On the other side of my cubicle Deb was telling Jose her latest conspiracy theory.
“The government, the CDC, the World Health Organization, they’re all lying to us,” Deb said in her crackled, mannish voice. She’s a smoker. The kind of smoker who only gets out of bed every morning because her nicotine-laden body demands more. Then she caffeinates herself to the point of intoxication and mistakes that for being awake. About a hundred cigarettes later she’s outside my cube telling Jose the real reason the flu virus is so rampant this year.
It’s a welcome change, the new theory. It means we’re finally freed from hearing about the last one; the real reason the levees broke in Louisiana. Thanks to the media, Deb held on to that theory for weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit. The day she broke the news of that theory I almost lost it.
“The Feds knew those levees wouldn’t hold and they decided to do nothing,
Deb said. “Why?” she asked this rhetorical question during the introduction of each new theory. “Because the Feds knew the only people that wouldn’t survive would be poor Blacks.”
“What?” I asked then cursed myself for showing interest. How many weeks will that set her back, I wondered. Worse yet, my question invited her to pop her head over my cube wall and drive her research home.
“Think about it, Scott. None of the poorest, blackest, residents were evacuated. Not even the invalids” – which she pronounced as in-vlids – “who were on their death beds in nursing homes. Those people died, drowned, because their White nurses and White doctors were flown out or bussed out way before the storm hit.” She raised her over-arched eyebrows in my direction, latched her bony fingers over the cube, and waited for my reaction.
Deb watched the news every night and reported back in the morning about what she saw. Images of people on rooftops spelling out HELP, wading through debris waist high, being pulled into canoes, and dead bodies bloated and floating in the streets. All of them Black, she pointed out with her words and her finger. Always that finger was pointing.
As usual, whenever Deb faced me, Jose rolled his eyes behind her back. When she turned to Jose, I would look away hopeful that when she turned back around she’d see that I was busy sifting through my warrants. In Deb’s seventeen-year history with the county, the warrant pile had never gone away, so she didn’t take notice like I hoped. Jose agreed to whatever Deb said but only to spurn her on. Getting Deb riled up fit in nicely with Jose’s philosophy about not working too hard.
On day fifteen of the Real Reason the Levee’s Broke Conspiracy I miscalculated Deb’s ability to succumb to logic. I said, “I’m sure plenty of White people died too, Deb.”
“The hell they did!” Deb yelled. “Show me the numbers, Scott. Show me.”
Jose laughed and pointed at me while Deb shot daggers out from under her sagging eyelids.
Since the floodgates were already opened, so to speak, I said, “Do you think the Feds engineered the hurricane, too? Deployed it like a missile straight at New Orleans?”
In hindsight, Marnie and I had had a blowout that morning about my ever-increasing tendency to bitch about work. She yipped at me and said that thirteen more years until retirement was practically nothing and I should be thankful for a paying job, with good benefits and retirement especially in this economy. I barked back at her and said thirteen more years chained to a desk in an office full of lunatics was about the worst torture I could imagine. By the time I got into the office I was ready to call Marnie and tell her all the things I was sick of hearing her bitch about. But instead I started in on Deb, forgetting that you can’t argue with crazy.
Deb was less than amused by my questions. Her face turned a blotchy red-white like she wasn’t breathing. Her eyes turned into an opaque jade color with nothing inside. The way she clutched the top of my cube, I thought she might be having a heart attack. I’d seen the look plenty of times but not in relation to me.
“Shart,” she bellowed, “you’re lucky I like you.” She called me Shart because that’s what was printed on my badge. It’s a combination of my first and last name, Scott Hart. About a week after I started working with her she told me that a shart is a cross between a shit and a fart. I tolerated it from her because it was better than being on her bad side. It didn’t take me long to see what kind of special hell Deb unleashed on those that upset her.
As the news of the Katrina disaster wound down I thought we might have a chance of getting past it. But then on day twenty Deb came in heavy with how the government had put all the remaining, surviving Blacks into a sports arena with no provisions and no hope of rescue.
“No food. No water. It might as well be the Jews in the holocaust,” she announced. “It’s like an experiment, a psychological experiment. Like the Tuskegee experiment. Fucking Feds.”
What did the Jews have to do with Hurricane Katrina, I thought. Marnie and I had gotten past our fight by then so I was able to keep my thoughts to myself that time.
“What is the Tuskegee experiment?” Jose asked.
While Deb started at the top of that topic, I reached for the ear buds that Marnie had given me for my birthday. The Pixies were singing in my ears while I thumbed through my warrant list. Martin Welsh was on there again for six parole violations. I liked Martin, the dumbass.
Deb loomed over my cube wall and said something in between songs.
“What?” I asked, pulling one ear bud out.
“Don’t let Ronnie catch you with those headphones or we’ll all be getting another memo about company policy.”
“Fuck Ronnie and his memos,” Jose shot across the wall.
That always got Deb going on her absolute favorite topic; how much she hated Ronnie and how he was out to get her. It was a typical work issue, really, about how the boss is a dick. But as usual with Deb, she put her own spin on it.
“I hate that fucking asshole and it’s not because he’s Black. He’ll tell you that’s why I hate him but it has nothing to do with it.” Deb followed that up with a chronicle of each and every one of the Black men she screwed, up to and including Jerome. Jerome claimed he was the ex-body guard of Claude Van Dam. What he was doing as a bouncer at the Tin Roof in Detroit never seemed to cross Deb’s mind.
“…and Jerome,” she laughed up some gravel. “He’s not the only guy I had sex with in a bar, but that’s not the point of the story.” She had her unlit cigarette out and between her fingers like a pacifier dangling from a baby’s bib.
