The Dead End Job  

By Laurence Klavan

They were supposed to be doing something at work, and they were. She was doing something, anyway, talking to him while sitting beside him on super-structured swivel chairs imported at great expense from Finland (or some foreign place) in her office, which had been presented to Isabel as an incentive to take the job—she wouldn’t be working in a cubicle, in other words—and which had actually become a boon for them, since it was small enough for them to be close together—“conferring on data”—without arousing suspicions when she did this, when she told him stories about herself to excite him and he touched himself through his jeans or—if he was feeling bold enough—unbuckled and unzipped his pants and touched himself directly.

They had started doing it a few weeks ago during lunch hour when the rest of the office emptied out. She had learned that Martin didn’t eat lunch, hardly ate at all, unlike herself, who felt even at twenty-three that she ate too much, even though others thought she was being silly, others found her attractive, Martin did, at any rate, though it took him forever to say so and, come to think of it, maybe he never actually had: he had just moved toward Isabel like an object on a ship’s table sliding amidst a storm at sea. Maybe his not eating enough explained more than his—not entirely unappealing—ultra-slimness, it had caused his—how should she say it?—lack of strength in a certain area, something she had discovered during their first date, if you could even call it a date; it had been more, again, a kind of gravitational drift in each other’s direction after hours. Though now that she thought of it—as he came forcefully, hearing the most erotic part of her monologue breathed into his ear—he was only weak sexually in certain ways and not in others; in fact, he was incredibly avid when he heard her tales; she might even have called him potent, if potency didn’t imply an interaction with another person, though maybe it only meant having the potential of powerfully reproducing, which Martin obviously had, even though he was currently wasting his precious (or was it inexhaustible?) reproductive material in the front flap of his underwear.

They had started doing it at work because they had been so fucking bored. Not that Isabel had expected to be thrilled, exactly, collecting data in a company that made security systems—let her get this straight—so that “passive requestors” could strengthen the “trust realms” between “insecure” computers, so that web browsers could better “make requests” of—oh, the whole thing had been so lame to begin with, and so would anybody working in it; but, well, she had needed a job and the industrial park was in driving distance from her apartment (the first she’d ever had, gotten right after graduating college, where she had studied art history, as useless a major as she had been warned it would be), and this was sold to her, too, as another incentive, the short commute, though now in fact she would have preferred a longer ride in the morning, since pressing her foot to the pedal and turning the radio knob were more actions than she performed at work, more of a physical and mental workout, and she was only half-kidding

Martin had not been her first office mate: Rita had been there to begin with, a nondescript woman of fifty who, to Isabel’s amazement, had already worked there for ten years, and who had a heart attack and took early retirement two days after Isabel arrived (Isabel was not the reason, she had been solemnly reassured by her boss, Owen, as if she ever would have imagined that she was; though, in fact, the reassurance actually made her consider it for a second), and Martin arrived soon after, at about half Rita’s salary, Isabel assumed.

He was, she immediately noticed, her own age, dark-haired and not unhandsome, though so slight as to seem positively fragile. Isabel had never fantasized sexually about being physically bigger than a man, but in truth she wasn’t the most experienced in this area, having gone through college just racking up short relationships with an aspiring and seemingly pot-addicted musician, mostly because they lived on the same hall, and an acting student who had said he was bi-sexual but whom she soon learned was homosexual, or at least would be—he confessed while leaving her for a male stage manager—after his experience with her. Their affair, too, had come about through inertia—they had been at the same cast party and left at the same time, and this, it turned out, was the most they would ever have in common.

Martin and she had quickly formed a tighter bond, one based on incredulity at the fact of their daily tasks, disbelief that they were meant to merely man computers, waiting for data, feeling as suffocated as those at battle stations in wartime submarines but nowhere near as necessary (Martin had said this; he’d been a history major). The two were nearly stunned by the idea of doing this all day, unnerved enough that they couldn’t even laugh about it, until, one night on the way home, after they’d each had two beers apiece at a nearby bar, they couldn’t stop laughing.

