Untitled #6, from the series Her Story, 2016. © Birthe Piontek

Untitled #6, from the series Her Story, 2016. © Birthe Piontek

 

About a Woman at Work

by Lindsay Fowler

About this woman at work: She’s the sort of person that must have a dark secret, a hidden past.

I’ve got a good intuition for this sort of thing. At my first job, I worked with a girl. I knew this girl had a secret the day she stormed into the office, mascara streaming, and threw her high-heeled shoes at the wall. I googled her then, and turned up a history of bomb threats and expulsion from high school.

I’d tell you to look it up, to fact-check me. I’d say I dare you, except this girl is not a part of our story, and her name is not for you to know.

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When I tell you about this woman at work, trust me when I say that she is the embodiment of misery. She will berate you until you cry, and then she’ll bring you chocolate, saying she can’t stand to see you sad.

The sound of her footsteps will freeze your insides.

You’ll take to ducking beneath your desk when you hear her coming.

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This woman at work will say that you can’t take lunch, because then who would be in the office to help her? Never mind that your boss will still be there.

This woman will call you late at night. Never mind that you’re union-represented, hourly staff, officially off the clock at five. In her voicemail, she’ll say it’s urgent. You won’t return her call, and will never learn what was so important.

This woman at work will wave her arm in front of your computer screen to interrupt your work.

She will tell you what to eat. She will tell you that you must drink seltzer water through a straw.

She will tell you, when you disagree with her, that you’re not allowed to have a different opinion. That you do not truly believe what you say. That you are only being oppositional.

She will promise you gifts of food or treats or money.

She will never deliver on these promises.  

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This woman at work has me feeling trapped, fraying at the ends, so I think about all the ways I can exact my revenge or rid myself of her.

I fantasize about getting knocked up so I can take maternity leave, about taking a shit on her office carpet, about fleeing the state, about scattering thumbtacks, pin tip up, right inside her office door.

(I do, after all, have the office’s master key.)

I schedule her for meetings that begin at seven in the morning.

When sick, I cough on her mail.

I dream that she’ll have a Significant Life Event. Nothing serious; just a minor stroke or aneurism, something to take her away from me for a year or so, maybe change her personality.

Pearls and Needles (found photograph with pins and beads) from the series Miss Solitude, 2017. © Birthe Piontek

Pearls and Needles (found photograph with pins and beads) from the series Miss Solitude, 2017. © Birthe Piontek

About this woman at work: She will scream that those old, unused files your boss had you throw away contained her life’s work, that you have ruined her. She will say this when no one is around to hear her, when no one can corroborate your account.

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You will take a stand, tell her she cannot speak to you that way.  She will then spend three months ignoring your existence, which is somehow worse than the alternative.

Your boss says that’s just the way she is.

Her boss will do nothing.

The ombudsperson will ask why you can’t change your desk or your hours.

She will take a month’s vacation and return with a smile, as though nothing ever happened.

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About this woman at work: I cringe at words that rhyme with her name. I shudder at the sight of her favorite color green.

I wonder what sort of misdemeanor might land me a few weeks’ vacation in a county jail.

I wonder why I can’t seem to rationally problem-solve my relationship with her. I wonder why no one can rein her in. I wonder if I’m getting out of hand.

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About this woman at work: I’m certain there’s evidence somewhere of intrigue, suspicious deaths, fraud, or money laundering. You don’t get to be this manipulative, this malicious, without having an unsavory past.

Maybe people are just as fed up with her as I am. Maybe someone will have exposed her. And so I google her name and return several hits.

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About this woman at work: let’s call her Cheryl Schiffler.

My search turns up Cheryl Schiffler: singer, songwriter, producer, composer, lyricist, model, dancer; Cheryl Schiffler, professor of South Asian and Women’s Studies. Cheryl Schiffler, who works at the Department of Homeland Security and is also a doctor in Shreveport. Then there’s Cheryl Schiffler, independent filmmaker. And don’t forget young Cheryl Schiffler, high school superstar athlete.

I am exhausted by all these Cheryls. They’re smart and athletic and artistic and none of them are mine. None of them give me what I’m looking for: the much-needed leg up, the salacious bit of gossip that will establish my moral superiority, that bit of dirt I can leverage to exact my emotionally devastating revenge on Cheryl. My Cheryl.

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The last Cheryl Schiffler I find stops my breath. She’s a cold case murder victim, shot in the head on her way to meet her estranged husband. She’s not my Cheryl, but it feels like she could be, or maybe like she’s the flip side of my Cheryl, the Cheryl my Cheryl could have been. All these Cheryls, and no one seems to have a bad thing to say about any of them. It feels like I’ve gone too far, like I’ve wantonly desecrated the dead. I stop my search.

Maybe all of these Cheryls are my Cheryl, the way they accordion fold onto each other.  

 

Published December 3rd, 2017


Lindsay Fowler holds her MFA in fiction from the University of Maryland. Her work has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Psychopomp, and Crack the Spine, amongst others. Lindsay co-hosts the Read Weird podcast, co-edits The Golden Key, and occasionally blogs at lindsayannfowler.com.



Born and raised in Germany, Birthe Piontek moved to Canada in 2005 after receiving her MFA from the University of Essen. Her work has been exhibited internationally and can be seen in publications including The New York Times Magazine, Le Monde, Wired, and The New Yorker. www.birthepiontek.com