You Are Here by Geronimo Tagatac
Lately, the recirculated air in the office has a heavy acid taste that eats into everyone’s voices, paring them down to whispers. They’re all talking about one thing: the restructuring. There have been comings and goings of mid-level managers, close-headed conversations in cubicles. My fellow employees are being let go. I’ve seen a few of them in the elevators, flanked by beefy security guards with biceps as big as my thighs. They are silent, some teary-eyed, clutching cardboard boxes of family photos, books, stuffed animals, and tiny pots with spindly plants. Others vanish without so much as a whimper. Those who remain, speculate that it’s because they’d been around too long, or that they lacked experience. Some say that the disappeared were too casual with their dress, or their work habits, or that they were not “team players.”
This morning, when I enter my cube, there’s a memo in my in-box. It has the subject heading, “Interior Signage.” All interior signage must be no larger than three inches in height and six-and-a-quarter inches wide. The corporate logo must appear on the sign’s leftmost edge. The phrase, ‘You Are Here,’ must be vertically and horizontally centered on the sign. No other messages are permitted. See policy 12040.14 (c). The memo is from the Director of Change Management. There is no name, phone number, or e-mail address in the heading.
I make my way down the narrow alley of cubicles to my supervisor’s office for my Monday morning report on the status of the Virtual Inventory Tracking project. Before I can say anything to him, Wally Kagoshima stands up, puts his index finger to his lips, and motions with his head for me to follow him. In the men’s room, he checks all of the stalls. Then he turns to me and says, “Drop the V.I.T. project. It’s the kiss of death.” Wally’s voice bouncing off the Chateau Gold tile is like a ball ricocheting around a racquetball court.
“When did that come down?” I ask.
“Keep your voice low,” he hisses, making chopping, downward motions with his hands. “Thomas has been let go. Everything connected to him is road kill. What else are you working on?”
“I don’t … didn’t have time for anything else.”
“Well, just keep your head down and your ears open,” Wally says.
The emptying and filling of cubicles takes place with the suddenness of time-lapse photography. A picture of a woman and her family in a chrome frame vanishes. A box of tissues appears in its place. A coffee mug becomes a palm-sized personal digital assistant, an electric pencil sharpener, a yellow note pad fills a blank spot on a desk. The panicked cries of cell phones are everywhere. A bar of “The1812 Overture” answers the opening of notes of “La Cucaracha.”
Three phones erupt in a chorus of the theme of “The Godfather.”
People have been fastening their resumes to pigeons. One bird sails into the big, plate-glass window overlooking the industrial park and breaks its neck. A small crowd gathers around it on the blue carpet. One of the new hires, a petite woman in a peach gabardine business suit, bends over the bird’s body and the sheaf of paper. She straightens up and tosses her brown hair away from her face with a quick throw of her head. “A state college grad. What a loser,” she snorts, before striding off to her cubicle.
An hour later, Sol tells me that he saw her, in the elevator being escorted out of the building. In her right hand, she clutched her dead cell phone. He said that she looked like someone who’d just been smacked in the face with a ten-pound bag of used kitty litter. “I don’t think she was a good fit,” Sol says.
A fog fills the narrow alleys between the cubicles, and even the windowless space of the employee cafeteria. It’s the color of whipped cream. It sops up words and spits them back out as something else. “Good morning,” comes out as “We’re fucked.” “How’re things?” becomes, “What the hell’s going on?”
“There’s been a management shakeup,” Sol says over the top of his partition. His voice sounds like dry grass in the wind. He has started wearing a light gray suit and a matching tie that looks like a viper crawling down his chest toward his crotch. Even his hair is going gray. It makes him hard to see in the fog.
Yesterday, we went to lunch at the sandwich shop, on the ground floor, run by the Vietnamese couple. They were gone. Instead, there was a Mexican guy who was big enough to have been a security guard took our orders and brought us two, identical Styrofoam containers. “Seventeen dollars,” he said.
“We’re paying separately,” I replied.
“Seventeen each,” he replied in an even voice.
We opened our Styrofoam clamshells. Each held a four-inch cube of something. Sol’s was blue and mine was the color of a stagnant pond on an overcast day.
“What’s this?” Asked Sol in his nasal voice.
“Pastrami and cheese,” replied the man. Then he looked at me with the mean eyes of a biker bar bouncer and said, “Vegetarian burrito.” As we walked to our table, I noticed that the fog was a foot deep on the floor.
Wally Kagoshima is gone, replaced by someone named D.J. Bott. She’s small and black haired. Her face is so smooth that it looks like it just popped out of a mold. All morning, workmen have been enlarging Wally’s cubicle for her. At our staff meeting, Bott keeps her hands out of sight beneath the conference table. She opens the meeting by saying, “Mega changes are in the works. The train’s left the station and you’d all better be on board. We pay you a lot of money. You’d better start thinking outside of the box.”
When she leans forward to make a point, everyone else does. First Sol and Angie, then Barbara, Sarah, and Carter, then me and Gudren.
“We’re going to be making lots of changes in this section. I’m re-writing your position descriptions to fit the unit’s new mission,” she says, leaning back in her chair to watch the effect of this on us. Sol and I settle back in our chairs, followed by Sarah and Carter, then Angie and Sol. None of us looks at each other. We don’t want to signal the least disagreement.