Even here, the torpor of the job had taken its toll, sapped their spirits; they hadn’t actively chosen the bar: Martin had just caravanned behind her car until Isabel shrugged, put on her turn signal, and he had followed. In the same sleepwalking way, they had gone to her place afterwards, since he still lived with roommates, one of whom slept out in the open, on the living room couch.

They had watched an animated movie for awhile, one that both had seen several times without even liking. Then, neither being the aggressor, they simply moved closer on the couch like commuters making room for others on a crowded subway car, freeze-framed the film, and got close enough to touch.

Martin’s hands had skittered over her like bats, and she had darted her tongue into his mouth, as if trying to reach something under a couch where it had not been vacuumed for years. While each had made the least amount of effort possible, both became aroused—it had been ages for Isabel, after all, and she heard Martin moan in what sounded like agreement when she rubbed his half-erection, her wrist pressed somewhat painfully against the clump of keys in the right front pocket beside it.

Yet by the time she’d returned hopefully from the bathroom—carrying a condom, which she’d taken discreetly from a bowl of free ones in a progressive bookstore downtown—wearing only her panties but still holding against her the T-shirt she’d taken off, self-conscious as ever about her size, she found that Martin was already pulling back on the pants he’d partially yanked down and was reaching again for the remote.

He gave no explanation (later, she understood he’d been too embarrassed or at least too unhappy with himself to speak) and at the moment she blamed herself and then him and then herself again, and sat there feeling strange, still gripping the unwrapped condom with her right hand and the T-shirt with her left, as he began the movie again from the place where they’d stopped it.

While they watched—or while he did, and she stared into a middle distance, wondering if she was blushing (it seemed like it) and, if so, whether if it was from anger or embarrassment or both—without a word or muting the movie, Martin turned and began touching her again, fingering her through the side of her underwear and occasionally moving her T-shirt away to inexpertly but intently suck her nipple. He did it, she thought later, out of guilt and obligation or as a kind of good form and fair play (he was a WASP, after all, he had said so over drinks, though he had gone to school on a scholarship) or from an excitement that (and here she began to feel compassion for him and not contempt) he was unable to fully feel but only witness and acknowledge, the way one smells food that one doesn’t actually crave but understands others eating. Whyever he was doing it, he made Isabel come, a bit more intensely than she usually made herself in the evenings, her experience diminished somewhat by the accompanying sound of a song sung by cartoon flounders in the movie, along with which she suspected Martin was quietly humming, though it might have been more of the agreeing-with moaning he had done before.

Afterward, he pulled away, leaving her to readjust her underwear and fully pull on her shirt. The fact that he had even done it, after being impotent (because he lacked strong enough blood circulation or didn’t desire her in that way or didn’t eat enough—he had only nibbled at the nachos in the bar, while she ate almost all of them—or was, well, ill) somewhat endeared him to her, and she placed an elbow upon his shoulder, as if they were players on a high school soccer team or something, as they watched to the end the movie they still thought mediocre.

As the credits rolled—and Martin finally pressed the mute—Isabel thought she should say something to comfort him, in case he felt at fault.
“I bet you’ve had more exciting evenings,” she said, to take the rap, though she knew—or at least suspected—she was unworthy of such punishment, a tiny residual doubt notwithstanding.

“Oh, hey,” Martin said, after a long and tortured pause, direct expression clearly—along with other kinds of human interactions—an ongoing and excruciating trial for him, “it’s you who had to… I mean, I hadn’t been…” and that was the best he could do to grab back the ball of blame.

