Vanessa logged out and picked up her keys. Garrett, a “team leader” was leaning into the next cubicle and his lower body was blocking her exit from her own.. He was talking to a woman named Marcia in the next cubicle over. Marcia was twenty-four and devoted to Crossfit. On casual Fridays she always wore yoga pants. Garrett was talking in that kind-of sort-of maybe this-or-that manner about the impending weekend, hoping Marcia would offer up the tiniest affirmation of her own weekend plans so that he might impose his own thereby. Marcia, too smart for Garrett by half, offered nothing.
“Ahem.” Vanessa had to clear her throat to get Garrett to stand up to let her pass.
“Hey” he said, without ever looking away from Marcia, straightening up to let Vanessa by.
Alone in the elevator Vanessa spoke out loud to herself:
“I am invisible . I am forty-five years old and invisible . This should not have happened yet.”
Who said that first, she wondered.
Vanessa had a son in high school and a father in assisted care. Two men to whom she was visible, the former more so than the latter. To all others it might as well be as if she never were.
She left work at two o’clock on a Thursday afternoon.
“Where are you going V?” her boss asked.
“Meeting with my son’s school,’ Vanessa said. “I asked you this morning, remember?”
“No, but alright,” he said. “Hey, can you come on Saturday?” I’m going to need you to come in if you can.”
“I’m going to need to come in on Monday,” Vanessa said.
“Thanks Val,” Tom said. “I knew I could count on you.”
Ten years here and he still gets my name wrong half the time, she thought. She was ten minutes late leaving for the meeting with the school and by the time she arrived, she was fifteen minutes late.
Scott was suspended from school for one week. The principal and the drama teacher had set the meeting with her after school had let out to explain their decision. He was being suspended for a short-film he created along with another student– a “student-led” project. It was supposed to be a section of dialogue from “Waiting for Godot” and that’s what they had presented to the drama teacher, who had approval. What they had done was present a satire of the Harry Potter movies in which Professor Snape attempts to seduce young Potter. They had, of course, filmed this on the sly and had most definitely not presented it for any approval save for the roars of laughter from the class when it was shown.
The principal loaded the file on his monitor and turned it around for Vanessa to see. The video began with Scott dressed in some sort of a dark robe, with a long black wig on, standing in front of another boy whom she recognized as a boy surnamed Jensen. She thought him the sort that might start fires when no one else was around. The little arsonist was seated at a desk, wearing a similar dark smock to her son’s and wearing thick-rimmed black glasses without lenses. The presentation’s dialogue started immediately, with Scott (as Snape) telling the Jensen kid (as Harry Potter) that “The love between Slytherin Master and Gryffindor apprentice was the purest love of all” and ended with Scott (as Snape) telling the Jensen kid “Don’t be fragile like your friend Weasley now, this is a ‘sorting’ of a different sort, and you don’t want to be a thumb-sucking bed-wetter like him. He cries himself to sleep every night.” There was much in between, all of it wildly inappropriate, and every time Scott (as Snape) said “but” the Jensen kid responded with “heh-heh, you said “Butt.”
The video ended and the conversation started:
“You see,” said the principal, “We can’t have that. So, we are suspending him for one week effective today. He can return to classes next Friday, 8:20am sharp. We hope nothing like this ever happens again.”
Vanessa turned to the drama teacher; a short, thick woman named Greene. Greene had on the same kind of thick-rimmed glasses the Jensen kid (the arsonist) was wearing in the video, only with lenses in them – progressives by the look of it.
“Is it the content you object to or the costuming?”
Greene was very quick to respond.
“The patriarchy institutionalizes indifference to other people’s suffering - particularly women’s and children’s - by mocking it. I won’t stand for it.”
“No points for originality?” Vanessa asked, resigned to the suspension now. “Costumes? Set design?”
“Ma’am,” Greene said, “Conflating pedophilia with the Harry Potter Franchise is hardly original. It started fifteen minutes after the first film. It’s the same with Dora the Explorer or Power Rangers or any franchise you can think of. I do not want to tell you what I’ve seen in regards to Twilight. I warn everyone in advance. I also warn about scatological interpretations, but scatology only gets you an “F” on one assignment. Pedophilia gets you one “F” and one “suspended.”
