Thursday, January 06, 2005

"Der Komplex" - story from the belly of Corporate America

I dreamed again of the dog humping my leg last night. It's recurred for months. I don't recognize the dog; its breed is different in each dream. None of which matters as I writhe with that unbearable naked-in-the-classroom embarrassment, struggling against the animal. The dog humps my leg with Prussian determination. My arms move as though under water—my punches no more violent than playful pats on its head. The dream's setting varies nightly. Sometimes I'm in a crowded living room during a party, other times in a park, or on a street corner. And while the embarrassment of being so rigorously enjoyed by the animal is excruciating enough, there is something worse: the look in the dog's eyes. As I lethargically flail at its head, I see in the dog's gaze the look of a marathon runner who has the finish-line in sight. Then I burst awake.

It's another day within the modernistic monstrosity of Oldham Herschel Systems: waiting for members of the development team, located in Canada, England, Germany, Singapore, to send e-mail filled with strings of DOS or UNIX code that I'll copy-and-paste into specified documentation.

My first day in the office, I looked into the cubicle next to mine: its walls covered with photographs of every conceivable variety of dog; ugly, awkward looking animals, like cruel jokes of nature or breeding. Took a moment to find the nameplate: Nula Baughman.

"What breed do you have?" a voice had come from behind, startling me.
I turned to find a slender handsome woman with green-yellow eyes, dressed in black, standing behind me. She was about thirty, with shoulder-length brown hair. She held a mug; there was a ring on her little finger.

"I don't have a dog," I said.

Nula strolled past, and sat in her chair. "These are my babies," she said, with an accent I couldn't place—sounding British and Eastern European at the same time. There was a framed photograph on the desk: Nula with her arm around an equally attractive redhead.

"You own all of these?" There were dozens.

"We've never owned any of them," Nula said. "My partner is a groomer. We grow very attached to her clients. I know a breeder willing to take fifteen hundred for a pair of gorgeous bichons frises. Interested?"

"I'm not looking for a pet."

"Pet?" Nula said. "Do you believe in reincarnation?"


"Animals are the highest life-forms in this world. They're not pets, they're our instructors."


She swiveled toward her PC, and put on a set of headphones.

I returned to my desk, and looked up "bichon frise" on the Internet. Found a photograph of a marshmallow-like dog—a round, furry astronaut's helmet for a head—its coat like a puffy white ski suit. Amid all the prissy puffiness was its grim pug face, like that of a surly barkeeper.

That night I dreamed of a bichon frise with the face of Ed Asner humping my leg as I stood in the O.H.S. conference room, meeting Uma for the first time.

My friend, Wally, surmised from the beginning that the recurring dream was related to my job.

"Why do you say that?" I said, feigning ignorance; I hate it when my anxieties are so easily guessed. We were at my apartment for our weekly movie night. I had been working for O.H.S. almost a month, and mentioned my dream to him the previous week.

"The mind channels anxiety through dreams," Wally said, opening a beer. He had never worked in an office, claiming the film Wall Street frightened him into becoming a freelance Web designer. "Remember tenth grade biology?"

I inwardly winced: while dreading my way to the final unit of biology class, and its requisite dissections, I had recurring dreams of my bed being filled with live frogs.

"That was legit, I'm squeamish as hell," I said. "Anyhow, the dreams stopped after we cut up the frogs. What am I worried about this time?" I said, grabbing pizza from the carton on the coffee table. "I've got a decent-paying job with an easy workload—"

"A very light workload you said."

"The industry's cyclical. I came at a slow time."

We were watching Michael Crichton's 1981 sci-fi thriller, Looker—the blank concrete corporate headquarters of Digital Matrix flashed across the TV screen. Wally nodded at the television. "Sounds like you're tangled up with Der Komplex."

Our favorite films are bleak futuristic classics, like Soylent Green, Omega Man, Rollerball, Looker, where the villains are corporations benignly named Digital Matrix, Soylent Corporation, Energy Corporation, headquartered in bunker-like buildings that Wally dubbed "Der Komplex."

"Who's that developer you're working with?" Wally said.

"Bundun Oon."

