Never Assume the Blame – a short story

21 Aug

This is a vignette from a collection of short stories and novellas I’m working on.

Dean Reicher kept making a noise with his mouth every time he finished taking a drink of his bottle of label-less water; a noise that sounded like something sizzling on a hot skillet. He also kept making this noise whenever things were running smoothly or when there was a small transitional gap in his presentation. This remained his sole, uncontrolled tic. In everything else he did, he showed a great deal of control. His hair, slick and parted, looked like something custom-built. His suit was navy blue and his tie was wide, striped black and red like the more provocative candy canes in a Christmas stocking. This told us he was successful but quirky. His over-grinned enthusiasm was capped by his cleft-chin like the lower-bone of a chicken wing.

Having left the hallowed world up there in the skyscrapers, he descended upon the common people; the evening fry-cooks, the white-wall temp-office haunters, tenureless community college math teachers, husbandless mothers of three along with every retail monkey, farm bumpkin and factory troll.

The presentation seemed to be just as much about how to move your hands while public speaking as it was about ‘never assuming the blame.’ His hands were blades that sharpened one another—one set of fingers sliding along the other and down his palm to his wrist while his other fingers pointed to one imagined ideological plane before switching hands by turning slightly and sliding the fingers down which had been pointing, causing his other fingers to travel up his palm to freedom and point at an opposite imagined ideological plane. His hands spread out gently like images of the Catholic Christ when an idea was meant to be presented as totally marvelous yet entirely achievable. He would take one hand and gesture the way one would need to do to make an Alsatian shadow-puppet, but instead of making shadows, he would point his hand at the right third of the people in the room, the middle third, and the left third, as though using it to cut a gigantic pie.

Never assume the blame. He kept repeating this phrase again and again. It was also the title of his book. He’d said it many times throughout his presentation but never in more than one pitch, tone or speed. ‘Never assume the blame … We live in a very guilt-based society.’ His tone changed from professionally defiant to reservedly caring as he said, squinty-eyed, like a hazarding parent, ‘Of course, there are a few things that people should feel guilty about. There are a lot of negative energies being put into the world when people like me and people like all of you are trying to make this world a better place.’

If the first row was anything to go by, our world was being made better by a moderately fat man in a gray shirt so small that a third of his belly peek-a-booed under his breasts, his fishy lips, frowny brow and the netted green John Deere hat sitting atop his head. It was being made better by people like the lady in gigantic square-framed glasses with cheeks drooping like the wax of a melted candle about her small mouth and chin. It was being made better by people like the pretty blond in a business suit with an unpretty case of 1980s frizz-hair. The world was being made better by a young man in a flannel shirt which had pinned on its collar a half-dozen buttons promoting bands whose names were fonted in bloody sacrilege, cursive eroticism and squiggly juvenile delinquency. The world was being made better by a woman in a striped, pastel uniform like she made hotdogs at the mall. The people with a strong desire to make the world better were like goldfish looking at him from one big bowl. They were sneezing stifledly, farting inaudibly and scratching their heads and clearing their phlegm-filled throats.

Somewhere in between those momentary reminders of the brief, obvious deeds one must repent of, like murder, rape and not recycling, he went back to hammering home the ‘main thesis’ of his book. Never assuming the blame.

‘Never assume the blame,’ he punctuated. ‘When your boss starts pushing you around, what does he do? What is a common phrase you hear in the office?’ He affected a nasally boss-voice, put his hands on his hips and turned to an invisible person to his right, saying, ‘Now Larry, you haven’t been pulling your weight around here … We need you to be a team player.’ He turned, looking pleased that someone had snickered at the impression but also that he was able to pull off a funny voice counter to his ungoofy nature. ‘You’re being blamed for not functioning like everyone else,’ he continued. ‘You’re being blamed for trying to give yourself the slightest bit of elbow room. You’re being blamed for not being equal to everyone else. Well, I’m going to tell you something that may surprise you, but did you know, ladies and gentlemen, that not everyone is equal?’

One lady frowned. A guy in a mechanic outfit sitting in the back raised his hand and nodded fervently as though he already knew this and was just waiting for him to say it.
‘You’re not all equal … Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t want you to go home to your families and workplaces and tell everyone that I said you should be racist. Of course, everyone is biologically the same. Under our skin color, we’re all pink. But I mean, not all of you are equal in a different sense. Some of you are warriors and kings!’ His final gesture was abrupt and cancelled. He seemed to want to raise and clench his fist in the air but opted for a forward foot and a grin instead.

When the session was over, we all sat around for a while, waiting for our turn with him. People were lining up and, one by one, I could hear the tail-ends of these raised mutters of grievance and lonely yelps of woe. Some were telling him about people in their lives who had died. Others were telling him about fanatic religious families they either had to leave or were suffering from having left. There were guilty-feeling sex perverts, reformed and still struggling addicts of all kinds, ironic drunks shrugging about their disposition, women whose husbands had up and left them for what I guiltily thought were mortifyingly obvious reasons, and plenty of people in need of money. He paid great attention to all of them, leaning in close to their foul breaths, their teary faces, and nodded rapidly, cutting off their personal never-ending-stories with phrases like, ‘You know what?’ and ‘Let me tell you something,’ or ‘Hey, I was you.’

I only waited around to get the book signed, which I bought at a sales table in the hallway. My copy of Never Assume the Blame had a picture of Dean Reicher in the same exact suit he was wearing during the seminar. He emerged from the meeting room with people still following him, some talking to one another as though they were friends whenever Dean was in the same room. Some lifted pensive fingers and muttered the clipped beginnings of nervous phrases, failing, in each event, to get his attention, which was fixed on a door at the end of the hallway. His strides toward it were long.

A while later, when I figured that most of the people were probably gone, I walked down the hall where I heard a few people talking with all the air of post-event nonchalance and post-procedural release.

In the doorway stood a husky, older man with white hair and a small redheaded woman. They both turned and looked at me as though I’d intruded. ‘Hi, um … is Mr. Reicher still around? I’d just like him to sign my book.’

They looked at one another as though it was asking a lot before the man said, ‘Yeah, I think he’s still good for one more.’

I came into the room on my own. On the other side of a room full of duffle bags and equipment, I saw Dean Reicher, his hand spread out on a table, his eyes now hooded, his brow raised slightly and peaked wearily like the roof of an old Nordic church, his face pale and slightly sweaty. He didn’t even see me until I was very close, at which point he turned his head, the same grave expression on his face, the same sadness of a man having been exhausted by terror—that was, a man who’d put terror aside for a while so that he could pick it up later and continue where he’d left off.

‘I uh … was wondering if you’d sign my book,’ I muttered, and was suddenly sure that this was totally inappropriate request at that moment.

His pale face went bright red. His stony expression creased into that incredible grin. His eyes became bright and lively, his brow having cleared great planes of good-will in the space above his cheerful eyes. There was still sweat on his forehead as he smiled. In his eyes was the look of a man yanked abruptly across the border of terror.

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