Wondering what this hermit novel is all about? In this spoof teaser, a “crudely animated avatar meant to represent [main character] Finch” fills us in on the debut novel from Steve Himmer, coming out April 2011. Finch would do it himself but, like the avatar says, he’s under a seven-year vow of silence.
I knew I was about to be fired when the new submanager asked, “So what is it you do here, Mr. Finch?” Almost ten years in my job, nearly that many submanagers come and gone over time, and he was the first one to open my file or notice me working in his department. I’d had a long run of good luck.
“Brand awareness,” I said. “I’m assistant to the director of brand—”
“I know your title. But what do you actually do?” He tapped a fingertip hard on the manila folder spread open on his desk, and it made a sharp crack because there were only two or three sheets in my file including the résumé I’d applied with years earlier, when résumés were still sent on paper. My résumé looked almost as old as the new submanager, but if I updated it—when I updated it, the way that meeting appeared to be going—it wouldn’t change very much. There was only my current (for the moment) position to add, along with its start and end dates. A decade of my life would be condensed into a couple of lines aimed at convincing some other submanager in some other office to lay claim to my remaining years.
What could I tell him that he didn’t know, that it didn’t say in my slim file? I’d been charged by one of his predecessors with making our plastic plants (we preferred “hyperefficient” to “artificial”) into household names. My employers at Second Nature Modern Greenery envisioned a world in which trees and rosebushes reminded consumers of our reproductions and comparisons were made in our favor. “Look at the spots on those leaves,” we wanted the plant-buying public to say. “My Second Nature trees never have spots.”
When I’d started with the company, I spent my days writing letters to newspapers and trade magazines, sowing word of our products wherever I could. A letter to Paper Products Quarterly, for instance, about how breathtaking the new corporate headquarters of some company was, might mention in passing a potted plant spotted on the mezzanine level and refer to it as one of ours. Even if the actual plants in the actual building weren’t Second Nature, even if there weren’t any plants or mezzanines in the building at all, the brand might take root in the readers of that magazine.
Over time the arrows in my quiver changed. I frequented newsgroups about business and gardening and home decoration, trolling for any topic I could connect our greenery to, however tenuous that connection might be. A science fiction forum on which some green moon arose in conversation allowed me to mention our greenest of greens, and an argument about urban planning in some city I’d never been to became fertile ground on which to suggest hyperefficient trees for its traffic islands.
Later I kept dozens of weblogs, and post after post shared intimate memories of the imaginary lives I’d created. Sometimes my bloggers left comments on each other’s sites, and they commented on other sites, too, drawing more traffic and potential plant buyers into my marketing web. Unless those commenters weren’t actual people, but the inventions of others with jobs just like mine, the whole blogosphere a soapbox for a few busy schemers selling plastic palm trees and flavored milk drinks and guides to selling products online. Each of my imaginary bloggers had a backstory, a family or else an explainable absence of one; each had his or her own history of successes and failures. Second Nature’s viral campaign spanned the gamut of human behavior from borderline psychotic to contemplative, fractured English to erudition, and all of those voices and vices were mine.
And the more I said through my ciphers, the less I spoke in real life. My cube was in a far corner of the department, near some filing cabinets to which the keys had been lost, so apart from occasional walks to the bathroom and my twice-daily route between front door and desk, I was easy to miss. The faces changed around me without introduction, and in time no one knew who I was. There was no director of brand awareness for me to assist, and no one asked what I was doing. I’d been forgotten, become furniture in my far corner, and that’s how I held onto the job for as long as I did even after I’d stopped writing about Second Nature and had let my online shills take on lives of their own. Their weblogs grew longer, spanned months and then years as they made projects for high school and graduated from college, grumbled or raved about various jobs, and enjoyed visits from growing grandchildren. They took trips to Hawaii and endured bouts with cancer, enjoyed good days at work and suffered through awful blind dates. Some gave birth and others died, their comment inboxes filling with sympathy notes they would never read, but I read them all. Commenters asked where flowers could be sent, and others suggested—success!—Second Nature’s own hyperefficient arrangements.
Years went by offline, too. Computers and carpets upgraded around me, but always at night so I never saw how or by whom. The restaurant across the street from our office changed from sub shop to low-carb to noodles to salads, then back to sub shop again, and I ate whatever it sold. I gave up my newspaper subscription and read only the headlines from my browser’s home page, then I stopped reading news altogether because the headlines were the same ones they’d been all my life.
Sometimes I postdated a batch of blog posts so they’d appear across upcoming days, then I let my computer sleep as I sat at my desk doing nothing. I spent days watching a trickle of water rise up and wash over the cairn of reconstituted brown stone in my desktop fountain (a decoration I’d claimed after its owner, the woman in the cubicle beside me years earlier, never returned from vacation). The same few cubic inches of liquid flowed by me again and again, until the soft sound of water and the whir of the fountain’s electric pump carried my mind away from Second Nature and plastic plants to more or less nothing at all.
So for this new submanager to notice my name in his files, to ask himself what, exactly, I was being paid for out of his budget…it was less of a shock to be fired than to hear someone speaking my name, and to hear my telephone ring when he called me into his office. The shock was being reminded that I had a job so long since I’d actually done it.
