Hector arrived at the office early as usual on a warm and wet November morning, well into the dreaded fourth quarter at the country’s largest online and televised home shopping network. Inside, he walked through hushed hallways and past dimly lit perimeter conference rooms.
When he turned the corner to his cubicle he thought for an instant that maybe it wouldn’t be there; that maybe by some alternate-universe wrinkle in time it had disappeared and wasn’t lurking in the shadows; that the previous late-afternoon meeting with his supervisor, Alan, hadn’t actually taken place and it wasn’t really true that he had spent the last 10 years at QVC. But when he switched on his desk lamp there it was, waiting for him, mocking with the reedy cackle of a comic book villain — the Certificate of Achievement. Hector sank into his chair without taking off his jacket, still beaded with rain, and rested his head in his hands, elbows straddling the marbled parchment.
He had landed the position right out of college. A fine arts major with a gift for computers, he had parlayed the combination into a corporate gig, the plan being to pay off some student loans and get out. He had finally been ready to take the leap almost three years ago, to leave and start the life that he’d pictured for himself since he was a teenager — when she showed up. Elaine Solange moved into the cubicle next to him one day, quiet at first if you could believe that, and he began to look forward to coming to work. God only knows why, though. She was mostly a pain in the ass.
It wasn’t that he had fallen in love with her or anything; that he had fallen for someone just out of his reach — him being good looking but not leading-man good looking and more like the funny Mediterranean-featured sidekick, not to mention she had a boyfriend, Eric the Viking.
Except that she was beautiful. And it wasn’t that she was beautiful and didn’t know it, she knew, it just wasn’t that big a deal to her. Five-foot-ten and model-pretty but about 20 pounds too rich to be the real thing, a point that she refused to care about and anyway, on her it worked, just not in front of the camera. Directing setups and lighting and stylists all to get the perfect product shot was what she was good at; behind the camera was where she belonged, and it suited her. She was naturally bossy.
The office slowly came to life as people trailed in. Elaine banged her way to her desk and Hector waited. He often found reasons throughout the day to peer over the top of his cube — standing up to stretch, reaching into his overhead bin to file a scrap of paper or to investigate after being hit by the latest projectile that she lobbed over the cubicle wall. This morning, an almond. It bounced off his shoulder and landed on the desk. He stood up and shook it in his open fist, tilting his chin at her as she sat with her legs crossed.
“Always eating, this one,” Hector said.
Elaine dug into the bag of nuts and shoved a few more into her mouth. “I’m tall. I need a lot of calories.”
“At that rate your head should be hitting the ceiling.”
“It does,” she said in between chews. “I have to duck when I walk through the revolving door every day. I’m a giant.”
Elaine laughed. “You’re just jealous because I’m taller than you when I wear heels.”
“Which is always,” Hector said.
Well not quite always. Sometimes when she was scheduled for a full day in the studio she wore skinny capris and sneakers with ankle socks. White ankle socks that drew his eye down and then up the curve of her calf, especially in the summer, those white ankle socks against her tanned skin.
“Jesus,” Hector said. “You should just strap that under your chin like a feedbag.”
Elaine tossed another at him and he ducked.
He said. “You millennials think you’re so special.”
“We are.” She said as she twirled her silky dark hair into a bun, securing it to the top of her head with a pencil.
“Right,” Hector said. “Center of the universe.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re one too.”
“Yeah, but I’m one of the originals,” Hector said. “That’s why I can’t talk to you.”
He watched Elaine grab another handful, reach up and begin to place a row of almonds across the top ledge of the cube wall. Her fingernails were short and painted dark blue.
“What are you doing now?” he said.
“I’m lining them up here, and whenever I need to get your attention, I’ll just flick one at you.”
“Perfect,” Hector said. He sighed, sat back down, and turned on the portable television that sat nestled in a corner of his desk, an electronic that came with every cubicle, all tuned to the 24-hour broadcast. With the sound muted, an image flickered onto the screen of a lovely miniature ceramic Christmas village. The camera panned across gleaming Victorian houses and shops along a picturesque main street, flickering street lamps, and evergreens flocked with snow, window gazers and serenading carolers and running kids with ice skates flung across their shoulders. When they cut to the host her Chiclet-toothed smile practically gave off animated sparkles as her lips formed the words Today’s Special Value!
