My first day at the company was spent moving paper. One stack, about five inches thick. From my desk, to the table in the hall, to the floor near the table in the hall, and back. Over and over. The paper was to rest in each spot for five minutes and no more than five minutes. Nothing was printed on the pages.
I had interviewed the day before by accident. Intending to apply for an admin position at a nearby accounting office, I’d gotten the addresses mixed up.
From the outside, the company’s office was unremarkable—a single-floor, steel-gray building with one glass door at the front, and a few windows on either side. But on stepping in, a paper-white-faced, pale-blonde-haired man, who could have been anywhere from twenty to sixty, immediately jumped up from his seat at the front desk. “You’re looking for a job, yes?”
“Great, great! We are in need of workers!”
He led me to one of the chairs lined against the front wall. I took a seat. He hovered over me.
“Is this th—”
“Yes! We are in need of workers like you, do you have a resume?”
“Let me see that there…”
He scanned my paper, took a pair of glasses out of his pocket and scanned it again, took the glasses off and scanned it again. His face was wrinkleless but saggy. “Great, you can start tomorrow, yes?”
“Great, great, great, you will be filled in on all the details tomorrow, pay and all of that. Our company values. This will all be filled in for you tomorrow. Please be here at eight, yes?” The man disappeared through the door behind the front desk.
I only realized it wasn’t the accounting office after I had left (and double-checked the address online). But I figured a job was a job, and I was in desperate need of one, having been fired from the movie theater during downsizing the month before. At the time, I was living on a futon (with five people squeezed into a two-bedroom), and if I stayed unemployed for much longer, I would have lost even that.
So the next day I did as the guy said and got there at eight sharp. No one was at the desk so I took a seat along the front wall and waited. Half an hour went by. I knocked at the door behind the desk. “Hello? I’m here… The guy from yesterday…” Nothing. I turned and sat again in the chair. The windows were dirty enough that the sun came through brown. The chairs and floor and desk were all kind of brown too, not because that was their actual color, but because of various stains and dust and general discoloring. At one point they must have been white.
Another half-hour went by. I figured I’d cut my losses. But the moment I stood up the door sprang open. A tall, tan, v-shaped man stepped out into the room.
“Hey, were you just knocking?”
“Um, a while ago, yeah, b—”
“Well, quiet down. We’re working in there. You understand? What do you want?”
“I was hired yesterday, thi—”
“Yeah, okay, come with me.”
He led me through the door and down many long gray halls which all looked the same. Even so, it seemed like we walked through some multiple times, crisscrossing and circling and retracing our steps. The lights overhead flickered or did not work at all.
At the ends of some halls were rooms of lined cubicles with no one in them. Little gray metal boxes. The whole office interior was gray: the carpet, the walls, the drop ceiling tiles.
We stopped at my assigned cubicle. There wasn’t even enough room to stretch out your arms once inside. “This is your desk. You see these papers there?”
And so that is how I got my first task.
I thought it was a joke initially, a hazing ritual, that the v-shaped man would be back moments later with what I was actually supposed to do. But he wasn’t.
I did not see the v-shaped man for the rest of the day until close. I must have moved the paper a hundred times by the time he came back. “We need to talk about our values,” he said. He led me to his office, a glass room with a gray desk against the far wall and a black standing lamp in the back corner. A couple cockroaches crawled around the lamp’s base. Green-black mold hung from the ceiling.
My chair’s armrests were sticky. Laying my hands in my lap, I tried to sit still.
“Okay, now, let me see here.” He leafed through some dusty papers on his desk. “Okay, now, our company values, we need to talk about our company values…” He drifted off and leaned back in his chair. “Our values…” A cockroach writhed in the back corner.
His office didn’t smell as bad as it looked, at least—but it still wasn’t pleasant. You know that smell your house gets if you haven’t been there in a week or two? It smelled like that, except like it had been years. Really the whole office smelled like that. Stale.
“Our values…” He was looking up at the ceiling and grimacing.
“Yeah, but also, can w—”
The skin around his eyes became taut. He twitched straight up and slapped his hand against the desk. “Trust! Compassion! Teamwork! Collaboration! Respect!” He stared into my eyes. His face, littered with dark sun spots and thick creases, looked older than it was. His oversized biceps and chest strained against his button-up, pulling the fabric between the buttons so tight that bronzed skin was visible down to his stomach. He again leaned back in his chair. “Alright, same time tomorrow, eight, thanks.”
“Yeah… But I still have a few questions… if that’s alright?” The v-shaped man was picking at his fingernails. “I mean, I don’t even know the company’s name. There’s no sign outside or anything.”
“Here’s our website.” He pulled a white card out from his desk drawer. Printed in the middle was “www.ourvalues.com”. “You can read about it on your own time.”
