The Stuart Drindle Affair
Stuart Drindle lived in Berkeley, a smaller, quieter town to Oakland’s north. Like Leon he took BART to work every day. Sometimes they were even on the same train car. They wouldn’t be today, because Stuart was running late, it having grown progressively more difficult for him to leave his home. The Quixotes were out there, waiting for him. They could read his mind. He was sure of it, and it was all Leon’s fault, he was sure of that too. Leon and that fucking figurine, which Leon carried with him everywhere he went, the Quixotes had told him so.
Outside his front door a family was loading their three children into a minivan down the street. A newspaper car drove by slowly, chucking today’s issue to the appropriate doorsteps. There was a Quixote too, across the street. Stuart had noticed him several days ago, walking to his car like a normal person would.
Stuart swallowed past a lump in his throat, the same kind he used to get when he was younger, when he became afraid. He was afraid all the time now. The only time he hadn’t been, improbably enough, was when he was in Leon’s office, trying to gear up his nerves to steal the Quixote. This was all Leon’s fault. It just had to be. Why had it come to him and not to everyone else? Because Stuart wasn’t the only one who was afraid. He saw the fear in everyone’s eyes, fear at the psychic tension tearing at their collective consciousness, laden with hostility. The Quixotes were set apart, and they were strange, oh so strange.
Stuart struck off from his front stoop, gripping his briefcase hard.
On Sacramento Street, a busy thoroughfare that bisected Berkeley’s West side, he saw another one. He tried to ignore it.
On the BART train he saw several more, awkwardly positioned so that their donkeys wouldn’t get in the way of the crowds. Their lance points were uniformly dull, couldn’t harm a fly, and were always pointed skyward, as if the Quixotes felt no threat from anyone though it was clear that they were the object of the hostility that abounded, that everyone could feel but not quite articulate.
It was an uneventful train ride. Stuart saw the young man Cassidy board the train at 19th Street in Oakland. He didn’t see Leon in the crowds. Come to think of it he hadn’t seen much of the man at all since he’d revealed the Quixote to him. Maybe Leon was avoiding him. He wondered how the man would look today, how far along he was in the process of succumbing to paranoia, coming to learn that the voices he heard in his head were not solely his own.
Leon was withdrawing from the rest of them, just like Stuart was. None of the denizens of the 32nd floor seemed affected by it or the ones outside in the least. Why weren’t they afraid, like everyone else? Did they even notice how strange and mean everyone was acting? Cassidy sure didn’t look like he did, based on Stuart’s observation of him on the train. At one point Cassidy smiled and waved at him.
When they disembarked at the BART station on Montgomery Street Cassidy came up next to him and tried to strike up a conversation.
“Stuart, I’ve never seen you on the train before. Where are you coming from?”
“North Berkeley,” Stuart answered. They were filing through the lines approaching the turnstiles. Stuart had his Clipper Card ready, as did Cassidy.
Cassidy was shunted aside by an aggressive commuter, a big black man wearing a Giants baseball cap.
“Watch out, man!” Cassidy shouted at his back, but the black man only continued his forward progress.
“Man, the nerve of some people! You see how that guy came at me?”
“It’s what I get for being a good samaritan. People push me around everywhere I go, like they can smell it on me I swear to God.”
“I’ve heard there’s some validity in that.”
“You know, how you carry yourself. You can tell the decent ones from a mile away.”
“Yup. Decent. That’s exactly what I am.”
Decent was not the first word Stuart would have used. He liked Cassidy, but he didn’t trust him. You can’t trust anyone you work with. After he’d been through the turnstiles he waited for Cassidy to catch up with him.
“You hear about the Box-Mart Account?” Cassidy asked, breathless now that he’d caught up with Stuart.
“What about it?”
“You hear it went to Leon this year?”
“Yes, I did.”
“I don’t know man, that guy’s always struck me as off. There’s something about him I just can’t quite put a finger on it. Like he’s better than the rest of us only he just doesn’t know how to own it.”
“He’s not better than me.”
“No? Who’s he better than, then?” Cassidy grinned.
The pair were climbing the escalators to Market Street and a clear San Francisco morning.
“I don’t know, but I know he ain’t better than me.”
That seemed to end the conversation for Cassidy, a child with no tact at all, Stuart thought, a trait that one gains only with life experience.
