This story was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural.
On a Wednesday afternoon, at around 1:30 p.m., Eugene Pinkney did something most unexpected. The author would like to stress that if this most unexpected event did not take place, Eugene would be thoroughly undeserving of a story. As it is, Eugene is a man all too familiar to his generation, a generation of Pinkneys that the author tries his best to keep up with though admits to finding quite tedious at times. Eugene works as a social media consultant, a job that even he does not find difficult and in fact pays quite well. He had not worked hard to get it and does not work particularly hard to keep it. In fact, there is very little Eugene ever worked particularly hard at. Everyone in his office was polite and perhaps too friendly to one another and, despite all being young men and women of varying shapes, sizes, and colors, one may find it challenging to view any as memorable. As it happens, Eugene was, every two weeks or so, mistaken for one of his coworkers from R&D (a young man by the name of Andy, who was, by all accounts, an agreeable and hard worker). Indeed, the only thing Eugene has to his credit is that he has never met another Eugene. His bosses and managers (who go by the title “guiding supervisors” and insist on being called by their first names) were all quite understanding people and gave him polite and predictable performance reviews every eight months.
Standing across the street from his office building, Eugene Pinkney was smoking a cigarette, a habit he had forced on himself some time ago in order to fit in with a particular crowd (the crowd had long since dispersed, leaving Eugene with a habit he had not worked particularly hard to drop). It was Eugene’s lunch hour; however, as he had done every day, he ate his packed lunch at his desk at 12:00. This meant that he spent his official lunch hour across the street from his office smoking and listening to a true-crime podcast. On this most unordinary of days, however, Eugene had forgotten his cell phone is his desk drawer. Realizing this after lighting his first cigarette, Eugene reluctantly decided he would spend the hour without it and save the discovery of bones in the basement for the bike ride home. This left Eugene, for this lunch hour, alone with his thoughts.
As Eugene stood smoking his third cigarette, his gaze wandered from the passing cars down to his shoes (comfortable sneakers) and the butts between them. He was standing over a large storm drain and, through the grates (between each was about an inch of open space), he could see small shimmering rectangles of white light reflected on the calm black water. Looking very hard, he could see the small black ball of his head in the reflection. Smoking, staring at that little black ball, Eugene reached slowly into his pocket and pulled out his key ring. It was a heavy key ring, so heavy in fact that it often caused him discomfort when sitting down. One may ask what a sensible social media consultant would do with so many keys, but every key had its place: there were keys to his apartment, his bicycle lock, his mailbox, and his home safe – to name a few. And one mustn’t leave out the fobs! There were fobs to his gym (really more of a yoga studio), to the building he lived in, to his office, even old fobs that he had never bothered to take off the ring.
So, Eugene Pinkney stood holding his key ring, mindlessly fingering through each key as he kept watch on the reflection in the water below. What he did next the author cannot explain: it confounds reason and sprang from almost no thought at all, the kind of thought beginning with, “What if I…” and trailing off. Eugene dropped, or rather one could say he threw, his keys into that storm drain. They plopped into the black water, violently disrupting those peaceful white rectangles. But what one may observe as even more strange is that not a second of reflection had passed before Eugene let out a sort of shriek, crouched down, and tried to squeeze his hand through the grate. The entire scene must have completely baffled onlookers who had happened to watch it from the start. Pulling his hand from the grate, Eugene looked around unsure of what to do next. He considered calling the police, This has to constitute an emergency, he thought; access to his entire life lay at the bottom of that storm drain. However, he decided against involving any police on account of priding himself on his truthfulness, fearing no truth of the situation would sound believable; indeed, it is the people with nothing to fear who are the most frightened. On top of all this, Eugene remembered suddenly that his phone, along with his wallet, lay in his desk drawer. “First thing’s first,” Eugene said to himself aloud yet quietly (he did this often), “I’ve got to get back to my desk.” The prospect of entering the office building without the proper fob did not concern him all too much as he had seen the security guard on his way out. In fact, it happened to be the very same guard that had been sitting there every single day since Eugene started working at this particular office seven (or could it be eight?) years ago.
Eugene crossed the street and entered the lobby of the office building. He made eye contact with the guard and, with a smile, flicked his head and widened his eyes slightly in acknowledgment (he had seen others, who seemed to be on friendly terms with the guard, do this, but he had not dared try it himself until now). The guard was a dark skinned man of about sixty. He was bald and thin, appearing shrunken beneath his loose blue button-up shirt. His face rested in a frown and his breathing occasionally sounded like a whistle. Eugene felt they had a quiet understanding.
“Hello, sir, can I help you with something?” said the guard.
“Oh, I’m just trying to get up to my office.”
“Ah, well you need a fob, sir. Did they not get you one yet?”
Eugene was taken aback, but perhaps the reader is not.
“I – I’ve worked here for years, I’m on the seventeenth floor – I mean, we see each other every day, I just walked past you a few minutes ago! You don’t remember?”
“Sorry, sir, I don’t.” The guard paused for a moment, wiping his hand across his bald head, then added, “A lot of people come through here, sir.”
“We see each other every single morning....” Eugene tried hard, but could not remember ever hearing the guard’s name spoken.
