Office Cauldrons

The man extends his hand. “We’ll be in touch.” And they were: Jeremy gets the job.

The first morning, the alarm goes off at 6 a.m., he’s out of bed on the first shrill call to arms, into the shower, out of the cascade, quick-drying food washed away with coffee, suit laid out the night before slipped into and under, tie knotted, partner kissed, into the subway, briefcase empty, phone in pocket, shirt damp, out of the subway, not long now, through the glass doors, up the stairs, fourteenth floor, red face, conversation openers practiced and at the ready.

“Hello.” And, “Welcome.”

They show him to an elevator, or what looks like an elevator, but when he steps in it might be a fish tank but without the glass, water and fish so maybe it’s not a fish tank, but could be an industrial container, the ones you see on ships, but with a shinier veneer than steel, and he guesses it’s about five metres by four metres by three metres, with no desk or chair or coffee station or water fountain or potted plant or air conditioning except for some tiny holes in the roof.

He’s the first and it’s empty.

“This is where you’ll work.”

They push the external button, and when the doors close, left alone, he stands for a while, sits, stands again, walks within his confines, veers along the edges knocking then banging on the sides checking for hidden compartments and secret hideaways, but seeing nothing of interest, not even a button, he waits and wonders why nobody comes, wonders some more until a bell rings and the doors open and he goes home.

The next day, the same, until he’s there for a while and the doors open, and another person enters—a man who exchanges pleasantries—and they stand and sit and stand again, faces nondescript, wait and wonder why nobody comes, wonder some more until a bell rings and the doors open and they go home.

The other man, Wes, is not as comfortable as Jeremy in his sitting or standing or nondescript state, because Wes pulled himself out of a previous life of homelessness and drug addiction and stealing and scouring litter bins for pieces of nutriment, where sky was home’s ceiling, and his mind and body are only beginning to recover from seven seals of E, and when he’s walking to the subway after an uneventful day, he notices a young girl with a dirty sandwich in a dirty hand under dirty eyes and filthy hair, a lot of which Jeremy fails to spot, because when Jeremy’s periphery tells him she’s there, he looks in the shop window in an effort to ignore her and a further effort to persuade her not to ask for anything because all she’d do is snort it up her nose or hand it to someone who’d either do the same or keep the girl in the position to which she’d become accustomed. Besides which, Jeremy’s on his own and she’s on her own and no one’s watching.

When Wes reaches the subway, he spots the strains and stains on the worker cleaning the floors in the underground grand foyer where the ants hop on the trains and remembers the pain in his feet and how filthy his socks were and how good a dip in temperate water felt after thirteen hours on his feet and oftentimes sixteen, before he could take that life no longer and slipped further into retreat under bottle and tablet. Nor does it escape him that the clerk in the store a couple of blocks from his apartment looks glazed and he knows the sign is not a drug-induced coma, but sleep deprivation in the form of two jobs, a weekend gig, three mouths to feed with one more on the way and a night class because he’s aspiring to become the supervisor in the store one day.

In contrast, although Jeremy sees the conditions of these individuals under weight of their daily toil, he doesn’t know that weight, because he’s had the pleasure of working non-stop since he left college in places that afforded him the luxury of not needing to know, and therefore cares not to empathize in a meaningful way with their plight in case the mere thought of association pulls its vices into his realm.

The third day, Jeremy and Wes come in and sit and stand and sit in the same spots as the previous day until two new people enter—two women—one young, one middle-aged. The middle-aged woman is blank and stands in a corner with her face towards the edge, while the younger woman in a short skirt can’t sit comfortably on the floor without worrying about who’s looking where. The men try not to look, worry about worrying the woman, look away, exchange more pleasantries, wonder about the middle-aged woman until finally Jeremy goes up to check on her.

“Are you OK? Would you like to sit down?”

“I’m fine, thank you.”

He hesitates then sits again, glances at the younger woman, makes sure he doesn’t look beneath her skirt, all the while noticing she shifts from where she was seated a moment before.

By the end of the first week, there are eight people under confinement, by the end of the second there are eleven and by the end of the third there are sixteen. Nobody seems too concerned they are sitting in an otherwise empty container.

With the increase in personnel, the probabilities of short and lengthy liaisons rise, and during increasing parts of the day and for increasing durations, Bella snogs Peter and Penny snogs Josh and Maria sits cozily with Melanie and Fred stands cozily with Francisco, until smiles turn to sighs and delight turns to dread, and Bella shifts attention to Maria and Peter starts liking Penny. Penny’s still into Josh though so Leticia now sits beside Peter, but Peter’s still pining after Penny, until he doesn’t anymore and pines in Leticia instead.

