YOUR BEST IMPRESSION OF AN EARNEST MAN
There was a Post-it with a heart drawn on it stuck to my desktop computer. I folded the paper square into halves, fourths, and eighths and scratched at the residue it left on the screen. Another heart on orange paper rested on a banana peel and half a protein bar in the trash can.
I thought Daniel was behind the Post-its; one of my coworkers mentioned she thought he’d miss me. The notes started after I put in my two weeks, and my time was almost up. The job was supposed to last until I found something better, but I hadn’t. I stayed too long and hadn’t bothered to get to know my coworkers, Daniel included.
The trash in my cubicle meant the janitor hadn’t cleaned. I scrubbed my desk and keyboard with an antibacterial wipe as Jack, my manager, walked by. “A few germs won’t kill you, Charlie,” he joked.
I put on a pot of coffee in the break room. The Folgers Breakfast Blend was old and the flavor was weak because Shelley, the receptionist, bought too much at once. I didn’t drink strong coffee anyway. I smelled Daniel before I saw him, but not in an off-putting way. His cologne reminded me of rich soil and eucalyptus leaves. I pretended he wasn’t there; that wasn’t rude early in the morning. His warm stare burned into the back of my head, so I said, “Good morning.”
“What do you think?” he asked.
“Of what?” I responded.
“The notes,” he said.
Daniel dealt with people in an off-from-center way; our coworkers found it endearing, but I felt like conversations with him were tests. I suspected the notes were a joke at my expense.
“I liked them,” I responded.
Shelley, who had entered a late-in-life goth phase, once said Daniel’s teased hair reminded her of Robert Smith from The Cure; it trembled in the breeze from the vent. I squeezed the palm of my hand because I heard it could lower blood pressure. Daniel let my response hang in the artificially cold air. The coffee maker dripped, and he massaged his jaw.
Our coworkers considered Daniel’s sickly good looks evidence he did his job well; they said you could tell he put in the hours. People asked, “Are you eating?” No matter what he said, they brought offerings from the vending machine. Daniel complained about the attention, but I knew he liked it.
The machine beeped, and Daniel poured himself coffee. “Alright, Charlie?” he asked but left the room before I could answer.
Later, I sat on the fire escape and ate my sandwich: turkey, swiss, and Wonder Bread. Everyone else had lunch in the break room except Syd, who went to Subway and came back smelling like an amalgamation of sandwich ingredients. Daniel climbed out the window and sat next to me. “How’s it going?” he asked right after I took a bite.
I covered my mouth. “Pretty good.”
Daniel either already ate or wasn’t eating. His legs looked streamlined in his slacks.
“Guess what,” he said. I looked up and tried not to chew too obviously. “You like Talking Heads, right?” he asked. I nodded; I’d worn a Fear of Music shirt to work before. “I saw David Byrne at a bar near my apartment,” he said.
I tried to display the appropriate emotions when Daniel described how Byrne smoked a cigarette with another musician from his Broadway show, American Utopia. I didn’t believe him; it seemed like one of his weird jokes. When Shelley started wearing dark makeup, Daniel told everyone she was sick and got them to sign a Get Well Soon card.
I didn’t see Daniel the rest of the day after he climbed into the building, but there was another Post-it with a heart the following morning. I stuck it to my desk and typed in my username and password. When Daniel walked into my cubicle, I opened a spreadsheet and studied it. The document wasn’t related to my work that day.
Daniel pulled his phone out of his back pocket. The case was enveloped in stickers from different fruits. After a minute, he asked, “You want to go to Frank’s for lunch?” which was a pizza restaurant by our office.
I didn’t want to go anywhere with Daniel. I hadn’t hung out with anyone outside of work, but as he stood and stared at me with his phone in his hand, I couldn’t think of a good reason to say no. I liked Frank’s cheesecake and wanted to know why Daniel was paying attention to me. If I embarrassed myself or it went badly, my two weeks’ notice was up in a few days.
I still dreaded the trip to Frank’s all day. I remembered what Daniel did to Shelley; she hadn’t been upset or anything. She even laughed when he handed her the card. If Daniel planned to do something like that to me, I didn’t know what I’d do.
