The Middle Drawer

by: Chris Thompson

The hollow hum of the overhead fluorescence, the idle potential of cubicles repeated end on end, what strange things come to the office space late at night….

Mac stood staring off blankly at the featureless office wall. It was somehow grey, if white could be grey, robbed of its life by the stale glow of the overhead fluorescent lights. Mac rubbed his tired eyes. It was late. Last call at the bar late, and everyone else in the office had already gone home. You fool, Mac thought. A week off for holiday break and here you are making copies instead of heading to the Royal Palms for drinks and trying to get that red-headed bartender to kiss you. 

Mac sighed and loaded another stack of the S.P.T. reports into the photocopier tray. They had to be filed in triplicate; one copy sent to the home office in Kansas City, one copy left to stay here, locked in the building’s creepy basement with all the other annual reports, and the final copy to be sent out to the individual clients. This latest stack comprised all the West coast clients. Mainly wealthy California and Arizona retirees. California, Mac thought, closing his eyes and imagining sunny beaches, crashing waves of surf and fish tacos. One day I’ll go. The photocopier released a protesting whine as the fresh stack of S.P.T. reports passed heavily over its aging scanner bed. Mac wished his tightfisted boss Brad had taken his advice and bought the office a new photocopier last year. Instead, he had given all the senior-level managers bonuses and taken them out for dry-aged steaks. Mac adored dry-aged steaks, but he loved the idea of a working copier even more. The rickety machine beeped momentarily as if in agreement with Mac’s lament before returning to its characteristic sequence of hums and groans. Mac stared down at the catch tray as it spit out copy after copy of the mind-numbing reports. He found the machine’s plaintive whine a perfect encapsulation of how he currently felt.

Mac was about to stretch his aching back, break his tether to the struggling machine and take a stroll around the office when a sudden clanging noise like a wrench striking a pipe startled him. Glaring down at the photocopier, Mac watched in irritation as the red ‘Paper Jam’ error message blinked on and off. “Dammit!” Mac swore. He set his lukewarm cup of instant coffee atop the photocopier and bent down to peer inside its warm, shadowed innards. As he bent down, his back sent a protesting ripple of spasms up his spine. I need to get a massage, Mac thought for the tenth time that day, even though he knew he never would. The thought functioned more as a security blanket for his woes than a call to action. It was a broken mantra and he leaned on it daily.

Reaching out with his left hand, Mac felt around inside the photocopier until he found the handle for the toner. With a grunt he pulled the rigid block of plastic free and stuck his slender fingers into the paper advance tray behind it. Like a multi-headed bloodhound, his fingers sniffed out the source of the jam, passing in a wide arc across the darkened depths of the paper feed tray. Unable to locate the offending piece of paper, Mac felt like a ham-handed surgeon as he shoved all the pieces of the decrepit photocopier back together again. He stood up and wiped his hand across his striped wool slacks, leaving a streak of powdered toner and grit across their pleated front. He hit the photocopiers Power button in an attempt to reset the jam and waited for the machines high-pitched startup whine. Instead, the machine sat idle and dark, a dense block of wasted inertia and metal. Angrily, Mac stabbed at the Power button with his right index finger, hammering at its round plastic form until it flew off of the machine, arcing through the air and bounding into the shadows beneath a nearby desk.

“Just great!” Mac exclaimed with an abrupt surge of anger, pounding the top of the photocopier with his balled-up fists. The force of his assault toppled his styrofoam cup of coffee, its black-brown contents spilling across the beige plastic of the photocopier’s top. Mac watched in slow-motion horror as the liquid fell, like a shadowy, caffeinated waterfall, over the photocopier’s edge, heading towards the catch tray where the still warm copies of the SPT reports lay. As Mac watched the liquid drip downward, he noticed that the top page in the catch tray didn’t look like a SPT report. It was on an 8.5 by 11 inch piece of paper, but that was where the similarity ended. Instead of lines of obscure, numerical-laden text and figures, the stark white paper had a large black circle covering the entirety of its center. And Mac’s coffee, rather than pouring down the catch tray to soak the photocopied SPT reports below, gurgled softly like water draining down a sink as it flowed across the white expanse of paper, disappearing over the edge of the black circle into the darkness that made-up its from. What the hell? Mac thought, cocking his head slightly to absorb the curious new development.

