Friday, November 13, 2009

Small Man Syndrome

Of course Fred, her fiancé suggested driving her to work for a few days. But that seemed silly. Besides, Chickie knew Fred was there if she needed him. He was working, but if she sent him a text message he could call somebody who could reach Chickie in five minutes: a loyal friend, who wouldn't hesitate to crush the guy like a soda can. So that was good.

As an added safety measure the office manager gave Chickie a one-month permit to the underground parking lot. These were like platinum, the office manager informed her. Ever since the lot had been reduced to make way for the condos next door, only twelve people in admin were allowed underground permits.

The agency had one guest space, and Chickie could use it for a while. Most of the employees had no idea the agency owned these spaces. And none of the temps knew there was underground parking available. So that was good, too.

Also, everyone was on her side, even the bitchy secretary down the hall, who had never been nice to Chickie before this. Even she, Desiree, with her inappropriate cleavage, had to admit: The guy was out of line, over the top, way past any acceptable level of public expression, and it was not Chickie's fault in any way.

They were all on her side. She felt pretty good about that.

There was one thing Chickie had noticed about the guy right away: He was a good two inches shorter than she was. This was the kind of thing her manager called "a contributing factor." According to Chickie, a contributing factor was nothing but a potential loophole people tried when they didn't want to accept responsibility.

Chickie had heard about—and thought she might have seen a magazine article or an episode of Oprah about—something called Small Man Syndrome. Apparently, men who felt inadequately short or small were prone to hold their stature against the world. This made them angry and resentful, and ready to blow up at anyone who reminded them of their inferiority.

It made sense, when Chickie thought about it. After all, hadn't she chosen her fiancé, Fred in part for his physical strength? Fred's square jaw, his take-charge attitude—she had absolutely no doubt about Fred's masculinity from the start. And that was saying a lot nowadays, as Chickie's mother liked to remind her. Especially since Chickie lived so close to Seattle, which wasn't yet the capital of homosexual life in America but was surely in the top three or four cities, nationwide. And that was a fact based on a real statistic she'd heard about—not just an opinion.

In her line of work—placing temporary employees—Chickie had to be sure she was dealing with facts and not opinions, and this is why she relied on her Ten-Point Checklist. If she let them, the hundreds of temps Chickie had to cope with every day would overwhelm her with how they felt about the awful situations they'd gotten themselves into.

Thanks to Chickie's Ten-Point Checklist, all the heated emotions and personal complications of these people could be reduced to a series of "yes" or "no" answers on a single sheet of paper. She had worked out the system during a vacation on Maui that she described to her manager as "brutal, but really, really worth it."

As always, Chickie started with the Golden Rule. She asked herself what most people—given their nature—would try to pull over on her, and whether that was how she felt she deserved to be treated. In most cases, she had to say, honestly and without any prejudice, that she did not deserve to be treated the way these people would probably treat her. This knowledge allowed her to be as firm as she needed to be with people like the guy with Small Man Syndrome.

She had to have this armor, because her first impulse was to be too charitable, too nice. Her fiancé, Fred had urged her to carry a weapon, but Chickie felt, in a fundamental way, this would be a betrayal of her faith in the Lord's ability to protect her.

"I'd feel better if you had the Lord and a .38 on your side, baby," Fred told her. "I can show you what you need to know. We'll hit the firing range any time you want. You can be my guest."

Fred was so sweet, so protective of Chickie. Best of all, she knew he loved her because she was good. He wanted to keep her safe from all the people who would try and take advantage of her nature, and Chickie loved him for it. He was a man after her father's heart, a man with a spotless reputation and a pension plan—nothing like the drifters and losers she had to deal with every day.

Chickie ran a fingertip across the glass surface that covered her desktop. She washed the glass down with Lysol once a day. The paperwork handed in to her by temps—who knew where those cards and forms and applications traveled before they came back to her? They all ended up on Chickie's desk, and the only way to combat the bacteria that traveled with them was to keep the sheet of glass clean—not sterile, of course, that was too much to hope for.

A better agency would have a better cleaning service, of course, and Chickie wouldn't have to wash her own desk every day, but she accepted this burden. The agency was a necessary stepping-stone. Chickie had big plans for the next few years. She was going to build up a sterling resume, then take time off to have two children and get them started in pre-school, then return to her career part-time. Just thinking about it made her giddy. It was a challenge to stay focused on the dumb things people said to her all day, when she wanted to be thinking about her life and how great it was going to be.

The guy sneezed. That was how it started, in the most repulsively common way.

The guy with the Small Man Syndrome had come to her office with a complaint. His hours had been changed. His hours had been scheduled, he said, when he signed his contract, weeks ago. Now the manager at the site where the guy was assigned had decided to change everything. The guy couldn't be expected to change his routine on a whim. Also: the bus he was taking stopped running thirty-five minutes before he would be getting off work…

On and on he whined, until Chickie asked to see his new schedule. He gave her a piece of paper that felt damp and went limp in her hand. She unfolded it, thinking of soft creatures gliding restlessly across the ocean floor. She scanned the page and compared the notations. The difference was a matter of forty-five minutes, three days a week. It was ridiculous!

Here she was, sometimes ten or eleven hours a day, and another hour at home after supper, always working her tail off, and some people were so ungrateful. They acted like they should have any assignment they wanted. They never said thank you. All she ever heard were petty gripes from people who ought to be raising their voices to the Lord to say hallelujah for a job—any job—in this day and age.

Chickie's eyes were the color of nickels, beneath a shock of white blonde hair. When she was flustered or embarrassed, her skin flushed purple and she brushed a strand of gleaming white hair away from her cheek.

