The drawer slid out on its own. He swears that he didn’t touch it. Right there – the rollers sounding like a mechanical shush beneath the far-away insect-sounds of the fluorescent lights above.
How could he be so sure he was seeing this right? He minimized the SofSteel account that he was supposed to have finished two weeks ago. No one had asked yet about it. Maybe no one would ask.
He opened the folder labeled “Mac’s Extras\misc” on the desktop. Labeled to be inconspicuous, named to draw little attention by any curious IT tech looking to curb unofficial use of company assets. 1803 items. All Word documents.
That’s a little more than 6 documents a day for each of the last 10 months he’d been here. Each one was anywhere between 5 and 35 pages. It all depended. But he made sure to always end on a page that was a multiple of 5. That was important.
This required a new document though.
He looked down at the drawer that had slid out, nearly hitting his belly button with the rollers making their soft mechanical suggestion for him to take action: we’ve done our part, now it’s time for you to do yours. He looked down and then leaned carefully over it and began to type furiously.
First paragraph, page, maybe 5 pages: the setting. The fluorescents buzzing like a far-off swarm of mosquitoes, looking for warm life to add to their feeble existences. Occasionally, the thermal expansion of one of the tubes would make a tiny ting-ting-ting as it readjusted itself minutely against the aluminum caps at either end.
How could he be sure he saw this right? How could he be sure that what was happening was really happening? He had to be sure – had to make certain – had to be absolutely positive. And so he typed, quickly, his fingers light on the keys so as not to use too much energy with each individual keystroke – he had pages to write before he rested, and pages to go before he stopped.
His fingers moved almost automatically so that his mind had time to wander between the start and the end of a sentence. If only someone was watching me, watching all of this, if only they would be documenting all of this, then I could go back, watch the replay, tell myself: “look, see, my leg bumped the drawer, it wasn’t the desk itself, it was my leg and I subconsciously attached meaning to the movement of this drawer, this drawer with its deadly freight, this drawer with its contents of approximately 10 ounces of blued steel and stamped brass.”
But of course, no one outside of himself was watching his night unfold. Not even the security cameras at Good Sense Accounting on North Water Street in downtown Milwaukee would catch what was going on in the small office space where Mack’s cubicle was tucked between the copier that groaned all day with each print job and the desk of Samuel Diggins whose guts groaned with each hot beef lunch he ate.
As he clicked through the fourth, fifth, sixth pages, he moved onto his thoughts, the state of his mind. The SofSteel account that had been assigned to him. Oberman had come out of his office 12 business days ago, knocked on the side of Mack’s cube. “What’s the digs, Mack?” And without waiting for a response, “Hey, we got this SofSteel account that needs cleaning up. Thought you could handle it.” Ten months already and Mack hadn’t generated any new business. This SofSteel account needs cleaning up. Thought you could handle it. Was it a vote of confidence, a gesture of pity, or one last ten-penny nail put into the hand of the man who lay inside the coffin? Thought you could handle it. Mack knew he wouldn’t be long for the world of Good Sense Accounting. He knew that business had to sustain itself. He knew that, in other distant corners of history, if a member of the community couldn’t help with that community’s survival, he was ostracized, separated, and eventually sent off to face the cold, the dark, and the hunger of animals on his own. He would be consumed by the darkness of the forest or abyss of the arctic, sink to the ground, his limbs torn by scavengers, his bones disintegrating slowly into the crust, the mantle, the belly of the earth, his particles disemboweled from his existence, his existence forgotten, his memory obliterated.
One last ten-penny nail, he decided, and so he wrote it that way, how it had been dropped through a crack in the top of the coffin, handed over to him to be hammered into place with a rock or belt buckle or whatever else he happened to find alongside himself there in the place of his demise.
Thought you could handle it. A chance? A justification for termination.
Pages nine, ten, eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. And then Page Fourteen: the event. The drawer sliding out of the desk, the whisper of the rollers. The snub-nosed .38 that sat inside with its six rounds laying snug in their little holes in the revolving cylinder. Snug in their little holes like six little honeybee larva wrapped in their newborn sleep of sweet potential. Potential to grow, to push forth, to blossom, to mushroom, and feed on the nectar of other life. Sweet nectar. Pulled from the aching and ripe fruit of Mack’s own skull.
He rubbed his palms over his eyes. He wrote this down: I sit here, thinking about it all, and am exhausted. I rub my palms over my eyes. Palms that smell like pencil erasures and sweat.
His palms weren’t sweaty though – they were cold. They were always cold. He pulled his hands away from his eyes and, pushing a thumb into each palm watched as the white mark lingered for ten, fifteen, twenty seconds before the blood pushed through the temporary collapsed vessels to pinken the flesh again. His hands were always cold. Never sweaty.
The next line: I’m lying. My palms don’t smell like sweat. My hands are always cold. Never sweaty.
If only someone had recorded this, if it had been put together, mapped perfectly so that it could be reviewed.
He laid his hands in his lap, under the drawer.
