The Space Beyond Cubicle Twenty-Nine

Ted Jenkins is going to space.

He marches into the office on a Tuesday morning in full astronaut attire and helmet and tells this to Mr. Gardner, the Executive Director of Earth Interface Publishing, who’s halfway through his onion bagel.

Everyone is going to space these days. Rising like steam from boiling water.

Lucy is watching through the skewed blinds of Mr. Gardner’s office. Three hours after Lois—Mr. Gardner’s long-term assistant—left, Mr. Gardner opened the blinds and they got stuck like that, diagonal and wrapped around themselves. Every day since, each time someone shows up in Mr. Gardner’s office dressed as an astronaut—and they do, every day—Lucy sits at this window and draws on the glass with a sharpie, an interconnected, large tableau: a cornfield with each lost employee staring up at the skies in various positions of worship, as Lucy has seen in old paintings of people bowing down to angels. For Ted, she draws a flying saucer hovering above him.

Of course, there are no angels. No aliens. Only the Humans who appeared from the skies.

A dollop of cream cheese splats onto Mr. Gardner’s tie as he watches Ted rant about space. Ted’s new uniform is silver and form fitting, making him look like a giant, excitable bullet. Lucy misses his lightly patterned collared shirts—blue stripes and wagon wheels and micro pigs rolling in micro-mud puddles and palm trees against a multitude of orange suns. This is not his style at all.

Marcia the copywriter (cubicle twenty) and Dave the photographer (cubicle 5) stand beside Lucy, watching Ted gesture and nearly rip his suit in the passion of it all. Marcia comments that the depiction of Lois is far too skinny in Lucy’s drawing. Dave the photographer mentions that the corn in her cornfield drawing is too short or the people are too tall, that cornfields don’t work that way, the way she is drawing it—bending and curling around the feet and legs and bellies of the people. Has it really been that long since you saw corn? Dave the photographer cocks his head and glances at Marcia the copywriter, who is slurping her Greek yogurt and nodding along. Watch a movie sometime. Read a book. Do your research if you’re going to draw a cornfield right.

Lucy is nodding and uh-huh-ing but not listening to them. A nano earphone is attached to her left ear, tucked out of sight, pumping in music (today it is mostly James Brown and Betty Davis). After she got sick and eight months of treatments left scratching reverberation and faraway screaming echoing in her mind, day in and day out, the music is the only thing that helps her focus. The real benefit being that it was much easier to drown out Marica the copywriter and Dave the photographer.

Mr. Gardner has never mentioned the drawings to Lucy.

Ted is saying something about going to space and being a hero. The Humans have brought hope. The Humans have brought the future. Everyone always says the same thing. Speeches speckled with phrases from the visitations by the Humans, who looked like us, like humans, only grander, arriving in meticulously tailored suits with silver details, sharp muscles in a towering frames, smiles so wide and welcoming it seemed they had more teeth than needed, that the edges of their lips stretched to their ears and wrapped around their heads.

Ted gives a full-fledged quitting speech for a good five minutes straight and never realizes that his helmet is still on and Mr. Gardner can’t hear a word he’s saying.

But he doesn’t need to.

Ted catches Lucy’s eye through the window of Mr. Gardner’s office. And he smiles—an unnaturally large smile.

It started almost two years ago, as storms raged and droughts hissed and the earth started cracking along its skin, and the workload of Earth Interface Publishing hit a new stride. Every new problem needed its own journal, articles, editors, photographers, graphic designers, and Mr. Gardner ordered a new set of storm doors for his house in the suburbs (the actual ordering was done by Lois, of course).

Humans appeared from space in large ships similar to old sci-fi shows—as if they designed their flying saucers from their own childhood comic books and cartoons, from daydreams in fifth grade science class. They weren’t aliens, they told the world. They were human from the future—Humans with a capital H, upgraded, newly improved—here to save us from ourselves because the earth is dying, if you hadn’t noticed. It was in their own best interest: helping humans escape the planet would guarantee their own existence in the future. It was a win-win deal, saving their great-great grandparents, and so forth. Loopy time travel things Lucy didn’t understand. She’d sit for hours in her studio apartment, watching the press conferences, the speeches, images of the Humans visiting hospitals and movie studios and factories and talking with folks, spreading the good word of the Human race’s future. Lucy wondered what it meant to be saved from oneself. What does it look like? Was it like those old action movies, someone dangling from a skyscraper by one hand, watching themselves standing over them, stomping on their fingers, one by one? Lucy would sketch it out in her notebook, people being saved from themselves. And when she ran out of paper, she’d draw on the walls, until her entire apartment was covered, and then the hallway, and her car, and her cubicle.

