Short Story: Walls of the Cubicles
Cole Johnson was falling through the air toward the Manhattan sidewalk. A group of Asian tourists stared from below, their mouths open in horror. He waved. Cole’s hair was flapping in the wind like a madman, and he felt mad. The job at Lianas Consulting had taken his sanity, thread by thread, until only the frayed edges were left, like a flag abandoned high on a pole. He started laughing as the sidewalk got closer, the taxis and the people and the dirty-water hot dog cart.
The horrible noise of Cole’s iPhone alarm stole him back to his shitty life.
It was dark in his studio apartment. 5:32 am. Too goddamned early.
Cole stopped the alarm and switched on his bedside lamp. It was a small room and only a Miles Davis poster from college hung on the wall. The smell of whiskey lingered. Cole drank often at night. It helped everything, and he clambered into the shower to wash it off.
Cole left Brooklyn forty-five minutes later on the green line. He stared at the legs of the girl across from him. He hadn’t been laid in three months. All the happy hour bars around the office were full of hookers, but Cole preferred to spend his money on whiskey. He’d stopped trying for a real girl after his fiancée left him for a Goldman partner 18 months ago. Any doctor would have prescribed him medication, but he’d opted out of the company healthcare plan and took the cash instead.
At the office, Cole sat down at his desk and popped an Adderall. He opened up a spreadsheet for his California client and just stared at it for five minutes. Over the wall of his cubicle, he saw Bronson making small talk with Beverly Natchess. Cole stuck his middle finger against the padded wall and muttered, “fuck you, you fat dick.” Bronson walked over.
“You hear about Walter Isaacs at Pullman Associates?” he asked. Cole shook his head. “The bastard jumped off his balcony last night. Spilled his brains on some Pakistani Uber on 91st.”
Cole stared at him. He hoped the man would walk away, and soon.
“A noble exit, I’d say,” Bronson chuckled, adding quietly, “maybe I’d jump, too, if I was as stupid as he was.” He winked and strolled away.
Cole took a deep breath. It took almost everything he had to maintain his composure during these interactions. It was nearly the only thing that made him actually want to work.
An hour later, Cole had abandoned the spreadsheet once more and was scrolling through Facebook on his phone. Beverly Natchess walked by. “I see you, Cole Johnson,” she said, smiling. Cole looked up. Mind your own goddamned business, lady, he thought. She leaned in.
“You know,” Beverly said, “Mr. Bronson knew Walter Isaacs quite well. Isaacs’ secretary, Jeanie, told me that. She’s a friend of mine. And she said they’d get together often to golf. Mr. Bronson went up to the Hamptons with him just three weeks ago.” An uneasy look crossed her face. “I just hope he had nothing to do with whatever got Mr. Isaacs killed.”
Cole looked up again from his phone. “What do you mean?” he asked.
“Well — no, I shouldn’t.”
“No, no. Tell me.” Cole leaned toward her.
Beverly’s eyes darted around. “Apparently, the SEC was at the Pullman offices yesterday, visiting with Mr. Isaacs. People there think it was an indictment.”
A slow “ooh” left Cole’s mouth. Beverly, realizing she had said too much, looked around again and walked away with tiny fast steps.
Cole was intrigued, but not surprised. Bronson wasn’t exactly a beacon of morality. Him palling around with crooks, even being one himself, wasn’t hard to imagine. A shining moment of Bronson’s business ethics happened during Cole’s first year. Cole recalled the conversation often.
Bronson had asked Cole into his office. “You see those?” Bronson asked, calling him to the window. The office faced west, with a view of the Hudson River and marina below. Cole went to the window and looked out.
“The yachts, sir?” Cole asked.
“Yes. The yachts.” Bronson nodded. “That one on the end. What do you think about that one?” The one on the end was twice as long as the rest. Cole could see jet skis, a dinghy, and what was presumably a helicopter under cover on the aft deck.
“Well, that’s a nice one, sir,” Cole said.
“Yes, yes it is,” Bronson agreed. The overwhelming scent of Bronson’s Paco Rabanne cologne was starting to nauseate Cole. “I’ll tell you something, kid. You’re a good worker. You work hard and it doesn’t go unnoticed.”
Compliments were not in Bronson’s vocabulary, Cole had learned that quickly, it surprised him to hear one. “And let me tell you something else.” Bronson put a hand on Cole’s shoulder, still looking outside. “If you work hard enough, someday … ” he tapped the glass with his finger. “Someday, if you work hard enough, kid, I’ll be able to buy that yacht.” Bronson smiled.
Cole swallowed, and smiled back. Who is this fucking asshole? Cole wasn’t certain if he was serious or only testing him, but he knew he was starting to feel extremely uncomfortable with Bronson’s hand on his shoulder.
“Join me for a cigar on the diving board, will you?”
“Excuse me, sir?”
Bronson laughed. “Oh, that’s my nickname for the balcony.” He pointed to a small patio. “Cuban?” Bronson went to his desk and opened a humidifier, picking out two Montecristos.
“I’m sorry, sir. I can’t. I’ve got a big project I need to finish up.” This was not true. “Maybe next time, though.”
Bronson peered at Cole. He nodded slowly. “Dedicated. Good.”
This memory represented everything Cole hated about the job. Rising to the top was predicated on using and abusing everyone around you. Stacking bodies.
Every time Cole thought about the conversation, he needed to go walk it off. Bronson was in his office now and Cole slid into the elevator without being noticed. In the lobby he crossed paths with two men wearing SEC credentials. Cole stopped, turned around, and watched them get on the elevator.
No, he thought, there is no way. The lights of the elevator blinked higher and higher. They stopped on the 16th floor. His floor. His fucking floor. In disbelief Cole walked outside.
He sat down on a bench in the park next to an old man throwing crumbs to the pigeons. If those suits, if they really were there for Bronson … God, shit is about to go down. The scenarios of what might be happening ran through his mind. “You’re going to jail for a long time,” he hoped they were saying, or “you’ll be living on the streets,” or, his most favorite, “you’re done, sir!”
All of this, he recognized, meant assuming that Bronson was a real crook. After forty minutes he walked back to the office, curious what had transpired.
Cole stopped at the hot dog cart outside the entrance to eat a cheddar brat. A group of Asian tourists stood next him, looking up at the building. He took a bite. A cigar landed on the sidewalk next to his feet.
He knelt down to examine the cigar, rolling it in his fingers. Montecristo.
Somebody screamed. Cole looked up and saw the tourists, their mouths open in horror. There he was. Bronson. Standing on the ledge of the balcony, his hair flapping in the wind.
Bronson stepped off.
Cole dropped the cigar.