Andrew was entering his third month of unemployment when he sat down at his computer and opened the inbox of his LinkedIn account. He’d received a response to a query he’d sent off four days after his friend-turned-manager walked him into a conference room swimming with sunlight, smelling of cologne and the faintest hint of perfume left behind by a group of attorneys who’d recently vacated the space after a five-hour meeting.
“I’m sorry, man,” Colin Perkins had said. Andrew’s eyes glided to the glass conference table, landing on the silver tray holding a molehill of bagels. He imagined they must be stale by now, having been left there uncovered in the icy office air.
Someone had planted the pointed end of a white plastic knife in an open container of chive-and-jalapeño cream cheese. It brought to mind the moon landing; all that was missing was a tiny American flag. A laugh trudged up his throat, but he disguised it as a cough.
“I told you,” Colin continued, raking his hands over his manicured Afro, “that the last to hire would be the first to go.”
A month earlier, seventeen women and two men had accused the CEO of the company of sexual misconduct. That news had plummeted the stock. The layoffs followed. Andrew had witnessed dozens of employees being escorted by security from the building like criminals. Now it was his turn.
Andrew nodded, placed a comforting hand on Daniel’s shoulder, and squeezed. The crisp cotton of Daniel’s shirt felt cool beneath his palm. “It’s okay, man, I understand. Don’t sweat it.”
He’d spent that first week revamping his résumé, calling friends and old colleagues, people who might know of a job opportunity at their own place of employment or elsewhere. He’d never had a LinkedIn account, but took the time to set one up. To conserve the little bit of savings he had, Andrew dropped his gym membership and went back to drinking tap water instead of the bottled Evian he loved. He gave up Starbucks coffee and the expensive cabernet sauvignon he purchased by the case.He’d stopped opening the blinds and only went outside to empty the garbage.
By week three, he was spending his days on the couch, dressed in boxer shorts and sweat socks. He’d stopped opening the blinds and only went outside to empty the garbage. He whiled away the hours playing video games, and watching Netflix and Pornhub. Oftentimes, he went days without brushing his teeth.
When his mother called to check on him, Andrew lied, claiming he had several interviews lined up. When his father took the phone into another room to ask if he needed money, Andrew assured him that he was fine on the financial front, even though he wasn’t. He’d made up his mind to sell his Shelby Mustang before he took a dime from his parents. That was a big decision because he loved that car more than he’d ever loved any woman.
The day he opened the e-mail, the panic had just started to set in. He could feel it creeping along the back of his neck, like the soft scuttle of caterpillar legs.
From: OBF, INC.
To: Andrew Jamison
Dear Mr. Jamison,
We found your resume to be very interesting and believe that you would be the perfect addition to our dynamic team of Client Liaisons.
Affordable benefits for you, your spouse, and/or children after 90 days!
Opportunities to advance within!
Hourly, overtime, and tremendous bonus opportunities!
If you love helping others, then you will love working for OBF, INC.
OBF, INC. wants to talk to you now! To set up an interview TEXT OBF51893.
Liaison was just a fancy French word for customer service agent. Well, that was his skill set. Andrew was an expert at assisting people.
He texted the number and received an instant response that directed him to call a telephone number and enter his personal code: 1032.
An automated voice offered him two available interview dates. He was instructed to press 1 for the first date and 2 for the second. The mechanical voice told him that he would receive a call advising him where the interview would take place.
It all seemed very clandestine. Andrew was cynical, but his desperation outweighed his skepticism.
A day later, he received a call from a woman with a Southern drawl . . . Georgia, Alabama, Texas? He couldn’t quite pinpoint where she hailed from, but listening to her speak conjured visions of sweet tea and fireflies. She asked for his full government name and the code he’d received via text message. There was a pause, two clicks, and then the syrupy voice asked if he had a pen available. He did. After she’d rattled off the address, she wished him good luck. There were a few more clicks and then the line went dead.
He walked into the lobby of the forty-story office building and was struck by the contemporary opulence of the space. Marble floors, potted palms that towered eight feet into the air, white leather sofas, and a slick-looking Louboutin-red reception desk.
