The Departed  

By Linda Boroff  

Though the layoffs happened days ago, the empty cubicles of the Departed remain untouched. Their gray, padded walls still display cartoons, awards, and lapel buttons from trade shows. Posters announcing product launches droop from their push pins. Computers stand inert beside telephones patiently blinking undelivered messages.

Guiltily, I tiptoe past the deserted cubicle of Herman Brandwine. Herman was a pale, broad-hipped software engineer with a frizzy, receding hairline. He had seemed to visit the restroom on the same schedule as I did, homing in on his male symbol with an urgent, duck-footed gait. Several times, we nearly collided.

Penny Dahlen, an accounts payable clerk, has left behind the wolf posters that decorated her cubicle. The yellow eyes of the abandoned wolves track a passersby with a cornered, territorial glare. Penny had a lopsided grin and long, oily blonde hair. Her nasty ex-husband Royal had stalked her, lurking in the bushes outside the building or in the parking lot to spring out shouting of betrayal, of orgies and worse.

These Silicon Valley firms sometimes destruct, I am learning, much like supernovae. A period of general instability suddenly culminates in a great ejection of employees, accompanied by a spewing of gaseous press releases. Following this, a smaller, denser entity may emerge composed of odd particles and hierarchies. Often, though, the company continues to decay, vanishing at last into a sort of black job hole, pulling other firms into its dead, vacuous heart.

For me though, great-granddaughter of a Vilna rabbi, the layoffs were more an ethnic persecution than a cosmic event. Secret cadres met, rumors flew. Work grew random, minimal. Everywhere, people gathered in tense, whispering little knots, exchanging questioning looks and shrugs. A pervasive sense of helplessness caused some to grow feverishly self-indulgent, wasting money on frivolities, sauntering defiantly late from lunch as if to beckon fate. Others, embittered, declared themselves unappreciated and conspired against. Most simply waited numbly. Every ending was a beginning they insisted, without conviction.

On the fatal day, many were plucked away by their managers, others merely vanished on break. Laconic security guards briskly escorted out,dazed, the former colleagues, now potential saboteurs and fifth columnists ducking their heads like HUAC informers.

I work in Marketing Communications. My group, which had warred intermittently with Corporate Communications, was outmaneuvered in the boardroom and fell decimated, our Director ignominiously banished, our functions outsourced. I alone survived, shielded perhaps by my indifference. Nobody really plans a career in Marcom anyway. Marcom is, rather, where people end up: Aspiring actors and singer-songwriters, shell-shocked English teachers, addled psychology majors, law school dropouts, starving freelance journalists, and, of course, perennially hopeful novelists like myself. We all seem to land in Marcom, serving the insatiable need of the arriviste computer to explicate itself in human terms; to ingratiate itself even as it eclipses us.

My company's latest slogan is "Reaching New Horizons." In the advertisements, computers glow amid towering cumulus. Reels of digital tape spin through a star-littered cosmos. Back on earth, heroic terminals dominate Arizona tablelands or perch imperially atop Venezuelan tepuis. I can no longer watch a sunset without imagining some piece of computer hardware superimposed upon it.

Day after day, I type away listlessly at a flyer intended to help rebuild morale: The RIF, "reduction in force" has so lightened the company, I argue, that we are virtually airborne, soaring into profitability. I assure myself that nobody will actually read this clatfart, and even if they do, won’t believe it. To preserve my sanity, I surf the Web blatantly, reading Moby Dick, and later, a message board for survivors of Strep A, the flesh-eating bacteria. Some of its victims had merely barked their shins or pricked a finger before being half-devoured by the opportunistic germ. White whale, seamstress or marcom, one’s fate seems invariably to be shaped by the agenda of some other creature. I haven’t been spared:

"This is going to hurt like hell, Margi," had warned Ronald, my boyfriend of four years. He drew deeply on his beer and swallowed. "I've met somebody." The air between us sagged as if unable to support the weight of the confession.

"Who is it?"

"She’s in my chemistry class. She wants to be a veterinarian."

"And you a plastic surgeon. Why, you could go into business together and offer retriever rhinoplasties. Lipo for lhasas." Against his will, he began to giggle.

"God, I’m going to miss you."

"Admit it. You weren't taking chemistry to become a plastic surgeon. You were taking it to meet somebody." Ronald cocked his head, and I turned away so I wouldn’t see the self-mocking smile, the blue eyes narrowing with delight at this sudden insight. "You may be right. I never thought of it that way."

"I was going to move to San Jose anyway," I lied. "I’m suffocating here in Santa Cruz. With you." He blinked.

"When were you planning to tell me? Hell," he scoffed, with the authority of a retired FBI agent discussing terrorism on CNN. "You won't last six weeks in Silicon Valley. You'll lose your mind."

As with many wild shots, I had hit the truth squarely. I was indeed suffocating, my life slipping away. I had been hanging out in Santa Cruz since I graduated from college, with nothing to show for it but an encyclopedic knowledge of reggae; squandering my dead father's legacy on bad car repairs, Chinese food, and a butt-tuck.

Tall, thin, and dark-haired, with round hazel eyes, I resemble a Modigliani but yearn to be a Klimt — sensual, powerful, profane. I paint my eyes into an upward slant, affect a Klimtish hairstyle, but an elongated, rather mournful visage persists.

Layoffs notwithstanding, I feel reassured by the orderliness of life among the cubicles. Silicon Valley’s numeral world resides peaceably within teeming chips and raceways, obedient to its Boolean logic. In contrast, the corporeal world seems lumpy, rigid and chaotic, as unsettling as the gaze of an Idaho militiaman.

