“Unmuted” by Daniel Condict Moore is a masterclass in the second person. Moore’s story follows Jane Boucher Brown, Vice President and Assistant General Counsel of FuckTheEarth Corporation, the “original Karen,” on a chaotic race to the airport while on a conference call preparing for an upcoming trial. Moore expertly balances the banal against Jane’s frenzied morning in his story “Unmuted,” which you can read below.
The great reckoning will come. All the sad trash in the world will be redeemed in everlasting light. If you could cry you would, but you are on a conference call, staring at the odd assortment of debris that has formed an accidental still life on the grassy median between the drive-through lane and the mirage of surrounding cornfields. You want to embrace that median with empathy for all that it has endured, most recently the mild development boom of this particular slice of U.S. 1 somewhere near Saugus, Massachusetts. It is that kind of morning. And your heart is that full.
You consider throwing open the car door and kissing a crumpled soda can like the cheek of a beloved child.
Instead you pound the mute button with your index finger.
“No, Ben, I was not suggesting that at all. We need to press forward.”
“I agree, absolutely,” Ben says.
You reengage the mute button.
A colloquy follows in the conference room a thousand miles to the west as you order a breakfast burrito and iced nonfat vanilla almond milk latte. Your diet is strict but this morning you will make an exception. You drink too much and, at least of late, fool around too much, but you are still thin. Against your better judgment you mixed vodka and wine and fucked a man you met at the Marriott bar whose name you cannot remember but want to, if only to prove you are not yet succumbing to the dementia that struck both your parents in their early fifties and did not relent until they had become blissfully happy wards of the province of Quebec.
You turn fifty tomorrow.
But your arms are toned and you have good hair, wavy and girlish and only a touch gray. You never smoked and rarely sunburned, even as a child, thanks to the climate and your olive skin, a vestige of your French ancestry. And you can still pick up a man at a bar and take him up to your room and make him lift your forty-nine-year-old body into the air and press it against the padlocked door to the next room and, as he tells you how gorgeous you are, whisper whatever his fucking name is into his ear before forgetting it, instantly, and achieving orgasm. Which is harder than it sounds.
“Let me take that back to Ron but I suspect it won’t be an issue.”
“That’ll be eight seventy-nine,” the girl at the second window says.
He was younger than you by five years, maybe seven, with a full head of hair and a faint whiff of college about him. He had been a swimmer, or water poloist. He had broad shoulders and long, lean muscles, hardened by early morning stomach sets on state school athletic complex mats.
Your purse is like a border town landfill. Tampon. Miniature Tabasco bottle. Airplane peanuts. Medicinal one-hitter.
It should be there. Pale pink. Chinese Louis Vuitton knock off. Nine credit cards and a parking ticket. But it is most definitely not there.
Second window girl hands you the burrito, swaddled in wax paper.
“You want hot sauce with the burrito?”
You look in the passenger seat and on the floor in front of the passenger seat but the wallet is not there. It might be in your roller bag.
The burrito nestles into the cup-holder, steaming.
“I don’t have the document in front of me, but wasn’t that language conditional?”
A series of events replays in your mind. The water poloist is going to teach you how to tread water in the Marriott pool. The idea begins as a joke and gradually takes on the veneer of inevitability.
“You know, Jane’s right. It’s a condition precedent …”
“Eight seventy-nine,” the second window girl says.
Before you know it you have stripped to your bra and panties and he is on his knees on the carpet kissing your stomach just above the scar.
“One moment,” you say.
You put on bathrobes, giggling, collecting minibar provisions. His hands are under your robe, grabbing your ass. Later you taste the chlorine on his lips.
“So I don’t see the relevance.”
“That’ll be eight seventy-nine,” second window girl says.
You step out of the car and pop the trunk, waving sheepishly to the minivan behind you. You unzip the roller bag and sift through piles of clothing, looking for the wallet. You find high heels, running shoes, high-waisted control shorts, a hair iron. No wallet.
A horn blares loud enough to lift your skirt. The driver of the minivan is stone-faced and unrepentant as you shut the trunk and extend your middle finger and mouth the words “fuck you” with staccato vehemence like you are blowing out candles on a birthday cake.
Then it hits you.
The hotel safe.
