Front Porch Review
My story began in my cubicle. Other than my name etched into a disposable piece of brown plastic and taped to the aisle panel, there is nothing unique about my cubicle. Approximately nine feet square, five-foot walls covered in beige denim, a floor of industrial grey matting, a computer held prisoner by corporate software, a Formica-and-steel work surface, a semi-comfortable black mesh chair – nothing to brag about. And when I’m gone, as gone I’ll someday be, nothing scratched into a wall letting the next occupant know I was there.
But I was there on Thursday at 9:32 a.m. I was sitting on that chair, staring at that computer screen, and I was thinking: I’m thirty-six, above-average intelligence, so-so social skills, all my black curls, able to do ten push-ups. But if I stood on my desk and shouted that line, “I’m mad as hell, and I won’t take it anymore,” would anyone reply? If I took off my sensible blue shirt, brown loafers and socks and ran up and down the aisles of identical cubicles waving a Confederate flag, would anyone notice? The answer to both questions is no. Dear God, I wish the answers were yes. I wish I mattered. That’s pathetic ambition for you!
By the way, my name is Mike Angelo, a name given to me by artistic Italian parents who assumed good things happen to people with good names. What can I say? Otherwise thoughtful adults but clueless as to the derision which is inflicted upon a person with a pretentious name.
I also happen to be a level six actuary employed at Lifetime Insurance for the past ten years. Despite a relatively good salary, I can’t afford to live alone in Seattle. So, I share a two-bedroom apartment with my older sister Lou. We take turns inviting members of the opposite sex to spend the night, and there was some awkwardness at first, and I’ve had four times the turns as Lou, but our relationship is still OK; at least I think it is. Both of us have friends who take us in when the other leaves a Post-It scribbled Date Night on the kitchen table.
A final point: since actuaries calculate life expectancy based on factors such as age, health, environment, education and so forth, we are, in general, mild, not given to exuberance or exhibitionism. We do not slap backs. We follow our doctor’s advice. We choose our spouses wisely, though not always well. And we are risk-aversive. Regrettably, being human, we are also fallible. Perhaps I more so than others.
My cube mates, also actuaries, are Richard, level 5, and Christine, level 7. As an aside, a level, the highest is 10, is earned by taking expensive classes and passing excruciating exams. Your reward, and it usually takes several attempts to pass, is a salary increase and, of course, bragging rights. No one has their number branded on their forehead but we all see it and acknowledge it with unseen nods and rueful smiles. On a daily basis, we remind ourselves of our involvement with the statistical certainty of death with colorful, meaningful posters: Richard’s depicts the Doomsday Clock, Christine’s the Grateful Dead, and mine the Grim Reaper. Actuarial humor is truly dry-as-dust.
Friday at 9:46 a.m. I was standing in my cubicle, looking over the partition dividing me from Christine. “Good morning, agent 7. Weekend plans?”
She glanced up from her chair and shrugged. “Nothing special. Probably hike in Seward Park – good view of Mt. Rainier, might even see a monk. You?”
Raising a fist, chin upward, “Well, I’m tired of being a Walter Mitty. Time for my fifteen minutes of fame. Thought I’d bungee off the Needle.”
“Thought you were afraid of heights.” Christine always plays along whenever I traipse into fantasy land. We occasionally lunch together at the local Starbucks, nothing serious, just an opportunity to vent. I appreciate her common sense, and she, I believe, enjoys my quirks, the way one is amused by surprisingly astute words from a six-year-old.
“I am. But I need to express myself, let others know I can handle a challenge.”
Christine grinned. “Of course, you can, big guy. Didn’t you try out for the Seahawks as a defensive back? Weren’t you turned down because you were a little too physical?” Standing, smoothing her skirt, she patted my hand. “Here’s a challenge: walk the trails with me tomorrow. I’ll bring sandwiches, you bring something to drink.”
I wanted to say, “Our first date!” But I never assume. Instead I said, “No problem. I’ll slow my pace so you can keep up; that’s what friends do for one another.”
“My, my, a truly sexist gentleman.”
