heard him use the word “mate” in my life
. He noticed that Sly’s hand was shaking, and he felt bad for him. James had never had a job that required him to fire anyone.
A thought crept into his head, surprisingly, of his old favorite childhood thing, the rock tumbler—and how he would sit for hours in his bedroom watching the rocks go up and down the tiny conveyor belt, growing smoother and more similar to one another—and then he thought of his wife, of Ana’s ass, particularly, turned toward him in bed.
The first thing I will do is my wife
. And the ass image faded to be replaced by a face, that of the intern Emma. Emma: a name no one used to have, but now there were three Emmas working on his show.
This Emma’s face in his head was all lips, red, which of course meant baboon ass, and soon James was thinking about the fact that he was an animal and marveling at how base it was to be a man, waking up his goaty longing.
It was Emma who brought in a stack of collapsed cardboard boxes.
“At my last job, they, like, escorted this guy from the building. They didn’t even let him take his pictures or turn off his computer,” she said, standing near the open door. Her voice was shrill, pointed. It corrupted a unique silkiness in her body.
James had nodded. He took a framed picture of Ana from the desk and put it into the empty box, facedown.
“So you know, they obviously like you here,” said Emma. She was wearing all black—black T-shirt, a tight black skirt, black boots. But she looked naked to James. He could barely stand to look at her, the curve of her breast, her dark skin. What was she? Was she black? Asian? Some modern hybrid.
If she knew what he was thinking, he’d be called a racist, on top of being a sexual harasser. It was as if, by being fired, he was able to see new shapes in the picture, to really look at this woman without the echoes of workplace propriety seminars and interoffice “plain language” memos. He felt like a priest who had been handed civilian clothes.
“I don’t think I’m unliked, I just feel—” James paused. “Obsolete.” Before the word was out, he realized he had potentially bricked a wall between them. It was a word that drew attention to his age, which was about fifteen years worse than hers. But the repulsion he anticipated didn’t happen: Instead, she made a clucking,
-ing sound, like she was tickling Finn under his chin. Then she turned and shut the door, faced him again in the sealed room. She walked toward the desk, smoothing her skirt at her hips. It was a surprising gesture, and it amplified for James the sensation that, with his firing, a range of previously unthinkable things could now occur.
“Can I say something to you?” she asked. She was quite close to him, eye to eye, with only the desk between, at the level of her crotch.
A peep escaped James’s throat. He nodded.
“I really love what you do,” she said. He tried to smell her, but his nose was useless from smoking. “I think it’s really important. Like, seriously, no one else is going to do the stuff you do. That piece you did on the Inuit film collective? I totally loved that. I think they’re making a huge mistake.” Shestepped back, shook her body a little, relieved to have unburdened herself.
James wanted to lean over, curve a finger, and say:
. He wanted to make her climb across the desk on her knees, put his hand between her legs. He wanted to shake her for her feeble attempts at consolation. He loathed her inexperience and her boots that were too pointy for walking. Then he loathed himself, too, the never-ending stream of hateful thoughts like these. A lifetime of images of women glorious and grotesque trotted beneath his eyelids, unfulfilled, ungrabbed hands and fists never inserted, things that occupied his mind, filled him up, kept him dumb. He wished she would leave.
“Thanks for saying that,” said James. She stood there, as if waiting for