A Cowboy and Some Indians
by Anna King
Oh, you have got to be kidding me.
I didn't even try to personalize my "hello" by adding this guy (or girl's?) name to the end of my greeting. I sighed and prayed for the best.
Pete Flick: Hello.
No immediate response.
Dear God, please tell me he doesn't have to look that up on his translator.
Vigneshwaran: How may I help you today?
Pete Flick: I am having problems redeeming my access code. I know what the code is and how to redeem it, but I keep receiving an error message whenever I try to implement it.
I immediately regretted using the word "implement." In fact, I considered retyping the whole sentence but decided that doing so would just further delay Vigne-whoever's response time. Instead, I checked my cell phone for any missed text messages. My momentary disappointment from not seeing any was washed away by the ping! of the instant messaging program taking up my entire laptop monitor.
Vigneshwaran: Let me check your access code. What is it?
I gave up the goods and then some. Maybe the more information I provided, the faster we could both get over being lost in translation.
Vigneshwaran: Thank you for the info. Please wait for some time while I this issue.
…I what this issue? I fix this issue? I go pray to my village's cow and ignore this issue? I ignored the "please," minimized the conversation, and went to the break room in search of a Butterfinger.
I was satisfied to see a lack of update on my laptop when I returned. I did, after all, genuinely want to solve this access code issue. Keeping tech support waiting would be a waste of everyone's time. Ping!
Vigneshwaran: On verification, I noticed that you have completed the registration process for the access code in a successful way. Please try using the code at this time.
I tried. And this time didn't care if my big sigh was silent or not.
Pete Flick: It still does not seem to be working. Is there any way to get around the error message without ordering a new programming package?
I looked at the joke printed on the inside of my candy bar's wrapper. The next ping! interrupted my attempt to guess the punch line hidden by the last half of my chocolate-coated goodness.
Great. Just great. Pradeep might kill me. I then contemplated how he would do it.
Pete Flick: What would you suggest I do at this point?
I pried open the rest of my candy bar wrap–
I nearly jumped out of my chair. I did, however, manage to hear the simultaneous ping! of my laptop, vibrating of my cell, ringing of my desk phone, and thud of my Butterfinger as the carpeted floor stifled its fall.
"Hey, Ashley, what can I do for you?" My co-worker pretended to not notice my frustration. Ashley propped himself against my cubicle, draping one arm over its top and placing a hand at his belt, as if trying to impress me with the physique he used to have. In a way, Ashley was trying to impress me. Not in a let's-see-where-watching-the-game-takes-us kind of impress, but the kind that screams "I don't want the world to think I'm a lonely old maid." Needless to say, he didn't like my two-kids-and-a-mortgage lifestyle because he didn't have it and I didn't like his pushiness because I was a conformist. The moral of the story? No one liked Ashley.
"Nothing, man, I was just wondering if you wanted to come over tonight and catch the game. You like Bock, right?" Damn straight I liked Shiner Bock. That brewery was my Mecca pre-wedding rings. I'm from Texas, Jack. Born and freaking raised like the armadillo that grew up to be the boots on my feet.
"Gah, I could use one right now. Sure, Ashley, I'll be there," I couldn't say no to this guy. He was a huge – and I mean literally huge – pity magnet. Tonight was going to be bittersweet; going wouldn't be fun but not going would make me feel pretty bad. Poor Ashley… I mean, his name was freaking Ashley. "I better get back to fixing the access code fiasco. See you later, Ash."
"Okay, cool. Alrighty. Catch you later, Ron."
I ignored the Butterfinger, my cell phone, and the voicemail on my desk phone. I braced myself for what Viggie had to say for himself.
Vigneshwaran: Thank you for the info. Let me check your access code. What is it?
I did what the kids these days called "rage quit." I picked up my desk phone and called my boss. No answer. How could this day get any worse?
"How the hell am I supposed to get this project done if I can't even get through to outsourced tech support in Mumbai?!"
"Hey, you could be talking about one of my cousins, cowboy!"
I swiveled around in my chair like a gun in its holster and stood out of respect.
"Pradeep, where have you been? I tried calling. It's about the access code –"
"Oh that? Send the conversation with…" Pradeep took a peek at my laptop. "Holy hell, have those basement-dwellers not heard of screen names? Send this over to one of the newbies. Trust me, they won't sleep until they sort this out. They've been dying to use their brand-new degrees on something other than scanning and shredding shit, anyway." My boss muttered this last sentence; even though he was still considered "cool" at his ripe old age of 35, he had a solid reputation to uphold. I couldn't have asked for a better boss. "Speaking of the newbies, I have a new project for you."
