As a special online supplement to the Winter 2015/2016 issue, the editors present the prizewinning story from the 2015 Zoetrope: All-Story Short Fiction Contest.
I maintain an acute awareness of posture. I do not rely on this desk, on the Pharm–Alpen building, on the West Emery Office Park.
Mindfulness isn't magic. Mindfulness takes work.
Late morning sunlight spills down my light well, warms my face. The pink glow beyond my closed eyelids could be the glow of any sunlight anywhere, as I sit swiveled strategically between my dual monitors. On my left, the Q3 metrics deck for Do–I–Have–That.com. On my right, the Mayo Clinic web page on hemochromatosis (iron–storage disease).
Shoulders open, palms relaxed.
"Earth to Jason."
Josh Crowdis takes my hard–won serenity and clubs it to death. I see him in the side–view mirror I soldered off my old three–speed Schwinn and Krazy–Glued to the edge of my left monitor. Just as a joke, but it isn't one, really.
Josh has rumors to relate. Steve Lunardi is in talks to start his own pharma-based web analytics firm up in Foster City. Right on the freaking bay. When he goes, Steve might bring some of us with him. Josh makes it sound like Steve can do it without asking.
"Don't tell me you haven't heard," Josh says. He swoons theatrically over my half–wall, as though mentally adding this latest news to a long list of things I have managed to not hear.
On the Q3 metrics deck I bold a slide at random, then swivel to face Josh just as pings echo pings in the work areas around us. A Content–ALL e-mail. I give Josh my what–can–you–do face, swivel back.
Impromptu Huddle in the Cyberia Conference Room, ten minutes.
The Huddle is not about Steve, or Steve's intentions. Steve is still in Frankfurt, putting a bow on the Pharm–Alpen sales meeting.
The Huddle is about Dante Brisco going away. Just like that. He looks each of us in the eye for a full second or two as he makes his announcement. Dante, the quiet one, getting out before he can get passed over. He tells us of his new job as a subscriber liaison for the city's opera company.
To align your livelihood with beauty, with art, the pursuit of something completely unnecessary. To be so far out on a flowering branch, away from the ugly trunk of commerce. A branch that's thriving despite the odds. It's a stirring prospect. But Pharm-Alpen is paying us all handsomely, even in moments like these.
"Aren't they doing Siegfried next season?" Lynette Loftis asks.
Dante nods enthusiastically. Beaming at Lynette, at his life choices.
"The production is supposed to be amazing," Lynette says. "The sets alone." Her voice gets low and scratchy, the way it does when she's really informing, the way it did when she told me, "You have no idea what discretion even is. Let me show you."
Lynette piles her hair on top of her head, sticks a blue Pharm–Alpen rollerpoint through the loose, brown curls to hold them in place. It's the way I like her hair best, and it's painful to see.
Now Dante has finished ranking his top three librettos. Now we all look at the center of the conference table, at the sleek, matte–black ShoreTel, sitting like a landed spaceship on the gleaming walnut.
"What a journey, though," Dante says.
We nod and smile–grimace at each other. We close our laptops slowly and solemnly, having recorded nothing, calendared nothing.
We return to our areas. The shaft of sunlight in mine has receded, become a rectangle on the carpet, like a sheet of golden paper someone may have dropped.
Still, for another deliciously larcenous few minutes I close my eyes again. All around me the keyboard strokes morph back to gentle water over smooth rock. I unhear the chitchat until the words flatten into shapeless sounds, coalesce as a mantra.
Below my desk my computer tower whirs and encourages with its slow, steady breaths.
Long inhales, longer exhales.
An empty elevator, an empty parking lot, an empty meadow.
I emerge, palms up on my desk, toes wiggling in my loafers, neck turtled toward the fading light, with the instinct of foliage.
A marked lightness in my hand as I regain the mouse. I don't jump right back on e-mail. What a waste that would be. I focus on the artful way I have clumped my paper clips on my paper clip magnet, home in on the words Unique Visitors in the metrics deck. Just the optimism of that helps me focus on the big First Wednesday meeting.
For most of the past year, Lynette Loftis has been my Horizon Event, a thing that I'm largely powerless to affect yet profoundly motivated by. It was that way while I was still married, still pretending to hate Mondays, to be in love with Fridays. Including the Friday in March when my then–wife and I were tuned to a TV movie featuring an edgy Florida couple who'd turned as one to a life of crime. "Hey, here's something," my wife said. She went from sitting on one folded leg to sitting on the other. It happened that her ex–boyfriend Vince had just sent her a friend request. It happened that Vince was her ex–fiancé, if we were being literal. "And I wanted to let you know, let somebody know," she said, merrily, "that I accepted." Merrily merrily merrily.
