“You don’t have to,” said Marci, with an affect that made it impossible for Davis to know whether it was being uttered out of sincerity, or more as a disclamation to have to reciprocate such favors some day in the future. Either way, it mattered not. It was a small price to pay to shake off any stodgy reservations that his newly appointed division support assistant might have had regarding her assignment to the company’s Topeka branch. Over lunch (she had had the chicken dumpling soup and a salad; he, a chicken cordon bleu sandwich, fries and Sierra Mist), Davis had detailed for her his own odyssey from mailroom clerk in the company’s Boston flagship office, to Administrative Assistant in Danbury, to Administrative Assistant Coordinator and later Client Relations Specialist in Charlotte, to Facility Manager and Administrative Assistant Manager at the Minneapolis branch, before finally landing the Division Supervisor gig in Topeka. He gave her the requisite pep talk about working hard, being result-driven, staying competitive, blah, blah, blah, but being what he considered to be a self-trained expert in body language (which he also knew by its clinical term, paralinguism—though he’d dared to use the word just once in conversation, having construed the word as coming across as pretentious-sounding based on his audience’s non-verbal reaction upon hearing it), he took her polite grin and slow, whole-body rolling-forward way of nodding as evidence that this was all something she had heard before; just one more ceremonial speech for the newly-anointed. He’d been through it, himself, although he recalls himself being–or in the very least, appearing–just a bit more genuine with his own body language; erect posture, hands folded neatly on his lap, nicely timed nod here, perfect ample smile there (non-stop and continuous grinning always made a person appear depraved or as if suffering from rictus). Some of it was generational, he supposed. Maybe all of it. The new hires seemed to take things far too casually.
“You’ll catch on,” he said. “Your resume really impressed the Board. I think you’ll discover there will be plenty of opportunities for advancement here.”
“I’m glad to–” Something fell and shattered from back in the kitchen and a pall fell over the lunch crowd. Marci glanced suddenly in its direction as Davis’s eyes flowed quickly over her. Dark blue business suit–all the women seemed to wear those nowadays, white blouse unbuttoned just low enough to reveal the slightest cleft of recently tanned cleavage, nails manicured, hands glistening with femininely-scented moisturizer, no ring. He imagined her sitting in her bra and panties before a large vanity mirror that morning, legs crossed, applying the makeup that she knew would draw out the coronas of green in her eyes. Clapping and cheering now coming from back in the kitchen. “I’m glad to hear that,” she continued, “but I’m really just thankful to have the opportunity at all. I understand, from speaking with Mr. Trexler, that the competition was fierce.”
“Well, that’s certainly the understatement of the year. Some of the applicants had educations that far surpassed yours.” He saw her eyes tighten, lips purse. A sore subject he hadn’t intended to flank her with. Then again, it seemed to prove her lack of dedication to something long-term; an unwillingness to change gears or commit to something more challenging. Or did it? An argument could in turn be made that people who over-degreed were simply procrastinators and that those–like this woman before him, who, with concision and conservatism, had obtained her Bachelors of Science from Fordham in four years–no more, no less–were simply eager to work. He’d have to come back to this one. “But Kevin…excuse me, Mr. Trexler…is forward-thinking enough to know the difference between education and intelligence, and I like to think that that’s part of what drives our company to its current level of greatness. Number twelve on last year’s Fleischman-Chancellor List of Standards and Performance. Talk about your fierce competition…”
The waitress returned with the check along with the dessert menu which neither Marci nor Davis had bothered to peruse. She wore a molded rectangle of plastic embossed with the name “Toni” pinned to her lapel which, as was obvious to every male patron (and their respective female counterpart) who came into contact with her, had been unbuttoned down to a strategic and precarious depth in order to present an ample bosom that was bereft of adequate constraint as part of some hopeful tip-jacking mechanism. From Marceline she had whittled her name to Marci. Not Marcie, nor Marcy. And although her timely and impeccably-grammared reports had all been signed with a cultured and nicely-manicured “.” above the last letter of her first name, it didn’t strain the imagination to think that there may have been a time in the not-so-distant past when this “.” might have looked more like an “o”. He had known at least two “Marcies” in his life. One of them had been a fellow “gifted” classmate of his at Newport News Academy. The other had worked at the Video Schmideo store he pulled shifts at while in college. Although he had known her as a prepubescent girl with braces and plaid stockings, he couldn’t imagine Academy Marcie growing up to sexualize her name in order to compensate for any vestige of insecurity she might have been harboring. She played violin, after all. Video Store Marcie, a philosophy major, would have considered the idea patriarchal-based and therefore ghastly. So, that left people like Marci and Toni in that femininely fragranced spectrum of gals who used sexuality, or even just the mere hint of it, to further themselves. Marci, given her education and ambition, was at the high-functioning end. It was obvious that Toni, with the mere symbolization and angling of her breasts as tip-lures–instant cash, instant gratification–was at the other.