“Thanks… Also, about pay, do—”
“You’ll have to ask the boss about that. I don’t deal with that.”
“Okay, do I nee—”
The v-shaped man was already at the door. “Just go talk with the boss tomorrow, his office is easy to find,” he said, shutting the door behind him. I waited a few moments before also leaving myself.
The next day, I met one of my co-workers. An older guy, grandpa-looking, who wore a dress shirt and tie both much larger than they should have been. As I placed my papers down on the hall table, he came bustling down the corridor, looking at his feet and muttering something to himself, spitting and sputtering. His shirt hung like a pouch around his waist, his tie flapped against his unzipped fly. When he got close, I said hello and he jerked to a stop. Steel-rimmed glasses hung crooked on the bridge of his nose. “What is this, what is this, what is this that you want. I’m sorry. I’m very busy.” He walked past me and leaned over the table at my other side. “What is this, paper? What is this that you want from me. I’m sorry, I can’t be talking now. I am very busy.” He pulled at his tie and the top of his shirt. From his accent he seemed to be from somewhere in Eastern Europe (though I’m still not sure where exactly).
“No problem. Just wanted to introduce myself. My name’s Tim.” He was already fumbling down the hall away from me.
“Good, good, Tim. I’m Walter. It’s good to meet you okay, I am very busy, I’ll talk to you later, I have to go, sorry.” He disappeared down another corridor.
On my way to and from the table I ran into him again and again. Each time he would exclaim how busy he was and how sorry he was and fumble with his tie and continue on. After the seventh or eighth run in, I decided to follow him. Just to see what else people worked on at the place. I followed pretty closely behind, but he didn’t seem to notice. Muttering at his feet he moved through hall after hall. Sometimes he would stop at a cubicle for a moment and open and close a few cabinets, taking nothing out and putting nothing in. Eventually we ended up right back at my stack.
The v-shaped man stood cross-armed near my papers. “These have been here for over five minutes. Hell, I’ve been here for over five minutes.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was just taking a quick look around.”
“Take it out of your lunch break.”
“Twelve to twelve-ten.”
I forgot to bring lunch, so from noon to five past (skipping the last five minutes to “take it out of my lunch break”) I just sat at my cubicle. On my phone, I looked up the website on the card the v-shaped man had given me and was brought to a gray homepage with one menu title at the top—”What We Do”. This redirected to a short statement with a beige background, which read as follows: “We live our values. Both internally and in the relationships we have with our trusted clients and customers. Our values are at the forefront of everything we do. Trust. Compassion. Teamwork. Collaboration. Respect. This is what you can expect from us. We create value through the relationships we forge and sustain—relationships built on trust and mutual understanding. We respect the mutual understanding we have with our customers, compassionately. We drive solutions. We push boundaries. We live our values.”
The rest of the day I moved the paper and said hello to Walter each time he passed. I tried to find the boss’s office after work, but by the time I finished the building was empty.
When I arrived the next morning, Walter was sitting in the cubicle beside mine, twiddling his thumbs. And I mean he was actually twiddling his thumbs. Hunched over, he stared unwaveringly at their constant, rhythmic motion, his eyes just inches from their spin. I leaned on the outside of the cubicle wall between us. A minute passed. Then two.
He startled and spun toward me in his chair, his eyes darting in every direction. “Hello, hello, Tim, hello, sorry, you snuck up.” He stood up and moved away down the hall, scratching at his leg, sniffling, wiping the outside of his nose with his fingers. “Sorry, sorry, I am very busy, sorry. We will talk later, sorry.”
At lunch, I asked the v-shaped man if he could bring me to the boss’s office, since I couldn’t find it on my own, and he replied by lighting a cigarette. Thinking perhaps he didn’t hear me, I asked again and he put the cigarette in his mouth and began to chew. Confused, I asked the same question a third time, and he spat the wet sludge of ash and paper and dried tobacco leaves onto the floor. “What was the question?”
“Where’s the boss’s office?”
“It’s easy to find, I told you yesterday. Just walk around.”
“Can you just point me in the right direction?”
He picked up some of the sludge, leaned back in his chair and threw it in his mouth. “Lunch is over, man.” He pointed at the clock, now eleven past twelve. “Remind me after close; the boss is working late tonight so he’ll be around.”
I went back to moving the paper and waited for the day to end. I was concerned about the payment issue, but had already sunk two and a half days into the place and didn’t want to leave without getting what that was worth. And, yes, the work was tedious and seemingly devoid of any actual utility, but it was easy. Really easy. It was troubling that employees were spitting up sludge, but as long as I was paid I thought I could get used to it.
When I finished, the v-shaped man was not in his office. Sitting at his desk was a pale white guy. The pale white guy was computer paper taped to a tree branch. I knew it was supposed to be a pale white guy because “Pale White Guy” was written in pencil on the sheet that acted as its head. I didn’t bother to ask it where the boss’s office was. In many of the previously empty cubicles were also now pale white guys made of computer paper.
