Executioner in the Lunchroom
A week after I started at my new job Caroline, who’d held the position before me, was fired. “Let go” was how my supervisor put it, “because things weren’t working out.” Caroline had trained me the first couple of days and, after she was sure I had things figured out on my own, moved to the Central Business Office downtown—to a higher position, or so I had thought. She worked two days at the Central Business Office and that was it. I probably would have never learned about her termination if, after an idle period when I had been reading about Luxembourg on Wikipedia, I hadn’t wandered into Hannah’s office with an apple muffin I’d taken from the lunchroom.
“So how’s Caroline doing in her new digs?” I asked.
“Caroline’s been let go,” Hannah said, clicking cells away from a multi-colored Excel spreadsheet.
“Really?” I didn’t yet have the right to ask why, but I hoped she’d tell me.
“Yep,” Hannah said. “Things weren’t really working out. Did you get the chance to update the email contact list?”
Whew, I said—inwardly, of course—as I turned around. I went back to my desk and considered what I’d heard, growing mildly outraged by the second. The whole thing was too calculated, too callously strategic. Caroline had been removed from the support system of her office coworkers—Danielle, Linda, Abbey and Anne-Marie—placed in an isolated, alien environment, then abruptly “let go.” And to make matters worse, she’d been fired when she had presumed that she was being promoted.
First came the relief of “at least it’s her, and not me,” then the guilt of “was I chosen to replace her?” and finally the chilling conclusion of “it could just have easily—it can just as easily—be me.” I looked at my coworkers—her coworkers—with a new suspicion. What did they know? What had been said? I didn’t expect any of my new peers to tell me why Caroline had been fired, but I knew that, if I wanted to avoid the same destiny, I had to discover what she did irredeemably wrong, and do the opposite.
To the under-the-breath office whisperings which, at first, I thought wouldn’t concern me, I turned a new ear, stretching my neck ostrich-like so my head partially crested the top of my cubicle wall. But with the fundamentally bad acoustics in an office, along with the constant air conditioning and all the computers on at once and the sink intermittently screaming in the lunch room contrapuntal to the printer spluttering out page after page in poisonous spite, I barely caught any of the gossip, just the usual fragments of how this person at this desk has now made my life a complete misery, how the receipt for a particularly large reimbursement had been misplaced by some jasckass in fiscal. In all, I only heard Caroline’s name mentioned once—and in conjunction with the name, a rush of sibilant letters out of which I hungered for words, reasons. It sounded like “Executive Officer.”
That she made, through a clumsy series of deceptions and back-stabbings, a play for the position of Executive Officer before she was exposed was unlikely, considering how far down in the company’s hierarchy she (and I) was. Did she say something offensive in confidence to a coworker about the Executive Officer? Or was the situation steeped in more carnal intrigue—an affair, an exchange of illicit emails, a cunning blackmail scheme by one of the staff? Who was this Executive Officer? Was it even an actual title?
In an attempt to have my ears present everywhere at once, I often took pointless walks to the lunchroom, past the desks of my colleagues engaged in conversations low in volume. I’d wash my hands, drink glasses of water, open and close the refrigerator. These covert reconnoitering operations were just as fruitless, and with a month wasted I had only the threat, becoming less vague every day, of being fired as Caroline was fired. The only way to save myself, I ceaselessly repeated, was to not do as she did.
On one of these Friday journeys to the lunchroom I was held back at the entrance, my whistle stopped mid-time, hands frozen in my pockets. A man with a prominent slouch leaned over the long table, sitting opposite the counter with the microwave and the coffee machine. The man, tall and bony, blatantly disregarded the business-casual rule of the office: he wore no pleated slacks, no patent leather shoes, no Reyn Spooner faded inside-out Aloha shirt. Instead, the pale white skin of his thin arms and legs was exposed by a gray t-shirt and thigh-high gym shorts, low-top Chuck Taylors on his feet. While his outfit struck me as bizarre, what I found truly disturbing was the black canvas sack over his head, the upper left corner hanging at a droop. A styro-foam cup of milky coffee was gingerly held in long fingers. In sudden terror, I spun on the heel of my Hush Puppies and scrambled back to my desk.
