andrew s. campbell
The black pyramid
"And finally, always remember, knock before you enter. Thank you for participating in the Black Pyramid's cleaning crew training program. We appreciate all that you do."
That's Frank Catalano, former child TV star and host of our training video, who, I admit, has aged well since his moment in the spotlight. He's avoided the warped face brought on by chemical excess and camera flash overexposure, which distort the product, a face treasured because of its familiarity.
I flip on the overhead bulbs, shattering the eyeballs of the three trainees, and before the new crop can recover, I ask, "Does anyone have any questions?"
It's not meant to be rhetorical, but no one ever responds. The trainees probably withhold their questions because, if asked, they would undermine the authority of the child star's recorded message. They'd rather not disturb those pockets of nostalgia containing their childhood TV-watching memories.
In the silence, I can only match their blank stares with one of my own and begin an internal count to three before moving on.
"Okay!" I burst out, causing the comatose trainees' eyelids to expand. "We're almost done for the night, just one more session to go. Angelo Kalehart is here, our favorite Tai Chi instructor, to reinforce the knocking principles from the training video."
When the Black Pyramid's showrunners shared the data calling for Tai Chi as part of the cleaning crew training, I understood it was a weird measure. But if this was the kind of thing that led to a more "effective" workplace, then I wasn't really in a position to question it.
A potted plant was installed in every office to offset our carbon footprint. Raven, the literary magazine, was established so outsiders would see that the Black Pyramid employees weren't just a bunch of puffy lawyers and greedy bankers.
The showrunners' analytics also led to other bizarre practices. A potted plant was installed in every office to offset our carbon footprint. Raven, the literary magazine, was established so outsiders would see that the Black Pyramid employees weren't just a bunch of puffy lawyers and greedy bankers. Many have a sensitive side, too.
The most recent issue examined the textured ceiling tiles in the Black Pyramid's conference rooms. Their patterns were compared to the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock and an important development in "late abstract expressionism." I wasn't so sure about the artsy commentary, but it creates the perception of creative talent at the Black Pyramid, which is what the showrunners are going for.
The Tai Chi instructor, Angelo, prances into the room. He's wearing his traditional Tibetan shirt paired with yoga pants, but updated his hairstyle—from scraggly ponytail to top knot. It accentuates his chiseled jaw line, introducing a welcome sense of purpose to the training session. Tai Chi instruction begins. "Hello everybody! My name is Angelo, and I'm going to instruct you on the proper way to knock through the ancient practice of Tai Chi."
Calming music to tranquilize is pumped through the training room's speaker system. The sounds of the jungle intermingle with Angelo's high-pitched voice, "Harness your inner life force."
The trainees' legs awkwardly straddle the ground, their arms are raised out in front of them, wrists limp, as their eyes dart back-and-forth communicating, in desperation, Am I doing this right?
Angelo, oblivious to the trainees' discomfort, continues, "Channel all of your life experiences into your wrist, let that orb of energy surge as it accumulates power from your chakras."
One of the trainees, Becky, is so confused she yells out, "My chakras?! I didn't know we needed to bring that!"
"Shh!" I interject. Trainees these days, I think to myself.
"Now let the energy drain into your knuckles and release it in controlled spurts, like the locks of a dam, just spurts of energy, like this."
Angelo knocks against his training door, a miniature version of the oak doors connected to each of the Black Pyramid's offices. His wrist movements are fluid and the tone of his knock has a musical quality to it, the Platonic ideal of knuckles rapping against wood. The trainees, in comparison, look self-conscious, jerking their knuckles against wood, and the tones they produce are harsh and piercing. I shouldn't be so hard on them. It's only their first day after all.
Angelo praises their efforts before releasing them. He ensures all of them that, with mindful repetition, they will undoubtedly elevate their knocking practice to his level. This claim is ungrounded in fact, but Angelo is nothing if not encouraging.
Now that the training session is over, it's time to get to work on the trash rounds. Each night one of the trainees will shadow me to see how trash cleanup works. Tonight, it's Becky's turn.
