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The Fifth Fourman

              The crosswalk sign changed from the stern, orange hand to the white figure of a man in midstride, but John Klendensky did not cross Scrub Avenue, though he had intended to do so when he’d pressed the pedestrian button on his side of the street. Struck with the purposelessness of his errand – to get two rolls of dimes from Forton’s Foods because he was generally low on dimes – John could not stand the thought of now, on this cool Sunday evening, becoming the crosswalk man from the sign. Instead, he pivoted on his heel and headed homeward. But he had taken only two-and-a-half steps when the honk of a car horn paused him.

               “Klendensky!” The man addressing John by shouting his last name was doing so from within the dark interior of a blocky blue SUV. The driver’s side window had been lowered one third of the way and John could only see the shouter’s face from the bridge of his nose up. The tall forehead and curly widow’s peak were familiar, but distantly so. “Klendensky, over here!” the motorist again shouted, as if John were not looking right at him. “It’s me!”

               “Who?” asked John.

               “Mr. Morris! Your old little league baseball coach from when you were, what, 11? But then you turned 12 midseason, as I recall!”

               The light changed, but Mr. Morris made no effort to drive on. A car behind him honked its impotence at him, then maneuvered around and away. “Come over here,” said Mr. Morris. “Get in. I want to talk to you. I have an opportunity for you.”

               “I don’t need an opportunity,” said John.

               “Come on, Klendensky,” said Mr. Morris. “That’s an absurd thing to say. ‘I don’t need an opportunity.’ Oh, please, Klendensky. Come on. Come over here. Get in, get in.” Grunting gracelessly, he reached behind his seat and fumbled for the door handle. After a moment, he popped the door and managed to swing it open. While this was going on, two more cars honked and swerved around Mr. Morris’s SUV, their drivers visibly angry. “Hurry up,” said Mr. Morris. “Before someone gets angry.”

               John did not want to get into the SUV, but he remembered what Mr. Morris’s personality was like, the way he’d hounded John’s whole little league team to crowd the plate despite their natural aversion to getting hit by pitches, a fear heightened by their knowledge of the control issues that plagued many little league pitchers of the era, and all eras. John climbed into the SUV and pulled the door closed behind him. “What’s the opportunity?” he asked the back of Mr. Morris’s head as the SUV crept through the tail end of a yellow light and the early stages of a red.

               “I know certain people,” said Mr. Morris. “I mean, I can read certain people. Certain people give me a certain feeling.”

               “This is about the opportunity?” asked John. He tried to remember if he had interacted with Mr. Morris at all – even seen him around Multioak – since little league. He didn’t think so. Before this encounter, if someone had told John that Mr. Morris had left town years ago, John wouldn’t have been surprised. Mr. Morris projected an air of unsettledness at all times, a man always on the move or about to be.

               “You give me the feeling I’m talking about,” said Mr. Morris. “Even when you were a kid, back in your little league days, I could tell that you get it.”

               “Get what?” asked John, deciding he’d like a little more information before determining whether he was flattered or creeped out.

               “You get what I’m about,” said Mr. Morris. “What I’m going for. We’re on the same page.”

               “You think we’re alike?” asked John. The idea was shocking.

               “Not alike on the surface, no,” said Mr. Morris. “I’m not talking about our personalities. I’m talking about deep understanding.”

               “Of each other?” asked John.

               “No, no,” said Mr. Morris. “Our approaches are totally different. But we want to get to the same place.”

               “Which is?” asked John.

               “That’s what this opportunity is about,” said Mr. Morris. “I want you to join my team, Klendensky.”

               “Your team?” asked John. “Little league?” It was a moronic thing to say, but he was confused and little league was his only connection to Mr. Morris. John offered a silent prayer of thanks when Mr. Morris laughed in a non-spiteful way that made it clear he thought John was being funny on purpose.

               “No, my current team,” said Mr. Morris. “For a business project. I’m assembling a team to work on a business project.”

               “You’re offering me a job?” asked John.

               “You’ve got what it takes,” said Mr. Morris. “As soon as I started assembling my team, I thought of you. You popped right into my mind. And when I saw you walking past just now, I knew it was meant to be.”

               “What kind of job is it?” asked John. “Because I’m wondering if I’m qualified.”

               “I won’t tell you what the job is,” said Mr. Morris. “You’ll find out after the trial period. But you’re qualified, I’m sure you’re qualified. You’re one of the only people in the world who’s qualified. That’s why I picked you up off of the street. Because I’ve got that feeling about you, Klendensky. You’re perfect for my team.”

               “How much does the job pay?” asked John.

               “It’s not a job,” said Mr. Morris. “Not in the traditional sense.”

               “But how much does it pay?” asked John.