“Speaking of Godzilla,” Elaine continued to talk through the cube wall. “You didn’t ask me how my shoot went yesterday with America’s Number-One Cooking Sweetheart.”
“How did your shoot go, Elaine?”
“What a monster. I’m going to be retouching all day today because, God forbid, her arms look too fat.”
“What’s it for?”
“A promo. You should have seen Alan slobbering all over her in the studio.”
“I ran into him on my way in. He’s already bugging me about it.”
“Due today of course.”
“At four. I’m taking my time, though.” Elaine snickered. “He’s such a dork.”
Sandy, a 40-ish waif with boy-short hair, walked through. Her messenger bag beat a quick-time rhythm against her thigh as she headed for her desk. “Good morning, glories,” she said.
On the TV screen in the corner of Hector’s desk, rows of snow shovels hung on racks like soldiers, brightly colored and ready for duty. All on Easy Pay! A cheerful man dressed in flannel and turquoise nylon snow boots demonstrated how easy it was to use the specially shaped handle by digging along the hardwood floor and throwing a scoopful of air behind him.
Hector held the phone to his ear and half-listened to the drone of the midmorning conference call. He pulled an almond out from under his monitor and threw it in the trash.
As that rare bird that understood numbers as well as aesthetics, Hector had become the go-to guy for everything from coding algorithms to set design. He would much rather have flown under the radar in his role as web and social media director but more and more the strategists wanted his input. It put him smack in the middle of the chaos, amid the timpani beat of marketing plans and sales goals.
Sometimes the incessant stream of online ads, email blasts, and the generally manic atmosphere that crescendoed to ever rising heights this time of year nauseated him. The charm of the TV hosts with their trompe-l’oeil personalities became as sugar-sweet as the gingerbread houses that lined the hallways; those minor network celebrities that were filmed with gauzed lenses and warm fireplace light, who spoke with Georgian or Texan lilts, with just the right amount of twang, perfected with the help of a speech coach because research showed that Southern accents were believed to be the friendliest. Hector saw how the well-oiled machine worked its way into viewers’ homes and minds and couldn’t help thinking of a tapeworm.
“People can always turn the TV off,” Hector’s friend Ron had said during one of their many chats. “They haven’t found a way to beam it directly into your brain yet.”
“Yet,” Hector said.
“Yeah. That’s what they’re doing in those offices on the third floor. The ones where you need a special pass for the elevator.”
Hector listened quietly on the phone and doodled on a yellow Post-it note. If he was holding a pencil or pen, Hector was creating a scene. It was what he did in every spare minute, what he lost himself in and made time stand still, what kept the demons at bay. His cube walls were covered with pen and ink drawings, some black and white, some fully colored, of action figures flying and running and fighting, whimsical characters from imaginary worlds, excerpts from graphic novels in various stages of completion, all with the detail and beauty of a Renaissance painting. He kept the artwork tacked to his cube walls much the same way that people with children kept pictures of them on their desks, as a reminder. When passersby stopped to chat they would leaf through the latest offerings and never left without commenting and shaking their heads, Hector, man, you should be working at Marvel. What are you doing here?
Elaine’s cube was always Alan’s first stop on his daily rounds. He sat on the edge of her desk and exhaled audibly in a passive complaint about the pain in his low back and the prevailing burden of his job. His jeans were cuffed and a bright red sweater stretched over his middle-aged paunch.
“Any questions about the promo?”
“And we’ll have it in time to run just before she goes on the air? She’ll be live today.”
“Making good progress.”
“Great! Thank you!” Alan said in a singsong way meant to let employees know how much they’re appreciated and an obvious tool learned in a management seminar. He stuck his head around the wall of the cube. “How’s it going Hector?” he said, releasing a plume of stale coffee breath.
“Plans for Thanksgiving?”
“Just the usual trip to see the family. How about you?”