My heart stopped. "…What?"
"Have you heard of Mission Togetherness?"
"Oh, God, Pradeep! You're not serious? What happened to Ashley?!"
"HQ wants a ratio of one 'experienced team member' to one intern. I know, I know, this is the evil doing of the human resource gods. Ashley's taking Aditya and I figured you could take Manoj. Anushka can't go; in fact, I told her that I'm sending her home tomorrow if she isn't at least somewhat over her flu. Your flight leaves next Monday. I'll email the itinerary. Have fun with Ashley tonight!" I narrowed my eyes at him. "C'mon, Pete." Woah. Pradeep had used my real name. He meant business. "He's spent his entire lunch break hovering over the water cooler telling everybody within sight about your 'bro night.'"
I pressed my index fingers to my temples and did my best to respond with a similar calmness, "Sounds good, Harry."
"Sounds great, Ron," Pradeep's big smile was greatly contrasted against the darkness of his brown skin.
I emailed my tech support conversation to the general inbox of the office interns, or as they called themselves, the "New Delhi Dream Team." Let the kids fight over it, I mused. I checked my own inbox for the flight information from Pradeep. Just as I had gotten up to fetch the itinerary from the printer around the corner, a familiar meaty hand grabbed onto my shoulder.
"Ron, man, you've gotta carpool with us tonight to our first paid gig! Drinks on me, brother! And I swear, we got rid of the animals masks." I smiled warmly at my good friend, Carl, and the thought of his The Who cover band being less than warmly received in a shady part of Atlanta.
"Carl, that sounds great! But I promised Ashley I would watch the game with him tonight."
My good friend's expression read "But you hate Ashley" so I calmed his worries with "Can you blame me? It's the Falcons and he's supplying the Bock." What I really wanted to say was "Can you blame me? I'm feeling low on good karma."
Carl seemed a little annoyed, but that was understandable.
"Oh, that's cool, man. Do you think you could catch the next one? We're shooting for the release of our promo video sometime next month."
"No problem, Carl. I know you guys will do great."
I secretly wished I was risking getting shot in the A.T.L. alongside Carl and his band rather than risking becoming overwhelmed with an urge to slit my wrists after getting drunk and watching 'ball with the office Urkel.
I grabbed my itinerary from the printer, threw away the sweet, sweet remains of my Butterfinger, and made the long trek to the parking garage.
Ashley's townhouse was pretty nice. It would have been even nicer had he not had a corner lot and thus a side window through which he could "nonchalantly" stare at dog-walkers, the weather, and, of course, me.
I took my time getting out of the car and walking to his front steps. I wondered why he had been so insistent on me arriving at 6:49 when all of a sudden the door flew open.
"Hey, Ron. How's it going?"
My co-worker appeared paler than usual. He had wrapped himself in what looked like a homemade shawl and held on to a few tissues. It took all of my willpower to not bust out laughing at his literal embodiment of an old maid.
"Whoa, better than you, apparently. No offense…" I needed to stop talking and start walking back to my car. Besides, he could have saved me the drive by calling ahead of time. I wouldn't have been surprised if he had had our entire office floor on speed dial. Just a little casual conversation, Flick. He obviously feels sick.
"Yeah, I think I caught the flu from Anushka. I think we should reschedule our 'ball night. I just hope I feel up to going to Mission Togetherness."
"Yeah… It would be a bummer for you to miss that…" I felt more than awkward trying to contain my happiness for not having to sit through football and drinks with Ashley. How to get away…?
Just then, I noticed Ashley slide into impress mode. He hitched a thumb in a belt loop and leaned on his arm now propped against the doorframe. He quickly glanced at his watch and I was fixing to launch into a goodbye until –
I turned around to see who Ashley had directed his outburst. It was an attractive woman, naturally. But the most impressive part of this equation was the fact that Charlie seemed to reciprocate his enthusiasm with a smile and wave. A female who found Ashley Bukowski appealing existed? Furthermore, I couldn't decide whether his timing of my arrival in conjunction with his pretty neighbor's jogging routine was creepy as shit or pure genius. My mind had been blown.
