Fiction

Cogs

By: Hayden Hart

For eight hours per day, five days a week, for around two-hundred and sixty days per year, I generated spreadsheets for AutoFlash, the third largest Jeep auto parts distributer on the east coast. Every day I walked to my desk, opened Excel, and typed for three hours, followed by a forty-minute lunch break in the employee break room, then four hours and twenty minutes of typing. On Friday, I was permitted to wear a “wacky tacky tie,” and every other week I left my cubicle to celebrate someone’s birthday in the employee breakroom. Celebrations lasted no longer than twenty-five minutes, each employee received one slice of the cake, and, after vapid, empty conversation that included no crass humor, sexual content, religious opinions, political opinions, discussion of controversial art, or disparaging comments about other employees, I returned to my desk. For participating in the AutoFlash family, I received an annual salary of $71,089.

Four months prior to the ten-year anniversary of my finding gainful employment, I elected to take my break early. I pushed my chair under my desk, so as to avoid an obstruction of the walking area as defined in section three subsection four dash two of the employee handbook and traversed the office. My peers remained fixated on their monitors for the duration of my walk; feeding time was at least an hour away.

The breakroom was, as expected, vacant. The buzzing fluorescent lights illuminated the build-up on the decade-old coffee pot in the corner. I stared at the vending machine for a while, expecting some other brave soul to join me. I tapped my foot against the tile, trying to drown out the cacophony of clicking keys. My plan eventually yielded results. Some guy from accounting walked in to retrieve his sandwich from the refrigerator. He took it and joined me in front of the machine.

“Grabbing a snack there, friend.” He said absentmindedly, fishing for quarters in his pocket. I just stood there and watched him struggle to interact with me.

“There we go. Seventy-five cents exactly.” He dropped the coins in and purchased some peanuts. His choices were slim. Years prior, the company had decided to eliminate sugary foods from its vending machines, leaving only tasteless nuts and granola.

I watched him eat for a minute or two. He stared blankly at the gray horde, no thoughts, no complaints. Upon realizing how long I had been watching him, I turned to the machine. Nothing among the wall of monochromatic health food stood out. I just could not give it my dollar. I turned away from it and returned to the matrix of workers, particle board, and foam. Once out of the breakroom, I turned to the man and yelled back at him.

“I know you don’t know my name.” I marveled at his temporarily non-robotic expression for a moment and walked away. In five minutes, I had accomplished more than I had in my entire career.

Across the room, I saw the Janitor, Jerry, listening to music and swabbing in the corner. Thanks to AutoFlash online salary estimate calculator, I knew that he made no more than $19,000 dollars annually. He mopped up piles of corporate waste and replaced urinal cakes on a daily basis. I had, on multiple occasions, watched him eat abandoned leftovers from the company fridge. This waste of skin commanded more attention from my fellow employees than anyone else I knew. I looked over my cubicle wall and stared at my peers. Six of them wore the same $150-dollar blazer as me. Though, it appeared some of the emotionless faces had changed.

The gears had, at some point been replaced. The bald quiet guy that worked next to me had been replaced by the balding quiet guy. Days later, I found out that my former neighbor had killed himself via autoerotic asphyxiation. In one grand gesture, he broke through his monotonous life, died, and was replaced.

The morbidly obese black woman from three boxes down died of a blood clot two months ago. To my understanding, she was at home, watching nothing on television. She stood up, walked to the kitchen, and just dropped dead. Without missing a beat, the company hired an intern and slid him into her stall. Worn out cogs were being replaced all around me. A gear would break down and be torn out. The machine had to maintain its relentless pace, no matter the cost. Every few months, another employee would follow their example and slip away unnoticed. The used-up survivors retired to lives of sitting in silence and swallowing medication. They stagger out of their cells and into a nice, comfy arm chair, where they will die as a burden to their families in a pool of dementia and feces. No one ever quits. They are all far too complacent and unaware to quit.

Regardless of circumstance, AutoFlash simply continued moving. Rusted-out mechanisms slipped under the water without a ripple. A river of defective parts flowed through the office, slowly dragging chipped metal and empty husks away. None of them protested. They drowned quietly, submitting to the synthetic process. The river had always been placid; the water’s movement was imperceptible. Without looking in, no one would know the current’s strength.

Jerry knew. He understood that cleaning vomit off of the floor was preferable to the repetitive nightmare his peers commuted to every morning. If he vanished, people would know. People would care. Hell, I had never bothered to learn anyone else’s name. He was irreplaceable. I envied him more than I cared to admit. If he would allow it, I would march to his corner and grab a mop of my own. I could explore the office and legitimately converse with my peers.

Day after day of questioning the status quo passed, and I began to wonder how many others had stared into the corporate maw. Despite my thoughts, I maintained my schedule. My spreadsheets were immaculate, entirely devoid of color or personality. I was a daywalker, and perhaps others were too. There could be, unknown to the general population, an undulating current of life under the icy exterior, a group that was aware of their own cosmic insignificance. How many of the drowned would have fit into this category? What is intent without action? The withered old cadavers being hauled to their disposal may have drowned thinking of the machine that drained them. Once they had fallen to dementia, it was too late to protest, too late to scream into the endless void.

Those lost in the ether needed to be released. I could have walked out and never returned, but the machine would keep running. I wanted nothing more than to scream into the night and hear someone scream back; I had to break the water’s surface. If anyone else was out there, they deserved to hear another person’s voice.

The next morning, I retrieved a tire iron from my car and marched to my desk. I acted without hesitation; average AutoFlash security response time was 1 minute and fifty-two seconds. Without a word, I shattered my computer and tossed it into the empty space between cubicles. It was out in the open; no one could deny it. Before security arrived, I sprinted to the break room and destroyed the fluorescent lights. For a moment, I heard no typing, only conversation. I needed to press the advantage. I broke the coffee pot against the refrigerator and ripped the door from its hinges. Knowing that the machine’s enforcers were near, I turned my attention to my final target. I annihilated the vending machine. The button panel dropped to the floor, glass cut my arms, the cash box spilled across the linoleum. Security arrived to a stream of obscenities and fistfuls of granola being thrown across the office. No one was typing. For a brief moment, the horde saw what the logical end to a career in the system. Disgust, fear, elation, any emotion was preferable to complacency; I had made a connection. I was fired on the spot and released from the vile machine.

Within days, AutoFlash installed a new vending machine, replaced the lights, delivered a new coffee maker, retrieved a computer from storage, and slid a new worker into my cell. The water returned to its unnatural, still state, and the office regained its composure. The quarterly reports had to be completed before the deadline. The shareholders were displeased. Eddie wore an unacceptable tie on wacky tacky tie day, but human resources dealt with the issue. The machine kept running.

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Categories: Fiction

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