Alan began a longwinded account of his upcoming holiday plans, and Hector was reminded of his own obligatory trek home. He was always apprehensive about going back — sitting through the forced politeness of his thin-lipped stepmother, enduring his much older sister with her bouffant hairdo and farting bulldog, having to field work questions from his dad whose own body was bent from a lifetime of manual labor and who could rest easy knowing Hector had a secure job with a 401k.
The upstate Pennsylvania town where Hector grew up was a place from which his original escape seemed like dumb luck. Every time he went back he had to be on guard against getting trapped in it again — the quicksand of inertia so easy to sink into, the tangle of remote back roads, the blanket of dormancy that he was always tempted to curl up into, still and unmoving like the hills themselves.
Alan rapped on the desk with two knuckles and startled Hector back to attention. “All good though.” He got up with a grunt. “Have you given anymore thought to what we talked about yesterday? I know they’d love to have you upstairs in R&D. Pick that brain of yours!”
“Yeah, no. Still thinking.” Hector winced. That was all he needed.
“Well, let me know.” Alan pointed back at him as he walked away. “Great job.”
After a minute, Hector stood up. “I think I need a Silkwood shower.”
“Poor guy. Just walking around is a chore for him.”
“We should all chip in and buy him a Segway. How did he ever get to be head of the department?”
“It’s a mystery.” Hector watched as Elaine sliced into a blood orange on the cutting board she kept handy. “And the promo?”
She smirked. “I haven’t started it yet.”
“That’s what I thought. Why do you always have to cut things so close?”
“I like how flustered he gets.”
“You’re pushing your luck with him, you know.”
“Okay, dramatic,” Elaine said.
Sandy appeared at Hector’s cube. “So what are you two up to?” she said.
“Did you get your hair cut again?” Elaine said.
“Yeah. Do you like it? I like it. It’s nice and short. I like the way this new woman does it.” Sandy ran a hand back through her hair. “We’re getting together on Saturday.”
“I knew you had a crush on her,” Elaine said. “It’s a good thing you finally asked her out. Your whole head would have been shaved pretty soon. Where are you going?”
“Bowling,” Sandy said. Her Converse high-tops squeaked as she extended her arm back then out in front of her and landed in a perfect bowling stance.
“What. Bowling is a good first date. It’ll be fun.”
“Oh, Sandy,” Elaine said. “Why not a romantic candle-lit dinner? You could wear your frilliest dress.”
Sandy stretched the bottom of her t-shirt out over her jeans. “Have you ever seen me in anything other than this?”
“No. That’s the point. Come on. You know you secretly want to look girly. Here,” Elaine dug in her purse. “At least let me paint your nails for you.” She pulled out two bottles of nail polish and pushed out a chair with her foot.
“You’re not painting my nails.”
“I want you to look pretty. How about pink?”
As one of the segment producers, Sandy had sharpened her teeth over the years on cast and crew alike, yet she regularly let herself be pulled into Elaine’s orbit. She stood in her usual half-hearted posture of protest, hands on hips, shoulders rounded. She glanced at Hector and gestured with her palms toward the ceiling.
“Don’t look at me,” Hector said.
Elaine shook the bottle. “Okay. Blue then.”
Sandy sat down and held out the thumb of her right hand. “You can paint one nail.” Elaine exhaled in mock exasperation.
Ron strolled up on the three of them in a vintage elbow-patched sport coat and tweed flat cap. His Tony Stark beard was meticulously shaped and trimmed.
“Bonjour,” he said.
“Hey, Ron,” said Hector.
“What’s going on here?”
“We’re getting Sandy ready for her date on Saturday,” Elaine said. “You know, I always wanted to work in a nail salon. It was really my first choice of careers, but my mother talked me out of it.” She looked up at Ron. “You look like a professor,” she said.
“That’s what I was going for.” Ron slowly gravitated to Elaine’s side, another of her clumsy satellites wobbling on their paths around her in an awkward attraction. “You know you could easily be a model,” he said. “Has anyone ever approached you about it?”
“And have to starve myself? No thanks.”
Hector chuckled. “That’ll be the day.”
