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Apr/May 2008 Fiction

Dale

by Ravi Mangla


Dale's sense of humor was writing the word "HAPPY" with a black felt marker down the arm of his white button-up, so when someone asked, he could say he was wearing his emotions on his sleeve. The punch line always hit him the hardest.

I never cared much for people like Dale who could find evidence of light in a black hole if you gave them half a chance. So, needless to say, we were confounded when Warner told us that he was a genius. "You're shitting me," I said. There were two things about Warner that all but certified his claim. First, Warner was a file clerk and had unrestricted access to our records, which meant he knew about my misdemeanor for telephone fraud in the nineties and Tony's four divorces. Secondly, Warner never lied. He was a dirty gossip, but he kept his facts straight. It followed that Dale was indeed a bona fide genius.

We stole peeks into Dale's cubicle all morning. I don't know what we were expecting to find: a pyramid of perfectly aligned Rubik's Cubes or a Bunsen burner heating up strange chemical concoctions--whatever geniuses do. Dale spent a considerable amount of time staring into space, even for us ordinary folk, much less a genius with an IQ right up there with "Edison, Einstein and Lincoln," Warner said. He just sat there, heavy-eyed with his mouth sagging open.

Dale's cubicle was in the "eye of the storm" in the middle of the office. It was where they started the rookies or dumped the veterans right before they got the ax. We bounced around our theories in the kitchen. A number of us figured it was a big game. Dale played the role of the office idiot as a break from the tedium of the workday.

"It certainly would be a clever ruse," Smits said and then glanced over at me self-consciously. He knew I had seen him earlier fumbling through a dictionary, sounding out words, when I went to drop off the expense reports.

After lunch, I watched Dale use his black felt marker to draw cat whiskers across his face. Dale, the genius. Dale, the professor emeritus. Dale, the Nobel laureate. I tried to imagine it--Dale dropping in, unannounced, on a Shakespearean Literature or Numerical Analysis class at the local university. Mr. Westinghouse, how wonderful it is that you've elected to grace us with your presence! Sir, if it isn't too much trouble, can you show the students how a genius does it? Though appearing somewhat irked by the request, Dale would step up to the chalkboard and solve a complicated algorithm without breaking a sweat. He'd set down the stub of chalk and the class would break out in a symphony of applause.

Word of Dale's "condition" carried to upper management. Upper management consisted of the three bosses--Henderson, Craft, and Michalowski. Above the three bosses, no one knew who ran the company. Michalowski spoke in koans, like after I was denied my scheduled raise, I'll never forget it, he closed his eyes and said, "The money tree bears many fruits, but fruit alone cannot slake an appetite. Too much fruit makes the tongue go sour. What fruit is money?"

Michalowski's door opened, exhaling a whorl of sandalwood incense. He was tall and broad shouldered with deep-set, dark eyes and a long, flat face. He seemed to waver, taking a few steps toward Dale's cubicle, then stopping. My cubicle was across from Dale's. I watched Michalowski finally garner the courage to go in. And it was courageous, because the three bosses never left their offices. I curled my head around the partition to get a better listen.

"Who hears?" Michalowski said.

"I don't know, boss. Who does?"

"The falling rain only makes a sound when there is force to oppose it."

"Oh. I didn't know that."

Michalowski tramped out of the cubicle in a gale. He seemed thwarted, maybe even embarrassed.

A short while after that, Bowles delivered a note to Dale from Henderson, telling him to report to her office at a quarter to two. Henderson was staid and impersonal. She handled most of the employee terminations to prove to her male collaborators that she was just as tough as--if not tougher that--they were. Henderson's office was the one office you didn't want to be called into. Dale took a break from the paperclips he was uncoiling and slunk to Henderson's office with that clumsy, loose-limbed waddle of his. He emerged a few seconds later, bewildered. Dark shadows lined his face from where he had rubbed out the makeshift whiskers.

Boyle said that he saw Henderson strapping on her bra when he peeped into her office from the hem around the blinds. Of course, I didn't believe Boyle. Nobody did. Boyle was a sensationalist, beguiling us with inane stories on an almost daily basis--being invited on stage to jam out with the Rolling Stones, sleeping with a Victoria Secret model, playing professional soccer in Italy. But then Elizabeth Shu validated his improbable story by reporting that she heard Henderson in one of the stalls of the women's lavatory screaming between fits of crying, "Am I not good enough for the bastard?"

"Does this mean Boyle did sleep with a Victoria Secret model?" I asked Lopez.

The momentary disorientation had melted from Dale's face, and he was back to bending paper clips. Craft called Dale into his office. Erskine, Craft's assistant, used the intercom to listen in. A dozen of us huddled around the phone console like it was a winter campfire.

"Feeder cattle."

"Pardon, sir."

"What do you think of feeder cattle? I'm looking to sell my oats and cotton, buy up a good sized share of feeder cattle."

"I didn't know you had a farm, sir."

"Farm? What in God's name are you talking about, Westinghouse? I want to know what you think of the long term prospects for feeder cattle."

"I wouldn't know, sir. I don't have any cattle."

"You wouldn't, huh? You're a joker, Westinghouse. Trying to take me for a fool, are you? If I find you've been buying up shares in feeder cattle, God help me, I will put you through a wall. Get out of my office!"

