Wednesday, September 30, 2009

On Sunday morning, race day, we were turned away from the grandstand gate for the beers in our bag. We resolved to walk around town and drink them all. We gravitated toward the wall that stretched across a street to block the track from view. The second GP2 race of the weekend was taking place and we could hear the screams of the cars beating against the plywood from the other side. If you got up close you could see through little cracks and gaps; blurs of color flashing by in an instant: red, white, blue, yellow, black. It was almost better to watch the race this way. The mystery was intensified.

We walked up some steps along the wall that turned back into the steep face of the city. Here you could see above the wall a bit; you could see entire cars in a patch between the trees and guardrails. A boy, hands pressed against his ears, sat watching from his father's shoulders.

We finally took our seats at the top of the stands facing out into the harbor. Behind us we could see the front stretch of the track between pine branches, and a little farther down the balcony of the Automobile Club de Monaco where the old-money rich and the well-connected basked in their ennui, undeserving, as always, of their view. In front the track was lined on the outside by gleaming white yachts and on the inside by the many-colored hoi polloi. Wisps of clouds hung in the sky and the sonorous voice of the track announcer droned on intoxicatingly, his Monégasque accent thick as motor oil.

Races begin in satisfying rhythm: every minute or two the lead car suddenly emerges from the farthest corner you can see. The field follows, often trailing by a few lengths. The entire procession roars past in anger but in order, for the most part. This is reassuring. The blue car's behind the red car, like it was before. The black car's catching up. You have just enough time to notice the discrepancies with the lap before: The white car passed the yellow car! Where did the green car go? And soon the back marker straggles past, its engine whining lonesomely as it disappears around the bend. Now there's just a distant hum echoing off the hills or buildings. And then there's silence. And suddenly, it all happens again.

Then races devolve into chaos and delirium as pit stops are made, slower cars are lapped, and accidents and penalties occur. It's hard to maintain the running order; cars are jumbled up, flying past in a ceaseless, shifting stream of gaps and blurry colors. And whereas the start is reassuring, this is beautiful.

Our disorientation in the middle race was intensified by our panoramic view. We were surrounded by mad sound: cars blinking by behind us before we knew they'd passed in front; cars roaring out of the pits into the fray; every momentary attenuation in the engine din filled by the glossolalia pouring out of the PA. Finally the noise subsided and a deep, dissonant chord swelled up to take its place: all the boats in the harbor blowing their horns in a collective exhalation. The race was over.

The period after a race is melancholy. The sudden quiet, stark and eerie, has a bereaving effect. Something was alive and now it's gone. We fought it with good cheer and resolved not to shuffle off morosely to the train station this time. We went to a bar where people were drinking on the street. We hung out with an odd, solitary man with a perpetual smile on his face and two cockney blokes who had flown in for the day. They loved Jenson Button.

"What about Hamilton?" I asked.

"He's a bit... arrogant, ain't he?" one replied.

I came to Lewis's defense but there wasn't much to say to them. It was clear they were happy to have their golden boy. Their white boy. But they were agreeable enough in spite of this.

By the time we left the bar, the track was open. We entered it right behind the start/finish line. I imagined a deep and resonant vibration emanating from beneath my feet, echoes of races past. Some team trucks were parked to the side: Toyota, Red Bull. I peered inside one to find a spotlessly clean, high-tech lab workbench covered with bewildering tools and instruments.

We continued to walk the track, around Sainte Devote, up the hill to Massenet, back in front of the casino where we'd been for qualifying the day before, down the hill and around Mirabeau (where Lewis Hamilton crashed during qualifying), and down to the most famous and beautiful corner in all of racing, the Grand Hotel Hairpin. We wandered into the hotel and briefly considered having a drink in the bar with windows overlooking the sea but the cocktail prices shocked us to the very core of our souls. Sara went to the ladies' room and I waited for her outside. As she walked out she spotted Robert Kubica, her favorite driver, in street clothes, talking to some friends. We shook his hand and chatted with him. "This is your lucky day," one of his friends said upon hearing that he was Sara's favorite driver. "It's her lucky day but it's not his lucky day," I said. Kubica's car was terrible all weekend – he qualified 18th and retired with brake problems. We said goodbye, shook hands again, and I told him I hoped his car got better. "So do I," he said.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Acadiana

The Mardi Gras song is exceedingly mournful. Every note of its minor melody seems weightier than the last; its beginning, rising figure has a glorious and stoic quality but then the harmony shifts to a lower, major chord and the melody descends with it and everything that ever mattered in the world seems to fall to pieces in an immense, appalling tragedy. There's a sweet, sad void inside your chest and you want to hang your head and weep for all mankind, for all its sins, for its desperate desire to be saved. This is the Cajun people's party song.

