In a Cave
From a prompt session conducted with the Gotham Writer's Workshop.
Fluorescent lighting wasn’t designed by anyone that cared very much for people, except in the abstract sense of economic units of consumption that didn’t want to spend much on electricity. Or at least that’s what Jerry (Jeremiah on the job application that he had submitted to this insurance underwriter five months ago) thought as he looked over the cubicle wall. Half-walls were cheaper than full cubicle walls, and fluorescents were cheaper than traditional bulbs with actual filaments. The carpets were durable and efficient, as were the desks that interlocked with the cubicle walls and the other interlockable desks in a predictable pattern.
Jerry leaned back and pinched his nose. Three files down, three to go before lunch. He might try the new Thai place that had opened down the street. In a midsized, mid-Western town like this it took courage to open it and he suspected that they would be glad to have him. He would likely go alone, as had become his, not entirely willing, habit. He had not been successful in making friends among the other employees, who usually ate at their desks, anyway, or had already developed impervious cliques. Now eating alone had calcified into a habit, a strand of his office DNA.
Down the hall he could see Samantha’s office door was open, as usual. She liked to tout the fact that her door was always open to anyone, although very few people took her up on the implied offer for a dialogue unless they wanted to complain about the work, a co-worker, or serve her their notice. Samantha’s hair had gone gray here, based on the pictures on her desk: smiling, dark-complected standard-issue husband and little boy wincing in the sunlight of that picture-perfect day.
The thrill of finally getting a decent-paying job had lasted about three weeks. It had turned into a monotony of forms, unhappy voices on the telephone, and administrative reporting on everything that happened during his day. Day after day. Extending into forever, from where he sat. Nothing changed much, or likely would change.
Except for Barnaby, that is. He had seen the man sitting on the sidewalk, propped up against the white, faux-marble wall of their building and, like everyone else, had inscribed a big “C” movement with his walking path to give himself and the obviously homeless man a wider berth. But last week something had changed. The homeless man looked up at him and, while he didn’t exactly smile, he did nod his head. Just a bit. A slight tilt, like when you are easing the translucent white from the shell to separate the yolk.
Jerry went past. Then he stopped, turned around, and went back to the man. Barnaby introduced himself. Jerry did the same. They spoke quietly of the weather. On subsequent visits and talks, he learned that the homeless man had once worked in just such an office as Jerry’s but was now calling this sidewalk and the quiet parking lot of a nearby church his home – telework, he said, smiling. Barnaby smelled a little sour, but not terrible. Like sun and rain and the things that sun and rain wore clean.
Jerry had spoken to Barnaby each day since then. He didn’t ask, but Jerry wondered if there wasn’t a slight hint of relief when Barnaby talked about his former life. He hadn’t spoken of how he had left that life, the bridge he crossed or hard turn taken to get to this sidewalk. Of course, Jerry also hadn’t talked much about his own life, his job, slow-motion cratering of divorce, his boss Samantha, or his chilly co-workers. Perhaps Barnaby’s harder reality was an escape of sorts, a path out of the woods, a slender route up through the back of the cave of a catastrophically normal life. The cost to Barnaby had been dear, but we don’t accurately value the consequences of other paths at times, and never when we are on fire.