"Have you figured out if Bundun's a man or a woman, yet?"

"I can't tell over the phone, and Bundun's picture on the intranet is like a passport photo from 1940."

He gazed at the TV. "If you're happy, I'm happy for you."

I looked at him.

"I'm just thinking of the 'tap,'" Wally said.

"The 'tap'?"

"Some manager tapping you on the shoulder and saying 'You're fired.'"

"You're crazy. They just hired me."

"Let's drop it, Susan Dey's gonna be naked in a second."

"I'm not worried," I said. "I take long lunches, read all my favorite online sites, and get home before five o'clock. This is a dream-job."

"But the dog's still humping your leg."

E-mail from Bundun Oon rolled in occasionally; cutting-and-pasting took little of my day. Surrounded by suffocating silence, I supplemented my Internet regimen with numerous coffee breaks, often emptying near-full pots down the break room sink just to kill a few more minutes setting up the coffeemaker to brew another. One afternoon, Nula strolled in; her eyes an intense wine color.

"So, are you new or transferred in?" Nula said. Her accent continued to elude me.

"New," I said. "Yourself?"

"Neither," she laughed. "What do you do?"

"I'm a writer on the Visualization Toolbox."

"The software that builds software?"

"That's the one."

"Reminds me of the joke 'What do you add to powdered water?'"

I laughed. "What's your department?"


"And that's…"

"Corporate intelligence."

"You're kidding."

"Only way to stay market leader is knowing what the competition is doing."

"How do you manage that?"

"My confidentiality agreement doesn't allow me to say."

I laughed. She didn't smile.

Nula started out of the break room, then turned. "Did you know that canines locate more people missing in wooded areas than police and psychics combined?"


"A dog once located the remains of a missing hunter at the bottom of a lake forty feet deep, a year after the man went missing."

"That's incredible."

"Indeed," she said. "What's that tell you?"

"Dogs have a great sense of smell?"

Nula shook her head. "They're man's best friend even when the man is forty feet underwater."

One morning, Uma sent e-mail asking me to verify some potentially outdated technical data in a set of product release notes. The contact name she provided was "Ranel Ehm," an aerospace engineer with O.H.S. partner company Hechter Information Technologists. All right, I thought. The work begins.

The e-mail I sent to Ranel Ehm bounced back "undeliverable" minutes later. Turning to the telephone, I contacted every department in H.I.T. listed on the "Partners in Growth" section of the O.H.S. intranet. Hours later, when I reached someone who knew Ranel Ehm, I was told "Ranel's no longer with the company."

Shit. Then I had a thought: "Who's taken over for Ranel?"

"No one."

"Pardon me?"

"Nobody's taken over for Ranel."

"What do you mean?"

"The position no longer exists."


"There was an organizational reshuffle two weeks ago."

"Organizational reshuffle?" Wally said when I told him the story. "Sounds like a cosmic sinkhole opened beneath ole Ranel's cube and swallowed him up." He grabbed some pizza. "Was he a 'he'?"

"Don't know."

"Organizational reshuffle," Wally mused. "As natural and mysterious as a black hole or a quark." He looked at me. "So, what'd you do?"

"E-mailed Uma."


"Haven't heard another thing."

"Is it possible 'organizational reshuffle' doesn't mean 'fired.'"

"What do you mean?"

"Maybe Ranel Ehm was taken to a vacant floor in the office, put in silver bodysuit, and set on a treadmill with electrodes attached to his/her shaved head—surrounded by guys in lab coats, carrying clipboards. Das Xperiment."

Into my third month at O.H.S. I saw the pattern: the dog dreams came Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday nights, dropping off by Wednesday when the weekly Tech Pubs teleconference occurred. If the recurring dreams from high school were any precedent, losing my job seemed the only way to rid myself of the humping dogs. Or, get some work, I thought, checking my e-mail with pathological persistence. I considered calling Uma, confessing my idleness, but feared she would say, "You're right, there is no work for you. Today's your last day."

Bored with brewing new pots of coffee every hour, I ventured to the fourth floor, one afternoon. Part of me wondered if I might stumble across Wally's Das Xperiment.