I pretended that this entire encounter had been nothing more than ordinary and said my goodbyes. Ashley's disappointment in the postponing of our "bro night" had been covered up by his high off of having seen Charlie. He would live. I did feel bad about Ashley's feeling bad, and for some unknown reason I just sat in my car and stared at his side window just to see if he would peer out of it again. Instead, he turned off the light that had previously shone through the now perfectly still curtains. I visibly relaxed.
I then realized I didn't want to go home. Well, go to the apartment. Home was on the West Coast with Felicia and the girls. I knew that the apartment promised a quiet night of drinking a Blue Moon to Ashley's recuperation as I watched the news by myself on the loveseat. My daughters called it the "bachelor pad." I called it sucky and prayed it to be temporary.
"Next Monday" was upon us before we knew it. I jumpstarted survival mode with two black coffees by the time Manoj Kapoor and I had arrived at Hartsfield-Jackson. He was freaking excited. It was almost as if he had forgotten he was about to take a 5-hour flight with a co-worker nearly twice his age and whom he barely knew. From what I had gathered of Manoj, he seemed like a stand-up kid. Well-educated, no criminal background, doctors for parents. Software engineering called to him like cheesecake to fat kids. My girls probably wouldn't be attracted to him, though; the polar opposite of Olivia and basically the male counterpart of Catherine. Thanks to having been dragged to the mall for over twenty years, I could tell Manoj's clothes were pricey. And anyone who owned a TV or computer would have known that his gadgets were wanted. But graduating summa cum laude and having Steve Jobs on speed dial did not equate to years of experience. That's the one thing that irked me about college kids; a sense of self-entitlement was number one on my list of pet peeves.
The two of us probably looked incredibly awkward, the most unlikely of pairs. His exceptionally tall, lanky frame topped with dark skin and a mop of shiny black hair made my average size, red crew cut, and freckle-dotted pallor stand out like the Fourth of July. Fortunately, getting past security and finding our terminal was a breeze. We settled into a couple of seats while we waited for boarding to begin.
I looked at the screen of lucky names that had been bumped up to first class. I had seriously considered redeeming my frequent flier points for my own first class ticket, but when we realized Pradeep had accidentally scheduled my and Manoj's flight twelve hours after Ashley and Aditya's, I knew I would have felt bad leaving Manoj to suffer through coach alone. I thanked God that at least we were not the red eye "experienced team member" and intern duo. I felt more than terrible for Aditya.
I winced. Only a select few "experienced team members" called me that. "Yeah, Manoj?"
"Um, so, I know what the premise behind the Mission Togetherness project is – and I read the bulletin the interns got, trust me – but what exactly goes on at this, um, what would you call it, convention?"
I struggled to decide whether or not to give it to this kid straight. Ah, what the heck? He's a big boy. "It's basically a huge politically correct convention where old guys like me and young guys – and girls, I guess, even though they're few and far between…" I made a nudging motion with my elbow in his direction, but Manoj did not break eye contact long enough to catch my drift. He was so intent on what I was saying, he probably would have written it down had he had a pen and paper available. "Uh, anyway, those who have been with the company long enough send each of their interns with an employee in their department to a huge convention where everyone is trained on things like 'diversity acceptance' and 'trans-generational exchange.' It's basically just a cover-up for inspiring the college kids and recent grads to 'spread the good word' and get their friends in on computer programming. I agree that the market could use some more able minds." I glanced sideways at Manoj.
"I see… Is this your first Mission Togetherness?"
"No, I've been to one other. They happen about once every two years," I momentarily paused in lament, "Ashley took all of the interns last time around…"
"So you don't particularly like going?"
I certainly did not want to give Manoj too much information. So I somewhat avoided the question. "It's not that I don't like going. It's just that I've been trying to get transferred to a branch out West, and there aren't any Mission Togetherness projects out there. I've been in the business for about 18 years now, and an employee with our team for almost three, but before that I was a contracted project manager. I could come home on the weekends from wherever I was flown out to. But for the past few years, I've been sort of stuck out here. It can be rough sometimes."
"Do you have a family out West?"
"Yes, a wife and two daughters."
"Yeah, that would be rough… But think of it as college!" I appreciated the sudden subject change and was glad that Manoj had a more relaxed side. I had actually never thought of it like that… college seemed so long ago.
"Well then I hope I'm graduating early! No, Pradeep is a great guy. I like the team, and hopefully you do, too. Or will, at least."
"I do like it. It is nice to finally be treated like an adult."
