A Routine

A Routine
Ryan Everett Felton

          One.
          Two.
          Three.

          I shift the car from park to drive the requisite number of times. I count along in my head, as the ritual demands.
          Four.
          Five.
          Six.
          Seven.

          Then I lick my lips seven times and back out of the driveway. It is 7:00 in the morning when I leave for another day at the office, and I will time my arrival so that the digits on the other side of the o’clock colon can be divided by the magic number. I do this every day.
          I do this to protect the world from certain catastrophe, and you’re welcome.
          The other drivers, as usual, do not realize they are in a race against time and against me. I weave in and out of traffic, passing seven vehicles at a time or none at all.
          Many of them honk their horns at me. If eight of them honk, of course, I increase the irrationality of my driving until six more press into their horns. Let them honk. Let them yell and shake their fists. It is my food. I lap up their anger, I sip on their indignance. The best part of waking up. Yum yum yum.
          Yum yum yum yum.
          Like always I park my car in the seventh spot from the edge of the parking lot at the office. The closest co-worker’s vehicle is about a hundred yards ahead. Nobody else parks this far out. It allows for a contact-free, forty-two second walk through the lot before I’m likely to bump into another human being, which I find is just shy of ample time to steel oneself for the horrors of artificially lit workday dystopia.
          The geese are legion today. The office grounds are lost to them. We are here now to serve the Canadian waterfowl and there’s nothing left to be done about it. They honk in warning of my approach; they hiss and flap their wings at me; I step in some of their feces and they laugh.
          I kick a rock in the gaggle’s direction. Direct hit – between the eyes of a big, ugly one.
          “Ever thus to tyrants,” I hiss back.
          At lunch I will feed them the last seven of my Pringles, but only because I have no choice.
          I am still at least nineteen paces away from the door, but Fiona is holding it open for me anyway, waiting patiently. There is a familiar sting of panic in my cortex as I imagine succumbing to the obligations of this social more, see myself walking through the entrance without pressing the release bar on the door seven times. Fiona’s smiling, willing to stand there until the end of the world, her hip pressed against the glass, waiting and waiting on me.
          I give her a pathetic smile and turn around. She will think I left something in my car. Yes. That’s it. My Thermos is still in there.
          When I’m sure she’s gone inside I return. Press the bar on the door seven times. Go inside. Wipe my feet seven times on the foyer mat.
          Nobody is in the lobby. I have once again timed my arrival perfectly. I press the UP arrow affixed to the wall between the elevators, lifting my finger fully, pressing again and counting.
          One.
          Two.
          Three.
          Four.

          Five.
          Six.

          “Morning, Wyatt.”
          Seven. And damn it.
          “I said good morning, Wyatt.” Beatrice has sidled up, her tattered sweater vest clutching all of her considerable gut as usual. She keeps it in her drawer upstairs, the vest, in a wadded mess along with her pain medication and eucalyptus drops. It smells like mold and so does she.
          “Good morning, Bea.” Mustn’t make eye contact.
          The elevator goes ding and the doors part. Chivalry is my middle name and so I wait for balding Beatrice to shuffle in before following. I stand blocking the button panel from her view so I can press Floor 14 seven times without her giving me The Stare.
          There is a cup of hot water in her hands, like every morning. I do not know the purpose of the hot water other than she adorns her desk with the cups still full, lets the steam run out of them and the water go lukewarm and never drinks them or throws them away. It is widely held that it is a defense, a clever blockade to those who would seek to put work on her desk.
          It is quiet for three and one-ninth seconds and then Beatrice says, “Did I ever tell you my grandson’s name is Wyatt, too?”
          “No,” I say. We both know I am lying. This is a game. It’s our thing. She has told me about her grandson one hundred and thirteen times, including today.
          “He’s turning one this weekend.”
          “You don’t say.” He turned one last weekend, too.
          She blows on her hot water. “What a doll baby he is,” she says. “Got his gramma wrapped around his little finger, too.”
          “I’ll bet.”
          “Wyatt. Just like you. Isn’t that something?”