The fourth floor was a clone of the third. Employees worked in the numbing silence, many wearing headphones. When I returned to the third floor to check my e-mail, I saw Nula wearing headphones, and wondered if she was listening to a CD of barking dogs.

After lunch I went to the second floor.

It was identical to the third and fourth, except it was utterly vacated. The place seemed like a doctored crime scene: bodies removed, all traces of life wiped away. The silence was even more oppressive with no listless clacking on keyboards, no telephones ringing.

Over the next several days I returned to the second floor, never encountering another person there. Poking through desk drawers, I found little more than pens and some unused Post-It notes. In one desk I found a calendar with black magic marker lines drawn through every weekday. The odd box had a second line, creating an X. There was no picture on the calendar, no writing, just lines and X's, like a primitive cave drawing; ancient glyphs or code I couldn't decipher.

I went to the boardroom at the far end of the floor. The twenty-by-twenty meeting room was converted to storage space. A wall of boxes blocked the windows, a ten-foot long table was pushed against a wall making room for surplus office chairs, PC towers, monitors, keyboards, boxes of documents, and office supplies.

The following morning I knocked on the edge of my cubicle dividing wall. Nula looked up with eyes swirled gray/blue, like marbles.

"What's up with the second floor?"

She smiled. "You've been snooping."

"What happened?"

"An org reshuffle. It's been vacant since the summer."

"A reshuffle hit your building," Wally said when I related the story to him, "leaving the Deserted Village on the second floor?"

"Looks like."

"Find anything scrawled on a cubicle wall? Strange symbols made with colored pushpins? Any human remains?"

I told him about the calendar.

"Too bad."

"Why's that?"

"The greatest thing a person can do is create something in secret, and leave it for somebody else to find."


"Look at the Great Pyramids, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Emily Dickinson's poetry, Coral Castle in Florida."

"But in an office?"

"No better place than Der Komplex. The employment equivalent of Pompeii happened there. Every civilization has a story."

"It's just where people work."

"What do you call the Pyramids? Or, Coral Castle?"

"That's different, they mean something."

"A place where nothing means anything needs a shrine."

"You're nuts," I said.

"Ask Ranel Ehm if I'm right."

The solitude of the second floor was too tempting to ignore. I ventured there daily, rearranging chairs and PC towers; brought in books and read for hours some mornings. One day I located a TV/VCR combination behind a stack of shelving. Next day I brought in some movies—Yul Brynner's Westworld, Sean Connery's Outland—and watched them over lunch the rest of the week.

Another afternoon, I lay down on the table with my coat beneath me, a sweater balled beneath my head, and napped for two hours. I dreamed a manicured white poodle humped my leg in my cubicle. Unlike the other dreams, a leash extended from the dog's collar, leading over the wall to Nula's cube. Looking over the wall, my call for help melted in my throat: Nula sat in her swivel chair facing me—utterly, exquisitely naked—holding the other end of the leash.

The day I asked Nula for a date I had been watching Barbarella.

Halfway through the film I took a break. Heading downstairs for a bottle of juice, I found Nula in the break room. Her eyes were indigo, the same shade as the office windows when inside looking out. After some initial small talk—in which she described an "exquisite" basenji a friend would part with for eight hundred dollars—I said, "Maybe we could have dinner sometime?"

There was no gauging Nula's expression: half-smile, half-frown, her indigo gaze unreadable. "What can you offer me?" she said.

"We could go French, Italian, Cantonese."

"In general."

"On a date?"


"I'm a creative guy, I love animals—"

"You're sweet, but I'm in a relationship."

"Okay, sorry, I just thought—"

"Doesn't mean you can't phone me."

"So, maybe we'll go out?"

"If you call, sure," she said, writing on a paper plate.

"Hang on," I said when she handed it to me, "there's only six digits."

"They're not in the right order, either."

"Then what am I—?"

"Be creative."

I had a week off during the holidays.

Wally invited me over for movie night the day before Christmas Eve. I said nothing to him about Nula, or her near-complete phone number. I had taken enough flak over the dog dreams.