               Mr. Morris quoted a figure much higher than John was currently making at his nondescript office job. “But that’s not why I want you to decide to join the team. I want you to decide to join because you’re excited about the opportunity, Klendensky. Because you have the same feeling about this opportunity that I have about you.”

               “I think it would be easier for me to be excited about something other than the salary if I knew what the business project was about,” said John.

               “After the trial period,” said Mr. Morris. “It’ll all become clear to you.”

               “How long is the trial period?” asked John.

               “As long as it takes,” said Mr. Morris. “Which, in your case, might be a couple days at most. You get it, Klendensky, you get it. You’ll breeze right through the trial period, I’m sure of it.”

               “Then why do it?” asked John. “If you already know I’ll pass it. If you already know I’m right for your team, why do I have to go through the trial period?”

               “There’s nothing to worry about,” said Mr. Morris. “It’s just a formality. I’m never wrong about these things. When I know someone’s got it, when I know someone gets me, when I know that someone else is on the same page as me, I’m always right. Always. One hundred percent success rate.”

               “It’s just that I’ve got rent to pay,” said John. “And if I quit my other job, then, yeah.”

               “You’ll be paid during the trial period too,” said Mr. Morris. “That’s how confident I am. You’ll be a full-fledged member of the team in no time. A day, maybe. Maybe minutes. Maybe seconds! But you are right for this team. As right as it’s possible for a person to be.”

               “What happens if I don’t get through the trial period?” asked John.

               “You will,” said Mr. Morris.

               “But if I don’t?” asked John.

               “Stop it,” said Mr. Morris. “You will.”

               “OK,” said John. “If you’re that confident in me, then I don’t see how I can refuse.”

               “You can’t,” said Mr. Morris. “You can’t refuse. It’s impossible. Where should I drop you off? Were you headed somewhere?”

               “Forton’s Foods,” said John. “I need some dimes.”

               “Dimes?” asked Mr. Morris, executing a U-turn in the middle of the street to the consternation of all nearby drivers. “What do you need dimes for?”

               “I’m running low,” said John. The look Mr. Morris shot him in the rearview mirror was not the look one would expect to pass between two people who were on the same page.


               When John got home with two fresh rolls of dimes in his pocket, he emailed his boss at his nondescript office job and told him he was quitting because he’d been offered a job that paid better. Then he walked from room to room in his small house and affixed color-coded post-it notes to his possessions. Items with yellow post-it notes on them needed to be replaced as soon as John got his first paycheck, items with blue post-it notes needed to be replaced when he got his second paycheck, and items with pink post-it notes needed to be replaced when he got his third paycheck. Items without post-it notes either did not need to be replaced or needed to be replaced after John got his fourth paycheck or later, but he only had three colors of post-it notes. He should have gotten a fourth color of post-it note while he was at Forton’s Foods. He hadn’t known that he was going to need a fourth color of post-it note, but that was why it was good to have things on hand in case something came up.


The next morning, John drove to the address Mr. Morris had given him, which turned out to belong to a storefront in a strip mall. On one side of the storefront was a hot dog restaurant called Benevolent Emperor’s. On the other side was a second-hand store called Junky’s. There was no sign over the storefront where John had been instructed to meet Mr. Morris. Opaque shades filled the large windows, and the venetian blinds hanging in the glass front door were closed. There was not an “open” sign in the window, but neither was there a “closed” sign. John tried the door, but it was locked. Unsure what he should do next, John sat down on the curb to wait. He untied and re-tied his sneaker laces. When he’d asked Mr. Morris what he should wear for the trial period, Mr. Morris had said, “We’re not that kind of company.” John wasn’t sure what that meant, but he had taken it to mean that there was no dress code, so he’d dressed himself in the aforementioned sneakers, khaki pants, and an untucked button-up shirt. He had also worn his glasses instead of his contacts based on an impulse that he had chosen not to analyze.

               Twenty minutes later, Mr. Morris pulled into the parking lot. As he got out of his SUV, he said, “What are you doing here already, Klendensky? I told you 9 a.m., right? It’s not even 10 ‘til.”

               “I thought I should get here early,” said John. He rose from the curb and brushed off the seat of his pants with both hands. “Since it’s my first day.”

               “No,” said Mr. Morris. “No, no. When I say to be here at 9 a.m., that’s what I mean, OK? I don’t mean for you to be here 10 minutes before that.”

               “Well, I’ve already been here for twenty minutes,” said John.

               “No, no, no,” said Mr. Morris. He clapped John on the shoulder. “We’re not that kind of company. I thought you understood that.”

               “I guess not,” said John.

               “That’s OK,” said Mr. Morris. “I should have been more clear. I guess since I have such a strong feeling about you being perfect for my team, I just assume you know what I mean when I tell you things.”

