a story inspired by Occupy Wall Street
I have the worst job in the world.
Maybe some people would say it's not so bad. Maybe some people, if they pick up roadkill or work in a coalmine or don't have a job at all, would even say it was a good job. It's true that I work regular hours and work in an office and sit down half the day. So I try to be thankful and remind myself of the jobless and the miners and the roadkill picker-uppers.
But here is why my job is so bad.
People come in, and they don't come out.
My workplace occupies part of a floor in a office building in New York. The only parts I've seen are my boss's office, the file room where I work, and the waiting room.
The waiting room looks like a doctor's office waiting room from the 1970s. Linoleum tile, orange vinyl chairs.
The waiting room is always full, even when I come in at eight. I've lingered at the glass door entrance sometimes, to see if I can figure out what's going on. There's a stand close to the entrance with a sign that says, PLEASE SIGN IN. A computer at the other end of the room, where I've seen people standing in front of--signing in, I presume. Next to the computer are two wood double doors, without windows.
A voice belonging to a woman I've never seen calls out names over a loudspeaker. The people named get up and go to the double doors, where they are buzzed in.
I don't know what's behind the door. I don't know what happens when people go through the door. All I know is that I never see anyone coming out.
As I said, I work in the file room. When I come in at 8, there's a large stack of paper on my desk. Each sheet has a bunch of codes on it. I don't know what any of them mean. I take one of the codes and enter it in an application on my computer, and then I create a folder for the sheet and file it.
There's a small window on the file room door, a thin rectangle above the handle. I see a lot of people going into the waiting room. I've never seen anyone come out.
The vast majority are just ordinary people from all walks of life, the same kind I see on the train or the city streets every day. But I've seen a couple of famous people go through. Semi-famous, anyway. A couple of character actors, one who was pretty big at one point. A rock musician who had a brief time in the spotlight.
I looked them up online after I saw them. I kept looking for days after, thinking there might be some news about them. Maybe someone would file a missing persons report. Or maybe there'd be an interview, or an appearance somewhere, and I'd know that people came out. But there was nothing. Always nothing.
Once I walked in with someone. She was a heavyset, 50-ish, African American woman. I saw her at the front of the building when I came in. She was squinting at the building address. Then we rode the elevator together. She had a piece of paper in her hand. A letter. And I noticed she was wearing a bracelet with little pictures of children on it. Children? Grandchildren?
At first she didn't move when the door opened for my floor, and I almost walked out in front of her, but then she said, "Oh, this is the ninth floor," and I stepped back to let her go ahead. She turned left and I was going right.
"Excuse me," she said from behind me. "I'm looking for Ultimate Business Solutions?"
"This way," I said, leading her down the hall to the entrance.
"Thank you," she said, smiling, as she entered the waiting room.
I tried to keep an eye on the door all day. I never saw her come out.
I thought later that maybe I should have tried to talk to her. Ask her innocent questions. What was she coming in for? Something like that. Maybe I even should have warned her. Don't go in there; no one ever comes out. But that's crazy, isn't it? They must come out. And if I had told her something like that, and she had told whoever was behind the door, then maybe I would have been fired.
But I can't stop thinking about her. Or those little kids on her bracelet.
The only other employee I ever see in the office is my boss. I'm as tall as he is, maybe even a little taller, but whenever I think of him he's towering over me. He's probably about my age, maybe even younger, and I'll admit, that sticks in my craw a bit. He wears expensive business suits--I don't know anything about clothes, but they look expensive. I'm pretty sure he's had hair transplants, and I'm almost positive he colors it. That's all I know about him.
He's not unfriendly. Not friendly, either. He always calls me Jim. My name's John. John. But I've quit correcting him. He obviously doesn't care.
He interviewed me when I first came in. Well, he kind of interviewed me. I saw an ad in the paper. "Clerical work. No experience needed." At that point I was applying for everything. And just like all the other postings, I never expected to hear back. But I got a call. A woman whom I've never seen or heard from since scheduled an appointment for me. I came in, met my soon-to-be boss, made some very brief small talk, and then he gave me some papers to fill out. A lot of it was contact information, job history, that kind of thing. But there was also a questionnaire, with what I thought were some very odd questions. But I answered them and turned them in. The next day he called and said I had the job.
