“Will you come and visit me in prison?” my new co-worker whispered over the grey fabric covered cubicle wall that divided us.
With a sigh I answered, “Of course I will.”
But this was not how the week began. Being the newest member of the Fidelity Life Customer Satisfaction Team, I earned the cubby next to Mike. His cubicle butted up against the corner, so he only had one shared wall. As our manager led me to my new desk, I saw the furtive glances as I headed toward the only empty cubicle in the row. Were their eyes full of pity or relief?
After showing me my new workspace, which was the same as all the other cubicles, the grey-blue haired woman reeking of White Shoulders peered down her reading glasses at me, the chains attached swinging in the quickness of her motion.
“Lunch is from 12 to one. If you have any questions, ask Mike. He’s been with the company for years.” She dashed away to wherever managers go, and I sat down. The chair had a cracked vinyl seat that dared to pinch my bottom through my best pair of black pants. Onto the grey metal desk top, I dumped the ream of paperwork I had been handed during my orientation, and suddenly was aware of being watched.
“Welcome to my level of hell,” Mike greeted me with all the suffering of the saints painted on his face. His hair was a tornado of dark brown curls, and his brown eyes seemed as deep wells at an abandoned farm house. He seemed the same age as me, not a young man, but old enough to know better.
“Hi, I’m new here,” I said, being the brilliant master of conversation that I was.
But Mike seemed not to notice my lack of wit, and continued on. “I may as well tell you. Everyone will let you know soon enough. I’m not the most popular man on our team.”
“Really?” I said, wondering why this was the most important information that he needed to share. My new neighbor stood tall over the top of our cubicle wall, his shoulders visible. To my eyes, he seemed a healthy man in the prime of his life. And yet his eyes looked a million years old.
“My girlfriend left me,” he continued. “She met this guy at the grocery store, he was a chef or something, and she moved out.”
“Man, I’m sorry,” I offered.
“The love of my life,” he said, his eyes growing wide and even darker. “We were a couple in high school. The night of graduation, we had a big fight. I was going to Arizona State and she was staying local. We were done. That’s what I thought.”
“That’s a tough break,” I said, moving slightly away from him. His face had turned boiling red, and his breath was broken and raspy.
“Why couldn’t she leave well enough alone?” he asked me as if I had been there. “No, no, no. She had to call me up years later, and beg me to move here. She was going through a big break up and she still had my number.” His hands that clenched the top of the cubicle were white.
I attempted another interjection, but the train of his thoughts had already left the station and was steaming full speed ahead.
“It was great!” he bellowed. I looked through my doorway to the cubicle across from us, and a mousy brown haired woman was furiously typing away. “For three years, we were happy, and then she finds this guy at the store! She moves out and immediately marries HIM, NOT ME!”
At this point, I was on my feet, and ready to run to the bathroom, if necessary, to stop the impending storm.
Then the clouds parted, and Mike smiled at me, his lips pulled back from his yellowing teeth. “I hope that guy turns out to be a lazy bum. What kind of a man works in a kitchen?” His cackling laughter echoed in my ears for the rest of the day.
That was Monday. The next day, I rode up the elevator with hope that my second day at my new job would be better. I tried to make eye contact with other cubicle dwellers as I strode down the aisle, but everyone was engrossed in phone conversation or madly typing on their computers. Only one pair of eyes looked my way, over my desk wall.
I shook my head and took another sip of my coffee. Was Mike kneeling on his chair? I walked up to the wall and looked over into his cubicle. My scrunched up face must have puzzled him as he was quick to greet me.
“I’m Mike. Remember me from yesterday? The guy that got trampled in the dirt by the woman he loved?” Of course I remembered him, but I was in shock. He was standing next to his wall. While yesterday, he had cleared up to his shoulders above the top, today only his curly head and eyes were able to see over. Was I crazy? Or did I need a new pair of glasses again?
Mike didn’t wait for my reply before he started back into what I discovered was his favorite topic of conversation. “She called last night.” The white hot anger attached to those simple words could have burned through the wall.
“Dude, what did she say?” I couldn’t avoid asking since that was my line in the script he was writing.
“She wanted the T.V.” The energy of his rage forced him to begin pacing his small workspace. I thought I saw worn paths in the grey carpet, and wondered how long this had all been going on. His eyes glimmered with a fae light. “I wanted her to come get it. Let her come over with her big burly dish washer.” He looked at his trembling hands. “I could take care of them both. No problem.”
Not wanting to further this conversation to the point where I would enter into conspiracy, I said, “I’m sure you could. Well, I’d better get started. Who knows when Mrs. Blinkley might want to see our reports.”
“Later,” he growled, and thankfully I didn’t hear anything more from him for the rest of the day.
On Hump Day, I entered the office with diminished enthusiasm, having concluded that this job would be as dreary as the five previous. A man in a white shirt by the coffee pot said good morning, and I nodded. Walking down the aisle toward my corner, I wondered what Mike might say today. In no way was I prepared for what I saw, or rather didn’t see.
“Morning,” a smaller, squeakier voice said. I looked over my wall to see my dismal neighbor readjusting his tie in a small mirror on his wall. He was standing on his tip toes to see his neck in it. Today he was only half as tall as the cubicle wall! I rubbed my eyes and took a deep chug of my coffee. What devilry was going on?