First he took a stab at small talk, speculating about the year’s Wimbledon prospects for a player who had been retired a decade at least. Years earlier, before I had been forgotten, before this particular submanager’s time, a rumor had somehow started that I was a big tennis fan, which I wasn’t and never had been. One of the best things about being forgotten at work was the cessation of tennis-themed holiday cards and questions about tournaments and players I’d never heard of but felt obliged to offer cryptic opinions on each time I was asked. I had even taken to reading up on the world of tennis so I wouldn’t let down my side of those forced conversations, and pretending to have insider knowledge I wasn’t able to share. My co-workers seemed to enjoy that I knew things they didn’t, so they deferred to whatever I told them even though I made it all up. Maybe it had been more satisfying to know me as “the tennis guy” than to wonder who I actually was, and then it became easier not to know me at all.
Once he had exhausted the tennis chat I’m sure he’d planned out in advance, the submanager asked about my role at Second Nature, and I knew where the conversation was headed.
We sat for a moment, neither one of us speaking, and perhaps he was hoping as hard as I was for silence to carry the message. I couldn’t tell him what I did at Second Nature because I didn’t do much of anything, not anymore, and the file wouldn’t say otherwise. He might have been hoping to avoid firing me in his own voice. So we played our game of silent chicken, avoiding each other’s eyes until the awkwardness had done its job and I grew tired of waiting to be told what I already knew.
“Ah,” I said, and rose from my chair.
The submanager spoke without showing a hint of surprise or acknowledging that a long silence had passed. “You have two weeks of vacation pay coming, and a generous…,” he paused to shuffle some papers and find the one he was looking for, “a not unreasonable severance package.” He stood and reached a hand toward me across his desk, and his forearm knocked over a framed photograph of an ugly little girl who, for some reason, was facing the visitor’s chair instead of his own.
“It’s not you, of course, Finch. Tough times. You know how it is. And you should be proud that you’ve done such a fine job with…,” he scanned his papers again, “at brand awareness. You should interpret this…readjustment as testimony to how valuable you’ve been to the Second Nature family. How effectively you’ve fulfilled our goals. And if there’s anything we can do for you in the future, naturally…”
I nodded as the submanager pumped away at my hand, grinding my knuckles against one another like a fistful of marbles. Then I walked back to my cube, past co-workers intensely interested in computer screens flickering with meaningless spreadsheets, conspicuous in their casual attempts to avoid looking at me as I passed. I sat in my chair for a moment, rolling back and forth on the semiopaque plastic carpet protector, wondering if there was a way I could steal it. It was, in fact, a very comfortable chair; the carpet protector I could do without. Of the things in the cube I might actually be able to take out of the building, there wasn’t much I wanted to keep. There weren’t any photographs tacked to my walls, no figurines, statuettes, or novelty trophies standing on the desk or on the adjustable shelves. Not a single piece of promotional swag from the sales conferences I never attended, not even a tote bag or obscenely outsized golf umbrella. I kept no extra shoes under my desk and no spare sweater for days when the office was cold—and the office had never been cold, I realized then for the first time, and it had never been hot for that matter; it was always generically, uncomfortably tepid. There was just the computer, not actually mine, and a filing cabinet overstuffed long ago with paper versions of all the same documents stored on the computer and backed up in several locations both on-site and off. And there was a plastic model of the company logo, which I suppose was some sort of plant but had always looked to me like a Martian.
In the end I took only my miniature fountain, in its gray basin made to look like concrete, whatever the material actually was. I pulled the fountain’s plug from the overcrowded power strip under my desk, and the whir of the electric motor had never seemed so loud as when it went quiet. The water flowed for a split-second longer due to leftover force from the tiny vacuum the pump had created, then settled into the basin, becalmed.
The computer had fallen asleep during my meeting with the submanager, but I bumped the mouse while moving the fountain and the monitor came to life with a ping. I might have made final postings for each of my online personas, bringing their imaginary lives to some closure, but the idea of dozens of people who had never existed simply vanishing all over the web had an appeal I couldn’t resist. And all of those voices falling silent at once, having said everything they had to say, remains—even all these years later—the most satisfying accomplishment of my tenure at Second Nature. So I set the fountain down on the desk and went online one more time to erase all my records of usernames and their passwords, removing bookmarks to those many sites created by me but belonging, most likely, most legally, to Second Nature. I didn’t know then if anyone would replace me, and I don’t know if anyone did, but I know they were never able to make my congregation of characters speak to sell plastic plants or to celebrate birthdays or just to vent about a bad day at work. All the lives I’d created and lived in those years went into stasis for as long as they stayed on their servers. For as long as their archives existed and their permalinks worked.
When I had finished erasing my online tracks, I lifted the fountain in both hands and wove through the cubicle maze toward the exit, trailing a dark thread of water across gray industrial carpet. As I walked to my car, I smiled to think that the trail, too, would vanish within a few minutes, and I would go back to being forgotten.
To get a little deeper into Finch’s head before you can meet him in April, try viewing the world from his cave in the following video as he describes an almost (but not quite) typical morning on Mr. Crane’s estate.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Steve Himmer teaches at Emerson College in Boston, where he earned his Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and is on the faculty of the First Year Writing Program. His stories have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Hobart, The Los Angeles Review, Night Train, Pindeldyboz, PANK, Emprise Review, and Everyday Genius. He also is a frequent blogger on writing and teaching, and edits Necessary Fiction, a webjournal from So New Publishing, a press based in Eugene, Oregon. His debut novel, The Bee-Loud Glade, will be released on April 4, 2011 and is currently available for pre-order on Indiebound.