“Manifold Northeast Life & Trust” by Cat Powell
Cat Powell’s “Manifold Northeast Life & Trust” appeared in TMR 42: 3 and was later selected by our guest judge, novelist and essayist May-lee Chai, as the winner of our annual William Peden Prize for best-of-volume-year fiction. As with so many things, the pandemic upended our plans to recognize Cat’s work and her award, so we bring it to you now. May-lee Chai says in her judge’s statement:
“I chose ‘Manifold Northeast Life & Trust,’ for the William Peden Prize because it moved me deeply. Although the story was written and published well before our current pandemic, there is an eerie sense of recognition at the opening, as the protagonist goes to work alone in an empty building, tying up odds and ends for an insurance company, haunted by memories of his wife and coworkers who have passed away. Powell’s literary craft is top-notch throughout. . . . This is a story about a haunted man, quite literally, but it is also a story that recognizes and takes seriously the emotional ties that define contemporary life—ties to family, to workplace, and to coworkers. A prescient story, beautifully written.”
Manifold Northeast Life & Trust
I wake early and water the plants. I have a lot of plants, and it takes the better part of an hour to see to them. Most are rescues that I find abandoned on suburban sidewalks, put out with the trash because they’re ugly or dying or refusing to flower. My oldest is a Ficus benjamina I’ve had for forty-five years, retrieved from the garbage room of my freshman dorm with only three dark and glossy leaves to his name. Like me, he’s thickened with age, and unlike me, he’s grown so that his crown now brushes the dining room ceiling.
I mist the broad-leafed bird-of-paradise that’s only ever flowered once; the purple-pink Hawaiian ti plant; the arrowhead syngonium; the forest of pink and white fittonia, which everyone gave as gifts the year my wife died. I soak the orchids, the flaming sword bromeliad, the tillandsia my daughter left behind when she moved out to LA. Then I get the watering can and attend to the geraniums my wife planted, now grown to Little Shop of Horrors proportions; the massive jade tree my mother left me; the spiked snake plants, the hanging vines, the calving spider plant, the gold-and-green-draped corn plant, the ZZ plants with their dark, plasticky leaves.
I make a pot of coffee. I make a tuna fish sandwich. I make a piece of toast with butter and strawberry jam. I put the sandwich and a travel mug of coffee into the satchel full of papers I cart back and forth from work each day, though I’ve never once taken out the papers at home.
The walk to the bus is cold and drab, gloom crowding the corners of the late April day. Heaps of dirty snow still line the street. I’m alone at the bus stop—too early for the students, too late for the downtown workers whose shifts started hours ago. No one else takes the bus if they can help it. But I hate driving.
No matter the hour of the day, everyone looks tired on the bus, and this morning is no different, the few occupants all grim and ground-down in the fluorescent light. I take a seat and watch the dark teeth of the roofs and the lit windows of the old houses rushing past. In one, a woman in a red dress with yellow flowers stands over a stove. I imagine a quick spiral of golden oil, the snap of the gas burner, the crisp tap and slime of an egg. Maybe she has a young son, and she shouts for him to get up, but he just pulls the comforter over his head and hides in the warmth. She goes to get him, pulls back the blankets half teasing, half exasperated; she leans over to give him a kiss, the loose V-neck slipping to reveal the line of sun-worn skin between her full breasts. My wife would have looked good in a dress like that. And now we’re nearing my stop. I put these things away.
I used to have an office with a window back when I was a manager and there were still people to manage. Now I sit alone in a cubicle at the windowless center of the empty seventh floor. No one else ever comes to the office. The other survivors prefer to work from home, and all of us work harder than dogs, the functions of a team of forty devolved to the aging shoulders of the five of us and our tyrannical machines always pinging and dinging and pressing for our attention at every moment of the day. In two years, the lease on the building is up, and a large multinational conglomerate will conclude its long, slow digesting of what was once Manifold Northeast Mutual Life & Trust. What few jobs are left will disappear down to corporate headquarters, and we’ll have to retire or relocate or find other jobs; not that there are many jobs around here to be found. I run into my former colleagues sometimes taking coffee orders or ringing up groceries, their forced smiles deepening crow’s-feet and laugh lines.
I delay opening my e-mail for as long as possible. I fold my coat carefully, deliver my sandwich to the fridge in the break room, brew a Keurig, sort and stack papers on my desk. I liked it better when we did things by phone. The agents are great talkers, true American heroes of salesmanship and bullshit. If you want to learn how to sell—and what an art that is, selling—go find yourself a successful life insurance agent. They’re selling a nonsense product no one needs and no one wants to think about, and they do it with such style that you find yourself smiling even after you realize you’ve been conned.
