“Can I see you for a minute? ”
Rob looked up to see Michael walking away. As he rose, Rob’s swivel chair farted. He checked to see if anyone had heard. Rita, the receptionist, was fixed on her computer screen. Her outfit looked like she had worn it the night before.
“So, what’s up? ” Michael asked, pointing at the chair slightly to the left of his desk.
“What do you mean? ” Rob said, sitting down gingerly.
“You’ve gone from being our top salesman to Halverson numbers.”
James Halverson was the sort of employee every company had. A bland, average guy who does his job well enough to keep it, but not well enough so you’d notice he was there.
“Yeah, I’ve had some rough luck. I’ll be back.”
“You see, I don’t think luck has anything to do with it. Is everything all right? Personally? ”
“Please. You are the best salesman this company has ever had. When someone with your talent...well, let’s say I’m concerned. So, please, feel free to say anything. This is not a dressing down.”
“Actually, I’m fine. Maybe a case of the winter blahs. But that’s all.”
Michael studied him. Rob tapped out the passing seconds with his thumbnail on his fingertips. People wondered why he was such a good salesman. It was a matter of being able to talk to people and adjust his personality to theirs. Of being a chameleon.
“Well, maybe it is bad luck or maybe you’re tired. Do you need to take some time off? A vacation? ”
“No. That won’t be necessary.”
“Why don’t you take the rest of the day off. And tomorrow. Come back Thursday fully rested and we’ll talk again.”
“Really, it’s not necessary...”
“I’m still the boss here. We can get along without you for a day or two. Catch up on your sleep. Do nothing. Get hammered with your buddies.” He reached out his hand.
“See you first thing Thursday.”
“O.K. Thanks. I’ll be fine by then.”
Rob hadn’t noticed how bad things had become. He thought he’d been doing a good job of coping with Sheila’s leaving. Pulling into the underground parking lot of his building, he wondered what he might do with the next few days.
Upstairs, he removed his shoes, jacket, and tie and lay on his bed. Grabbing the remote, he switched on the TV and started flipping. He went once around the horn then scrolled towards Sportscentral. On his way, something caught his eye and he flipped back. There was a pretty Indian woman interviewing a man in a cheap grey suit on some kind of morning show. Rob wondered why the guy didn’t wear a sweater or just a shirt and tie. The suit made what he was saying seem less important.
The Indian woman was breathtaking. She was young with shoulder-length dark hair and large, dark eyes. She wore a pair of black boots that reached almost to her knees. Her legs were crossed Mary Hart–style: pressed tightly together, tilted to the left. Whenever she asked a question, she twisted her left ankle and shifted the weight from her right heel to toe and back. She kept perfectly still while listening, but started her dance as soon as she began to speak.
Rob turned it into a game and watched closely to see that she did it every time, which she did. He checked his watch. Ten-twenty-three.
She turned to face the camera and told Rob and everyone else watching that she’d be back to wrap things up after this break. As she said this, her name appeared, superimposed above her cleavage. Sandra Singh.
After the show, he switched to TSN and fell asleep watching tennis. Later, he had a shower and ordered a takeout curry. Sitting at his kitchen table, listening to All Things Must Pass by George Harrison, he scooped some chicken Madras onto a container of basmati rice. While chewing a mouthful, he rocked his foot from heel to toe. He repeated this through the whole meal, taking a forkful and doing the Sandra Manoeuvre, which is what he had named it, as though it were a ballet step or a surgical procedure.
He awoke the next morning at nine, got out of bed, and made a pot of coffee. At ten, Sandra announced that she would be talking to a woman about natural medicine and also someone from Clearnet would be offering information about cellphones. This morning, Sandra wore a black, sleeveless dress and the boots with a bit of dark-skinned thigh and knee. Less makeup on than yesterday.
