The fridge is empty so I’ve been shredding chunks of month-old baguette, scrubbing the insides of the jam jar, collecting the remains and shoveling myself full of bread, quieting my stomach for inevitable sleep. Might wake up late, but I need time to buy another pack of smokes before work. With the lights dim my bedroom looks Days Inn cheap; the TV teasing me with hot trim bodies of workout ladies in spandex sipping earth juice, trying to convince me to buy some exercise apparatus that looks more like the contraption an old man hooks young girls to when they’re locked in basements for forty years before digging themselves out to escape. I feel the clump in my gut; this persistent heavy pain in my colon. Maybe it’s a gluten allergy.
I made my bed so of course it’s uncomfortable. I fiddle around with the stiff covers and pull them over my legs. They feel clean and I dance around in them, my toes cold from bad circulation – I smoke too much. Lights from a car on the highway do a backstroke across the curtains. I eat the last little nub of baguette, biting into the dry scalp so hard that its rough skin hurts the roof of my mouth. I massage the wound with my tongue. It’ll hurt for hours, which sucks because this is my chewing side.
Another hour has passed and the TV’s on mute. I’m playing with my boobs, lying on my back, pushing them to the ceiling and letting them fall to each side. I’m stuck on images of toenails, rubbing my nipples between my index and my thumb, thinking of the perfect big toe. I like when you can’t tell which foot it’s from – the mistakes. I look toward the closet where they’re all packed away. I can hear them rattling in their whicker baskets. Gives me warmth. It’s not the physical contact, but the idea – their presence in the room. There is something inherently feminine about the toe – the leverage and balance.
* * *
The office is on the 72nd floor of the north building. Surrounded by factories and assembly lines, it’s a tall spire that shoots into the clouds, high into the air, the pollution, beyond sight. On my first day, eons ago, I asked Sam Goldstein, the elevator guy (like in those old movies), “What’s up at the top?” He looked me up and down, a dirty look, like the one I give the lady out front wearing a sandwich board of aborted fetuses. After a moment he rolled his eyes and said, “God.” I still don’t know, but now I don’t care anymore. Once I stopped caring, he and I became great friends.
It’s nothing special.
Five desks and no windows.
Yet it’s absurdly bright. The vivid red of the shag carpet screams bloody murder. A soft orange peel of saturated, festive walls wraps the room. The colors are so dense it sends your heart racing, as though something exciting is just waiting to happen. But actually, the only party is the jellybean bowl, and even that’s got cobwebs today. We all wear light blue skirt suits. It’s just easier that way.
Five desks. Five women. Five beehives.
We’re all typing frantically. Everyday. All of us just typing. Typing nothing. I learned that on day one. The only real work on the 72nd floor is brief fits of illogical filing, and the rest of the time we just try to look busy, hoping nobody discovers and asks us to do something.
There’s a note on my desk:
Watch the new training video, everyone MUST watch the new training video! ALSO meet me at 2PM, my office, good.
I pop in the DVD. I can’t adjust the volume. The computer screams:
Hi, I’m Sally Dense, and I’m a feminist, but I’m also a woman! Being a woman, I sometimes become outrageous and hysterical. I didn’t know how best to work in a demanding, masculine workplace. But then I found MANufacturing. Here at MANufacturing we encourage the employment of women like us – ladies of all backgrounds – making it possible for all of us to be a part of something important. Working at MANufacturing has given me the opportunity to create athletes, politicians, schoolteachers, and fathers. Here at MANufacturing, you’ll be working with the leading provider of SMS; Synthetic Male Specimens. With the world’s most cutting edge tissue emulating technology, and our seven-time award winning team of personality specialists, MANufacturing continues to pave the future toward the fight to find the perfect man.
The other four beehives have stopped typing. They’re all looking at me. We all grunt. Roll our eyes. Then we all go back to typing. Typing nothing.
* * *
Dale Larry is the most disgusting boss ever.
Dale Larry is the name of the most disgusting man ever, whose name is literally just two disgusting first names put together, and he’s my boss.
Dale Larry only goes by Dale Larry.
Dale Larry makes you knock and wait.
If you walk away, Dale Larry will shout “Where are you going!?”
If you try to walk in, Dale Larry will be flabbergasted, “Did I say you could come in!?”
