Fiction: Cocoon

Read More: A brief interview with Sam White

I was thirty and underemployed. Three days a week, I worked for Gary Reynolds at his brownstone downtown. I answered the phone, booked him for readings and guest lectures, fended off the company that hounded him for his cable bill. The rest of the time I kept open my own browser tabs. I read about the biggest battles of the Eastern Front, grad programs, and climate change. For a while it felt like reading the news was adjacent to work. Later I realized Gary didn’t care what I did beyond my meagre duties. 

I sat at the dining room table, surrounded by his massive bookshelves, while he worked in his nearby study. Every once in a while he’d come out, make us a fresh pot of coffee, ask if anything came in. It rarely did. From time to time I heard him having sex with his wife, upstairs. Then he came down in his bathrobe and sent me to get us a marvellous lunch from the fancy prepared food store on the corner. I was a vegetarian but not at work. It felt like a waste not to eat the Iberian ham, the candied salmon, the quiche Lorraine, as well as impolite. The lunch and the sex sounds both came with the job. Gary had no idea how to use a computer. I was stuck in place, but I didn’t mind. 

“What’s this? What am I looking at?” He shouted, from the other room. He probably did this three times a day.

“Mr. Reynolds,” I told him, “only you can see your screen.”

“You know what I mean.” 

I think he thought this kind of shorthand suggested an aspiration to productivity, of speed of work. 

“This is a spam message.” 

“I know, but why am I getting it? Who’s sending it?”

“No one is sending it,” I told him. “Another computer is sending it.” 

“Who’s reading it?”

“No one is reading it, Mr. Reynolds. You don’t need to read it either.”

Gary had won awards for his novels years ago. They were all about professors of immensely important subjects who dealt with the rigours of the world by sleeping with their female students. Sometimes, the professors were embarrassed by scandal and returned to kneel in front of their long-suffering wives in shame. As impossible as it was to imagine his hirsute body naked, I think a part of me was offended Gary never tried a stunt like that on me. 

I think his books were all about the impossibility of America, or the humiliation of aging, I don’t know. I hadn’t read them. My friends all mocked the books when we went for brunch, but I could tell they were impressed by the job. It was a lucky gig in that it spoke of future importance. Was adjacent to gravitas, to a household name. I could barely pay my rent, but the ledger of my future was growing every day. The problem was that I had no writing of my own. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to write. I just wanted to see my friends, apply to endless grad programs, and think about climate change. Just like Gary probably imagined, but we never talked about it. 

Gary and I sat in our spaces and coexisted, like a starfish and an eel in a coral reef. When I had applied to become his assistant, Gary had an office uptown. A staff, some kind of charity that folded right before I started. I suspected he kept me on for my patience. I had no problem grading his student papers, forging his signature, helping him find a browser tab he thought was lost forever. Times had changed. His new work was about the digital generation, the loss of privacy. It used expressions like “Cray cray,” “Woke,” and “Meme.” I was his link to the new world. Later I found out he had stopped paying rent on the office for two years, and that’s how he ended up working from the brownstone. 

The phone rang.

“Mr. Reynolds owes thirty thousand dollars. Put him on.” 

The voice on the other end was reedy and male. 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Reynolds is not available right now. Can I take a message?”

“Tell him this is Nixon Commercial Payment. He needs to pay, or he’s going to be sued.”

“Will do. Thank you.” 

Gary was sleeping in the study, upright, in his office chair. The study used to be a bedroom, you could tell. Books and old brown-ringed coffee cups and magazines sat on all the surfaces, in the honeyed light through the thin blinds, the blue glare of his CRT monitor.

“Mr. Reynolds.”

I touched him lightly on the shoulder. His eyes opened without a hint of surprise or shame as his fingers returned to the keyboard. Gary always told me that sleep was a crucial part of the writer’s process. I wasn’t sure he was even wrong.  

“Mr. Reynolds, that was the collections agency.”

“Yes?”

“They say you need to pay them thirty thousand dollars or you’re going to be sued.”

He waved a hand in the air, took a sip of cold coffee the colour of gunmetal. 

“The next time he calls, just hang up immediately. As fast as you can. As soon as you recognize the voice. Don’t even bother talking to him, that’s how they get their claws in.”

