7.04 / April 2012

Boolean Napoleons

listen to this story

Presumably, I work in an office. The space is full of office signifiers such as cubicles, coffee makers, and personal computers. In one sense, I suppose, all these signifiers mean that this is an office, in the way that a theater stage meant to resemble a living room or a palace courtyard can be said to be those things. All the moving parts may be there-a side table with an ashtray, a garden trellis-but the clear purpose of course, is theater. Just as our true purpose here in the office is manufacturing.

It begins with the dimpled girl I’ll call the doodle-maker and ends with me; we are really the front and back end of the operation, the drivers of this process, push and pull. In the life of the office, my role is rather insignificant; the laminated placard affixed with Velcro outside of my cubicle states that I am a File Clerk. There are those who might question my abilities as a File Clerk because they seldom see me filing, but if they understood my role, they would come to understand just how productive I in fact am.

I’m not going to try to pretend I understand all aspects of this operation. After working here eight years, there are people whose functions I am still working to fully comprehend. Some of what goes on in the manufacture of our products is mysterious, to be sure. Usually, I need only worry about my role, but lately, the doodle-maker’s directives have been increasingly morbid, and I don’t like it. Her doodles are subconscious missives driven by her mood, and since the recent reduction-in-force, her mood has been considerably darker. You wouldn’t know it to look at her:  her curly hair forms ringlets around her the side of her face, and her eyelashes are so long they hit the inside of her reading glasses. But she is no peach.

To be fair, we have all been called upon to step up and do more. In addition to my role as file clerk, I now sort and slot the mail, which requires a whole new skill set. And on the manufacturing end, I’m responsible for ever more. If it were up to the rest of my colleagues, we’d be making nothing but widgets, day after day!  I personally am not a fan of widgets. I, for one, look for more meaning in my day-to-day endeavors. I remember the good times, when we used to have something to show for our efforts. One day we made a nutcracker, red-suited with a gilded belt and shoes. I especially liked that. We would make good things, like a juicer, a ballpoint pen, or sturdy picture frames. All items of use.

 

Then one morning, soon after the reduction-in-force, I went about my daily tasks, hopeful that the doodle-maker would prove to be in a better mood.

First, I dealt with the fuel. All manufacturing plants need to run on something, and ours is no exception. Usually, if anyone has left any food out overnight in the break room, I eat this first. I often bring leftovers from home as well. Some people near the kitchen protest when the office smells like microwaved cod at 8am in the morning, but we have a job to do and I can’t say I’m sympathetic. If there’s absolutely nothing to eat or I’m still hungry, I will use hot chocolate packets, with only a third of the recommended water to make a chocolate soup. It tastes like sugared clay, and will do in a pinch. I always use double filtered water, in case you are wondering. It keeps the fuel pure. Some people call my morning ritual scavenging, a term I find disparaging.

In addition to fueling, I gather anything that might be recycled or repurposed for later use. I bring all the cardboard boxes, plastic bags, empty water bottles, etc. from throughout the office to my cubicle, where they are housed. Next, I read the newspaper for articles that may be pertinent to our work here. In our office life, there is an entire team tasked with this-the so-called research team-but those aren’t the kinds of articles I’m looking for. I’m looking for memes, things that might mean something. Lately I’ve been looking for any stories that mention Boolean operators. The Booleans are like the glue that builds the logic. AND, OR, ( ), etc. There’s more to this than I fully understand, but I don’t pretend to know everything. One of my colleagues explained it to me once:  the query monkey goes and builds the query, and the operators tell the monkey to grab more or less. The query monkey asks have the conditions been met?  That’s how it goes, more or less. That’s how you make something.

If I find something critical to the operation, I will print an enlarged copy on color printer #007 and paste it outside my cubicle door so that passers-by can pick up key information. I have also tried to influence the end product by posting pictures of aircraft, since each day I hope that we will produce a model airplane. But this is overstepping my bounds and hasn’t made the least bit of difference, anyway. Determining what comes out of that production line is the doodle-maker’s job alone.

That morning, the doodle-maker summoned me to her cubicle. We had switched to digital files, so these summons were growing sadly infrequent. The doodle-maker makes me nervous, as all of my colleagues do, so I keep to a script when interacting with them. I will place the requested files on the nearest available counter, trying not to enter their cubicles or offices any more than is absolutely necessary. Then I say, “here you go.” I try not to say, “Um, here you go,” or worse, “here you go” followed by a chuckle, which I am told some people find unsettling.

