Fiction / Sacha Siskonen
:: The Help Desk ::
The day my coworker died in the office, I felt nothing. Well, maybe a small flowering relief burbled up from my stomach, but I might have just been hungry, having skipped breakfast on account of being late that morning, as usual. I wasn’t happy he was dead; I just didn’t care. Which is maybe worse.
Harvey went quietly. Or at least no one noticed the life force hiss from his corporeal shell. He was there at the Help Desk looking at GIFs on the Internet when I passed by to make a copy around 8:30am, and then, maybe an hour later, Judy started screaming he was dead.
We worked in a Comprehensive One-Stop mandated by the federal government to assist people with searching for and applying to jobs. The country was in a recession. Unemployment was down, but not that down. Our logo was an eagle, wings stretched wide, taking flight. “Reach for the sky” was our motto. Apparently, whoever made it up neglected to realize it was also what old-timey armed robbers said during holdups.
I spent my days helping customers—we called them customers even though our services were free and they didn’t buy anything from us—with résumés and cover letters and job applications. I couldn’t find a better job myself, and I’d been looking. While helping customers search for jobs, I searched for jobs for myself and spent my evenings at home working on my own résumé and cover letters and job applications.
I privately called Harvey the VCR. He was an obsolete model of old white man who clung on despite his obsolescence to remind us all what the world was really like back then without the Don Draper good-looks or charm. He spent the days parroting FOX News and incoherently ranting about women and minorities. Talking to him was like rewinding a videotape. How did we ever put up with it?
The paramedics said it was a heart attack. Fast. They were only a little surprised no one had noticed, but they assured us there was probably nothing we could have done to save him even if we had been aware he was dying. I imagine they say that to everyone. The eight of us in the office and a few customers who were using our facility that morning stood around watching as the paramedics made sure Harvey was definitely dead.
Harvey and I did not get along. He made the kinds of comments about gender and race and class that in his time were perfectly reasonable observations, comments that we now refer to as sexism, racism, and classism. When I pointed this out to him, he passive aggressively spoke loudly to no one in particular about how “P.C. some people are these days” and how “some people were trying to silence him.” Consequently, Harvey and I spent a lot of time in HR together, being mediated.
When I asked him to do something that Dana had asked me to ask him to do—why couldn’t she just ask him herself?—he would say, “Can’t you do it?” So I just stopped asking and did things myself to avoid having to interact with him. And that’s how he got away with spending a shocking amount of the day looking at GIFs on the Internet, which as far as I could tell took up the majority of his workweek. I had never seen him do anything with the GIFs, post them anywhere or even save them. He just Googled GIFs all day long and looked at them. He was one of the three people whose jobs I was doing. Judy was another, and Karen, who had quit the year before, was the third.
Judy was the only one crying, but that wasn’t unusual, as she cried at least once a week. Judy was a thin, bird-like woman, frail and fragile and always cold. She had been widowed three times, had a recently dead dog, a friend who’d committed suicide last year, and another who’d been thrown from a horse two months prior. But sometimes she cried because her stapler was out of staples and often she cried because she couldn’t operate the fax machine. Why did we still have a fax machine? But people used it. Or tried to.
As they were packing Harvey up to go to the morgue, the paramedics got another call about someone who wasn’t dead yet but might be soon, so they left Harvey in Judy’s chair at the front desk and told us to call a service to come pick him up.
Judy was the receptionist and usually sat at the Help Desk, which was what the Comprehensive One-Stop called reception. But Harvey had been covering for her that morning while she was working on a backlog of work that she couldn’t keep up with.
“It’s going to be a few hours,” Mike, our boss, reported back. The body-removal-service people were a few hours away picking up a body in a far corner of our county. We would have to wait. We all expected him to say we would close for the day, but he didn’t. Instead he said, “Well, back to work, everyone.” None of us protested. Maybe we were in shock. Or maybe we were just a well-trained team, but we all turned, left Harvey at the Help Desk, and went back to our cubicles.