We cross a truss bridge out of Baton Rouge. Jesse at the wheel, Chris in the passenger seat and me in back. Chris says when he was at LSU he and his friends climbed it one night, up its lattices and girders to a beam at the top where one by one they proceeded to the other side, arms held out, fortified by liquor and compelled by death. The lights of cars below. They crossed the road that crossed the Mississippi River.

It's too bad all the highways look the same. Same signs, all ping-pong table green with their white, luminescent rings. Same guardrails, same weedy valley in between. Same dividing lines and lanes. Because the country they cross is very different. Sometimes you know you're someplace different because of the names on the same old signs. Butte La Rose, Courtableau, Champagne. I spy a shotgun shack on the edge of a marsh, a dirty trailer in the woods. There's a cow standing on a patch of mud in a flooded field. We're in Cajun country now, driving west on I-10, chasing the sun into the bayou.

We stop at D.I.'s on Route 97, outside Basile. I say outside 'cause the horizon is distant, treeless; there's nothing else in sight. Just a windswept gravel lot and some patchy grass to the edge of the woods, swampy rice fields across the road. But maybe this is Basile.

Inside it's a bright, warm family restaurant. There's a banner on the wall with big, block letters: THANK YOU MR. FRUGE FOR THE BOILED CRAWFISH OUR CLASS REALLY ENJOYED THEM. The boiled crawfish are the thing to get here: big mounds of them, so hot from cayenne pepper they sting your fingers when you peel them. After every two or three I eat, I tilt my beer to my mouth and hold it there before drinking; the beer's a balm to my burning lips.

We pay our ticket and head to the Purple Peacock bar in Eunice, killing time before picking up Cissy at her dad's house. All you can drink 8-9, it says on the door, and lucky us, it's eight-thirty. It's a cold, dark bar; cavernous; all black lights and neon. Thumping dance music plays to an empty floor. Everyone in this place, staff and patrons alike, seems to be about nineteen years old. White boys in baggy pants and black girls in tight ones.

The Purple Peacock is sticky. Put your finger on a table, on a wall, on the back of a chair: every surface is a little tacky, like used Scotch tape. Like the entire room has just been scrubbed and mopped with Coca-Cola. We settle in by the pool table. On one trip to the bar I notice a portly, older man in a Stetson hat making the rounds of tables, chatting with the kids, laughing, sometimes patting a cheek. Gleaming handcuffs jangle on his belt and a big iron bounces on his hip. The sheriff.

The following morning we drive through town, inspecting it in all its dilapidated splendor. It's like an old movie. The Gulf sun shines in Technicolor on furniture stores and barbershops and diners. But dark, green weeds pop through the cracks.

Chris's hair is short but down south it's always haircut time, so we go to Gerald Manuel's on Second Street, la Deuxième Rue, and Chris sits in the solitary chair. Gerald, a kindly, jowly old man, cuts and banters as Bullfrog looks on, occasionally erupting with a thunderous interjection. "Where y'all from?" We tell him. Then Bullfrog tells us who he is and where he comes from. "There's two kindsa coon-ass," he says. "You got your emigrated coon-ass and your coon-ass. I'm a coon-ass." Bullfrog points at Gerald. "So's he." Gerald smiles. Finally, Bullfrog makes a grand exit. "Been bothering me all morning," Gerald says, shaking his head. When we leave, he says "Y'all come back again, now."

Where y'all from? and y'all come back again. It's the Acadian hello and goodbye, and more. The phrases are automatic, yet convincingly sincere. "In Los Angeles," Jesse remarks, "no one gives a shit where you're from."

We visit Johnson's Grocery on Maple Street for some boudin. Our tour starts out back, where they smoke the sausages, and works backward through the backdoor to the kitchen, where the only black people we've seen in town so far boil the pork and grind the parsley and the peppers. Used to be, you could only get boudin on Saturdays. Farmers worked the fields all week, slaughtered the pig early in the morning, boiled it, scraped the hair, gutted it, got the pots ready; you'd have to buy and eat your boudin by the end of the day. Refrigeration changed all that, 'round about World War Two, so Wallace Johnson's got time enough to paint. His portraits of Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis hang in the window. "Been foolin' around with it for about twenty-five years," he says with a shrug. When we leave everyone shakes our hands. "Y'all come back here sometime, OK?" says Wallace.