               “Ah, yeah,” said John. “I hope what time I got here this morning wasn’t part of the trial period.” He felt the nervousness that he’d tried to keep out of his smile right there in his smile.

               “No,” said Mr. Morris. He seemed to shake a follow-up thought from his head before repeating, “We aren’t that kind of company.” He walked past John to the door and unlocked it with a loose key from his shirt pocket. Then, without opening the door, he turned and said, “All right, Klendensky, as soon as you step through this door, your trial period begins. I’m going to open the door, turn on the lights, and then you’ll come in and that’s when the trial period starts.”

               “And what am I supposed to do, exactly?” asked John.

               “I’m getting to that,” said Mr. Morris. There was a trace of irritation in his voice. He paused. When he spoke again, the trace of irritation was gone, although there was still a soft impression in Mr. Morris’s words where the irritation had been. “All you have to do is just observe the room. There are several chairs, a desk, a couch…well, you’ll see. But you can sit anywhere, you can stand, you can walk around. Whatever works best for you. Whatever helps you observe the room. And when you’ve noticed what’s special about the room, your trial period is over! It’s that simple.”

               “How do I let you know when I think I’ve noticed what’s special about the room?” asked John.

               “I’ll give you my phone number,” said Mr. Morris. “You can just call me. But you won’t call when you think you’ve noticed what’s special about the room. You’ll call when you’ve noticed what’s special about the room. You won’t be calling to guess.”

               “But how will I know I’m right?” asked John. “How will I know that I noticed the right thing?”

               “You’ll know,” said Mr. Morris, his initial confidence from the day before making a strong return.

               “So will I fail if I don’t guess right?” asked John.

               “You won’t be guessing at all!” said Mr. Morris. He grabbed John by both shoulders. “You’ll know, Klendensky, I’m telling you. There won’t be any doubt. I have complete faith in you. I know in my gut that you’re the man for this. Not just a man, you’re the man. I’ve learned to accept that this feeling I get is always right, and you should accept that too. It isn’t a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when.’ And we can wait as long as it takes because you’re a surefire prospect. But it’s not going to take a long. You’ll observe the room for an hour, a day or two, whatever it takes, and then you’ll notice what’s special about it, you’ll call me, and that’ll be that. You’ll be a part of the team, and then the real fun begins!”

               “And what I observe that’s special about this room has something to do with the business project?” asked John.

               “Everything has something to do with everything,” said Mr. Morris.

               “And I get paid for the whole time I’m in the trial period?” asked John.

               Mr. Morris inhaled like he was going to heave a king-sized sigh, held it, and said “yes” in a small voice. Then he turned, pushed the door open, stepped inside, and turned on the lights.

               John followed.


               There wasn’t much more to the room than Mr. Morris had already described. The desk faced the front door from ten yards away. Against the wall to John’s left was a gray couch. To John’s right, three padded chairs were arranged in a line with their backs to the front window. There was a clock on the wall, as well as five prints of landscape paintings: snowy mountains, turbulent ocean, desert morning, far-off geese, fallow field. Each of the far corners of the room was populated with a few potted plants a piece. “What’s that?” asked John, pointing to a door on the far wall.

               “A little hallway that leads to the bathroom and the supply closet,” said Mr. Morris. “Neither of them have anything to do with the trial period.”

               “So I can’t go in there?” asked John.

               “Well, you can use the bathroom,” said Mr. Morris. “But there’s no need to observe anything back there. This trial period is about you noticing what’s special about this room.”

               “Hmm,” said John, tapping his chin and looking around. He narrowed his eyes.

               “Look, Klendensky,” said Mr. Morris. “There’s no hurry. Just let it come to you. Observe. That’s all we’re asking of you. When you notice what’s special about the room, give me a call. If that’s five minutes from now, great. Otherwise, I’ll be here at 5 to lock up and you can try again tomorrow. But you will get it, John. I’ve never been more certain. So you don’t have to do anything to convince me. I’m already convinced. So don’t put on a show. Don’t try to impress me. Don’t try to instill confidence. I’m already confident. Just observe until you notice, then call. That’s it.”

               “Got it,” said John.

               “Good,” said Mr. Morris. He had John add him as a contact on his phone, said goodbye, and left. John made a little gap in the venetian blinds with his fingers and watched Mr. Morris drive away. Then he turned back to the room. He already felt more observant without the pressure of Mr. Morris’s presence. There was the desk, the couch, the chairs, the clock, the landscape prints, the plants, the door leading to the supply closet and the bathroom. And the shades in the front windows, and the blinds in the front door. Plus the carpet, of course, he hadn’t observed the carpet before, but now he was observing it. It was blue-gray. And what about the lights overhead? Aha, yes! There were four banks of them and they were fluorescent.

