The typewriters clacked away under nervous fingers as Bossman strode up and down the aisles. Cracking rang out as the stiff knuckles of five hundred workers typed away, each working to produce new forms for Ifreann, Inc.’s new welcome slips. Each page was destined for the company orientation meeting held every Tuesday for new recruits. Bossman had a boss of his own, and the man at the top preferred hand-typed forms to pressed sheets, adoring the personal touch brought by a typewriter.
The once blonde, thin, and pretty Mary Silvestri had been there for forty-three years last Friday, and had once again had told herself it would be her last but had still failed to turn in the two-weeks notice folded in her slacks-pocket. Her crooked back hunched over the keyboard of her typewriter, her eyes squinting. She desperately needed glasses but she could not afford them, even through the company health plans, so she inched closer every week. The hump in her spine was growing worse and she now slept propped up on pillows in her company bedroom, which she shuffled to each night on sore feet and aching knees. Her dresses were woefully out of fashion and frumpy. She sighed, leaned back, and pinched the bridge of her nose to quell the oncoming headache. It did not help, but the pinch fulfilled her need to try. Wincing through a crinkled frown, she clenched her teeth.
“What is the meaning of this?” came a voice to her left. She flinched, shooting forth to once more clickety-clack away at her form. “I mean it,” came the deep drone once more, “I demand to know what you meant by that?”
“By what, sir?” she replied with a sigh.
“This lollygagging.” Bossman leaned closer, looking at her work. “Breaktime is at two in the afternoon, not a second before.” His breath was hot on her shoulder as he leaned too close over her, looking at her typed work through his stern, half-moon spectacles. “ One does not break here without express permission or at regularly scheduled break times. We do not tolerate slacking of this kind.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” she mumbled. “Won’t happen again, sir.”
“Is that sarcasm I hear?” he hissed. “Are you growing snide with me, miss?”
“No sir, no snark on my end. No snide either.”
He slapped a hand down on the long table next to her station, startling her into a jump. “I demand,” he roared, “to know what you think you are doing?” His vocal ruckus was causing a scene; nearby eyes flicked to her station to see what was going on. No one else stopped typing. They never dared, particularly when the Bossman was in one of his moods. “Do you want to be sent upstairs?”
Mary ceased typing once more. “Upstairs?” she asked.
“Yes, you simpering ninny, upstairs!”
“At last,” she thought. Mary had never been upstairs. She had, in fact, only seen two rooms in the building. But here was her opportunity to speak with Bossman’s boss face to faice, without interference “Yes, I would love to be sent upstairs.” She turned to face him. His forehead had broken into a sweat, the beads dripping between the wrinkles in his forehead. Graying and wispy hair stood up in a thinning fluff from his head, disheveled and mangy. His jowls quivered in anger and mild confusion. A tiny tongue slipped forth to wet his lips.
“Why,” he stuttered, “would you want to be sent upstairs?”
“Perhaps,” she replied, “I’ve grown tired of your bullshit.”
He reddened. “Excuse me?” he growled. “What did you just say to me?”
She was bolder now, the thought of him caught off-guard somehow empowering. Bossman was never like this, had always kept his cool, somehow she had pushed him into just the right place by actually requesting disciplinary action. Mary stood, her knees audibly creaking and her back cracking as she stood. The chair pushed away from the table, the wooden legs scraping loudly against the floor. Other workers were frozen in terror at the sight of Bossman, red and fuming with spittle dripping from the corner of his bulldog lips. Shuffling forward, she stood as tall as she could and gazed up into his face.
“I said I’ve grown tired of your bullshit and would like to be sent upstairs. Please, Bossman, could you call the greys so I can head up now? I cannot stand another minute of your prattle.”
He stood before her, working his mouth up and down in an attempt to keep his jaw from falling to his chest. “You…you do not dare to speak to me this way.”
“I dare plenty, you self-important twat.”
