Enjoy our WTP Spotlights, notable selections featuring artists and writers from our Woven Tale Press magazine. To read the issue in full subscribe here.
IN THE WTP SPOTLIGHT: Allan Spencer lives in New York City, where he works in book publishing. He holds a BA in English Literature from Pepperdine University. His writing has appeared in Arcturus and on Adolescent.net.
From WTP Vol. VII #7
When Warren strolled into the office at a quarter till nine, he had no notion that he’d shortly be dead, nor that his demise would come with his pants bunched around his ankles as he sat straining on the toilet. This was the farthest possibility from his mind as he bypassed the elevators and marched up the stairs, as was his custom. Instead, he booted up his computer, whistled a few semi-recognizable bars of some pop song while brewing a cup of coffee in the kitchenette, and at the stroke of nine—and not one minute sooner—made his way to the men’s room, for nothing delighted Warren more than the notion of taking a shit on the company’s dime.
This isn’t speculation; he’d said as much himself on more than one occasion. Oversharing was the only language he knew how to speak, a stand-in for any and all forms of acceptable communication. This was tolerated. His decades-long tenure at the company had placed him beyond the reach of both shame and reproach. Even if that weren’t the case, a statement like that sticks—and we’re an observant bunch. It was Nina, ever punctual, who noted from her cubicle that the light in Warren’s office flicked on that morning at the usual time. Roy, another old-timer, VP of something-or-rather, testified to the coffee-making. Longtime colleagues, they chatted about something unimportant. Something lighter than air—the weather or their grandkids’ recent birthdays, their exchange a balloon absentmindedly lobbed back and forth. Eric from Accounts and Felicia from HR, who were flirting in the kitchenette while the latter toasted a bagel, corroborated this report. When you spend eight-plus hours a day within the confines of the same four windowless walls, picking up on these tidbits is a matter of survival. And so nothing escaped our notice. Nothing, that is, except Warren’s corpse, which remained entirely undisturbed for roughly twelve hours.
An aneurysm, apparently, was the culprit. Not a single warning sign—though he must have been creeping up on sixty, Warren was something of a health nut. It wasn’t unusual for him to call one of us into his office without warning for the express purpose of showing off photos from his latest race. He’d pull them up on his iPhone, for which he’d begrudgingly traded in his ancient flip phone just the previous year—sometimes 10Ks, other times half marathons, always the same tiny running shorts, the color of tennis balls. They made us all squirm to behold, the twin pale stalks, lightly hairy, protruding from the fluorescent legholes. They seemed to go on and on in unnatural proportion, the legs you’d find on Goliath if only he had a size 30 waist.
In addition to drinking cups upon cups of the gunk our communal coffeemaker spewed out, Warren was also known for showing up at work with all manner of juices and smoothies in hand, purchased from overpriced specialty shops that catered to trendy millennials or else were homemade approximations. They were invariably green and invariably reeked. One time Doreen asked if he had a blended-up fish or two in there, which sent him into doubled-over hysterics, that’s how funny he thought it was. To his credit, his digestive system was truly, exceedingly regular. So much so that it landed him behind the closed door of a stall at the exact moment his brain decided to explode.
More than a few of us must have shared the bathroom with the body over the course of the day. The facilities were dank and dungeon-like, with fluorescents that—we’d hazard a guess—hadn’t been replaced in decades. They’d achieved an almost impressive dimness, the twin urinals relegated to the shadows adjacent to the marginally better lit stalls. The real travesty, though, was that no dividers separated the urinals. Therefore, if one were to enter and find one or the other occupied, unwritten office bathroom etiquette and sheer human decency demanded that he retreat to a stall. If one were to enter and find one urinal and both stalls occupied, well, that gentleman was out of luck.
In retrospect, it is now clear that Warren’s passing created a bit of a traffic jam that day as we returned from our lunch breaks with full bladders and a mighty need to empty them. As one can imagine, the code of conduct was pushed to its limits. More than a few of us had to redirect to the sinks as though we had entered the bathroom with the sole intent of washing our hands, fooling nobody. And we were none the wiser that Warren, stiff, in the earliest stages of decay, was with us. His head probably slumped against the tiled wall. Tongue probably lolling out of his open mouth, contorted in an O of shock. Sure, a few of us noticed with mild irritation that the guy in the other stall was taking his sweet time, but that wasn’t any of our business and quite frankly we preferred to think as little as possible about our neighbor’s lavatorial activities.
