Frank had had an extensive hand in designing the auxiliary office that he now oversaw. Sending him here was a particular twist of the knife, as his first official task upon receiving his penultimate promotion, was to be a location scout and manage the design team for this off site facility. They played with the name for a while. At first it was the “Bonus Site” then “Site Plus” then “Site+”. They settled on Site+ for branding purposes, but everyone at headquarters still called it “The Second Site” or just “C & G” and viewed it as a necessary, if empty, overture to the outside world that they wanted to put their names on the walls of, but never step foot in. Even if no one wanted to work in it, Frank wanted to be proud of his hand in the building. What he and his team wrought was a wicked design in managerial efficiency.
The bulk of the employees work in “the pit”, a slightly recessed oval that stretched out over 50 yards of open desk environment, surrounded by a raised moat of carpeting, internally referred to as the “public hallway” that resembles a velodrome. For peak visibility, the water cooler and snacks are placed at the center of the pit, so anyone could see who is taking a break at all times. The top tier offices and all meeting rooms surround the moat, with the top executive office positioned at the northern head of the oval. During late night development sessions, Frank had sometimes referred to the pit as a the galley of a Viking ship, and other times, had referred to the executive office as the captain’s quarters. When he had been called into his boss’s office fifteen years ago on that fateful day, to receive the crushing news that the crypt he’d designed was for his own professional afterlife, he’d said “yes sir”, fighting to hold back tears. His boss smiled ever so slightly and said “Don’t you mean ‘Aye aye Captain?’”
As it turned out, management thought he had been right to suggest that the complaints and grievances department be built out. They just didn’t want it anywhere near the board room, the floors below the board room, in the same city as the building the board room resided in, and for good measure maybe just put it in an adjacent state. Now he sat in one of the “meeting vessels” he’d overseen the design and build out for, opening and closing his slightly blistered palm, wincing ever so slightly each time, and wondering all the while why was it so goddamn hot out.
“Sir, I’m not sure why it’s so hot out today, but if you look to slide three…”
He’d been talking out loud again. Motherfuck, he was yelling at himself by name in his own head. A month ago he’d thrown a mug clear across his office upon the discovery that Celestial Seasonings had changed the art on their boxes. He hadn’t revealed to anyone yet that the real reason he was upset was that Karen did in fact take issue with how boring he truly was, and had begun talking about a trial separation. Kyle didn’t know, and the company certainly didn’t know. When he was pressed by the HR rep at HQ, he’d explained about the Celestial Seasonings. If you check official documents, you’ll find he cited past beverage grievances as well, stating; “I haven’t been this struck by a disruption to my libation practices since stores began phasing out Clearly Canadian.”
This was right around the time Kyle’s friend died. Of all times for Kyle to have his first gjenuine, adult, “there are no real answers”-type problem, and he didn’t know the other shoe was about to drop. Frank forgot whether teenagers were supposed to care more or less about divorce, he’d read about it and forgot it right after, but knew there was an answer, or at least, he’d read an answer. Now he was sitting through some junior executive’s presentation, a total circle jerk of a power point entitled; “Gentrification Now: More Blood From the Stone”. He wasn’t sure why slide four was just a .gif about redlining, but he hadn’t asked a question in a decade, and he had the feeling that was the only reason he still had his job. Especially in these troubled times, he focused more of his life on M.O.S.S than ever, which certainly hadn’t helped his relations with Karen. Beyond marital strain, he worried that over involving himself in M.O.S.S might detract in the pleasure he derived from his time there.
