Boxes inside boxes

Austin R. Pick
The Acquisitions Department

Short fiction first published in the literary journal Epiphany, Issue 14, Winter 2014

He was thinking about boxes inside boxes, sensing suddenly that the rectangular conference room he was sitting in possessed the same proportions of length and width as the sheet of paper in his hands. He noticed too that the triad of cubed windows alongside the door were themselves frosted with tiny squares of translucent glass, like a screen of pixels that revealed or reflected only shifting blocks of light and shadow, from either side.

Alone in the rectangular room, the words danced in meaningless strings as he held the page before him. He’d been left here following his first interview, and simply instructed to wait. It seemed as if time were unfolding on some mythic scale, and the paper struck him as at once precious and irrelevant: his resume, confined to a single sheet, with his name across the top in a distinctive font, which itself had a name he couldn’t now recall.

There was also the conference table at which he sat, an oblong suspended lid the color of old plasticware. It seemed to share its size with the closed door of the room, which was heavy, dark, and had sealed sometime ago with a pneumatic gasp, as if hermetically. He could lie flat on the table, he imagined, and not dangle. Invisible beneath him, his feet felt lost somewhere down in the vaulted shaft of the building, wavering indeterminately in the cold unseen heights of the glass reception hall, perhaps, dozens of floors below.

Flush with morning sun when he’d entered, the reception hall comprised the entire ground floor, where the building’s entrances gave way to the rectilinear expanse of the main lobby. Approaching the elevator banks across a broad tiled floor, his steps had been muffled by an echo that made every sound seem distant. The hall was like being inside an enormous display case, he’d thought, and exhibited to the rushing intersections outside, where sidewalks treadmilled under the syncopation of swinging briefcases and hands hailing cabs as people hurried in all four directions on their way to work.

Elevators plunging upward, reaching toward this closed conference room from the paned glass lobby of a building occupying a single square block in a city structured on a grid. Boxes inside boxes. He felt his stomach drop, thinking about it.

■ ■ ■

Hours earlier, the HR Assistant had said his name wrong when greeting him as he was ejected from the elevator, pronouncing it by stressing the ‘v’ in a voice like honeyed toast, easy and edged. “Mr. Uhverman, I’m Leslie Spinner,” she said, stiffly extending her hand.

“It’s Averman,” he replied, emphasizing the initial vowel as he took her hand briefly, “and please, call me Daniel.” He’d intended to introduce himself differently, more deferentially, and blanched at having corrected her. She was just there, as the elevator opened, poised and quite striking in a jacket and matching pants, waiting for him.

He’d imagined having to do the waiting himself, with a little time, perhaps behind a magazine, to rewire the fragile network of nerves stitching together his sense of self—a cellular procession that was finely lined, it felt like, with the itchy tangle of self-description he’d been rehearsing. He was early, after all. But he was also, he reflected, expected. He’d signed in down in the lobby, and had changed elevators once in a kind of vertical commute he’d already decided, anticipating a question, that yes, he could certainly get used to.

Just remember to breathe, he encouraged himself, nostrils filling with a shrill whistle as he straightened his lapels and stretched his lips into a grin. She smiled in return as the elevator chimed shut behind him, and lit her eyes with decisive kindness. Probably, he speculated, reading his thoughts. He attempted a blank slate, mentally. Still, some combination of growing hunger and a sudden, constricting lust for this bloused and burnished woman made him a little dizzy, a confused aggregation of basic needs surging inside him—primal, cave-dwelling instincts that were instead blandly transmuted into these ingratiating niceties and a cheap haircut. He wished he’d managed to eat breakfast.

“It’s nice to meet you, Daniel,” she replied, with convincing sincerity. “You’re scheduled for two interviews today, for a position in the Acquisitions department. Please, follow me.” She said it like a question, and Daniel stiffened against his immediate impulse to comply.

