By John M Morelock
It was on the thirty second strike of the second hand that Nelson realized he had perfected the art of passing time. Surely, countless people before him had come close. No doubt, even the earliest cave men found themselves with nothing to do but stare at cave walls from time to time. Perhaps, as freezing rain washed away any hope hunting or gathering, the brutes would fill their minds with thoughts of inventing language of fire. Of course, thoughts like these only affirmed Nelson that he, truly, was a master at this. Just these past few thoughts took up at least fifteen, twenty seconds, and now Nelson was counting back the time it had taken him to think these thoughts, and these new thoughts absorbed more time. What fun. Nelson glanced at his phone to find that, in a short fifteen minutes, he would be done with this board meeting and free to return to his cubicle. His small, three-walled cubicle where his desk was precisely laid out and engineered for perfect ergonomic efficiency. So efficient, in fact, that Nelson liked to believe his desk was just a natural extension of his consciousness. Nelson lightly laughs to himself as he recalls measuring the forty four millimeters distance from the edge of his keyboard to his mouse, just to follow that up by measuring the exact angle from his elbow resting position to his stapler.
Nelson was acutely aware that this was not normal. Some would call it OCD, but Nelson describes it differently. No, this was a matter of perfecting the office space. In the event of a systems failure, or an overlooked work assignment, Nelson truly believed that due to his meticulously planned space, he could work with nothing less than twelve percent more haste and precision than his coworkers. Nelson prided himself on this. Certainly, the designing process had absorbed hours, even days, of Nelson’s time, but these were moments better spent than, say, Erika’s tri-hourly trips to the water-cooler where she gossiped to Rachel or Stephen or just whoever happened to also be slacking off at that minute.
Of course, this whole train of thought brought Nelson back to his original position. He truly was the penultimate time waster. Not only did he utilize still moments in bettering his time-wasting environment, but, as he has clearly just proved, he can later ponder on his achievements, effectively doubling the original time invested. Take, for example, Shen. The newest edition to Nelson’s office space, Shen floated in a tall elliptical container just left of Nelson’s monitor. Shen was a Rosetail Betta Fish, one of the most rare, most exotic breeds of Betta available. Shen’s dorsal, caudal, and ventral fins were all connected silkily, perfectly. Nelson could stare for hours upon hours at Shen as he fluttered through the water, red fins flowing like the plumage on a Roman helmet. He could just get lost in the beauty of the fish, its contrasting moments of floating still and violent outbursts of motion.
Later, as she was working on her Geometry homework, Fiona began to worry about her father. Ever since her mom left, her dad just hadn’t been the same. He used to be loud, playful. The sort of dad who would take her out for ice cream when she got straight A’s, and took out for ice cream when she didn’t. Lately, however, he had become quiet. She glanced over to the couch where he was sitting and staring at the coffee table’s arrangement of magazines. When her mom first left, it was mild. He just spent extra care cleaning the house. After all, Mom had cleaned it before. In her absence, he wanted to make everything better than it had been when she was here. That desire, though, seemed to have grown into something far more complicated. Fiona couldn’t decide if she should call it a defense mechanism or not. All she knew was that 1.) she was tired of constantly stealing her own protractor just to do homework, and 2.) it was getting kind of weird.
At any rate, her cross country meet started in an hour and it was time to go.
Fiona trailed the runner from Science Hill High School by about five or six strides. She was entering the third and final mile, and it became a mental battle. Everything in her body was telling her to stop. Her lungs screamed for more air, her legs ached in pain. To combat these intense discomforts, Fiona used a mental trick she had taught herself. She visualized what the finish line looks like. Then put that finish line just in front of the person ahead of her in the race. By doing so, she could somehow convince her body she was going to stop soon and to just push a little further, to not fall down just yet. She had do to this constantly, or she would have simply collapsed on the spot. She passed the runner she’d been trailing and came to the final stretch. In the stands from the precise center of the top row of the bleachers, Nelson sat and appeared to watch.