Then there was an even longer pause before, not able to look at her, he asked, “When was the first time you—you did it?”
Isabel was surprised, even taken aback, by his inquiry. For a second, she didn’t answer and so he took her silence as a rebuke and, “Sorry,” he said, “maybe I shouldn’t have…”

But that he had had the energy to ask her anything, had taken an initiative that wasn’t to make up for a failing (as when he’d touched her) or express a negative emotion (as, at work, when he had once “mistakenly” deleted incoming data) so impressed her that she felt obligated to reply, if only to encourage him to continue.

“It was, well, in high school,” she said, “at a boy I knew’s house.”

Slowly, he asked her another question about the encounter (which had been with Bailey Glynn, arts editor of the high school lit mag, The Long Island Epiphany), and then another, and each time she answered, because, as she did so, she sensed a commitment from and curiosity in him that she had never seen and did not want to quash, uncomfortable as she was revealing details which up till now had been known only to Bailey and herself.

“He undid my bra, and then we thought we heard his parents pull into the driveway, but it wasn’t the case, and, strangely, that seemed to make him harder, and—“

“What did you do then?”

She told him about her first fumbling yet erotic experience with fellatio, distancing herself from the event by pretending to describe a movie she had seen and, accordingly, embellishing it here and there, which both allowed her less unease and increased his avidity, the almost entranced quality of his arousal (his eyes closed, his mouth slightly open) which grew more and more marked as she kept talking.

“And were you excited?”

“So excited.”

As she reached the peak of her story, Martin began to undo his pants with great haste, as if he simply could not wait a moment longer. She was surprised by the strength and size of his erection now, as if he were another person, had a whole other body, when she talked to him like this. Before he could touch his penis, she did, and before she could touch it more than once, he came, so loudly and powerfully that he sounded as if he was in pain and had to place a hand on her arm to steady himself, as if he was afraid of what was happening, though this only made her excited and not concerned for him.

Afterward, Martin looked down and saw that his semen had shot the entire length of his bare leg and onto her couch, some of it even hitting the TV remote inches away. He said nothing, just rose to pull one, two, then three tissues from a nearby box and start to fastidiously clean up. Before he had finished, Isabel had tugged his hand toward her, pried the tissues loose from it, and placed it between her legs: he pushed three fingers inside her, and she held his hand there and came again, this time much more deeply and electrically than she had before, than she ever had, she later admitted only to herself.

Each briefly looked in the other’s eyes, aware that both were alive in ways that were unknown to other people in the office, and that neither would have known if neither had exposed—sacrificed—something (he pride, she privacy); that both had done things that night and been rewarded, in other words, the opposite of how they spent their time at work. Then they looked away, each secretly knowing what would happen next.

Isabel and Martin didn’t discuss or arrange it: speaking to each other was not their strong suit (especially not his). Yet the next day, after staring immobile at information on a screen before pressing a button to distribute it, when no one was passing their door, she quietly asked him what else he wanted to know about her, and he answered her question with another question— “What was the next time you, etc.”—and she answered his question with an actual answer, and that made him ask another question, with an urgency he showed about nothing else (had maybe never shown about anything else), and she answered again, his excitement exciting her (her power to excite him exciting her), until he—“nonchalantly”—placed the base of his palm quickly against the large lump that had

grown below his belt, and she naughtily brushed it once or twice with her elbow, and ended the exchange, Martin gasping and seeming almost lifted up in the air by the wild rush it afforded him. Then Isabel excused herself and went into the ladies’ room where she locked herself in a stall and made herself come, too, which happened almost instantly and left her so sweaty and aromatic that she realized her “natural” deodorant didn’t work and probably never had, she just never had known, for she had never tested it with enough effort.

As weeks went on, they got the routine down to a science, knew when to stop if they heard sounds in the hall, when to swivel away from each other, when to start up again. One day, Martin stayed out sick with a cold and called her from home. This was physically easier for her—Isabel only had to eyeball the hall and not physically disengage from him if the coast wasn’t clear—yet it took some getting used to, it being more impersonal.

“What did he say about your tits?” he asked, after she had quietly described an event.

