I’ve never really thought of myself as a problem-solver. My standard technique when confronted with a problem is to wait for it to go away, which works a surprising amount of the time. Obviously that has not been the case lately, but my life in the last year has been anything but standard.
I’ve also never been much of a people person. They don’t bother me in any way; I just don’t need them. Brian’s the first friend I’ve had since high school. That sounds really sad, but I just didn’t see the point. If I wanted socialization, I went to a bar to watch the game. Having people over seemed weird and awkward.
So all that said, the fact that it’s really bugging me that a lot of the guys at work have a negative opinion of me is particularly odd. This sort of thing should roll right off my back. It’s not, though, which is why my lunch break on Monday finds me earnestly confronting a guy named Raoul who I’d just overheard talking about me.
I’ll skip through the five minutes of arguing, where I challenge him to name one actual thing I’ve done wrong and he just swears at me, and cut to the end.
“Drop it before I drop you, man,” says Raoul.
“If you need to take a swing at me, go for it, but I –”
I don’t get to finish my sentence, because Raoul takes me at my word and pops his left fist out in a lightning-quick jab. I don’t know if he boxes or what, but I never even see the punch coming, and it hits me right on the side of the chin, snapping my head back and to the side. I stumble back a few paces and drop to one knee. I’ve got a stupid urge to retaliate, but I tamp it down and instead say, “I didn’t deserve that.”
Raoul’s got anger burning in his eyes, but after a second, all he says is, “Maybe not.” He makes no moves toward me, either to help me up or throw another punch, so I decide that that’s about as good an ending as I’m going to get for right now.
“All right, man. Good talk,” I say, standing up. Raoul glowers and stays silent as I walk away.
After lunch, Christopher and I are chatting while pouring fill. He asks, “So, is this your new thing? Some sort of lunchtime fight club?”
I rub my jaw and say, “It’s not what I’m going for, but if I have to, I guess.”
“Why do you even care? They’re a bunch of meatheads. We’re a bunch of meatheads. Why does their opinion even matter?”
“I don’t know — it just does. I feel like I’m fighting against the idea of ‘Dan’s a bad person.’ I don’t think I am, but if the thought’s out there, one of us is wrong. And the more people that agree with me, the more likely it is that I’m the one on the right side.”
Christopher shrugs. “It’s your crusade! Don’t let me stop you.”
After I punch out for the day, I knock on the foreman’s office door.
“Mr. Steele? Hey, I saw you on TV yesterday!”
He laughs. “The piece on this place, yeah. My wife taped it.”
“Ha, that’s great. Hey, so I have a question. I saw they were talking to Mr. Tanger, too. Any chance you can put me in contact with him?”
He studies my face for a minute. “Is there a problem on the site?”
“What? No! No, everything’s fine.” I rub my jaw self-consciously. “I’d come to you if there were a problem. This is a, a side project.”
“I can’t give you any personal contact information for him, Dan. Best I can tell you is to look up Tanger Construction online, call his office and make an appointment.”
“Yeah, okay, thanks. I’ll give it a shot.”
“You’re welcome to drop my name when you call, to see if that helps. If you’re doing that, though, I’d make it soon. Tanger knows my name right now because I’m heading up the community outreach project and I’m making him look good, but I wouldn’t count on him remembering me for long. I’ve worked for this company for a long time, and every time he comes to a site, he’s got a cheery smile, a big handshake, and a blank look in his eyes when I tell him it’s good to see him again. He’s a great man, though, and he’ll help you if he can.”
Regina’s waiting for me when I leave Steele’s office. “Afternoon! Nice bruise. Clumsiness, or stupidity?”
“Shoot, is it that obvious? No wonder Mr. Steele asked if anything was wrong on-site. Whatever, it’ll fade.” I climb into the car, poking at my phone.
“What’s up?” Regina asks, starting the car.
“I’m calling Tanger’s office to make an appointment. Hang on, it’s ringing.”