And so it was that Warren was happened upon by some poor custodian—bless her heart—long after the last of us had clocked out, happily oblivious of our own close brush with the dead.
The next day, we settled into our cubicles to a company-wide email. The message was a terse and factual description of the who (“Warren Wilkerson, Director of Sales, Northeast Region”), the what (“has, I regret to inform you, passed on”), and the where (“I am obligated to note that the unfortunate event occurred on company premises, and is thought to be the result of natural causes”), concluding with a JPEG of the CEO’s indecipherable scrawl of a signature.
“It was so packed with euphemisms you’d think my mother had written it,” whispered Nina, who had been an assistant for nearly four years and had been assured of her impending promotion for two and a half. After reading the email, she scanned the horizon above the wall of her cubicle for our reactions in order to gauge how she herself should be behaving. The rest of us, meanwhile, were doing the same. What did we expect? Wailing, hysterics, the blowing of noses? Instead, we uncomfortably shifted in our swivel chairs all at once. After an unproductive half hour of this, a few of us absconded to the kitchenette so that we might gossip together in hushed tones.
“Are we sure this isn’t some elaborate, morbid joke? April Fools?”
“It’s September, Ron.”
“His poor wife,” said Maureen, who had been hovering at the edges of the conversation while rummaging through the fridge for her daily yogurt cup. She placed her palm on Warren’s once-beloved coffee machine and heaved a labored sigh, as though doing so were a kindness to him.
“I thought he was divorced,” said Ron.
“He was definitely divorced,” said Nina.
None of us were sure how privy Nina actually was to Warren’s marital status or whether her intent was merely to shut down Maureen, who had started as an assistant just a year ago and had already been promoted to coordinator. Regardless, we found ourselves entangled in a debate as to how single Warren had been at the time of his death. The pro-marriage camp seemed on the verge of gaining the upper hand when the entrance of the new intern, Emily, silenced our dispute. This was not because we felt more strongly the urge to act professionally around the college student than around each other, though we did. No, it was primarily because the weak smile she directed at us did little to distract from her reddened eyes and puffy cheeks, the makeup puddling like watercolors around her eyes. We diverted our topics of conversation in every direction except the obvious.
“Crummy weather we’re having, eh?”
“Would you look at that—I’m about to be late to my ten-thirty, better get going.”
“Molly, how’s your husband been? Andrew, right?”
“Actually, my wife’s name is Gabrielle.”
And so on.
Ignoring or else oblivious to our scrambling, Emily unsheathed a paper cup from an endless, identical stack of its fellows and placed it below the coffee machine. With the press of a button, it began to dispense a steady trickle of hot water. We were all rooting for her—just 30 seconds more and she’d be disappearing around the corner with her beverage in hand. It seemed as though she might make it, her breathing regular if labored as she separated the string from the sachet of her teabag. A bottle of honey sat at the ready, shaped like a bear with a grin wider and more gleeful than it had any business being.
Halfway there—we were just starting to feel optimistic when her hand flew to her mouth in response to a loud, rasping sob she’d failed to stifle. She shook, rattled by all she was suppressing, fresh tears snaking their way down her face. And us? We’d seen what we’d seen, could not pretend it hadn’t happened though we wished, desperately so, to do just that.
Eventually, Ron made a movement forward and opened his mouth, presumably to say something comforting. Emily recoiled.
“It’s just really fucking sad, okay?”
With that she was out the door, gone. The last drop of liquid splashed into the abandoned cup. The ripples unfurled one by one across the water’s surface.
It had been unspoken but understood that Emily, whose graduation would coincide with the end of her three-month internship, would fill the vacancy created by Maureen’s promotion. She was helpful and competent enough. She took initiative, we all said, though we had no specific examples to offer up. And, in truth, nobody wanted to take the time to interview new candidates if it could be helped. But after the incident her future seemed less certain. It wasn’t as though she had any detractors in particular—who could begrudge her an emotional reaction under the admittedly incredible circumstances? Rather, she became an object of fascination. Previously her presence in a room was not felt—a gust of air as she passed by, if that. She took up little physical space and drew no attention to herself. Half of us hadn’t even known her name, to be honest. But now? We couldn’t not see her. Couldn’t not be reminded.
If she was late to work we feared the worst. If she was away from her desk, we wondered what she was up to. If she wore her hair up one day after wearing it down for four, we mined the decision for meaning. We alternatively gave her too little work to do, because there was no telling how close to breaking she was at any given moment, or too much, because we couldn’t have her suspecting that we pitied her.
