Greedy shadow slinks over checkout lane number thirteen, consuming the conveyor belt, the register, and the oblivious, brace-faced girl behind the counter. The Wauwatosa Kroger has hardly been open for ten minutes, and its self-checkout stations do most of the work; no cloying couponer has arrived to peel the cashier’s attention away from her phone. The essence of a smile touches her chapped lips as she types a message to her boyfriend: getting paid to read twitter lol.
Then there’s a crash. Chunks of glass hail down, tumbling across the counter and onto the floor below, breaking into hundreds of tiny shards. The girl looks up… and up… and up….
Above her is a mountain of a man, more than twice her height and three times her width. He’s rubbing the top of his bald head with one hand and steadying the broken light fixture with another, groaning softly. “Youch!” he says. “Sorry about the mess, miss. I’m just about the biggest putz there ever was.”
“It’s okay, Boff,” says the girl, calmly sweeping glass into a small bin. “Andy ordered a bunch of replacements after last time.”
“Thank you for being so understanding, Miss Alice. Again. It truly means a lot. I would go through self-checkout, but, you’ve seen how it is. Hard on the old knees.” He mimes squatting down to use the touchpad, and in doing so knocks a few dozen magazines off the shelf behind him. “Bother.”
“No worries,” the girl mutters. She lifts a 4-pack of Pepto Bismol out of the shimmering sea of glass and turns it over until the scanner beeps.
“Big day at work,” Boff says sheepishly, confessionally.
“Umm… hmm… yes. What kind of gum would you recommend?”
A tumbleweed crosses the dead city street. At this hour, the strongest signs of life are little bluish lights seen quivering in the windows of boxy apartment megaplexes, each separated from the others by walls of brick and mortar. It is as though in the course of a night, someone has captured all the dying stars and made an exhibition out of them, for posterity’s sake. The few people that are outside are staring at their feet as they shuffle about, earbuds blaring.
Boff’s stomps are like a heartbeat pulsing through town, causing the area around him to tremble. The trees rustle with his breath. Were he to stomp and shout, he could bring down every building on Main Street. That much has already been established; he is dangerous and everyone knows it.
More importantly, he is an excellent father and an absolute pillar of his community.
“Good morning, Mr. Squims,” he coos, waving to a squirrel sitting atop a streetlamp. The giant’s outside voice is like a chainsaw cutting through the morning calm. He reaches into his pocket and offers a piece of gum. The little critter snaps it right up and shoves it into one cheek, wrapper and all.
“Remember,” Boff says, “the back of the teeth”.
After a moment, the squirrel manages to blow a small bubble. Then, chittering with joy, he pops it with his paws.
“Very good!” says the giant, causing the light in the lamp to flicker. “I bet you’ll be even better next time!”
And not long after Boff is gone, the neighborhood stirs to life.
Boff works at Corpacorp, a (relatively) mid-sized firm that offers meta-consulting services, typically to (relatively) large consulting firms in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—or, as Boff’s colleagues would put it, Over Yonder Down By The Water There. The office is located on the thirteenth floor of a 25-story building, sandwiched between a rotating cast of short-lived businesses. Corpacorp is doing (relatively) well: the salaries are steady, the people are nice, and the dental package is comprehensive. Its employees consider themselves lucky, no matter how mind-numbing the work can be. The only real downside is that there’s not much room for growth.
Boff’s sweaty bald head scrapes the ceiling as he makes his way to his cubicle. He sits on a jumbo medicine ball (he’s working on his posture), clicks on a small fan (for his hyperhidrosis), and downs a bottle of Pepto in two gulps. It’s a big day at work indeed: only twelve hours ago, he received an email from Colleen in HR requesting his presence at a Monday Morning Meeting.
At midnight last night, he woke up his normal-sized wife, Florabella. This could really be it, he told her. Triple M’s are usually reserved for management. In response, Florabella tugged on his arm and said, You’re hogging the duvet. Boff apologized.
He’s trying not to get his hopes up, but even the slightest chance that he might finally get promoted has got his stomach in knots. Already he’s thinking, will his subordinates take him seriously? Will he be able to handle the responsibility? He’s not sure. From his point of view he can see farther than most, but he’s smart enough to know that he’s a little bit slow, and a lot bit clumsy.
A few minutes later, a tiny woman with big glasses appears. “Boff? They’re ready for you.”
Boff stands and takes a deep breath, accidentally blowing some of his affirmations off of the cubicle walls. “You got this,” he whispers, but the whole office can hear him. He’s so, so loud.
