Productivity Is A Twelve Letter Word
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Assassination"
Originally featured on 09-23-2008
As part of our series "The Bigger They Are, The Harder Empires Fall (The Ions Behind the Scenes of Every Regime Change)"

Nobody else in the conference room looked when the ambulance arrived, not even Greg Davidson, who sat across from the window. Erica glanced and saw the vehicle come to a halt with only a square of roof in sight. She could easily have pretended she was looking at the corner of a sheet of white paper the wind had blown against the windowpane, if she didn’t focus on it.

Focus. That was one of Charlie’s words. Charlie was her big sister. Erica hated when her mind inadvertently spoke in Charlie terms. As if Charlie knew anything.

There was no way to not focus on it. Shuffling through the various departments, she tried to imagine who might be prone to a medical emergency. Everybody she had rapport with was relatively healthy; nobody she could think of was prone to seizures, allergic reactions, asthma attacks or anything of the like. There were no hazardous chemicals on site, and no heavy machinery being operated.

Since she could not pretend to fathom any cause for an ambulance to be parked outside, it was the only thing she could think about. If she kept on looking at the square of roof, soon enough she would see the double doors open, and she was not sure if she wanted to see what would be going into those doors.

She would not have to look. Whatever was going on, news of the event would travel from mouth to mouth faster than electrons traveled through phone lines and computers.

Erica felt the fluid in her body — especially her upper arms and the rear part of her hips — drain out her sternum and refill itself from unseen sources beneath her chair.

Greg Davidson was still making his speech, the fluorescent light glistening off his bald head that jutted from tightly cropped gray hair like thawing snow. He was slightly overweight, but the flab that stretched his blue button-down shirt was too new to show on his face. That was how everybody looked; like their imperfections were not yet assimilated. Erica was sure they had all looked the same way ten years ago.

She wondered how she looked to them in her corduroy skirt and diagonally striped sweater, with her blonde highlights and absence of jewelry. Young probably summed up their concept of her. She always sat in swivel chairs with one leg folder beneath her, and switched legs in one swift motion at any time she felt her attention start to waver.

Her head — mainly the left side — felt like she imagined sand must feel when being slowly emptied from one cup into another cup.

Greg Davidson was speaking and everybody was listening. She heard it in fragments. …“I reiterate, the main challenge”…“effect it will have on our department”…“minimal cost”…“the biggest unknown”… Just like the typical female, Charlie would say if she saw Erica now, can’t suppress that maternal empathy and concern for one minute to focus on business, can you? Think the medics downstairs can handle the situation without your help? Good thing they’re focused on their job. Maybe you should be too, ever think of that, toots? Charlie ran a successful business in- Erica couldn’t remember what. Charlie was a lesbian, in a way that made every non-lesbian in the room feel ashamed to be anything else. Erica had not seen Charlie in a year and a half.

Nobody in the conference room looked surprised when the door opened and the white suits walked in wheeling a gurney.

Greg Davidson looked at Erica with sympathetic concern. She did not like it.

The two white suits were helping Erica out of her chair by the elbows. She had not noticed them approach her. She opened her mouth to protest, to say what the hell are you doing?, something like Charlie might say in such a situation. Except Charlie would never be in this situation. Nobody dressed in white would randomly mistake Charlie for a sick person and barge into a corporate meeting and embarrass her. It made no sense.

Erica opened her mouth, but the fluorescent lights on the ceiling were already spinning around her shoulders like the ends of batons, or it may have been the inside of her head that was spinning, and it was all slowing down so that light and shades and shapes blended together and gravity slowly poured its contents from one cup into…

She was looking up at the ceiling with her head propped up on the stretcher as they wheeled her through the door. That was the last sensation before she was outside. The next sight — and the last before they sedated her — was the window to her own desk from the parking lot. She heard mutterings around her head. She could not make out any words, but was sure that all of it was pertinent.

She knew she was looking at her desk because she distinctly saw Frothy’s shape in the window. Frothy was her toy bat. Rubber bats with nicknames were never pertinent.

It made sense now. Loss of equilibrium…not eating lunch…Parnum’s report…

It was all Frothy’s fault.

 

Definition of ‘tightly wound’: of a volatile temperament; unreasonable; one whose personality fosters a hostile and uncooperative work environment. Characterized by impatience. Victoria Harraman — the head of Erica’s department — had found that description in some Human Resources handbook. When Victoria read it aloud to Erica in her private office, she made sure to mention that they were having this conversation on behalf of multiple behavioral complaints filed against Erica by anonymous parties.

Erica stared at Vicky’s wall, unsure of the proper question to ask, or if the proper reply was even a question at all. Vicky’s wall looked plain, but also pertinent.