Nobody pays any attention to the rising number of bodies and for the most part everyone sits in the same positions as they did when they first arrived. Everyone but Cal.

Cal causes problems the moment he enters for he sits beside his prettiest girl, pressing his leg against hers, so she feels him against her skin as she’s still wearing her short skirts and has no intention of changing. Cal doesn’t worry about worrying her and lets his eyes feast on the contours of her legs, the colour of her skin and the fullness of her lips, and has no qualms about asking her name, “Serena”, and “What a lovely name, I’m—“, until she’s forced to study her phone more intently and shifts sideways so she’s no longer touching Cal but touching Caleb instead.

Caleb doesn’t like the confines and hates intrusive touch but doesn’t want to appear impolite, so he stays in the same spot and continually glances at the beautifully proportioned leg allied to a face he doesn’t find attractive in the slightest. He endures the leg-touch under the confines of his linen suit until the day passes and he can escape, and when he returns the following day he sits beside her again but with the orgasmic-inducing chasm from the sliver of air between them, his order temporarily restored.

Cal and Serena play ping-pong sitting and standing alternately such that he’s either touching her exposed leg or her exposed arm, while sometimes he gets lucky and touches both. The room looks at him and doesn’t look at him as he expresses his satisfaction through guttural grunts, but nobody does anything because they have their places in which they sit and don’t want to upset themselves or anyone else.

The air in the container grows to a stifling haze as the day progresses; conversations come and go, phones, once forgotten, appear and add more personalities to the room—pops and squeaks and beeps and vibrations and exclamations in ever increasing disarray, with random phone calls to the world outside and random phone calls inwards.

Sometimes the button bell rings and everyone looks towards the opening doors and watches an outstretched hand pass something or things to a face that beams more often than not, in a female face more often than not than a male’s, whereupon the doors close again and the life in the face vanishes as quickly as it rose, until it erupts in little patches as it leafs through the delicacies proffered.

One day the outstretched hand on the outstretched arm tenders a flower, and a pair of lips descend on the other pair of lips, Serena’s, and a whispered “Oooh” and a whispered “Ahhh” erupts from the duo, and when Serena sits down, luxuriating in her new-found status and she touches Cal’s legs, Cal shifts his weight so he no longer feels her because Cal didn’t like the way Serena’s lippy partner looked like he could pick Cal up with his pinky finger and entangle his face in aluminium without an ounce of effort. In the meantime Jeremy loses the discomfort and disgust he felt, as does the middle-aged woman and most of the clientele in varying degrees, and all are glad it’s shifted away from them by an external force rather than by a selfless gesture of theirs to change seats, which would have forced them to sit beside the man who can’t respect simple boundaries.

Poor Caleb suffers some more, as the luxuriating Serena stretches her limbs and touches his leg under the confines of his linen suit, and his politeness can’t possibly encroach on her new-found freedom, and so he seethes internally, while Cal, after briefly checking out the middle-aged woman who still has her back and therefore her derriere to the rest of container’s clientele, turns his attention to the woman in the lovely black suit and high heel shoes.

The comings and goings on the carousal brings more butterflies and heartache and awkwardness and politeness, and sometimes when the affected look for a positional change luck brings forth serendipity, but oftentimes it doesn’t, and all this time Cal witnesses these comings and goings without anyone wanting to sit beside him, in case he turns his attention from the woman with now flat shoes and brown suit and no makeup, looking like the proverbial scatterbrain turned visual. But that doesn’t dissuade Cal from leering at her from the same attractiveness he’s projected since he entered her life, and it doesn’t dissuade anyone else from keeping up the pretense the woman will be fine and she looks better in brown and flats and her eyes without makeup are more natural and show a hue much brighter, for it’s better to stay in denial and not reflect on them coated in tears.

Near the end of the fifth week, or it could be the fifteenth or the fiftieth, a young man in shorts and a T-shirt with a lightning mark on the front, appears near the end of the day and positions himself in the middle of the elevator, circling his body until the day ends, whereupon he never returns.

