The following short story is excerpted from Daniel Orozco’s debut collection Orientation and Other Stories.
Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That’s my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it. This is your Voicemail System Manual. There are no personal phone calls allowed. We do, however, allow for emergencies. If you must make an emergency phone call, ask your supervisor first. If you can’t find your supervisor, ask Phillip Spiers, who sits over there. He’ll check with Clarissa Nicks, who sits over there. If you make an emergency phone call without asking, you may be let go.These are your in- and out-boxes. All the forms in your inbox must be logged in by the date shown in the upper- left- hand corner, initialed by you in the upper-right-hand corner, and distributed to the Processing Analyst whose name is numerically coded in the lower-left-hand corner. The lower-right-hand corner is left blank. Here’s your Processing Analyst Numerical Code Index. And here’s your Forms Processing Procedures Manual.
You must pace your work. What do I mean? I’m glad you asked that. We pace our work according to the eight-hour workday. If you have twelve hours of work in your in-box, for example, you must compress that work into the eight-hour day. If you have one hour of work in your in-box, you must expand that work to fill the eight- hour day. That was a good question. Feel free to ask questions. Ask too many questions, however, and you may be let go.
That is our receptionist. She is a temp. We go through receptionists here. They quit with alarming frequency. Be polite and civil to the temps. Learn their names, and invite them to lunch occasionally. But don’t get close to them, as it only makes it more difficult when they leave. And they always leave. You can be sure of that.
The men’s room is over there. The women’s room is over there. John LaFountaine, who sits over there, uses the women’s room occasionally. He says it is accidental. We know better, but we let it pass. John LaFountaine is harmless, his forays into the forbidden territory of the women’s room simply a benign thrill, a faint blip on the dull, flat line of his life.
Russell Nash, who sits in the cubicle to your left, is in love with Amanda Pierce, who sits in the cubicle to your right. They ride the same bus together after work. For Amanda Pierce, it is just a tedious bus ride made less tedious by the idle nattering of Russell Nash. But for Russell Nash, it is the highlight of his day. It is the highlight of his life. Russell Nash has put on forty pounds and grows fatter with each passing month, nibbling on chips and cookies while peeking glumly over the partitions at Amanda Pierce and gorging himself at home on cold pizza and ice cream while watching adult videos on TV.
Amanda Pierce, in the cubicle to your right, has a six-year old son named Jamie, who is autistic. Her cubicle is plastered from top to bottom with the boy’s crayon artwork—sheet after sheet of precisely drawn concentric circles and ellipses, in black and yellow. She rotates them every other Friday. Be sure to comment on them. Amanda Pierce also has a husband, who is a lawyer. He subjects her to an escalating array of painful and humiliating sex games, to which Amanda Pierce reluctantly submits. She comes to work exhausted and freshly wounded each morning, wincing from the abrasions on her breasts, or the bruises on her abdomen, or the second- degree burns on the backs of her thighs.
But we’re not supposed to know any of this. Do not let on. If you let on, you may be let go.
Amanda Pierce, who tolerates Russell Nash, is in love with Albert Bosch, whose office is over there. Albert Bosch, who only dimly registers Amanda Pierce’s existence, has eyes only for Ellie Tapper, who sits over there. Ellie Tapper, who hates Albert Bosch, would walk through fire for Curtis Lance. But Curtis Lance hates Ellie Tapper. Isn’t the world a funny place? Not in the ha-ha sense, of course.
Anika Bloom sits in that cubicle. Last year, while reviewing quarterly reports in a meeting with Barry Hacker, Anika Bloom’s left palm began to bleed. She fell into a trance, stared into her hand, and told Barry Hacker when and how his wife would die. We laughed it off. She was, after all, a new employee. But Barry Hacker’s wife is dead. So unless you want to know exactly when and how you’ll die, never talk to Anika Bloom.
Colin Heavey sits in that cubicle over there. He was new once, just like you. We warned him about Anika Bloom. But at last year’s Christmas Potluck he felt sorry for her when he saw that no one was talking to her. Colin Heavey brought her a drink. He hasn’t been himself since. Colin Heavey is doomed. There’s nothing he can do about it, and we are powerless to help him. Stay away from Colin Heavey. Never give any of your work to him. If he asks to do something, tell him you have to check with me. If he asks again, tell him I haven’t gotten back to you.