Take, for example, Bubba, an agent in Atlanta. He sends me an enormous policy for a guy who’s got every disease in the book—hypertension, hepatitis, heavy smoker, basically a walking diagnostic laboratory. Only he couldn’t possibly be walking, the shape he’s in.
“Bubba,” I say, “I can’t approve this; he’s dying.”
“Oh, no, no, no,” Bubba says. “He’s a real tough one, a live wire; why, I had a steak with him yesterday.”
No way this man is on his feet, let alone dragging himself to the local Outback with Bubba. But Bubba won’t let it go.
“Oh, yes,” he says in that slow bass drawl that could soothe the current out of a live wire, “this man’s a medical marvel like you wouldn’t believe.”
“I don’t believe it,” I say.
“Besides,” Bubba drawls on, “he’s got a family to support.”
“He’s unmarried, no children.”
“But he’s got his niece, lovely little girl, he’s very fond of her, and a girlfriend with a young son who’s the apple of his eye. You’re a family man, my friend; don’t be coldhearted.”
“Oh, spare me Tiny Tim,” I say, but Bubba just keeps at it. Drawling along, unperturbed, a deep-voiced Weeble springing back from every damning fact I throw at him. I sigh and refer it up the chain of command, and since everyone at headquarters is a crook and a liar, most likely they’ll approve it.
I’m not saying there was ever honor in this business. But there used to be some kind of standard. My father worked here fifty years and never once had a bad word to say. And then we got acquired, and the layoffs started. They came in waves, like hangover nausea, even as the amount of work stayed the same, so that each new round of pink slips and boxed-up plants and pictures and slumped shoulders alongside security escorts meant the rest of us had to work that much harder. I never excelled at the work, never cared enough to scheme my way up the corporate ladder. Maybe in the end that worked in my favor. I never threatened anyone, kept my head down, and my number never came up. In the end, my life’s work has been surviving.
I put off lunch as long as possible because I know that once I start eating I won’t stop—chips from the vending machine, soft cookies from the café downstairs, M&Ms from the large pack I stash in my desk. It’s bad for me, especially with my heart. My daughter always asks if I’m eating right, and when she comes to visit I stock the fridge with fruits and vegetables. But the sugar is the only way I can make it through the long afternoons so silent that the occasional clank of the heating system makes me jump.
Maybe I should get another fish, for company. I used to keep a little 2.5-gallon tank on my desk with an electric pump and motor, just big enough for a single goldfish to live happily in. His name was Bob, and he was bright orange with big bulbous eyes and a black splotch on his back shaped like a handprint. This was during the third or fourth round of layoffs; I thought he’d improve morale.
I finally leave at nine pm. I wait a long time for the bus, which never runs on schedule after dark. It’s late April, and yet a few stray flakes of snow drift down as I trudge from the bus stop to my house, which in spite of it all still gives me pleasure, this house my wife and I bought just before the birth of our daughter and fixed up ourselves, a beautiful two-story Victorian with teal trim and an old magnolia tree out front.
I turn on all the lights downstairs so that things will feel more cheerful and put on the TV in the den. While my microwave dinner heats, I stare at my reflection in the dark window of the kitchen. My skin looks too gray, a few unkempt hairs sprout from the top edge of my cheek where I’ve forgotten to shave, and there’s chocolate between my front teeth. I should make more of an effort. The buzzer dings. I eat, watch TV, fall asleep in the blue glow, and wake just before midnight. I turn off the TV. I fall back to sleep on the couch.
The next morning is the same morning again. The plants. The coffee. The bus stop. The imagined lives and empty office. When I check my e-mail, though, there’s a message from my daughter, who’s in LA working shit jobs and painting late at night. She usually e-mails around two or three am with pictures of what she’s doing, even though every time I praise her work, she rolls her eyes, tells me I’m her dad, of course I like it. I hit reply.
Sometimes I wish she could have chosen an easier path, been a lawyer like her mother wanted. My daughter says if we’d wanted her to be a lawyer, we should have raised her differently. But right from the start she was wholly herself. I couldn’t change her. I just tried to help her make the best of who she is. I wasn’t prepared for that kind of wonder, the moment the nurse handed her into my arms and there was nothing in the room for me but that tiny, crumpled face. I waltzed off with her, my wife groggy with anesthetic from the C-section and calling after me to bring her back.
