THE MAN IN CUBICLE 2200
By Heide Arbitter
As a boy, he lived in a largely unfurnished thirty room mansion. His pious parents did not let him play with toys, nor make friends with children from the surrounding estates. They believed that the path to responsible adulthood was through religion. To that end, despite their billions, they led a cloistered life. Hidden away in the mansion’s ornate incensed chapel, they prayed and meditated all day and night. They shunned technology, even though it had made them billions. They despised all manner of electronic devices and possessed none of their own. Their lonely son, at age three, demanded to know why they did not have a television. The parents said he was too young to ask. From then on, they lit their mansion with candles and refused to ever turn on the lights. They handed the boy a Bible and turned their backs.
Lack of electronics could not be said of the servants, however, who in the privacy of their comfortable quarters in the back of the mansion, gladly gave the boy access to smart phones and lap tops. One of the younger maids gave the boy a tablet for his fourth birthday. Within hours, the boy mastered skills to last a lifetime.
It was online, the boy read about dragons. He was curious why his distant parents never spoke of them, these magnificent creations of God. Sure, there were evil dragons, decimating with their fire breath, everything in sight, but there were also kind dragons with glittering wings and silken scales, who befriended a select few families, and they brought good fortune and happiness to these families who then went on to live with love, and wisdom, too. The boy decided to leave home and find as many good dragons as possible. He followed the path he had seen servant couples take on their days off and soon was beyond the mansion fences. He felt the wind in his face. The call of the unknown was scary. But, the boy was confident that dragons would lead him to his perfect family.
It is true, his pious parents did their best. They hired the most expensive servants to care for him, the most expensive tutors to teach him and the most expensive detectives to search for him. But after two weeks of looking, the detectives declared the boy dead and the parents changed their will to leave everything to a local monastery. And so, their lifestyle continued with but the smallest disruption.
It is strange that the detectives did not find him. As for those two weeks, the boy lived in the grasses only 500 feet from the mansion. At night, he gazed at his dark bedroom. He yearned for a warm bed, but he yearned more for the love of a family. And so, he picked himself up and walked the woods and streams, stars and lilac trees, looking and looking for miles and miles. Acorns and mushrooms were his initiation into lifelong vegetarianism. The boy loved being with the animals of the forest. He climbed hills, and slept in hollow logs. It felt like he spent many years searching, but in actual time, only four.
Eventually, this eight year old boy landed on the streets of the city, where the police picked him up on a rainy night. The boy made up a name and was assigned to foster care. There, he lived as an only child in a cracked basement apartment with a drunk foster mother and a drugged out foster father. But one night, after watching the fosters eat one too many veal chops, he decided the streets were a more appetizing home. When the fosters fell into a stupor on the kitchen floor, he opened the front door and left.
The fosters continued collecting their checks until one day, three years later, Children’s Services knocked on the door demanding to know why the boy had gone truant. The police ransacked the apartment, peeled back the linoleum and dug through the dumpster in front of the building, searching for the boy’s body. The fosters, blank faced and indifferent, sat at the kitchen table. The next week they received another boy to foster.
It true that the boy was truant, but he did not need school to help him learn anything. At the DMV, he searched garbage cans for cast off newspapers, rubbed newsprint on his cheeks to give the look of the unshaven, lied about his age, and got a driver’s license and a job as a delivery person with weekly runs from the docks to Chen’s Tea.
That was when the boy first saw the dragon cape. It simply fluttered out of the box he was delivering. It was the most beautiful thing in the world. Embroidered with golden dragons, the boy swore he saw them fly up and wink at him before settling back into the fabric, where they stared kindly at him. The boy could feel the dragons’ magnolia breath empowering him. He stood in the alley and held the precious cape to his heart. That’s when Mr. Chen, tall and virile, stomped over. The boy cringed. Mr. Chen always frightened him. This time, Mr. Chen wiggled his grey whiskers and snorted. The boy handed him the cape. Mr. Chen invited the boy into the shop for a saucer of tea. And there, the boy remained for many years.
It would be nice to say that Mr. Chen taught the boy how to grow into a man, how to fly like a dragon, how to work a cash register, or even how to run a tea shop, but that was not true. On a good day, Mr. Chen ignored him. The tea shop was so immense, that no surge of customers, however big, could fill it. So, the boy spent his time walking the aisles, loading the aromatic shelves with Chinese Flower, Earl Grey, English Breakfast, Hibiscus, Chamomile, Peppermint, Raspberry Peppermint, Dark Chocolate Mate, Cucumber White, Vanilla, and Zen. Although he slept on the shop floor, it was ample payment for stacking the shelves with tea boxes and the sweeping and mopping of his job.