“I believe you, sir, I just don’t recognize you is all. What was your name, and what floor did you say you worked on?”
“Pinkney, Eugene. Seventeenth, ZerCom Technologies.”
“Alright, sir, I’ll call up for you, just one moment,” said the guard and dialed a phone number at his desk. He whispered into the receiver, as though discussing a secret and, upon making eye contact with Eugene, shifted his body slightly, peering on occasion at Eugene from over his shoulder. The author cannot recall the exact length of the phone call, though it seemed, to Eugene, to go on forever.
The guard then rested the phone gently on his shoulder, informed Eugene he could go up, and advised him not to forget his fob next time. He whispered a few last words into the phone and then hung up.
Upon reaching his office and nodding politely at passing coworkers, hiding the dread that was slowly building inside him, Eugene reached his desk and slumped into his (comfortable) chair. The office itself is one large, open space with high ceilings and few walls (there are two “conference spaces” in the far west corner, but even these are separated with glass). It is thoroughly modern in both layout and concept as the corporate headquarters had embraced fully the youthful demographic of their workforce and designed the space accordingly: there sits a “de-stress” table with puzzles and board-games, here a collection of green bean-bags, and, on the floor above, a television and video games. In the hopes of fostering a “positive environment where ideas are free to flow,” they had done away with cubicles and barriers, and so Eugene’s desk is really just an allotted segment of a much larger table (there are a total of three of these in the office). Eugene reached for his drawer and realized in horror, possibly before even touching the handle, that it was locked. That dread slowly building inside him had, by this point, gained weight and form, and had drifted slowly to the center of his stomach, where it now sat.
“Shit – piece of shit,” he hissed at the desk drawer. This sudden outburst of anger was startling even to Eugene. Another who had overheard this fiery remark was a coworker, whose name the author never confirmed but whom we shall nevertheless assume to be Beth. Dumbfounded, she shot a quick glance in his direction and, upon exchanging brief eye contact, hunched her heavy body back over her keyboard and busied herself with work.
Reflecting on his evolving situation, Eugene sat at his desk, involuntarily making faces as he thought through scenarios and solutions.
“First thing’s first,” he whispered.
“What was that, Andy?” said Beth.
He collected his coat, ignoring Beth, and floated over to the “de-stress” table, sinking into one of the ridiculous green bean-bags and looked carefully at a half-finished puzzle of a cartoon princess (or was it of the cartoon frog she kisses? The author admits he didn’t care enough to find out). “It’s good to solve a little problem before we tackle the big ones. Don’t underestimate the positive power of small victories. Now that’s an idea worth spreading!” That’s what a speaker in an online talk that Eugene once watched had said, and Eugene took it to heart. With those words in mind he collected the unfinished parts of the princess (frog?) that were left to be put together. Though, before beginning, he looked around the office, worried that he could upset whoever began the puzzle in the first place.
It should be noted that Eugene was extremely sensitive to the feelings of those around him and, in fact, thought himself to have a unique ability to detect discomfort in others. He had developed this skill early on in his life in response to the caring sensitivity of his friends and family. On account of this fine-tuned skill, Eugene maintained wonderfully insulated friendships (both online and in person) and had never had a “nasty” breakup in his life.
He placed the left cartoon eye down and, almost as quickly as he had decided to throw his keys into the drain, bolted towards the elevators (not without considerable difficulty getting up from the bean-bag). During his seventeen-floor descent to the lobby, Eugene thought of what he would say to the guard whose name he could not remember as he walked out. It would have to be something funny and kind, he thought, recognizing he may need to get into the building again without his fob.
As he passed the guard, the guard called out, “Have a good day, sir.”
Eugene, who had since made the quick decision that it would be best to say nothing at all, left looking quite small, waving his hand without slowing his pace and letting out an odd and panicked sound, like the start of a nervous laugh. He exited the lobby and turned the corner to where he locked up his bicycle. The sight of it in its correct place, locked to the same pole it was locked to everyday, brought him an almost indescribable comfort. He knelt down and examined the lock, hoping that he possibly forgot to lock it tightly that morning. Not surprised to find he had not forgotten, Eugene then examined the pole around which the lock was secured. It was an ordinary, free-standing metal pole, a foot or so taller than an average man, that seemed to serve no purpose other than to allow Eugene’s bicycle to be locked a comfortable distance from his office; it may as well have been installed for his bicycle. He thought for a moment and, reflecting back on the positive power of small victories, decided he would simply lift the bicycle over the pole. So, Eugene held it firmly by its frame and, with a deep breath, attempted to hoist it over the top. To his credit, Eugene did come close, but, lifting the bicycle just slightly above his head, balanced on his toes, his entire body began to tremble. He stumbled backwards and the bicycle slid down the pole and hit the ground with a great bouncing of its two tires. So embarrassed was Eugene (though no one paid him any mind) that he did not dare attempt it again.
