“We have to have these finished by two o’clock,” the assistant manager says as he dumps a stack of reports in front of Tilden Sunderland.
Tilden rankles at the note of arrogance in the command. He takes a quick look at the clock and sees it is twenty minutes to one. He has been at his desk since seven-thirty and is beginning to feel sick because he hasn’t eaten all day. He had been planning on a leisurely lunch but knows there’ll be no lunch for him. He has somehow never mastered the art of gobbling a sandwich while he keeps on working. If he can’t eat properly, he wont eat at all.
He has worked at the Obix Corporation for three years. When he was hired on—he with his bright, shiny college diploma—he expected to move up in the company, but in three years he is exactly where he was on the first day, in the same chair, at the same desk, surrounded by the same annoying co-workers who laugh at him and make fun of him, sometimes not so subtly, because he isn’t like them. He would gladly strangle any one of them and would consider he had done the world a kindness.
He knows he is smart and competent, capable of good or even great things, but he isn’t able to get ahead at Obix. Every year in his performance review he is told he is mediocre and needs to improve. Not bad enough to be fired but not good enough for advancement. Stay where you are, he is told, and maybe next year we’ll have something better for you.
But a better job at Obix is not what he wants. He doesn’t want anything at Obix. He loathes Obix and everything about it. And not only Obix, but the entire world of business. He is not cut out for it. He took a wrong turn after school and ended up where he never wished to be. What he really wants is to be an artist. What kind of an artist, he isn’t sure. He knows he is smart enough to be a writer, maybe even a poet. Or, he could paint pictures if only given the chance. Maybe a musician. He played the trumpet in junior high school and has always been musical.
The pencil he is using breaks and, before he gets up to sharpen it, he looks at the picture on the corner of his desk of Pinky and Muffin. He has been married to Pinky for as long as he’s worked at Obix. They had Muffin a year later and now there’s another little cherub on the way. They, his little family, are the reason he has to work at a job he hates. That’s what happens when you marry and have children. He thinks the world of them, of course, and doesn’t want anything bad to happen to them, but he would willingly wish them out of existence if he could.
“If only,” he says. “If only.”
Knowing he is not going to meet the two o’clock deadline, he feels sick with apprehension. What will they do to him? What will they say? Will they speak harshly to him? Will they tell him to get his personal belongings and go home? At least I tried, he tells himself. They will never know how hard I tried but I did try.
With a feeling of resignation, he leaves his desk and goes into the men’s room. When he looks at himself in the mirror, he thinks he looks altogether funny, not laughably funny but strangely funny. His skin is sallow, almost yellow, and his eyes have a haunted look. That isn’t really me, he thinks. That is some other person. If he didn’t dislike his co-workers so much, he would go get one of them and ask him who he is, who he has turned into.
Somebody comes in, so his private reverie is over. He makes a show of washing his hands and drying them. As he is hurrying to get out and go back to his desk, his foot slips on a wet spot on the floor that he didn’t see and he falls on his back. He hits his head so hard that he is knocked out.
When word spreads that he has fallen and injured himself, several of the fellows go into the men’s room and pick him up and carry him to the orange plastic couch in the reception area. The receptionist pats him on the hand while somebody else puts a wet rag on his forehead. They are thinking of calling a ambulance when he opens his eyes and sits up and screams, one of those “YAH” screams.
“Are you bad hurt?” the receptionist asks.
“I’m going home,” he says, reaching for the back of his head, where a large bump has arisen.
“But you’ve got a deadline,” somebody says. “You can’t leave.”
“I can do whatever I want,” he says. “I’m not a slave. You don’t own me.”
“You’d better hope the boss doesn’t hear that kind of talk.”
“Bring him here and I’ll say it to his face.”
He gets up and, when he sees everybody looking at him, he leaves as quickly as he can before there is further trouble.
When he gets home, Pinky is lying on the couch, watching TV. Her hair is up in curling papers and she’s smoking a cigarette, even though she knows it’s bad for the baby she’s carrying. He is repulsed by the sight of her bloated body and blubbery lips, though he tries hard not to be.
“What are you doing home so early?” she asks with as much annoyance as she can muster from a prostrate position.
“I fell and hurt my head.”
“How did you do that?”
“I slipped on a wet spot on the floor in the men’s room and landed on my back.”
“Maybe there’s a lawsuit in it,” she says, but she has already tuned him out and gone back to watching her TV show.
“Where’s Muffin?” he asks.
“I said ‘where’s Muffin’?”
“She’s taking her afternoon nap.”
He goes into the bedroom he shares with Pinky and closes the door and sits down on the bed that Pinky hasn’t bothered to make since she got out of it. He sighs heavily, kicks off his shoes, lies down and covers himself up.
“If only,” he says. “If only.”
He sinks into a long, profound, and dreamless sleep, during which he loses touch with himself and with the world.
When he wakes, it is to the ringing of the telephone. He throws back the covers and starts to get up but changes his mind before he can even think about swinging his legs over the side and putting his feet on the floor. He doesn’t know who would be calling but he doesn’t care. He will speak to no one.
He tries to go back to sleep but the emptiness in his stomach begins to gnaw at him. He begins to think about the different things he might eat. He will ask Pinky to get up off the couch and fix him a large breakfast, the kind of breakfast his mother used to fix for him when he was growing up.
When he goes into the living room, he sees that Pinky is not in her usual spot. Neither is she in the kitchen or the bathroom. She’s gone shopping, he thinks, and has taken Muffin with her. He is glad for the time alone.
Thank goodness she has bought groceries, though! There’s a loaf of fresh bread on the counter and in the refrigerator a carton of eggs, a pound of butter and a carton of milk. He puts some eggs on the stove to cook and bread in the toaster.