Look honey look honey look honey, here’s the plan, thought Carolyn, into the top of Ilene’s head, as the black haired blur of a boss leaned forward in her office high inside the AD&D tower, looking at the corporate picnic plan outline summary the committee had brought her, now that they were a month into it, with one short month to go. No, no, no, Frieda honey, baby no, Carolyn’s eye had said to Frieda’s; don’t be bothered baby, Earlier earlier Carolyn had said to the committee head Frieda; I’ll bring the status up to Ilene; and Carolyn almost ripped it from Frieda’s hands what matter what matter no matter it is all a dream anyway; Ricky. Rip it out rip it. Frieda had glared, but Carolyn’s back was already turned and gone propelled by the thrust of the Frieda glare strong as a horse sized whale fart that had been funny when Ricky had told her about it, really, really, really funny—the whale’s propelled fifteen feet forward, Lord, just from one fart. How about one more for good measure? And another and another? No swimming needed at all; just farting. And now, in her boss’s office, in the top of Ilene’s head bowed down scanning the picnic plan, Carolyn saw what Ricky had told her this brand new fresh today morning; how he had read that somewhere that in the Midwest a small red car has been hit by some honking big bird shit from far above, and had dried and dripped and on the side of the car there now was a perfect image of our savior and lord Jesus Christ, crown of thorns and all, like you’d see on some cheesy Jesus tattoo, on some empty headed baldheaded bearded burly brute, on a bad tattoo reality show. Carolyn had been popping her Ativan as Ricky told her the story, and she nearly gagged up the seventh tablet when the Jesus hit her. She had never taken seven tablets before but she knew that today was the day that the committee was to deliver the picnic plan to Ilene; Ilene, who now sat leaning looking over the outline centered on her desk with Carolyn taking in the sight of the bird shit Jesus tangled by its thorns on the top of Ilene’s old head, that moved slightly from side to side as she read, and that Carolyn felt tempted to tell Ilene the story of because it’s all a dream anyway what can go wrong in a dream? Anything that goes wrong in a dream goes poof just like that, like the bird shit Jesus went poof as Ilene read the last line of the last page and raised her head, face up now, with the face of Jesus momentarily superimposed on hers, and Carolyn’s hand went to her mouth to stifle the laugh that was coming trying to come as the Jesus face back sunk away behind Ilene’s. Jesus had changed to Ilene, just like that; and in the instant before Ilene spoke, Carolyn knew that in this dream world now for the rest of her life any picture of Jesus she would see would last just a second and out would emerge the face of Ilene speaking, saying This is quite a plan, Carolyn—it looks like everything is in order. Looks like you’re on the right track.
Ilene’s small smile punched Carolyn’s laugh back down her throat, because after all, Ilene was the stronger, being the big boss as she was. Carolyn sunk back against the wall as Ilene’s red veined eyes focused hard on the face of the leader of the pack of little fat bored insects that had come up with this idea—the Charlie Carolyn Dawn and Frieda and—what, wait. Who was the leader here? This is Frieda’s committee is it not, why is Carolyn here with her brash fat red cheeked face glaring? Why isn’t Frieda—
Carolyn, said Ilene—it occurs to me—Frieda Salmon is the head of the committee, is she not? That’s what I had been told why isn’t she here?
Carolyn said Oh, yes she is but I—I thought I’d bring you the plan I’m glad you like it—
Never mind all that, I’m simply asking a simple question—why is the head of the committee not here?
Carolyn, pinned to the wall as a mounted insect in some vast collection of cubicle rain forest insects, said She was on her way here but I told her I’d go. She seemed really busy with her project, and, a bit harassed looking so I told her I’d come—
Harassed? What does harassed mean?
Harassed, thought Ilene as Carolyn’s mouth opened into a dark empty moist hole, showing she would indeed answer, but the moment stretched into Ilene thinking what do those little fat bored insects in their sweet grey maze have to feel harassed about? We pay them; we provide them with benefits and savings plans and pensions and put money into social security for them so they can go on to die with dignity; and they feel harassed? Oh that is funny, really really funny, and this time it was Ilene’s hand came up to keep back a laugh as Carolyn’s cheeks expanded redly with the pressure of her answer to the question about Frieda.
She is very busy with a hot deadline, blew out Carolyn.
Pressures balanced between them, they sat an instant staring; Carolyn with her hand on the doorknob; Ilene with her hand spread on the picnic status. The next moment slipped into Ilene more quickly; I am Ilene I am the boss the way out is up and just swat, swat, swat—go away.
All right Carolyn, she said, leaning back with the status in her hands. This write up is for me to keep, I presume?
Yes it is.
Carolyn’s lips clammed fatly shut and Ilene couldn’t see into her anymore so there was no more to say do or know.
