'm not really all that hungry," she said. "I won't care if we just head back." Unconsciously, she rubbed her forearm, warming the skin where his fingers had been.
"Nonsense. You're going to get your lobster. Let me just find a place to turn around." He slowed down, scanning the road ahead for a place to turn off. "Hey," he turned to her, "let's take a look at the beach first."
Karen noticed that the wind and humidity had taken the waves out of Miles' thick hair, made it seem to move, flame-like, up and away from his head.
"Sure," she said, quietly, and pulled up her dress strap, which had fallen off her shoulder. She felt her heart pounding in her ears. It wasn't a normal thing — she suddenly knew — for a male boss to bring a female employee, alone, to a dark beach. The smile on his face seemed content, calm, still boss-like, but the way the moon reflected in the glint of his teeth unnerved her. She turned away.
She didn't look at him until she thought she felt the weight of his right arm stretched across the back of her seat. When she looked, though, she saw both of his hands resting innocently on the steering wheel.
"Back in college I slept on the beach a few times. In the morning, when I woke up, it always took me a moment to remember where I was." He smiled to himself. "Have you ever been to the ocean at night?"
"No," she said, and wondered if she was being silly. Come on, she told herself, who wouldn't want to stop for a closer look, with the ocean so close. And if she weren't with him, he'd probably go ahead and look at it alone.
He turned off the road and followed a dirt trail. "I'll bet it's spectacular."
Gravel and sand spun under the wheels. Tree branches reached into the car, brushing the side of her face. Several hundred feet down, he found a clearing and parked. He turned the car off; the lights of the dashboard disappeared.
Miles stepped out of the car and closed his door, leaving the keys in the ignition. As he walked away in the direction of the trees, Karen reached over and took the keys, hooking her forefinger through the key ring. Then she got out of the convertible and followed a few steps behind him. The trees were thick above their heads, obscuring the sky. She could hear Miles breathing, stepping on branches, could hear the waves. She'd never seen such darkness; when she looked back, she could barely make out the car.
Her heart began to pound. After just a few dozen steps, her body felt as weak and slow as it did in her dreams when she was being chased. She knew she could have said no — could have pretended that she had a stomach ache, a sore ankle — but really, she felt as though she'd already said yes, somehow, simply by being here with him, letting the sun disappear.
As they made their way through the thick line of trees, they found the stars, then the moon, and then the water. The sand was warm and soft. She slipped off her sandals and held them in one hand.
"My God, what a night," said Miles. "Beautiful." She watched him take off his shoes and walk to the water.
He ran away from her and toward the shore, and the moon became like a spotlight, moving with him across a dark stage. "You coming?" He stopped halfway to the water and held out his arm, but he wasn't focused on her.
It occurred to her that, once more, she had put herself in a situation where what happened next would not be up to her. But this time, she was impossibly far away from the rest of her world. Apart from Miles, no one even knew where she was.
Karen stood very still at the edge of the trees, listening to the whispery slaps of the small waves as they hit the shore.
"Come on, it's warm as a bath," he called. But he was turned in the wrong direction. She realized he couldn't see her in the darkness. She opened her mouth to answer him, but she stopped herself. Instead she stepped backward, back further, behind the line of trees, until she knew he couldn't see her at all. The leaves tickled and scraped at her arms and legs. She inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly. Invisible. Her heartbeat slowed.
She watched as he walked along the shore, looking back every few moments to see if she was following. She wasn't. She reached up and pulled a leaf off the tree overhead, tore it in half, brought it to her nose and smelled the damp green of it, all the while watching Miles as he kept going, slowly, a hundred feet down the coast. After a few minutes, he turned around and began walking back toward her. As he trudged through the sand, his gait was strong and purposeful, and as he looked for her, moving his head from side to side, he seemed every bit the good, capable, concerned, fair boss, and nothing more.
She knew that it would be best to go to him immediately; she could say she'd slipped back under the trees to go to the bathroom, and that she hadn't been able to find him again until now. They would walk to the car and drive back to Miami. Perhaps they would even stop off for a fast, sober dinner. In a few hours, she would be back in her hotel room, watching television, packing her things.
Miles was near again. His white shirt was untucked, the sleeves rolled up high on his arms. He took a step closer and rubbed his brow with the back of his hand. She didn't move.
"Karen," he called, and laughed uneasily. "Where in the heck are you?"
She stepped back even deeper into the darkness of the trees. She could hear the waves — fizzing like seltzer — as they receded.
"Jesus," he sighed, and stopped. He was twenty feet away, and almost directly in front of her. "Karen. You're really starting to worry me." His voice was insistent. The wind blew across the shore, whipping her hair around her face. It was too late, she knew, to say peek-a-boo, I was just kidding.
Karen watched him jog toward the trees. He stopped just in front of her and pursed his lips. Her legs shook. The tiny hairs on the back of her neck stood up. She held her breath. If she made a noise, he would see her.
He must see her as the kind of girl who would just stand there in the dark, bare-armed and shivering and just waiting for him to find her, waiting to see what he would do next. Maybe she should let him find her, let him see that it was she who was deciding what to do next. She should jump right out at him. She would do it just for that split-second when his face was taken over by terror.
Instead, Miles turned and took slow steps toward the shore, his hands in his pockets, scanning from side to side, looking for her. In spots where ocean water had splashed up on his white shirt, she could see right through to his skin.
She'd forgotten she was holding the car keys; they had become a part of her hand. The convertible was parked in the clearing. She would go back to it now and let him hear the sound of the ignition and see the glare of the headlights through the dark trees, and when he came scrambling through the sand and tripping over branches, he would find her there in the car, her seatbelt fastened, hands on the wheel, ready to go.
Original art courtesy Rob Grom.
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