When Toni had brought the bill to the table, instead of positioning the vinyl check holder strictly in his direction, she had left it turned obliquely enough to award Marci a quick glance at the amount. This was an unforgiving and egregious tactical error for someone like Toni who relied on flaunting her voluptuousness to attract bigger tips. Presuming that he and Marci weren’t business associates at all but, let’s say, paramours; allowing the woman to get a look at the bill would also allow her to calculate whether the tip her man was leaving was disproportionately high which she would then chalk up to her man’s heightened libido upon being waited on by someone with Toni’s obvious physical attributes. Undershooting the tip would also garner the same sort of suspicion, only inversed. By undertipping the waitress, the woman might be led to believe that leaving a meager tip was her man’s way of overcompensating for his attraction to the waitress. The fact that Marci was a business associate and not his date should have rendered the point moot and if it had not been for the litany of allegations and complaints against him (he’d conducted his own statistical study of these complaints; a random sampling of which had included adjectives such as “rude”, “aloof”, “weird” and “unapproachable”) by former colleagues and subordinates during their exit interviews, he would have disregarded it completely. The last thing he needed however was to have “chauvinistic” included now in his repertoire of descriptors. Thinking quickly, he said, “I utilize a tip scale. I start off with a base of 15% and decide, based on the service, whether to raise it or lower it. Let me ask you, Marci, how would you rate our server’s performance today?”
She appeared genuinely frightened by the question. Of course. How could he be so short-sighted? Is this some kind of test?, she had to be wondering. Would recommending a higher tip make her seem naive and irresponsible with her–and more importantly, the company’s–finances? Would recommending a lower tip or even a 15% baseline tip come across as indecisive?
“Oh, I thought she was nice.”
“I…I’m sorry, Marci. That’s not what I meant to ask. I was interested in what your experience was like…you know, with Toni…er, the waitress.” To know her name was an admission to having studied the general vicinity of her breasts where her name tag was located. Fuck.
Marci looked confused. “I, uh…”
“You don’t have to answer that. In fact, just forget I ever brought the question up to you. I think, given the circumstances of our meeting here and the fact that I…uh…rather enjoyed the conversation, the service. Um…this place has a great atmosphere, too. I think that I’m willing to adjust the tip to 17%.” He glanced frantically around the restaurant’s interior. “There are just two things that prevent me from going higher,” he added. “The decor near the back of the restaurant is a little dated; like they care more about getting you in here in the first place rather than keeping you around. The second thing, of course, is that our table is located too proximal to the restrooms. Did you notice–”
“–Uh, no…” She eyed the distance to the bathrooms.
“No, I was going to say, did you notice that there were other tables available but that they gave us one that was in direct sight of the restroom?”
She did have a clear view of the door to the women’s restroom, although a rubber tree plant partially concealed the sign on the door, turning “women” into “omen”. Still, she estimated the distance to be a good fifteen feet from where they were sitting. “Truthfully, Mr. Davis, I didn’t think…”
“You can call me Mark. Of course, those issues shouldn’t translate to our waitress’s performance. Such things she has no control over, I understand, but she could have visibly displayed some angst or disgust for us having been seated so close to the restroom. I saw no such reaction from her. I would have been happy with some sort of emotional display, even if it weren’t genuine. The fact that she didn’t display any emotion whatsoever meant that she was either concealing, or oblivious and I should say, I wouldn’t want to be either one. If she was concealing, then it means she views us…you and I…other patrons, as carefree cro magnons who don’t know any better. If she’s oblivious, then she’s just dumb.”
