|The Man Behind the Water Cooler||Who Was Nikola Tesla?||Who Was Dr. Henry H. Holmes?||The Novel
(For James Thurber)
Far off from the chatter of the office party, there was a man crouching behind the water cooler. Magnified by its crystal lens, his head appeared to fill the bottle. Whenever the liquid gurgled, he burped.
He had a toothbrush mustache and thick glasses that seemed pinned to his nose. The scribble of his hairline cowered somewhere behind his massive cranium. I recognized this inflated face: it was Jim, from the graphics department.
He held a sketch pad; his eyes fixed on me. From the way his hand whisked about, I was certain he was drawing me. Why me of all those at the office party? Was he capturing my fearless brow, my pair of determined chins, my hunk-a hunk-a masculinity?
“No,” he said.
I cringed as he showed me his drawing, an ink squiggle. It appeared as though he never lifted his pen from the paper, transforming me into a still-life swirl, a human calabash with an overbite. But what I hated most about the drawing was that it was undeniably me.
“I’m a toothy vegetable?”
“A ferocious gourd,” he said, his words clipped and gleeful. “You should be proud. In old China, they filled gourds with gunpowder to use as weapons. You are that sort of chaos, a combustible force to be reckoned with.”
I was a gourd.
“The prism of the water cooler exposes our true characters,” Jim said. “You are lucky to be dangerous. So many men have become feeble, the wildness has been domesticated out of the male breed.”
I rattled my head, trying desperately to reset its image. I said, “From my point of view, the water cooler magnified your head and you turned into some sort of Emerald City wizard.”
“You were looking through the wrong side,” he said. “In the other direction it only merely reveals who we are not.”
“The Wizards’ Guild is breathing a sigh of relief.” He responded to my snideness with a wrinkle of his nose.
“I had an uncle who was a bearded lady,” he told me. “The carnival owners decided a whiskered woman cost more in pay than a man who wore a dress. For a time he ran the funhouse as ticket-tearer and bouncer. He told me that the distortion mirrors reflect the true person.”
He leaned in to impart a cosmic truth. “Man is an insubstantial creature,” he said, “hunted by the whims of nature and… Miss Butterly!”
Melinda Butterly was a dangerous adverb. Well-named, her body held the shape of a stick of butter, hand-squeezed so that the top and bottom oozed out. She was packed into a too-small dress, her chest crammed into a too-small bra that shoved the goo of her breasts up from her low-cut blouse. She never “said” anything. Her words erupted as coos, purrs, chirps and growls. She was a walking record of ambient jungle sounds.
“Jim,” she hissed as she embraced him in a python hug. A full foot taller than her prey, Jim was nearly decapitated as his head got sucked into her cleavage. “You’ve been hiding from me.”
“Not… well… enough,” he struggled to say.
He broke free, backed up, dropped his sketch pad, trying to escape but soon found himself pinned against the wall. Turning to me, he silently mouthed the words, “help me” or else “elf knee” – I never mastered lip-reading.
As he faced death by slather, I was his only hope. I had no idea what to do.
I had an idea.
I ducked behind the water cooler to look, to understand. Its warped lens provided a mesmerizing view: from this perspective all of the partygoers were transformed.
Mr. Peabody had the body of a pea. Mrs. Krutz, a giant robin, bobbed and pecked at him. Mr. Tenthouse, who each day regaled the lunchroom with tales of his sexual conquests, wore a maiden’s steeple hat. He chatted with a unicorn.
Mr. Garnagle of Purchasing stood three feet tall, a twig of a man. He wore green leotards and sported pointy ears.
Miss Butterly was a giant she-bear and Jim an open pot of honey.
I exploded into action, rushing to the woman who was the unicorn. I told her, “Tenthouse is a virgin! But I’m not!” I waved my arms about and twisted my face into a gnarl. She backed away and fled. I gave chase trying to steer her so that her horn would gore the bear but instead she galloped in the direction of the water cooler. She crashed into the bottle, toppling it, shattering it. Jim screamed from beneath Miss Butterly as gallons of water sloshed across the floor, washing over his pen and ink drawings.
“We really ought to get a water fountain,” Mr. Garnagle commented. “Half the fun of drinking water is guessing how much is going to spritz in your face.” He was wolfing down a hot dog, a red and yellow mustache on his upper lip. He had a pixie-like smile. Then I remembered the vision: he was three feet tall with leaf-like ears. He was the elf! And on his knee was a splash of mustard.
“Elf knee!” I cried.
I grabbed a squeeze-bottle of mustard from the serving table and rushed up behind Miss Butterly, firing its contents all over her. She turned and roared at me. I shot a blast of mustard into the blaze of her red eyes.
Jim slipped free, fell to the floor gasping for air. He squinted about, his eyeglasses having been sucked down Miss Butterly’s cleavage and lost to another dimension. Crawling along the floor, flopping about with his hands, splashing through the puddle, he shouted, “no, no!” He crumpled up soggy pages from his sketch pad, the ink bleeding through his fingers.
The giant robin swooped down on me, knocking me to the floor, pecking at the gourd. Butterly looked to me with hatred. I called out to Jim who glanced about, seeing nothing. The unicorn kept her distance, stamping her feet. I began laughing.
“We are going to get a water fountain,” Mr. Garnagle said. “These bottles make such a mess.”
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