We drive out through the crawfish fields to Mamou, the "Capital of the Courir de Mardi Gras," the traditional Mardi Gras run. Along the way we stop at Ville Platte, a town that Cissy characterizes as Mamou's unhappy twin. It's got a high suicide rate, violence, drugs. We go to Floyd's Record Shop on Main Street and at a little past two on Friday afternoon the place is empty. There isn't even any music in the air. Just particles of dust suspended in the silence.

On Saturday morning we go to Fred's Lounge, like everybody else, like the locals and those who come from half a world away. The bar was featured in a 1990 National Geographic article and has been the area's solitary international tourist destination ever since. On the side of the building it says Laissez les bon temps rouler. Inside, an old lady sits in the dark by the wall, waiting for the music to start. "I'm not drunk yet but I'm gonna be in a little while," she declares, wide-eyed, emphatic. Like a child.

Calvin Daigle introduces himself to us and presents his wife: "This is my femme, Nonie." He hands me his card, which reads:

CALVIN AND NONIE DAIGLE
"Cajun Dancers"

Calvin worked at the sugar mill for forty-three years and has been coming to Fred's for twenty. He excuses himself with great politesse and joins the gathering crowd in the middle of the room.

The band starts up. T. P. Thibodeau & the Cajun Fever. They play raggedy, unfathomable French folk songs on the accordion, fiddle, acoustic guitar, pedal steel and drums. No bass. No low end. A young man with an crooked grin clangs a triangle out of time. Calvin and Nonie crisscross the floor in light, quick steps, weaving between those less graceful.

The songs don't end so much as they come to a rest. When they do, the DJ from the radio station broadcasting the show often gets on the mic. He speaks French peppered with English phrases, usually in reference to sponsors: Western Auto, microwaves, sporting goods. He breaks into full English to address the tourists: And who do we have from outside the state of Louisiana here today? One language encroaches upon the other. But which?

Tante Sue has a pint of Hot Damn cinnamon schnapps sticking out of her back pocket. She drifts from the bar to the floor and back, laughing, dancing, joking with the regulars. She pinches her T-shirt above her bosom and makes like she's playing the accordion. She sold the joint some time ago – to some dead-in-the-water dullards, we're told – but she has said if she gets cancer, she wants to die here.

To great fanfare, an Australian couple wins the prize for coming from farthest away: Cajun pepper.

We're at the bar with Stud and Frenchie. Stud raises his glass: "It's good to be us," he says. Stud is drinking bourbon and Coke, but the drink of choice here is ten-ounce cans of Budweiser. We obey local custom and pour salt on the rim. It's the sort of thing that's fantastic in the moment. You wouldn't want it any other way. And yet I am certain I will never drink it again.

"Where y'all from?" people ask us. An old man in a Navy cap tells me, "I know what a Connecticut Yankee looks like in King Arthur's court, but this is the first time I've seen a Connecticut Yankee in a Coon-ass court. Welcome." Lee from Alexandria says, "You got a lot of foreigners in Connecticut. All we got down here is Coon-asses and jackasses." He pauses. "I'm a jackass."

It's almost noon and everybody's wasted. The jumbly, discordant waltzes and two-steps intensify the intoxication, like the rolling of a ship. We finally stumble out into the light, aglow with good will and assured of the goodness of man. Then Cissy jolts us with a sobering observation: "If a black person tried to walk into that place all hell would break loose." And we know she's right.

We got a tip to go to Bourque's for real Cajun dancing. It's in Lewisburg, a minuscule town defined not by an X but by a T, the abutment of Route 759 on 357. We walk in and it's dark, musty. There's a front room with a bar along the wall and another room with tables, a stage, a dance floor. There are maybe twenty people there, none younger than forty. In contrast to Fred's, this place seems entirely local, undiscovered. Unselfconscious. The band plays the same Cajun music as the band at Fred's, the same old-time French songs, but they're considerably sloppier, more out-of-tune. They're no more sober than the crowd. The ballroom is bathed in a hazy emerald glow, like some underwater realm. Dancers shuffle drowsily across the floor, clutching each other not for music, not for love, but to keep from drifting down into the depths.

A waitress walks in from the bar carrying a silver tray with a fifth of Old Forester, six miniature bottles of 7-Up and two rocks glasses filled with ice. She places it on a table occupied by an elderly couple. The amber fluid, the ice cubes and the bubbles. Green bottles. White sevens and a little red dot. I'm not sure I saw anything more beautiful in all of Louisiana.

