How do I keep from falling apart? The Superintendent is looking through the glass. His office is small and wood-paneled. I smile and he nods. I look down at my fingers and count my breath. There is a white clock with black hands that reads 8:33. Margaret smells flowers left on the reception desk with the note still unopened, For Jenny written on the envelope. The room smells of roses and disinfectant and I am a little nauseated as I sip coffee out of a styrofoam cup, but mainly the uneasy feeling is because I drank too heavily the night before, and stayed up too late, and the stuffy fragrance of the room merely complicates my constitution.
The Superintendent waves me in, and I go through his door as he is shutting the blinds. His bald head is dimmed and sweaty. I shut the door while downing the rest of my coffee. Not seeing a trash can nearby I regret my decision with the knowledge I will have to carry an empty cup for the length of the conversation which makes me feel slightly off-balance.
“They are dragging us by the feet,” he tells me.
“There are reports on it though. We will be fine.”
“Fine? I am not going to be fucking fine, Rob, and neither will you! What the fuck are you going to do about this.”
“Margaret!” he yells into an intercom. “Is there any coffee?”
“Yes sir. But not really that fresh.”
“I don’t give a damn how fresh it is. Did I ask if it was fresh? Or gourmet? Or any of that shit? Could you just be a dear and bring me some?”
“Be right there.”
“Now, what do you mean nothing?”
“I mean there is nothing to be done. It needed to be done and we did it. In a few weeks the uproar will die down and people will cross the river and not give a damn.”
“Great. Just great. You’re a real optimist, you know that. What do I do? What do I say to the papers? Fucking reporters all over the place. And demonstrators biting my ass at every turn.”
Margaret came in with the coffee. She has nice hips and breasts and she knows this and uses them both well. After placing the coffee on his desk she left, but gave me a flirty wink as she walked past which made my heart flutter. I think part of the reason I took this job and all of the shit that came with it, aside from the money, was I could see her on a semi-regular basis. We never did more than crossing glances and general, meaningless chat. Her skirts were always impeccable.
“I’m not in public relations. You will have to hire someone for that. You hired me to run the project. Get the area cleared for construction. Progress is what mattered here, Matt. There are always casualties in the name of progress.”
“Casualties? You are a cold-blooded son of a bitch aren’t you?” I shrugged. Maybe I was. Did it matter? “There is no spin in that.”
“Never said that there was. Again, I am not PR. You need spin, get someone with it. I got your job done. Some shit happened. Nothing that can be pinned on me. So I am going to do nothing.”
I was not really that calm and cool about it. Nor that heartless. Really I was a nervous, guilty mess. Drinking a lot and not sleeping. Hearing ghosts while walking down the street on a sunny day. Feeling the shivers. I was drowning in myself, losing weight, vomiting every night before going to bed.
But bureaucrats look for scapegoats, like The Superintendent was doing right now. Looking for any weakness that they can find to slip their problems away from themselves. The project included knocking down buildings and land once a part of the industrial complex of the city and in doing so a lot of hazardous material was excavated into the local area. We took measures to clean it up, and the reports verify that we did everything procedurally correct and as dictated by law, but some fiery reporter got a hold of the story and like wildfire over the last week it spread so that it was all over the news. Reports and video of crying children, distressed parents, sludge spilling from a drainage pipe into a creek. Demonstrations were being held. It was really a mess.
“Look,” I said noticing that the room was too quiet and he was looking for me to say something, “ I got all the reports to you. There is nothing in there, or in what we did, that will get you into any legal trouble. Just stick to it, run it through your firm, and move on. People have short-term memories. In a few years, when you are up for re-election, the place will be hopping and everyone will have forgotten about it except the loonies. Now, I gotta go.”
“ Re-elected? You don’t know shit about politics do you Rob?”
“Well fuck off then.”
I left the room and went to the reception desk and smiled at Margaret. She smiled back.
“You out of here already?”
“Yep. Don’t think I will be back anytime soon. If ever.”
“Hold on a second, okay?”
She typed at her computer for a few minutes, studiously, selecting the right words, sometimes hitting the backspace and correcting one. Her intercom came up “Maragaret!” as she got up and started to walk over to the printer.
“Want to have breakfast?” she asked.
“Good, The Good Egg Diner is just down the street. Love that place. You been there?”
“MARGARET! Are you out there?!”
“No,” I answered.
She taped the sheet she printed off onto her computer monitor.
“Let’s go. You’ll love it. It’s great.”
“What is that?”
“My resignation letter,” she said, getting our coats.
The blinds opened and The Superintendent looked out. His face was red. Margaret waved at him as she passed by, put on her coat, gave me mine and grabbed my arm. She had cool hands and I felt myself fall completely apart and into them as she gripped me, holding me together. I felt like a puzzle and she was holding the first piece after dumping me out of the box, scattered and distraught.
“You are brilliant, Margaret,” I said as we were walking out the door. She squeezed me.
“I want to focus on getting into medicine. Be a doctor. Not a pediatrician, either, but internal medicine. And work on my painting. Oh, I am not any good, but it is a passion of mine.”
“That is perfectly acceptable.”
“And I want three kids. And a house in the country. This is not a dream of mine. I plan to have these things, Rob.”
“As you should.”
It was raining out, with a little snow sprinkled in, but we walked without an umbrella. I felt empty and full at the same time. Pieces of me were falling from my pockets, dark blotches of formless matter dropping into the puddles that we stepped carelessly through.