In the Days before the Robot Apocalypse
The former occupant of my cubicle, a woman named Becki who wrote in pink and purple ink (a strict no no in our blue ink only office) consistently misspelled the word “Pension” in the manuals and notes she left behind. She had transposed the “s” and the ” i” so that it spelled “penison.” It was a curious mistake given that the word was on the placard on the office door--Alaska Public Employee Pension and Benefit Fund--and on the letterhead. The tabs on my Alaska Public Employee Pension and Benefit fund manual read:
I also came across the misspelling on loose papers and sticky notes. A week into my training, it had produced a zen like metronome in my head: “PENIS ON phone tree...PENIS ON time allocation...PENIS ON Trustee Report.” I couldn’t decide if it was a brilliant piece of prankery or just poor grammar.
When I asked Stacy Benedict, who sat two cubicles down, what Becki was like, she puffed out her cheeks, “Big.”
Stacy was a health nut who ate chicken and rice for breakfast and did her makeup while taking phone calls. She also wore huge wedge heels that made her two inches taller than anybody else in the office.
“Great,” I said. “But what was she like?”
“I dunno,” said Stacy. “She got fired.”
“For what?” I said.
“I can’t say.”
“You don’t know?” I said
“No. We’re not supposed to talk about it. What I can say is, you know how we have to log in every voided check. Then we have to give them to Larry. And then he shreds them at the end of the month?”
“Sort of,” I said. My training had not yet cottoned.
“That’s because of her.”
“She’s also not a great speller,” I said and showed Stacy some of Becki’s notes.
Stacy didn’t get it at first--so I sounded it out for her. “See. PENIS-ON.” I said.
She put her hand to her mouth and gasped. “OH. MY. GOD,” then called over Gwen and Tiffany to have a look, where she sounded it out for them too.
Stacy--I had discovered--was kind of a bomb thrower. The week before, she had paraded around the office telling everyone that Led Zeppelin was coming to Anchorage and that tickets were only ten dollars. “Ten dollars,” she said. “Can you believe it? I bet one them is sick or something and they’re trying to scrape money together.” Then someone read the alt weekly ad she was carrying around with her. The ad was for “Lez Zeppelin,” Alaska’s premiere female cover band.
I was actually the one who read the ad and said something. I tried to be quiet about it--being new----though she didn’t seem too bent out of shape about it. There were more bombs to be thrown, I guess.
The pension department was four cubicles set up along a bank of windows that looked down on Asian jewelry shops and Italian family restaurants on a semi busy Anchorage street. Larry’s office was at the end. He had a view of the street and our parking lot. Our job was mostly to talk to pensioners (who we called participants), unfold their decades old birth and marriage certificates, and remind them of the date as they signed different forms. We also got to tell divorced participants that their ex-wives and ex-husbands got a cut of their pensions.
We had a team building exercise one afternoon when a water main broke on the street outside and shot a huge blast of water at Larry’s office window. We watched the constructions workers, run around looking for a turnoff as their construction site filled up with water. We gave them names and voices as they ran past each other in panic: “I THINK WE HIT SOMETHING, BURT” “FUCK YOU FRED!” They never found the turn off. Instead, they lowered the shovel from their backhoe down on the hole in the pipe. It was like putting a foot down on broken sprinkler head except times a thousand.
I used to be a high school biology teacher, and I still thought of myself as one (as did my parents) despite that fact that since being laid off five years ago, I had had longer tenures at The Sports Authority and at Chilis’ Bar and Grill.
Stacy spotted Becki. “Guess where?” she said.
She was talking to Tiffany, who was good enough friends with Stacy to know that she was there only to give her a beat to build up suspense.
“Red. Robin.” said Stacy.
“Holy shit.” said Tiffany.
“I know,” said Stacy
They were huddled in Tiffany’s cubicle. Tiffany was the most senior Pension Representative at seven years and was typically hardworking and quiet--except when Stacy made the three steps over to her cubicle. Aside from work, Tiffany’s primary concerns were her baby daughter, Jamille, of which there were easily a dozen photos posted around her cubicle, and her nails.
“Did she see you?” asked Tiffany
“She was working,” said Stacy
“At Red Robin?”
“That’s what I’m telling you.”
“Don’t they do background checks?” said Tiffany.
“I guess not,” said Stacy
They searched for her on Facebook simultaneously. They tucked their phones away for a moment when Larry walked by. He made sure to slap his feet to announce he was coming. He was a good supervisor in so much that he didn’t come out of his office much and didn’t care much about what we did as long as there weren’t complaints from his boss, Robert.