               John walked to the desk and drummed his fingers on its empty surface. He wondered if he should sit down at the desk. He was on the clock, after all. John knew that if he asked Mr. Morris if he should sit behind the desk, Mr. Morris would say, “We’re not that kind of company.” But maybe that just meant Mr. Morris wanted his team members to be self-motivated, the kind of people who would see a desk and sit down behind it of their own volition? But when John walked around to the other side of the desk, he saw that there was no desk chair. No desk chair? No desk chair! For there to be a desk but no desk chair was certainly odd, but was it special? It was hard to say. John wondered if he should have pressed Mr. Morris more on what he meant by “special,” although he suspected Mr. Morris’s response would have been neither clarifying nor pleased.

               But Mr. Morris had said there was a chance John would observe whatever it was that made the room special within a matter of minutes. Maybe most people wouldn’t notice that there was a desk but no desk chair, and the only reason it didn’t seem that special to John was because the observation had come to him so naturally, which could be interpreted as vindication of Mr. Morris’s faith in John. And really, what else was there to observe about such a boring room? John sat down on the couch and called Mr. Morris.

               “Klendensky!” Mr. Morris sounded excited.

               “Hey, Mr. Morris,” said John. “I couldn’t help but notice that there’s a desk.” He paused. “But there’s no desk chair.”

               On the other end of the phone, he heard road noise, a faint squealing of breaks. “No,” Mr. Morris finally said. “That’s not what’s special about the room.” He sounded sad.

               “Oh, I know, I know,” said John. “I just meant that there’s no way to sit at the desk. Is it OK if I move one of the chairs in the window over to the desk? I just didn’t know if I was allowed to move things around.”

               “Wow,” said Mr. Morris. “You scared me there, Klendensky. I thought you were saying the fact that there isn’t a chair at the desk was the thing that’s special about that room! Whew, what a relief. Yes, you can move things around if you really want to. Although, I mean, is there a specific reason you want to sit at the desk?”

               “Um, no,” said John. “No particular reason. Should I not sit at the desk?”

               “Well, it’s not a desk job,” said Mr. Morris. “We’re not that kind of company.”

               “So I shouldn’t?” asked John.

               “You need to be comfortable making your own decisions,” said Mr. Morris. “Sit at it, don’t sit at it, move a chair, don’t move a chair, I don’t care. But you shouldn’t call me unless you’re telling me what’s special about that room. Got it, Klendensky?”

               “Got it,” said John. “Bye. See you later.” He hung up the phone and did not move a chair over to the desk.


               John spent the rest of the morning observing the room and noticing nothing special about it. At lunch time, he stepped out to get a Polish dog next door at Benevolent Emperor’s. Then, he went back to the room and observed it without noticing anything special about it for the rest of the afternoon. He tried not to stress too much, and was successful. Mr. Morris had told him it might take a couple of days, but that there wasn’t anything wrong with that because he knew John would eventually notice whatever it was he was supposed to notice. John figured it was best if he didn’t put undue pressure on himself. The desk chair phone call had been a near miss. He didn’t want to risk something like that again. The next time he called Mr. Morris, he would be certain that he had noticed what was special about the room. And if that took days, then it took days. If it took weeks, then it took weeks. Why should he hurry? Better to make sure he didn’t screw up and betray Mr. Morris’s trust in him.

               John was reclining on the couch and staring at the ceiling when Mr. Morris showed up at 5 o’clock. “How’s it going, Klendensky?”

               “Very well,” said John. “I’m getting a real feel for the room. I feel like I’m close.”

               “Glad to hear it!” said Mr. Morris. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you notice it tomorrow morning.”

               “Me neither,” said John.

               “But there’s no rush,” said Mr. Morris. “I know you’ll get it in your own time. And when you get it, that’ll be the right time for you to get it, because that’s when you’ll have gotten it.”

               “Exactly,” said John. “We’re on the same page.”

               “Oh, I’ve known that for years,” said Mr. Morris.

               John stepped out onto the sidewalk as Mr. Morris turned off the lights and locked up.

               “Good night, Klendensky,” said Mr. Morris.

               “‘Night,” said John.


               As the week went on, John actually felt less pressure to notice anything special about the room in the storefront in the strip mall where he spent his work days. At first, he thought Mr. Morris might express some kind of impatience, or even decide that John had failed the trial period, but the opposite was true. At the beginning and end of each day, Mr. Morris seemed more convinced than ever that John would soon notice what was special about the room, and would then become an invaluable member of Mr. Morris’s team.

