The God of Speech

Photo by Buchen WANG on Unsplash

Photo by Buchen WANG

“The God of Speech” is my best story yet. Both Craft Magazine and The Missouri Review admired the story, one calling it a “staff favorite.” Both encouraged future submissions but ultimately decided not to publish it. Rejections are never satisfactorily explained in the literary world. The humor is borderline juvenile, I’ll admit, but was that the only reason the story ended up here instead of a literary journal? Feel free to share your impressions.

He rings the buzzer. The building’s brown brick, smoked glass, and aging aluminum trim add to his malaise. Delivery people didn’t seem to like it, either. The front entrance has been abused by hand trucks, the bottom pane replaced with plywood. It’s June, 2020. He hasn’t worked since March and his resumé doesn’t need this type of evidence.

“Yes?” a tinny voice asks through intercom static.

“I’m here for the study,” Vagish says.

“Which one?”

He looks around before reading from his phone. “Bowels, Movement, and Cognition.”

“Do you have a mask?”

He digs one out of his front pocket and hastily lassoes each ear. “Yes.”

“Ground floor lounge,” the voice says through the unlocking buzz. As an undergrad, Vagish had no classes in the building. It is not featured in the brochures sent to prospective students or prosperous alumni. The main windowless hallway penalizes the imagination with gray carpet and ecru walls that are pockmarked and bare. He finds a door marked “Lounge” and overcomes the urge to flee.

His entrance is tardy and casual. A petite graduate student named Branca motions to a conference table where three other participants sit, an empty chair between each. She confirms his identity with charmless efficiency. Vagish cannot identify her accent.

The oldest participant, a weathered white man, lifts a finger in greeting. The middle-aged white woman to his left is absorbed in a flashy game at low volume. A young man opposite her manipulates his phone with more grace. He is black, twenty-something, a decade younger than Vagish.

“Nice sneaks,” Vagish offers. The young man’s thumbs continue to dance, staccato bursts of typing. Vagish takes the open seat nearest Branca.

The two-week study, running from 8 am to 5 pm, will consist of structured discussions, multiple choice evaluations, puzzles, and some light physical activity. Participants are allowed one trip to the restroom per day, mostly at a time of their choosing. Because the study is meant to emulate work and social settings, participants are forbidden to talk about their bodily urges. They will be served coffee throughout the morning, two fiber-rich meals, and five liters of water, all of it to be consumed in full.

“Any questions?” Branca asks.

“What are you trying to prove?” asks Stanley, the older man. “Seems kinda twisted. Like potty detention.”

“I’m researching the elimination of public restrooms in the United States, its impact on cognition, dexterity, and emotional well-being. That is all I can tell you. This study is part of my dissertation. You are being paid for your time, but also to endure the discomfort.”

Stanley’s eyes tighten as he surveys the other victims.

“Is potty humor allowed?” Vagish asks.

“As long as you are not referring to the mutual need to relieve yourself.”

“So ‘no shit’ or ‘shit happens’ or ‘I don’t give a shit,’ totally fine?” Vagish asks.


“But ‘I’ve got a turtle head poking out,’ that’s a no-go?”

“Correct,” Branca says. Stanley, the older man, chuckles. Vanessa, the middle-aged woman, blinks at him through her affordable glasses. A snicker escapes Malik’s mask, his gaze still lowered like a Do Not Disturb sign.

For Vagish, their reactions are also a valuable data set, a map to ten of the next twelve days. His quick assumptions can be inaccurate, but when confined with strangers, an extroverted prankster must quickly discover who can take a joke. Stanley can. Malik is sensitive, a question mark. Sarcasm is lost on Vanessa. And they are all unemployed except for Branca, who is the obvious challenge.