Andrew presented his license to the security guard and was given a name tag, which he clipped to the lapel of his ash-gray jacket. He was told to go to the eighteenth floor.
While waiting for the elevator, he perused the list of companies listed on a plaque mounted to the wall. OBF, Inc. was nowhere to be found.
He smirked, shrugged his shoulders, and stepped into the elevator. On the eighteenth floor, smack outside of the elevator door, was a sheet of lined legal paper taped haphazardly to the wall. Scrawled on its face in black marker was: This Way to OBF, INC. Below that was an arrow.
He started down the hall. A man the color of cedar and as tall as an NBA player speed-walked past him, mumbling to himself. Andrew thought he looked dazed, as if he’d just received news that a loved one had passed away.
“Good morning,” Andrew murmured.
The man turned eyes as wide as saucers on Andrew. He opened his mouth and muttered something that Andrew wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. The elevator doors slid open just as Andrew leaned in and asked, “Uhm, sorry, brother, but did you say run?”
The man leaped into the elevator, pressed his spine against the back wall, and fixed his eyes on the glass numbers above the closing doors.
Andrew stood blinking at his reflection in the chrome elevator doors. After a moment, he shrugged and continued down the hallway where he came upon a second handwritten sign directing him to turn left at the women’s bathroom. He rounded a corner and found himself staring at eleven men seated in folding chairs. They all looked up from their iPhones and Androids. Andrew nodded and headed toward the pretty blonde seated behind a metal desk.
“Good morning,” she smiled. “Name?”
“Okay, Mr. Jamison, please take a seat. Mrs. Americus will be with you shortly.”
He scrutinized his fellow applicants. They were all black men save for the one white guy with a man-bun who was called in as soon as Andrew sat down. Man-bun wasn’t in there long. In less than five minutes, cheeks flushed and cursing under his breath, he stormed across the reception area and out of sight.
Andrew clenched his jaw and made eye contact with another man across the room from him. He imagined the unease in the man’s eyes mirrored his own uncertainty.
“Andrew Jamison, Mrs. Americus will see you now. Just through that door.”
The door opened to a large office filled with cubicles and desks, manned by women tapping away on typewriters or murmuring into the handsets of—
Andrew slowed his gait.
Are those rotary telephones and, wait, Royal typewriters?
As Andrew gawked, a large man with a mustache as thick has a shoe brush appeared before him. Andrew glanced up and then quickly shifted his gaze away from the brawny man’s left eyelid, which was weighed down with a sty the size of a dime.
“In there,” the man huffed, aiming a chubby finger at a closed door not more than five feet from where they stood.
The office was as small as a janitor’s closet. And dark.
The lone window on the far left wall faced the shadowy back of a department store. Metal file cabinets lined the walls; some of the drawers were open, revealing manila folders bulging with papers. He could see, even in the muddy darkness of the room, a layer of dust atop the cabinets. Hanging on the walls were at least twenty framed photographs of people, all of whom were black.
The air was rife with the scent of cigarette smoke.
Andrew remembered people smoking at their desks when he went to visit his mother at her office job when he was young. Once, on a flight to Detroit with his grandmother, he stood at the back of the plane waiting to use the bathroom, and found himself engulfed in a cloud of smoke billowing from the cigarettes of three passengers.
He couldn’t recall the exact year cities around the country began banning smoking in bars and restaurants, but he was supremely aware that smokers had to be at least four hundred feet away from the entrance of any building if they wanted to light up.
Yet here was this woman, puffing away like it was 1975. Andrew eyed the near-empty box of Winstons and then the woman. She was robust—a meat-and-potatoes sort of gal, with doughy cheeks and large blue eyes. Her sun-bleached blond hair fanned back from her face—a style made famous by the eighties icon Farrah Fawcett. Her lips were slathered in tangerine-colored lipstick. The same color rung the filters of a dozen long-dead Winston butts heaped in the black ceramic ashtray. Andrew thought, If she’s going for clown instead of glamour, well, bull’s-eye!
Ornate rings twinkled on seven of her ten fingers, the rose-gold chain she wore around her neck dribbled down her chest and disappeared into her cleavage. She looked to be in her midfifties.
