Fiction: The Work by Homa Mojtabai

She’s pulling a curtain taut over a window, only it doesn’t quite fit, the streetlight squeezes in and lights up the bedroom, and it’s shining bright through the window which isn’t clean, and the curtain which is too thin, crap from Walmart and made by some underfed kid in a country that Seraphine isn’t sure she could find on the globe, which is the only quality piece in her bedroom because it’s a hand-me-down from her parents back when things were made to last more than one season even if everything was relatively more expensive back then whenever that was, and the world has changed, and she’s sorry but she can’t justify new curtains because she’ll be moving soon—at least that’s the plan—and her new place might have different-sized windows although it sure as hell will have hardwood floors or at least laminate, something that doesn’t capture mites and pollutants like this ratty carpet, which along with the streetlight isn’t letting her sleep, the light is so bright, so super strong—the new energy efficient lights the city charged Howard, the landlord, a special assessment to fund, and she knows this because Howard won’t stop bitching about the cost but the unit is rent-controlled so she can’t complain about the apartment or the carpet or anything because she’s lucky.

“Seraphine you are so fucking lucky, do you understand?” and she keeps her voice low as she pep-talks herself and smacks at her mite-filled mattress with angry hands. Tomorrow at work she’ll secretly check her phone, reading about a concert or someone’s birthday on Facebook and she’ll think, I’ll just quickly send a Happy Birthday text because if I don’t do it now I’ll forget and then my friends will drift away, and eventually I’ll lose touch with everyone. She spends a lot of time on her phone—not even a company phone so she can’t pretend it’s for work and Stan, her boss, hasn’t said anything about it so she’s not even sure that a) he knows and b) he cares, because she’s not sure what he does all day, which is basically a shitload of meetings, but what that actually means in output is unknowable. Seraphine knows what she does all day, which is compile store over store warehouse reports, and reconcile the performance ratios with quarterly targets. She accepted the position after four years of college drudgery to get the 4.0 she needed in a major that matters, like economics, but with a physics minor to demonstrate the quantitative skills employers demand. Just thinking about it, remembering the work, and the bonus year of a thesis and teaching assistant duties, because a professor promised her it would be a minimal commitment and just a nine month academic sprint to slap a master’s degree in economic theory on her resume to leapfrog her peers post graduation, makes her feel sick and angry.

There was one night in the leapfrog year, when a boy named Justin showed up in the library stacks on the top floor, which was the best place to get stuff done because the WiFi up there didn’t work, and so there was no browsing or wasting time and Seraphine could finish her problem sets, and that’s what she was doing when a sweaty cold six pack of blueberry beer, her favorite, landed in her study carrel with a thud, and she almost screamed but looked up and saw Justin, smiling over her and holding up a bottle opener in one hand, his other pulling out a beer from the six pack.

“It’s not a twist off,” he was smiling and the only thing she could think to do was shush him because she was worried someone would hear, which made the smile on his face fade, and he looked at her for a second like he was going to ask something, or he was asking something but just with his eyes, but she couldn’t understand his eyes, only his mouth as he said, “There’s no one even here.”

The bottle hissed a little when Justin popped off the lid, and Seraphine could smell the blueberries and almost taste them on her tongue, but she remembered the problem set due tomorrow that she wanted to finish so that she wouldn’t fall behind and not graduate as scheduled, since the whole point was to help her skip forward, set up her up in life, get her where she wanted to go faster. When she asked if they could schedule something for Saturday, although not too late because she still needed Sunday to catch up on her reading, Justin shrugged.

Then Stan interviewed her and promised professional development. “Promotions as fast as you can handle,” he had said, and maybe he even meant it at the time, but there were only two senior analyst positions open, and they had to go to Eric and Mathew, both nice guys, and smart, and everyone liked them and they produced neat reports, even if Seraphine had to run the analytics for them, and then watch from the back of the conference room when they presented her work and accepted, with brusque nods, the ‘Good jobs’ and approval from Stan.