He took the strange piece of paper from the top of the photocopiers catch tray and held it up before him. He turned the paper around in his outstretched hand, taking in both its sides. The back of the page was blank and to him it merely appeared to be an unremarkable piece of paper with a black circle on one side. Mac pulled free the bite-marked #2 Dixon Ticonderoga pencil he kept behind his ear and brought its pointed tip up to the circle’s center. He paused for a moment as a wave of uneasiness washed over him, but his curiosity swiftly dissipated its surging effect. Like a feather falling through the air, Mac pushed the pencil effortlessly through the center of the black hole. Turning the page slightly, he looked to see if the pencil had come out on the other side. It hadn’t. Hot damn, Mac thought.

As he stared wide-eyed at the pencil disappearing through the paper, Mac’s stomach rumbled, reminding him of its displeasure with his eating habits. He had worked through dinner again. Glancing to his left, Mac saw Carol’s tidy desk with its neatly arranged trinkets and various photos of her pet chihuahua, Rex. Carol was his boss’s secretary. She was portly and smelled of rose perfume and kept a cache of cookies and sweets locked in the top drawer of her desk. She was also mean and had recently gotten his only friend in the office, Gene, fired. Bingo, Mac thought, his tongue flicking out momentarily to whet his dry lips.

Placing the pencil back behind his ear, Mac walked over to Carol’s desk. Like a plow clearing a street of snow, he swung his arm across its cluttered top, emptying an area directly above the top drawer of its tacky figurines. Pulling a length of invisible tape from Carol’s bright pink dispenser, Mac affixed the paper down to the top of the desk. He hovered his fingers for a moment in quiet hesitation above the black circle as he steeled his resolve. Then he thrust his hand through the page up to his wrist.

Mac’s hand instantly felt electrified, like it was plugged into an outlet in the wall. Stinging waves of warmth radiated up his arm as he felt around in the drawer. Almost immediately, his fingers felt the unmistakable wrapper of a candy bar and clutching like a claw at its prize, Mac pulled his hand free of the black circle to reveal a 3 Musketeers. “Yessss!” Mac exclaimed, a look of intense satisfaction spreading across his face as he unwrapped the candy bar’s silver wrapper. He bit into its soft, chocolatey nougat, closing his eyes and making a gentle Mmmmmm-ing sound as he devoured the sweet confection in several bliss-filled bites.

What else can I do? Mac thought as he looked around the office. It was filled with several unremarkable rows of cubicles. There were a few larger offices along the walls, mostly for the more senior managers with three letter names like Jim and Pam and Don, but there was also the big corner-window office where his boss Brad worked. Mac pulled the piece of paper up from Carol’s desk and walked over to the closest row of cubicles. He stopped in front of Yuki’s desk. She was from South Korea and was doing an internship at the company for the Fall semester. She was pretty and Mac hadn’t gotten up the nerve to tell her that yet, so he reached down and grabbed a yellow Post-It note and a black magic marker from her desk and wrote on it big block letters: I THINK YOU ARE PRETTY – MAC. He turned around and taped the piece of paper with the black hole to the small metal locker in Yuki’s cubicle where she kept her personal belongings. Still holding the Post-It note, he put his hand through the black hole and into the shallow locker. Barely in up to his elbow, Mac found the cool metal at the back of the locker and with his thumb and forefinger, affixed the Post-It note to the back of its wall. That’ll get her attention, Mac thought. I bet she’ll wonder how I did that.

Flush with an excitement borne of mischief and a break from the routine, Mac’s gaze turned to his boss’s office. Brad was hyper protective of his personal office and he took few meetings there. He preferred to discuss things out in the open, or if when privacy was absolutely necessary, he used one of the managers’ offices that lined the outer walls. Mac had always wanted to know what it felt like to stand inside Brad’s office and he was curious how that fancy leather chair behind his desk with the high sides like a throne felt to sit in. He also wanted to know what Brad kept in that giant filing cabinet he had across from his desk. The one with the extra-wide drawers that a person could easily sleep in. Everyone in the office wanted to know the answer to that question.