Every morning I drive from Santa Cruz to San Jose over Highway 17, a sinuous black python winding through mountains of oak and redwood, manzanita and bay laurel. The highway is poorly engineered, with blind curves, precipices, and misleading straight descents terminating in tight loops. Commuters share this road with blumbering buses, double-jointed gravel trucks, and gasoline tankers. The inattentive, complacent, or inexperienced driver might round a curve to see (perhaps the very last thing he ever will see) the rear end of an elephantine cement tub complete with girlie mudflaps and "Higher Powered" bumper sticker, toiling along at ten miles per hour in his lane. Intent on survival, I grip the steering wheel, my eyes darting about with primal alertness evolved over millions of years, called upon now to help me dodge not leopard or lion but Audi; not charging aurochs but careening Range Rover.

Marooned in my empty department, I am almost grateful when Kevin, the systems engineer, shows up at my cubicle. "I thought I'd check your memory while I'm in the neighborhood," he sings out cheerily, as if nothing in the world is wrong, and glides into the chair beside me before I can protest that my memory has only recently been upgraded. I had noticed him earlier in the company cafeteria sitting with other technoids, all of them amiable, linear and vaguely spooky, like young Republicans. They range widely among the cubicles upgrading software, weaving networks, debugging and decoding, pushing carts of computer entrails before them and smiling beneficently like wine waiters. Now, in the wake of the layoffs, Kevin is as welcome as an old acquaintance in a refugee camp.

As he settles in, I feel myself succumbing to the intimacy of a shared monitor: Our eyes merge onscreen. Our fingers tap in hesitant unison on the keyboard. A manual lies open across our laps, our knees touching intermittently beneath its discreet mantle. Once, when we reach simultaneously for the mouse, Kevin's hand inadvertently covers mine.

At first I feel embarrassed, a little violated, as he deftly accesses my applications and probes my extensions, not even bothering to ask my password. He works confidently, lips pursed in a silent whistle, murmuring encouragement to the computer: yes, yes, and come on, baby, do it for me. Under his coaxing, hidden recesses of my hard drive yield themselves, responding involuntarily to his touch with new screens and prompts. He holds his face close to mine and murmurs, "You need memory, lady, and lots of it." I blush, thinking recklessly yes, give me all you've got.

"Don’t let the layoffs bother you," Kevin says. "They’re the natural order of things here. I think of market shifts as cosmic events, like the big asteroid that triggered the extinction of the dinosaurs."

"And what does that make us? Dinosaurs or mammals?"

"Mammals, of course."

"I think I’d rather be a dinosaur," I say gaily, giggling.

"You are a fuckin’ dinosaur." The voice comes out of nowhere. Kevin starts and looks past me, his eyes widening and darkening. I follow his gaze and see Royal Dahlen, Penny's abusive ex-husband. I do not know how long he has been standing there. Instinctively, I freeze like a prey animal.

"How ya doin'?" Royal says, and grins. He is missing several teeth.

"Can we help you?" Kevin says colorlessly. Royal ignores the question. He is so out of place here that I cannot process the sight of him. I sit speechless. A wizard tattoo on his shoulder peeps out from Royal’s sleeveless undershirt. His lower arms bear cruder tattoos, a skull and crossbones, a knife dripping blood, and the ubiquitous Zig-Zag man. His hair, anomalously luxuriant, flows down his back in a gray-streaked brown ponytail. Although his frame is thin, his belly sags over a large silver and turquoise belt buckle. A buckknife is strapped to his bluejeaned leg.

"Where’s Penny?" he demands. "Where they keepin’ my wife?"

"She’s gone," I finally blurt. "Penny is gone. She’s laid off."

"Fuckin,’ lyin’bitch," Royal says. I do not see the gun in his hand until it speaks, and then it is Kevin who suddenly slumps over my keyboard like a marionette whose strings have been cut. A small red spot on his back widens rapidly into the weave of his blue shirt.

"You know, the govermint is fixin' to plant computer chips in your brain," Royal bends close to study my face, his eyes a colorless glaze. "They mighta done it already." Kevin gasps, and Royal glares at him. "You smug little sonofabitch." he says. "You think you own the world, you fuckin' teckies. You just remember what happened to the dinosaurs." He raises the gun and points it at me, and the sound is so loud that I do not actually hear it, but rather feel the explosion as it blows me backward in my chair. Watching in shock, I see him turn and disappear among the cubicles like a flea into a dog’s coat.

Only now do I think to run. I rise and my shaking legs somehow carry me through the maze of cubicles and out the front door. Behind me I think I hear more gun blasts, but the sound is oddly blurred, a whump, as if fired through layers of carpeting.

Outside, giant ferns offer their stalks to my hands. I can almost feel their alien blood pulsing, their primitive circulation's still viable after millennia. The air is still. The sun, occluded with little cloudlets, drops suddenly behind the polished angular wedge of a nearby building, leaching the warmth from the lawn around me. But the sun has not dropped; I am lying on my side in the ooze along the shore of the shallow, fountain-fed lake, and only then do I notice the front of my blouse covered with blood. Up close, I see a dead water skater afloat, other skaters attacking its corpse. During the heyday of the dinosaurs, opportunistic vermin hid among them, awaiting their day. Swarming from their recesses, an incomprehensible plague of mammals overwhelmed the rotting earth.

Down in the company’s subterranean data center, the mighty mainframes are pulsing. Tireless android tape robots smoothly hoist and stack their massive reels amid the low, swarming hum of the cooling systems. And for me, here, the two worlds fuse, the numeral and corporeal, the worlds within and without, and I depart.

Linda Boroff graduated from UC Berkeley in English literature and has published print fiction in in Epoch, Prism International, The Cimarron Review, and others. Online she has published in Stirring, The Pedestal, The Starry Night Review, Pulse, and to appear soon in 24:7.

August 30, 2001
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