During his phone evaluation two weeks ago, the tactful ambiguity of her voice had made it difficult to assess whether he was being taken seriously or not. Her tone was clipped and businesslike, and as he’d paced around in his pajamas, straining to condense the better elements of his personality into an articulate, modest confidence, Daniel had been free to imagine the woman on the other end of the line dismally rolling her eyes, filing her nails with one of those little wands, making exaggerated gagging gestures or otherwise silently broadcasting her disinterest to an entire mutely snickering Human Resources team.

As he stood grinning outside the elevator, however, the incongruity of meeting her and finding this almost disarming sense of pleasantness put Daniel in the awkward position of not being sure who to distrust more, himself or her. For him, it was a familiar dilemma.

Spooled in cascading ringlets, her hair was all curls as she turned, and Daniel nearly tripped over his wingtips as he followed her down a broad hallway. The space was permeated with her perfume, a scratchy and oddly alluring scent that reminded him of dried flowers and insecticide. His eyes cursored along the blank walls and waffle-patterned ceiling tiles, folder flapping in one hand while he brushed himself with the other, discretely checking his fly as she briskly led him past the hushed glass doors of various departments, each labeled with weird acronyms and hyphenated digits.

She didn’t offer any explanation as Daniel trailed after her along a convoluted series of narrow corridors, punctuated only by the occasional closed door. “Did you have any difficulty getting here?” she asked him instead, turning slightly to speak over her shoulder.

Daniel answered amiably that it had been easy to find the appropriate floor, even while prefiguring a response, somewhere within his anxious interior, to the broader dimension of her question, thinking that at a quick count he had, over the past nine or so months, trolled job posting sites almost hourly and submitted his resume with accompanying cover letters to nearly a hundred different companies; clicked and typed through at least a dozen online applications and recruiting sites; taken basic aptitude assessments for six staffing agencies; completed three rigorous personality profiles and twice agreed to possible drug testing; applied to be an experimental study subject and then been screened out because he was left-handed; lived under his parent’s roof without accountable means of supporting himself other than his ability to walk the dog, mow the grass and empty the dishwasher, none of which any of the neighbors were willing to pay him to do, despite the distribution of printed flyers and a “pay what you will” scheme; applied for another deferment on the student loans that had loomed darkly for several years, and subverted his now-vague aspirations in a job search that had netted him exactly two phone interviews and one legitimate callback to date, this one—thinking well yes, you could say he’d faced some challenges in getting here, but the commute had gone smoothly and the train wasn’t too badly overrun with vagrants or their lingering odor this morning, thank you.

Straining against his suit seams, Daniel tried slowing to approximate her toned composure. Professional, he was thinking, savoring the word’s tensile strength and slipping it cape-and-cowl-like over an imagined image of himself, smartly dressed and smoothly striding, professional and punctual. This candidate, he continued, watching her walk, is highly motivated, adept at unraveling complications and meeting difficult deadlines. It was fortifying to envision himself assessing her, rather than the other way around. Her every movement suggested the practiced bearing of pageants and runways, calculated posturing and mechanical hand waving, legs like flashing scissor blades in their pointed heels.

These observations formed brief eddies among his turbid and skittish thoughts, but despite murmuring appreciably at regular intervals, Daniel was having trouble following the thread of what she was actually saying. As she bounded along, habitually twisting to glance at her little wristwatch, he was beginning to think she might be better described as work-obsessed and high strung, when Ms. Spinner finally slowed before a double door of glass, brushing back an errant curl as she swiped her security pass. “I’m sorry if I’ve gotten you turned around,” she said, “It’s easy to get lost up here.” Daniel nodded dumbly.

“Actually, I’m enjoying the tour,” he said, forcing a smile and reaching to hold the door for her. Assuming he hadn’t sounded sarcastic, Daniel congratulated himself for being personable, and followed her into a cavernous office space, bright with noise. He was finally in, he realized, with an outside chance of actually getting the job, whatever that meant.