Mac strode briskly across the office space to Brad’s door. Across its front, written in capitalized golden script, were his name and title: BRAD CUMMMINGS, DISTRICT SUPERVISOR. Below that, in smaller letters just as striking, were the words: KEEP OUT! Mac taped the piece of paper besides the locked door handle and reached his arm through the door. Bending his hand and elbow upwards, he unlocked the doors deadbolt and opened the handle from the inside. As the door sung inward, Mac was met by the rich aroma of sandalwood and something else that Mac couldn’t quite place. It reminded him of his childhood growing up in Brooklyn, like warm pavement after it had rained, only sweeter. As he stepped into Brads office, the motion sensors activated the overhead lights and Mac froze. It was instinctual, borne of the knowledge that he was trespassing on what his boss considered sacred ground. But Mac knew no one would be back until the following Monday, so he continued forward.

Brad’s desk and high-backed leather chair stood before Mac, tantalizing him with their seductive power, but Mac was more interested in the unremarkable filing cabinet. It seemed out of place in an office as well appointed and modern-looking as Brads. Every morning when his boss came into work he adhered to a strict routine, and the beginning of that routine was always the same. Brad would cross the open expanse of the office space, exchanging a few minor pleasantries with those whom he liked, and a furrowed brow to those he didn’t, and then he would open his office door and head straight to the extra-wide filing cabinet. Pulling out a keychain that jingled and betrayed his presence a few seconds before he walked into any room, his boss would unlock the middle, waist-high drawer of the cabinet and just stare down into it for at least ten minutes. He did this everyday, for as long as anyone who worked at the office could remember.

Mac and his officemates were insanely curious as to what was in the drawer, but no one had ever approached it close enough to peer inside. Furthermore, Brad would not even remotely discuss the topic when people tried to steer the conversation its way. It was office rumor that when Brad pulled the drawer open, a light would shine up and illuminate the surrounding metal with a warm, even glow, but no one had been able to definitely figure out why. Why would you have a light in a filing cabinet drawer? And more importantly, why would you stare at it every morning to start your workday? Mac pondered these questions for the thousandth time as he crossed the office floor, mirroring the collective curiosity of his officemates. As he stood before the filing cabinet, he noticed that it wasn’t just a nondescript wall-unit made of aluminum and steel. Seemingly etched into its silver-green metal was a barely visible complex pattern of repeated golden stars, like the Middle-eastern geometric art he had seen recently at his dentist’s office in a back-issue of National Geographic magazine. Mac ran his fingertips over the fine, repeated pattern, but the metal was smooth to the touch, like the pattern was a part of the metal as opposed to being added to it after. It was a curious artistic flair for something as simple as an office filing cabinet and Mac chalked it up to Brad’s exquisite taste and his desire to make even a filing cabinet seem luxurious. Raising the piece of paper to his waist, Mac taped it to the center of the middle drawer. The height of the black hole would make it a simple exercise to reach his arm inside and take a feel around.

The first time Mac pulled his hand free of the middle drawer, he held in his hand an infinitely soft, purple velvet pouch. Upon opening it he found it to be filled with what looked like ancient golden coins. There was a rough face in profile of a strong-browed man with a crown of leaves on one side and a seven-pointed star with an eye in its center on the other. Mac had never seen a coin like this before and he pondered its significance as he held it in his hand. The second time he pulled his hand free of the drawer, he cradled in his palm a delicate, jewel-encrusted egg like he had seen in museums. It was purple and blue with thin ribbons of silver and gold that seemed as if they were woven from silken thread. The third time he pulled his hand free, he held out a stunningly-cut yellow diamond the size of a golfball. As he held it up to the fluorescent light, it sparkled and shone, radiating the office’s harsh fluorescence into a spectrum of colors that dazzled his eyes. Mac thought it was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.

