Material Safety – By Stephenson Muret



Between them only a desk. Carlisle stood behind it. Felix stood before it. For several blinks of the wall clock Carlisle had remained sitting. It became necessary now for her to stand.

“And what did you call it exactly?” Felix posed, pronged by a wariness, his withdrawn Honduran accent simultaneously deferential and steeled.

“Does it matter?”

“It’s unusual. That’s all. I was thinking it up.”

Her lips hardened.

Day janitors were never summoned by corporate brass to tinker with routine housekeeping glitches. Those issues were held for the night crew. So audiences like these always cut some irregular and circuitous way. Often dangerously. Occasionally very dangerously. Ms. Bonnie Carlisle was the chairwoman.

Felix scanned possibilities. Chemical? Mechanical? Electrical? Plumbing? Probably chemical, he deduced. The facilities technician would be rung for the others. A spill, likely, or some brand of machine leak. Felix cringed and an emotional flywheel in him froze as his daughter scuttled significantly before his inner eye. Somehow he wished for Monica to duplicate Carlisle. For her hair to be wired back tight like that. For her features to bend metallic and sharp. But somehow also he wished Monica to recalibrate this woman. For her eyes to retain a tenderness. For her figure to betray some bosom and feminine warmth. His flywheel spun anew then. Big damn desk. Its glassy width and chromium sheen enlarged Carlisle. A petite gal actually, a mujercita. She stoked his manhood, though. He imagined her furnace of nudity, her glowing heat, her hissing skin. But that power of hers. Quantifiable, unassailable. And the remembering of Carlisle’s sway over his life then doused Felix’s inchoate lust.

“Is something broken?” he stalled.

“Something is wrong.”

“Just wondering if this is a broom job or a mop job.”

“Look and see.”

Carlisle tensed within. The company flickered barely toward tomorrow, just one fragile filament from financial death. But a pivotal account was pending. A behemoth. Soon she would learn of its outcome. Success would buy the start-up sixteen to nineteen months of continued function. Failure meant its immediate disassembly. Positively. And along with that the junking of her penthouse and her career trajectory and her silicon pride. Carlisle had presided over one meltdown in this field. A second would cast her from it forever. Every system must sync around her right now, must hum. Her account executives were to convene in one hour. She would be inspected by them for misalignments, for error. To keep the company clicking they must believe absolutely: In it: In her. She would hammer into them iron confidence. With rarefied reminders she would, with proof. Our ingenuity. Our expertise. Our acumen. What was that pooled on the floor in the laboratory? It had driven out the assay team. It watered her eyes when she unlatched the door.

“Does it smell?”


“Very strong?”


“That would be probably something chemical. The material safety data sheet should inform me which precautions to apply. But I need to know the name of the chemical before the MSDS has any value for that.”

“There are dozens of chemicals in there.”

“They don’t have any idea which?”

“It’s a lab. It’s experimental.”

“Are you sure this is not a hazmat event?”

The wall clock blinked. Then, processing Felix’s bold innuendo: “Out of the question,” Carlisle chuffed.

Long ago Felix gathered that Carlisle’s facility lacked proper permits for its bio-synth research. Ordering hazmat assistance would inevitably ground the whole enterprise. And indefinitely. Meanwhile he would lose a job which paid magnitudes more than he had ever earned. Muchisima plata! Felix counted himself the highest salaried undocumented janitor this side of San Pedro Sula. And glad to be. Much more lucrative than teaching secondary geometry back home. And for his daughter to someday occupy Carlisle’s platinum side of this desk instead of his leaden side he needed his bribery-sized wage. It would keep Monica in private school. It would send her to college. Besides, his daughter excelled when he was predictable and reliable and showed a solid-state confidence. With this job he could maintain those qualities genuinely. Felix could not refuse. This work-order signaled risk, screechingly, but he knew he must enter and engage whatever substance waited. Some slag of acids maybe whose properties he had never been trained to temper.

Carlisle thought: He has no option. I have no option. Neither of us want him to go in there. Both of us know I will force him.

Felix feared: Maybe several volatile agents have been mixed. I’ll find a respirator. Some goggles.

Carlisle leaned forward then over the desk. This the power lean. The I-speak-you-listen lean. The I-steer-you-turn lean. Carlisle routinely displayed such gestural signals while castigating lackluster performances, or to retrench an overstepping functionary. Pressing her knuckles into the desktop translated a fact which decorum prohibited she utter as plain text. Namely: You belong to me. You adhere to my instructions or you exit this shop.

Felix knew to not bluster. He could not outface Carlisle. Not here. Not in her private domain, encircled by her daunting tools–the alloy furnishings and digital wall hangings, the gilded cufflinks and rust red eye shadow, the intimidating window that yawned over the beltway as if evidencing her own personal data mine.

Carlisle detected a sudden sputter in Felix. She sensed the manliness in him break down and yield to the wage earner in him. Her lean had worked. She was no longer woman now, and he no longer man. They were just two gears performing their functions in a machine they consciously supported, abiding by codes mutually recognized when their operations were initiated. He would execute tasks and she would assign them. Not because she stood finer or keener or harder, but because each had accepted these roles when assuming their stations. Felix did not feel unmanly. He was neither male nor female now, but employee. Carlisle did not feel predatory. She was neither predator nor exploiter now, but the mere hand that manipulated the levers and wheels which delivered to the machine its traction. Felix edged into his role as janitor and Carlisle relaxed. The machine had won for her. Their respective motivations mattered little now. Every motivation was serviced by the machine as long as the machine was serviced in return. The machine would protect them both. It would provide for their material safety. Felix’s daughter would matriculate at the state college. Carlisle would preserve her corporation and luxe perquisites. These results always proved dependable. They misfired only when the machine itself, in order to sustain maximum efficiency, required the sacrifice of one of its components. Now and then this occurred; but so subtly that few involved appreciated the sacrifice until its end had been wrought, until the process was complete.

The wall clock blinked.

“I need to get my janitor’s cart,” Felix said quietly.

Carlisle could not allow this. By the time Felix boarded the rear cargo elevator she knew the man in him would restart, the employee in him would buckle. Also, his absence would give her space to reflect. This might revive the woman in her, might choke her resolve.

She gasped exasperation. She barked, “Please! Felix! Everything you need is in the lab’s utility closet. Just take care of it!”


The flare reaffirmed Carlisle as chairwoman, Felix as janitor. If he balked now she would call him insubordinate and send him home. She had done it to others. His dawdling ended.

He nodded. “Of course, of course, Ms. Carlisle.”

Wonderingly Felix blinked at his hands. They shuddered. He scuttled around the chromium desk and out the steel door that opened onto the concrete passage that led to the laboratory. He had not stood ten minutes on Bonnie Carlisle’s carpet. She leaned against the steel door then, confirming the sounds of his retreating footfalls, of his finding the lab entrance, of his hushing through. She locked the steel door. She pressed the intercom on her desk phone.

“Clara, will you please call a cab for Mr. Gonzalez?”

“Sure, where will he be going?”

“Either home or to the hospital.”

“Why? What’s happened?”

“That remains to be seen.”


About the author: 

Stephenson Muret lives and writes in southern California. His plays, stories, essays and poems have appeared in scores of publications, touching virtually all genres. Links to his works can be clicked at