What did we know about Emily outside of the incident? Her cheeks were round and often flushed, as though she had just come in from the cold. Sometimes she wore glasses, other times she did not. She carried a canvas tote bag containing her lunch in tupperware containers with transparent blue lids and a book whose title and cover changed weekly. She was studying something unexpected. Semiotics? Animal husbandry? None of us could quite remember. She wasn’t from here, not originally.
The day after the CEO’s first email, another followed, announcing an in-office memorial service of sorts—“details TK.” None of us were sure if it would be appropriate to attend the actual funeral or even when it was set to occur, so this time set aside in Warren’s remembrance eased our consciences, settling the matter. We would, in our own way, honor him here, where he spent so much of his waking life. It was fitting, we agreed, nodding sagely at one another.
Some of the higher ups who had worked with Warren for years, maybe decades even, did attend the official service, the one organized by whatever family or friends he maintained outside of this place, blurry people who existed to us only in the abstract. Roy, who had gone, revealed the following afternoon in the kitchenette that Warren’s ex-wife had shown up unannounced, dressed in a blinding turquoise pantsuit with a matching brooch on the lapel, and sat alone in the back of the church, stony-faced throughout. Before the service had even ended, she’d disappeared without a trace.
Maureen scowled when she learned that Warren had been divorced after all.
The details did, indeed, come. On Friday, we sidled one by one into the multipurpose room on the second floor where a projector had been set up by Doreen, the IT girl, to display a photo slideshow. Warren transformed upon the wall before our eyes, a toddler one second, a middle-aged man crossing the finish line of some mystery race the next. College student Warren smiled down at us from between twin curtains of hair that fell to his shoulders. It was as though we were discovering him for the first time, a peek into another world into which we’d never been allowed or maybe had just never thought to venture.
Carefully arranging white-bread finger sandwiches and sloppily-frosted cupcakes on a long plastic table that had been set up against the wall, Emily captured our notice one by one. Our wonder flickered into tension into a sort of anticipation. Would she offer a repeat performance, a renewed ritual of hysterics? The intervening days had brought with them the struggle to understand the girl’s overwhelming grief for a man she had known for a matter of weeks. Eric suggested in jest that they had been sleeping together, and we all shot him nasty looks so that anybody watching would know that we knew that such crass remarks were in poor taste. Tomás, who we all agreed was impossibly handsome and charming, swoon-worthy really, made the same suggestion later, and we shrugged and considered it. Whatever the truth was, they were quite a pair—the dead man and the live girl. The consummate oversharer and the enigma.
Gathered, we took our seats. Doreen, from her perch in the back of the room, restarted the montage, the projected image of her laptop’s cursor stirring to life on the wall. This time the procession of still images was accompanied by music—a quivering instrumental piece, bow screeching mournfully across violin strings, incongruous with the ever-smiling Warren who advanced back and forth through his life in a gentle fade. One Warren wore a suit and stood next to a woman in a white dress with a veil set atop a wild poof of eighties hair. Another Warren was a chubby seven-year-old learning to ride a bike down a sepia-toned neighborhood street. We accepted the lack of discernible chronology in silence.
Besides, our attention was directed instead at Emily.
In the dimmed light, we could at first make out only the amorphous shape of her hair, today worn down, and the silhouetted curve her nose, her chin. Our pupils adjusted to better take in the specimen, widening to engulf her and therefore understand. The soft glow of the screen cast her skin in shifting tones. For each Warren, there was an Emily. One for every possible explanation. Fragility. Empathy. Lust. Narcissism. She was, every second, made new, no trace of the previous Emily, or the one before that. She was everything. Or she was nothing. But if you were to reach in, peel her back layer by layer, you would find, we were confident, something altogether strange and marvelous and kaleidoscopically alive.
The sympathy card had been circulating for a while. At the time of the funeral, when it was supposed to be sealed in its envelope ready to be sent, its whereabouts were unknown, forgotten under a stack of neglected papers in the corner of some cubicle. It resurfaced after the in-house memorial and continued to make the rounds. One morning we would arrive at the office to find the card perched ever so carefully upon our keyboard. We would read what our fellows had already written, both for inspiration and to ensure our own message avoided the pitfalls of cliché. We would Google “condolences” and rage at the internet’s banal offerings, none of them quite right. We would labor over our wording, inevitably coming off as stilted and awkward in our doomed attempts to be the opposite. We would deem our mediocre line or two good enough and pass the card on to another, satisfied that we’d made our best effort and relieved to have it at last out of our hands, out of our minds.