          The elevator once again goes ding and the doors open. Beatrice is still talking but I don’t hear her. I step off and the doors slide shut behind her and I say “good day,” imagining that she will stand there for hours until I return to descend after my shift, and resume the conversation.
          Swiping my ID badge at the reader on the wall, and counting to seven, I close my eyes tight until weak tears ooze out just enough to wet my lashes. This will protect from the chemicals vibrating in the overhead light fixtures. I have read that if one of the tubes that illuminates the office were to bust, it would shower the lot of us with a compound known to eat through human flesh. I do not believe this exactly, but the strange buzzing in those light panels does not instill me with any level of comfort, either.
          Having set foot to the carpet at last I embrace the miasma of corporate hell. I count off the steps: seven steps fourteen times and I am at my desk, at the sinking chair that wails metallic when I sit. I open my cabinet and shut it seven times before dropping in my keys and coat and sack lunch. A goose feather is stuck to my shoe; I remove it and pin it with a thumbtack to the meshy fabric covering the three walls that enclose me.
          The feather joins other relics of its ilk. The gum that fell out of the janitor’s mouth in the bathroom. Mort’s Pop Tart wrapper. A sticky note written by Anonymous to Anonymous, propositioning sexual infidelity.
          I do not keep these things because I enjoy looking at them. I keep them because I enjoy making others look at them. I want them to know that this is all it amounts to. The whole of human history is on my bulletin board and this is it.
          Some days I wonder if it’s even worth preserving, protecting. Maybe I should just stop keeping the Sevenths, let go and let it all crumble.
          Except I can’t.
          I made a vow, after all.
          I log into the PC. Instantly a calendar alert pops up. I am reminded of a “sit-down” with our human resources representative. I am six minutes late now, and if I time it just right I can be exactly seven minutes late, which is in actuality right on time.
          I make a beeline for HR’s office. On the way I pass Nancy, in her filthy cubicle lying flat on her back, legs up in the air. She cycles an invisible upside-down bike. It is to help the circulation in her diabetic feet. She claims if she does not do this every half-hour, her toes will turn black and necrotic and eventually fall off. That does not explain why she still insists on wearing skirts to work every day.
          As I walk past we make eye contact.
          Towers of Banker’s Boxes line the corridor. I tap seven of them with my palm on the way to my meeting.
          Seven knocks on HR’s door. I am waved inside.
          Gerald is at the desk today. I like Gerald. He does not trim his nose hair.
          “Wyatt. Have a seat.” I do. There is a mug of tepid coffee in his hands. The mug proclaims his dislike of Mondays. I like Mondays. Without them there would not be enough days in the week.
          Gerald slurps and continues. “I wanted to talk to you. Check in and see how you’re doing.”
          “I’m dandy,” I say.
          “Uh-huh.” His thumbs tickle one another. “I’m told you’re doing great work. The company appreciates it, Wyatt.” He inhales and holds it. “Management is worried about you, though. You’re reclusive. ‘Hard to approach,’ more than one co-worker puts it.”
          “I think I’m a peach,” I say.
          “Be that as it may,” Gerald sighs, swirling his mug, “it is the recommendation of this office that you seek counseling. We’ve made you an appointment. You’ll be paid for the time.”
          I arch my back into the seat. “When is the appointment?”
          “Tomorrow at noon.”
          The hairs on my neck stand on end. “I take lunch at 12:07,” I say. “That will not be possible.”
          “Wyatt,” Gerald says, leaning in, brows furrowed in fake concern. “Your behavior is less than rational, you must admit.”
          “I wouldn’t agree.”
          “When the phone rings you stare at it.”
          This is true. I let it ring seven times before answering. Any less and it would spell disaster. It leaves me a small window to accept any call. I don’t mind. It’s my job.
          “I’m afraid management insists.”
          “Is this about my confrontation with Francis?” Last week I threw a stress ball at my supervisor. He interrupted my counting the papers as the fax spat them out.
          “Well…” The HR man’s voice evaporates. “Not just that. Look, Wyatt. Like I said. You work hard. You produce. There’s no disputing that.”
          “But.”