John spent his mornings in the room pacing around, noting small details, thinking about what it meant to “observe.” Then he’d eat lunch at Benevolent Emperor’s. Then it was back to the room to sprawl on the couch, spacing out or texting with his dad. Sometimes he would nap. Then at 5, Mr. Morris would show up and tell John how he’d never been more confident in him, and how he’d never had a stronger feeling about someone, and how that feeling had only grown stronger, and how he felt that the feeling would continue to grow stronger and stronger still.

               On Friday, when Mr. Morris came to the storefront to lock up, John asked, “So, I never asked, do I get weekends off during the trial period?”

               “We don’t have set days off,” said Mr. Morris. “We aren’t that kind of company.”

               “All right, well, I’ll probably take Saturday and Sunday to decompress,” said John. “Recharge my batteries.”

               “Are you sure?” asked Mr. Morris. “You’re welcome to come in on either of those days to observe the room. Might speed the trial period up a little.”

               “That’s OK,” said John. “I’m so close. I think that not seeing the room for a couple of days will help me see it with new eyes on Monday. I wouldn’t be surprised if I walked in on Monday morning and noticed what’s special about the room right away.”

               “That’s a good point,” said Mr. Morris. “If that’s how you feel, then yeah, of course, take the weekend off.”

               “Great,” said John. “See you Monday.” On the way home, he stopped by The Stationerium to by two new colors of post-it notes, thereby ensuring that his weekend was booked solid. His first paycheck was only one week away and he was not satisfied with the three-color post-it note system of his prior weekend’s work.


               But on Monday morning when John walked into the trial period room, he did not see it with new eyes and did not notice what was special about it right away. Mr. Morris even kept his SUV parked outside the storefront for 15 minutes, perhaps anticipating John’s call, but John didn’t call, and Mr. Morris gave up and drove away. John fell immediately back into his trial period routine.

               By midweek, Mr. Morris had begun to show clear signs of frustration. “Still nothing, Klendensky?” he asked when he showed up at the storefront on Thursday evening. “Really? You haven’t noticed anything special about this room?"

               “Nothing that I’m certain of,” said John. “You said you don’t want me to guess. Anything I said right now would be a guess. I want to be sure.”

               “I may have given you bad advice,” said Mr. Morris. “This is probably my fault. You probably noticed what was special about the room days ago, but I said something that made you doubt. When I said you’d know it when you saw it, I didn’t mean you would have one hundred percent certainty, not really, because is one hundred percent certainty even possible? We don’t know.”

               “So maybe you aren’t one hundred percent certain that I’ll eventually notice it?” asked John.

               “No, no, I am,” said Mr. Morris. “But I believe in one hundred percent certainty, actually, I believe it’s possible in rare cases, but maybe you don’t, and maybe that’s the problem.”

               “So you want me to take a guess?” asked John.

               “No, not a total guess,” said Mr. Morris. “But just, you know, if you’ve noticed something that you’re almost sure is what’s special about the room, or that you’re pretty sure is what’s special about the room, then you should trust that instinct and speak up. You shouldn’t wait around for, like, an angel from God to appear and tell you you’re right. You see what I mean, Klendensky?”

               “Yes,” said John. “I think so.”

               “Great!” said Mr. Morris. “So we’re on the same page.”

               “Yeah,” said John. He smiled at Mr. Morris, hesitated, then said, “Well, see you tomorrow.”

               “Whoa, whoa, wait,” said Mr. Morris. “You forgot to tell me what you’re pretty sure is what’s special about the room.”

               “Oh, no,” said John. “I don’t have anything yet. But I think I’m getting close.”

               “Oh,” said Mr. Morris. He looked despondent.

               John felt bad, but what was he supposed to do? He hadn’t noticed anything special about the room. Even saying he thought he was getting close was a lie he told just to make Mr. Morris feel better. “I get my first check tomorrow, right?”

               “Yes,” said Mr. Morris. “I’ll bring it when I come to lock up at the end of the day. Or when you call. If you call.”

               “OK, cool,” said John. “So I’ll get it from you at 5.” He turned toward his car, then turned back to add, “Or earlier!” The late save did nothing to make Mr. Morris look less despondent.


               At 5 o’clock the next evening, Mr. Morris came into the storefront in a bad mood and handed John an envelope.

               “Is this my check?” asked John as he rose from the couch and stretched his arms behind his back.

               “Yes,” said Mr. Morris.

               “Thank you,” said John. “I really appreciate this opportunity.”

               “Of course you do,” said Mr. Morris. “Am I correct to assume you’re taking a weekend again, Klendensky?”

               “Yeah, I’ve got to deposit this check and replace a few of my belongings,” said John. “Just the stuff that most needs replaced. My showerhead, for example.” He followed Mr. Morris out onto the sidewalk.

