Bill punched Joel in the face. It was Monday, almost 5 oclock. Another few minutes and they were done for the day, on their separate ways home, but Joel now lay on the floor beside the copy machine looking like he couldnt remember who he was. His world was the pain in his face, the blood on his tie.
This was the first time Bill had punched anyone since grade school. Hed gotten into a few shoving matches over the years, but had never gone so far as to deck someone. And it wasnt as if Joel had done anything, just then, to warrant it. Even as Bill stood there, lingering over his victim, pain radiating up his right arm, wrist throbbing, he marveled at how little it had taken to provoke him. It was more a matter of a long and smoldering hatred, a build-up of small grievances. Joel had come up behind him and said, Hey, buddy! and Bill had turned around and punched him in the face. Just hadnt been able to restrain himself any longer.
On the floor Joel said, What the fuck!
You had it coming, said Bill, as if stating a widely known fact. He couldnt think of anything else to say. He had no lies to tell, no words to gloss over the obvious fact of his hatred. There was nothing.
Right away he knew that he had revealed something to Joel, a secret that he should have retained and preserved. He understood that the secret of his hatred was also the source of his strength. Without it he was exposed and defenseless.
He stood over Joel, clenching and unclenching his fist.
Jesus Christ, Bill!
I guess I had a rough weekend is all.
First there had been a night of near-moronic drunkenness. Then there was a second night of drunkenness that involved various drugs. He rarely went in for coke, but there it was and there he was and, well, why not? That had been the line of reasoning, anyway. Somewhere along the way hed belted down a mugful of magic mushroom tea. The room had gone very warm and flickery after that. For three or four hours hed sensed a hellacious fire roaring somewhere, perhaps in a hidden fireplace, the kind of large fireplace you might find in an alpine ski lodge or maybe the boiler room of a steel mill, though there had only been a couple of short candles on a table. Then all Sunday morning he had fought not to vomit, but finally he had vomited until there was nothing left of him and he lay on the rug in the bathroom, shivering and salivating. In a cold whirling delirium hed suffered through the dog licking his face for about 10 minutes, or maybe it was only 10 seconds.
To top it all off, as he lay in bed that night, sliding around on the greasy rim of consciousness but always snapping awake just as he was falling asleep, one of Lesters toys, a plastic cube with flashing lights, had started talking in the dark. In the middle of the night it had squawked, Im a green triangle! Then it had laughed. That laughter had almost destroyed him. Fragile as he was after the weekendespecially with the residue of those mushrooms still ghosting around in his bloodBill fell into a well of terror at the sound of that cube singing and laughing in the dark. He lay there, seared to the sheets in hot paranoia, paralyzed, sweating, afraid to twitch or even open his eyes. He was alone. Lester and Sue had been gone for two weeks and wouldnt be back for two more.
What if he opened his eyes and saw someone or some thing standing beside the bed? Some evil Rumpelstiltskin singing, Im a green triangle! He lay in bed, trembling, afraid to open his eyes, afraid of the triangle. He imagined a pointy hat, leering eyes, a wisp of beardand if he saw something, even the slightest of movements in the shadows, he knew it would unbuckle the restraints in his mind. Hed be gone.
Ah, Jesus! Joel was on his knees now, clutching his face. He was getting up.
Bill didnt like anyone he worked with, but he hated Joel more than the rest of them because Joel was always trying to persuade him to come over to his house on weekends for barbeques and card games. Hed even asked Bill to go golfing once. Bill resented these invitations. He would never go golfing, would never play cards. Having to turn Joel down all the time without telling him how much he disliked him, that he would never visit him at his house no matter how long they worked together, was draining the life out of him. Each time he was forced to decline one of Joels invitations he could feel his strength ebbing away, as if he were actually losing substance, as if his soul were evaporating. Joel did not understand that he should leave Bill alone. That he was killing Bill. And now Bill had punched him.
Only belatedly had he realized that the secret of his hatred had been a hidden fortress, his only barrier of defense.
As Bill wondered whether he should help Joel to his feetmaybe there was still a chance of smoothing things overhe saw something move in the periphery of his vision. It was as if a small dark shape had skirted behind the copy machine. His scalp tightened, and he felt the sweat seep out of his palms. It was a purely animalistic response to danger, a state well-known to Bill because he often felt this way while driving.
