This story originally appeared in two parts
doors slid open every morning, and there was your world. It was a world of
fluorescent lights, fabric covered cubicle walls, and off-white plastic cases.
It was a world of facades. Behind and inside everything was something else.
There was a little vent on the side of Foy’s computer that emitted a steady
stream of warm air. Once or twice a week, Foy would find himself staring at this
vent, and he would feel compelled to lean in and sniff the odor of electricity,
hot circuits, and plastic. The first time he did this he whispered, “That smells
There were no
seasons in this world. The temperature hovered around seventy degrees at all
times. The only evidence of winter, for example, was the sudden appearance of
coats, scarves, and other padded clothing on the people who got off the
elevators. They shed these as they walked into the office, growing thinner with
colors were neutral, all the edges were rounded, and everything was bathed in
artificial light. It was like an environment drawn up in a board room and
fleshed out by an action committee.
His old world
had been richly textured. There were candles and dark wooden pews. There were
robes made of rich cloth, and solid tables that held ancient elements. There
were the lines on the faces of the elderly and the noises of children. There
were the toys and other silly things stuffed here and there into the bookshelves
of his old office. There was the sound and feel of his pen scratching out
sermons on luxurious linen paper. There was the wonderful moment before worship
when a deep bell rang three times, and everyone, even the children, became
great tension in his life in those days. Not the kind that comes from external
pressure, but the kind that exists between truths. He lived along the slippery
plane of a great continuum between life and death, flesh and spirit. He was in
and out of people’s lives, baptizing them, blessing them, marrying them, and
burying them. And all of this while the year moved gracefully through the
seasons, Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and the long waiting they call Ordinary
were some good things about this world too. For one thing, you could leave it.
It took Foy a long time to get used to the idea that he could leave his job at
the end of the day, and the thought of that still made him giddy. He watched
people trudging toward the elevators and wanted to shout, “We can leave! Isn’t
that wonderful?” But they wouldn’t understand because they had always been able
to leave. They couldn’t imagine a job that you could never leave, not even for a
He had been a
little disappointed at first when he found out there were no punch cards. When
he was young, he used to have a job where you punched out. You shoved a thick
time card into a slot, and it made a satisfying “Ka-chunk” sound. Now you
unhooked your ID card from your lapel and swiped it through a computer slot.
When the green light came on you were good to go.
Over by the
copier there was a smudge on the wall of a cubicle with an empty frame hanging
around it. Apparently a woman named Doris, who wore too much makeup and was also
said to have been a pain in the ass, fainted one day and slumped against the
wall, leaving a smear of fleshy color on the fabric. Tom the technical writer
brought the frame and hung it there, turning the smudge into a work of art.
up leaving for reasons that no one remembered. Tom left, it was said, because
they outsourced most of the technical writing to Pakistan. But the picture was
still on the wall two years later, and there were still people around who knew
the story behind it. Foy wondered what would happen if everyone who knew the
story left. He could imagine the day when someone noticed the smudge and the
frame, puzzling over them before dropping the frame in the trash and cleaning
the wall. What would be left of Doris and Tom?
There were a
lot of good stories floating around the office, many of them linked to various
artifacts like stains, broken furniture, curious traditions, and quirky rules
that obviously came into existence following some incident. In the cubicle
village, how long you worked there was less important than your ability to hear
and learn the stories and the corporate lore. Foy learned stories quickly, but
then stories were what he always did best. He exegeted the office gospel,
pulling out the archetypes and zeroing in on the hot spots. Hell, this was just
like preaching. After a few months it seemed like he had been there for years.
All that was
needed were eyes that could see, and Foy could see things. That used to be his
calling – to see things. You can’t turn that off. If you can see things, you can
see them, and you can never really close your eyes again.
One story he
had not been able to figure out was the one about Suzanne, a woman who had some
sort of accounting job, or so it seemed to Foy. He wasn’t sure what she did, but
she talked about spreadsheets, and she walked around carrying a thick stack of
computer printouts. Definitely a numbers person.
died of leukemia. That much of her story was whispered to him in his first week.
But Foy began to see that there was something else going on with Suzanne. She
seemed like some sort of outcast. It seemed to Foy that Suzanne lived on a whole
other plane of existence. She moved gracefully among the office people,
interacting with them, but she was not in their world.
Foy was breathing right, like in prayer, it looked like everyone was moving
around Suzanne’s cubicle in fast motion. It was like in the movies where all the
cars and people are sped up, but one person is frozen in time, staring at the
camera, jerking a little, out of synch with everyone else.
Suzanne would put her head down on her desk, hiding her face in her folded arms
and stay like that for a few minutes. Whenever she did this, Foy noticed that
everyone looked away. There was something taboo about Suzanne and her cubicle,
and the whole village was keeping a respectful distance.
A couple of
days later, Foy was passing by Suzanne’s cubicle on the way to the break room.