I guess you can go back to work now, Carolyn, said Ilene, almost sweetly, with the glimmer of the smile that when she was younger was part of what had gotten her up where she was; the smile of her old gone charm; her head tilted to lock the smile there a moment; the glass window behind her, the city beyond that, it all pressed across against Carolyn who said Okay, then—if you need anything else let me know—
You mean let Frieda know, don’t you?
Ah—yes. Let Frieda know.
Tell Frieda I was asking about her.
And as Carolyn turned from the charming smiling face, the Jesus face glimmered an instant over the whole city spread out behind Ilene; the bird shit Jesus she would tell them about at lunch, after this lunch will be the next thing for her and for all the insects, to go get lunch. Carolyn turned away and the charming smile pushed intot her back like a piston pistoning her out the door into the hall pressure, pressure like only a corporate boss can deliver, like the pressure of the next whale fart, and the next; and the door closed tight over sealing Ilene away alone. Her smile sunk back in her face. It had been painful to hold like that, but it was now forgotten already anyway, so what the matter. Pain is only pain while it hurts, a wise doctor once told her. But that gone Carolyn is a brash one, thought Ilene. As I was when younger; yes, in the midst of the bee swarm there ultimately lies a queen. The most important one, the best one, the most valuable one, for which the only way out is up to where Ilene sat; and then up to where Massingill sat; and then and then what? Is sky the limit? Sky?
Come down, she scanned the picnic status once more, self-satisfied. Hm. Last week of July. Might be hot then. What to wear? They will have a tent. It’s at the country club. That’s good. There will be games and entertainment and prizes. She scanned the list it all blurred up past above her, so she figured the next thing today should be to get on Massingill’s calendar, and show him the plan she had put together; she and her team. This is how she knew Massingill would see it. She had done it. Ilene.
I am so happy I have Ilene under me, he would think, has thought, will keep on thinking.
Under me, yes. Under and in the dark, where the small ones all are; and he is thinking, must be thinking, yes; the only way out is up. So Ilene drank down the last of her water, leaned up, got the slippery phone and punched hard in Massingill’s extension, pulling at his phone at the other end pulling until at last it rang. Thrilled, she waited. It rang and rang; here through the wire, shot a voice at her and he said Pete Massingill here. Go on.
Peter, she said smoothly. It’s Ilene. How’s your afternoon look?
Let’s see—silence, silence—then he said It’s pretty open until four. Why? You got something new?
Yah. The picnic. Remember the picnic I told you I was planning? I have an update for you. Can I come up? It’s pretty exciting.
Her ready hand warmed.
Ah, oh—sure yes come on up I got a short call at two but this won’t take long will it?
Oh, no. No, she said. Not at all.
Abruptly he hung up. He had said okay—and for just an instant, that moment, that little word thrilled her, but it was in the past and forgotten, and she needed more—sought more—of what she didn’t know—but the next things was Massingill. Massingill, now. Up she rose, smoothed down her dress, pushed into her shoes, and grabbed up the outline of her picnic plan. She would see once more the gold-framed picture on Peter’s shelf; the picture of the sleek smiling wife and the child that stared at him alone all day as he sat there in his chair which was thicker wider taller and cost more than hers. The four eyes watched him all day every day; in the day in the tower, from behind glass; in the evening, at night, behind absolutely nothing. Ilene would love to have sleek smiling eyes in her life watching her all day, but she didn’t really know it. It was in her rock bottom robot reptile brain deeply snugly hidden, the brain that made her breathe, made her heart pump, made her mind work, that took her across the floor to the door without her even having to think about taking the steps one by one, the brain that makes it all just happen. Like her life. It was all just happening. It was like that for the insects, for her, and for the Gods. Everything all happens. She went out her office, up the usually narrowing hall toward his office; like moving forward through the last moments of narrowing mortal dark toward the light everybody’s heard about. Come, children—come, my children; come into the light. To the light; his door slid up with the light beside her and she knocked on the wood, and it made no sound, it was that thick big and tough, so unlike her door; her door to her room. After knocking once more, the wood murmured woodily, stonily, softly, Yes? Come on in. Come—
She opened the door onto him and he sat there a vastly pretty man saying Ilene, how are you? all smiling. He rose and they hugged as the corporate culture allowed a man and a woman or even a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, to sexlessly, desirelessly, do in greeting; in that instant an odd empty feeling rose, and sank, into her instantly forgotten past again, but leaving somehow some kind of stain in her mind; something about an empty bed beside her in the morning dark; but the papers in her hand came up over all that blotting it out also into the past, and as he went to sit, she pulled up a chair, and after he sat, and had her eye, she said it.
Here Peter. Here’s the plan.
Okay. Let’s see. This is about the picnic?
