A spider lives in a crack in my bedroom wall. The crack is highlighted by white smears where ineffectual insect spray has cleaned away the yellow smoke stains. I see the spider most mornings. It goes to bed as I rise. A huntsman that hunts by night.
Nothing lives in the cracks that are forming on my face. My girlfriend Jodie tells me not to smile, but she makes me smile. She is making my face split into segments.
At work, Barry says that if I hope to become a partner in our law firm before I am thirty-five, I should marry Jodie and fill her full of children. He says that unmarried men over thirty are perceived to be dysfunctional. Barry is forty-three, single and fat. He says this is why he hasn’t been promoted. I tell him it’s because he’s the only person at Goldstein, Zuckerman and Associates who wears a moustache in the same style as Hitler.
Mr. Goldstein is a founding partner. I tell him about the spider in the crack. He says cracks are inevitable and, had he not been a lawyer for forty-nine years, he would find my spider charming. I tell him he is a good man. He tells me to get out while I can. He pulls yesterday’s lunch from his drawer and tells me to feed the sandwich to the pigeons in the park.
The park became an office block three years ago. The only pigeons within ten miles are turning on skewers in the window of the delicatessen, forty floors below us. I give the sandwich to Barry. Mustard sticks to his moustache.
My secretary Paul types a letter that I dictated in legalese, advising a client to proceed with a noise complaint against his neighbour. Paul speaks without looking at me: Forty-eight pages so far. Can’t we just call him? I remind him that the firm gets paid by the word. He says his hands are turning into claws.
I close my office door and spin in my chair until I’m so dizzy I fall to the floor. When I can stand, I press myself hard against the window, looking down, wondering how far I could fly if I had a hang glider.
Legend has it that when the windows of the building across the road were installed, the builder proved they were safe by taking a running jump at one of them. I think of him whenever confused seagulls slam into my window.
Jodie calls me from the restaurant where she works to tell me she cut open an avocado and found a shade of green that matched my eyes. She was going to save it and show me, but it would have turned brown; so she took a photo. A Big Mac wrapper blows against my window as she tells me this. I shoot staples at it and tell Jodie that if she ever has her face bitten off by a crocodile, I will still kiss her.
I’m on top of my desk, pretending to surf. Barry comes in with a file. I tell him I’m checking the ceiling for cracks. He tells me to check the mirror. I open the file and Latin spills out. Prima facie, non est factum, gluteus maximus. The sun breaks open the clouds and screams carpe diem. I take a running jump at my window. I bounce and fall to the floor as the glass wobbles out a tune: Memento mori, memento mori.
Paul delivers the letter for my inspection. I weigh the sixty-odd pages in my hand, give them back to him and ask him to add another twenty. He snaps all my pencils and says, Why don’t you write it? I tell him about the spider. He says I should kill it. I tell him it’s not that easy. He says he can no longer feel the tips of his fingers.
Billy the mail-boy knocks dum diddly um dum on my open door and lobs a bundle of letters onto my desk. He tells me I’m looking good. He has almost finished his law degree at Melbourne University and needs letters of recommendation to help him get a placement to complete his Articles. He asks if I’ll write one. I ask him what he wants to do, more than anything else in the world. He says, Same as you.
I want to climb the biggest mountain I can find. I want to throw snowballs at mountain goats and God. I want to look taller. Billy nods. He thinks I’m speaking in metaphors. I tell him about the spider. He says cracks will always be filled with something. He tells me about a grub he found living in the drainpipe of his bathroom sink. It lived on spat-out toothpaste and wash-off dirt. I tell him he’ll get his letter.
It’s eleven o’clock and time for the mid-morning conference. In the elevator I meet Philip, a senior associate. He asks if I’m coming to the Christmas party. I tell him I’m bringing Jodie. He shakes his head. Spouses only. I tell him about the dinner Jodie cooked me last night. Rainbow trout baked in garlic and butter; scalloped potatoes in a cheese sauce; mushroom salad. Apple strudel for desert. He says, Jodie’s a cook, isn’t she? He looks at me as if I’ve broken wind. I tell him about the spider. Spouses only, he says.
There are twenty-one at the meeting. Mr. Goldstein sits at the head of the table trying to piece together the wooden cube puzzle I gave him yesterday. Report after report is read aloud until the room is crammed with sentences too long to ever finish. Act, section, subsection and subsubsection numbers rebound off unbreakable windows. Mr. Goldstein solves the puzzle and slides it down the table to me. He pulls five small jacks from his pocket and motions me to him. When the meeting is over, he is way ahead. He looks out the window and tells me the jacks are knuckles from a guard at the Stalag where his father died.
I tell Mr. Goldstein that I’d like Jodie to come to the Christmas party. He looks down at the street and says: The people aren’t really that small, are they? I tell him it depends; some people never get any bigger, no matter how close you get to them. He says, Forget the Christmas party; let’s go rollerblading through the stock exchange instead. I remind him about Jodie’s leg. Sorry, he says, we’ll help out at the city mission, then. I tell him Jodie would like that. He says, It’s funny; my wife was beautiful. Jodie is beautiful. Yet they look nothing alike, nor like anyone else I’ve known who was beautiful. I tell him what Jodie cooked for me last night. He says, I find it hard to eat anything but soup these days.
I run into Philip on my way downstairs. He tells me he was joking about the Christmas party. He doesn’t expect me to be with the firm that long. I tell him what Mr. Goldstein said. Philip doesn’t expect Mr. Goldstein to see Christmas at all. I shuffle my feet on the carpet and zap him with static electricity, right on the earlobe.
