Over lunch, Danielle tells me about the man she interviewed. He was thirtyish, bald on top, and wore a gray button-down with a pewter trefoil pin. She disclaims with He’s not the candidate, but… and recalls how funny it was that she forgot to send him the email about the conference room being fumigated, so a custodian had to shuffle him down to the Floor 3 computer lab, where Danielle was sitting with clipboard on lap, glasses resting on nose, pushing her wedge sandal against the floor to make the chair spin. The shoes were the first thing he complimented her on.
It turned out that the man liked to spin around in chairs as well, so that was mostly what they talked about. Before Danielle got to the questions on the clipboard, she apologized for the relocation, and for the fact that the projector screen displayed a student experiment in progress: a Farm of the Future, digitally rendered, based on a previous model built out of plastic bottle tops, camera lenses, dead holiday lights, and pictures of fish cut from nature magazines. The fish on the projector were three-dimensional, dithering around a glass tube filled with water, not really eating, not really trying to escape, not really looking like anything alive, when you thought about it. The tube was surrounded by rings, like a planet, but the rings all supported a different crop: kale, leaf lettuce, every green with an important letter-themed vitamin. There were other components to it that Danielle wasn’t sure about, but the idea, she explained when the man asked, was that the Farm of the Future could run by itself – humans would build it, then be sustained by it without interfering, creating an independent ecosystem. He asked whether the fish would consider themselves independent in such a situation, and she could tell that he was joking, but also that he wasn’t.
Every eight seconds, there was a digitized sound, like a water droplet falling from a faucet. Danielle didn’t know what the sound meant; this wasn’t her department. But the experiment had to be kept running, even the sound, in order to test whether the Farm of the Future would work indefinitely.
“How long does it have to be left running?” he asked.
“Indefinitely,” she answered.
She tells me that the man had exuded a certain vibe since walking in the door: one of confidence, but also defeat, underscored by something like deference. His eyes kept training themselves on her shoes. By the end, she realized he’d always known that this interview was a sham, the result of an internal search wherein the department already knew who they were going to hire, but needed on paper that they’d considered so many candidates. “This isn’t my first, um, swim in the tube,” he said, and she laughed.
I crunch a piece of burnt toast and tell her that it sounds like she had a good morning. When we finish eating, the security officer, Don, walks in and tells us – well, Danielle, really – that she needs to see something.
He hustles us to his office, and I feel like I’m about to be interviewed.
It’s a security video of the man from earlier, shot from the end of the hall opposite the computer lab. His talk with Danielle has ended. They shake hands, she walks in the other direction towards the break room, and he walks in the direction of the camera. When he turns the corner, he lifts the hand that shook hers to his face, closes his eyes, and inhales. Don rewinds the video and plays that part again.
He asks, “Did you see that?”
It occurs to me that I don’t really like Don.
Danielle asks what we’re supposed to be looking at. Don says something about the man being a “perv,” and looks to us for a reaction.
I think, maybe he’s just wiping his nose. I think, maybe he just likes female extremities. I think, maybe he just wants to know what she smells like.
Danielle’s chin rests in the trough of her finger and thumb. She’s bothered, but not by what’s in the video. It’s because she knows what happens when something isn’t yours anymore. I hear the droplet sound ring out from the lab down the hall. We’ve both learned a lot about farming today.
As the train rumbles toward the loop, the man across the aisle tells Danielle that she looks like she’s more fit for air travel. Danielle, glasses on the bridge of her nose, has been immersed in a brochure about the nearby Soapstone Beach shipwreck, not visible from the rails, but well-documented in the brochure’s photos. It’s an all-day tour along the coast of the state. The man does not apologize for interrupting.
“This loop is here,” he explains, “so that the train doesn’t have to stop or shunt.” His teenage daughter sleeps in the seat next to him. Danielle allows a polite smile, which launches the man into a story about his engineering days, one day in particular, when his engine smashed through a herd of cows who happened to be crossing the tracks at the wrong time. Thanks to the pilot – the blunt wedge at the head of the engine, he explains, also called a “cow-catcher,” and he chuckles at the connection to his own story – the cattle were tossed into the air and out of the way, rather than being caught underneath and derailing the train. He recalls two things best: the incredulous expression of the farmer as the train passed, and the sound of everyone else on the train vomiting.
He mentions air travel again, how Danielle looks like a woman who should be hanging out in an airport terminal, perusing gossip rags and sipping chai.
“My father repaired switches for the D&H,” Danielle finally tells him, and proceeds with the story of how her father nearly died, which would have prevented her birth, when faulty communication from his bosses about the train schedule led to him hanging over the side of a trestle bridge, waiting for the train to go by.