THE FIRST NIGHT
Becky, like me, was given the choice to resign or stay on in a more menial role—the cleaning crew. After two short years, the showrunners snipped my career in finance, following my first performance evaluation, one of many hurdles on the path to showrunner. The morning of the evaluation I came to work with a cleared calendar and had the opportunity to indulge in self-reflection. I had no memory, a sharp criticism or lapse of judgment, which would lead to a poor evaluation. In fact, each day bent into the next one, rearranging time into a unified hazy mass. My mind's reels projected the computer monitor's warm glow, showing spreadsheets, PowerPoints, and Word documents.
I imagined a group of showrunners, old men with a puffiness acquired through client dinners and otherwise default inertness, shuffling into my office, reading my review from a print-out, and concluding with jargon-filled references to collaboration and core competencies. Not exactly a thrilling experience but certainly preferred over what actually happened.
On evaluation day, a single showrunner approached my office's open door and stood at its threshold before knocking. He wore a loose-fitting navy suit with pinstripes, its wool and silk fabrics billowed dervishly from his body. His facial features suggested the angular good looks of a European soccer star, but it was his hair that really distinguished him. It was wavy down to his shoulders and colored like white crystal—the kind of whiteness recalling kitschy depictions of the Christian God. He was a magnificent-looking man.
Without an introduction, he crept around the side of my desk and leaned over at the waist. His eyes became level with my left cheek. I stared straight ahead, but in my periphery his still face loomed. His cycling breath formed condensation on my skin. Leaning in, he pressed his lips against my cheek, as he ran a chalky tongue with a practiced, clinical lightness over the portion within his lips' boundaries.
I threw my head back and kicked my feet to roll away in my office chair, creating as much physical distance as possible between my batterer and me. He remained at the same spot, bent at the waist. His dead eyes looked back at me until he finally spoke, "Oh, Damon. This is so very disappointing." His face formed a frown. "Can you tell me what sort of residue collects after one perspires?"
The flood of adrenaline had started to cut off my ability to reason, but this one was easy, "Uhh salt?" It made sense to placate the showrunner even if his motivations were unclear. His eyes brightened with my response, however, as if we had connected on some deep level.
"Yes! You are absolutely right! When your heart rate increases for prolonged periods, your body produces sweat. So even in this beautiful air-conditioned space, our best employees always have a light glisten on their skin. Wouldn't you agree?"
I was no longer in a state of mind to respond. I pushed the soles of my wing-tipped oxfords against the office's carpeted floor, crushing the fibers underneath. I had nowhere to go; my chair was already up against my office's back wall.
He continued, "Your salt content is the metric we use to determine 'drive.' And it appears that you have no drive whatsoever. Certainly not enough to join our ranks as a showrunner. We do have another opportunity for you, however."
"Your salt content is the metric we use to determine 'drive.' And it appears that you have no drive whatsoever. Certainly not enough to join our ranks as a showrunner."
This other opportunity was the chance to stay on at the Black Pyramid managing the cleaning crew. I laughed at the suggestion. Someone with my credentials did not clean trash cans for a living. The showrunner assured me that this was not a joke, and that if I listened to his offer, then I might understand why the transition would be in everyone's best interest.
First, my compensation would remain unchanged because they valued my institutional knowledge of the Black Pyramid. He then pulled from his leather padfolio the non-disclosure agreement I signed on my first day of work and pointed to section 11.4 and began to read aloud, "You shall not disclose any information regarding the Black Pyramid or its operations so long as you are an employee." He looked up at me delighted before he said, "You see—it still applies on the cleaning crew. This is really why we don't terminate you at the present time." I had enough self-respect to understand that money was not everything, that this offer was pretty shitty, and that I could find another, better job where supervisors didn't tongue their subordinates.
The showrunner, now seated on the other side of my desk, removed his glasses, rubbed his eyes, and placed both of his hands over his crossed knee, an eerie smile rose on his lips, "Doesn't your father still run things over at Hedge Fund Partners, L.P.? In fact, I know he does. We played golf last week."