“Good morning, Mr. Jamison. Please have a seat.” Her eyes remained glued to the sheet of paper clutched in her hands. Andrew assumed it was his résumé.
He sat down.
“You graduated from Brown University?”
“Y-yes, I did. I graduated summa cum laude in 1990.”
Her desk was cluttered with newspaper clippings; stacks of aging yellowed papers, and dated fashion magazines. Andrew’s eyebrows climbed. Was that Marcia from the seventies sitcom The Brady Bunch on the cover of that Glamour magazine?
Andrew chuckled to himself. This had to be an elaborate joke. Someone was putting him on. His eyes ranged around the office in search of a concealed camera.
“Impressive,” she said finally, looking him directly in the eye. “Do you have a wife?”
“Are you married, Mr. Jamison?”
“No, I’m not.”
She searched his face. “Are you gay?”
Andrew bristled. “Mrs. Americus, I don’t think you’re legally allowed to ask me that question.”
“It’s a yes-or-no question, Mr. Jamison. I know it’s unusual, but believe me, for this position I would need to know.”
His rent was due tomorrow and then again in thirty more days. His savings were dwindling. “No, I’m not gay.”
“Do you have children?”
“One daughter, she’s twenty-two years old.”
“Do you have a good relationship with your daughter? With the mother?”
Mrs. Americus glanced at his résumé. “Perfect.” She reached for the dying cigarette and brought it to her lips. “And according to your application, you’ve never been arrested. Is that true?”
“Well, we will be doing a background check.”
“Do you have any bad habits? Do you use narcotics?”
“Any . . . um . . . undesirable recreational activities?”
“Porn? Well, not just porn. Kiddie porn.”
Andrew’s mouth fell open.
“No judgment, Mr. Jamison. Again, I just need to know.”
“No, I do not watch kiddie porn,” Andrew spat.
“Good!” she exclaimed, drumming her fingers on the desk. “Let me tell you the specifics of the job . . .”
Some of the faces behind the glass frames looked familiar. Again Andrew found himself squinting. Was that Omarosa? He pitched forward in his chair.
Mrs. Americus stopped talking and followed his gaze. “Um, yes,” she spouted. “That is who you think it is. She’s been one of our best recruits.”
Mrs. Americus stubbed out her cigarette and laced her fingers under her chin. “Some of our liaisons work directly with government agencies. That’s a promotion of sorts. Of course, before you can be assigned to the big house—I mean the White House—you’d first have to prove yourself out in the field.” She giggled. “In the field. You get it? It’s a double entendre.”
Andrew’s mouth went dry.
She twisted around in the chair and pointed to a photograph of a pair of middle-aged women standing shoulder to shoulder, each holding a red MAGA baseball cap. “Those ladies are Diamond and Silk. Do you know them?”
Andrew shot out up from the chair. For a moment, he thought his knees would buckle. “What does OBF stand for?”
Mrs. Americus reached for the pack of cigarettes. “OBF stands for One Black Friend.”
“One Black Friend?”
“Yes. You see, in these troubling times, times where so many people are labeling white people as racist, we need black people to stand up for us—to have our backs, as your people are fond of saying. Sometimes, Mr. Jamison, a God-fearing, good white person may be accused of a crime or some other offense perpetrated against a person of color, and when the accused does not have a person of color in his circle, it looks bad. The public may see him . . . or her, as a racist simply because their circle is . . . white. Lily.
“And that’s wrong. Not having black friends does not make a white person racist by default. Anyway,” she waved her hand, “that’s where OBF comes in. We provide that one black friend. That one black friend introduces doubt, and more often than not, that doubt diminishes a large percentage of the negative impact our clients might face.”
Andrew just stared.
“Oh, Mr. Jamison, don’t look so shocked. This practice has been around for centuries.” She pointed to the far wall near the window. “You see that guy there? He was actually the inspiration for this company.”
Andrew peered at the photograph. “Who is he?”
“Yeah, Joe Oliver. You don’t remember him? Joe Oliver, George Zimmerman’s one black friend.” Mrs. Americus raised a black ceramic coffee mug to her lips and sipped. The red decal on the side of the mug read: Black Tears.
Andrew’s stomach lurched, perspiration beading across his forehead. “This is some kind of joke, right?”