I wasn’t about to mention what I’d seen to anyone. In the thin, climate-controlled air of the office, overheard words can take on an uncomfortable weight they wouldn’t normally take on in the house, say, or on the basketball court, where exclamations like “Damn!” and “Shit!” burst out regularly and fade away. In the office, one must be careful in everything one says; for every five words overheard by a coworker, a hundred conjectures will be disseminated. The last thing I would ask Abbey or Anne-Marie was who the hell was wearing an executioner’s hood in the lunchroom. For all I knew, it could have been anyone’s brother or son, their deformity hidden, come to visit. I’d once seen a woman, whom I’d suspected had leprosy, exit a car with a similar black cloth over her face at the Makiki trailhead.
And more rationally, I didn’t want to reward what could have been the flash of a hallucination, an exaggerated daydream, with the consideration that it might have been real.
When it was clear my coworkers, perhaps not even consciously, but with the instinctual tendency to protect their own, closed ranks and stopped talking about the Caroline incident altogether, I went to the collection of three-ring binders in a shelf along the wall of our office. Caroline had kept meticulous records of her long association with the organization. She’d organized her correspondence in the binders, emails with clients and supervisors and coworkers mostly concerning meetings, upcoming conferences and assorted memos she’d drawn up about in-service trainings, policy changes, and welcome luncheons. I was sure that, in these binders, I would find the documentation I needed, the proof of Caroline’s poor performance that led directly to her termination.
Beginning from the earliest pages, just after Caroline had apparently received her college degree and accepted the position, I saw that, despite some lapses of formality (using the collective “you folks” instead of the objective “you,” or “see ya” instead of “Sincerely” as an exit tag) the majority of Caroline’s emails were friendly, professional, and grammatically correct. There was an occasional misspelling, but these errors were so sporadic they were probably typos, rather than based in a central wrongness. Going further into the emails I saw how Caroline’s style of business correspondence evolved (she began to favor “Aloha” as a greeting and “Mahalo” as her farewell) and her notes, memos and announcements became less wordy, more concise, more strictly informational, more cordial.
At the same time, her email relationships with the recipients of the daily letters grew deeper and complex. “I heard about your mother and I wanted to extend my sympathies” one letter stated, “by the way.” “I know what it’s like to lose a loved one so close.” Another letter requested the recipient to “drop by the office some time—this Friday would be best—we’re ordering pizza!” And another: “Are you feeling better? I hope so. The last time I had the flu I was out of commission for nearly a month.” What I slowly began to understand was that I, with an atavistic aversion to mixing with my coworkers under casual circumstances, would never develop the kind of rapport with others in the organization that Caroline had established.
Nowhere did I find evidence of Caroline not fulfilling some task, of her being rude or condescending to a colleague, or of being generally disorganized—all of her emails, even, were arranged first by the name of correspondent in tabs in the binder, then chronologically by date. Her system was flawless. As an administrative assistant hired specifically for her organizational skills, she was far more advanced than I could ever be, with a head for even the most peripheral matters like office birthdays, wedding anniversary dates, and funerals.
So why was she fired?
And would they get rid of me, too?
No, I was not going to let them let me go. Because of a long series of missteps throughout my life, I was now working at a job for which I had only minimal qualifications and getting paid well under what many would consider appropriate for one of my education. But I needed the income—there were loans to pay back, rent, the rising price of gasoline, food, beer, drugs, karaoke, and what-not. If I lost this, my last chance to fit into the wage-driven economic system I’d previously held in contempt, I was surely headed to the debtor’s prison before the inevitable pauper’s grave. And I hadn’t yet become so desperate as to join that doomed, happy-go-lucky group.
Now threatened—not with a direct sentence or penalty, but with the fear that it all could collapse on me at any moment—everything in the office took on a sinister, hostile characteristic. When I opened the upper cabinet above my desk, instead of a staple remover I now saw the open jaws of a fanged serpent, its invisible coils wrapped around the two-hole punch. Pencils in a coffee mug were the wooden stakes Kurtz had decorated with severed heads. When I saw a new stapler had been placed on my desk by a (Kind? Insidious? Thoughtful? Forgetful?) coworker, I disassembled it completely, searching for the miniature camera or microphone bug.
