Edwin Balder heard Mr. Chase shout his name but tried to ignore it. Edwin was hiding in the bathroom again, reading his copy of McSweeny’s, and imagining that he was best friends with Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon, instead of processing invoices for Mr. Chase in some hole deep in the southern end of Brooklyn. There’s just no civilization down here, Edwin was thinking, before Chase called his name. Why couldn’t I live up in northern Brooklyn where all of the artists lived? Edwin had been up to northern Brooklyn only a few weeks before. He’d been to a poetry reading in bar down on Grand Street, and fell in love with the grittiness of the place. Edwin fell in love with all of the thin artist types, their wispy scarves and tight jeans. He loved the way they seemed to flit from one bar to another, blowing cash on crafted beers, as if money grew on trees. They never got drunk. They never ran out of cash and had to hit the ATM hoping to make it until payday. No one in northern Brooklyn worked processing invoices for a fat slob like Thomas Chase, and went to bed to the sound of old Chinese ladies picking through garbage for recyclable cans and bottles.
“Balder!” Chase called again.
Edwin sighed and took his Strand bookmark out of shirt pocket. He placed it in the McSweeny’s and closed the magazine. Michael Chabon, you’re just going to have to wait, he thought. Then Edwin left the stall to check out his reflection in the mirror: lime green shirt, tight black pants, and a tight suit coat to match. Edwin adjusted his thick glasses and tousled his hair. Not too gray, he thought. My hair is a trendy kind of gray. He left the bathroom.
“There you are, Balder!” Mr. Chase said, waddling over to where Edwin came to a stop. Everything about Thomas Chase disgusted him, from his bald head with those pathetic patches of hair on the side, to Chase’s short little moustache, to the yellow pockets of ancient sweat underneath his arms. Edwin felt that Thomas Chase typified the anti-intellectual, Cro-Magnon, right wing, racist philosophy of everyone living down in this end of Brooklyn. Chase certainly never read a single issue of McSweeny’s. “Where were you?”
Edwin coughed into his hand. “Bathroom.”
“That’s what you always say,” Chase said.
“That’s where I usually am,” Edwin said. Where else would he go? There was nowhere to go to escape the single room with the four long rows of fluorescent lights, the two warped, wooden desks, the box-like private office, and the patchwork ceiling full of Thomas Chase-like armpit stained ceiling tiles.
“We got a major problem,” Chase said.
Yes, I’m sure the world hangs in the balance, Edwin thought. “We do?”
“Come here.” Chase led Edwin away from the small hallway near the bathroom, and into the office. He still had that piece of toilet paper sticking out of the back of his pants. Edwin and Mary, Chase’s assistant, spent hours laughing over that hanging toilet paper. Sadly, the bathroom still smelt faintly of Chase’s time in there, and made Edwin’s reading of McSweeny’s a less than pleasurable experience.
“Do you see this?” Chase said
“I’m still adjusting my eyes to these horrid lights,” Edwin said, squinting. But when he came to and was able to see in total again, Edwin saw that one of the old ceiling tiles had crumbled and fallen to the floor near Mary’s desk. There was water everywhere, and the pieces of tile looked like crackers that had floated too long in a cup of soup. Edwin’s belly growled and he thought about that great bowl of Gazpacho he got up in northern Brooklyn a few weeks ago.
“Well?” Chase said.
“A ceiling tile fell,” Edwin said.
“I see that. How did it happen?”
“It filled with water from the leak we have, and it finally burst.”
“Why do we still have a leak?”
“Because corporate won’t send anyone to fix it?”
Chase nodded his head. He stared at the wreckage of the ceiling tile for what seemed an eternity. Edwin looked at the top of Thomas Chase’s head, at the way the reflecting fluorescent light seemed to bounce on his scalp. Edwin had at least six inches on Mr. Chase.
“That’s right,” Chase said. “And do you know why?”
“Because you didn’t call and ask them to come down here?”
Chase gave Edwin a hard look. “No, Balder. I called. I called dozens of times. They won’t send anyone down here because they are trying to push us out.”
“Oh,” Edwin said.
“Oh.” Chase’s eyes bulged out of his head. Edwin looked at his boss and wondered how miserable sex was for Mrs. Chase having to look up into the eyes of that balding beast as he pumped away at her. Of course this was contingent upon the Chases still having sex. “Is that all you can say, Balder?”
“Don’t be funny.”
Edwin looked around. “Hey, where’s Mary?” He wished that Mary was in the office so that the two of them could make secret faces about the toilet paper stuck in Mr. Chase’s pants while Chase worked himself up about leaky ceiling tiles.
