Brandi Wells

A Little Fresh Air

The employees are lined up, shortest to tallest. One long line of them, extending from one wall of the ballroom to the other, none of them dancing. Just standing shoulder to shoulder, all facing the same way. The ballroom never gets used properly as a ballroom. It’s labeled BALLROOM in big block letters hanging over the entrance doors, so everyone knows that’s what it used to be. Years ago Flinton’s hosted a dance for the elderly but more agile residents, though it wasn’t a success. There were several droolers in the crowd and their excess saliva made the floor so slippery that no one could keep upright. The night ended in an eleven-resident casualty and the cover-up that followed forced them to cut corners. The staff was downsized. A few of the staff members became residents. The cafeteria bought week-old food in bulk and served smaller portions. Many residents were too far-gone to complain. They didn’t notice the smaller portions or the cramped quarters. Didn’t notice when no one checked on them. A few died in the night of unknown causes and this wasn’t noticed for a long time, so the causes were unknown mostly because no one cared. Flinton’s still uses the air conditioner and heater sparingly. They open windows and turn on fans. Throughout the building a gentle whirl buzzes ambient. A little fresh air, they say. They put it on a billboard. A LITTLE FRESH AIR. A slogan is important, they think. Flinton’s is important and people ought to know.

So now the ballroom is not used for ballroom dancing. It’s a meeting room, a gathering place, more often for employees than residents. No one dances there, ever. But there’s a general understanding that once, there was dancing. Everyone sees everyone else imagining dancing, but nobody talks about dancing.

The facilitators of this particular meeting continue shuffling employees around to get the line-up right. Shortest to tallest, they say, reminding the group. People glance around and nervously reorder themselves, switching and then switching again because they aren’t sure. Some people stand back to back while a third party gestures toward the taller of the two. You’re too short to be here, the facilitators say and they pull Brian out of his spot and move him down the line, toward the shorter employees. He drags his feet, but the facilitators are persistent and guide him to correct spot. Right here, they say, pointing.

I’m 5’8, Brian says. He puffs his chest out, doesn’t smile, doesn’t make eye contact. He extends both his chest and abdomen, leaning, bowing backward, with his feet spread wide to create a stable foundation. He strains a little, but holds his position. See, he says. His calves tremble and his knees bounce a little.

No, the facilitators tell him. See here, they say. You’re 5’5, like the employees on either side of you. A facilitator holds up measuring tape and shakes it out, lets the loose end jiggle and snake toward the floor. The facilitator holds the tape next to Brian and shakes it again to emphasize his point. The man and woman on either side of Brian both puff out their chests too and extend their necks, trying to grow. They don’t look as confident as Brian, but they want to support him. They want him to be as tall as he feels. The woman gives up after a few seconds, though the man persists, his face turning red, his eyes averted. His legs shake, unsteady, so much that his torso begins to bobble. He’ll fall soon. It’s inevitable.

You just need to change your perspective, Brian says. Maybe 5’8 looks different than you imagined. It’s not too late to reconfigure your views, your perceptions. It’s not too late for you. I could be the new 5’8. What you thought of as 5’8 is gone forever. Think about how that might change everything. You could reach things you formerly couldn’t. Do things you couldn’t quite do before. See a little further. How do you even know your idea of 5’8 is correct? Who told you? Who told you this, tell me, who told you? You have a lot of confidence in yourself and in them. Give it some time. You’ll come around. You might experience life in a different way. You might.

The facilitators shake their heads and look at one another. No time allotted for this, they say. Sorry, no time. They move down the line, checking heights and shifting people around to make sure the line-up is accurate. People are easily pulled out of line and resorted. The man and woman beside Brian won’t look at him. They stare at the ground. Brian opens his mouth to talk, but the woman sighs loudly. He tries again, but her next sigh is more boisterous and she accidentally or on purpose spits on his shoe. Brian hangs his head and waits.

The room is loud. Everyone is talking to everybody else or to themselves. Huge fans in the ceiling blow lukewarm air at the floor, a warm breeze, like urine trickling through the air, so that everyone is sort of stand/swimming in it.

One facilitator clears his throat and then the other does too. The room is loud for a few more seconds and then quiet. The sound of everyone not talking all at once is like a gunshot and a few people look startled at the sudden lack of sound. Everyone watches the facilitators. The facilitators clap their hands in unison and begin to demonstrate correct postures, correct arm positions and neck rotations. They display appropriate expressions and walk around the room so everyone can see. All the employees try to stand still, but a few stumble away from the facilitators’ gaze.

Brian stands tall with his chest puffed out but listens and does what they say. He mimics them. Works hard to mold his face, works hard to mirror their every move, their every gesture, the subtle ticks that no one else notices. He thinks about what the insides of their mouths are probably doing and he does that too. He wonders what the insides of their mouths tastes like and how he might mimic this flavor. He feels a little smug, a little proud of himself. He’s been employee of the month for the past six years and he’s not going to ruin it now, no matter how tall or short they think he is. He’ll just keep working hard and count on their views to reconfigure. If he works hard enough and their conception of 5’8 changes, he thinks everyone can be happy. He is sure of it. He raises his arms just like theirs and makes the correct hand motions, tilts his head the right way. Just like everyone else.

He looks around and everyone else doesn’t quite look how he thinks everyone else ought to look. They aren’t trying as hard as he is. They’re distracted. Some of them are whispering to one another. A few have their phones out and are pressing buttons. Click, click, click and a little glow on their faces. The facilitators aren’t holding any phones, Brian thinks. They aren’t pressing any buttons. He straightens his back and holds his arms out on either side of him, elbows crooked. He swells with pride, but tries to empty it, because he doesn’t imagine this is how the facilitators feel. This feeling could inadvertently shape his body incorrectly or change his facial expression.

Everyone else is doing the best they can, he thinks. Their best just isn’t very good. After the session they all sit down, legs folded, to review the handbook for Flinton’s. Everyone is very quiet because they know they’ll be punished if they make any noise during this informational session. The facilitators hand out laminated copies of the Rules and Regulations for Employees of Flinton’s Home for the Elderly or Disabled.

The facilitators take turns reading this document aloud and Brian listens. He wants to be the very best he can be. He wants to fit in. Everyone else listens too. They’ve found a place they can be and they do not want to fuck this up, because they have had other jobs and they hate those jobs. They hate those places. Flinton’s, they are told, is a very good place. The facilitators smile. Please review these rules and regulations thoroughly, they say. There will be a quiz next week. Bring your number 2 pencils. Bring a few sheets of scratch paper. There will be math involved and you’ll be required to show all your work.

Brian wonders about the tastes inside everyone’s mouth. He wonders about their reading comprehension levels. He watches the way his fellow employees slump, the way their spines curl, the way they breathe through their mouths. Their mouths must taste very much like the air in the room. Brian opens his mouth to taste a bit of the air. He lets it seep into his mouth and rest on his tongue, his gums. His reading comprehension levels are very high, he thinks.

Brandi Wells is the author of Please Don’t Be Upset (Tiny Hardcore Press) and This Boring Apocalypse (Civil Coping Mechanisms). Her writing appears in Denver Quarterly, Sycamore Review, Paper Darts, Folio, and Chicago Review.