The following week another young man appears, in another pair of shorts and a T-shirt with a dragon emblazoned on the front and a cricket ball and a cricket bat etched on the back, and he also positions himself in the middle of the elevator, spinning so fast a breeze spreads to the rest of the group, affecting them with varying degrees of distress and frustration and anxiety and motivation and by day end, for those who usually prefer to sleep, some envy and an unwelcome version of silent diatribe. He’s there the next day too, in the same position, doing the same things, causing the same effects until he provokes people shifting a little from where they’re sitting or standing such that they enjoy more benefits from the breeze or less detractions from the breeze, and provoking others to notice those who like the effects and don’t like the effects, such that those same people remember those consequences. The man in the T-shirt is there the day after and the day after and so on until it becomes noticeable he’s not spinning quite so fast, or causing the same breeze or focusing so much within the room as without, and the room relaxes as he relaxes and pulls him into the common sense of lethargy under weight of acquiescence.

The effects linger though and some of the men and some of the women and some of the white people and some of the black people and some of the, well, people, wonder whether they’re capable of spinning and causing similar effects, or whether those who enjoyed the benefits of the breeze were capable of spinning alone or in unison with each other, all the while, causing them to stand and think more often than they did before.

More time passes, and Cal still causes discomfort to the woman in even flatter shoes and Caleb endures more touching from the beautifully proportioned leg, until one week, Selena’s ardour splays itself in a spidery web that entangles Caleb day after day, until the rising of the third he can endure it no longer, and under feigned equanimity and an unequal distaste for the discomfort of the woman opposite, whose name he doesn’t know, he stands and leaves his place and inserting himself between Cal and the woman-with-unknown-name, offers a trade which she jumps at and is seated beside Serena before Caleb’s able to complete his offer with, “What do you think?”

The days grow longer, the numbers grow larger, and there’s no more standing room, and so a new type of person enters, and this person adds a shelf and a second and a third and goes away again, and later that day an older man enters and sits on the shelf, as does the middle-aged woman as soon as she sees they are available to sit upon. The older man engages in conversation with Caleb, while the middle-aged woman now sits with her back to the edge and her front to the older man, and she talks for the first time since she entered when there’s a lull in his conversation with Caleb. The third shelf remains empty that day and the next, but then the unknown-named woman, who’s Alisha, sits on its edge and stays for a few days then returns to her original position, albeit slightly closer to where the middle-aged woman was standing in the corner. Alisha returns numerous times to the shelf for longer and longer periods until she eventually returns no more and stands in the spot which the middle-aged woman vacated.

Every day the elevator is a cacophony from phones and conversations and minor standing adjustments and minor seating adjustments and munching and slurping and other diminutive clamour. Fresh faces descend into stifled souls as quickly as the air. With no further room to move, Jeremy thinks back to the relative freedom of his first days and weeks, when he didn’t care whether there were young people or old people or male people or female people or white people or black people or brown or yellow or blue. It didn’t matter for they all sat in their positions and didn’t bother the next person unless you were Cal and didn’t know the finer points of social boundaries.

The air reeks with perfumes and deodorants and after-shave’s and nail varnish and hair shampoos and body conditioners, all mixed with female body odours and male body odours from oppressive heat and suffocating stress and sometimes smothering boredom and oftentimes excitement in the form of snogging or canoodling or unwanted touch. In order for Caleb to exit, he has to barge into John’s legs who is sitting atop Ger’s legs, squeeze through the chasm of air between Tiff’s back and Brenda’s back, force a path through Christian and Jeremy and Leticia and Peter, knocking Georgia and Bella and Melanie and Maria, all the while inhaling body odours and processed odours until he finally has his face scrunched against the doors that don’t open anyway because he has to wait for his buttons to be pressed.

There’s a half-hearted attempt by Jeremy and the older man to set up a rota to equalise the discomfort imparted to each individual over time, but this quickly breaks down because no one can figure out a way to solve the permutations or combinations that will satisfy the constraints of who can stand beside whom or who can sit atop whom or who can be face to face to whom, without causing further grief to other interested parties. And anyway, those invested with perceived positional advantage have no intention, whether explicitly expressed or implicitly acknowledged, in agreeing with such a rota as it will disrupt their alignment and centre-of-being.

The change in circumstances is enough to set off a chain of events where the positions everyone once held are no longer sacrosanct, because there’s a growing body of side-stares and side-winks and direct stares and hood-winks with unspoken agreement that something’s a-brewing, until finally when getting ready for entry one morning, there’s a subset of the troupe that give no credence to what has gone before and position themselves strategically, so when they enter the room they’re beside the shelf with the older man, who has lots of experience and advice to offer, or they’re beside the woman or the man or the white person or the black person with whatever characteristics offer sight of a better world. When the jostling for this new order has played itself out and a relative equilibrium re-emerges, the subset appears to act collectively in a top-down hierarchy such that the best placement goes to the alpha and the second placement to the beta and so on down through the ranks until the subset have their positions solidified and no one outside the subset dares to or has the motivation to change the new status quo. As a new individual is added to the mix and they become aware of the hierarchy, they either become a newly qualified member of the burgeoning subset either adding to it or supplanting a fallen member, or they fail to make any impression at all and slither into the outskirts.