His tiny squealing voice whined in my ear. “I saw her on the street today. Walking toward 1st Street.” His eyes flashed at me. “I wanted to run her down. All I had to do was jump the curb and take her out. Do you know how hard it was to keep my hands steering the car straight?”
“Now, Mike,” I said. “Don’t you think you’re getting a little carried away? You could really hurt someone.”
“Yeah, that’s what I’m going for,” he giggled.
“I’ve got to get to work,” I said, not knowing what else to say. My hand shook a little as I grabbed my phone, but once I started on my calling lists the day passed quickly. The wall was quiet.
On my way to work Thursday, I struggled to keep up with the flow of pedestrian traffic. Was my co-worker actually getting shorter every day, or was my feeble imagination stretching its legs? I had to talk to someone else about this. It was tearing me apart.
In the elevator I recognized the woman who worked in the cubicle across from me. I think I heard her name was Susan. Stirring my courage, I turned my head toward her, leaving my body in the full frontal position required for elevator travel.
“Good morning, it’s Susan, isn’t it?” I queried.
She nervously turned toward me, as I was breaking the number one rule on an elevator, that you don’t talk to anyone. “Yes, it is. You’re the new guy across from me.” She held her umbrella like a cudgel, prepared for anything.
“I needed to ask you something.” She glared at me and motioned with her eyes toward our fellow riders. “It’s not personal or anything.”
“Well, okay,” she said with a frown.
“What’s the story about Mike?”
Her face froze. “What about him?” she hissed.
“I just wondered,” I said. “How tall is he normally?”
Her eyes narrowed as she said, “What do you mean?”
Under her glare, I lost all conviction. “Never mind.”
“Indeed,” she said with a sniff.
I walked slowly toward my cubicle, dreading what I might find. As I approached, I could hear mouse-like scurrying noises. Unable to help myself, I looked into Mike’s office.
A small child was attempting to boost himself up into the chair. Hearing my approach, he turned toward me. My jaw fell open as I recognized the mop of brown hair.
“Good, I’m glad you’re here. Help me up into my chair,” he squeaked at me.
Not knowing what else to do, I helped the four year old sized man into his chair and adjusted it for him so he could reach his computer keyboard.
“I’m going to do it!” he insisted. “It’s going to be poison. He loves his food so well- let it be the death of them both!”
“Mike,” I said. “Don’t you think you should let this go? It’s eating you up, man!”
“Ridiculous!” he retorted. “They’ll get what’s coming to them. They ruined my life!” As he waved his hands around, he looked like a small child throwing a tantrum over eating his lima beans. Unable to bear the sight of him any longer, I sat down with a sigh. What could I do? Settling into the monotony of my work routine kept my thoughts from wandering. No one else seemed to notice anything. As the new guy, I certainly wasn’t going to ruffle any feathers.
Finally Friday arrived like a package you were waiting for in the mail. My limited capability for accepting new concepts had forced me into ignoring the diminishing stature of my co-worker. Since no one else at the company noticed anything, I was the last person who was going to run through the halls screaming “The Emperor has no clothes!”
I didn’t even look into Mike’s cubicle. I quickly took off my overcoat and hung it on the rack in the corner. I sat carefully on my chair and started looking at my emails. After the seventy-fifth one, I heard a faint whisper coming from the wall.
“Will you come and visit me in prison?”
Unable to resist, I stood up and looked over the wall. Sitting on the chair was a tiny person, barely larger than a baby, propped up on catalogs, holding his head in his tiny hands.
With a sigh I answered, “Of course I will.”
“Thanks, man. You’re the only one who gets me around here. I’m really going to do it, you know. She deserves everything she gets. After all she’s done.” His voice was so small it sounded like a recording heard from another room.
I had to try again. “Mike, do you think that your ex-girlfriend ever thinks about you? She’s going on with her life, and you keep raving on and on about her. Maybe it’s time for you to move on and live your own life.”
He looked at me with his tiny eyes in disbelief. “This is my life!” And he turned back to his computer, turning his baby-sized shoulders against me.
Shaking my head, I sat down to address the myriad of problems that had grown during the week. I was determined to leave work on time that day.
The weekend was filled with too short days and lonely nights and suddenly it was Monday again. The six blocks from my apartment to our office building seemed twice as long as the previous week. I was late again, for no good reason, and I rose up on the elevator alone. Entering the office, I saw the same guy at the coffee pot, now I knew his name was Harold, and Susan was delivering memos to cubicles, something too important for an email. She avoided my gaze, so I didn’t offer her a greeting. That’s what talking in the elevator gets you.
Entering my office, I threw off my coat and scarf, and got to work. Someone had thoughtfully delivered mountains of files into my in box, and I needed to dig myself out by lunch. The morning passed uneventfully, and it wasn’t until after lunch that I noticed that I had not received my daily rant from Mike. In fact, I hadn’t heard anything from his cubicle at all.
Hesitantly, I got up and looked over the wall. His cubicle was empty. No coffee cup, no coat, and his computer was dark. Where could he be?
My phone rang, and I was swept away into problems until the end of the day. As I put on my coat, I glanced over the wall. All was as quiet as a tomb. My mind, now free of the complications of the work day, ran free with wild speculation. Did he quit? Was he fired? Did he finally murder his ex-girlfriend and her lover? Was he really shrinking? This thought caused me to walk gingerly down the corridor toward the elevators.
As the elevator door closed, I stood in the midst of the crowded elevator and wondered. The sinking sensation of the descending car matched the feeling in my stomach as I realized that I knew the answer.