I saw the v-shaped man taping one together near the window and asked him if he could bring me to the boss’s office. He said, “fucking fine,” but then proceeded to continue doing exactly what he had been.
I stood awkwardly. “Hey… are we going to go?”
“To the boss’s office.”
“Yeah, hold up. I’m almost done.” He placed a final piece of scotch tape on the pale white guy. “Alright. Give me fifteen minutes. I have to trash these things.”
“Didn’t you just make them?”
“Yeah. And now they’re done.”
I waited at my cubicle while the v-shaped man dumped all the pale white men into garbage bags and brought them to the dumpster. When he returned, he was eating a sandwich without a top. “Alright, let’s go, I don’t want to waste too much fucking time,” he said.
He led me through a dilapidated pantry filled with dead potted plant stems—their withered leaves covering the floor in tattered pieces—and down a narrow corridor that required us to step through sideways just to fit. Coming out, we made many turns through gray halls and gray rooms which, again, may or may not have repeated. Then we were back at my desk and then back at his and then a few doors down from his office he pointed out the boss’s. “You can go in, just wait for him if he’s out.”
The office was empty so I took a seat in front of the desk. It was cleaner than the v-shaped man’s at least—there were no insects or mold, and the seat was relatively unsoiled. But everything seemed to be falling apart. The chair was missing its armrests, the front corners of the desk were broken off, the door didn’t quite close, the single light overhead was dim as a match. A pile of broken bulbs laid in the back corner.
Behind me I heard Walter rummaging through some cubicle drawers and talking to himself. He knocked on the door, opened it, and walked in at the same time. “Tim, Tim, hello, okay, how’s it going, I need to see some stuff in here, don’t mind me, don’t worry, sorry.” He opened the drawers behind the desk and pulled out dozens of folders. He’d open one, pull out some papers, and put them in another, then open that one and move them again. Some sheets he crumbled and threw behind him, some he ripped up and dropped on the floor. He took a pencil out from his pants pocket, stood up, and started writing numbers on the back wall, “1, 2, 3, 4,” and so on. “Tim, Tim,” he said, turning to me, “what is going on, you are waiting here?”
“I’m waiting for the boss; I need to talk about getting paid and all that.”
“Okay, okay, then ask, don’t wait around like a waiting waiter. What is going on?”
I leaned forward in my chair.
“Wait, Walter, are you the boss?”
“Sure, sure, yes, sure.”
I rubbed my hand across my face. Walter sat back down behind the desk and again began fumbling with the folders.
“Yes?” he said without missing a beat moving the papers.
“Aren’t there things I need to do to get paid? I’m assuming I need to fill out some forms, give my bank information, et cetera… I haven’t done any of that yet.”
“What do you mean with these forms, no forms. How much do you need? Two thousand? Let’s do that. Okay? We’ll do that.” Walter opened one of his desk drawers and pulled out a wad of cash. “Here you go, every week just come in and pull it out. Okay, okay, listen I am very busy, I have to go.” He dropped the bundle on top of the desk and stumbled out of the room.
Two thousand dollars. On my third day. Holy Shit. Needless to say, this was much better than the minimum wage I made at the movie theater, or would make anywhere else. And so each week since, I’ve done as Walter said: stepped into his office, opened up the drawer, and pulled out two thousand dollars for myself.
I worked on moving the paper for almost a year before being given any other tasks. But since then, I’ve done quite a lot. I’ve straightened out paper clips and bent them back; cleaned the inside of the water cooler with water; measured the length of each hall with a foot ruler; wrote memos about how to write proper memos, and memos about how to write proper memos about writing proper memos, and memos about how to write proper memos about how to write proper memos about writing proper memos; typed the letter “a” in an excel workbook until reaching the maximum number of rows, 1,048,576, then deleted each cell individually and started over with “b”, and so on; tapped dots on sheets of paper with pencil until they turned black; responded to junk mail with thank you notes; planned meetings which only I would be attending; sorted all the pens in the office, which are all the same brand, by length; stared at walls; replaced unused ink cartridges with other unused ink cartridges; drafted emails which said nothing to no one; and much, much more. To be honest, I’m still not sure exactly how we make money. But I’m not complaining.
Yesterday, a new employee started. The first since I’ve been here. I think I might be his direct supervisor. The pale-blonde-haired man, who could be anywhere from twenty to sixty, dropped him off by my desk at least.
I’ve started him on a single sheet.
Tyler Plofker is a writer in NYC. In his free time, you can find him eating sugary breakfast cereals, laying out in the sun, or walking through the streets of New York City in search of this or that. He loves writing bios in third person.