“Oh, I assure you this is not a joke and I am very serious. As serious as a heart attack. Is that how the saying goes? As serious as a heart attack?”
Andrew started toward the door.
“Wait, Mr. Jamison. Look here.” She pointed at a photograph hanging above the row of filing cabinets. “This is another one of our liaisons. Since he’s been working for us, he’s paid off his student loans and I understand that he’s just recently purchased a Cadillac.”
Andrew followed her index finger to the photo of a grinning black man holding a Blacks for Trump sign above his head like a trophy.
“Shall we talk about salary?”
The lights flickered.
He thought, Maybe I’m still asleep. Maybe this is a nightmare.
“Andrew? I can see you’re having a hard time processing all of this. But really, it’s not as uncommon as you might think. We live in America, this is a capitalist country, and we monetize everything. Everything.”
Andrew couldn’t remember reaching for the doorknob, but suddenly he was stumbling through the reception area.
He fled down the corridor, rounded the first corner and then the next. A slight man the color of honeyed milk stepped from the elevator. He wore a yellow dress shirt with a red bow tie. His dark-blue khakis were flooded just enough to offer a wink of his orange-and-navy argyle socks.
Upon Andrew’s frantic approach, the startled stranger stepped swiftly out of his path. Andrew didn’t make eye contact. He jabbed at the elevator button until the doors slid open.
Weeks later, Andrew was seated in a truck-stop diner with his fork poised over a plate of scrambled eggs and corned beef hash.
The mounted television was tuned to Fox News. The anchor reported that yet another young black man had been gunned down by a vigilante, another Good Samaritan, named Christopher Parks.
Christopher Parks was heading home from his job as a sanitation man when he spotted young Daniel Latham sitting in Starbucks, dozing over his law textbooks. Parks entered the establishment, woke Latham with a tap to his shoulder, and asked if he lived in the area. According to eyewitnesses, Latham replied that he did in fact live in the neighborhood. Parks demanded to see Latham’s ID and was met with laughter. The law student gathered his belongings and stood to leave—rather menacingly, one eyewitness reported.
That was when Christopher Parks pulled his weapon and fired. The stunned Latham, still laughing, crumpled into his chair and pressed his hand over the whole in his heart. It wasn’t until he saw the blood that the smile slipped from his lips and he began to cry.
The cops were called, but not an ambulance. Well, not immediately.
The police shackled Latham to the chair and took Parks to the police station for questioning. The woman behind the counter gave Parks a high five and a tall Caffè Mocha to go.
By the time an ambulance arrived, Daniel Latham was dead, having bled out all over his take-home final exam.
In the days that followed, it was revealed that Daniel Latham had several unpaid parking tickets and was thrice fined for not scooping his dog’s poop. Not only that—he was also a practicing Buddhist who supported a woman’s right to choose.
A search of Latham’s apartment unearthed a well-worn copy of Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was on his nightstand alongside Jay-Z’s Decoded. This discovery was further evidence that Latham was no angel.
Laura Ingraham looked directly into the camera and told her viewers that Christopher Parks was a hero, a polite and well-spoken man who had been raised by his father after his mother died from breast cancer when he was just three years old. Yes, as a youth, Christopher had been suspended from school for fighting, and as a young man he’d beaten a girlfriend with a pipe. Later, when he was in his early thirties, he’d threatened to castrate his boss—a black man old enough to be his grandfather. All of that behavior, Laura Ingraham said, was directly connected to the trauma of losing a mother at such a tender age.
She paused, and in that moment her entire face pulsed with empathy. “That said,” she continued, “Al Sharpton, along with the Black Lives Matter terrorist organization, have labeled Christopher Parks a racist and are calling for his arrest.” She shook her head and chuckled. “Earlier today, I had the pleasure of speaking with Christopher’s longtime best friend, Andrew Jamison . . .”
Andrew lowered his fork, reached for his shades, and slipped them onto his face.
“OBF, Inc.” copyright 2019 by Bernice L. McFadden. Excerpted from Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery and Crime by Women Writers, edited by Joyce Carol Oates; used with permission of Bernice L. McFadden and Akashic Books.