Billy works in a beige box, surrounded by other beige boxes, in a building full of beige boxes, and before this beige box, Billy worked in a different beige box in a different building full of beige boxes, and a different one before that, and one other one, and yet another, over twenty years in total, working in a beige box.
Billy arrives to his beige box each morning at eight-fifteen, fifteen minutes before office hours, to gather his thoughts and settle in before the day begins. He switches on his portable fan in the summer (his portable heater in the winter) and situates himself in an ergonomic chair at an ergonomic desk and disappears behind dual computer screens. Billy keeps his door open (because people talk if you don’t), but anyone who passes by still can’t see him inside without expending some effort, at least pausing and peering about, which most don’t do. Billy doesn’t care, and it doesn’t bother him much.
Billy stays busy with the numbers. Rows and columns and entries of numbers. Billy spends his days with the numbers — adding numbers and subtracting numbers and dividing numbers and multiplying numbers, moving numbers here and moving numbers there, general ledgers and reconciliations and databases and journals, spreadsheets, charts, tables and graphs, reports, analyses, summaries, conclusions. There are more numbers than Billy knows what to do with. Because the numbers never stop.
Around mid-morning, ten o’clock, thereabouts, Billy stands up for the first time since he first sat down at eight-fifteen. His knees creak and his lower back aches, the ergonomic chair and the ergonomic desk notwithstanding. Billy stands up to stroll out into the hallway to toss his empty plastic water bottle into the blue recycling bin and go to the bathroom, regardless of whether or not he actually has to go. Billy does this after reading in a magazine that sitting is the new smoking, that the average office worker spends six-point-some hours a day sitting and that sitting has been proven to have detrimental health effects as bad as smoking. Billy doesn’t smoke, but he sits. So he forces himself to stand up and stroll out into the hallway around ten o’clock, thereabouts.
At noon, and not a minute too soon, but once the clock on his computer turns to twelve-zero-zero, Billy breaks for lunch, the lunch he packs and brings each day from home in a red insulated tote he stores in his left bottom desk drawer. Billy begins with a baggy of pretzels, eating one or two pretzels at a time, never three or four or any more, crunching each pretzel with his back teeth, savoring the salty taste as it travels across his tongue, before pulling out a Tupperware container with his sandwich: mesquite smoked turkey cut thin from the deli with a slice of Swiss cheese, spicy brown mustard and light mayonnaise, on white bread. Billy has tried the honey turkey, and the honey ham, but he prefers the mesquite smoked turkey. While he eats, Billy might play Solitaire (Klondike, expert) or read the newspaper online, or just stare at the numbers on his dual computer screens. He keeps his door open (because people talk if you don’t), but no one interrupts him.
Billy eats slowly, to make lunch last, yet he’s finished in about ten minutes, leaving him about twenty minutes to take a walk (because he sits and sitting is the new smoking), either outside, if it’s nice, around the crushed limestone walking track that HR installed to boost employee morale that circles a man-made pond stocked with unnaturally bright koi (also installed by HR to boost employee morale), or inside, if it’s not, down the back stairs to the basement with its stacks of spare desks and chairs and unmarked boxes and sundry anonymous items tucked into the shadows, and up the front stairs to the top floor where the executive suites sit locked behind security doors that require a clearance Billy doesn’t have, then back down and up and around. Billy walks long enough to loosen his joints and stretch his muscles, and to take up time before it’s time to return to his beige box.
Billy stays busy with more numbers in the afternoon (because the numbers never stop), which he considers the longer part of the day, which isn’t entirely accurate but might only feel that way since in the morning the day is new and prime for expectations but in the afternoon it’s just more of the same. Billy’s phone might ring, or he might be invited to attend a meeting, but it’s generally just more of the same. Billy stands up twice in the afternoon, once at two-fifteen to stroll out into the hallway for no other reason than to stroll out into the hallway, and again at four-forty-five to go to the bathroom, regardless of whether or not he actually has to go, in case he gets stuck in traffic on the drive home.
At five o’clock, office hours end, and Billy switches off his portable fan (or portable heater) and leaves his beige box. He might say something to someone he happens upon — “good-bye” or “see ya’” or words to that effect — but mostly he slips out unnoticed, out of the building, across the paved parking lot, to his car in its allotted spot in the back by the sugar hackberry tree where the Canadian geese like to nest, and the twenty minute drive home, unless he gets stuck in traffic and then it can take upwards of an hour, which frustrates Billy to no end even if he has no set plans other than the usual.