If you inquire within, “Dale?” Dale Larry will scream, “DID I NOT SOUND BUSY!?”
Dale Larry makes you stand outside his office for a good three minutes – door ajar, no peeking, no prodding – while you listen to him breathe and do whatever disgusting things he does while you wait.
Then, Dale Larry finally loses it, “Well… WHAT IS IT!?!”
* * *
“You asked to see me…”
“Yeah, you did.”
“Oh…” Dale Larry looks genuinely confused. I’m not shocked that he forgot his note. Or our brief encounter by the coffeepot at 10:42, when I tried to remind him and save him the embarrassment; “YOU? I said I needed to see YOU? At two-o-clock? WHY!?…YOU DON’T KNOW!? …WHY NOT!? …That’s it! I want to see you in my office at noon!”
He sets his fat hands on the glass desk, smearing the surface indefinitely, and violently remembers, “You’re getting a promotion!”
“Oh,” I’m half startled but I don’t actually believe him. “Just like… that?”
“Yeah,” he says, “just like that. Guess they need more diversity up there.”
I’m taken aback.
“So, you’re saying it’s cause I’m black?”
“No,” he says, “They need a dyke.”
* * *
Dale Larry will make you cringe
Dale Larry is an overgrown, generally expansive, crusty skinned, overly buttered attempt at human life. Too many of nature’s (hopefully) unintentional mistakes have accumulated into this single mass of a man. There’s not a bone to sympathize with. Not a crumb.
Dale Larry is natural selection’s party trick.
Dale Larry is that disgusting thing God does just to show other people that he can do something disgusting.
Dale Larry has a notoriously deranged system for collating.
Dale Larry will snap sometimes; suddenly there is work to be done. The five of us will waddle into his den. He’ll frantically toss boxes across the room, demanding that they be reorganized in a variety of nonsensical ways. For instance, every third day of the month is taken out and made into a new thirteenth month known, for some reason, as “Deborah’s Revenge.” Then that month is turned backwards, and filed together four days at a time into empty Pringles tubes that are then filled with candy corn and taped shut. After sealing them, they are each labeled with an Egyptian hieroglyph and placed in phonetic order inside large cabinets.
Dale Larry is never up to any good. He scans the office for the obvious targets. He walks in while all five of us are just type-type-typin’ away and starts leaning (he actually calls this his “resting position”) on the cabinet, his eyes fat lasers; he rips the room apart, just dying for trouble. He likes to frequent Lena’s bowl of jellybeans while making note of how overweight she is.
Lena picks up the phone, “Hello, kettle? Yeah… it’s pot on line two… she’s just callin’ ya black.”
Dale Larry doesn’t get it.
Dale Larry is so disgusting that he sifts through the jellybeans with his dirty fingers; we know his fingers are dirty because he doesn’t wash his hands; we know he doesn’t wash his hands because he uses his “executive bathroom”; we know it’s his “executive bathroom” because he taped a sign to the door; we know Dale Larry wrote the sign because he spelled “executive” with two Z’s; we know there’s no sink in the “executive bathroom” because one day Lena stayed late and ripped it off the wall; we know Dale Larry never washes his hands because after Lena ripped it off the wall she put the sink in the middle of the floor in the bathroom down the hall; that is the only other bathroom on this floor; that is the only other sink in the only other bathroom on this floor; the sink has been there for months now.
He sifts the bowl clean of all the red jellybeans because he knows those are Lena’s favorite, and because he thinks she might care that they’re gone. I’ve seen him stand there doing it for minutes on end, eating them like a fat baby, a fat idiot baby, licking his dirty fingers, never bothering to chew and never thinking for once that it was Lena who put the jellybeans in the bowl; Lena who learned to keep her own bag of red beans handy, and snacked from her desk without a care; Lena who did all sorts of disgusting, unspeakable things to the jellybeans she put back in that dish; Lena, who just smacks her gum, cocks an eyebrow, and grunts at the fucker every now and then.
She says, “I’d start chewing your food if I were you. Might choke on them things one of these days.”
Lena is a crazy bitch.
Dale Larry just stands there and watches her, and makes some uncomfortable chortle that manages the aural trifecta of confusion, annoyance and impotence. A remarkable feat. That’s his achievement for the day.
* * *
The new office is ten floors up.
