No Great Trick
By Jeff Somers
It was about the time that Norm Cashman began practicing black magic in his little closet of an office that I met Debbie, the most uninhibited receptionist to ever refuse to sleep with me in a long and proud tradition of women refusing to sleep with me. I can remember the time exactly because Norm caused quite a ruckus before he got fired, what with the dead chickens and the black smoke leaking from under his door. It was during a fire drill caused by one of his spells gone awry (involving, from the smell, burning animal fat) that I met her, a tall brunette in her thirties who turned to me in the chill of an early morning and began saying some of the filthiest things I'd ever heard uttered. I was delighted, of course. I stood next to her for fifteen minutes with a grin on my face the size of my erection and wondered if this was the universe's way of paying me back for all that acne back in high school.
It wasn't. Although of course I asked her out (34 times to date) she has never so much as shared a cup of coffee with me. She will freely and gladly describe sexual acts and concepts I had until-then thought arcane and possibly mystical, she will gab on and on about all manner of kinks and fetishes and apparatus until I am red-faced and incoherent, but she only smiles slightly and shakes her head when I beg to buy her dinner, gifts, mansions, whatever. I have grown to hate her, in a way, so I call her twice a day.
I was on the phone with her, amazed at how smoothly she could go from "Good morning, Denton Incorporated" to a lengthy discussion of the true meaning of the phrase "ribbed for her pleasure" without any signs of transition, when Norm finally got canned. He'd been chanting in his office all morning, casting some mighty incantation we were all ignoring more or less by habit, when they came. They being Martin Fillmore, Human Resources Director, and Phyllis Gumber, Director of Outside Sales, Norm's boss. Apart, they were just about the ugliest two human beings I had ever seen. Together, however, their ugliness sort of canceled itself out, leaving them moderately blurred and possibly bland. We all knew Norm was getting canned, and we just kept talking on the phones and tapping our computers as if we’d seen dozens of forced departures, which, of course, we had.
Norm, however, wasn't ready yet. As they entered his office he let out a cry and there was some sort of purple flash and the door slammed. Then, nothing for about a minute, as Debbie moaned on into my ear about latex.
When the door opened, Norm was preceded by a thick cloud of smoke, and then he ran into the maze of cubicles yelling "I'm invisible! I'm invisible!" while most of us just stared and held down anything we didn't want him grabbing up in his frenzy. He dashed around the cubes for a while despite the fact that no one was chasing him, and then he disappeared into the halls.
I glanced over at Phil Dublen, and our eyes met. Silently, we said to each other "Who gets his office?"
They eventually found Norm's clothes down on the 17th floor, but as far as I know they never found Norm that day. Of course, once they were sure he had left the building, they stopped looking.
We were back at work within twenty minutes. Phyllis and Marty emerged from Norm's office pale and choking from the smoke, and they wandered around us for a while, dazed. Phyllis kept sitting in our guest chairs and staring at us plaintively, saying "My goodness, the smoke.” Marty went back to his office, opened the lower right drawer where he kept a bottle of whiskey, found three live rats squirming around in it, and had a heart attack on the spot. The rats escaped into the building.
Marty had closed his office door behind him, and no one realized he was dead until the cleaning ladies complained about having to move him in order to empty the wastepaper basket.
Phyllis was never quite the same, and took to wandering the floor with empty cups of coffee clutched in her hands, muttering. At meetings she would peer fearfully at us as if we were hatching plots against her, and her fear of Norm’s office took on the proportions of dementia. When Phil was moved into it she refused to speak to him, and would leave rooms when he entered. Privately, she said she could smell the office on him. Phil's only complaint was that he still found chicken feathers in the oddest places.
Two weeks after Norm's exciting departure I was once again on the phone with Debbie, who was panting about the many uncommon uses of exercise equipment, when Phyllis tendered her resignation. Actually, what she did was march into the midst of us and inform us that a) the whole building was cursed, b) we ought to all get out if we valued our souls, and c) she was still going to find out who had been eating her yogurt and have her revenge. On that note she turned and left. I put Debbie on hold and called Phil.
"Who do you suppose is getting her job?" I wondered.
"They won't promote from within," Phil assured me.
I took comfort in that and went back to Debbie, who was still moaning about the Thighmaster as if she hadn't realized I'd put her on hold. Or cared.
When Phil got Phyllis' job I was momentarily suspicious and angered, but when he promoted me to his old position and I got the old Cashman office (as it had come to be known) I was mollified, and bought him drinks. Sozzled, he told me he'd been sleeping with Debbie for almost three months and that every word she said was sweetly true, and I hated him again.
A week after I'd moved into my new office someone actually grew disgusted enough to clean out the ancient and ignored fridge in our little employee kitchen, and a human heart in a pickle jar was discovered and brought to me because it had Norm Cashman's name on it. We had taken to printing our names on our food so no one would take anyone else’s lunch by mistake. This policy had not, of course, stopped lunch theft, but at least we were comforted by the knowledge that it was no longer accidental.