As soon as Billy gets home, he drops his leather satchel on the floor inside the front door, kicks off his loafers, and shuffles to the kitchen to set his Tupperware container from lunch in the sink, running it under hot water until he has a chance to wash it. Then he goes to the bedroom to change out of his work clothes and into gym shorts and a t-shirt and sneakers, and he spends an hour on the elliptical, pumping his arms and kicking his legs while he stares out the window and listens to one of his podcasts. An hour on the elliptical, and Billy towels off the perspiration and changes into sweat pants and a Henley and slippers, and cooks dinner: a meat, a starch, a vegetable and a glass of unsweetened iced tea (or hot tea with lemon, depending on the season). He eats in front of the TV, the evening news, shaking his head at how screwed up the world has become.
Once he finishes dinner, Billy does the dishes, including his Tupperware container from lunch, marveling, and not in a positive way, how it is that he dirties so many dishes and pots and pans just to cook dinner for himself. He toys with the notion of loading it all in the dishwasher, although he never does, not wanting to go to the trouble, not entirely sure how to operate the dishwasher and he misplaced the manual. Instead he washes by hand, soap suds on the checkered tile backsplash, drops of water on the linoleum. Then Billy makes his sandwich for lunch tomorrow — mesquite smoked turkey cut thin from the deli with a slice of Swiss cheese, spicy brown mustard and light mayonnaise, on white bread — and places it in the Tupperware container he just washed and puts it in the refrigerator.
With everything he had to do for the day done, Billy settles in for the evening to watch one of his programs he’s recorded on the DVR, or a movie on pay-per-view, or a ball game depending on the season. Sometimes he reads a magazine. Billy drifts off on the couch by a little past ten, jolts awake to catch some of the late local news, then heads to bed, under the sheets and comforter, two pillows. His sleep is not sound, and he tends to toss and turn, but it gets him through the night. On most mornings, Billy opens his eyes before the alarm clock buzzes at six-thirty.
Billy repeats this routine for five days a week, less if there’s a holiday or he calls in sick (particularly in February, his least favorite month, when it’s bitterly cold and gray and he’s most susceptible to catching the flu). He knows this is mundane but he doesn’t care, and the mundane doesn’t bother him much — it’s simple, and it’s set, and it’s something he’s come to accept. It’s the structure that Billy needs. It’s the texture to his daily schedule. It’s the status quo after over twenty years in total. And besides, there’s always the weekend.
On Saturday, Billy sleeps in, to seven, seven-thirty. He spends an hour on the elliptical in the morning to get it over with, listening to another one of his podcasts or watching a weekend news show where the hosts laugh and force small talk between reports on how screwed up the world has become. When he’s done, and after he showers and eats breakfast — half a toasted plain bagel with peanut butter and sliced banana, a glass of pulp-free orange juice, a glass of skim milk — he goes grocery shopping before the store becomes too crowded, taking a list even though he buys the same things every week, following the same pattern through the aisles, pulling the same items off the shelves practically without thinking.
With grocery shopping out of the way, and groceries unpacked and put away, the rest of the day is spent on any other errands Billy might have — pick up the dry cleaning, deposit a check at the bank, buy something from the home improvement store (batteries or duct tape or one of those wrenches with the weird handles) — or tidying up around the house. In the spring he cuts the grass and in the fall he rakes leaves. During the afternoon, Billy will take a nap, drift off on the couch watching TV or reading a magazine. He jolts awake to cook dinner — a meat, a starch, a vegetable and a glass of unsweetened iced tea (or hot tea with lemon, depending on the season) — and at six-thirty he eats. When he’s done eating, and doing the dishes (still toying with the notion of loading it all in the dishwasher although he never does), he gets himself ready.
There’s a place across town called the Hideaway, dingy and dank and dated, tucked back and overlooked amongst the trendy clubs and modish restaurants, so obscure that the only indication that something is there at all is a rusted metal sign, a remnant from several incarnations before, swinging above the front door, that reads Whiskey by the Drink. During the day, it’s nothing but a dive bar, sheltering its sparse clientele from the harsh realities that lie outside; at night it’s not much more. But on Saturday night, at ten o’clock, sharp, the Hideaway comes to life, with live music — loud, hard, aggressive live music — from a local garage band or punk rock group no one has heard of nor might hear of again, sometimes formed right there on the spot, playing on a cramped, makeshift stage set up towards the far side of the room next to the cigarette machine and an out-of-service cash register draped in an elaborate spider web. In the space just in front of the stage, with the rickety wooden tables and chairs cast aside, is the pit.