A new expression had begun to dawn on Marci’s face; one that was hard even for him to categorize.
“Well, Mr. Davis, I look forward to a long and fulfilling career with the company.”
Of course, she was trying to transition to something set more comfortably within the bounds of her own conversational level…she was a Marc-i, after all. “Please, call me Mark.” He noticed her sitting forward now, arms crossed, cleavage bulging and spilling outward. He snapped his eyes back up to her face but he knew that it was too late.
“I don’t mean that in any context other than professional.” But, having uttered this request now to Marci twice, he wondered if perhaps he had come across as too insistent on establishing an informal relationship between them.
“All my…I mean, all the employees refer to each other on a first name basis. That keeps it friendly, I’ve come to realize. Helps to resolve any personal issues that might, and inevitably do arise. Can I call you…” for a millisecond, he felt a sneeze coming on but just as quickly as it came, it went. “…Marci?”
Something was wrong. Concern, no…there was outright surprise on her face. He replayed the last moments of conversation in his head and realized, with horror, what had happened. The fleeting, about-to-sneeze pause had caused him to unintentionally change the intonation of his words. Instead of hearing him ask if he could call her by her first name, she heard, “can I call you, Marci?” He’d only agreed to this lunch for Trexler’s sake. It had been his idea; his way of trying to cast Davis in a new light to the newbies.
“I figure it’ll take me time to get caught up to speed on things. I’ve always been more than willing to take work home. Guess it means I have no life.” She giggled nervously. So now, by way of his erroneous act of asking if he could call her, he had led to think that every presented context of conversation thus far, every attempt to differentiate letter from spirit as it pertained to acceptable professional etiquette, had been nothing more than a test, indeed. Obvious relief waved through her.
Toni appeared from nowhere. “Are you all set with the bill, sir?”
Davis hastily fished through his wallet and found the company credit card. “Here you are,” he said.
It was a coy grin that Marci was wearing, he’d no doubt of it. She seemed now the most relaxed she had been all day, as if satisfied that some great hurdle had finally been conquered. Some barrier dissolved. She was now in her element.
“Mark,” she said, “thank you for taking the time to talk to me.”
Sweat had beaded on his brow, which he dabbed away with the napkin he had been slowly wrenching in his hand.
“It can be a little overwhelming to be so new and green, especially in an environment that’s as demanding and result-oriented as this firm. But you’ve definitely made the transition so much easier.” She seemed perched on the edge of a laugh. In the tableau of his imagination they are drinking wine together with the lights down back in her apartment; the broader implication of course being that if such innuendo occurred to him, then it occurred also to her. For, so fine-tuned were his skills at paralinguism that he couldn’t just read people based on non-verbal cues, he could, with some slightly-efforted focus, sense what they were feeling as well. Mind-reading, some would call it, although the mystic, metaphysical connotation repulsed him. It wasn’t mind-reading at all; just a sort of finely tuned sense of inter-personal clairvoyancy developed from years of practicing perceptional situational-awareness on others, nothing more; one that had logically–and radically–progressed since his time as a parking lot attendant with the Tampa International Airport Authority’s Short-Term Parking-Economy Lot where, based on observing the manner in which a customer approached the parking booth in their car after rounding the turn from the lot into the exit lane, he could, with an impressive degree of certainty, predict which customers would be trouble. Abrupt accelerations; squealing of tires, however slight (not including the dry spells where the hot black asphalt just about made every car sound as if it were drag-racing); hands clenched upon the steering wheel; purposeful and unhesitating steering of the vehicle in his direction; no audible music emanating from the vehicle from within fifty feet of the parking booth (a sub-category existed for any number of occupants that exceeded the number 2, both with and without music); a person’s overall complexion and body morphism (ruddy-complected, sunburned and doughy–and also tanned and athletic–meant they were used to taking liberties with privileges); presence of adhesive parking pass(es) on the driver’s side of the windshield as opposed to the passenger side; these were all things that denoted some pre-existing element of cantankerousness with the driver. But those things were all cues. Nothing different than what your garden variety, TSA-trained behavior analyst looked for as they combed long lines of anonymous faces in countless airports across the country. What he had come to develop was far more extra-sensory; less cerebral. He called it reflecting, imagining himself as a smooth pane of mirrored glass in which to receive the image of another, only that he was receiving their emotions, their sentiment. And it came to him in the moments before any verbal contact was actually established. It was like looking at a phone and then having it ring, though, of course, the phone could not betray any unspoken cues as to when it was about to ring. He didn’t know. The point was, there was a stirring in Marci’s loins that he could feel in his own. She was lost on what to do, how to proceed. Sex was her mile-marker. It always had been.