          “But.” Beads of sweat on his forehead trail down and converge at his eyebrows like punkers’ piercings. I catch a whiff of the coffee he’s drinking and decide there is whisky in there. “Well,” he says, “you seem to have a lot of disdain for your colleagues.”
          “Many of my colleagues seem to have disdain for the work I do. There can be no distractions. Gerald,” I say. “Should I be concerned about my position?”
          His palms go up, leaving quickly shrinking wet marks on the desk. “No, no, nothing like that. We’re just concerned about you, is all.”
          I stand. “Is that all?” I ask.
          “Well. I wanted to say,” Gerald sniffles, “that if you need anything I’m always here to talk.”
          “Thank you, Gerald.” I don’t like him anymore.
          On my way back I visit the restroom. My stall, mercifully, is unoccupied. I am in the midst of my business when a man at the urinal starts to talk.
          “Hello, there, you old so-and-so,” he says.
          I pause. If I’m quiet enough he will stop.
          Or not. He’s on his Bluetooth. “Yeah, I’ll have the report in before lunch. Slave-driver.” The man cackles and lets rip a sputtering burst of flatulence. My hands squeeze my knees. I don’t breathe.
          “Yeah, we’re on for Thursday,” the man says. The urinal flushes. “I will drink you under the table, you’re darn skippy.” Footsteps lead away from me, sitting there with my pants at my ankles. There is no sound of running water, of the drying of hands. Only the door opening and him leaving. I finish in peace and wash my hands seven times.
          As is customary I sit alone in the break room for lunch, some hours later. No one has entertained the notion of joining me at my table in years. There is an office legend that I am known to bite if interrupted in my eating. I do nothing to dispel the rumor.
          I chew my food at intervals of seven. Pause. Chew again. Swallow. It’s all to keep the plagues away, save the world and stuff. I wonder sometimes why me, but it doesn’t do any good to go down that road. Just leaves you feeling blue.
          I am sixty-three percent finished with my peanut butter and jelly when a clammy hand falls upon my shoulder and rests there.
          “Heya, stranger.”
          The person attached to the hand is Tippi. She is a transfer from Accounts Receivable with brown teeth and an awful name. The others speak poorly and judgmentally of her when she isn’t around. I know they talk about me too, and think she senses the same thing. She believes we are simpatico, that we understand one another and sympathize with our respective plights.
          But she does not understand what I endure, day in and day out. No one does.
          Her hand is still on me. It is rotating and flexing in what I assume is meant to be a gentle massage of my shoulder. “What’s for lunch?” she asks. It is a joke, or meant to be. As though I packed her a lunch as well.
          I smile. It’s tough.
          “Same old, same old,” I say.
          She leans in. Her long hair grazes my cheek. It smells like Head ‘n Shoulders dandruff shampoo and cats. There is a prolonged painful moment in which she pretends to smack her lips in culinary envy. The sound alone kills my interest in food. “Yummy!” she says, and she laughs.
          It occurs to me that if I do not address this predicament she will sit with me and proceed to talk until well past the lunch hour is over.
          And she does sit, scooting a chair close with no regard for personal space. “I only got three invoices done this morning,” she says. “Idiots keep calling me, y’know? I tell them in management, if you want me manning the phones you gotta take me off invoices. But no one listens. This place can drive you crazy, y’know?”
          I nod. “I know.”
          “You got any big plans for the weekend?”
          I bite into my sandwich again and shake my head.
          “My son’s in town,” Tippi says. I notice she does not have a lunch of her own. There is, however, mustard on her lip. It is bright and yellow like a lighthouse beacon and just as blinding. “We’re going to get dinner. I told him he’s not allowed to bring that trampy girlfriend around, that I want nothing to do with her, y’know?” She throws her head back and sighs. “But I bet he brings her anyway. He thinks he’s in love, y’know? Kids.”
          “Maybe,” I say, after swallowing, “he is.”
          “Is what?”
          “In love.”
          She waves me off, scrunching up her nose. “No,” she says. “Just young and dopey, y’know? I’m his mom, y’know? I know him better than he thinks he knows himself.”
