Tuesdays are curious. They’re particularly and troublingly curious when an entire building disappears from the office park you’re working at. Twelve stories of concrete, metal and glass slipping quietly into nothingness. Or, at least, away from this particular thingness.
I was working security at Elysium Fields, a tidy sequence of corporate campuses hedged in by well-mowed grass and perky batches of black-eyed Susans and catmint. A manmade pond, with a sputtering fountain at the center, sat at the far corner of the layout. Thirteen buildings loomed over the park’s streets. Most of the buildings were modern and shiny, a few were holdovers from the 70s and were built in the brutalist style.
None of the workers from various offices interact. If multiple corporations are housed in a single building, it’s rare for employees to do more than nod politely at their counterparts on other floors. It would be regarded as wholly odd to strike up a conversation with an accountant, sales representative, or IT tech from a neighboring business. An unspoken rule exists -- keep to your own. Even then, keep it down. No one wants to be at these offices, so far as I can tell. Any form of spontaneous merriment or too-loud camaraderie results in sideways glances and chilly gossip in the breakrooms. People expect misery to find them company, even if Machiavellian tactics are necessary to conscript coworkers. If one person is limping begrudgingly into the office on Monday, everyone will be limping out -- individually, never together -- by Friday afternoon.
There were perks. Security work is easygoing in corporate office parks. You rarely grapple with real crime. Most of what we dealt with was “unsightly humanity” leaking into the controlled grounds. That was code for a homeless person walking around the office park. If an itinerant managed to stroll our streets, it was a guarantee that I would be getting multiple calls from multiple buildings within a matter of minutes. I’d take my golf cart over there, collect the poor guy, and deposit him at the nearest main road with a polite warning not to return.
Other than that, we mostly dealt with reports of break-ins (call the actual police) or the odd suicide (again, call the police). The former required little from us. We’d tape an area off until uniforms arrived and occasionally brush people away from the scene, but there wasn’t much else for us to do. The jumpers were more complicated. CEOs and other leaders wanted to keep those instances quiet, so we were encouraged to draw as little attention to the person on the roof as possible. The police were told to visit the park without activating their lights or sirens. If the jumper jumped, oh well. Better it was done and over than draw heaps of attention from the workers. They were workers, logic told you, so they needed to work. That’s what one CEO told me.
Luckily, jumpers were rare. Most people seemed miserable working their day jobs, but none were gutsy or isolated enough to kill themselves.
Finally, there were the geese. This was our most common complaint. Canadian geese are famously unfriendly birds. They squawk and wave their wings at passersby. They poop on everything. They’ve been known to bite calves and butts if provoked. And sometimes without provocation. They’re not pleasant animals.
As security, there was little we could do about the geese. We’d shoo them for a bit. We tased one once. But we aren’t interested in being squawked at or bitten either. Our new policy was to call animal control, but we still got geese complaints.
I was investigating one such complaint -- about an overly aggressive goose haunting a parking lot -- when I noticed the Freeman Tech building was no longer there.
And I remember thinking, “Wasn’t there a building there?”
The parking lot remained, I noticed that. Dozens of cars sheathed in their yellow spaces. A sidewalk ran up to a huge, dry patch of dirt. Flowerbeds were arranged around the not-building like they were waiting to greet people as they walked into the nothing. But the building was gone.
And, I reasoned, so was everyone inside.
I stopped my golf cart and walked up the sidewalk. I stooped and picked up a handful of dirt and sniffed it. I don’t know why I did it. I thought maybe my olfactory would unlock the mystery. They say scent is your most powerful sense. But all I smelled was dirt. It reminded me of playing with ladybugs in my grandmama's backyard.
The nothing got weirder the longer I looked at it.
The Freeman Tech building had a basement. It didn’t make sense for the dirt to be level, I thought. It was like a gravesite; someone had filled the burial hole. This sent a shiver down my spine because, for the first time, I decided something nefarious was happening.
Then, I saw Joe.
Joe is not his real name. I’ve changed it for this story. Joe seemed like a common enough name that you couldn’t identify him easily, but it also seemed appropriate. If you met Joe, you’d think, “This is a Joe.” In some ways, I’ve upgraded his name. Improved it, possibly. It’s more fitting now.
Joe was covered in blood, purple goo, and what looked like a ropy tentacle with pincers at the tips. He was carrying an ax. His clothes were stained and torn in spots. His hair was likely not in the same place it had been when he left for work that morning. Overall, I’d say he seemed like he’d been through it.