They sit in the corner of the modest lounge. No one has ever broken in to steal the furniture. A spilled beet salad or a glass of red wine would not harm the vinyl couches and armchairs. The fluorescent light above the conference table flickers with unpredictable rhythm. Several box fans sit in open windows, diminishing the smell of ammonia and neglect, a defense against the contagion. Just outside the lounge are gendered restrooms, the men’s plum formica stalls adorned with ornate local information about fellatio.

Branca leaves and returns with a rolling cart they will name “The Stuffer.” Its shelves contain coffee cups, small white plates, cutlery, figs, bran muffins, and water bottles adorned with their names in black ink on white sports tape. No compulsion is needed. They pull down their masks, becoming fully human to one another, and clean their plates.

Afterward, they play hopscotch and four square in the building courtyard. Branca observes them, taking notes on her laptop. By 11 am, all have used their allotted bathroom break. Lunch arrives at 12:30 pm, a tangy apricot casserole, served with more coffee. They play board games and share stories about themselves, which only Vagish can do with flair. At 3 pm, Branca gives them ten word problems to solve as a group. A bond has formed by 4:45 pm, the four participants united by a common enemy. At 5:01 pm, they are in ecstasy.


“Where are you from?” Vagish asks on day three. They are seated at the conference table, enjoying a garlic-heavy vegetarian chili with a prune and flaxseed compote for dessert. The group is already reliant on his chatty nature to salvage conversations during their shared meals.

“Where do you think I’m from?” Branca replies without looking up.


Branca shakes her head and chews.


“Portugal,” Vanessa says.

“Correct,” Branca says, brightening. “Lisbon. How did you know?”

“I’m from Rhode Island,” Vanessa says. “Tons of Portuguese there. I had a neighbor named Branca.”

“It’s not a common name,” Branca says.

“Vanessa for the win,” Stanley says between bites. Vanessa looks pleased and embarrassed. “How about you?” Stanley asks, pointing at Vagish.


“India,” Stanley says. Malik slows his intake to pay closer attention.

Vagish shakes his head. “North Carolina.”

“So ‘Vagish’ is a typical Southern name?”

He hears an underdog curiosity in Stanley’s question, perhaps a search for common ground. He chooses an answer then softens it as the words alight. “My parents are from Kerala, in southern India. They met here, in college.”

“It’s a lovely name,” Vanessa says. “I like the way it sounds. Va-geesh.”

“What does it mean?” Stanley asks.

“Does it have to mean anything? What does ‘Stanley’ mean?”

“Handsome, quick-witted, heroic.”

“It’s a Hindu name,” Vagish says when the laughter dies. “Meaning ‘The God of Speech.'”

“Got that right,” says Malik, a crack which proves that Branca can laugh.

Vagish feigns offense. The tension grows until he pulls the look.

“I’m just saying,” Malik says. “You talk a lot. Like all the time.”

“Alright, alright,” Vagish says, licking his spoon, surveying the table. “I was just trying to entertain you folks. Help take your mind off your bladders. I guess compassion was the wrong call.”

“Vagish,” Branca says flatly.

“Sorry.” He smiles and flutters his eyelashes at her. Branca breaks off her gaze and opens her laptop.

That night, Vagish spends a half hour reading about Portugal, browsing photos of Lisbon. He watches a video of Cristiano Ronaldo’s best goals and by the end, he is rooting for each hapless goalie. He cannot find anyone named Branca on the university website.


“You were working in construction?” Vagish asks. They are in the courtyard, watching Vanessa skip rope for two minutes. She is nimble for her age. Branca is recording her progress while Stanley recovers on the ground, holding his sides. It is Thursday, 3 pm.

“Yeah,” Malik says. “General carpentry. There’s no work for guys like me, just starting out in the trades.”

“You build houses?” he asks. Vanessa stops jumping and crosses her legs, letting the jump rope lay at her feet.

“Keep jumping, Vanessa,” says Branca. “You can do it. You have a minute left.”

Vanessa shudders. She clenches the handles tightly, as if they will lift her into the air. The urge passes and she resumes, but her rhythm is gone. The rope snags on her ankles.