The three men across the conference room table have spent the morning staring at spreadsheets, and it’s obvious. Their bodies are bent and withered to fit budget mesh office chairs. Two of them seem genuinely happy to see Boff, even though their shoulders still tighten up a little every time they see him. It’s a good sign, he tells himself.
“We’re downsizing,” says the middle one.
Boff clears his throat, startling everyone. “Sorry?”
“Oh dear… I see… am I fired, sirs?”
“What? No! Of course not. You’re a huge part of what we do here.”
“Um… I’d prefer it if you didn’t refer to me that way.”
The one on the right snorts. “Good one, Greg.”
The one on the left makes it clear. “Nobody’s getting fired.”
Boff begins to bounce his knee out of nervousness, shaking the table. “So… what? I’m demoted?”
Greg’s thick gray brows come down. “Nothing like that. How can I…? Well, there’s no sense in beating around the bush. The managers of this property are hungry to expand. They’ve got a fresh set of contracts with local businesses signed and sealed, but City Hall doesn’t want to let them add on to the building. This means that in the interim, we here at Corpacorp are going to have to do our part to make room. We thought you should be the first to know for, well, obvious reasons.”
“I don’t understand,” Boff says. “Another company is going to move in here with us?”
Greg shakes his head. “No, no. I talked them out of that one, thank God. Think of it like adding another deck to a big old sandwich. They’re just going to squish everyone down a smidge, then pack in the new floors up top. Our ceiling is only getting lowered by a foot, which I think isn’t so bad, right? It's an efficiency thing, see. Might have to be a little extra careful on the way in and out is all. Sound good?”
Before Boff can respond, the man on the right chimes in.
“They’re also bringing the floor up. But only by a couple of feet. You get it.”
Boff does not get it.
Boff is twelve and a half feet tall. Alright, 12’4”, but that’s splitting hairs.
Starting Monday, Corpacorp will only allow for nine.
He’s dangerous, and everyone knows it. If the bosses had it their way, he’d be muzzled and leashed. Should it be any surprise that they’re asking him to crawl?
Sitting in his cubicle, Boff thinks about screaming, stomping, and ripping the beams out of the walls. He thinks about rolling around in the stone and ash after the building has collapsed. He knows exactly how he’ll do it: he’ll wait until he’s sure everyone’s gone, then just sort of start thrashing around and hope for the best. In the morning everyone will wake up, look out their windows, and send him their blessings for erasing the biggest, filthiest, grayest block from the skyline. They should, anyway.
But they won’t.
He’s now in a tough spot, because while he’s been happy here, there’s not any room for him to grow. Something Florabella said a long time ago comes to the front of his mind: don’t stay anywhere that won’t make room for you.
It’s true, in the end he doesn’t have it in him to give the world what-for. But it is in accepting this defeat that he realizes, with greater clarity than ever before, that strength is not always about suffering, or imposing your will.
Real strength is restraint; the more powerful you are, the stronger you have to be. And when the good you give is not given back, sometimes the strongest thing you can do is walk away.
Release yourself. Start fresh. Be unburdened.
Boff checks over his shoulder, then picks up the phone and dials a number. “Hello, witness protection services? I’d like to put in a request for relocation.”
Just a few months later, Boff is settling nicely into a new job. In fact, he’s just been promoted to vice-head of stocking at the largest Albertson’s in Walla Walla, Washington. The aisles are wide, and the ceiling is so high that he can’t even reach it with a running leap. He can, however, reach the top shelf. That’s what’s made him employee of the month for three months running.
“Mobile order,” one of his subordinates tells him. “Some assorted nuts and a few packs of gum. For pickup.”
Boff is rearranging the Ben & Jerry’s, and bonks his head on the top of the freezer. Lucky thing: there’s ice right at hand. “What’s the name?”
“Looks like uh… Mr. Squims?”
Mr. Squims is standing out by the loading bay in a tiny denim jacket with a chipmunk skull on the back. He's very still, smoking a cigarette and squinting at the great orange sun on the horizon. Boff dusts off his apron and sits criss-cross beside his friend, facing the same way.
“Chitter, chitter, chitter,” says Squims.
“Chitter-chitter. Chi-chi-chitter, chittichittichit.”
“We’re gonna be okay though, right?”
Squims doesn’t answer. He doesn’t have to.
“I think so too.”
The pair sit there for a while, watching the sun drag color out of the world, feeling the evening chill set in. If Squims turned to look, he would see Boff crying for joy.
But come to think of it, he doesn't really need to look, because a) the puddle of tears beneath them is up to his waist, and b) Boff is very, very loud.
At some point, they emerge from the water.