On Saturdays, after a long week at work, I’d sleep in and after waking late in the morning light would crack open the door to her room and find her surrounded by dozens of stuffed animals all arranged in some elaborate costumed tableau, acting out a political intrigue at the court or an epic quest or a tragic romance. Her little brow furrowed, totally absorbed, oblivious to my presence. I’m so proud of you, I write her. I’m so proud of the life and career you’ve chosen. And then I get ready to work.
Just after opening my e-mail, I hear it. The burbling sound of water. I get up to investigate. The fluorescent arrays have motion sensors; only the area above my cubicle is lit; the rest of the floor sinks away into shadow. As I walk, the lights flick on with a metallic pop and hiss. The shadows shift at my feet.
I follow the sound up and down the aisles. The sound echoes in the empty room, so it takes me some time to find its source. I do at last only because I begin to smell as well as hear it: the damp, fishy smell of a pond on a hot day. The smell of fishing with my father on summer evenings at the lake. He’d come home from work at five thirty on the dot, and we’d stop at the bait shop for a tub of night crawlers and Cokes and candy bars for me, and then we’d go sit on a damp bank as the sun drifted down toward the opposite side of the lake. I’d wander off to play in the mud, but when my father hooked a big one he’d shout, and I’d come to reel it in. We’d stay until the contours of the water were swallowed up in shadow. By the time we got home, my mother would have the grill already hot, and we’d cook the fish whole and pick the flaky white flesh from the bones with our fingers. You can’t eat those fish anymore. In the late ’70s a paper mill dumped a bunch of mercury into one of the streams that feeds the lake.
The sound is very loud, very close. I peer into each cubicle one by one until I reach the fifth cube on the right. There, in place of the floor, is a pond. No more gray stubbled carpet over concrete but a round pool, small but deep, the brown mud at the edges disappearing into black. A few strands of silted pondweed rise up from the depths. The water is circulating gently, like it’s being fed by an underground spring. I squat down and touch the water. I stand back and stare. I take a penny from my pocket and toss it in. It sinks and is lost.
Something else rises up in its place. A fish, a single orange-and-black goldfish, with bulbous eyes and flamboyant trailing fins. He rises and kisses the surface of the water. The black spot on his back is shaped like a tiny handprint. I turn and walk back to my desk as fast as I can.
When the doctor told us my wife’s diagnosis, I was immediately of two minds. One mind, the adult mind, accepted the diagnosis as true and inevitable. Of course, I thought; of course the worst thing happens. I’ve been afraid of losing her since I first began to love her. But the other mind, the child’s mind, rejected the diagnosis as impossible and fantastic. I did not want it, had not willed it, and therefore it could not be real.
The child’s mind still believed in a world made by superstitious incantation and imagination and the pure power of naming. This mud is cake. The action figure is an emperor. The floor is lava. My wife is not sick. The adult’s mind had learned that things will be done to you, whether you like it or not. It had long ago bowed to the dictates of Things as They Are.
I had always thought of the process of growing up as a metamorphosis, one mind slowly shaping itself into the next. But in that long awful moment of the doctor’s silence, I knew that this was false. The adult mind had simply sprouted and grown up next to the child’s, the two always competing for light and water, forever unreconciled. The diagnosis didn’t make the rupture—it revealed a split that had been there all along. For several days, the war between the two sides left me paralyzed, until finally the adult mind gained an edge, being after all the more disciplined of the two. I accepted the diagnosis. I did what needed to be done.
So now, having seen the pond and scurried back to my desk, I try to sit and read my e-mail as I would any other day. I make no progress. Of course, the child mind says, there’s a pond in a cubicle inhabited by a reincarnation of your dead fish. How obvious. How wonderful. Of course, the adult mind says, that’s impossible. You’re hallucinating or dreaming or going mad. You need to go to the doctor. You need to call someone to come here and go look at that cubicle with you to verify that you’re insane, that it’s not really there. No, the child mind says, how silly. You should go out and get some fish flakes. He’s probably hungry. I sit like that for a full two hours, pretending to read e-mails and all the while listening to the two minds continue their fruitless argument. I never wanted this job.
I never wanted any job at all. I wanted to be a writer. When I met my wife, I was a year out of college and squatting in an abandoned house with two friends. A fire had gutted the top floor, but the first and second were still relatively habitable. The landlord had forgotten to turn off electricity and water, and we used electric space heaters and lit fires in the old fireplace. We spent most of our days shivering in layers of sweaters, drinking tea and hot toddies, and making things. This is the house I brought my wife to after our third date. We’d laugh about it later, her looking up at the charred windows on the top floor and asking, as politely as she could, if this was where I lived. She was in the first year of a psychology PhD at the university I’d graduated from, in the same city I live in now. I liked that she was smart and capable and fearless. I always assumed she’d be the one with the big career and I’d stay home and write and raise our kids.