               Mr. Morris reached back into the storefront to turn off the lights, then closed and locked the door. Then he turned, started to say something to John, stopped himself, took three steps toward his SUV, then turned back and said, “You’re making me look bad, Klendensky. You’re embarrassing me. You realize that?”

               “I am?” asked John. “How?”

               “Because you’re not noticing what’s special about the room!” said Mr. Morris. “It’s taking you forever. Did you know this is the longest trial period we’ve had for anyone so far? I thought yours might be the shortest trial period, but now look at us!”

               “Huh,” said John. “Well, I don’t know what I could do differently. It’s not like I can just decide to notice something I’m not noticing.”

               “I know,” said Mr. Morris. “I know, Klendensky!”

               “So what do you want me to do?” asked John.

               “Well, you could show a little more urgency,” said Mr. Morris. “Instead of just lounging around for two weeks and then collecting your paycheck.”

               “I don’t work well under pressure,” said John. “And you said there was no rush.”

               “But by ‘no rush,’ I meant, like, three or four days,” said Mr. Morris. “Maybe a week. And we’re double that now.”

               “So you think maybe your feeling about me was wrong?” asked John.

               “No!” shouted Mr. Morris. “I don’t think my feeling about you was wrong, and I don’t think it is wrong!” He closed his eyes and tilted his face toward the descending sun. “When I get feelings like this, they’re never wrong,” he said in a calmer voice. “Never.”

               “Then I guess it’s just a matter of a little more time,” said John.

               “I guess so,” said Mr. Morris. He put his hands in the pockets of his jeans and looked down at his sandaled feet.

               “You shouldn’t feel embarrassed,” said John. “It’s your company. It’s your project. You can do whatever you want.”

               “No,” said Mr. Morris. “It’s not my project or my company. And I vouched for you, Klendensky. I talked you up big time. I don’t know if that changes anything for you, but that’s how it is.”

               “Talked me up to who?” asked John.

               “You think I can pay you this kind of money?” asked Mr. Morris. “Her name’s on the check.”

               As soon as John got home, he opened the envelope. He was surprised at the amount, which was higher than he’d anticipated; his math must have been incorrect. The signature on the check was illegible, but there was a name printed in the top left corner: Helen Lassit. Beneath her name was an address. John had never heard of her before, but he knew Multioak well enough to know that her address was in the nicest part of town. He endorsed the check and deposited it into his checking account with the banking app on his phone.


               On Monday, John returned to the storefront to resume his trial period feeling refreshed and invigorated. His new showerhead made a huge difference to his morning routine. Would he say that his shower had good water pressure now? No, that would be going too far. But neither would he say his shower had bad water pressure anymore, and that was a big step up from where he’d been with the old showerhead.

               Mr. Morris let John into the storefront room with only a chilly greeting, then drove off. Despite that one sour note, John was surprised to find that he was actually glad to be back at work. He’d never felt that way about another job before. But here he was, happy to be back on the clock on a drizzly Monday morning. As he strolled around the room noticing its un-special traits that he’d noticed many times before, John discovered that he was fond of those traits, that he was fond of the room as a whole, and he realized that he would miss the room when the trial period was over. He looked over the five art prints hanging on the wall, and was touched by their mediocrity, by the modesty of their ambition. He was especially drawn to the painting of the fallow field. Why not paint a field with some crops growing in it? Probably because it was easier not to.

On the drive over, John had told himself that he needed to really concentrate on noticing what was special about the room today – or this week, at least – but now he found himself dreading the moment that he noticed what was special about the room. Not only would that moment herald the end of making a lot of money to just hang out in a room, but John worried that it would also ruin the room for him somehow, that the revelation of its secret specialness might destroy what he found appealing, even comforting, about the room.

               But that moment would come, John knew, and he would take it like an adult. He knew Mr. Morris was upset with him, but somehow, the more upset Mr. Morris got, the more John bought into Mr. Morris’s stubborn belief that John would notice what was special about the room, join Mr. Morris’s team, and succeed. If Mr. Morris still trusted his feeling about John in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, then who was John to doubt? He would not doubt. He would appreciate whatever remaining time he had in this room in this storefront in this strip mall in Multioak, and then he would notice whatever was special about the room, and his life would change just as it had many – well, several – times before.

               When Mr. Morris came to the storefront to lock up at 5, he said nothing to John. He barely looked at him. John didn’t take it personally.

               At home, John made two burgers on his stove and sat down to eat them in front of a documentary about a guy who painted dead wasps. Not pictures of dead wasps, but the dead wasps themselves. John was two fifths of the way through his first burger when he heard a knock on his little-used side door. Answering it, he found Mr. Morris glowering at him from within the faded evening.