As they drove back to the office, he let the radio play; an Oldies station with a playlist that featured The Cars, Cliff Richard, Boston; acts that at first glance didn’t mesh at all with his chronological definition of oldies music. He also kept the window cracked, thinking that the constant whistle of air that piped into the car would hinder any small-talk. It appeared to be working until “If This is It” by Huey Lewis and the News came on.
“This is the group that did the soundtrack for that movie that had the guy with Parkinson’s in it,” Marci announced to no one in particular.
Davis was quiet.
“The ‘Power of Love’,” she said.
With it obvious that Marci was angling for a response, he said, “Back to the Future.”
“That’s it. Saw it once when I was seven.”
Things had been left so ambiguous, so open-ended back in the restaurant that she was still trying to feel him out. He needed to straighten her out.
“Marci,” he began, “I need to clear the air about something.”
“I…uh…I think you may have gotten the wrong impression.”
Marci stared at him blankly.
“With the…well, with this. I said I took all the newbies out to lunch on their first day but it wasn’t true. I’ve actually never done it before. Never wanted to. You’re the first.” Marci turned away, looking at the road that stretched off before them. “It’s because…well, never mind that. Anyway, you seem to have gotten the wrong idea.”
“Wrong idea? I…Mark, I don’t know…”
“That’s just it. You shouldn’t be calling me Mark, first of all. You seem too comfortable with that.”
“But I thought you said that’s what you wanted to be called.”
“I did. But it’s obvious that that small gratuity caused you to form some nefarious presumptions that are incongruent with both the firm’s standards, as well as my own. During a conversation, Marci, it’s natural for the audience’s eyes to roam the face and body of the speaker. It’s a way of taking in information; of communicating. The speaker says things with their body that aren’t always conveyed in language. You seem to…and this isn’t really a criticism but more a–”
“–Mr. Davis, I don’t really know what it is you’re–”
“–Let’s face it, your attire really grabs a person’s attention. I don’t know if that was by design although I have my suspicions. When you caught–check that–the word suggests deception and cunning, and in this context, lechery. When you saw me looking at your breasts, I was only taking in what it was you weren’t willing to communicate with words. Frankly, I wasn’t impressed.”
She looked herself over in distress, clutching her hands over her chest.
“It’s a shame that you feel your Plan B should have to accompany some carnal carrot-and-stick, although you’re certainly not the first woman to try it and get away with it. I would venture to say that there are plenty of women out there who have forged productive and meaningful careers by adding ingredients that included their own physical attributes. But that’s not going to work here. Not with me. When we get back to the office, I will make available to you a copy of our policy on workplace conduct. You should have already been provided with a copy of it, back with your conditional offer of employment. In my opinion, it should have been filed under the Harassment and Hostile Workplace function code of our policy and procedure protocol but that wasn’t my doing. HR dropped the ball on that one. Anyway, I’ll make it available specifically for you. Why don’t you come to my office before you leave tonight? Look, all I’m really trying to say is, things need to be kept professional. This is no way to start your career with us, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Mr. Davis,” she said. “Could you please just take me to my car? Actually, no…never mind that. Just let me off here, please.”