She’s worrying instead of sleeping, but then she remembers the staff meeting and it’s her turn to bring in snacks and that means she’ll have to get up fifteen minutes earlier to stop by the bagel place on the way to the office. And that means there won’t be enough time for a run before work, and she’s cursing herself already because summer is almost here. She won’t have enough time to whip her ass and waist down to where they need to be—or not be, more accurately—to look good in that bikini she picked up the other day for cheap. She didn’t need another suit then and she doesn’t need one now but still the bikini would be great at the 4th of July thing at the beach. It’s a waste, really, she shouldn’t have bought the suit because she doesn’t need it and it doesn’t fit and it’s a waste of money not to mention natural resources. And now that she’s thinking about it, the suit was probably—no definitely, admit it “you selfish bitch,” she sighs, made in another shitty no-name country under slave wage conditions. And she says, “It doesn’t matter, what’s done is done.” But she knows it matters, to her and the slave and the planet because we’re all connected.

She’s tossing and turning anyway, so she gets out of bed—she doesn’t even need to turn on the light it’s so bright—and she gets out her suit and the receipt falls out with it which reminds her the thing cost only $7 which is unreal, which is unholy, how can a corporation turn a profit on that without the insane, slave-wage prices that drive the consumerism that’s going to kill everyone and turn the verdant Earth into desiccated tinder—which is already happening and she can smell it when the Santa Anas turn and blow in the smoke from the wildfires—and she knows this and she tells her friends about it and this one time she wrote a letter to the editor about this very issue and they published it so when she Googles her name it’s the first thing that comes up and these are all the facts and yet she still bought the fucking bikini?! And it doesn’t fit.

It’s not just the bikini, it’s the reunion that’s coming up, time is sprinting, her twenties are half over already. She wants to look good for reunion, it doesn’t matter at all and it’s the most important thing, but of course that’s stupid, what matters is the impact you have on the world and what you do. She wants to step into the library and find the stacks and walk around and make her heels click on the wood floors and laugh and say to her friends, the ones she sees daily but only online or through her phone, she wants to be able to say, “Yeah, it was crazy but so worth it.” But now the light and Justin are keeping her up, and with this weird brightness she can’t sleep and can’t help wishing the light would show her a tunnel back to the library, back a few years right up to the second she almost screamed but instead she’d be laughing, and slapping her hand over Justin’s on the bottle and bringing them both to her lips and then the blueberry beer would taste like a boy, like Justin would have tasted right there in the empty stacks with only the books to look on.

Even though it’s childish she throws herself back into bed and sobs fat tears that burn but also feel amazing, only she has to bury her head in her goddamn pillow loaded with mites so she doesn’t wake up her roommate who’s a nice girl. Seraphine doesn’t want to wake her up but she also don’t want her to hear her cry. The roommate has her shit together and any day now Seraphine thinks she will be giving notice, she’s been prowling the local market with her cousin, a slick-dressed realtor, and they’re looking for deals and investment opportunities and she has leveraged her rent-controlled apartment steal into a down payment. Seraphine should have been doing the same, should have been saving and plotting and scheming, which she was doing with the economic theory and the long nights and the almost-but-didn’t with Justin, wasn’t that a plot and a scheme even if not the right one?

So Seraphine’s head is surrounded in the pillow cloud, but she can still breathe, the soft down giving a bit and maybe a little thin because she’s been dragging this pillow around with her for a couple of decades now, and so what she’s breathing now are the dust mites and pollutants but also childhood. It’s her childhood in her face, and she rolls over because she’s ready to sleep and she turns her back to the window and the streetlight, although it’s softer now, less glaring because the rest of the curtain is brightening to match, and by the time the streetlight winks out she has fallen asleep and then her alarm goes off, and she is confused and groggy as hell and in her car racing to the bagel shop and she’s at the counter, ordering “Five wheat bagels, five plain and two cheese asiagos, please,” for Matthew and Eric who have their tastes. And in the silence as the employee turns to fill up the brown paper bag with her goods, Seraphine thinks about the light, the goddamn light that was keeping her awake and alive and safe through the long night of her youth, and then the employee is looking at her and the line is clogging up behind her with dazed, hungry men and women needing their food, like Seraphine standing there just starting to understand that the light is what matters, is what kept her awake.