On Saturday at 8:06 a.m. we stood at the trail head, each smiling, each pretending that this wasn’t a deviation from the norm. I remarked, “You could use a new pair of hiking shoes; those look like they’re falling apart.” How dumb can you be! You tread on dangerous ground when commenting on a woman’s shoes.
Christine looked at my boots, worn only once, and predicted, “Foolish number 6. What are the odds that your feet will be mass of blisters when we finish while I prance through the meadow? Enough chatter, let’s start. First one to see an eagle wins $10.”
There are two ways to hike Seward Park. You can plod slowly upon the asphalt-paved perimeter, weaving in and out of families and regiments of canes and wheelchairs, dodging rollerbladers, and veering away from the joggers and runners. Or you can meander the spider web of gravel-packed trails encircled by the asphalt and overshadowed by pines. We meandered.
As I am not a tree hugger or a member of the Green Party, this was my first encounter with the Seward woods. Obviously, I was not the first of my kind. In case you didn’t realize where you were or why, there was a brass plate mounted to a steel stanchion at the entrance to the trails.
While walking in my woods
STAY ON YOUR TRAIL
BE NOT AFRAID TO LOSE YOURSELF
THERE MY BE BEARS BUT THERE WILL BE BUTTERFLIES
LEARN FROM OTHERS
“Some guy from Microsoft donated this,” I said. “Just the kind of philosophical navel gazing they like to do in Redmond. Applied for a job there once but was turned down. Wasn’t a fit for their make-the-world-a-better-place culture, I guess. Oh well, their loss.”
Christine looked at me, sighed, touched the plate reverently and stepped forward. I sensed disappointment.
We walked about twenty yards without speaking. Then, stopping, hands and arms held out toward me, Christine asked, “Mike, what do you see?”
I may not be the brightest guy at Lifetime Insurance but I knew that this what not the time for a smart-ass comment. Smart asses don’t win fair maidens; smart asses simply cease to be. “Well, I see a trail crowded on both sides by tree trunks diminishing into the distance and leading to a green wall. The wall is moving from side to side, and rays of sunlight are lighting my way to that wall.”
“And what do you hear?”
“I hear the people on the other side of the trees. Children are screaming and laughing, adults are shouting at each other and their children, and there’s the occasional crash as someone on rollerblades bumps into a wheelchair and falls into a bush.” Then, as if inspired by the question, I added, “And I hear you.” I wasn’t sure but I believe she blushed.
“Factually correct,” she replied. “Here’s what I see and hear. I see tree tops bending in toward each other, forming an arched cathedral roof. The tree trunks are the people in that cathedral, standing, watching me walk amongst sun beams to the Earth altar where I’ll be wed. I don’t hear the outside world; I hear a chorus of birdsong.” For sure she blushed. “Sorry, a little over the top.”
“No, no, that was wonderful. I wish I had your imagination. Let’s keep walking.”
I think we hiked at least forty, maybe fifty, minutes in silence. We stepped over dead logs, we held aside low-hanging branches for one another, we jumped over muddy streams. After an exchange like that, we were both cautious. What do you say to a revelation like that? You don’t say, “You’re not what I was hoping for” when you haven’t thought about a future beyond what you’ll have for dinner that night. I should have said, “I like the way you connect with things;” I wish I had.
Our time together would have ended with a hand shake and a “Have a nice day” had it not been for the monk. We had wandered into the thickest part of the woods, were at a junction forking left and right. “Left,” I said.
“Right is the fastest way out,” Christine suggested. “I’ve been here before.”
I got the hint and knew I had failed the test. But then I saw a flash of orange. “Look over your right shoulder,” I whispered. “What kind of bird is that?”
Christine glanced and then stared. “That’s not a bird, that’s a Buddhist monk!”
For some reason, Buddhist monks favor Seattle. Perhaps it is the fame of the Dharma Refuge led by Reverend Master Basil Singer, a Zen Buddhist. In any case, their red or yellow or orange clothing adds zest to the otherwise grayness of our climate. Intrigued by the happenstance of the sighting, I said, “Let’s get closer. I’d like to see what he’s doing.”
Exasperated, Christine snapped, “Stay still. I’ll tell you what he’s doing, he’s praying.”
“How do you know?”