I'd never heard of any Vince. I thought I knew about all of her exes. I asked her what he wanted. Naturally.
"How should I know? He just found me this morning."
I thought found was a funny word to use.
We watched a bald detective question the psycho husband. "She already told us everything," the detective said. What a bad liar. There'd been a procedural blunder that everyone was aware of. Without a confession the couple would walk.
Maybe I gave Vince more energy than he warranted. Maybe I was swept up in the anarchic spirit of the movie. But in that moment it became almost necessary to me that my wife hear Lynette's name. I told a seemingly innocuous work story while the husband sat drumming his cuffed hands on the interrogation table.
"How 'bout a Sprite or something?" said the husband.
"How 'bout you beep my beep?" said the bald detective.
"So tell me about this Lynette," my wife said, glomming on. "What kind of name is that? The 'ette' makes it extra feminine, like Smurfette." Here she switched over to a cooing little kissy–wissy voice. "Is she extra feminine like Smurfette? Does she have two vaginas?"
On the TV the couple got away with it. The judge looked genuinely depressed to be throwing the case out.
"It would be like if I called myself Beth–ette," my wife said, in her normal voice.
There they were in a tricked–out Jeep, really cruising. A flat two–laner through the high desert. You could almost feel the hot wind that was whipping around the wife's hair. Her bare feet were up on the dash.
"I can't believe how well this is going," my wife said. She went back to sitting on the first folded leg.
The husband had his cool shades. His bad–boy hair was everywhere. He smirked at himself in the rearview. They smirked at each other.
"I know," I said. I watched the couple laugh and laugh.
I walk the group through the metrics for Do–I–Have–That.com, but the big First Wednesday meeting doesn't feel so big with Steve Lunardi still in Frankfurt.
These are my bullets on the slides, my words. This is my voice paraphrasing my bullets, ad–libbing in reaction to the distracted faces.
"This is only the beginning," I say. "This is only the camel's nose under the tent." But it even feels as though I'm not good at presenting anymore. What a funny thing to become worse at.
"You guys," Lynette says, before I can finish, "one of our platinum tiers got offered a remnant lead by a third-party vendor." She swivels rhythmically, almost imperceptibly. Her hair is down again, the blue Pharm-Alpen rollerpoint in her hand. "Turns out, it was the same lead that came from us."
Health care ads drive revenue under the Do–I–Have–That.com model. Content brings user eyes to the pages, users click the ads. We don't actually write the Medical Condition Content we run. We lift it from around the web, tweak it slightly, give it an alarmist hue. There is a sweet spot that, when you hit it, you just know. If the content is in the public domain, we lift it wholesale. On my best nights after my best days here, I lie in bed and picture some afflicted user searching for information, and I think that I'm really helping that person. After my worst days I know for a fact that I'm not.
Lynette looks around the table, clicking the pen. "This is a platinum subscriber we're talking about."
But that is not a Content problem, that is a Sales problem, and I feel compelled to remind myself that I am the same person who rolled a chair into Lynette's area to go over Unique Visitors for August, the day after my divorce went final. She was wearing high heels, these strappy, black, lustful things. Her whole work area smelled like mango–mint hand lotion. With my mouse hand I re–sorted the numbers according to bounce rate, and with the other I began to rub her back. She neither recoiled nor reciprocated, but gave me an even look. I did my best to mirror her confident expression, then moved my hand down to the waistband of her pantsuit. The intimacy was practically wrinkling the air around us, just dictating everything.
Josh does his slides on the A/B testing of the new lead path. When he pulls up the A version his fingers all flick out at once—hand fireworks—and for an enthusiastic moment I'm transported to an alternate reality in which Pharm–Alpen never acquired Do–I–Have–That.com, or even all the way back to 2008, when we were still in that Mountain View strip mall, in a former locksmith's shop. No sign outside, just nine twenty–somethings in the front room, six servers in the air–conditioned back room, and an ad–free mission to inform and empower patients. To never bully, never settle for counting the clicks of the anxious.
Here is the B version. More hand fireworks, and then a lull that allows the collective focus to return to the sideshow of Steve and his intentions. I try to tune out the talk. Peel–aways, acquisitions, restructuring. It's nothing new. You can't track every blip. In my darkest moments I gird myself for the announcement that my light well is being renovated into nonexistence, for what that would do to my morning mindfulness practice. But think of how impossible that would be structurally, how much of an undertaking. And for what? One more work area? Half of one? That light well may be load–bearing, for all I know.