■ ■ ■

Ms. Spinner retrieved a thick binder from another assistant as she led him through the inner office, accepting it like a relay baton. “I’m sorry if things seem rushed,” she said, cradling the binder and riffling its pages as she continued to walk. Daniel noticed the age her voice betrayed, and cringed at his initial impulse to undress her. “We have a large number of applicants to see, and as I mentioned, our process is quite comprehensive.” Did she mention that? He strained to remember what she’d been saying before, uneasy about what else he might have missed.

Daniel caught himself squinting a little, as if trying to see down the tangle of hallways they’d just walked, and admitted that he couldn’t possibly retrace his steps back to the elevators. “I understand,” he offered doubtfully, musing that this must be the physical endurance part of the evaluation. His eyes were stinging from the air conditioning or dehydration, probably both. And while he knew he should be thinking of this as a valuable learning experience, he couldn’t help entertaining the bleak notion that it was all just a hallucinated metaphor for the indefinite direction of his life. He tried to think of something intelligent to ask, but kept anticipating the answers to his own questions, or wondering about things he should already know, like what the hell Acquisitions was, anyway.

They passed a workspace where hunched employees sat cloistered within a stockade of filing cabinets, and Daniel saw three men, each older than the last, sitting in a row. Glimpsing them peripherally between the shelves, he had the impression of seeing a single person’s life in time-lapse, stooped before the same unblinking screen. For an instant he couldn’t believe he’d ever actually choose to work here, but acknowledged, in the same moment, that it wasn’t really his choice at all. He noticed that there was also an apparently empty desk in the row, suggesting an open position. His panic had downshifted into an optimistic paranoia of some kind, and he was no longer so anxious now, merely suspicious of every subtext, watching for signs like a malnourished mystic. He thought he might faint.

Already famished, he imagined himself deflating when he next sat down, leaving his empty suit draped like a wrinkled pelt. The interview had already begun, he realized suddenly, seized by a prickling surge of preparatory advice, and he was being assessed even now, challenged to take the initiative and somehow distinguish himself from a throng of other applicants, whose thin resumes were crowding the desks of every interviewer in the city, an entire population reduced to flimsy black-and-white photocopies.

“I have copies of my resume right here,” Daniel announced, hoisting his folder with an assertive flourish. He was buoyed briefly by the thought of those crisp sheets of premium weight paper, his name emblazoned across the top in a carefully chosen font. All at once he felt desperately confident, and hoped reproachfully that he hadn’t sounded too arrogant.

The HR Assistant ignored him as they turned before a large wall bearing the company’s familiar logo, swirling stylized clouds flanking a lightning bolt whose jagged edges suggested the lines on a stock chart or EKG reading. Daniel found it suddenly disorienting to be inside a corporation whose ubiquitous presence radiated diffuse power around the globe, this same austere logo everywhere beaming wordless omniscience from the great heights of buildings and billboards. He felt drained, exhausted by incessant urgency.

Inscrutable in her self-assurance, Ms. Spinner stopped before a half open door and gestured for him to enter. Inside the narrow office a woman rose to greet them, so similar in dress and demeanor that to Daniel’s eye the two could have been sisters. “Ms. Parcell, this is Mr. Uhverman,” the HR Assistant said, getting his name wrong again. He didn’t correct her, but simply introduced himself as Daniel. The woman’s hand felt cold and brittle, but her thin smile revealed a shrewdness that Daniel took as an encouragement or a challenge. He was here for an interview, he remembered, and turned to thank Ms. Spinner as she briskly excused herself, already oblivious of him.

Daniel adjusted his awkwardly knotted tie as if to truss himself up. The walls were the same clammy shades he’d seen elsewhere, but here there was an earnest overlay of decoration, with framed images of old maps, a large luridly green imitation plant and a woven rug atop the stiff carpet beneath them. The woman’s desk was adorned with a tableau of scattered antiques, including an abacus and an old folding ruler. The office seemed like a stock facsimile of corporate success, and struck Daniel as having the same forced serenity of a funeral parlor. He mumbled a compliment anyway, hoping to spark some warmth or affinity in the frigid space, but felt exposed sitting there, his confidence condensed along a narrow ledge, his balance unsteady.