Vanessa turned to the principal, who had nodded emphatically at the Twilight reference. “What about the other kid? That Jensen boy?” What about Greene here calling me “Ma’am” she thought, but did not say.
“He’s gone too,” the principal said. “One week, same as Scott. In fact, you may want to suggest to Scott that he be more careful of the company he keeps. That Jensen kid is a real shit-starter, if you’ll excuse my French.”
Greene walked Vanessa out.
“Please take it seriously,” said Greene. “Whatever you say to him the first thing Scott will ask you is if you laughed. If you say even ‘a little’ the Patriarchy wins. That’s all they are looking for. They do these things and for them ‘a little’ is like being valedictorian for a day.”
“Well,” Vanessa said. “It was a little funny.”
“Sure, it is,” said Greene. “But that’s all they aim for. A little. They practice a kind of deliberate and unrefined callousness in the hopes of getting hits on YouTube - and the video is on YouTube already. So, they think ‘Whoo Hoo - I win.’ But anyone with a cell phone can post a video to any number of social media on the internet. These boys, these ‘ballers’ and ‘bros,’ they come into my class thinking it’s easy credits, and where once they recited Shakespeare, now they incite reaction to the lowest common denominator they can imagine. They are going for cheap laughs, and all my girls who dream of the stage are afraid to get laughed at, so no one does anything.”
“I work in a cubicle, Ms. Greene,” Val said, “I get up with caffeine and go to bed with two-buck Chuck. If I can do that, why can’t some kids get through your drama class after seeing one silly video? I thought it was a little funny and a lot stupid, but not worth a week’s suspension and certainly not worth my time to come here about it. It is most definitely not worth the condescension your facial expression tells me you are about to express. Tell me Greene, what did the principal tell the Jensen kid-who-probably-instigated-this’s mother?”
“Not to hang out with Scott.” Greene said.
"I thought so.”
She left the school and didn’t look back at Greene standing there, her arms folded across her chest, eight minutes away from posting to social media herself about the need to forgive those who refuse your wise counsel, forgive honestly and without expectation, and about how the patriarchy is made up of all genders.
Vanessa got home and walked in to the living room without taking her shoes off.
“One week, smartass,” she said to her son, “do you have anything to say?”
“Did you at least laugh at the video?”
“How about, ‘I’m sorry mom. It was a stupid thing to do, mom. I’m very, very sorry I embarrassed you and got suspended from school for a week, and nothing like this will ever happen again, mom’.”
“That too,” he said, “did you at least laugh?”
“It wasn’t that funny,” she said.
“But a one-week suspension? Unfair. I bet nothing like that ever happened when you were in high school .”
“No, it didn’t,” she said, “but only because it hadn’t been thought of. In my day boys used to snap our bra straps and nothing at all was done about it. Just ‘boys being boys’ they said.”
“If anyone did that now they’d get their ass kicked” Scott said, “By me.” He unconsciously assumed the posture of a man about to sit down to a video game to kick no one’s ass, ever.
“Well, that would be your father’s ass then,” Vanessa said, “Because he did exactly that, many times, and I married him anyway.”
Scott had turned back to the video game muttering “I’ll kick everyone’s asses,” and had not heard Vanessa’s comment about his paternal parent, far enough away now and so removed from Scott that she hadn’t even bothered to call him or email him about the suspension.
There were two voice-mails waiting for her. One from the assisted care facility where her father was living saying that there had been an issue with her father and that she needed to get in touch with the facility promptly, the other from her brother Dan saying he’d received a voice mail from the assisted care facility saying that there had been a problem with their father and that she needed to get in touch with the facility promptly, and then to let him know if she needed any help.
She called Endless Vista Village, identified herself, and was told that her father had been seen having a “physical relationship” with another resident that appeared to also involve marijuana use, and that it would be better to discuss this in person. Could she be there at ten the next morning? They would say nothing further over the phone.
She made the appointment for two the next day and phoned Dan.