It's as if the showrunner had brandished a medieval club, protruding nails and strewn with chains. He was creating leverage to force me into something I shouldn't do. "Do you think your father paid for boarding school, an elite college education, and language immersion programs so that you could flounder so early in your career? Last week he referred to you as a 'future titan of industry.' What tremendous praise! You're to carry on the family name in the Central Commerce District." After pausing for effect, he concluded, "I wonder what he would think right now?"
The showrunner's smile disappeared and spite entered his voice. "Let me be very direct with you. If you leave the Black Pyramid, I cannot in good conscience recommend your work. And, your father, what would he think of this gap in your resume? Damaged goods. Untouchable. Failure. Or, in the crass parlance of our times, fucked." All hope of escape was now lost. I accepted the cleaning crew position. The showrunner was pleased, suggesting that I was actually quite lucky for there were worse outcomes for others.
As I approach Becky for her cleaning crew orientation, I consider whether she was also degraded by a showrunner's violating tongue. When I started on the cleaning crew, I felt compelled to find others with the same experience because I needed affirmation for my own decision. Other people that recognized the realities of having a career and making money. I spoke in coded language to all of my new trainees but found no one else willing to commiserate. As time passed, the shame fell away, replaced with what I would describe as proudness for what I overcame. It wasn't weak to stay, but resilient. Reflections of this sort are unhelpful tonight though, so I smile and ask her, “Ready to get started?”
"Yes, absolutely. I am so grateful for this opportunity and look forward to hitting the ground running." I grimace. Becky still has vestiges of a collegiate vocal fry.
"Whoa—your enthusiasm—it's great and all, but this is really simple stuff. Tonight you're going to follow me around, and if you don't understand something, which is unlikely, you can ask me."
Becky's lips constrict and eyes shift. It's apparent something I've said irked her, so I tilt my head to the right, hoping to bring out a confession.
"It's just that," She holds her breath until speech gushes from her mouth, "I don't have a notepad. Or a pen." She stops and stares, expecting a response, but I keep silent. It's better when I let the overeager types draw out their neuroses on their own. "I mean how will I take notes? If I don't write all of this down I might, no, I will definitely forget something, and I'd hate to bug you with questions later."
"This really isn't that sort of a job. There's no training test or assessment at the end. You're going to walk behind me and observe. That's it."
Becky responds to what was supposed to be a curt dismissal with a bubbly, "Got it. I'm lucky. You are so... nice." Nice is probably not the word I'd use, but the Black Pyramid has a way of lowering people's standards for that sort of thing.
We exit the training room and head toward the elevator bank for Becky's shadowing session. She's a few steps behind me when she calls out, "Wait!" I turn and see that she's in front of the double doored entrance to the Chapel of Commodities. "It'll be real quick. I need to say a quick devotional to the god of precious metals futures."
I sigh because we're already behind schedule, but I can't discourage her from practicing the showrunners' obscure form of polytheism, whose central tenet is that every commodity has its own god. There is, for example, a god of water, a god of time, a god of oil, and, apparently, a god of precious metals futures.
The Chapel of Commodities has the functional layout of a multi-faith prayer room found in a hospital or an airport. The room's interior is eight-sided and on each side pews face representations of the commodity deities in glass cases. Maybe as a cost-saving measure, the representations are austere and practical. I mean the god of time is a Casio wristwatch. Practitioners, like Becky, are encouraged to kneel and offer devotionals to the gods in their downtime.
I see Becky and think she looks foolish mouthing silent prayers. It's one thing to mimic devotion in order to move up the ranks at the Black Pyramid, but Becky's serene smile and closed eyes seem to show genuine faith in this primitive cult. How she can't see that attributing holy qualities to market forces is the same backwards mindset where magic woodland creatures determined personal fate is beyond me. Showrunners, long before I started working here, concocted these beliefs out of fear, and not a humbling fear before omnipotent and benevolent deities, but one rooted in cowardice. The Chapel of Commodities represented to me an admission that the showrunners' data and forecasts could only take them so far before they needed divine intervention. It's not much of a religion though if it confuses the divine for the merely unpredictable. This distinction likely contributed to my demotion in the end. Although I never expressed my reservations, those that mattered certainly noticed my absence from the Chapel of Commodities.