During a commercial break, Rob ran to get his Dictaphone from the glovebox of his car. He held it up to the TV speaker and recorded her voice. During the next commercial, he rewound and listened. The voice was faint and tinny, but definitely her. During the show’s final segment, he tapped his finger against his thigh in time with the Manoeuvre. Reaching over to a pad of paper that sat on his bedside table, he wrote “Polaroid film.”
That night, he went to a bar called Teddy’s. A woman named Jennifer worked as a bartender there and, shortly after his breakup with Sheila, she’d told him if he ever needed to talk...you know. Rob figured he had a mercy fuck coming. It was the kind of thing he felt he should do to justify the time off.
Do you have any boots? ” he asked, kissing her fake breasts.
“What? ” she asked breathlessly.
“Never mind,” he said, unzipping her stretchy brown pants.
He woke up in his own bed. He showered, shaved, and went to set the timer on his VCR. Channel 11 at 9:59 A.M.
The hours flew by like minutes. The confidence in his voice was audible even to himself. He spent the day contacting all of his accounts, shooting the breeze, setting up squash games, turning back on the charm. One of his contacts was an openly gay man named Phillip.
“So, Phil. How are the other four-and-a-half per cent living? ” Rob joked. He liked that one.
“We’d be better if a handsome man like yourself joined the team.”
“Well, the way my luck’s been lately, I might have to,” he laughed, repulsed at the thought. “I was watching a show yesterday. About transvestites. And I wondered, where do they get the clothes? Some of them were big men.”
“What are you in the market for? ” Phil laughed. Rob wondered if he should drop it. That might be worse. He said nothing.
“Some guys make their own and some go to big and tall shops. There’s one on Yonge Street called Summerville’s that gets a lot of trannies, so they won’t flinch when you come in.”
“Very funny. How’s your stock? I won’t bug you for an order, but what say I touch base with you Monday and we can see what I can jam down your throat.”
“We both know what you can jam down my throat,” he purred. “Call me and let me know how the outfit turns out.”
“Gee, you can’t ask you cocksuckers anything without being labelled latent.”
“Talk to you Monday,” Phil laughed.
Rob looked up Summerville’s in the phone book.
“I’ll be back in about an hour,” he told Rita.
The boots weren’t quite as nice as the pair Sandra wore. He expected hers were expensive. His were black and they fit. Close enough.
While he rewound the videotape, he pulled them on. They felt snug, squeezing his calves like a massage. Standing, he took a few tentative steps. Then he walked to the mirror. Blue plaid boxers, white undershirt, and black boots.
He tried mimicking her. It took a great deal of effort to cross his legs like she did.
“Now we are going to talk about ways to quit smoking. Dr. James Plaac is here. Please, doctor. Help us poor, addicted fools!” she giggled.
“What’s your most popular brand with women? ” he asked the convenience store clerk, a husky Asian teenager.
“They smoke all kinds. A lot like king size.”
“Yeah. They’re for a friend. But she didn’t tell me what kind to get. Long ones are probably right.”
“You could get 100s.”
“Do they have a white filter? ”
The boy took a pack from the shelf.
“These do. And they’re menthol. Do you think she smokes menthol? ”
“Um, yeah. That sounds right. Girls like that, don’t they? ”
“Some do. If you’re not sure it might be risky.”
“No, now that I think of it, I think she does smoke menthol. How much? ”
On his way to work the next morning, he wore the boots. It wasn’t as hard to drive in them as he imagined. Resting the heel on the floor, he pressed the accelerator with his toe. He tapped, rhythmically, causing the car to jerk. The pedal felt exquisite under the sole of his boot. He laughed with pure, childlike joy. At a stop sign, he lit one of the menthol cigarettes. He’d had five the night before and was surprised at how easy it was to get used to them. He pulled off the boots before leaving the car.
“Rob,” Michael smiled as he passed by his desk a couple of weeks later.
“Great to have you back. I don’t know what happened during those days off, but we are back in business.”
“Yeah. Thanks. I feel really good.”