I can’t believe my luck.
I can’t believe I’m actually in Memory Construction.
…there she is…
…it’s Toyonda Freemark.
Toyonda Freemark is the most beautiful woman who ever worked at MANufacturing.
Toyonda Freemark is the sassiest, bitchiest, most fucked up diva I’ve ever seen.
Toyonda Freemark has dark orbs for eyes that swirl clouds of devilish, maniacal thoughts. She’s like a gothy 90’s music video gone power blonde pantsuit.
Toyonda Freemark, her first name a mashup of the family’s fuel-efficient sedans.
When I’m touching the toes I think of Toyonda Freemark.
* * *
I get the toes once a week from Sam Goldstein.
Sam Goldstein gets them from the Digits Department and I trade random things for them. Sometimes he just wants a few bucks, but usually it’s some strange combination of things.
Sam Goldstein likes when I rub the ink from newspapers on my fingertips and draw battle streaks on his face while telling him to “be a good soldier.” It has to be newspaper ink.
Sam Goldstein once asked me to crush goldfish crackers into my hands, begging for the chalky crumbs to be forced into his eyes while he screamed in agony, shrieking for me to stop and pleading for more when I did.
Sam Goldstein once asked me to push a thumbtack into his arm, which I did and actually kind of enjoyed.
Sam Goldstein often needs a strange assortment of items, like a bedpan with lemon scented hair gel and five actual lemons, or a liter of club soda with a box of nails and a tennis racket. Luckily all things I can find at the Dollar Tree across from my place.
Sam Goldstein doesn’t ask why I want the toes. I’m not sure I could explain. They just make me feel good, that’s all. They’re synthetic. They’ll last forever, but they’re so real. They feel just like real toes, and they’re always warm. They have the most flawless skin and the lightest, most well manicured nails. Yet, something is off.
Sometimes the hair is just a little too long, or the nail is too short, or the cuticle noticeably thick. Most defects are subtle, and only scrupulous examination could note such minor imperfections. My favorites – my absolute favorites – are the ones the came out straight; the ones where you can’t tell if it’s for right foot or left. A round bulbuls with MANufacturing’s signature checkered toe print. Just a lollypop toe. These are my favorite. In my opinion, these are perfection.
* * *
“Perfection,” says Toyanda. She smells like cake. “It isn’t really an illusion.”
“No?” I ask.
“No,” she says, turning toward me, her ass sliding back onto the desk like a rag on Windex, full circle. “It’s a first impression. It’s something tangible, you just can’t grab it.”
I want to grab it. I want to grab all of it. Every inch of her. Every inch of perfect Toyonda.
She leans forward, letting her milky white breasts spill from her blouse like ice-cold pitchers of horchata. Her voice lower, her breathe smoother, her lips tight and evil, “that’s what we do here. We try to stretch the moment. The first impression. Sure… there will always be something better. But here… here at MANufactoring… everything… and I mean everything… is about first impressions.”
“Exactly,” I say, though I don’t really understand.
“Good, I’m glad you agree.” Toyonda arches her back, reaching behind her, into the desk, pulling out white rope. She starts tying a knot. “You know what’s so fascinating about life?”
I’m thinking. I’m drawing a blank. “Uhh…”
“Yeah,” I agree. “Yeah death…”
“That’s what’s fascinating.” Toyonda has tied a looping, wrapping, tightening knot. It’s a silky noose. She takes the white rope between her perfectly manicured fingers, rubbing the textured fibers now sandwiched in French tip. “I think it’s fascinating when you can’t breathe.”
I’m torn between feelings of excitement, confusion, worry, pain… my bread baby colon clump is kicking.
“Why do you think we make men?” Toyonda asks.
I take a moment to think about this question. I want to find an answer that might sound smart, but I honestly don’t think much about it. It’s not like I see one… own one… use one…
I say, “maybe…it’s that … people just like… men…?”
It feels good to be on the same page as Toyonda.
“But you see,” she says, “it’s really women who hold this.” She raises her arm to let the flaccid noose dangle in the air. An ornament.
“I need you for something,” Toyonda continues. “I need you to get rid of Dale Larry.”
“That’s right,” she says, pulling the rope between two hands.
“You… you want me to kill Dale Larry?”