She stopped him.
haven’t actually met, but I knew you were working with Doug. You used to write,
didn’t you? Isn’t that how Doug found you? You wrote a book or something?"
sorta wrote a little, but that was awhile back, so…"
is getting too big. You can work with people for months now and never actually
meet them. It didn’t used to be that way. I guess that’s how it goes, huh?
Bigger, better, more money, less time."
lot bigger now, huh?"
gosh, yes. When we first started everyone was on this floor, even Doug and
Richard. They had the corner office over there. We all used to eat lunch
together back then. Course they went upstairs a few years back, so we don’t see
them much anymore."
toward the break room and Suzanne noticed.
sorry, you’re taking a break. Could you stop by on your way back? I’m supposed
to give you this thing we wrote for the stockholders and have you smooth it out.
You know, go over it."
just email it to me? You know…"
"Oh sure. I
just saw you and thought I’d give it to you. Listen, before you go I wanna ask
you something. Did you write that poem in the last office newsletter?"
didn’t write it?"
Charlene was convinced it was you."
Charlene from graphics. Kinda light brown hair. She’s the one with that giant
"Oh yeah, I
know who you’re talking about."
"I mean, we
didn’t know. It’s just no one ever wrote a poem before, and they said you used
to write or whatever."
"Did you read
it? It was so sad, but also happy in a – I don’t know – sad kind of way, I
guess. We were just trying to figure out who wrote it. Oh yeah, your break.
Sorry. Just come by later, or I’ll email that thing to you if I don’t see you."
by Suzanne’s cubicle later, but she wasn’t there. His eyes wandered around the
walls. There were a lot of pictures of her son. Him in his little league
uniform, the two of them at some amusement park, a couple of school pictures. No
husband and no other children. Just the two of them.
One wall of
the cubicle served as a bulletin board. It was covered with sympathy cards and
there were a couple of dried flowers hanging from thumbtacks. A growing cluster
of recent memos was starting to cover the cards. A vase with some mummified
flowers in it stood between her monitor and a stack of software manuals.
thought. “I wonder how old those flowers are.”
His eyes were
drawn back to the amusement park picture. Suzanne and her son were hugging and
smiling for the camera. “That boy is dead,” Foy said softly. “He no longer
exists in this world.”
reason, Jenny popped into his mind. When Jenny left him, there were a lot of
shocks and changes, but he got used to most of them. The one thing that still
hurt was not having anyone to talk to about his children. When you lose your
spouse, you lose the one person in the world who wants to talk about them as
much as you do.
moment he thought he understood the story behind Suzanne and her cubicle. Her
grief had become tiring to the people around her. The people in the office
brought flowers and cards, and they listened to her for a time. Now they were
ready to move on, but she was not. She was stuck and still laboring with
undelivered grief. She was still clinging to the leftover scraps of their
comfort, but the mementos were drying up and fading away.
colleagues had done all they could do. The heavy lifting and the hard grief work
should have been done with family or with an intimate community of friends. But
maybe she didn’t have those. Maybe all she had was this strange world on the
third floor. How could she pour all of her grief into such a small container?
The cubicle village was moving on, and she was left alone, like a crazy woman,
to grieve with her head down on her desk.
back to his own cubicle and sat in front of his computer. His cubicle looked
exactly as it had the day Marcie escorted him there and left him in it. No
pictures, no plants, no mementos. It was very impersonal and he liked it that
about Suzanne for a few minutes. He didn’t know what she needed – he didn’t have
to know that kind of thing anymore – but he thought he knew what she wanted. And
it would be so easy to give it to her.
Suzanne eating lunch alone in the break room two days later. He walked in and
sat down across from her.
"Hey, I sent
you that document. I, uh, just moved a couple of things around and smoothed it
out a bit. It should be fine."
"Also, I owe
you an apology."
"Um, I lied
to you the other day. I did write that poem."
"I KNEW it.
What, were you embarrassed or something?"
maybe, I don’t know. I just liked it being a secret. Also I’m not a poet, but it
felt okay to submit it as long as no one knew it was mine. Anyway, forget it. It
liked it. It was so sad, but it made me happy in some weird way, you know what I
gravely. "Yeah, I definitely do know about that."
them spoke for a moment.
listen, I want to ask you something and I hope it’s okay."
your son’s name? I saw the pictures around your computer, and I heard that he
died. He just looked like such a sweet kid, so I wanted to know his name."
paused for a moment, then spoke softly. "Jeremy."
was he like?"
She put her
hand over her mouth, as if hiding her mouth might let her hide her feelings for
a minute. She sat there looking at him.
Foy knew this
waiting game, so he said nothing.
Then she put
her hand down. She had a sad smile, a nice smile but with sad eyes.
"He was the
greatest kid in the world, Foy. I’m serious. I know I was his mother and all,
but he was such a sweetheart. God, I miss him so much."
"How old was he?"
"Oh, I have
an eleven-year-old daughter. Well 12 now, but isn’t that just the greatest age?