The water poloist locked your wallet inside at your request, using a four-digit code of his own contrivance. Now it remains hostage, inviting an unwelcome reckoning.
As you get back into the rental car your phone erupts with a series of notifications. Business Week is concerned about Chinese tariffs. A prominent CEO has been accused of embezzling company funds to subsidize his Latvian mistress. Deforestation will end the world by 2080 absent a coordinated multilateral effort that appears diplomatically impossible.
The final notification is a text message from an unknown number.
“Eight seventy-nine,” second window girl says.
You touch the screen, triggering a scan of your facial structure, but you are wearing butterfly sunglasses that render your features unrecognizable.
Second window girl is holding your latte in the air.
“Sorry about that,” you say. “I can’t seem to find my wallet. Would it be okay if I pull over up there and look for it?”
She looks at you blankly. You realize that she is listening to something else, a voice in her headset. She hands you the latte and walks away.
You sip the latte. Saccharine vanilla and cheap espresso.
You enter the unlock code—your son’s birthday—on the touch screen, initiating a pinwheeling sequence.
The dashboard clock reads 7:29 a.m. Two hours until boarding.
You take another sip and savor it on your tongue until the pinwheeling stops and a pair of text messages appear. Your heart quickens.
I have something that belongs to you—says the first.
The second is a photo. It downloads slowly.
It occurs to you that it could be a photo of his penis, but would you recognize it? Only a few hours ago you were grabbing it, kissing it, steering it between your legs, but you could not pick it out in the daylight. It would be like your face in a pair of butterfly sunglasses.
You laugh out loud at the thought of his penis, erect in a police lineup of other penises. One is wearing butterfly sunglasses. Another vapes a flavored e-cigarette through its penis hole.
When the photo finally appears it is a disappointment. You had anticipated something provocative, anatomical, but it is a photo of your wallet. The imitation pink leather looks tired and shabby against a quartzite backdrop.
WHO IS THIS?—you text back.
For some reason your texts are set to ALL CAPS, customized for indignant rants. The setting was triggered accidentally but you have not bothered to change it, sensing that it suits your current persona. You are the angry white woman, Jane Boucher Brown, Vice President and Assistant General Counsel of FuckTheEarth Corporation, one of the five largest petrochemical conglomerates in the world. The original Karen. A penis in butterfly sunglasses.
Bubbles appear beneath your sent text. You picture the water poloist standing by the kitchen island in his remodeled Brookline three flat, staring at your pink Chinese wallet.
And a moment later—Your swim coach.
It comes back to you now, how he was always Richie until he graduated from college and his first boss called him Dick and it stuck. Dick and Jane drink Manhattans on Marriott barstools. Dick and Jane go swimming in Marriott pool. Dick kisses Jane. Dick and Jane go up to Marriott junior suite. Dick puts dick in Jane.
“Ken, can you explain to the group why they’re so interested in the earlier time periods? I feel like some context could be helpful.”
You’ll have to backtrack seven miles to Brookline but it’s possible you can retrieve the wallet, return the rental car, and still make your flight back to O’Hare.
Minivan honks again, this time longer and more insistent. Your extremities tingle.
“Fucking asshole,” you say.
You look for second window girl to commiserate but she has disappeared entirely, perhaps to the first window, or maybe to Alpha Centauri on a space rocket.
The horn repeats for a third time, obscene, flatulent.
“Jesus Christ,” you say. You extend your finger in the rearview mirror and accelerate forward past the second and third windows into Route 1 traffic.
The act of accelerating is so reflexive that you do not think to look for oncoming vehicles, and only by sheer luck do you avoid colliding with the Marriott courtesy shuttle, the “preferred option” under FuckTheEarth Corporation’s Updated Travel and Expense Guidelines. It was boarding when you left the hotel that morning and you should be on it now, ensconced in a velvet bucket seat in the shine of your Lenovo. Instead you are in a Kia sedan catapulting out of a fast food parking lot, committing a litany of misdemeanors. Petty theft. Larceny. Conversion of a hot burrito.
“Oh God,” you say, opening your GPS app.
Your latte has spilled on your skirt and is dripping down your thighs, mingling with the water poloist’s DNA.
“Jane? Did we lose you?”
“Oh God,” you say again, punching out a text message.
WHAT IS YOUR ADDRESS?
Are you coming now?
