Distance No Object

In the large peach‑colored room of the recently remodeled employment office, beneath a framed print of a Monet waterlily, Lopo Ramirez answered every question put to him by a tired clerk who that day had already interviewed several fishmongers.  The Natural Fish over in Berkeley needed a new man and they didn't want union.  The clerk leaned across his glass top desk to hand Lopo Ramirez a blank application.   

“Whatever I've done for a living,” Lopo Ramirez said sadly as he reached for the form, “after a while, I find myself having to do something else.”     

During the last several years that the clerk worked in personnel, job transiency had become a commonplace though unpleasant pattern in anyone's career. “We see many clients with similar job histories, Mr. Ramirez,” the clerk commented disinterestedly.

Lopo Ramirez smiled, his dark milky eyes seeking a focus. It had been established in the early moments of the interview that Ramirez and the clerk shared common origins. The clerk was fluent in Ramirez' native language.  But then he demurred, switching back to English with a slight defensiveness, suddenly remembering instructions from a training program he'd attended: Keep applicant at a polite distance. Using English, he made clear in a tone that reinforced his remove that it was his parents who came from the same country as Lopo Ramirez. But Lopo Ramirez spoke plaintively with his eyes, enormous soft pools that begged for an advocate. Let me tell you my story, they said, just give me your permission not even your enthusiasm. 

The day was waning. The amber light of late autumn seeped into the room through the half‑turned blinds, casting shadows on the leaves of a large tropical plant next to the men. There were no other interviews scheduled. As Lopo Ramirez bowed his head slightly, the clerk fingered a pen and suppressed a yawn, which made the veins in his otherwise unlined forehead protrude.

“Back home, I used to fish, sir. I used to fish professionally, you know, and I stank. Forgive my frankness, sir. Every day I came home stinking, bits of fish scales stuck to my pants, threads of seaweed wrapped around my ankles. But I was young, my life was my own, and the bay was mine and the waters were warm. And I hadn't the usual impatience of youth, I was good with the nets, good with the flounder. But I stank. The smell of fish stained my fingers, it settled beneath my skin and I couldn't get rid of it. I wished I didn't stink. Believe me, I wished I could fish and not stink. 

"Rosalora said she'd marry me if I quit. I quit. Then we moved to America.

"One thing led to another, as it always does. 

"Now sir, my shirt has been starched for years, my aftershave is still strong after a long day, Rosalora doesn't complain. And after all that's happened, what do I know best but fish? Granted, selling fish is different than catching fish, but I'm worthy sir, I know the parts of a fish better than the parts of speech. And I'm experienced at standing."

How quaintly Ramirez phrased his appeal, the clerk mused. Twenty years ago this guy stuck a fishing pole out of a rowboat and now he thinks he can compete with kids half his age? Oh but these peasants are so naive when they try to sell themselves.

“Make sure you note your previous experience on the application, all right?” The clerk's smile froze as he pointed to the appropriate blanks.

“Let me tell you sir,” Lopo Ramirez insisted, “how I've incorporated my knowledge of fish with my great skill in standing. And how the two should qualify me for the very job you offer. With all...”

“But I don't have the job. I mean...” interjected the clerk, now irritated. He leaned across the desk, pointing again to the application. As the pitch of his voice rose, his hand shook slightly. Frustrated, then composing himself, he switched to Ramirez' native language.

“Mr. Ramirez. You don't understand. I screen applicants for companies, I don't own the fish market.”

“I understand completely,” Mr. Ramirez replied confidently in his native language. The clerk sat back up straight in his chair, adjusting his glasses. “With all due respect, sir, I'm not ignorant. I am a patient man. I am a man who is skilled at waiting and watching. In my last job, I used to stand along the walls of a giant atrium in the middle of a museum and watch a twelve foot circle of white rocks. Would you like to know about the Chalk Circle?”

Now the clerk sighed noticeably and could no longer suppress his fatigue. He sank into his seat, listlessly. He glanced at the hands of the pale aqua clock next to the waterlily print, decided to allow the rhythm of Ramirez' story lull him until it was time to go home.

White walls, grey trim, pale grey marble floors. Footsteps, brief whispers at the threshold. Clicking of the claws of blackbirds, pigeons landing on the skylight — these were part of the installation I was hired to watch. And part of my days, which were installations in time. I watched them, as I once watched the sea, which taught me how.

