I’m in my living room wearing a shirt and tie and sweatpants, laptop open, background blurred. On my screen is Colleen from HR and ten or so other boxes of faces, two-inch by three-inch rectangles that show Colleen that yes, we’re here, yes, we’re paying attention, even if it might be to the television we’ve placed behind the webcam so perfectly that no one can tell what we’re actually looking at. We stare into the corners of our boxes because we’re watching Colleen or televisions and not our webcams, making it look like we’re all just terrible at eye contact and let’s face it, we probably are. I ignore my face staring back at me from the bottom right corner, wish its enthusiastic nods and eyebrow raises out of existence. I’ve been staring back at that face for the better part of nine months, and I’m so sick of it that I’m starting to think I have the world’s most punchable mug, right up there with Tucker Carlson or Tom Brady.
Today is my first day on a new job, and Colleen is orienting us to our organization, going over core values and benefits, and introducing us to one another. Colleen’s suggested that we start this by sharing a fun fact about ourselves, and I’m panicking, palms sweaty, because what races to my head is that I once worked at a frozen custard joint with a guy who died in a house fire, a guy whose name was Scott but who we called Scotty2Hotty. The numeral was his choice, but that doesn’t matter because in hindsight it looks like we all knew what was going to happen three of four years later when his house went up in flames and he died in his sleep.
I’ve been places and done things, pet deer in Japan and swam across lochs in Scotland, but those memories don’t matter because Scotty keeps rising to the top, trampling them as if trying to make it out like I picture he would have if the fire had woken him. I see him pull the neon chain on the open light, lock the serving window, and flip the stereo to Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” belting it out with a mop handle for a mic while I scrub the inside of the shake mixer elbow-deep. I see him through the CCTV monitor in our boss’s office, hours after close, standing back-to-back with my brother, each armed with a bottle rocket as they take one step, two steps, all the way to ten steps, turn, fire, like something out of Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. Friends aren’t easy to come by in small town Indiana, not when you’re a skinny jean-wearing vegetarian, and I don’t even know if Scotty and I were friends, but neither of us wore camo or drove 80’s sports cars or hated Obama, and sometimes, that’s enough. He knew I was studying English and I knew he was studying Building Construction Management, and as Colleen makes her way through the M’s and toward the P’s I try to picture the buildings he could have managed the construction of, maybe a rebuild of the eighty-year-old custard stand we worked at or the baseball park across the street, the one with paint-flaked bench seating for all the teams that had come and gone.
I picture Scotty in a hard hat with his name written across the front in blocky capital letters, a neon vest over his torso. I picture his dog by his side, the one the newspaper said died in the fire with him. It’s a golden retriever even though I don’t know if Scotty actually had a golden retriever, but this is an idealist Midwest portrait so a golden retriever seems right, one with billowing hair that Scotty pats down, maybe ruffles a bit as he tells him he’s a good boy. It’s quiet even though there should be construction equipment, cranes and drills and sledgehammers slamming into concrete and lifting and dropping metal and grinding through wood, but there’s none of that because I’m in my living room in a shirt and tie and sweatpants with a muted soccer game positioned behind my laptop and ten or so tiny people on my screen shuffling silently, looking away or pretending to take notes because Colleen’s saying my name, asking me if I’m alright. I tell her I’m fine and that I swam across a loch in Scotland once, which brings everyone back to life with open mouths and thumbs ups and raised eyebrows, a few comments in the chat about Harry Potter and Outlander and how cool that must have been.
Colleen moves on to the next person and Scotty’s gone now, helmet and vest and golden retriever too. I picture him fading away for a minute, like people turning to sand or ash in a movie, then notice the blinking cursor in the chat box asking me to respond to a question about the trip I mentioned. I turn off the television, sit up a little straighter, type out a reply, and tell myself I’ll put on real pants tomorrow. This is my chance to start something new and some people don’t ever get that, so who am I to not even try?
Adam Shaw lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife and daughter. He holds an MFA in fiction writing from Concordia University, St. Paul, and misses working at a frozen custard shop. He can be found on Twitter at @adamshaw502.