Thumbs up emoticon.
“We thought we lost you …”
“No I’m here. The reception is a little spotty but I’m good now.”
“Did you hear Brady? We need to make a decision.”
“Sorry. What’s the decision point?”
“It would be helpful to have David there in person to speak to the second issue.”
The request irritates you. You imagine five grey haired white men at counsel table, huddled around towers of three-ring binders. They are the cockroaches of global capitalism, impervious to cataclysm.
“Great. Then let’s move to the second binder.”
You dictate a text message to the water poloist.
FLIGHT LEAVES IN TWO HOURS. I AM COMING FOR WALLET BUT IT WILL HAVE TO BE QUICK.
I can do quick. Wink emoticon.
Relieved emoticon. Wink emoticon. You consider an eggplant emoji.
“We have to be careful, I think, not to overplay our hand,” Ben says. “The judge is on our side for now but she is facing pressure from the unions.”
“Media Relations wants crickets,” you say.
“We are good at boring,” Ben says. “Right Dave?”
Fake laughter in the conference room.
“Let’s move to Tab B.”
* * *
Three minutes to Dahlia Place. You have exited Route 1 onto an industrial frontage road alongside some kind of massive construction site. Cranes angle above you like spider legs, dangling spinning pallets of miscellany above a muddy ravine. You can see an air traffic control tower on the opposite side and the erect tail fins of parked jets. You accelerate to highway speed, dodging potholes circled in chalk.
The GPS instructs you to bear left in point-eight miles and take the first right.
When the right turn comes it is like a portal to the bourgeoisie. The sun emerges from the clouds to tickle the window boxes of stately renovated brownstones punctuated by expensive bistros, fair-trade coffee shops and baby boutiques.
Dahlia is an abbreviated one-way, crunched into the hill.
You had expected a glassy box with a Tesla out front. Smooth pebbles for a lawn. Instead you find a brick colonial with empty concrete planters bookending an immense, Jeffersonian front door.
You exit the Kia, bringing the phone to your ear.
“Tab C-point-four, the franchise agreement …”
The front door opens and the water poloist appears behind the storm, teeth sparkling, dressed for work. He is holding up the wallet like a ransomed child. For a moment you think he will simply hand it to you from behind the storm without inviting you inside, but then the door is open and he is kissing you on the mouth.
“I want to direct your attention to page twelve, toward the bottom …”
You kiss him back, placing your phone face up on the entryway table.
“And I want you to look at the first bullet under section six, part four, duties of the franchisee …”
His hands are everywhere, touching you beneath your skirt while his tongue works in slow circles around yours. You do not feel aroused, it is almost too fast, but you can sense your body working to meet his, the nerve endings activated by a kind of automatic pilot that persists despite the ambivalence of the cockpit crew.
“Sub-bullet little a, romanette four …”
He releases your bra strap, expertly, steering you in the direction of a center hall stairway. Now you are lying on the stairs, skirt up. The runner is surprisingly comfortable on your skin, soft but tight in the weave, Tibetan.
“I want to think harder about how much to show our hand on the reps and warranties.”
He kisses your neck as his fingers work the buttons on your blouse. You look around, noticing the restored staircase railing, a chunky cornice high above. Your gaze drifts to the frames on the wall. Dick and his parents. Dick and his children. Dick and his wife in front of the …
You move for his zipper. It will have to be quicker.
A moment later arousal kicks in and he is inside you, moaning. He moves methodically in rhythm with your sighs.
“Let’s turn to the third binder. But first, I’m gonna take a bio break.”
He finishes, shudders and invokes God.
“Jane, are you good?”
You roll sideways onto your feet, making the phone in one stride.
“I’m great. I’ll just hang on then.”
* * *
Back in the Kia, the GPS indicates a nineteen-minute circuit around the perimeter of the construction site. Your flight is pre-boarding and will depart in forty-three minutes. A warehouse has collapsed in Kenya, trapping hundreds of workers. Trace amounts of cyanide have been detected in black market vaping devices found in the school locker of a deceased tween.
“We need to address the discrepancy between the MSA and the SOW …”
You can see the airport car rental center through the mesh fence on the far side of the construction site. It is no more than a half mile away as the crow flies.
“Shouldn’t the SOW control?” you say. “It was later in time.”
