The first drops of blood hit the keyboard as he worked on his spreadsheets, something he’d gotten good at, something that seemed like torture at first. He earned the exact national average in terms of annual salary, but these spreadsheets were brutal, the sorry procedural solution to an organizational challenge managerial nitwits concocted before new managers replaced them. New managers then agreed that the tangled, incomprehensible sensitivities among machines and staff were so tightly wound, their only recourse was to quit. The next round of managers then delegated the bouncing of the ball of procedural confusion to him. Chronic exposure to spreadsheets may have caused the nose bleed, but it might have been avoided if he’d twisted the plastic rod that closed the blinds so whenever he looked at the window in front of him he didn’t see the reflection of the computer screen behind him. Twisting a bit of plastic would have blinded him to the actions of his coworker, someone with whom he shared no projects, someone he rarely even heard speak. The coworker behind him was so immersed in her social life online that she effectively existed only there. An ecstatic communicator immersed in correspondence, she typed a novella’s worth of words a day, a Victorian novel a week, all of it illustrated with pics of her black-and-white dog and smiling self- portraits sent to a long-distance boyfriend. All this took place during work hours, but he figured she figured the work wasn’t going anywhere, there was an endless pile of it, so why not let it sit as she corresponded as though furiously engaged in salaried labor instead of totally shirking it. Anything beautiful related to the ferocity and speed of her typing was undermined by the rumor that she made considerably more than the average national salary In her interview, she’d talked herself up so well that those who hired her were sure she’d affably execute the cursed procedures whether they made sense or not. But those managers were fired or left, and after dry- eyed goodbyes their memories were only invoked when the new managers needed someone to blame for the emergence of old errors.
In the morning, before the coworker who sits behind him arrives, before his manager arrives—in wintertime, before even daylight arrives—he enjoys some solitary time at his workstation. He drinks coffee and responds to work-related e-mails while listening to rousing instrumentals that rise and fall via theme and variation, tension and release, as the coffee animates him and coworkers arrive and nod as he acknowledges their reflection in the window in front of him. But before the coworker who sits behind him arrives, he swivels his chair and looks for changes to the collage of printed images, postcards, and stickers appended to the walls of her workstation. The constantly in flux collage features snouty, foreshortened pics of her dog that make it resemble the unholy hybrid of an Oreo cookie and a Kimoto dragon, but he can always count four or more self-portraits of her smiling face next to the smiling face of her long-distance boyfriend He has a high forehead that slopes to a jutting brow then funnels to the tip of a nose that breaks the plane of a raised upper lip when he smiles. Recessed eyes are further hidden by a polluted atmosphere of black circles, a suffusion seemingly owing more to chronic marijuana abuse than exhaustion related to overwork. But each of these pictures of the smiling couple seem chosen because it presents the coworker’s innocent green eyes, an even row of white upper teeth exposed by a classic lower-lip smile parabola, a complexion as white as the white of her Boston terrier and hair as black as the black of her Boston terrier.
At first, he thought she had a kind and healthy face, but soon after he moved to his current workstation, he sensed a spirit emerge that made her seem as innutritious as the cheese doodles she snacked on. On the first day he sat at the workstation next to hers, she produced a large bag of atomically colored cheese doodles, poured some out on a paper plate, and, as a way of initiating cubicle-centric camaraderie, he asked if he might try a single cheese doodle. She seemed baffled by the request, as though he’d requested explicit details re: her finest-ever performance of fellatio, but she assented, and so he sampled a crunchy air-filled confection of mass-produced crap that left an atomic orange dust on his fingers he had to scrape at with his teeth to clean.
She dyes her hair black in winter and pinkish blond in summer and wears clothes that tend to feature skulls and crossbones. She tattoos cartoons of a dog floating on a bed of roses on her pale plump arms—and maybe certainly also has similar tattoos on her abdomen and ass. But to say anything more about her would suggest he could have known more about her than what he knew, which wasn’t much, since knowing too much about her would undermine thoughts he unfurled to endure the relentless spreadsheets. He needed someone to hate, essentially—that is, someone on whom to project negative thoughts arising from rigorous exactitude re: keystrokes entered into the retentive cells of the spreadsheets, a commitment to meticulousness without which fissures showed in the surface of the earth, geysers interrupted thoroughfares, deep cracks appeared from which an evil mist spewed, fogging over the atmosphere as a black streak descended from the sky, intent on inking us out of any role in the future.
