In the hours before dawn, I dream that I’m seventeen years old again. I’m in high school and wearing a pair of tan, pleated front, cotton slacks with the narrow black belt and the black, short-sleeved shirt with the silver threads running through it. I am walking alone down the hall of McKinley High and I hear someone talking. It’s coming from inside of one of the lockers. I put my ear to the locker but I can’t make out what the person inside is saying but the voice is familiar. I turn and run toward the front office but the hall does this telescoping thing, getting longer and narrower and my face feels hot. I stop to catch my breath and wake up.
The accordion blinds in the window of my room glow in the morning sun. And the first thing I think of is the old man in the light green suit and worn shoes who played the oud each morning, in the tiny square of the Essaouira medina. He sat in a folding chair as frail as himself. I remember the dry sound of his voice as he sang and the long stain of his shadow on the paving stones of the souk. The voice in the locker was his. I go into my white-tiled bathroom, shower and shave.
If I turn my head slightly sideways when I look into my bedroom walk-in closet, the layers of textures and colors of the hanging clothes are a geological record. There are suits and blazers, when blue, gray and black that were once the dominant colors of my professional life. My third Armani suit, a dark gray, double-breasted wool number punctuates the end of an era. And then there are the browns, mustards and the lighter grays of the sports coats and slacks of a more confident period. Below the mirror is a three-tiered shoe rack. In it are the shoes that I haven’t used for years. There are the black, patent leather pumps that go with my tuxedo and the wingtips I bought at a San Francisco vintage clothing shop on a lark. There also are the glossy cordovans and the black dress shoes that I used to wear with the suits. The cedar shoetrees keeping them straight could be severed feet. Where Nola’s cotton and wool dresses, her skirts, her silk blouses and fashionable leather jackets and coats should be is flat, chalk-colored wall.
I dress for work in a freshly ironed pair of pleated-front khaki pants, brown suede desert boots and light blue shirt. I slide into my black wool blazer. It complements my black belt with its silver buckle and gives the outfit a needed touch of gravity. I check myself in the closet mirror to make sure that everything’s just right. It’s going to be a shit day at the office.
By eight o’clock, I’ll be the only analyst at his desk, except for Ross, who will inform me that Carol, Max, Robert and Charlene, the unit manager, have called in sick, or that they’ll be in late. The office has the sooty feel of resignation. It’s been that way since the management team started cutting Charlene out of meetings and reassigning projects to other units. Two days ago, Charlene returned from a meeting with Rebecca, walked into her office, shut the door and didn’t come out for an hour. The next morning, she called us into the conference room and told us about the planned “re-organization.” No, she couldn’t tell us what it meant for us. All the place needs is for someone to cut off the electricity, set fire to the copier and throw the chairs through the windows. I’ll log on and start work on the Stearman Project flowchart. On its hanger, my jacket will be a shadow watching my back.
I go downstairs, pour myself a mug of coffee and sit in the breakfast nook that looks across the yard into the street. I hear the neighbor’s sprinkler doing this samba beat that sets the crows to cursing. I sip coffee, hoping that it will act as a solvent against the emptiness in my chest. For years, I’d watched my life grow more crowded. The row of framed achievement certificates expanded across the beige walls of my work cubicle. Thick, white project binders crowded onto the shelves above my work surface. The painted boxes and ceramics from my overseas business trips and vacations found their ways onto the living room shelves and end tables.
But then spaces began to arrive. This tearless void in my torso first appeared at my father’s funeral. I kept thinking of the last time we’d had coffee together in the kitchen. I remembered the half-light in his dark eyes and the softness of his accented English, the “V”s rounded down to “Bs, the “F”s transformed into “P”s. Sitting on the hard funeral chapel bench, not even the weight of my blue serge suit, the serious pattern of my tie or the solid soles of my shoes could contain it the emptiness in my chest. Someone might as well have grafted my neck and head onto the body of a clothes dryer.
