“Brickley!” yelled his boss Marquis, “if you don’t get out of the way I’ll kick your ass for good.” And Marquis, darker but plump himself, wearing an atrocious suit with orange lines in it, smiled that puffy-cheeked grin he’d always use, like it was punctuation itself. I’m the boss and you’re the slob, it said. It was nothing less than a tongue speaking right at Brickley’s ear. Even commas and periods were in place, the exclamation points by the fingers. If there were question marks, he’d know them. He bet he could quote him verbatim, all the ways the boss man moved. All of it was catalogued, scored, filed away in his mind.
When Brickley slipped back out of view, inside his little cubicle, the noisy chair he was sitting on squeaked its usual protest. And the computer screen was suddenly eclipsed by his wide frame. A puff of breath came out of Brickley’s throat as if an impeller had thrust it out. Even that very morning his breath had come the same way, after Valerie had yelled, “Malcolm, I know you hate your job, but you have to get up. It’s time for work.” He knew the feeling all over again as he saw Marquis go by. He noted the way the boss’s head hung over in another kind of remark, and the hands clasped behind his back the way referees stand by their calls, administrators at their task. Marquis’s never been able to hide his feelings from me, Brickley thought, nor Valerie hers. A swift sense of disloyalty swept through him and he wondered if his face had reddened deeply. He felt it had.
And then he saw the smug look on Appleyard’s face and the manner in which he, a peer in a sense, saluted the boss’s words. It was the way one shoulder rose in the slightest inflection, almost like a cough stuffed away for a moment.
Nor Appleyard, he thought also, thinking where he was at, who wants the district manager’s job any way he can get it.
Appleyard was his junior by ten years, thirty, handsome in a pretty way, too much so for Brickley who noted the pompadour of hair, the elegance of tie and perfection of collar. Appleyard’s suit pants always sported an impeccable press. Brickley had long ago read Appleyard’s hands, his arms too even when at rest, but mostly the way they touched on solid things. Brickley also saw how he locked one knee against the other when he was in doubt of answer. At length, he assessed, decided, and agreed that Appleyard’s pressure points were localized in his knees, especially the right one.
Normally the ladies flocked around Appleyard, around his MG, around him on the dance floor. But not those few people Brickley trusted from the outset; never Valerie or Hiltzie. A pair in their own right. I wonder if they can see the things I see, he thought, as the screen changed color, as a crackling began a static call. It made him think of old radios, the way his computer began to click away.
Brickley saw Marquis at the end of the hall talking to his secretary Hiltzie. He understood him from a distance. It was as if his own ear were right there, the way Marquis’ hands moved in quick little circles and the way he stood with his shoulder pointing back down the hall. It was how he leaned a bit too close to those marvelous breasts everybody stared at, an elbow reaching for a lifebelt.
Hiltzie in a dark brown sweater. Brickley puffed a small laugh; Marquis trying to pull the wool over her eyes. Strange how it is; these things I see, I can hear. Then he added the full interpretation: Old Brickley’s at it again, Marquis would be saying, screwing up as usual. Good thing I’m a kind-hearted man. What do you think of me now, kiddo?
And the next morning, sleep a half-dark happiness where words were never spoken, Valerie nudged him again. He saw her shoulders shrug, saw her mouth screwed up as if to say something else, but he had seen that look before. She had had her say the day before. She shook him lightly. Her hand was warm. He managed a smile, a half-smile.
She nodded her assent. There was a smile at the corner of her lips. A hip moved slightly out of line, so very slightly yet so pronounced. A breath held itself someplace. Tonight there’d be hell to pay between the sheets. Promises had been made, notes had been taken.
Halfway to work he heard the fire engine sirens and wailing klaxons behind him. He pulled over just as the driver behind him roared around him and down the road, racing the fire engines to the next intersection. I hope he crashes, Brickley said to himself. His car tires rubbed against the curbing. The fire engines, three of them, lights flashing, sirens blaring, horns honking the bejayzus out of morning, rushed by him.
Almost forty minutes later, traffic tied up in every radius from a huge factory and warehouse fire, Brickley managed to get to an observation point across from a crowd of spectators. He swore he could smell a host of aromas and odors; someone’s after-shave lotion, then another person’s initially overpowering perfume expected to simmer down before the office was reached. Then came burnt coffee smell he could remember from an old campsite. Finally, there was the fearful sense of all-out fire at its work, at its worst.
Smoke billowed into the air, much of it rising directly overhead as if in a shaft, driven upward by the heat of the flames. The stench of burning tar and shingles broke on top of all the other smells. All of it made Brickley shiver. The hairs on his arms itched.
Suddenly there was a man standing right beside him. A tall man in a denim work jacket with tan but worn corduroy trim. He was breathing a bit heavily, perhaps after a small sprint. “Humdinger, isn’t it,” the man said. He did not look at Brickley but was looking across the street at the crowd spread along the sidewalk. There must have been a hundred people in the crowd.