I was running for my life. The only way, I felt, I could postpone my termination (would it be today? the next?) was to develop office processes only comprehended by me; in this way I would become invaluable. Although I wanted to make it perfectly clear how industrious, how busy I always was—even making false statements about completing tasks I hadn’t been given—I couldn’t let anyone know how I did these things. For instance, I could make myself appear productive by overhauling the filing cabinet to which I had jurisdiction. While they all thought I was putting these messy documents in better order, I established a filing system based upon the Russian alphabet. There were enough correspondences between the English and Russian alphabets that, at first glance, the files would seem conventionally arranged; however; after the third letter my Russian system was unintelligible and frustrating.
“Where’s that reimbursement form for Kawabata?” Hannah asked, standing puzzled over the open drawer of the cabinet. “I was sure I put it in here.”
“Kawabata,” I said, springing from my desk. “Coming right up.” With a flourish of fingers I retrieved the paper in seconds.
“Great,” Hannah said, studying the form as she walked back to her office. She turned back to me. “You have to show me what you’ve done with the files.”
“At your service,” I said, knowing I’d never tell.
I also stopped officially communicating in person or over the telephone so I could collect evidence of what exactly everyone said and when. For every task I was assigned, or favor I was asked, or idle inquiry directed to me, I now required documentation. I explicitly refused to disseminate any information that wasn’t authorized with a written request.
“Hello,” I remember saying at my desk once, while working out on paper a means to incorporate a number-subset into my increasingly complex files.
“Hey, it’s me. Can you shoot over a schedule of—”
“Send me an email,” I said.
“But I just needed—”
“So I don’t forget,” I said.
Another time: “Could you bring salad for Debbie’s pot luck?”
“Sure, just email me with the details.”
“It’s the day after tomorrow. You’re bringing salad.”
“I’ll look out for that email.”
At the end of the day I went through all the emails and followed leads, constructed theories and drew conclusions, most of them—all actually—proven incorrect. Although I was gleefully wrong I had to, to be safe, know beyond a doubt that I was safe, and to know this I had to always be cautious, if not suspicious.
I also kept up-to-the-minute logs of what people said and how they behaved in a steno pad I hid under an innocuous pile of scratch paper in the bottom drawer of my desk. In order to penetrate deeper into the shadow world of Danielle, Linda, and Ann-Marie, I initiated conversations on false premises, after which I’d scribble brief synopses. Soon I was playing the part so well I didn’t know if I genuinely liked these people or was simply trying to destroy them before they took me down. When someone tells you about their husband’s laziness, or their kids’ private school tuition, or their pet’s health problems, you can’t help empathy from bleeding through your fear, no matter how banal their concerns may be. After one particularly humorous bull session at Linda’s desk, Ann-Marie put her hand on my arm, motherly.
“How come you never want to eat with us at lunch? You’re always at your desk, all quiet and writing something.”
“I know,” added Danielle. “Always in that little notebook.”
“Yeah, I saw that too. You writing some kind of book, or what?”
“No, no book. Sonnets, actually. With the iambs and everything, they can get quite tricky.”
“We went to Mini Garden for lunch today,” Ann-Marie said. “We got plenty. Why don’t you join us?”
“Well,” I said.
“Yes, join us. We have so much food.”
“Join us, join us,” they chanted, and I looked at them, conflicted.
“Sure,” I said, finally. Updating the log could wait.
As a group we marched to the lunchroom, talking over one another in delight about Shrek III and the Lion King Broadway performance that was coming to Hawaii. For my own part, I was just about to add that I wasn’t all that disappointed about the Transformers movie when I stopped at the entrance, the inane statement frozen in my throat.
There in his seat was the thin, sickly man in the black hood. With one hand he pulled the lower opening of his mask wide while with the other he lifted a sandwich on toast to his uncovered mouth. My coworkers went to the sink, went to the refrigerator, set out paper plates and moved among him while he ate silently.
“Come, come,” they chanted, pulling out a chair for me, waving me in.
“I’ve got to—I’ve got to do something,” I said lamely, turning away. I fled the office, took a seat on the stone bench outside the Central Union church a block away, and watched a series of limousines pull up to the steps as Japanese couples went inside to get married. What had I seen? When the lunch hour was over, I went back to my desk and said nothing.