“But less specific,” Ben says. “And it incorporates the MSA.”
“We have to stand by the SOW,” you say.
“Understood,” Ben says.
There is an opening in the fence ahead and what appears to be some kind of service road. If you can find your way across the construction site you will shave ten minutes off the drive, maybe more.
You slow the Kia down, looking for hard-hatted foremen, meaty-armed gals in orange vests. But there is no one in sight. Just clusters of abandoned backhoes and pallets wrapped in plastic. The bottom of the ravine is filled with greenish brown water, an accidental pond devoid of flora.
“But I need you to believe it, Ben. The judge will smell you out if you try to half-ass it.”
“I’m Catholic. I can believe anything.”
“That’s why I hired you.”
You’re Catholic too. All those years sitting in cramped desks, listening to the nuns. Sex before marriage was a sin. Birth control was a sin. Abortion was a sin. By nineteen you had scored the hat trick.
Don’t fuck with Jane Boucher Brown.
You steer the Kia through the opening in the fence and accelerate onto the service road, tires spinning, kicking up dirt against the floor panels. The road is bumpy, and you have to grip the wheel tightly to maintain direction. You feel a flash of panic. But this is how you wanted it. It’s better to take command of the narrative.
“Let’s go to the fourth binder,” Ben says. “We’ll move more quickly now.”
You are halfway across the ravine when the front wheel sinks into a divot, pulling the Kia fast and hard to the left. You jerk the wheel to the right, overcorrecting, sending the Kia into a skid.
“And I want you to turn to Section four, letter C, romanette three.”
Miraculously, the Kia does not flip. Instead it skids across the shoulder and goes airborne, emitting an ecstatic, four cylinder whinny. For a moment it ceases to be a Korean-made economy sedan and takes on the form of a stunt-driven dune buggy, slicing the air in a languid arc before landing gracefully on the downslope.
“We’re missing the exhibits to the MSA. Jane, do we have those?”
You ease off the gas, coaxing the tires to engage with the muddy terrain, attempting to steer the Kia up the opposite slope of the sinkhole.
“They should be in the shared folder. But I can ask Tia.”
When the front tires reach the shoulder you exhale and gun it, sending a volley of gravel into the air. You’ve made it. Everything will be absolved. But you were too eager. The tires spin fruitlessly in place as the Kia slides backwards into a side roll. Your shoulder hits the door and you lose your grip on the wheel, bracing yourself as the Kia rolls over once, and then again, and then again, and then a fourth and final time before coming to rest near the very bottom of the ravine, half-submerged in the muck.
Miraculously, you are unharmed. The windows are broken but the airbags did not deploy.
You open the door.
Water seeps onto the floor mats, acrid and beige, like sour coffee.
You dangle a foot outside, then step down, feeling your ankle sink into water and then mud. Your wallet and phone are with you but the roller bag is in the trunk which is now underwater, or nearly so. The Kia is sinking.
You lift your skirt and tuck the hem into the waist, before putting your other foot outside and pulling yourself upright against the driver’s side door. The water tickles your knees. You step forward, feeling your heel straps strain. You begin wading, ever so slowly, toward shore.
Your nostrils burn with a familiar smell. It is a smell from your childhood. A terrible smell.
“Let’s turn to the reps and warranties in the SOW …”
From above the Kia is almost smiling, its silver fender twinkling in the sun. It was a car accident, no more or less than that, and it will be covered by FuckTheEarth Corporation’s Updated Travel Insurance Policy.
You clean up in the restroom near baggage claim, wiping down your legs with paper towels.
“Let’s do the last few tabs and then call it day,” Ben says.
In the stall you crouch and pee. You have cleaned up but the familiar smell remains. It is on your clothes and in your hair and it is a terrible smell. You flush the toilet and bend over like a vise, attempting to stifle the deep sobs that are rolling upwards from your belly to your throat in unremitting succession. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Forgive me God. Oh God. Oh God. Forgive me God. Oh God.
* * *
The plane is nearly full by the time you slip into your first-class seat, earbuds in place. The flight attendant brings you a Chardonnay, and it is only then that you remember what the smell is from.
You were six years old, on a weekend trip to a cabin in the woods outside Montreal. Your family had been invited by friends of your parents, professors at the university where your father taught. They had two kids, an older boy and a girl around your age.
