Fiction: The Horticulturalist by CL Bledsoe

The pounding had been going on for several minutes. Claire looked from the back of one coworker’s head to the other. None of them were reacting. They all stared straight ahead at their monitors.

It was her first day, and she wasn’t sure she was going to like it. Eleven people were crammed into a tiny office, seven in an arc around the outside with four in a square in the middle. None of them said a word or reacted to each other in any discernable way. They just stared at their monitors in silence. Occasionally, someone would type briefly, but that was it. When Claire showed up that morning, a government woman had to escort her past security – Claire was a lowly contractor, and her badging paperwork would take another week to clear, at least.

“I put you in the extrovert’s office,” the woman said. “I hope you don’t mind.” Her name was Joan or Jen or something like that. It was her last week before retirement which meant most of the information she’d given Claire had been out of date or flat-out wrong.

“That’s fine,” Claire said, though she wondered what it meant. Now, she was wondering if it had been a joke. It hadn’t seemed like one. When they got to the office – through a labyrinth Claire knew she’d never remember how to navigate – everyone had nodded and smiled somewhat. She was handed a stack of papers to read by Tammy, her new team lead.

“Except don’t call me a team lead,” Tammy said after Joan or Jen left.

“Okay,” Claire said, smiling uncomfortably.

“The government side felt that contractors shouldn’t be decision makers,” Tammy said. A look of pure hatred appeared on her face until she managed a smile that was more of a grimace.

* * *

The pounding was rhythmic, but not perfectly so, which meant that it wasn’t being made by a machine, Claire thought. She looked at Tammy, who sighed loudly. Claire’s desk was in the middle clutch, as was Tammy’s, though in front and to the right of Claire’s. As Claire was looking, Tammy’s head jerked up and whipped around behind her. An older man named Dick sat there. He was lasciviously eating some kind of fruit out of a Tupperware. He slurped, oblivious, and Tammy glared.

A guy named John sat facing the wall to Claire’s left. He got up and left, she imagined to go to the bathroom.
The guy who sat beside Claire – she’d already forgotten his name –was opening a bag of chips. Tammy glared at him, also, but he ignored her.

Claire focused on not making any noise. Tammy looked at her, and Claire smiled. Tammy smiled back and looked away. Claire went back to reading her paperwork.

A little while later, John returned. “Guy was stuck in the bathroom,” he said. Everyone looked at him for a moment and then looked down. The pounding had stopped.

* * *

Big windows with blinds interrupted the wall between Tammy’s desk and the man who sat beside Claire. After she’d been there a few days, Claire noticed there were lines drawn on the wall beside the blinds, and Tammy and the guy beside Claire never raised the blinds above those lines. That meant an exact six inches of daylight crept in.

Outside, Claire could see a concrete square with cloudy water in it. A couple benches sat alongside it with a walkway around three sides. This area was totally surrounded by the building. On her break, Claire went out to have lunch on one of the benches with no worries that her coworkers would watch her, since they kept the blinds lowered.

The whole thing was in process of being redone, though. Along the side across from Claire’s office, small trees (were they bushes, she wondered? They had trunks and leaves and looked like trees) sat in bags, waiting to be planted. Marble planks – or something that looked like marble – were stacked beside the pool, just outside Claire’s window. Over the course of the first week Claire was there, a mound of dirt appeared, the sides of the pool were wrapped in black plastic, and more bush/trees appeared. She never saw anyone working out there, though. It was always deserted as though the work were taking place at night.

* * *

Claire’s first assignment was to revise a process document. She had to interview three people to get insight on this particular process, one of whom, Michelle, was the person who’d assigned this.

After she’d done the interviews and read over the document, she couldn’t really tell any difference in the process other than some name changes of points of contact folks. She took it to Michelle, who rambled for a half-hour about what she wanted done. It was a jumble of jargon, most of which Claire didn’t know yet. She did her best and turned it in. Michelle came to her desk with notes written all over the document, stressing that they’d discussed these changes, though Claire was sure they hadn’t. Claire made the changes and turned it in. Michelle came back with more notes which contradicted several things she’d said before. Claire made those changes, turned it in, and waited for another angry revision session, but it didn’t come. That was the only work she had the first month she was there.