They’re old enough to be able to talk to you about things, but young enough…"
want to be with you." Suzanne finished his sentence. "Yeah, it was great." She
paused for a moment. "HE was great. You know, sometimes I want to hold him so
bad that it hurts. I’ll go to his closet and get a bunch of his clothes and wad
them up and hug them, but it never helps."
himself the pep talk that he used in the old days to get himself ready.
this is her time. This is what you can give her. You ARE interested in her boy.
He WAS the greatest boy in all the world. And you want to hear everything about
him. It doesn’t matter how you feel or how tired you get. This is for her. Now
listen. Put everything you have into listening.
started talking there was no stopping her. She gushed, she laughed, she went on
and on and on. And no matter how much she told him, he was always ready with
another question, always asking for more. He didn’t ask anything about her. He
only wanted to hear about Jeremy. It was almost like Jeremy was alive again and
they were just two people talking about a little boy. It was like Indian Summer,
one last warm day before the inevitable coming of winter.
At one point
Foy let a little of his focus split off so that he could see what was going on
inside of himself. The answer was nothing. He felt nothing for this boy. He
didn’t care about Jeremy. That was the truth. Who was Jeremy? Just another kid
in a long line of kids stretching back into his past. And who was Suzanne? Just
another woman with a story to tell.
In the old
days he used to feel with people. Not feel sorry for them, but feel with them.
It helped make it seem real. But every time he felt someone else’s pain, he
ended up carrying around a burden for them. Those burdens kept piling up until
finally his back broke. And now something inside of him would not let him do
nothing. He was numb inside. He knew how to listen, but he didn’t know how to
feel. He was all eyes and ears, but no guts. Nothing on the inside.
I’m giving her what I can. Isn’t that okay, just to give what you can?
still talking. "You know what’s hard? It’s almost like Jeremy isn’t real to
anyone else. For a lot of people he’s just a name and a picture, just the reason
that I’m sad and broken now. Sometimes I want people to understand that he was a
real boy, you know? He was real and he had a whole future ahead of him, but now
he’s gone and that’s a terrible loss.”
“He was a
real boy.” That phrase flew across the table and hit Foy in the chest like a
blow from a fist. Something was loosed in him, and his chest filled with
was a real boy, but now he’s dead. Suzanne is his mother. She lost him. He’s
He felt it,
and it was so good to feel. Compassion came to him after all this time. Foy’s
eyes filled with tears, and he looked down at the table so she wouldn’t see.
lowered her chin down to the table, trying to look under Foy’s forehead at his
eyes. "Are you okay?"
nothing. It’s just something about what you said, about him being a real boy. It
kinda got to me."
quietly for a moment. Then Suzanne spoke. "Hey, thanks for listening. You can’t
know how nice it was just to talk about him again."
waited a moment, then continued. "I want to tell you something about grief,
because I know about grief. Is that okay?"
that grief is your last way of honoring Jeremy. The pain of it reminds you that
he was real. You will carry this pain for the rest of your life, in his memory.
It’s right and good that you should do that for him. He was worth it, wasn’t
her eyes again, and she nodded, dabbing at her nose with a tissue.
"I know he
was. So carry this grief with pride and honor. Do not deny it. Embrace it and
own up to it."
"At the same
time, you don’t have to be owned by the grief. You also honor Jeremy by moving
on. Sometimes people feel that moving on means forgetting and not feeling sad
anymore. They cling to their grief out of fear of losing it, because it is the
last thing they have connecting them to the one they loved. You don’t have to be
afraid of that. You’re his mother, so there will always be a tender spot in your
heart for Jeremy. This grief will not leave you. But it might be time to carry
the grief instead of letting it carry you, if that makes any sense."
"But how do I
"I wish there
was a easy answer, but there isn’t. I think you could get started by cleaning up
your cubicle. Take home all the pictures and the dead flowers and all the cards.
You don’t have to throw them away. Just put them in a box. You could even buy a
fancy box if it makes you feel better. Give them a place of honor, but put them
away. Sometimes, when you are at home, you might want to open the box and have a
time of remembering. But that will a time of your own choosing, see?"
your first move. And I think you’re ready."
her nose while she was nodding.
Foy got up to
Suzanne said, blubbering a bit into her tissue. Foy stood patiently while she
gained her composure.
"I want to
tell you something, but don’t take it the wrong way or anything. I mean, it’s
not a come-on or something stupid like that. But I just want to tell you that I
like your eyes. I like the wrinkles in the corners and they’re very blue and sad
and looking at them makes me think that you’ve seen some things in your life.
They’re kind of sad and happy, like that poem you wrote. Sad and happy, you
caused Foy’s throat to tighten, and he felt a surge of emotion. His lower lip
trembled a bit. He looked down at his shoes so she wouldn’t see it so much.
happy, huh? Yeah, I definitely do know something about that."
Other Foy Davis