He’d heard that his coworker had been harassed and stalked to the point that she needed to secure a restraining order against a former boyfriend. She lived with such threats at home, apparently, and yet, at work, she spent all her time online, corresponding instead of entering codes on spreadsheets so everything links with the European offices in Frankfurt and the Web team in Jersey City. Their company’s existence was so fragile It was a living/breathing entity animated by everyone, an innocent adolescent navigating the most dangerous years, the awkward years, the ungainly teenagerdom of a smallish corporation. And yet their open cubicle area was so poorly designed that when he looked at the window and saw the reflection of the screen behind his, it endangered the health of a corporation animated, as it was, by all-important spreadsheet info. Precision was required or else the building blocks of everyone’s labor misaligned and the adolescent in their care would never become more than half a child.
Considering what’s at stake, here’s the moral dilemma: should he rat her out or not? His manager had poached him from another department in which he earned a reputation for solid, efficient work, not to mention volunteering to complete the work of those on vacation. He worked hard because hard work made the hours pass, and without hard work, slack habits infected every aspect of life. The more efficiently and accurately he worked at work, the better he spent his time away from work, and the more consideration he gave to how he spent his money and how he behaved with people he liked infinitely more than the coworker who sat behind him.
These considerations mattered more to him now that he was older and had not become miraculously rich through windfall, marriage, or hard work. A girlfriend in college once said he’d one day have a ton of money. She said that when he smiled his smiling cheeks made crescents of his eyes that glinted with something like diamonds, suggesting a sizeable fortune to come. He imagined sitting in his cream-colored Bentley en route to a snack-sized Taj Mahal filled with the ton of money now waiting for him. He could smell it like a wood-burning stove on a cold day, something inaccessible yet close. A few more than a dozen years had passed since college. He was neither making nor saving a ton of money. Yet he believed a modest fortune would one day be his if he worked as well as he could in exchange for the money he was paid, which, while not competitive with other companies in the region, was infinitely better than wages paid to hard-working laborers all over the world. Plus, his job offered flex time and casual dress and health insurance, and he had no children or girlfriend or health concerns or addictions or any other drains on his salary other than monthly recurring bills and college loan payments, all automatically deducted from his checking account, the balance of which slowly increased as long as he restrained his strongest urges to indulge. It would have been stealing not to work hard for his reasonable salary and the healthy, humble life it enabled. Consistent slacking would haunt his sleep, tweak dreams toward horror till he found himself driving drunk on snowy Norwegian roads, his fishtailing dream car totaled after it sideswiped a moose. Spending all his time on the internet and typing a novella’s worth of e-mails a day would undermine the intuitive sense that working hard was required of those who wanted to be considered “good.” Slacking didn’t break civil law, but he exaggerated its wickedness until it assumed criminal significance. It was almost a sort of murder, in that coworkers were infecting themselves with work habits that annihilated emerging opportunities for their lives, produced nightmares involving carnivorous sheep, and ultimately undermined the perpetually endangered corporation in their care.
Working hard had a positive moral dimension, he knew, because rigorous habits at work allowed him, in the comfort of his own bed, to safely dream of tropical islands, sand bars at dawn, walking on water, long-lost lovers. And yet he had very few people with whom to correspond during the work day other than a friend or two with whom he batted quick hits back and forth re: thoughts on recent televised athletic events or plans to meet re: semi-immoderate intoxication, but no way would he commit his thoughts to more than the minimum e-mailed words while at work If he spent his work day elaborately detailing his home life he would begin to associate life at home with life at work—and the two must remain separate, running on the most regular, sustainable, efficient possible tracks.
