The Quixote On His Desk
Leon Ramble woke from a night of restless dreams to the shriek of his alarm clock. He reached out and turned it off, rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling. The night and its happenings washed through him, but already he couldn’t remember their details. In the dream he had feared for his safety though he couldn’t say where the danger was coming from. Strange and familiar faces alike surrounding him, leering at him, and closing in. Strangely enough, dreams like these had become a regular occurrence, members in a series. He woke from them vaguely uncomfortable, aware that they were forming a narrative his mind hadn’t the presence to piece together. Perhaps he should start writing them down. The thought had come to him before.
He sat up, swung his feet over the side of the bed and began his morning routine: buttoned his shirt, tied his tie, ate breakfast and made coffee. The hall was quiet when he left his apartment. At the end of it Terry, the 26-year-old, hyperactive building manager, was on all fours, scrubbing something on the hardwood floor. He looked up at Leon when Leon reached the elevators, and Leon raised his hand and Terry waved back at him and smiled brightly, asked him how his morning was, then went back to scrubbing. The elevator arrived and Leon took it to the first floor, crossed the empty lobby and exited into the crisp late winter air. Turning right onto 14th Street, he joined the eclectic crowds of early morning Oaklanders, the downtown streets gritty, smelly and crowded with life.
He walked to the BART station, the closest thing the Bay Area had to a subway, and took the escalator down, flashed his Clipper card through the turnstiles and took another escalator down to the San Francisco bound trains, the next of which arrived just as Leon did.
His fellow commuters packed him tightly into the aisle between the seats, and he stared at himself in the windows. He was tall, taller than his adjacent passengers, with thick black hair, a briefcase in hand. He was good looking, and there was something different about the way he held himself. He had a vague kind of style, like he didn’t quite know who he was yet. That was his impression of himself, a man ill at ease with the things and people around him. The dreams he’d been having might have contributed to his unease, like they were building up to something. He wasn’t the superstitious type, but it felt like something was going to happen.
The BART train reached the Montgomery Street station in San Francisco and Leon disembarked and worked his way through the crowd and then there he was, in the Financial District, surrounded by construction zones, cafes and glass skyscrapers.
He walked to his building, which was just on the corner, and through the doors. He waited at the elevator with a few co-workers who smiled and nodded at him but Leon had never been very good at morning pleasantries. They rode the elevator to the 32nd floor, exited into the lobby and pushed through the double glass doors with the Stigel, Lewis Inc. sigil stenciled across them. On the other side was Leon’s place of employment: soft, clean blue carpeting; pale white florescent lights illuminated a forest of cubicles ringed by four walls of windows with stunning, panoramic views of the city. Splendid, sophisticated San Francisco in all its glory: the views were a gift to the denizens of the 32nd floor.
Leon made his way to his office (no cubicle for him), and his personal assistant Mathilda, a pretty, young blonde thing, looked up at his arrival.
“Good morning, Mr. Ramble,” she said.
“Morning, Mathilda,” Leon answered. “How’s your morning?”
“Okay. Haven’t complained yet,” she smiled.
“How was the commute?”
“I’m not saying I couldn’t complain if I wanted to.”
“But I’m not going to.”
“Of course not,” Leon replied. “Because I wouldn’t want to hear it if you did.”
“Mr. Ramble, that’s purely because you’re selfish.”
“I’m not selfish, but you’re right, I don’t care about someone else’s bad day unless it is a truly spectacular one.”
“Lucky for me. So far my day’s been splendid, thanks for asking.”
“I’ll do what I can to keep it that way.”
Mathilda’s smile endured and she batted her eyes. Leon couldn’t tell sometimes whether she enjoyed his company or tolerated it because she was a good assistant. She ran interference at his door and she helped to keep his days and thoughts organized, but sometimes he wondered if she weren’t too comfortable with her position beneath him. Sometimes, because she was pretty, he worried that she was playing him. He’d always found something disquieting about pretty girls.
He walked into his office and shut the door behind him. He opened the blinds behind his desk to let the sunshine in. He pulled his chair back and sat down. That was when he saw the Quixote, sitting on his desk like a message from the future.