Erskine shut off the intercom, and we scattered. Dale left the office. Even when his temperaments strayed--confusion, frustration, alarm, they reset to a contented equilibrium in no time at all. He possessed the emotional discipline of a monk. From Dale's face, it was as though he sensed nothing odd or unusual about the day--Michalowski searching for spiritual direction, Henderson looking for sexual release, Craft wanting some good commodity advice. And then there was Dale, trying to flick rubber bands into his coffee mug with a comportment that everything was as it should be. He was a greater genius than any of us could have imagined.

What he was planning or playing at, we could only speculate. The three bosses congregated in Michalowski's office because of the comfortable beanbag chairs. Unfortunately, Michalowski had long ago disabled the intercom and instructed his assistant to forward his messages through ESP or, in the case of a bad telepathic signal, post-it notes. The meeting lasted maybe fifteen minutes. It was a rare occasion that the bosses met together. Each seemed to value their individual space and independent set of responsibilities. They exited the office in succession--Craft, Henderson, Michalowski--and stood in the front of the room, shoulder-to-shoulder, where everyone could see them.

"I'm terribly sorry to say that because of a poor second quarter performance, we're going to have to commence with layoffs," Henderson said without a trace of sympathy in her voice. The room was quiet. "We will issue notifications to the employees whom we're planning to let go before the end of the day. To those who won't be back, thank you for your years of devoted service, and best of luck in all future enterprises."

We were stunned. The day's surprises just kept on coming. Ever since Craft heard I was a good golfer and I helped him win the scramble event at his golf club, I knew my job was as secure as was possible--which meant it wasn't very secure, but I was still better off than some of the others.

Everyone was a little on edge for the next hour. Eviction notices found their way onto the desks of Dale Westinghouse and Danielle Westmoreland. The bosses always fired in twos to protect themselves from wrongful termination lawsuits and to save the individuals from the embarrassment of being singled out. It made perfect sense to me--they wanted to fire Dale and then chose to let go of the person whose name followed Dale's in the alphabet, which was Danielle Westmoreland.

Nobody knew very much about Danielle Westmoreland. She mostly kept to herself and had been working in the same cubicle since before any of the three bosses had come to power. She was quiet with a thick braid of white hair and silvery eyes. She read books in the back of the lounge during her breaks, and by the time one of us got around to peeking inside of her cubicle, she had disappeared.

Dale was baffled, and for once his emotions didn't seem to equalize. He boxed up his curios and bent paperclips and was gone before five o'clock. None of us shook his hand or offered our sympathies. We didn't want to get in his way. We expected his great plan to be unveiled; perhaps we were on the cusp of a coup or strike. And with Dale leading us, we would follow him into battle no matter how bleak it looked. But he had left, and we didn't know what to do.

"I wouldn't come into work tomorrow if I were you." Lopez said. "I'm taking a sick day, maybe a couple of sick days. You know, that Ted Kaczynski was a genius. That's all I'm saying." At five, I packed up my briefcase and went home. The bosses stood outside of their doors to see us out, commending us on a good day's work.

 

A month or so later, I ran into Dale at a convenience store. He was just kind of puttering around, picking things up and putting them back down. I followed him to the back, where I found him spinning the book carousel with all the one dollar romance novels.

"Hey, Dale."

"Hey." His face seemed to perk up.

"How are you doing?"

He shrugged. "Well after I was fired, I had some trouble finding a new job. My wife left me, but hopefully things will turn around. I'm waiting to have an interview with the manager here." I looked around the dime store: its dirty floors, automatic door that no longer worked, smell like a petting zoo. I laughed.

"Dale, when are you going to stop this and just come clean with us?"

"Stop what?"

"So, what's good?" I pointed to the carousel.

"I don't know. I'm not much of a reader." This time I howled.

"You crack me up, you crazy son of a bitch." I kept on laughing. Dale was confused, maybe even nervous, but he joined in on my laughing. And boy, did we laugh! We laughed until it hurt in the centers of our chests.

 

A few days later, Warner told us he was shredding some old files and realized he had misread the names on the top of the manila folders. Danielle Westmoreland was the genius, not Dale Westinghouse. Dale Westinghouse had only managed an eleventh grade education. He also told us that Bigsly had crabs.

"You don't say," Boyle said concerning Bigsly's predicament, and he went off in the direction of Bigsley's cubicle.

I felt a sharp pain in my chest, not unlike the pain I felt when Dale and I were laughing so hard we had started to cry. Dale had laughed so I wouldn't look like a fool. I had laughed because his wife left him.

And there was Danielle, who stood by humbly while Dale's accomplishments were wrung through our reckless imaginations--CIA operative, chess grandmaster, inventor of the paperclip (that last one was my doing). Danielle, who knew all along and wanted nothing more than peace and quiet to chew through her paperbacks. Dale and Danielle deserved to be running the company, to boot the three bosses out on their asses.

I wanted to jump up on Erskine's desk and eulogize the two fallen heroes. I wanted to send around a petition. I couldn't shake the feeling. Was it guilt? I don't know what it was, but I had to rectify the injustice; something had to be done. Maybe I was waking up for the first time. The three bosses would get what was coming to them. Maybe not this week or this month or this year, but someday. In the spirit of Michalowski, there was going to be "karmic justice."

I could hear Boyle and Bigsly getting into it down the hall. It sounded like Bigsly had Boyle in a headlock and was trying to get him to say "uncle." I saw Warner looking over at Dale's cubicle, now occupied by some young college graduate with thick glasses and buckteeth, typing away on his computer.

"It's too bad for Dale," Warner said.

"Yeah, it is."

 

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