The only thing different about entering the doodle-maker’s cubicle was that I might sneak a glance at the current doodle and get a heads-up on the manufacturing. I should clarify that although the doodle-maker does in fact doodle shapes and images, it is the words she doodles that are pertinent to operations. The words over the last few weeks had been liaison, depressed, yahoo, schizophrenic, sometimes, willing, wish, well-managed, meaningless, system, chutzpah, ex-business, skills, sardonic and impatient. When she “doodles” a word she writes the word over and over, sometimes filling up an entire page or more.

 

It is like an incantation, like she is trying to bring a golem to life. I think it is an apt analogy. That is all the manufacturing is, really. Anyone who has seen a page of the doodle-maker’s notebooks would know immediately that they are dealing with a disturbed individual.

She’s a leaker. There’s no other way to put it. Her subconscious leaks out all over the place, and ends up changing the nature of our entire enterprise. But I’m the one people find strange. Mostly because I can’t seem to say much. The words are in my head, but they don’t come out. I am told that I mutter.

 

When summoned that morning, I wanted very much to cheer the doodle-maker up by making conversation. I had seen other people do this, and seen her smile as a result. We have shared interests outside of the manufacturing, such as The Twilight Zone, and other science fiction. She tried to talk to me about an episode once. I knew all about the episode she was referencing, but I froze. At the time, we had a strange little intern who was wreaking havoc in the office. She was talking to some other colleagues about his bad behavior. She said it was like The Twilight Zone episode, the one with the boy who controls the thoughts and sends the people out to the cornfield . . . Allen will know the one, she said. She looked at me.

It’s a Good Life, I thought. I like that one. “Huh,” was all I managed to say. Huh.

So that day, when I dropped off the file request, I thought I should at least try to say have a good day. I had practiced this. But then I saw the doodle. It was the word discouraged, over and over again, with a pattern of waves. This was not good. Boxes meant she was trying to solve a problem, arrows meant she had an idea, brackets meant she was doing someone else’s job, but waves meant she had checked out. It meant she wasn’t listening anymore. And few words could have been worse than discouraged.

We’ll be making widgets, I thought.  “Here,” I managed to say. “File 3318.”  She didn’t turn to look at me. “Oh thanks,” she said.

I stood there for a moment. I never stand there. My policy is drop, mutter, and run, but I wanted to say something more. I wanted to ask why she was discouraged, or ask her not to doodle the waves. Anything but waves.

That day, we manufactured a tin can, a dented, empty, ragged little thing. Useless. But I put it in my pile to take home. At least I could recycle this. At least it had the hope of becoming something of use.

 

The next day, I was foraging for fuel. Sometimes my colleagues leave cookies or mints or pretzels out in their quads where anyone can take them. I have been told if something has been “opened” I am allowed to take it. I make the rounds about four times a day. It is good exercise, and good, of course, for finding the food I need. But that day I ran into the enemy of the state.

The enemy of the state is the one who runs the office. She knows the manufacturing enterprise goes on, but she won’t acknowledge it. In fact, she often finds ways to undermine it. The life of the office is the only life as far as she is concerned.

Every Monday, the enemy of the state brings in roses from her rose garden. She never seems to run out of roses in any season, evidence of their supernatural power. Her assistants trim the roses and refresh the vases all over the office. The roses are from old vines and give off a potent scent. What not everyone knows is that the roses are a kind of drug-if you put your nose into one and inhale deeply, it will go straight up your nasal passages and into your brain, lulling you like in a fairy tale. The world of manufacturing will fall away. Because my quad is inhabited by file clerks and data processors and other bottom-feeders, the enemy of the state does not bother sharing flowers with us. As a result, ours is the only area of the office where one can think clearly, immune from the heady influence of the roses.

I suspect that the Enemy of the State of is the primary cause for the doodle maker’s unhappiness. I know because I am the sort of person who pays attention to these things, like a plant manager might tend to the whines and creaks of his machinery. The doodle maker always slumps a little when the enemy comes by, shrinking away from her bulk and chatter. The enemy has a presence. The enemy seems to raze the ground in front of her as she goes.

If the enemy establishes too much dominion over the doodle maker, this entire operation could go under. I don’t think the doodle maker understands that. She is the creative force behind the enterprise, I am just the logistics man. I wish I could find the words to tell her that was she does here has meaning.

But I have every reason to believe the enemy has the upper hand. Each day our output grows worse than the day before, until not only are our creations ugly and sad, but they’re broken, too. They’re half made things, things not fully imagined, as though the dreamer was jostled in her sleep.

By spring, we were at a crisis point. There had been no further reductions-in-force, but the early gratitude of having merely survived had worn off, and morale was low. The enemy of the state had a record crop of flowers-flowers good enough to enter in a show, I heard people say. They came in all colors:  peaches, pinks, whites, and even purples, something to tempt everyone. The doodle maker, who had always produced  more in times of stress, had grown so limp and lifeless that she stopped making notes at all. I scarcely believed it myself until one evening I stayed late and stole a look at her steno book. Most of it was blank. One of the last pages had doodles of hearts-surely a good sign, I thought, until I read the notes. It said

It’s been a very bad week

Put me out of my misery

Heartburn be damned ______!