Brandon fiddled with the remote to the AC the way you do if you have no intention of ability of solving the actual problem in front of you. The AC wouldn’t turn on, so from behind the counter, he jammed down hard, once again, on the ON button, and the AC stared right back at him. With only twenty minutes left in his shift at the Towne Centre Hoagie Shoppe he wondered if it was worth the effort, as he ducked out from behind the counter and dragged a high chair from the corner over to the doorway below the air conditioning unit. His visor now served only as a wet canvas sweat halo, but the company mandate was clear about on-floor visor protocol, and his supervisor Marc was the kind of person that enforced the smallest rules at the Town Centre Hoagie Shoppe in order to keep a grip on what amounted to an even slighter existence than most people had. Brandon opened up the AC unit, fiddling with the three parts that you can see if you’re not a mechanic but have seen the little things the mechanic can do, like the last time he came to fix it. His thoughts alternated between the depth of the scent of his armpits, and the astounding loneliness that surrounded him. When Frank appeared on the other side of the glass door knocking and smiling, Brian saw the regular, showing up for the second time in four hours, and wondered if he had conjured him, as if his thoughts were a dog whistle that beckoned sadness. “I’m gonna have to do it all over again, I don’t know what you did that last time, but I’m going to have to ask you to do it again.” Said the regular, with the same meek regularity.
This was always the gambit with this guy. At least three times a week he’d just up just before or during the regular lunch push, and then sometimes just as many times, he’d return hours later, ordering the same thing all over again. Initially, when he’d started working there he’d heard what he now guessed many employees before had heard. He told tales of thieving coworkers, then there were the times he claimed to have left the bag on the roof of his car, staring into your eyes with mustard on his collar. Once, he swore a squirrel took half while he was “having a sit” in the park. When Frank broke the silence it startled Brandon, who was making another hoagie as fast as he could. Frank made him feel weird, and he’d been hoping over and over again in his head that the regular wouldn’t try and start a conversation-
“Do you ever wonder what your colleagues think about you when you’re not here?”
“Sure, your colleagues at this establishment.”
“My coworkers at this Sandwich Hut?”
“You don’t have any relationships with your collea-er-coworkers?”
“Not really one way or the other no, do you have that kind of relationship with your colleagues?”
Until this point Brandon had been relieved to appear deep in the process of sandwich engineering as it allowed to keep his back turned to this unwelcome conversationalist, but then he remembered part of the reason he’d always found this impish white guy extra odd was the concealed firearm he’d seen the outlet of in past visits. What sort of action this average Dad looking man planned on getting into in his suburban life was beyond him, but it struck him that if he was going to ask questions he knew the answer to, he might as well turn around.
“I don’t, I suppose you’re right”
“It’s the same here.”
Frank took the sandwich looking hurt. He regretted his line of questioning all of a sudden, but not before he blurted out a bit of his silly expectations;
“I always thought there’d be more camaraderie at the Sandwich Hut.”
“Sorry to disappoint you.”
“One more thing”
“What’s up sir”
“Is gumbo always spicy?”
Mercifully, the phone rang, and Brandon made a big show of picking it up.
Frank felt the hoagie staring at him as it rode shotgun, the foil glinted in between two slivers of wax paper, it caught him at such an angle that he nearly swerved into a parked car, blinded by his second sandwich of the day before he could even enjoy it, if enjoyment is what the sensation even was. The second one always felt crazy to order and he wanted to eat it as fast as possible to make it stop looking at him. The first hoagie always felt like breaking a gentle promise, but the second and sometimes third were the ones that made him feel genuinely out of control.
He could feel the fog of the day lifting, and his pulse quickening now, as his thoughts turned back to Dan. Frank was unsure how the other M.O.S.S. agents might take this. Agent Meadowlands had sounded assured of her position on the phone earlier, but then again she always took a firm tone with regards to the rules, and Dan was popular, which didn’t escape Frank completely, but vexed him endlessly. Sure, he had a terrific haircut, his barber seamlessly blending scissor and electric razor with such technique as to give his slightly Hitler youth-ish haircut culpable deniability, and he made everyone smile, but how he made the group smile seemed so petty to Frank. He wanted more from his secret illuminati oriented organization. Frank thought that Dan treated people like they were dumb, and no one who moves the invisible hand of capitalism is dumb, per se. More to the point, the way Dan joked with Frank made him feel bad.