“No!” She giggles. “Not kill him. No, I need access to his files. He’s misappropriating funds, I’m sure of it. But his files are a mess, and the higher-ups didn’t want to tip him off. So we brought someone in who could help us find what we’re looking for.”
“So…I wasn’t actually promoted?”
“If you get this done for me,” Toyonda says, sliding off the desk and walking toward me, “I can give you a position in this company where you’ll never again have to do a damn thing.”
But I already had that!
I can’t say no to perfect Toyonda.
I’m given a desk and an assignment. I’m made to look busy. In the evenings I’ll begin my purge of Dale Larry’s files. In the day I’ll stare at Toyonda. It feels strange actually doing real work.
* * *
We have to actually type real words in Memory Construction, but the good news is they don’t have to mean much.
We write memories.
Each morning I’m handed a picture.
It’s a picture of a beautiful, perfect man.
He comes with a name from ID.
Just a name.
Today I have a blonde named John Stember.
John Stember is pulling at his dusty blonde locks past his heart melting half-grin of a man-smirk.
John Stember is meant to be a leader.
John Stember was the president of his high school student body.
When he was in college, John Stember had a beautiful girlfriend named Dahlia, and they traveled to China to look at old statues, then to Australia to hold Koalas, and then, after that, they went to Spain where they learned to make tapas and drink beer in small cups.
Jet Li is John Stember’s inspiration to craft his perfect body, his motivation to learn the art form of fight, and his temperament to never use it for ill.
John Stember could probably fit twelve toes in that smarmy mouth.
John Stember is powerful but harmless.
* * *
John Stember is just a front, and when I’m not making men with my “vivid” imagination, I’m sneaking to the 72nd floor after hours, delicately collecting files for evidence. Perfect Toyonda will pass me the dates. It might be a pair of days or a whole week – periods of time where the money doesn’t add up. I scour the files to the best of my ability, reading the fat impulses of Dale Larry, combing through his illogical order, collecting all the information from those various dates, wherever it may be hidden.
It’s hard to find some of them.
Some receipts have been filed in order of size.
Some receipts were read over three times, and then collated by efficiency; If we felt like the items cost too much they went to the left; if the whole thing was a bargain, we’d put them to the right.
Some files have been turned into sentences, reprinted, and baked into fortune cookies that have then been sealed and stapled into oriental dinners for five.
It is particularly in those moments – digging through long rotten lo mein – that I wish the 72nd floor had windows.
* * *
We have windows on the 82nd floor. More like small, square portholes. You can’t see much more then heavy clouds. Pollution. The highway is a flat line toward the hills. I can trace the outline of my building, down the road, masked by smog. I don’t want to go back there. I can’t stand that daily drive, that lifeless mile of gray; the strip mall, the strip club, past the sickly children in the schoolyard, plotting each other’s demise.
The highway is hardly used. There’s an old couple that stands at the crosswalk every morning, waiting obstinately for the light to change. It takes a good five minutes, and in the meantime not a single car passes. They smile at me when I walk by, their faces so smug and self-righteous. Look at that lesbian they think, that jaywalking dyke who couldn’t be bothered with the law of the land, and I just look back, nodding like a person who doesn’t wait five minutes for nothing to happen. I’m not waiting five minutes to walk to the Dollar Tree.
It’s a strange dilemma, this Dale Larry business. I can’t help but feel slightly guilty. The man is disgusting – no sympathy should be had for him – but I have no reason to get even. I have no reason to cross this street. There is nothing on the other side that I really want.
* * *
Sam Goldstein needs three boxes of red velvet cake mix, a bottle of Tylenol PM and a bucket of arsenic. I find this strange, but then everything he asks for is strange.
We meet in the parking lot to have lunch in his van. It’s understood that we don’t speak when we’re eating, that this time is private time. I feel my gut clump shift and let out a ferocious belch.
When we’ve finished wiping up and dusting ourselves off, we get down to business. His bounty is already piled in the back of the van, and he passes me a small cloth of warm lumps. I hold the bundle close to my face and take in a large breath. Sam Goldstein keeps his eyes peeled to the windshield. I feel a little uncomfortable and place the parcel in my lap.
“Well,” says Sam Goldstein, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel. “Aren’t you gonna look at em?”
He seems uncomfortable. Shifty. I pull open the cloth.