 

I I I I I I I I could

I could use I could use I could use

I could use

 

Too late

Too late

Too late

Too late

Too late

Too late

 

It was like bad poetry.

I was at a loss until I made my rounds the next morning. A co-worker came into the kitchen with what must have been a newly acquired porcelain dairy creamer. It was the kind you would normally have at a set table, with a handle and a spout, except on the side of the creamer the words What Would Jesus Do? had been printed.

I am not a religious man except in the god-machine-Philip K. Dick-sort of way. I mean, I believe in conspiracies which is to say I believe in God in some sense. My mother is a devout Catholic and as a condition of living with her, I have to attend church every Sunday.

The question-what would Jesus do?-mysteriously emblazoned on the side of an innocent white dairy creamer, something that had most certainly not been there the day before, seemed directed just at me. My mother has told me that sometimes I see messages where there are none, but I don’t see how that is any different from the lives of the parishioners. Besides, this message seemed unmistakable.

But what would Jesus do?  Which Jesus was I supposed to channel?  The one who turned the water into wine?  The one who kissed Judas?

I liked those Jesuses, but I preferred the Jesus who overturned the tables in the temple. The rioting Jesus. Jesus would have done something to challenge the power of the Enemy of the State; I was quite sure of that. And he would have done something simple, with a metaphor. Jesus liked metaphors.

In no symbol was the gluttony and excess of the Enemy’s power more evident than in those flowers. They had become, over the course of the season, almost grotesque in their extravagance and their perfume. They had begun to seem like Big Brother’s cameras, or like the omnipresent hammer and sickle. You could go nowhere in the office without being reminded of the omnipresence of the Enemy, of her success, of her deceptive nature and prickliness.

All I had to do, I could see clearly now, was to decapitate them. A rose without its intoxicating bloom would be exposed, its true nature revealed-a stick of thorns. Jesus would approve.

I waited until the following Monday, when the roses were brought in fresh each week. That day, on my rounds for fuel, I took stock of all the locations:  the front foyer, the kitchen, the break room, and the Enemy’s office. All of those locations, even her office, would be readily accessible after the close of business hours. But the final location-the most important location-was the women’s restroom.

I have always been terrified of ladies’ restrooms and fitting rooms and other spaces designated for women. When I was a boy, my mother took me into the ladies’ restroom with her until I was practically a teenager, and other women began to protest. The men’s room smells only of urine; it is acrid and uncomplicated. I still remember the smell of the ladies’ room, the intermingled odors of soap and mints and blood.

 

I am always home no later than 5:20, so I had to lie to my mother and tell her that I had a last-minute assignment. I am not a good liar, and I am sure she suspected something strange. But she has not been in good health and was so eager to be off the phone that she scarcely heard me.

I made quick work of most of the roses, cutting off their heads with thick, orange-handled scissors, while letting the blooms topple into a paper bag. There were a few late night workers around, and I had to listen very carefully at each location for footsteps. The Enemy’s office is well guarded by a phalanx of secretaries, with the most powerful ones right outside the inner sanctum. By 6:15, the last one had left, and the cleaning crew had not yet arrived. The flowers were just inside, at the round meeting table, so I barely had to step foot inside the office. I resisted my curiosity to forage for chocolates and jelly beans (the Enemy is rather portly) and stayed on mission. Mission Samson, I decided to call it, after the biblical tale.

I hovered at the water fountain immediately outside the restroom door, waiting until I felt nearly certain it must be vacant; it was hard to tell with women. They could take a very long time in the restroom, brushing their teeth, changing into gym clothes, putting on make-up, or-as often happened in our office-having a good cry. But I didn’t hear any crying, or any water flowing. In fact, it was eerily quiet.

I narrowed my eyes into the tiniest slits I could so as to not really see the restroom too closely. But upon entering, I hadn’t thought about the large mirror that would be right in front of me, how I would have to see myself in the restroom, which really made things worse. I began to panic. I thought I might have to run into a stall but I knew that once I was in there I would be too terrified to exit. God only knew what would happen then. I’d have to call my mother to come get me.

There were three vases on the marble counter-as many as had been spread out amongst the rest of the office. It would have been so much faster to throw them all away, but that would have had no meaning. It would just look like a mistake of the cleaning crew. There were lotions and hairspray on the counter, too, in a little wicker basket, and the scent of lilac air freshener was overwhelming. I focused my eyes only on the roses:  there were peach ones with jagged edges, putrid reds, and dizzying yellows. I cut myself twice trying to rush through the vases, and a trickle of blood came out, leaving a smear against the basin. They would find my DNA, I thought. They could test the blood.