“I am Sage Hopkins, Senior Vice President of Human Resources, and have been running this department for nearly seventy-five years!” His voice was painicky now. “You cannot speak to me in this way.”
“Please, then, sir,” she said, a drop of honey in her voice, “just fire me.”
His jaw snapped shut at this. He narrowed his eyes, burning them directly into hers. At this point the shock had spread through the entire room. Silence rang out louder than the typewriters ever could. The room was never this quiet The drab concrete always sang out with noise, whether it was the staccato rhythm of the typing or the shuffling of weary workers. Mary had always imagined that even the cleaning people made noise. Now, with all eyes on her and the Bossman, she was keenly aware that this may have been the only silence the room ever saw and felt it was appreciated.
“Greys!” he roared, splitting the peace.
A whirring sound started up. Mary looked down the aisle to the silver doors at the end of the room – the entryway of the greys. She watched as the lights above the door lit one by one to show their slow progress from their basement lair. There was a pleasant ding, and the doors whooshed open.
Boots sounded out on the hard floor, pounding out the approach. The greys, so-called for their sallow and thin skin as well as their drab uniforms, stomped forward in two lines. Their progression was slow but purposeful as they cut up the aisle and came up behind Bossman.
“Halt!” cried their foreman. The froze. “Right….face!” Steel toes clicked on the ground and the greys spun, turning to face Mary and her angry supervisor. The foremen stepped forward to stand next to him. “What can we do for you, sir?” he asked.
“Take this woman upstairs,” Bossman said, attempting to quell the angry shake in his voice. “Please don’t dally.” The foreman stepped forward and took Mary by the arm to leading her to the center of the two lines.
“You will stay in the center of these two columns at all times,” he said. “If you fall behind we will see it as an attempt to run and you will be apprehended. We will not be gentle if you put up a fight.”
Mary smiled up at him. “Go slowly then, dear. I’m old, and don’t move as quick as you lads do. Take pity on an old woman, or you’ll be ‘apprehending’ me the whole way upstairs.” The foreman’s lips twitched, a smile playing at the corners. Two other workers hands shot to their mouths to cover their own, keeping their eyes on the Bossman to make sure he was not paying attention.
“I think we can handle that ma’am. We’ll set a pace that will be amenable to your own gait. We aren’t monsters ma’am, but we don’t play around either. Is this acceptable?”
“Why the hell,” growled the Bossman, “would it need to be acceptable to her?”
“That will be quite alright, sir,” Mary cooed. “You boys are fine gentlemen, considering an old woman’s troubles this way.” She turned to face the elevator and stood, waiting. The foreman once again took his place in line, standing next to her. Silently, he pushed an elbow to her and she took it, grateful for the support.
“Right…face!” called the foreman. The rest of the company turned to match their direction. “Slow forward…march.” With that the group began to move forward slowly, matching Mary’s speed well and keeping a tight bunch around her. She could hear Bossman breathing behind her, still fuming. She smiled widely, no longer afraid of him, and continued marching with the young men.
“Replacement!” she heard from behind her. To her right, a panel slid open from the concrete. A man, no older than thirty, walked quickly from behind it. She could see others lined up in the darkness where he had emerged from, awaiting their turn at a typewriter. He hurried through the aisles and made his way quickly to her former seat. “Well?” she heard Bossman grunt. “Get to it!”
The greys led her to the elevator and halted, turning about-face at the order from the foreman. He called out for the top floor and the doors slid shut. The last thing she saw of her miserable life was the sight of the Bossman, eyes still locked on her own, his face crimson and panting.
