Leslie and the Powder is a novelette of eight chapters, posted serially three times a week by me, your rhythmically swaying host, Cheeseburger Brown.
Each of these stories has a secret soundtrack -- that is, a song that's become fixed in my head during the process of the story's conception and/or execution. For instance, the soundtrack to The Reaper's Coleslaw was "I Fought in a War" by Scotland's Belle and Sebastian; the soundtrack to Bad Traffic was "Ring of Fire" by the immortal Johnny Cash.
If this sort of thing interests you, the soundtrack for Leslie and the Powder is "Big Yellow Taxi" by Canada's own Joni Mitchell.
And now, we continue our tale:
On Tuesday morning Leslie drove to the office. Instead of taking his usual nip of drink he threw the tin flask out the car window as he turned into the parking lot, hearing it clang on the asphalt behind him.
In the elevator he caught himself humming.
He was early. The place was nearly abandoned. He nodded in a friendly way to the girls in the secretarial pool as he slipped into the kitchen. He made straight for the coffee machine as he pulled on his rubber gloves. He opened the tin of grounds, dumped a load of extract into it, and then mixed it thoroughly before putting on the day's first pot to brew.
The coffee machine began to chortle.
He went into his office and sat down, opening the lower drawer and withdrawing his emergency stash of booze. He dumped it in the garbage can, the bottles clinking. "It's a better world now," he told the bottles. "I don't need you anymore."
While he waited for his computer to boot he took his great-grandfather's folio out of his briefcase.
Predicting the effect of the extract presents an incalculable challenge as unintended consequences can be generated from the most seemingly innocent situation. A specific caution is called for with respect to commercial enterprises as their connections can be far-flung & difficult to foresee. By way of example I once treated my favourite handkerchief with the intention of restoring its original lustre & softness only to have it unravel into thread in my hands. Subsequent investigation revealed that the factory in which the product was woven had been a bastion of brutal forced labour by children until it burned to the ground on the same date that I treated my cloth.Leslie sniffed. Did he smell smoke? He decided it was his imagination.
Mitchell Green wandered by, leaning in the doorway of Leslie's office as he usually did, making his social rounds and telling off-colour jokes between brief bouts of returning to his own office to browse pornography. "Morning, Les. What's shaking?"
"Morning, Mitchell. Nothing much."
Mitchell pestered him about a bunch of melodramatic television shows Leslie didn't follow. "I can't believe you don't watch Sopranos," said Mitchell, cradling his coffee mug. "It's totally excellent. But Lost is good, too."
"I only get the low channels," shrugged Leslie apologetically.
Mitchell got bored and wandered away to bother somebody else about television. Leslie wondered for perhaps the hundredth time why nobody ever seemed to notice that Mitchell hadn't done an ounce of work for years. He was a professional coffee drinker and Web surfer, paid to disrupt others.
On his way to the morning meeting Ranjana from reception asked Leslie if he wanted a coffee. "No thank you," he said.
The meeting began predictably enough: a run down of current initiatives with brief status quacks from whomever was perceived as being on point. People mumbled over their coffees, eyes on the agenda. Time seemed to come a stop. Leslie burned to have a drink but fought down the urge.
"Everything on track with the budget review, Carstairs?" asked his boss, Mr. Feldman.
"Yes, we're in good shape," replied Leslie. "I have accounting sourcing those third quarter numbers now."
The meeting moved on. Leslie glanced at his watch. When he looked up again he noticed that Mr. Feldman was having a difficult time focusing his attention. Though he'd just asked a question of the vice-president to his right he was now searching the left end of the table distantly, his lips twitching slightly. The vice-presidential mumbling ran down and gradually all eyes turned to Mr. Feldman.
Mr. Feldman played with his pen idly for a moment, then looked up and flashed everyone a disarming smile.
"There's something I'd like to share with you all at this time," he pronounced carefully, putting aside the pen and folding his hands on the table before him. "The fact of the matter is that I have been personally embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from this company each month for the past fourteen months."
Sharon from marketing began to emit a friendly chuckle of joke appreciation but cut it off as she saw the hurt look in the Mr. Feldman's eyes.
"I'm serious. I feel really badly about it," said Mr. Feldman. "I am crippling this company financially in order to feed my cocaine habit. Also, I bought sportscars for both my mistresses." He coughed awkwardly. "And last week I groped Bernice Chisholm's breast and told her that if she ever told anybody about it she'd be fired."
All eyes turned to Bernice. She nodded mutely. Someone gasped.
