Friday, May 20, 2016

You Can't See Me

You Can't See Me
by Steve Richman

Forty minutes into the Yonn Corporation's Southwestern Regional self-audit working group's Wednesday 3 p.m. quarterly preplanning subcommittee meeting, Herman Jones realized he had become invisible. He looked right where his left hand was sitting inert on the ergonomically designed ovoid conference table, but he could not see it. He saw high-tech designer wood grain, a few stray sugar granules and bearclaw crumbs, but no hand. The joke watch he wore, with a cat face in the middle and each hour replaced by "Nap," appeared to float in space. He faux-casually brought his right hand up to his mouth as if to yawn: also invisible. He had become, visually, an empty cheap suit.
Mind racing, Herman weighed possible courses of action. No one seemed to notice anything unusual--good, keep it that way--hold very still, stifle the slight coughs and sniffs that punctuate these meetings. Let's see now. Walk out? Bad idea, everyone here will be so desperate for distraction they'd look right at the moving empty suit. Must not call attention. In the movies about invisible people, the man always takes off his clothes. (Why is it always a man?) Get naked? NO. VERY BAD idea. He could just as suddenly reappear, and he was pretty sure Human Resources would frown on Walking Around Naked in the Workplace. Don't undress for God's sake, don't move, don't make noise. Just get through the meeting.
After an hour, an eternity of sweaty concentration, the meeting ended and it was time to go home. He was still invisible. In the hallway, on his way to grab his lunch bag from his grey-lined cubicle and turn off his computer, he passed Antoine.
"Hey, man, are you finished with that MST tape yet?" Antoine asked.
Herman checked his peripheral vision. "You're asking me?"
"Hah, yeah, buddy, I don't trust just everyone with my only copy of The Crawling Eye!"
"Ehh heh, yeah, sorry, long afternoon. Uhh, not yet. Can I give it you Friday?"
"Sure, man, sure. Next Sunday A.D. is fine. See you tomorrow."
So--Antoine sees me. Look at that--I can see myself again too! What the hell was that?
But the triumph, and the visibility, wore off as soon as Antoine ducked into his own cubicle. Moving quickly, mostly up on his toes but also trying not to look like a cartoon sneak-thief, Herman slunk to the stairs, out the building, down the sidewalk to his bus stop. Transparent as a mountain stream, he joined the scrum for his bus, held a strap for the fifteen-minute ride, entered his apartment building.
Crossing his threshold, Herman popped back into full clear visibility, almost audibly, as his Siamese cat Freddy meowed a hello. This gave Herman an idea. He stepped back into the hallway, pausing outside the door. Still there. He walked down to the elevators. Visible. He called an elevator to go down. He disappeared just after the arriving car dinged. He let the elevator go without him, and began walking back toward the apartment. After a few steps, *poof!* visible again. Aha!
As he now expected, Herman stayed visible right up until he got on the elevator the next morning. No one noticed the apparent empty, walking clothes. He decided he would figure out his invisibility's rules or limits. Before long, he'd confirmed that only two people at work could see him; or, to put the same finding another way, only in the presence of two people did Herman regain visibility. Around Antoine--with whom Herman frequently played Magic: The Gathering, swapped MST3K tapes, and went to the movies--Herman shone out like a lighthouse with nary a flicker. Christie from Reception, who always took a moment to chat with him when she wasn't too busy on the phones, cast Herman into a kind of quarter-light--nearly see-through, as if observed through a window at dusk. Otherwise, he remained completely unseen, unseeable, from 8 to 5 Monday through Friday.
This, he decided after brief consideration, was not a bad thing. Why not be invisible? When had anything good ever come from being noticed? He didn't trust his invisibility enough to do anything crazy with it--stealing, Peeping Tom-ism, playing poltergeistish pranks. He didn't even care about any of that. He had other, smaller ideas. He began taking two-hour lunches in the canteen, losing himself in fat paperback fantasy epics. Who ever chose 8 a.m. as a reasonable hour to begin work? Lacking a good answer, he stopped setting his alarm and strolled in daily between 9:30 and 10:30, depending. For that matter, why stay till five--or more accurately, five after five, lest the boss see you leaving on the stroke and--accurately--interpret that as eagerness to get the hell out? Four o'clock would work just fine. He stared out of windows, visiting other floors specifically for the purpose. He doodled at his desk. He perused every item in vast game and used-book catalogs. He wrote joke names for his in-house badge, though he didn't dare use them: avoid notice.
Herman stayed invisible this way for nearly three years. The time passed painlessly. One Thursday morning, shortly after breezing in at ten, Herman noticed Gary Schmidt, his regional assistant manager, standing at one end of the cubicle room thumping the door frame and speaking loudly. The Yonn Corporation was "right-sizing," he announced, sneering at the euphemism, and he was sorry to have to be the one to tell everyone, but the whole subdivision was being phased out as of noon today. Everyone had until that time to pack up all personal belongings and exit the building in an orderly fashion. He read briefly from a 3X5 card: "The Yonn Corporation values your contributions to our company over the time of your employment here, and wishes you success in all your future endeavors. Your wellness is our concern. If you wish to visit with a psychological wellness specialist, please see the Human Resources department right away to set up a salary-scaled appointment."
The room buzzed with reaction. Heads swiveled. Everyone looked at each other, variously wryly amused, wide-eyed with shock and worry, stunned, dejected.
Herman saw that he had now abruptly become visible again. He shone out to himself, to all others, suddenly as visible as a stapler, a printer, a penny loafer. He looked at people and they looked at him. He clenched his teeth and squeezed his eyes shut. "You can't see me," he whispered under his breath. "You can't see me. You can't see me. You can't see me."

