Amanda hiccups from the doorway. This is the fourth time she’s hiccupped today, the twenty-sixth time this week. I reach for the desk drawer, and from the corner of my vision, I see her red wooden clogs shifting on the carpet. They make a warm sound, like wood shaped by fine-grain sandpaper. Watching them lift and lower, imagining her stretching toes, I forget to wonder how long she’s been standing there. Held at her slim hip is the green file folder. I finally stop wondering where my crunch statistics have gone and start worrying about what’s coming. She holds up the file of notes I’ve made as I watched her at reception, opening that small metal tin from her purse, slipping yellow lemon candies into her mouth.
“You read them?” I ask.
She works over another candy in her mouth, nodding yes.
“Last year you averaged two minutes and thirty-five seconds from start to crunch,” I say and she jerks her head, swooping her bleached bangs across her face. “I disregarded the non-chew occasions.”
She tucks the candy into her cheek. I don’t tell her how much I enjoy the muted clink of it against her bottom molar.
“You’ve been keeping this for two years?” she asks.
“Statistical practice,” I say.
She tosses the folder on my desk. “That’s all?”
“That’s all,” I say.
She looks more frustrated than when she appeared and crunches hard on the lemon drop. Just then, Pop’s head comes around the corner about five feet up.
He says, “That C.N. report?”
“Ya?” I say, and Pop nods like I’ve answered something and is gone.
These are the kinds of exchanges I find myself a part of with Pop, whose real name I’ve forgotten or never learned. Within thirty seconds, he’ll bustle off with a stout authority and I’ll have agreed to something, presumably, but to what exactly I’m never certain. Usually it doesn’t come up again, but sometimes I get Top Boss towering in the doorway with folded dress shirt arms over whatever I’ve gotten myself into.
Amanda huffs and spins, pulling the hem of her skirt in a wild orbit and leaves me to wonder if she’s found the other files—bathroom breaks, popped neck, yawns. My desk has plenty of file space. My first day, Top Boss made it a take-your-teens-to-work day. He set Pop and me to work with his sons to haul the back section of his old executive’s desk into my office. As we turned the corner, the boys’ knees wobbled and Top Boss looked down upon the scene like a camp leader, instructing, “Easy with that, boys. Watch the corners.”
Just the three of us work under Top Boss, who we could call Boss (there’s no middle or low boss), but don’t. We work insurance. Amanda receives calls and I move paper. We’re unsure what Pop does, but it must be something important because a business couldn’t stay afloat on our contributions alone. I spend much of my time watching Amanda. I sit in an uncomfortable chair that coaxes me into delusions of doctors’ offices. I imagine I’ve been handed my number and shown to my seat in the corner of the waiting room. For long stretches I live in this corner, skimming Time and US Weekly, reading about unremarkable medical advancements and celebrity nip slips. Only aware of dry mouth and strong thirst, I thumb through pamphlets about diabetes and whisper to my mental bookie. He’s seated beside me, crunching and cramming tidbits of information, littering the floor with illegible, contradictory scribbles about television news tickers, screen shots of Paula Zahn and Wolf Blitzer, gobs of probabilities.
The office does that to you. Originally the room must have been a storage closet: a windowless, austere white cube with a low ceiling and walls lined with large metal filing cabinets, which seem even grander in relation to the ceiling. Amanda said they say to make your office your own, so I brought in an energy efficient fan and a solar calculator that feeds off the humming fluorescents. I lined the top of the filing cabinets with two decades of The Guinness Book of World Records. I put an easel with a pad of paper in the corner for quick charts and graphs. I tacked up a poster of Pi written out to 10,000 places and wrote at the bottom, “Life’s a Numbers Game.” A motivational poster of sorts.
Amanda even brought me a potted plant. I steadied a creaky, wheeled office chair as she teetered in those clunky red clogs, hanging the plant from a fluorescent. It died quickly. But for a week it hung over my desk dangling sprouts of green over my head. As the people on the floor above us—we were unaware of what happens outside our floor—shuffled about, doing whatever it was that they were doing, dirt sprinkled on my desk, dusted me in earth.