The Humans appeared on television, but not in public right away. First, it was the commercials.

A constant loop of rockets zooming to space. A priest, a nurse, a school teacher, a mother, a father. Your neighbor. An entire office of cubicle workers. Leaving the Earth with the Humans. Following their destinies. Being saved from themselves.

Regular commercials for beer and diapers and eyeliner and tampons were gone. Even those long-form commercials for pills with some guy spitting out a list of side effects that seem far worse than whatever problem the person had to begin with. Even those. Lucy missed those most of all.

Lucy saw the first commercial with Ted. She’d just made them a dinner of roast beef and mashed potatoes and crushed cheese puffs and had sat down to watch reruns of one of those conspiracy shows with the FBI agent who believes in aliens and the one who thinks it’s a crock.

Ted and Lucy laughed at the commercials at first, but another five appeared within the hour, and Ted got a faraway taste in his breath and a rubbery cold when he touched Lucy’s skin. Lucy worried that maybe he was thinking of his wife or his son at home, that maybe he was finally regretting the affair, but he wasn’t looking at the clock or his phone or even out the window. Instead he looked up, as if through the ceiling, his lip curling slightly at the corner.

Soon the commercials only ran between reruns because all the television shows stopped shooting. And then, only the commercials. No reruns. No stories at all.

The doctors called it a spiral tumor, for lack of a better term. They made it up while in the breakroom, waiting for toaster strudel to warm up.

They told Lucy it was a tumor but not quite, cancer but not quite, something else maybe, a spiraling linking of cells twirling like ballerinas through her organs, not really killing her yet but maybe that’s why she can’t focus that well, maybe that’s why she’s hearing that rumbling and far-off screaming at night sometimes, and maybe we should try a few experimental things. A new kind of radiation, they said. A couple hours a day. We’re sure your boss will understand.

On the walks back to the office, Lucy would start to follow cracks in the earth down streets she had never visited, would get lost down alleyways, following a strange musk, a ringing kind of song bouncing around deep beneath her feet.

She’d miss lunch dates with Ted and then dinner dates.

I don’t have time for this anymore, Ted finally said. I have a wife and a kid, he says. You can’t be my problem, he says. Being sick is quite inconvenient. And that’s the end of the affair.

Except for one Wednesday morning when Ted pulls Lucy into the copier room and locks the door. They never speak. His hot brime-breath makes her head buzz and her eyes blur, while he smiles and stares at the ceiling, and through it, and up to the stars.

Six months ago, no one knew what Mr. Gardner looked like. No one ever saw him enter the office and no one ever saw him leave. If you needed to tell Mr. Gardner something, you talked to his secretary Lois. Lois hired you and fired you and negotiated with you when you wanted a raise. Lois gave you petty cash for the staff birthday parties and signed Mr. Gardner’s name in the birthday card. You had to make an appointment with Lois in order to speak to Lois.

Lois had been the first from the office to go.

Lois twirled in one Wednesday morning, humming that song from the commercials and announced she was going to space.

Lois never twirled. Lois never smiled. Lois never hummed or kissed Mr. Gardner right on his bald head. She smoked cigarettes and ate powdered donuts and rolled her eyes. This was a spectacle.

The day Lois announced she was going to space was the day the office’s lofty vision of Mr. Gardner was dislodged—images of him tall, handsome in a tailored suit and gelled tar black hair with a voice that rumbled with the office’s collective need for a father figure.

Lois showed up on her last day in full astronaut suit, just like Ted, bearing several pink boxes of donuts and bags of her old clothes and personal items she was no longer going to need, now that she was going to live in space.

For the first time, Mr. Gardner joined the rest of the office in the little celebration around the donuts and piles of clothes and knickknacks that smelled of mothballs and heavy perfume. The father-figure-fantasy Mr. Gardner shrank some five inches, gained thirty pounds, lost a good portion of his hair, and had a voice like a squirrel being strangled.

Lucy had just gotten the earphone implant to help her focus (that day she was listening to Billie Holiday and Nina Simone) and was slipping between conversations and jazz, sipping spiked punch Lois usually only made for the office holiday party. Ted brushed by her, pausing slightly for a smell of her hair, a breath into her neck, and then rushed to Lois to ask about how she got chosen, what the was process, where did she get that great silver astronaut suit, etc.

