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The Man with the Thick Black Spectacles
by D. HARLAN WILSON
Before opening the door and entering the conference room, the man in the thick black spectacles removed the wad of chewing gum from his mouth and, after glancing in every imaginable direction, stuck it into an unassuming, seemingly clean crack in the wall. He would retrieve the gum from the crack later, after the meeting, which would take no more and no less than five minutes. He knew this for three reasons:
1. This morning the man in the cubicle next door had told him so.
2. There was a neon billboard hanging from the ceiling of the office that read:
5 MINUTES LONG
NO MORE, NO LESS
3. Of the countless meetings he had attended before, he could not remember one of them being more or less than five minutes.
So there was no reason why this meeting should be any different, and no reason why the man in the thick black spectacles should be worried.
Still, he was worried. Five minutes was five minutes, after all.
He placed a fingernail between his teeth and began to chew on it. What if, say, a fly landed on the gum while he was away? He would have no way of knowing what the fly had done to the gum in his absence. For all he knew, the fly would crap on it, meaning that the man in the thick black spectacles, in the not-too-distant future, might very well be chewing on fly dung. This wasn't a pretty thought so he tried not to think it, or to think thoughts like it. He couldn't allow himself to. To allow himself to think that way would be distracting, and this meeting, while short, was, like all of the other meetings, an important one. It required that he besharp as a tack.
Removing the fingernail from his teeth, he opened the door ... and hesitated, unable to help himself, despite himself.
Five minutes, he thought. Sometimes one minute seems like an eternity, especially when you're thinking about that minute. It's one thing to handle one minute, or rather, one eternity. But can I handle five of them?
Eyeing the gum, he clicked his tongue and stroked his brow. He sighed. Closing the door, he looked back over his right shoulder, his left shoulder, his right shoulder. Then he looked between his legs, underneath his shoes ...
Hardly satisfied, but more anxious now about hesitating and being late for the meeting than abandoning the gum, the man in the thick black spectacles walked in at last, closing the door behind him slowly, guardedly, without a sound, pulling his beaklike nose inside just as the door clicked shut.
Immediately the man in the silver handlebar mustache unfolded his appendages and snuck out from behind the water cooler. Giggling, he crept over to the crack in the wall. He stretched out his long neck, rolled out his tongue and began to lap at the gum as a thirsty dog might lap at a bowl of water.
At the same time the man in the neon zoot suit wormed his way up from out of the soil in the pot that contained the office's largest rubber plant, using the branches of the plant for leverage, but still, this worming took a while. By the time he was free of the soil and had dusted himself off, the man in the silver handlebar mustache was fully engaged, his tongue lapping at high speed. The man in the neon zoot suit would have to wait his turn. Being the impatient sort, he couldn't help but curse, albeit he did so in an undertone. But after a while the man in the flamingo pink top hat fell through a ceiling tile with a crash and at least the man in the neon zoot suit had some company now. He stopped cursing ... until the man in the flamingo pink top hat started cursing, first because he had fallen, second because of the man in the silver handlebar mustache, who was taking too long, far too long. He was hogging the wad of chewing gum all to himself!
Not a moment passed before the man in the neon zoot suit joined his estranged colleague in blasphemous harmony. "Why not give us a go, you filthy bastard?" they told the man in the silver handlebar mustache, who promptly sucked his tongue back into his mouth, stood upright and about-faced. To his aggressors he replied "If one wants something, all one has to do is ask. That's all one has to do."
The sarcasm in the man in the silver handlebar mustache's tone of voice was flagrant enough but neither the man in the neon zoot suit nor the man in the flamingo pink top hat had ever cared enough about sarcasm to be able to detect it, even if it slapped them across both cheeks. Muttering hasty thankyous under their breath, they attacked the crack in the wall at one and the same time, smacked into one another and fell to the floor. They got to their feet and blinked. Following a brief, woozy exchange, they played rock-paper-scissors to see who between them got to lick the gum first.
The man in the flamingo pink top hat won.
"Balls," exclaimed the loser; he ripped the peacock's feather out of his tando hat and stomped on it as the victor, with the tip of his sharp tongue, began stabbing at the gum, again and again, growing more excitable and outrageous with each snakelike stab. The man in the silver handlebar mustache, now leaning up against the wall with arms crossed, sniggered, then began moving his tongue around the insides of his mouth so that his cheeks kept poking out. He smacked his lips, too, each time glaring derisively at the man in the neon zoot suit out of the corners of his eyes.
Finally the man in the neon zoot suit had had enough. Being twice as tall and twice as strong as the man in the flamingo pink top hat and the man in the silver handlebar mustache combined, but always hesitant to resort to his brawn until the last straw had been drawn, which it had, which it most definitely had--he backhanded the man in the flamingo pink top hat away from the wall and sent him sliding down the hallway on his spine, his arms and legs and sharp tongue waving in the air like the extremities of an overturned beetle. Then he pointed an angry warning finger at the man in the silver handlebar mustache, but all that man was doing was whistling a quiet tune and feigning a reverie. This irked the man in the neon zoot suit but not enough to lead his one-track mind astray; he just pressed a finger to one nostril and out the other nostril blasted out an ornery little snot ball and then he opened up his shark mouth and turned and made for the gum that the man in the thick black spectacles had stuck right there in the crack in the wall ... but too late, too late. The door to the conference room was being opened up, slowly, guardedly, without a sound, and in a flash the man in the silver handlebar mustache had folded himself up behind the water cooler again, and the man in the flamingo pink top hat had both rallied from the backhand and leapt back up into the ceiling, replacing the tile he had fallen through with a fresh one. So the man in the neon zoot suit was all alone. And when the man in the thick black spectacles emerged, it was he and no other that would be to blame, despite his innocence. For while the man in the neon zoot suit had certainly wanted to lick the gum, and would have licked it if he could have--and the gum had clearly been licked, a forensics expert wasn't needed to figure that out--the truth of the matter was: he had not licked anything.
At this point the man in the neon zoot suit asked himself three simple questions. He would have asked himself more, but time of course wouldn't permit it.
1. What is to become of me once I get caught?
2. Will the man in the thick black spectacles attack me or give me the opportunity to explain myself?
3. Given the opportunity, how will I explain myself?
The man in the neon zoot suit was about to ask himself a fourth question when something overcame him, something that, when he reflected on it later during a water cooler conversation with the man in the silver handlebar mustache and the man in the flamingo pink top hat, he described as an "impulsive burst of energy" that allowed him to spring up and across the hallway, dive back down into the soil of the rubber plant and cover himself over just enough so that nobody would take note of his stealth. "It was a brilliant move," he bragged.
"And yet quite unnecessary," smiled the man in the silver handlebar mustache.
The man in the flamingo pink top hat added "Yes. Quite unnecessary."
When the man in the neon zoot suit said "I don't get it," the man in the flamingo pink top hat, who had seen everything through a mouse hole in the ceiling, told him. "As it so happened," he said "the man in the thick black spectacles, after slipping out the door that led into the conference room, was apparently so preoccupied that he forgot all about his gum. He stood there in the hallway a moment, nervously fingering an ear lobe and flexing his jowls. Then he spent some time making these sickly croaking noises. I suspected he was either about to faint or have a heart attack and die, but just as this suspicion crept into my mind he bleated like a sheep that's been sat upon by a fat man. Finally he scurried off, down the hallway, talking to himself in a worried voice. And that's that."
"That's that," repeated the man in the neon zoot suit in a dull whisper, then turned with a quick jerk, like a man that wants to be alone with his dread.