We sit at the bar and talk to Marie, the owner. She's an old, dark-haired Cajun who's seen it all, seen 'em come and go. She pridefully points out a newspaper clipping about her bar that's laminated and tacked up to the wall. Somehow the conversation turns to race. I don't know why we thought that would be an agreeable topic. I guess it's northern naiveté: we expect everyone to toe the line on tolerance, whether they believe in it or not. And we like to flatter ourselves by making people do it. Turns out not everybody's happy to oblige.

"Used to be, we didn't let 'em in here," Marie says. "Then they passed a law, said you can't refuse to serve no one. But you know what? Ain't a single one a dem try to come in here since." She knocks on wood. "God willing, none a dem ever will."

I'll not soon forget the sound of the old lady's knuckle rapping on her bar.

There's a concert that evening at the Liberty Theater in Eunice. Hadley Castille, the great Cajun fiddler, is among those playing. He's a white-haired, lanky figure in a bowler hat and vest with a deep, brassy voice. His fiddle playing is authoritative and his band is tight, professional. Sober, evidently. Everyone gets up on the dance floor during his set. The whole town: old timers, mothers leading daughters. A mentally disabled couple.

The following day we visit Hadley at his big, white farmhouse out in the country. Every now and again he goes to the big city, he says, and by that he means Opelousas. Jesse takes some pictures of him on the lawn with his granddaughter, Jayde. She plays the fiddle just like grandpa. She plays us a screechy little tune. She's acutely adorable.

We hear the screen door banging at the back of the house. We look up and there's a flash of blue: a burly figure in a ski jacket slipping furtively inside. Hadley sighs.

"That's my son," he says. "He not doin' so good."

His son was a promising musician once, a guitarist and singer. He knew all the songs and all the melodies, Hadley says. But then he lost his mind. Hadley says he never touches the guitar anymore.

"The last time he played, he played 'The City of New Orleans' note-for-note perfect, jus' beautiful," says Hadley. "Then he put the guitar down an' he never played again."

I sit inside with Hadley and he plays Hank Williams' "Jambalaya" with Jayde singing. We talk about music, about Fred's, about Tante Sue. I ask him to play the Mardi Gras song. A bit trepidatiously, because you're only supposed to play it on Mardi Gras. But he obliges. He plays the haunting melody a few times, improvising here and there, ornamenting it, extending it. Then he pulls off his bow and sings:

Capitaine, capitaine, raise ton flag
Allons s'mettre sur le chemin
Capitaine, capitaine, raise ton flag
Allons aller chez l'aut' voisin

Les Mardi Gras sont rassemblés
Pour demander la charité
Les Mardi Gras vous remercient
Pour vot' bonne volonté


Acadiana is lost America. It's the place we forgot on our way to the mall, on our way to Disneyland. It's long been in the shadows, occupying a parallel realm in which the Beatles never invaded, no one landed on the moon, and Martin Luther King never marched. It's straining for the light now, and catching glimpses of itself. Its peculiar, 18th-century French, long suppressed in schools, is now celebrated, tentatively held out as an attraction. Its music draws visitors from Australia. Fishermen take tourists through the swamps to look for gators. Trouble is, Cajun French is an endangered language; it might not last another generation. Evangeline Parish is among the poorest counties in the U.S. There's work in sugar cane fields, rice and crawfish farms. Not much else.

And there's more trouble still. There's another, hidden world within Acadiana, a shadow in the shadows: the blacks and the Creoles. They're in the margins of Cajun society just like the Cajuns are in the margins of ours. We've only glimpsed a few here and there: at the Purple Peacock, in the kitchen at Johnson's. Cissy tells us there's a party at the Assumption Catholic Church in Basile and the great zydeco musician Geno Delafose is playing. Geno is a Creole, a man of mixed African, Indian and French descent. We resolve to go, though Cissy is apprehensive. She's not sure we'll be welcome.

The church and its adjoining hall are small, twin whitewashed structures on a barren stretch of Glasper Street. We pull into the dirt lot and park among a dozen or so cars. Cissy says wait here. She wants to check it out, make sure it's OK for the white boys to come in. A couple minutes later she comes back out and nods. We get out and walk up to the door.

Inside the hall Geno and his band are in midsong: it's a French tune, not unlike what the Cajuns would play, but it's louder and it rocks harder; there's electric bass, drums, someone scraping a mad syncopation on a metal rubboard hanging from his shoulders. There are maybe fifty people in the room, a mix of blacks and lighter-skinned Creoles. Many are dancing, others are sitting, drinking beer. Matriarchs sit along the wall, behind tables covered with foil trays of food.

People notice us, sure. Many heads are turned in our direction. But the expressions are surprised, intrigued – not hostile. I haven't taken seven steps inside the door when a man walks up to me and extends his hand. I shake it and he looks me in the eye.

