The wind chased its long tail around the corners of the smooth walls that surrounded him, up and down their inestimable heights, through the distinct, sharp alleys and back down the dry street. Though he tried to ignore its antics, he had to shove his knuckles under his glasses and wipe away the blinding tears that the blasts of playful air had drawn from his eyes.
He had hoped today would be different than the others that week, but so far it did not look good. As the traffic in front of him came back into focus, and the light changed, he prepared, cautiously, to step into the crosswalk. A fat, unseemly bus ran the light--this era's version of a brontosaurus ignoring the scurrying lesser beasts under its feet, he decided--but after that he was free to move, along with a gaggle of excited Panolandian schoolgirls who wore glasses from 1959 and the uniforms of a colorblind tailor. These strange children quickly knitted him into a trap until they rejoined and huddled together to wait at the perpendicular light.
He breathed a sigh of relief and reached up and took off his glasses. He wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his woolen suit jacket--indecorous, he realized, but necessary. Surely someone else had tear ducts sensitive to the veracities of late winter gusts. He returned his eyewear to the bridge of his nose and blinked.
If today didn't change, he had decided, then that was the end of it. He was going to throw himself from one of these buildings and see where the wind took him. He only had to decide which one. The higher, the better, he thought. It would give him more time to enjoy himself.
He held his briefcase under his arm, as a farmer carries a chicken. He had given up trying to keep it from swaying on its handle. It kept knocking against the side of his left knee, which was, perhaps, the angriest place on his skinny body where nothing resided between skin and bone (except, he corrected himself, the insidious underlining of nerve tissue). He had stuffed his spirited tie between two buttons on his cotton shirt, a black oxford that proved too thin for the temperature, but he left his jacket unbuttoned. Its tails would make a poor parachute.
He only had the one interview scheduled for that day. Only was the appropriate word, as he'd had seven in the course of five days. Despite this exceptional agenda, he realized as the phone in his pocket remained charged but sans vibration that his chances of acquiring employment--gainful or otherwise--had steadily decreased instead of obeying the logical laws that should rule when one has dutifully hit the pavement; instead, by marking checks off circled classifieds he was whittling away his chances. His desire, he found, to find a job had also lessened. There were other options.
He had mulled over this latest particular one on his mind for several nights in a row, as he gave up trying to sleep. It seemed the best way to finish an otherwise dull and mildly unfair life. Perhaps it would be too fast. But he had seen a picture once, cruelly sent around the Internet, of a man who had jumped, and his body had liquefied into creamy tomato soup when it went splat. Aside from a few miscellaneous chunks, the suicide had almost completely obliterated himself.
He entered the building and dried his eyes once more. He wished he had thought to bring a handkerchief, for any one of the people rushing past him at this point could be the next employer to turn him down. He looked up; the lobby--standard with a sculpture (a postmodern piece of junk) rising out of the floor in everybody's way--had a guard standing by a counter talking football with a UPS deliverer. On the far wall beside the elevators he could see the enormous black cheat sheet of choices: Which company hid behind which door? It was a list that filled the wall, and although not alphabetical, he was able to determine where he wanted to go by skimming quickly over most of the words and looking at the numbers.
He rode in the elevator with a heavy man who was sweating despite the chill outside. He looked up at the video camera in the corner and wondered if it worked. The man got off on the fourth floor, and he waited until the doors opened on the twenty-seventh--three floors shy of the roof.
He entered a fluorescent hallway and checked his appearance in the mirror on the wall opposite the elevator. A cockroach lay dead at his feet, and he moved a few inches away from it while he adjusted his tie. He gazed at the smooth skin under his eyes and wondered why he hadn't aged. He was 30 years old. Why, even in this awful lighting, did he still look like a kid? His sister, a few years younger than him, looked her age, even older, though she didn't have his problems. She had stayed back in Crooked Corners and was busily leading an exciting domestic life.
He almost envied her. Arguably, he had weathered some severe moments compared to most children--a broken leg from a bicycle accident, his allergies to chocolate and polyester, the butt of beatings from bullies at Leonard Marx Junior High. And the car accidents--three right out of college that sent his insurance premiums through the proverbial roof even though it was proven each time that he'd had no culpability whatsoever in the coincidental events.
He supposed these weren't important things. But the resultant scar on his face from the third and most severe crash, a half inch stripe that curved from his left cheek around over his right eyebrow, had made his life...complicated. He had no lines on his face other than that. Without the scar, he decided, he was a good-looking guy. He left the mirror and followed the numbers on the doorways down the corridor. This was it, he told himself. This moment would change things for good.
He waited in a forest-green front room by himself for a few minutes. When he heard the heels of the human resources woman step out from a perpendicular hallway, he didn't even look up. He didn't want to see her expression. "Sinclair?" he heard.
"Yes," he said. He stood and reached out his hand, and he slowly looked up.
"Nice to meet you," the woman said. He had expected her to flinch, or turn white or something, but instead it was he who started. Her face, smooth and pretty, reminded him of a mannequin in a store window--except for one considerable error that must have occurred on the assembly line: a perfectly round brown nipple protruded from the center of her chin.