He swallowed dryly and looked the woman over while she sat reading his resume, preparing to take measure of him. There was something spare about her, despite the shoulder pads, and she was older than Ms. Spinner, with silver hair pulled back in a single braid. Her small face had a pinched angularity that suggested habitual vigilance, and though apparently calm, her neck and jaw were clenched and taut, as if prefiguring a grimace. Her fingers rasped softly on the desk as she read, the nail of her index finger much longer than the others, a honed scalpel, Daniel guessed, for dissecting stacked files and forms.

Why hadn’t they at least offered him water? Scanning the room for a basket or bowl of anything edible, he gathered that employers, like airlines, were no longer offering snacks. Daniel decided his first question was going to be about where all the vending machines were. These little inward jokes of his seemed increasingly edged, like shark’s fins circling any tenuous, foundering surety that might remain. He sometimes privately sensed, with a deep unease bordering on awe, that the entire world was animated solely by ceaseless hunger, the keen appetites of lean beasts and the ten thousand indiscriminate cravings of his own kind, cleanly packaged and politely purposed, but seething always with need.

His stomach was a pothole, swallowing itself. He’d been too nervous to eat anything this morning, which now made him nervous about his ability to form complete sentences. Each ticking second seemed precipitous, his chances receding across the apportioned void of occupied office cubes, not a single square left open for him. He had to get this job. Had to. His whole life was on hold, and he was penniless, his options exhausted, left friendless as those he’d known vanished into a similar anonymity, Daniel himself stranded in a panicked stasis that amounted to failure without ever having the opportunity to try. He knew that another office job, with its tedious routines and quotidian belittlements, wouldn’t solve every equation, but what alternative did he have right now, in this economy? Flip burgers? Grow his own food? Criticisms of the so-called “rat race” seemed more and more to him like the ungrateful grumblings of the comfortable, mumbled between mouthfuls of cheese.

He straightened up and folded his hands together, doing his best to adopt a sense of ready patience. I’m the one you’re looking for, he intoned silently, hoping to sway her psychically or at least improve his own demeanor, and I’m available to start immediately. Inspecting herself with a downward glance, Ms. Parcell plucked at a loose thread on her suit jacket, unraveling it a little and giving a decisive pull before discretely tucking it away, still unbroken. She looked up then and introduced herself as the HR Coordinator. “So tell me about yourself, Daniel,” she said after a pause. He flushed hotly. Well, I’ve been looking for a job for about as long as I can remember, and that’s about it, was his first thought. He dreaded open-ended introductions, and fought to recall anything he’d rehearsed.

Just condense your life into a single, charming-as-hell sentence, he coached himself miserably, blinking back against the pressure at his temples. Why did she think he was here? Hadn’t she just read his resume? It was probably a setup. She’d already hired someone, and was only humoring him. He was definitely overreacting. Just say something.

“My name is Daniel Averman,” he said finally, declaratively, “and I think one of my most important attributes, which may not come across in my resume, is that I’m adaptable. I’m able to conform myself to the demands of the task at hand.” Surprising himself, he hoped the words, when spoken, would be self-fulfilling. He sensed that he was being prompted to reveal a store of hidden deficiencies, and that she would next ask him to specify his weaknesses, another question he openly feared. Instead, she’d just begun to say something when the phone rang.

Ms. Parcell turned aside and lifted the receiver, her expression crystalizing as she listened. Daniel watched as she rapidly aged before him, truly scowling now, whether from hostility or some stark, executive logic, her skull swelling under the skin of her face, gone sallow. Looking in his direction, looking at the prospect, but not the person of him, she absently drew her single long fingernail across her throat, articulating a precise, deliberate line that terminated with a snap of the wrist, as if she were making a note to herself.