"These numbers look a little soft," Lynette says, glancing up at the next slide, the Q4 Projections. "When do we get to Good News Town?" She jots on a Pharm–Alpen notepad.
I make a silent promise to myself, to spend more time with the data.
I announce that this is not a finished product, that it is more akin to a garden I'm growing. I forget whether garden is actually in the lexicon. Whether it describes something that isn't ready for the table. The table being a Pharm-Alpen EXEC e-mail.
By the take-home slide, Josh is spacing out, blatantly swiveled, gazing through our tinted wall of windows, across the quad, to the tinted wall of windows on the Venturex Building. This rumor about Steve, the distraction it brings. In one way it's not unlike the dead week between Christmas and New Year's, when expectations hover near zero. In another way, maybe it dredges up a certain lawlessness where the org chart is concerned.
I ask for feedback on behalf of both Josh and myself, but I can feel my body language fending off legitimate questions. I go from face to face, making eye contact, Dante–style. "I will share the final version at a very high level," I say. "I am happy to do it. I am happy to reach out." I'm not just thinking in terms of Lynette, but universally. They all stare at me like animals in a field. Or like I'm the animal. They all have the same bluishness to their skin, reflecting the standby screen on the overhead.
Someone bought Dante one of those heavy, white chef's aprons, and it's going around Content for all of us to sign, or to draw something funny on, whatever strikes. Dante loved to cook, or loves to cook. Now Dante will think of us every time he puts the apron on, or just sees it hanging at the ready in his well–appointed kitchen.
Josh passes me the apron and holds out a fistful of markers.
I feel an emptiness, not merely looming but already here. It isn't Dante. Someone's always going away. Good for him. Not waiting for the cruel, dark hand to reach down. Not waiting for the two empty file boxes delivered by the polo-shirted Facilities guy, who hovers a guiding hand just above your shoulder, assessing the potential for nonviolent outburst, saying, "Can I ask you to get your belongings together? Take as much time as you need." Notice how much control remains with you, how it colors the time you have left in the building. But once you're in the parking lot, you have to find a way to live apart from all this. Good luck controlling that.
I choose a red marker and a prime location on the pocket of the apron. I want to rhyme something. I feel a rush of gratitude that Lynette is not Dante. Or Mary, whose husband, Ron, had a liver transplant, and it was looking so good, and there was all this rooting for him, rooting for her. And then the rooting was over, and Ron lost his fight, and for all intents and purposes we lost Mary. Aside from an e-mail from her personal account, with "Changes" as the subject line. Aside from the unsalted creamy peanut butter jar in the break–room fridge, with "Mary" in indelible black marker on the lid.
And then just the recalibration all of this brings. Is this real pain? Real suffering? Compared to what?
"Not the pocket," Josh says, nodding at the apron. "Steve's got the pocket when he comes back." He leans an elbow on my half–wall and scans my area with this look of slightly confused amusement, like the things I've chosen to keep around are exactly the wrong things.
I move the pen to a blank spot just below the pocket, but no inspiration comes. "Spontaneity is my Kryptonite," I say, and chase it with idiotic laughter.
Josh snorts through his nose. "It seems like you've got a lot of Kryptonites," is what it sounds like he says.
I pretend to hear an e-mail ping. "Can we do this later?" I hand the apron and the pen over and swivel back.
I'm starting to forget that Mary and I ever shared the light well, that I ever shared it with anyone, and that feels dangerous somehow. I look at the floor–to–ceiling column of Plexiglas and stucco and wonder how many times Mary and I were swiveled toward it at the same time, taking simultaneous little breaks. She would be scratching one wrist and then the other, where the wrist guards had left their dents, and our eyes would meet across the light well, and we would smile every time, wouldn't we? How many of those moments did we share? Twenty? Fifty? One hundred? It's important to me to know the number, but it's also impossible to know.
For weeks after Mary left, I thought about moving my stuff to the other side of the light well. Not even asking Facilities. Sometimes I'm still convinced that Mary's workstation might offer the best chance at something crucial but fuzzy. Or maybe just the best chance at luck. From the standpoint of, what are the chances that the next person who works over there also winds up suffering tragedy? It would almost boost you up with a teenage sense of invincibility. Although you read about stuff like that all the time, terrible coincidences. I had an aunt and uncle who both died in their sleep on cruise ships, almost a decade apart. So what am I talking about?
What is it that I'd like from Lynette exactly, that I'm not currently receiving? I'd settle for eye contact in the reflection of the vending machine glass. But I don't get it, and my planned speech just sort of unravels. Soon I'm winging it, which is not a strength.