 

Productivity was another one of Charlie’s words, probably her favorite. As a teenager at the dinner table, whenever she heard Charlie use that word, Erica would interrupt to jeer, with a mouth full of meatball salad (Charlie was a vegetarian, as she had announced to the family on her first visit home from college), “What was that? I didn’t hear you. Something about titties?” That always got a smirk from their mother.

Erica went through a phase during her senior year of high school in which she was preoccupied with Celtic religions, astrology and earth-based spirituality. Charlie mentioned one night — while Erica was in the bathroom emptying her stomach of a night of excessive drinking — that productivity had twelve letters, Charlie’s assumption being that the number twelve had mystical significance deeply rooted in many cultures, and henceforth had meaning to Erica in this instance in her rotating obsessions.

Charlie yelled it from her exercise bike where she was sprinting the last eighty yards and shaking the entire floor — which added greatly to Erica’s queasiness — and sweating profusely in bright purple sweatpants and a black sports bra that read SOPHISTICATED in gothic, silver font across her breasts. That was Erica’s only image of her sister.

Charlie chose that moment to say it because she knew that it would irritate Erica more than anything else she could possibly yell through the closed bathroom door as Erica vomited. As Erica realized ten years later, there was another reason Charlie had said it then and there: because it forced Erica to remember the moment ten years later. Charlie was so clever that Erica oftentimes wanted to kill her. At other times, Erica wished she had the compunctions to be a vegetarian, like Charlie, wished she was an entrepreneur, like Charlie, wished she was a lesbian, like Charlie. Listening to Charlie talk — she spoke in a perfect tempo with none of the searching pauses or erratic peaks of excitement that were characteristic of her peers’ speech — it seemed vulgar to not be those things.

In order to be focused and productive, Erica sought out any and every outlet for silliness that was permissible. It started with the fashioning of paper gliders out of defunct memos, and implementing the Wednesday lunchtime tradition of paper plane tossing competitions in the courtyard. That led to other forms of origami mysteriously appearing on the desks of coworkers in exchange for favors. After the amusement of that wore out, Erica took to decorating her work area with collages of sexually suggestive images from old foreign films. The day she came in to find all her poster cutouts in a pile on top of her recycle bin with a post-it note that read “Inappropriate” (the one word that Charlie never used), Erica decided it was time to find herself a companion.

Enter Frothy the Bat.

Whenever somebody visited her desk to pose a routine question, she would say, “Hmm, let me consult my protégé on that. What do you think, Frothy?” She would then grab Frothy delicately by the wings and move him up and down in front of her lips as she talked. It made people laugh, so she perpetuated the habit. It enabled her to say things that would be inappropriate, not to mention impertinent, if said in any other manner. “Frothy thinks I deserve a raise.” “Frothy’s wondering when you’re going to ask me out on a date.” “Frothy’s bitchy today, watch out.” Frothy had tenure. Or so she thought.

Erica supposed it had crossed a line when people observed her carrying on quiet conversations with herself while performing data entry, constantly looking up at Frothy, perched atop of her screen, the overhead light reflected in his plastic beady eyes. That, she suspected, was why she was in Vicky’s office.

 

“Complaints?” The word crawled out of Erica’s mouth like a dying animal.

Vicky looked down at Erica’s shoes for a moment and then returned her gaze to her face. Erica had noticed that habit of Vicky’s at her job interview, and always wondered if Vicky did it to everybody, and if she was aware of it. “We won’t discuss the specifics of those complains. They’re…outside the context of work. There’s nothing lacking in your performance, or your attendance. I want you to know. You’re doing exceptionally-”

“Good. So, why are we talking?”

Vicky frowned. She wanted to sigh, but her suit was buttoned too tight for her lungs to fill with enough air to sigh, so she just frowned. “If you need me to spell it out, I hope to do so without embarrassing you or compromising anybody’s privacy in the matter. If we can proceed without naming the obvious…”

“If you’re referring to my, idiosyncrasies-” Erica winced. That was another Charlie word. “I apologize if my style of interactions have been less than conducive to accomplishing our daily hurdles in an atmosphere of dignity while maintaining a presentable and inviting facility-”

“Do you think that a robot could satisfy your job duties?”

“Excuse me?”

“If it’s your opinion that it would be in management’s best interests to replace you with non-human personnel who would not collect a paycheck and would only require an external power source, please tell me so. Do you think that a robot could do your job?”

“Of course not,” Erica said cautiously, unsure as to the nature of the joke into which she was being strung along.

“Then why are you speaking to me like a robot?”

Erica discerned for the first time a potential that she might like Vicky. “Well, um, I’m flabbergasted. You’ve summoned me for some sort of disciplinary action — or, warning thereof — because I’ve been creeping out my colleagues, so to speak, by being myself. Which is it you want? Me or the robot? Tell me and I will comply.”

Vicky sat down and said half to Erica and half to the wall, “I want you to seek counseling for yourself. I can provide a recommendation.”

“A recommendation?”