I had to wash it, and I had to dispose of the towels, and I knew that even then forensics experts could still find the traces if they were called in. But they wouldn’t know to call them in if they didn’t see any blood. But fingerprints. I hadn’t even considered fingerprints.

I ran out. I had to go. I was having what my mother calls one of my fits. There were a few surviving roses left, but I couldn’t worry about that. Didn’t someone have to live to tell the tale, anyway?

By 9am the next morning, all the vases of headless roses had been drained and emptied. It wasn’t like the Enemy to allow something like that to sit; she was always concerned with morale. She thought she could stem the tide of morale-crumbling information. She thought she could seduce with her neck scarves and her roses.

Only a few people had seen the headless stems. But a few was all it took. It wasn’t a major headline, like the time the accountant had fainted in the elevator, or when the purchasing girl’s violent ex-boyfriend had come looking for her.

There was a clear tension in the office, like pulsing current in the invisible power lines strung up from cube to cube. The Enemy wasn’t pleased, and when the Enemy was unhappy, anything might happen. It felt like the whole enterprise could be shut down on her whim alone.

I stayed in my cubicle as much as I could. I didn’t read the newspaper or forage for fuel or anything else that might call attention to myself. I kept smelling my hands, convinced they smelled of roses, even though I had dipped them in rubbing alcohol when I’d gotten home.

 

It was late in the day when the doodle-maker requested a file; she hadn’t asked for one in weeks, and I had had to resort to making extra trips to the water-cooler near her desk to steal glimpses at her notebook.

But this time she had beckoned me. It was a file split up into smaller files organized by year. I did not know which one she needed, but I took the entire stack, not wanting to disappoint.

When I arrived at her cubicle, she was typing furiously, the mad, happy clatter of productivity. She was hard at work on a document and I didn’t want to disturb her, plus my hands were full of files so I couldn’t knock.

Sometimes I find it difficult to even clear my throat; it’s almost like speaking, in a way. It makes me feel like a caveman grunting.

I must have managed some kind of involuntary noise, because she turned around.

“Oh,” she said, startled. “Oh wow. That’s a lot.”

“I didn’t know what you needed,” I said. An entire sentence. I felt a flush of success.

“Um, just put them – there,” she pointed to the least crowded stretch of desk. I put the files down quickly, arranging them in shorter stacks so they wouldn’t topple over.

And then I saw the notebook, conveniently placed right within eyesight, as though it were meant for me.

The book was open to this glorious page:

The word itself, signifying nothing except its meaning, would have been enough. It was a good word, one that would be sure to generate something of use, perhaps even of beauty, at the end of the manufacturing line. I couldn’t predict exactly what it would be, but I was eager to find out.

I had done this. With a simple act, I had created sanctuary against the enemy. There would likely be consequences, later, but for the moment, her spell of perfect dominion had been broken.

But I knew sanctuary was also a private message specifically for me, a reference to Logan’s Run, and to the place the people escape to avoid the fiery death that comes at age 30. That was how I thought of the doodle-maker, her life-clock blinking red, someone who would have to die a mandatory death, in a world that could exist only by requiring the young to die. Sanctuary meant rebellion. It meant fight.

I knew that in the movie, Logan did not find Sanctuary. Sanctuary did not exist. Instead, he found the ruins of Washington D.C.  There was one old man. And a cat.

But I had read the book, and the sequels, and I knew that Logan and Jessica really did find Sanctuary in an abandoned colony outside of Mars.

The doodle-maker turned half around in her swivel chair. I was still standing there in her cubicle.  I had completely forgotten about the quick exit.

She tipped her reading glasses down the bridge of her nose so that she could see me. I have no talent for reading faces; my mother calls it one of my limitations. But I was fairly certain that the face I was looking at was not annoyed.  It was amused.  Or bemused, perhaps. I wasn’t clear on how to tell the difference.

This is the moment where someone would speak.  She might ask if I needed something and I might say that I had what I needed. But neither of us spoke. She just sat there, looking at me, and even though my eyes wanted to dart back and forth and I could not hold perfectly still, I stood there and tried to look back. Sanctuary, I thought, but I did not need to say it.  We had already communicated, she and I, without saying a word.


Melissa Yancy’s fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, One Story, Meridian, Barrelhouse, The Journal, Crab Creek Review, The MacGuffin, American Literary Review, At Length and elsewhere. She is a graduate of the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California. Melissa currently resides in Los Angeles, where she works in the non-profit sector.
7.04 / April 2012

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