“How will our jobs be changing?” Gudren asks.
“We’re going to push you into the field. The customers are going to be where the action’s at. There’s no more room for specialists. You’re going to have to know it all. I can promise you that those that can’t, won’t be here a month from now.” From somewhere under the table, I hear a scratching sound like claws tearing at the carpet nap.
In the middle of the afternoon, Gudren vanishes. “Should’ve kept her mouth shut,” says Sol. When I go down the hall to the men’s room, I notice a lot of computer boxes stacked against the wall. Small sounds come from inside one of them. I look up and down the hall before putting my ear to one of the boxes. “Gudren, is that you?”
“Trying to think my way out. Any suggestions?” Gudren’s voice replies.
“What have you come up with?
“I keep thinking of my house and kids. It’s really dark in here.”
“How about ‘Remove tab A from slot B?” I ask.
“Hey, that’s good!”
On the drive home, I leave the freeway and get lost among the one and two-story houses in Lost Oaks Meadows. The streets bend the wrong ways. The trees have twisted themselves into different shapes and the shrubs have crawled around to the other sides of lawns. The houses have changed colors. The Newton’s bay window has gone flat. It takes me an hour to find our pale blue, single-level. As I pull into the driveway, its incline seems steeper. The lawn is smaller.
My wife, Terri, is silent over dinner, as though she’s chewing on something that’s gotten twisted into her penne pasta and baby asparagus. “The food at school sucks lately,” my twelve-year-old daughter, Kyla, says over a mouthful of pasta.
“If that’s your worst problem, you’re fortunate,” I reply.
Terri puts down her fork and says, “Have you been doing something to your hair?”
“I think you’re going gray.”
That night, I lie in the darkness beside Terri and I listen as hard as I can, but I hear nothing but the coming and going of her breath, like the swift passage of cars on the expressway. Down the hall, my daughter shouts something in her sleep, a quick jumble of words that scatter into the night.
The next day at the office, Sol doesn’t show up. His office is filled with off-white fog right up to the tops of his five-foot partitions. It pours out into the passage between the workstations. In the middle of the afternoon, I hear a noise from his cube that sounds like something scratching at Sol’s side of the partition between our workstations. I rush into his cube. The fog is so thick that I can’t see a goddamned thing. I scrabble around in the mist, running my hands over the surface of his desk, which is as cold and slick as a sheet of ice. Even his telephone and computer feel frozen. Something the size of a small dog brushes past my legs. “Sol, is that you?” I yell. But it’s gone.
Sol shows up the following morning. He has dyed his hair so black that it could be the finish on a revolver. But the rest of him, his suit and tie, is as gray as before. “Gives me a more professional look, don’t you think?”
“You keep this up and I won’t be able to tell the difference between you and a crow on a rainy day.”
In my cubicle workstation, I sweat over new project ideas. If Sol can do it, so can I. Two hours later, he comes over to my desk. “Shit! Bott’s history.”
“At this rate they’ll be recruiting the janitorial staff next,” I reply.
“She got too far out ahead of the program. Damn! I spent over sixty-dollars on this tie,” he says, fingering the tie’s gray silk. “Another forty for the haircut. And what the hell am I going to do with all the hair dye!” His voice is edged with pleading. By the end of the day, thick fog, which is the color of twice-used dishwater, is pouring over the top of his cubicle into mine. All the way out of the office area, I hear the ceaseless clacking of Sol’s keyboard.
The freeway goes in the wrong direction. The numbers on the off-ramp signs make no sense. Exit H-75 is followed by A-207. Darkness has fallen by the time I take the off ramp with the sign stating, “No. 753, 28 Mi.” I drive for hours beneath a moonless sky, until the dawn begins eating away the eastern stars, and still nothing. Finally, the asphalt gives way to gravel that fans out onto a wide dirt patch fringed by tough, spiny weeds. An empty field falls away for a half-a-mile, and then rises like a gentle, iron colored wave that blends into the cloudless sky beyond. I get out of the car and look around for a sign of something, a toolshed, or an abandoned tractor, anything that might bear the number 753. But there is nothing, no irregularity in the earth, nothing to break the faded line of the horizon. Without the lighter shade of sky on my right, I would not know east from west. Where’s the sun? My shoes make a dry, scratchy sound against the ground.
I stand in the windless silence and wonder how far I’d get if I just got in the car, started the engine, and floored the accelerator. I picture dirt rooster-tailing away from the car’s rear wheels as I head for edge of the sky. How long would the earth take to heal the scars of my passing? How long would Terri wait for my return? I can imagine what Sol will say: “I love the guy, but he just didn’t have the edge, the commitment.” I walk back to my car, wondering if I have enough gas to get back to the freeway. I see that the car’s color has changed from blue to gunmetal gray. Its interior is filled with fog the color of oily cotton. I stop and back away from it as though I have unexpectedly come upon a huge insect. That’s when I see that my license plate now reads, “You Are Here.”
Geronimo Tagatac is a first generation Phillipine-American. He spent his childhood living and working in the fields and orchards of rural California. He has published short fiction inthe “Writers Forum,” “Orion” and “Mississippi Mud.” He currently lives and writes in Salem, Oregon. He can be reached at [email protected].