For weeks afterward, I went into the office before anyone else arrived and stayed late. Often, I departed after the janitorial staff had finished their work. With the air conditioning turned off, the air took on the same stillness I’d felt standing in the sunlit space of the funeral chapel. In those hours, with the silence broken only by the claw-on-tile sound of my keyboard and the occasional whine of the laser printer doing its self-diagnosis, I felt as though I was learning to breathe in the atmosphere of another world. I began to wonder at the spare reach of the acoustic panels above the white neon light fixtures. It was so like an inverted salt flat. I began Googling desert images. There was one that put the hook into me. It was of a treeless place where the rise and fall of the rose-colored dunes were soft waves against the backdrop of the turquoise sky.
It was Charlene who, while praising my diligence and hard work on the TransTak e-commerce rollout, noted that I’d amassed more vacation hours than anyone else in the office. “Oscar, I think we could spare you for a week or two,” she said at one of our weekly face-times for which I was always carefully dressed and in hard leather shoes.
“There’s some post-implementation evaluation to do,” I said.
“I know that your father’s passing must have been a blow.”
“The PI plan won’t take me long.”
“It’s routine stuff. Carolyn could use the hours. You take some chill time. I won’t have you burning out on me. You’ll lose your edge and then you’re no good to the section.”
I remember leaving the building feeling I’d had a hole blown through me. I went down to the Verona Coffee House, where the skinny barista with a Mighty Mouse tattoo on her upper arm politely told me that I looked like shit and made me a triple espresso. I sat in a chair with the uneven legs, at the table with a battered top, rolling the bitter black liquid around the inside of my mouth. There was this dry wind blowing hot sand around the space where my intestines should have been. And I thought, fuck it and walked right out of the Verona and up the block to the basement office of Tango Travel. There on the wall, among the pictures of tropical destination resorts, palm-fringed beaches and beautiful couples laughing over tall drinks, was a poster of a mud-walled fort in the middle of a dry landscape. Nothing else. No people, no trees, goats or camels. I thought, maybe the best cure for emptiness is emptiness. So I pointed and told the middle-aged woman behind the desk, “I want to go there.”
“Morocco,” she said, her face as flat as the poster.
I look down at my watch: seven-o-five. I lean back in my chair the way I did outside The Café des Amis, that warm morning in Essouira, Morocco. I go back to the square in the medina that wasn’t really a square, but wide place where three alleys met and opened to the sky. I am about to go over and give my spare change to the oud player in the faded green suit. But a movement at the edge of the square catches my eye. It’s a woman in a yellow and red cotton sundress that reaches to her ankles. Her light brown hair falls across the left side of her face. A brightly colored, woven straw market bag hangs from her right hand. She’s draped a silk shawl over her shoulders. Its ends billow at her sides, filtering the light through its wine-colored weave. She walks up to the table next to mine with a loose stride that’s a half a beat slower than normal and sits. The owner comes out of the café, takes her order and leaves. She looks over at me and gives me the briefest of smiles. And then the old man begins to play and to sing in that dry voice of his. I should say something, ask where she’s from or compliment her on the color and pattern of her dress. The waiter comes out and sets a steaming glass of mint tea before her.
I want to say something, even if it’s as mundane as, beautiful morning no, or where are you from. But the shadow of the old man with the oud reaches across the sunlit space and puts its hand over my mouth. So I sit wordlessly, sip my coffee, brush the crumbs off lap of my cargo pants and try not to stare at her. And then she’s gone. There’s nothing left but wilted mint leaves in a drained glass and an empty chair.
It’s seven-twenty. I re-run that morning in the Essouira. I open with, “What are you reading on such a lovely day?” She looks up from her book without a trace of annoyance and says, “Naguib Mahfouz.” I get up and walk over, extending my hand, “Oscar,” I say. “Nola,” she replies with an accent that I can’t place. Her grip is strong and cool, her palm lightly calloused. “Would you like to join me?” she says. It’s the way things should have gone that morning.
I take my cup to the sink and pour out what’s left. The coffee becomes a light, root beer colored swirl spinning into the drain. I have never seen such a perfect shade of brown. What a beautiful suit it would make.