Amanda doesn’t smell like earth at all. She’s all lemon. And Friday, following the green folder incident, she comes into work with lip gloss and a makeuped face like a sixth grader who’s been gifted her first compact. Every time she plucks out a lemon candy she looks me eye to shadowed eye and I freeze till she looks away. When I feel her gaze avert, I write down the time in her file.
On Monday, I get to work an hour before the others—before the computer exhaust fans wave dust bunnies like flags and the phones vibrate on the wood laminate and the fluorescent lights whine till I forget there ever was silence. I punch in my door code—1991, a palindrome—and shake grounds into the coffeemaker. It looks like, and almost has the smell of, potted dirt. I pour in six cups of tap water and wait for it to bubble before I start in on my newspapers. The break room is the only place with a lamp that still uses an incandescent bulb. I don’t know what I’ll do when it finally gives. You can’t find light like that, the familiar soft yellow of my childhood, anymore.
In statistics, I find myself fully involved. Breaking the world into pieces the mind can digest, into small truths, is relieving. I find that my mind has an insatiable appetite. That bookie within is greedy and does not sleep. I unfold my paper across a low, white table. Small truths can be found in the most mundane places like the USA Today reader polls, which sit all cozy in the corner of the front page. Peppermint is the candy most likely to be used as a street name. The penguin is this year’s most exploited animal in commercial art. Senior citizens enjoy ice cream over hard candy. Endless.
I top off a styrofoam cup and hold it with both hands, waiting for it to cool. I wonder if Amanda enjoys lemon sherbert over hard candy. Somehow this idea mixes with the smell of coffee and tickles my brain. I take that first sip, the one that burns, and start to wonder what the truth of Peppermint Street has to do with me. I think on Peppermint Street. I can’t imagine it. I’m no postal worker. Ungodly suicide rates, cruising around in that little counterintuitive, sliding-doored death trap. Small wheels. Spine warping messenger bags. Cold-handed winters. How can I piece it together?
During lunch I close my office door—the employee handbook says this is prohibited from eight to eleven forty-five and then from twelve-thirty to five—and wish that the USA Today would publish statistics that corresponded to my interests and locale. Norman, Oklahoma, women under fifty, or over fifty and unwrinkled, or pleasantly wrinkled. Name preferences: Josh is dead last at 5%. Cliché. They enjoy Jon, but not Jonathan, Zach but not Zachary. Most of all, they like Lemonde. Could Amanda truly prefer the name Lemonde over my own— which I am fortunate enough to have abbreviated to Jon? This would be a testament to the women of Norman, their yearning for the exotic—the European greaser with the Mini Cooper, rounded voice, and body odor described as musky. I often imagine that if I had been born in Europe I wouldn’t have anything to worry about, women-wise. Mini Cooper stuffed with Oklahoma girls all admiring my chest curls and Euro musk. With these localized statistics at my disposal, I imagine I could slick back my hair, go down to O’Kelly’s, find a pleasant fifty-something, introduce myself as Lemonde and wind up reading the USA Today in someone else’s breakfast nook in the morning.
All of this, the USA Today researching and publishing this material and me cutting out the information like coupons to collect and arrange like puzzle pieces, somehow seems more reasonable than walking over to Amanda’s desk and asking her about the clogs or lemon drops or why don’t we have lunch somewhere else for a change.
It’s two weeks or so before she has gotten the hang of the lipstick and makeup. Even Pop notices. I hear him at reception say, “So, makeup?” Amanda looks pristine. No more blotches or shine. I want to tell her it takes much of the fun out of looking at her, but don’t. I just start a new makeup file and smile when she gives me the eye to eye. But today, after her third lemon candy of the day, she wobbles into my office wearing black heels and sits on the corner of my desk and works to cross her legs. She makes pleasantries about my Pi poster and Guinness books, and I keep on my full-teeth smile while slipping her makeup file out of sight. Right then, to my surprise, Amanda leans in and asks me to go out on a date.
