Patterson fed pages to the copier. Melanie was chewing over a decision to take her cat to be spayed, so naturally they all had to suffer it.
All but one.
Patterson turned a heavy eye to his desk. Just across sat Willard, face gleaming like butter under the halogen light. He was humming away in happy oblivion. He’d made a catapult from a pen and a perverted paperclip, and was lazily sniping at a fly.
Put a sock in it, Mel, Patterson thought.
Sudden silence. Then the abrupt snap of a drawer closing made Willard misfire, snapping his ammo back into his left eye. A yelp of pain. A stab of miserable satisfaction. Melanie sat back in her seat, preening like a well-fed cat.
They all relaxed a little.
“Okay there, chief?” Patterson joked as he eased himself back into his chair.
Willard, hand clasped over his eye, laughed. “I hurt myself stupid again.”
Both men laughed, Patterson’s mirth tempered by the beginning of a headache originating somewhere in the next room. Probably Alison. She had heavy periods, but refused to miss work no matter how they begged her. God. Patterson chewed an aspirin.
Willard missed out on an involuntary screening of Sessler’s nocturnal visit from the girl in those beer ads. Melanie sidled by his desk, asking questions to draw attention from her covert rearrangement of his things. When Willard stood, half the desk came with him.
“Whoa, captain clutz,” Sessler called from the other room. Willard reddened.
“Stop it, you know he can’t help it,” Melanie hissed, stooping, “here, I’ll give you a hand.”
The reclamation of his desk took probably twice as long as it might have if it had been a solo job. Willard was so conditioned to his informed clumsiness that he didn’t notice Melanie handing him things he couldn’t properly grasp. Pens, paper, all escaped as his fingers closed too slow or too soon.
“Don’t worry,” Melanie laid a solicitous hand on his back, “at least you don’t work at a china shop.”
Willard reddened again, smiling wanly. Alison shivered in pleasure at her desk, Patterson felt a glob of red raw satisfaction hit him before she realized her error and began thinking of baseball.
“Sorry about that,” Willard said, flicking pepper from the tablecloth.
“No sweat. I always find furniture so bland.”
Both men shared a dull chuckle. Patterson felt a stab of Melanie’s sweet craving and took a bite of hoagie to temper it.
“I mean, what I was saying was I just feel like the dumbest guy in the office.”
“You kidding? Have you seen Sessler’s portfolio?”
Willard gave an obligatory chuckle, but he was still somewhat reserved. Damn. Maybe they had been riding him too hard.
“I mean, I feel like everyone here is so much smarter than me. Like you’re all thinking all the time.”
Patterson could feel the sweat glands on his forehead open. “Dunno what you mean.”
“Like you’re not just working. Like you’re all multitasking while I’m just slogging along…” Willard gave a shrug and started into his minestrone. “Just saying. Don’t know how you all put up with me.”
“Hey cowboy, I don’t know how you put up with us.” Melanie joked, whisking her Greek yogurt from the freezer.
I don’t know how we put up with us either.
Melanie exited the room quickly, so Patterson took the opportunity to laugh, hiding it partially in his sandwich. Willard looked at him.
“Didn’t think it was that funny.”
Sessler had a song stuck in his head, so after lunch they all sucked on it like a loose tooth. He only knew the chorus and part of the bridge and the incessant melody that they all grew to hate regardless of musical taste.
Willard got up to fish his triscuits from the break room cupboard. Patterson followed. Melanie shot him a desperate, hungry look as he passed.
Willard had bent so that his pants rode up and showed the white of his legs above his argyle socks. He laid his cheek on the counter as he rummaged blind in the cupboard beneath it. The coffee cupboard sat above his head like a guillotine, the corner worn and chipped.
“Hey, Willy wills,” Patterson said, “Got a minute?”
Willard grunted. Patterson asked him about cars. His cousin wanted to buy a used Sedona, was this a good price? The body had some minor damage, the paint job was good, and oh, did he still have that traveling mug? Patterson had found a mug in his car that looked like it but the logo was scratched off, what the hell had the logo been for in the first place? A baseball team or was it a company freebie? Their firm didn’t give the premo freebies to their employees, the best he’d gotten was a mouse pad and who used those anymore—
Willard rose to reply—and the crack resounded through the office. Serotonin streamed through their collective bodies. Patterson held his hands out, clucking like a mother hen.
“We really gotta get you a helmet, big guy.”
Willard was not, in fact, a bad coworker. He wasn’t even especially unpleasant. But they hated him, his silent mind, and how he rode oblivious above their agony.