And, each year, when the holidays arrived, a girl, just about his age, would come to the shop. The boy, now a teen, glowed with delight. This was Ashley. The teen heard her name, when she asked Mr. Chen to stop calling her Miss Burnham. This beautiful girl, with her classic black curls and eyes the color of Matcha, did all of her holiday shopping at Chen’s, filling cart after cart with teas like Lavender, Peach, Ginger, Apple, and the teen’s favorite, Green. Ashley paid and Mr. Chen would carry her purchases out to her limousine where her chauffer opened the trunk for him. Mr. Chen would then return to the shop and be met with the scowls of his twelve sons who berated him, shouting that Mr. Chen acted like a servant to a skinny white heiress. Mr. Chen ignored them.
The sons could do nothing about their father, but they could about the teen. One time they caught him looking at Ashley. They dragged the teen into the storage room and kicked him black and blue. From that moment, the sons cursed at the teen daily, but the teen could not forget his beautiful Ashley and dreamt over and over again about the pink cashmere coats she wore, always with kittens, cats and mice embroidered on them. The teen concluded that Ashley was a veterinarian and perhaps he could find a position working for her in her pet clinic.
So, the next year, after Ashley finished shopping, the teen leapt onto his delivery bike and followed the limousine uptown, until it stopped in front of a sky scrapper. This was no veterinary clinic, for sure. It was the globally despised Burnham Enterprises. The teen saw the driver and Ashley went in, carrying the boxes of tea. He biked back to Chen’s Tea, Googled Burnham Enterprises and gasped.
This was the company his parents founded, then sold, after they discovered that their good intentions in creating a place that would provide jobs, and sponsor peace initiatives had become a hot bed of evil, dark web activity with every monster, dictator and sadist logging on day and night. His shocked and penitent parents retreated to their mansion, took their name from the company, and after it was bought and renamed Burnham, were never seen in public again. With this understanding, the teen considered returning to the mansion, but after one night of thinking about it, he knew his destiny was elsewhere.
As it turned out, the teen made the right choice. A week later, while watching CNN, and sipping tea in the back room of the tea shop, the teen saw a horrible story. The mansion where he spent his early years had burned to the ground, and although the servants escaped, his parents had not. The teen gagged and abruptly stood up, spilling his tea. The twelve sons glanced in his direction, but none came over to inquire about his distress. And when the teen broke down sobbing, they simply left the room.
Although the teen loved Mr. Chen, to his knowledge his adoration was not reciprocated. He would miss Mr. Chen, the tea leaves, the clink of tea cups and the soothing quiet of the shop as he lay on the floor at night. But, he disappeared from Chen’s Tea as he did from his parents’ mansion. He rode his bike uptown and applied for a job on the 22nd floor of Burnham Enterprises, the floor where Ashley had her office. He was still there 22 years later.
Now, no longer a teen, the man bought his own studio apartment in a downtown neighborhood. After work, he climbed five flights, usually without passing any neighbors. On the rare occasions he saw somebody on the stairs, he smiled, but his greetings were never returned. People moved out, but the man remained. And, as years passed, so did his hope for making any connection with those living around him.
Then, it happened. A new family moved in down the hall, and although the man never saw them, he thought perhaps, they would become buddies. He spent several weeks climbing over their boxes strewn along the hall, thinking of ways to befriend them. When they finally moved in, they did not knock on his door to introduce themselves or put their name on their mailbox. The man took this as a sign, but did not give up hope.
That night, the man came home from work, in a depressed state. He shut all the blinds and windows. The man took off his clothes, and put on the dragon cape. He pranced around his small home, spreading his arms as though he could fly, posing and grinning at every reflective surface he could find, the computer, the television, and the mirrors, which shot back a glimpse of this middle-aged costumed fool.
Yes, the man was not exactly attractive. His suits, although a bit behind the times, were clean. His full moon eyes were at times luminous, not quite green, but certainly not brown and always seemed to match the color of the suit he wore for the day. And, despite the insufficient diet of his youth in the woods, and stolen bits of pumpernickel from the fosters, his straight, white teeth boasted not one cavity. His nose, well, it was a nose to make a dragon proud, but a man less so. His ears were large and pointed. They appeared dragon like and when he wore the cape, the man felt most strong in his dragon fierceness.
The man danced back and forth until he heard screams from the apartment down the hall. Four gun shots pierced his reverie. The man heard footsteps of neighbors all around him running down the stairs, then, police sirens filled the air. The man cautiously opened his door and peered out, as cops and feds raced past, down the hall and into the apartment of his new neighbors.
The man considered entering the hall to provide what help he could. Instead, he closed the door, not seeing the little mouse escape from the apartment and dash into his, away from the only home he had known now decimated by a cartel hit. Trembling, the little mouse looked for shelter. Quickly, he hid in a corner.