By now he was a few bites into the new sandwich and didn’t want to stop, but he remembered how good the appetizers were on Tuesdays when M.O.S.S. met at “The High House on the Hill.” Frank flung the sandwich back onto the leather seat beside him, licking the bits of mayo off his hand before returning his right hand to the wheel of the car. As he did so he saw that he had thrown the hoagie down with such force that the specs of special sauce that had splattered onto the lower portion of the window. His vision blurred for a moment, and a lone tear of blood came out of his left nostril. He caught the droplet with his mayo hand before it could stain his trousers.
The solid suburban blocks ended with little warning and the Suburban Utility Vehicle began up a slight incline, which rapidly progressed into a steep and winding passage. Trees began to dot the side of the road much more frequently, and soon he was in a forested, impossibly curvy road with no sidewalks that silently asks visitors the question: “Who goes there?” and “Just so you know, there’s only one way back down this mountain, and it’s the way you came.” The sort of neighborhood that’s too Republican for redwood trees, but too dignified for political signage come election time. It made Frank think of lofty getaways like Bohemian Grove, where his bosses had sometimes alluded to summering, come August.
The High House on the Hill emerged after a particularly sharp turn. It was a well maintained building with a forlorn yard and entrance. The stairs were old, mossy, and a bit dangerous for anyone over 70. The windows glowed a welcoming warm gold, but their vantage point so was so high that you could not see the people inside, as if the windows themselves were rescinding the invitation. The real bitch was parking on that incline though, or at least that’s what you think in the 10 minutes it takes the average person to park on one of these crowded meeting nights. You realize then that the real struggle is the walk to the front door, which takes long enough to remember and think about that article you once read about how purchasing a castle tore apart and bankrupted a family. Once you’ve reached the front door, it’s the wait time for someone to notice you’re there is a relief, because you’re a sweaty mess, especially if you put your ceremonial robe on before you climbed the stairs, then you’re all the way fucked.
Frank wasn’t falling for that trap again. The one time he’d made that mistake Dan had kept a running commentary so devoted that people refer to the night by his jokes still. “We’re gonna fucking kill Dan” Frank thought to himself smiling slightly as he rang the doorbell. It had only taken him 20 minutes from pushing in his emergency brake, to this moment.
The heavy oak door finally open just a few inches. A schlubby young man named Richard was panting under his breath on the other side of the door, trying to put a little bass into his voice to not sound silly, which was impossible. “What is our purpose, our dearest claim?” asked the voice beyond the cracked door.“To lift the stench of the human stain” Frank responded proudly. If nothing else Frank sounded like an alpha male from the days of yore.
Richard had inherited this house from his late Uncle, who had no children of his own, but had pursued similar interests in life. He had been a University man, like Frank’s father, the two had actually known each other. Frank had initially been introduced to the group through Richard at a faculty party for his Dad’s retirement. He was a withdrawn kid, but Frank really valued Richard’s friendship and honesty, though there wasn’t much evidence Richard felt any kind of way about Frank. He took this aloofness as acceptable folly. “Young men have their reasons” he thought.
Inside, warm light glowed off flowering art deco sconces that lined the oak panelled walls of the living room. Was it oak? To be honest, Frank couldn’t tell the difference. Softwoods, hardwoods, the benefits of this or that building material. He’d nodded his head through more meetings with contractors in his life than he could remember. The delicate balance between getting fleeced and admitting you’d never worked with your hands a day in your life was a tricky one for Frank to tackle. It came up in his downtime with the security guards often though, which he found to be great practice. He’d come to think of himself as a ball buster of sorts. An old so and so.
He charted a familiar course past the couches and expensive knick knacks that studded the living room. He had enured himself from the professorial delights of owning an Eames Chair that one could carefully position Bang and Olufson speakers near. A narrowly missed fate, he thought to himself. Still, he liked to be around it. In a sense these were his roots. As a financially successful adult his coffers had far surpassed that of his fathers, an intellectually successful adult. Curious then that his tastes would phase out the old money wonders of the corduroy elbowed professor and into the new money pursuits he had cultivated for himself. Still, after all these years he felt the comfort of good taste inside this home, at these meetings, before shaking it off. He couldn’t muster the energy to call it queer, but he thought he ought to.