Mac’s head swum with the possibilities these newfound riches could afford him if he were to just take them all and walk away. He would never have to work again. He could leave today, hop on a plane and live-out comfortably the rest of his days in opulence and wealth. He could cash these newfound treasures in and maybe have enough money to buy the company he worked for and promptly fire Carol and Brad. Or better yet, he could hire them back once they came groveling for their jobs, and stick them on SPT report photocopying duties forever. Yeah, that was what I’ll do. Brad thought. I’ll make myself company President. Hire good old Gene back and make him District Supervisor instead of Brad and then I’ll make Yuki my senior VP. Tell her the news over our first date. Give her an expensive diamond ring and ask her to marry me right then and there. 

Daydreaming on the future was a fun exercise for Mac but after running out of ideas, he soon grew tired of it. He wasn’t a terribly imaginative person, but what he lacked in imagination he more than made up for in spirit and resolve. So on the fourth time Mac put his arm though the black hole, his strengths were put fully to the test. He hadn’t pulled out any riches or treasures this time, but instead his hand had settled around a pitted, dense block of cold metal that no matter how hard he tried, he could not budge. Mac wasn’t a strong person, but he wasn’t particularly weak either. He went to the gym a few times a week and went for a run after work most days. So when he couldn’t budge the block of metal he became obsessed with the reason why. He had remembered reading the other day that a bar of gold weighed-in at about twenty-seven pounds. That was the Good Delivery Bar and with the price of gold currently skyrocketing, Mac became transfixed on the idea that was what was inside.

Since he couldn’t move the block with one hand, Mac reached his other arm into the black hole as well. With two hands firmly grasping the block of metal, Mac still could not pull it free. It must be stuck, or tied down Mac thought and squatting down to put the black hole at eye-level, he stuck his head fully into the drawer. Now in up to his shoulders, he grasped the metal bar in the inky darkness with his two hands and firmly pulled with all his might. The bar began to shift slightly and excited, Mac planted his feet wider and pushed himself further into the drawer. Wrapping his hands tighter around the metal bar, Mac readied himself to pull on it but a loud noise like a slamming door suddenly caused him to lose his footing, pitching his entire frame fully through the black hole and into the filing cabinet drawer. In an instant Mac was engulfed in blackness, the dense bar of metal forgotten. Panicking, he tried to push his legs back out of the drawer but could not find the opening created by the black hole. Frantically he swung his legs around the drawers metal front, searching out the opening but to no avail. He managed to turn himself around so he lay parallel with the drawers length, his face facing the front of the drawer. With his two hands he frantically searched around in the darkness for the hole created by the black hole but he could not make it out. It was gone. The drawer was smooth and featureless and as he searched for a way out he became overcome with a sense of anxiety and fear. He was stuck. There was no way out. The filing cabinet drawer was sturdy and sound and no matter how much he pounded and banged at its sides, it wouldn’t budge. The long holiday break had arrived and it wouldn’t be for another nine days that the office would be open once again. I’m doomed, Mac thought as he pounded furtively at the drawer.

Five days later the main, glass-walled doors to the office opened with a futuristic swishhh and the holiday cleaning crew filed in. They were a weathered-looking bunch, mostly immigrants from Latin America scratching out a living cleaning offices and homes. They were cheap to hire and worked hard which was why Brad liked them despite the ornery nature of their mein.

The cleaning crew They were all similarly dressed in beige coveralls with a seven-pointed star with a blue eye in its center on their backs. Below it were the words Out of This World Cleaners and as they filed into the office, one of the men handed out plastic four-gallon buckets full of cleaning supplies and rags to each man. They spoke rapidly in their Latin tongues, laughing and carrying on as they spread about the place. They put on their headphones, turned on their vacuum cleaners and floor polishers and went about their specific jobs.

If they had paused for a moment before getting straight to work, they might have heard a faint pounding sound coming from the darkened corner office. And had they come to investigate, they might have found the white piece of paper with the black circle in its middle laying on the floor below the filing cabinet where it fell. But they did not, and soon they were done with their cleaning, collecting their wares and hauling out transparent bags of trash and recycling as they made their way on to the next room, and ultimately, to the Royal Palms where they’d celebrate the holiday over drinks and take turns trying to get the red-headed bartender to give out a kiss. It wouldn’t be for at least another four days that the office would again be teeming with the energies of the day to day rhythms of the business day. By that time however, the odds we pretty high that Mac would surely be dead.

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