The man doesn’t respond. He’s either thinking hard about the dangers of the railroad or concentrating on how it feels to be rounding the loop, absorbing the squeals and groans of the car, the panorama of chestnuts, summer sun, and roads that might lead to the beach. Or maybe he thinks she’s lying.
The train heads back in the other direction, and Danielle imagines the French onion soup she’ll eat for dinner. The man barely speaks for the rest of the ride. He eventually asks what the brochure she’s holding is all about.
“I don’t know,” she says. “Nothing.”
Loop de Loop
When my younger brother tells me that he’s marrying his longtime boyfriend, I am driving my car and have no idea what to say.
“Danielle,” he says after a few seconds of silence, “you’re speeding.”
I am. I want to get to where we’re going as soon as possible so that I can look him in the face. We’re about to hit a traffic circle that I’ve always been afraid of, but it’s the quickest way to reach the highway on my regular route.
“Congrats,” I say. “Do you want to celebrate?” I can always forget the circle and turn around. My favorite diner is back the other way.
Greg simply yawns. I’ve just picked him up from the airport. His flight was an hour late, and I sat next to a man with a red pull-along suitcase by his side while I waited, as if I were going somewhere too.
“Do you want me to be your Best-anything?”
“You’re already the best.”
“Okay. Do you want to eat, or not?”
“I could. Or not. Doesn’t matter.”
I take the left prong of the fork, the one that leads to the traffic circle. My two older sisters taught me to drive, and this was the place where they’d always talk about accidents. Sheila, one time, sitting in the passenger seat, let out a sudden scream. I jerked the car into the next lane and asked her what the hell. I just needed to see if you were paying attention, she said. If you were more confident, that wouldn’t have shaken you.
We enter the traffic circle alongside a red minivan. I do not look at the driver. “You should get over,” Greg says, as if I don’t take this route home from work every day.
“Yeah,” I say. “Thanks.”
But I don’t take the exit we need. No, I stay in the circle.
“Why are we going around again?”
“You could have called to tell me,” I say.
“I wanted to tell you in person.”
“The passenger seat is hardly in person. Cars are places where people zone out, stress about nothing, and fall victim to a thousand distractions. Sometimes they scream at you.”
“What are you talking about?”
We reach our exit again, and again I remain in the circle. A white sedan honks at me.
“I’m talking about being an afterthought.”
Greg says nothing, and I can’t see his face. We begin our third trip through the circle. Maybe this is what Sheila should have taught me: endure this thing until I’m immune to it.
“So we’re going around this circle until, what, we die? We have an epiphany?” I don’t know until what. “You’ll find someone, Danielle. Is that what you want to hear?”
“I don’t want to hear anything.”
“Cool. This is so how I wanted to spend the week.”
I remember driving Greg to his first date. He was seventeen and closeted to everyone but me. He spent a year with the boy I brought him to meet, and I drove them everywhere. Once Greg was confident enough to drive alone, I fell out of the loop. He moved west a few years ago. I haven’t even met this new guy, the husband-to-be.
“He loves me, if that’s what you’re worried about.” The current Greg reminds me of a hostage trying to convince a kidnapper to release him.
Why am I afraid of this traffic circle? Will I not be afraid of it when I pull out? Will I run out of gas before I do? I try to take something away from all this as I watch the scenery wheel around us – doughnut shop, transplanted trees, groomed green hedges shielding businesses from the eyes of non-customers, convertibles, drivers laying on their horns, the defunct mall where we used to beg our parents for cheap toys from stores we didn’t know were trashy, a gaggle of geese flying in a V – is it that Greg owes me lost bonding time? Is it that I need to be in control, just for a second? That fears need to be lived with, not overcome?
“Here’s something my office-mate and I like to do,” I say. “We sometimes try to figure out if we’re secretly siblings – as in, if we’d have got along as well as we do if we’d been related. So do you think, if we weren’t siblings, we’d be friends?”
“You’d invite me to your wedding with this new guy if we had the exact same friendship but weren’t related?”
“I’ve been with him for three years.”
“I really want to know, Greg.”
He flops his arms onto his lap. “I don’t know,” he says. “Probably not.”
We go around again. I’ve lost count. We pass our exit four more times before either of us says anything. I concentrate on the white lines, on avoiding every car that pops in and out, ignoring every leer.
“I’m hungry,” Greg finally says.
When we reach the exit that leads back the way we came, where the diner’s lobby is probably filling up, I lurch the car out of the circle.
Richard Hartshorn lives on the Rensselaer Plateau. His work has appeared in Hypertext Magazine, Drunken Boat, Gambling the Aisle, and other publications.