My father got me the interview at Manifold just after we got married. He had very traditional ideas about a man’s role in the household. I agreed to go just to placate him. I bombed it and figured that was that. Then two days later, they called and offered me the job.
I didn’t tell my father. I didn’t tell my wife. I thought I could ignore it, and it would go away. But of course HR called my father, and then my father, who was nothing if not canny and a good judge of people, called my wife. She made very little money as a student and was tired of having nothing and living in shitty shared houses with delinquent landlords. She was tired, too, of my always lurking around the house, complaining when my writing wasn’t going well and disappearing for days when it was. So my father came over for dinner, the two of them confronted me, and that was that.
I figured it would be a nice day job, nine to five, and then I’d write at night. I hadn’t counted on how tired it would make me, sitting in one place indoors for eight hours struggling to comprehend unfamiliar tasks while everyone around me plunged ahead like it was all the most natural thing in the world. It took me a full year to adjust; I wrote very little. And then my life went as lives go: my wife got offered a tenure-track job at the university; we got pregnant; we bought a house; my daughter was born; I was absorbed in raising her and working; time passed; my wife got sick.
After forty years in a job I initially disliked and in time grew to loathe, my adult mind has grown weary. Encountering the fish and the pond, it puts up what little fight it has left. Then noon comes, and when I go to get lunch, I find myself heading not to the fridge in the break room but out of the building and down the block to the pet store, where I buy several varieties of fish food.
I realize I never told the end of Bob’s story. One day I arrived at work and found that someone had fed Bob those cheesy goldfish crackers. A clogged filter, a dead fish, a rainbow slick of oil on the surface of the water.
The next day, entering the office, the smell is immediately different. Damper, earthier, with an undercurrent of fish. I go immediately to the pool and scatter some flakes. This time, two fish rise out of the depths: my old friend and a new companion, a mirror image of him but all white. Little plants are beginning to grow at the edges of the pond, bright green shoots poking through the mud. They grow with startling speed.
That afternoon, I do my best to deal with the backlog from the previous day. I make some headway but not enough. I keep turning around to watch the progress of the young trees, their nascent crowns now a good two feet above the cubicle walls. By five pm, when I go back to the pond to check on the fish, the trees are nearly to the ceiling. Their roots wind deep into the water on one side and on the other rise up to crack the floor of the cubicle opposite. The swelling trunks have toppled one divider, and another leans at a perilous angle. Moss has started around the banks, along with arrow arum, bur reed, cinnamon fern, a cluster of cattails.
By morning the young forest has spread to an area roughly five cubicles in diameter. The oldest trees, the ones near the pond, reach the ceiling; the younger ones are shoulder height. Dirt spills out from the cracks the roots have made in the floor; water drips from the leaves. There is a different light on that side of the room, too, something less like fluorescents and more like the diffuse light that emanates from thick clouds at noon. I find three fish in the pond now when I do my feeding and a frog chirping on the bank. The water has begun to overflow, soaking the carpet. And there on the carpet: a set of muddy footprints.
I match my shoe to one of them to check if they’re mine, maybe left the day before. But these prints are a good size or two larger. I spend the rest of the morning looking for their owner, pacing slowly up and down each aisle. Then I go down to the lobby and ask the security guard about the day’s visitors, if anyone has gone up to the ninth floor, if the janitor was in the night before. He tells me the janitor has the flu and the cleaning contractor has failed to send a replacement. He asks me if anything is missing, if I want to file a report. I tell him everything’s fine. I figure that whoever it is has somehow come and gone with no one noticing, not a particularly difficult feat in a half-abandoned building.
But the mystery man hasn’t gone. I feel him first, that prickle between the shoulder blades that tells you someone is near. I turn slowly. There, striding purposely down the aisle, is a youngish man in gray suit pants and a white button-down, sleeves rolled, tie loose.
“Hello!” I call. He neither turns nor slows. He walks right past me, so close I could reach out and tug on his sleeve. “Hello!” I call again as he passes. But he seems unable to hear me. I get up and follow him. He neither slows nor turns nor speeds up, just keeps moving forward with steady purpose, two sheets of paper clutched in his left hand. I follow him all the way to the photocopier in the corner. There he stops, slides his papers into the tray, fusses with the buttons. The machine whirs, hums, begins to spit pages. The man taps his foot and looks out into the middle distance. His foot makes no sound against the ground. As I watch him, I realize that I know him; he used to work here. I fish around in my memory for his name but can’t quite grasp it. I walk right up next to him, so close he surely has to acknowledge me. But he only turns, collects his copies, and returns the way he came.