The Chapel of Commodities represented to me an admission that the showrunners' data and forecasts could only take them so far before they needed divine intervention. It's not much of a religion though if it confuses the divine for the merely unpredictable.
Becky's eyes open as she emerges from her meditative trance. She rises from her kneeling position, and we walk without talking toward the elevators to ascend to the 25th floor. The cleaning crew rounds start at 9 PM so most of the office dwellers have already left for the night. On the 25th floor, we follow the exterior wall of the building where the offices are located. Each one has the standard oak door attached, some closed, some cracked, others wide open. Whatever the position of the door, we're still required to knock, and if the office isn't empty, wait to be invited inside.
We approach the first office on our rounds. I have my wrist arched, ready to knock, when I hear Becky clear her throat. My eyes slowly track that way, followed by my head, "Yes?" I say.
She averts her eyes. "I know you said to only ask a question if I don't understand something and I know we haven't actually started yet but I have a question."
There's a pause before her supposedly pressing question. "Why do we knock?"
Becky perceives the extreme attention paid to the knocking rule. Fortunately for me, I've got years of practice deflecting this very question. "What do you mean? Didn't you watch the training video? The host, child star Frank Catalano, was very clear on that point," I say. I'm hopeful that the mention of the child star will trigger happy childhood memories, and in that flood, she'll drop her question. Becky is persistent, however.
"It's such an important rule. There must be a really, really good reason for it," she responds.
I tell her, with authority, a line memorized from the training manual, "Becky, we knock because we value the privacy of every employee at the Black Pyramid."
I'm grateful that the Black Pyramid, as an organization, is sophisticated enough to anticipate the knocking-question from trainees and tailor a response to absolve me from any further questioning, because my own experience suggested more complicated reasons for the knocking rule.
Michele and I started work at the Black Pyramid on the same day, officing next door to one another. She was plain, unfriendly, and wore ill-fitting pant suits, so that her blazer flared out from her rib cage like a parachute when she stormed through the hallways. She compensated for her personality by working non-stop. In a predictable ritual, she arrived early in the morning, slammed her door shut, and grinded into the late evening. Michele's hair soon became greasy and her face developed a nice sheen, which, in hindsight, probably made the showrunners erect. After a few days of this, I headed to my office one morning and noticed a ray of sunlight streaming from her office into the hallway. She was gone. Everything was gone. I walked into the now vacant space and felt an underlying charge still present as if the powers which led to the overnight evacuation were still coming to rest. It's possible she was caught indulging a chemical habit or having a late night tryst in her office. I imagined her massive suit jacket undulating over the course of the illicit act. The knocking rule, it seemed, was enacted to avoid the embarrassment of seeing overworked employees breaking down in their offices.
I empty the trash receptacles in the first office on our rounds—the office's inhabitant already gone for the evening. We continue to the next stop, Mack's office. The Black Pyramid has employed Mack for almost two years, so the showrunners are set to determine his future soon, and I don't think it will end well for him. Mack exploited a loophole in the mandatory plant program, so his office is a rainforest. Five ferns populate his back credenza, a miniature palm tree is placed next to his chair, and three leafy plants are lined across his desk, so that when I want to talk to him I have to peer through the foliage to make eye contact.
Becky and I approach the entrance to Mack's office. He's trimming the leaves on one of his ferns. I knock. Mack turns and rolls his eyes at the formality and motions us in. Mack tries his best to maintain his corporate mask but at the end of long days his irreverent side cracks through the facade. When I enter his office, I take an exaggerated breath and exhale. "Your plants do wonders for the air quality."
"Thanks, smartass. I guess that's the silver lining. You know what people are calling me now?" Mack asks.
"Colonel Kurtz. Can you believe that?"
"Who?" I ask, wondering where he's going with this.