"I just wanted to welcome you here and tell you how happy I am that you came," he says.

We dance and drink for hours. We meet a man named Calvin Thomas, who invites us to his house for a crawfish boil. We talk to the Cesar brothers. They fish by hand. They tell us about their brother who rides the giant alligator gar. One day he rode one till it burrowed into the sand at the bottom of the swamp. The Cesars invite us to their annual family catfish fry.

We leave drunk and elated, babbling, delirious. But about a mile down the road I realize I forgot my coat. We turn around. When I walk back into the hall it's mostly empty now; the band's gone and a few people are cleaning up. Three men are holding my coat in the middle of room, stretching out its arms and inspecting it quizzically, like an object from an alien civilization. I claim it contritely. There are smiles and nods as one of them hands it to me. I thank him, shake his hand, and tell him what a great time I had.

"Y'all come back again!" he says.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Acquisition - 6

The hot weeks of summer passed without any news. There were rumors that the enormous company was conducting due diligence: investigations of legal issues surrounding our intellectual property, further analysis of the marketplace, line-by-line scrutiny of our software code.

Part of our software incorporated a product offered by one of the enormous company's competitors and they did not like that. But it did not seem to jeopardize the acquisition. Nothing jeopardized the acquisition.

Just when we'd permitted ourselves to forget about it, our CEO gathered everyone around the tables in the kitchen area. The acquisition was in the works, he said. Representatives from the enormous company were flying in the following week to conduct job interviews. There was some bewilderment. There was trepidation. But there was also the breezy sense of being carried on a ride, helpless. Something had been set in motion that could not be stopped. Something good or bad, nobody knew. But it was happening.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Autobiography of Someone Else - 15

Here's what was for dinner: meatloaf with barbecue sauce, instant mashed potatoes, Bird's Eye French green beans with toasted almonds, Pillsbury crescent rolls, Duncan Hines yellow cake with buttercream fudge frosting, tuna rice royal, hamburger and macaroni stew, zucchini bread, artichoke hearts and peas, chicken Kiev, pineapple upside-down cake, enchilada casserole, corn and hamburger pie, quiche lorraine, peas with mushrooms and pearl onions, green beans au gratin, chicken a la king, glazed ham, Dinty Moore beef stew, buttered peas, raisin slaw, ambrosia salad, succotash, salmon crepes, Rice-A-Roni, Noodle Roni, zucchini tortilla casserole, Pillsbury dinner rolls with Land-O-Lakes salted butter, spaghetti primavera, broccoli with Velveeta sauce, rice imperatrice, Pepperidge Farm garlic bread, tuna surprise, applesauce cake; tossed salad with iceberg lettuce, garlic croutons, Bac-O-Bits and Good Seasons Italian dressing; green bean and mushroom casserole, chicken aloha, fiesta rice, tuna linguine casserole, sloppy joes on Wonder rolls, baked ziti, Salisbury steak, herbed potato salad, cherry cobbler, bibb lettuce with Wish-Bone ranch dressing, fettuccine alfredo, Jell-O salad, Swedish meatballs, pork chops and apple sauce, beef strogonoff, Pillsbury chocolate macaroon bundt cake, Jolly Green Giant canned corn, Hamburger Helper and impossible pie.

Mom and Dad would forgo alcohol for the time it took to eat. Mom drank Tab. Dad and Sis and I drank Coca-Cola.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Streak - 46

Jimmy dropped Evan off at the stadium at about half past three and Evan darted into the players' entrance, sight unseen. A few of the guys were already in the clubhouse, lazily getting out of street clothes and into uniform. Evan collapsed wearily on his stool and let his bag fall to the floor. Esteban Guerra sat shirtless at the locker to his right.

"What's up," said Evan.

"'Sup, Eban." Esteban smiled and jerked his thumb at his mouth a few times.

"Are you calling me a cocksucker? You're a bigger cocksucker than me."

"No, Eban, no," Esteban said, continuing his suggestive gesture.

"Then what. What does that mean?"

"You drink last night."

"Jesus. Yeah, I drink last night. What did you do? Watch 60 Minutes?"

Esteban shrugged and put on a sock. "I go home to Marisol. We have some dinner, we make love."

Esteban's words, innocent and serene, had the ring of reproach.

"You fucked your wife. Good for you."

"No. No fuck. No fuck. We make love," Esteban said, shaking his pinched fingers to punctuate the phrase. To emphasize its precious savor.

"Good, good, good. Good for you."

Esteban laughed maniacally and slapped Evan on the shoulder.