“Well. My door is always open. O.K.? ”
He’d ordered the wig from an on-line store. It was a bit tight and fake looking, but was approximately the right colour and length. The dress he’d bought the week before from Summerville’s. The boots clomped noisily on the hardwood floor as he paced, smoking. Sandra’s voice squeaked out of the Dictaphone.
“So, where should people look if they want to find out more about your service? ”
“Today we are going to learn how to properly grill a fish.”
“Ladies, you know there is nothing like a good massage.”
“Please, doctor. Help us poor, addicted fools!”
That day, she’d been wearing a dress that looked like a sari. Rob wondered if she ever wore that red dot on her forehead when she was at home or with her family. He wrote “lipstick” on his pad. Who knew what they used? She appeared in a close-up and Rob pointed his Polaroid at the screen.
“Rob, come on in.”
Michael turned into his office before Rob could respond.
“Here’s your sales bonus for this month. In six weeks you’ve gone from bad to breaking the company sales record—a record you set.”
“Well, people have been responding to the product. The company sells itself.”
“Bullshit. I don’t know who or what turned you around. I don’t care if it’s legal or not. Just keep on doing it, whatever it is.” He rose to signal the end of the meeting.
“You’ve got it,” Rob said awkwardly.
I really should thank her, he thought. The station where she taped the show was in the suburbs. It would take a half-hour or so to drive out there.
“I’ll be out all afternoon on calls, Rita. Send everything to my voice mail.”
Rita smiled and Rob looked at her, wondering if she’d showered that morning.
The Channel 11 parking lot was icy. He lit a smoke and thought about going inside. She may have left and then what would be the point of hanging around.
Wait, here she comes. She was wearing a long coat and a black hat. The guy she was with was white. Could be her husband, a boyfriend, or maybe someone merely walking her to her car. Rob got out of his car and walked straight towards them.
The two of them turned to see him approaching rapidly. Sandra stopped and twisted so that she was slightly behind her companion. Rob shoved his cold, gloveless hands into his pockets. The man’s face tensed.
“I just wanted to tell you...” Rob said, still moving faster than he wanted. “I’m nervous,” he was about to think.
The man put his arm out, brushing Rob gently, but Rob was on a patch of ice and went down. He managed to pull his hands from his pockets in time to catch his fall. Sandra yelped and jerked the man’s arm. Rob felt the blood run to his face and pain seep into the balls of his hands.
“Hey, buddy,” he said, getting quickly to his feet. “You didn’t have to push me. I just wanted to tell her that I like the show. That’s all. You didn’t have to push.” He felt like a child. Now his face was red with injustice.
“Yeah, Basil. Take it easy. Are you O.K.? ” Sandra asked.
Rob brushed his suit pants and coat with his hand. There wasn’t anything on them. Sandra looked at the man again. He looked at her darkly then turned back to Rob and said, “I’m sorry. It’s just that you came out of nowhere. You scared her...us. She’s been getting some disturbing calls and e-mails. You know how it is.”
“I don’t,” Rob said, then warmed up when he saw her face—her real face, not dots on a curved screen. Her skin was smooth and makeup free.
“But I can imagine. I guess stars have to watch out for kooks”
She smiled and held out her hand.
“It’s nice to meet you. What was your name? ”
“Rob. Rob Townes.”
“Well, Rob. I’m glad you like the show.” She stopped when she caught his gaze and her face lost its smile.
“We really should be going. Are you sure you’re O.K.? ”
“Yes, I’m fine.” Rob tried to hold her eyes, but she looked to her companion.
“Well, sorry again. You shouldn’t startle people like that,” Basil said walking away with her hand on his arm.
Rob got back into the car. It was still cold, too cold for late March.
“What a great gal,” he said aloud. “I knew she would be.”
The motor roared and he pulled out a long, thin white cigarette, which he lit with a long, thin silver lighter. He watched himself exhale in the rear-view mirror, a red dot on his forehead.