“What am I looking at,” I turn to Sam with astonishment.
“It’s the new line. The John Stember. They decided to change the specs.”
These toes, the most special MANufaturing toes I’ve ever laid my eyes upon, are a dark ebony like polished marble. Little black babies of toes. Beautiful, with perfect cuticles and lightly rounded nails, polished to such a sheen that in their reflection I can see my own eye, a single tear sauntering slowly down my cheek.
“Are they ok?” Sam Goldstein looks worried.
I’m breathless. “They’re amazing”
* * *
I don’t know how to bring up the new toes with Toyonda. She might be suspicious of how I’d seen the John Stember; the assembly line is top secret. I want to say something. Maybe she knows about the toes? Maybe it’s a message to me. It must be…. But do I say anything? Maybe she’s expecting me to say something. Take the initiative. Does this mean she knows about the toes?
A hand lands gently on my shoulder.
I turn in my chair, startled, and find my nose snorting lint off her cardigan, her left nipple planted somewhere between my eyes, under a network of navy blue threads, a nipple pulled up to the ceiling like a marionette.
She whispers in my ear, “My office.”
She locks us in. It’s her war room, and we stand under hot lights, discussing evidence. The pieces of the puzzle are coming together, but there’s no smoking gun. Some of the paperwork had been filed in old gum wrappers, folded up and resealed. An entire stack of questionable receipts, shredded into strips, had apparently been rolled into cigarettes. All of it is good, but Toyonda needs more.
She pulls her dusty mane of hair back into a tight knot, gently biting at her lower lip.
She lets out a breath of air, “he’s on to us.”
“What? How?” That couldn’t be possible. I find it hard enough to believe that he ever touched those files to begin with, but I’d been careful. I hadn’t left a trace of my presence in that filthy den of an office.
“He’s skipped town,” she says, “He hasn’t been in the office all week. Called everyone on his floor and authorized a paid vacation, told them not to come in. He’s still making purchases though. We need to find the rest of the dates. We need them all tonight.”
I decide it’s a bad time to ask about the toes.
* * *
But, for some reason my mind is all toes.
I feel like they’re shaking. Scared in their baskets. I haven’t seen them in days. Do the black ones get along with the white ones? How do the left ones and the rights ones feel together? Should I be keeping them separated? What about the ones with no obvious allegiance to either foot? The lollipop toes. Do they need their own baskets too? A section for thick cuticles? Ingrown nails? Keep the hairy from the smooth?
I see the baskets overturned, the closet purged, the toes tossing about on my thick carpet like minnows trapped to die in the airless water of tide pools.
The toes are not safe.
* * *
The 72nd floor always smells. A vast array of competing scents. Often, a sickly, heavy odor would waft in from some unknown source. I was convinced it was the elevator shaft, and so once I bought a candle at Dollar Tree, the scent was called “essence of sweet,” and it smelled like cheap potpourri. After lighting it, the collusion of scents produced a new smell so horrifying that all were forced to vacate the floor.
I will never forget that smell.
That’s what I smell now. A horrible musky rotting candy smell from hell. It makes the air heavy, like the room is filled with filthy shit mist. I flip on the lights.
It’s immediately too bright. The reds and oranges shrieking so loud that, for a moment, the room spins. My eyes have trouble adjusting to the thick blanket of fluorescence. Strewn across the bright red shag are little jellybeans. The jar, knocked from its perch, lays sideways by the door of Dale Larry’s office, spitting a rainbow halfway cross the room.
I feel like something is amiss.
I walk cautiously to the office, peer in. It’s empty, the same as always. Filthy piles of trash turned into filing cabinets.
There’s a noise.
It’s a clanking.
It’s like the sound steam pipes make when they’re thinking about maybe heating a room.
But it’s different.
There’s a voice.
I’m suddenly alarmed, creeping toward the hallway. The clanking gets louder. It’s coming from the bathroom. The door at the very end is cracked open. There’s someone in the there.
I can’t help myself. I sneak carefully toward the door, laying each step as softly as possible. My heart is racing. The clanking isn’t quite pipes. It’s a heavier a sound. Dense, not hollow. A pounding maybe. Chalky sound.
The door is opened only an inch at best. My eye reaches for it. I take two more steps.