I follow him back to a cubicle one row over from the fish tank. He sits, stacks the papers on his desk, and begins to clack away at the keyboard. The screen is dark. I watch him for some time, until finally I remember his name. Jim, a former underwriter. He was part of a group I was friendly with, all of us young and in our first jobs. We used to go to lunch together and share a lake house in the summers, driving up on Friday nights and spilling out of the car in hysterical laughter just as the sun set over the water. Jim was let go in the first round of layoffs, and I’d lost track of him soon after he’d left, nearly three decades ago now. And yet he doesn’t look much older than he would have been then—slender, a full head of brown hair, unlined skin.
I go to check on him again before going home. He’s still there, still clacking away, though he’s taken off his tie and slung it over the back of his chair. I can smell the pond and the plants, and the nascent forest still spreading quickly down the neighboring aisle with its musk of damp bark, dropped leaves, and rich soil. I can’t smell Jim. I reach out to tap him on the shoulder, but as my hand nears the fabric of his shirt I feel an overwhelming nausea and a prickling in my fingertips. I pull my hand away.
I consider responsible approaches to the situation. Call the building manager? E-mail corporate? Go downstairs and return with a security guard? This seems like a great deal of effort. Much more fun to see how it will all play out.
For the next two days, it’s just me, Jim, the fish, and the spreading forest. Jim continues to be diligent and immune to my presence. I check in on him at his desk several times a day, watch him clack at the keyboard and mouth silent words into his phone’s receiver, oblivious to the ringing dial tone. Back at my desk, I catch him at the edges of my vision, walking briskly to and from the copier, returning from the break room with a mug in hand. He sips at it carefully, as though overeager to imbibe its scalding contents. But when I sneak up behind him to see what he’s drinking, I find the mug is empty.
On Saturday afternoon, my daughter calls as she usually does. She’s having boy trouble again. Some idiot who won’t return her calls. I tell her to ditch him and find someone better. She sighs. She tells me I don’t know what it’s like, dating these days. Maybe that’s true, but people are people, and people don’t change.
“Speaking of not changing,” she says, “how’s the diet?”
“Oh, great,” I tell her.
“What did you have for lunch?”
“Tuna sandwich, celery sticks. Pickles. Pickles are zero points.” Then I tell her a funny story about one of the ladies in my diet support group. I haven’t been to the group in over a year, but I’ve saved up a large stock of stories about the crazy lady in a turban who interrupts everyone when they try to speak and chews so much sugar-free gum that she has jaw muscles the size of baseballs. My daughter laughs, then asks me if anything is new at work.
“Nope,” I say, “still just me. Still too much work.”
“Are you lonely?”
I tell her I’ve been thinking more about the people I used to work with. I wonder where they are.
“Don’t brood,” she says. “And anyway, if you’re really curious, you can Facebook them.”
Then she reminds me of how to log in to my account.
“I have to go,” she says. “My shift is starting soon. But Dad?”
“I’m proud of you, with the diet and all. I’m glad you’re taking care of yourself.”
“I love you,” I say.
“I love you too, Dad.” She hangs up.
I sit for a little while looking at the dark screen of the phone. I’ve never liked the way the end of a phone call hollows you out—there’s the illusion that the person you miss is right there with you, but then the bubble pops. They’re gone. An echo of the feeling you have after someone dies, when you forget and remember and grieve afresh, over and over, each day. I get up and go turn on the home computer. A thin rime of dust comes away on my fingers.
Jim is easy to find. A photo of him in a hunting vest and sunglasses, smiling, holding up a large striped bass. A salt-and-pepper-haired man with an ample figure. I read the comments on his wall: I miss you. You were the best, man. Rest well.
I think I already knew this is what I’d find, but nevertheless it makes me feel—I can’t place how it makes me feel.
When my daughter was twelve and my wife was in the final stages of dying, my wife and I used to play a game. I’d lie underneath her hospital bed, the cool of the linoleum and the smell of disinfectant somehow comforting to me, and we’d pretend we were both very old and reminiscing. That time we went to Rome, she’d say, and you got us so lost, insisting you could navigate without a map. That was hilarious, I’d say, though you’re forgetting that I also got us unlost. So stubborn, she’d say; and remember that restaurant we ate at that night? That was good, you had that pasta with the squid ink. That was delicious—I’d kill for that right now, screw Jell-O. And then, I’d say, when we walked home, the night air was somehow warmer than the day had been. It’s because it had just rained, she’d remind me, and there was that fog rising from the streets; the light everywhere was yellow, but the sky was clear. And we’d go on and on like that, constructing story after story about places we’d never been and things we’d never done, memories from a life not yet lived.