Vicky retrieved a sheet of paper that was sitting in the printer, still warm. “Here’s a list of serviced providers.”

“Service providers?”

Vicky looked at Erica’s shoes again. “It’s your choice, and your personal decision is confidential. Whether you choose to meet with one or not, I don’t need to know about it. Personally I can vouch that people I know have benefited greatly from such services, both in their careers and in their, um-”

“People you know? Are you sure you don’t mean you?”

Both women knew in the next instant that Vicky would never again have the instinct to glance at Erica’s shoes.

Vicky never paused before making a response. Erica had heard teachers and coaches — and the occasional boyfriend — advise to never think before answering a question, especially when the question is a difficult one: the most honest answer is the one that comes to you instantly, and delaying it only zaps your confidence. Erica never bought into that. Erica decided as a young adult that there were three kinds of people in the world; the third was people who believed that particular piece of advice and lived by it, and the first two could be any two-kinds-of-people-in-the-world dichotomy anybody had ever posited. Vicky was a staunch member of the third category. If an applicant paused during an interview, Vicky did not hire them.

Vicky paused and said, “When I was going through my divorce- my, first divorce…it helped me get things in order.”

Erica got a mental picture right then of a faceless burly man in a thousand dollar suit on one knee with a ring extended to Vicky, Vicky staring at it in silence. She took the sheet of paper from Vicky’s hand, folded it and pocketed it. “Thanks.”

The next words Erica spoke were to a rubber bat. “You believe that, Frothy? The boss thinks you need a shrink. Do we want to see a shrink?”

Frothy’s eyes glimmered. That meant the answer was no.

 

Erica’s rule had always been that she did not date anybody who had at any time been a passenger in the back of an ambulance. Medical emergencies were below her. In her attempts at rationalizing Charlie’s sexuality, she supposed Charlie must think that the male body is a walking, talking emergency.

As the doctor explained to her when she woke up, her involuntary dismissal from the conference room was a result of the discovery of a written document of hers’ that existed electronically on the network. The content of the document — which, to Erica’s defense, was a work in progress — raised red flags; it allegedly bore symptoms of what could be anything from severe sleep deprivation to a gamut of acute psychological disorders. The doctor refused to reveal the identity of the reporting party — Greg Davidson, no doubt.

Erica confessed that she had not slept in three days, and that she had no recollections of composing the written document in question. The flesh of her chest made a tight fist around her ribcage and squeezed until her heart nearly stopped. She wondered if the doctor had in his possession a printout of the text she had written during her sleepless coffee binge — physicians horded that sort of material for diagnostic purposes, didn’t they…? — and if there was any way she might coax it out of him for her own perusal.

Her terror at the complete unknown of what she might have written turned to anger that made her chest constrict even tighter.

Sophisticated…

The doctor’s question, and everybody’s question to her, was why she had forced herself to stay awake for three days straight. Erica’s question was directed to Frothy.

 

With narrowed eyes that saw only the handful of rubber bands fisted in her pocket and what she would be doing with them in the next several seconds, she walked at an even pace through the hallway and turned the corner to approach her desk. Her words left her mouth at the same pace, firing a direct path toward their target.

His cheap plastic sparkly eyes tried to evade her from their enclosure in the molded black rubber caricature that was his face. The nocturnal fucker.

“I’m going to ask you once.” She spoke softly, still standing, clutching the rubber bands — tied in one long chain — in her pocket. “What. Did. You. Write.” Breath forced itself into chest through clenched teeth after every spoken syllable. “You. Little.”

Her hand could not delay the action any longer. The stretchy noose was already fully constructed. The next person to visit Erica at her desk would be facing a condemned bat hanging upside down from the window blinds, fastened with double-strength rubber bands around its neck, and two strips of masking tape with orange X’s covering its beady eyes. It would serve as a warning to anybody who might attempt to befriend and betray her. The next person to visit Erica’s desk would also find Erica quietly sobbing.

Three days without sleep was supposed to be a romantic adventure. And why be romantic and adventurous? Just for the hell of it. Charlie did things like that all the time. Didn’t she? It was probably best not to see what she had written in her delirium.

The next visitor to Erica’s desk was Victoria Harraman. Erica looked at her shoes.

“Are you- ?”

Erica did not look up. To her back, Frothy swung back and forth in a fading arc, casting a segmented shadow on the window blinds, the shadow of unformed monsters.

“…I’ll give you nine minutes to get settled. Could you please cue up the Parnum study on projector two? I want to clarify a few points with you.” ‘Nine minutes’ was Vicky’s own figure of speech; it did not specifically mean nine minutes, but Vicky thought it sounded friendlier than ‘a few’ or ‘five’.

“Sure thing,” said Erica.

Vicky was half way down the hall when she turned and said, “And, Erica?”

It did not matter what Vicky would say next. Charlie was absolutely right.

Twelve letters.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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Portland Fiction Project

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