Late by Robert Mentzer
I know that they resent me because I am their boss, because I wear glasses, because I am the one telling them to come to work on time or correcting spelling errors in reports they submit, because it is my job to do those things and because I do not talk with them about Ohio State football, for those reasons they resent me and talk about me behind their backs. Here the walls of our cubicles are rough and beige as curtains.
At home, where I am surrounded by women, it is barely different. My wife, Miranda, takes my twin daughters, Sharon and Karen, shopping and buys them things I am not supposed to know about, giggling with their bags as they walk in the front door and directly up the stairs, secretive and scarcely glancing in my direction. I recline, feet up, watching television and reading a magazine both, can concentrate on more than one thing at a time with my glasses drifting low on my nose . . . when I hear the front door I cock my head, wondering if they will even look in my direction, and sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. Should I shout, wave credit card bills around, lecture on the topic of savings, responsibility, college? My daughters wear tighter jeans than they did two years ago, they go on dates now, they drive and they come home past their curfew, and sometimes I do shout or make threats. They do not know that rules exist for a reason, that the world is a dangerous and random place, that the rules they feel I impose on them are based in concern.
On Tuesday I notice that the new guy, Chris, fresh from college, has been getting to his desk a few minutes late each day. It isn't good, since he is new, to let him establish patterns in this way. He's just graduated and maybe worked a summer internship or two, but he doesn't know anything about the way this company works or the way things are done around here. I notice that he's come in late a couple of days in a row (it seems like more than a couple but I will be generous and give him the benefit of the doubt), so on Wednesday when he is not at his desk at 8:00 I close the documents I had open on my desk and I stare, brows knitted in concern but my expression (I'll admit) nevertheless somewhat blank. Staring at my computer screen, waiting. I know three minutes doesn't seem like a long time, as I can focus on nothing else, thinking of what I will say to him to let him know that he must be on time. This is not college here, I'll say, and the way we do things is by being on time and ready to go at 8:00 in the morning if not before. Although he is only three minutes late when he walks in swinging his briefcase, the unofficial way that we do things is to be at our desks a little early, so in a way he is nearly fifteen minutes late.
“Chris?” I say, having patiently given him enough time to sit down, open his briefcase, start his computer, and begin the morning ritual of pretending to put things in order—straightening stacks of paper, moving the garbage can, flicking on the fluorescent desk lamps that are on the underside of the cabinets.
Chris looks up at me from his cubicle. I have stepped maybe slightly too close, a little too far inside the cubicle, but I don't feel that I can take a step back now. If he were to stand up, Chris would tower above me; he is enormous, perhaps six-six, so I know it is important not to have gone into his office until he is fully settled, seated reliably. Chris looks nervous, uneasy in dress clothing.
“Good morning, Charles,” Chris says.
“Chris, I've been noticing that you've been arriving at work a little bit late. If you could just try to . . . ”
Chris smiles at me, careful not to show contempt or exasperation. He's saying, shucks, you know how things can be in the mornings, you remember the way you were when you were in college or just out of college. He's not saying any of those things out loud, but I pick up all of them from his careful, too-friendly apology. We're keeping it light and in a way I sense that he is appealing to my human side, as it were, my non-boss side. Of course there is a slippery slope to that. Allow too much of that and you're buddies suddenly, and workers under you are telling you about how hungover they are and expecting all kinds of inappropriate latitude from their pal, Charlie. Best not to start down that path. Chris has said something just now, but I'm not listening well and don't know what it is.
“Well, listen,” I say, putting a stop to any thoughts of chumming around. “Here we start work at 8:00, so if you could just make sure that you're at your desk by 8:00, that would be good.” I find I make a lot of hypothetical propositions like this: the way things could be, the world improved.
Chris looks down at his papers and agrees with me without looking me in the eye, and I see that he will do it, if begrudgingly. Chris is okay; I like him, even.
At home my daughters work on me in the same way. “Please, Daddy, we're not doing anything wrong, but all the kids stay out until 1:00 and we miss everything if we come home at 12:00.” It is the only time they call me Daddy: when they are asking me for something. It works, often. I grant them permissions that are against my better judgment; their mother takes their side even when they are there in the room. In the end I feel cheated, and I wonder if I'm being lied to. I sense that Miranda takes their side not for moral reasons, but to nourish her sense that she is romantic, alive, the victim of a dull and passionless husband. The morality, the structure, the imposition of rules fall to me, as it does at work, and the more I feel resentment toward the people who put me in this position the more I enforce the same rules you think you can flout, goddammit: if no one will do it, I will. In the mornings I wear a headband and sweatsuit and I run, faster than I should, breathing heavily and feeling the force of each footfall against the pavement.
In a meeting yesterday a cell phone rang. A man stood up to answer it and cradled it against his cheek, carrying it from the room the way a mother might remove her crying baby from a church. For a moment there, I had to wonder where I was.
When I run, the leaves blow across the intersection, crossing with the light, as it happens, catching against my ankles and tumbling end over end, darting right and left en masse like a school of fish. I run and run, sweat collecting on my chest, my ears pounding with the sound of my heart.
Tonight, with the television babbling and a magazine spread across my lap, I will recline, shoes off socks on, and find myself wondering why Miranda and the girls have been gone so long. Thinking: they should be home by now. A long time will pass before I realize that I am neither reading nor watching television: I am doing nothing more than waiting, listening for the door •
Robert Mentzer is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio.
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