It became progressively apparent that the coworker never hashed out the home- and work-related consequences of her actions. She typed a novella’s worth of e-mails a day, a novel a week, on and on, at a 100-words-a-minute pace on an un- silent keyboard. She didn’t realize that the incessant chatter entered into his back and tightened the muscles around his neck as he crunched himself into a slouch to protect against the onslaught. At times her typing even sent a chill through the air and he shivered. But what’s worse: her shirking of the work she’d been assigned began to undermine his ability to complete his own work. He was distracted by the novella-a-day written to the long-distance boyfriend about the psycho ex-boyfriend or about her mother who’d begun to manifest symptoms of cognitive decline and needed home health care nurses and would soon move to an assisted-living facility, her father long dead, no one else around to care for her mother other than her black-and-white dog. Yet she typed as though sending words to her boyfriend were her salvation, as though that daily novella had therapeutic qualities, as though she thought yes of course I have work to do but the manager understands my situation and isn’t putting too much pressure on me and even if she did pressure me I’d just do a little more work each day since I’m already getting away with the minimum so it wouldn’t be all that difficult to increase the work I do from an hour a day to three hours a day without overly disturbing the flow of my correspondence. Yet even three hours—he thought as he looked at the reflection of her computer screen on which he saw her cropping another snouty pic of her dog—was not a lot of work, considering they were paid for seven hours a day, which means that three hours a day equaled about fifteen hours a week, sixty hours a month, 720 hours a year, a grand total of annual hours he’d achieve in five months of work. All of which means that by working no more than three hours a day, she’d work seven fewer months a year than him. Yet she’d still make more money because she’d been more persistent when they offered the job and made more money when employed by her previous, generous employer. All of which indicates she knows what she’s doing because she’d figured out how to make the most money for the least work. Which is true as long as you don’t calculate the price of anxiety about the possibility of losing her job and ever finding equivalent employment again In short, the counterweight to working seven fewer months for more pay is that she can easily lose her job. But as long as she slacks and does an inadequate job, she protects against his being fired, because if they only fire one person, she will be the one fired, which is a very good self-preservation–related reason not to rat her out.
Whether to rat her out or not is complicated by the fact that ratting her out will further distract him from work as he feels like a shitty little tattler when friendly coworkers stop acknowledging him in the hallways and bathroom after learning he ratted out a fellow coworker If he rats her out it will be an immoral act on par with her slacking, maybe even exceeding it. After all, it’s not his responsibility to look after his coworkers, and even if he somehow only suggests to his manager that this one coworker is a terrible slacker, he’ll be indirectly insulting the manager’s ability to manage the department. But if he doesn’t tell the manager then the manager may never know that the coworker has been such a tremendous slacker for every instant he’s sat next to her and that she must have been as bad a slacker before he sat there and yet no one spoke about the extent of her slacking, as though it were perfectly reasonable that someone should work five months a year at most, or really more like three weeks a year (considering she’s working no more than a few minutes a day compared to the hypothetical accelerated rate of three hours a day). Yet she still doesn’t get fired, reprimanded, or spontaneously combust from the anxiety normal human beings might feel if they shirked duties to such an extent for so long in favor of managing their personal life online.
Such thoughts must have formed a blood clot that, like a wooly red tarantula, took up residence in his head whenever he spied her computer monitor in the reflection of the window in front of him. Regardless of all the problems with her mother or ex-boyfriend (dire problems, yes, agreed), he never asked about these problems, in part because he wore headphones and because she spent the day e-mailing. He’d researched alternatives to ratting her out and found many suggestions to talk to her about it, let her know how much it bothered him that she slacks while he cannot slack because whenever he slacks someone important catches him reading an article about the imminent end of the world et cetera. One day when everyone has headphones on or is away at lunch he might politely suggest they switch workstations so he can slack like the most accomplished slacker ever to slack in the history of the American workforce¬¬ He might also suggest that, considering the fear that her psycho ex-boyfriend will make good on threats when she’s at home, and considering her mother’s progressive cognitive decline, instead of working hard to limit these factors by ensuring her employment and therefore physical and fiscal health, she risks her mother’s future care and her own security— despite it being a time when the world seems erratic, to say the least, and everyone is anxious about keeping their jobs, to say the least—by working as though she’s paid to manage her social-networking profiles online. The immorality of the coworker’s slacking compounds when one considers all those who’d love to have her job, all those who need to have her job, and yet cannot have her job because she has her job.
Think about all those who’d respect the position and the manager and the coworker sitting seven feet away with his headphones on, this guy staring out the window at the windows of the office building across the way who seems almost beatifically immersed in his work, who intimates a history of annoyance with the recently deposed coworker who used to sit at that workstation, who now seems wholly pleased that someone new works there, who therefore swivels and mutes his music to converse about the upcoming weekend’s events, who interjects with a helpful pointer now and then about spreadsheet manipulation and passes along a link to an amusing online oddity because both the new coworker and he get along so well, they’re glad to have their jobs, they work with quiet, focused, steady intensity that makes it seem like what they do is marginally more important on a global scale than it really is, and yet, on a personal level, what they do is how they spend half their waking lives, and so, if only on a basic discipline level, their work must be worthwhile and comprehensible to an extent that breeds more satisfaction than frustration. At the very least, if the work seems incomprehensible and frustrating, and if a coworker sits not seven feet away in unselfconscious ecstasy as she corresponds with her long-distance boyfriend, and if the continuous beating of her keyboard distracts from accurately entering data into the cells of a spreadsheet fundamental to the health of the company and thereby the fiscal and by extension overall well-being of everyone who works there, if annoyance and distraction and frustration and general tangled incomprehensibilities related to procedures cause incessant bleeding from the nostrils, then it is time to take a few vacation days spent sleeping late and looking for a new job.