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Nelsons of Nozzy

Installment 5
By Suzie Q.

1. Janeece

No doubt about it, Rajkumar Chatterjee was an interesting man. Raaaj Kumarrrrrr (rolled r) Chatterjeeeeeee. He'd told her to call him Raj. Roger that, Raj. Hee hee hee. Rajah Raj.
He'd started working in the Wales Bank on Main Street six months ago, and already she felt like she'd known him for ages. He manned the other non-drive-through teller booth, five feet away from Janeece in hers. Except for lunch hours and first thing in the morning (why did people over 60 all want to bank at dawn, anyway?), their untaxing job gave them plenty of time to chat. She'd become accustomed to his accent after just a couple of days, and now everyone else in town sounded like big dumb hicks in comparison. Lamarr in particular.
Poor Raj. If there was ever a fish out of water, Raj would be it. A dark-skinned Indian man in all-white Nozzy; a well-educated man where book-learnin' was carefully concealed unless it had to do with the Church. A skinny vegetarian in a town populated by hefty cattle ranchers. Delicate, emotionally transparent, considerate, polite. An alien being, but for her, a breath of fresh air.
Apparently his life was kind of a mess, which was understandable under these circumstances. He told her about it five minutes at a time, between customers, over the months. Three years ago, when he was working as an Associate Professor of Finance at a medium-sized Calcutta university (he'd told her the name a couple of times, but she couldn't quite get the knack of how to pronounce it), his family had been visited by two Mormon missionaries. Two girl missionaries. Sister KayDee Rasmussen and Sister Bryttnee Bolton had knocked at their gate, and because they were well-dressed and American and white--"the gori-est goris of all time!" Rajkumar chuckled--the gatekeeper and then Raj's parents, Akash and Amrita, had let them in. Devout Hindus, they had no interest in anything the girls might have to say about their peculiar Christian-ish religion; they did, however, have all the interest in the world in finding their son a wife--and they'd heard no one was more eager to marry than Mormon girls. It was high time: Raj had his Ph.D., he had earned tenure and stability at his job, and he was about to turn thirty. The situation was about to become dire unless they acted quickly.