“Okay, boys,” yelled a cop from the hall. The man watched from the peep hole as the dead were carried down stairs. Sirens blasting, the bodies of this Witness Protected Family were transported to the medical examiner. Soon, someone pounded on his door. “FBI! Open up!” “Right Away, Sir.” The man opened the door to three feds who pushed their way in. One laughed out loud. The others leered at him. The man tried to summon dragon courage from the cape, which he was still wrapped in, but he could barely raise his eyes from the floor as the feds interrogated him and pulled up the cape to see what he was hiding. All shrieked at the man’s nakedness. Soon, they left, but not before muttering, “What a creep.”
From his corner, the trembling mouse watched the man pace, then return to his trance like rhythms. As the sun rose, the man ended his dance and laid the cape on the couch. Suddenly, the cape looked shabby. Its golden threads seemed to be rusting, and its embroidery looked tattered. And, oh no, he could see holes in the beautifully sewn borders. The man refused to think about this or the massacre down the hall. Instead, he thought about how lovingly Mr. Chen treated the cape and how enraged Mr. Chen’s twelve sons were, when by order of his will, they mailed the cape to this stranger. The man never did learn how the twelve found his address.
The acres of cubicles, on the twenty second floor, of Burnham Enterprises were a relaxing sight. So familiar in their one desk, one phone, one computer, one chair, that even after twenty two years, sitting in cubicle 2200, the man got lost and needed a guard to lead him to his destination. The man did not mind, for it gave him a few minutes to exchange workday words with the young guard, Pedro, who pretended to listen, but was actually thinking of his girlfriends.
Once located, the man turned on his computer. The phone rang. The man answered. The questions were always the same and the man would say, as politely as he could, “Try turning it off. Now, turn it on. It worked? Great. Don’t forget to call with other problems. My name is…” But, by then, the caller had hung up.
Each morning, Ashley passed by on her way to her office. The man’s heart beamed every time she drove by. Although others saw Ashley as a woman who was gawky and strange, to the man she was still beautiful. He shuddered as he recalled how she was beaten into submission by her marriage to Bixby, a spoiled trust fund snob. Since their wedding night, a motorized wheel chair was her means of travel. The man heard that the repugnant Bixby hung himself, but he was never sure if this was true or office gossip. That the man loved Ashley was true. That Ashley still adored Bixby was something he could never explain.
The man stood outside cubicle 2200 to see Ashley roll down the aisle with her kitten sweater and her mouse shaped barrettes. On this particular day, she looked even more beautiful. It was all the man needed to forget the challenges of the last few days. “Good morning,” the man said. Usually, Ashley did not respond, but today, Ashley’s glowed in a way he had not seen before. She looked happy. Encouraged, the man stepped towards her to declare his love, but stopped as Ashley looked as though she had simply never seen the man before. And that might very well be true, for the man carried the odor of the displaced, not tangible, but apparent in everything he did, and this often rendered him invisible. Ashley continued down the hall. Foolishly the man followed her to her office, where he tried to speak. But before he got the words out, Ashley slammed her office door.
The man ran back to cubicle 2200, and sat with his head in his hands, as his youth, tarnished with time, but painful, flooded him. He remembered how his heart burst with love the first time he saw Ashley. And he regretted, never getting in touch with his parents to tell them he was alive. Perhaps, that would have lightened their earthly burden. But then, a realization, one that had been lurking deep within him burst forth. He was with his parents. He had been these 22 years working in the very structure they built and then abandoned, just as they had him. Perhaps, this was the reason he felt so comfortable in cubicle 2200. He was enveloped in his roots so much so that the man broke down and sobbed.
Back at the apartment, the brave little mouse was still huddled in the corner. The man returned at midnight, and was standing in the middle of the room, thinking of Ashley, the cape wrapped tightly around him. Is that what tears are, the mouse wondered, but judging the man to be in a gloom, the mouse kept its distance.
At sunrise, the man sat on the couch. That’s when he saw the mouse. The man’s face softened, and the mouse ventured closer. “Hello!” The man yelled, more loudly then he intended. The little mouse hunched his back, and ran some distance from the man, twitching his small grey ears. “My name is Myka” the mouse bravely squeaked. The man did not hear. “Myka”, the mouse shouted. The man smiled at the mouse, then got ready for work. Myka, dashed under the grandfather clock, until he heard the deafening footsteps of the man leaving the apartment and the ear splitting noise of the key outside locking the door.
Only then, did Myka tip toe out and approach the cape. It was beautiful, hanging on its hook. Myka looked at it with gleaming eyes, gently climbed onto its hem, then onto the collar and down into a pocket. He stayed, curled in the warmth, until he heard the key again. Myka ran as fast as he could under the grandfather clock.