Gary’s concept of business was based around two fundamental tenets: harangue everyone who owes you money to pay as soon as possible, and hold off payments of your own as long as you can. He told me that this was the only way to keep things even keel, like sleep. I used to nap at work myself, in the lull around 3:15PM, when the quiche and prosciutto was sitting deepest in my intestine, when the news cycle had slowed and the end of the day was still below the horizon. I napped upright at my laptop in the dining room. Sometimes the two of us would nap at the same time, like kindergartners, in our separate adjoining spaces. One time he caught me. He just laughed, made a joke about the late nights of youth. Told me not to let his wife see me doing that, which I didn’t understand, because he was the one who was my boss. 

The phone woke me from just such a nap the next day.  

“Is this Stephanie?”

“It is.”

“It must be really sad, to just be a receptionist. I wonder how much you make.”

I tried to place the voice.

“I—“

“Tell Gary Reynolds to give us a call back at Nixon Commercial Payment, about the thirty thousand dollars he—”

I hung up the phone. I sat there, too shocked to do anything but open up a New York Times tab. Told myself I’d try to recognize the voice sooner. Late twenties, early thirties. It was the voice of a guy who had exactly five polyester button down shirts in his closet. The kind of guy who bought things from ads on podcasts. The kind of guy who had one four year relationship, had been single for five more, and gave romantic advice to his exactly two friends, both virgins who worked in IT, as they shared domestic beers and wings every Friday night. The kind of guy who told them his wisdom as if his own virginity hadn’t regrown like some kind of malignancy. 

“Call them,” Gary told me, when I went into the study. That was his response to any issue, his wisdom from an earlier era of more direct communication. “Tell them to stop. Didn’t I tell you to hang up right away?”

My hands were shaking.

“He speaks so fast, I didn’t recognize him.”  

“Stephanie, I’ve been around a long time. These people are paid to be as nasty as possible. Don’t even treat it like a real person on the other end. Just like those spam messages, right? Which reminds me, I’d love it for you to look at my filters again, because I’m just getting so much. No one’s actually caught me doing anything on my webcam, like they say, have they? Not that I’ve done anything. Do I have a webcam?”

“No, Mr. Reynolds.”

untitled

The calls came every day, at various times. “Gary Reynolds’s office,” I said. The voice always darted in as fast as possible, knowing I was about to hang up. 

“Good morning, Stephanie. You sound especially tired today,” or,

“I saw your picture on LinkedIn, Stephanie. It doesn’t look so great,” or,

“If it isn’t the world’s greatest receptionist.”

For a while I entertained the idea that Gary was making the calls from his study as some kind of test. But the voice was too different, too mock-confident for Gary’s willowy bluster. I began to dread picking up the phone, like a cook who gets burned every time she turns on the stove. I knew the calls didn’t actually matter outside work. It was just the most stressful thing in a life I’d carefully designed to have as little responsibility as possible. Besides, when I went for brunch with my friends on the weekends, they all seemed to have it worse at their startups and software development jobs: sexual harassment, micromanagement, lay-offs. For me, save for the daily moment of panic, it was all very placid: the walk up Gary’s leafy driveway in the morning, the reboot to his computer that would fix everything, the Polish lady at the prepared foods counter asking, “anything else?” 

I never called. One day I was standing at the sink when Gary’s wife Cecilia came in. It was a rare occurrence. I must have been washing the same mug for five minutes, thinking about all the horrible things I was going to do to Aaron Green – I had found his name on the Nixon Commercial website – if I ever saw him in real life.

“Stephanie?” 

Cecilia was standing at the dining room table, looking at my laptop screen. 

“Is everything alright? Hmm?” 

I turned off the sink and just stood there, praying I hadn’t left a tab open: Paris Agreement emissions targets, erotic fiction, or, most shamefully, the job listings. She removed her gloves from her tiny perfect fingers, began uncoiling the pins in her hair. Gary was a known quantity. But everything about his wife smacked of upward mobility, expensive, gritty soap, a good night’s sleep. Everything that was both above me and below me at that time. She was probably two or three months away from “saving” me with an associate’s role at her consulting firm, something that made me both fear and resent her. I didn’t know if I was too good for it, or if it was too good for me. To my surprise, I held back tears while I sat down and told her everything about the calls. 