“I’m sorry, but we’re going to have to cut this short,” she said, turning toward Daniel again after murmuring into the phone, her face recomposing around the blank screens of her eyes, dark in their sockets, her fingers methodically straightening the tangled cord as she spoke. Something urgent and requiring immediate attention. He stared at her, stunned.

“Ms. Parcell, please, let me have just a moment more. I’m a self-starter with robust interpersonal skills and an aptitude for problem solving,” Daniel croaked, stringing together a slack high wire of stock phrases, memorized in their endless iterations. “With a professionalism marked by an enjoyment of challenges and team-spirited independence,” he continued, feeling increasingly vaporous as he obsequiously rambled on, vestiges of his threadbare dignity unraveling with every breath. Eventually he trailed off, void of any residual anger and utterly resigned, shrinking under the scrutiny of her fixed gaze.

Ms. Parcell remained motionless, but regarded him intensely, her thin smile etched now with interest, with what Daniel could only describe as ruthless amusement, a strange light returning to her eyes. “You seem to be settling in here already, Daniel, and I believe you’ll do just fine,” she intoned, “but it’s not entirely my decision to make. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” Her assessment apparently complete, she left Daniel to show himself out.

He didn’t know whether to feel relieved or humiliated when the interview abruptly ended—some unseen, inexorable power shearing away his already grim prospects with a simple phone call. Ms. Spinner retrieved him from the hallway and explained that they were next headed upstairs to Acquisitions, where Daniel was scheduled for a meeting with the department supervisor. He said nothing as she led him on to a different bank of elevators, where they plunged rapidly upward to an equally indistinct floor.

Turning further into the convoluted maze, Ms. Spinner brought him at last to the rectangular conference room, lights flickering haltingly as she waved him inside. They were early for his next interview, she informed him, the door already closing, and he would have to wait here. She left without another word, and Daniel slumped into a chair, withdrawing a copy of his resume and letting the folder fall limply to the table, the paper at once precious and irrelevant, summarizing a self that seemed remote and increasingly fictional.

■ ■ ■

The walls of the conference room warped around him, and his resume felt elastic as he held it in both hands. Blearily, Daniel began to discern the suggestion of a barcode in the blockish pattern of abstracted black against the white of the page, and turned the sheet sideways to further induce the effect. He envisioned himself lying on the table with the resume affixed to his chest, ready to be registered by the unseen machinery of the company and assigned a small salary and the coordinates to a desk, somewhere definite down below.

Turning the page to restore its conformity with the room’s proportions, Daniel gauged that he’d been here for hours now, nearly a quarter of a day, twelve thousand seconds and counting. He’d tried to stop keeping track, tried to convince himself that he couldn’t remember when he’d been left alone here, to wait. Though unnerved by the ghostly display showing the time, he’d checked his phone repeatedly, puzzling over the oddity of an office building with no reception and wondering if it was somehow intentional, or merely the result of mercurial service—a dead zone for him alone.

He’d deliberated every explanation, seeking some course of action, and realized that the evaluation might still be unfolding even now, testing his patience and endurance, or perhaps his assertiveness and ingenuity. The interview process, it seemed, had somehow become an initiation. He could leave the room and seek someone out, but risked being presumptuous, or getting lost, or becoming an object of ridicule, none of which seemed to accord with the patterns of a place where everything was accounted for. He imagined slowly unraveling the fabric of his necktie and creating a guideline like a lost cave explorer, but dismissed the thoughts as they arose, recognizing their futility.

Daniel had encountered increasingly desperate strategies during his months of job searching. A man standing on a street corner and handing out copies of his resume to anyone, it seemed, who made eye contact with him and was wearing a tie. A woman advertising herself on a billboard with a large, postured portrait and a tagline in fanciful script that read something like, “Seeking excellence in an employer,” her contact details emphasizing the whites of her eyes as she stared out over the ash-gray expressway. Seeing the billboard, Daniel had pictured her at a kitchen table shrouded in evening gloom, figuring the cost of the ad against her savings and the stock in her pantry. He’d almost called to ask if she’d had any offers, and perhaps by extension a forecast for him too.