“Offices mostly,” Malik says. “Hanging drywall, hauling shit, cleaning. How about you?”

“I did social media for a Danish shoe company. Got laid off a couple of months ago.” His upcoming turn makes him nervous. Something bad could happen.

“So you just tweet all day? Take pictures of shoes and post them? How do you get a job like that?”

“It’s more complicated.” Today is the worst yet. Since lunch, Vagish has been fantasizing about the handicapped accessible stall, the one with the working latch at the end of the row. “You spend a lot of time in meetings and responding to followers. It’s a ton of bullshit. You wouldn’t like it, trust me.”

“I don’t know,” Malik says. “I’ll take anything at this point.”

“Vagish,” Branca says loudly. He likes the way she evenly accents both syllables of his name. She is more careful in the way she engages him now, her words and gestures suggesting an equality that she extends only to him. “Your turn.”


On Friday, The Stuffer arrives at noon, laden with oversized white bowls. Each contains chopped fruit, some of it dried, lentils, spinach, grated carrots, seitan, and a honey lime dressing, garnished with two sprigs of fresh oregano. The coffee is served with an open pack of cigarettes this time, but only Vanessa partakes. They finish their plates greedily, irrationally. The food is simply too good, impossible to resist. The menu has compromised Stanley’s dinner ritual of peanut butter sandwiches and malt liquor.

Branca asks more probing questions now, looking for controversy in their opinions of the president and the police. The approach falters. Their divergent musical tastes, however, offer rich disagreements. Branca types quickly, feeding some unknown metric. Vanessa defends her love of Bon Jovi while pulling out the waistband of her shorts with both thumbs. Her sentences are halting, as if she cannot afford to pay attention to the physical act of speaking. She makes a comparison to childbirth and the group becomes worried. Branca relents. To wrap up the first week, she asks them what they have planned for Friday evening.

Stanley, who has taken to lying on the floor most afternoons with his pants unbuttoned, describes how he hopes to finish his true crime novel on the S35 bus. He takes it to the last stop, fills his backpack at a corner store, and then walks another half hour to his current situation. The others listen to this story from couches and chairs in the lounge while Stanley speaks to the ceiling. His voice is low and dry, his pronunciation lazy, faintly southern. He has no shame about living in his ex-girlfriend’s termite-infested garage.

Vanessa also takes the S35, but only for a few stops. She left Providence 20 years ago and has lived in the same apartment ever since. Her ex-husband chased work here. He chased many things. Her daughter Anna will expect dinner before 7 pm. They’ll watch a few episodes of The Great British Baking Show since Vanessa can’t join her girlfriends for drinks at “The Broken Home,” an endangered neighborhood institution.

Malik will probably watch a movie at his girlfriend’s place. She will make fun of him for participating in the study. Rocking back and forth, he reads her latest texts to the group, covering his face before each missive. Her clever descriptions of clenching amuse everyone. Even Branca chuckles before noting the rule violation.

Vagish sits with his legs crossed, hands dangling off the armrests. He dares only move only his lips. A sneeze would be ruinous. When his turn arrives, he speaks of his latest obsession–Star Trek: The Original Series. He doesn’t mention how the theme song echoes about his apartment. All the rugs were hers. He cheated, she retaliated. Twice. They worked it out, but not really. Early in the new year, he came home from work and found $800 for next month’s rent. The note said he wasn’t to blame. No returned emails or calls. In March, she quarantined with a new lover. He considered moving back home but he prefers loneliness to the South. The most interesting character on the show is Spock, who is half human, half Vulcan. For some reason, his Vulcan side predominates. He shows no emotion and cannot lie. Vagish elaborates on society’s modern dependence on lying. Marketing, for example, is institutionalized dishonesty. Even friendships and relationships avoid collapse by skirting the truth, like frightened toads, jumping to safe topics at the risk of boredom.

