ALEX HIGLEY / DON'T TALK
Trainer and Trainee are standing atop a grassy hump in a Midwestern office park, a herd of office workers below. Trainee asks, “Where does the part of your family that you don’t talk to live?”
Trainer clears his throat as a temporary response to Trainee’s question. He has known Trainee for half an hour—no, wait, he thinks, I’ve known him for going on two, three hours; he has spent the morning walking Trainee through a day-one-orientation-ease-in. Trainee has been all follow-up questions and nodding and Trainer has repeatedly had to bring him back to the task at hand, which is no task at all but instead the rote memorization of locations that begin with the letter B.
Trainee has no chance of being hired, and Trainer knows this. He and all of HR are aware Trainee has fabricated his entire résumé. A false chance was provided so HR would have more time to investigate, confirm, cover the bases. That was the phrase Short John from HR had used—“cover the bases”—to describe the need for the role Trainer is currently performing, and Trainer realized he had no idea where that saying originated. It made no sense to him. The phrase seemed American in its indirectness and brevity, but Trainer couldn’t be sure because he knew no other languages.
Tomorrow morning, after HR has done the full check and double check, covered the bases, Trainee will receive a call indicating his probationary period is over, and he will not be part of the company’s future.
Of Trainee’s real work history, Trainer knows only that someone who shares Trainee’s name has an online T-shirt business that sells a single design. A black T-shirt that reads “RAIDERS” across the chest in the same typeface as the opening title screen of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Trainer continues staring at the high rise, where he has worked for the past eleven years, and thinks: MIDWESTERN OFFICE IN FLAMES. The windows are stuffed with a fall sky mirrored, clouds possessing nothing but soft white changing. Nothing in the fifteen stories to reasonably stall his response to Trainee’s question, nothing that would make sense for him to be blissed-out looking at, or horrified by. He thinks, If I just keep staring at this building, will Trainee know this is not a real first day? If I act like there are no consequences, and continue staring, will Trainee become suspicious about the reality of my concern in his future? Will he see through me?
Trainee asks again, “Where do they live? The ones you don’t talk to?”
Had they even been talking about family? Trainer can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. Trainee does not seem to think that Trainer’s staring and silence signals his impending termination, but Trainer is suspicious of the degree of relationship-building investment in Trainee’s questions.
Over Trainee’s shoulder, Trainer sees his co-workers loosely gathered in a depressing mass. Beyond the faces Trainer can put names to, there are hundreds of others swelling out over the lawn. There are orange and yellow leaves on the ground, the evacuees are in sweaters and jackets and brown shoes. The worst man in Trainer’s office, Meynar, holds his paperback-sized phone over his head and plays that Stones song, “I Am Waiting.” Trainer hates Meynar for taking a beautiful song and inserting it dumbly, obviously, frankly, into a real-life, mortgage-paying moment. This phone is so loud. A woman who has been warned twice about her choice of workplace attire is cackling at Meynar’s commentary on the fire drill using a fifty-year-old song. Trainer thinks, fifty-year-old song, month-old-phone, fifteen-year-old factory worker, ancient power structure.
Trainer works with only thirty or so of the people standing outside, recognizes maybe triple that. Of the thirty, Trainer has slept with one. It went especially horribly, and yet the woman, Tam, never hinted at any foolishness or wrongdoing on his part to anyone in the office. Her discretion made Trainer enjoy his work more. Her discretion made him feel like he could risk attempting to make himself happy without the consequence of being shamed. Her discretion made Trainer enjoy his life more.
They had sex seven years ago, and Tam’s discretion is still Trainer’s dominant conscious thought when he has hate-fevers for his work life, for his co-workers, for this life. Tam might walk by his cubicle, or say hello and smile, and Trainer will think, “She said nothing,” and it comforts him. When Trainer is not capable of guiding his own thinking, he thinks: she has dirt on me. Tam even had invited Trainer to her wedding, and to avoid it he took a weekend vacation to Seattle.