This is the fire exit. There are several on this floor, and they are marked accordingly. We have a Floor Evacuation Review every three months, and an Escape Route Quiz once a month. We have our Biannual Fire Drill twice a year, and our Annual Earthquake Drill once a year. These are precautions only. These things never happen.
For your information, we have a comprehensive health plan. Any catastrophic illness, any unforeseen tragedy, is completely covered. All dependents are completely covered. Larry Bagdikian, who sits over there, has six daughters. If anything were to happen to any of his girls, or to all of them, if all six were to simultaneously fall victim to illness or injury—stricken with a hideous degenerative muscle disease or some rare toxic blood disorder, sprayed with semiautomatic gunfire while on a class field trip, or attacked in their bunk beds by some prowling nocturnal lunatic—if any of this were to pass, Larry’s girls would all be taken care of. Larry Bagdikian would not have to pay one dime. He would have nothing to worry about.
We also have a generous vacation and sick leave policy. We have an excellent disability insurance plan. We have a stable and profitable pension fund. We get group discounts for the symphony, and block seating at the ballpark. We get commuter ticket books for the bridge. We have direct deposit. We are all members of Costco.
This is our kitchenette. And this, this is our Mr. Coffee. We have a coffee pool into which we each pay two dollars a week for coffee, filters, sugar, and Coffee-mate. If you prefer Cremora or half-and-half to Coffee-mate, there is a special pool for three dollars a week. If you prefer Sweet’N Low to sugar, there is a special pool for two-fifty a week. We do not do decaf. You are allowed to join the coffee pool of your choice, but you are not allowed to touch the Mr. Coffee.
This is the micro wave oven. You are allowed to heat food in the microwave oven. You are not, however, allowed to cook food in the microwave oven.
We get one hour for lunch. We also get one fifteen-minute break in the morning and one fifteen-minute break in the afternoon. Always take your breaks. If you skip a break, it is gone forever. For your information, your break is a privilege, not a right. If you abuse the break policy, we are authorized to rescind your breaks. Lunch, however, is a right, not a privilege. If you abuse the lunch policy, our hands will be tied and we will be forced to look the other way. We will not enjoy that.
This is the refrigerator. You may put your lunch in it. Barry Hacker, who sits over there, steals food from this refrigerator. His petty theft is an outlet for his grief. Last New Year’s Eve, while kissing his wife, a blood vessel burst in her brain. Barry Hacker’s wife was two months pregnant at the time and lingered in a coma for half a year before she died. It was a tragic loss for Barry Hacker. He hasn’t been himself since. Barry Hacker’s wife was a beautiful woman. She was also completely covered. Barry Hacker did not have to pay one dime. But his dead wife haunts him. She haunts all of us. We have seen her, reflected in the monitors of our computers, moving past our cubicles. We have seen the dim shadow of her face in our photocopies. She pencils herself in in the receptionist’s appointment book with the notation “To see Barry Hacker.” She has left messages in the receptionist’s Voicemail box, messages garbled by the electronic chirrups and buzzes in the phone line, her voice echoing from an immense distance within the ambient hum. But the voice is hers. And beneath the voice, beneath the tidal whoosh of static and hiss, the gurgling and crying of a baby can be heard.
In any case, if you bring a lunch, put a little something extra in the bag for Barry Hacker. We have four Barrys in this office. Isn’t that a coincidence?
This is Matthew Payne’s office. He is our Unit Manager, and his door is always closed. We have never seen him, and you will never see him. But he is there. You can be sure of that. He is all around us.
This is the Custodian’s Closet. You have no business in the Custodian’s Closet.
And this, this is our Supplies Cabinet. If you need supplies, see Curtis Lance. He will log you in on the Supplies Cabinet Authorization Log, then give you a Supplies Authorization Slip. Present your pink copy of the Supplies Authorization Slip to Ellie Tapper. She will log you in on the Supplies Cabinet Key Log, then give you the key. Because the Supplies Cabinet is located outside the Unit Manager’s office, you must be very quiet. Gather your supplies quietly. The Supplies Cabinet is divided into four sections. Section One contains letterhead stationery, blank paper and envelopes, memo pads and note pads, and so on. Section Two contains pens and pencils and typewriter and printer ribbons, and the like. In Section Three we have erasers, correction fluids, transparent tapes, glue sticks, et cetera. And in Section Four we have paper clips and pushpins and scissors and razor blades. And here are the spare blades for the shredder. Do not touch the shredder, which is located over there. The shredder is of no concern to you.