Wally's mother died a few years before, leaving him the house. I hadn't been over in months, figuring he never mentioned alternating movie night each week because he needed a break from the place. Entering his house I was immediately hit by an overpowering swampy stink. Sewer back up? I wondered. That wasn't it, the stench was more like the murky reek of a zoo's reptile house.

We cracked open beers, and watched James Caan in Rollerball. Wally had finished a Web site that day, and was a few beers ahead of me.

"I love movies," he said when the pizza arrived, "but they're not true art."

"You're kidding?" I said. "Apocalypse Now, Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia aren't art?"

"Not true art."

"What constitutes true art?"

"Loneliness, secrecy."


"You make true art alone, like Da Vinci and his notebooks."

"And the movie camera's not an artistic tool?"

"It can be, but filmmaking involves too many people, and everything hinges on a budget. A painter just paints. A novelist just writes."

I sipped my beer, and watched James Caan circle the rollerball track, wearing a football helmet, shoulder pads, and roller derby skates. "James Caan's not an artist?" I said, smiling.

Wally glared at me. "You think I'm talking shit?"

"I just don't agree—"

"So, I'm a liar," he said. There were times when beer hit Wally the wrong way.


He rose from his chair. "Come on. I'll show you something."

"Let's have another beer," I said.

"Later. Come on."

I followed him into the kitchen, where the swampy stench intensified. Put a hand over my nose and mouth. The basement was dim, and horribly warm. Wally clicked on a small light on the wall halfway down. The odor was sickening, overpowering, but I was suddenly distracted by a sound: wet, furtive.

"What the hell?" I said through my hand.

At first I simply didn't believe what I was seeing. It was impossible: Wally had a six-foot alligator in his basement. The room was an unfinished root cellar, the floor was lined with a huge plastic tarp, propped up in places with boxes, covered with muck and water. At the bottom of the stairs glowed a kerosene heater.

"When I went to that Web conference in Florida in May," Wally said, "I smuggled a baby alligator back in a Pringle's can. Soon he was too big to flush."

The alligator was fifteen feet away, the railing was in front of us, and still I wanted to bolt up the stairs.

"This is art?"

Wally looked at the alligator. "Just having him, that's art."

I left soon after—ate no pizza, didn't finish watching Rollerball; left a half-full beer on the coffee table. I told Wally the stink in the house was too much. Not the politest thing to say, but it was better than the truth: I thought he'd gone crazy. He called the next day, and apologized.

"So, you're a Web designer and big game keeper?" I said, still unnerved.

"Call me crazy, but I like having him around."

"What do you like best? The stench or its cuddly personality?!"

"It's impossible to explain. I like the thought of him being in the basement. Like when I'm meeting a new client, and some suit gets shitty with me, I just think, 'If you only knew what I have at home, asshole.'"

"You don't have to justify it to me, but you sound like a nut."

"Even if I wanted to get rid of him, what the hell am I going to do? Let him loose outside? Call the Humane Society, the game warden? They'd fine me up the ass."

"Tell them it's art."

"Fuck you."

We celebrated New Year's Eve together.

When I returned to the office last week, following the break, Nula's cubicle was vacated: pictures, papers—everything was gone. She'd said nothing before the break about leaving. After circling the third and fourth floors, and finding no sign of her, I sent her e-mail. Within seconds the message bounced back as "undeliverable."

Checking my other e-mail there was a group-message from Uma, sent on Christmas Eve no less, saying an O.H.S./H.I.T. merger was in the offing. Negotiations would be finalized within a week, followed by an organizational reshuffle.

Well, that's it, I thought. The spinning plates have finally crashed.

Of all the emotions I anticipated at the prospect of "the tap," relief was not among them. But that's what hit me first. Thinking of the reshuffle, I wondered about the approach of natural disasters, and the distraction, perhaps consolation, there was in preparation: filling sandbags, storing food and water, renewing allegiances to neglected deities. Unlike the death row-wait in the office.