“You know that Spock and Captain Kirk are both Jewish?” Stanley says from the floor. He raises his hand and makes the Vulcan sign, a V with two fingers for each side of the letter. “It’s a Jewish symbol. Leonard Nimoy was a real sweetheart of a guy. Shatner, not so much. He’s Canadian.”

“Do you think others find you dishonest?” Branca asks.

“No, I don’t think so.” He will remember this question for the rest of his life.

“But you are so nice, so eager for other’s approval,” Branca says. “Even now, when you are experiencing physical discomfort, you pretend that everything is fine. Everyone is in pain, but not you. You are so composed, and composure is a form of lying.”

“I don’t–” Vagish begins. “Aren’t we supposed to avoid talking about it? You get mad whenever we mention needing to go.”

“Wouldn’t you rather express your discomfort in some way?” Branca asks. Vanessa and Malik find something else to look at. “Is that the most honest thing to do in this situation?”

A bass clef flatulence reverberates off the floor.

“Sorry,” Stanley says.

“A fart is honest,” Branca says. “Impolite but honest. Maybe we should fart in public. Is that what Spock would do? Isn’t that more courageous?”
Vagish cannot find his words. Branca’s eyes are trained on him for once, her fingers paused above her keyboard.

“Am I making you mad? Can you be honest about that?”

“Yes,” he says unwillingly. “You’re kind of sadistic.”

She exhales, puffing out her mask. Her nails are long enough to click with each keystroke. The fans hum in the windows.

“Being nice is not a crime, Vagish,” says Vanessa.

“4:45,” says Stanley. “Are we gonna get paid today or what?”

“Next Friday,” Branca says without looking up. “Don’t worry.”

“So if we are being honest,” Malik says, pulling down his own mask. “What do y’all think of the protests? Anyone down?”

Stanley raises a hand off the floor.

At 3:40 am that night, Vagish recalls his parents sharing the couch on a video call, ranting about Trump, Bolsonaro, Modi and the BJP, gesticulating at the camera, his father’s pointed finger dominating the screen, their impatient outrage. He regrets not responding to Malik’s question, but Branca’s observation was freshly lodged, which forced him to explore his delusions like an endoscope looking for polyps. He gives up on sleep and sets out for a run. The campus is deserted but he barely notices. He is too busy cataloging grievances, remembering dismissals and insults and his meager retorts and Branca’s poise. And yet he was oddly thankful for the clarity, the cogent reinterpretation of several stinging rejections.



Late Monday afternoon, Branca leads an aggressive walk to City Hall and back. She records notes on her phone as they pass a park occupied by protestors. Stanley recognizes a friend’s tent and shouts a few obscenities. At the border of the park, Malik stops at a tree and crosses his legs, breathing deeply through his nose.

“Come on, Malik,” Branca says. “No stopping.”

“I love trees,” he says, his voice strained, as if at the end of a set of pushups. “I think this is an oak.” He caresses the bark and flashes a worried look at Vagish.

“It’s a maple,” Vanessa says. “You can tell by the leaf. Looks like the Canadian flag.”

“Is it?” Malik asks without looking up. Branca is about to take his arm when the peristalsis appears to relent. He rejoins the group, walking next to Vagish.

“You OK?”

“Nope,” Malik says. “I’m an afternoon shitter, after lunch. This is my time.” The others begin to pull ahead. “Took some Imodium this morning, but it’s been in my mom’s medicine cabinet since I was a kid. I don’t think I can take another contraction. Not like that one.” A wrinkle of worry spans his forehead. Sidewalk inhabitants are noticing his stilted gait.

“Aw, dude, Imodium’s a laxative.”

“No, no, no.” Malik stops and weaves his fingers behind his head, sucking in air through his teeth. “You’re kidding me, right?”

“Yes,” Vagish says. “I’m kidding you.”

“Not funny. Not now.”