Upon closer inspection the heart was revealed to have a long darning needle thrust through it. I put it up on my bookshelf and found myself staring at it, constantly. This eventually made me notice that the darning needle had a label on it, and the label read "Martin Fillmore." This did not stop me from staring at the heart, but it did cause me to keep my door shut as I did so.
Not too long afterwards, a memo from Phil Dublen arrived asking me to keep my office door open at all times, because its being closed constantly was causing a great deal of gossip among the other employees. As I sat reading this memo, my phone rang, and it was Phil.
"You see, guy, " he began. "You see, you're in Cashman's old office.
"And, er, we all know how he went out!"
Phil was giving me a strong impression that I ought to have gotten his point by then. "Um, if you keep your door closed, people are afraid you'll start doing the same. . .odd. . .things.”
There was a note of triumph in his voice; he clearly thought he'd put it so plainly even I could grasp the gist. I studied the mottled and misshapen heart on my shelf and ideas began to come to me.
"Of course, Phil," I said tonelessly. "I've got to go, Deb's on the other line.”
"I understand," he said wolfishly, and hung up.
Those days, Debbie saying anything was enough to increase my pulse; reciting the phone book would keep me interested. It had gotten to the point where I couldn’t concentrate at work unless she was breathily describing physically impossible sexual positions in one ear.
Still, I'd stopped calling Debbie from home after hours, and stopped accepting her calls at work, because I was afraid of my increasing need for her soothing voice and afraid to open my phone bill. She lived in a different area code, making my nightly calls to her before bedtime an expensive habit. My phone bill arrived in several envelopes and sat heavily on my desk at home, bloated and out of all proportion. I knew that if I spoke to Debbie once I would not be able to resist her again and my bill would grow to such incredible proportions that folk singers years from now would write songs about it, and the kids of their time would scoff and mock them in disbelief. I came in through the back way to avoid her, emerging from unused stairwells covered in milky dust.
I started leaving my door open to keep everyone happy; immediately people began popping their heads in to see if I’d done anything batty while I'd been hidden.
I was seized by an urge to shut my door, to spit in their eyes, the bunch of narrow-minded witch-hunters, to do exactly what I wasn't supposed to do. Whenever I closed my door, though, Phil would call me almost immediately and leave voicemail messages, some ten minutes long, concerned mostly with rumor mongering and its adverse effect on any corporation. In my opinion, Phil had gone corporate on me.
Finally, it was all too much, and one day I tore my eyes from Martin Fillmore's heart, stood up, and slammed my door hard enough to startle everyone in the cubes. The phone began to ring immediately, and when I turned, determined to pick it up, Norm Cashman was sitting at my desk.
There are three moments in my life I consider to be unreal and clearly hallucinatory. The first occurred when I was seven and involved a fever dream wherein I raced my bed around the room, defeating several other beds. The second happened in college and involved a lot of beer, unfiltered cigarettes, and, unfortunately, vomit. The third was Norm Cashman grinning at me from behind my desk.
The phone stopped ringing, and immediately someone was pounding on my door.
Norm just grinned at me, and he didn't disappear when I opened the door to let Phil yell at me, informing that henceforth my employment was conditional on keeping my office door opened. I could see people grinning at their desks behind Phil, and I thought of Martin Fillmore's heart. When Phil left me I was afraid that it might have started beating, but it was still as ever, and Norm Cashman just kept grinning at me.
It was right around then that the rats emerged from our air ducts and began their fight to take over the floor. My war with Phil Dublen over my open office door had just started to heat up; he found a hundred excuses every day to wander by and make sure I was exposed to all the idiots who worked with me, and I made it my habit to be grinning at him every time he wandered by. I had Harriet, who had a cubical not far away, call me every time Phil emerged from his office, and he always found me grinning at him happily. In retribution, he began offering up Debbie Facts of the Day to me each time he appeared in my doorway, lasciviously confirming individual imaginings of mine with obvious glee.
The first rat was something of a celebrity: He was fat and waddled and made Jenny from accounting tear her skirt clean off in her frenzied attempt to escape once it emerged in her office, apparently from nowhere. Barry the Weird Guy who knew all the computers caught it and delighted himself (and a few of the rest of us, secrets be known) by chasing Jenny around with it for a few minutes. This moment of good clean American fun was interrupted by the arrival of the rest of the rats, at least a dozen of them, who made an animalistic beeline for Barry, in what appeared to all present to be a rescue mission for their imprisoned, and presumably tortured, fellow. I will champion equal rights for animals everywhere, especially if I get to witness the rather unlikely gymnastics Barry afforded us that afternoon, tossing his prisoner aside and leaping, athletically, onto Jim Nueson's desk. The rats promptly disappeared, leaving Jenny weeping and skirtless on one end of the office and Barry quivering over an annoyed Jim Nueson on the other.
