Read More: A brief interview with Doug Cornett
Within the first week of my employment at Balconesto Enterprises, I was tasked with following Ron Buckland home from work. The instructions came in a small manila envelope delivered to my cubicle by the office mail clerk. Ron’s cubicle was across from mine but I knew he didn’t recognize me yet. He never seemed to glance in my direction, as if he hadn’t noticed the new presence only a few feet away from him. Instead, his eyes always seemed fixed in a drowsy gaze on his computer screen, or they listlessly followed the swaying path of the tall blonde woman who was also a new hire.
I, of course, knew what Ron looked liked even before my first day at Balconesto enterprises. Several pictures of him were included in the New Hire Manual. He was, after all, the mark.
Ron closed his computer and arose from his chair a few minutes after five o’clock. I followed him down the aisle, noting that his head never swiveled to the left or right to wish any of his coworkers a good night. His steps were slow, almost dreamlike in their certainty. The elevator doors slid open and, shoulder to shoulder, Ron and I fed ourselves to it.
We rode down in silence. When the doors opened to the ground floor I turned to him and said, “Have a nice one.”
Ron Buckland squinted as if placing me, then offered a clumsy thumbs up. With that, he walked one way down the crowded city block, and I walked the other. After a few steps, I turned back to follow him.
I’d never followed anybody before, but I was surprised at how natural it felt. When he stopped, I would stop. There was no need to scramble behind a sausage cart or news kiosk; I felt invisible enough. We drifted together for several blocks. The way Ron moved, with his legs shifting like pendulums over the pavement, gave me the impression that he was skating through the world. I felt that we were two heavenly bodies, kept in perfect orbit by our relative masses.
After about fifteen blocks, Ron Buckland entered a Vietnamese restaurant with a faded red awning. I followed him in and selected a table on the other side of the small, dimly lit room. There were only a handful of other diners. At first, I was cautious, only stealing glances here and there and hiding my face behind the menu. But I was emboldened by Ron’s seeming lack of awareness, or interest, in anything around him. His head was always tilted slightly down, his eyes always focused on nothing in particular. I put the menu down and turned my head, openly watching him.
He was young, not far from my age, with a heft about him that did not seem unhealthy. The hair at his crown had begun to thin, and his nose was formidable in profile only. His eyes were watery and perhaps rounder than normal. His mouth was smallish, and his voice neither deep nor high, a tenor with a brassy clarity. There he sat, quietly sipping his noodle soup, his shoulders folding slightly inward. It seemed to me he was only partially there in the restaurant, and I was observing only the outer frame of a human being. Finished, he slipped out of the restaurant and onto the invisible, slow-moving current of the city sidewalk that took him another three blocks to the doors of a modest brick building a handful of stories tall. He paused there for a brief moment, as if pricked into sudden awareness, and turned in my direction. I froze in my footsteps. Whether or not he saw or recognized me, I don’t know. Just as quickly, he pushed through the doors into his apartment, and my first official duty at Balconesto was complete.
The new-hire manual for Balconesto Enterprises was long, some sixty pages, printed on cream-colored expensive-looking paper and bound in pimpled leather; it was a rather satisfying thing to hold in your hands. The table of contents listed the following sections: “Our History”; “Our Purpose”; “Our Method”; “Your Role”; and “Code of Silence/Disciplinary Measures.” The final section was by far the longest.
To summarize: “Balconesto Enterprises is an organization whose origins are none of your business. Balconesto Enterprises is not a company in the strictest sense, rather an elaborate façade designed for the sole purpose of deceiving a single individual. Here is some information on Ron Buckland. Your role as ‘Associate’ is to pose as Ron Buckland’s co-worker in an insurance company. Who Ron Buckland is, other than your ‘co-worker,’ is none of your business. Occasionally, you will perform surveillance on Ron Buckland in a non-office setting. You are not to disclose the true nature of your job or of Balconesto Enterprises to Ron Buckland, or anyone else, or discuss with your co-workers the organization’s purpose. If you break this silence it means big trouble for you and perhaps people whom you know. This assignment will last for an indefinite period of time.”
I was 27 when I responded to the classified ad looking for an actor. I had done some theater in college a number of years before, playing minor parts here and there in a few mediocre black-box productions, and I figured I could fudge up my resume enough to get an interview. I didn’t have a particular talent for acting, but there was something about the camaraderie of theater that I liked. I was comfortable in those days, hanging safely in the pockets between the small, warm clusters of friends. Decent or lousy, the performance of the play never really mattered that much to me; I was in it for everything that led up to opening night, the collective heave to put something together as a group. Also, beautiful and almost beautiful women were always involved.
I was living alone in a studio apartment buried in the middle of the city, and I had just gotten out of the latest in a series of tepid relationships. Some of the women, girls, were genuine souls and others were not, but equally they faded from my life with little fanfare. I had a few friends, but none that I saw that often. For money, I worked temp jobs until, after a couple of months, I would inevitably lose interest and quit. I cooked calzones in a pizzeria; I read manuscripts for a publishing house; I handed out flyers for mattress store events. I wasn’t moving forward, but you couldn’t really say I was stuck. Stuck in what?
So I answered the ad about an actor. I was ushered to a windowless room in the basement of a large office building, where I filled out a test proctored by a petite, professional woman with a slow southern accent. She was three colors: the violent red of her hair, the pale white of her skin, and the almost absurd black of her skirt-suit. There was something magnetic about her, and it wasn’t just the drawl. Red heads always have a secret. I tried making eyes at her a couple of times but she either didn’t notice or chose to ignore me.