* * *
The upstairs office was quite lovely. Green, sod-like carpet covered the floors and the walls were a deep blue. The entire room looked as though she had found a paradise, an oasis on the ocean floor. A small, brown desk stood before large, gold-trimmed oaken doors. At it sat a pretty redhead. Bright-white glasses sat on the bridge of her small, pointed nose. She looked up and smiled again at Mary. “I’m sorry for the delay, the director should be with you shortly.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble sweetie,” Mary said. She had a grin on her face from ear to ear, happy to be in such a beautiful place as opposed to the drab of her workplace and quarters. The suede, magenta couch was cushy and felt pleasant on her back but the real win so far had been the cup of herbal tea warming her old hands. The citrus and honey had awakened her senses and she felt giddy as she clutched the old mug. It was blue, and had a joyous snowman on it, with a peppermint ribbon attached to the handle. “My dear, is it Christmas season already?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” the young woman replied, turning back to her computer. The woman’s keyboard was covered in a rubber skin that muffled the sound of the typing, which pleased Mary greatly. She was glad to see that not everyone had to suffer the incessant sound of typing.
There was a small beep and the redhead touched a hand to the headset perched on her head, clicking a button. “Yes, sir?” she asked. “I see. Ok. Yes, right away.” She keyed the headset once more and stood, coming around the desk to Mary. “The director is ready for you now.”
Mary stood but looked down at the mug in her hand. “Should I leave this with you?”
“Oh no, ma’am. The director would not be offended or annoyed by you having a mug of tea. He would prefer you to be comfortable and only wishes to hear what you have to say. Take it with you,” she said with a wink, “he may pour you another.” She held out her forearm and Mary took it, allowing herself to be led to the doors. With a loud crack, the large monoliths swung forward to allow entry.
The director’s office was beautiful, stunning in blacks and crimsons with charcoal-grey carpet lining the floor and eerie statues that somehow radiated an innate beauty. Glass display cases held weapons from all over the world – wooden spears and katana mounted on pegs, small knives on displays. On the walls hung portrait-sized prints of famous of famous medieval woodcuts. Lucifer cowering before the power of the almighty and Virgil leading Dante Alighieri through the gates of hell with their powerful Latin warning. Behind his desk, huge and striking, stood a large and blown-up rendition of William Blake’s The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun, the serpent’s tail curled around the shining girl’s legs as she struggled beneath his might. Large windows rose along the walls, letting in the red glow of the city below. It was a harsh contrast to the black clouds in the sky, indicating a rain that seemed fit to burst forth.
It took her breath away.
The large, onyx desk sat towards the back of the room with two comfortable-looking chairs facing it. The redhead led her forward slowly, allowing for Mary’s painful footsteps. The girl led her to one of the chairs and helped ease her into it.
The director sat behind his desk. A small computer monitor was mounted on a silver arm protruding from it and a keyboard sat before it, a mouse at its side. He was wearing a clean, three-piece, tan suit. His red-and-gold-striped tie was crisply formed into a full-windsor knot at his throat to contrast to his dark blue shirt. The man was pale, with strawberry blonde hair and neatly trimmed mustache to match. He looked pudgy but somehow fatherly behind the desk and Mary thought of her own parents, unseen these many years in servitude of the company, and she was comforted by this.
“Mary Silvestri,” he addressed her in a silken voice. “Daughter of Paul and Gretchen Silvestri.”
“That’s me,” she said nervously, taking a sip of her tea, then immediately lowering the cup in a fit of self-conscious awareness. The director smiled at her and a whistling sounded. He removed a mug of his own from his desk drawer, a tea bag already set inside of it, and reached behind the desk.
“I keep a hot plate back here, and a kettle of water, for just such an occasion.” He poured the boiling liquid over the bag and set it aside to steep. “I like a cup just as much as the next person, at least in the afternoons.”
“Oh, that’s such a wonderful thing,” Mary said. “To think, me having tea with the director.”
“Not enough come up to have tea with me,” he said, smiling brightly at her. “We should make a habit of it.”
“Well,” she said, trailing off.
“Ah yes, your request to be brought up here.” He turned to his monitor, clicking on something with the mouse and scrolling down. “I see you had a slight tiff with your Sage.”