Stacy’s head popped up over the wall of my cubicle. “See this is what she looks like.”
She showed me a close up picture of a brunette woman wearing lots of eyeliner kissing a splotchily bearded man. “Which one is she?” I asked.
Stacy’s eyes narrowed. She found me tiresome, but she also needed to spread the word to someone. “The chick,” she said
“You know what you should do,” I said. “You should call up the manager at Red Robin and tell him one of his employee’s a criminal.”
“Oh my god, did you hear that?” Stacy turned to Tiffany, who had lost interest in the Becki news and was working--talking on the phone and typing information into her computer--while Stacy still had her butt hiked up on her desk. “We should call up her manager.”
Tiffany covered her mouthpiece, “Okay. Sounds good”
I walked over to Gwen’s cubicle, feeling halfway lousy about the furor I had set in motion. She and I formed a voting block of sorts in the pension department. She wasn’t in her twenties and I wasn’t female--so neither of us could go into Larry’s office, cry our eyes out and come away with an afternoon of leave. “What did you think of Becki?” I asked
She gave it some thought. Gwen wasn’t a homesteader, but she played the part. She wore earthy type jewelry and her hair was long and a mix of brown and gray. When she was talking with the girls, she would pull out a hairbrush and straighten it out in long deliberate strokes. I pictured her doing this by lamplight in a log cabin in a long ankle length nightgown Little House on the Prairie style--but I knew this wasn’t accurate. She had electricity. She had pictures on Facebook of baby chickens under warming lights. “You mean, would I call up her place of business and get her fired?” she said. “No probably not.”
“I was joking,” I said.
“I know,” she said. “You don’t like Stacy much do you?”
“No you don’t,” she said.
Gwen had been proposed to by participants at least twice since I had been there. It was tough to know how serious old codgers living on fifteen hundred dollars a month really are, but I could see the attraction.
This was about the time I started wearing flip flops in the office. Larry didn’t like it. He said Robert told him he could hear me coming from two floors away. Eventually, Larry called me into his office to discuss it. “We have a dress code,” he said. “Business casual.”
I was sitting in one of his chairs with one leg crossed over the other. I wiggled my toes. “These are casual,” I said.
“Just wear shoes,” he said.
That afternoon, I counted the number of people wearing sandals in the office and presented my findings to Larry. “Twelve out of twenty three employee of the Alaska Public Employees Pension and Benefit Fund are today wearing sandals and or open toed shoes,” I said.
“Also,” I said. “ All twelve individuals wearing sandals are women. The only person not allowed to wear sandals--me--is male.”
“Are you turning this into a sex discrimination issue?”
“I’m only telling you what my findings are,” I said.
“Just be a man,” said Larry. “And put on some shoes.”
This was also about when I realized I didn’t think of myself as a High School Biology teacher anymore so much as a fallen High School Biology teacher. One night in bed, I said to my wife, “I think when the robot apocalypse happens, I’ll be gone in the first wave. I hope they replace me with an algorithm--but one with a polite British accent--you know for customer service.” She was facing away from me, but I could see she was squeezing her eyes shut, pretending to be asleep. She and I had met in college. She was an editor and using her degree and I secretly resented it--well maybe not secretly. “Actually, I said. “I bet when the robots come, they mistake me for one of them--just an outdated model ready for termination.”
In bed on another another night, I asked her, “Did you know the bloodiest battles of the Civil War happened after the South knew they were going to lose? Imagine, whole regiments just throwing up the hands and saying, ‘Fuck it. Let’s just break some shit.’ ”
She turned over from where she had been ignoring me. “Are you talking about us?” she asked
“No,” I said. “Are you?”
“I’m not even talking,” she said.
I still had not gotten a clear answer for why Becki was fired. When I asked Larry about it, he didn’t mention the checks. He only said, “That woman put this department back years.” This worried me because she didn’t seem so far removed from a person like me. She didn’t seem like a bad employee so much as bored. I was sure I was one misstep away from doing something stupid and/or irreparable that Stacy and the girls would be “Not supposed to be talking” about after I left. I didn’t know if I could set the department back years--but a couple months, sure.
I stopped wearing flip flops, but I spent more time in the bathroom, and making coffee, and walking quickly between departments, trying to look busy. I discovered that Gwen was an easy scare, and spent a good part of my workday devising different ways to pop up at her cubicle. Getting Gwen to clutch her chest and gasp “Oh dear Lord,” and “You little brat,” made dark days a little brighter.