One night, a new nurse came in and caught me. “Ma’am,” she asked my wife, “are you aware there’s a man under your bed?”
“Oh, no,” my wife said, “there’s no one there.”
“Who are you talking to, then?”
“I’m talking to God.”
Security was examining my driver’s license by the time my wife relented. In the morning, she told our daughter the story, and both of them cackled in delight. Neither could ever resist a good practical joke.
I go for a walk to shake off the weird feeling I got looking at Jim’s Facebook. It’s a little warmer; the last grimy snow is finally running down the gutters, damming rafts of winter trash against the grates. At the corner, I turn right, sticking to the blocks where the houses are still in good repair, with tidy lawns and lush colors on the Victorian trim— professors’ houses with children’s swings in the yards and rainbow flags in the windows and those little welcome signs in many languages.
When my daughter was little, we knew nearly every family in the neighborhood—there were block parties and barbecues, sleepovers and Halloween walks. The leaving happened the way big changes always do, so slowly you didn’t notice it. This person got a tenure-track job at another university. That family inherited a house in a different state. One neighbor took a job in New York City, another in Boston, a third in Durham. Several families bought larger houses in the expanding outer suburbs, with big insulating lawns and better schools. By the time my wife died, there were only three of those original families left to drop by with frozen Tupperwares, to watch my daughter after school, to come over in the unendurable nights with a bottle of scotch and quiet company. The others sent cards and flowers and made the drive for the funeral.
For a time, the neighborhood hollowed out. The winters sheared paint from the sidings, cars rusted in driveways, trash nested under overgrown shrubs on untended lawns. Then it began to fill back up again, with new families, new faculty, new students. But the newcomers were too young, grad students and junior professors with babies and puppies and nascent careers, and grief had fixed me like a butterfly on a board.
Before I turn home, I stop at a bakery I like and buy one of their overly sweet pistachio croissants. The kid behind the register has long brown hair that he likes to do up in colorful scarves, and he’s always telling his coworkers rambling stories about the irritations of his other job as a waiter downtown. I sit and eat my pastry and half listen to his stories and half watch two grandparents dote on their granddaughter, a tiny blond girl with a pink headband and fairy wings who is climbing up and down the couches. Their granddaughter waves to me as I leave and then, embarrassed by her boldness, hides in her grandfather’s arm.
On Monday, I arrive to find two more—what are they? They seem too solid for ghosts. And besides, they’re too young, more like replicas or reflections or shadows of former selves. Shades, I think, recalling the Greek myths I used to read my daughter; two more shades have joined Jim: Alan and Barbara. I’m particularly happy to see Barbara, who was once a good friend. After she retired, she spent her last decade living in a cabin up in the country with her husband. One afternoon, he came out to the porch where she was reading in the late-afternoon sun and found her dead. An aneurysm. Sudden, quick, painless. Reading in the sun. No tubes and beeping machines, no antiseptic linoleum, no hair loss or weight loss or loss of appetite, no medical debt, no metal beds in blue-and-gray rooms. I envy her that. Her shade is younger than when I last saw her, closer to the age she must have been shortly before she retired, though she always had the lanky build and purposeful stride of a much younger athlete. I try to talk to her, walk right up to her waving and hello-ing loudly. I block her path down the aisle so she’ll have to notice me. But she only pauses, looks off into the middle distance as though remembering something important, and then turns and heads back to her desk.
They do talk to each other, though. I catch them at it in the break room, the three of them sitting at a table clutching invisible sandwiches and raising empty forks from empty bowls. They move their mouths and nod and gesture and never make a sound. The whole thing looks like some insane high school theater exercise. I leave them be.
I begin to spend the better part of my days taking care of the growing forest. As the tree roots crack the floor, I cut away the carpet, dragging swaths of it out to the back hall so that after night falls I can cart it down to the dumpster in the service elevator. I dismantle cubicle walls as they interfere with plant growth, stack chairs and computers and desk detritus in the supply closets. The forest grows much faster than I can clear away debris. It now occupies nearly a third of the floor. Jim’s desk is almost fully enveloped by it, yet he works on, unperturbed, even as vines begin to drip over the cubicle walls.
Meanwhile, one or two new shades arrive every day. I take a census each morning. No matter how early I arrive or how late I leave, they’re always there, clacking away at their desks. For my part, I’ve given up on e-mail and answering calls. Sooner or later, someone will show up here to check on me, but I don’t let this worry me. By the time I get home, I’m too tired from the day’s work in the forest to do much besides eat and sleep.