Trainee is still talking. He seems to want all personal information. And, unlike Tam, who has the rare ability to be a holder of information and yet give the impression that she is not, Trainee is asking and relaying and linking everything that Trainer is saying and avoiding saying on the fly, in an imperious, confusing way. Confusing, because of the speed; Trainee is acting like his time is short, like maybe he knows he will be found out as an imposter, but why then attempt to learn anything? And yet, it would also be difficult—for example, if one of the supervisors were to ask Trainer his impressions of Trainee—to describe Trainee as anything other than charismatic. Based on observation alone, evidence against Trainee and his character is limited at this point.
“Extended family?” Trainer says finally. This is a dodge, answering the question with a clarification.
Without breaking his focus on obtaining an answer or appearing upset about Trainer looking goggle-eyed towards the sky, Trainee says, “You’re saying you talk to all of your nuclear family?”
Trainer knows how old Trainee is, he saw paperwork he shouldn’t have and knows that they are both sons of baby boomers. It would not be unreasonable for Trainee to assume that Trainer has many aunts and uncles, many cousins. Trainer thinks, I’m white, Midwestern, and Trainee may incorrectly assume I’m Catholic because of the red in my beard. Who knows? Trainer thinks: We, white people that is, seem to be bad at being family members in general. Trainer is not sure why he believes this. He knows it is true of himself.
Trainer asks, “Where does the part of your family that you don’t talk to live?” Trainer has remembered he is the trainer, not the trainee.
“Here,” Trainee says. “Everyone’s here. We don’t talk.”
Trainer sees that Trainee is trying to make a connection. Trainer now understands that Trainee feels he is too old to be starting over in this career, to be back at square one, amongst a mostly white office that appears to have made conservative fiscal decisions, clothing decisions, entertainment decisions, drug usage decisions, and sexual decisions for their entire lives. Excluding maybe the fake-reckless Meynar and his cackling work-friend. But, even in their case, loudness is reserved mostly for the outdoors. Trainer also guesses that Trainee feels too handsome to be in the position he is in. Trainer can’t relate. He hides behind his beard and old-world gut. Trainee is not faultless however. Trainee is making mistakes. He is too quickly trying to form a bond. He has no patience. He is incapable of listening quietly. He’s been over-friendly, over-questioning in a way that is suspicious. And he is not aware enough to understand that a falsified résumé would not work; not aware enough to realize this day is not real.
Trainee asks, “What about office relationships?”
Trainer looks back to Trainee, away from Meynar and his phone show: “Disclose them to management, is what I’m supposed to tell you.”
“That’s what you’ve done?”
“The important thing is to know what you are expected to do.”
“Who was it? Is she down there?” Trainee appears excited. He picks out a redhead, points, and says, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Her?”
The part of Trainer’s family that he doesn’t talk to lives in Maine, and in Connecticut, and in Nebraska, Arizona, California, and the state of Washington. There are cousins with names he doesn’t know, faces he wouldn’t know if they were floating Wizard of Oz–style at his door speaking their own names, he’d need a map, genealogical and geographical, with pictures of the few of the extended family he would recognize from the era that he once knew them in. He is positive he could identify a man named Uncle Kurt in 1983, caveat being, Kurt must be standing in front of a televised football game. And Trainer would have to be standing next to the kitchen island drinking blue juice from a low vantage while other uncles argued about the watchability of the I-formation, and other similarly dulling trends that college football was swept up in. There are only memories of family for Trainer. Memories of unwarranted reprimands from aunts for recycling cans in the wrong fashion and bullish black labs standing eye-to-eye with his younger self. Long drives south, long drives everywhere. He still has a brother. They text occasionally. But it’s all exchanges that could be had between any two acquaintances. Any two people with each other’s phone number and a lazy backlog of incidental shared history.