He thought about walking out of the office right then. He wouldn’t take the elevator, but rather the staircase that smelled like concrete, steel, and sneaked cigarettes. He’d stand from his desk, the computer still lit with this document (the 1804th one); the mosquito sounds of the fluorescents having to wait on the arrival of the rest of the crew at 8:00 the next morning to make meaning of their own feeble existence; the drawer still extended from his desk like a broad, dark hand; the .38 special still sitting there like an unanswered question to be seen by Charlene as she walked around and watered the plants in the morning (“Oh my God, what is that! Where is Mack? Mr. Oberman, look what I found… at Mack’s desk!”). He’d walk out to the street below, the traffic at this time of night a little lighter. He’d sit on the curb there on Water Street, listen to the drunks get rowdier a little north of the office at the bars, listen to the buses grind along their way on Wisconsin a little south of the office and he’d sit there on that curb, his feet in the gutter that carried the oily signatures of each ill-kept car that once sat there, and feel as the heat of his ass disappeared into the cooling concrete.
He leaned ever so delicately over the drawer again, careful to not push against it, careful to ensure that the rollers held their silence. He needed to make sure that he knew what it was all about. He had no more room at the current moment in his brain for any more – suggestion. He had to take the current situation with no more complications or changes and lay it out in front of him. Like a puzzle. Or a disemboweled frog, butterflied and pinned back on a tray of black wax. He had to figure out where the pieces went, how to stitch the ligaments and digestive tract and spine and guts back together, how to reattach them and then make the actual stitching disappear, how to flush the formaldehyde from the veins (some narrower than a human hair) and reinvigorate the whole with a new batch of frogsblood. It was a mess.
He thought of the lunch he’d had with Mr. Oberman ten months ago during his interview. They’d had an hors d’oeuvres of jalapeno poppers wrapped in bacon. (He was on page 17 by now and he wrote: Everything is better with bacon. I’m tired. I’m exhausted. I can no longer eat. But once, everything was better with bacon.) He thought of his situation now. It was a pipe bomb wrapped in human bodies. The universe seems to think that everything is better with human bodies.
His typing was slowing. There were so many words to write. A stem cell can become any kind of cell. But are trachea cells just trachea cells? No – there’s got to be the kind that form the inner wall, the kind that form the outer wall, the connective kind, the kind that facilitate the growth of blood vessels. How do they distinguish these in a laboratory where they grow trachea? The bottom of page 18: The cells know. There must be some deep knowledge in them of where they need to expand, where they need to contract, which direction they need to extend along with newly-generated neighbor cells…
Goose bumps raised themselves along his bare arms. Which flesh cells were contracting? Which ones simply held their position?
Page 19: If only someone was tracking all of this, mapping it. If only he or she could explain it to me, show me the rivers of energy, quantify the volume of their flowage, define the geometry of the islands of our bodies. The islands of our bodies. The islands. I am an island.
He pulled the .38 from its place inside that broad, black drawer. He stood then and walked to the stairwell.
It’s not important to track each step of his descent, but he wound up on the curb in front of his building, the gutter stained with the passing lives of cars, the history of their steely curves and involuted gear teeth and formulae for synthetic oils and combustion ratios thought up over the pencil-smudged desks now abandoned in Detroit, now moved to Mumbai. Gutters stained with the passing lives of cars and littered with newspapers. Not as many papers today as there once were, but still a page 5A from the Journal-Sentinel fluttered in the wind, the majority of ink taken by the conclusion of an article on the drowning death of a toddler – Hnat Zhoung – whose thick black hair spread like a halo taken in photonegative as his staring eyes peered into the abyss beneath the Milwaukee river. Captain Tom Davis of the Milwaukee Fire Department Rescue and Recovery Unit talked about how a child’s death is always difficult. Always. Tom works long hours. He’s made it to Captain. He’s put in his time. His kids are almost out of the house and, when they’re laying across the hoods of their cars in a northern suburb of the city with their friends, talking about fucked up parents, they always refer to Tom as “my father.” Never “my dad.” The article didn’t discuss that. The page of the Journal-Sentinel is stuck to the pavement with a layer of fermented cucumber yogurt that spilled out of Lyle Sanchez’s gyro as he walked that stretch of street on his 18th birthday. Lyle is a tall, lanky bastard, headed for the U.S. Navy. Because he’s got a full beard and a forehead full of wrinkles, the bartenders don’t question his age. He drinks every night he can somewhere along Water Street and, at bar close, rides his bike half a mile south to where the tracks cross over Kinnickinnic. He sits and waits for the freight lines to rumble by, trying to peer into the open doors of boxcars, looking for someone. At 6 or 7 when he did this with his brother, he’d catch a few tired eyes staring back out at him. But these days, the most he’s seen is a stray cat with its muzzle buried in the gutted carcass of a rat. The cat looked up at him and hissed as the train lumbered past.
The gutter is stained with lives of cars and lives of fire captains and Detroit lives and broken lives. And that is where Mack went. Past the unblinking watch of the security cameras. To sit in the gutter with the blued steel of a .38 and the flutter of uncertainty through his guts begging for an answer.
As he sat there, he fingered a freckle on his left arm. No one else has this freckle. And no one knows this one lies on my arm.
The gutter is stained with lives and lives and lives. And this page is made to be thrown away.
from the collection of: m. gantee