The new executive director, Winthrop Sinclair, is played by the same actor who played my gym teacher, Mr. Orringer, in eighth grade. I meet Mr. Sinclair as I’m coming in from lunch. His chief of staff, Sue Lonsbee, stops me in the lobby to introduce me. I’m no bigwig, but she stops me just the same. She says, “I’d like you to meet Winthrop Sinclair, the new executive director,” and I square my shoulders and shake his hand—firm grip, eye contact, the way you’re supposed to in these situations. I say, “Hello,” instead of, “Nice to meet you,” since I’ve technically already met him (the actor) long ago, when I was in eighth grade. I do well, even as I wasn’t prepared to meet the new executive director, especially one who’s played by the same actor as my eighth grade gym teacher. I’m caught unprepared, though I noticed Sue as I entered the lobby, even if I hadn’t noticed that she was with the same actor who’d played Mr. O., which was what we’d called Mr. Orringer twenty-five years ago. I noticed Sue because she wears short skirts and has great legs, and because once, when she first started as chief of staff for the old executive director, I happened upon her in the break room purchasing a bottle of spring water, and she told me that I was very good looking, a compliment I accepted even as I’d been caught unprepared and didn’t know how to respond except to feed my dollar bill into the vending machine. I knew then she was chief of staff from the introductory video that had been posted to the intranet, where she’d appeared in a short skirt that had revealed her nice legs, but here she was in real life with a newly purchased bottle of spring water in one hand and her change in the other, and I wondered where this interaction was going, given that she’d told me I was very good looking and she was very good looking herself. Plus, she was chief of staff and probably making bank. And I noticed she was also married, per the gold band around the ring finger of her left hand. And I wondered later, when I’d retreated to my cubicle with my bottle of cola, whether I’d imagined the whole thing.
Once, in first grade, I was in line behind Amy Russo. They always put first graders in line because it’s good practice and a good life skill to get in line and stay in line. I liked Amy Russo. She had dark hair and dark eyes. I liked her enough that I was searching for something to say. My mind was blank. I was distressed. The next thing I knew she turned around and stroked my forehead with her fingertips and said, “You poor, poor dear.”
That was the year we sat cross-legged on the rug in the corner of the classroom and our teacher, Miss Vanderslice, sat on a chair in front of us with her knees together, next to a globe perched on a desk, and taught us about different parts of the world. In Africa, she told us, there were lions and elephants and giraffes and zebras. My hand shot up. “I’ve been to Africa,” I said. But I’d never been to Africa. Miss Vanderslice knew it. The kids on the rug with me knew it. It was inexplicable that I said, “I’ve been to Africa,” just as it was inexplicable when Amy Russo stroked my forehead and said, “You poor, poor dear,” just as it was inexplicable when Sue Lonsbee said, “You’re very good looking.”
Now Sue reminds the new executive director about his one o’clock. I sneak a peek at her knees, her shapely calves. She wears high heels with pointy toes. Her short skirt is gold with black spots, like a leopard, and I can’t remember whether leopards live in Africa.
“Call me Win,” the new executive director says. He again extends his hand and our eyes meet for a brief moment, but he’s looking through me, not at me, and I remember eighth grade, basketball tryouts with Mr. O., how he had his favorites, how I never stood a chance. If Mr. O. were a real person he wouldn’t remember me now because I never meant anything to him. But Mr. O. isn’t a real person—he was a character played by an actor who’s now playing Winthrop Sinclair, the new executive director, whose hand I now take, and say, “Okay, Mr. O., I see you.” Confusion flickers across Winthrop Sinclair’s face and gives way to alarm. Because I’m squeezing his hand the way a gym teacher would. Because I’ve broken character and don’t give a fuck because I was never hired as an actor. I was hired as Program Specialist I and was recently promoted to Program Specialist II. And that’s when Sue Lonsbee intervenes. Her role as chief of staff is to get the new executive director to his one o’clock on time. She says my name, and I release the new executive director’s hand, which he raises, palm out, as if to defend himself. Then he turns, guided by Sue toward the elevator bank. But the expression of alarm remains, as though he sees me for the first time, recognizes me, and realizes he’s failed as executive director his first day on the job.
Dana Cann is the author of the novel Ghosts of Bergen County (Tin House). His short stories have been published in The Sun, The Massachusetts Review, The Gettysburg Review, The Florida Review, and elsewhere, while his essays appear in Literary Hub and Barrelhouse, among others. He’s received fellowships from the Maryland State Arts Council, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, and the Sewanee Writers Conference. He reads fiction and non-fiction for CRAFT Literary, and teaches fiction at Johns Hopkins University and The Writer’s Center. Find him on twitter @dana_cann.