          With my rear-end, I scoot my chair back and get up. “Would you excuse me?” I say.
          “Where you goin’? I’ll tag along.”
          I say I’m going to my car. She reacts as though that sounds like fun. It is not so easy to shake Tippi. Even when I pretend to have to use the bathroom, she waits outside until I emerge. She asks me if everything “came out all right.”
          It is difficult to concentrate on counting my steps, with her at my side complaining about her son’s poor choice of partner. She bemoans the geese in the parking lot, calling them “stupid critters,” and she lights up a cigarette that produces a blue halo around me. If I catch cancer from her second-hand smoke it will mean the end of existence. But she has no idea.
          I toss the seven Pringles in my pocket to the geese, as is required of me. There is a moment’s respite, a merciful silence, as our beaked overlords snap at the potato chips and spread their wings in a fighting stance to claim their share.
          They are evil.
          “What’d you do that for?” Tippi asks.
          “Never mind,” I say.
          “That was stupid,” she says. “Y’know? No wonder they skulk around out here all day. They got you feeding ‘em!”
          “I have to.”
          I press the unlock button on my keychain seven times. Then I pull the car door handle the same number and get in. Tippi is standing outside the driver’s side of the vehicle, puffing on her Camel Light and staring at me.
          “You got OCD?” she asks.
          I take a deep, long, carcinogenic breath and say, “No. No, Tippi, I do not have OCD.”
          “I think you got it bad,” she says. “That’s what I think.”
          “As is your right,” I say.
          “They got pills for that, y’know?” With a chipped nail she taps the cigarette, and ashes fall slow to her feet, blinking orange. “You should see a shrink.”
          “If only it were that easy,” I say. “Can you please excuse me? I have an… errand to run.”
          “Is that why you park so far out?” she says.
          I close the door and start the engine, putting the key in the ignition and removing it seven times beforehand. Tippi watches all of this. She watches as I drive away to nowhere, for no reason. Simply to escape her leer.
          Tippi is a disruption.
          For the rest of my lunch hour I drive circles around the office grounds. In loops I pass the other cars, seven at a time, garnering the angry horn taps that are my lifeblood. When I can no longer avoid it I return to the parking lot, to My Spot, where I must leave my Civic to slumber.
          There is a brown Taurus in my spot.
          I leave the car idling behind it. I whisper, “No. No, no.” And I watch Tippi step out of the Taurus, smirking, triumphant.
          I open the door, step out, engine still puttering.
          “What are you doing?”
          “There’s an open spot right in front of the building,” Tippi says. “Just for you. Convenient, right?” For a second her eye sparkles, blood-red.
          “Move.”
          I’m shaking. I say again, “Move.”
          She shakes her head. “Nope.” She is still working on the same cigarette. Its flame is eternal. The fire of it sustains her.
          “Park up there,” she says. “Go on. It’ll be good for you.”
          She is Satan.
          I watch her walk away, smoke trailing behind her. She tosses back her head and cackles. She sounds just like the geese. Perhaps she is their master. What’s good for her is good for the gander. I am not the gander.
          I am Wyatt. I am the Protector.
          She is Satan.
          I get back in the car. Put it in drive, shifting the stick seven times. I ram into her rear bumper seven times. She does not look back.
          There is nothing to do but park next to her. Six spots away from the end of the lot. It’s wrong, and it feels wrong. Like rusty nails scraping my brain. When I put the car in park, when I pull the keys out of the ignition, the pavement gives a warning lurch. I cannot respect its admonition.
          There’s a ringing between my ears, like in films after a bomb goes off. What can I do? Tippi has forced my hand. Forgive her, Lord – she knows not what she does. Does she?
          Swaying a little, my head pounding, I walk to the building. Tippi is there, at the door, holding it open for me.
          “Go on in,” she calls. She’s smiling.
          “Please move,” I say.
          “I will,” she says. “Go on in.”
          “I have to…” I reach for the handlebar on the door. She steps aside, blocking it.
          “Just go in. It won’t kill ya’, y’know?” Her head gives a tic toward the lobby. “You’ll thank me later.”
          “I can’t.”