“Dan, the Endless Vista people called and said Dad has been having a “physical relationship” with another resident and that there is marijuana somehow involved. They want to meet us tomorrow at two in the afternoon. I already took off early today to go see the school about Scott’s video. Can you do the meeting with them?”
“ I saw Scott’s video on YouTube,” Dan said, “Funny stuff. I can’t do the meeting though. Can you just go and then give me the scoop when you have time?”
“Why can’t you go?” Vanessa asked.
“Well, two reasons. One is that I don’t do those kinds of meetings well. I’m a numbers guy, and not a people person. Two is I can’t book off on a Friday on short notice. I don’t have that kind of a job.”
“Dan, you are an accountant in a one-man shop. You work for yourself. It’s not even tax season.”
“Hey, when you work for yourself, you don’t own the business - the business owns you,” Dan said. “I’m chief cook and bottle washer and all positions in between. Just do the meeting and let me know if you need anything from me. Remember to tell Scott not to get too down. His video was some funny stuff. Real funny. The school needs to grab a Xanax or two and a cold beer and chill out a little.”
“It wasn’t that funny” she said, but Dan said his good-byes over her and hung up.
Later that night she sat down with a glass of wine courtesy three dollars and Mr. Charles Shaw. Even Charles’ company cost more than it used to too. She sipped and watched some real-life unsolved murder cases expertly edited and presented on TV so as to inculcate a kind of creeping paranoia in the viewer that stayed through sleep and followed them upon arising, imbuing them with a pessimistic sense of the world’s wrongness in place of any optimism that otherwise might be found. In her own twilight hour, half asleep in her bathrobe on her couch with the solid value taste of Mr. Charles Shaw, Esq. on her lips, and his fairly-priced after-scent in her nostrils, she had a vision somewhere between dream and prophecy, of Marcia at work. In the dream Marcia was older now with grey in her hair. She was still wearing her black yoga pants, only now they were starting to pill. Marcia got up and had to edge past Garrett, who looked the same as he always looked. He was talking animatedly to a woman Vanessa could not see but could hear in a cubicle next to Marcia’s. Garrett murmured incoherently and the unseen woman laughed and Marcia had to say “Excuse me” twice before Garrett stood up straight to let her past. He did this without looking back at her. Marcia turned to Vanessa and rolled her eyes. Vanessa shrugged. Marcia walked into the elevator but Vanessa did not follow, instead waiting for another elevator so that she might go alone. She was sure, very sure, with the strange logic of dreams that Marcia was walking into that elevator only to be murdered within minutes of exiting it, and that the case would never be solved. In the documentary about the case Vanessa was sure to be interviewed, so she had to think about what she should wear, and what she should say.
She woke from this somnambulant vision and picked up the empty glass.
“What’s next Chuck?” she asked herself. “What could possibly happen next?”
“Menopause.” She imagined Chuck whispering, and then, “Soon enough. You can count on it. But hey - I am here for you baby, always and forever. You can count on me too.”
She set the glass in the sink to wait for the next day.
Friday morning with drive-through coffee running through her arteries to animate her soul she stopped by Tom’s office before anything else.
“Tom, there’s some kind of emergency with my father at the assisted care facility. There is a meeting at two this afternoon. I have to go so I’ll be out this afternoon.”
Tom looked up over the edge of his glasses, progressives by the look of it, although his manner suggested he’d never adapted to use them as intended.
“Sure thing, Vicki, he said, “I understand these things. Let me tell you about my own dad sometime. Circling the drain, prays for death every day, but still hangs in there. I think that in a strange way it feels like an accomplishment to him. He now spites even himself. But whatever, you take all the time you need, and hey – while I’ve got you here shut the door and grab a seat, there is something I need to discuss with you.”
Vanessa shut the door as directed and sat down. "Look Tom,” she said, “Before you start, I want to say that I have been here a long time, there has never been a complaint, and that two family emergencies in one week could hardly be predicted. It won’t happen again.”
“What are you talking about?” Tom said. “This isn’t about you. You are safe. You are a fixture here, like the furniture. If you go, I go, and that’s all there is to it. No – this is about Garrett. To make a long story short there’s been some complaints, so we’re going to transfer him out of customer service and into analytics. We’d like you to take over his team and be the new “Team Lead” for us. Will you do that?”
