“Gary, did you sign this one?”
I look up from my monitor at my friend and cube-mate Bill.
He holds up a card.
“This card. Did you sign it? It’s for Margaret.”
I sigh and reach for the card. As I search for a pen I think about the things I’ve learned to accept in the year I’ve worked at this company: 1) every other week the copier will break down, 2) the food at the office parties will be courtesy of Domino’s, and 3) everyday at around 1:30 Bill will announce to everyone within earshot that he has to “go release the hounds” and shuffle off to the bathroom.
But the one thing I still cannot understand, the one thing that continues to drive me crazy, is the endless plague of birthday, get well, new baby and all other cards that get circulated around the office for everyone to sign.
The card in my hand is typically dreary; it has a cartoon on the front of a cake being carried by a group of ants. On the bottom it says “We better hurry…” Inside, surrounded by several names and “Happy Birthdays” it says “This one’s not getting any younger.”
I sigh again. After the polar bear on roller skates card from a few months earlier (“Hope you’re rolling towards a speedy recovery!”), I’ve tried, tried so hard to stop questioning the logic behind these things but I just can’t help myself. First of all, who writes this crap? And why would ants be delivering a cake? Wouldn’t they want to eat the cake? And who are they bringing it to anyway? Another ant? Does one ant need such a big cake? And if it’s not an ant but a person, would that person want to receive a cake from a gaggle of insects? My head is starting to hurt.
And even though I don’t know Margaret, never even heard of a Margaret working here, I quickly scribble into a blank space and toss it onto Janet’s desk. It’s the third card I’ve signed today and probably the tenth in the last week. The office is large but could there really be that many things always going on to warrant all these cards? Sometimes Sadie, the woman I guess who’s in charge of the cards, comes by with a stack of them and it takes me a half hour to sign them all.
For a while I would just take them and pass them along to the next person. But eventually I got caught.
“Did you sign this one?” Sadie had asked me, holding up one covered in gold glitter.
“Uh, yeah,” I said, acting as if I had something important on my computer screen.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw her open the card and scan it.
“I don’t see your name. Where’d you sign it?”
She held it out and I of course pretended to search, all the while feeling the back of my neck getting hot.
“Whoops, I guess I missed this one.”
Just before she could open the next one I said “You know, let me check those to make sure I got them all. I’ll put them on your desk when I’m done.”
It took half my lunch to sign those damn cards.
And when I once wrote “Happy Birthday” on a new baby card, all hell broke loose. It turned out to be for one of the women in upper management who apparently had nothing better to do than read every single thing written in her stupid card. The next day a rather long e-mail went out instructing everyone to recognize who and what the cards were for before signing because “here at Devlin Mortgage we’re a family and we should treat each other accordingly. You wouldn’t expect a Christmas card from your mother to say ‘Happy Halloween,’ would you?”
Now I sign every card “Best Wishes;” that seems to cover everything nicely. I even signed that on my own card once when it was mistakenly given to me. “Best Wishes, Gary. From Gary.”
The next day, before I’ve even had two sips of coffee, Sadie’s back.
“More cards!” she says in that irritating sing-song voice.
She drops yet another stack next to my keyboard then leans her large rump against my desk. I stare at the card on top. There’s a picture of a smiling, maniacal-looking frog sitting on a lily pad wearing a party hat. Why the hell would a frog- nope, never mind. I look up at Sadie. She’s smiling down at me not unlike the crazy frog. That’s it, I’ve had enough, I’m done.
“No thanks, Sadie,” I say.
She peers down at me, a confused expression on her wrinkled face.
I slide the cards toward her. “I don’t need to sign these.”
“Oh, did you sign ‘em already? Sometimes I loose track of where I brought ‘em.”
I shake my head. “Nope, didn’t sign them and I’m not going to.”
I notice Bill and Janet have turned to look at me.
“What do you mean, Gary?” Sadie asks.
“I mean I’m not going to sign these cards. I don’t know these people. Look.” I pick up the stack and thumb through it. “Diane, Jamie, Peter, Clovis. Clovis? Seriously? See I don’t know anyone of them. Why should I sign their cards?”
Sadie looks at the cards, then back at me, then back at the cards. I can almost see the wheels turning in her gray curly-haired head.