“So were you at that protest last Friday?” Vagish asks.

“Yeah,” Malik says, grateful for the distraction. They are passing an empty pair of double-parked police cars. “A bunch of us went. Occupied the highway.”

“Got pretty dicey, yeah?”

“My friend Jamie got shot in the face with a tear gas canister. Had to go to the hospital. They pinned us in on the side of the highway and just kept lobbing tear gas, pepper spraying people in the face. It was seriously fucked up.”

“Damn,” Vagish says.

“Ever protested the cops before?”

Vagish shakes his head. “I grew up in the burbs. Wasn’t on my radar until now.”

“Wanna try it out?” Malik asks.

“Absolutely. The cops are out of control. Yeah, let me know. I’ll bring a few friends who are into this stuff.”

“But it’s not your thing?”

“No, yeah, it is,” Vagish says as he imagines himself in a cloud of tear gas, goon squads beating the innocent. “I’m not exactly white.”

“No,” Malik says. “Not exactly.”


Vanessa sits at the conference table. Her laptop is thick and heavy with a loud fan, part of her layoff package from the auto dealership. Her daughter codes websites and thinks her mom could find a new job with some training.

“That’s cool,” Vagish says from the couch, looking at The God of Small Things, which he found in the lounge bookshelf. He is on page 63 and wants to like it more than he does.

“I’m taking an online class,” she says. “An hour a night. Have you ever used Wordsmith?”

“I don’t think so,” Vagish says, thinking she should show some teeth when she smiles. Maybe get rid of the bangs and upgrade the glasses.

“Well, that’s what I’m learning right now. How to make the link thingy at the top of the page.”

“You mean WordPress.”

“Yes, that’s it,” she says, pointing at him and nodding. “WordPress. You know it?”


“A whippersnapper like you could learn this in no time. I bet you’d be really good at it.”

“I’m thinking I’d rather work with people face to face. Maybe teach.”

“You could make a fortune selling cars. The good looking ones always do.”

“Maybe I should become a model. Would be a shame to waste a gift. I just need to practice smiling in the mirror, and stop cutting my own hair.”

She is pleased with their exchange and turns back to building her link thingy.


At 4:15 pm on the second Tuesday, they return from the courtyard, sweaty. Malik performed “Renegade” and taught them “The Floss” dance. Having a daughter gave Vanessa a leg up. Her Floss was fluid. Vagish could only manage a few bars before losing the rhythm. Stanley was quickly frustrated and pouting.

Branca points a group fan on herself at the conference room table. Vanessa is in the beige armchair with her eyes closed, waiting out the day. Stanley lies on the carpet. Malik and Vagish occupy couches opposite one another.

“Ever heard of a poop knife?” Vagish asks him, the fan noise turning his words into a whisper.

“A poop knife?” Malik asks.


“Oh God.”

“Look it up. Poop knife Reddit.”

“I’m scared,” Malik says and goes quiet. Vagish smiles at the ceiling, then sits up to watch his reaction. Malik breaks into a throaty laugh. Tears flow. Vanessa opens her eyes and Stanley wants to know what is so fucking funny.

“Look it up,” Malik says as he recovers. “Reddit poop knife. Oh, right. You don’t have a phone.”

Stanley waves away the suggestion but Malik hands over his device anyway. Stanley lifts his glasses and reads, propped up against the other end of Malik’s couch. Branca joins the group.

“Dude, how do you survive without a phone?” Vagish asks. Even through his mask, he smells urine and discreetly glances down at himself and is relieved.

“You’d be surprised at what you can get used to,” Stanley says.

“How much does a pay-as-you-go cost? Like $30 a month?”

Stanley hesitates. “Don’t mock me, son.”

“Whoa. Stanley, I’m not mocking you. Sorry. I was genuinely interested because I’m, like, totally addicted to my phone. I didn’t mean to offend you.”