Date might be the wrong word. She suggests we arrange a place and time to meet outside of work. We are coordinating a non-work-related interaction. But it is in this moment, as she leans in close, giving me a sense of envelopment in her lemon aroma, I notice her thick-framed brown glasses are bi-focals. I whisper that I’ve read contact lens sales were up the last quarter. “Maybe you should invest in a pair, or a stock,” I say.
She giggles and her magnified, clear blue eyes bulge and split behind the bi-focals. A woman has not giggled at me, under favorable circumstances, for years. I stop myself from telling her that I wasn’t kidding in the slightest. This surprises me.
She’s four years older than me. This makes me more comfortable. It acts as a natural counterbalance to my lack of physical appeal. You can’t have an imbalance of flaws in a relationship and expect it to continue in a healthy, solid rut. Amanda is at the runt end of the pleasantly wrinkled breed, bordering on a standard senior wrinkle, but her cheeks are high and lovely and her eyes shine when they escape her bangs. Her teeth are straight and flush and I wonder at times how she manages to squeeze floss between them.
I see no reason not to consider her a viable prospect for romance. She has an orderly way about her. She maintains many commendable habits. She always sets her stapler back in her desk drawer after use. She straightens and alphabetizes her files. When she talks on the phone, she does so quietly while gently tapping her clogs on the floor, keeping rhythm to her end of the conversation. This gives the illusion that she speaks in a kind of natural poem, tapping stresses with some beautifully aloof scansion.
She holds tight to that idea of Swedish descent and flaunts that assumed heritage in the form of bright red clogs with hand-painted white horses along the side. I don’t know where she contracted this identity, but amazingly, I feel no need to deny her of this innocent fraud.
Pop once brought up her last name, saying, “Smith, yes?” But it was an accounting thing that I pretended not to have overheard. I reason that illuminating cognitive dissonance is best kept out of the workplace. So her name is treated like a disability. I thought I was being artful enough one day when I asked, “Have you always been Swedish?” But she must have caught my drift before it got anywhere because she said she needed to place a call. Amanda does not place calls. She only receives and redirects them. After quickly jotting the time of her next bathroom break I placed the sticky note I’d written—Roll call must have been tough for you. I’m sorry.—on her desk. It was difficult to be certain from that distance, but she looked watery-eyed for the next few minutes.
I have no such disability. I have only a stigmatized belly, which is often assumed to be a sign of incompetence. Top Boss thinks my stomach bears witness to my lack of self-control. Don’t give Jon the original copies of anything, the idea runs. Might lose them in his flab, or worse, his ass crack. Or worse still, grab his chest and keel over the wheel at a drive-through while asking for extra ketchup. Then they’d have to rummage through the filing half of an executive’s desk, through all my personal effects in search of the originals. That would reduce morale— having to see me as a person. A dead person.
I have considered adopting an irregularity. Decorate with Christmas paraphernalia year round and learn to look happy. Then maybe they’ll just think I had some sort of Santa complex, a fat man into distributing community spirit and good tidings. Fat with a cause. That might work or get me fired. It could be healthy. I imagine a good number of people every year get the boot for overstepping the norms of holiday celebration in the workplace.
Holidays invariably bring out the loons.
On date night, I’m nervous and leave the house too early. I wait around the block for ten minutes, licking my finger and cleaning the dash of my Corolla. It’s hot out, so I roll down the windows and take deep breaths. I remembered to remove the sticky note that Amanda had returned, with my own bathroom times and her address, from the rear view mirror before walking up to her door. It opens and she is glowing. I tell myself to keep cool and suggest that we get a move on.
When we get to the restaurant, some bar and grill that we could have walked to, I vocalize my worry about the chance of rain, but Amanda insists we take a chance and sit on the patio under a Bud Light parasol. The squeaky wooden patio is empty, and its old boards shift under our feet. The kitchen door behind us is close enough to hear the occasional “order ups” and dishes clanking inside. I study her small, shiny cross, half tucked into her white blouse. Our waiter hasn’t shown himself. He hasn’t done the footwork to break the ice. This will impact his tip. I point at her cross and she looks down at her chest.
