Leon opened his eyes at the sound of the alarm. He hadn’t slept well the night before. He turned to his side and flicked off the alarm, but then he lay awake in bed a little while longer: breathing, frowning, tired.
He pried himself up and bustled himself about his morning routine: brushed his teeth, swallowed coffee and bagel and orange juice. Keyed his car in his apartment building parking lot. Battled traffic on the bridge. Arrived at the parking garage on the other side — ranks of dreary hamster wheels lockstep file in their Financial District home.
He carried his laptop bag through the elevator doors, coffee tumbler in hand, through the forest of cubicles, nodding good morning along the way. Something was different. He could feel it in the air.
He set down his coffee tumbler on his desk, shrugged off his shoulder bag and pulled his chair back to take his seat, but he didn’t sit.
He didn’t sit because he saw it and knew that he had found his premonition: a colored metal figurine sitting on his desk like a message from the future.
He sat down.
He picked up the statuette, examined it:
A tiny knight riding a tiny donkey.
Strange. A thing that called out to be examined more closely.
A poorly clad knight in painted armor and renaissance fair leather jerkin. He bore a lance in one arm, in the other a shield, and, on his head, improbably enough, a motorcycle helmet, very out of place, with a grim black visor hiding his eyes.
The thing was heavy in Leon’s hand, warm, soft metal. So strange. Who could have, who would have made such a thing? And what was it doing on his desk?
“Mathilda?” he called.
“Yes Leon,” his assistant called back.
“Did Stuart leave this here?”
“You’ll have to do better than that.”
He walked out of his office bearing the creature in his fist. He displayed it for her, palm outward like he wanted her to give him a down low high five.
When she saw it, Mathilda only shook her head. Ostensibly she was Leon’s underling, though Leon suspected that he was more afraid of her than the other way around.
“This was on my desk,” he explained.
“What was it doing there?” she asked, craning her long, beautiful neck.
“That’s what I was wondering.”
“Can I see it?”
Leon held it closer to her. She wrinkled and twitched her nose like a lovely little rabbit.
“I guess it’s sort of funny.”
“It is, isn’t it?”
“What do you want me to do about it?”
I want you to laugh at it, he admitted to himself. I want you to appreciate my humanity.
But Mathilda would do no such thing, not while there was work to do. Her clothing today was especially enticing, low cut blouse and tight tan slacks, her cold nature sweetly contradicted. Leon had masturbated to her on several occasions.
“If you see Stuart would you call him in for me?”
“Should I tell him it’s urgent?”
“No, but if you want you can tell him it’s funny.”
“Okay, maybe I will,” said Mathilda.
The conversation was finished now. She’d turned back to her computer. She was always the first one to turn away, that was how he knew their power dynamic was screwed up.
Leon turned back into his office.
He set the figurine down next to the desktop photo of he and his girlfriend Heather at Disneyland, smiling, all lovely teeth and tourist sunshine. The Quixote fit strangely well beside it.
Quixote. That’s what it was. Like Cervantes’ eponymous Don. An oddly pitiable knight errant with an indisputable aura of significance about it; multiform courage with its useless lance and donkey. Alone and out of place in this world of money and microchips. Leon found himself smiling on it as if it were a prized possession.
And then he forgot about it, and embarked upon the drudgery of his day. The xerox machine whirred noisily across the cubicle aisle. Mathilda ran interference in the land where friendly sharks circled.
He found his list of calls that would keep him busy for the better part of the day. Research was his field; economics, the magic of the dismal science rendered less magical, talent and creativity encapsulated in graphs and charts and strictly declarative paragraphs. As he scanned 10-Ks and 10-Qs, the internet, and hammered out his data points, his eyes kept straying back to the oddly impactful Quixote.
When the lunch hour tolled and Stuart had yet to appear Leon hailed Stu himself by phone:
“Hello?” said Stuart, who hadn’t checked the phone’s caller ID, which would have displayed Leon’s name prominently.
“Stuart, buddy, didn’t Mathilda tell you I called for you?”
“Leon, my man, so sorry, I thought she said it wasn’t urgent.”
“See you in five at the elevators.”
“Sounds good to me.”
Stuart, in turn, hailed Vanessa and William, as was his wont, and therewith a respectable lunchtime crew gathered.
When Leon arrived they all smiled and greeted him.
They descended en masse, and crossed clanking, yelling, smelling Market Street and left the Financial District in favor of SOMA, South of Market, awash in suits and high heels, lanyards and briefcases, laptops and iPads.
Leon positioned himself to walk beside Stuart, he whose unconventional humor and ingenuous method at backhanded ingratiation perhaps leant itself to the placement of the Quixote on Leon’s desk.
“So Stuart,” said Leon. “Are you going to say something or should I?”
Stuart looked at Leon directly and smiled.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he answered.
“The thing,” Leon said, suddenly at a loss as to how to describe it.
Stuart’s grin was growing stale.
“I have no idea what you mean.”
“That thing, you know? The thing on my desk.”
“Leon, buddy, I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said.
“Really?” asked Leon.
“Really and truly.”
“Well, okay, I guess it’s nothing.”
“You aren’t getting off that easy.”
“Come on, Leon, you started this conversation.”