Stuart knew how to work a room. Cassidy did not. So why had Stuart lunged for the Quixote that one afternoon? Why had he done that? He couldn’t quite remember, but it had seemed totally natural at the time. He had become obsessed with it, but that wasn’t why he was seeing it everywhere. Stuart was certain that he wasn’t crazy. The fact that he saw them everywhere was incidental to his obsession.
They’d reached Market Street and now Stuart led the way through the crowds to the office building at 1 Montgomery Street, their building. There was a stylish atrium outside where there was a food stand, an assortment of chairs and tables, and an ornamental fountain. They crossed the atrium and came through the front doors and Stuart nodded hello to one of the security guards, who nodded back at him, the only black person Stuart ever saw in 1 Montgomery Street.
At first neither he nor Cassidy broke their mutual silence when they reached the elevators. Then Cassidy asked:
“What accounts are you working?
“What do you mean?”
“I mean what’s on your table? I’ll tell you what’s on mine.”
“Why divulge secrets that have no bearing?”
“What I mean to say is, why should I tell you?”
“Because I asked,” Cassidy answered promptly, and grinned a sharklike grin. Maybe there was a little hostility on the 32nd floor after all.
“Sorry, I’m not saying.”
“Good, then neither am I.”
“Just having fun?”
“A conversation that’s not going anywhere.”
Cassidy laughed. The elevator arrived. They all shuffled in and the doors closed behind them and the elevator rocketed up into the stratosphere. Stuart loved to guess at how it could move so fast. Jet propulsion perhaps.
Within seconds they’d reached the 32nd floor and disembarked.
“What do they say?” Cassidy asked, stopping Stuart in the hall. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m telling you that I want a leg up, and if there’s anything I can do to help you I’d love to make an exchange.”
“I can’t think of anything.”
“Nothing about Leon?”
Stuart blinked. Cassidy smiled.
“It’s on everyone’s mind,” Cassidy said. “No one knows why the Box-Mart account went to him. He’s not that good. He’s not better than Vanessa, that’s for sure.”
“It was Frank’s decision.”
“Well, if we can undercut him somehow, Leon I mean, then we should go for it.”
“I don’t know. If I come up with anything…”
“See. You’ve been thinking about it too.”
You have no idea.
“I’m going to work now, Cassidy.”
“Okay Stu, I just thought I’d extend the offer. We’ve been talking about it a little, me and the others. We see you two are on the outs. Just tell me if you’ve got some dirt or something to throw. That’s all I’m saying. Leon does not deserve to keep that account.”
“Since when did everyone care what account Leon’s working?”
“I don’t care. I’m just saying.”
“Decent of you indeed.”
“Don’t play self-righteous, man.”
“I’m going to work. I can’t believe the youth these days.”
“It’s a dog’s world, man.”
“Goodbye Cassidy. Take care you young whippersnapper.”
Stuart shook Cassidy’s extended hand and parted from him in good spirits to find he was not alone in his Leon-hating.
The floor was alive with phones and chatter. It was getting onto proxy season soon, that rapid influx period of snot-nosed brats who would take over the break rooms and the computer stations, three months of trainings and seminars and totally disrupted office politics. Mostly they would keep to their side of the floor though, just like everyone else.
Stuart found himself thinking about Leon’s Quixote again as he walked towards his office, at the injustice of how it had gone to him. He thought about this so often, just like Cassidy was thinking of the Box-Mart account. Could the two occurrences have some providence in common? Anything was possible. But Frank couldn’t be in on it, could he? Stuart hardly thought about him at all any more. Perhaps that wasn’t the most promising of signs.
Passing Mathilda’s desk he peered in and saw Leon at his computer, and the Quixote on his desk. His eyes were trained to see it.
“Hello Stu,” Mathilda said, breaking his concentration.
“Hello, Mattie,” Stuart responded, jerking himself away to continue on his path.
He must force himself to think of something else. There was no reason he should be so obsessed, now that he was here. Out in the real world though, with the things reading his mind… It was no wonder everyone wanted to hurt them.
Stuart didn’t have an assistant. He supposed that he didn’t need one, his corner of the office was always quieter because of it. No one really came to visit him because he didn’t have anything anyone else would want to talk about, not like Leon did.
He unlocked his door and came into his office, set his briefcase down and took his jacket off and hung it on the hook on the door. He sat down and folded his hands on his desk and was soon lost in thought. Some time later he remembered the photograph of the Quixote he had taken.
About forty minutes later Cassidy’s phone rang, and he answered it.
“I’ve got something for you,” Stuart said.