It was a metal figurine, about three inches high and one inch wide. A tiny knight riding a tiny donkey, carrying a blank shield and a dull lance, and, improbably enough, wearing a dark black motorcycle helmet with the visor down.
Who’s to say why his mind whispered the word “Quixote” (key-HOE-tay), after Cervantes’ imaginative Don who famously tilted at windmills. But Leon had never read Cervantes. That was what he chose to call it: a Quixote.
Very strange. What was it doing on his desk?
Leon picked it up. It had weight. It didn’t shine in the window’s sunlight, painted absolutely solid as if it were the metal’s natural state of being. It wore a leather jerkin with frayed hems, chain mail gauntlets and what looked to be thick leather boots.
Leon found that he enjoyed holding it. There was something elusive in the thing that called for capture, like an exotic species of butterfly. The moment he picked it up he knew he owned it, and it owned him. It was like a piece of himself he didn’t know he’d been missing all at once came crashing into place. His head swam with a feeling that could only have been ecstasy. Before long, these feelings frightened him. Was it just his dreams that brought this on? Almost as if he had been expecting it.
Where in the world could such a thing have come from? It must be someone’s idea of a prank.
The thing gripped tightly in his right fist Leon circled his desk to his office door and opened it.
“Mathilda?” he asked.
“Yes?” his assistant answered.
“Did Stuart leave this here?”
He displayed the Quixote for her, palm outward, but Mathilda only looked at him quizzically and shook her head.
“This was on my desk,” he explained.
“Huh,” she said, craning her neck. “Can I see it?”
Leon held it closer to her. She wrinkled her brow.
“What the hell is it?”
“I have no idea,” Leon muttered.
“It looks like… some kind of joke.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
Mathilda turned her chair more completely to face him. She was wearing a skirt that revealed more leg than, perhaps, was appropriate.
“Can I see it?” she asked.
The question confused him. He had to think a moment before answering. He didn’t like the idea.
“I just want to know where it came from,” he finally managed.
“If you see Stuart call him here.”
“Should I tell him it’s urgent?”
“You don’t have to.”
“Okay, sure thing.”
The conversation was over now. He had told her what he wanted, and as professionals with nothing else to say to each other they should part ways. But Mathilda stayed facing him, as if she expected the Quixote to leap out of his hands and attack her, as if she wanted it to.
“Sorry I bothered you,” he said.
“It’s no problem at all, Leon. I wonder where that thing came from.”
“So do I.”
“It’s so strange.”
Leon looked down at the Quixote. It seemed to look right back up at him.
“Just tell Stuart to call me.”
Stuart was Leon’s sole office friend, the only person he rarely got lunch with, and therefore was probably the only one who would have felt presumption enough to enter Leon’s office when he wasn’t there. Problem was Stuart didn’t have much of a sense of humor.
“Should I give him any details?” Mathilda asked, breaking Leon’s line of thought.
“No, just… it doesn’t matter, just tell him I want to talk to him.”
“Aren’t you going to see him for lunch?”
“It doesn’t matter, just tell him to call me.”
“I’ll let you know if the Aston account calls,” she said, head cocked on her neck, still staring at the Quixote.
“You do that.”
He turned back into his office and shut the door behind him. He sat down at his desk and set the Quixote down beside his desktop. It took him some time to look away: His eyes strayed to a picture of he and his girlfriend Heather at Disneyland. The picture had been taken last year, when Heather was twenty-five and Leon thirty-three. Her smile was wide, her expression open, her youth shining like pale starlight. She’d hugged Leon close to take the selfie, their cheeks were pressed together. They both looked happy and caught up in the moment, an emotional snapshot in time that had become far from the norm. In fact their relationship could well be on its final legs. Leon hadn’t seen her in nine days and hadn’t called her in five.
He noticed that he had wasted fifteen minutes since first walking through his office doors.
Where was his mind? He had work to do. He tore his eyes away from the picture of Heather, and, with some effort, from the Quixote as well, but it stayed there on the edge of his vision, powerful and perplexing.
