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Occupational Hazard

K. Huebner

It was raining in the morning when she went to work: she stepped off the bus into the Pacific Ocean and from there on in it was a hard muddle to the office door with cars slick-sliding and pedestrians swimming corner to corner grabbing lampposts not to be blown out of the water. The great copper-and-bronze door of her building stood waiting in the distance for her, ornamented with columns of Victorian virtue, but she was well soaked by the time she attained it. She draggled in, and the entirety of the edifice recoiled in fastidious aversion to her dripping person; its humidity controls were appalled by her precipitous wetness. She sat down at her desk and kicked off her shoes to dry, but her supervisor descended upon her. “You’re fired,” said the supervisor, enlarging by the second like a pufferfish. “We have no use for persons such as you. You must get all of your belongings out of that desk and be gone at once. We can’t have dismembered employees hanging about.” “Dismembered!” said she. “Whatever do you mean?” “You are no longer a member of this company. Thus, you are officially dismembered and your company-paid Accidental Death

Originally published in the Colorado State Review

and Dismemberment Insurance no longer applies.” She wanted to protest, for she had been a faithful employee in the duration of her service, but she didn’t like this talk of dismemberment. It was too corporate. “You’ll have to go to the personnel manager at once and fill out your severance papers,” continued her supervisor. “He’s waiting in his office for you now. And get a move on; you’re all wet.” She cleaned her desk rapidly, taking down photographs and post cards with an irrational sadness, and then hastened to the personnel manager’s office, where she was asked to sign a stack of forms. She was not permitted the time to peruse them, but a glance indicated that they absolved the company of all responsi- bility for anything that might happen to her either at or away from her place of employment. “What happens if I don’t sign these?” she asked, seeing them rise about her like a cloud. “Don’t annoy me,” said the personnel manager. “You have no choice but to sign them.” “That seems quite absurd,” she said. “If I’m no longer an employee of the company, I needn’t sign anything whatever for it.” “Ah, but you aren’t yet severed!” said the personnel manager. He leaned back in his swivel chair and tapped his pencils like bones on his desk. “You’re a member of this corporation until you sign the forms, and so long as you’re corporate, you must do as you’re told.” “Though if I’m still part of the company, there’s no point in my signing papers which prevent me from receiving any benefit from the connection,” she remarked. “You have no choice,” repeated the personnel manager. “Or rather, your only choice is this: you can put off signing them and be a refractory employee subject to discipline, or you can comply immediately and be free within half an hour to pursue any course you are able.” She wanted to argue the matter further, but she suspected that it would be of no use. Her clothing was dripping onto the personnel manager’s rug, and although she felt she deserved an


Huebner: Occupational Hazard

explanation, she had not the money for lawyers. “All right, I’ll sign,” she said; but she contorted her signature so that it resembled a forgery.

Torrents deluged her as she abandoned the building, and so, determined not to chance the sluggish bus again, she took the subway home. She swam to its underwater entrance, put her ticket in the turnstile slot, and took the escalator to the track. “Caution: third rail live” said the poster on the stair, but down in the empty cavern she could only read commercials on the wall. When the train slid in she settled in its plush interior lap, alone with the peculiarity of the hour, and stared through its glass as though through a fishbowl. The train snaked into the tunnel like an electric eel. Strange fish seemed to float down the dark of the tunnel sides between the blue periodic beacons, but she ignored these underground astonishments, silent in her misfortune. An official voice boomed from the intercom: “Stop that right now, little girl!” and she jumped, knowing automatically that this was meant for her. When she left the train, she wanted to stick out her tongue at the intercom box, but controlled the urge until the voice admonished: “Good little girls don’t do that.” Then she stuck out her tongue anyway.

The sidewalk in front of her apartment was at least almost welcoming; the trees at intervals between the paving blocks stretched out their dripping branches to accommodate and shelter her from the immediate force of the downpour, spreading the weight of the water like leaky umbrellas as they arbored her waded path. Then she passed the gate and up the old back wooden stairs to her apartment, where she fell upon the couch and gazed through dribbling hair out of the window to the rain. Cats and dogs cascaded past in all poses of surprise and contortion, but she paid them little attention, though the expression on the face of a passing collie disturbed her and she wondered where he would go when he hit ground in so trafficked


a city. If only she could have read the papers she had signed! And if only there were some means of discovering the reason for her dismissal! She knew quite well that it had not been for incompetence, inefficiency, or insubordination; she knew the ins to exactly to fall by such failure. Nor had she uncovered anything she ought not, or asked unguarded questions. Her entire employment had been quiet, discreet and dependable, despite the routine and uninteresting nature of the job. Clearly there was more to this than she cared to imagine: thus she preferred not to attempt a similar position, but went the next day to laundromats, where she posted signs saying “House cleaning—reasonable rates.”