* * *

The water feature – as Claire heard others calling the area outside –kept growing in scope. It was difficult to tell what it would look like when it was done. The pool had been lined with plastic and had marble slabs placed along the edges. The walkway was pulled up and left in a stack. The bush/trees had disappeared and then some reappeared along with other bushes. The dirt had been spread all over, and the bush/trees had been planted.

“What do you think they’re building?” Claire had asked one day in the office. No one knew what she meant until she pointed at the window. Tammy pulled the blind up on her side, eliciting an annoyed groan from the guy who sat directly behind Tammy, beside Dick.

“Glare,” he said. Claire thought his name was Mark. Or Matt. He turned to see what they were looking at.

“No one is working, now,” the guy who sat beside Claire said.

Tammy lowered the blinds and they went back to staring at their screens.

* * *

Something Claire realized was that nobody had any work. She’d thought, at first, that Michelle was mad at her and so hadn’t given her any more, but nobody had any. She could see several of their computer screens, and they all were on social media all day. The second month passed, and little assignments trickled in, but not many. One member of the team would be busy for part of a day while the others watched jealously, at least Claire felt jealous. Every so often, now, someone would mention the water feature, which seemed to change daily.

They all had their own theories. The guy beside Claire joked that it would be a mosquito reservoir. For a while, the pool had been filled with dirt for some reason, but now it was clean. Dick said it was Asian-themed because there was bamboo for a few days before that was taken away. John suggested it was native plants, but Claire had no idea what was native to northern Virginia other than yuppies.

They would talk about it almost every day for a few minutes and then settle back into their miserable silence. During those talk sessions, Tammy wouldn’t even glare at them for eating in the room. Claire realized that it wasn’t the food, it was the noise. When she ate chips, she let each one soften in her mouth before chewing. Tammy didn’t glare at her, then.

* * *

It was about three months after Claire started when she was tasked to meet with Rose, one of an endless number of interchangeable government managers who were usually checked-out. Claire was a few minutes early, so she knocked on Rose’s door. It opened, and Rose ushered her inside to sit. After a few seconds, Rose turned to her.

“You’re early,” she said.

“Yeah,” Claire said.

“Would you mind waiting outside until it’s time?” Rose said.

Claire stood and went back out. The door remained open while Claire stood in the hallway. After another minute or so, a couple more contractors showed up.

“What are we doing?” A guy named Matt asked.

“She asked me to wait out here until everyone arrived,” Claire said.

“Really?” Matt sneered.

“Yeah.”

He shook his head.

“Hey, the water feature is outside your office, isn’t it?” he asked. When she nodded, he said, “Crazy, huh?”

She blinked. “Did something happen with it? I hadn’t heard,” she said.

“It turns out the guy who’s been doing it didn’t have any authorization. He’s just doing it.”

“You talking about the water feature?” Another contractor – this one named David – walked up. “Why would someone do that?”

According to their gossip, the guy had apparently decided just to try out whatever he wanted on it. When his superiors noticed all the orders for seed and supplies, they’d eventually investigated and discovered it.

“I’d noticed work had stopped,” Claire said.

“Yeah, they fired him,” Matt said.

“That’s kind of sad,” Claire said.

The others agreed.

Rose appeared in front of them. “Are we having this meeting?” she asked, exasperated. Matt rolled his eyes, which made Claire smile.

* * *

Most of the meeting was spent explaining to Rose everything that had been discussed at the last meeting, which she’d attended, Matt explained later. By the time they got her caught up, time was up.

“I have an 11 o’clock,” Rose said. Matt caught Claire’s eye and rolled his.

Back in the office, she announced what she’d learned.

“Why would someone do that?” Tammy asked.

They all laughed or shook their heads, but Claire noticed they all kept staring out the window. The most recent – and, presumably final – incarnation of the water feature was a rose garden. Bushes lined the outsides with a clear reflecting pool in the center. Claire wanted to go out there for her lunch break, but she knew as soon as she opened the door and got a whiff of those pungent flowers, her eyes would start to water. She’d be miserable all day from that.

She wished the horticulturist were there, though. She would tell him thank you, even though she couldn’t exactly say why.

CL Bledsoe’s most recent poetry collections are Trashcans in Love and The King of Loneliness. His most recent novel is The Funny Thing About…. Bledsoe lives in northern Virginia with his daughter and blogs, with Michael Gushue, at https://medium.com/@howtoeven

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