"You fuck last night? Or you make love."

Evan sighed. "I was about to fuck a girl but she was trying to kill me so I had to leave."

Esteban nodded dully, as though this were a perfectly normal story coming from Evan Benjaminson.

"And then I made love."

Esteban's eyes widened. "With who? Denise?"

"No, Christ. Not Denise. Not ever again."

"With a puta from Lisa?"

"No. With tu madre."

Esteban lept up and assumed a comical, old-fashioned pugilist's pose, rolling his fists in tight circles by his chest. Evan did the same and they shadowboxed ludicrously, ducking and weaving, punching the air by each other's heads.

"Maricon!"

"Faggot!"

They laughed and sat back down.

"Eban, today we supposed to wear a reebon."

"What for?"

Esteban shrugged.

"A black ribbon?"

"Sí."

Evan opened his locker and saw that there was indeed a black ribbon on his jersey.

"You don't know why we're wearing a black ribbon today?"

"Eet's to show respect," Esteban said in a faintly scolding tone.

"Yeah, yeah, respect. But for who?"

"For the dead."

"For what dead?"

"Eban, Eban, Eban, Eban. Why you asking me these questions. There are eenough dead people in the world, you can wear a reebon ebry day." Esteban shrugged. "They say to wear a reebon, I wear a reebon."

Evan got undressed and put on his uniform. Then he sat back down and looked down his shoulder at the black band on the hem of his sleeve.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Redundancy

One day Tom, a frustrated writer, a dutiful yet bored and restless data analyst for the Midtown consulting firm Kincaid & Presley, finally tried the knob on that gray door in the corner, behind his desk. Near the glass-encased fire extinguisher and the conference room that no one ever used. It opened. And it led him through an unlit hallway. Halfway down there were two lounge chairs with a little round table between them, as though people were expected to sit there and converse. When he reached the end he emerged into a parallel realm, at once alien and familiar. The door was like the one he'd entered. He saw before him a desk much like his own, in a similar vast sea of cubicles arrayed in a maze, punctuated by square supporting columns. Except these cubicles were upholstered in light green fabric; his were gray. He realized this was the other company on the floor, the one that lay beyond the doors to the right of the elevator when he got off each morning and, without a thought, turned left. He didn't even know its name.

No one saw Tom, though when he peered down the nearest row he saw coats draped on the tops of cubicle walls, the backs of heads, restless feet fidgeting on the bases of rolling chairs. The corporate organism in the doldrums of midafternoon. There was no one at the desk that corresponded to his, however; it held only a phone, a keyboard, a monitor and a Kleenex box. He approached and sat down in the chair. The patchy pattern of dust on the desk indicated that it had recently been cluttered with the artifacts of office life: a framed picture of a wife and children, perhaps, or of a husband; a tape dispenser, pen cup, novelty mug or bobblehead doll.

A man strode towards him and stopped a few paces away.

"Excuse me, can I help you? Who are you?"

Tom was momentarily seized with panic, with shame. What the hell could he say? He fell upon a desperate idea.

"I... I'm Tom. I'm the new guy," Tom said, nodding into the mouth of his cubicle.

The man tilted back his head and frowned.

"I didn't know that hire was complete."

"Yeah!" said Tom.

"Well I'll be."

"Yeah."

"Data analyst?"

"That would be me."

"Not used to things moving fast around here!"

"Here I am. At your service."

"Hey, all right, Tom. Welcome to Taylor & Crowell! I'm Mike. I'll be your supervisor." Mike stepped forward and they shook hands. "Let's get you an I-9 form and an account on this computer."

Minutes later Tom had two jobs: data analyst for Kincaid & Presley and data analyst for Taylor & Crowell, the company down the hall. He spent the rest of the afternoon at his new one, only occasionally darting back through the dark hallway to show his face and check his e-mail at K & P. There really wasn't much going on, so no one noticed his absence. At around five-thirty, he thanked Mike and said goodbye. Then he escaped to the other office one last time to get his coat and bag and bid a round of goodbyes to his other colleagues.

Over the next few days, Tom perfected his surreptitious two-job routine: arrive early at Kincaid & Presley, look busy at his desk for twenty minutes, then slip through the passageway to Taylor & Crowell to start the day there. Over the course of the day he would pass back and forth a few times, calibrating the length of his visits according to workload and their timing according to meetings and other obligations. Fact is, there was hardly anything to do at K & P. They'd lost a few accounts in the past few months and people were talking doom.

Taylor & Crowell, on the other hand, kept Tom busy. Mike had started him off on a research project involving the analysis of another company in their market. The name of the company was obscured to him for reasons of corporate confidentiality, Mike explained. But he let on that it was a company that T & C was interested in acquiring.