There were reports in his mailbox and e-mails in his inbox. The xerox machine on the other side of his wall whirred noisily. He got to work, reading through the corporate governance and shareholder vote summaries that were Stigel, Lewis’ bread and butter. He managed to keep his attention where it needed to be, for the most part, until it came time to go to lunch, the mundanity of everyday existence, unchallenging to say the least, pale next to the strange intruder beside him.
Leon called Stuart Drindle, who answered after three rings.
“Hello?” said Stuart.
“Did Mathilda tell you I called for you?” Leon asked.
“I was away from my desk. She didn’t say what it was about so I didn’t think it was urgent.”
“I guess it wasn’t urgent.”
“Nothing. I’ll…” Leon’s voice faded away. He didn’t know how, or if, to broach the subject. “I’ll explain.”
“I guess you want to get lunch?” Stuart continued.
“I sure do.”
“Elevators in five?”
“See you then.”
Leon hung up and stood up, left his office and locked his door behind him and patted Mahilda on the shoulder and she smiled at him again. He realized on the way to the elevators that he had the Quixote in his pocket. He didn’t remember picking it up, but he was glad that he had. It felt good there, and would have felt worse to leave it unattended in his office.
Stuart, tall and bald with a flat face like a slab of cheddar cheese, was waiting at the elevators. When he saw his friend he pressed the elevator’s “down” button.
Stuart stared at Leon: “Where you wanna eat today?” he asked.
“How about the Sandwich Company?”
“Then we’ll eat at the wall?”
The elevator arrived, Stuart and Leon rode to the first floor and walked through the glass and marble lobby, nodded at the guards at the security desk, and were then out on Montgomery Street, in the thick of Financial District lunch hour. They did this every other day. They had been hired out of the same batch of Proxy Associates ten years ago, and had remained close ever since then, even though they didn’t like each other that much. They never talked about their personal lives, and never saw each other outside of work. Sometimes their conversations were painfully stilted, at least, that was how Leon saw it.
They walked around the corner to Sutter Street and crossed over to the Sandwich Company, a modest take-out place built into a skyscraper’s first floor. There was a small line of customers before them.
Stuart faced Leon at an angle. Leon had already tuned him out.
“Where you at, Leon?” he asked.
Leon shook himself:
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“You’re thinking about something.”
“Everything’s right with the Berringer account? I heard that little toughie got thrown your way earlier this week.”
“Oh it was nothing,” Leon waved his hand. “Mathilda’s already sent back the final copy.”
“Quick thinking,” said Stuart, perhaps disappointed.
Leon shrugged again. “I’m good at what I do,” he said.
“Frank plays easy on you.”
“You think he plays favorites?”
“I think you are his favorite.”
“I think you worry too much about what other people think.”
“I think you don’t worry about it enough.”
Leon smiled. “Since when was that a bad thing?”
“Make us all look bad,” Stuart muttered. “No one likes a confident Research Analyst. Really, clients like them a bit modest. Pleasant, servile. Someone that they know isn’t going to tear their process apart.”
The line moved forward. Stuart turned away from Leon. He felt that there was something Leon wasn’t telling him, some reason he was woolgathering. Maybe he would be able to tease it out of him. Leon, for his part, had once again almost forgotten that Stuart was there. Colors seemed bolder, lights brighter. His hand strayed into his pocket and held the Quixote. He thumbed its dull round helmet.
It came their turn, and one after another they ordered, stepped down the counter and paid. Leon stood to the side of the counter, while Stuart branched off to get a cup of coffee. Leon watched the hands of the Vietnamese sandwich makers behind the counter. He found himself thinking about foreign travel, and how lucky he was to be an American. When his sandwich was ready he took it and looked into the sandwich makers’ eyes a little longer than was polite. All he saw was neutrality. Total neutrality, in this person who made food every day for people richer than he was. He wasn’t even paid in tips. He must be very good at hiding the resentment he felt toward people like Leon.
Stuart returned to Leon’s side, he with his thick fingers and blocky bald head, a man who carried himself as if he had never made a mistake he was ashamed of.
They picked up their sandwiches and turned to each other. Their eyes locked. Stuart wrinkled his brow.