To him these attempts were all inflected with a tinge of gimmickry, though he couldn’t be sure he wasn’t simply envious. His own efforts, it seemed, amounted to relinquishing everything unique about himself, given over to the common denominator as he squeezed ever further into an unyielding box. Outside on the streets even now, those who refused the same contortions were banging drums and shouting up at the implacable facades, but still affirming, in their protest, the same powers that Daniel was halfheartedly imploring.

The room’s wavering solidity was stretched taut along every line, attuned to the finest vibration of breath or movement, and his own body was like putty, held in shape only by the strictures of his clothing and the contoured hollowness of his hunger. Was he being watched? He pictured his inquisitors, assuming the third would look similar, if more severe, and wondered if they were meeting now, gathered around a monitor, taking measure of him. He remained still, sensing the dimensions of his solitude. He would wait for some conclusion, for three women in pant suits to decide his fate.

Somehow, almost obstinately, he refused to believe he’d been forgotten. Whatever the logic of his isolation, he would wait, demonstrating forbearance and what he hoped would resemble equanimity. If necessary, he would remain until employment became inevitable, until he was absorbed by default into the operations of the company. He would give himself over, his ill-fitting suit squaring his shoulders as he sat within a shrinking room in a building occupying an entire block of a city splayed on a grid, boxes inside boxes, closing in.

The page felt warm in his hands, the texture of the premium weight paper like the skin of a peach. Each sentence was carefully worded and every paragraph justified to form a procession of compressed, evenly aligned rectangles—the sum of his assessable life stacked like a pile of squashed cars in a salvage lot. He had stared at his resume until it had lost all meaning, the white flashing before his eyes, the text darkly shifting shapes in silhouette. He’d selected an eco-stock when getting them printed, he remembered, made from soy ink and recycled vegetation. The fibers seemed to bulge now under his thumbs, the veined remainder of banana leaves, pressed and woven into paper.

Almost imperceptibly, Daniel began to salivate; he then impulsively tore at a corner, pulling away a thin strip across the bottom of the page. The sound of the ripping was delicious, like butter sizzling in a pan. He placed the end of the strip on his tongue and slowly drew it in, slurping as if it were a strand of spaghetti. He imagined cream sauce as he chewed, fastidiously pulping the strip and reaching to tear off another. He stuffed a slim list of his skills and abilities into his mouth, thinking of thick-cut steak fries as he consumed his early internships and previous employment in little slivers, absorbed now and chewing studiously. The effort was tiring, and he began to pace himself after half a page or so, methodically chomping on savory morsels of cubed beef, the paper squelching between his teeth. It was lean and fortifying, his resume, an offering of himself as sustenance.

As he made a salad of small pieces and scooped a fistful, it occurred to him that by rationing his remaining copies, he could remain indefinitely, absolved of all identity and ready, at last, to be assimilated. Reaching the top of the page, he gulped down his education history in a neatly curled spring roll. The black marks of his name invoked the charred scores on grilled chicken, and Daniel relaxed as he swallowed that too, sitting folded in the chair and listening for any sound beyond the walls that might offer some portent. As ever, it was quiet. The building’s silent totality engulfed him—spooled out, measured and finally severed from the distinctions that had etched his sense of self in that fragile network of text, realigning his proportions to fit within the vast anonymous architecture of the company, incorporating him cell by cell. He would wait. Soon doors would open, documents would be signed, and the acquisition would be complete. He would wait.

Epiphany Issue 14

First published in the New York-based literary journal Epiphany, No. 14: "Risky Words" (Winter 2014).

The full print issue can be purchased online. Read about the magazine's campaign to Pay the Writers of Issue 14 via Crowdrise.