“How tall is Eric?” Ron said.
“Six four. We met at volleyball camp.”
“He’s a chef, right?”
“Yeah. I was like a heat-seeking missile.” She blew on Sandy’s hand. “There. I think you’ll get lucky now.”
Sandy held up her thumb and examined it. “You’re a lunatic.”
“I’m Captain Fantastic,” Elaine said. She turned back to her screen. “Oh, wait. You guys,” she said. “Check this out.”
Hector got up and joined Sandy and Ron as Elaine pulled up an image — a festive holiday spread overflowing with branded kitchenware, behind stood a figure in a gesture of offering but instead of America’s Cooking Sweetheart the figure of a giant reptile leaned over the table, teeth bared, opened scaly arms, and tail encircling the bounty.
Sandy and Ron erupted and Elaine, tickled with her prank the most, laughed until she had a coughing fit.
Even Hector couldn’t help himself. “This is what you’ve been doing all morning? I’m glad your retouching skills aren’t going to waste.”
When the laughter subsided Ron wandered back to Hector’s desk. He pulled at the corner of the parchment paper that was buried beneath papers and notebooks. “What’s this?” he said.
“Nothing,” Hector said.
“Did you guys know about this? Certificate of achievement for 10 years of service,” Ron read aloud.
“Hector!” Elaine said. “Let me see that.” She took it from Ron. “Oh. We need to celebrate.”
“No, we don’t,” Hector said.
“Wow. Ten years?” Sandy said.
“Yeah,” Hector looked at her and rolled his eyes.
“I can’t believe it’s been 10 years.”
“Me either,” said Hector. “Give me that.”
Elaine held the certificate up out of his reach. “No way.”
Hector returned from the dining center with a tuna salad sandwich and a bag of chips. He blankly stared at the TV as he ate. Diamond and gold jewelry sparkled on the meticulously manicured hand of a model as she tilted and tipped her finger in the stage light. In your home for just $339.77! (plus, 13 additional payments of $339.77).
A pink frosted cupcake with a cellophaned lollipop sticking out of the top appeared on his desk. Ron, Sandy, and Elaine stood behind him.
“They didn’t have candles,” Sandy said.
“Shall we sing?” said Elaine.
“If you start singing, I’m leaving.”
“Oh, sit down. Here, let’s cut it.” Elaine brought over her paring knife and cut the cupcake into four sections. They each took a piece.
“To 10 years,” Sandy said.
“Wow, Hector. You’re old,” Elaine went to her desk.
Ron said, “So. Are you getting a ring for Christmas this year?”
“I don’t know,” Elaine said. “Maybe. We’re still trying to pay off some bills. And save a little.”
“Oh, it’ll give you a nice story to tell your kids,” Ron said. “How poor you were when you were first married. You love him, right?”
“And do you like him?” Ron said. “It’s even better to like someone, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know. What do you think Hector? Which is better? Hector. Are you listening?”
“Don’t you have a deadline?”
“What’s wrong?” Ron said.
“Nothing,” Hector said and walked away. He chose his usual route through the vast complex, a hike he took whenever he needed to get away from his desk and think. He rode the elevator up then down, wandering through the maze of floors and empty meeting rooms, finally rambling to the sublevel ground floor where he strayed into and around wardrobe closets, exploring storage rooms stacked with boxes and bins of merchandise of every description. He ended up in the darkened stage wings of the broadcast studio and for a while, watched an on-air program in progress featuring high-end leather handbags. He made his way around to the back of the amphitheater and found a seat in the back. The host, a blonde beauty in a Chanel suit and four-inch pumps, carried a microphone up and down the aisle staircases, interviewing audience members as if they were part of a talk show.
“Tell me what you love about this bag!”
“Oh, I have three in three different colors,” a gray-haired woman waved and stood up. “It’s such a great accessory. I wear them with everything from jeans to my little black dress! And, oh, I have to tell you. You’re my favorite Q personality! I just love you!”
“Oh my! Well, I love you too!” The host put her arm around the woman’s shoulder and squeezed.