The papers slid across. He thumbed through them. She sat silently. She knew he had inserted himself into the company years ago and knew how to look and act and be. She studied his bald spot that she had never seen before. There was a freckle in it. Massingill’s got a bald spot with a freckle at the edge of it nearly directly under a hair. Such a tiny thing a hair. He flipped the page. She shifted in the chair. How many more freckles does he have on his head under the hairs where they can’t be seen? How many freckles does she have on her head or her back that she never knew about? He should comb over that bald spot, hide that freckle, but no, men who have comb overs are objects of ridicule. His head slightly turned from side to side as hers had when she had been looking at the picnic plan while Carolyn saw the bird shit Jesus emerge atop her head; wearing the crown of thorns and all. But Ilene saw ho face of Jesus. Just an empty freckled bald spot in the middle of a bushy head of hair that was instantly startlingly replaced by his pretty face, upturning. He has a pretty face for a man, she thought as always; a pretty face for a man with the curly hair and it was much better now that the bald spot was unseen and she exhaled as she had been holding her breath nearly the whole time he had spent scanning over the plan.
So, said the pretty man she looked up to so; I see this picnic will be at the country club on the last Friday in July?
Yes it will.
He nodded and blinked his pretty eyes.
You’ve made a lot of progress, said the pretty man. When should I put something together to send out to the gang announcing it? Or do you want to do that—yes I think you should do that. It’s your picnic after all. God! he said before she could speak, twining his hands together behind his head, leaning back in his large black chair, and shooting his look up to the far ceiling corner, he said God, it’s been years since we had a company picnic. It was really a great idea Ilene. Really a great idea.
Thanks boss, she said, and the words from her touching him shifted him in his chair, writhing somehow struggling to gain comfort, like being called boss did something to him. His eyes came down into hers, and his hands came down on his desk in fists, as he leaned at her speaking.
You know Ilene, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking. You know, society tries to make us all interested in unimportant trivial things so that we won’t notice the really important things that are going on all the time behind and around us—Ilene, here. Let me show you something.
He rose and went to the shelf and reached for a small vase of roses, sitting up next to the gold framed picture of his sleek smiling wife and the child he had made; him! The one he had caused. Him—and he took the vase and brought it over and set it in the center of his totally cleared-off desk and sat and leaned and gripped the stem of the tallest rose.
You know, Ilene, we got to get the troops to know that it’s okay to stop and smell the roses—
—thorns of roses thorns all twined around the head of the bird shit Jesus she had atop her head in Carolyn’s eye—as told at lunch told at lunch—from Ricky—
The pretty man leaned, closed his eyes, and sniffed the pretty rose.
—crown of thorns crown of thorns—
Ilene set looking watching and as the pretty man sniffed deeply the glass rose vase reflected back at her a distorted vision of her face; the light was right, the vase was right, and the distortion directly proportionate to the gentle curve of the glass, glistening.
Opening his eyes, he raised his head and slid the vase gently toward Ilene.
The sound of the slide was tiny. His eyes once more came in hers.
And we, he said—we who are charged with leading the troops, must set the example for the others to smell the roses too; empty our minds and smell the roses. Here Ilene; smell—pull one toward you, take it out even. Put it to your nose, close your eyes, empty your mind, let it fill you.
With that, all the really important things all going on behind everything as he had told her, came from his eyes, and from the walls, all around them, and she saw it; lord God, he was so wise. Lord God! And so pretty—her eyes closed and the scent of the rose she had chosen came in, and she felt him there; the feeling form before came again, but it stayed—her closed lids showed a picture like you’d see a picture on a screen, of the dark bedroom with her hand gone over to the empty place, but someone was there. The smell. The rose. The closed eyes. The pretty man. Someone. In the sudden dark but there. No need for light. It was just like coming into some tree shade, when out walking under the hot sun, in August; thrilling just thrilling—and she opened her eyes and he was still there looking the bedroom had receded back into the rose and her hand slid the rose stem back in the vase and she soothingly smoothly spoke at him in the light that all seemed new filling his now-odorless office.
I see what you mean, Mister Massingill. I see what you mean—
His finger moved bringing his voice.
Ilene, call me Peter. Remember? Long ago, I told you. You should just call me Peter.
The air hung between them filled with their eyes. Peter. Ilene. Just an instant past that moment, he turned, pulling the rose vase back toward him, and he took it and went and put it back up there, high, next to the sleek smiling wife and child. It looked right. The picture and the roses and that pretty man, there; the boss. This pretty pretty man. The boss. God.
Ilene, what are you thinking? You’re thinking something what is it?
Ilene’s head shook her head and conscious thought came up as she saw him saying this, with her thinking she must either be having visions or must be totally insane. She put her hand to her forehead and shook her head more and the spinning dizzy feeling faded. He wants an answer answer him you must.
Oh, nothing really, Peter. Just pondering. You know.
She flashed an eye and he smiled.