But, something about the man was different. The man carried in a paper bag, leftovers from his dinner down the street. The man kept little food in his spotless apartment, and not even a crumb or two left in the kitchen sink. And, Myka was so hungry. He sniffed the air. It reminded him of the place down the hall, and the witness protected family who fed their cat, Myriam, grilled cheese sandwiches. Best of all, Myriam would leave some crumbs in her bowl for Myka to snack on. Myka became almost fat after these satisfying morsels and for fun, best of all, he would stand on his hind legs and play the sleeping Myriam’s whiskers like a harp, till she woke and playfully chased him back to his nest in the book case. And, that was only part of the fun they had. But, then, Myka had run out of the apartment and Myriam hadn’t followed. Fortunately, there was an open door down the hall, the apartment of the man.
Myka watched as the man cut a corner of the grilled cheese sandwich into tiny, tiny bits, which he placed on a saucer. Then, the man put the saucer in front of the grandfather clock and waited on the old, brown couch. Soon, Myka crawled out, and seeing the man was sitting, slowly approached the meal. As the man watched Myka nibble, a feeling of family entered his heart.
But a noise outside of the apartment interrupted this. Cautiously, the man opened the door and went into the hall. Emerging through the opened door of the murdered tenants’ apartment, he saw something wonderful. No, not the ghosts of the slaughtered family transported to heaven on the backs of benevolent dragons, but a snow white cat. She meowed and looked at the man pleadingly.
This was Myriam, the white furred cat that belonged to the family. Whatever their misdeeds this husband, wife and the wife’s two brothers adored her. They discovered Myriam cowering at the back of a cage at their local animal shelter. She was merely three weeks old, too young for adoption really, but this family promised to bottle feed her till she grew, and so they took her home. Myriam adored her warm box next to the fire place, and the way the family threw balls to her, but when Myriam was two months old, the family noticed something. She did not answer to her name because she couldn’t hear her name. Myriam was born deaf. And perhaps, it was because of this that the move to the tiny apartment was so hard for her. No, she did not act ungratefully, she was too polite for that, but she missed the warmth of the fireplace and the laughter of this now sad family. Until she met Myka, Myriam was lonely.
Nervously, the man walked down the hall to the cat. She did not appear to mind as he bent over to pick her up. She smelled so sweet and her fur was as soft as cotton. Her eyes were Matcha, like Ashley’s. The man carried Myriam to his apartment and shut the door.
But now, the man faced a new challenge. Would the rodent be devoured? The man decided to take one of the biggest chances he had since running from the mansion. He would risk sharing his home with two new dwellers, no matter the consequences. The man placed the cat on the sofa.
At that, Myka looked out from behind the saucer. He could not believe his ears. Myriam was purring, a sound so soothing and very much loved. Myka breathed deeply. His whiskers vibrated with joy. His eyes locked with Myriam’s and hers with his. Observing this, the man slept for the first time in days. When morning came, he was almost late for work.
That night, the man entered his apartment without looking around. He had read in the company email that the rumors of Bixby’s demise had been just that, and Bixby had returned to Ashley. Now, the man knew his love for Ashley was lost, withered by time and circumstance. Without taking off his clothes the man wrapped himself in the cape. He stood just outside the kitchen sobbing. Tears ran down his cheeks, no matter how hard he squeezed his eyes shut. After two hours, the man shook his head, annoyed he had given into emotion again. He opened his eyes and was met with delight.
His dragon guardians had found him at last, for sitting on the couch, paws around each other were the animals. “Thank you!” the man screamed to the still invisible dragons for helping him create a family of his own determination. He thought he saw the two animals grin in agreement. This was a good sign. As he glided over to pet them, he realized he had not given them names, let alone introduced himself.
Myka and Myriam sat together on the couch. As the man came near, his happiness was apparent. By way of greeting, the man flapped his arms and snorted welcoming dragon breath. Myka and Myriam looked at him, then at each other. “Hello,” the man shouted. “We are family. My name is…” But, Myka ignored him and Myriam couldn’t hear him. Both, knew they would tolerate the man, and even respect him, but they would never love him. And at that, Myka and Myriam snuggled closer, too overjoyed in their own love to pay the man any more attention.
About the Author:
Heide Arbitter’s plays have been produced in New York City and regionally. Some of these productions include a one-act, HAND WASHED, LINE DRIED, which was produced at the Public Theatre; a full-length, FROGS FROM THE MOON at the American Theatre of Actors; and a one-act, TILL WE MEET, at Unboxed Voices. Smith & Kraus and Excalibur have published JILLY ROSE, SHARON and POPPY. Heide was recently interviewed on the radio, WFUV.