Fiction · 05/07/2014

Stevens, then Margie

People are a lot tougher than you think, you know. A lot of them are hurting inside but you’d never know it because they act just fine. All high and mighty and brave and gallant, every time you see them, and you’d never know it but they’re really hurting. My boss was suffering from pancreatic cancer and I didn’t know about it until he stopped showing up for work and the seven of us huddled around the conference table saying high and mighty and brave and gallant things about him while he wasted away at home.

That’s a noble thing, to walk away to die. There doesn’t need to be any spectacle. No bells or whistles or hoo-ra-la about it. Just the way cats do. One day you wake up and the cat is gone. Maybe you find his body, maybe you don’t, but you know what his absence means. That’s how Stevens did it. And you know I never respected him when he was alive, but I find respect in that.

He didn’t force us to feel sorry for him or say things like, “I sure could use some luck,” like my own father did when one of us found a four-leaf clover or a picked up a penny on the street, before he’d grab it and tuck it away. None of that ominous foreboding. None of that, “Son, your old man could use some luck.” It’s that woo-hoo, look-at-me-shit that will really drives a person crazy, but Stevens never said a word, not one single word, not even up to his very last day.

The seven of us sent him a card.

Well, Margie showed up with a card and the rest of us signed it and then she mailed it with an office stamp. It made me real sick to see some of the notes the others in the office were writing.

— Hang in there, Stevens.

— We’re rooting for you.

— Get well soon so we can go golfing!

That last one was the worst. That’s some real woo-hoo, look-at-me-shit.

When it was my turn to sign the card I put my first initial and last name under the “Get Well” caption and used a pencil because I already had it in my hand. I liked the way it left my name muted and quiet on the card, like a whisper. Chris from accounting said Stevens wouldn’t be able to see it in his morphine haze but I’m pretty sure he did. It was right under the caption.

A week later we got notice that Stevens had died. I’m not sure why I did it but as soon as I found out I went to his office and grabbed the bookends off his shelf and brought them to my cubicle. They’re not very expensive bookends but they look nice holding everything in place. It was a good thing I did it too, because the next day Margie had everything boxed up ready to move.

+

That’s when things started to unravel.

Work got real slow and there was less and less to do, but we all kept showing up and going through the motions. We never got word about a funeral but Margie wore black for two whole weeks out of respect.

Chris asked her why the hell she even bothered and she told us she couldn’t stand the idea of not wearing black on the day of Stevens’ funeral, and just because she didn’t know what day it was being held wasn’t any excuse. Some time after that Chris brought up the issue of our paychecks, since Stevens was the one who processed them, and the next Monday Margie was back to her floral blouses and cream-colored pants.

The milk in the fridge went sour.

Eventually people stopped coming in. I think Margie was the last but I can’t be sure because the phone stopped ringing before she left so I wouldn’t have noticed if she wasn’t there to pick it up. One day I peeked my head out of my cubicle and the office was empty. I went to lunch, and when I came back, everyone was still gone. That day I ate my soup at Stevens’ desk and marveled at the way the empty office looked, like pieces of a diorama waiting for the characters to be dropped in and bring the scene back to life.

After lunch I took some time going through the desks, sitting in each one of the office chairs to see who had the better seat. I was surprised to find that I liked mine the best. I thought about moving my things into Stevens’ office but like I said, I had respect for the guy now that he was dead.

I was sure Chris would be back because he left behind a pack of gum, a framed photo of his hunting dog, and a mostly full flask of whiskey tucked behind some empty folders, but I never saw him again. I drank the whiskey and roamed around the office a little buzzed, inspecting the half-lives my coworkers had left behind.

I was disappointed but not surprised that there wasn’t anything interesting in the desks, unless you count a pamphlet in Margie’s about Alcoholics Anonymous. It figures Margie was an alcoholic. Every loud, cheery woman has something to hide. I kind of fell in love with Margie a little bit right then. It made me want to say something gallant to her, and offer her what’s left of the flask, but she was gone and I didn’t think she’d be coming back.

In the same way with Stevens I couldn’t get Margie out of my head. The next day at work I half-expected someone else to show up but I was the only one. I went through more of Margie’s things, hoping to find something I had missed the day before — some hidden booze, an unbalanced check book, personal photos — but instead there was only Margie’s dried out pink lipstick and a tiny vile of sample-perfume. I set it aside and went back to my desk, but half an hour later I was back at Margie’s drawer trying to shimmy open the perfume sample, convinced it was filled with vodka, or some other potent drink alcoholics are all savvy about but I’ve never tried.

When I got the vile open it spilled all over the desk calendar and boy did the place stink after that. It stayed like that for two whole days. Each time I walked past the reception desk it smelled like forest floor or some shitty musk.

I kept flipping open the Alcoholics Anonymous pamphlet and reading the answers she marked “yes” to — Have you missed days of work or school because of drinking? Have you ever felt your life would be better if you did not drink? Have you ever decided to stop drinking for a week or so, but only lasted a couple of days? — I just kept reading those questions over and over, falling a little more in love with Margie each time.

It took me almost three days but I finally had my desk the way I wanted it. The bookends from Stevens’ office, the radio from the conference room, all the green Post-Its from the supply cabinet, a highlighter in each color, the paper hole punch that doesn’t squeak, all the good posters from the break room, three good coffee mugs, and the photo of Chris’ hunting dog.