“Conversation about what?” asked William.
“Conversation about what, Leon?”
“It’s really nothing.”
Could it be that it hadn’t been Stu?
“What is it, Stu?” asked Vanessa.
“Leon’s blaming me for something.”
“Can you blame him?” said Vanessa, smiling.
“Indulge him,” said William. “Tell us what it’s about.”
“What did Stu do this time, Leon?” Vanessa asked, and now that was all of them.
“It’s nothing, really it’s nothing.”
“Just this little thing someone left on my desk while I was out of office.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t Mathilda?” asked Vanessa.
With but a brief consideration of his young secretary’s beautiful severity, Leon shook his head.
“So you just go blaming me? By default?” Stuart was laughing.
“I’m sorry,” said Leon. “It’s strange. It’s a joke. If you see it you’ll know what I mean.”
“What is it?” asked Vanessa.
“It’s hard to explain,” Leon answered. Indeed that’s exactly what it was, and at the same time he wasn’t sure why he should care so much — it was just so untoward, leaving that thing on his desk. A violation it was. Who had access to his office during the night, with he himself unawares?
But the others, except maybe for Stu, did not appear overly intrigued.
They ordered sandwiches at the San Francisco Sandwich Company, the lines here small, in proportion to the modesty of the restaurant.
They took the sandwiches take out to an outdoor garden on the top floor of an enclosed mini-mall. Familiar routine, though never exactly the same one day to the next.
Their conversation centered around the 49ers and the mystery of Leon’s artifact, hinted with humor and menace and competition. When they were done, they walked back to the office and the elevators, goodbyes proffered in the hallways past the lobby, reluctant parting smiles of William and Vanessa. Stuart disappeared as soon as the elevator doors opened, leaving with Leon the worrying feeling that he was up to something.
When he got back to his office Mathilda was still away.
The figurine was sitting where he had left it, next to the picture of his girlfriend. He considered it slowly as he approached.
Who had it been? he wondered again.
Was it a valentine? A secret admirer’s love note? Was he, Leon, the Quixote? An out of place knight inflicted with a motorcycle helmet? It could mean anything. But God, why a motorcycle helmet?
“Leon,” said Stuart in his doorway, knocking on the doorframe.
“Sorry to startle you. You called for me, didn’t you?”
As if he hadn’t guessed the motivation.
Leon shook his head.
“It’s nothing,” he said.
But Stuart came in anyway with a slow, pregnant pause.
Leon picked up the Quixote.
“Here,” he said. “Take a look and tell me what you think.”
Stuart came around to Leon’s side of the desk.
“Huh,” he said, taking it into his own hand.
Leon stared into Stuart’s eyes, which were fixed on the Quixote.
“Curious little thing isn’t it?” Stuart said and laughed.
“Yes,” said Leon.
Stuart weighed it and inspected it, then he laughed again as if he were already in on the joke.
“This was on your desk?” he asked.
“That’s where I found it.”
Leon didn’t answer.
“It seems that you’ve become the butt of somebody’s joke.”
“That is what it seems.”
“Maybe they thought you’d relate to it, odd little creature.”
Stuart put the Quixote back on his colleague’s desk.
“So you see why I thought it was you,” said Leon.
“Oh Leon,” Stuart said, shaking his head as if disappointed. “Who else would have thought so highly of me?”
“Perhaps we’ll never know,” Leon said.
“Well, Gosh darn it I’m curious myself.”
And then, before Leon could say anything in objection, instantly, fluidly, Stuart snapped a picture of it with his iPhone, grinned sheepishly, and just a bit manically, as if, much like Leon, he in fact cared about the answer. There was a pause while Stuart saved the picture, and the both of them stood there in silence, wondering what was happening between them.
Stuart was the first to break the spell.
“I’ll get back to you,” he said uncertainly.
“I know you will,” Leon said in reply, and then Stuart left his office, left Leon standing there, wondering.
Who else could it have been? Ah well. File it away, Leon, he told himself, and get back to work.
And the day carried forward, per usual with reliefs and tension, struggle and life, and when 4:30 rolled around Leon packed his suitcase and struck out for his car. He took the Quixote with him.
He went to Heather’s place after work, and they had wine and dinner and watched a romantic film called Safety Not Guaranteed, then they screwed heavily and lay in bed in each other’s arms. After a few hours Leon got up, got dressed and went home, their partnership of convenience. Heather occupied an important place in his life. She was a figure to be respected, if nothing else, and he was thankful for her when work and the simple drudgery of his days threatened to get the better of him. When he got home he undressed and brushed his teeth, got into bed and was asleep before five minutes had passed.
There might have been good reason that the Quixote chose him, he whose life was ordinary. There was a largeness about Leon that had room for a creature like the Quixote.
For when he woke the next morning, checked his e-mails and found that Stuart had sent pictures of the Quixote throughout the office list serve, with questions as to its meaning, its origin, its place on Leon’s desk, in short a large to do, if only a jestful one, Leon again felt that lingering feeling that something in his life was set to changing drastically.
Meanwhile, in a crumby apartment building on the other side of town, a cleaning woman named Consuela was just returned home from her nightshift in the towers of glass. She packed her things neatly away. Her true work had only just begun.