At lunch, he found me in my cubicle. “Ready to go?” he asked. I grabbed my wallet and followed him to his car, ready for it to be over. He had covered the floor of his Honda Civic with trash. There were at least four Dunkin’ cups among the debris; it made me nauseous to wade through it all. He blasted Danzig and Black Sabbath, so I didn’t have to worry about the conversation. I thought his speakers might blow out. He drove too fast, and I put my hand on the dashboard at the traffic lights like I could make him hit the brakes.
Frank’s was a strange pizza place because it had a drive-through; this probably meant the food wasn’t made fresh, but their cheesecake was the best I’d ever had. Daniel insisted on paying even though I reached for my wallet first. When I tried to hand him my card, he pushed it away. Once we’d been given our food in plastic containers, Daniel turned the music down a little.
“Is it okay if I pick up my vape from my place?” he asked. “It’s only a few minutes away.”
“Aren’t we going to be late?” I thought it would be rude to say no outright since he drove and bought me food.
He assured me we were close to his apartment and it would only take a second. I agreed, and he turned the music back up.
He pulled into a parking spot outside a run-down building and turned the car off. “I’ll be right out,” he said and walked toward a set of stairs that led up the side of the building. I tried to make myself comfortable. We had plenty of time to get back, and I hadn’t had to talk to Daniel that much.
His hair bounced as he jogged up the steps. I put my feet on the dash and looked around. There were construction vehicles parked in a dirt lot nearby. I imagined the noise got annoying. Other than looking a bit industrial and old, the area was nice. I wondered if Daniel lived alone and how he afforded it; we didn’t make much money.
Daniel reappeared on the landing. He started to lock the door behind him but seemed distracted by something outside a nearby building. He crouched down and started to wave me over. I could see the grin on his face from where I sat. I acted like I didn’t notice, but he was persistent.
I opened the door and yelled, “What?” He put his finger to his lips and waved me up aggressively.
I felt like I was walking into a trap, but I closed the car door and ascended the steps anyway. He motioned for me to get on the ground when I reached the top. I stood and asked, “What is it?”
He shushed me, grabbed my hand, and tried to tug me down. I turned red but didn’t pull my hand away. “I won’t until you tell me why,” I said.
“David Byrne is at the bar again,” he whispered.
“Stop being stupid.”
I thought for a second before I joined him on the concrete. I pulled my knees to my chest. “Why do we have to hide?” I asked. “Where is he?”
“Look, over there,” Daniel said.
I looked where he pointed and saw a very wiry, older man. His back was to us, and he held a cigarette.
“I read somewhere he’s a nervous person,” Daniel said.
I didn’t believe him, but I realized the only image I could recall of David Byrne was as a twenty-something in the seventies. I took out my phone and searched for a recent picture of him.
Contemporary Byrne looked like how people drew angels in children’s books. His hair was pure white, and though he was clearly in his late sixties, his face maintained a youthful quality. He was at least six feet tall. The man in front of us had pure white hair and height, but I couldn’t see his face.
Daniel hit his vape and exhaled the cloud into the collar of his shirt. “You’ll see when he turns around,” he said.
We sat and waited for the man to finish his cigarette. When he finally crushed it beneath his shoe and turned to walk inside, I was surprised to find myself faced with the Talking Heads frontman. Daniel grabbed my arm and squeezed. “See!” he said. I laughed. As I watched David Byrne walk into the bar, I was happier than I’d been in a while. I didn’t understand why I felt so good, but I didn’t overthink it. Neither of us suggested we try and meet him; I think we agreed that would somehow ruin the experience.
We didn’t talk much on the way back to the office. Daniel handed me his phone and told me to play my favorite Talking Heads songs. Without planning to, we relayed the story to our coworkers as soon as we walked in the door. Everyone was excited for us but didn’t understand why it was a big deal. I didn’t mind.
When I made my way back to my cubicle, I found every inch of wall space covered in sticky notes; some coworkers had written kind wishes for my future endeavors, and others had drawn silly illustrations. Daniel had orchestrated it all. They brought a cake out from the break room. After everyone went back to their tasks, I peeled the sticky notes off, stuck them together into a booklet, and put it in my pocket.
Lauren Baker is an incoming MFA student in fiction at North Carolina State University. She currently works in natural resource management and fire management, and is interested in the intersection of environmentalism and creative writing. Her stories have appeared in Litbreak Magazine, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and Litro Magazine. You can find her on Instagram @boom_mic_operator and Twitter @boommicoperator.
Cover Design by Karen Rile