“He’s a slave-driver, sir,” she said.
“I’ve seen that. We get a lot of wonderful output from his sector, but perhaps his methods are something we need to call into question. He has been with us a long time and many of his management skills are outdated.”
“How long have you been head of the company, sir? If it’s not oversteppin’ my bounds to ask?”
He laughed softly, a lyrical sound. “You aren’t at all, Mary. It’s a good question.” He picked up his mug of tea and took a large gulp. Mary gazed in wonder at the steam coming off the top, impressed that he was able to take a casual swig of something so hot. “Fact is I founded this company a long time ago. Left a rival to found it so long ago that I can barely remember it. They still have a corner on the market, but we get a lot of revenue and frankly they send a lot of it our way. Nice to have their patronage, really. Their standards are so ridiculously high that they simply cannot bring in much in the way of employees or clientele so we get much more of it. Ours aren’t as prestigious, but we get by.”
Mary was put-off by his openness with a lowly typist. The director’s casual conversation was setting a tingle of unnerving off in her spine. “Sir,” she asked, “it sounds like you know why I’ve been sent up here? I was rather harshly worded with my Bossman.”
“Oh that,” he chuckled. “That’s not why you were brought up here. Not at all.”
“Why, then? Why bring me up here, treat me so sweetly?”
“Mary, may I see the letter in your pocket?”
This caught her completely by surprise.
“The resignation letter. A two-weeks notice, am I correct?”
She glanced around nervously. The letter was extracted and laid on his desk. He reached across, pulled it to him, and opened it. She sipped at her tea nervously as he took another gulp of his, reading her carefully chosen scrawl.
“I see you have had some misunderstandings about not only where you are but what the nature of your employment is.”
“I know it,” she said. “I know what I’m here for. I signed a contract with the company to work off my debt and I did the math. It’s included there, on the second page.” He flipped to read her arithmetic, carefully mapped out on the back. “Took me over a year, sir. I’m not very good with mathematics so I checked it over several times before copying it out.”
“I see that,” he said quietly. “You’ve done quite well. The value of your house and all of the insurance cash you tried to gain has been paid off two-fold.”
“Precisely, sir!” she said, excited that he understood. “I’ve paid my debt to Ifreann and then some. I just want some rest, sir.”
He smiled up at her. “Where do you think you are?”
“Where I am, sir?” she asked. “I’m in your office at Ifreann, Incorporated. I’ve worked as a typist in your pool on the fifty-sixth floor for two thirds of my life, all of it under Sage Hopkins. I live on the thirty-third floor, in a small room with a sink, bathtub, bed, and closet for my clothes.”
“I see,” he replied. “I assume you also know why you are here.”
She sighed, knowing this had been coming. “I’m here because I burned my house down for the insurance payout. I was caught and, instead of prison, I was offered what seems to be basically indentured servitude in order to pay off my debt. I never knew I had gone so much further until I began trying to add it up.”
“And how did you come to all of these conclusions?”
“They told me at the front desk, sir, when they gave me my welcome packet and told me of the deal.”
He leaned his head back and blew out a hard breath, exasperated.
“I’m sorry, Mister Director, I did not mean to be a frustration to you.” She was nervous now, scared that she had found herself in a precarious position.
“It isn’t you,” he sighed, leaning forward over his desk and coming to his feet. “We don’t do things like that anymore, no sugar-coating it. It’s been so long since we told people that kind of thing when they got here. Pity was never our strong suit but we thought we would try it, thought perhaps our output would be better if we could get that going. Things did not go so well when we did that and, frankly, I hated the idea. Much better to be up-front and honest about these kinds of things.”
Mary was confused. “What kinds of things, sir?”
“Luke,” he said. “You may call me Luke. I think, given that you’ve been living under this illusion for so long, we can dispense with the formalities and speak plainly.”
“Ok, Luke. What formalities?”
He came around and leaned against his desk in front of her, pity in his eyes. “Mary,” he said, “you’re dead.”
