You’re alone in the office. Lunchtime traffic is a river rumbling along East 10th Street. You tilt your head to bite a knot of sprouts and spinach off a plastic fork. A loud thump startles you. Directly in front of your face, a woman’s backside mashes against the other side of the tinted, plate-glass office window. She passionately kisses a man who slides his hands down her sides, squeezes her hips. Denim makes a dry rasp against the glass as they writhe together. If you stretch your arm out, your fingertips will graze the smooth surface. You laugh, salad threatening to spew through your lips.
You had been looking forward to starting this job—a revitalization project funded by federal grants and run through a local nonprofit—but you’ve been the only employee showing up to the office for weeks. When you walk through the building’s long hallways, people from other departments narrow their eyes at you, contemptuous of a new department with new positions, fearful their jobs will soon be deemed redundant. Your confidence in the project’s promise is fading.
The man outside the window fingers one of the woman’s braids. She slaps his hand away and it disappears under her shirt. The rivets on her jeans grind the window. You stand, leaning across your desk to rap hard on the tempered glass. No response.
You unlock your phone and snap a pic of the view, text it to coworkers with, “what you’re missing in the office.”
The office door opens behind you and you spin with a smile. A janitor pops his head in, looks around, doesn’t see you, flicks the light off and locks the door. You sigh and turn back to the computer monitor, alone in the dimness, haunted by invisibility.
A thin woman swinging a plastic grocery sack struts into view across the empty morning street. Her clothes hang on her shoulders and hips. She takes the steps up to the porch of a vacant bungalow two at a time. All the old bungalows on this block are uninhabited, their once vibrant paint now dingy and peeling. The woman grips the stone wall at the top of the porch as one foot pushes each thin, canvas sneaker off the other foot. One shoe tumbles down the steps but she doesn’t retrieve it. She sits with her knees under her chin, pulling small items out of the plastic bag.
You’re working on the project’s newsletter to the public but have no progress to report. You fill it with photos and captions about the near Eastside.
Beyond the edge of the computer monitor you can still see the woman. She inserts a hypodermic needle between two toes, its plastic glinting in the sun. You gasp, cover your eyes with both hands. When you put your hands down she’s on the sidewalk pulling her sneakers back on. She limps back in the direction she came from.
Alone in the office again, you scrutinize the shared calendar in Outlook, certain there must be an afternoon meeting you’re missing. Your manager sent an email asking you to add a blurb about his friend’s new bar to the newsletter, but that has nothing to do with the project. He hasn’t responded to any of your emails since the job started. You respond, refusing to add the blurb, then, convinced he never reads your emails, describe in detail the man you watched peeing on the sidewalk by the bus stop outside the window that morning. You hesitate for only a second before clicking send.
Across the street, the motorcycle supply shop is busy with grease-smeared customers, its blacked-out windows a grimy mystery. Two men storm out, gesturing wildly. The older one wears grungy jeans with a weathered vest and t-shirt. The younger one’s jeans look clean and crisp, his black button-up spotless. You can’t hear the yelling, but their thrusting body language and puffed-up stances make it obvious.
The younger one raises his arms over his head and that’s when you see the gun in his hand. Your feet paddle backwards like a cartoon, wheeling your chair out of your cubicle until it hits the back wall. The older man straddles a bike, roars away. The gun-toting man lingers on the sidewalk, then swaggers back into the shop.
A police car and an ambulance park in front of the bungalow across the street. An officer and a paramedic chat their way up the steps. For a moment they stare behind the low brick wall encircling the porch. The officer bends, picks up a plastic grocery sack near their feet. They look inside. The paramedic shakes his head, lumbers down to the ambulance, unloads a gurney.
You decide to eat lunch in the cafeteria even though it’s noisy and over-air conditioned because you don’t want to watch what comes next. You’ve seen it before, the shocking blue-grayness of death, the husk-like emptiness.
In the cafeteria you’re surrounded by people who’ve come to fill out forms for classes on financial literacy or parenting, for help paying past-due bills or getting records expunged. At other tables sit people from other departments. They read or stare out the window as they eat, trying not to make eye contact with the people whose forms they will judge later.
You text a coworker, “where is everyone?!”
“I’m ‘working’ at home. nothing to do anyway.”
“thx,” you reply.
The make-out couple is back. You marvel at the voraciousness of their kissing; the details of their faces evaporate into mashed flesh and a gnashing of lips. Rivets on her jeans leave tiny lines in the tinted glass. The scraping sound hurts your teeth. You expect the lines to form words, to spell out, “I was here.”
The job began with catered meetings, ecstatic announcements, and lengthy newspaper articles. It is supposed to last two years but you can see the dead end right ahead. You sling your bag over your shoulder to catch the bus home.