               “I’m going to give you a hint,” said Mr. Morris. “But you can never tell Ms. Lassit or anyone else on the team. Or anyone else at all. Understand, Klendensky?”

               “Why?” asked John.

               “Because you’re supposed to figure it out on your own,” said Mr. Morris. “That’s the whole point of the trial period. To prove that you’re worthy of joining the team because you’re capable of noticing what’s special about the room on your own. Most people could join the team if I gave everyone hints!”

               “No, I meant why are you giving me a hint?” asked John.

               “Helen’s at the end of her rope,” said Mr. Morris.

               “She is?” asked John.

               “And the thing is, I know you would notice what’s special about the room eventually,” said Mr. Morris. “That conviction has not changed, Klendensky. So me giving you a hint doesn’t change the outcome. It just speeds it up a little. Which is what needs to happen, because Helen is at the end of her rope.”

               “She’s mad at me?” asked John.

               “She’s mad at me,” said Mr. Morris. “She’s questioning my ability to identify people who will be good for my team, and if I can’t do that, she says, then what use am I? That’s what she’s saying. It isn’t fair, and it isn’t accurate, but she’s at the end of her rope.”

               “Did you tell her how whenever I figure it out is fine because that’s when I was meant to figure it out?” asked John.

               “Yes,” said Mr. Morris. “And she was initially receptive. But, Klendensky, that has changed.”

               “I’d rather you not give me the hint,” said John. “It’ll feel like cheating. It might make me start to wonder if I would have ever figured it out without the hint.”

               “No, there’s no reason to wonder that,” said Mr. Morris. “You would have figured it out without the hint. You would have. The hint is only for Ms. Lassit’s sake. But, again, she cannot know about it. It has to be our secret.”

               “Well, OK,” said John. “Whatever you think is best.”

               “All right,” said Mr. Morris. “Here’s the hint. Are you ready, Klendensky?”

               “I guess,” said John.

               “OK, here it is,” said Mr. Morris. “You’re supposed to be noticing what’s special about the room. What’s special about it. Special.”

               “Ahh,” said John. “Hmm.”

               “Does that help at all?” asked Mr. Morris. “Does that make anything clearer for you? Does that make anything pop into place?”

               “Hmm, maybe,” said John. “But my first thought is that, no, it doesn’t.”

               Mr. Morris pressed both ring fingers into his tall forehead. John remembered the gesture from his childhood when certain of his little league teammates would not sufficiently crowd the plate, or worse, would step out of the way of pitches about to hit them. As a child, the gesture had bothered John. As an adult, he found it much less troubling.

               “Special,” said Mr. Morris. “Special as in height.” He regretted going that far, John could tell.

               “Height?” asked John.

               “You heard me, Klendensky,” said Mr. Morris. He turned and scurried away.

               John said “Hmm” to Mr. Morris’s retreating back. Then he closed the door and returned to his one and three fifths burgers and the documentary. One of the bad things about painting dead wasps, he learned, was that family members were not eager to support it.


               Even armed with Mr. Morris’s hint – something about height and the word “special” – John spent his Tuesday in the trial period room without noticing what was special about it. When Mr. Morris came to lock up, he just shook his head and said, “Really, Klendensky? Really?”

               “I’m very close,” said John.

               “Of course you’re close!” shouted Mr. Morris. “You were born close!” He turned and gave the couch a furious kick.

               “See you tomorrow morning,” said John, heading for the door.

               “You know what I think?” asked Mr. Morris. “I think you noticed what was special about this room days ago, Klendensky. Maybe weeks ago, at this point. But you’re not calling me to identify what’s special about this room on purpose. You don’t want the real work to start. You just want to lounge in this room and collect your checks. You’re holding out on me!”

               “I’m not holding out on you,” said John. “I really haven’t noticed anything special about this room. Nothing.”

               “Liar,” said Mr. Morris. “You’re a liar, Klendensky.” His face was flushed all the way up his forehead, his widow’s peak like a peninsula in a sea of blood.

               “I’m not lying,” said John.

               “You are,” said Mr. Morris. “I can feel it. I’m very good at sensing when certain people are being dishonest, and that’s the exact feeling I’ve got about you right now. How could you not have noticed what’s special about this room after the hint I gave you? I even gave you a stronger hint than I originally intended, yet you still claim to have noticed nothing special about this room. Maybe it isn’t about the money for you. Maybe you want me to have to fire you so you can tell everyone my feeling about you was wrong, so you can ruin my faith in myself.”

               “That’s not true,” said John.

