And Then He Sneezed

"Oh my God, I've been fired"On a Tuesday when the misty rain was turned gray with reflected concrete and sky, Mal’s boss called him into his office and said, “Mal, we have to let you go.”

Mal had assumed it was bad news when he had to close the door behind him. But this? “What? You aren’t kidding me, are you?” Mr. Adams looked back at him impassively. The man had braced himself before making this announcement; Mal wasn’t sure what he braced himself with, but Mr. Adams never just sat there and waited for you to talk. “What’s wrong? What happened?”

“We lost the office products account yesterday. They say they don’t need our help anymore.” The rest of the explanation passed through Mal without connecting. Like a flood of neutrinos, or factory smoke through a wire screen. He felt hot and cold at the same time and the only thought that did connect was, My God, I’ve been fired.

Mr. Adams held up an envelope. There was a blurred thought doing a grapevine turn inside Mal’s head that included the words two weeks severance and recall. Mal took the envelope and shook hands for the second time with his boss. The first time had been when they made him an offer for a job, just two years ago. “I’m sorry, Mal,” Mr. Adams said. “I hope you’re back in here soon.” Mal did too.

Mal hadn’t been silly in a good long time. He hadn’t any reason to be; he worked as a consultant for a pair of hospitals, one for the mentally ill, the other for the aged. As endearing as the patients could be and as gratified as he felt when he did his work, Mal had often wondered who he was really helping. His slender, on-the-job smile had come from making clever insights into market conditions and trends that enabled both hospitals to grow. Mal didn’t know who benefited more, the patients or the trustees’ bank accounts. He did know that he’d been stuffing his own bank account, and now that he wouldn’t be doing that anymore, he was left to wonder where it had all been taking him.

funny-quote-sneeze-faceHe sat in the Watering Hole across from his best friend, a bartender named Debby. Debby wanted to make it big one day as a standup comedian. He met her here on open mike night, when he was fresh out of grad school and still did his own comedy act.

Bartending? Mal asked himself. Could I be a bartender again?

Debby handed him a refill on his drink. “Why did the consultant cross the road?” she asked. Mal cocked an eyebrow. He hadn’t heard this one before. “We’re not sure yet, but we’re putting together a survey from the farmer, the chicken, the road engineer-” He groaned. Debby didn’t blink. “Give me a break. It’s not like you’re a lawyer. You guys are a lot harder to make jokes about.”

Mal looked at her. He knew she was trying to help. It was just that he spent the last three years coming up with solutions to undefined problems, and his head was running in too many different directions to listen.

The economy’s too slow to get a new consulting job.

I can’t believe this is happening to me.

Management. Check counseling, too. Maybe an agency can help me.

“Hey, take a drink,” Debby said. She pushed his glass towards him. “You’ll feel better. Come on.”

Mal took a short swig of the drink. He coughed when he came back up. It was supposed to be a straight Ginger Ale, but Debby had spiked it while he was thinking. She smiled to get him to do the same. Mal smiled back politely. Debby was having a hard enough time as it was getting him to cheer up without having him notice that she felt sorry for him. She hit him in the shoulder. “Smile already. You’re a free man.”

“You’re the fastest drink spiker this side of the border.”

“Both sides, dude. I’m an illegal alien.”

Mal chuckled. He felt a smile coming on that almost made it to the surface.

The Man in the Hat — nicknamed Hatman — called her down to the end of the bar for a refill. Mal was a weekly regular here, but the Hatman was an icon. Who knew where he came from or what he did for a living, but he was there, every night, drinking bourbons with beer chasers until ten, then drying out and going home at closing time. The man had a clean shave and a dress shirt. No tie. He always wore the same hat with a feather stuck in it.

I’m gonna wind up like him. Six years, if that.

“What about teaching?” Debby asked.

“That’s a thought.” His M.A. was in folklore; the money in consulting was what had lured him away from teaching. Mal was nursing his third drink, but he was still sober enough to remember that he was young and there were better things to life than stuffing pockets for a board of directors.

Bored of directors. Maybe that was why they fired him. “What are you spiking these with?”

“You have to guess.”

Mal remembered one of Debby’s lines — something like We had to go by colors, because after a while we couldn’t even taste what we were drinking. “You should do some standup again,” she continued. “Just to loosen yourself up.”

The trouble with that was that he still needed to feed himself in the meantime. He stifled a sneeze. His father had been allergic to alcohol, sneezing like a human hay fever generator after a beer or two. Mal had inherited a touch of it. He searched for tissues and realized that he’d forgotten to stuff any into his pockets that morning.

“Deb, I’ll be right back.”

The men’s room was more like a closet, with an undersized toilet stall and the usual equipment. A telltale feather stuck out about the stall. Beware of Hatman; watch for distinctive plumage. Mal wondered in a corner of his mind how someone who stuck out like that could walk away from the bar without being noticed.

Local college students had scrawled fraternity letters and bits of philosophy on the door and next to the mirror. A debate seemed to be raging near the sink over whether or not Debby was available.

Mal felt another sneeze coming on. He reached for a handful of paper towels. He saw his face in the mirror just before he let the second one go, and the sight was hysterical. His nose was pulled in, his nostrils flared, and his eyes were bugging out and practically crossed. His mustache looked like a rabid mouse threatening to explode off his face. He let it go and doubled over laughing.

Mal couldn’t stop laughing. He’d seen that face before but never really looked at it. His high-pitched alcoholic cackle — it always got higher after the first drink — just made him laugh harder. Aw, God, it was a riot.

The Hatman came out of the toilet stall. He looked bewildered. In a flash of inspiration Mal said, “Hello. You’re fine, how am I?” The man only stared at him. Mal hadn’t used that line since his screwball days in English lit. The Hatman ducked out of the room; he probably didn’t have enough marbles together to get the joke.

“Bless me,” Mal said. “That was good.”

He composed himself after a few minutes. He washed away the tears that ran down his face, blew his nose, then made some faces in the mirror to try to capture the expression from his miracle. A few were close, but they all looked manic and confused-which fit, but it wasn’t The Sneeze.

He needed that. He really did. He couldn’t remember when he felt this good or pleased with himself. “I guess there are some things you can’t do with practice,” he said to Debby when he was back downstairs. “Laughing included.” He smiled at her.

She leaned back appraisingly. “When did you remember how to do that?”

He shrugged. “I haven’t the faintest idea. I just kind of … ” He held out his hand in a popping motion. “Bang, there it was.” He tried to make his Sneeze face again and Debby broke up laughing. For the first time in years, Mal marveled at the power of laughter, well-meaning bartenders, and goggle-eyed Hatmen.

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