Sometimes Trainer talks to his sandwich. He talks to the ketchup puddle on his plate. He says things like, “Red baby,” and, “Here’s a lunch.” He talks to a specific space near the ceiling as he takes his showers where there lives a faint amoeba-shaped mold pattern, saying, “That’s good,” meaning the beer he is drinking and the warm water, the cold and the hot together, and yet he directs his thanks to the mold.
And he talks to his bed. He talks to his bed like you would to a dog that you loved though he does not talk to real dogs this way. He pats real dogs and says “Ok, boy, Ok, boy,” and then begins to guess at what they want, not knowing the answer is always: love, food, water, help me up, help me down, let me in, help me. But dogs, of course, are enormously more complicated than their needs. It just so happens that they make their needs easy to understand. Trainer does not see that he is related to dogs in this way. His needs are simple, and he fills the ones he can recognize: food, the soft temporary dampening of his awareness, sleep. Help me.
He never answers Trainee about Tam. Never tells him that she is down there in the crowd, a woman he slept with once, and whose cat ate the used condom he threw in the trash. The rest of the night had been spent waiting for the cat to throw up the condom, which never happened. Tam took the following day off work to take the cat to the vet, who told her to wait another day and see if the cat could shit the condom out. The following day Tam took a picture of the condom in the litter box and texted it to Trainer. He couldn’t remember the accompanying language, only the photograph, which was horrifying, but somehow comforting, in its finality.
The evacuation ceases at some point, there is shuffling back in, purposeful straggling, laughter. Trainee claps Trainer on the back on the knoll and starts towards the building. Maybe he thinks there will be many moments like this in their future. Trainer asks Trainee what his favorite Indiana Jones movie is, and Trainee says “Monkey Brains.”
That night Trainer stands at his kitchen sink eating strawberry ice cream. He holds the container in his left hand, puts a large spoonful of the pink ice cream in his mouth, and holds it on his tongue until it warms enough for him to swallow it whole. His dumb reflection is in the window above the sink. It always is, there is never any avoiding it. The blob of ice cream held in his cow mouth. This is how people gain weight, he thinks. This is how I am gaining weight, he thinks. There had been a recent request for shirt sizes in the office via email, some kind of promotion where baseball style raglans with the company name were being printed and supplied to the employees nationally. He knew the woman in charge of gathering the shirt sizes for the office well, she was a friend of Tam’s. The woman and Tam posted pictures of themselves sweaty and flushed after their bi-monthly workouts. Trainer responded to the woman’s email: I am transitioning to an XL.
He still has a decent amount of ice cream left. He looks at the container, which says it is 40 ounces of ice cream. He has at least two-thirds to go. He thinks about a meme that he’s seen recently on his phone. There had been a picture of a young fat white boy sitting with a large plate of chicken nuggets. Below the photograph read “Chicken nuggets is my family.”
Trainer puts the ice cream away and drinks a glass of water from the tap, letting the water run so the second glass he has is significantly colder than the first. Trainer thinks of Trainee, the call he will soon be receiving, how he will have to begin his job hunt anew, and he tries to understand how the man so quickly saw him for what he was. What was it that Trainee no longer had left to lose? Then he remembers his brother sent him the chicken nuggets boy picture, and so he texts his brother back the meme, a move that even as he is doing it feels strange, and then after the re-send of the nugget boy, he texts, “Strawberry ice cream and water is my family!” He feels insane. A text bubble appears containing a blinking ellipsis, meaning that his brother is replying. He waits. He stares at the phone and thinks: A life of staring at things. Then the text bubble disappears. In the morning Trainer sees that his brother had replied at three in the morning, with not an emoji of a broken heart, or a crying face, but an anchor.
Alex Higley is the author of Cardinal and Other Stories and Old Open. He has been previously published by Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, New World Writing, PANK, Fanzine, and elsewhere. He contributed text to Alec Soth’s “The Frank Album.” He lives in Evanston, Illinois with his wife and dog.