Mack, incredulous, eyes bugged says, "From Heart of Darkness! They say it like I'm going insane in here or something, but they should be careful. I mean wasn't Kurtz getting down with cannibals in the jungle?"
I might have second-guessed pursuing a friendship with Mack if I was still on the up-and-up with the Black Pyramid's finance team. I'm no decision-maker, but even I can tell that Mack is not showrunner material. This fact doesn't seem to concern Mack, who bumbles through each day oblivious of how close he is to an early exit, contrasting with my own situation and magnifying the factors that led me here: the family pressures, the uncertainty of finding another job, and what was once an intrinsic motivation to achieve has become a need to survive in the only strange world that I know.
We work our way through the offices, emptying the trash, until we arrive at our final stop. The employee is so new in this office that his name plate is simply a blank plastic sleeve. I reach the door's threshold, knock, and hear a polite, almost sing-song "Come in." A young man is at his desk rattling away on his computer keyboard. He smiles at us and asks, "How are you tonight?"
I respond professionally. "Very well, thank you." I'm relieved that this guy seems well-adjusted; maybe he can fill the void once Mack is ousted following his performance evaluation.
I spot a half-filled paper cup and grab that too, brushing his arm in the process. His hands go flat on the keyboard and he rotates his head before saying, "That's a little presumptuous of you, don't you think?"
I'm caught off guard and can only stammer a sorry before I return the cup. I back out of the room with Becky while he watches me out of the corner of his eye. The new employees, especially those that have never had a job before, take some time to figure out their limits to determine how far they're willing to be pushed outside their comfort level.
Becky and I recap our night's work as we walk back to the elevator bank. "This is pretty easy stuff, huh?"
Becky responds, "Yeah, super easy. And while I am so appreciative to have a job, it's just that I have a degree in economics from an Ivy League college and a master's degree in finance from another Ivy League college and now I'm a glorified janitor. My therapist calls what I'm experiencing right now 'cognitive dissonance.' But, again, thank you for showing me the ropes."
Everything about Becky suggests that she did not get her face licked and did not accept her job on the cleaning crew under duress. A competitive urge rises in me, culled from years of cutthroat educational, work, and family settings. It's unfair that Becky can rebound and exude this bubbly optimism, so I take her down a notch. "You know, Becky, I can relate to how you feel, but I don't think it gets any better. A friend once told me, 'down the long razor blade of life there's always a pool of rubbing alcohol waiting for you.' Sometimes the reality of that thought helps me."
"You know, Becky, I can relate to how you feel, but I don't think it gets any better. A friend once told me, 'down the long razor blade of life there’s always a pool of rubbing alcohol waiting for you.' Sometimes the reality of that thought helps me."
"My God, that's not helpful at all. That's a terrible thing to say."
"I know. But it's funny in a laugh-until-you-cry kind of way, right? That's more than your therapist will ever give you."
And with that Becky and I are through for the night.
THE SECOND NIGHT
Electrified clouds swirl outside as rain pelts the black glass. I hear tonight's trainee approach the lobby's elevator bank, each step announced by the thwack of drenched shoes. The trainee turns the corner, and I’m surprised to see a young man wearing a blue dress shirt, wool charcoal slacks, and leather capped shoes. Tonight's mentee is Randle.
I laugh when he draws near. "You're a little over dressed."
"Yes, well," Randle glares back at me, "I understand that casual clothing is now the dress code on the cleaning crew. I'm a professional, however, and professionals dress for the position they want, not the one they have."
The aggressiveness is off-putting, yet sadly, I've grown accustomed to this sort of posturing from Black Pyramid employees with something to prove. Something else is off about Randle though. Everything about my initial impression suggests that he would be valued as a showrunner. But then it dawns on me. Randle has the same pink skin, oval-shaped face, and blonde crew cut as Timothy McVeigh; even his tall, lanky frame recalls that infamous profile. Someone whose image conjures death and mass murder will likely meet some unconscious resistance before climbing the ranks to showrunner, even at the Black Pyramid.