“That he liked them.”

“That’s all?”

“That they were big. That I had nice ones.”

“Then what did he do?”

“He kissed around, then licked around, then bit around my nipples. He wouldn’t suck them. He was tormenting me.”

“Did your nipples get hard?”

“So hard.”

“What did you do?”

“I begged him to suck them. And he said I’d have to wait.”

“Were you wet?”

“So wet.”

“What happened then?”

“He made me promise that I would swallow his come if he sucked my nipples.”

“And what did you do?”

“I promised that I would.”

“And did you?”

“Yes. Later.”

“I really want to hear about that.”

There was a brief pause on the other end of the line, as she heard only Martin’s slow, slightly cold-congested breathing. Then, “I’ll call you back,” he said and hung up.

She made up the stories, of course, having long since exhausted her actual experiences, which she had fictionalized in the first place as to make them virtually unrecognizable. She saw herself as a kind of Sheherazade, though only vaguely aware of who that was. When Isabel looked up the name online, she saw that the analogy wasn’t perfect but close enough to make her feel connected to an oral tradition, in a line of great raconteurs.

Yet after more weeks, this remained the only connection she could feel. Martin never stopped wanting to hear her “memories” (which she assumed he knew were padded with details picked up from porn films she saw online, actually had researched at home in her idle hours, the sites not being “safe for work,” and then made less mechanical and cold when she offered them up as her own) but this remained the extent of their physical relationship. Soon he was not requesting to do it after work any more but only in the office, and didn’t reciprocate by touching her (for she, being shyer, refused to have that done in public and still insisted on going to the ladies’ room by herself, and then even stopped doing that). Isabel began to feel their actions were fading into another form of passivity, more work, in other words, a new and modern job, the pressing of a penis the same as that of a “send” button, etc.

It was around this time that their boss, Owen, requested her appearance in his office after five.

Isabel had spoken to Owen just two or three times—once when he assured her she hadn’t caused Rita’s heart attack, once when she rode the elevator with him after only he and not she had carried an umbrella in that morning’s thunderstorm and she had tried to laugh off the water literally dripping from her hair and clothes and pooling on the marble floor of the car and he had smiled, politely, seeming she thought repelled, and another time she couldn’t remember—he hadn’t even hired her; it had been an obese woman named Cybil in Human Resources.

So she had been startled when Owen poked his head in her and Martin’s office, only a few minutes after Martin had excused himself to clean up in the men’s room. Owen had an open and expectant look, as if about to ask if she wanted anything at the store, he was making a run (“I’ll fly if you buy,” they used to say in college) but that couldn’t be it, of course.

When she walked to his office later, it was with trepidation—an instinctive reaction to being summoned by someone in authority, she thought—but she also had a flickering hope that she was about to be fired, though if the cause was her office adventures with Martin, that might turn out to be embarrassing, maybe even featured on the evening news, then splashed all over the internet, where her parents could see it.

When she sat opposite him, though, Owen didn’t mention Martin and only wanted her to do some special project on a freelance basis; he would understand if she were too busy.

“Busy?” She was unable to keep a tone of comic disbelief from her voice and immediately sorry about it. “I mean, no, I don’t think so. All right. Thank you.”

Isabel needed the money, after all—and she tuned out when Owen explained about the mild tax complications that “freelance” would mean, “estimated,” or whatever. She concentrated instead on looking at Owen, who was forty-two but whom she thought was either thirty-five or fifty. He had a boyish, snub-nosed face surrounded by graying hair, reminding her of a modern painting in a gilded frame from another century. He didn’t meet her eyes as he spoke yet what he said couldn’t have been more simple, innocent, and non-incriminating. Was he avoiding something else of which he was ashamed? She didn’t know. She had walked in wondering why he’d chosen her and left convinced it could have been her or someone else; maybe he’d just stopped by her office after counting to ten.