A female voice answers the phone. “Tanger Construction, how may I direct your call?”
“Uh, hi. I’m calling to speak to Mr. Tanger, or to make an appointment with him, I guess.”
“What is this regarding?”
“A — story? I’m a, um, freelancer working on a piece about the new police station. Mr. Steele, the foreman on the building site, suggested I call.”
“Hm.” I hear a keyboard clicking in the background. “Are you available today? I can give you a fifteen minute appointment at 4 PM.”
“Yeah, that’d be great!”
“Okay, and your name, please?”
“I’m Dan Everton.”
The phone goes completely silent. I look to make sure it hasn’t dropped the call, then put it back to my ear. “Hello?”
In a flat, unfriendly voice, the secretary says, “I’m sorry, I must have made a mistake. Mr. Tanger will not be available today. Thank you for calling.”
“Wait, don’t hang up! Is he free tomorrow?”
“I’m sorry. Mr. Tanger is unavailable to meet with you for your article.”
“What, at all?”
“Thank you for calling.” And with that, she hangs up on me. I make a face at my phone.
“Well, that was weird.”
“What’s up?” Regina asks again.
“She told me that I could talk to Tanger at 4, but then took it back once I told her who I was.”
“Huh. You want me to try to get in to talk to him, then?”
“No, you know what? We know he’s there. Let’s just go in person and see if we can catch him in the hall, or talk our way in or something.”
Regina shrugs. “All right, what’s the address?”
An unremarkable drive later, we’re in the elevator of a relatively new office building downtown, riding it up to the Tanger offices on the top floor. Regina seems uncomfortable, shifting uneasily from foot to foot as we ascend.
“You all right?” I ask.
“I — no. Something feels wrong around here. It feels — untrustworthy, maybe?”
It’s not the word I would have picked, but she’s not wrong; something is definitely off around here. I think I would have gone with “oppressive.” It’s a nice building, clean and modern, but it looms with an aura I’d associate with age and decrepitude. I feel an almost physical burden from it, a sense of disapproval.
The elevator dings, and I push aside my horror-movie sensibilities to be dealt with later. Regina and I step out into a lobby with a security guard, who nods at us briefly before returning his gaze to his book, phone, or whatever’s behind his desk. I pull open a glass door leading to a reception area with a couple of men in suits waiting in it, and the secretary at the desk inside looks up.
“Yes, can I help you?”
On the way up, I’ve come up with a fake name and a new story, so I smile and say, “Yes, hello. I’m –”
Her smile fades the instant I open my mouth, and she cuts me off angrily. “I recognize your voice. We spoke on the phone earlier. You’re Dan Everton.”
As if my name is a magic word, I see the security guard outside stand up from his desk and begin advancing on me. The secretary looks ready to spit nails, and even the gentlemen in the suits stare at me.
“You’re Dan Everton?” one says. “I’ve heard about you. You’re filth.” The other man nods.
“Whoa, what?” I say, turning to him, but the security guard is at me and taking my arm in a non-too-gentle grip.
“You need to leave now,” he says.
“That guy just called me filth! I’ve never even met him!”
“Maybe you should take a hint and leave,” the guard says, walking me to the elevator. “We don’t need your kind around here.”
He shoves me in, pressing the button for the ground floor. As Regina joins me, the guard says to her, “You shouldn’t be hanging around people like this. He’s bad news.”
Regina looks shocked, and says nothing as the doors close.
“Wow, so,” I say as the elevator lowers us back to ground floor. “That was a bust.”
Regina says quietly, “No. I know that feeling.”
“Of being kicked out of an office?”
“Of hating you.” She looks me directly in the eyes and says, with increasing vigor and disdain, “Rot. Canker. Festering blight!”
She pauses, then adds, with quiet viciousness, “Filth.”
The elevator dings and opens its doors on the bottom floor, but I’m too stunned to move.