Im a green triangle!
He had never imagined himself capable of full-fledged insanity. No, he was not straightjacket material. He just didnt have the energy or strength for it. But these were glimmers of madness, werent they? Thats what he was asking himself. The fear, the sudden violence, the sideways hallucinations. What, after all, had been so menacing about Lesters toy crying out in the dark? Hed heard that voice say those words a thousand times. But in the dark of the night they were steeped in menace. Even as he watched Joel struggling on his knees, he shuddered at the thought of the pointy hat, the squinty eyes, the wispy beard.
Luckily there was no one else in the office. Then again, if there had been, maybe he wouldnt have punched Joel in the first place. Or maybe he would have punched him several times as coworkers rushed to intervene. Things could have gotten out of hand. Braxton would have jumped in willingly, relishing the chance to pummel another human being, to act the brute. He was one of those guys who used to chant lines from Fight Club like gospel. Bill had hated that movie. Hed got the point, all rightbut the thought of hanging out with a bunch of sweaty knobheads in a basement was too awful. That basement conformed to the exact dimensions of his own private Hellor at least one of them. He had had to forego the rest of the movie.
No, Bill was a family man. Lester and Sue were his life. He loved them. The last thing he needed was back-slapping, male camaraderie. Hey, buddy! Precisely the reason hed punched Joel in the face.
Your ass is grass, pal, said Joel, pointing at him. Wait till Rich hears about this. Rich was the boss.
Now Joel was sitting in a metal folding chair next to the fridge, a bag of frozen spinach pressed over his left eye. Who in the world had brought a bag of frozen spinach into the office, wondered Bill. Joels other hand, he saw, now held a phone, and Joel was speaking into it. He was complaining to Rich about how Bill had just punched him in the face. The phone emitted a little quack of surprise.
In the two years Bill had worked in the office he had never seen anyone sit in that chair. Now it struck him as strangely fitting that Joel had chosen this occasion to sit there. Perhaps the chair had stood there all that time, a pointless object in the room, waiting for precisely this moment. This idea seemed plausible, even likely. Maybe as soon as the chair was arranged in the corner beside the fridge it became inevitable that one day Bill would punch Joel in the face and Joel would sit there complaining about it on the phone to Rich. He laughed a little blue laugh into his pulsing hand, amused at his own helplessness.
Something funny, Jackson?
No, no. I was just thinking of something else for a minute. He coughed into his fist. Well, I guess Id better leave you to it, then.
You just wait right there, friend. Rich is coming.
Bill looked at his watch. I dont think I will, Joel. Lesterll be waiting for me at the daycare in 15 minutes.
This, of course, was a lie. Lester was away with Sue, visiting his grandparents, but lying to Joel, Bill now realized, was what prevented him from attacking Joel.
What the hell is wrong with you, Jackson? You just punched me in the face!
Yeah, said Bill. I really did.
He would leave Joel sitting there with the spinach pressed over his eye. He wasnt worried about losing his job, which would almost certainly happen. Rich was a boss who fired people for being tardy one too many times. God only knew what hed make of punching people. Probably call the police.
So no job.
He needed the money, of course, but he didnt need the job. Sue had been urging him to quit for months. It wasnt healthy, she said, doing something you despised eight hours a day. He would find something else, something better. They had a little money saved.
He thought of the money in the bank account. There wasnt much.
Looking directly at Joel, he thought: In 50 years well both be dead.
Somehow this was a comfort.
Meanwhile stars were going supernova, entire galaxies disappearing down black holes like a gigantic cosmic toilet flush. And Rich was on his way.
The office, a barren little box of a room, was full of whizzing electrons, quarks, neutrinos.
The office and everything in it, including Joel, the copy machine, the metal folding chair, the spinach, and Bills own body, were those things.
Apparently all creation was composed of one-dimensional strings that vibrated, though there were 11 dimensions now.
Spinach, said Bill.
Yes, he could do without the job.
His hand throbbed. His wrist felt sprained. He took off his tie and stuffed it in his pocket. It was 5 oclock.