Randle stays quiet throughout his shadowing session, maintaining a consistent distance behind me. When we reach Mack's office, I go in alone. Mack's eyes are glassy and droop with exhaustion, but he perks up when he hears me knock. Before either of us says anything, he motions to me as if he wants to tell me a secret. I bring my ear close as he whispers, "Who's the guy outside? I can't decide if I should salute him when he walks through the door or if a Dear Leader appellation would be sufficient."
Mack's face comes alive. I laugh with him but know that I shouldn't encourage him. I hope he's given the chance to join the cleaning crew, but he might take advantage of being cut loose: escape and put the pieces back together later.
Randle and I arrive at the unnamed employee's office, which still doesn't have a nameplate next to his closed door. I knock against the door's oak wood. No response, so I put my ear against the door. I can hear two sets of voices and then other commotion, the opening and closing of drawers, unexpectedly, the doorknob turns. I jump back and a showrunner emerges from the office. He stands facing me, as he buttons his navy pinstripe blazer. He's holding a briefcase that, in size, appears more like a doctor's bag. Internally, I'm in fight-or-flight mode, as the adrenaline pumps. Externally, I'm maintaining a placid smile and stepping to the side so that he can pass. He tells us good evening before he takes off down the hall, toward the elevators. I peer back into the office, the door now ajar and see where the unnamed employee types furiously as he cries out a haggard, "COME IN." He tries to welcome us in the same cheerful voice but it's strained and his eyes are bloodshot.
I walk in with slow, deliberate steps, not wanting to set him off. His office phone starts to ring, as I clean his trash can. He doesn't seem to hear it. While I replace the plastic trash lining, I ask him if he needs to answer that.
He trembles. "Answer what? Oh, the phone. It's been doing that for a while, huh? It's probably a solicitor, or my boss, or maybe my little league baseball coach. Geez, I haven't spoken to him in decades, whoever it is I don't want to answer it."
The Black Pyramid training manual doesn't exactly address this situation. I look over to Randle, but he doesn't offer anything helpful, only the same intense stare he's maintained all night. I look back at the unnamed employee. He's watching me out of the corner of his eye while keeping up his furious typing pace. I stay frozen. It's like being confronted by a wild animal: no sudden movements.
The unnamed employee jumps up, without warning, knocking over his rolling chair, and bolts out the door to who knows where. I look at his wreckage and notice, on the floor, a pill bottle with the Black Pyramid insignia pasted on the side. I pick it up and look it over until Randle walks up next to me. "Where’d you get that?" he demands.
"I guess it fell out of that guy's pocket when he ran out of here."
"Put that back. It's not for us," Randle says. I'm confused. How does Randle know who it's for? Randle stares down at his feet and says, "I can't divulge much. Those pills are related to the showrunners' religion. I don't know how devout you are, not that it matters, but I'm really plugged into the gods of commodities, and the pills are involved in a super important ritual."
His confession garners my sympathy. Randle's identity is linked with the gods of commodities. Conviction so deep that he has faith even after the showrunners left him to wallow in the cleaning crew, denying him the supposed fruits of his devotion. I put the pills back on the unnamed employee's desk, and we leave the Black Pyramid for the night.
Randle's identity is linked with the gods of commodities. Conviction so deep that he has faith even after the showrunners left him to wallow in the cleaning crew, denying him the supposed fruits of his devotion.
THE THIRD NIGHT
For the final night of this year's training, Clara, an immigrant from Guatemala, will be doing the rounds with me. As an "experienced hire," she's worked janitorial crews in other offices before reaching the big leagues at the Black Pyramid.
Clara is older than the rest of the trainees, shown by the early accumulation of creases on her face. She wears blue jeans, washed to tatters, along with a Greek-lettered fraternity t-shirt, presumably from a resale shop, advertising an event called "CommandHos and GI Joes."
When we meet up, I'm not sure whether to rely on my poor Spanish skills or stick with English. I commit to a middle ground. "Hel - O - Clay - Ruh. Estas ready?" Clara nods and responds, "Sí," but follows up, "I speak English, not great, but good enough." She does have a heavy accent but I understand her fine. It’s possible I haven't made the greatest first impression with her.