Lois looks up at the ceiling. Can’t you hear it? she asks. It’s like singing. It’s like a chorus of stars calling out for me. My future with the Humans, out there. Can’t you hear it? Lois looks right at Lucy.

Lucy can’t hear much except Billie Holiday and Lois’s faraway voice.

Ted says he can hear it. Marcia and Dave hear it too. Mr. Gardner says nothing.

Lois explains that the Humans have a new Earth somewhere out in the dark. This one is sick. This one is long gone. She smiles.

At a moment during the party, when there was the most commotion and Mr. Gardner thought himself to be forgotten, Lucy saw him taking deep inhales of a pink pinstriped blouse from the Lois pile.

Lucy watches Ted as he leaves Mr. Gardner’s office, still with that smile, helmet still firmly in place, his hands on his hips like a real American astronaut, like he’s posing for a camera that isn’t there.

Ted puts a gentle hand on Lucy’s shoulder, as if she’s a child who just wet the bed, and puts a brochure in her hand—spreading the good word of the Humans.

Ted mouths some words Lucy can’t hear (Betty Davis is loud in her ears), but she thinks he says: Save yourself from yourself.

When Ted leaves, Lucy continues to draw for the rest of the afternoon. She lets the corn field spread off Mr. Gardner’s window and onto the office walls, all the way to the copy room. She draws right over the dull white paint. She throws away the sharpie and pulls out thin markers and colored pencils and adds color and shade to the cornfield, to the people and the Humans within it. She draws as James Brown sings in her head, as she ignores the other echoing sounds and nods her head and closes her eyes.

When she opens them again, she has drawn long spiraling arms across the cornfield, across the people. Swirls of something dark, like that spirals in her organs or the cracks in the earth, or the smoke from the rockets heading out into space.

The first time Lucy met a Human was in the office conference room, a month after the commercials began to run, but before the TV reruns were pulled off the air. The Humans were making their way to most businesses and families and organizations, spending an hour answering questions and speaking about evacuation plans. Lucy heard very little of the conversation (she was listening to musical theatre that day – Little Shop of Horrors, mostly) but the image was not lost on her. Tall and impeccable, with smooth skin and finger nails long on one hand as if he was learning how to play guitar on the side, the Human hummed along through the usual speeches, and the others nodded, mesmerized, smiling. Lois set a pink box of fresh donuts in front of the Human, who took a powdered one before passing it along. As he spoke, he carefully scraped his long finger nails across the powder and brought his fingers to his lips. He managed to eat an entire donut that way, scrape by scrape.

Lucy shut off her music for a moment, letting the ring of the world fade to an annoying hum before interrupting the Human’s speech.

“But how do you decide?” Lucy asked.

“How do we decide,” repeated the Human.

“There’s no way I would bring everyone with me. I mean, if I was starting a new colony or panning for gold or whatever the hell you all are doing.”

“Whatever we’re doing,” repeated the Human.

“So who stays and who goes?” said Lucy.

The Human scraped his nails along the donut. The tiniest puffs of powder popped into the air. “Lucy,” said the Human, “do you want to come with us.”

“I’m a little busy these days,” said Lucy.

The Human smiled, his teeth stretching and multiplying farther than his skull could reach. Lucy was starting to feel light headed, was feeling like she should smile back and grow out her nails and eat a donut just like that, bit by bit.

Lucy grabbed a donut and switched on her earphone again. She didn’t know why she had wanted the donut, but she couldn’t let it go, so there it stayed, melting into her palms until the end of the meeting.

Lucy used to make herself go to grocery stores late at night to avoid the crowd. But now shopping for frosted cereal feels like a post-apocalyptic zombie game on pause—desolate and dimly lit and smelling of spilled laundry detergent.

Before the Humans came, if Lucy was forced to visit the grocery store during a busy time, she loved to stand in the middle of the produce department, at some awkward angle, far enough into an aisle so people could only get past her by squeezing and shuffling and grumbling, and she would marvel at the brightness of the tomatoes and the smoothness of the apples, and the crispness of the lettuce. Everything seemed impossibly perfect, the colors turned up somehow, everything arranged in the way that made you feel refreshed and comforted and healthier. No ugly fruit here. So Lucy would stand there, slightly though not fully in the way, and choose the ripest reddest tomato from the stack and take a bite. The juices would shimmy down her chin and spot up her blouse, and the seeds logged along her gum line. And she would stand there and eat, waiting for someone to stop her, watching for an odd stare here, listening for a whisper there. Lucy felt as if she were suddenly solid, firmly on the earth in these moments, as if the rest of the day she were a puff of air or smoke or an odor lingering in everyone’s clothes. The tomato really tasted like a tomato, and Lucy really felt like a Lucy.

