Mr. Cartwright stiffened as if she’d spat a little blob on his nose that he was too polite to wipe away. He didn’t seem to notice that the numbers didn’t add up.
I am too, she wanted to say. He’d politely asked about Caleb and she’d dragged in Baba, Ambrose, and even Philo who was not yet dead. But in comparison to the individual images of the living, calling up one death invariably brought home the others. Just like dudus. If you spied one, you knew others lurked around the corner. When she’d last gone to visit Mama with Ambrose’s children, Doreen followed what looked like an isolated bee to a nest in the rafters of the shed where Mama penned her cow. That night, while the bees updated their queen on the day’s doings, she’d climbed a ladder (much more difficult at 40 years and 160 pounds than it had been in childhood) and into their nest, emptied a can of Doom. Of course those that staggered out stung her.
“Yawa! How could I have raised such a foolish child,” Mama asked, raising hands to the sky, “wasting all that honey?” But there was relief in the words, in the way her niece and nephew laughed at Doreen. Days later, face still swollen, she’d popped into the office to ask for more leave, and without comment Mr. Cartwright had obliged.
“It’s a leave of absence. I’m not asking to be paid.”
With a delicate little cough, Mr. Cartwright cleared his throat. “You realize you’ve been out of office for forty nine working days this year?”
“In all eleven years I’ve worked here, I never paid attention to the clock. I’ve worked days, nights, weekends, holidays, whenever they or you…”
“That’s why we’re having this conversation,” he said.
Of course, even Doreen’s best efforts barely dented insect life. Bugs outnumbered humans thirteen billion to one. During the rains a few days previous, manual workers and children in her estate harvested winged termites by the thousands. They fried them in shallow pans and Blueband tins - no need to add oil - popped them into brown paper bags and crunched them. Though they smelled exactly like vinegary chips, and she’d dipped happily in her own childhood, Doreen couldn’t stand the thought of them. But she didn’t have the heart to deny Ambrose’s children so she’d sat in her car in the parking lot, armed with her can of Doom, until the feasting was done.
“Doreen, you’re a bright, talented human being. You have an exciting future here that I wouldn’t want this tragedy to derail…”
“Sir, I’m grateful for your confidence in my abilities.”
He wagged a finger at her.
“Bob, remember? Call me Bob.”
For such a small man, Bob had surprisingly long, artistic fingers. Doreen wondered if Bob’s thing, nestling in innocent folds of material, was just as creatively endowed. Was his thing alive and ticking, ever-ready, like its African brethren, to pleasure itself to death? She was beginning to think like Philo.
“I appreciate your patience, Bob. Really, I do. But I need this time,” Doreen added, isolating each word. “Just two more weeks. Please.”
“That’s what you told me last time.”
In the harsh office light his intense yellow eyes seemed to glow at her. She turned her head, and caught sight of the three directors huddled like wasps sharpening their stingers. There was something false in their studious concentration. She sensed that if she suddenly stamped her foot, they’d jump a mile. They’d probably found out about the secret project. Everything leaked in this place. In fact, everything leaked in the whole bloody country. Hadn’t the pastor, during Ambrose’s funeral, delivered an impromptu speech promoting abstinence even though Doreen’s family never revealed the cause?“What slight,” her father asked, later, when Philo disclosed her ailment, “even imagined and unintended, had he visited upon anyone to reap such bitter fruit?”
Per Contra Spring 2007