Harvey was slumped in Judy’s chair, limp and lifeless. He was a large man. His body overflowed from the chair. His arms hung down toward the floor, a posture he had frequently taken in life. His beached whale slouch, I called it.
Judy, sniffling, gingerly pushed him over to the side and pulled up another chair next to him. She sat at the Help Desk wiping tears away and pecking at the keyboard. A customer came in and she greeted him with a trembling hello. He saw Harvey, looked concerned, and asked if everything was okay. “We’ve had a death in the office,” she whispered, gesturing toward Harvey, as she checked the customer in.
The other customers went back to their computers too, to finish the job applications or updating of résumés they had been engaged in before Judy’s shrieks had caused us all to stop what we were doing and take notice of what had happened while we were all intently focused on our computer screens, working or pretending to work. A number of homeless people used our facility as a day center when they were forced to leave the shelter. Some spent the days applying to jobs they would never get. Some just surfed the Internet.
When the weather was bad, we were a refuge from rain or snow. In the summer, a free place to stay with air conditioning. I had never really known many homeless people until I started working at the Comprehensive One-Stop. Many of them were a little bit crazy, but no more so than my coworkers. No more so than anyone, really. Just because you have a place to live doesn’t mean you’re sane.
Mike and a few of the other higher-ups went to the back where their offices were. They wouldn’t have to work with Harvey. They had never had to work with Harvey. They had quiet offices where they could work or goof off or do whatever it was they did all day—and I wasn’t sure what any of them did—without being monitored.
“Should we call his family?” Dana asked me.
“There’s no one in town, right?” I asked. Harvey talked a lot about his dead mother, occasionally about a girlfriend in Hawaii who he talked to online and had never met in person, and rarely about an ungrateful sister back east who didn’t speak to him. But he had never used any of their names that I could recall—just possessives: my mother, my girlfriend, my sister.
Dana was my supervisor. Mike was her supervisor. Larry was his supervisor, but Larry was never around. I learned very early on at this job that when I said, sure, I’ll get that done, they appreciated me, and when I said, “Is there a better way to do this?”, they called me in for a random quarterly review.
These reviews were never quarterly but instead correlated exactly to my “attitude problems,” which was what they called my desire to not take on three other peoples’ responsibilities. So I had stopped complaining. Stopped asking for help. Stopped saying much of anything at all, except, sure, I’ll get right on that, and I hadn’t had a quarterly review in three quarters.
A customer waved me over. The regulars called me over at steady intervals to answer their questions about formatting or applications, but the newer people were usually timid and would wait until I got up before trying to catch my eye. The population we served had a severe lack of computer skills. Many of them could type better than I could, having been taught proper hand positioning on typewriters in high school. I was always impressed when someone said, I don’t know how to use this thing and then placed their hands perfectly on the keyboard and typed exactingly with few mistakes. They could type, but they couldn’t Google, couldn’t upload, couldn’t save a file or send an email. And that’s what I was there to help them do.
The customer who had flagged me down was having trouble figuring out how to apply for a job. Close reading skills were another problem I helped with. I scanned the job ad and pointed out the link to the application.
“Thank you! You’re so smart,” the customer said. I got a lot of high praise for my soft skills. I was called a genius for changing font color from red back to black. I was told I was brilliant for knowing how to switch the formatting on a résumé from double spaced to single. When I used the “undo” button to recover deleted text, people wept with appreciation and hugged me. It was good for my ego after years of being talked down to by graduate school professors for writing weak arguments and misusing obscure theorists’ obscure theories, but it was equally unsatisfying.
A noise emanated from Harvey, or from what had previously been Harvey, and my heart fluttered. Judy squealed. I needed a cigarette.
I had taken up smoking for the breaks. We were entitled to breaks, like everyone is, but no one ever took them. No one except Mike. He was a smoker and he would walk around the parking lot three or four times a day, smoking, so I started doing the same, figuring no one could say much about it if the boss did it too, and no one did. No one said anything. I would slip out whenever I felt the need to get away from the office or my coworkers or a customer, light a cigarette, hold it in my hand and breathe fresh air and absorb sunlight. If anyone from the office walked by, I raised the cigarette to my lips and pretended to take a drag. I was fake smoking half a pack a day.