"We really appreciate your candour, sir," said Leslie encouragingly.
Chad from IT nodded, his jowls quivering. "Last spring I stole a DVD player from the AV room and took it home for my kid. And...I want to pay the company back. Can someone source a cost on that for me?"
Sharon wrung her hands. "I drive around parks at night looking for people having sex in cars and then call the police and report them for incident exposure."
Ranjana topped up everyone's coffees and then stood at mid-table, holding the pot and looking around with a pained, nervous expression. Finally she said, "I think I'm gay."
"Super," said Leslie. "More power to you, Ranjana."
"Right on, sister," said Sharon.
"That's hot," said Mr. Feldman.
Leslie met Karen for lunch at the Seahorse. She was wearing a pair of jeans and a loose T-shirt, which she showcased for him by spinning on the spot like a runway model. "What do you think? I feel like one of my students," she said.
"Carefree and gorgeous," said Leslie.
She leaned in close and whispered, "I'm not even wearing a bra!"
"You're out of control," joked Leslie.
"I do feel a little all over the place," she admitted.
"I'm kidding. You look great. What are you going to eat?"
"You're crazy. That stuff'll kill you."
"Maybe," she agreed with a toothy grin.
The food arrived in a haze of steam. Karen dug in with relish. Leslie smiled as he watched her, swirling the end of his beer around in the glass before draining it. "How's school?"
"Easier. I hadn't realized what an atmosphere of confrontation I was fostering by trying to keep them all hemmed in close to the line. We had a class discussion about the war that was really amazing -- even the quiet ones had something to say once they realized I wasn't going to bite their heads off for saying the wrong thing, or saying it the wrong way."
Leslie couldn't help but ask after Angus. "Did you notice a change in him?"
"I sure did," she told him, nodding over a stringy forkful of poutine. "He told me he's thinking about running for council president next year. Wouldn't that be great for him?"
"I'm stunned. I'm pleased."
She put down her fork and looked at him levelly over the table, biting her lip playfully. "Can I ask you something, Leslie?"
"You can ask me anything."
"Do you promise not to laugh?"
"Do you promise to tell the truth?"
She raised her brow and leaned in closer. "Did you drug me?"
"You heard what I said."
"Why would I drug you?"
"That isn't an answer."
"Do you mean like a date-rape drug or something?"
"Yes, no -- I don't know."
"I'm being serious. Think about it, Leslie. For years I've been coping with...my problems -- in my own ways. Maybe they weren't great ways but they were my ways. And then suddenly I meet you and I feel it all fall away, like a suit of armour collapsing at my feet. But instead of feeling vulnerable I feel tall. Instead of feeling naked I feel strong." She smiled resignedly and sat back in her seat. "Maybe you're right, maybe it's chemistry. Maybe I've been waiting a long time for somebody like you to come along. But...well -- don't take this the wrong way..."
"I couldn't take anything you say the wrong way."
"...Well, you're nothing that special, Leslie. Don't misunderstand: I think you're a great guy; I think you're attractive; I think you're smart, and sensitive and funny. But you're just some guy. Do you know what I mean? Why do I feel this connection with you?"
"I don't know," claimed Leslie.
She chuckled, shaking her head. "As stupid it might sound, I keep coming back to our conference yesterday when you threw sugar in my face. Maybe it makes me sound paranoid, but I can't stop wondering about it. It was right after that...that's when -- I opened."
"Maybe somebody should've thrown sugar at you a long time ago."
"You think it would've helped?"
"How did it make you feel?"
"Humiliated, angry, shocked, confused..."
"You see? You needed to be snapped out of your scaffolding of dignity. You needed to have someone freak out on you -- someone you couldn't dismiss or punish. A wake up call."
She considered this and ate a gravy-soaked chip. "Maybe," she said, chewing. "Still, why did you have sugar in your briefcase?"
"They only have brown sugar at the office. I prefer white."
"That isn't a long story."
"No, it isn't."
"You said it was a long story."
"I guess I was using long as a euphemism for dull."
Karen laughed. "I think my life up until this week felt both long and dull."
"You're the furthest thing from dull, Karen."
"You're buttering me up."
"Are we still telling the truth? Yes. Yes, I am buttering you up. I'm hoping a girl as fantastic as you doesn't come to her senses and leave an aging dolt like me in the dust. Because if I don't get to touch you again I may go crazy."
"That's a lot of butter."
"Dairy is an important food group."
"Are you coming over tonight?"
"I sure hope so. Are you inviting me?"