It's Friday so the 25th floor is especially quiet tonight. We go from empty office to empty office cleaning the trash cans. Clara catches on with little instruction. I decide to let her take the lead. There's no need for my oversight.
I walk by Mack's office by myself, hoping he's still in. Some Fridays, as a sendoff into the weekend, Mack will offer up swigs from a whiskey flask stored in his desk, but his office is empty. Only his office plants are silhouetted against the Central Commerce District's eternal lights, pouring in from his window.
I walk around to his office chair, sit down, and scan his personal effects. There's a tri-fold picture frame next to his monitor. In the far-left frame, his wife is pictured on their wedding day. The middle photo shows a dignified chocolate Labrador posing between Mack and his wife. On the far right, a third empty frame, a placeholder. I've never brought up family or kids with Mack, but that third and final frame is reserved for the baby photo. That much is obvious. I pity Mack as he rides life's slowly wheeling circle. What saddens me is the ease in which I can read the blueprint of his future.
For a moment, I'm grateful that I'm in the cleaning crew. My perception that Mack travels a predictable, predetermined path, is only available as an outsider. Whatever whirlpool I careened around dissolved into harmless spume after getting tongued by the showrunner. Or, it's possible, the funnel continues to propel others like me, and I was only granted a release and flung from its circling path. This funnel has its beginnings in boarding schools, summer camps, and family trips abroad, and progressing to a career at a venerable institution like the Black Pyramid. As much as I may feel distanced from my background, I know that it interweaves with my present self, so much so that it's possible I could jump back into the maelstrom if given the chance.
I catch up with Clara, and we make it through the rounds without incident. We've got to deal with the unnamed employee grinding behind his closed office door before we can leave for the night. Just as Clara is about to knock, we hear a crash inside and then a dull thud against the floor. Clara is ready to charge in, but I tell her to wait, we really shouldn't. We need to knock, and if he doesn't respond, then it's as if nothing happened. Clara shakes her head at me and plunges into the room without knocking. I look behind me to make sure we're alone and follow her inside.
In an instant, I'm confronted with the knocking rule's importance. The unnamed employee has stripped down to his underwear and propped himself up on his hip and elbow on a pallet of spreadsheet printouts. The floor around him is littered with dismantled orange and beige pill capsules. I see the pills' pharmaceutical guts assembled into a thimble-sized pile on a white ceramic plate on his desk, a short red straw lies expectantly next to the powder.
In an instant, I'm confronted with the knocking rule's importance. The unnamed employee has stripped down to his underwear and propped himself up on his hip and elbow on a pallet of spreadsheet printouts.
Clara is already on the ground admonishing the unnamed employee, "Bad, bad, bad. Take care of yourself, mijo." She mats a Kleenex against his sweating brow. He grinds his teeth inside clenched jaws, yet audible gibberish flows from his mouth. The part of his mind set on preservation is emitting its automated distress signal. I start weighing the costs and benefits of each potential action. This guy needs help, but we've already violated rule number one. There's still time for us to leave and let the ritual run its course.
People are coming. Three sets of leather-soled shoes clop against the hallway's wood floors. I turn to the doorway not sure, or rather, not wanting to know who it is. First, the showrunner, my showrunner, with the hair of white crystal, appears, followed by Randle, who is holding a chain leash and on its linked end is an unknown person wearing a black leather bondage mask. The three of them are standing at the door's threshold, arranged by height—tiered—like an album cover for a psychotic Motown band. The showrunner speaks, "This is a very serious oversight, Damon." He reaches his hand over and unzips the front of the bondage mask as the figure shrieks, "Knock before you enter!" There's no mistaking the voice. It's child star Frank Catalano. He's a captive of the Black Pyramid too.
The showrunner zips closed the mouth hole and Randle leads the child star away on the leash. The showrunner saunters into the room. Clara has her head against the unnamed employee's chest, where I assume hearts live, as she pleads, "Fast. Too fast. Hospital."