Our office had no windows and fluorescent lighting. It was a bleak place decorated unironically with motivational posters. If you could dream it, you could do it. Teamwork was the fuel that allowed common people to attain uncommon results. Everyone had a unique destiny that only he could fulfill. Soaring eagles, mountaintops, sunrises everywhere. But eagles were endangered; people died climbing mountains; who could tell a sunrise from a sunset?
Outside it was sunny. A conspiracy of ravens, still and silent, sat in a scraggly tree in the parking lot. Could they smell Harvey from inside? Were they waiting for him?
Beyond the ravens was the mountain. Poverty with a view, Harvey used to say. Repeatedly. But he wasn’t wrong. Our university town was beautiful, but you paid a price to live in it. The high cost of living meant even if you had a job, you might not be able to afford a place to stay. “The working poor” as clickbait articles referred to them. One of the worst parts of my job was having to tell people they were homeless.
When customers first came to us, we were required to do an Intake/Assessment during which we asked them where they were living. People crashing on friends’ couches, people living in motels, people sleeping in their cars were all classified as homeless. I didn’t have a box to check that said “sleeping in car.” I checked “homeless” and then the person sitting across from me would say, “I hadn’t thought of it like that.” It was easier when people knew they were homeless. They might say they were sleeping in the woods, or behind the Bed Bath and Beyond. But it didn’t surprise them when I checked the homeless box.
“Can I bum one?” the veteran guarding the live wire asked. I handed him a cigarette and my lighter. The live wire had been exposed in front of our building for a few weeks. The electric company was fixing it or having it fixed, but for reasons that we were not privy to, it wouldn’t be fixed for a while longer. They had hired a security service staffed by veterans to watch it 24/7.
“Can’t they just put up a sign?” I asked.
“Could,” he said. “But signs don’t stop birds or squirrels or teenagers or suicides.”
There were so many ways to die. Live wires got sentries, but no one was protecting us from clogged arteries.
Today the young guy with the prosthetic arm was watching the wire. He alternated shifts with the old guy and the lady veteran. All day, every day one of them sat by the wire. During the day, when the weather was nice, they sat in a cheap beach chair reading or listening to an iPod or just staring up at the blue sky. At night or when it was raining, they sat in the car that was permanently stationed in front of the wire. The lady veteran paced in front of the wire when she was on duty. Took tiny, looping walks around the car to keep her heart rate up, pump the blood through her chest.
The veterans’ only job was to make sure no one approached the wire. I was deeply envious of the free time they had. As I rushed past them in the morning, late and miserable, I thought of all the reading or writing I could get done watching a wire. They had so much time to just think. But I wasn’t a veteran, of course, so the company would never hire me.
The young veteran, younger than me by at least a few years by the look of him, pinched the cigarette in his prosthetic claw-hand and lit it.
“I don’t actually smoke anymore,” he said.
“Me either,” I said and took a puff for his benefit.
“What do y’all do in there?”
“Help people find work.”
“Oh yeah? I’m looking for a job. This shit is boring as hell.” No one appreciates what they have. I certainly didn’t. “I’m Spence.” He reached out his hand-hand to shake.
“How’s your day going?”
“Not great, I guess. Someone died this morning.”
“I saw the ambulance, but they didn’t bring anyone out. It wasn’t the wire, was it? I just went to the bathroom.”
“No. Heart attack. In the office. He’s still in there. They can’t pick him up for a few more hours.”
“They just left him in there?”
“At the front desk.”
“That’s fucked up.”
“You’re still open?”
“Yeah. We’re kind of working around him.”
“That’s really fucked up. Was he your friend?”
“No. I hated him.”
“That happened to me once. Guy I despised got blown up right in front of me. I felt good, but then I felt real bad.”
“I don’t feel anything.”
“I’ve felt that too.”
