I worked in the little office in downtown Coopersville for four years, after a brief stint as a cold caller in Houston. I worked hard at my job, usually staying the night, late into the night, calling folks in four timezones with great deals on real estate.

There was an old man who worked with me, Alan Yuri; he’d been with the company all his life, or so I imagined. He was convivial. But during my second year with the company, Alan’s age began to show. Near to his retirement, the weight must have been greater than he was willing to let on.

One night, hours after everyone else had gone to sleep, it was only Alan and I hunched over our desks. The arc lights burned above the street that faced our building, and the sound of cars diminished over the span of hours. When they passed, they passed alone.

Alan let out a moan. Fried on coffee, I leapt up, thinking he may have fallen over, but when I came to him he was still at his desk, staring at his telephone, as if he’d sat there for a year before I’d reached him. At first I thought he was sick, but that wasn’t the case. He smiled at me weakly and played with a bent paperclip. His old lips smacked as he cleared his throat.

He always spoke very politely. “There must be some abluent to scour the grease from this task, and these tasks moreover,” he said. “There must be some element, much like a key, that rectifies that loose fragment in me that cannot be satisfied with upholding the rest, some key which bolsters the loose piece and constricts it against the greater structure, turns my senses apart from this dirty place that I inhabit, and makes happy what is sullen, cleanses the scum from my eyes. For all I see is mediocrity and its wages.” He bent the paper clip, and bent, too, his mouth into a conspiratorial smile. “I should have left much sooner. Or a long time ago.”

He pressed his pale lips together and sighed. Then he reached for the phone.

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