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A Novella Excerpt

Michael Priebe's story about cubicle life

(The following text is an excerpt from  the author's novella, "Sick Building Syndrome," which runs approximately 19,000 words. The novella is part of the author's in-progress manuscript of short fiction, First World Problems: Sick Building Syndrome and Other Stories.

Jonathan Libre (pronounced LEE-bray), 38, died early Monday morning in a nondescript office building in suburban Milwaukee, WI. After a secretive eight-month battle with nonspecific illnesses not recognized by the medical establishment, he succumbed to the Reaper while surrounded by an unfortunate collection of workplace acquaintances. The seminal accomplishment of his adult life was surviving the passage of time and recording that passage on weekly timesheets. He passed away on a glorious spring day, although at the time of his last breath, he was aware of neither sunshine nor fresh air due to the vaulted nature of the windowless meeting room he occupied. His final working title was Senior Communications Specialist.

For some reason, the scribes of my normally light personality had chosen this particular day to roast me with a hypothetical obituary. In some candlelit corner of my mind, they’d donned tuxedos, mixed martinis, and gathered to cheer me up with a good laugh about my situation. Unfortunately, I couldn’t laugh about much of anything lately, least of all myself. Frivolities like amusement couldn’t touch me.


“Now, who can tell me what this is?” Thomas asked the ten of us gathered in Innovation Room B. “Jonathan? Any ideas?”


In an attempt to convey some truism regarding interdepartmental cooperation, my boss had just drawn what looked to be a massive blue dick on the whiteboard. I wasn’t even snickering. Historically, a little office double entendre made me chuckle, but I currently sat squared and stoic in my low-back conference chair, completely unmoved by the locker-room humor of it all. This signaled a problem. It was a sign, like the scribes and their obituary.


I’d been getting a lot of signs lately.


As Thomas waited for an answer, I shook my head and stared into my lap. Staggered rows of overhead fluorescents taxed my retinas, and their pallid glow illuminated a truth I could no longer deny: This office seemed to be making me sick. Clearly I would be doing the healthy thing by quitting today.


The junior half of the Customer Communications Department—the ones who still spent precious portions of their biweekly paychecks on business wardrobes and dry cleaning—were doing more than just snickering at the crude, phallic-like sketch our manager was now quizzing us on. They made a show of coughing up laughter they couldn’t suppress, and they smirked at each other and at the rest of us, signaling they were still youthful enough to appreciate the innate sexuality of everything.


Senior members of our department moved noncommittal stares from their mostly blank notebooks to the whiteboard and back. If they took any pornographic silliness from the illustration at the heart of this morning’s weekly staff meeting, they weren’t letting on.


“All right, that’s the spirit,” Thomas said, mistaking the young laughter in the room for a display of interest. He had already shed his coffee-flecked sports coat, and now he rolled up the yellowing sleeves of his white dress shirt. His was a war for engagement, and he thought he might be getting somewhere.


“Anyone,” Thomas said, smacking a palm against the tip of his sketch.


Suzanne, who had long ago surrendered things like humor and playfulness to the workplace, shifted loudly in her seat. She swallowed up her thin, overly painted lips, making sure that Thomas—and by extension the company as a whole—knew exactly how hard she was trying to discern the correct answer.


“Yes, Suzanne!” Thomas said when she raised her hand. But when Thomas pointed at her, Suzanne lost her nerve and lowered her arm. Indecision often plagued her when she began wrestling time and space to gather what, exactly, the company wanted to hear in a given situation.


Outside, the latter portions of rush hour weaved start and stop fits down the interstate en route to downtown Milwaukee—or so I assumed. I couldn’t actually hear or see anything of the outside world from my position deep within the third floor of the Oakstream Office Park. The offices of G. Bradford Corporation, like the corporate spaces above and below us, were chambered at the center of the building. Windows were only available in the vast hallways that ran around the offices, and even those tinted teases didn’t open.


“Anyone?” Thomas asked again, now pacing the front of the room like a hungry zoo lion waiting to be thrown his lunch. We were Thomas’s pets, but at times we were also his handlers.


Amidst the uncomfortable silence someone coughed, and I suddenly wondered if it was possible for the human body to actually forget what the air of nature felt like. What if I developed an allergic reaction to the stuff, and one day upon leaving the office my lungs seized up because they could no longer process anything but the climate-controlled output of this building’s duct systems? My throat suddenly felt tight, as if it were swelling shut.


