Tack Steps Out

This is the line, right here, right at the edge of this cubicle here, and Tack knows it. The front of his left oxford curves into the air just over the imaginary line, which feels warmer, perhaps because, at this time in the afternoon, the gap in the cubicles allows a bit of light from the window to pass through it onto the carpet there. Tack is ducked down – only slightly, since he is not quite tall enough to be all that noticeable over the tops of the cubicles, especially if the onlooker is sitting down – in an attempt to avoid any detection; detection would be nearly inevitable once he crosses this line, passes into that slightly better-lit section of the floor, into the view of as many as nine other people: seven of his equals, who sit in desk clusters a short distance away, and the two section managers in their spotless-glass-paned offices at the end of the aisle.

Peter “Tack” Tacklander is trying to escape. For three years, seven months and something like nineteen days, he has been cold-calling for Calibrio, Ltd., a subsidiary of a magazine publishing company’s faux-third-party marketing firm (faux in that the company was founded on the publishing company’s dime and, though legally separate as far as taxes and other paperwork-heavy things go, management still reports to the VP of Sales back at what the staff is supposed to vaguely refer to as HQ) but has never called out sick, taken an unscheduled day off (the schedule a mostly-unmanaged Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that few employees other than Tack know how to manipulate), arrived late or left early. He is always where he is expected to be in an effort to camouflage his below-average cold-calling performance behind an otherwise spotless record. And here Tack stands now, his foot floating an inch or so above the invisible line, testing the light and wondering if he can cross it, make it to the door without being seen or questioned.

He looks back to his own space only a few strides behind him.

Bucky Mangus and Steve Weller cross lines daily, each seated in a cubicle adjacent to Tack’s, and both frequently leaning over the shared walls – Bucky from the north and Steve from the west – to talk about how they masturbate and who they are most recently masturbating to. Bucky is on a March Madness high and has developed a separate bracket dedicated to identifying the damn hottest cheerleaders of this year’s basketball competition. He is the only judge. He is also the collector of cash for the office’s March Madness bracket pool, and though gambling is strictly forbidden at Calibrio, Ltd., most employees pitch in their ten bucks, right down to HR and management. Tack hasn’t watched a college basketball game in several years, has no interest in the outcome of the tournament, and has placed in the top five, though never first, of approximately fifty participants, in each of the past three years he has been with the company.

He now realizes that he needs to think this through; he needs to strategize a proper egress.

“Tack, Tack, Tack—” he hears immediately upon sitting down, and though Tack is an inch away from perspiring through his shirt, he is able to take a long and deep breath, relieved that he turned back at the exact moment he did, the exact moment that Steve Weller’s fat, oily, red face protruded over the edge of his cubicle and into Tack’s space: “What’s going on with the Jayhawks game, Tack?” Weller is so close and breathing so heavily that Tack can smell the garlic bread from Weller’s lunch at deMaria’s. He wonders, as he often does, why he never takes longer lunches, why he sticks to the thirty-minute mandate and will finish the last bites from a bag of chips at his desk if necessary.

“Stanford is a good school,” Tack says without enthusiasm. He knows just enough about the tournament outcomes, typically from a quick glance toward the filled-out bracket pinned to the wall of his cubicle (in this instance, Weller’s fat face is only a few inches above it, making the small downward look unnoticeable), to make a passing comment when necessary, though he avoids entering any conversation that involves specificity. It is nothing more than a matter of fitting in.

“Ah, fuck you,” Weller says, descending. He thumps his side of the divider twice, shaking Tack’s desk. Tack doesn’t need to look over the partition to know that Weller has a window open on his computer desktop, probably small and tucked into the top-right corner, in which he is watching the Stanford-Kansas game. The entire office has the same window open, each logged in through one of the company’s DirecTV profiles, so that, in a long series of short bursts of enthusiasm for colleges and universities the staff of Calibrio, Ltd. never attended, everyone can monitor his or her bracket in real-time. There are, of course, televisions in the break room and conference room and lobby, and each is tuned to a basketball game, even during business hours (Tack’s supervisor earlier called it a hardcore promo time for sports publications, and is pushing for Tack and everyone else to emphasize how the client will have extended and exclusive coverage that customers can’t find anywhere else).

“He stepped out! He stepped-the-fuck-out!” Bucky is shouting at his computer monitor, and Tack is glad that he doesn’t have a potential customer on the line.