"Come in," she said. "We've been discussing your resume, and we're very impressed."
He picked up his briefcase and left the coffee. They walked along a windowless, darkly lit hallway with a mishmash of abstract prints hanging in varying distances from each other along the grey wall.
"Windy day," she said.
"Yeah," he answered. He focused on the carpet and tried not to think of the distracting protuberance on the woman's face, but it stared at him in his mind like an evil-eyed fortune teller.
"Right in here," the woman said. "I'm Sandy, by the way."
"Ah," he said. "Sinclair Growden." He entered the cramped boardroom, where two other people sat. One of them rose, but the other remained seated in a wheelchair.
"I'm Boohoomi Dal, Jr.," said the man who had stood. He reached out his hand, but Sinclair didn't see it. He was taken aback by another hand, which stuck up like a rooster's crown from top of the man's head.
"I, uh, Sinclair*" he said, as he shook the hand in front of him. He looked down at the man in the wheelchair, who seemed the most normal of the bunch. "Sinclair Growden," he said. He shook hands with him and cleared his throat, and eventually realized he should sit down.
Mr. Dal, Jr. did not seem much older than Sinclair, and as he looked at him, realized he might even be younger. The mesmerizing fingers on top the man's head rose and fell as if playing a slow concerto on an air piano. Sinclair tried not to watch, but it would take the mental vigilance of a monk to focus on the face below.
"We're mutants," Mr. Dal, Jr. said. "I guess you didn't know that."
"Huh?" Sinclair said. He was so embarrassed. He shifted in his seat and tried to snap out of it.
Sandy sat down. "We're survivors from Panoland."
"I've heard of you," Sinclair said, "but I didn't know you lived so far from Crooked Corners. Here in the city, I mean."
"We're everywhere," Mr. Dal, Jr. said. He casually extended his arm out over the table and picked up a yellow pencil, reached up and gave his extra hand something to hold. It clasped its fingers quickly and stayed still, and that helped. Sinclair looked down at the man's eyes.
"Has a mind of its own," Mr. Dal, Jr. said.
Sinclair scratched the spot on his neck where it met behind his ear. "I'm sorry," he said. "The classifieds said 'Accountant for Political Action.' I didn't know it was*I mean, I assumed it was something for the government."
"Not yet," Mr. Dal, Jr. said.
Sinclair nodded. He wanted to look out the window, but the blinds were drawn. The whole floor of the building seemed dark. The man in the wheelchair rolled forward to the round and polished wooden table. Sinclair was relieved to see a normal face, but he felt slightly ashamed of that relief. He wondered why he felt ashamed. He wondered why they seemed not to notice his own disfigured countenance, which made everyone else turn their head clockwise as if it were a crooked clock.
He saw the man in the wheelchair's mouth move, but he heard two voices: one high-pitched, the other a narrow, accompanying baritone. They spoke in unison: "Good morning."
Sinclair looked around. There were no other people in the room. He looked back at the man in the wheelchair. "My name is Locke. Thank you for coming in today," the man said. Again, Sinclair heard two voices. He stuck his index finger in his ear and wiggled it. Was there an echo? But it couldn't be an echo. He heard the man speak while another voice said exactly the same
thing at the same time.
"Please don't be alarmed," the voices said in chorus. The man pointed at his throat. "Radioactivity is a funny thing. The failed nuclear tests in our home country caused some severe mutations, but those of us who survived have minor problems. I happen to have two vocal chords--one on top of the other."
He cleared his throat, and the resultant blend of noises made Sinclair smile as if he were watching a movie with unusually clever special effects.
"My legs," the man said, "had to be amputated after a steel beam fell on them. I'm not a lobster down there." He laughed. Twice.
Sinclair looked down. He lifted his briefcase from his lap and began to open it.
"We've seen your resume," Mr. Dal, Jr. said. "Would you like to tell us something about yourself?"
Sinclair looked back over at the hand, then at the nipple, then at the normal-looking man with two voices. "I, uh, yes, um*Forgive me." He tried not to squirm. "As you read, I attended Crooked Corners University and majored in Mathematics, and went on to get my Masters in Business Science."
"We saw that."
"After I graduated, I had a few, uh, minor car accidents...uh, minor, I say, because they were nothing like a nuclear bomb going off in my backyard."
"Anyway, I was in the hospital for a little while--that's the gap there--and I worked temporarily as a beat reporter for a local paper. Afterward I found a job at night at an accounting firm here in the city, but that company went under. Embezzlement at the top. Rich people stealing from themselves."
"We've read about it."
Sinclair sighed, slowly, and heard the air come out of his lungs like wind from a tunnel. He tried to think of something else to say, but he had no more ideas. "Uh, that's about it," he stuttered.
"Well, that's fine," Mr. Dal, Jr. said. "Let us tell you something about ourselves."
"As you know, our country's leadership destroyed itself and its nation three years ago by attempting to test nuclear arms. The first blast killed off the indigenous population in the jungles of Panoland, and each subsequent blast only added to the resulting radiation that moved out into the cities and killed so many of our family and friends."