“From where I’m standing, I can see that he’s on his knees, his hands are folded in a supplication position, his head is bowed, his eyes are shut. Also, I can smell the joss sticks he’s burning, sweet smell something like lavender. He’s praying.”
“Why is a monk huddled in the bushes? Maybe he’s a fake monk hiding from the police.” Because Seattle seems to be a Buddhist sanctuary city and because people, especially tourists, have a G for gullible on their foreheads, certain unscrupulous types don colored garments and beg for donations to build a temple or youth hostel. My favorite is the guy who stands outside our building at lunchtime, even in the rain, and sells joss sticks. He wants $15 a stick because they are guaranteed to bring you into harmony with the universe.
“Fake monk? You are such a cynic; too much time with mortality rates. Get closer if you must. See, he’s praying. Don’t you pray?”
Without considering the consequences of my answer, “Of course, I pray.”
Christine smiled, the first smile of the journey, “Good. What do you pray for?”
A simple question requiring an introspective answer; indeed, a consequential answer and the turning point in my story. Knowing that my response would be lengthy, I took the initiative and started down the trail to the left. Christine mumbled something about male emotional instability and followed. We went about forty yards and stopped, side by side, shadowy creatures in another cathedral.
A therapist would have charged me at least $100 for what I said next. And I think I said what I did for my own sake, not just to impress Christine with my worth. And odd as it seems, I remembered Mother Nature’s advice about speaking truth. “I believe we’re children of God, but probably not the God you have hanging on that cross in your cubicle. My God is a good, really great, listener because that’s what children need most.”
Christine said, “Uh, huh.”
I added, “So, I don’t pray like the monk was doing, you know, on my knees and all that. And I don’t pray for things like a new car, or a raise or an island I call my own. I pray for help.”
“Yep, help.” I slipped my hands into my pockets so as to hide their shaking. “I need help in my fight against obscurity. I know that sounds inane, maybe egotistical. But there I am, week after week, encased in a cubicle, invisible to the world, a machine churning out probability charts that have the life span of a mouse. Don’t you ever feel that you should be doing something significant, like providing a home for orphans or reading to the blind?”
Christine nodded. I hoped it meant agreement but it could just as well have meant he’s babbling, and I can’t stand babblers.
“The point is, I know my God won’t get His hands dirty and suddenly turn me into someone other than who I am. And I know that seeking recognition can come across as narcissism. But for once, maybe just once, I want to matter, to make a difference.”
And then Christine said such a beautiful thing, “I will pray for you.”
We returned to the parking lot without speaking another word. As I opened my car door, I heard her say, “You have come far, grasshopper.”
My story ends in my cubicle. It is Monday at 8:34 a.m., and I am alone in the office. Standing at the entrance to my cubicle, hands clasped behind my head, knees slightly bent, I think: How sad was that? Well, Mike, that was a great lesson in how NOT to make a good first impression! Talk about raving lunacy! Hope that monk’s prayers were answered; sure as shit mine weren’t. I never even touched her. All that time together and not so much as a hand shake, no accidental brushing of bodies; ships passing in the night. The blisters on my feet are the size of quarters. But what matters most: I. Never. Touched. Her.
If nothing else, I am a Mr. Clean. When I leave my cubicle to go the john, to chat with my manager, to go home – my work space is pristine. My computer is off, all documents are in a drawer and there are no stray pencils or pens wandering around seeking companionship. As a result, I am attuned to discrepancies in my universe.
There, on my desk chair, sits a major discrepancy: a six-inch high plastic replica of a Buddhist monk, praying position. Tucked between his arms and his chin is a $10 bill, my reward for being the first to see an eagle during our time in the woods. An eagle I would not have seen but for Christine. Smiling, I place the statue on my desk so that it faces the computer. Doing so reveals a tightly rolled piece of paper remaining on the chair. Fascinated, I pick it up and read her message: I will help you.
Adam Restinow, a peripatetic wordsmith, shunned degreed creative writing programs in favor of attending to what people actually said and did. He learned that simple things, a word or a gesture, are at the heart of a good story. He also discovered that home-cooked meals cure many ailments, that true love is possible, and that listing prior publications is false pride. Adam and his wife live in Savannah, GA; but that could change if the wind blows cold.