The pay wasn't good, but it was better, a little better, than nothing. Enough to subsist on. Pay the bills. The occasional movie.
So I don't get out much. I know no one in New York, other than Angie, a woman in my building.
I suppose it would be accurate to call her my girlfriend, but that seems like a silly term for people approaching middle age. And "lover" suggests something more passionate. But she is good company and comfort.
She's a technical writer. Divorced. No children. Afraid of losing her job and worried that she'll never advance. But she's not as moody as I am. Not as despairing.
Sometimes I think she looks at me and thinks, "Is he the best that I can do?" I think it because I would think it if I were her. And I'll be honest, sometimes I ask myself the same question about her. I feel bad about it. It's not a knock on her, not really. She's sweet. Attractive, in her way. But there was that point, many years ago now, when the possibilities seemed limitless. That's all I mean. She's a redhead. I never saw myself with a redhead. Her name's Angie. I never really liked the name Angie. But it's okay.
She's a fastidious recycler. Not one of those zero-impact people or anything like that. But she recycles almost everything.
I think it's a pointless exercise. What difference does it make, I ask, if you account for every scrap of paper and banana peel, while corporations everywhere are poisoning the air and water and ground on such a massive scale?
"It has to start somewhere," she says.
I admire her for that. I still think it's pointless. But I admire her idealism.
I haven't told her the details about work. I've just told her I do clerical work. I'm afraid she'd think I was crazy if I told her about the door.
I could ask my boss about the door, but I figure he would have told me already if I was supposed to know.
I've searched online for "Ultimate Business Solutions" but haven't been able to turn up a match.
I leave my door open now, and take note of everyone who enters. Day after day, a steady stream of people come in, but they don't walk out, at least not the way they come in. Perhaps they could leave after I leave for the day, I tell myself, but while various office appointments have taken me many hours, I've never waited from sunup to sundown.
I've been in doctor's offices with separate entrances and exits. But while the office apparently occupies one side of the entire floor, there's only the one entrance. I suppose it's possible that the office also occupies part of another floor, but I've checked out both the floors above and below, and I can find no evidence of such.
How can they not leave? What happens to them?
I glance in the waiting room any chance I get. When I cross paths with people entering, I stare them right in the eye, looking for clues. They don't seem particularly anxious, or even resigned.
I decide I won't point anyone else to the entrance. If they ask, I'm just going to shrug and tell them I don't know. It's just a small thing. Probably won't make a difference.
But someone challenges me almost right away. Just a kid. Right out of college, looks like. Wearing a track jacket and pants. Standing in my way in the hall outside the office, letter in hand.
"'Scuse me," he says. "Can you tell me if I'm in the right place?"
Same letter as the woman with the bracelet.
"What are you here for?" I ask.
"I dunno," he says. "I just have an appointment." I see his gaze move from my face to the side. I turn and see my boss is standing behind me. I try to act casual, but my heart is pounding.
"May I help you with something?" he asks the kid. A bright smile.
"I was uh, just wondering if I was at the right place."
My boss takes the letter and examines it.
"Come with me," he says. "I'll show you to the waiting room."
I wonder if I'm going to be fired. All I did was ask the kid what he was here for. Maybe that's against the rules. But I don't even know what the rules are. Maybe there aren't any rules.
Later in the day he calls me to his office.
"How long have you been working here, Jim?" he asks. He's not smiling. He's not even looking at me. He's scrutinizing the contents of a folder he has out and open on his desk. I see that it contains my job application and some other papers I don't recognize.
"About nine months," I say.
"Close to a year," he says.
"Where do you see yourself in five years, Jim?"
I don't know how to answer these questions. Where do I see myself? Surviving, I hope. Not on the street. Not starving.
"Well, moving up, I guess."
"Moving up, sir."
"If it works out, yes sir."
"I see." He closes the folder, leans back in his chair, and looks at me. "So you're ambitious."
"Yes sir." If survival is ambitious.
His eyes narrow. "And do you have any questions . . . concerns . . . I can help you with?"