“I gave God a fair go,” I begin. “Devoted a few solid days examining the probabilities, read some C.S. Lewis and Kreeft.”
She raises an eyebrow. I realize I needed to pull my logic together.
“C.S. Lewis,” I press on, “is a persuasive man, but he relies on too many assumptions. Someone should really teach him the value of numbers. You can’t argue with numbers. You can’t debate them. You can’t be vague with them. Business,” I note, “is all about the numbers for a reason.” She twirls the cross around with her fingers and nods slowly.
“I can’t say that God doesn’t exist,” I elaborate. “I can only say that C.S. Lewis can’t prove it, no matter how much he beats around the moral bush. I believe that if God exists, he has no home in the sky or in the depths of the heart. God could exist in some type of universally complex super computer housing some unthinkable mathematical equation. We could all be walking numbers and codes with a mega God-computer running the show. That I could buy into.” I pause for a reaction, but she has become involved with her menu. “Given the data to support it, of course.”
She looks up, asking, “So, what’ll you have?”
I consider it. “I don’t know yet.”
She wiggles the plastic menu at me and we go about our selections. As we look at the laminated sheets, I begin to think I would be lucky if she were a devout Christian as her accessories lead me to believe. If things go sour, a woman in fear of her creator stays in an unharmonious marriage twice as long at minimum. I feel a near contentment sitting across from an almost assured traditionalist. She is nearly smiling and sits politely in a button-up blouse tucked into a skirt with sharp creases, like it has been waiting in a drawer for an occasion. I flutter for a moment in the idea that I constitute an occasion.
A teenage waiter in a ratty collared t-shirt shuffles to our table and addresses me as you and Amanda as the lady. I pointed up toward the parasol and say, “One for you and one for the lady.” He doesn’t understand. He squints at me and glances up at the underside of a parasol. Amanda gives him the plain English he needs: two Bud Lights. He asks to see the lady’s I.D. They have their giggle and he leaves us alone.
I find it hard to keep my concentration. Amanda is relaying something about her day, but my mind is busy running the odds of the pimply waiter getting laid that night, and by whom, and for how long. My eyes roam up and over Amanda’s shoulder, onto the small patch of gray coming in fast from due west. My thoughts sink into that well-trodden groove of doubt.
Here I am, defying the odds with the simple act of being on a seeming date with a lemon-fresh, all around fine traditionalist. Yet, instead of living in this, I am involved with the idea that the teen waiter is probably making as much money as me, minus health benefits. And it is neither of these things, but seeing at once what is happening that pulls within until I feel something in me drop, like a part of my resentment has broken off and slid down into my stomach. As I imagine it now, there is no clear end-game. No route laid out that is screaming to be taken. Maybe the numbers lack a definitive end. Perhaps I have thought of Pi wrong all along. Maybe it isn’t the glorifiable missing link of the puzzle. Maybe life is one big Pi, an unsolvable equation, a string of numbers to ride on and on until you fall off.
Those westerly clouds are rolling in more quickly than I realized. They reach us and crack open. We tuck our feet under the table as the rain makes a steady thum thum thum overhead and trickles off the edges of the plastic udmbrella, closing us into a bubble of space. We lean in toward the center.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“You’re alright,” she says and smiles a genuine smile.
“I don’t think so,” I say.
I hear what sounds like a bag of marbles spilling out onto the deck. Amanda lets out a screech and grips her purse tight against her chest. But it’s too late. We watch as hundreds of little yellow lemon drops bounce across the patio. They roll toward the shouts of the kitchen, spread thin as they bounce and flirt with the rain, many hopping into wide cracks between the planks before finally settling. The patio all around us glows like an overcast sky dotted neon yellow. Amanda stares wide-mouthed and eyed as the candy becomes yellow puddles with artificial dye.
