1) Muse’s directive: “Who’s the tallest person you know? The homeliest? The crankiest? The meekest? People at the bitter end of any continuum invite trouble. Begin with an extreme and see what happens.”
Recently, I’ve begun to wonder whether old, bitter Stew Jensen was ever young and happy. What on earth was he before he was the office grouch? What must this habitat of cubicles, fluorescents, and uncomfortable chairs have been like without his balding head craned over his desk?
I inhabit the cubicle across the hall from him. I’ve made a game of recording some of his most audacious mutterings. One of my all time favorites, for your pleasure, was harvested as he poured over a drawing of an electrical console. His nose was poised inches from the Bill of Materials when he exclaimed, “Well I suppose this gets plugged right into a dung heap and runs off hot air and bullshit.” With that assessment, he crumpled the drawing in his gnarled claws and shot it over the wall of his cubicle like he was heaving a grenade into enemy territory. Batty old Cheryl, three rows over announced her surprise with a tinny “Gracious me, the sky is falling!!”
Often, I am scarcely able to contain myself at these outbursts. But I learned the hard way that one must comport oneself as utterly disenchanted and disaffected by Stew’s passions as possible.
When I first started my work here, I made the mistake of bidding Stew good day. My cordial gesture won me a five minute tirade on the utter imbecility of Congress, and the comparatively regular moods of the stock exchange versus the nature of Mrs. Jensen. Since then, I’ve learned that it’s best not to give Stew any indication that I realize his existence. Any acknowledgement of him seems to be a sensory overload trigger of sorts.
Today, though, I have decided to tread that precarious membrane of the icy no-man’s-land that has stretched between I and my neighbor these 3 years. Today is my last day, and I’ve accepted that my curiosity may never rest if I never explore the soul of that bowtie’d, starch-collared, heavily-mustached rogue. After all, if I don’t know how he became as he is, how can I be sure that my fate will not traverse the same path?
I stand up and swagger on over. The expression on Stew’s face at my arrival is some cross between a skittish rabbit and an apoplectic rhino. Before he has the chance to decipher whether his nature in this instance is to run away, or run me through, I say, “Stew I’m movin’ on for work and I just wanted to ask you this one thing before I go.”
Courtesy warrants that I give him room to object. He seems to be deflating by a fraction and I take that as a good sign. I hesitate however, because I realize this question may be illuminating to him. Perhaps he doesn’t realize that he’s the ornery office codger, and my revealing it to him as if he had known that fact as long as I have will, set him off.
“Stew, do you have any advice for a man just starting his career?” I ask to stall for time.
Stew looks down at his desk. Shifts in his chair. Crosses his arms. Exhales through his ponderous mustache.
“Son, ya just gotta be yourself,” he says with a shrug.
I’m disappointed. Certainly the grouch wouldn’t leave me with such a cliche. But then he continues, “But when ya find that yourself is too charming and that gets ya saddled with more work’n any man can do, add a bit of reactivity to your composure. If a person is on edge aboutcha, they’re not likely to discuss or delegate to ya. Understand?”
With that, he winks and taps his nose with his forefinger conspiratorially. His mustache is all contorted up and I’m sure, though I’ve never seen it before, that it’s hiding a grin. He turns to get back to work, dismissing me.
I exit his cubicle and take up my box of personal effects and make my way to the door. I jot a mental note to myself: grow one spectacular mustache for camouflaging troublesome charisma.
2) My current word count for my novel is: 19,064/30,000.
3) Muse’s next directive: “Write about a roll of film that has been obtained surreptitiously.”