One day Mike called Tom into his office.

"Where you been for the past half hour?"

"I, I... had a situation. To deal with. A family situation."

"Say no more. No worries," Mike said, holding up his hand for Tom to stop. "I didn't mean to pry."

"That's alright."

"You've been doing really good work, by the way, Tom. I've been reading your reports so far on the prospective acquisition. Nifty work."

"Thanks! That's great to hear."

"Looks like your conclusions are pointing in the right direction."

Tom was used to playing the analysis game. Shake the numbers around a bit until they all seem to fall into the right place. Until they tell a story your bosses want to hear.

"That's what I've been seeing, yeah."

"OK, so listen. Now I can tell you because the cat's going to be out of the bag this afternoon. Our CEO is flying in to make the announcement. We're going to take over this company."

"That's very exciting."

"And I can tell you who they are. It's Kincaid & Presley. It's the company on the other side of this very floor."

Tom tried not to reveal his shock.

"Interesting!"

"You bet it's interesting. We're gonna be Taylor, Crowell, Kincaid & Presley now. They have to have their names in there to save face. Lots of egos involved. You know how these things are. But make no mistake: we're acquiring them, not the other way around."

"I see."

"I can't make any promises right now, but based on the work you've been doing, I believe your job should be safe."

Tom wandered back to his desk in a daze. He was pondering how this all might play out when he realized it was about time for him to check in at K & P. Soon after he sat back down at his old desk his boss there, Steve, walked up.

"Hey Tom, got a minute?"

"Sure." Tom got up and followed Steve into his office.

"I've been telling everyone who's been here for a while – Debbie, Joe, Tibor. Eric. There's some interesting news. It's going to be announced later this afternoon."

"OK."

"We're acquiring Taylor & Crowell. Do you realize who they are?"

Tom slowly shook his head. Steve pointed in the vague direction of the other side.

"Floormates. Down the hall. Can you believe it?"

"Wow!" said Tom, this time making an effort to seem surprised.

"They're going to make it look like they're acquiring us, but it's really the other way around. Technically, it's a stock swap. I think we're going to be called Kincaid, Presley, Taylor & Crowell. We're still working out all that stuff. They've been on our radar for a while."

"That's uh, exciting."

"Yup. Now there's some good news and there's some bad news. Bad news is, there are going to be some redundancies. Good news is, we've shared preliminary org charts and theirs actually had you in your position."

"Really?"

"Yeah. I think they actually listened when I told them what kind of value you bring."

"I, uh, I really appreciate that, Steve."

Later in the afternoon, Tom gathered with his colleagues at Taylor & Crowell in a large seminar room to listen to their silver-haired CEO, Freeman Hatfield, proclaim the tremendous significance and auspiciousness of the impending merger.

"I cannot emphasize this enough," Hatfield stated, both hands pointing at his audience from above the lectern, "our acquisition of one of the most important competitors in our market is thanks to you people!"

Hooting and applause.

"You are the reason I get up in the morning. You are the reason I get into my car." He paused dramatically, then pointed again in a wide arcing motion, hand high over his head. "It's all you people in this room who deserve credit for building this company, for satisfying our clients, for bringing us to this milestone. Day after day after day, you people are the people who reach benchmarks." He looked around and nodded emphatically, as though to deter any falsely modest protests. "You people are the people who act on action items. You people are the people who go and do go-dos! You people are the fulfillers of commitments!"

Sensing the impending climax, some in the crowd began to clap and cheer.

"Hold it!" Hatfield said, hands held up. "I'm not done. I want you all to give yourselves a big round of applause!"

The room erupted in a gleeful ovation in which Tom participated gamely. He eyed the exit. This would be a good time to sneak away and make himself visible at K & C, he thought. He was beginning to wind his way there among his elated colleagues when he heard his name called.

"Tom! Tom Olson! Is that Tom Olson?"

Tom turned around to find Mike and Freeman Hatfield approaching, both smiling widely.

"I just told Mike here that I had to meet the new guy who made the magic happen!" Freeman exclaimed, thrusting out an impeccably manicured hand.

"Thank you, sir!"

"Call me Freeman! Mike's been telling me what an important role you played in this."

"I'm sure I'm not the only one!"

Freeman leaned in, still clutching Tom's hand in his powerful, steady grip. He emanated a suffocating fog of cologne.

"These fucking people? They don't do shit. Half of them are getting fired."

Freeman jerked his head back and laughed uproariously. Mike joined in.