***

In the conference room, everything smells like toast coming up from the center of the table, where a two-slice toaster, the cheap cousin of the stove at the bagel shop, huffs up the goods half seared, as Seraphine rushes to slice and toast she’s thinking that each piece of bread could take up her entire carbohydrate allocation for the day, or would be enough for some kid in some other place to live on for a week so she has to eat the whole bagel, both sides covered in an inch of veggie cream cheese because to turn down the food—to leave anything over—would be like betrayal, like letting the kid starve yourself, Seraphine!

“Who are you talking to?” It’s Matthew at the door laughing and talking and walking in and grabbing a bagel, the wheat bagel Seraphine had prepared for herself and just laid down on a napkin. Eric is taking the other one, right behind him, like a ballet, a choreography.

“No asiago?” Seraphine keeps her voice light. Nothing bothers her, nothing as trivial as a bagel slice because there are bigger things in the world, and issues that really matter, and she’s learning to pick her battles like she’s been told would help her profile around the office, and if Stan were here he’d be proud of her progress. He’d see she’s professional and calm under pressure, she’s not emotional at all. She’s above reproach.

Eric tries to eat and speak but spits the chewed up wheat on his tie and curses as he wipes at the blob. Seraphine slices and toasts, a machine, an assembly line, she had forgotten how good it feels to make things, to do actual things with her hands, even if the weight of her accomplishment is worth dollars on the open market because it’s just food, just change in the pocket of Stan and possibly Eric and Mathew too, the real money is in money, the crispy scent of bills that in themselves mean nothing but are everything, growing and moving the crinkling sheets of Play-Doh into bigger and smoother piles, but she remembers now the things she is making and holding and she straightens the pile of papers to her left; fifteen colorful PowerPoint presentations, stapled at a fourth of an inch square off the upper left edge, uniform because image matters and what she’s trying to sell with this deck, as Stan calls the handouts, is an idea that will revolutionize the company, bring them into the future, and Seraphine, too.

She is putting another slice of cream cheese lathered bagel into her mouth, not the wheat like she wanted, but plain is okay too. Not everything turns out the way we want; we cannot control outcomes, Seraphine reminds herself with each chew. And then the conference room is filling and her heart is squeezing because there might not be bagels for everyone, and then she’s thinking, Like Africa, some will go hungry and just as quickly I have my bagel. I’ve already bitten into it; they can’t expect me to put it back on the tray. The tray that is going around the room, with nails clipped and clean, not a smudge of dirt on a hand anywhere, not a smudge of bus ridership or pedestrian walk sign, just manicured lawns and cream leather steering wheels.

In the quiet of full mouths and steaming coffee sips, Seraphine clears her throat.

“I’d like to kick off this meeting with a new idea.” And as soon as she says it knows it’s wrong. She’s asking for permission and once you ask the answer is always no.

The eyes are watching her for a moment, just a moment, and Seraphine launches into her pitch, breathing in belly breaths from her diaphragm, the way her career coach—the one she hired on her own, to give her an edge and also help to address those performance issues that Stan brought up, about learning how to “own the room” and “project herself”—taught her but she knows she’s failed because Eric’s ball bearing eyes have rolled all the way over to Stan, to observe and calibrate his reaction, who is carefully picking off the bits of cheese asiago, the cheese asiago he doesn’t like and didn’t want but had to take because it was the last bagel on the tray and Matthew and Eric didn’t eat what they had ordered. Eric’s looking back at her again, but his face is blank, it’s the blank face of death and it’s worse than her computer crashing but it’s better than Matthew, who has surrendered all pretense of looking at anything but his phone, his thumb stroking the screen like the belly of a dog, a dog Seraphine is eager to have some day, to walk and feed and play with in the park, she’d go to the animal shelter and rescue an older pup, who would recognize in Seraphine salvation.