The showrunner continues, "I'm sorry, what's your name? Clara, is it? That's not going to happen. Something very important is happening right now; our guy here is a follow-on offering to the gods of commodities. It's been several years and as you may know the markets have been experiencing some volatility as of late."
The showrunner has spelled it out for me. My former officemate, Michele, was an offering, and those pills I found last night are the seeds of this guy's destruction. He's the next to go.
The words that leave my mouth are surprisingly harsh. "Look, I don't care about your cult. We need a doctor. This guy is going to have a heart attack." And then, unexpectedly, a lump in my throat causes my voice to crack. I can hardly get the last words out. "Please, please let me call an ambulance."
The showrunner is unmoved. "That's the opposite of what we need to happen. We need this guy to suffer, and whether you understand it now or not, this is your career-defining moment."
"My career?!" My voice shaking, "Since when has anyone given a shit about my career? You've taken everything from me."
Ignoring me, the showrunner commands, "First, I'll need you to terminate Clara. She's seen too much and is too eager to help. I'm certain we can apply enough pressure to make sure what she's seen never leaves this building. Second, I'm going to need you to leave this office and let what's happening develop organically."
My jaw drops. No way. The showrunner already knows I broke the knocking rule. I have no incentive to do what he says. I need to get this guy some help.
"Here's what's in it for you."
Well this is unexpected. The showrunner is adding a carrot to the equation. All carrots and all sticks must be analyzed in arriving at the best course of action. This is how the best, the smartest are trained to make decisions.
"We put you back on track for showrunner. Like nothing changed. We amend your performance review and say your 'drive' is the best, elite, and your secret stays here. Your father will never know about the cleaning crew."
The showrunner walks past me and grabs Clara by each arm as she starts to sob violently and grasp for the unnamed employee. She's incomprehensible, wailing patterns of English and Spanish. He begins dragging her out of the office until she kicks her legs attempting to hook her feet into something to stop his progress. He heaves her over his right shoulder and stares back, awaiting my decision.
This is tough. How do I weigh the inputs here? The sticks that are the costs. The beneficial carrots. This input of human life is a problem. It doesn't really lend itself to analysis or valuation.
How do I weigh the inputs here? The sticks that are the costs. The beneficial carrots. This input of human life is a problem. It doesn't really lend itself to analysis or valuation.
The same goes for the promised role as showrunner.
The unnamed employee has stopped muttering, as if he knows that he's entered the final act. His eyes roll, exposing all-white. He's getting to his feet. His extremities shake like a colt learning to stand. With his hands braced against the corners of the desk, he lurches toward the sacramental powder.
I'm confronted with his pasty skin, acned back, bloated stomach, and twiggish extremities. He appears so breakable, stripped of his clothing and the normal structures of the work environment. I suppose many of us at the Black Pyramid border against oblivion as we cling to the familiar for stability and control.
Despite his pathetic appearance, I find something admirable about his conviction. Instead of capitulating, like me, he's fully invested in whatever rewards he's been promised for his martyrdom. When had I ever made a sacrifice for something beyond my immediate gratification? It occurs to me, whether I choose life or death for this guy, this is the last time I'm going to see him at the Black Pyramid. I'd like for this guy to know how he factored into my decision-making. How he was a weighted input and that I did my best to account for both the fragile physical and unexplainable resolve that make up his being.
He pauses on his way to the powder, resting against the edge of his desk. I approach and cup my hand around his ear and move my lips close to his lobe. My mind blanks. It's not like I have anything prepared for this moment. To my surprise, bubbling from my subconscious and emerging from my lips is a line of poetry memorized for Ms. Selby's English class in boarding school years ago. As if I'm back, standing in front of the class, I articulate each word, drawing out the line's rippling rhythm. And it passes from my lips like white yarn drawn from a spool.
"…and in the pond broken off from the sky,
my feeling sinks as if standing on fishes."
Andrew Campbell has previously published short fiction in The Tishman Review and was a finalist for The Conium Review's 2017 Innovative Short Fiction Contest.