When Isabel got home, there was a message on her machine from Martin. In it, he implied an interest in hearing her talk over the phone that night, having apparently enjoyed it when he’d been ill, unlike Isabel, who’d had mixed feelings. Isabel meant to call him back, yet by the time she’d finished the assignment for Owen, it was midnight and too late. She’d completed the task in just one night, despite the “several” Owen had assumed it would take. Since it had been no more interesting than what she did at work—seemed more boring, actually, like spending a vacation in her home—Isabel was surprised by her diligence and went to sleep without comprehending it.

The next day, she politely demurred when Martin nodded suggestively at the empty hall during lunch hour. They had sometimes missed other opportunities—for instance, when they had had to attend day-long, company-wide meetings after which both confessed they had fantasized doing it in front of the entire workforce, which had fueled and made more exciting their next encounter. This was the first time Isabel had actually said or at least shaken her head no, and she could see the disappointment—which was deep—on Martin’s face. At day’s end, he waited for her to accompany him out, but Isabel simply said she would see him tomorrow.

“I’ll call you?” he said, or asked, as if unsure whether he would or would be allowed to by her, it wasn’t clear which.

As soon as he was gone, Isabel walked quickly to Owen’s office, hoping he hadn’t left for the night. She carried the work she had done, which she had printed out and placed neatly in a folder. She could have emailed it to him but wanted to deliver it in person, she didn’t know why.

“Well, well,” Owen said, impressed, using a way of talking that was older than his youngish face, as if his graying hair were talking or something, Isabel couldn’t express it coherently to herself. “Thank you. I had no idea you’d do it so…”

Suddenly Owen couldn’t finish the sentence—and the final word was almost certainly “fast” or “quickly”—he appeared too appreciative and that made him too emotional. Or was it something else? For whatever reason, his eyes filled with tears.

Standing before his desk, Isabel didn’t know what to do. Had she somehow sensed this aspect of Owen—an instability—and complied with the job so quickly out of compassion? She was suddenly unaware of so much, though many things were presenting themselves. She only knew that something had been building in her, begun by her losing interest in—growing to resent really—Martin. Unintentionally, the older man had stepped into the spill of a searchlight Isabel had been shining around, and now she had stopped it; he had her full attention.

“May I close the door?” he asked, still choking up, and Isabel nodded, as if to say, please do.

When he retook his seat, Owen again spoke without looking at her, but occasionally met her eyes and glanced away, testing new waters of trust.

“My wife,” he said, “I don’t—I don’t mean to put her down. She can’t help it. I know depression is a disease, that’s what the doctors say. I understand that. But she sleeps hours and hours a day—sometimes all day. I bring her books and newspapers—I brought her an easel with an expensive palette, for she used to paint. They all go unused. She’s taken every pill invented and none has worked for more than a week. What am I supposed to do? Nothing? That’s what it feels like she wants for me to do, not to leave her but to leave her be. How can I? She stays behind a closed door that seems as big as that space monolith in that movie where—oh, of course, you wouldn’t know it, you’re too young.”

The idea of Isabel’s age had stopped his confession, returned him to reality, and Owen swiveled to the side, seeming grateful that something had.

Isabel felt a bit offended. She had seen that movie, or at least part of it once, had heard of it, anyway, and besides, he was too young to have seen it originally, either; he wasn’t that much older. In any case, she knew that in the only way that mattered, they were the same: Owen was a person going to waste, as she was.

“I do know,” she blurted out, and thought she sounded even younger, a child asserting sophistication. It made him smile—mostly with his eyes, if that were possible, as he barely moved his mouth—and that hurt her even more.

Still, her youth meant something to her: Isabel waited for him to speak before continuing the conversation—not because he was her boss, exactly, because what he was going through was something she hadn’t experienced, the depth of his despair was something she had never known. Wasn’t that worthy of respect or at least silence? This wasn’t about her impressing him, after all, though she wanted to, had to force herself not to keep trying, to make him know that she understood him, understood everything, even though she sensed she didn’t.

