"Johnny, come into the breakroom, it's Agnes' birthday. We're having a little lunch. I made Sloppy Joes."
Johnny Werd stared up at the secretary and stammered, his mind unable to fix upon an excuse. He had been lost in concentration, staring at the Dow Janitorial Training Manual, trying to decipher an informational diagram which, through several illustrations with circles and arrows, demonstrated how to wring out a mop. Werd's face went blank and pale, his mouth open, looking up at the secretary who looked down at him steadily.
He swallowed. "Be right there." And he managed a weak smile as a sort of punctuation.
In the break room the atmosphere was festive but limp, like a wet piñata.
Werd spooned a scoop of wet meat onto a white bun on a paperplate. He sat in a corner. Gladys referred to him as "the token male" with an edge almost of malice. Werd smiled emptily. Chatter perpetuated. A photograph of newborn baby was passed around. They laughed at his reaction. Like a man's.
Werd, eviscerated, stumbled down the corridor to his office. On the way he thought about the News, and the Dupont bombing. He wondered whether the air was safe.
He remembered a chemistry experiment he had attempted as a child. That childhood world he had destroyed himself with a pale indelible flame while experimenting.
Werd entered his office and, unable to sit, looked out the window. He saw a tree with slender branches bending under the weight of a squirrel.
He moved closer to the window.
Two floors beneath him, a babycarriage rolled along the crowded sidewalk unaccompanied.
Werd's breath seized and his heart screamed. He blinked hard and challenged reality. Am I seeing things? He looked up the street the direction the carriage had come from. He saw a woman struggling with a man. He looked downhill, and saw the hill get steeper. The carriage moved between people, people in hats and raincoats with shoppingbags, some of them stepping aside to avoid it.
As Werd sprinted out the door of his office, his pencil fell onto the training manual, rolled down one of the pages, across the table, off the edge of the table, and fell, turning about 90 degrees of arc to stick point-down in the orange carpet.
Werd burst out the fire exit onto the crowded streetlevel. He had lost his perspective and could no longer see the baby carriage. He took two steps in the direction his instincts screamed that he should go in.
And stopped, staring helplessly into the indifferent train of passersby.