He could fake a call on his cell phone by placing the device on the edge of his desk and letting it vibrate for a few seconds before answering it quietly and absconding toward the lobby with the phone pressed to his ear. If he does this, Tack figures, he can go as far as to wave the cell phone in the general direction of his supervisor, who, consumed by what sounds like a March Madness bracket-busting upset, would hardly register Tack’s departure and therefore not be on the lookout for his return. This is a weak plan, and Tack is fully aware of its awfulness, disgusted by its weakness, and yet, for lack of a better option, he continues to contemplate tweaks that could make it work.

And now glass is breaking, and there is a gush of air and heat, and the vertical beams between the windows are splintering, and glass and wood and bits of brick are showering down on Tack and Bucky and Weller and everybody else in the office, and for a moment Tack is relieved, and the thin pieces of glass and wood that scrape across his face and hands and neck feel like a cool rain. It is suddenly as though everything he has done to this point in the day has been erased, as though he hadn’t left the door unlocked earlier, as though Hailey Thompson hadn’t swung the door open to see him squeezing his eyes shut, mid-shit, his pants around his ankles, in the dark. The blast is the only thing anyone will remember of this day.

It is only when he tastes the blood in his mouth that Tack ducks behind the outward-facing partition of his cubicle, a three-foot wide barrier between the flying debris and his body.

Hailey Thompson is both tall and slender, often wears pencil skirts and button-up blouses of thin material, and she keeps her long, dark brown hair straight and tidy; and though she, more than once, has been the topic of discussion between Bucky and Weller over Tack’s workspace, Tack has never admitted (he has never engaged in this topic of conversation) that he, too, more than once has contemplated fucking Hailey Thompson on many of the horizontal and vertical surfaces of the Calibrio, Ltd. office, including his own cubicle the majority of times, while masturbating.

Hands are grabbing at Tack’s shirt, and he is being yanked upward and out of his cubicle, and he sees the dark, sweaty face of Bucky Mangus vibrating above him. He can’t hear much more than a dull rubbing of his ass against the carpet. Tack kicks. He grabs at Bucky’s forearm and attempts to yank himself free. I am fine he thinks he hears himself shouting upward, and Bucky drops him. Bucky is a linebacker, a six-three, two-fifty black man with a shaved head and bulging arm muscles that Tack previously didn’t know existed. He wears his shirts loose with buttons undone and rarely wears a tie or jacket, and he makes everything into a joke; but, in this moment, Tack flat on his back and a bloodied Bucky breathing heavy above him, Tack understands just how small and weak and fearful he really is. He wishes that he hadn’t kicked, that he hadn’t pleaded to be let go, that Bucky had instead lifted him over his enormous shoulder and carried him to a safe place far away from here. But now Bucky is patting him on the shoulder. “Glad you’re okay, man,” he says. “Glad you’re okay.” And he moves on down the aisle, turns left, and disappears.

Hailey Thompson walks with confidence. Tack hears rolling timpani whenever she passes and leans back in his chair, leaning slightly into the aisle outside his cubicle, to watch her walk. He has given her every movement, each part of her magnificent body, a soundtrack: her voice like a solo violin in sotto, her hands like flutes and piccolos, her legs all forms of percussion. And everything around him slows when he sees her, falls in time and harmony, and he wills himself not to get hard, not to reveal himself, but he doesn’t stop watching or listening.

Now Tack is standing. He rubs his eyes and he slaps the side of his head a few times as if trying to dislodge something from inside his ear, as if water is sloshing around in there. Debris is everywhere. He was pretty close to the blast when it happened, his cubicle only a few paces from the window that blew out. Tack surveys the office.

Almost everything is intact: a few lights have fallen to the floor, a few cubicle walls have been knocked over, and there is glass and wood and brick all around. Nothing that would take weeks to clean or rebuild. At best, Tack figures a week off, but two days is far more realistic. A cleaning service will be called and a contractor. Building management probably has someone on call.

Tack can feel the brush of air from the window against the cuts on his face; and, to his right, he sees Weller and one of the supervisors and a new guy pulling debris from an area where the ceiling collapsed, and he steps toward them briefly, then stops. He sees Hailey Thompson, and she is still, and the banging and creaking of metal and the crunching of footsteps on glass are dissonant against the hum of electrical wires, and there is no music coming from her. And, without realizing it, Tack is now standing at the end of the carpet, just shy of the window ledge. It’s a short fall from the second floor, and Tack doesn’t think it will kill him. Nobody will notice him go from here. The front part of his oxford – he takes notice of a small tear in the leather – curves into the air just over the edge, and it feels cooler, and he steps out.

Andrew Keating

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