I remind Lynette that I can't possibly be sorry for thinking about her, or for my feelings. Not if they're true feelings. "Which they are," I say. "Which I know now that they are." I could be sorry only for voicing them. And even for that, I'm not.
She doesn't turn around, and the face she makes in the reflection, between the bags of chips, is the ugly kind you just assume no one can see.
"I'm not sorry," I say again, keeping my voice steady.
"Oh," Lynette says, nodding. When she finally turns around, she's beautiful again, until the mean little smile, like, Oh, these are the new rules? And she couldn't be more relieved that they're just as fucked up as she would have made them herself.
Neither of us is at our best. In reality, Lynette has the biggest heart. When our afternoons in the toner closet were still new, you can't imagine the sensuality. The skill in her grip. The benevolence in her eyes as she pumped at me with her non–wedding–ringed fingers. I wonder whether I'd accept a return to that, to the in–between of the hands–only policy. But it grew sad. Just, all the human frailty. "Touch me anywhere you want," she'd say, or some other breathless words meant to encourage, but the cloudy little diamond was right there in the dark, in its cruel setting, and I knew both of us were focused on the sanctity of her marriage, instead of on each other. I stopped feeling lucky to be there. Pretty soon, by the time we were buttoning and zipping, she was telling me about her kids. Then the Vacation Recap slideshow of her Munich trip went uncurated, so I was forced to see Paul Loftis at the Hofbräuhaus, forked hunk of bratwurst in one hand, half-liter of Erdinger in the other, stupid smug look.
I called it off, then I wanted to call it back on.
"You're pathetic, really pathetic," Lynette whispered to me.
"You weak-willed motherfucker," I whispered to myself.
Josh pings me with a link to a video. From the X Games. A snowmobiler who died during qualifying. The poor guy lands on his face in the freezing snow, and the snowmobile lands on his back, and then crawls over him. I watch the video as though I have no choice. My own limbs feel hollow. My palm sweats on the mouse. I delete the e-mail, close the player, stop trying to come up with a third factoid for "Three Things You Need to Know about Maple Syrup Urine Disease." I wonder what kind of a world, et cetera, put my panini down on the folded paper towels. My fingers have left deep impressions in the bread.
I opt for fresh air.
I slip the curtilage of the Pharm–Alpen building, follow my elongated shadow along the meandering cement path through the emerald grass, past the maples and the sycamores. Everything is Weed–Eatered, but still. I could be headed anywhere on this autumnal afternoon, near or far. In moments like this the world is at its widest and, for a panicky instant, its least welcoming. The limitless possibility triggers a doomy feeling, a notion of some other, better place I am supposed to be, until I coax myself into the just-right bath of genuine relief. I am already in the right place. I am already doing what I should be doing.
I continue on the path, a ladder of right angles through the open space. The fallen leaves are like red and orange gloves left behind by a three–fingered something. They scatter on the cold breeze, scratch the paved walkways, and I'm reminded of Mary, the walks she would take this time of year. I make a point of picturing her, unwinding her scarf, smiling at me across the light well when she returned, rosy–cheeked, to her area.
At the wrought-iron pedestrian gate, between the clipped hedges, I consider wandering into the real landscape of West Emery. I gaze across Bixby at the salvage yard, the day care, the New Lebanon Deli. The residential blocks beyond, rows of slanted roofs like saw teeth. Gray breaths of wood smoke in the now–graying sky.
In the end I stay on campus, walk past the Pharm–Alpen soccer field, where I swear I hear hushed cheering. I have the sense of being ushered along, shoulder to shoulder with an invisible crowd–to–be, through the peristyle.
But of course the field is empty, the goals netless. The sound I heard is only static, coming from the speakers on the light standards.
"Hey, look at this guy," a shirtless man says from the bleachers, close to midfield. "What's up, Jason?"
Only now do I recognize Steve Lunardi. I look up at the nearest speaker, as though it will explain something.
"Relax." Steve waves me over. "Somebody just left the mic open in the press box."
"Aren't you still in Frankfurt?" I say. What a first–rate question, but Steve waves it away politely.
"Have a seat," he says. It's a testament to Steve's leadership and personality, how quickly this situation assumes the feel of a calendared meeting.
I sit next to him on the long aluminum bench. Up close he's somehow harder to recognize. No Bluetooth on his ear. Dark stubble so out of place on his face. Aspirin–sized beads of sweat collecting on his nose. I can feel the cold of the bench through my pants.
Two women in mauve lab scrubs and sneakers are stretching on the oval track that skirts the field. A tall one and a small one. They grab the sky, let go of the sky.