"I know," Sinclair said. He had watched CNN a lot in recovery.
"My father, Boohoomi Dal, Sr., was President of the country at that time. He is no longer with us. I don't suppose he's with anyone. He died within days as his millions of cells split in two and then split again."
"We weren't close. He had 42 other children."
Sinclair attempted to react with humor. "Your mother must be very tired."
"Only seven of them were hers," Mr. Dal, Jr. explained. He lifted his hands--those attached to his wrists--in a gesture that seemed meant to placate Sinclair's anxiety. He knew very little about Panolandian culture, but he realized he would not have to apologize for his lack of knowledge.
"In any case, many of the survivors moved here to this country, a lot of them to your home town, and we've struggled to make a place for ourselves in this foreign land."
"We have rented out the floor of this high building in a city 150 miles from Crooked Corners so we can meet unencumbered by the local situation there. It's not that the police are nosy, you know, but the townspeople despise us, and we feel that it would not be conducive to start up our organization in such a, shall I say, hostile environment."
Sinclair felt his toes itch. His shoes suddenly felt a size too small, and his tie became tight. He lifted his eyebrows to show he was paying attention.
Boohoomi Dal, Jr. continued. "The populace fortunate enough to have been born in this country doesn't seem to appreciate our differences. They don't seem to realize that mutants are people. We are a small group of Panoland refugees with some money. We seek political influence and we want to raise more. Unfortunately, we have been unable to find anyone of our own kind qualified enough to handle such discrete investments."
Sinclair nodded. He looked over at Sandy, but quickly looked past her at the wall. The nipple seemed to have grown hard and pointy in the air conditioned room.
He heard himself cough. The man in the wheelchair leaned forward and spoke, the high voice rising above the baritone as if speaking a duet. "The pay is considerable and you wouldn't have to worry about anything like that. We would even provide housing for you, if you felt that you could not live with the secret."
"Secret?" Sinclair repeated. His lone voice sounded quiet to him.
"Of course," Mr. Dal, Jr. said. "We would require your complete sagacity and silence regarding all of our dealings, but we would not presume to limit your contact with the outside world. It might arouse suspicion."
"Think of it as a sort of mutant CIA," Sandy said. Her voice was quite nice. Sinclair sat back. The three Panolandians watched him expectantly. He opened his mouth, then closed it, then said, "I see."
He reached up and took off his glasses and tried to look at them to check for dust, but it was so dark in the room. He ran his palm over his face, ignoring the scar that wound along his cheek. He returned his glasses and tried to look at them as he spoke. "I have to say, I sympathize with your...with your situation, believe me," he began. "But I don't have anything in common with your struggle. It's not that I...that I don't understand that you would like to have representation," he continued. He was trying to find the right words, but the way the three of them seemed focused on him instead of the scar on his face was driving him to distraction.
"I mean, I really don't have any experience with politics," he said. "I'm a liberal...I mean, an open-minded person, and I think I can see that...that you have problems, but*" He trailed off. He had to look down at the floor for a moment, but forced himself to look back up.
"I understand," Mr. Dal, Jr. said. There wasn't anything menacing about his tone, but the pencil in the hand above his head suddenly snapped. Its two ends fell and caused the mutant to blink.
"I'm sorry," Sinclair said.
"It's all right," Sandy said. She stood, and Sinclair pushed himself up from his chair. He bent over and picked up his briefcase. He felt a sudden wooziness as he stood back up, and a hollowness in his chest.
Boohoomi Dal, Jr. remained seated, but Sinclair couldn't tell if it was because he was disappointed with him or just deferring to his wheelchair-bound colleague. "Please consider us again once you've had time to think it over," he said. "We are people, just like you."
"Yes," Sinclair said. "I know."
"Thank you for coming in," the two voices said. Sinclair peered at the man in the wheelchair and nodded.
Sandy put her hand gently on his back and led him out the door.
In the hallway he felt no better. "Could you*um, I'm sorry, could you show me the way to the bathroom?" he asked.
"Certainly, Mr. Growden," she said. "It's right this way."
He had thought because of the queasy sensation in his stomach that his breakfast would revisit the outside world, but it did not come up. He was not sick. His knees hurt and he pushed himself away from the toilet and sat down on his rump and leaned against the silver-blue wall.
He put his hand to his eyes, pushing his glasses up over his forehead. He didn't know why he felt the way he did. It wasn't their appearance, he told himself. He could get used to that. They seemed pretty pleasant and together, actually, even friendly. But there was something suspicious about them. He couldn't put his finger on it.
He thought of Boohoomi Dal, Jr.'s extraneous hand and its active digits. That was kind of creepy. He sighed and stood up and stepped to the sink. He washed his hands and looked up at his face. In this light, dim and underlit like the rest of the office, he looked almost normal. The scar blended with the rest of his skin.
He straightened himself up and picked up his briefcase and left the bathroom, walked down the hall and pressed the button for the elevator. He stepped inside, pressed "L," and the doors closed.
It was only as he felt himself breathing and knew that everything would be okay that he realized he was not heading for the roof.