Stanley shoots him another suspicious look. “You gotta have electricity.”

Vagish nods.

“So Stanley,” Branca asks as she opens her laptop, “can you tell us more?”

“What does me not having a phone have to do with this study?” he asks.

“It is part of the data set. What you bring to the group, how you communicate, the group’s reaction. I’m looking at your experience here holistically.”

Stanley does not appear convinced, but she is asking him to talk about himself. He used to have a prepaid phone at his ex-girlfriend’s place. To charge it, he ran an extension cord to the garage, but Marilyn took it away when he refused to stop drinking.

“Does Marilyn allow you to use the restroom in her house?”

“I’m not allowed inside,” he says.

“So where do you do your business?” Branca asks with a vague hand gesture. “Outdoors?”

“Very good, Branca.” Stanley says. “Yes, nature is my toilet.”

“Well, you have excellent hygiene considering. Most mornings, you are freshly shaven, your hair’s all wet. All that happens outside?”

Stanley takes a deep breath before the reveal. “This building opens at 7 am,” he says finally. “I arrive a bit early and take the back stairs to the third floor faculty restroom. Don’t tell your professor buddies.”


It is afternoon, the penultimate Thursday. Branca serves Vietnamese coffee and drains a can of sweetened condensed milk between their four servings. They become jittery and cautious, playing charades without bending. Vanessa draws a scrap of paper from a bowl and stands by pushing off her armchair, keeping her torso straight. After some lip biting, she places the folded note and her mask in her back pocket and makes a cranking gesture with her hands.

“Movie,” Vagish says.

Vanessa nods as she stifles a sneeze.

“Gesundheit,” Stanley says.

Another sneeze, then another. Vanessa cannot hold them in. Each is more painful than the last until she is defenseless and stunned, as if kicked. Her pleading look falls to Vagish as his eyes involuntarily drop to the dark, growing wetness around her groin.

No one knows what to do at first. Then Stanley produces a towel from his backpack. Branca types feverishly on her laptop. Vagish takes the towel and tries to dry Vanessa’s legs before she spins away and jogs to the restroom.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Stanley shouts. Though there is little to clean up, Vagish wipes the floor.

“I’ll buy you a new towel,” he says to Stanley, but he is distracted by the rhythmic thumping of Branca’s fingers against the keyboard.

“Branca,” he says. The heat, the smell of urine, the urges he must deny for another hour and fifteen minutes.

“Just a sec,” she says absently.

Vagish tries to get ahead of an outburst gathering force in his lungs. The sensation moves from his stomach to his throat without warning.

They are all staring at him now. The fans are blowing, he is out on the limb. Branca glares at him, humiliated and angry.

“Can you please,” he says with fraudulent composure. “Can you get Vanessa something to wear. A pair of shorts, a skirt. Something another human being might wear.”

Branca bristles. Unhurried, she shuts her laptop and carries it with her to the lounge door, brushing hair off her neck with her free hand before she exits. Vagish doubts she will come back.

“This is fucked,” Malik says, heading to the women’s restroom. A minute later, each of them occupy a stall, laughing, letting it all flow with a shared euphoria. They flush and clean up. Back in the lounge, Vanessa models a pair of cutoff jeans that Stanley has produced from his bottomless backpack. They leave early and walk her to the bus.




A month after being laid off, Vagish sold his Audi. He no longer thinks of money as a stream, coming and going. He walks everywhere. He doesn’t want to share his one bedroom apartment with a stranger.

It is Friday morning, the last day of the study. He walks to campus and sees Vanessa and Stanley sitting in front of the building. There are no cars in the parking lot.

“Uh oh,” Vagish says. “What’s going on?”

“They closed the fucking building is what’s going on,” Stanley says. “Told the staff to work from home until further notice. So you know what that means?”

“That we aren’t getting paid today.”

“Bingo. First she degrades us. Then she stiffs us. The bitch.”