Constant surveillance, along with rigid, all-encompassing documentation and the maintenance of a filing system I soon found to be baffling—incomprehensible—took most of my work day. Soon I was behind in the work I’d been hired to do, so intent as I was in becoming a fixture, un-fireable, irreplaceable. I whited-out and rewrote dates on forms to meet deadlines, delegated forgotten duties to coworkers by burying memos deep in their in-boxes. Unbeknownst to them, there could be any number of assignments already late. When Hannah asked me for something I didn’t have, I immediately blamed someone else for not following through.
“Where’s that agenda for the meeting?” she’d demand.
“I gave it to Cyrus like days ago,” I’d say—and Cyrus would look confused, and then promise to do better.
A bureaucracy is really quite easy to manipulate when everyone takes it on good faith that you’ll do the job you were hired to do. Although I did little real work, I knew the requirements and objectives and how certain papers functioned and to where they were delivered so well that I could falsify paperwork at any level, providing forged signatures for contracts and agreements the signatory had “forgotten” she’d approved.
I’d become entrenched in the system, as I’d wanted—I’d gotten so involved, and so independently of anyone else that, were they to attempt to “let me go” at any time their entire machine would break into incongruent fragments. As long as I could maintain this illusion to myself, they would all believe.
I forgot about Caroline.
There were too many other things to consider. After three months I felt like I’d been working with the organization forever, powering the system with phony documents, with lies and the offspring of lies. No one mentioned Caroline anymore, and no one remembered she’d worked there.
“Caroline,” the woman said to the receptionist. She pointed behind Ann-Marie to me, where I sat drawing a schematic of the levels of authority in our organization. It all went back to the Executive Officer.
“Caroline,” she repeated. “She used to sit at that desk.”
“No Caroline here,” Ann-Marie said. The rest of them shook their heads. I looked up from my drawing for just a moment, looked at the woman, and looked away.
Friday, after I closed my cupboard, changed again the lock password on my PC before powering it down, and set my ball point pen at a 43 degree angle on my desk (according to a protractor I’d taken from one of the designers in graphics) to test whether anyone went through my things while I was gone for the weekend, the dramatic, almost ecstatic, understanding that it would all end soon fell onto my shoulders like hammers, vibrating out of my fingertips in tingling static electricity. Despite what the counterfeit schedules said, or what was written on the request to purchase forms, or who put what into the timesheets, and no matter whose signatures those senseless scrawls for verification and authorization might look like, it would all lead back to me. If only one person bothered to double-check what was apparent, they would see that what was apparent represented a projection only, a non-existence.
And I could hardly keep it up much longer. There was the brief notion that I could perhaps go back, shred some particularly incriminating evidence, repair the damage I’d done to my integrity, my reputation, and my professional career—and at this point, most likely the organization—but the machine’s now fundamental dependence on me to run properly, no matter how flimsy the pretext and how corrupt the fuel, would have been lost. I would have been as unnecessary as Caroline.
Besides, there wasn’t enough time to fix anything. How could I go back? Never enough time. I now shoved papers into file folders willy-nilly, dropped faxes directly into the garbage can. But my personal façade hadn’t yet cracked—even though the dread of the inevitable revelation had infected every thought with stomach-churning fear, I issued a hearty “have a nice weekend” to the coworkers whom, engaged as they were in the legitimate work at their desks, looked up at me and smiled and waved.
On Sunday I wandered the city with a pocket radio, down the broad one-way streets of King and Beretania, past restaurants I’d never eat in and boutiques from which I’d never buy anything. While talk radio belabored Fatah, Hamas, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the roads rumbled and roared with wheezy buses and squealing mopeds, I could not but contemplate my trouble and misery, half-heartedly attempting plans to get out of the mess. In the late afternoon the rain came and tires hissed and spit against the slick asphalt. Wet, I walked into the uncomfortable air-conditioned chill of the Goodwill store, clothes in bright, out-of-date hues hanging all around me, each garment smelling of old person’s skin. I felt tired. I felt weak.