“That is unacceptable. Unprofessional. I’ll phone them and raise a fuss. You shouldn’t have to deal with that.”

I closed the laptop. 

“Thank you, Ms. Wong.”

Thirty minutes later, I heard her and Gary upstairs, their headboard banging against the wall over muffled bodily sounds. But she must have called. I didn’t hear from Aaron Green for a week, and when I did, he sounded chastened, smaller somehow:

“Please pass on a message that we are trying to reach him from Nixon Commercial—”

“Go away.” 

I slammed down the receiver like I was squashing an insect, like I was a scientist washing away a petri dish full of paramecia after my experiment’s funding ran out. But before long, the calls grew bold again. Aaron began commenting on Gary’s lame website, my voice, even the quality of Gary’s books, in the second before I hung up. 

I could tell the job gave Aaron Green a kind of pleasure, which made me imagine the sort of person he had to be. I found Nixon Commercial on Facebook, saw the photos from the sad holiday party in their windowless office in post-industrial Hamilton. The lumpen payroll administrators slumping over a bedraggled sheet cake. The cubicles full of headset-wearing divorcés. I spent hours on research, anything to avoid reading Gary’s manuscript, which he had left on the dining room table one morning with a cheerful note – (“don’t be too harsh!”). In the pictures, I couldn’t find Aaron Green, or anyone who looked the way he sounded, but it gave me pleasure to imagine his misery there. More pleasure at least than my disappointing weekly app dates, my home-cooked zucchini on quinoa, the latest IPCC report. 

At the beginning of spring, Gary invited me out for lunch. I wanted to tell him to save his money, pay Nixon to end my anxiety, but I didn’t. It was the first time I’d ever been invited to La Banane, with its swooping architectural ceiling and tweezer-fussed entrees. For all I know it would it be the last. Gary looked so out of place with his threadbare wool sweater, the swirl of gray-black hair around the temples, the crumby beard. Like he was my uncle visiting from the sticks, and I was showing him a taste of city life. 

“So,” he said, and laid his fork on a half-eaten plate of meringue. “We’ve really enjoyed you working for us. You’re polite, efficient, you have good taste.”

Here it was. The money had run out, and my shining, impressive connection was fading into just another pale dot in the firmament of anecdotes I’d have to tell. 

“You do a lot for me, but I always want to give something back to my staff. Something more than the money,” he said, with a disdainful wave of the hand that almost knocked over his water glass. “I know I can seem busy and self-absorbed, but I’m ready to hear about your plans. If you want a reader, I’m happy to take a look at your writing. I can pass it over to my agent with a good word. I might be having trouble with this book, but I’d like to think I still have some pull.”

I had nothing to say because I hadn’t written anything. I sipped my wine, fussed with my napkin with the other hand. 

“Thank you, Mr. Reynolds. That’s really generous.”

“You can call me Gary, Stephanie – this isn’t exactly a formal operation we’re running here.”

“Of course. I—”

He raised a hand. 

“Before you continue, I just want to say: even I was afraid of sharing my work, when I was your age. It feels like a colonoscopy. But you have to let go at some point. I know you’ve been cooking something up with your extra time off. I see—” here he twirled his fingers around his eyeballs “—the hamster running on the wheel. Anyway, I shouldn’t interrupt. Go ahead.”

I hated to see how excited he was. How ready for his cocooned protégé to bloom and rise on sticky wings. The problem was I was only just realizing he saw me that way. Besides, I was happy in the cocoon.

“I do have something,” I lied with an embarrassed smile. “But it needs more work. You’re a real mentor to me, and I want it to be ready.”

He was inspecting the check, taking out a credit card that was doubtlessly almost maxed. 

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. One other thing: those gargoyles, from collections? Don’t even think about them. They’ll go away.”

“Why don’t you just pay them, Mr. Reynolds? It’s been months. It’s a lot of money and honestly, it concerns me.”

“Oh, I will. It’s just that things have been a little tight. I’m, well, there are a few things that need to clear. That’s my problem, and you,” He stabbed a finger on the polished wood table, “need to work on your writing. The things that make you happy. We all do. In the meantime, say whatever you want to them when they call. ‘Did someone drop you on the head as a child?’ That kind of thing. Treat it as your canvass.”