The sight alone of the pit, packed with bodies pulsing up and down and pounding into each other in some rhythmic slam dance, is enough to elevate Billy’s heart rate, skipping in his chest beneath his favorite black t-shirt, as he arrives to the Hideaway. But Billy doesn’t come to watch — he’s here to become one of those bodies, to be in the midst of that mess, to pulse up and down and pound. And that’s what Billy does, leaping into the pit, crashing into whomever he happens upon, who crashes into him, and so it begins.
The bass thumps dense and heavy, rattling Billy’s core, the guitars ring in his ears, the unintelligible shrieks and screams of the lead singer echo in reverb, while Billy knocks and pushes and shoves himself further and further inside the pit. “Yeah!” or “Hell yeah!” or “Fuck yeah!” Billy shouts, about nothing in particular, about everything in general, determined and forceful, his lungs emptying, his throat scratchy and raw, fists punching the air, bashing and banging to the beat of the drums. “Fuck y-o-o-o-o-o-o-u!” Billy shouts, along with the rest of the crowd, heated and sweating and jostling for position, the atmosphere charged and frenetic, with the smell of body odor mixed with cigarette smoke and a vague mustiness, hazy and unfocused under the soft backlighting and intermittent strobe. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” Billy continues, as he loses himself, as he forgets who he is, who he was when he first walked in, the numbers and his beige box and the dual computer screens and the people who talk evaporating from his mind like none of it ever existed. As Billy disappears. “Fuck yeah! Fuck it all! Fuck hell yeah!”
This last, and this lasts, and this lasts, with Billy in the pit holding his own, as the band plays on, song bleeding into song bleeding into song, a mishmash of humanity in all shapes and forms whirling and twirling and twisting madly about. At some point, there comes a moment when everything aligns, when it all sort of clicks, in a split-second when Billy hits that sweet spot and he can breathe again, and let go. A wayward elbow might land across Billy’s face, or he might let fly a wayward elbow of his own, or both, and he’s doused with beer and booze streaming into his eyes and stinging, swiping his wet hair back then shaking it out of place, on and on amongst this cadenced riot, a smile escaping across his face. “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Fuck y-e-e-e-e-e-ah!”
Billy stays like that, in the pit like that, just another member of the congregation, for as long as he needs, for as long as it takes, until he’s had enough and he doesn’t need it anymore, something telling him he’s done, for now. He shoves his way out the way he shoved his way in, staggers over to where he tossed his coat (depending on the season) on a bench beside the bumper pool table, rifling through and grabbing it from the pile, and leaves the Hideaway, slips out unnoticed, out onto the sidewalk, across the street, past the trendy restaurants and modish clubs, to his ride, with no concern for composing himself, no interest in that in the least, dripping and drained, but satisfied, and free, for now.
Back home, Billy cleans up and checks himself in the bathroom mirror for any bruises or nicks or scratches or scrapes, applying an ice pack or ointment, or both, as necessary, swallowing a couple aspirin with a tall glass of water. Then Billy heads to bed, under the sheets and comforter, two pillows, and has a deep and restful sleep, the best sleep of the week, gently stirring awake around eight, eight-thirty, close to nine, stretching and yawning. He might lie in bed for a while still, staring up at the stucco ceiling and the ceiling fan lazily rotating, listening to the birds chirping outside his window, thinking, about everything, and nothing, at ease with nowhere to be.
On Sunday, Billy rests. He might take in a movie or a ball game (depending on the season), but not much else, not even the elliptical. He gives himself a break and just rests. In the evening, Billy cooks dinner, and makes his sandwich for lunch tomorrow, and watches some TV or reads a magazine before going to bed early, no later than ten, to get a fresh start on the week ahead.
On Monday morning, at eight-fifteen, Billy arrives to his beige box, to his ergonomic chair and his ergonomic desk, and gathers his thoughts and settles in, before the day begins.
Peter J. Stavros is an author and playwright in Louisville, Kentucky. His flash fiction chapbook, Three in the Morning and You Don’t Smoke Anymore (Etchings Press, 2020), is available now. More can be found at www.peterjstavros.com.