The meeting was supposed to start nine minutes ago. Frank sat trying to appear as patient and casual as possible, as if he was ten minutes early to a first date, but he wasn’t. He was a half hour early to a meeting he’d been attending for several years. Folks were trickling in now, adjusting their robes as they ambled to their seats at the oval conference table. The oval conference table had been Frank’s idea, and he was proud. It was the one time Dan had shown him any of the high spirited brotherhood he’d regularly extend to other members. “If it’s good enough for the International Bureau of White Guys, It’s good enough for M.O.S.S.” In a way, it was further evidence that Dan didn’t take this illuminati thing seriously, as a member would never refer to a fellow agent’s day job, but it had made Frank feel so good that Dan knew anything about him that he’d just shut up and smiled for once.
Sitting at a table in the basement of the House on the Hill, Frank finally felt a sense of togetherness. Maybe it was the full board room table of cloaked individuals doing role call, or maybe the second hoagie had finally settling in his stomach, the flames of hot mustard no longer tickling his insides. It certainly wasn’t the wine fridge in the back corner Richard thought no one would notice, and it wasn’t all the eye contact being made. Preferred hood size was dictated as such in the handbooks Frank had passed out some seven months ago; “The hood of the cloak shall be of such a length that when fully extended, and with the subject lit only by chandelier light, only the mouth and chin will be visible during meetings.” He scanned the the table either which way, noting who hadn’t been holding up their end of the bargain, clockwise. There it was. Of course. Fuckin’ Dan. He caught eyes with Agent Grasslands, who saw him seeing Dan not covering his upper face region with an appropriately large cloak. He couldn’t actually make eye contact with Agent Grasslands of course, she had the correct sized hood, and you could only make out her thin lips and sturdy chin.
It was at the exact moment Frank’s eyes unfocused from Agent Grassland’s lower face that his acute stomach issues began. At first, as the worst of these cases go, there was a sudden, intense feeling of pressure in what Frank assumed was his lower back. It was not his lower back however, it was of course, his butt. The symphony of stomach acid began its dance moments later, and it was all he could do to muffle piping hot farts as he shifted desperately from side to side, only churning the boiling cauldron of half digested Italian meats held within his stomach into a frothier and more angry mix. The noises coming from his gut soon silenced the speaker, who had launched into what was usually Frank’s favorite portion of the meeting, the weekly new roundup and roundtable reactions. He managed to yelp “Sorry!” before hauling his big body up the stairs two at a time, flinging himself onto a toilet just in time, after a harried twenty seconds of opening closets in the upstairs hall just outside the kitchen.
Frank spread his legs far apart, leaning gently back on the cool porcelain. He had chucked his hood off in an overhead motion similar to an inbounding soccer player within seconds of his cheeks hitting the toilet seat. Now that the worst was over, he sat staring at the hood which had caught on a space saving door storage unit, hooked over an old hairbrush that was jutting out. He sheepishly glanced down at the gun which just out from his pants not dissimilarly than the brush in the door. He’d managed to kick off his pants after the initial wave, knowing that the worst was yet to come. It had been some five minutes since the last attack, and the burning sensation around his anus still rang out like tinnitus.
Sitting out this much of the meeting made Frank anxious. When he’d first been introduced to the group, he’d skipped out every few weeks for date nights with his wife, work parties, parent teacher conferences, little league games, but that had all fallen away. M.O.S.S. meetings had become an immovable safe space in Frank’s life. He had found that when he did skip meetings, he was preoccupied with what he might be missing more than whatever moment he found himself in, even when it was with Karen. Karen did not appreciate the role M.O.S.S. played in his life, a life in which he’d been made to feel so small. And now, he was so close, but so far. Stuck a few hundred feet away from the group, held hostage by diarrhea induced by the only treat that got him through his days.
