Henry follows a young woman off the elevator and through a white maze of office cubicles so intricate that he wonders if he’ll be able to find his way back. The woman points this way and that way and rattles off the company’s various departments but Henry only thinks how this could be the setting for the kind of story similar in style to those he read in college by French authors whose names he couldn’t pronounce then, or remember now: a typist gets stuck in an office forever, where carpeted hallways end at Xerox machine rooms or closed doors marked “Vice President.”
He’s deposited at a cubicle that contains a rolling chair and a white desk. The only thing on the desk is a phone, and yesterday’s newspaper. On the front page is a picture of 42nd Street, looking like a ghost town. The peep shows are boarded up as Times Square prepares to give itself a facelift. Henry felt there used to be an integrity in the city’s squalidness, but he figured they wanted something glossy and safe to draw in more tourists. At least Times Square retained its vice in movies from that era.
A guy walks out of an office across from the cubicle and introduces himself as Ben, chief copywriter. He asks Henry if he’s an actor. No. Our last temp, Ben tells him, got some kind of acting gig and couldn’t come back. Henry nods.
Ben smiles and tells Henry to walk around, check out the place.
Henry enters the maze of cubicles again, where he sees ads for lip balm and skin care products pinned to office walls. He remembers a high school teacher who talked about subliminal advertising, print ads embedded with sexual messages. Henry wonders if people really did sit around and construct, or alter, their ads to reflect that philosophy.
Ben spends the morning drinking coffee with his staff and talking about sitcoms. Nobody appears to be working. Henry had always worked at an hourly rate. Home Depot, construction, custodial work. If you were standing around, you weren’t working. The important thing, he had learned, was to look busy even if you had nothing to do.
His father first instilled that work ethic in him when it came to doing chores around the house. They always had to be busy on weekends. Sometimes Henry felt guilty if he was watching TV during the day. His father would stand in the doorway with a blank look on his face. Henry never knew if he was going to be assigned another chore, or if his father was going to announce a new project for himself.
Ben gives Henry storyboards to take over to the casting department. A family at dinner. The husband complains of indigestion from chili he’d had for lunch. His wife gives him a new antacid. Then an ice cream truck bell sounds, dessert time, and the family gathers in the street. The final frame shows the wife licking an ice cream cone.
Henry wonders if the cone is supposed to be a phallic symbol, the kind of thing his teacher also taught them, and if it was a conscious decision by the creative team, a punchline designed for the subconscious, because if it wasn’t, the ad was uninspired.
Maybe the strategy would be in the lighting, a nostalgic glow, an appeal to a time when dinner was called supper and families ate together, and afterwards, when they watched television, you had to get up to change the channel.
The casting department assistant is a plump woman with a streak of purple in her hair. She sits behind piles of head shots and talks on the phone. Henry stares at the photos. Dozens of smiles, and eyes that appear to say, I’m special, make me famous.
The assistant hangs up and thanks him for the boards. Henry wants to linger so he can surreptitiously stare at her cleavage. He asks about the location for the commercial. She says it will be somewhere in the suburbs. He tells her that the ice cream truck still drives down his street, and that if they needed a house, his was available.
I’ll let my boss know, she tells him.
In the office, Ben and his team discuss the antacid commercial. Henry waits until the meeting ends and then asks Ben if he can make a suggestion. My house is available, Henry says, for your shoot. It’s a nice neighborhood. Ben says that he would love to see pictures of the exterior and the kitchen.
Henry catches the 5:44 train home. The kids in the street play baseball. Henry waves.
He sets the table for four: plates, napkins, forks, knives, glasses. The first time the table has looked symmetrical in years.
The wallpaper was a problem. He didn’t know how his parents came to buy such a super-mod design, black and gold paisley swirls, kind of psychedelic. His parents had been conservative, but they were known to try some crazy colors. The paper would have to come down before the commercial.
He pours Jack Daniels over ice and stares at the wallpaper. He hadn’t really looked at it in a long time. Once, as a kid, he got in trouble for running a Matchbox car along the road-like patterns on the wall. One section begins in a tight swirl and then opens up, like the starting point of the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz.
Henry thinks of a fetus, curled in the womb, until the vagina sends it on a journey.
Henry stands next to the casting assistant as she studies head shots. She says they want an average family type, nobody too pretty. The lighting will be have to be important, Henry says. Yes, lighting is always important, she says. But this lighting has to be special, Henry insists, I have to tell Ben they need to use the light you use when you want nostalgia.
She leaves her desk to run an errand and Henry stares down at the picture of a fair- skinned woman with brown eyes and dark hair. She smiles back at him. He picks up the picture and goes back to his desk to wait out the clock.
At his kitchen table, Henry looks at the headshot. She had the kind of eyes that appeared to watch you from any angle. He leans the picture against a glass, across from his setting, in front of the wild wallpaper. He finds comfort in knowing that when he leaves the room, those eyes will be looking for him.
Henry gets off the elevator and finds himself in a part of the office he’s never been to. He’d always had a terrible sense of direction. This damn maze, he thinks.
He retraces his steps and turns into a Xerox copy room. A woman waits at the machine for the repetitive-sounding mechanics of the unit to complete the cycle.
I’m lost, Henry says, I’m looking for Ben’s office.
Are you a temp, she asks.
Yes, I’m new, and I can’t figure out this place.
I’m temping too, she says. I’ve been here for a month. It is disorienting.
Henry feels that there’s something familiar about her.
Are you an actor, she asks.
No, says Henry, but I hope to be in a commercial for antacid.
I auditioned for that part.
And then Henry remembers. The headshot.
They might use my house, he tells her.
The machine stops. In the sudden quiet, Henry is afraid that she’ll hear his heart working like some kind of feverish gear.
She pushes the button to make one more copy but leaves the machine cover open and the light under the glass blinds Henry as he imagines her seated at his kitchen table in front of the crazy wallpaper with the gold swirls appearing to emanate from her head, and with her hand in his they skip around the tight swirl that resembles a coiled snake and make their way into the glare of flashbulbs that sting their eyes with an insane brightness.
That night, when he eats at home at his table set for one, he sits and stares at the swirls which are not on the wall anymore but which lie on the floor like broken roads.
Peter DeMarco teaches high school English and film in New York City. He was first published in The New York Times when he wrote about hanging out with his idol, writer Mickey Spillane. His stories have appeared in Prime Number Magazine, decomP, Red Lightbulbs, Cadillac Cicatrix, SmokeLong Quarterly, Flashquake, Verbsap, Pindeldyboz and Dogzplot. Peter lives in New Jersey with his wife and two boys.