Massaging my Adam’s apple, I swiveled my chair and caught a glimpse of Jacob looking bored in his usual seat behind us all. I tried to wink at my old friend, but I don’t think my eyelid actually moved. Despite Jacob’s coarse presence as a large, bearded man—six-foot-three of former collegiate linebacker—I was currently picturing him in skimpy, metallic-blue running shorts and knee-high athletic socks with orange stripes.


Years ago—when the economy was boisterous and the office was still paying for things like employee yoga sessions on the second Thursday afternoon of each odd month—Jacob and I often carpooled to wellness initiatives together. Riding to the gym in Jacob’s stormy blue Miata, we always congratulated each other on getting paid to leave work early and log points toward a company fitness reimbursement. During pre-yoga stretches, Jacob often got philosophical about his presence at G. Bradford. He’d come to the company just four years before me, but he complained his soul was already saturated with enough meaningless corporate muck to last a lifetime.


“I won’t be in an office sharpening Thomas’s pencil dick forever,” Jacob had told me more than once. “Sometimes God moves us into a shithole because it’s the only way we’ll appreciate clean air again.” Seated on the gym floor doing toe touches with legs splayed, Jacob tested the limits of public decency with his ill-fitting shorts. “I don’t want the big mortgage and long boat anymore—I just want meaning back in my life.” Jacob’s doctorate was in sociology, but after years of adjunct teaching had failed to segue into a professorship, financial vise grips had finally squeezed him into the shackles of G. Bradford’s employment. “Human beings can’t thrive in this environment,” he’d say. “I’m working on writing a textbook and I’m keeping in contact with the universities. This nice Bradford salary will pay a little debt, and then it’s back to academia. A couple years—three tops—and I’m out.”


That was ten years ago.


In the time since our days of downward dogging, Jacob’s wife had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and he’d developed a serious dependence on company health insurance. I now noticed that he’d also developed bruised-looking divots of fatigue under his eyes. The physical indifference of spending sixty hours a week at the office had turned the solid tower of his youth into an amorphous stretch. He’d always looked so fit and sturdy at our old workout sessions, but today—wearing a short-sleeved polo that seemed smaller each time he wore it—Jacob struck me as droopy. Whenever he moved his arms I imagined the melted muscles that lay beneath his various fleshy overhangs; I pictured them straining to give his limbs shape—struggling to keep a crumpling trophy intact.


Jammed in his low conference chair here, Jacob looked like an adult supervising the kids’ table at a family dinner. Sometimes, I suspected we all felt like we were back at the children’s table during these meetings.


Jacob rubbed the white fur of his beard and gave me the wink I’d been trying to muster earlier.


“A silo?’ Jacob said.


“What’s that, Jacob?” Thomas said. “A little louder?”


“A silo, Thomas. A silo.” As the most senior communications specialist, Jacob knew it was his duty to give Thomas the release he’d been waiting for.


“Yes, a silo!” Thomas said, practically shouting his words. Excited spittle flew from his mouth and nestled in his thin, desert-red moustache. “We, as a department, do not want to exist in a silo. Whenever we feel as though we are our own entity, we want to make sure we break the top on that silo, and we want to reach out lines of communication to everyone else in this company.”


To illustrate his directive, Thomas grabbed a red dry-erase marker and drew several arcs of “outreach” spewing from the head of his structure. The younger members of the department roared in an outburst Thomas mistook for team spirit.


“Hahaaa, yeess,” Thomas said in response to the energy. He clenched his fists and began pumping his arms in front of his waist, as if he’d just sunk a fifty-foot putt on Sunday at Augusta. It also kind of looked like he was screwing something invisible, and the twenty-somethings roared even louder.


Suzanne nodded furiously, Jacob smiled to say he understood, and I sat in silence, feeling a familiar tension beginning to pulse in my temples. It was nine o’clock in the morning. I knew that, by ten thirty, the rumblings in my head would require at least six hundred milligrams of ibuprofen.


Staring at Thomas’s artwork, watching his furious blue-and-red etchings sink in the dirty canvas of a smudged whiteboard that had been used for a hundred pointless meetings like this, I saw the death of the American Dream. Furthermore, I saw a lonely, severed cartoon dink squirting blood, and it made me sad. This place really had covered my world with ash.


As Thomas basked in a hot-cheeked surge of emotion I knew he wouldn’t match until next week’s meeting, I felt more certain than ever that my ailments would finally bring hospitalization of funeral arrangements if I didn’t follow through on my exit plan by 4:00 p.m. today.


How much more convincing did I need?



Copyright 2015 Michael Priebe

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