I finished pretending to smoke my cigarette and left Spence to his wire. He was reading a popular nonfiction book about economics that everyone was chattering about in the media. “Is it good?” I had asked. “It’s a bummer,” he had said.
Inside, Judy was still crying at the Help Desk. Dana never sent her home. When I offered to watch the desk while she took a break to calm down, Judy refused. Judy was the reason people thought a woman couldn’t be president. But really, it was just that Judy couldn’t be president. She made the customers uncomfortable.
“I think I was the last person who talked to him,” Judy said as I passed her desk. “I snapped at him, Amy. You know how aggravating he could be.” The only thing Judy and I had in common was our mutual hatred of Harvey. Now that he was dead, we had nothing. Except for the memory of a million eye rolls and under-the-breath comments about his incompetence.
“The last thing I said was, ‘I’ll do it myself; you’ll just screw it up.’ But, Amy, I said it in that way I can say things. Like I wished he was dead.” With this revelation, Judy burst into renewed and extra-furious tears.
“That’s the way everyone talked to him,” I said, trying to sound comforting, which was the way everyone talked to her.
“But I was the last.” It was like her to make someone else’s death all about her.
The Comprehensive One-Stop had a habit of hiring lost causes. Part of this was purposeful, to help people who were down on their luck—a hand up, not a hand out, they said—and part of it was just that people who had their shit together didn’t stay long. I had been there for nearly four years. It was supposed to be a temp position.
A customer called me over to help him save a file to a flash drive and I left Judy and Harvey.
“Is Harvey asleep?” the customer asked as I leaned over him to correct some mistakes on the résumé he was saving. He had come in while I was pretending to smoke.
“He’s dead,” I said. The customer laughed. He was a regular. He thought I was joking. “He died this morning.”
“Oh.” He stopped laughing. “And you’re keeping him here?”
“No one can come get him.”
“I’d hate to die at work. If I had a job.”
“Me too,” I said.
Mike came up from the back to see if Harvey was still with us. “I called his sister in Virginia,” he said. “She was his emergency contact. She’s not coming out.” We all gathered around the Help Desk. “There’s not going to be a funeral. She said they’ll just have him buried and take care of everything else via a lawyer.”
Judy, who had calmed down when Mike started talking, now took her grief up a notch.
“No. No. He has to have a funeral. Everyone has a funeral. He has to have one too,” she hiccupped. She was a pro at funerals, having buried three husbands: car accident, colon cancer, and kidney failure while waiting for a donor. Whenever we hired a new person, she told them the agonizing stories of how each husband had died. I’d heard them when I first started, and since it was a small office, we all heard them again and again with each new hire. Car accident had been the love of her life, died young. His was the saddest one. Colon cancer was a jerk and I was glad he was dead. Kidney failure had been a veteran and died in a VA Hospital. The story of his death brought up all of the mishandling of cases by Veterans’ Affairs and, depending on the new hire, the discussion could get heated.
“What about his friends? Maybe they’d want to have a funeral?” Dana asked.
“Did he have friends?” I asked.
“We are his friends,” Judy said. “We will throw him a funeral. Now.”
And so Judy started planning a funeral. She sent Mike to the parking lot to gather flowers on his smoke break. He came back with a handful of weeds. She convinced Dana to expense the catering and ordered six pies from the Pizza Hut across the street. She formally invited each customer typing at a computer. Two left quickly after, and four stayed, presumably for the pizza.
“Amy, you have to give the eulogy,” she said to me.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“You’re a writer, aren’t you? You’ll write something nice.”
“I don’t feel comfortable eulogizing him.”
“No one else can do it. You have to.”
“I didn’t really get along with him.”
“That doesn’t matter now. He’s dead. He needs a funeral and a funeral needs a eulogy and no one else can do it.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Are you dead? It doesn’t matter what you want. Did Harvey want this? No one wants a funeral. But everyone should get one. When I was widowed the second time do you think I wanted to have a funeral for my husband? No. He was an asshole who hit me. But it’s what you do. That’s what happens. People die and then people have funerals for them. Write the eulogy.”
