on the water cooler

story by Niles Breuer, ’16

His tie was too tight.

It was nothing major, of course, nothing debilitating. Just that his wife pulled that extra little fraction of an inch so that his collar pressed into the side of his neck. Or maybe it was the collar itself. She never liked to spend the extra seven dollars on the shirts with the seventeen-and-a-half inch collars, so he always came up half-an-inch too short.

But it was fine. Just fine. The sort of thing you wouldn’t notice. Unless, of course, you happened to be sitting in your office waiting for Mohan to get back to you with those quarterly sales reports so that you could do your job. In that case, it was the sort of thing you noticed.

You would also notice that poster you put up when you first came to the office, the picture from On the Waterfront. Truly a classic. Maybe. At least, that’s what that film major said who you met on that information session for summer abroad during your sophomore year in college before you decided not to go because there was a chance it could have jeopardized your plan for a four-year graduation. Something about the plight of the common man and striving and love. A half-forgotten line about being a contender. That had to be the basics of a great piece of cinema, right? Sadly, you never got around to testing out that theory on the film major, because he decided to spend his semester in Paris and never came back, wasted his days away looking out over the city while a young woman called to him from inside the apartment, her voice wafting out onto the balcony, asking him to come back to bed. But he doesn’t, not just then, although almost nothing would make him happier. Because the one thing that would make him happier happened to be right there in front of him. But not the city. Something else.

Or, maybe, you’d notice the park across the street, the one with all of the monkey bars and parallel bars and all those other kinds of bars that you didn’t really understand. The one your wife suggested you avoid because it was frequented with “undesirables.” It wasn’t even the bad park, though, honey. The bad one was down on Washington right next to the Chinese place you were pretty sure was a front for the Mob, so you stayed away from there. No, these weren’t bad people, just people with different priorities. People who cared more about pull-ups and dips and seeing how they could test and control and push their bodies than how much they could push pencils or stretch the importance of their jobs when they came home in the evening, because Daddy’s work is really important, sweetie, but he can’t explain it right now because corporate earnings reports aren’t a good story before bedtime.

Or, unable to take the judgmental eye of Marlon Brando for a single moment longer, you’d take a walk. Nothing too far, just down to the watercooler in the little kitchenette the company provided for moments just like these. Johnson was there, and McKinley, and Avery, and even Mohan. They’d be talking about something, as they always were, maybe sports. Sports was a good one. And you’d just be passing by when you would hear Mohan say something about the old “ball-and-chain” back home nagging him. And it would just all come together. The ball-and-chain and the lounging Mohan not doing your work and Marlon and the park and the tie and it would all just come rushing down on you. So you would go and grab a Styrofoam cup and gulp it down and then take some more water and start to move away until Charlene from accounting happened to want to walk around that corner at just the same time because it was a pretty popular corner, after all, since right behind it hid the watercooler. And you would stop in your tracks, because she would have bumped into you because she wasn’t looking where she was going and you couldn’t turn so quickly ever since that injury that stopped you from playing more football in college, simply devastating, as the coach had put it as he cut you from the team, ripping the tape bearing your name from the locker once yours by right.

And you wouldn’t even take a moment. Not a single breath between what was then and what was now. You would turn and take that watercooler by the big clear tank and slam it against the ground, water leaking out everywhere as Johnson turned, and McKinley, and Avery, and even Mohan, and people would stick their heads around corners and over cubicles to catch a glimpse of what they would talk about for the next week. You would slash all of the cups against the ground and throw around those packets of coffee grounds, make a mess and love it, even though your wife hated it whenever you even tracked a little bit of mud into her mudroom, which didn’t make any sense, honey, because why would it be called a mudroom if you weren’t supposed to get any goddamn mud in it?

And you would stalk over to Charlene from accounting and seethe, “God-DAMN IT, Charlene,” using that voice that you knew everyone thought was just a little bit too scary and sharp for comfort, because they always told you that voice was just a little bit too scary and sharp for comfort. And you would stalk around that corner and stalk all the way back to that office that your honey would have been so happy to hear about when you came home one day and told her that you had finally moved up from the crummy cubicle over in the corner near Johansson and the office even came with a raise, so maybe you could take that trip to Jamaica, so maybe you could finally fall in love again and not play out this charade until death did you part. And you would stalk over to that poster of Marlon Brando and you would stalk all the way to the elevator carrying it and then you would stalk all the way down the street carrying it and you would just stalk while carrying it until you ran out of places to stalk to. And then maybe you would go home. Maybe.

But luckily Mohan came in with those quarterly sales reports. He did his job just as he was starting to itch around the collar.


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