One night, as Lucy stood there, eating a particularly soft vine tomato, Ted and his wife and son happened by. Ted avoided her eyes and busied himself with the avocados, checking their firmness and smell. His wife, having never been to the office, picked out a few jalapeños (which Lucy knew Ted hated). And their son smiled at Lucy, took a tomato of his own, and took a bite. Until Ted noticed and pulled his son away, swiping the tomato out of his mouth, (swooping in with a grimace and a glare at Lucy—this was before the roast beef dinner and the first commercial, but months after their first encounter in the supply closet). It was just Lucy and the little boy, enjoying a perfect tomato in a chaotic current of shoppers.

Now, Lucy stands and waits her turn at the only check-out stand open, looking at the tabloids with pictures of celebrities waving from the doors of shuttles. She avoids the produce section and tomatoes altogether. She knows no one is taking care of the produce like they used to (the flies have increased). She knows the tomatoes are probably rotten, and there’s no little boy standing there anyway, waiting to take a bite.

Lucy sort of misses people. It’s a weird feeling.

A Human is waiting in line in front of Lucy one evening. The Human is buying a pack of powered donuts and nothing else. He wobbles a bit in line, his mouth hard and tight against his teeth, his silver suit tattered at the edges. The cashier quotes a price to him and the Human taps his pockets, or what would be pockets on a normal human, and makes a show of it. Lucy thinks to spot the Human a few bucks but before she can decide, the Human is already whispering something to the cashier who nods and smiles and follows the Human out of the store. The Human doesn’t pay for the donuts, and the cashier is the last one in the whole store, so Lucy doesn’t pay for her groceries either.

Outside, the Human is eating the donuts, white powder hanging like clouds around his face. The Human is hunched over, hungry, more like a rat in this light. His eyes are sunken, his bones protruding through cracking skin, red with rash. He meets Lucy’s eyes and says something to her, but Lucy can’t hear him (today it is Aimee Mann and Ani DiFranco singing in her ears).

The Human fumbles with the packaging and one of the donuts goes flying to the ground. Lucy picks it up and holds it at eye level. She can see the Human’s face through the hole in the donut, perfectly framed in white powder and cake. Lucy has always liked to look at things in this way – the way that makes them seem small.

Lucy drags her nail across the edge of the donut and licks her finger. The chalky pure sugar taste reminds her of sugar cane fields in Hawaii, where her mother and father took her years ago, when she was too young to appreciate the absence of cracks in the earth, the feeling that everything and everyone was okay, just for a moment. She realizes that she has been drawing sugar cane and not corn. She has driven past a cornfield or two. But she has walked through sugar cane beneath an impossibly blue sky.

The hungry Human drags a nail along the other side of the donut and licks it off. He still does not smile.

A second Human appears from behind them, yanking the hungry Human away toward a small, silver vessel parked in an accessible parking spot.

The cashier smiles and runs after them, waiting to be rescued.

Lucy keeps drawing, all the way to the supply closet, through cubicles one through her own cubicle twenty-nine—she draws right onto the walls and floors, using post-it notes and scrap paper to cover the rougher surfaces. The cornfield grows longer and taller and more detailed, morphing into a sugar cane field from Lucy’s memory, the spiral arms reaching out farther and farther, twisting through the roots of the imaginary field.

She stops when she finishes a drawing of herself and Mr. Gardner, sitting on a bench, surrounded by the tallest of the tall sugar cane, looking up into the sky, nothing hovering above them, nothing pulling them into a spaceship.

She doesn’t know what should happen next. She looks down at the floor and notices a crack for the first time, a crack just like the ones in the earth, all the way up on the tenth floor.

Lucy switches off her earphones. A gurgling of sounds fills her ears. A tiny moan reverberates from the crack in the floor.

Mr. Gardner says something Lucy can’t quite hear, pats her shoulder, and walks back to his office.

Lucy asks Mr. Gardner to repeat what he said. Please repeat it.

Outside, a little too close to their office, a rocket ship launches into the sky, and for a moment Lucy and Mr. Gardner are drowning in the rumbling, their words lost between a screeching of earth and sky.