Summer 2016 — THE POTOMAC

A Daunting Exercise

  Mike Lee

     The stern warning felt like the judgment of an angry God, and he knew his day would be torture. No other word could describe coming into his office, cart coffee in hand, to see the note taped to his computer screen. He did not like yellow stickies on his computer; he cared for his machine methodically, taking his can of compressed air from the shelf above his desk to work over the keyboard ritualistically before leaving for the subway and home. What is mundane for others was at times an eight–hour surf on monster waves of anxieties.
     He was a professional, and took this seriously—perhaps too much, but his top priority was making the rent and the second was his daughter, and he did not suffer fools. While he did not believe he wrapped his existence around the job, the importance of the aforementioned priorities made it incumbent upon him to be superlative at it. This was a skill learned from growing up in trailer parks with a drunken single mom and not knowing anything about his dad except that the FBI had been looking for him since he was an infant. Now middle–aged, he considered searching for him, but each time he began the task, he demurred, not wanting to know.
     Perhaps it was the Irish in him. His much older half–sister had told him on the drive from his grandfather's funeral that when she was a teenager, shortly after his birth, their mother and grandmother went out into the backyard with their father's remaining belongings, including the photographs, and burned them in a bonfire. Yes, he assumed there was nothing more to say, beyond that he was a bad man, utterly unlikable and abusive, and finally a criminal, a fact reinforced by a pair of FBI agents knocking on a screen door and inquiring about a car thief. Why the FBI would come around asking about a car thief was a question he never found the courage to ask his mother before she died.
     As he pulled off the sticky after reading the note from his boss, he contemplated the challenge and responsibility inherent in having mysteries added to his existence. Those 'what ifs', as he told his daughter back when she was a little girl, were for children. He told her that when she grew up, it would be wise to drop them and best not to have any. He had a few as a child, beginning with the father he never knew, the mom—though brilliant—who chose erratic as a lifestyle in carting him to various cities in Texas, always living in a duplex or a mobile home, never quite understanding why he had to move at the end of the school year, invariably on his birthday.
     His fifteenth birthday was the worst, but most typical. He started dating a girl, one he liked. Her name was Maria. She wrote him poetry in the notes they passed in English class. She was a brunette with cobalt blue eyes and tilted her head when she smiled, a lock of hair falling over her face. That is what he remembered. He lost the photos and the last poem she wrote when his wallet was stolen fifteen years ago. Her memory he kept, and when needed, grasped with a drowning grip.
     His grades, though not stunning, were good. He had a spring cold, and wrapped up in a blue and white knit covering, and was lying on the couch when his mother arrived early from work, bringing in his birthday presents.
     They came unwrapped, but they were good. The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, another book on rock music, The Ramones Leave Home album, and a pair of paperbacks from the Michael Moorcock Elric series he then enjoyed reading.
     It wasn't as if she unceremoniously dumped them on his lap. Instead they were given with distance, with a mechanical precision, as if handed to him with metal clamps like he had seen in a school documentary on bottling plants. Not exactly kind and loving, and no cake, but that was Mom, and he certainly was used to that behavior from her by fifteen.
     She stood silently as he wowed over the Rolling Stone history, flipping through the oversized pages. He looked up to meet her gaze.
     She spoke. "I was laid off today."
     Happy birthday.
     They moved to Austin a month later. He never saw Maria again, and in the course of time the tangibles of their shared past fled his possession: letters and poems lost, the photos misplaced in a move until the last of Maria stolen on a street corner in lower Manhattan on a Wednesday afternoon.
     He sat at his desk, his anxiety growing. He never liked doing things wrong and being called out on it; brought bad memories of his mother. Mom never held a job for longer than two years until he was in his twenties. He was turning fifty in three months, and had held his current gig for ten years. Even when he was a teenager, he had taken pride in riding proverbial horses until they died. In thirty–four years of work experience, there were only six jobs: two waiting tables and four in publishing. Never was fired or laid off. He had survived recessions, after 9–11 when the company he worked for nearly collapsed due to the loss of financial newsletter accounts, the brutal divorce that left him in full custody of a then tweener daughter, and an ex–wife he tried not to think about. When asked about her, he always responded, somewhere in Jersey.
     Perhaps, he thought, grasping for balance to assuage the rising fears he never quite got over despite years of therapy, this was no big deal, this note on a yellow sticky affixed to his computer screen. Yes, I did forget to file those stories in the proper folder. I am sorry I did that. I was in a hurry to leave that afternoon. I wanted to be on time for the parent–teacher conferences. Those are important exercises, and I was given the benefit of leaving early. But yes, I had to file those email attachments into the story folder and instead I sent them off into the ether.
     He paused thoughtfully. His grandmother, a hard-hearted East Texas woman, used that phrase often. Ether meant nothing. However, these files did exist; they were just, somewhere.
     He turned on his computer and waited impatiently for Windows to load. He preferred the Mac OS, but this was the job, and this was the equipment. Once up, a quick word search in finder, and he found the first file in the tree. In seconds, he had all of the files selected, and moved them into the correct folder.
     He took a sip from his coffee, setting it down beside the keyboard. Rising from his seat, he took the note. Wadding it up, he tossed it into the wastebasket.
     He walked down the hall to the end, to his supervisor's corner office. The room had a nice view of Broadway and the Hudson River. While on the telephone, his boss had the habit of putting his feet against the windows to stare out on the river below.
     His boss saw the reflection as he entered, and turned in his seat.
     "Good morning."
     "Good morning, Dan. Hey, got your note. I just moved the files. They are in the folder."
     "Thanks." Dan looked at him, brow furrowed, as if contemplating something he wanted to say really badly.
     "Remember when I asked about taking on some news assignments?"
     "Here's the deal. Got one for you, though I say it is a daunting exercise."
     Back in his office, his sanctuary and hopefully not his tomb, he sat behind the computer, thinking of fifteen, Elric, and the Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll.
     He still missed the girlfriend. Never did get over Maria.

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