Gwendolyn Stich sits in that office there. She is crazy about penguins and collects penguin knickknacks: penguin posters and coffee mugs and stationery, penguin stuffed animals, penguin jewelry, penguin sweaters and T-shirts and socks. She has a pair of penguin fuzzy slippers she wears when working late at the office. She has a tape cassette of penguin sounds, which she listens to for relaxation. Her favorite colors are black and white. She has personalized license plates that read PEN GWEN. Every morning, she passes through all the cubicles to wish each of us a good morning. She brings Danish on Wednesdays for Hump Day morning break, and doughnuts on Fridays for TGIF afternoon break. She organizes the Annual Christmas Potluck and is in charge of the Birthday List. Gwendolyn Stich’s door is always open to all of us. She will always lend an ear and put in a good word for you; she will always give you a hand, or the shirt off her back, or a shoulder to cry on. Because her door is always open, she hides and cries in a stall in the women’s room. And John LaFountaine—who, enthralled when a woman enters, sits quietly in his stall with his knees to his chest—John LaFountaine has heard her vomiting in there. We have come upon Gwendolyn Stich huddled in the stairwell, shivering in the updraft, sipping a Diet Mr. Pibb and hugging her knees. She does not let any of this interfere with her work. If it interfered with her work, she might have to be let go.
Kevin Howard sits in that cubicle over there. He is a serial killer, the one they call the Carpet Cutter, responsible for the mutilations across town. We’re not supposed to know that, so do not let on. Don’t worry. His compulsion inflicts itself on strangers only, and the routine established is elaborate and unwavering. The victim must be a white male, a young adult no older than thirty, heavyset, with dark hair and eyes, and the like. The victim must be chosen at random before sunset, from a public place; the victim is followed home and must put up a struggle; et cetera. The carnage inflicted is precise: the angle and direction of the incisions, the layering of skin and muscle tissue, the rearrangement of visceral organs, and so on. Kevin Howard does not let any of this interfere with his work. He is, in fact, our fastest typist. He types as if he were on fire. He has a secret crush on Gwendolyn Stich and leaves a red-foil-wrapped Hershey’s Kiss on her desk every afternoon. But he hates Anika Bloom and keeps well away from her. In his presence, she has uncontrollable fits of shaking and trembling. Her left palm does not stop bleeding.
In any case, when Kevin Howard gets caught, act surprised. Say that he seemed like a nice person, a bit of a loner, perhaps, but always quiet and polite.
This is the photocopier room. And this, this is our view. It faces southwest. West is down there, toward the water. North is back there. Because we are on the seventeenth floor, we are afforded a magnificent view. Isn’t it beautiful? It overlooks the park, where the tops of those trees are. You can see a segment of the bay between those two buildings over there. You can see the sun set in the gap between those two buildings over there. You can see this building reflected in the glass panels of that building across the way. There. See? That’s you, waving. And look there. There’s Anika Bloom in the kitchenette, waving back.
Enjoy this view while photocopying. If you have problems with the photocopier, see Russell Nash. If you have any questions, ask your supervisor. If you can’t find your supervisor, ask Phillip Spiers. He sits over there. He’ll check with Clarissa Nicks. She sits over there. If you can’t find them, feel free to ask me. That’s my cubicle. I sit in there.
Listen to a staged reading from “This American Life.”
Read Orozco’s story “Shakers” on Scribd
Listen to Orozco’s story “The Bridge” on Broadcastr
Daniel Orozco’s stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best American Essays, and the Pushcart Prize anthology, as well as in publications such as Harper’s, Zoetrope: All-Story, McSweeney’s, Ecotone, and StoryQuarterly. He was awarded a 2006 NEA Fellowship in fiction, and was a finalist for a 2006 National Magazine Award in fiction. A former Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford, he teaches creative writing at the University of Idaho.
Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a new monthly feature at The Millions.
It’s the biography that gets you; especially if you are yourself an aspiring writer of fiction, feeling rushed rushed rushed to be “20 Under 40” or bust. I mean, imagine:
You graduate college (1979), and for 11 years you do various kinds of office work — human resources, that sort of thing. Then, inspired or perhaps just restless, you start “tinkering with a story idea.” It nags at you, you keep working on it, and when you finish it, you use it to apply to a writing program (MA, San Francisco State, 1992). You are still not sure you “want” to be a writer per se, but something about the process, the intensity of creative focus, absorbs you like nothing else; so you go on for two more years of school (MFA, University of Washington). Then, bam — publication in Best American Short Stories a year later (“Orientation,” 1995). Two years after that you win a Pushcart (“The Bridge”) and you publish another story (“Hunger Tales”). You are in your late 30s; fucking-A, you are on your way.