Willard idly fingered the buttons of his keyboard as, unbeknownst to him, Melanie stared daggers at his back.
They were all too tired to properly filter; Patterson could only apologize for the endless litany of grocery items he ran through in his head. Sessler was seriously contemplating calling his ex. Melanie was seriously contemplating fucking him if it would shut him up for five seconds. Alison was washed under the tide of menstrual pain, and they all suffered with her.
Willard quirked his mouth. “Hey, does anyone know what rhymes with ‘shadow’?”
Fuck you, Alison thought, fuckyou, fuckyou, FUCK YOU.
They all jumped. Patterson was on the phone, so Willard shot him a sympathetic glance.
“Colorado,” Sessler offered.
Willard shrugged and sat back. He had a pen, which he rolled back and forth, pressing his thumbnails into it so the skin around them whitened, and then releasing so that color flooded back in.
Willard’s thoughts were muddy-brown-dull, so whisper-thin that they barely even registered. He thought like a rabbit chewed. Bills. Wife? Home. Beer? Beer. Wife. Porn. Beer. Barbeque. Sleep. Wake. Coffee. Jog? Donut.
Patterson took another swallow of coffee. His offended tastebuds retreated. He failed to catch the reaction before it flew away, but Melanie, who had made the last pot, shrugged it off.
Beer. Bed. Fuck. Anniversary coming. Bonus already eaten by fantasy football. Roses? Maybe bum ten buck off Sessler. 20 off Patterson. Maybe discount roses, her eyesight wasn’t too good.
Alison shot a beam of withering disapproval at Willard. Patterson hid a grin in his phone receiver.
Five o’clock descended like the sun in the sky.
Willard fingered the lump on his temple. “I think I might skip the nightcap. I need to take care of a few things.”
“Me too.” Actually, Patterson planned to go home to his specially-reinforced bedroom, pop a few more painkillers, and sit with a towel soaked in icewater over his eyes.
“What, you going to blow your wad on the Seahawks again?” Willard jabbed.
“Why shouldn’t I? It’s not like Penny even likes roses.”
Oh shit, Melanie thought.
“Hey.” His finger extended to jab at Patterson’s neck. “What did you just say?”
Patterson tried to play it cool, despite his trembling hands. “I was just joshing—”
“No,” Willard said. He only had one arm in his jacket. His free hand curled into a fist, and his face was reddening. He was looking at Patterson with the look of a man just starting to fit pieces together.
Shitshitshitshit, Melanie moaned.
Alison strode businesslike into the room. “Willard, I’m sure he didn’t mean—”
“You shut up.”
Alison started back in mid-syllable. He had never used that tone before, let alone on her. Willard sucked air over his teeth.
“Captain klutz,” he said, “the clumsy cowboy. Jesus Christ, you people.”
Sessler stood, mouthing silently to the receiver in his hand. They were all pinned by Willard’s rage. Melanie had been filing, the papers in her hands were shaking like leaves in a storm.
There was movement behind the door marked MGMT.
Willard aimed his finger like a pistol. “Always laughing behind my back. And you, with the goddamn roses.”
“Wills, it was just a joke—”
“How the hell did you know?” Willard exploded.
The door to the next room swung open.
Hendricks stepped out, all five-foot-five of him. He sized them all up with a glance, making a subtle motion with his hand to Melanie. She set the papers down.
Willard seemed slightly appeased by this. He looked to Hendricks, a question in his eyes. Hendricks approached him, face neutral. Willard gestured to the rest of the office, open palm trembling as much as Mel was.
The shorter man held Willard’s face in both hands, rotating it slightly from side to side and studying his head. Then Hendricks, in slow and gentle tones of concern, began speaking gibberish.
Willard’s face descended into confusion. “What?”
Hendricks repeated himself, emphasizing certain syllables. He pointed to the phone. He pointed to Willard’s head. He pointed to the phone again.
All the color drained from Willard’s face.
“’Opital,” Hendricks said, “oo ah e ‘opital.”
After what seemed like a century, Willard slowly shook his head. He’d gone white as a starched sheet. He gathered his things without looking at anyone, and made his way to the door by bracing himself on the wall.
They all stayed silent as they listened to his footsteps down the hall.
You idiots, Hendricks thought in disgust, how many times will I have to save you?
They tried to make their thoughts a blank white nothing.
Go home. Remember you won’t always be this lucky.
They gathered their coats. As Patterson walked to the subway, he caught sight of Willard. He sat in his car without starting it, just gripping the wheel and staring down at the dash. Patterson thought about walking over to check on him, but his feet turned his first step away. He went home instead.