Visitors often saw me as part of the installation. Imagine! A young woman dressed in black leather is leaning against the wall opposite me, close to the Chalk Circle, taking notes. Her face is fair, her lips red and shiny like varnish. She stares at me across the giant room, pretending to observe the installation, then she scribbles, her hair falls in front of her eyes, she sweeps it back, looks up at me again, returns to her notebook. She's noticed how small I am, how grey my hair has become, how dark my skin is, how I look like a hundred other men working in similar jobs.

She knows nothing about me yet she pities me. She thinks, how boring to have to stand there all day wearing a green suit and a badge! To her I am a dead end. She walks on to the colorful abstractions in the next gallery.

The rocks of the Chalk Circle were one layer deep, piled about eight inches high, all relatively uniform chunks, each perhaps six inches in diameter.

I feel I knew every rock or I didn't know any at all.

It was the light that descended from the glass panels of the atrium that gave me confidence or not. With the fish, it was the same, the light from the heavens on the waters, making them opaque or transparent.

I wasn't permitted to read while on duty, I could only walk around the room, straighten my tie, feel my wallet in my pocket, stand against a wall, bend my legs, gaze into the vents along the opposite wall, watch the hands of my watch, watch the Chalk Circle, and the visitors. My days were full and I hardly noticed them passing.

For ten minutes every couple of hours, I was relieved by another guard. Because my English was poor, I appeared shy and ignorant, I was hired to do nothing all day but pay attention, and that served my employers who secretly believed I came from a stupid country. But really, I didn't mind what they thought, for they didn't treat me according to their thoughts.

Every night after the museum closed, the dust from the chalk had to be swept back into the circle. This was my favorite part of the job.

Once I told my supervisor that sweeping the dust into a black dustpan and carefully sprinkling it among the rocks was the moment I looked forward to every day.

My supervisor said he had to laugh. “You're a nut, Ramirez. How can you stand this job? You wetbacks have the simplest minds on earth. You just know you're almost out the door when you clean up. Listen, Ramirez, you don't have to brown nose me. Get it? Ha ha.”

But my supervisor misunderstood the pleasure of my work, and though he was fair to me, we weren't friends on the outside because he belittled the work we did and mocked the visitors. When he spoke, I felt his gloom surround me like a fog and chill. Rosa told me, when that happens, Lopo, put your right hand over your stomach, over your belly button, Lopo, so his bad feelings can't enter you. Sometimes I did this if I joined him for a beer at night, but drink only increased his resentment.

He would make obscene jokes about the Chalk Circle, about the wall sculpture I usually stood next to, about another piece across the room, a large steel tube called “Distance No Object.” No matter how close you got to this tube, it looked far away. I had a certain fondness for it, though really, it was a predictable trick next to my Chalk Circle.

 My supervisor said people were kidding themselves. He said art's not what it used to be. He said he'd worked at the museum ten years, so he supposed he knew something. I knew nothing about art, only about the Chalk Circle.

What did art used to be? I don't think I could've guarded the Mona Lisa all day, I really don't. Could you? I think her smile would sour after a while. I think I understand why kids draw those mustaches on cheap reproductions of her, to perk her up.

The chalk rocks were so very white.  Some people thought they were cold. But to me, cold is San Francisco, where the sailboats float on a bay you can't swim in, where you go to an ocean you can only look at. It's so cold in the summer that one year I wore a turtleneck to work for a month! Sometimes if it's damp and windy, I don't even feel like looking out of the corner of my eye. If it was cold like that, I would stand where I could watch the rocks straight on. They gave off heat sometimes, like armies, like the ocean of my country. Or they appeared melancholy. Some days they even looked like tall elegant women dressed in black.

They depended on light. In the right light, white can look black, you know.

One day the artist of the Chalk Circle appeared in the atrium, standing away from it with two curators. Then the artist decided to donate the Chalk Circle to the museum. This made the curators very happy, now they wouldn't have to convince the director to buy it. I was overjoyed at the news! When the exhibition was over, the museum would have to store the Chalk Circle. They would have to put the pieces into cardboard boxes with exact instructions to set them up again. I, Lopo Ramirez, wanted to stand watch over the boxes. After all, I knew those rocks better than anyone. I knew their moods and they knew mine. I could even read a book while I was guarding the rocks, because few people besides museum personnel use the archives. Oh, I thought, then I could have a long beach of time before me every day.