“You’re the best and so friendly,” the woman gushed. “I just watch you all the time!”
“That’s so sweet. Thank you! And I’m being told now, only a hundred and fifty left in the two-toned rose and indigo, such a beautiful combination of leathers. Makes a lovely Christmas gift for that special someone or just for yourself! Call in now for the rose and indigo before they’re all gone!”
Hector made his way back to his desk as the afternoon was winding down. He sat and was immediately hit on the head by a crumpled piece of yellow paper. He opened it and smoothed out the creases, revealing a crude drawing of a cat.
“What’s this supposed to be?” He said through the cube wall.
“Sadie, my cat.”
“Why are the lines all wiggly? Too much caffeine?”
“That’s just the way I draw.”
“Well, Sadie looks nervous. Like she’s been through some shit.”
Alan walked into Elaine’s cube. “Have you sent the promo to the control room yet? She’ll be on the air momentarily.” He sat on the edge of her desk, his knee bounced up and down and the whistle in his nose got louder with each deep breath.
“Just. About. Ready.” Elaine said.
“Okay. Can we do that now?”
Alan’s cell rang. “Okay. I’ll be right there.” He turned back to Elaine. “So we’re all good here?”
“Great. Thank you!” Alan got up and walked away.
“Happy?” Hector said.
“Uh-huh. He had a little bead of sweat trickling down his face.” She laughed under her breath. “And with minutes to spare.”
“You need to get a new hobby.”
“I always manage to pull it off, don’t I?”
“Yeah. One of these days …”
Elaine’s iPhone appeared at the top of the cube wall.
“Here’s Sadie for real,” she said. “Doesn’t she have the sweetest face?”
“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“I doubt it.”
“We should get you a pet. How about a cat? You wouldn’t have to walk it.”
“I’m going to look on a rescue site.”
“Don’t do that. I already have a pet,” Hector said. “A pet squirrel.”
Elaine laughed. “Really.”
“Pretty much. I watch him sit on my deck and eat nuts. We make eye contact.”
“Is he house trained?”
“He’s an outdoor squirrel.”
Elaine was silent.
Hector stood up. “His name is … Are you okay?”
“I think sent the wrong file.” Elaine stared at her monitor. “I sent the wrong file.”
“I sent the lizard picture.”
Hector chuckled. “Good one.”
“I’m not kidding.” Elaine gasped. “Oh, no. It’s going live.”
“When?” Hector said.
“Four o’clock.” Elaine looked at the clock. “Now. Two minutes!”
“Christ almighty, Elaine.”
“Oh, God. I’m going to lose my job.”
Elaine covered her mouth, her eyes brimming, and Hector’s heart picked up. He dialed his desk phone. “I warned you about this.”
“What are you doing?” Elaine said.
“Who are you calling?”
“The broadcast director.”
“Shut up a minute. Hey, Paul, it’s Hector. Hey man, can you stop the image feed? … The segment break … Yeah, there’s been a mix up … I know, right? … Can you … It’s kind of an emergency, though … No. Don’t put me …”
The Creature appeared on Hector’s TV screen. A muffled laugh came from the other cubes on the floor. Hector’s hand dropped to the desk, still clutching the receiver. He heard Paul come back on the line. “What the … !”
Hector watched as Elaine’s face flooded with panic, then resignation, and his heart pounded louder. He could hear Paul’s tinny voice yelling at the people around him in the control room. “Go to screen thirty-two! Thirty-two!”
In less than 10 seconds the image was switched to a swirling animation of the QVC holiday greeting but Hector knew the damage had been done. His peripheral vision began to close in on him, his temples ached, his ears filled with static and his thoughts became a jumbled mess, pinging back and forth against his skull. He stood with the phone in his hand unable to move. Then Paul’s voice broke through the static in Hector’s ears. “Somebody get in there, and tell me who sent this!”