What happens to the people in the waiting room? "No sir."
"Because an ambitious person might, I don't know, have questions or concerns he'd like to share."
I decide to trust my instincts that my job, maybe my life, depended on convincing him that I had absolutely no concerns.
"No sir," I say. "No questions or concerns."
"Good," he says. "That's good. That will be all."
I think about not coming back to work. But the rent's due. Other bills. What happens if I quit? Will I get my own letter?
I'm having nightmares now about what's behind the door. I've imagined the most ghastly things, ovens and poison gas showers and the like. But even if something that horrific were occurring, something would have to come out, wouldn't it? Bodies. Ashes. You couldn't run an operation like that just in an office building. Could you?
Even if you had the means of disposing of evidence, how long could it go on before someone noticed that many people, just disappearing? That's what I find most disturbing. I've thought about going to the police, or the FBI, and telling them what I've seen. But what if they just thought I was crazy? What if there's a simple explanation?
And the sad fact of the matter is, I need a job. Even if it gives me nightmares. Even if it's the worst job in the world.
Several times I've come close to telling Angie everything. But if she thought I was nuts, if she didn't want to have anything more to do with me, then I'd have no one. I'd be alone, with nothing but the job.
So I don't tell her anything. I enter numbers in the computer, create folders and file them, and then I come home and try to forget. Sometimes Angie and I go out to eat, or go to or watch a movie, or have sex, or some combination thereof, and some of the time I can forget about the office. But then there are times when it eats at me, and I don't say much and kind of drift off, and Angie wants to know what's wrong, but I can't tell her. I know she thinks it's her, and I try to tell her it's not her, because it isn't, but since I don't tell her what it really is, I just say it's nothing, I don't think she believes me.
Then one morning I see her up ahead of me, approaching the office building. I had just gotten coffee. I can't afford it every day but I've stopped drinking water in the building, even using the bathroom if I can help it.
"I have an appointment," she says when I catch up to her, and holds up a letter. Ultimate Business Solutions.
"That's where I work," I say. "What's the appointment for?"
She shrugs. "I'm just supposed to show up today."
I toss the coffee in a trash can. "Can I look at that letter a second?"
The company logo and address is at the top. The text consists of her name, address, and notification of her appointment.
"You don't know what you're here for?"
"I'm just supposed to show up today."
I look around. Lots of people on the sidewalk, as always. None of them seem to be paying attention. "Come here a second," I say, gesturing away from the building, back toward the coffee shop.
"You're going to make me late."
"Just a second."
She follows me. The coffee shop is packed, so I lead her just past the entrance.
"Don't show up for the appointment," I say.
"What are you talking about?"
"Look, I work there. Don't show up for the appointment."
"Why shouldn't I?"
"I--" I look around again. No one. "I can't really explain. Not here. Just go to work. Or go home. I'll explain tonight."
She scrunches her face. "You're being weird."
I think about trying to pull her away. Hailing a cab, stuffing her inside. I don't think it would work. Even if I could overpower her. Someone would stop me.
"Listen. I'll go too. Let's just go home, and we'll talk there."
"Why are you being so silly? You're making me late."
"You don't have to go."
"Of course I do." She stalks past me, back toward the building.
"Well, I'm coming with you," I say. "At least let me talk to my boss."
"I don't see why."
"Just let me do this one thing."
She makes the face again. I take her silence as agreement.
At the office entrance I make sure to clasp her hand and lead her away from the waiting room to my boss's office.
"Yes?" he says, looking up from his computer monitor.
"I think there's some mistake," I say.
"I think there's some mistake. She has an appointment here today. It's a mistake."
He leans back in his chair and crosses his legs.
"Ma'am, did you receive a letter from us?" he asks Lauren.
"Do you have it with you?"
She removes the envelope from her purse and offers it to him. He removes the letter, unfolds and reads it. Then he carefully folds it back into the envelope and gives it back to her.
"Thank you," he says. "There's no mistake."
"I'm thinking that there is," I say.
He stands up. Smiling.
"AND JUST WHO THE HELL ARE YOU TO DECIDE WHO DOES AND DOESN'T HAVE AN APPOINTMENT?"