Probably your agent and your cohorts are asking if you have a novel. You don’t. You write very slowly. You are not prolific. So far, you really just have three good stories to show for yourself. Okay, three very good stories (so they say). Over the next six years, you write and publish another very good story (“Temporary Stories,” 1999) and then another (“I Run Every Day,” 2001). Still: six years since that best American short story (the clever one about office life that everyone was talking about) and no novel yet, not even a full story collection.
But you are serious about your work, ticking time clock be damned. You’ve been a Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer during this time period, after all. You are developing your body of work in your own sweet time.
In 2002 you are offered a one-year teaching position that turns into a tenure-track writing professorship the following year. And you haven’t even published a book! Five stories, and you are employed for life! You will never have to work as a temp or a human resources officer again. You are now in your mid-40s.
After you settle in as a university professor, things really start to take off. Over the next five years, you write and publish four more stories (at roughly once/year, that’s twice as fast as you published the previous five). You win an NEA Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Residency, two MacDowell residencies, and one of those four stories (which is actually nonfiction) is published in Best American Essays. In 2011, your collection, which you title after that first best American story, is finally published; and that same year you win a Whiting Award and are long-listed for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. At 52 years old, you are a “debut author.” Nine stories; 16 years in the making.
And the book is damn good.
The book is damn good. Reviewers agree, and I don’t have a lot to add to that chorus.
What I will say is how amazed I was at Daniel Orozco’s ability to move from the impersonal to the deeply intimate, from the outside-in to the inside-out, with such skill, precision, and, most surprisingly, gentleness. You don’t know how you got there — underneath the skin of these (often nameless) characters, feeling the throb of private wounds as if they are your own — but you’re there, fully, in an instant. Most of the stories are written from a roving omniscient point-of-view; the narration typically begins from a coolly formal distance, flat and unparticularized. “Those are the offices and these are the cubicles.” “It was tradition on the bridge for each member of the paint crew to get a nickname.” “She went grocery shopping three times a week.” “Two men followed a third man up the street one night.” Others (in particular “Officers Weep,” written in the form of a police blotter, and ultimately one of my favorites) experiment with forms that, on the surface, threaten gimmickry. I confess that I had the book on my shelf for a few months before delving in, because, having skimmed the first sentences and the shapes of each story, I couldn’t imagine “getting into” them. But by the third story (once I did set myself to reading), I couldn’t wait to see how Orozco would do it – how he’d come up from behind me with a beat-up old club chair, slip it underneath my knees, effectively saying, “Stay a while. Have a seat. You’ll need it.”
A short way of saying all this is that Orozco has done what I’ve always hoped to do in my fiction: he’s written “idea stories” – stories that begin with a formal experiment or an intellectual question or situational problem – that also break your heart.
Finally, despite comparisons to David Foster Wallace, Don Delillo, Joshua Ferris, et alia – authors who are known for depicting the soul-crushing hyperrealities of “modern-day alienation” or “the tyranny of dehumanizing institutions and technology” – Orientation is not about “alienation,” modern-day or otherwise; nor about the effects of a particular cultural transition or economic decline. The stories are about loneliness. About the awful, persistent distance between you and me, between me and me, between each of us and the spiritual-whatever in the universe; all of which keeps us wondering what the hell this life is about, and how we will survive it. This seems an important distinction to me, and what has allowed Orozco’s work – some of it 16 years-old – to debut with full emotional resonance.
Mostly I’m glad for Orozco’s damn good example – of taking your time. Of doing what you do, as very best as you can do it, and shutting out the noise of what everyone else is doing. Of focusing on quality not quantity, which seems an apt, if cliché, mantra for someone who set most of his stories in uninspiring workplace settings. Orozco’s cumulative oeuvre to date, and how it came to be, is itself a resonant narrative, the 10th story of the collection you might say. It speaks to the reader about foraging for a truthful place, a perch of realness, in the midst of and despite the specter of loneliness.
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Sonya Chung is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016. She is founding editor of Bloom and teaches fiction writing at Skidmore College. Learn more about Sonya here.