The adults stayed up late the first night, sitting and talking and drinking and playing guitars around a campfire while the kids played board games on a second-floor screened porch. The cabin had only two bedrooms so the kids were forced to sleep on the porch in camping cots brought in for the occasion.
You awoke in the night to use the bathroom inside the cabin. When you returned to the porch a constellation of luminous creatures was hovering in the air outside the screen. The sight was so beautiful, so miraculous, that you assumed it was a dream. But when you pinched yourself the creatures remained, hundreds or even thousands of them, performing a kind of symphony of light in the Quebec night.
You went downstairs to the backyard for a closer look.
The grass was cool on your feet as you followed the fireflies into the woods, attempting to catch them. You wanted to trap one in your palms or in the folds of your nightgown and take it home with you, make it your own. But each time you swiped at one it flew away at the last moment, even as more lit up the path ahead, beckoning you further away from the cabin.
You barely noticed when your feet hit the water. It was not until it had reached your knees that you realized you were wading into the murky green of a peat bog. But the fireflies still beckoned. You almost caught one, and then another. And then it happened. You could see it lighting up the small cavern of your joined palms. Your heart raced with excitement. You would stay up all night if you had to, cradling it just like that.
It was not until you tried to turn around that you realized that you were trapped. Your feet had sunk deep into the muddy bottom of the peat bog. The water was up to your waist, cool and acrid smelling. It was a terrible smell that burned your nostrils and brought tears to your eyes. You cried out for your parents, but the cabin was far away and your voice was lost in the drone of crickets.
It was morning before they found you, shivering and crying, waist deep in the bog. You opened your palms to find a black stain between your fingers. At some point the firefly had been crushed inadvertently, pulverized to nothing.
You were silent for a week. Even after your parents brought a psychologist to your house to play paper dolls on your bedroom floor.
* * *
The memory of that night returns to you now in vivid detail. You are powerless against it. You want to cry, but such displays of emotion have no place in the first class cabin of an Airbus 330. So you just sit there, pinned to your seat, waiting for the flood of thoughts and emotions to recede.
You think of FuckTheEarth Corporation and the asthmatic children that live in the shadows of its refineries. You think of your own children, how little you know them despite your paranoid obsession with their physical bodies and the constant activities you curate on their behalf. You think of your husband, his incredible work ethic and unwavering morality that drives you to the brink of madness. Tom Brown. Such a simple name. So much better than Boucher, or so you thought when you bumped into him late one night in the stacks of the Yale University library and again when you made out for the first time in the front seat of his Fiero. You are the Catholic but Tom Brown is the saint and you have treated him terribly, so terribly, and he does not deserve it any more than anyone deserves the litany of horrible things they undergo and endure in this chaotic journey between womb and grave. You think of your parents, blissfully mad but still in love, serenading one another on the grounds of their provincial hospital between diaper changes. You think of the second window girl, and the water poloist, and the water poloist’s wife. You think of the Kia, half-buried and smiling in the muddy pond at the bottom of the ravine.
“I think that’s a good place to stop,” Ben says. “Jane, do you have anything to add?”
“No, I think we covered it.”
“Then let’s resume this tomorrow.”
You exhale. God damn. You’ll be home in three hours.
As the wheels leave the tarmac you realize the conference line is still is open. You can hear the rustling of papers in Chicago, a throat being cleared, the stacks of three-ring binders being boxed to be brought out again tomorrow in some other God-forsaken city, in a wood-paneled courtroom with portraits of dead judges on the walls, where the motions will be argued and taken under advisement by the living judges to be ruled on at a later date. And the living judges will wake up like scared children in the night to chase fireflies and shed tears into peat bogs until the morning comes.
Daniel Condict Moore studied creative writing at Princeton, served time in the editorial departments of The New Yorker, Talk and Vogue magazines, and worked as a newspaper reporter and editor before attending law school and becoming a litigation attorney (his current profession, when not writing fiction). His short fiction has been published, most recently, in the Berkeley Fiction Review. He has just completed a coming-of-(middle)-age novel, The Five Times I Fell in Love With Caroline Parker, that was longlisted for The Masters Review Novel Excerpt Contest. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife, three children and two rescue pups. More info on Instagram @danielmooreauthor.