Days before blood began to flow from his nostrils and smear everything, his coworker typed so furiously that he stood and checked to see if all in the area seemed engaged in their work, away from their desks, or immersed in the worlds they accessed via websites and headphones, and seeing that the coast was clear, he sat down and said:
Don’t you think that’s enough already, the typing, I have an idea, I mean, how about we switch spots, all day, every day, typing, typing, whenever I stand to go to the bathroom you fake work for a second then immediately resume typing.
He said all this with a quiet, intense whisper, to which she said complaining, complaining, indicating that he (apparently) was always complaining. This was probably true. He hadn’t thought of it. Had not seen much of himself from her perspective. Had not overhead himself complain to their shared assistant or manager or other coworkers. It’s true that he did complain, quietly, quickly, indicating that all the world’s problems have a better chance of being solved before they resolved procedural challenges et cetera they faced each day at work He complained because he wanted to solve those problems He wanted all things to proceed as efficiently and rationally as possible within his sphere of influence His complaints might be heard and over time lead to solutions to challenges caused in part by a failure to even attempt to communicate ideas about what it was everyone did for seven hours a day, five days a week He complained because he engaged the work and therefore regularly confronted its incomprehensibilities et cetera and had to elucidate them using supremely inelegant procedures that at first made him want to weep but after months of trial and error still required supreme awareness to execute correctly because the procedures were so dull they made one apt to daydream, thereby undermining one’s best efforts to work well So yes he complained but only about abstract procedures related to their work, not about the specific practice of someone sitting seven feet away, furiously corresponding, and so he responded:
Let’s switch seats so I can slack all day and you can sit where I sit and do what you do where everyone can see your screen, let’s trade spots, see how it goes.
He said this in an intense whisper, and she said no, I don’t think so, and so he pointed at the window and said every day I watch you edit pictures of your dog— remember when I’d swivel and say what’s that a picture of, when I kept asking if that was another picture of your dog, remember that, I guess you didn’t get the hint.
She said sorry, I didn’t know it annoyed you, and he said it’s not that it’s annoying it’s that it’s sort of unethical, isn’t it, considering people work all day while you do nothing and get paid the same or even more.
He stood and left for lunch, relieved, replaying the confrontation in his mind, combing it for errors or unintended insults that might one day prove regrettable.
When he returned to his desk he had an e-mail that said next time you have a problem with me I would appreciate it if you could be more tacitful about alerting me I do not appreciate being made a spectacle of You can rest assured that I won’t bother or annoy you again.
His first thought was “tacitful”? Is that a word? Full of tacit-ness? Surely she meant tactful but it set him off and he almost responded with something horrific but knew that anything he typed could/would be forwarded to office authorities or the few coworkers she knew So instead he swiveled and said no one could have heard me since I whispered and everyone was away from their desks or had headphones on.
That afternoon, he did something he never did: he exaggeratedly wished her a pleasant evening as he made his escape.
After this confrontation, the coworker almost worked hard for a week before she resumed her former worklessness, and so he determined he had a moral obligation to make her immorality known.
Mid-morning, mid-week, working on an endlessly redundant form, completing it as though every keystroke accurately entered into the spreadsheet saved millions of dollars and lives, as he waited for the right moment to talk to his manager about the coworker, blood came from his right nostril, then both nostrils, the spigots thrown open It was a nose bleed so never-ending it must have come from an underground reservoir within him that endlessly flowed through his nose till his office and the rest of the building and the rivers of the city that flowed into the oceans surrounding all the continents of the world were so covered in blood the sky glowed red and all we could do to remain unstained was remember how lucky we’d been to spend our days working hard on anything other than simple survival.
LEE KLEIN's writing has appeared in Agni, The Best American Non-Required Reading 2007, The Black Warrior Review, Canteen, Swink, and others. He lives in Philadelphia and edits Eyeshot.net.