I looked at Manoj and noted a small look of resentment. The slightly awkward moment was killed by the much-appreciated crackle of the intercom signaling the start of boarding.
We took our seats after indirectly fighting with the European backpackers in front of us for overhead space. One carry-on my ass, I brooded. It had not been two seconds since we had buckled our seatbelts when a disembodied voice rang out, "Would Manoj Kapoor and Pete Flick please meet flight personnel at the front of the plane?"
Dear Lord. I was about to sarcastically shout "He's Indian, not Arab!" when I noticed an odd excitement in the way Manoj unbuckled his seat belt and power-walked to where we had been told to go. A platinum blonde flight attendant with dark roots and a bit too much make-up on smiled at us.
"Hello Mr. Kapoor, Mr. Flick. We have just been informed that you have both been upgraded to our first class seating." Her tone should have been reserved for toddlers, not grown – well, mostly grown – men.
Manoj quickly added, "Thank you, Loretta. We will move our things as quickly as possible."
I looked from Manoj to Loretta. Sure enough, her name was right there, inscribed on her wing-shaped pin. So formal and attentive to detail…
I followed the intern to where we had stashed our carry-ons in the overhead and brief cases under our seats. It made sense that I was upgraded, but Manoj? His age did not scream "frequent flyer."
Once seated, I treated my good luck to a Bloody Mary. Manoj ordered a soda. I had to ask, so I did. "Manoj, are you a frequent flyer?"
Manoj's white grin was similar to Pradeep's. "No, my parents just insist I fly comfortably. I have never been on so long of a flight before. But I told them I would not leave my co-worker in coach. How dick-ish would that have been?" I glanced at our drinks to make sure Loretta had not accidentally switched them.
"Thanks, man. But how did they get a hold of my frequent flyer number?"
The young man sitting next to me turned from a normal 22-year-old dude to an I-just-got-pantsed-in-the-middle-school-cafeteria kid in less than a nanosecond. "They didn't. They paid for the upgrade themselves."
My Bloody Mary's fate almost played out like last week's Butterfinger's. "Manoj! They did not have to do that!" Holy God! How much do I owe this kid's parents?
"It's really not that big of a deal, Ron. Please, don't worry about it."
"…Okay, Manoj… Only if you tell them I said 'thank you.'"
Wow. Wow. It was more than nice of Manoj to not have up-graded without me. Well, not that I had not reciprocated, but the difference between our decisions amounted to who knew how much money. But then I did the kid the favor and put it out of my mind. I was getting a little groggy from the caffeine crash and alcohol, so doing so was going to be inevitable anyway.
"Hey Ron – er, Pete? Why do some of the guys at the office call you Ron?"
"It's a long story, kid," And I thought about leaving it at that because I was feeling a little bad after having subconsciously underestimated Manoj because of his age and intern status. What the hell, Flick? Don't pretend like you don't get a kick out of stereotypes.
"It all started at last year's Halloween party. Prize money was given to the best costumes. Some of us wanted to try for Best Group, so we figured, well, who better to go as than Dumbledore's Army?" Manoj just about spewed his drink on the guy in the sweater vest sitting in front of him, he laughed so hard.
"One white guy and I'm assuming a bunch of Indians? How is that even remotely similar to Harry Potter and his friends?"
I shook my head. "You would think not, but we chose our characters based on hair color. That made me 'Ron,' and we gave Pradeep 'Harry,' naturally, Carl was 'Hagrid,' and the rest is history."
"Wait, was Hagrid even in Dumbledore's Army?"
Huh. Good question. "Honestly? I'm not entirely sure… But who cares? It was hilarious."
"I bet. I'm assuming you guys won?"
I didn't feel the greatest at that point but we took to our own thoughts for a while after that, drinking our drinks and enjoying each other's good company. I watched as Manoj took out his personal laptop from his briefcase and turned it on. I chuckled at the sight of his background: a picture of a beautiful, familiar Indian girl.
My grin was probably more than goofy but I blamed that on Bloody Mary.
"Manoj, you've gotta bust a move before someone else does. She probably has guys lined up at her door right now with noodle soup and board games."
"I'm not like those other guys." Whoa. Fun Manoj had flushed itself down the first class toilet.
"Look, all I'm saying is that Anushka is one of a kind. If I hadn't found the courage to ask my wife out on our first date, my last name might as well be Bulowski."