At first glance, it’s not easy to tell whose in the room. It’s just a pile of skin, pulled from the meat like shrink-wrap. It’s mostly in one pile of shreds, but there are bloody scraps here and there. The muscles have been pulled apart, and a makeshift dicing station assembled. The cutting board makes me question if I’ve ever really seen the color red before. Thick pools of blood, dripping from the countertop lead to snaking rouge rivers that pass by buckets of finely minced man. Cubes of glossy red meat shine with a moist veneer. The bones, at least the ones that have so far been scraped clean, have been arranged into a crude square structure as though they were Lincoln Logs. Others, like a limb that seems to start somewhere near the ankle and end with a flappy mass that looks like a sand dollar – I’m guessing it’s a knee cap – sit patiently, waiting for a good scrape. The pounding is the sledgehammer, it’s heavy end breaking apart bone atop a large block of wood.
Lena’s entire body is striped with blood, a macabre zebra in a baby blue skirt suit. She rests the hammer for a moment, and wipes the sweat from her brow, a large streak of chunky blood left in its place. She is not alone. In the center of the room is Dale Larry, his dead tongue hanging lazily out the left side of his mouth. One eye looks like its been smashed shut. Left on his face is an odd, droopy wink. He looks remarkably similar in both life and death, except that when he was breathing he never found his “executive sink.” Now his head, severed from the chinline, rests in the bowl.
A voice speaks into my ear, “we had no choice.”
I shriek and turn. It’s Sam Goldstein. I’m petrified.
“What… I…” I’m trying to speak. I can’t speak. There’re no words. I just start repeating his name. “Sam…”
“It’s complicated,” he says, “we didn’t want to do it… found out.”
“What… Sam, what are you talking about?”
“He found out stuff. Stuff about Me and Lena.”
“What kind of stuff?” I don’t really want to know. My mind is racing a mile a minute. I try to seem sympathetic, struggling to keep the tears of fear from my eyes.
“It’s just stupid money,” Sam starts sobbing, “I didn’t even want to get involved in this shit to start with, it’s Lena, she came up with this idea…we we’re going to make tons of money, said he’d never find out, said he didn’t even know how to check his own files and I… I…”
“That fucker got his share,” Lena is a towering wall of woman, and with a sledgehammer in her hand, she is nothing short of terrifying. “You think I wanna be chopping his body apart like a turkey?”
Of all the horrifying things Lena did to those jellybeans, I never thought she would make her own. Adding arsenic to cake mix, she made a poisonous batter of red velvet. The clear Tylenol caplets were emptied and filled with the red substance. I don’t know how he didn’t notice what he was eating, unless of course Lena was right all along. Maybe he never really chewed.
“I panicked!” Sam was becoming frantic. “Don’t you see? We had to do it! People up top must have known. We had to get rid of the body so that nobody would ever find out. He knew about the money!”
It’s the elevator.
We all turn, eyes wide, and out comes Toyonda Freemark. Perfect Toyonda. Her eyes are mirrors of the horror in my heart, the painful lump rumbling in my gut. She’s statuary…shocked. Her mouth agape as she stares at the three of us, past our bodies into the bathroom, the tile stained with layers of Dale Larry’s high cholesterol.
She pushes past us full force, straight for Toyonda.
“No!” I scream, following after her. Toyonda quickly slides across the closest desk, knocking its officey adornments to the floor, her body only barely escaping the deathblow as the hammer transforms the desk into a pile of splinters.
“You weren’t supposed to kill him!” she yells to me. “You were just supposed to get the fucking receipts!”
Lena stops. The whole room stops. The whole world stops. Both Sam and Lena are ripping the clump from my gut with their eyes, pulling it back through my stomach, up my esophagus, through my throat, breaking my jaw to make room. It leaves my body.
I dash for the elevator.
The doors are closing quickly.
I only have a few moments to catch them.
I slide between them, my body pushing them back open.
Lena, hammer in hand, charges toward me.
I press the “DOOR CLOSE” button.
I keep pushing it.
The doors slide inward, finally, making a perfect seal, closing off the fluorescence.
There’s a deep thud.
I press the first button my hand can find.
It just says “UP.”
With each floor the elevator makes a light, electronic beep.
It’s soft and feminine.
And I slowly slide down the wall of the elevator.
Resting on the floor.
Out of sight.
Wherever that may be.