But another guard, Perez, already had the job of watching the archives. He said it was lonely work, a long shift and hardly anyone to talk to or look at.  As for me, I had seen enough people, the startled expressions on their faces as they entered the atrium. Most were too reserved to laugh, but you can tell when a person wants to and doesn't.

They didn't think my Chalk Circle was anything, some of them.

Some didn't question what it was, since it was there.

Most just walked through, never thought about it again.

But I had to live with the Chalk Circle, I had to look at it, and I tell you, it was God.

I stared at that circle of rocks for months and I should also tell you, I was never a believer before it arrived.

One night I dreamt I had fallen asleep standing. I went to work the next morning and I actually fell asleep standing. Not from boredom, from fatigue. From practicing English verbs over and over, silently to myself, leaning against the wall in front of the Chalk Circle. In the dream, words floated by on index cards, parts of words, speaking in their own voices, fluttering away before I could pronounce them. Repeat after me, a word shouted, repeat after us...they cried as they disappeared...

How upset I was all day, not because of what happened later, but because my dream didn't come to my rescue! Dreams have been that for me often, warnings that I don't pay attention to until it's too late.

“Ramirez,” somebody was shaking me. Through the triangle of a woman's bare legs I could see my chalk circle way across the room. A fuzzy view of it, smaller, more horizontal.

“Ramirez, you must have passed out.”

Aldo, my relief man, stood by me so close I could count his mustache hairs.

“Ramirez, get up, what's with you? Sick?”

“No, I must have dropped off and slid down.”

“You hurt anything?”

“Don't think so.”

“Well, amigo, you been to your locker yet?”

For a moment I couldn't connect my dream and my falling asleep on the job with something he called “locker.” Sometimes the meaning of English words is delayed for me, as though several people were talking over an echoey loudspeaker, the sounds take time to reach me.

“Your locker, man. Check it out. You've got a nice present wrapped up in little yellow envelope, just like the rest of us.”

The layoff notice did not faze me for several days. I tucked it into my shirt pocket, straightened my tie, and went back to my post. Later, when I put it on the kitchen table, Rosa glanced at it, and left it under the salt shaker.  It wasn't news. We all anticipated losing our jobs. A few weeks earlier, the museum decided to contract out with a private security guard company, for a dollar an hour less. The choice was, accept less, no protection, no grievance, no benefits. Or accept nothing. Two guards quit the union then, but even my supervisor knew there was no choice for us.

Who would take our jobs? People newly arrived from my country, I guess, people who travelled a long ways to find a piece of future. All they wanted was to leave their misery behind. Distance was no object to them. People with fireworks in their heads, big ideas, young dreams. But no one who would appreciate the Chalk Circle like I did.

The union settled on a little severance pay and the last week on the job, I helped the curators disassemble the Chalk Circle. I wrapped tissue paper around each rock, placed the pieces into file boxes, labeled each box. The curators were friendly, in their way, sorry I wouldn't be staying on, but didn't know how to get personal, or didn't want to. They never asked anything about me, where I came from, what I did back home. Did they assume the least of me? I never volunteered anything. They understood I knew the rocks well. And of course, as I picked each one up, held it, turned it around, why, I discovered for the first time that each piece had a different side I'd never noticed before, and every rock its own patterns. Variegated striations, one curator said.

For a few weeks, I joined the picket line outside the museum. It was a rag tag crew, four or five unemployed security guards and a few homeless men the union hired to pad the ranks, marching around in a small circle, singing sad union songs.

A few photographers stopped to take pictures, and sometimes a young person would lean against a stone pillar and give us the peace sign.

“Ramirez,” one of the curators I especially liked called out the first morning. “I'm sorry. Normally I wouldn't cross a picket line, but I've got so much work, you know...I've got to help hang that big Salgado show, I...”

“It's okay, Mr. Phillips, it's okay, we're out here to stop visitors, not workers. Hey, say hello to `Distance No Object' for me, Mr. Phillips.”

“What's that Ramirez?” Mr. Phillips shouted back, as he pulled open the heavy brass door and disappeared into the lobby.

The pale aqua clock on the wall of the employment office struck five, and as the clerk stood up, he closed the file in front of him and straightened his glasses with both hands. “Thank you for coming in, Mr. Ramirez. We'll be sure to call if the fish market wants an interview.”

Lopo Ramirez also stood up and held out his hand to shake the clerk's. The clerk did not notice as he turned from his desk to switch off the lights.

—Gloria Frym