by Kim Magowan and Michelle Ross
Management has been dialing back the thermostat since the company started losing money. Three years ago, I kept a sweater in my cubicle, a red cardigan I took home every payday to wash and brought back to work the following Monday. Two years ago, the cardigan hung all summer on the plastic hook on my cubicle wall. I didn’t wash it because I didn’t wear it. One year ago, I bought a miniature electric fan for my desk. Now I have that fan set to the highest setting, and I’m still sweating. Instead of the cardigan, I keep deodorant in my cubicle, in the drawer with the butterfly clips, reserve staples, and sticky notes.
When I relay all this, Ingrid, who has been here as long as I have, says, ‘And don’t forget about the fridge.’
The intern, Molly, or as Ingrid and I call her, Cheap Labor, says, ‘What about the fridge?’
‘We speculate that at any given moment, there are at least half a dozen rotten items in there.’ Ingrid frowns at the bits of olives and green peppers someone dumped in the kitchen sink.
‘When we say rotten, we mean unrecognizable,’ I say.
On more than one occasion I’ve observed food so hairy, it looked like a chia pet. I open the fridge now to show Molly the cucumber that has sat on the middle shelf for several weeks. Where a quarter or so of it has been sliced off, the sliced skin has crumpled and curled in around the edges of the now-spongy innards. It makes me think of an uncircumcised penis, only flatter.
We tell Molly there was a time when the fridge had been regularly cleaned. Every other month, we were directed to remove anything we wanted. Anything left over was tossed. Poof, clean fridge. The fridge had not been cleaned since I stopped wearing that cardigan sweater.
‘It’s the tipping point,’ says Ingrid sagely, and tells us about some study of bathrooms in airplanes. Initially people clean up after themselves, throw away that rough paper for drying hands, flush the toilet. But once someone quits trying—leaves paper wadded up on the floor instead—everyone’s like, Fuck it. ‘It’s the broken window paradigm—you know, when people stop replacing windows, there goes the neighborhood. Here, we’re all in this torpor. I mean, look at that fucking thing.’ We stare at the cucumber. There are little sinkholes where the seeds used to be, like they’ve gotten sucked into its mulchy interior, and the effect is creepy. It’s like the cucumber has eye pits, and is staring back.
‘I guess being gross and lazy is better than stealing,’ says Molly, and tells us about her last job at a bar, where everyone helped themselves to the tip jar. ‘First it was just Rachel—everyone knew she was stealing. With my own eyes I saw her take a handful of bills. But she was sleeping with Rick, the guy who owned the bar, so no one had the balls to complain. Then eventually we were like, this sucks, and it was just a free for all. People grabbing money, not even bothering to hide it. Like what you said—’ she nods at Ingrid. ‘Fuck it.’
I feel a wave of sadness that’s more than just crap job related. You could say the same about my home life, I think. Hugh’s gym socks on the floor, not even close to the hamper; the way he hogs the ottoman when we sit on the couch to watch TV. We used to put the ottoman in the middle and both have our feet on it, tangle our feet together. That was sometimes the start of something. Now the ottoman is always flush on his side. Now there are designated sides to the couch.
An hour later, Ingrid emails me a link to an article: ‘Ten Signs Your Workplace is Toxic.’ Although nothing on that list is new to me—Ingrid and I have complained about every one of those things over the years, from management playing favorites to the promises they don’t keep to the ridiculous ways they micromanage, specifying the number of inches our computer monitors should be from our eyes and that we shouldn’t leave from the back of the building because there is no sidewalk and we could lose our footing in the dirt (everyone knows the real reason is that management can’t monitor our coming and going from the back of the building, given that their offices are up front)—somehow seeing all the shit we put up with gathered like that, organized into a checklist that confirms a diagnosis, makes me woozy.
Ingrid DMs me, ‘God, if this were a romantic relationship, no way would I have stuck around this long. What’s wrong with us?’
Not that I’d call my home life ‘toxic.’ Toxic means poisonous. Toxic is that cucumber that is puffing out spores of death. Toxic is the dust coating the exhaust fan in the women’s bathroom.
Ingrid writes, ‘Well, the pay is good. That’s why I stick around.’
I look out my office window at the tent and sleeping bags a couple of homeless people set up in the thin strip of land between our building and the property next door. They’ve been here nearly three months—a woman with long brown hair, a guy who’s clean-shaven despite living outdoors. Management can’t do anything about them because technically they’re on public land. Sometimes as they pass by my window from their encampment to the street or back, they look at me. I always wonder what they’re thinking. Do they envy me? Do they pity me?
I wonder what they would say to Ingrid’s and my complaints about rotting food and dust and air conditioning. What they would say about Hugh’s feet monopolizing the ottoman. About the way I monitor the quality of my space, the way my energy goes into resenting that damn cucumber, rather than tossing it.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source was published by 7.13 Books in 2019. Her fiction has been published in The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, and other journals, and has been selected for The Best Small Fictions 2019 and the Wigleaf Top 50 for 2019. She’s fiction editor of Pithead Chapel. www.kimmagowan.com
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Electric Literature, The Pinch, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other venues. Her work was selected for the Wigleaf Top 50 for 2019 and was a finalist for Best of the Net 2018. She’s fiction editor of Atticus Review, and she was a consulting editor for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology. www.michellenross.com