The test seemed to be aimed at determining the level of my morality. Most of the items presented complicated scenarios and asked me simple yes or no questions. Would I save a raccoon’s life if it involved transporting the animal in my car? What if the animal hospital were two hours away? Would you impersonate a celebrity and visit a dying child? Would you do it for an elderly citizen? At the end of the test there was a blank page and instructions to draw what you might see from the banks of a river. I closed my eyes and saw it. Scattered trash, snow mixed with dirt but a daisy or two. A hulk of glass and brick. I have always been good at following directions.
Within a week I received word that I would be working as an Associate at Balconesto Enterprises. They gave me the manual, which I skimmed, and told me to shave my beard and put a press on my slacks. Would I have questions, they wanted to know? No. My convictions, such as they were, did not clash with large-scale organized deception.
I arrived to work at the sham Balconesto Enterprises, found my name on a plaque outside the cubicle at which I would perform my sham duties, and noted with piqued interest that the plaque on the cubicle across from mine read Ron Buckland, Associate.
My first week at Balconesto Enterprises was spent attending a series of orientation meetings for new hires. A rotating roster of supervisors handed out packets and droned on about their respective departments, masterfully replicating the starched monotony of a real office job. I learned where the copier was and how to use it; the ins and outs of the interoffice mailing system; the acceptable timeframe for taking a lunch break; what staircase to use in case of a fire. It was all so achingly authentic. Not a single hint of falsity.
The new hires ate lunch together that first week in the cafeteria on the ground floor of the office building. The walls of the dining area were glass windows through which you could watch the foot traffic on the city avenue, with women in high-heels strafing eastward or westward, and men in black and blue suits gauging their reflections in the glass. As far as I could tell, it was a real cafeteria; at least, the food was real enough. Each day I fished for a glimpse of acknowledgment in the register lady’s face. None ever came.
There were four of us, myself and three women, and we sat at a small round table in the center of the cafeteria. Janet was middle-aged and frumpy and spoke in nervous chirps, alluding to an animal named Herman at home. She wore heavy bracelets that knocked on the table when she gestured. Miranda was a tall blonde who, from a certain angle, looked like she might have been pulled straight from a swimsuit catalog. Another angle, though, revealed a purplish birthmark discoloring a large portion of the left side of her face. Despite (or perhaps because of) the birthmark, she was a physically imposing woman, and she moved with an accommodating deliberateness that suggested she welcomed the lingering glances she received from most of the men that would pass by her. I imagined her previous acting experience included a commercial for winter gloves, complete with fake snow and wooden reindeer set. Of course they’d make sure to film her from strategic angles. The official new-hire manual explicitly forbade inter-office romantic involvement.
I guessed Claire to be in her late twenties, her intense shyness innate but amplified, I assumed, from the pressures of the role-play. She sat to my right, barely touching the food on her plate, swallowing hard whenever she was directly addressed. Her knee bounced up and down. A narrow, not-quite-smooth nose poked gamely from a round, flat face. I caught her eye once and she turned away, revealing a pale, slender, and freckled neck. It made me wonder how we, any of us, end up where we do.
We talked in the way that new co-workers talk, offering safe bits of commentary on the architecture of the office and comparing the length of our commutes. We laughed, easy and small, and made soft stabs at our plates. Being the only man in the group both excited and stunted me; I liked the lack of competition, but the pressure I felt as a warm fault line on my scalp. I was the only producer of testosterone at the table, which meant something, though I wasn’t sure exactly what. Despite my aspirations, I was never equal to the role of Don Juan.
“It’s not as bad as I thought it would be,” Miranda said one afternoon, and I agreed, perhaps too quickly. She was looking down at her plate of macaroni and cheese, and I suddenly was unsure if she meant what I thought she meant.
Claire nodded and smiled. “No, it isn’t” she said, looking like she wanted to add more. She went on smiling. I felt better.
One by one, we emptied our trays into the trashcan at the corner of the dining hall. When Claire’s tray slipped from her hand and fell into the trash, I clucked my tongue and said, as Humphrey Bogart, “Farewell, my lovely!” The sound of my voice like this, and Claire’s spritely giggle, caused a warmth in my chest.
Every week I’d receive a manila envelope in the mail containing my instructions. They were very simple and clear, ensuring that there was no room for misinterpretation, which I appreciated. The instructions were typewritten on Balconesto Enterprises stationery.
I admit that at rare moments I considered how ridiculous the whole situation was, my life. Ultimately, though, it didn’t matter. I was a part of something big and absurd. I was the perfect mirror of any other twenty-something office worker. From morning until night, I lived somebody else’s life, and I lived it seamlessly. But I didn’t mean it, this kind of living, and something in this truth felt heroic.
I had taken to following Miranda. At first, it was only around the office. She’d emerge from her cubicle for a trip to the restroom, or to get a Coke from the machine in the break room, and I’d track her with my eyes. If she went out for a quick afternoon walk around the block, I’d get up and follow her, careful not to be seen. And then, after work, I shadowed her down the busy city streets. It was three blocks north, then three west to the subway. I’d get in the next car over, careful to get a view through the window. From the underground subway to her apartment building she walked with swift, confident steps, her hair bouncing back and forth girlishly in a ponytail that she always fixed during the subway ride. I wondered if this was how you walked if you were coming home to somebody, and not just your apartment. I watched her arrive safely and key in. It was voyeurism, absolutely, but there wasn’t anything aggressive about it. I was gently following her, gently observing. I stayed perfectly fixed in my orbit. There was a kind of love in it. […]
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Doug Cornett is a writer and high school teacher living in Portland, Oregon. He was awarded the Denise Marcil Prize for fiction at Skidmore College, as well as first prize in the 2015/16 William Van Dyke Short Story Contest from Ruminate Magazine. His fiction has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes. His work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Lime Hawk, Fiction Southeast, Permafrost Magazine, and elsewhere. In 2016, he will be a monthly blogger for Ploughshares.
Read More: A brief interview with Doug Cornett