"Seriously," said Freeman. "You've got a bright future with us, Tom. You wanna know the funny thing?"

Freeman still held Tom's hand and began to shake it again gently.

"Sure."

"Those cocksuckers over at K & C already have your name down for your job!"

Freeman and Mike laughed again and Tom was seized by a tremulous chill. He tried to release Freeman's hand but the old man wouldn't let him.

"Who knows, maybe their person is a non-starter over there. Dead weight."

"No-brainer," added Mike.

"Brain dead."

Tom shrugged, trying to seem nonchalant. Freeman Hatfield still clutched his hand.

"But you're a game-changer, Tom. Don't you let us forget it."

"I sure won't!"

Freeman shook one final time, patting the top of Tom's wrist with his other palm.

"I'm sure glad we met."

"So am I."

Over the CEO's shoulder, Tom saw Mike make wide eyes – wide, portentous eyes. This is big for you, he seemed to be saying. Tom felt sweat drip down his back. He smiled at the men as they finally strode away.

On the Tuesday of the following week, everyone at either company was called into their bosses' offices, one by one, and told the good news or the bad. In spite of whatever assurances had been insinuated in the days before, about three quarters would lose their jobs at Kincaid & Presley and half at Taylor & Crowell. Tom's meeting with Mike came before his meeting with Steve.

"I think you know what I'm about to tell you," Mike said, smiling.

"I don't ever want to assume."

"Stop being modest. You know we love you here. And apparently, they love you there too. We got absolutely no pushback on putting you in your job."

"Great!"

"We move over there officially on Thursday. You'll feel right at home. Your desk is pretty much in the same spot."

Tom thanked him and left. Then he snuck through the hallway again and sat back at his old desk. He killed a little time and then went to his meeting with Steve.

"Well Tom, you really lucked out."

"I'm grateful that you put in a good word for me, Steve."

Steve laughed darkly.

"Well, I did what I could. Unfortunately, the news is not as good for all of us. They're letting me go."

"Really?"

"Yeah. You know, they've got some guy over there. Mike, I think. He'll be your new boss."

"Wow. I'm really sorry to hear that."

"Thanks, thanks, thanks. I guess he's got seniority. And besides, the truth is, they are taking us over."

"Oh yeah?"

"Feels good to say that. No one here wants to admit it, but they are. That's how come they get to put in the people they want. Their people."

"Right, right. Of course."

"Except for this guy right here!" Steve said with strained enthusiasm, pointing at Tom.

Tom shrugged and put on a fatalistic smile.

"Funny thing is, they must really not have liked their guy. 'Cause you're our guy!"

"I guess!"

Tom felt obliged to indulge Steve's odd mood, to be present and vaguely supportive of his doomed boss, this figure of erstwhile authority now fallen and denuded. But he really just wanted to get out of there.

"You know what I was thinking, though?" said Steve.

"What?"

"It's funny that they wanted to keep you."

"I guess it is," Tom said nervously.

"You know what would be funny?"

"Yeah?"

"It would be funny if there were actually two Tom Olsons."

"Ha!" Tom exclaimed sharply.

"One who works at your job here and one who works at your job there."

"That would be funny."

Steve chuckled wearily, shaking his head.

"Hey, go and write a story about it. You're an aspiring writer. That's my parting gift to you."

Now Tom got a perverse idea, just as he had when Steve first approached him on the other side. This one too he could not resist.

"I'm already working on one actually. It's kind of like that, but different."

"Oh yeah?"

Tom grinned. "In my story, there's just one Tom Olson but he works both jobs."

Steve burst out laughing and slapped three beats on his desk.

"Perfect! That's it!"

"Isn't that funny?"

"That's great, Tom. Write it! Write that story!"

"I sure am."

"That's my last request of you, I want you to write that goddamn story."

"I promise."

"Unreal."

"Yup!"

"What is it they say about truth?"

"Huh?"

"About fiction and truth?"

"Oh."

"Fiction is stranger than truth?"

"Something like that," Tom said, and the two men said goodbye.

Soon Tom would find himself back at his old desk for good, a senior data analyst now for Taylor, Crowell, Kincaid & Presley. To those from T & C, he was Tom, the not-so-new guy; Tom, the go-getter, the golden boy. To those remaining from K & P he was Tom too, but he was good ol' Tom, the writer guy, always a bit distracted. Lucky Tom, to say the least. But it never occurred to anyone in either group that someone else might know another Tom. Why should it? Tom was Tom. He was two Toms to his colleagues but he was reconciled to himself, situated in a single space. Unredundant. He never opened the gray door again.