With a ten-dollar bill in my pocket—and too sad to use it to get drunk—I paid for a matinee show at the Academy of Arts, where they played Clint Eastwood’s Bird. The film did nothing to pull me out of my self-inflicted funk; if anything, it reinforced the certainty that the monster I’d built to protect me would ultimately dismember and decapitate me. The music in the film was nice, though, and for a few minutes while the film ran and the sound came through the speakers I imagined I was a note on the saxophone, expelled into the world to be beautiful for a splendid moment before I was set free.
I left the show when it was dark outside, with mists swirling around the street lamp bulbs after another light shower. With my radio off I went towards my apartment listening to the rubbery whisperings of wheels on the wet road. Under the University Avenue overpass the white doves tucked their necks deep into their feathers for the night. At the Atherton YMCA I crossed the avenue and looked into the window. Inside, silhouettes in profile danced couples to the big band music I’d heard on the sidewalk. I thought, what is this place?
I’d gone to the YMCA several Sundays in a row before I’d landed a job with the organization, but since I’d started working I’d been too busy plotting, too busy covering up. Without being exposed to swing music in my childhood, I felt its rhythms were somehow imprinted on my genetic code, an evolutionary holdover from the sacred mating rituals of my grandparents. Those forgotten months before I began working I’d walk in nonchalantly, take a chair along the wall and pretend not to study anyone in the dimness. Suddenly, in the middle of a song, I’d stand up and walk over to two girls invariably sitting together, talking close and under the music, and ask the less pretty one for a dance. After a few songs, after I dipped her and twirled her and both of us sweating and laughing, the discretion would fall away, the rest of the evening simple and nice.
As I watched those figures that night—they seemed cut out of dark cloth, waving through the window—I couldn’t imagine joining them, losing myself in the low lights and sentimental music. It wasn’t that I only had three dollars left and wasn’t sure for how much longer I’d have an income. I felt that, in the span of a few months, I wasn’t the same person of Sundays long ago, I wasn’t a dancer and an appreciator of simpler times. I had become antithesis to who I’d been. What I was seeing was not real and the shadows moving before me, lifelike as they seemed through the glass, were shadows only.
“Jonah,” someone called from behind. Though it didn’t sound like my own name, I turned, wondering with whom I’d been confused.
A young woman approached slowly from under a bright curtain of street light and then into the darkness of the night in which I stood. That she was a head shorter than me was all I could discern until she stood right in front of me, looking up through long hair parted down the middle.
“Jonah,” she repeated.
“You mean me?” I said.
“Yes, Jonah. It’s me, Caroline.”
“Caroline, Caroline,” she said, and shook out her head as if trying to scrub away a bad picture that had developed on top of her brain. “I worked with you. I had your job.”
“Caroline,” I said, trying to think back. A black, foggy cavern seemed to have been installed in the space reserved for memories I’d had before I started to work for the organization. “Caroline,” I said again, now feeling the easy familiarity of her name over my tongue, through my lips. “Did we date?”
“No—just try to remember.”
“Caroline—you were fired!” But this couldn’t have been the Caroline I knew. Not only did she seem happier, healthier, her skin almost glowing in the darkness—this was a different person.
“Let go,” she said, correcting me.
“Right,” I said.
“So I take it you’re still there? How is it going?”
“Great,” I said, and she nodded skeptically. “Caroline, tell me, please. Please. Why were you let go?”
“Haven’t you figured it out yet?”
“Figured what out?”
“Look at the records, Jonah. Look at the emails.”
“I’ve looked at them,” I said. “They don’t show anything. Except that maybe you were pretty good at your job.”
“It seems that way, doesn’t it?” she said. She looked down.
“But things look like they’re a lot better for you now,” I said, still not sure if she and I were thinking of the same Caroline.
“Read the logs again, Jonah,” she said. “It’s all in the records. And it’s not just my story, it’s yours, too.” She gripped my arm and walked past me in to the YMCA. One of the girls I could have danced with on any number of nights and I’d never have known it.