“What?” he said.
Leon didn’t answer.
“Stop staring at me, Leon,” Stuart said. “Let’s go eat.”
Stuart started for the exit and Leon followed behind him.
They crossed Sutter where it intersected with Montgomery, toward the rib-cage-high brick divider that bordered a parking garage and was across the street from the office buildings. It was washed warm in sunshine at this time of day, and was a good place to sit back and watch the crowds.
Stuart stopped at an open patch of the wall and leaned back against it and started to unwrap his sandwich. Leon hiked himself up, sat on the wall next to Stuart and did the same. For a few minutes a mutual silence descended between them.
Stuart turned towards him, looked him up and down, and asked: “So, you going to tell me why you called earlier today?”
Leon was quiet a moment before he answered, looking down at his sandwich: “Okay, Stuart, I’ll tell you, but I don’t want you to tell anybody else.”
“Because I don’t. You have to promise me.”
“You mean anyone in the office?”
“There you go, your weird confidence. I don’t like that about you, Leon.”
“‘I promise.’ Say it.”
“How am I supposed to make a promise when I don’t even know what we’re talking about?”
“You’re supposed to make it because I’m asking you to make it. I don’t want it getting around yet. I want to figure it out on my own terms.”
“And you trust me to keep my mouth shut?”
“You seem like a man whose word is bond, though I guess I’ve never found out for sure.”
“You’re right, I do take promises seriously. And I promise, how about that? I promise I’ll never tell anyone what you’re about to tell me.”
“Okay,” Leon nodded, “Remember that. I’m serious.”
Leon set down his sandwich on the wall, and wondered for a moment if he were making a mistake. He recalled the faraway look in Mathilda’s eyes, and, reaching into his pocket, sensed again the feeling of odd significance of the thing that had come to him from his dreams. With some effort he brought it out of his pocket, uncurled his fingers and showed it to Stuart.
Stuart looked at it, then at Leon, eyebrows raised.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” Leon answered.
Stuart moved his face closer. Leon pulled his hand back.
“Let me see it,” Stuart said.
Leon shook his head.
“What do you mean? Let me see it.”
“Sorry, Stu, but I don’t want you touching it.”
I have no earthly idea, Leon could have said, but didn’t.
“Leon, what the hell?”
“Why do you want to touch it so bad?”
“Because I want a better look at it, that’s why.”
“Okay, so look at it,” Leon grinned, and brought it out again.
Stuart’s eyes, filled with determination, flitted down again and held for perhaps two full seconds, then, all at once, he grabbed for it.
“What the hell!” Leon yelped and pulled the thing away too quickly and almost lost his balance on the wall. He flailed his arms and Stuart kept reaching for Leon’s closed right fist. Leon jumped off the wall and darted out onto the sidewalk, away from Stuart.
“There’s something fucking wrong with you,” Stuart breathed. “Just let me see it.”
“There’s something wrong with me?! Are you kidding me? You almost knocked me off the wall!”
“Why the fuck did you call me about that?”
“Why are you reacting this way?”
Stuart’s mouth twisted into a grimace. He lowered his head on his shoulders like a bull ready to charge. He seemed completely unaware of the show he was putting on.
“It was somebody in the office,” Leon said. “I found it on my frickin desk, just this morning. I thought it might have been you, that’s why I called you. And you were so unbelievably rude to me just now.”
“I’m sorry,” Stuart said, sounding like he meant it. “It wasn’t me.”
“I know it wasn’t you, I can see that in your eyes.”
“No one but me?” Stuart said.
“No one but you what?”
“No one but me has seen it?”
“You and Mathilda.”
Stuart blinked his eyes and shook his head, a motion Leon recognized as a motion he himself had made only a few hours earlier.
Stuart took a big bite of his sandwich and chewed, turning away from his opponent.
“Well, if I were you Leon, and this is advice that comes straight from the heart, I wouldn’t go showing that thing to everyone.”
“Why not?” Leon was interested.
“I was willing to fight you for it just now. I really really was. I have no idea where that came from. Do you know what I mean?”
Leon knew exactly what he meant, but Stuart’s directness always surprised him.
