Mr. Lee Johnson kept many secrets. One was that he never stepped on the tile next to the trash can, especially the one near the front on the office. Not only was it inappropriate for officials to associate themselves with garbage, but it was embarrassing to admit that he held his breath if he even came within the vicinity of it, fearing something worse would be set into motion if he didn’t. Another secret was that few things bothered him more than the sound of slamming doors, which was why he always gently leaned his own shut upon entering the office. He would lean the blank blue wood into the steel doorframe, then turn the doorknob to mute the soft click. Perhaps Gentry wouldn’t have noticed him if it weren’t for the sound of alligator shoes on the carpet. Or perhaps he would, since it was unusual to use that door when he always used the one on the other side of the building. And in fact, it was unusual for him to leave his office at all.
But the truth was, Gentry hadn’t heard him; he’d felt him enter. It was in the chill that gripped hold, the cold which trickled down his spine in that old familiar way. The familiar pounding in his gut, the static in his ears. Drowning, it was like drowning when the breathlessness pulled him under, to where it was so dark and cold that nothing else existed but the wild beating of his heart.
It wasn’t the first time or last time he had faced his fears.
“That boy, Zach Tyler, is something else.” He heard his father say absently, forcing a breath past his lips. Johnson watched him swig down a sip of water for a brief moment, then turned his back to take the moment in his day where he always surveyed his desk; just to make sure everything was still in its place. That the pens were separated from the pencils, that the dust had stayed away from the carefully polished wood. That the square picture of his family was exactly in the left corner, turned so that the edge of the table would form a equilateral triangle. Nothing ever changed, and he made sure of that.
“It’s wrong what you’re doing with him.” He said without facing him, still surveying the bleak landscape that was his little office space. Twelve years of legal education amounted to this little space, to this crumb of power. Checking his desk had become more of a habit rather than necessity: he was used to checking that things were in check. That there was a place for everything and everything in his place— that was how things needed to be. Logical, organized, simple.
Yet opposites attracted, and he often wondered how it could be that the more he tried to control chaos, the more it controlled him. His gaze lingered on his Gentry now, frowning in wait for a reply. But he knew none was coming, it was just that the gesture was important if you pursued the intent of a conversation. Lecturing didn’t work.
“You’re pulling him into your mess.” He went on, while straightening his tie and jacket, “You’ll hurt him, it’s only a matter of time. I don’t know what you’re thinking. Perhaps, that he can take care of himself. But I’ve seen the way he looks at you.”
As predicted, no reply. Yet he knew that Gentry was listening, because he had stopped drawing circles, and simply sat staring limply at the sheet, pretending to think about anything but this.
“He might be in high school, but he’s still wet behind the ears, and likes to think he can have his way and change things. That somehow, he’s special; and that if he waits around long enough you’ll change. You should have seen the show he made of not going to the rally. Listen to me when I tell you this: If you care about him, you’ll leave and let him live a normal life.”
Gentry exhaled forcefully, then took another gulp of water. The tips of his ears were reddened, something he couldn’t hide. It was getting to him. The goldfish on top of the file cabinet swam in circles within its tiny bowl.
“So, which sob story did you tell him?”
“He isn’t with me because he feels sorry for me.” Gentry finally replied, then fell silent again.
Johnson’s eyes narrowed to slits when he smiled skeptically. Taking in the naiveté of the statement, and wondering if any of it was genuine.
“Aw, come now.” He said coarsely, “He’s a hormonal kid who’s discovered someone who knows how to give head. And he stays around because no one else pays that much attention to him.”
He went on, grinding out each word like stones against pavement. It took control to be like this... Firm, precise. The goldfish swam in circles.
“People don’t talk to him, they talk about him. And it’s always negative. No one really likes him, but he thinks you do. Yet, you’re really just bored, aren’t you?”
Gentry watched the goldfish, the fluorescent office light glinting off its silver back. It swam in circles, never once veering off its invisible path. He glanced away again, and took another swig of water, wondering if it ever viewed itself as a shark.
“You know; Gentry. This morning he made a scene about not going to the rally. He stayed in the cafeteria as everyone left, and I could tell from the look of him that he wouldn’t give in. So I thought what you would do, and didn’t make him. That’s your way of showing affection, right? You give him favors, like excusing that incident in the pool. But he doesn’t respond to me the way he does to you. Instead he gives me this mean, nervous look…like he knew something and couldn’t say it.”
Gentry was back to scribbling circles again. Neat, precise, circles. He knew he did that only to make him angry, to show him that he wasn’t worth listening to. That any mundane task could hold his attention more effectively.
“Does he know?” he asked him; and after a thoughtful pause, Gentry glanced up to reply:
“Don’t play games with me.”
“Games are supposed to be fun.” Gentry thought to himself, but instead kept silent and shrugged stupidly.
“He doesn’t know anything.”
And then his head fell down limply, fingers back at drawing circles. Mr. Lee drew a deep breath. This was grinding down his patience, but he wasn’t about to show it. It would be another secret.
“I know well enough to understand that I can’t force you to do anything you don’t want to, and I’m not about to try.” his eyes grew cloudy, and his voice quieted down to a murmur, “I also know one of my pictures is missing... Does Carly still have it?”
Johnson waited a moment before he prod against the table and leaned his weight over it, pressing his palms flat on the maple wood surface.
“I’m asking you. It’s in both of our interest to protect the family, if that means anything to you.”
His breathing grew heavy, labored by heart pains. He had been sick for a while now, and Gentry smelled the gradual death on him. There was no use in doing anything now. Johnson’s face flushed with anger he couldn’t hide, the inevitable nature which defined him, the feelings which all too often raced ahead of his thoughts. The goldfish swam in circles.