"What happened out there?" I say. I nod my head toward Germany.
From the waist down, he's still Steve. Pressed flat–front khakis, calfskin Johnston & Murphys, dark-blue/light-blue striped socks that I guarantee match his shirt, wherever it is.
The lab workers are almost all the way around the track before Steve says anything.
Was I aware that last Friday Lynette Loftis practically hijacked the Frankfurt meeting via conference call? Was I aware that she dialed in at one in the morning our time?
I was not aware.
Steve tells me that Lynette proposed an overhaul of Do–I–Have–That.com. One that incorporates celebrities, the health problems they have, or might have. It doesn't matter what is true. Lynette has spoken with three different attorneys. Under defamation laws, celebrities are public figures who have opened themselves to casual misconceptions. And anyway, Lynette's strategic thinking, which is now Frankfurt's strategic thinking, is: Do you really expect that Barry Manilow is going to care that we say he has plantar fasciitis? Or that Shirley Temple's estate could prove that she wasn't dyspeptic in her golden years? So we get the SEO juice from the celebrity's name, on top of the juice from the affliction itself. And we build enhanced user fear, just from the implication of it all. Do you think you're better–slash–luckier than Barry Manilow? Do you think you're more blessed somehow?
"It's sort of beautiful, actually," Steve says. He glances at his stomach, picks something off. His pasty skin bunches and folds. I wonder what he sees, what year it is when he looks down at himself.
"Do we still have jobs?" I ask. I feel gutted, light–headed. In the white noise of the speakers, I search for a gentle tide.
"They're out there picking teams right now," Steve says. "But I'm gone. They made me sign a non-compete. Eighteen months, I can't touch online or pharmaceutical. The severance won't cover our mortgage for the rest of the year. Stacy's going to shit."
He rubs his face so hard that his eyes droop, and I look elsewhere. Beyond him, close to the aisle, there's a little yellow flower pushing through the concrete, the straightest green stem, two tiny little leaves like arms.
There will be yet another restructuring, yet another org chart, this one probably elevating Lynette Loftis to Vice President of This or That, alone like a single parent atop Content & Analytics. Can I live with that? Am I meant to?
The lab workers come around again, doing side reaches every few strides, like regal waves to the empty bleachers. I realize I'm sitting in almost the exact spot where I watched Steve score two second-half goals for Pharm–Alpen F. C. against Venturex in the finals of the West Emery Coed League.
"Come on," I say. I get up, find Steve's blue-checked oxford dress shirt balled atop a neat pile of garbage three rows back. The sleeve is lying in a cardboard thing that had nachos in it. I wipe some cheesy orange gunk off a cuff with an OK–looking napkin.
We get off on our floor. Steve stops, stares at the wall opposite the elevator, at the four framed iterations of the Do–I–Have–That.com home page. His baby.
We turn the corner, and it's all gone. Our computers, our personal items. No wires or cords in sight.
I think of Steve's rumored and gleaming new offices right on the bay, even with Steve standing next to me, sucking his teeth.
"How could they do this?" he says. It's not clear if he means how logistically, or whether we are deserving.
I wander through the near–nothingness. The area in which I find myself is not my own, not Lynette's, but Mary's. I feel a flutter in my stomach, a sense of trespass, but it vanishes quickly. I picture the line of owl figurines that kept watch over her dual monitors, the little pewter figurine of the Cologne Cathedral. Her empty wrist guards, when she was gone only for the day.
"You've read the job description," Steve told me during my interview, almost eight years ago. "What's your thing that appeals to you least about this position?"
"That I'll have to leave it at some point, in some fashion," I said, almost instinctually. "That we all will." I didn't even know who "we" were yet. I called him "sir."
Now the AC shuts off. The thin, blue streamers hanging from the vents go limp. The light panels all flicker and quit, and a vital humming is lost. The ceiling, the carpet, the empty work areas, all of it is gray, colorless.
"You think it's the whole grid?" Steve asks.
I picture the elevator sitting dark, doors open, like an unfamiliar little room.
As a way of keeping my panic to myself, I cycle through my fears until I arrive at my worst. But I will not die for Pharm–Alpen. No one is dying. This is not all-consuming. The pictures of our families are gone from our corkboards, our scribbled ideas are gone from our dry–erase boards, but the boards themselves are still there.
A triangle of radiance bathes the floor, the setting sun reflecting off some angled component of the rooftop HVAC, making its way down the light well. Mary had a funny name for this light, for this time of day. What was it? In this new and absolute quiet, I wait for it to come to me.
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