          “You can.”
          “Move, please.” I reach behind her. She presses her back into the door, wags a finger at me. “You don’t understand,” I say. “Please.”
          “Inside.” She drops her cigarette, stamps on it. It burns a hole in the concrete, tunneling within seconds to the earth’s core.
          Behind me, the geese take flight, the whole gaggle of them. For the first time in months they leave the site.
          “Damn you.” I grab her by the shoulders, wrestle with her. She is immovable. We both grunt, she blows tobacco breath into my nose, and still I cannot reach the handle. Can’t press on it the way I need to, the perfect seven times.
          My hand, as it must, snakes up her chest toward her throat. I will strangle her if I must. “Tippi,” I say, “you have to move.”
          She’s choking. Garbled, she says only, “No.” She spreads her arms and legs, rooted to the ground.
          “Move!”
          “No!”
          Tippi!”
          From behind me, a man’s voice calls out. “Wyatt?”
          I look around, find Gerald there. A McDonald’s bag swings in his hairy paw, dripping in grease. He says, “Wyatt, what are you doing?”
          And I cannot answer. There is no answer that will satisfy him, that will make Tippi budge. I am defeated. All is lost.
          “Go inside,” Gerald says. “I want you in my office.”
          The woman stands her ground. I remove my hands from her neck. I’m trembling. The ringing in my head grows louder, becomes physical pain.
          “Now!” Gerald says.
          He shoves me inside. I fall over, into the foyer. Gerald apologizes, helps me up, and into the lobby we go, his arm around my shoulder. Behind us the glass doors crackle like a windshield struck by a pebble. The lightning-bolt design spreads. The glass will shatter in moments.
          “You need help,” Gerald says.
          “Sir,” I say, “if you’d only listen—”
          “Enough.”
          He presses the elevator button. I reach for it, too, try to get in my quota, to stop the inevitable, but he swats at my wrist like a stern mother.
          “Don’t push your luck,” he says.
          Out the far window, I see a meteorite streak the sky, see the concentrated glow of its collision with the surface not a mile away.
          The elevator opens.
          There’s no undoing what I’ve done. The consequences are inevitable. Nothing matters, so I step into the elevator with Gerald.
          “…behavior is inexcusable,” he’s saying. There is a ding and the doors close in on us. He presses the button for floor 14 and my own hands hang limp, lifeless, at my hips. Some outside force wallops the elevator. It rocks and we are thrust into the wall together.
          “Heck was that?” Gerald asks.
          “It’s happening,” I say. “I tried to tell you.”
          The ride up is full of the wails and grinding of strained, frayed cables. When the doors open they just barely do. We are greeted by hellfire on floor 14.
          “Dear God!” Gerald backs into the elevator. He presses the button for the lobby, eight times by my count, to no avail. The doors are warped by the flame. They will not shut.
          What is done is done.
          The fire spreads. It makes its way into the elevator with us. We both hear a loud crack overhead – one of the cables snapping – and watch as our co-workers claw over one another, screaming, clothes and hair and skin aflame.
          The floor beneath us is at an angle. Soon we’ll plummet back down to the lobby. If we are lucky, we will not survive the fall.
          The ceiling caves in just outside our metal box. One of the desks from floor 15 crashes through it, lands on a guy from Accounts Payable. I think his name was Dexter. He had athlete’s foot, he told me once.
          “Wyatt,” Gerald says, “what do we do here?”
          I am resolute. “Nothing,” I say. “We do nothing.”
          I think about Tippi’s son and his girlfriend, the one his mother doesn’t like. I imagine she’s beautiful, and funny, and kind, and very much in love with the son. And he with her. I hope they are together now, for the final moments.
          I stare at my hands, at all ten of my fingers. Maybe if I’d have bitten three of them off. Maybe then. That might’ve appeased fate. Held things at bay for a while longer.
          But that’s ridiculous.
          Another cable snaps above, out of sight. We drop a few feet. Here we go. Any second now.
          The panel of numbered buttons next to the door goes haywire. Every button lights up red, except one.
          Seven is dead.
          I was right.
          You bastards, I was right.

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