But Owen wouldn’t respond, so Isabel had no better idea than to leave. When he saw her start to go, he rose at the same time, actually making a decision, moving toward her as she moved to the door. He was faster than she, because he wanted to get where he was going more.

Owen stood before her, no longer on the verge of tears, as if feeling beyond what tears could tell her. He offered himself as a desperate applicant, without any other options, beyond all embarrassment.

“Please,” he said. “Please. Use me.”

At first, Isabel didn’t know what he meant. Then she realized that she was fighting knowing and did not resist as he came closer, in fact placed her hands at his hips to help. Soon he was near enough to whisper,

“Anything you want. All for you. Use me.”

As he undressed her, he discouraged her doing anything in return, shaking his head or murmuring “no” when she as much as raised a hand to touch him. She felt she was being prepared—anointed, that was the word—for some ceremony, saw herself in a Roman movie scene, a princess stripped, bathed, and placed naked under robes by female slaves—though, in that case, they would be careful not to caress her, not wishing to offend, they would be killed if they were caught, and, moaning, Owen was stroking and kissing every inch of her he could, after he removed her one good white shirt (which she had feared that morning looked as un-ironed as it was), then her bra, her skirt and, as he placed her with her help upon his—slightly cold—leather couch, her underwear (it had been too warm that morning to wear tights).

Still fully dressed, he moved, a supplicant, down her, and she spread her legs, not sure but daring to assume that’s what he wanted. Then he said softly but she was almost sure, “I want to lick the alphabet on your clit,” and that’s what he did, speaking each letter before he formed it (with surprising efficiency) upon and across her, something she suspected he had seen in a porn film, but a good and imaginative one that she had missed. By the time he licked the three lines for the stems or the arms or whatever you call them of the “E,” she came, feeling more naked even than she was, though this was how he’d wanted her, she was only obeying him by allowing him to submit, or something.

Then he lay his head against her thigh, breathing with what seemed relief that he had actually had an effect on anyone, made an impact, that he might be remembered by someone for doing something. She didn’t dare to reach down and touch his head (the gray hair of which she now decided she liked, without knowing why), though it was her impulse to at least acknowledge how good he’d made her feel. Soon he had recovered and was undressing himself, moving her gently (again with her subtle assistance) so that she lay beneath him. “So big and beautiful,” she thought he whispered though she wasn’t positive and couldn’t say “what?” because that would be weird, given what was going on, though she was curious, wanted to hear the compliment. She realized he already had a condom, was taking care of everything, was weirdly adept at assisting, her sexual valet in a sense, her “man” as they called it in old comedies about butlers, and the word had so many meanings now, she thought, as he entered her, and she realized she was sort of—babbling—to herself, because she was so nervous and so aroused. As he pushed into her, he knew what she wanted though he hardly knew her; he was catering to her, customizing her account, as it were, her AOL or whatever, in bed. Soon she stopped feeling guilty about giving nothing and decided to go along, for that’s what he wanted, to enjoy being on the receiving end, accepting now an action in a way it had never been before.

That he was acting for himself and for her—that he was aware of what effect each push was having, that her pleasure caused his—this was something new. She thought of someone rowing and how the digging of his oar into the ocean moved his boat, rippled the water, and built the muscle in the rower’s arm, a seamless situation, and now she was the water or merely made of water, and when he pushed into her, he was, well, not like the oar exactly but like an entire man disappearing into a wave, which was her, or she was made of water, or anyway, she now knew what “so excited” meant and it was different from what she had pretended it meant with Martin, or to put it simply, it now meant something and not nothing, as it had before, when it had been something from a porn film, and bullshit.