Gary’s book didn’t sell. New prescriptions appeared in their medicine cabinet. His wife spent more time at work. He spent more time napping. When I went to wake him, I started seeing old clippings on his desk from the time when people read newspapers. Book reviews, interviews, awards shortlists. I sat bolt upright in the dining room all day, waiting for the phone to ring. I drank cup after cup of coffee and searched for new jobs, just as scared of the moment when he’d let me go as I was of the calls. 

Thirty thousand dollars was an unimaginable amount of money to me at that time. It was the kind of money that put houses at risk, folded outfits, birthed bankruptcy proceedings. Gary was like a minor baron in 18th century Russia who had angered the Tzar, and I was his serf, waiting to be turfed off the land to wander forever and eat only boiled potatoes. When Cecilia came home at night with nice bottles of wine, when I saw the lavish dinners they were cooking as I put on my shoes to leave, I imagined that they were like the functionaries in Hitler’s bunker, raiding the pantries, living high while the inevitable approached. 

“Stephanie, my favourite Stephanie, can I ask you something?”

I stared ahead at the sink full of dishes and held the phone in my hand.

“Aaron Green, you’re a miserable piece of shit. Yes, I know your name.”

“Don’t be cute with me. I’m really curious. Let me ask you a question.”

“Go ahead, asshole.”

“Every day, when I hear your voice, you sound a little more tired,” he said. “You sound a little older. When you were little, did you grow up wanting to be a receptionist, or did you want to be something else? You must have had dreams at some point. Do you ever wish you’d made them happen instead of sitting there? Cause if it were me, I would wish those things. If it were me, I’d be just as disappointed as you sound. I’d be tired too. Hello?”

I hung up the receiver, shaking with anger. I threw my phone in my purse, put on my shoes, and took the streetcar home without saying goodbye to Gary. And when I walked through my door, I put down my bag, picked up my laptop, and started writing. I sat on my couch, oblivious to the hours as they passed. I moved to the bed and laid with the computer perched on my knees, I went and crouched on the floor. I wrote about a girl who grew up in a small town with an alcoholic father who was absent except when he showed up to school without wearing pants. He shuffled her out the door with a fake ID to buy him Vodka. She endured the online mockery of her classmates, and hit the books. I stuffed matzah crackers into my dry mouth as the sun went down and wrote about her decision to leave the town and her boyfriend, the only one who understood, to drive into the city and find her life. And as I wrote, I began to feel I was writing myself out of my whole situation, into the book that Gary had failed to write, and into the future. 

In the morning, I shuddered my way to the laptop to find five-thousand words. I drank a glass of orange juice. I did yoga. I meditated. I looked at the birds through the window and called Gary to thank him for the opportunity but said I was moving on. When I went back to the computer I was ready to keep writing. What’s more, I hadn’t thought about climate change even once. 

Except I didn’t do any of that. 

No, I left Gary’s brownstone and took the streetcar to my mother’s house to borrow her car. The debt was all I could think about. That, and the need to confirm that Aaron Green hated his life. If he didn’t, I would make him, because he didn’t know anything about me but I knew everything about him. I just needed to see his weedy frame and cheap polyester shirts in person. I pulled onto the QEW and drove, skipping through the radio with my free hand and speeding. I peeled into the outskirts of Hamilton, drove slowly through the endless office parks with no idea what I was going to do. At some point, I don’t remember when, I stopped to buy a birthday cake. My veins were full of blood and iced coffee when I walked through the glue-stained doors of Nixon Commercial’s office to stand in front of the receptionist.

Her eyes barely left her phone until I spoke and held the cake up by the twine like a trophy fish.

“I’m here to surprise Aaron Green!” 

“Oh!” she said, with a level of surprise I registered with a slight triumph. “I didn’t know it was his birthday, or that he had a—”

“Yes, it is, and he does. Where does he sit?” […]


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Sam White is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s M.A. in Creative Writing program, where White worked under the mentorship of Charles Foran. Sam has appeared in Toronto-based publications including Double Dot and Ephemera. White’s story, ‘Tesseract Man,’ was shortlisted for the CBC’s Short Story Prize in English in 2009.