Through an odd absence of pest control, the rats made sudden and often dramatic appearances for the next several months, all through the lawsuit Jenny brought against the company and Barry. Barry took it all cheerfully. He'd been the office weirdo before, and he continued to be the office weirdo. He had lost no status in the episode, and if one can assume that he took some pride in being the office weirdo (a possibility I had never before considered but which seemed suddenly probable) one can then also assume that the whole episode had only increased his prowess as a weirdo, that weirdos everywhere had heard of his stunt and were passing along quiet accolades. I myself passed along a quiet note of appreciation when I ran into him in the kitchen, where he was busy eating someone else’s lunch.
I had made it back to my office before realizing he'd been eating my lunch. I realized this, however, just as I opened one of my desk drawers to discover a rat, apparently enjoying an afternoon snooze. We regarded each other for a moment, calmly, and then I slowly slid the drawer closed again. I sat dumbly in my office the rest of the day, staring at Marty's heart.
Jenny returned to the office some weeks later, winner of her lawsuit and secure with a court order to the company forbidding them to take any vengeful action against her. The company didn't. The rats, however, did, appearing magically whenever Jenny might find herself alone and vulnerable. She managed to kill several of them, emerging from copy rooms and conference rooms bloody and rattled, breathless and with a somewhat wild look in her eyes, dead rats clutched like trophies in her hands. Jenny became something of an unpopular lunch date shortly after her first few rat conquests, and seeing as the little beasts seemed to follow her around exclusively, no one really wanted to spend much time with her in the office, either. A petition was circulated anonymously amongst the women, demanding that the company provide her with a private bathroom and forbid her from using the main one, from which she routinely emerged bloodied and bruised, fur under her fingernails and toilet paper stuck to the one shoe she retained. Her last act before resigning, bless her heart, was to force the company to hire an exterminator to rid the place of pests.
The moment she stumbled into the elevator with a box of her personal possessions under one arm, however, the rats completely disappeared. Even the little one in my drawer, which I'd been feeding Barry's lunch to on the sly, was gone when I inspected my desk. From that day on, none of us so much as saw a rat.
A court order is a court order, however, and a week later the exterminator arrived, and I wasn't the least bit surprised, at this point, to discover that he was Norm Cashman.
I was, however, surprised to realize that no one else seemed to notice this. Everyone regarded him with the usual polite disdain office workers reserve for the lower laborers, people who have to wear uniforms and the lot. Norm grinned at me as he walked around clucking about traps and poisons and the rest. I simply shrugged my shoulders and hoped for the best.
Norm began showing up as various menial laborers around the time someone in the office began stealing office supplies. Normally, supply larceny is expected and goes unnoticed, but the criminal mastermind who emerged amongst us took the concept to a new high, leaving the rest of us amused, amazed, and somewhat jealous. I can only assume some small business was being bankrolled from the proceeds.
First, we arrived one Monday morning to discover that all the paperclips had been removed from our desks, the supply closets and, in a bizarre twist I privately considered brilliant, from our files. Memos previously clipped together fluttered loose. An entire year's worth of sales reports melded together into one solid mass of unrelated numbers. The thought of someone actually taking the time to do this made me shiver in delight. It smacked of greatness.
A few days later, all the phones were missing, prompting most of us to throw up our hands and head out to a bar called McGee’s to plot strategy, which of course meant that most of us called in sick the next day, more or less telepathically since the phones were missing. I crawled in, nursing a hangover, only to discover that overnight the copiers had been stolen, along with Marty's heart, though I said nothing of that to anyone.
This finally prompted a stunned managerial team to take some action. The police were called, building security chastised, and new copiers ordered. For some reason no one thought to replace the phones, and once again everyone threw up their hands and trooped out to McGee’s for more plotting over beers. While we were out, the criminal mastermind crept back in to purloin every single tape gun in the mailroom. Suspicion ran rampant, until I pointed out that everyone had taken at least one extended bathroom break while at the bar, thus giving everyone opportunity.
It was not a popular observation. Luckily, this was when I noticed Norm Cashman beckoning me from a shadowy part of the bar.
I crept over, cradling my beer, and sat down with him. Marty's heart sat obscenely on the table before him, and Norm was smoking a cigar happily. Debbie, dressed short and tight, sat on his lap, nuzzling one of his ears and oblivious to the rest of the bar. I ignored her, and repressed the urge to read her lips and see what she was whispering to him. I glanced over at the bar, where Phil was drinking recklessly and pointedly not looking our way. I made a mental note to stop loosening the bolts on his desk chair every evening before I left.
"Norm," I said, nodding.
He nodded back, and told me, cannily, that I might want to save myself while it was still possible. I asked him, quite contritely, why he felt the need to curse the company, and ruin all our jobs.
"Fuck your jobs," was his reply. And he patted the jar holding Martin Fillmore's heart ominously.
The next day, all our chairs were gone, leaving everyone standing around chatting excitedly. I quietly cleaned out my desk (which contained more rat droppings than personal items) and tendered my resignation to Phil, who took it stoically, chugging back booze at his own desk. Walking out, I found Norm working as one of the security guards. He waved at me happily, and I saluted him, and when I arrived home I was not surprised at all to find my apartment filled with copy machines and chairs.
This story originally appeared in Drexel Online Journal.