He finally stirred his legs, which had fallen asleep, and carefully began putting himself back together, washing his face as well as his hands before putting his cloak back on. As quietly as he was tip toeing down the stairs, an old house like the one he was in couldn’t help but groan a bit here and there. The blinking bicycle light taped to the first generation ipod hung outside the door alerted him that the meeting was in progress. He didn’t mind that they’d carried on without him, on the contrary, that felt like the unyielding nature of an illuminati group and entirely appropriate. One was never to enter when the light was flashing, but it hadn’t been when he’d run upstairs in the first place. Still, Frank opened the door as slowly and quietly as possible, hoping that the dim lighting and spirited debate in the conference room would mask his return to the action.
Frank opened the door as gently as he could manage, lifting upward as he pulled on the handle, opening the door fast enough to avoid the generous squeeks and squacks old brass can offer up. The conversation from the room came pouring out into the hall, the group unaware of their rejoining member; “Miranda, you gotta talk to him. Pull him aside when he gets back.” one voice said. “When I’m here I’m Agent Grassl-”. Stop. The voice interrupted the rigid young woman mid sentence. “That’s the problem right there. This is a fucking hobby, and he’s ruining our hobby. Who comes to every fake meeting of the illuminati?” Another voice cut in, “Will you keep your voice down? This dude is sad and armed. I can’t be the only one who sees the gun jutting out of his robe every fucking week.” The door finally swung open as Frank had let go of the handle as he strained to listen to the group actively talking about him, and the heavy door knob smacked up against the win fridge adjacent to the doorway, forcing the group to look up and acknowledge his presence. Everyone looked amongst each other waiting for someone to pick up the dead weight in the room. The silence loomed heavier than anyone’s desire to push past the moment. Finally, Richard the home owner spoke up, standing up muttering something about cowardice and intramural softball.
“Frank, man. We gotta talk.”
“You take this shit too seriously.”
“It’s just not fun when you’re here.”
“Haven’t you noticed that you’re the oldest person here by a decade?”
“You’re literally armed. We’re terrified of you.”
“Why do you need to be here? You basically work for the real illuminati. You get that right?”
Frank’s eyes filled with tears as he raced down the front steps of The House on the Hill. He didn’t know what was what, apparently, and that’s what he kept telling himself over and over.
“I guess I just don’t know what’s what, do I?”
He raced down the sloping mossy steps at such a pace that his heel skidded down three steps at a time and he was hit with that hollow, falling sensation again and again. He didn’t mind. It was one of those moments when hitting your head sounds like just the thing, and finally he did. No one was chasing after him, of course. The group was sitting in stunned silence still in the basement, some with their head in hand, some still slowly shaking. Frank’s tirade had been short, but desperate and terrible. Not unlike the Clearly Canadian incident, there’d been a few things thrown. He’d kicked the win fridge pretty good on his way out, only hurting himself in the process. He sat on the bottom step feeling the dew on his hair and the small cut on the back of his head as the pain from the fall reached behind his teary eyes. He’d thought about pulling out his gun. The only person that had defended him in the end was Dan. He said he felt bad for him.
He finally checked his phone for the first time in hours. Two missed calls from Karen, he’d missed couples therapy again. She had texted an hour ago to say she was sleeping at a friends. He tried to sync his phone with his car like he’d seen his son do as he pulled out, succeeding only in hitting three parked cars in his three point turn. Fuck every last one of them he thought. He raced down the hill into the night screaming KAREN into his phone. He was too frenzied to notice it was on mute.
Frank looked at the gun and the gun looked back. It was just sitting there on the coffee table. SVU on the flatscreen was the only light in the den. Christopher Meloni’s reflection danced off the barrel of the loaded pistol. Through his tears, it almost looked like a rainbow or an oil spill, but only for a second. He knew he was too pathetic to be serious because he kept having to remind himself that he was seriously considering killing himself every ten seconds, he couldn’t even focus on the task at hand.
He heard a stir and looked up to see Kyle and his friend Keith in the doorway, staring at him, giggling.
“Damn Dad, you’re fucked.”
They walked off just as suddenly as they appeared, a mirage of youth and sadness. Frank got up and went to make himself another sandwich.