I went to work early on Monday, turned on my desk lamp and hunched down low over the binder with Caroline’s records so my head wouldn’t be seen over the partitions of my cubicle. Page by page, memo by memo, everything was the same as I’d originally read it, the some content with the same greetings and pleasantries. I flipped through the plastic protected papers frantically, nearly ripping them out of the rings from their three-punch holes, until I caught the single thing I’d missed, imprinted at the top of an older document. The awful weight of infinity blasted through me that moment, the ice white hot of revelation.
Where Caroline’s name was once written on an otherwise inconsequential address line from a document sent years before, was now the name Jonah; Jonah, the name I’d failed to recognize the night before. Although it felt like I’d been with the organization longer than three months, I was sure the dates on the emails couldn’t be correct. I’d never sent—but there was the message in the same business-casual diction I employed for all-around office correspondence. Turning back on the pages I saw that, printed at the top of each was Jonah and Jonah and Jonah, no mention of any Caroline. Had she ever worked here? Jonah—why did it sound so different coming from my coworkers’ mouths, why so foreign to my own ears?
No, the name read Jonah, but it was Caroline. Or rather, it was always, and always would be, Caroline, just as it always was and would be Jonah. The names were insignificant; it was always the work.
Caroline, or at least the part of her that had worked diligently at her position for five years, whose greater day was spent filing, typing, and organizing—supporting an organization of mysterious hierarchy and arbitrary regulations—Caroline hadn’t gone anywhere. That none of us could remember her name, or what she had looked like, or that she had been at this desk only a few months ago was proof that her presence had metamorphosed—she’d been absorbed into the organization. Caroline and her five years were now essential to, inseparable from—the same as—the physical make up of a larger entity. Her current state of being was so dissimilar from the old form that no one needed to recall her name or her appearance. The past Caroline went on continuing the same work she’d always done. She was still here; as all the others before were still here, and I was temporarily, the vessel that would carry on the interminable task, to make manifest the unachieved visions of the souls who had failed before me.
I went through the book quickly now, my own name blurring from the address lines.
“Jonah,” someone said from behind.
Pushing myself away from my desk, I swiveled in my rolling chair and looked up at Hannah. “The Executive Officer would like to meet with you.”
“Sure,” I said. I closed the binder and took up my favorite office-issued pen.
“Leave the pen,” Hannah said.
I passed my coworkers and no one wasted the effort to glance up at me; Anne-Marie even went so far as to shove her way past me to the postage machine without even an “excuse me.” Perhaps I’d become insubstantial. Perhaps, in their eyes, I’d already disappeared. I followed Hannah down a series of hallways before she threw open the door to an office on the corner of a lower floor, isolated from all the activity of the organization.
All the bosses, from every level, sat in a row in front of me—Hannah took the last open seat—and I stood behind the single chair facing them. In front of each of my superiors was a sheaf of incriminating papers, not only of what I’d done, but the illicit acts committed by those in my position years—generations—before. They said nothing, waiting for me to speak first.
And behind them, standing over their shoulders in his black hood and gym gear, was the man I’d come to know as the Executioner. Afraid—but also relieved, as is the prisoner of war when finally set against the wall and blindfolded—I found no lies, no excuses at my disposal. My efforts to become indispensable to the organization were all irrelevant. After a few moments staring at me while I bit my lips, the executioner silently slid the black cloth from his face.
I saw nothing extraordinary in his features—like mine, his face was plain, nothing you’d remember from a crowded bus or the wide promenade of a shopping center. But in his now uncovered eyes was the pity and sympathy I’d only read about in the tales of saints and religious mystics. All at once they took me in, and all at once all the wrongness fell out of me. Kind and sad, the Executioner looked at me and waited.
“I couldn’t—” I began, and told them everything, no equivocations to assuage the guilt.
He didn’t interrupt me or ask to clarify. He merely lay me down and stroked me with his unblinking eyes; the more I confessed, the freer I felt. I finished, looking down, and the room remained silent. When I raised my eyes to the Executioner I knew he would let me go, and that I was forgiven.
Jeffery Ryan Long currently lives in Chicago, Illinois, where he works at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. He has published short stories in a number of literary journals and anthologies, most recently in Arch (“Danvers Is Dreaming”) and Diagonal Proof (“Sketches for Mercury”). Most of his life has been spent in Hawaii, where the submitted story takes place. Other works may be found at www.jefferyryanlong.com.