Judy stalked off and a few minutes later Dana came over to my desk.
“Just do it for Judy, Amy. This is obviously bringing up some stuff for her. It’ll be good. It’ll be cathartic for everyone.”
Saying yes makes people like you. Saying no makes people mad. So I started working on a eulogy.
I racked my memory for every sad story of his unhappy childhood that Harvey had ever talked at me when I couldn’t get away from him. He had had a tough life. I didn’t deny that. And if being mistreated as a child makes it okay for you to be a jerk then he had certainly earned it.
I wrote a draft of a eulogy that took into account all the bad things that had happened to him and forgave him for being destructive since he had never been taught how to be another way. Then I wrote a draft that detailed all the ways in which he was a bad thing that happened to me and others around him, how angry I was that he made my days more difficult because he was difficult because he didn’t know how not to be difficult, how his lack of a real funeral or anyone to mourn him showed just how incredibly awful he had been, how he didn’t deserve to be mourned and wouldn’t be missed. Then I wrote a draft that was just lifted lines from other peoples’ eulogies and elegies and memorials.
The funeral was about to start and I had nothing useable. I didn’t know him. I didn’t like him. I didn’t want to pretend to mourn him. And that’s when I remembered Honey.
Harvey had a pet, Honey. The one and only relation he called by name. A dog, I thought, though I wasn’t absolutely sure. He went on and on about Honey, the tricks she could do, the special food he fed her, the circumstances under which he had found her—in a Dumpster, skinny and wet on Thanksgiving Day. That night she’d wait for him at the door and he wouldn’t come. I imagined her, a small mutt, whimpering and waiting all night, alert for each noise in the street that could be him. She might starve to death waiting for him. I couldn’t feel anything for Harvey, but I felt deeply for Honey.
I couldn’t give a eulogy. I couldn’t give a fuck. But there was one thing I could do for him: I could go get Honey and take her home with me.
Judy opened the funeral with a tearful reading of a psalm she’d found online. The pizza was laid out on the counter. The weeds from the parking lot were strewn around the Help Desk, one placed gingerly on Harvey’s slumped form. The customers and my coworkers had all stopped their work to stand in a semi-circle around Harvey’s body.
“Now Amy will give her eulogy,” Judy said.
I looked up from my desk. “I can’t,” I said grabbing my purse. “I have to go get Honey.”
I booked it to the parking lot where Spence was still guarding the live wire. The ravens cocked their heads and watched me rush to my car. I’d read once that they could recognize and remember human faces. I wondered if they knew me. If they knew Spence. If they had known Harvey.
I knew where Harvey lived. I had driven him home once when his old, shitty van was in the shop. It wasn’t far. I had once heard him tell a customer he liked working at the One-Stop because it was close to his house. It was far from mine.
I pulled up to the doublewide he had inherited from his mother when she died, and parked. The yard was overgrown. The front door was locked, but a slider off the makeshift deck—boards on cinderblocks—was open.
Inside, the place was immaculate. Everything scrubbed and lemon-scented. I had always had a suspicion that Harvey was a hoarder, but his OCD went the other way. A worn, brown recliner sat in front of a tube television, a throw neatly folded on the arm. There were green bananas in a banana hammock on the kitchen counter. Coasters on the coffee table. Framed pictures of long-since-grown-up kids on the walls.
“Honey?” I called.
“What?” a scratchy voice answered. My heart skipped a beat. I’d read about people being startled to death. Was there nothing that couldn’t kill you? In the far corner of the room on a perch sat a bright, rainbow-colored macaw. “Honey, I’m home,” Honey squawked. “Honey, you’re all I have.”
From the writer
:: Account ::
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Sacha Siskonen worked for a year in a Comprehensive One-Stop Career Center, where she taught employment skills, computer classes, and financial literacy workshops. She is proficient with WinWay Résumé Deluxe, the Microsoft Office Suite, and Konica Minolta photocopiers. She has excellent written and oral communication skills. Her fiction has recently appeared in Chicago Literati’s Revolution Issue, Quarter After Eight, and Requited.