On occasion, someone has the idea that choosing a specific characteristic such as white people over black people, or male people over female people, or clever people over not-so-clever people, is a way to cause division within the clientele and as a consequence, allows those with the chosen traits to benefit from the introduction of those ideas, despite no one in the room being able to pinpoint the individual that came up with the idea in the first place, and many present are not comfortable with the delineation along lines that seem arbitrarily picked, but who are they to say because they’re just one person, in this case Melanie, who now gets to sit beside the woman who’s sitting beside the older man who can offer them advice and reflection.

Melanie also sees the deterioration that soon has body piled atop body and face stuffed onto shoulders and hands caught under legs and legs caught under hands, and rear parts shoved into side parts and side parts thrust over front parts, such that the plethora of bodies looks more like a pile of rubble, and although Melanie sees the conditions of the individuals under weight of this daily pile, she doesn’t know that weight, because she’s had the pleasure of sitting beside the woman who’s sitting beside the older man, and therefore cares not to empathise in a meaningful way with their plight in case the mere thought of association pulls its vices into her realm.

No matter how bad it gets, everyone inside the subset and everyone outside the subset savours their one-step-removal from the subway cleaner and the corner store clerk and two steps removed from the homeless and drug-infected and enjoy the veneer that shines more brightly either side of where they’re teetering, while they watch those below them aim or wish for their position, just like they themselves aim or wish for the position above them, without looking beyond and above to the higher echelons that benefit from such a fractured set of stepping stones that keep conflict scattered and fragmented throughout the levels until there’s nothing left to give when it reaches the summit.

A few more months pass and when they enter one morning, there are ropes coming out of the ceiling with plush seats at their ends, and the container seems taller and maybe a little narrower, and when people notice this change and appreciate what it means, the ruling subset jostle for the ropes and jump into the seats, where the air is fresher even after lunch and the longer hours of the afternoon, and unbeknownst to the troupe below, a little coconut shell appears beside each seat mid-morning and again mid-afternoon, and the seated eat the little gifts that keep them jostling for position the following morning and the morning after that and so on until they don’t see the masses below and only think of the fresher class of air and coconut and sometimes peach.

When Wes manages to relocate to one of those seats, he fails to spot the clambering for space at first influx each morning and the jostling and hustling and now squabbling and brawling and now clashes and confrontations, as man sits atop woman and woman sits atop man in an ever increasing volatile pyramid, because after Wes’s periphery tells him it’s there to witness, he keeps his attention on his seat or his mid-afternoon snack in an effort to ignore said pyramid and a further effort to persuade the masses from asking for anything because all they’ll do is use it to buy the latest fashions or trends or a multitude of the same item, or they’ll hand it to someone who’d either do the same, or keep them in the position to which they’d become accustomed.

Wes also fails to notice that because the confinement is no longer capable of holding the heaving masses, there are now those who suck in their breaths to reduce their imprint and when that fails, more and more of the troupe arrive each day with less and less inside themselves, allowing a brief reprieve to those who can then sit again in the laps of others or on their shoulders before the next influx requires a new wave of reductions and then another and another until such time most of the troupe are nothing but emaciated skeletons wandering around an otherwise empty container in an empty building in an empty world waiting for the bell to ring so they can go home to an alarm clock and a shower and maybe a partner’s kiss and a ceiling that’s not made from sky.

As Wes improves his lot further, the seat grows a nice little platform that removes the masses from his view entirely, so he doesn’t need to be aware of their presence, which is a welcome relief because it’s no longer that pretty sight it was when he first landed. As he continues on his journey, he figures out ways to prod larger holes in the roof only he or his brethren is aware of, and he manages on occasion to slip out unnoticed. When he returns, the seat remains and the platform remains and he slides down the rope without having to endure any interactions with those below, and soon he doesn’t come through the doors anymore but enters by the rooftop sporting a balcony that includes loungers and desks and chairs and coffee stations and water fountains and potted plants and a lovely night out on expenses.

