The Help Desk

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.