Two weeks pass. The forest covers half the floor and continues to spread. There are thirteen shades total. I start each day by walking the perimeter and taking my census. That done, I check on the fish, crumble some flakes into the pond, let them peck at the dead skin on my fingers. Then I sit for a while next to the pond in the heart of the forest, where the trees have reached the ceiling and are beginning to investigate the roof tiles. I take off my shoes and savor the damp, spongy earth. I close my eyes and listen to the little rustles and buzzes of insects and leaves; I let my winter-parched skin soak up the humidity.
Another week passes. No one comes to check on me. I finally work up the courage to look at my e-mail and find there are no messages in my inbox. People have been telling me to zero my inbox for years, but I could never bring myself to do it. I hate nouns turned into verbs. I check the sent folder. It’s empty too. I stand up and look around the office. I listen to the whispering leaves and the clacking keyboards. Is it they? If so, they’re likely doing a better job at my job than I have in a long time. And so I shut down my computer and return to my husbandry of the forest.
The amount of waste I need to cart down in the service elevator has reached unnerving proportions. I’ve started abandoning it in unused corners of other floors, secreting bags of trash and old chairs in seldom used closets and back hallways. I take smaller bags home in a backpack or satchel to add to my own trash. I think about bringing my car with me one day and carting a load or two to the town dump.
When I talk to my daughter each Saturday, she remarks on how cheerful I sound. I tell her that work is going well, that we’ve hired some new folks, that I’m making friends. She says she’s glad. I ask her when she’s coming to visit, but she isn’t sure; it’s hard to get time off from work. I say I’ll buy the ticket; she doesn’t need to worry about money. Soon, she says.
Aside from Thanksgiving and Christmas, the last time she flew out was when I had my pacemaker put in. She showed up in my hospital room dressed as the grim reaper, mask and cape and all. I laughed, and then, underneath her mask, my daughter burst into tears.
“I thought I could do it,” she said, “but it’s first time I’ve been back in here since Mom died.”
And when she said that, I started to tear up too. I’m not a crier, but the pain medication was making me a little loopy.
“Don’t cry,” she said. “I’ve only seen you cry once, the day Mom died.”
“I don’t remember,” I said.
“We were at the house, we’d gone home to get something. It was a gray day, the lights weren’t on, we were in the kitchen. You went to get the phone and then came back. I was standing in this rectangle of gray light. ‘Mom died,’ you said, and you picked me up and crushed me to your chest. I could feel you shaking. It took me a moment to realize you were shaking because you were sobbing.”
“Don’t worry,” I told her as she took off her mask. “I’m going to be fine. I’m part man, part machine now. The bionic wonder.”
She tried very hard to smile.
Another month. Outside, the first shoots of spring have grown into full leaves. It happens too quickly, as it always does—one day the smell of thaw, the next that electric-green fuzz, and then suddenly summer is upon you. Inside, it’s still the same: cool, damp, pleasant. The forest has now covered nearly the entire floor. The shades occupy twenty or so cubicles, each a little island lit by beacons of fluorescence; everywhere else, the light has softened into a natural glow. The shades seem to think nothing of stepping over tree roots on their way to the photocopier or dodging the vines that have begun to grow over the door to the break room. They congregate there in the mornings and at lunch, brewing imaginary coffee in the empty pot, moving silent mouths at one another. Decades of office small talk run on loop in my brain as I watch them. And what about the game last night? Fun plans for the weekend? Mondays, eh? They carefully stack their empty mugs in the dishwasher. I turn it on for them. They empty it themselves.
Realizing I’ve been neglecting my plants at home, I begin to transport them to the office, starting with the venerable ficus. The house looks naked without them, only the little rings of damp and dirt to mark where they once stood. But they thrive in the office’s humid climate, and now they’ll be less lonely.
One day, just before I leave, I turn to survey the floor. The shades are at their desks. The cubicle walls are a strange, angular contrast to the organic melee around them, bright patches of order in the forest gloaming. I’ve cleared about half the floor of debris now. At the center of the room, the trees have cracked through the ceiling tiles, their crowns disappearing into the nest of pipes above.
And then I hear a strange sound, a soft, silvery tapping. It’s begun to rain. A few round, gentle drops hit my face. Then a whoosh, like the sound of blood in your ears, and in a minute I’m soaked through. My first impulse is to curse, but I think better of that, because this is a goddamn miracle.