“That’s jumping to conclusions, Stanley,” Vanessa says. “They’ll pay us.” She pulls a phone from her cloth bag and steps away just as Malik arrives. Vagish explains their predicament. Malik is relieved until he sees Stanley.

“I left a message with Branca,” Vanessa says. Stanley tries the front door, then leaves his finger on the buzzer for almost a minute, its shrill sound fraying nerves. He relents and begins kicking the front door with the soul of his velcro sneakers.

“Jesus, Stanley,” Malik says. “Chill the fuck out. Somebody is going to call the cops.”

“He’s right,” Vagish says.

Arms akimbo, Stanley looks back at them, then back at the door. He gives it a low thump, throws his backpack against the building then takes a seat next to Vanessa.

“Y’all are good people. Not like these assholes,” he says, his face haggard and shiny. “This university doesn’t even pay taxes. And do you think that Branca will go to bat for us? Not fucking likely.”

“She’s not a bitch,” Vagish says as Vanessa shakes her head and digs in her cloth bag. She pulls out a $20 bill and offers it to Stanley.

“That’s awfully kind, but I don’t do charity.”

“Please Stanley,” she says. “Just take it. I’ll be fine. I’m getting unemployment.”

Vagish adds another $20 bill. “You’d do the same for us, right?”

Stanley waits a few seconds before accepting with practiced humility. He takes Malik’s contribution with the same grace. No one is crying, but Vagish’s insides buzz with righteousness.

“So we’ve got the day off,” Vagish says. “What the hell are we gonna do?”

“I’m all jacked up on Imodium,” Malik says, patting his swollen abdomen. “Practically tripping.”

“Me too,” Vagish admits, spotting a car pulling into the lot. “I have been all week.”

“You can get high on Imodium?” Stanley asks, incredulous but hopeful. He catches sight of the driver. “Well goddamn.”

The car comes to a stop next to them as the driver’s side window descends. Branca regards them with a blameless look, as if she might ask for directions. Her right hand is on the steering wheel, but her left now hangs out the open window. Vagish approaches the car and accepts four envelopes.

“I wanted to thank you all for what you’ve done,” she says loudly. “I know that I’m not very easy to work with, so I appreciate your patience.”
“The pleasure was all ours,” Stanley says as Vagish distributes their paychecks. The others slide open their rewards. She is watching him when he turns back to the car.

“Aren’t you going to open yours?” she says with her off-the-clock voice.

“Is there a surprise inside?” he asks, winking at her. Before she has time to sigh and look away, he has involuntarily imagined a hand-written note with her phone number tucked inside his $960 pay stub. Yesterday he could barely tolerate her, and yet he has already launched a flirtatious smirk that will fall to the pavement like a raw egg.

“No surprises,” she says, letting her foot off the brake. She waves at the others and pulls away.

The four participants recognize the ending. The virus feeds on hugs or handshakes, so they simply wave goodbye to each other without satisfaction. The group dissolves. Vagish was looking forward to stories he would tell about the study, a reality show without cameras. Now he might delete the whole thing, or simply remove Branca, like Stalin doctoring photographs, canceling all detractors.

He is walking downtown now, but his mind cannot leave the parking lot, himself standing next to her car, watching her eyes roll, watching her left arm withdraw into the car, away from him. If they see each other in the supermarket or on the street, he knows she will blank him.

He walks and walks. His thoughts distort and darken. He approaches an intersection and waits for the light to change. It doesn’t matter if he crosses or stands on the corner until dusk. He cannot undo his presumptuousness. A fool who forgot his place, a spineless Asian hipster with a large nose and no job, unworthy of her phone number. She knows him only as a series of humiliations that he accepted for $960.

The light changes and the iconic white man tells him to cross. He removes his mask and turns left instead, against traffic, onto a street he does not know, lined with closed shops and expensive apartments. He has no plans, nothing to do except spit on the windshield of a parked car.