The first thing Fred had asked her, on their first date, was whether or not she had a natural "tuft." She didn't know what he meant. When he explained, her face burned with embarrassment but also with excitement. She had felt her whole body flush, and she'd had to catch her breath. She couldn't wait to see Fred again after that.

Their second date was at the Four Seasons, and Fred spared no expense in his effort to, as he put it, "bring her around." It turned out that she liked being brought around by Fred, whose curiosity was both satisfied and titillated by the discovery that she was a natural and a virgin. On their third date, they picked out the engagement ring.

The sapphire stones flashed when Chickie wiggled her fingers.

"I'm sure your manager can accommodate your needs," Chickie said to the guy with the Small Man Syndrome. "If you make your needs known. Have you done that yet?"

Chickie had ventured back to this conversation several times, and she could not find one thing wrong with it. There wasn't any action on her part that justified the man's reaction to her advice. She was absolutely certain that she had not—as the guy alleged, although it was no crime and there was no rule against it—glanced at her watch while addressing his "issue."

"Have you got a date tonight?" The guy growled.

Chickie looked up and then decided she had misheard him.

"Excuse me?"

"You keep looking at your watch," the guy said. "Nice watch!"

Before he could say another word, the guy erupted in a gigantic sneeze, spraying her glass desktop with beads of saliva mixed with mucus. In the center lay one large, yellowish lump, glistening like a slug.

Chickie had taken an intensive workshop on interviewing techniques, and over the next three seconds her mind plowed hard through the sawdust of memory to find an appropriate response. Before she found it, the guy sprang up out of his chair and shouted:

"It's a normal fucking thing! You don't have to look at me like I just killed your mother!"

Chickie forced the look of revulsion from her face, but it took some effort. She felt her cheeks flush. She couldn't help it. She was angry. Now it would be hard to calm back down to a thoroughly professional manner. She tried. She focused on it. But it was so difficult.

Then she stopped herself, and she simply imagined what she always imagined, whenever she found herself distraught over the behavior of some stranger—cutting in line at the espresso bar, or taking four times as many packets of sweetener as anyone needs for one coffee...

She imagined Fred taking the person—in this case, the guy with Small Man Syndrome—and twisting his fat arms until they broke, then taking hold of the man's head and yanking it back and around, until his body gave way and cracked in half, like the handle of a wooden spoon or like a thick pencil snapping in the middle…

It didn't work, this time. Chickie took a clean, quick breath and shouted at the guy:

"You can go ahead and act like that! Like an animal!"

She heard her voice climbing to a shriek.

"But you can't hide your face from our Lord! He knows all about you! Yes, He does!"

She was shocked and speechless, when the guy kicked his chair against the wall on his way out of her office.

Chickie reported the incident to her manager, who insisted that she take a day off. She couldn't understand that. She told her boss she felt fine. And it was true. She'd never felt better. Especially when she was told that the guy with Small Man Syndrome had been let go, and would never work for the agency again.

She was amazed, two days later, when she heard that the guy had come back, followed a repair man down the hall past reception, and trashed her office—knocked her pictures off the wall, broke the lamps and chairs. The only thing he didn't damage further was the glass desktop. Fred said she was lucky the guy didn't defecate on it.

When he said that, over the phone—"defecate"—Chickie shuddered with what she thought was disgust until she felt the warm swelling of her labia and rushed to the bathroom. There, she put her fingers inside her panties and found that she was wet.

For the next few days, Chickie tried to work as though nothing unusual had occurred.  But when she tried to concentrate on the forms and regulations, codes and customs of her trade, she found herself wandering to a damp corner of her mind, one (disturbingly enough) first awakened by her fiancé, Fred.

While curled up in Fred's arms, Chickie had a terrible dream in which the guy with Small Man Syndrome chased her through the streets of Seattle at night. She was barefoot and wearing nothing but the silk, turquoise robe that Fred had given her on her birthday. Her skin felt damp from rain or maybe because she was running, and the guy was following her in a truck, running over sidewalks and shouting… Chickie woke up and rolled over onto Fred, who pulled her hips down toward him.

After a few days, she got the hang of the sharp turn she had to make to escape the underground parking gate without scratching the paint on her Mini Cooper. It was tight, so tight she considered parking above ground and tossing caution to the wind. But then she thought of Fred's warnings. He loved her so much that she owed it to him to take care of herself.

So she stuck to the plan, until the day she hit the gas to clear the electric gate in time, and shot out into the middle of the exit lane—where she had to slam on the brakes because traffic was so heavy she couldn't exit. She waited, but couldn't find a break. She was stuck there in a spot where nothing moved, with everything moving around her. And suddenly, there he was:

Rushing toward her, arms outstretched, shouting about all she had done to him and his life and his something because of the something-something…

"For crying out loud," she told the police officers, later.

What would they have done, or what would their wives and girlfriends have done? She felt, deep in her heart, that her very existence was in jeopardy!

The guy might not have struck her car, but one of his hands did touch the door, some part of the door—she heard it, even if there wasn't a dent—and then the window, although it didn't crack. Then the car was reversing, and Chickie felt the flush—the heat rising in her cheeks and across her chest and in her groin—bursting with indignation. Surely it was righteous indignation, if it was anything. But she didn't tell the police that part of the story.

When the car lurched forward again, the guy with Small Man Syndrome rolled upward into the air with his arms and legs outstretched, almost as if he had been scooped up and tossed against heaven, by the hand of God. He rolled up, up, up toward the sky, and then he fell, hard, onto the asphalt. The only sound Chickie heard was the thump of his body. Then she felt the car bounce, although she didn't remember changing gears.

She remembered that sound and the sensation of a horse bucking beneath her. But, honestly, no matter how gently the officers asked her, and no matter how they phrased the question, she couldn't recall how many times.

"Small Man Syndrome" is a short story by S.P. Miskowski

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