Being her father, he came to many of these meets, even though he hated them. Caring so much about perfect efficiency spoiled the sport for him. To Nelson, the very prospect of running three miles seemed incredibly challenging. How could anyone figure out the pacing of such an endeavor? Take, for example, the hundred yard dash. Everyone knows to sprint as fast as possible in the hundred yard dash. The other extreme, a marathon, is similar. Everyone knows that, in order to run a marathon, they have to pace themselves. But cross-country was a whole other issue. The fastest kids could practically sprint the whole thing. They were extremely well conditioned and stupidly quick. The slowest kids generally don’t want to be on the team and walk the whole way. It’s the middle kids like Fiona that truly freaked him out. They were always improving, so they never quite knew their limits. The real problem lies in the fact that, if they tried to push too far past their limits, ultimately they would become tired out and end up with an abysmally bad time. If they failed to reach their limits, then they would leave knowing they could have been faster. It was an artful matter of leaving every ounce of energy on the track, of being perfectly efficient. The idea was when you hit the finish line, you collapse in nearest grass you can find. If you do that, then you know you could have done no better, you have perfectly reached your limit. Nelson, of course, had explained of this to Fiona on multiple occasions. However, she did not have any of this in mind as she made that final stretch. All she saw was the finish line – the real finish line. The one she knew mattered. She sprinted as hard as she could, crossed the line without checking for her time, then fell face first on the grass. The glorious, cold-soft grass. After a few moments, she rolled over and looked up at her dad. He was, not surprisingly, rearranging the contents of his matchbox. Fiona shuck her head and laughed at herself for believing he could pull himself together long enough to see her cross the finish line.
For the past week, Nelson drove himself half-insane trying to figure out what was wrong. Every day, he walked into his cubicle and paused. He looked everything over. Something was just off. Shen was swimming around, flicking his brilliant tail back and forth. Everything seemed to be in its proper place. But all through each day, Nelson never felt that comfort, that familiarity he was so damned used to. He tried to fill out some excel sheets, but noticed his incredible proficiency was down by at least two percent. It was inexplicable. Perhaps he woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Maybe it was the aftershave. Maybe he put on one too many sprays of the stuff and was now feeling the residue of Clubman Pinuad.
Maybe it was Donna’s new boyfriend. Yeah, there it was. Donna’s new boyfriend. What was his name again? Jason? Jackson? Jackson. That sounded right. Jack, she had called him. Nelson laughed a one hah laugh to himself – a singular exhale more than anything else. His middle school tormenter had been named Jack. Nelson remembered Jack tearing the contents of his locker to the ground. It had all been one swift motion. A stabbing of the hand down, and suddenly everything Nelson had owned was sprawled out for all to step on, step over, and kick. Including, of all things, a note he had written to Donna. Nelson found the rounded nature of the thought amusing.
And that was just the thing, if the thought was amusing, then certainly it wasn’t what was bothering him. Donna having a new boyfriend named Jack, clearly had nothing to do his dismay. It didn’t matter that she had left in a hurry. It didn’t matter that, before she left the whole family was so happy, so damn happy. Well, clearly, the whole family but Donna. And, Nelson figures, everyone deserves to be happy. So what if ever since she moved into an apartment on the other side of the town? Nelson simply felt numb. But, clearly, his discern with his divorce had been around for the past five months, not just this one week. In fact, this realization that she had nothing to do with it was such an incredibly obvious thought that it bothered Nelson. A new bother. Damn it. Focus. What was wrong there in that office right then? Why did Nelson want to pull the hairs from his fingers and scream at the halogen lights above? It wasn’t a drop in pressure, if anything the snow cascading down outside brought comfort to him. It wasn’t his horoscope was it? No, definitely not that. Anything but that. A quick check revealed that that Leos needed to extra care to be honest today. Nelson sighed in relief that, once again, astrological signs meant nothing. He realized, though, while he was frustrated there was still end of the quarter work that needed doing. He printed out an email from his boss, a two page document. He reached for his stapler from where it always sat, but he missed. Nelson stared at his hand, twitching to the right of his stapler and that was when he figured it out. His stapler had moved a few inches. He was sure of it. This stapler was a few inches to the left. But why hadn’t he noticed it right away. After all, this was the perfect office space, which demands only the highest level of maintenance. It was at this thought that he panicked. He stepped back and looked at the whole cubicle from afar. Everything had moved to the left. The lamp, the printer, the keyboard, the monitor, everything in perfect proportion to every-other-thing. The only indication there was to this movement was a single black dot on the back wall of his office. The dot had shifted two inches to right. Two whole inches. Nelson stared at the dot then heard a chuckle from behind. He looked to the water cooler and there Erika and Stephen stood, now exposed, and laughed openly. Nelson looked back to the office, then back at them, then walked out of Henderson’s Paper Solution’s Offices without feeding his fish.
That night, as Nelson tried to sleep, he turned and turned in bed. He always found a wrinkle in the sheet, would roll and smooth it out only to find another. And, as soon as he felt completely comfortable, he would notice a dripping faucet, have to get up and turn it off, just to start the whole process over again. He sat on the edge of the bed, too exhausted to sleep. For a while he stared out through the window and watched the snow fall. He would try to follow a single flake from the top of the glass portal to the bottom, but more often than not he would lose it in a sudden gust of wind or just in the shear whiteness of the background he was trying to contrast it with. White sky, white ground, white trees.