“I think it’s frightening,” Brickley said. His briefcase was in his hand. He had not dared leave it in the car. “It’s a hard way to begin the day. I’m sure those guys don’t like it.” He pointed to the firemen now working off a host of engines. Some of the engines were yellow and he figured they had been called from out of the district. At least from out of town.
He was thinking about that when the man said, “You’re right on that, pal.” The man paused, then added, “I guess I can trust you. I’m one of them. I’m looking the crowd over. We think this one was set. See anyone suspicious?” He kept his eyes on the opposite walk, moving his gaze up and down the line of spectators. “I hope he gives himself away. We had two guys lucky enough to get out of there alive. But they figure it was set, from what they saw.”
Brickley looked over at the crowd, not forty feet away. He was thinking of Marquis and Appleyard, and the way Valerie could say yes without saying it, and Hiltzie could say no without saying it either. If he quit his job, there’d be no place to go. He couldn’t do that to Valerie. Just suck it up, pal, was all he could muster.
The smoke smell seemed to fall down on top of his head. Too, there was a momentary sense of heat, as if it had flashed past him. It had a guttural sensation plunging with it. The hairs on his arms had the same itching sensation they had before.
Malcolm Brickley, computer guru, nerd and nice guy, practically finishing last in all things, except with Valerie, and he knew not why, began to stare into the eyes of the people watching the fire. Now and then some of them looked across the street at him and the man standing beside him, and but almost immediately switched their eyes to look at other fire actions.
Without noise, acclimation or surprise, a sensation took hold of him, as if his hand had been grasped by some otherworldly power and pulled into a sudden light, into an awareness he’d never known.
Action was inevitably his once the light had come on him.
And then, unobtrusively, without any warning, he saw in one man of the crowd a shift of eyes, a twist of head, how one of his shoulders tried to fling darkness across his face without asking the hands to do the hiding, the masking. He noted the man’s raiment, the baseball cap, the shiny but itchy-looking windbreaker, the slackline of his jaw, the mouth agape, the pair of hands clutching themselves at his waist in a kind of prayer of thanksgiving. Marquis came back to him at the end of the corridor, silently talking away. The tongues of men, Brickley said to himself
Brickley never really knew why he said it. “Sir,” he said, “not that I am trying to do your job, but I wish you’d do me a favor.” He didn’t believe he was saying this to some supposedly disguised or secret member of the city fire department.
“What’s that favor, mister? By the way, what’s your name?” He had not taken his eyes off the group of spectators.
“My name is Malcolm Brickley. I work at Marquis and Sons. I live on Middlestone Ave.”
“What’s the favor, Mr. Brickley? I’m Lieutenant Hardiman.” The lieutenant’s eyes had not left the crowd. He did not offer his hand in a handshake, nor did he flinch when a section of wall, with a groan and a gasp of hot air and black smoke, fell into the fire.
“If you have no definite course of action, sir, I wish you’d check that man in the baseball cap and the shiny green windbreaker. The one in the middle of the crowd. His body language, for the want of other words, is really strange to me.” He felt queasy saying it, yet pressured. After all, he could get some innocent person in jail, or himself if things spun the wrong way. And they could do just that. It could happen in seconds. He knew that from experience.
“You serious, Mr. Brickley?”
It hit the papers in the morning, in the headlines. Spectator Finds Arsonist
Marquis was different in work the next day. Appleyard was different. Work was almost a joy. Brickley thought some of his coworkers, and the boss, were walking differently, saying less. Pictures on the walls might have been moved during the evening, the furniture; everything, of course, was looking different, was looking up, in a manner of speaking, in its outlook. Lunch was not a drab affair, even if he still sat by himself, the view out the window memorable again, this time with new details, or old ones that had been stripped of particulars. With an awed and odd appreciation, he noted the spire on the old church that years earlier had been abandoned and restructured for a fire station.
He understood that changes sat up and called for notice.
Later in the week, a policeman friend of Lt. Hardiman, Inspector Noel Rebeneker, neat as a model in a store window, right to the pleats on his pants, asked him to come down to the station to watch a routine line-up go through official and controlled moves. From behind a one-way mirror, though thoroughly frightened down to his toes, Malcolm Brickley pegged the guilty party in 10 seconds.
That made the headlines, too.
The next morning Valerie said yes without him asking. Hiltzie, in her own way, said yes also. But Malcolm Brickley, at this point, thought that life was sweet enough, though he did like to watch Hiltzie when she stretched at her desk, the brown sweater moving, the wool threatening to pull itself over her eyes, the brand new day off to one fine hallelujah start.
He did not tell Valerie about his possibilities or how Appleyard had started to walk on eggshells.
Previously Published in Literary Yard in India in 2015