Before running home, Eugene stopped at the storm drain to have a look at his keys. He got down on his knees and peered into the drain, and there they were, sitting in the shallow black water. The water had since stilled and the rectangles of white light had formed around the shape of keys and, as a result, were completely disjointed and misshapen. He tried once more to reach the keys but, as before, failed. Hoping, perhaps, to redeem himself for his inability to lift the bicycle, Eugene decided to try to pull the grate out of the ground. It has to be possible, thought Eugene, as he gripped the grate and braced himself. He then pulled with all his might, leaning back so far with his body that his fingers slipped right off of the metal and he flopped onto the sidewalk. Without confirming if anyone saw this sad act, he hurried to his feet and started on his way home.
Once at his building, Eugene waited for an opportunity to enter without his fob until finally a delivery man was buzzed in and Eugene followed. He went straight to the door of his neighbor from across the hall, an elderly woman who held the spare key to his apartment. However, after knocking for some time, he gave up and decided, without much thought, that he would simply have to break down his own apartment door, as he had seen in films and television shows. Standing as he was by his neighbor’s door, he charged forward and propelled his body into his undoubtedly heavy door. Just as quickly as he hit the door did he bounce right off of it, stumbling backwards. In the off-chance that he did in fact break the lock, Eugene gave his door a single tentative push, but to no avail. He limped his way back to the street, pained but dissuaded, as he considered entry from the fire escape and through a (hopefully) unlocked window.
The alleyway facade of the building, a red-brick typical of the neighborhood, struck Eugene as something new that day. He had, of course, seen it before (the dumpsters were located there), but never in this light, never as a problem to be solved. Eugene had not viewed much in his life as being as adversarial as he now viewed the facade of his building with its ladders and windows begging to be climbed. However, despite Eugene’s newfound enthusiasm and determination, he proved himself unable to pull down the ladder that would allow him to begin to climb the side of the building. So, he rolled up his sleeves (isn’t that how it’s done in the movies?) and lifted himself onto one of the large dumpsters. Satisfied with succeeding in this first step, Eugene then climbed up onto the window sill of one of his downstairs neighbors and from there reached the fire escape that zig-zagged the length of the entire building. A true sense of accomplishment began to sink in as he made his way up to the fourth floor. On his ascent, he took a moment here and there to peer into the windows of those he shared a building with. Now, Eugene assured himself that he was not a nosey person and that the circumstances excused his peering. If he were, for instance, to discover that a neighbor was in that day, he could then knock on their window, explain his situation, and save himself the risk of continuing along the rickety fire escape. At each window (no one was actually in, as it turned out), he impulsively compared the size of the apartment and the furniture to that of his own, at some feeling confident that they would be jealous were the roles reversed and at some feeling jealous himself. When Eugene finally reached the floor of his apartment, he said a little prayer, though he did not believe in God, and attempted to slide open the window to his apartment. It was, not to his surprise, locked.
Eugene stared at the window, even tried knocking on the window (knowing full-well there was no one to let him in), and suddenly, in an unexpected burst of frustration, punched the window. Never before had Eugene punched anything and his fist, without so much as cracking the glass, bounced off with such speed that it knocked him awkwardly in the jaw. Eugene wailed in pain and clutched his hand close to his chest. Shaking, Eugene began to climb down the fire escape to the safety of the street, his gaze aimed downwards and avoiding the windows. Once grounded, Eugene limped his way back to the office building.
When Eugene arrived, he stopped by the storm drain to have another look at the keys. But, lo and behold, they had vanished! In fact, the metal grate itself had been lifted and placed to the side and the keys retrieved by someone unknown. Impossible! Eugene thought, and bent down to pick up the grate himself. Still, he could not lift it. Stumbling, hand still trembling, Eugene then sat on the curb beside it and said to himself, aloud yet quietly, “Okay, Eugene, first thing’s first,” although he could not think of what was to come next. Suddenly the thought flitted through his mind that someone, this unknown someone, now had access to his entire life: to his apartment, his bicycle, his safes, his desk-drawer (his phone and wallet), even his gym membership. Why, this someone could very well now become Eugene Pinkney! This thought, however, left his mind for a moment as a most peculiar smile broke across his face, the most sincere and honest of smiles, as Eugene reflected on having faced, albeit unsuccessfully, a most confrontational day.
The reader may stop here, indeed the author will, and wonder why they’ve been made to read this particular story. The reader, whoever he or she may be, will, as readers do, try to sparse out a meaning from this rather mundane story about a rather mundane young man and his keys. What do they symbolize, those keys? Perhaps the symbol to be understood is the incomplete puzzle in the office, or Eugene’s interaction with the guard (after all, we never did learn his name). Why does the story end where it ends and what significance does that hold? And what is to be said about the other Pinkneys of the world, the ones who still hold comfortably to their keys? Possibly to the reader’s disappointment, the author does not have answers to these questions; he chose to end the story there simply because he grew tired of writing it. Where Eugene is now is also a mystery to both reader and writer, but we do know that in that very final moment we saw him, after his unusually tiring and confrontational day, Eugene felt happy – unsure and worried, yes, but happy. Why? We will never truly know; in fact, we must learn not to ask for so much. ▲
George Fairouz is a Lebanese-American short story writer and aspiring novelist currently using fiction to battle his “pandemic fatigue” in a studio apartment somewhere in Austin, TX.