Sing, muse of the middle reach, goddess who wisely keeps her head down, cringer before the throne of the mighty. Like you, I sit high enough to witness the deeds of the illustrious, and yet I would never try to climb to their heights. Watching is enough for me. Help me tell their stories, and what happens when those who dwell in empyrean splendor touch lives of ordinary plane.
The world where my tale is set is the 13-story company headquarters of Sterling Performance Limited, a rectangular box tied around with ribbons of highway, exit ramp, driveway, and capacious parking lots. The headquarters may appear as small as a box when seen from a heavenly angle, but, remember, it can also loom tall as a mountain to those who only walk its sidewalks or look up from the asphalt square that is the designated smoking area, with its one, long-necked receptacle that is intended only for butts and not food wrappers. You have to carry those back to the bin near the main entrance if you happen to eat Sun Chips while keeping company with the one smoker left in the entire production supervision group, as has happened to me more than once.
This entire edifice, which today contains the energy of more than 700 employees, was once non-existent. Before the company, was a void and an empty field. Our founder, Mr. T. Satern, reached into the great expanses of the banking system and, pulling on the strings of family connections, drew forth capital. But in the beginning, this capital was formless and indistinct. He could make nothing with it. So, he purchased vacuum cleaners, and automobile deodorants, and carpet samples, and office furniture. And this was inventory. And with inventory he could create more business. A sales department begot accounting and after accounting was created facilities and purchasing and production and marketing and human resources and finally corporate strategy. In less than a decade, Mr. Satern caused steel I-beams and sheet rock to be erected. He pointed and sent electricians to string wire through conduit and glaziers to frame and place their fine portals. This building, which contains all my world, was constructed and completed and stood as a solid testament to Sterling Performance Limited.
Sadly, Mr. Satern only occupied his boardroom on the thirteenth floor for a few years before his children consigned him to the darkness of an assisted living facility with the weapon of an involuntary commitment and power of attorney. But they squabbled amongst themselves and the company suffered until shareholders rose up and installed a true CEO.
Today, Mr. Satern’s successor, Mr. Jove, sits in the corner office on the thirteenth floor, where he looks out on his domain and wears the garland of power, which is also the crown of care, and wields his mighty memos and directives, like lightning bolts flying down from his right hand.
But even one as exalted as Mr. Jove must use the elevator to enter and exit the building. One day about eight years ago, as the story is told, he was riding up at 9:30 in the morning. Beside him was an assistant director of compensation, who naturally trembled in silence beside his god, until the door opened on the fourth floor to let him out. The assistant director was fully out of the elevator and two steps into the rotunda, when Mr. Jove saw a nymph-like form in a blue dress swish past. He stopped the closing elevator doors and leaned out to look. Powerful as he was, his heart was tender and easily pierced by Cupid’s arrows. He’d seen the girl’s face for only an instant, but the sleek outline of her back and bare calf was the weapon that had truly smitten him.
“Who was that?” he called to the assistant director.
“Sara. She started yesterday,” said the cowed man, as if thunderbolt-struck.
“Good,” said the CEO and he rode higher again, though his thoughts stayed with Sara on the fourth floor, this woman whose existence he somehow hadn’t been aware of until now but who made his world richer.
Mr. Jove had meetings in the morning and a factory tour scheduled for later, so he needed a good excuse to revisit the fourth floor. He spoke to his secretary, a woman named Beatrice, who had immaculate hair and always wore a black skirt suit, and told her that he had left a pair of reading glasses on the fourth floor. She flew off to retrieve them, but he, crafty Mr. Jove, followed a minute after her to tell her he’d just realized they were in his car. So, she flew off again, and he stood on the fourth floor. He peeked over cubicle walls and peered through office doors, looking for that face that drove him mad with love.
Finally, he came to a quiet grotto, a storeroom with rows of metal shelving, and in it toiled a lone figure. It was his nymph, Sara. She kneeled on the floor, arranging books on a low shelf, and her dress pooled around her feet. She bit her lip while she concentrated, and her body swayed while she tugged at heavy volumes; her breasts pressed against the fabric of her dress.
“You’re a hard worker,” Mr. Jove said, as he closed the door behind him.
“Who are you? Do you work here?” the nymph replied. She stood and held onto the shelving with one hand.
“I can understand why you wouldn’t recognize me when I come down here. Who would expect to see me on the fourth floor? But look at that book right there beside your lovely hand.”
He pointed, and she saw a shelf full of a volume with a red cover. The title was Winning the Game.
“Go on, look,” Mr. Jove encouraged.
Sara tilted out a volume and turned it to the back cover. There was a photo of Mr. Jove smiling, with the description, “As CEO of Sterling Performance Limited, Mr. Jove has improved shareholder results every year.”
He stood revealed in his glory, and the nymph gasped.
“Now come with me,” said Mr. Jove. “I want to show you my love.”
He held her and urged her over toward a utility table in the corner. She didn’t resist. He bent her until she put her hands on the table, and he slid his hands under her skirt.