Yeah I bet I do know, he said brightly as he went back to his chair and sat, and spoke once more, this time more strongly, over her thoughts of what did that mean he bets he does know that could mean what or what or what—what?
Ilene, he said—so what else. What else you got for me today?
They sat in the now totally solid room. Slightly shaking her head one last time, she spoke the script, spoke the usual necessary script, brightly. Spoke the properly hard words.
Nope, nothing else. So you approve of the plan?
I do, he said, twining his hands together atop his desk, smiling the pretty smile.
Thanks, she said. That copy there—that’s for you to keep.
Oh—okay, he said. Go make it happen, Ilene. Great team!
And get that announcement out to everybody by close of business tomorrow.
Will do. Thanks Peter.
She rose and the soft chair she had sat on pushed back its silvery wheels like everything else in the tower all glitzy and silvery; except for the insect’s stinking grey cubes that she had to go back toward now. Turned around by his smile and nod, she went out his door and down the hallway. The walls expanded in width and height as she walked toward her office; the walls expanded out until they all opened up into the great long terribly bright space, filled with the endless maze of cubicles crammed tight with insects. Fish smell—insect smell—her signal, lab rat as she unknowingly was, to turn left and unlock her door the last step before the first cubicle; the smell made the lab rat turn the lock and open the door and go in and close it and stand empty before her desk. She looked out past her chair, back through the tall wide window, at the image of the world wrapped around the tower spread for miles on hazy miles before her. Empty, spent, she stood there. There’s something wrong, emptied from her, a kind of vomit; there’s something wrong there’s something wrong; must have been the long walk in the slowly building insect stench, but no; from the world outside the window it came at her; ah the picnic plan. The picnic plan. She had given Mister Massingill her only copy; the thing she needed to do the next big impressive bossy task; to write up and transmit magically somehow an announcement about the big picnic. But all the details were left back with the pretty man in the pretty man’s office. Damn, she muttered. No. Her watch came up. Twelve thirty. No. She would have to call one of the insects today and ask for a copy to be sent to her. She went around the brown desk and sat with her back to the window. But the great space past the glass behind her, sucked at at her, making her hollow, making her full of no, I need to call an insect now, I don’t want to call an insect now. I’m tired and I thought I was done for today but now I need to call a damned insect. Anger coursed through her mind as her body moved her arm and her hand got up the phone, and she looked up at the list of her insects tacked to the wall and which one was which? All the names there, who are they who are they? And the hollowness behind the glass at last sucked one word into her from the wall, just before she again mentally vomited; Carolyn. Carolyn the brash one. The others had no faces or names so it doesn’t matter, an insect is an insect so she punched in Carolyn’s extension into the plastic phone, identical to thousands of others being punched into at that instant up and down the office tower, and it rang in her; down from her ear into the chest back to her spine and blew out the glass the words came blowing out past the glass into the nothing lying behind saying Hi! It’s Carolyn Sanders of AD&D. I am not at my desk at the moment—but your call is very important to me. Please leave a message after the tone and I will call you right back. I promise! The beep sounded again into Ilene’s ear down and back through the spine and the glass—no the glass—no the glass will shatter better say something say something proper before the glass shatters and shards fly and cut, letting the nothingness past the glass rush in, to pull her out of AD&D forever; so Ilene said in the sweet soft voice that they taught you was how you had to talk to your insects or else they would smash and splatter their green pus all over you—they could make you or break you but you dare not believe that, so before she could believe that she said Hi Carolyn! This is Ilene. Please bring or send me another few copies of the picnic plan you came by with today. I have to give out copies to my peers, I spoke to Mister Massingill about it he said it’s a great idea, he’s all excited, and so make the picnic happen, Carolyn—you and your committee should take it all the way—but now just bring me the plan. Thanks I’m in my office. Bye.
Thank God the sterile phone could transmit no stench. Lord God thank you thought the lower lizard autonomic reptile brain. The hot phone went down. Exhaustion settling down rose rising in Ilene. The glass behind her disappeared. She had done it. Thank God the insect had not been there thank God I had not had to actually speak to one and hear its small uncontrolled jibber jabber, so here. Calm down. Relax. Enough for one day. One more day with Massingill, the insects, and the stench. One more day of small uncontrolled jibber jabber from both the highest and the lowest at last over, in this place where she always walked on eggshells; on eggshells, always walking, in this place, this place Ilene deep down hated, twenty three floors high.
Jim Meirose‘s work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including Blueline, Ohio Edit, Bartleby Snopes, Innovate, the Fiddlehead, Witness, Alaska Quarterly review, and Xavier Review, and has been nominated for several awards. Two collections of his short work have been published, and a novel, Mount Everest was just released by Montag Press. Four more novels are under contract with Montag for 2016 release: one never before published and three which had gone out of print from other houses. More information is available at www.jimmeirose.com.