Paul ignores me when I walk past his desk, but he has left a fresh box of pencils in my office. The broken pencils are in my waste-paper basket. I pick them out and glue them onto a sheet of paper in the shape of a smiley face. I put this into an envelope and send it to him through internal mail.
I take lunch from my briefcase and ride the elevator down to the fountain in the foyer. Everybody in the elevator grins as their ears pop. Perhaps they think it only happens to them.
There is a statue of Atlas in the middle of the fountain. He seems to be holding up the world to prevent it from getting wet. A duck swims in the fountain. I can’t imagine how it got past the security guard. Red numbers move across the strip above the doorway to the stock exchange. Somebody buys a hundred thousand shares in BOG and the price increases. I feed the duck some mushrooms from my leftover salad.
A sunshower starts, but by the time I push past the crowd running inside to avoid it, it has passed. A rainbow is reflected in segments off the walls of six glass buildings. I chain-smoke six cigarettes and go back to work with a headache.
There is a writ on my desk. Philip is suing me for assault. I jot down notes for a counterclaim and call Paul into my office. He had lunch with his wife, but it doesn’t seem to have helped their problems. He listens to my instructions without comment and takes my box of tissues when he goes back to his desk.
Barry comes in to tell me I should sack Paul. He feels challenged by Paul’s crying. Emotion should only be displayed in court, he says.
I take another run at the window. I’d love to see what I look like from the other side. Maybe one of the window cleaners would video it for me. My shoulder hurts.
Jodie calls again, just to say she found a piece of bacon that had the exact texture of my elbow, and to check that I’m not smiling too much. I tell her I was doing fine until she called. She has been dropping things all day. She’s worried about going back into chemotherapy, and whether she’ll be well enough to go to the Christmas party. I tell her Mr. Goldstein’s Christmas idea and she cries and says she’ll make him some soup. I kiss the mouthpiece of the phone, pressing hard, trying to get through to her lips. I tell her that even if she loses the leg, I’ll carry her up the mountain.
I get an e-mail from Philip, telling me he’s received my counterclaim. He wants Mr. Goldstein to settle the issue. The trial is set for three o’clock in Mr. Goldstein’s office. I break all my new pencils into very small pieces.
Paul comes in with the smiley face and drops it in my bin. As he turns to leave, I grab his arm and tell him that Jodie feeds people. And herself, obviously, he says. I tell him that when cracks form, creatures crawl in and you can never get them out. He says, I can kill anything…it’s keeping things alive that’s difficult. He walks to the window. They’re just ants, he says. He runs a fingernail along a small crack in one corner of the glass. Jodie feeds you too well, he says, you’re getting heavy. He taps his wedding ring against the glass, takes it off and holds it to his eye. You can see the whole world through a ring, he says, until you put it on. He takes some blue-tac from my drawer, retrieves the smiley face and sticks it to my wall.
Mr. Goldstein sits in front of Philip and me, reading our statements. Trial by ordeal, he announces. He tells us that one of the windows in his office is not unbreakable. Gentlemen, choose your windows. Providence will decide. I run, I jump, I hit the glass and bounce off. Philip withdraws his claim and returns to his office.
Mr. Goldstein says, Soon the wind will blow through this window. Atlas’s arms are tired. The creatures in my cracks are pushing at the seams. My house is in disorder. This ivory tower has tooth decay. The least I can do is give it a good brushing before bedtime.
He hands me an envelope. He says, I bet you never thought a mountain could fit into an envelope. I tell him he’s wrong. He tells me he’s going to be buried under his office. The entire floor below is going to be filled with earth. I ask, Won’t that make the building unstable? He winks. He shakes my hand. I hug him. He pinches my cheek. I pull his beard.
Paul meets me in the hallway. Jodie collapsed at work, he says. He hands me a slip of paper with the address of the hospital. I didn’t know, he says. I wouldn’t have said…if I’d known. We embrace. Up close, his aftershave is not so offensive.
In my office, two men have already begun clearing out my files. Personal effects have been thrown in a rough pile. Jodie’s picture smiles at me upside down. Barry places a hand on my shoulder and says, It’s the way it is, mate. The strong survive, the weak…well, it’s been in the cards for a while, huh?
Jodie feeds people, I say. Without food the strong become weak. Everything dies.
Barry sees the envelope in my hand. I tell him it’s a mountain. He puts it down to stress. Tough day, he says. Stop by for a drink sometime. Out of the corner of my eye I see something fall past my window.
I go to ask Mr. Goldstein for a picture of himself. He is not there. He once told me that water boils at a lower temperature at high altitudes, and he has to go downstairs for a decent cup of coffee. I look through his drawers and find a photo of him graduating from Harvard. There is a cold draught that makes my skin prickle.
I look closely at the photo while riding the express elevator to the foyer. I realize that Atlas has been modeled on Mr. Goldstein. My ears pop.
I go to the fountain in the foyer and snatch the duck. It flaps in my arms and feathers fly, tickling Atlas’s armpits. I avoid the crowd standing in a wide semi-circle around the front entrance and cut through the stock exchange to the back door. Someone shouts, Hey! He’s got the duck! I run, pursued through alleyways and malls until I find myself in a street near an available taxi. I flash money at the driver and tell him to take me far away. He points to a sticker on the dashboard: No ducks. I get out and release the duck. It just stands there next to me. I want it to fly, to escape, to find its way home. I kick it hard in the tail and it flies.
I watch it flap its wings unsteadily. I watch it dodge the tram wires. I watch it climb high above me, so far away that I am an ant among other ants, and it is a mote in the big blue eye, too high to see the cracks and the things that dwell within them.