“She’s hiding in the bathroom.”
“Because of the goddamned ceiling tile, Balder,” Chase said. “It almost hit her.”
“Not even,” Edwin said, walking over to the mess on the floor. He looked up at the ceiling, felt the fluorescent lights sucking his will to live. “That tile right above her desk is much worse.”
“What?” Chase came over to where Edwin was standing. The two of them looked up at a pregnant ceiling tile that was nearly ready to burst.
“Maybe we should move Mary’s desk?” Edwin said.
“Move it where, Balder?” Chase said. They looked around their small space. There was nowhere to go. There was practically no room to move. You had to walk sideways in certain areas of the office.
“Well, we can’t just have Mary sit underneath that tile. I mean it’s going to break.” It was Edwin’s turn to give Mr. Chase a hard stare. He felt good, chivalrous. Edwin thought that Mary would like it, him standing up for her. Too bad she was a brunette and not Edwin’s type at all.
“Why don’t you switch desks with her, Balder?” Chase said. “At least until I can get this fixed.”
“Me?” Edwin thought about sitting under that pregnant ceiling tile, and how it could burst at any moment, soaking him and all of the knickknacks on his desk. Edwin imagined that dirty water raining down on his vintage Hulk action figure, and him suing the pants off of Thomas Chase and the corporation. Could Edwin sue Chase? He wondered.
“Well, I can’t move,” Edwin said. “I have all of those invoices to process. What about you?”
“Me?” Chase’s face grew red with anger. “I can’t move. I’m…I’m the boss. I have an office.” Chase pointed to his little enclosed glass cage of an office, no bigger than a supply closet. And I also have all of those invoices to process. What does Mary have?” They both peered over at the contents of her desk. “She has a rolodex and some scribbles. It’s all replaceable stuff, Balder.”
“I agree,” Edwin said, letting chivalry fly out of the window. “I’m sure corporate will have someone down here to fix the tiles in no time.”
“Oh, you bet they will,” Chase said. He pointed a finger into Edwin’s chest. “Just wait until I get done with them.” With that, Chase waddled off toward his office. “Balder, be sure you and Mary clean up that tile. No, no leave it! Let’s let those corporate schmucks see what we have to deal with.” Chase shut his door.
“Whatever,” Edwin said. He sat at his desk and looked at his vintage Hulk action figure. Then he reopened his copy of McSweeny’s and started reading, as Chase’s voice echoed from his tiny office.
“Is everything okay?”
Edwin looked up and Mary was standing in the little hallway between the bathrooms and the office. Her face was white as a ghost, and it made her look unattractive up against the winning combo of black dress and black hair.
“Coast is clear,” Edwin said, taking a quick glance at the tile above Mary’s desk. “Chase is on the phone with corporate.”
“It was disgusting,” Mary said, looking down at the broken tile and puddle of water. “The water was brown.”
“I’ll bet,” Edwin said. “It was probably trapped in there for months.”
Mary sat at her desk and began fiddling with her rolodex.
“Chase still has that tp stuck in his pants,” Edwin said. Mary smiled but didn’t say anything else. Guess the joke is over, Edwin thought. “Anyway, I’m going to go on my break now.”
Edwin got up from his desk, his nose buried in his copy of McSweeny’s, and headed toward the bathroom. He found his stall, went in, locked the door, sat on the cold porcelain of the toilet, and began to read. Michael Chabon had an article in there this month about an old failed novel of his. They published excerpts of the novel along with Chabon’s comments. Edwin wished that he could write something nearly as good as this literary giant’s failed masterpiece.
He sat there and imagined himself a famous poet and novelist. Edwin fantasized about living in northern Brooklyn and doing poetry readings on Grand Street every weekend. He’d get himself a scarf and drink crafted beer, and never have to worry about hitting the ATM. Edwin imagined associating with all of the new literary greats. He’d call them all by their first names: Dave, Michael, Colson, Jhumpa, Jonathan, and even the other Jonathan. They’d call him Edwin, Ed, or Eddie, and they’d love every word that he wrote. McSweeny’s would do monthly features on Edwin’s art. He’d never have to process another invoice for a baboon like Thomas Chase ever again.
Edwin felt good thinking this way. He closed his copy of McSweeny’s and rested his head against the cool tile of the bathroom wall. He was content, if only for a moment, in the calculated hell that was his work day. But then there was a noise and crash, something that sounded like the fierce rush of water. Mary screamed and Chase started calling “Balder! Balder! It broke over her head! Great Christ, the tile broke all over Mary’s head! But Edwin just opened his eyes, checked his watch, and told himself that there was still ten minutes left on his break.