“And so, in conclusion,” she stammers, struggling to flip the page of her deck and also not stammer anymore than she already is, to make herself feel better and keep some perspective she thinks about the vastness of the universe and the galaxies and this solar system and the one little star they are circling until the sun explodes in a fireball of sulfur and rotten eggs that will swallow her decomposing bones and the heartless, hallow corpses of everyone in this room, “the cost savings of solar energy can help offset improvements in factory and worker safety, which in my opinion—”

Stan is talking now, “Thing is, Seraphine,”—and the whole room sits up, as if there are strings shooting out from Stan’s fingers and toes that push and pull everyone but her, she doesn’t have any strings even though what she wants more than anything is a rope that she can loop around the men at the table, around the planet, the entire scope of humanity, and pull everyone to where there is safety and kindness, because she says it’s her opinion but she knows there is enough food and water and clothing to feed and shelter everybody, sufficiently but not well. But what’s well when someone else is hungry? And then she remembers she’s not hungry, she’s bloated because of the bagel, she really should base her diet on cruciferous vegetables and cayenne peppers.

“—we are only interested in facts. Not opinions.” Stan delivers her eulogy and pushes back from the table, the muppets stand too and there’s a shuffling of papers and she’s alone.

***

Seraphine squints at her phone and eating Greek yogurt, unsweetened, she’s given up on sugar and soon enough she’ll move away from GMO foods, too. But there was a sale on conventional yogurt, and she couldn’t justify the premium for organics, not when it looked like she might not even keep her job, the reaction to her presentation so negative and so swift it swelled like a flash flood of despair and picked her up and deposited her at the dry cleaners where she was dropping off Stan’s dry cleaning, “Just this once, thanks so much.” Except it was the second time, Seraphine is sure Stan didn’t realize it or he wouldn’t have asked, he’s not really a bad guy. Boss Man Stan—Seraphine can’t help making the rhyme to herself but the smile and the laughter behind it sink into her tongue, thick and soiled as the dry cleaning which the clerk hoists, her pile of clothes—all suit pants and blazers, the clothes of a man, all men’s clothing and nothing of her own—and Seraphine thinks that she must look like a Hollywood assistant in her sensible button down and polyester-blend pants, her car idling at the curb with one headlight, glowing lopsided, winking at the cars to let them know to move around. Any second now she’ll get a ticket.

She lurches out to the street to beat the ticket writing, the clerk behind her pleading, “Ma’am! Your receipt!” Seraphine thinks he sounds like her mother, but then she is staring into bloodshot eyes, the ticket guy who must be thinking he’s too late, thinking he’s lost his chance with this car, and Seraphine wants to hug him, wants to tell him that he’s been losing the battle all the time but instead she just says, “That’s my car.”

“Well, you need to move it.” he says, folding the electric gun he uses to mark the cars, not knowing the whole time it’s his own heart he’s marking, because what she wants to tell him is the gun has two nozzles, and the second one is pointed back at him and is invisible to him but not to her.

Seraphine can see the gun and a long line of palm trees framing the asphalt street, choking out the indigenous walnuts and California oaks that shielded their ancestors and the native peoples, who were chased away or killed outright so that there would be room for the palms which increase property values and the streets and public services like schools and hospitals and the dry cleaning store.

“You leave that car here and I’ll write you a ticket,” he barks, thinking a threat will send her running, but he doesn’t know, and the clerk— who’s standing now in the doorway—doesn’t know, that she’s already accepted the ticket is nothing, the money is nothing, she’ll let both wash through her and out into the streets, mucked up with those palm trees, planted when the parents of their parents sold the earth and all their children together into the abyss, so very long ago.

Homa Mojtabai lives in Santa Monica, California but likes to spend as much time as possible back east in Massachusetts. Her publications include The Offing, Paper Darts, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. You can read more of her work at www.homagod.com.

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