"Never mind. The point is you two aren't getting any younger, and if you're serious about her, you should go for the gold. This isn't Computer Science 101, kid. No matter how much you study girls, you will not pass their tests. But that's the beauty of extra credit. Soup and board games when they have the flu…"
"Ron, are you feeling alright?"
"Like a fat kid eating cheesecake."
I had the aisle seat, so instead of staring out the window, I closed my eyes to help stop my growing headache. How long had we been in the air? Where were we going again?
"Hey, Manoj? I'm sorry about what I said last week… about the cow in your village… I didn't mean it…"
"Ro-on?" A dark-skinned hand waved right in front of my face.
"Yeah, Manoj?" I snuck a peak at the young intern now being washed out by the sunlight streaming in from the window next to him "Manoj, you're a good kid… Don't worry about it…You have lots of time to rack up two kids and a mortgage…" Manoj had been digging in his briefcase for something during my rant. His phone? But we can't get reception up here... Or did his parents pay for that, too?
"Thanks, Ron. That means a lot." I blacked out just as he pointed his phone at me.
Mission Togetherness was mission accomplished. Well, all "diversity acceptance" and "trans-generational exchange" B.S. considered. Manoj and Aditya had actually made a few professional connections. And got a couple of girls' numbers, of course. My wife, Felicia, had been pretty happy when I told her about the male-bonding and free upgrade, which made me even happier.
I walked around the office that Thursday morning feeling like a wrecking ball. As I was heading over to where the "New Delhi Dream Team" shared a round table in the back room, the office Urkel blocked my path.
"Hey, Ron! I barely saw you at Mission Togetherness – weird, right?" I tried my best to not give away how I had secretly avoided him as much as possible during the entire convention. On the inside, I was overflowing with feeling for this glorious achievement. "But good times, man, good times. Speaking of those, I was thinking you and I could cash in the rain check on our bro – I mean, beer and football night – on Monday? We could heat up some nachos–"
"No thanks, Ashley. I was actually planning on doing something else that night. But thanks for the offer. Hopefully you've been feeling better."
"Oh… Okay… Alrighty. Yeah, thanks. Catch you later, man."
"You too, Ash."
I was determined to call Carl later that afternoon and schedule a real bro night. I thought nothing could kill my winning streak. Thank God I was almost wrong.
"Hey, Anushka. Um, listen – I mean! Not that you're not a good listener or anything! I mean, you got the highest scores in Computer Science 101. I have a good memory when it comes to random stuff like that. Um, anyway, have you been feeling better?"
I had just enough time to hide behind a fake palm tree next to the water cooler when I noticed Anushka and Manoj standing outside the entrance to the backroom on the other side of the hallway. Mother of God, Manoj! Grow a pair, NOW!
"I'm fine, thank you." I had shared enough awkward moments with Felicia when I was first getting to know her to recognize Anushka's discomfort.
Unfortunately for me, Manoj had resorted to anxiously searching around the office for a lifeline. Fortunately for him, he found it creeping behind a fake palm tree next to the communal water cooler. He squinted in my direction and I motioned for him to keep going. As Anushka turned her head in my direction Manoj panicked and placed a hand on her shoulder, immediately redirecting her attention. I partially covered my eyes with my hands. Manoj didn't let go.
"Anushka Patel, I may not be Harry Potter, but if I was in Dumbledore's Army, you would be my reason for fighting."
I stopped breathing, and I think Manoj did, too. How could anyone rebound from this?!
Anushka's big brown eyes widened. She threw her arms around Manoj's neck and laughed.
"I freaking love Harry Potter."
She dragged him into the backroom by his elbow. Manoj shook a grateful fist in my direction and mouthed "Thank you" before disappearing to join the other interns.
I waited a few moments beside the cooler to compose myself. Well freaking done, Flick. Well freaking done.
I walked into the backroom to congratulate the Dream Team for fixing the access code ordeal last week. They, in turn, congratulated me for having scored over a thousand hits on the YouTube video of me in my Bloody Mary and coffee crash stupor while flying to Mission Togetherness. I had to admit, it was pretty freaking hilarious.
Even though my family was thousands of miles away, I promised myself to give Ashley some of my apparently successful advice on women the next time I saw him. Hell, all he wanted was what I had: two kids and a mortgage. And at least Charlie lived in the neighborhood. Until I got transferred back West, I was going to have to dust off my armadillo boots and at least take comfort in knowing that Felicia and the girls were going to get a kick out of today.
Can you blame me? I felt more than high on good karma.