Last night I dreamed I stood before an audience of hundreds at the opening of the Society of Technical Communicators' national conference. Uma was at the podium; I was off toward stage-left, with a bouvier humping my leg. The auditorium was filled with gasps, shocked laughter, unintelligible catcalls. Uma glared at me; I flailed at the dog's head, my arms moving as though under water. A moment later my rank humiliation turned to horror as I realized Nula's head was on the dog. Before my eyes, her face changed to my mother's, Wally's, the parish priest's from when I was growing up. Uma's stare was withering, but I was powerless. The dog's face turned into my high school biology teacher, my first girlfriend, my boss at the community newspaper. The auditorium filled with shrieks; the PA system screamed feedback; anguished tears ran down Uma's face. I burst awake.

After a night of ruined sleep, I almost called in sick, but feared Uma would say, "Don't bother coming back." I slunk in to the office, and watched the 1980 Robert Forster film Alligator in the second floor conference room. Half asleep, zoning out of the movie, I recalled high school biology class years before, and its plague of formaldehyde frogs. The class before the dissections, I suffered something like a mental hiccup, a sleepwalking daydream. Next thing I knew, I had a protractor in my hand, carving my name into my desk. Seemed a normal, natural thing to do. And got me a quick trip to the principal's office. My parents were called, and I received a three-day suspension for willful destruction of school property. And didn't end up participating in the dreaded dissections. Despite the sullen, righteous reprimands from my parents, principal and teacher, despite the "F" I took on the dissection unit, this same unexpected sense of relief had surfaced in me—a private reprieve. The dreams of the frogs did not return.

With "the tap" looming, I swooned into a similar sleepwalking daydream, thinking about Wally's alligator, and how easy it would be to stuff a mound of ground beef with enough over-the-counter sedatives to knock it. Then to fasten its mouth with tape, wrap in a plastic tarp, leaving an end open for air. Once unconscious, timing this to occur in the evening, Wally could load the gator into his pickup and drive to O.H.S., where I'd open the door for him. From there we'd bring the gator to my room on the second floor. After which, we'd leave a note of warning on the door, and make an anonymous call to the local game warden.

A place where nothing means anything needs a shrine, Wally had said.

I e-mailed my idea to Wally. He replied soon after, "Serious?"

"Why not?" I wrote back. "Got news that this'll probably my last day here."

It was a while before his next e-mail arrived: "Gave him his last meal. See you around 7?"

"See you then," I responded.

A place where nothing means anything needs a shrine.

I opened my desk drawer and took out the calendar I had found on the second floor, with its days crossed out, and the odd day X-ed out. Like a cave drawing; like some weird variation on binary language; a code that would reveal itself only after a million iterations. Something that might have been sent on the Voyager I and II space probes, flung into outer space for some alien intelligence to puzzle over it. It spoke of the primitive human need to leave one's mark. KILROY WAS HERE. Carving one's name into a school desk.

I went to the office supply room on the first floor, and scooped some permanent magic makers: red, black, blue, and green. Then went to my room on the second floor. I set a PC tower on the long table, place a lamp on top directed at me, and trace my shadow on the wall in black marker: head, neck, and shoulders. I haven't drawn since ninth grade art class. Across the midsection of my silhouette I write GREED IS GOOD.

I have no plan, only the thought to create a cartoon corporate Guernica.

Dragging the table away from the wall, I turn my blue marker to the ceiling, drawing a single human eye wide as my arms span, coloring the iris green and yellow highlighter. Write above it in red marker: O.H.S./H.I.T.. Perspiration traces lines down my face and neck.

When the walls and ceiling and door are sufficiently filled with my lopsided drawings, I eject Alligator from the TV/VCR combination, and leave the second floor. My hand aches. My watch reads after six-thirty. I go upstairs and check my e-mail. I feel no surprise finding a message from Uma saying the first phase of the organizational reshuffle has affected my position, effective immediately. She asks that I call her tomorrow to discuss my severance package, benefits, and unfinished projects. My panic-tinged sense of Zen returns; part of me wishes there were sandbags to fill, some reason to gather up batteries and fresh water. Hopefully Wally's on his way.

I survey the deserted office. The silence is less oppressive, the antiseptic meadow smell has wilted under the strain of employees' cologne, perfume, and body odor. As the evening approaches seven o'clock, I head downstairs to await Wally. Riding the elevator, I take off my ID badge, and shove it in my pocket. I always thought it would make a good bookmark.

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