“What happened?” She asked. “I mean, I know Garrett could be a little overbearing with some of the team members, the ladies especially, but ...”
"What?” Tom interrupted. “Nothing like that, it was the customers. Garrett just doesn’t return calls promptly, or sometimes, at all. I asked him about it and all he said was ‘I won’t babysit clients, Tom; we’re all supposed to be adults now.’ But client service is one of our core values, and that means babysitting. The upshot of all of this is that he will move into analytics, and you’ll take over his team, if you are willing.
“Money?” Vanessa asked.
“Well, the wage freeze is still on, so not at first. However, I hear rumors from the higher-ups that they may remove it in eighteen months or so. You should be in good shape for a raise then. Also, we’re taking on a couple of interns. They don’t get paid of course but you and the other team leaders can share the interns to chase files, take messages, do anything you think they can do in the six months that they are here and we aren’t paying them. Maybe the hiring freeze will end before the wage freeze, but I have not heard anything at all about that.”
Vanessa got up to leave. “Well alright then, I guess it’s decided.”
“Thanks Vi,” Tom said. “I knew I could count on you. You’re still coming on Saturday, right? We have to play a little catch-up on some of Garrett’s stuff. Mostly unreturned calls/complaints and that kind of thing. Going to have to kiss a little customer's ass.”
“I’m coming in on Monday, like usual, for the same money as I did this week,” Vanessa said, walking out, but Tom had already picked up the phone.
At the assisted living facility, she was ushered into the Client Care Manager’s office along with a sturdy looking woman in pink scrubs and crocs she introduced as “Grace, one of our client care specialists. The office was tiny, almost too small for three adult women. The client care manager, whose last name was Van Buren, spoke first.
“I believe it best to be direct. Your father has been having a sexual relationship with another of our clients, and the two have also been using marijuana. Both are grounds for terminating our contract of care with them, but we’ll just say that this is the one warning we’ll give. If it happens again, he’s out, and you’ll have forty-eight hours to remove him.”
“Do you have proof?” Vanessa asked.
Van Buren turned her monitor around. It was immense, twenty-two inches at least. Vanessa had been raised on smaller televisions.
“We have security camera video, and I’m afraid I have to warn you, it can be disturbing.”
Where had Vanessa heard that phrase? Yes - on the unsolved murder documentaries. At least a hundred times, if not a thousand.
“Sweet merciful Jesus,” she said under her breath, “not another fucking video.”
“Pardon?’ said Van Buren.
“Let ‘er rip” said Vanessa. She leaned forward.
There were two videos. In the first, her father, naked except for a pair of thigh-high red vinyl boots with three-inch steel heels, walked with admirable ease arm-in-arm with a tall woman with short white hair who wore only a stiff looking set of white panties, panties that Vanessa quickly realized were adult diapers. The woman leaned her head on his shoulder and they looked like any other couple, walking in any other place, except they weren’t. They were decrepit, and here in an assisted care facility, and dressed as if for a fetish party no one should ever imagine, let alone see.
In the second video the white-haired woman was totally naked and straddling her father on a bench in the open-air atrium between the wings of the facility. She rose up off of him and sat at his side, her head on his shoulder and he looked down at her and she looked up at him and they kissed softly and slowly and held the kiss for a long time. He then produced a small joint from inside the cuff of his red vinyl thigh-highs, and then a lighter and they lit it up, each puff-puff-passing adroitly.
Her father leaned back on the bench, stretching out the length of his lanky body and crossing his ankles and Vanessa thought that she too lay like that, lay when watching TV. The short haired women settled in against his shoulder and they were sublimated into one another, a moment not stolen but taken, even though it was now owned by security cameras and some portion of their children’s sense of shame.
“Can you put a black dot on that or something,” Vanessa asked. “I can’t look at my dad’s junk.”
“I’m sorry” Van Buren said, and she reached out to place the tip of her finger on the screen over the offending aged genitalia.
Without prompting, Grace placed the tips of two fingers over the short-haired woman’s breasts, adjacent to without actually abutting, her navel.
“Enough,” said Vanessa. I understand.