At once, Hector’s head cleared and he instinctively dove for his keyboard, sending it clicking like a crackling fire beneath his fingers, his mind working three, four steps ahead, racing against the person in the control room who was now searching for the culprit. Windows popped up on his monitor as he typed in security pass codes to restricted areas, more windows, more pass codes, drilling down through the back alleys of the system, ducking in and out of subterranean portals, weaving through tunnels and shadowy passageways and finally reaching his destination. Hector scrolled through the neon code and found the line of script he was looking for. He pictured Elaine on the other side of the cube wall and placed the blinking curser behind her ID address. He backed it out and typed in his own.
Hector worked his way back to the surface of the system, closing each access window along the way. Just before he dropped the receiver onto the cradle, he heard Paul’s voice through the line, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Hec … ?”
Hector took a deep breath and went to Elaine’s side of the cube. She looked at him as if she were falling from the roof of a skyscraper.
“I’ve got you,” Hector said.
“What am I going to do?”
“Keep quiet for one thing.” Hector plugged a USB stick into Elaine’s laptop, took her mouse from her hand, double-clicked, then pushed it back across the desk. “You don’t know a thing about it. Copy the file onto this then delete it from your hard drive. Just do it? And don’t ask questions? Please?”
Hector went back to his desk and loaded the file onto his computer.
“But Hector, I can’t let you take the …”
“Yes, you can.”
Alan walked, breathless, into Elaine’s cube. “Elaine?”
Hector stood up. “It was me.”
Alan was caught off guard. “What?”
“I created it. I sent it.”
Alan looked at Elaine suspiciously and then back at Hector. “Why would you even …?”
“I thought they would get a kick out of it down in the control room,” Hector said. “I guess the files got mixed up. Sorry.”
Alan leaned on the cube wall, still catching his breath. “You know I can verify …” he said.
Elaine sat mute. Alan looked at her again, beginning to understand, then said to Hector, “Can I see you?”
“Sure,” Hector said, raising his eyebrows at Elaine as he followed Alan to his office.
Hector returned to find Elaine at her computer. “What are you still doing here?” he said.
Hector grabbed his case from under his desk. “Well, they think they can do enough damage control, you know, since she’s been one of their biggest partners for such a long time and she would have a lot to lose if she left, but they also would really hate to let me go so maybe I’d be happier somewhere I wouldn’t have to deal with day-to-day operations and maybe that position upstairs would be a good option for me at this point after all.”
“So they didn’t fire you?”
“Nah. I knew they wouldn’t fire me.” Hector began to take down his drawings from the cube wall and pack them into his case.
“Hector, thank you. I … What are you doing?”
“You know, I just couldn’t picture it — in meetings all day, focus groups, and all that nonsense. Like crossing over or something. So I said no thanks. Not right for me and so forth.” Hector smiled.
Elaine looked stunned. “Hector. What am I going to do without you?”
“It’s the end of an era.”
“I can’t imagine.”
“Yeah, well.” He pointed at the certificate lying on Elaine’s desk. “You can keep that.”
Hector zipped his bag shut. “Okay. I’m going to get going.”
“Wait a minute. Wait. We’ll stay in touch, right?”
“You mean it?”
“Can I have a hug?”
“A hug? What are you getting sentimental all of a sudden?”
“Yeah.” She stepped into him before he could protest further. “Come on.”
Hector put his arms around her, and the scent of her hair filled his brain. It was the moment he had dreamed of and rehearsed, his opening, and with it right there in front of him to take, suddenly, he knew it could wait.
“How will I ever live without all the harassment?” Hector said as they let go.
“I bet you’ll miss it.” She smiled and touched his arm. “Take care, okay?”
Hector picked up his bag. “You too.”
Hector made his way through the warren of cubicles, down the hallway, and to the security desk. Through the glass doors he could see the rain had stopped. He turned in his employee badge.
“Hey, Hector,” the uniformed officer said. “How about this weather?”
Hector raised his forearm with his windbreaker draped over it. “No kidding.”
“Crazy. Take it easy, man.” The guard buzzed the door open.
Hector stepped into the automatic turnstile and walked the semicircle through the enclosed tube and out of the building. He headed down the path toward the parking lot, hooked his finger through the loop in the collar of his jacket, and flung it back over his shoulder. It caught in the warm breeze and billowed behind him like a cape.