A Concept of Bones
Derek runs his hand down the front of his shirt, checking the buttons; if, through some tensile tragedy, one came undone, his guts would spill out onto the office’s grey carpet. He also checks his fly, for he doesn’t want anything below the belt spilling out, either. This clothing is his skin now, his skin now muscle, muscle bone, and skeleton soul. And soul is… well, we don’t know souls exist, and the office isn’t the place to prove it.
He picks a bead of lint off the cuff of his pink Oxford shirt. He’s wearing khaki pants, black socks, brown leather belt, brown leather shoes, and in his right back pocket is a brown leather wallet. His other pockets are empty, except for the lint he removed, for he didn’t want to be seen flicking it to the ground for fear that Walter would think it was a booger.
Does pink suit his complexion? Doubtful. His Rosacea is agitated by stress. Rare in men, Derek’s dermatologist is convinced it’s acne. But Derek knows Rosacea when he sees it, having seen it on his mother’s face all these years. His ugliness doesn’t bother him; everything is ugly.
At times like this, he silences the office by focusing on the colors. He’s surrounded by neutral tones—grays and browns which, when he looks at them, render it impossible to conceive of this space making any sound at all. Voices are the easiest to silence, but occasional white noise breaks through, a copier or a fan or the whisper of air meeting other air.
It’s called white noise, but it’s very clearly blue. If Derek had worn a blue shirt today he could travel on the waves of this ambient noise to its source and silence it too.
“Derek?” the sound of his name on another’s lips is enough to make him want to bite those lips, not soft nibbles like those with which he’s pocked the insides of his own, but a single hard, stapling clamp of the teeth.
“What is it?” Snappier than intended. He’ll tell Walter he has a headache. A common enough thing, but a lie.
“No, no, what can I do for you?”
“There’s a back-up on line three. You want to light a fire under their asses?”
If he were to do so, Derek assumes the high fat content of the workers’ buttocks would turn the flame blue, and leave their corpses charred, black. He’s never seen a corpse, but he has seen skin that no longer acts like skin, rashes, swelling, discoloration; his body has done all the things a corpse has, hasn’t it? But the office is hardly the place to prove that living bodies are no different than dead ones.
“Yeah, I’ll go motivate the pricks,” Derek says. “Or scare ‘em.”
He hates to leave the office because it’s high above the noise of the work floor; some people call it the “killing floor,” but only proverbially, for nothing is killed there, aside from one incident before Derek started; he suspects it might be apocryphal. Down there, they don’t wear button up shirts, and their skin remains skin. Most wear long sleeves, because the process produces dust that will catch in arm hair and cause hives. In the lunchroom, once, Derek saw one man with a swastika tattoo on his forearm; he no longer works here.
They wear masks, and many tie bandanas around their necks, mostly blue. The few who wear red seem feminine in comparison; Derek checks his shirt buttons as he descends from the office, not wishing to spill his innards on the killing floor.
“Hey, where does this stuff go, anyway?”
“What do you mean? To the addresses on the stickers.”
“I guess…” Disappointed. Striving for conspiracy.
“People want it, they order it, we box it, off it goes.”
“What do they do with it?”
“What do you think they do with it?”
“It’s just junk though, isn’t it?”
“Look, this isn’t the product. Demand is the product. This junk is the medium. You get any of that?”
“Sure, yeah. But why would anyone want it?”
“Because we make them want—ahh, shit, that creep Derek is coming over. Double time.”
“Gentlemen,” Derek says.
“Hey, Derek,” one man says, voice muffled behind his mask.
“Yeah, hey,” the other says, equally muffled.
“Yes,” Derek says, unmuffled. Upstairs, they joke that the dust from the boxes gives their employees “brown lung.”
“Is there anything holding you up?”
“We’re right on track,” the first muffled man says, looking at the clock high above him on the wall.
“Make sure you are,” Derek says.
The second man says something Derek can’t decipher.
“Right.” Derek nods and walks away.
“You shouldn’t have said that to him.”
“What’s it matter?”
“I’ve seen him fire a guy, not a friend exactly but he was okay. Derek fired him—the guy was late too much, and Derek fired him in front of everybody. The guy tried to make a scene because he figured it was already a scene, so why not. Derek grabbed him by the lapel and twisted it until the guy fell down on the ground.”
“I’d of fought back.”
“This guy did! He punched and kicked, would of spit if not for his mask, but the way Derek had him, none of his blows landed, not really. I give Derek a wide berth. That’s all I’m saying. You know what berth means?”
“Lazy pricks,” Derek says.
“They don’t know how good they have it,” Walter says. “Sometimes I wish I was down there.”
“What the fuck do we do? We stare at productivity numbers, then we stare at people. Then back to numbers.”
“It’s more than that,” Derek says, but it isn’t. He sits at his desk, fingers resting on the keyboard as if he’s about to type something. His fingers are the least trustworthy part of his body; leave them unattended for even a minute and one will find its way into his nose or ear. His toes would never do that, even if they could reach; they’re compliant little things, curled at the tips of his shoes like dozing cats. Derek makes fists and counts to ten, then releases.