On one Friday afternoon the Pension Department was leaning on filing cabinets, telling stories. Even Larry came out, arms folded across his chest. Gwen too, rolling her office chair into the aisle in stocking feet. We had gone from embarrassing stories, to stories of poverty, to mishaps to tragedies, when Tiffany told everyone how she escaped her first marriage by burying a key outside in the yard and then sneaking out in the middle of the night and calling her sister to wire money for a plane flight home.
“Wait,” Stacy interrupted. “That’s not the guy you still talk to, is it? Like in the bathroom, on your breaks.”
“It was only that one time,” said Tiffany.
“Holy shit,” said Stacy. “You were brainwashed.”
“I was not brainwashed,” said Tiffany. “I loved him. I just didn’t love being married to him.”
“That’s BRAIN-WASHED,” said Stacy. She looked towards the rest of us. “Right?”
“Oh honey--I can’t judge,” said Gwen.
Larry pulled his elbow off the filing cabinet and backed slowly into his office.
She turned to me, “Right?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t ask her to kill anybody, did he?”
“What are you even talking about?”
“The Manson Family,” I said.
While Stacy’s ire was occupied with me, Tiffany scooted quietly into her cubicle and went back to work. She had an online obituary pulled up on her computer screen and was typing the names of the recently deceased into the pension fund’s database. She was the pension representative in charge of finding dead participants who were still collecting pension payments.
A little later, Stacy sidestepped into Tiffany’s cubicle and knelt down next to her desk. It was a tight fit, Stacy in her heels and her makeup, her polished fingernails. Her face, which usually had a high gloss on it, was heavy and soft, her eyelids hooded. She spoke softly while Tiffany clicked through obituaries, not looking at her.
I thought I would take some pleasure in seeing her get her comeuppance, for being loud and stupid, for not knowing who the Manson Family was--but wedged between the cubicle and the desk, she looked hollowed out and sad--mostly sad, and it was hard not to feel bad for her. Whether or not she was totally sincere is hard to say. Some people, I think, are so limited that this sort of thing is nearly impossible for them, but when she caught me watching, her eyes were so wide and pained, a zing of shame went through me.
Tiffany took Stacy’s hands in hers. They hugged and laughed and wiped away tears, Then they stood up hand in hand and headed toward the break room. Stacy announced, “We’re going to go make a smoothie.”
Much to my surprise, Stacy and Tiffany left the Alaska Public Employee Pension and Benefit Fund before me.
Stacy had been taking real estate classes--residential. On her last day, she handed out business cards to everyone. They were glossy and green and half taken up by a portrait of an eager looking Stacy--big eyes, wide smile. A caption next to her face read, “Let me show you home.” She hugged me like she did everyone else--elbows out--and gave me her card. I had been trying to give her a charming send off using what my brother in law (a commercial real estate broker himself) said about residential real estate agents--that they were the idiot little siblings of the real estate world. But I couldn’t make it come out heartwarming, so instead, I said, “Good Luck,” which I counted as a win.
Tiffany, who never used the word "Alzheimer," but would joke about how her dad hid snack food in her clothes and how strange it was that he was so sweet and mellow now when he had been such an asshole before, left to take care of him. People in the office offered her encouragement and stories of their own hardships. Their goodbyes were reverent and tearful--as if she was off to do some holy work--which I guess she was.
I left the fund after hiding underneath Gwen’s desk on a day when she was wearing a skirt, thus violating the Fund’s sexual harassment policy. I was on my hands and knees when Larry asked me into his office. He was not interested in hearing that Gwen was an easy scare nor how these sort of office jokes can escalate, or about the the bloodiness of the Civil War after Gettysburg. And in the end, I wasn’t either.
Gwen--as far as I know--is still there. She’s had kids from multiple marriages, she’s quit smoking, she’s survived a house fire, and a bankruptcy--which is to say, she can weather a storm. On the day I was escorted out of the office, She hugged me and wished me good luck And I told her what I had always wanted to tell her, which was that in an alternate universe, she would have been a late night DJ. I told her, I’d be listening for her radio call at 11 pm on Friday and Saturday nights: “My name is Gwen Kelly and you’re listening to the smooth sounds of the Seventies. The request lines are open.”
About the Author: Matt Reed Lives in Anchorage, Alaska among dogs and children His fiction has most recently appeared in (b)OINK, The Forge Literary Magazine, and Apt. Follow him on Twitter, here.