They kissed. Back at the office Leslie tossed his overcoat in the corner and sank into his chair, eyelids heavy from the beer. He slapped the spacebar on his keyboard until the screen lit up, then grumbled when he found he was unable to open a connection to the central server. He called Chad's extension but got only voicemail.
Mitchell passed by in the corridor. "Hey, Mitchell!" called Leslie.
"What's up?" asked Mitchell, sticking his head in the door.
"Do you have any idea if Chad's around?"
"Chad quit? Why?"
Mitchell shrugged. "I don't know. He said something about going to Africa to help build infrastructure for impoverished communities."
"Listen Leslie, I've love to hang around and talk about this but my schedule's just choc-a-bloc this afternoon. I have to run to legal."
"Oh -- er, don't let me hold you up, Mitchell."
Leslie shook his head wonderingly as Mitchell jogged off with purpose, calling for someone up ahead to hold the elevator for him. Leslie had never seen Mitchell move so fast.
What incredible potency of influence must it take to so thoroughly blind one whom the extract has affected that they will blithely sail through the transition of personality without substantive remark? As far as I have been able to discover there is no charm or agency of bemusement at work beyond the amazing but familiar powers of self-delusion possessed by all men.Leslie wondered if Mitchell's wife would find the revision in his character as smooth to swallow as Mitchell had. He wondered what Mr. Feldman would tell Mrs. Feldman. He had no doubt that many of his colleagues would be having interesting encounters with their spouses tonight.
Nothing can be rationalized with fainter strain than a change in oneself. To each of us it is obvious that a better man lies just beneath the surface & very nearly realized; to each of us it is easy to defend a better version of ourselves as inevitable & authentic.That passage left Leslie with a strange, bitter taste in his gullet. Was there not a better version of himself lying in wait beneath his foibles? Was it possible without self-administering the extract to find out?
He jumped as someone rapped on the open door. He looked up and furrowed his brow. "Angus?"
"Hi, Dad. Can I talk to you for a sec?"
"Um, of course -- come in, come in."
Angus closed the door and took one of the grey, sorry-looking chairs across from Leslie's messy desk. He let his knapsack slide to the floor and launched into his piece immediately: "Mom didn't send me," he said, "but this is about Mom."
Leslie swallowed. "There's a little fridge full of pops over there. Do you want a can of pop?"
Angus shook his head, then tucked his hair behind his ears and looked Leslie in the eye. "Dad, I think you probably only have a short time to fix all this easily. After that it's just going to get harder and harder. Or impossible, I guess."
"Did your mother tell you to tell me this?"
"You're not listening, Dad. What I'm saying is that you have to decide sometime in the next day or so whether your marriage is something you're letting go of or holdering on to. Mom is...Mom still hasn't made up her mind yet. You have a chance."
"It isn't always so simple..." began Leslie.
"I just thought you should know," finished Angus. He scooped up his knapsack and stood. "I'm going to miss my bus unless I hurry."
Leslie stood up awkwardly. "Um, I could drive you to the stop."
"It's cool," said Angus. He left.
Leslie sat down again.
He swivelled in his squeaky chair and watched the sky darken over the city's core as the evening's lights winked on one by one, the traffic in the harbour unidirectional as everyone motored home for supper.
Without cigarettes or liquor he had no alternative but to actively feel sad and to sit with it. Without distractions he had no choice but to consider how to make things better.
The building emptied around him. Everyone but Mitchell Green and Mr. Feldman went home early. Then even they left, and the janitor arrived and nodded in a friendly way as he bent between Leslie's knees to retrieve and empty the trash can and recycling bin. Leslie was late to meet Karen. His pocket rang a couple of times.
"Hey, Sergey. You married?"
"Married? Yes I am, for sirty year."
"You mind if I ask you something?"
"Of course. Ass me anysing, okay."
"What's the number one rule for a successful marriage?"
Sergey rubbed his chin as he screwed up his mouth, considering the matter. "Number one rule? Okay: I have to say apology. You always have to make the good apology when bad sings happen, okay? It take a big man for apologize."
Leslie nodded to his reflection in the glass. "That's good advice, Sergey."
Sergey grinned and raised a second finger as he leaned into his cart of cleaning products. "Okay: number two rule? Make her the orgasm -- not just for you."
"Number three rule? Use thumb for --"
"Thank you very much, Sergey."
Leslie heard the cleaning cart wheeled away. The sky had turned brown, the city gold. Rush hour was ending, the last brake lights trailing away. His pocket rang again.
He came to a conclusion. He snatched up his jacket and left.