“You’re, uh…” Walter gestures at Derek’s face. Derek feels around until he finds the wet spot, under his eye. Dabbing at it and pulling his hand away to look at what he assumes will be blood from some grazed pimple—surprised to see tears.
“Allergies,” he mutters. “Fucking dust.”
Walter has been out sick multiple days recently, and Derek misses him when he’s absent, though he doesn’t like him. If Walter is normally a strong blue, he’s been a tepid orange of late. How does one turn from blue to orange? There are no orange oceans, no orange skies—there are orange sunsets, but the sun is not the sky. There’s no orange in space.
Derek wishes his office had windows, aside from those looking down onto the killing floor. When it rains he hears it on the roof, and when it isn’t raining the roof is silent. When storms hit, as they do quite often in the summer, Derek has to close his eyes to differentiate that sound from everything else. Staring at the ceiling, he could never tell.
It’s April and Walter has missed 20 work days this year. Derek hasn’t asked him if he’s dying, because the office is not the kind of place where you forge bonds. Walter has worked here longer than he cares to admit, longer than Derek. Until Derek applied for the job, he didn’t know what happened here, didn’t know they produce a product he uses every day. He answered a posting, and here he is.
“What do you think they do up there all day?”
“We do all the work, but they get the big paychecks.”
“I guess I never thought about it.”
“You see Derek in his pink shirt today? I got a girlfriend at the mall, that shirt cost $75.”
“You asked her?”
“What do you—no, I didn’t ask her. I know because she works there.”
“How’d you meet her?”
“I met her at… I met her at the mall.”
“Did she sell him the shirt?”
“Goddamn, you’re too dumb to do anything but what we do.”
Derek runs the tap, tests the water, and adjusts before splashing his eyes, despite his lids’ instinct to close. He watches his face, dripping in the mirror, seeing rather than feeling his expression change as he remembers that they replaced the paper towel dispenser with a blow dryer. It was, in fact, his decision. He blinks the water off his lashes and focuses on the pale blue paint on the cement walls. Chipped in some spots, swollen with too many layers of paint in others; so much like skin. A pipe emerges from a too-large hole near the baseboard, then turns swiftly up toward the drop ceiling, where it disappears into another choppily cut hole. The pipe is painted the same blue as the walls. Derek has investigated the hole with a flashlight, and is quite certain that the whole pipe is painted, not just the exposed part.
More than once he has held the pipe to feel what color it is beneath the powder blue, but all he’s gotten is a sweaty palm. His relationship to colors is not tactile. He stares at the pipe with unfocused eyes until it dissolves in the wall, cutting off the flow of its contents; if he stared long enough, the walls would grow soggy. Derek touches his cheeks, feels they’re dry, and turns his back on the pipe, allowing it to return with privacy, dignity. No one has to admit they’re wrong.
“I heard that he used to work for a big company. Fortune 500.”
“I always wondered what that meant.”
“It’s a list. He made bank. But he got in a fight with someone.”
“I saw him flip a guy by the neck once.”
“No you didn’t, that was me.”
“Well I heard about it, anyway.”
“Yeah, from me. You want to hear my story or not? He was married—”
“Derek. And this executive at the place he worked, he insulted his wife, or hit on her or something, and Derek flipped his shit. So that’s why he’s here and not in one of those towers downtown.”
“I’d of killed a guy that said that about my wife.”
“You don’t even know what he said.”
“I can imagine though.”
“And you’re not married.”
“I guess not.”
“Hey, watch it, you almost put two of the same component in that box.”
“Wow, I’d lose my head if it weren’t screwed onto my face.”
“You’d lose your job, anyway.”
“So. Weekend plans?” Walter asks. Derek turns around in his chair, screws up his face like he’s really thinking about it.
“Fishing maybe. Good fishing weather.”
“You got that right,” Walter says. “I’m going to the cabin next weekend. This weekend I’m gonna build that shed.”
“Gotta have a shed,” Derek agrees. “What color you think you’ll paint it?”
“Whatever. Might keep it natural. I don’t know.”
Derek looks shocked.
“What’s it matter? Whatever color I pick, my wife’s the one who gets to decide.”
“Wives are like that,” Derek agrees.
“You’d know,” Walter nods. There’s something more he wants to ask, Derek can tell; his curiosity is a yellow cloud filling the office. If Derek concentrated on the green in Walter’s tie, he could cut through the cloud, get Walter to ask, but he doesn’t. There are certain questions you don’t ask in a place like this.
Derek swivels his chair toward his desk and checks the buttons on his shirt, one by one, staring at the wall.
About the Author
Richard Charles Schaefer is a graduate of UMass Amherst living in Chattanooga, Tennessee with his wife, two children, and two cats. He has written two novels and two collections of short stories. His work has appeared in Lowestoft Chronicle, Furious Gazelle, Nude Bruce Review, Sweet Tree Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine and The Vicarious Traveler anthology. He won third place in The Charles Carter’s Character Study Contest and is a finalist appearing in the Adelaide Literary Award Anthology 2019.