“But…it’s their birthdays.”
I glance at Bill for some support but all I get is that kind of lip-shrug he does where the left side of his mouth rises.
“I understand that, Sadie, I do. But I don’t know them and I won’t be signing their cards, okay? It’s nothing personal.”
“I’ll sign them,” Janet says and snatches them out of my hand.
For once I’m grateful for Janet’s ass kissing, but the next few minutes go by painfully slow as she and Bill sign the cards.
When Sadie finally leaves, giving flowery thanks to Bill and Janet, I smile. I feel good; for the first time since I can remember I feel like I’ve accomplished something worthwhile at work. I actually think about whistling.
My good mood continues into the next day. I smile when I exit the elevator and see young, cute Melissa sitting behind the receptionist’s desk.
“Hi,” she says, but when she glances up from her computer, her smile fades.
“Any plans for the weekend?” I ask.
“Nope,” she says and begins typing fast, probably too fast for any of the words to be legible.
I’m a little puzzled; normally she and I will chat for a few minutes. After an awkwardly silent moment I walk past her and through the double glass doors. A small group of people are talking by the bulletin board but as soon as I approach them their conversation dies. An older guy, Morris I think his name is, frowns and squints at me. When I get to my desk I see the stack of papers that had been neatly assembled the day before scattered all over. In the dust on my monitor someone has written “SIGN THIS, ASSFACE.”
After I’ve cleaned up the papers, Bill walks in with his coffee.
“Hey, Bill, is there something weird going on I should know about?”
Bill looks around and then grabs my arm, pulling me deeper into the cube.
“It’s the cards, man!” he says in a whisper that isn’t much lower than his usual booming voice. “Everybody knows!”
I shake loose from his grip. “Knows what? What are you taking about?”
“The cards! Everybody knows you’re not signing them!”
I groan. “Are you serious? So I don’t sign a few cards, so what?”
“You don’t get it do you? Office politics, man! You’ve been here long enough, you should know how these things work.”
I roll my eyes. “Office politics? Give me a break, Bill. They’re stupid cards.”
I sit down in my chair. There’s a metallic crunch and the wheels and arm rests fall off. I glare up at Bill.
“Shut up,” I say.
Over the next several days things get worse. Everyone begins giving me the stink eye. Two more chairs mysteriously fall apart. Every paperclip from my desk vanishes. It’s all a little frustrating but secretly I’m happy, happy to have done something, to have taken a stand, not like all the lemmings that work here.
Late on a Thursday afternoon, Sadie returns. I don’t look up but I recognize her heavy footsteps.
“Got some cards here,” she says. I can feel her eyes boring into me. “Care to sign ‘em, Gary?”
I glance at Bill; he’s lips are pursed and he’s nodding furiously.
“Uh, no thanks, Sadie, but I think Bill wants to.” I grab some papers and stand up. “I need to go make some copies.”
I grin as I head to the copy machine. But not surprisingly the red light is blinking and the screen says paper jam.
I open up the panel on the side where most of the jams usual occur. A bit of white is sticking out of some plastic gears. I tug on it. It’s a thick piece of paper, one that obviously does not belong in the copier. I manage to pull it out a little and can just make out a word on the top. It says “Congratulations.” Did some idiot actually try to copy a god damned card?!
I grab the paper with both hands and pull as hard as I can. It’s working, slowly the card is coming out. I take a step backwards to add some leverage and suddenly the paper rips and I’m flailing. A second later I feel my head hit something hard and then the lights go out.
My eyes focus and I see Bill standing over me. I quickly look around. I’m lying in a bed in what appears to be a hospital room.
“How you feeling?” he asks.
“Um, okay I guess. What happened?”
“You hit your head pretty bad. Don’t you remember?”
All of a sudden I’m aware of a slight ache. I touch the back of my head and feel a sizeable lump.
“Well, you’re gonna be fine, just a concussion, I had plenty of those when I played ball in high school. Oh, almost forgot.” He walks over to a table by the door and picks up a large basket of flowers. “Some people at the office felt kind of bad about, you know, what was going on, so they got you this.” He puts it down on the table next to me.
I smile. It’s a really nice bouquet but something seems to be missing. I look up at Bill.
“What, no card?”
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Portland Fiction Project
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