“I have thought of this for so long,” he whispered. “You don’t know what you do to me. You are so beautiful.”
But before Mr. Jove could enjoy his love to the fullest, he heard a voice calling his name. It was out in the hall, and it came closer and closer. He knew who it was immediately—the general counsel, June Wilton. June was always telling him they couldn’t afford another lawsuit. June had access to the board if she wanted.
The wishes of CEOs have a way of becoming reality. And so, Mr. Jove’s urgent need to hide his new lover had power and quickly changed Sara into an innocuous fax machine. Her hands and legs pulled into her torso, which hardened into squared-off polymer sides. Her mouth became the tray that holds the waiting paper, and all through her body little gears and rollers started turning.
Mr. Jove quickly zipped.
“Why are you here?” June queried when she opened the grotto door.
“I just needed one of these,” said Mr. Jove, picking up the copy of Winning the Game that Sara had dropped. After a sad look at the beeping fax machine, he let June lead him back to the thirteenth floor.
A new girl was brought in to replace Sara. Her name was Ella, and she was so shy she could only speak when spoken to first. For some reason, the thought of going up to someone and making even the simplest overture froze her throat. So she would wait. She would place a folder on a colleague’s desk and walk away, unless that colleague asked, “Is this for the outbound files?” She wasn’t without a heart. She longed for companionship and the sort of easy back and forth she saw others engaging in, but it felt impossible to her. She moved silently through the halls, waited silently in the conference room, and went out at the end of the day to her car without saying a word.
One day she traveled up to the eighth floor to drop off an expense report for her supervisor. She passed their break room, which was shaped and appointed just the same as the one on the fourth floor where she worked. But standing in the corner was a man who was staring into a mug he held. He wore a shirt and tie and a company ID on a string around his neck. He had blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. Ella thought she’d never seen a man as beautiful, in part because of the way his whole being was consumed in what he was doing—she couldn’t really understand what that was, but she could see the commitment with which he did it.
At first, she was afraid even to move, thinking she might disturb him. But then she saw other eighth-floor workers pass in and out of the break room without disturbing his transfixed stare. One came in to use the coffee maker and called, “Nicholas, Nicholas,” in front of her man’s face, and still he didn’t flinch.
Ella walked bravely into the break room after seeing this. She knew his name now, though she still didn’t dare speak it. But she got close to him. She looked over his beautiful face, admiring the clean line of his jaw, the even yellowish tan, the mark on his nose where he must have worn reading glasses. She felt so close to him, and yet so infinitely distant. The feeling was a pleasure and a torment, and she settled herself in the corner of the break room to go on watching, hoping more than anything that he would look up at her eventually and know how devotedly she’d stood by him and that he would then speak and ask her her name so she could reply.
Nicholas had been standing as Ella found him for over 24 hours at this point. He’d always loved coffee. His cup of Joe was the one thing that made him feel like he might be something more than a corporate drone. It illuminated a shard of divinity in his heart for a few minutes each time. He’d always lingered in the break room, to the point that his coworkers often came in to prod him and remind him to get back to his reports and file another account before lunch. Then, during the morning break one day earlier, he’d stopped thinking of the coffee as something separate from himself. He’d looked inside the brim of his mug and saw his own face reflected back, and this prompted the thought that he could be the coffee, he could be the feeling of warmth, and quickening, and release—and not only be a man drinking the brew.
And so he’d been captivated and he’d stood there using all the effort of his mind to become the coffee. None of his coworkers realized he hadn’t moved, since they were used to seeing him standing there for long stretches as they moved in and out of the break room. Surely, one of them would have told a responsible supervisor if they’d realized.
So, the sun went down, and Nicholas went on gazing at himself in the coffee mug, and Ella stood in the corner of the room, leaning as close as she dared, longing to speak his name but then choked with fear.
Perhaps because it was a full moon, someone somewhere took mercy on the two in this predicament, and Nicholas suddenly felt the heat of liquid boiling inside him. Before he could look up, his head became the top of a coffeemaker, with its filter and wet coffee grounds. His eyes would always look down at what he loved. His belly bulged to become the pot, his arms forever wrapping around the blessed liquid.
As she saw this transformation happening, Ella first grieved and wanted to call out, but then she thought, “I want to watch him forever, even now.” And she felt herself lifted up until her head and back brushed the ceiling. She contracted down, her whole self wrapped in a tight band, and she hung there, directly over Nicholas. She had become a smoke detector.
When they came in the next morning, Nicholas’ coworkers gave thanks for the new coffeemaker they’d received overnight. It made the best coffee they’d ever had. They also noted an intermittent, plaintive cheeping noise. After searching all through the adjacent hallway and several nearby offices, they localized the noise to the smoke detector that was Ella. Someone changed the battery. But this didn’t stop the noise from erupting every hour or two. Calls to facilities, more new batteries—nothing stopped the slow complaint from Ella. But eventually they learned to live with it.
This is the end of Chapter One. We will have future installments available soon.