Davis looked over at her. “What do you mean, let you off here…? We’re still a couple blocks away.”
“Just let me out.”
Davis pulled the car over to the side of the road. Before the car had even stopped, Marci was out the door.
“What are you doing?”
“I will follow-up with HR later, don’t worry.”
“I said that I can get you a copy of that policy. You won’t need to.”
“I can’t believe this.”
“You don’t need to feel embarrassed by any of this.”
“We’ll get things smoothed out.”
“Mr. Davis, I won’t be going back to the office. Not today. Not with you.” She was reaching into her purse.
Poor kid. It’s a good thing it had been him and not Trexler. Or worse. Stubens was the one they had slated to be Davis’s stand-in in the event that the eleven o’clock tele-conference went long. Stubens had plenty of strengths, but proper contextual-placement of a word or metaphor here and there was hardly one of them. He’d encountered it firsthand. Getting back to Marci; she was a job fair-placement and that was the notorious thing about job fairs: they had a way of attracting young people with no real world point-of-reference. The slightest criticism could send them spiraling out of control. It was better for her to hear it from him than someone who was less likely to give her any amount of wriggle-room at all. She needed time to digest things, that’s all, and he would allow her this small meltdown. This one glitch, to be made on her first day. He raised his hand passively. “That’s fine,” he said, smiling. “The day’s mostly done anyway. We’ll just dock you for two hours instead of the two-and-a-half that actually remains. Don’t say anything about it and neither will I.” He winked at her.
“Goodbye, Mr. Davis.”
“Is there anyone I can…ah, I see you have a phone. That’s good.” He smiled and nodded. “Okay, Marci, enjoy your walk and the rest of the day. It’s a nice one. See you tomorrow.”
Back at the office there was a load of NISTOR testimonials to sift through and plenty of U-750 Reports to prepare for electronic dissemination to the EC for next Wednesday’s meeting but the sun was too bright, the day too packed with late-season pleasantness. It seemed a sin to let it go to waste. Davis let Carol, his secretary, know that he would be cutting out early. He encouraged her to do the same; something he never did, and afterward, the worry over whether she had taken this simple and innocent suggestion as something more would gnaw at him.
On the way home he stopped by Dale’s Hobby Depot to check out the new line of Boswell freight and passenger cars that, with the slightest alteration of the connector assembly and a strategically-placed dab of 14-neutral epoxy, could be interchanged and flawlessly blended with his existing set.
Later that night, he ate a Birdseye Salisbury Steak dinner to Wheel of Fortune, scrutinizing, as always, the expressions and the body language of the contestants. Their anxiety as each new letter was revealed. Their frustration as the puzzle solution dawns on them just moments after their turn is lost. The superficial–and very often transparent–forced display of good sportsmanship (courtesy smirk, lethargic or exaggerated clapping) when another contestant wins. Sometimes the winner genuflects and directs a finger upward and mouths “thank you, Jesus” and there’s a subtle hostility he’ll see take root in the expression(s) of the other contestants as they, too, see this. “Yeah, pal, Jesus really wanted you to win this round of Wheel of Fortune,” they seem to be thinking.
At ten o’clock he stood in front of his bathroom mirror, brushing his teeth, running through, as he always did, his routine of brushing motions; first clockwise, then counter-clockwise; twenty-eight in each direction (the question of whether the sequence was actually initiated clockwise, or counter-clockwise occurred to him some years back when, after watching himself brush in the mirror, it dawned on him that he might in fact be brushing in a sequential motion that satisfied more the aesthetic virtue of his mirror’s image rather than that of his essential self. Standing before a mirror, clockwise appeared counter-clockwise, counter-clockwise, clockwise. After months and months of intense focus and concentration on the subject, he eventually concluded that the true or original motion of his brushing should be one that is representative of the generally-regarded notion that time moves chronometrically “forward”; therefore affirming that his original motion of brushing in a clockwise manner was indeed the correct or true original motion).
Day 9 without his meds, and he felt just fine.