“Hey,” he said to me.
“Hi,” I said back, not entirely sure what you say in a situation like this. “Was there a building here before?” I added the question after a short pause.
“I think so,” Joe said. “I’m not entirely sure it was ever a building.”
This was a weird thing to say. Buildings either are or are not. There’s not a lot of space for ambiguity, I thought. But I had never dealt with a disappearing building before.
“Do you need a change of clothes?” I asked.
“I’m alright,” he said.
“You sure? It looks like you’ve been through it,” I said. I mentioned this to you previously, but it bears repeating, Joe definitely looked like he’d been through it. I’m not sure what it was, but Joe traversed it.
“OK. I could use a ride, too.”
“I could do that. Can you maybe tell me what happened?”
“For a ride and clothes, why not?”
In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t asked for the story, and I wish he hadn’t told it. But all bad turns deserve another, so I’m sharing Joe’s story with you. As best as I can remember it.
Joe's Story According to Joe (And Me)
Joe’s day began like all his other days: miserably.
He woke three minutes before his alarm. He checked the clock, closed his eyes hard, and pretended he would get up before the ringing started. Instead, he lay in bed and drifted to the edge of sleep. Then the alarm blared, and he shot bolt upright, feeling weary and idiotic. This was how all of his workdays started. He tried to sleep late on weekends, but his body rebelled, keeping him stuck to his routine.
So, he woke.
After dragging himself from bed, he started his shower (Joe’s apartment has lax plumbing and the shower needs time to hit appropriate temperatures, he says), brushed his teeth, stared at the Che Guevara portrait tattooed below his shoulder on his right arm, apologized to the tattoo for failing, and then washed in the lukewarm stream in his shower. He dressed, ran out of time for coffee or breakfast, and dashed to his car.
Then, he waited in traffic for 45 minutes. He rolled down his window on the highway and prayed the smog would choke him in his seat. It didn’t. But the cars also did not move. Joe sat in silence and stared at the car's license plate in front of him. A jumble of letters and numbers signifying nothing, really, he decided. And then he stopped seeing anything and his mind took him backward in time, to his younger days, to playing in the yard with his friends, rushing through a sprinkler’s wave of water, playing catch with his (now dead) dad, kissing Katy Lucas behind the deck of her parent’s house, and as memories flowed by, so did the drive. Without any idea of how he got there, Joe was in the parking lot of Freeman Tech.
“Fuck,” he said. Then he went inside.
Joe was a Synergy and Communications associate. Technically, he was responsible for the company’s intranet, the flow of emails from management to staff, and for posting flyers around the building. The flyers were usually for trivia events, pizza parties, and the end-of-year holiday bash. Nearly all of his daily duties could be given to an AI or a well-trained monkey, and nothing would change. It was a useless job at a meaningless company, he said. Still, it was the only business willing to give a steady paycheck to a philosophy major (with a minor in art history).
His coworkers were pleasant enough. Lucy Haggins was his direct supervisor. She was in her 20s, energetic and earnest. Pictures saying “Girl Boss” and “Live, Laugh, Love” hung on her wall. Her desk had six framed photos of her cat, Mr. Dandelion. She ate her lunch in her office each day while failing to finish a self-help book with a title like “Being the Best Bad Bitch You Can Be: 69 Tips for Success in Corporate Life and in the Bedroom.”
When Joe arrived on Tuesday morning, Lucy was in his office. She spun around in his chair and sipped a vanilla latte from a striped paper straw.
“We’re having an emergency meeting in 15 minutes,” she said.
“You and me?”
“Yep. Well, you and me and Brian McBride.”
Brian McBride was Lucy’s boss’ boss, the senior director of synergistic dialogue, or something like that. Joe couldn’t remember his official title.
Joe assumed he was being fired but didn’t say anything. There was nothing worrying could do to help him, he reasoned. His mother’s voice rang in his head, “Don’t borrow trouble, Joe Joe.”
Don’t borrow trouble. If you’re going to get fired, worry about it when you get fired. Until then, assume you’re fine.
This was good advice, Joe thought, but Joe’s mind did not agree. It decided he should worry. Being fired was cataclysmic, his mind told him. You could lose your apartment, car, possessions, and any chance you had at getting laid someday. You might have to move in with your family again. That would be Armageddon.
Lucy did not notice Joe’s clammy hands or pale complexion. She stirred her drink with the straw and the ice cubes sloshed through the caffeine and made a satisfying wet plunking sound she enjoyed.