But she couldn’t make much money as a housecleaner. The weather was perpetually rainy and she tracked in as much mud as she removed, careful though she was to leave her coat and rubbers at the door. People called her for assignments clearly unrelated to cleaning; men told her she had a sexy phone voice and women asked if she also pruned fruit trees. Some of her clients kept guns that she did not care to discuss, and one kept a blow-up doll with open orifices upon his bed. And none of them were on time with their payments, nor wanted sufficiently frequent service: so at last she was obliged to let go her own apartment, sell her furniture, and take up residence in a hotel. This she mourned bitterly, for she loved her belongings and the care she had expressed in their selection. And here the walls in the corridors seeped dank slime; odd noises filtered through her mind as she slept, and she dreamt she was becoming a fish. She began to long to know the reason for her dismissal, to crave the knowledge like food and dream of holding her file in her hands. It followed her in the night and sang to her between the undercurrents that came from the other rooms in their gray murmur of dribble-drip and sigh, their exhalations of Thunderbird and hamburger grease. The voice of her file denied all information, presenting itself only as a closed mystery beyond the smear of raindrops on the winter sill, beckoning and withholding. She attempted to ignore it and concentrate on the improvement of her days, but it reappeared and remained.


Huebner: Occupational Hazard

Agencies assured her that life was difficult: that there might not be jobs, might not be aid, might not be anything. “Why bother to find work?” said one. “We’ll be vaporized next year.” The people in the streets demanded money while passing out leaflets proclaiming “Prepare for the Rapture!” and “Who are the Racists?” She desired her file even should it do her no good; she thought of it night after night as she walked the long jointed corridors to the bathroom, past door after door after door. And at last she put away her sponges and said “I’m going to get my file.” She had not been permitted to retain any of her former keys, nor did she contact anyone from within the company. She went in the night through the streets between lights, wearing black and carrying only the strength of her resolve; she went to the great front doors of the momentous building and looked up the dim steps at them and said “Open! Open Sesame!” And against expectation came the doors slowly open. Not like a conqueror yet not quite like a thief went she into the entry to the dark reception desk. The doors swung closed behind her and she stood in the dead night of the hall; nothing gleamed but the red alarm light blinking on the telephone console. She was uncertain where her terminated file might be among these multiple floors of corporate indulgence, but was hopeful that it might yet be in the personnel manager’s cabinet. But in every corner there were invisible phantoms afloat, drifting from air vent and ventilator, swinging from the pockets in the acoustical tile and swarming after her into the elevator so that she could scarcely breathe among them. She thought to deny them, but held her ground in the unlit box until the automatic door opened, when the carpeted spread of the executive regions lay open before her, visible by slats of moonlight through the blinded windows. She stepped onto its expanse, surrounded by still more incorporeal bodies pushing her and whispering their songs and threats of incompletely executed actions, stillborn plans, and terminations; then she thought she heard her file whine in the distance, and she trod through these almost insubstantial


murmurings to the office of the personnel manager. She began to pull open the endless black and gray cabinets of employee records, attempting to find herself in the shadowed alphabet. Nothing came to light, but it was so dark that she might well have missed her letter. Then she heard the teasing of her nearby file, and seized the folder poking furthest from the drawer. It hesitated in her hand, but before she could be sure of anything, she felt her body separating and all of her parts flying off into diverse corners. “I’m going to pieces!” exclaimed her head in horror, too overcome to keep silent; “I’m coming apart at the seams!” Then her nose, mouth, ears and eyes also fell away and bounced loosely in different parts of the room, gleaming with a nearly spectral light. “I have to pull myself together!” she cried. She tried to coordinate her divergent anatomy, but each part only bobbed and danced idiotically in disparate directions while her head banged foolishly against the wall. “You’ll remember that we don’t want dismembered employees hanging about the company,” said the personnel manager from the doorway. He stepped into the office and sat in his padded swivel chair. “There’s no place for you here and there’s no telling what might happen if you insist on remaining.” At first it seemed to her that all she could see was the white of his eyes, but then he appeared to have no eyes, no features at all but an egg-empty face. She tried frantically to put herself together, but the personnel manager reached out for one of her legs as it hopped on the floor and began to devour it as though it were Kentucky Fried. “No! No!” she screamed. “Stop!” The personnel manager threw the bones into the corner and caught hold of her other leg. “This is what we do to severed employees,” he remarked. “We pick their bones and suck them dry; we leave their remains to blow forever through the recirculating ventilator system.” “Not I!” she cried, her voice echoing in the air shafts. “You can’t do that to me!” “But I shall!” he said, and ate up the rest of her limbs. “Ours is


Huebner: Occupational Hazard

the finest of companies; we procure the most promising employees and build our success with their brains and their blood.” “Not with mine!” she exclaimed. “I want no more part of your company!” Then in the silence he swallowed her eyeballs.

In the morning she discovered the renewed parts of her body arrayed on the doorstep of the corporate building; she made haste to reform herself before the streetsweepers came. When she was all in one piece again, she stood up, bought herself a newspaper, and went home to read the want ads. There was some blood still in her hair, but she washed that away in the shower and set herself out in the sun to dry.



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