“We’d like you to speak to your father,” Van Buren said. “We already have, and he knows the deal. But it would be best if you reaffirmed our position. We all need to be on the same page on things like this.”
Grace walked Vanessa to her father’s room. “You father is one of my favorites,” she said. “Never a problem. You know ma’am, it’s like this: If our male clients get up to a little something, the families roll their eyes and look away. “Boys will be Boys’ they say, whether the boys are nineteen or ninety. With our female clients well now, that’s a different thing. Some people don’t mind mom having a little fun too, but some are unhappy. And unhappy children sue. And truth be known, I don’t care if he, or any of our clients, indulges in a little weed, here and there. If they can stay mellow it makes all of our jobs that much easier. It’s better than the prescription medications they all take. That stuff is what makes ‘em crazy.”
“Where do they get the weed?” Vanessa asked.
“Family members mostly,” Grace said. “Or some staff. Some will sell it to the clients to supplement their income. I don’t hold with that, no one does it with good intentions; they do it because they can charge more for it than they can out on the street. This is the long goodnight of generation weed, and they have to have it, have to have it, and they’ll pay. I don’t care if your dad, or any of our clients, indulges in a little herbal therapy, here and there. If they can stay mellow it’s better for everyone.”
“Good to know,” said Vanessa, and walked in to see her father. She refused to ask about how her father had acquired the kinky boots, and Grace was very kind not to bring it up. Grace shut the door behind her and Vanessa could hear Grace walking away and moving down the hall.
“Hey buttercup,” her dad said. He sat in a chair watching TV with the sound off, oddly upright compared to his, and Vanessa’s, usual posture of slouching back to watch TV with their chins on their chests.
They sat in silence for a while.
“Well?” Vanessa finally spoke. “I thought you were a goddamn Republican.”
“I still believe in fiscal responsibility, if that’s what you mean,” he said, without looking at her.
Vanessa sat in silence.
“Don’t worry, buttercup. I know I’ve gone and shit on my dinner plate. It won’t happen again,” he said.
“That’s all I need to hear.”
“I miss your mother,” he said. “Terribly. You too. Dan sure, but in a different way. How is Scotty? It’s been a while since he’s stopped by. I miss him too.”
“Scott is doing fine,” Vanessa said. “He’s been making videos for a drama class. Playing his video games. He’s looking for a summer job at the mall. Busy with his own life these days.”
“I no longer remember dates and times like I used to,” her father said, “but I do remember that after your mother died, I spent months alone in the house. I would not, could not, go out. One day I saw a commercial for a movie on TV and thought it looked good. I remember taking Scotty to a matinee to see that movie and he loved it. Really loved it. Something about a boy wizard. It seems like a long time ago but of course it can’t be - it’s just how I remember things.”
“I know the movie dad, and Scott loved it too.”
They spoke then of nothing, of weather and documentaries, of old family dogs long since running unfettered by door and fence and gone to dog heaven on four flying feet, and of the week’s coming weather. She sat with him until five, the same time she would have normally left work at, before she left to return to her place and to Scott and Charles Shaw.
That night, with Scott out to a movie with friends, and with Charles Shaw at her side, she watched the unsolved-murder-meant-for-you channel and she lay on the couch with her head back against the back and her chin on her chest and with her eyes half-closed she understood that the narrator of the documentary was the real Charles Shaw, Sir Charles Shaw, guiding hand and ancient oracle, keeper of murderer’s secrets, behind the documentary. He now spoke of the murder of a quiet high school drama teacher, one Ms. Green, who vanished after walking across the high school parking lot after a student reenactment of Waiting for Godot, and all that was found of her were her glasses, lenses missing, a pair of black yoga pants, well-worn and starting to pill, and a pair thigh-high red vinyl boots.
She awoke in her room the next day, up with the sun, dressed and drove to get a drive-through coffee, large, with three cream and three sugar, and went into the office to put in a few hours catching up on Garrett’s problems. Dan had texted her during the ride - a single “?” - but she did not reply. She’d made up her mind to tell him something he could handle, after work, when she, in the voice of Sir Charles, had time to compose it for him, just so.