The new surroundings provide a limitless view of what can be achieved so he pushes his attentions in new directions and finds he no longer cares for the confines of the room and the seat and the platform and the ropes and a lousy night out on expenses, so he devises a plan to create a new type of container in a similar type of building that houses the same types of people, and once he’s tapped into this source, he finds eloquence in its exponential possibilities, so he thinks why stop at a few thousand containers in a few lousy buildings full of the same types of people? He discards those constraints and creates a new doctrine or religion or fact-finding mission that fills the holes in the lives of the masses and he’ll figure out the consequences tomorrow, be those on people or animals or forests or gasses such as the percentage of oxygen in a breath of filthier air because can’t they all emigrate to Mars.

And what about those masses? Have they noticed Wes has slipped out of the room and out of the seat and out of arena and is now pushing their buttons to add more obscene zeros away from practical togetherness and on to the abstract notion of individual wealth? Or have they emigrated to Mars or Venus or Earth’s moon or Outer Mongolia or anything else in between?

Jeremy is increasingly full of despair, squashed in a box in stifling air, waiting for the buttons to enter and exit, while he wiles away the day like everyone else including those whom he thinks are present in the seats, although he can no longer see or speak to them.

Alisha is increasingly full of despair, because despite many attempts to prevent Cal from hassling her and hounding her and catcalling her and touching her up, attempts that are initially anonymous but then more and more overt as each fails to deliver any respite, she doesn’t appear one morning, because she’s no longer capable as she decided it was better to take a bottle of vodka and a bottle of pills and shove them down her throat. The effect of her absence is a minor skirmish to take her place beside Serena.

Serena is increasingly full of despair, because despite her new found freedom from Cal and her oftentimes freedom from the colour of her skin or the shape of her gender or her desire to be with whichever identity she chooses or whatever other characteristics help to keep the masses squabbling, she shows an obscene absence of knowing where her place is in the world, and to keep her in that place, she figures out ways to torment herself with issues that are of no importance while buying items of no importance and listening to opinions unsupported by fact.

Fred and Francisco are so full of despair they leave and venture into the woods and build a campfire inspiring a growing community of like-minded individuals, who don’t care one jot for what names they are called, because they stop worrying about the latest this and the latest that and focus instead on building a community of barter traders many call a cult but they call just. They are lucky because they choose an area full of oil and forests and other natural resources of invaluable use to a growing population, but they don’t believe in luck and haphazard good fortune and decide instead any wealth generated by such natural resources belong to the masses and not an arbitrarily chosen few.

The original container on the other hand is one of hundreds or thousands in the same building or millions in the same country or across the globe and how can you ever change anything when you’re a single person who can’t even tell Cal to leave a stranger alone unless you’re Caleb and in need of moving. Worse still you’ve no idea who’s pushing the buttons that allow you to enter and exit in the first place, and even if you’re like Fred and Francisco, you’re only a single community where it’s easier to divide the wealth because you don’t have a multitude of areas with different resources that require a hierarchy of organisations in an ever increasing bureaucratic disarray that taps into the self-interest that allows a burgeoning subset to begin its infiltration there too.

So, maybe life is like Jeremy’s, and it’s easier that way, because it’s too difficult to conceptualise the changes needed to prevent the misallocation of resources, and so he sets the alarm for 6 a.m., gets out of bed on the first shrill call to arms and into the shower. He’s now out of the cascade with no time for leisure, eating the quick-drying food washed away with coffee and slips into and under the suit laid out the night before. He ties the knot and kisses his partner, gets into the subway with briefcase now full and phone in hand, shirt damp with resentment and bitterness and pressure and deadlines, gets out of the subway, not long now, through the glass doors, up the stairs, fortieth floor, red face, conversation openers practiced and at the ready.

“Hello.” And, “Welcome.”

He puts the filthy sandwich in the filthy hand attached to the filthy girl out of his mind while they bring him to an elevator he now knows is not an elevator and when they show him the ropes he slides in and notices he’s not the first.

“You’ll work on this seat here.”

He eats the coconut or peach or whatever morsel is delivered mid-morning or mid-afternoon, until he stands out of the seat, sits, stands again, waits and wonders and waits again, until he goes home and resets the alarm for the following day, without giving much thought to who is pushing the buttons and instead lies awake fearing the sky as his ceiling while figuring out how to prod more holes in the roof, because life’s easier that way.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul O’Connor lives in Ireland. He is a graduate in Commerce at U.C.D. (Dublin, Ireland) and Computer Science at Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland). Paul has worked for over 20 years in the software industry. One of his stories was a flash fiction contest winner with Two Sisters Publishing. He was also shortlisted for a local literary festival short story competition, ‘June Fest 2018’.

 

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