I strip off my shirt and my pants and my shoes, peel the cloying fabric from my skin and run out to greet the rain, my feet slip-slapping on the mud. I run from one end of the floor to the other.
I stop at the opposite wall, water running down my back and shoulders and legs, still warm from my exertion. There, in the center of the wall—a wall that, for the last forty years, has been solid and windowless, built flush against the neighboring building—there, in the wall, is a door. A normal wooden door, painted white. The kind of unassuming door you’d find on a half-dozen houses on any suburban street, with a bright brass handle.
I turn and walk back to my sodden clothes. The rain lightens to a sporadic dripping. As I dress, a bright swath of golden light breaks through the canopy; the water droplets catch the light, split it into fingers full of swirling golden motes.
I decide to walk home. I cut through the city’s center, the little patch of revitalized industrial buildings, the handful of trendy restaurants patronized mostly by students, their parents, older couples who’ve fled to the outer suburbs. Then I pass through the tall cluster of aseptic hospital buildings, under the highway that cuts the whole thing in two, and into the desolation on the other side: the empty storefronts, the convenience stores with wares behind bulletproof glass, the blocks of elegant Victorians where every third house stands condemned. I try to imagine the city as it was a hundred years ago, whole and thriving, the canal filled with traffic, the factories churning out goods, the houses new and brightly painted.
I cross back under the highway, past a long stretch of green sparsely populated with churches. The houses here are more recent, the identical prefabs of postwar America, two stories, each with a two-car garage and a small lawn, for two parents, two children, one dog. Most are rundown as well, yellowed insulation crumbling from rotting eaves, shingles replaced by holes for squirrels and birds. A few have been fixed up, converted to overpriced condos for the students who are starting to colonize the neighborhood. In one, a young man has opened the window to the spring evening and leans out to smoke, his torso bare, cigarette a bright star against the dim window. I hear music and voices coming from the window behind him. A party, maybe, and I imagine the small gathering in the glow of old Christmas lights, the plastic cups, the stale beer and vodka smell. A girl sitting in a corner observing, made nervous by the palpable tensions of youth—social anxiety, pheromones, the desire to prove oneself an entire and independent being. She watches carefully; she critiques; she notes who flirts with whom and who drinks too quickly and who is too obviously performing someone he or she is not—the mannerisms stiff, as though studied, the laughter loud and forced. I realize then that I am not imagining but only projecting who I once was onto an unfamiliar face, a new name.
And now the run-down city cedes to the wealth of the university: the gleaming apartment towers, the sprawling sports complex. I turn left, following the path of a small creek that runs between artificial banks. As I head up the hill, the houses grow in scale and ambition, and while some are in poor repair—mostly those with large Greek letters tacked above the door—none are vacant, none condemned. I pass through the small business district, with its handful of restaurants, its thrift store, its tiny grocery. I pass the bakery I like. I turn right. I’m almost home.
That night, I have a dream in which I open the door over and over. I never get to see what’s on the other side. I wake up sweating and running a low fever and spend the next two days in bed. When I do return to the office, I wait for some time outside the building, debating on whether or not to go in. Surely the shades and the forest will be fine without me.
Sitting there, contemplating the building’s entrance, I’m reminded of my very first day on the job. My wife had made me breakfast, and I’d dilly-dallied so long over it that I had to sprint to the bus to make it downtown in time. I arrived at 8:57 am and then found myself paralyzed. All around me suited men and women hurried up the sidewalk and disappeared through the revolving doors like particles sucked into a vacuum. It was late spring, a warm day, the trees heavy with neon pollen. I stood and watched the brass doors go round and round, watched the rush thin to a trickle, and still I could not move. I knew I had to go in. But the child mind in me refused, knowing that what lay on the other side of that door would blur the days, collapse the nights, swallow up my wants and fears and will entire.
In the end, the adult mind won. I had promised my wife, my father. I had committed. I took a deep breath. I walked up the steps. And so on this day, so many years later, I remind myself that my work is not yet done, door or no. There are still chairs to remove and carpet to cut up and cubicles to dismantle. And someone needs to feed the fish. I shift my bag to my other hand and start up the steps. In the office above, all will be waiting for me, just as I left it. I sigh. The door opens. I walk through.
Cat Powell’s short fiction has appeared in The South Dakota Review, The Missouri Review, New Contrast, and Action, Spectacle! She grew up in Boston and has since lived in Cape Town, Syracuse, and Brooklyn, where she currently resides with her dog. She completed an MFA at Columbia University. She is working on a novel and is represented by Janklow and Nesbit. Find her on Instagram: @mildred_investigates