I hated the Jerome Story because in it she was falling down drunk, not wanting to leave the bar at closing time, and Jerome offered to drive her home. He ended up bending her over the bar and the rest was the history that she repeated proudly a hundred thousand times before she died. Oh, the romance of it all. It was sad, really, but Deb didn’t see it. She was such a scrambled mess of mismatched Goodwill clothing and thinning hair and wanna-be biker chick. I couldn’t stand to think of her getting plugged at the bar by some bouncer claiming to have ties to Claude Van Dam, of all people. But, that was not the point of the story.
She capped off at Jerome, though. As if she either stopped having sex after that or switched to another race. I’m not sure which it was and I never asked. I refused to ask Deb anything about her sex life. Ever. It was one of the few rules I had at work.
Deb circled back around to her hatred for Ronnie and her personal conspiracy theory of why he was out to get her. Secretly, the way she made a case against him made me think she had a thing for Ronnie. They could’ve been screwing for all I knew or cared. I wouldn’t have put it past Ronnie. He used to be the warden at the jail. Plenty of guys I picked up on warrants told me what a low-life Ronnie was. Even the criminals were disgusted by him. And here Ronnie was my boss. Would be for the next thirteen years.
When Deb started in about the H1N1 Conspiracy – I couldn’t find my ear buds. I was stuck listening to her and feeling slightly intrigued. The beginning of a theory was always the most entertaining. It went down hill steeply from there.
“The H1N1 is nothing more than the government’s botched attempt at targeted germ warfare,” she said, rehearsed. She was in a walking cast from the knee down from a nasty fall she took during the last ice storm that hit. She hadn’t showered since she fell and could only wear the one pair of pants that fit over the cast. I turned my mind away from the places her body odor was coming from. An image of her and Jerome jogged into my brain. The search for my ear buds turned frantic.
“Who was the germ warfare aimed at, Deb?” Jose asked. When Deb turned toward him, I held an imaginary gun to my head and pulled the trigger. Jose smiled wide.
“The Arabs.” She pronounced it with a hard A, as in A-Rabs. “The virus was concocted by the Feds to wipe out the A-rab population but first they had to test it out on someone, right?” She didn’t intend for us to answer.
“Sure, right,” Jose egged her on, still smiling.
“Well, who better than the aging population? All the old fuckers in the world who gather together to drink coffee and solve all the world’s problems. Who needs those guys anyway? The Feds know these guys are doing nothing but bad-mouthing the government and bringing polls down. These guys vote, right? They actually get out and vote. So, why not wipe them out by way of this virus. See if it works.” She was breathless from her delivery.
“Wow,” Jose said. He had a grim look on his face like he was actually considering what Deb said.
Deb said the Feds didn’t realize how contagious the virus really was and that was how so many people ended up with it last year. Even her. Never mind that she was fifty-six and that put her at risk. She said she didn’t get the vaccine because the Feds might’ve been targeting minorities and that was what she was, a minority. Jose asked her if she was Native American and she said, no, and called him a dumbass. She said, “I’m the lowest of all minorities. I am a woman.”
Jose told her about the nasal mist option and Deb said that was even worse than the vaccine because they’re spraying the virus directly into your brain. She asked Jose did he really want to put himself, as a Hispanic male, in that position? Because it was just a matter of time before the Feds would be thinning out his race as well.
I could see that Jose was thinking about that some more but Deb moved on. She started talking about how the last time she put anything up her nose it almost killed her.
“That was back when Coke was pure. Not like the shit they’re trying to pass off as Coke these days, laced with chemicals.” She held a far off note of nostalgia in her voice.
“No, I can’t chance going back down that path to hell again, as beautiful a path as it was. At the end of that yellow-brick road you realize the bricks aren’t really yellow, they’re just painted.” I pictured her waking up face down in a sewage filled gutter, reeking of someone else’s piss, with a boot-print on her ass and the cartilage of her nose missing.
Where had those goddamn ear buds gone?
“No way in hell, Jose. No way in hell,” Deb said. “I’m not getting in line for death like the Jews did. You wait and see, that’s what’s going to happen.”
A week later Jose’s brother died from complications from the flu. Jose was out for the funeral and the aftermath. Two weeks of nothing but me sifting through my warrants and typing Martin’s report for court. The report took forever. I wanted to put in a good word for him but his actions had destroyed any chance he had of redemption. His six parole violations added up to a thirteen-year, all-expenses paid, trip back to the pen. Maybe longer. Okay you dumbass, I thought. It’s me and you in this together to the end.
The day of Martin’s sentencing, I went down to the second floor toward the enclosed walkway to the court. The route takes me past Deb. I peeked in her cube, Deb was at her computer. And she was wearing my fucking ear buds.
“Deb,” I said louder than I intended.
“Shart,” she said without looking up from her computer.
“Did you hear about Jose’s brother?”
Deb looked up at me. Her eyes went from that dead jade green to a chocolate-gray and filled with tears. Her face went wrinkly and she twisted her mouth into a weird beak-like pose, like she was going to say something but couldn’t form the words. A lone cigarette sat on her desk, waiting for her.
We had a moment then, her with one foot in a cast and the other in a slipper and me pissed about my ear buds. A man was dead and I wanted to ask her where she got off taking my ear buds.
“Better be careful with those ear buds,” I said. Nodding toward the wires dangling around her hunched shoulders, I whispered, “I heard they cause The Cancer.”
About the author:
Amber Hart is a graduate of The Writer's Loft through Middle Tennessee State University. She lives on a small farm in rural Tennessee with her husband, children and a slew of guinea fowl. Her short stories have been accepted for publication in Neon Literary Magazine, Storgy, and Cheat River Review.