Then Nelson noticed that, due to the natural shape of his yard, the blanket of snow that lay there was uneven. Once he had this realization, he couldn’t put it out of his mind. Suddenly, the very thought that this could be allowed to remain uneven pushed Nelson to the point of walking out into the snow in his boxer briefs. At first, he thought it would a quick leveling job, but simply stepping out into the fresh snow revealed the task at hand to be much much larger. Each step made a footprint, each stroke of the shovel left marks in the snow.
As soon as he had begun, he regretted ever having touched the snow at all. But not unlike checking for termite damage or tearing up carpet, he had crossed the point of no return. For the next few hours, Nelson shoveled, smoothed, and moved snow. Each time he thought he finished, he stepped back and realized he had to start again. Eventually, there was no snow left on his yard, but now his yard was not a part of the continuous line of white, so he got to work on the neighbor’s yards. By sunrise, he had cleared three full yards.
He was working on the fourth when Fiona walked outside. She took one look the yard and started nodding her head. “Come on in,” she said. “Put on some pants and put that shovel away, we’re getting out of this house for a while.”
Within an hour, the two were sitting in a waffle house, waffles and coffee in front of them. Unsurprisingly, Nelson was incredibly meticulous in the application of his syrup and butter.
“So, uh, how’s school?” asked Nelson.
“It’s been canceled all week, Dad. You should know that.”
“Right, busses and ice don’t do well together.” Fiona picked at her waffles, waiting for her dad to say something meaningful.
“So tell me, have you met this Jack guy?”
“You mean Jack Frost, the guy who tried to kill you last night?”
“Not him. Your Mom’s boyfriend.”
“You mean John… as in Johnson?”
Nelson shook his head and laughed. He rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. “Yeah. Whatever. That guy.”
“He’s alright I guess. I mean, he’s not like you were.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” she said, scratching her frizzed out hair, “I don’t know. He’s just, not you.” At this comment, Nelson nodded as if he understood. He did not.
“You miss mom, don’t you.”
“Took you this long to figure that out?”
A few moments of dead air passed. After a moment more, Nelson glanced over at Fiona who, he noticed, was staring at her spoon. “Hey,” Nelson said. “I bet I can hold my breath longer than you.”
“Bullshit,” Fiona said. “I have runner’s lungs.”
“Yeah, well, I’m the champion at holding my breath. Once, in a meeting, I held it for a minute twenty flat.”
“You’re on, old man,” she said, pulling out her iPhone. She opened up the stop watch app and looked Nelson in the eyes. “Ready?” Nelson began drawing in a long breath, and so did Fiona. She pressed Start.
Nelson and Fiona stared. They stared at each other. They stared into each other’s eyes, searching for weakness. They soon became aware of their own heartbeats. Soon, of eachothers. Fiona was light-headed. Still they searched one another for a sign that they could break, but it was too early in the game. Their heartbeats increased in prominence. Fiona could feel her pulse in her throat, Nelson his ears. Suddenly, they both had such a longing for air. Such an easy thing, to simply breathe in. Fiona showed this on her face far more than her father did, who simply smiled despite the deprivation of the most simple things he was bringing upon himself. A few more seconds, a few more heartbeats. Fiona exhaled at the forty ninth second. Nelson held his breath to a minute before relieving himself. “Well,” Fiona said, just having caught her breath, “You still couldn’t beat me in a race.”
On the way home, Nelson and Fiona went by the office. He realized he hadn’t fed the fish, and didn’t want his one-of-a-kind Betta fish to die. They let themselves in, climbing up the dark stairwell and entering the moonlit office space. There was something crystalized about the night office air. Perhaps it was the absence of the usual busy hum that Nelson was used to. For once in this office, he felt at peace. They made their way through the maze of cubicles, each one a life put on hold to next day. Nelson couldn’t help but hesitate when he reached Erika’s cube. He looked in and, as he suspected, it was a complete mess. Nelson considered filing all of her papers just to spite her. He could easily imagine her reaction to a little order. She wouldn’t even know where to start looking for her reports. However, when he stopped Fiona grabbed onto his shirt and pulled him towards his office, not wanting to waste any more time. He checked, and the black dot had not yet been put back in place. “Damn it.” He said, and immediately started rearranging his office, an inch at a time.
“What are you doing?” Fiona said.
“It’s wrong, this space. It’s off by whole inches.”
“So,” she said. When he continued to arrange it, she grabbed his lamp from his desk and threw it on the ground. It shattered, leaving a mess to clean up. Nelson started to clean it, but before he could, Fiona grabbed his stapler and dumped its contents onto the desk. Nelson looked at Fiona, and looked at the mess. The uncomfortable silence that followed was broken when Nelson grabbed the beta tank, and shattered it on the cubicle floor.
Image source: I took this picture in the Alcazabra, Malaga. That fish has no resemblance to a Rosetail, or a Betta fish for that matter.
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