She felt her heart skip a beat. “What the hell do you mean, I’m dead?”
“Dead. You know, as a doornail and all that. ‘Marley was dead, this must be clearly understood or nothing I say is special’ and on and on. You’ve been dead for decades, and it was the lie we perpetrated that got you stuck the way you have been. I’m just sorry I didn’t notice it earlier, you were meant to be moved a long time ago.”
Mary rose and wandered away to the windows, gazing out. She saw and understood, felt the truth in Luke’s words, and felt a fear rising in her.
“I see,” she said. “How?”
“Well that is more simple,” he said, springing back up and regaining the song in his voice. He crossed back to his chair and began scrolling through the display on his computer monitor. “When you burned the house down you became trapped inside. It was always easiest to keep as much of the truth in the explanation as possible. When you lit the fuse the fire spread through the gasoline more quickly than you had expected and as you tripped up the stairs it engulfed them. You never even made it out of the basement, dear.”
Mary took his words and held them, processing what she had just heard. “Makes sense,” she muttered.
“Does it?” he asked. “We usually get a lot more fight out of people when they learn the truth.”
“Nah, not me,” she said. “I can see what’s going on down there, even from all the way up here. I know where I am and, frankly, it helps me make sense of your age. I figured something was wrong when you said you founded the place. You had to either be a something different or having a laugh, maybe both. It was either that or you were completely ga-ga up in your head.”
“Ah,” he said. “Well then, since you’re processing better than most we can discuss your options.” The smile had returned to his face when she turned around, a crease wrinkling her wizened brow.
“What options?” she asked.
“Well, I did say you were supposed to be moved.”
“Ah,” she said, her face falling. “Down there, you mean.” She was not asking, her future quite clear in what she had gleaned from gazing out of the window.
“Oh no, not there,” he said with another musical laugh. “You were never scheduled for down there. We send too many down there as it is. Do you know how crowded things are getting? We have a waitlist to get out there, that’s how bad it’s gotten these days. Things are quite out of hand honestly, we never expected the company to experience this kind of growth.”
“Where, then?” she asked, puzzled but curious.
“Did you ever learn any Yiddish?” he asked.
“No, can’t say that I did.”
“There’s a wonderful old proverb in that language, fun thing. I use it in a lot of our recruitment packets these days. If your file hadn’t fallen in that awkward transitional period you would have received one much sooner, but you’ll be getting one momentarily.”
Mary crossed the room, slowly. She was intrigued by this turn of fortune and at the prospect of avoiding being transferred outside of the building. Sitting before him, she lifted her mug to her lips and took another sip, draining the last of the cup. “What’s the quote?” she asked.
Luke smiled at her, broadly. He turned, lifting his own mug from the back of the desk and bringing it forth for another blazing sip. “Hell shared with a sage,” he said, “is better than heaven with a fool.”
* * *
Around Mary rose a symphony. The clickity-clacking of typewriters sounded around her, the music rising to elate her spirits. Between her hands was clasped a cane, it’s base pushed firmly to the floor by her gnarled hands as her bony finger swung as a conductor’s baton, counting a four-time. All around her rose the song, the beautiful sound of her creation. She glanced around, watching the helpless and broken as they spun lyrics and song around her. A young man glanced up at her nervously and she put on her best scowl, a dark storm on her face behind her own half-moon glasses, and the man’s eyes shot back down to his typewriter His hands began moving as fast as he could manage.
Mary smiled to herself and raised her cane, tapping it twice on the ground. “Come now,” she simpered, “we must move faster. Can’t keep the director waiting.”
“Yes ma’am, right away Sage Silvestri,” they called out in unison. Mary’s grin spread over her face, a genuine happiness settling into her. Fire warmed her chest and she stood up straighter, her back popping delightfully and her legs blissfully numb as her feet stood in slippers, which stood out against her black suit.
She was home.