I walk into the meeting right at three o’clock.
There are empty jars all around, taking up every spot on the floor. “What’s with all the empty jars?” I ask.
“You tell me,” Gene says, looking them over doubtfully. He has that paint-on smile they train these guys to wear.
A cockroach scuttles across the ground, slaloming through the jars. Gene looks right at it but doesn’t react.
He lowers his head in order to see over his pathetic little glasses. He acts like he doesn’t see the jars. I wonder if he is playing one of his games with me. We have important work to do and he’s messing around.
But I am a professional. I ask him, “Gene, do you plan on catching that bug and putting it in one of those jars?”
“What bug?” He asks.
He keeps staring at me, expecting me to produce an answer. The room is tilted downhill. His desk is a big hunk of dead wood. There are probably worms in it. Dead worms.
It’s a waste of time to work with these people. All day long, bargaining and blackmail, it’s enough to drive someone crazy, ha ha.
He tries a new path. “People keep fireflies in jars,” he offers. “They use them as a lantern.”
The humidity in the room is making my shirt stick to my back. I don’t feel comfortable and I start to babble. It’s as if I’ve never done this before. “I used to catch fireflies when I was young, back when my family would go to the lake,” I tell him. “Did you know that the female firefly flashes her light every two seconds? And the male every five seconds?”
Gene looks impressed. I imagine there’s a St. Elmo’s fire of neural activity lighting up his brain. These people are so predictable.
I didn’t really mean to tell him that. It was a secret. It just sort of secreted out of me. I tune Gene out for a second while I ponder the connection between secrets and secretion and how you really can’t keep everything inside forever. We’re like little trees with our sappy secrets oozing out of us.
Time bleeds between hands. I’m holding perfectly rounded seconds in my palm, like shinny marbles, turning them around so they glint in different directions. Maybe a minute goes by, who knows? It’s a paradox. These seconds might as well be years, I’m a universe away. Gene hasn’t said anything.
He breaks the silence with a typical utterance. “The female flashes her light more than twice as fast,” he muses with a pen in his mouth. “Interesting…”
It’s a trap. He wants me to talk about women. I try to picture Gene at home with his wife and I can’t do it. “Not really, there’s all sorts of bugs out there in the world,” I tell him, glaring. “All sorts of jars, too, I suppose.”
“It sounds to me like the jars are important to you… I’m trying to understand why that is. Are there fireflies in the jars?”
I see it now. He put those jars there to fuck with me.
“Well, Gene, I told you the jars were empty,” I remind him, barely keeping my composure. “People don’t take kindly, if you’ll excuse the pitiful expression, when somebody, another human being of equal matter, living and breathing and eating through their mouths, just like me and my mouth…” I’m trying to stay professional, I really am, but these people get to me — I’ve been dealing with them for so long, they’re as thin and transparent as rice paper.
He thinks he’s prince gray matter of the shit parade. And I’m some bug he can put in a little jar. I’ve had it working with these guys. Hacks!
There is so much to teach them, but they don’t listen. They don’t learn. They don’t look around at the world for what it is, preferring to see a false reality dredged from the swamp of their wicked mind… and they want to throw it over me like a blanket covered in small pox. Conquer me like an Indian…
He thinks that little bullshit paper on the wall qualifies him to say who is right and wrong. You can’t even read the fucking signature from this decrepit chair.
“What if I told you your tie isn’t hanging from your neck right now? How do you like that, Gene? If I told you your tie isn’t really hanging from your neck?”
“There is no need to scream,” he replies.
He has a point. I am a professional. I am here to do business. I calm down so he’ll continue. Settle into my seat, though I hate when he corners me like that.
“If you could put anything in them, anything in the whole wide world, what would it be?” He asks in a tone as buttery and light as a fresh croissant.
I could tell him that all this talk doesn’t matter because even if he took the Taj Mahal piece by piece and put it in those jars I’d still be stuck in this cracked-up hospital, anyway, so why go hurt my head thinking about that? He’ll eat it up, probably write it down in his stupid notebook. But I don’t feel like playing along today. The sky is too jumbled. The air stings with pestilence.
The cockroach is climbing up the glass, black as deep space. Its eyes are on the ends of its antennae. I’ve never seen a cockroach like that.
“My mother’s ashes,” I say, surprised by my own reply.
He nods. Writes it down in his stupid notebook.
The cockroach pauses on the lid, looks at me in a funny way.
“I would also put in your tie,” I add, getting back to work.