So the older couple invited the two girls in, and offered them chai at regular intervals, and met the girls' determined refusals with good grace. ("Is that the kind of tea with caffeine in it?" "I suppose it is, yes.") Raj's parents visited with them from early afternoon--a significant sacrifice, as they had to skip the siesta virtually required by the muggy Calcutta climate--until evening. The girls were pressed to stay for dinner, and they happily accepted. By the time gulab jamun was brought out for dessert, long after dark, one thing was clear to everyone at the table: KayDee Rasmussen was completely smitten with Rajkumar. Even Raj couldn't help noticing Akash and Amrita grinning at each other across the table, winking every time KayDee smiled or giggled at Raj, which was pretty much constantly.
After dinner ended, near midnight, the Chatterjees sent the girls and their bicycles home in a tuk-tuk they insisted on paying for. Raj knew what was coming, and sure enough: as soon as KayDee and the other one putted out of sight, Akash and Amrita began enumerating KayDee's allegedly excellent qualities, all the ways she would make him a wonderful wife. It was as if the whole visit had been a normal arranged-marriage interview, though it had begun by chance.
A very strange courtship then followed. Although Mormon missionaries of either sex are not supposed to date, nor focus on things other than proselytizing, Raj's parents and KayDee conspired to throw them together often. The Chatterjee family had a particular attachment to Ganesha, god of new beginnings, removal of obstacles, and scholars; they had a human-sized idol in their prayer room, which they carefully steered KayDee away from when she visited. They frequently exclaimed his name aloud ("Arre, Ganpati Bappu Morya!").  Nevertheless, they feigned interest in Mormonism, and begged Raj to do the same, in order to justify to KayDee's supervisors the copious time she was spending at the Chatterjee's spacious house. Raj felt basically the same about both marriage and (outward) conversion to the Mormon church: fine, kuch bhi (whatever), as long as it makes maata-pita happy. None of the Chatterjees felt they were betraying any religious principles: they were well accustomed to accepting God in myriad different aspects and incarnations, so what did it matter to add one more? Raj liked KayDee, though obviously not as intensely as she liked him. She would do, and maybe this would help him find better-paid, more prestigious work at an American university. For her part, she only ever wanted to live in America; permanently settling "in this crazy country" appealed to her not one bit.
Visits were all whole-family visits. Like any respectable Indian boy, Raj did not seek to spend time alone with KayDee, lest people think God-knows-what-all would be happening. He listened politely, silently, to the four official missionary lessons. He smiled when smiled to, laughed when she laughed; his face ached from it every evening. When it came time for her to ask him if he would be baptized, he said he would. The next evening, over the mildest vegetable curry imaginable (adjusted for KayDee's American palate), Akash and Amrita asked her to marry their son. She shouted yes and laughed and clapped her hands and cried. Raj nodded politely.
And so when KayDee's mission was finished, after another six months--most of which, to her profound unhappiness, was spent in other Indian cities, away from Raj--she returned home to Logan, Utah in the American West. At the end of his semester, Raj resigned from his university and moved there too. He stayed with Indian friends, faculty at Utah State University, for a few weeks until the wedding in the Logan Temple.
There wasn't a whole lot more of this story that Raj was willing to tell. All he would say about his temple wedding ceremony was that it was "most peculiar and rather embarrassing." Janeece figured she knew what he was talking about, that whole undressing and anointing thing. That had embarrassed her pretty well too, back then. Amrita and Akash never quite got over not being invited inside, nor KayDee's declining to walk around the sacred fire in a sacred Hindu ceremony. They stayed in Calcutta, fuming to themselves.
After the wedding, the marriage was a fast, uninterrupted ride downhill. Raj discovered that American university hiring didn't work the same way as back home: it followed an unbelievably slow, complicated process, and it felt stacked against foreigners. During the two interviews he did have in the area, the silly people kept talking about how much they loved Gandhi and samosas, barely inquiring about his qualifications and experience. He wondered if he was supposed to enthuse about burgers and Bush. Both schools sent form letters of rejection three months later. He had taken the teller job in Nozzy--despite his vast overqualification for the job--out of pure urgent necessity, shocked at how expensive even food and basic housing was here.

KayDee and Raj didn't do much better as a couple. Knowing so little about Mormon culture, he didn't see coming what nearly anyone else would: now that she was "finally" married, all she wanted to do was produce children, lots of them. In fact, he learned to his dismay--if it had been in the lessons, he'd missed it, while he smiled and nodded absently--that Mormons believed "the more children, the better." Each soul needed an earthly body to achieve salvation. The more souls you could provide earthly bodies for through procreation, the more blessed you'd be, the more good you'd do for the universe. Those souls had to get here somehow. Sheer, irresponsible, unsustainable madness, he thought. And but so, KayDee and Raj quickly found themselves at an impasse. "Let me get reestablished in my profession first," he insisted. "God will provide," she insisted. They talked of little else. They enjoyed little together. Within a year, they chose and quickly got a divorce.
So now here he was, living alone in a studio apartment in Nozzy, working as a bank teller, wondering how it all went so badly so quickly. Every day, multiple times, he thanked Janeece for listening so kindly to his "prattle" (a word she loved to hear him say in his accent--she loved hearing both t's), for being a "good friend whilst I consider my next move" ("whilst"! how adorable!).
Such a very interesting man. Not like Lamarr at all. Not like anyone else she'd ever met.
Speaking of which: was Rajkumar Chatterjee a Lamanite? Janeece had always been taught that God had cursed the bad people in the Book of Mormon with dark skin (Lamanites), so you could tell them from the good ones (Nephites), but now she was wondering what category people from India fit into. Raj had explained that in India people took every shade from darkest dark to whitest white--so what were they overall? What was Raj specifically? He had pretty dark skin, but he didn't seem bad. Something didn't make sense. Either God was choosing individuals' color--would He do that? what about genetics?--or, well, the whole Nephite/Lamanite classification didn't quite add up. And then what about like Chinese people? What about albinos? Surely they weren't especially good? It was all such a mystery.
Anyway, Raj had become a thoroughly indispensable ray of sunshine for Janeece. Sophisticated, smart, sensitive, kind to her without fail. She could hardly wait until the next day, when she could chat with him again. She'd written down a couple of jokes she thought he might like; she wanted to see how big they'd make him smile.