The woman was driving a sleek, self-assured, silver-grey, late-model Mercedes convertible. James Connaught could not make out the model number as the car passed by in the HOV lane heading north on I-84 toward Boston or, more likely, Providence. But he could certainly see who the woman was. It was early afternoon on a warm Friday and he was in a seat by the window, mid-way back on the driver’s side of the Bolt-for-a-Buck bus on his way home from New York to Boston. He had travelled into the city for a business meeting.
He knew her. Had seen her last less than three hours earlier. She was still wearing an onyx-black silk blouse she was wearing then, and her hair, closely resembling the same luxurious material, was pinned back with a silver clip at the nape of her neck. Her makeup was flawless. She was Zumba-thin and had an aura of cold, practiced composure. As if she were meditating in a meat locker.
James put down the book he was holding. His pulse quickened. His breathing sped. She was taping her fingers on the steering wheel, her head nodding in time to the sound system that encircled her.
The rage he had felt earlier that afternoon swelled once again within him. Then, she had been sitting across the table from him, in a comfortable room with the door closed, a folder in front of her, which she did not open.
He had asked her, he remembered, “What is going on?” To which the Mercedes woman had said, “You know exactly what is going on. We are letting you go.” And, with not another word more spoken, she left the room, with only a nod to Monica or Musette, the HR person who was there to clean up the mess.
He looked at Ms. HR, his heart plummeting with unanticipated sadness, as if he had just witnessed the death of a loved one, or as if a verdict had been read to him in a dark, Kafkaesque courtroom on an undisclosed charge with an undisclosed sentence. As if they expected him to be silent and to somehow accept that what was happening had been of his own doing, and that they were blameless and without the power to undo it and make it any different, and that he should try to understand their unfortunate and innocently impotent predicament.
As if he would then walk out of the room and down the hall past all of the office doors that were closed tightly, the office doors that were once ‘always open.’ The doors that hid the maleficent conspirators from bearing witness to the trouble they had wrought and with which they bore only a distant and quotidian relationship, tapping their pencils on their desk blotters, waiting impatiently until their temporary but necessary ordeal would be over and they could once again be opened.
And he did as they had planned. He signed the papers that had been placed before him and he walked out of the room and down the hall, stifling an insistent urge to knock on those high-ranking doors and ask for an explanation or better yet, an apology.
He walked to his desk and found a box someone had put there and he filled it with his few belongings, sitting, knowing that everyone knew before he did what was to happen that day, and when they should go out for coffee and a smoke or, if they needed to be at their desks, when not to raise their heads or to glance away from their computer screens, or cough or make any sound at all that would draw his attention to them and risk having to speak to him.
These people, the very same ones who had sat with him in a meeting that morning and who ate cinnamon-raisin bagels with cream cheese and drank Dunkin’ Donuts coffee out of paper cups with him, and had known full well what would transpire later that day and said not a word, nor had given a look of acknowledgement of what would come to pass nor of what bullet, at the end of the day, they will have been spared.
His access to the computer server had been denied. They had made sure, in their premeditated efficiency, that he could not retrieve any of his files. As though he no longer existed to them; as though he had no longer had any value, perhaps never had, except in the generation of billable hours.
He sat on the bus, alone. He felt the urge to vomit. Around him were crumpled Burger King wrappers and pizza-stained napkins on the floor; the grime on the window beside him, left by other men, other women, who had leaned against it leaving their greasy mark as the only evidence that they had once been there. Around him, the odor of the lavatory and the smell of his own acrid sweat like onion breath.
The Mercedes had flown by. James was left with the weight of the future on him and the inescapable, unfathomable, thought of what he would do now, a man just past sixty-two, with a mortgage and bills to pay, and a wife and child waiting at home for him.