“There was some weird message left on Community Corner,” she said while watching the blocks of frozen water float in circles.
Here, Joe tells me he should explain Community Corner. Freeman Tech did not like using a thing’s commonly accepted name. A PR person was not a PR person. They were public-facing messaging experts. A custodian who cleaned up shit-stained toilets was a feng shui and tidiness coordinator. Brian McBride, as previously mentioned, was the czar of synergistic dialogue. It is not clear to Joe what he did.
Community Corner was Freeman Tech’s term for a bulletin board in the cafeteria/breakroom. All staff were allowed to pin things to the board as long as they met company ethics standards. No sexual content, politics, or book clubs (books were too controversial now). Mostly employees put up posters for their cover band’s performance on Saturday afternoon or pictures of hand-knit hats for sale. Management rotated seasonal messages reminding everyone how nice it was to work at Freeman Tech. “Don’t FALL into bad habits,” one leaf-shaped sign might read. A pumpkin-centric poster might say: “We need your treats, not tricks.”
“Someone posted a penis picture again?” Joe asked. This was not a joke. There were two previous instances of penises being pinned to Community Corner. They investigated and determined an intern was responsible. He used a company scanner to make the images, which is how they caught him. He was fired, and the staff had to sit through three sessions of sexual harassment training.
“No, thank God,” Lucy said. “Brian was really vague about it. Said he’ll tell us in the meeting.”
“Worse than the penis picture?”
Lucy swirled her glass around her hand like a drunk sommelier, and the cubes blurred into light brown lines. “Nothing is worse than a penis picture.”
It's Not a Penis Picture
Lucy was right. It was not a penis picture.
A once-crumpled piece of paper was spread across Brian’s desk. On it was a handwritten message, scribbled in what looked to be highlighter ink. Joe thought that was odd. Why didn’t they print this out? And if they were worried about getting caught -- a la the penis-picture intern -- what about the old-fashioned way? Just use a pen. Black, blue, even red if you're a sociopath. There were plenty of ink choices. Why didn’t they use a pen?
“Looks like a serial killer thing, right?” Lucy said. “Like something from a true crime podcast.”
“It’s unhinged, certainly,” Brian agreed.
The message itself wasn’t entirely clear. The handwriting was north of illegible, but barely.
“Octopuses sucking all the way down?” Joe ventured a guess. And a weird little symbol after “down.” It looked a little like a dart dangling from a sign. An idle doodle? Some kind of special punctuation?
Brian coughed. “I’m not sure it matters what it says. We’re suspending the use of Community Corner.”
“We didn’t even do that for the penises,” Lucy’s voice had a note of concern.
“The…genitalia was an unfortunate incident. We incorrectly assumed it would be the last violation of company policy, but clearly, it was not.”
“Couldn’t this be somebody’s band? A viral marketing ploy, maybe,” Joe said.
“I mean, Community Corner survived two penises,” Lucy whispered. “But no octopussy, I guess.”
Brian nodded. “We can’t rule out a band, or art collective, even an improv troupe. And to be clear, the penises were offensive Lucy. We’re merely being proactive. It starts with a message about an octopus,” Brian emphasized the “pus,” rather than Lucy’s, “pussy,” ending. “We’re simply saying this can go no further.”
“OK, so Community Corner is gone. I’ll take it down after the meeting,” Joe said.
“It’s already down. I had our upkeep and design technicians (maintenance) remove it this morning.”
“Great,” Joe said. He then considered asking why they were having this meeting but decided against it. No questions might mean no more work. Management enjoyed a meeting for a meeting’s sake. No need to add work to his plate.
Brian polished his mahogany desk with a Lysol wipe. Lucy’s coffee cup left two or three beads of condensation on the surface, and Brian couldn’t tolerate it. He liked things clean. “A spotless aesthetic is indicative of spotless performance” was a favorite aphorism for Brian. He uttered it three times during a Zoom call when an IT contractor appeared in a T-shirt and tousled hair.
“That’s actually not why I’ve called this meeting,” Brian seemingly read Joe’s mind. “I’d like you to find out who posted this paper to the CC.”
“I’m not sure how I’d do that?”
“I’ll leave that up to you. This is a carpe diem moment for you Joe. An opportunity to display your leadership capabilities. We see a lot of potential in you.”
“Wow,” Lucy said. “Lucky.”
Brian nodded. “We’re all eager to see what you do with this.”