I removed all my work files from the cabinet and dumped them on the conference room table and replaced them with my magazines. I intended to go back and organize the files, but with going through Margie’s desk and rearranging my own — that and lunch and the Internet — I hadn’t gotten around to it yet.

So far I had taken eleven Alcoholics Anonymous questionnaires online and I didn’t have any of the warning signs that I might have a problem with alcohol. I left the office to go buy some booze and came back to get good and drunk and take the quiz again. There’s a whole lot of self-loathing in those quizzes but I just couldn’t muster any up, no matter how drunk I got.

+

The office was so quiet it was driving me nuts. None of the machines whirred, no phone calls were coming in, and even though I refreshed my email about once every hour, my Inbox seemed stuck on the same message, the one I had received six days ago. The one before that had come in nine day ago. I hadn’t responded to either.

I entered a search into my Internet browser: What happens if everyone stops coming into the office? An article came up on a website called LIFEHACKER, which didn’t exactly answer my question but informed me it’s illegal for your employer to stop paying you, specifically if you haven’t been fired.

Someone in the comments had sued their employer for just this reason but I couldn’t do that since Stevens was dead, and like I said before, I have too much respect for the guy. I sat there for a long while staring at my Inbox wondering what I should do. Stevens was dead, I wasn’t getting paid, there was no one to sue, and I wasn’t an alcoholic. There were no meetings to get to, nothing more for me to do, so I decided it might be best to let the office be, and just like everyone else, leave for good.

I didn’t take anything from my desk except for the hunting-dog picture and the AA pamphlet and I didn’t turn off any lights, I just started to leave the office to see how it would feel to know that I was about to leave and never coming back.

I was out the front door and a few steps into the hallway when I heard the elevator chime. I rushed back to my desk. I was in nearly a full sweat when the office door opened, partially because I was pretty damn drunk but also because it had just been me in there for nearly a week and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next.

I heard the door open and someone enter and I clicked refresh on my email over and over again until all I could hear was my heart thumping and the sensation that my world was coming to an end.

Then: the ding of Margie’s reception-desk bell.

Fuck. I couldn’t believe I was at Margie’s desk so many times in the last few days and hadn’t thought to grab her bell. There was a spot right near my line of mugs that would have been perfect for it.

“Hello?”

I wasn’t quite sure what to do so I hit a couple of keys on my keyboard hoping to create some office-like noise and boy was I sweating when the voice called out again: “Hello?”

“Uh yeah,” I said and stood up and feigned my best casual, you’ve-just-interrupted-me-look, but I can pretty much guarantee you it looked a hell of a lot like some woo-hoo, look-at-me shit. Like I was trying to act like some office exec who is so busy he has sweat dripping down his neck and back.

Flowers.

“Gotta delivery here,” said the man. He was tall and lanky and looked kind of gallant standing there in his brown uniform holding a bright bouquet of roses.

“There’s no one here,” I said and the delivery guy just shifted the flowers to one arm as best he could to read the card.

“For Stevens?” I asked.

The delivery guy set the vase down on the reception desk because the card was small and everything was just so awkward. Me standing up from my cubicle, the empty office, those bright blooms. Not a goddamn sound.

“No, for a Margie,” he said and placed the card down next to the flowers. “But my understanding is she’s passed away.”

“Stevens passed away,” I said and boy was I sweating now.

The delivery guy looked at me, and then around the empty office, and I could tell he was mulling it all over but then he just looked down at his electronic tracker and said, “No. For Margie. They were sent to our office a few days ago but the hospital refused them since she already passed away and this was the secondary address.”

I couldn’t form a word. I just stood there, staring.

“Look man, I’m real sorry, but it’s our policy to deliver every package with a valid address and this is where they’re due.”

“Roses,” I said.

“I think those are tulips.”

Again I just stood there motionless.

The delivery guy was feeling bad but was also getting impatient. “The woman at the hospital said something about a driving accident?”

I shook my head.

“Well like I said, I’m real sorry, but do you think you could sign for this?”

The steps I took toward him were large and lumbering but I made it to his side without falling down. I scribbled my name on the pad and the guy was about to say something to me but instead took a quick look around the office and walked out the door instead.

Stevens, then Margie.

I didn’t think I could leave the office then even if I wanted to. Pieces of my coworkers kept showing up, even in death, so you see I couldn’t leave. That’s not some high and mighty thing, it’s just that I have a whole lot of respect for Margie now that she’s dead and I didn’t think I should go.

I reached out and grabbed the reception-desk bell and walked it back to my desk. It’s a good thing too, because the next day somebody would have probably come back and boxed it all up and had her stuff ready for moving. Just you wait, I bet that would have happened.

I didn’t place the bell by the mugs like I thought I would, but on the shelf near Stevens’ bookends. It was a fine collection. I went to Chris’ desk to look for more things. I’m pretty sure there was something I had missed.

+++

Kim Winternheimer’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Rumpus, The Oregonian, Lightspeed Magazine, Gigantic Magazine, theNewerYork, and was the winner of Flavorwire’s Short Fiction Contest, among others. She is the founding editor of The Masters Review, an online journal and yearly anthology showcasing new and emerging authors.