He walks around the desk. Glares at me. Then he looks at Angie, and smiles again.
"Please come with me, ma'am," he says. "I'll show you to the waiting room."
He takes her by the arm and Angie goes willingly.
I look around his office. The only things on his desk are a computer monitor, keyboard, phone, and Starbucks tumbler. And a lamp. A banker's lamp.
They're just out the door when I give the lamp a vicious jerk and rip the plug out. I turn it upside down as I run out the door behind them. I raise the lamp overhead and bring the base down onto his head. He tries to turn, off-balance, but I've already reared back, and now I'm swinging it again, this time like a baseball bat, and it collides with the side of his head, right at the top of his ear.
The second one does the trick. He falls in a heap.
"Oh my God," Angie says.
You've done it now, I think.
Everyone in the waiting room saw what I did through the glass door. They're all looking at me, but rather than standing up, rather than crying out, shouting for help, they just sit there, mildly curious.
I'm trying to think of what to do. I should just run. But Angie, she's not moving. And no one in the waiting room is moving.
I fling open the door.
"Get out of here! Run!"
They just look at me.
"What the hell is wrong with you people?"
Then I feel something grab my leg. It's my boss. He's bleeding and banged up pretty bad, but he's conscious and staring up at me with pure hate. I try to swing at him again, but it's an awkward move and I end up tumbling over him and dropping the lamp, and the glass cover shatters. Then he's on top of me, and I'm squirming, kicking, everything I can do, but I can't get out from under him. Angie's still standing there, somewhere. I call out to her. Then his hands are on my neck, and he's choking me, and I can't call out anymore, and I figure maybe that's it.
Then suddenly his grip relaxes, and his head drops onto me. Angie. She got the lamp and hit him with it again.
I shove him off me.
"Open the door," I tell Angie. "And stay here."
"What are you going to do?" she says.
"I'm sending this motherfucker through that door in there."
"JOHNSON, ETHAN," calls out a voice over the intercom.
An older man stands up.
"You're appointment's canceled," I say, dragging my boss into the room. He's heavy as hell but I can slide him okay on the linoleum floor. "Everyone's appointment is canceled, except his."
The man sits down.
"Don't sit down," I say. "Leave! Everyone, leave!"
They look at each other, unsure what to do.
"JOHNSON, ETHAN," the voice calls out again. The man stands up again.
"Your appointment is fucking canceled!" I tell him. "Everyone's appointment is canceled!"
I've almost got my boss to the door when I realize he's coming to. He sees where I'm dragging him and his face is white with fear. He grabs for the legs of the orange vinyl chairs.
"Help me," I say to everyone else in the room. Still no one moves.
"Goddamn it, get up and help me get him through this door and then we're all getting the hell out of here."
Finally one man stands up. He looks around, obviously scared. He takes a tentative step forward.
"Come on!" I say.
Then two others stand up. They rush over, and start prying the boss's hands off the chair legs. Two are strong enough to pry off one hand; the other person bites the hand until he lets go.
I open the door. I'm not interested in seeing what's inside. I don't want to know. But I can't help but see a little. Just a wall. But there's something else. I don't know what. I just feel it. Something wrong. Something terrible.
The boss must know what's waiting for him. He's whimpering. Desperate. Trying to grab anything. Wedging his foot against the door.
"This doesn't change anything!" he cries. "Do you know how many offices there are? Do you?"
I kick at his shin and feel something give. Then the others heave him inside, and I slam the door behind him.
For a second we just stand there in shock. Then I hear a sob behind me. And another. Crying. Some are rocking back and forth. Others look like they've just awakened from a dream.
"Get out of here," I say. "Go."
One person leaps to his feet and sprints out the door. Then the others follow.
Angie is still at the waiting room entrance. She's shaking.
"Come on," I tell her.
"Wait," she says. "What are we going to do? Where are we going to go?"
They're good questions. Maybe it's pointless to run. Maybe they'll find us wherever we go. Was the boss right about the other offices? Someone would find out what happened up there. Maybe someone already had.
What was going to happen now?
"I don't know," I say finally. "Just come on."