I overheard this question as I rounded the corner at the office, on my way to get my morning coffee. You know it’s bad when people don’t use contractions.
“You smell that?”
“What is it?”
Luckily the halls in the building are infinitely long, so whatever was antagonizing my coworkers was out near the vanishing point. I was far enough away to ignore them safely; I’m a very prudent person, after all. But they stood near the side door and the water fountain, and that gave me pause. Was there a plumbing problem? If so, then that would affect the quality — not to mention sanitary condition — of my morning java. So instead of turning into the break room I approached my circle of coworkers. Four of them, gawking and muttering, were standing over a waste basket sitting in the middle of the hallway. Three more people stood back away from it, like folks at a car wreck. One woman had a hand at her throat. One man was chewing on his knuckle. The chatter continued.
“What is that smell, anyway?”
“I think it’s rotten egg.”
“That is sulfer!”
“It’s bad fish.”
“It’s bad seafood, not fish. God!” (Are human resources departments required to hire one know-it-all smartass?)
“Is it dead?”
“Better question: Is it alive?”
A woman stuck her palm out, in a stop gesture. She scampered away, headed toward the restroom.
More remarks followed, and a second circle formed where I stood, making us all a human Stonehenge. That’s fitting in a way: Many employees had rock-like personalities. I looked to my left and right. The questions were now decaying into an argument, not just about what the smell was, or who was more accurate about its revolting odor, but who was responsible for it, and who was going to do something about it. One boss snapped at another boss. One old guy started telling a story about what he’d seen in a war. One young woman started asking if she could go home.
Slamming my coffee mug down on the water fountain, I pushed myself through the throng, and grabbed the trash can on a quick trot. I was halfway out the sidedoor before people started talking again.
“Who was that?” the young woman said.
“I think it was Eric.”
“Eric? It was Eric.” The young woman’s voice had a hint of revelation to it, as if she’d just discovered the true identity of the masked man.
Was I wearing a cape? Nope. I’m just a guy, named Eric, who’d rather do something than stand around talking about it.
I heaved the entire waste basket — not just its contents — into the parking-lot dumpster and walked around to the main entrance brushing off my hands. I didn’t talk to any of my coworkers that day, content to spend my time scrolling through hundreds of emails. Before I left, though, I picked up the phone, put it back, then picked it up again and called the young woman’s extension. I was a bit nervous, but finally managed to ask if she wanted to go get a cocktail.
It turns out there was nothing for me to be nervous about.
Copyright © 2013 Alan Keith Parker. This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, settings or circumstances is purely coincidental.