One afternoon Felicia returned from her lunch hour to find the card and, within it, a new note, one of special interest: “With greatest sympathy to you and your family during this difficult time.” Signed simply with an “Emily” formed in elegant cursive loops that stood apart from the scribblings around it.
As we bunched together in the kitchenette to pass around the card, it seemed impossible that the twelve words didn’t contain a clue to a mystery we’d very nearly given up on solving. Emily, at the memorial, had been still, unmoved. She neither cried nor wailed nor beat her chest in mourning. We couldn’t put our finger on why exactly, but we had felt let down. We’d seen her grief once, that unexpected burst of emotion, but it might as well have been within a dream. Reality, since then, had given us nothing, and we were angry. We’d been given a taste and, understandably, we wanted more, enough at least to subsist on. And here it was, our mana from heaven. A new expression of feeling, nearly identical to those which we each labored over in private before her—but we somehow felt this to be more sincere. There was a purity of expression in Emily’s words, in her brevity. We were moved.
Here, three months is an eternity encapsulated within the smallest of instants—the snap of a finger, the blink of an eye. The office is an enchanted place in that sense only. So when Emily’s internship came to an end, we were both surprised and not. There had been some more chatter about taking her on full time, but it hadn’t amounted to any concrete decision. We would be sad to see her go, we said, and in a sense we meant it. Warren’s absence had agitated something in the atmosphere of the office, something imperceptible but fundamental. Like a frame hung in such a way that it tilts ever so slightly—some days you don’t notice it at all and on others it drives you insane, consuming every ounce of your attention. Emily’s departure, we understood, constituted a realignment.
Somebody brought chocolate chip cookies. They were from the bodega on the corner and were tooth-shatteringly stale, but still everybody took one and spread out around the multipurpose room. Emily seemed embarrassed.
“You didn’t have to do this,” she said.
“Of course we did,” we said. “It’s nothing.”
But truly, it was nothing. We did no more or less than we had done or would do in the future for an intern. Cheap baked goods purchased at the last minute. Feigned interest in future plans. The vague promise of references we hoped we’d never have to make good on. Perfunctory, all around. And yet she thanked us, again and again, both for the going away party and the internship as a whole.
“I learned so much,” she said, which we couldn’t imagine was true.
Was she playing the game as well? Just following the predetermined script? The same one from which we’d been reading for years? If you didn’t deviate, if you said what you were supposed to say when you were supposed to say it, you continued to move along the conveyor belt, rewarded with promotions and raises and more responsibilities you never wanted in the first place. But Emily, she was above all this, wasn’t she? We returned to the sympathy card, to the genuine emotion we’d read into it. That was the Emily we wanted. The Emily who felt so deeply, who wept for a stranger’s death. That was the Emily upon whom everything hinged.
Neither Emily was present the following Monday when we arrived at the office. Without meaning to, some of us glanced over throughout the day at what had once been her desk. We weren’t sure what we were looking for or why we felt displeased at not finding it.
We seldom spoke of her after that. A month later when Eric couldn’t find a report he’d been assigned, he explained he’d last seen it when he gave it to Emily to proofread. Molly asked, “Who’s Emily?”
He paused before answering. He had to think about it.
On the one-year anniversary of Warren’s death, Nina, who had finally been promoted to coordinator two months prior, was one of the few to take note; it was also her dog’s birthday. She brought it up, a nugget of trivia, and we all nodded meaningfully, trying to conjure the grief we were sure we had felt at the time. What does one do on the anniversary of a coworker’s death? We weren’t sure. Ron lifted his paper cup full of coffee and said, mostly jokingly, “To Warren.” We followed suit. What more could we do?
We dispersed. Some yawned, though it was only noon. Others lingered in the kitchenette, manufacturing conversation to fill the minutes. Eventually, though, we all returned to our various cubicles, shut the doors of our offices, and once again we were, each of us, alone. All throughout the building, separate hearts thudded, keeping our individual bodies alive. Each, for the moment at least, steadily ba dum, ba dum, ba dum-ing, proclaiming, I am, I am, I am. It would be impossible to hear all of them at once, of course, muffled by layers of skin and muscle and ligament and bone as they are—but if you could, they would together be impossible to ignore, a sweet swell of raw discord, loud and rapturous and beautiful beyond all comprehension: we are, we are, we are.