I try to imagine what could have led to this. How could this bulk of candy even fit in a purse and how could she carry it without the sound of rustling candy, without slouching to one side to compensate for the load? Any company that manufactured such a bag couldn’t help being featured somewhere. Where had I been?
I realize that I, too, have a gaping mouth. I sit with Amanda in this bubble of space that separates us from the kitchen and waiter, pulls us so far from Pop and Top Boss that their images become laughable. We sit in the static of rain with the parasol above us, staring back at one another with undisguised awe. I want to hold her hand, and to my surprise I reached out and place mine over hers. And to my further surprise she curls her fingers. I feel her fingertips sliding over my palm. They move slow and soft.
The clouds pass and the rain slows to a steady patter. I motion to our waiter, who looks agreeably pitiful taking shelter under an adjacent umbrella, pretending not to notice that the lady has needed assistance. I have him fetch us another round as we absorb the new, peaking sun. We wait in a slowed time, breathing in the warm, lemony deck air.
“The Devil’s beating his wife,” she says.
I think on this. “No surprise. He’s the Devil,” I say, and she gives my hand a squeeze.
Our teen waiter strides back out, hopping over the lemony water flowing away from the base of our table. He scurries with our drinks, hair flat and damp. I decide to forgive him. Just a soggy teen with no health benefits. We drink Bud Light pints at a steady pace, watching the progression of our river and waiting for our drink to catch up with us.
Then we’re looking at each other as if we’re unsure if we feel it. The planks vibrating under our feet. The deck shifting, humming like soggy wooden strings. At our feet there’s a mob of brown snakes forcing their way through the cracks. We stand up, Amanda clutching her purse and my arm, and back away toward the kitchen. The boards whine and bend. Some crack and split as the root structure anchors itself. A mass of shiny brown trunk expands and rises up from the deck into the air, branching out ten feet above our heads.
It’s like a plastic motel lobby tree that has finally given up hope of change and forced the transformation upon itself. The shiny trunk sprouts branches that extend over the patio table, over our craned necks and big eyes, over the gaping mouth of our teenage waiter and over the cooks and the manager who peer out from behind the patio door.
From the branches grow shiny green leaves, plastic and ornamental. Amanda’s hand squeezes tight on my arm. Small green spheres are slowly expanding and yellowing like Granny Smiths re-forming into large oblongs. The clouds are gone and light shines off its slick surface. The color lightens more and more until they are a bright yellow and heavy enough to sag the branches. The tree has transitioned and is stocked with basketball-sized candy lemon drops that bow the limbs and have the kitchen staff clutching their prep knives.
A few drops weigh enough to snap from the branches and roll across the patio. Amanda isn’t squeezing my arm anymore. She is click clacking over to one of the giant pieces that rolled our way. The branches might break at any moment and come crashing down on her. The manager might sic his knifed employees on Amanda, screaming about property rights, ordering his employees to load all the drops into the walk-in. But Amanda doesn’t seem afraid at all. She kneels down beside one and puts her nose to it and yells at me to come have a look.
“Smell that?” she asks. I kneel beside her and breathe in deeply like we’ve made it to a coast and just stepped out of the car. I do smell it, the overwhelming citrus. Before I can think otherwise, I’ve licked it and she has, too. I want nothing more than to continue. Devour the whole thing if it takes weeks. But there’s a crack above and another weighty lemon drop falls and splits a board beside us.
I pull Amanda away from the tree. She grabs hold of my shoulder and kicks off her red clogs. And then it’s strange. Without thinking about a thing, my body’s moving. I move without the burden of commentary. I’m running and pulling my keys from my pocket. I’m unlocking the door and turning the ignition. I don’t wonder how many lemon drops might fit in the back seat, the trunk. I only know that some will. I’m hitting the gas and pulling alongside the patio. I don’t think how these things came to be or how many drops are enough to satisfy us or if we will ever find them again. I just pull the Corolla around and jump out and pop the trunk. There’s no time for anything but catching the giant candies, like neon bowling balls, that Amanda tosses over the small fence. Just fill the car with more and more before the manager or the wait staff or someone else tries to get in our way.