               “It is,” said Mr. Morris. “But it’s not going to work. Because I know you noticed what was special about this room long ago, but you’ve kept that to yourself out of some kind of personal vendetta. Which means my feeling about the fact that you get it was correct, one hundred percent correct. The only thing I was wrong about was your character, which is not something I’ve ever claimed to be good at judging, I’ve never gotten a strong feeling about someone’s character, good or bad, so there’s no reason for me to doubt my instincts after this fiasco, there’s no reason for me to lose even an ounce of faith in myself.”

               “So I’m fired?” asked John.

               “Yes,” said Mr. Morris. “But you’re the only loser. Nothing about you not making it past the trial period reflects poorly on me at all.”

               “For the record,” said John, “I wasn’t close. I don’t even have an inkling of an idea about what could be special about this room.”

               “Give me a break,” said Mr. Morris. “Everyone knows the song. Maybe some people don’t, but I wouldn’t get the feeling about those people.”

               “Which song?” asked John.

               “‘Special,’” said Mr. Morris.

               “There must be a hundred songs called that,” said John.

               “Don’t do this,” said Mr. Morris. “Don’t play dumb.”

               “‘Special’ by The Fourmen?” asked John. “That one?”

               “Obviously,” said Mr. Morris.

               “But what does that have to do with height?” asked John.

               “You looked at those four art prints hanging on this wall every day,” said Mr. Morris. “And you expect me to believe you never noticed they were hung so that the tops of their frames were at the exact heights of each member of The Fourmen? Every other member of my team figured it out within a few days, and every single one of them couldn’t believe they didn’t notice it sooner!”

               “But there are only four guys in The Fourmen,” said John. “That’s why they’re named that. That’s why they spell it like ‘f-o-u-r-m-’”

               “I know how they spell it!” shouted Mr. Morris. “I know how many guys are in The Fourmen, Klendensky!”

               “Then how come there are five paintings?” asked John.

               “What?” said Mr. Morris.

               “There are five paintings on the wall,” said John. “Or prints. Art prints. Whatever you call them, there are five of them.”

               Mr. Morris looked at John, looked at the paintings on the wall, then looked back at John. His face had turned white to the same degree that it had been red just moments before. “Where did that come from?” asked Mr. Morris. He pointed a shaky finger at the print of the fallow field. “When did you put that there? When my back was turned?”

               “It’s been there since I got here,” said John.

               “This morning?” asked Mr. Morris.

               “No, since I first got here,” said John. “On my very first day.”

               “I,” said Mr. Morris. “I don’t…”

               “You never noticed it before?” asked John.

               “This is a trick,” said Mr. Morris. “Some kind of stunt.”

               “Is that the feeling you’re getting?” asked John.

               “Yes,” said Mr. Morris.

               “Huh,” said John. He left Mr. Morris in the trial period room and went home.


               That night, John got a phone call from Helen Lassit. “Do you know where I live?” she asked.

               “Yes,” said John. “Your address was on the check.”

               “Come over here,” said Ms. Lassit. “I have an opportunity for you.”

               “On my way,” said John.

               Ms. Lassit’s house was enormous, but only one story tall. It sprawled out over her property like a palace mushed flat by the pressure of a divine palm. John drove half of the house’s circumference on its cobblestone driveway before parking his car in a structure marked “guest garage.” Then he followed a lantern-lit path to the house’s heavy, iron door, pulled a scarlet cord that rang a bell somewhere deep inside, and waited. In the bushes near the house, familiar insects made their least typical sounds. It was as if they had thick accents. After nearly ten minutes, an old woman pulled the door open with great effort. “Klendensky?” she asked, panting and holding one hand to her chest. Her hair was short, permed, and dyed silver. She wore a grandma dress paired with grandma shoes. Her glasses were pure grandma.

               “Yes,” said John. “John Klendensky.”

               “I want you to take over my secret business project,” said Ms. Lassit. “You were the only one to notice the fifth painting. My favorite! There’s such a sense of possibility in that field, don’t you agree? The farmer could plant anything.”

               “What about Mr. Morris?” asked John.

               “Keep him on, fire him, whatever you want,” said Ms. Lassit. “You’re in charge. What kind of feeling do you get from him?”

               “Nothing in particular,” said John.

               “But does he get it?” asked Ms. Lassit.

               “No,” said John. “But neither does anyone else.”

Discussion Questions

  • Do you get IT?

  • Though there’s no mention of him doing so in the story, do you think that John ever perused Junky’s – the second-hand store next to the trial period room – on his lunch breaks?

  • If you had to affix post-it notes to all of your possessions in order to mark how soon they needed to be replaced, how many colors of post-it notes would there be in your system?

  • On a scale of “not” to “very,” how adept are you at noticing specialness?

  • Describe a time when you had to bend over backward to explain how your incorrect instinct in a situation did not mean you should be more skeptical of your instincts in the future.

  • Are you generally low on dimes? If so, what do you intend to do about it?