“And you know I wouldn’t have given it back to you, if I’d beaten you up that is,” Stuart said, and Leon believed him, and, after contemplating this statement a little longer, a trill of laughter escaped his chest.
“No you wouldn’t have given it to me, huh Stuart?” Leon asked, shouting a little. “You would have kept it for yourself. Wouldn’t you? All to yourself.”
Stuart only shook his head.
Leon felt a little thrill from the combat he’d just avoided.
“There’s something about it, isn’t there? Something that makes you want it,” Leon said.
“Yes there is. It’s fucking bizarre. Where the hell could something like that have come from?”
Stuart sullenly finished his sandwich and wiped his mouth with a napkin. He marched down the sidewalk and shoved the wrapper and his napkins into a garbage can. He came back looking at Leon as if he hadn’t done anything wrong.
“Ready?” he asked.
“I sure am. Just keep your fucking head on your shoulders, Stuart,” Leon said.
“I’m sorry,” Stuart said, but he didn’t look it. He looked like he was still thinking about it, a little smile on his face.
Leon shoved the thing into his pocket and walked back the way Stuart had just gone, to the garbage can, marginally afraid. When he turned around Stuart was already crossing the street. Leon followed him.
Back at the elevators, Leon pressed the “up” button and looked around for Stuart. When he saw him now it was in a different light. His only office friend turned against him.
“Stuart…” he began, but didn’t know how to finish.
“What’s up?” Stuart answered.
“Do you want to get some drinks after work?” he asked.
Stuart shook his head. “Not today,” he answered. “I’m playing poker.”
“Oh yeah? With who?”
“You don’t know them,” Stuart answered. “You don’t know any of my friends.”
The elevator arrived and Stuart and Leon and a few other office employees crowded in. Leon pressed the button for the 32nd floor and then moved to the back of the elevator. Stuart followed him there.
The elevator shot upwards, making Leon’s eardrums pop.
“You aren’t a poker player yourself, are you?” Stuart asked.
“I guess not.”
“When was the last time you played?”
Leon didn’t answer for a moment, then he said, “Not since college.”
“Wow. That’s a long time. None of your friends play poker?”
Leon shook his head.
“How many friends do you have, anyway?” Stuart continued.
Leon didn’t answer.
“I don’t mean it in an offensive way,” Stuart said. “I’m just curious.”
They exited onto the 32nd floor. They faced each other in the lobby.
“I’m going back to work,” Leon said, considering his former friend like he would an untrustworthy animal.
“Me too. Let me know what you find out about the… figurine. I’m pretty curious about it myself.”
Did you think of it as a Quixote? Leon wondered.
“Okay,” Leon said.
“You know, it might have been Cassidy, he’s got a weird sense of humor.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Yeah, me neither. You’re right, Leon. It’s very odd. I’m sorry I tried to take it from you.”
“It’s okay,” Leon answered, because he knew he would have done exactly the same thing.
A silence fell.
“Can I see it again?” Stuart asked.
“You know, I just want to see it again. I promise I’ll never take it from you. I’ll help you figure out where it came from,” Stuart posited.
“I don’t know, you scared me just now.”
“Seriously, I’ll ask around.”
“Don’t ask around.”
“I want to know where it came from too.”
“That’s why I told you to promise. You know how you just acted? What the hell is wrong with you?”
“I don’t know,” Stuart said, but he was smiling like he didn’t care, like their relationship was of no consequence whatsoever.
“I guess I should have asked first.”
“Should have asked first,” Leon repeated, then turned and started walking away.
“See you later,” Leon heard Stuart say. “My offer stands.”
Leon pushed through the doors leaving the elevator lobby and walked back to his own office, avoiding eye contact with those he passed on the way. Mathilda wasn’t at her desk. Leon closed his door behind him.
Feeling deeply the quiet of lunch hour, he returned to his desk and stood at his chair for a moment, then he turned around and closed the blinds of his window, easing his office into soft twilight. He pulled out his chair and sat down, and then brought the Quixote out of his pocket and placed it on his desk. He looked at it for a while. Stuart had always been jealous of him, Leon told himself.