“Oh, my God,” she said, helplessly, as he pushed particularly hard, and pressed the front of his abdomen (which she noticed was flatter than Martin’s, despite his being so much older, fifteen or forty-five years, though she had only briefly glimpsed Martin’s soft stomach through his unzipped and partly pulled down pants) against her clitoris, and she thought of a dolphin, as if she was still in an ocean, and how it butted against you or something when it liked you and you swam with it; he (or maybe just his erection) was like a strong and slippery dolphin, rock hard but really responsive, and making that little chirping radar sound, which she now realized was coming from her own open mouth.

“It’s good, it’s good,” she said, and again she hadn’t meant to say anything at all.

Then, suddenly, he stopped moving, obviously could move no more without ending everything, which meant that she was on, it was up to her; and instinctively she wrapped around him, from the inside and outside: outside with her arms—and inside she had never known she had such flexibility, like when you realize you can bend a finger back all the way without breaking it, only this was better, had never known that she could be tender with a grown man, not just her baby sister or her old kitty cat Monkey, kissing and kissing them—she was passionate, that’s what she was, and why had it been embarrassing to say before now?

Then coming with him felt like (she could not stop comparing things; it made her feel safer to do it, put things in perspective so she wouldn’t feel she had entered an environment alien and disorienting—it was still her own life, she had not gone insane, you know?) coming with him felt like that trick where the magician pulls out a tablecloth and all the plates stay put: and she was the tablecloth, the table, and the plates. And he came, too, immediately after, or actually during, though she suspected he’d started a little ahead of her, could feel him doing that pulsing that of course, came from his heart and had been weaker in her hand when it came from Martin; and Owen’s sound was bigger: Martin’s was like air going out of a balloon and Owen’s was like one bursting, a whole float in, say, the Puerto Rican Day Parade: or he was a terrorist exploding himself along with everything else, and she had made him into one; and that was so exciting that it made her come again, or maybe it was just the end of her first orgasm, an aftershock, like they say there are in earthquakes.

“I can’t stop,” she said, and perhaps that was another trick, because she wanted it to continue and thought saying that might be the spell to make it so.

Then he placed his lips against her temple, where her hair was wet and slightly stuck to the area above her ear. Would he say he loved her? She didn’t think he did; she didn’t love him; she didn’t fool herself; she wasn’t a baby. Maybe she wanted him to say it so she could feel superior, could feel less than he and so more in control. (She had read once that the young are more powerful in young-old affairs, because, well, they live longer. But what about her uncle’s second wife who was twenty years younger and who died first? Who was more powerful then? Her uncle, obviously, who was still alive.) Soon she didn’t care about creating distance: she found herself kissing him, too, his cheek, which was not unshaven but getting there, with the night coming on; things were changing, growing all the time, and now she knew it, this was proof.

Her boss had wanted to work for her, and that was what he had done; he had not been lying, been, what was the word, rhetorical: and that made her want to serve him—not serve, that was subordinate and not what she meant—to give to him, to know what he knew, to get pleasure by giving pleasure, to feel the connection or current, the wet finger in the spilled liquid that was then stuck into a socket, only good and shocking, not bad.

She took him into her mouth, even though he protested, weakly, that this was not for him but only for her, tried to insist and sincerely, not coyly, not to get what he pretended not to want. But she wouldn’t listen and soon, her breasts intentionally squashed against his leg, she kissed at the gray pubic hairs she had not noticed on him before (and which, for reasons she could not articulate, excited her in a new and discombobulating way), and it was only seconds after she started, sort of forced him to experience it, had hardly moved her mouth on him, was just getting ready to do her stuff, or figure out what stuff would do the trick for him, that he came, and more than melting in her mouth (as crass girls in college called it), seemed to completely disappear, his head tilting back, his eyes closing, his arms laid flat, his hands opening, as if going under in that ocean again—or, better, being pushed off a cliff by coming; it almost scared her: she suddenly knew how lonely he had been and yet he hadn’t used it against her but for her, had wanted to deny himself until she wouldn’t let him any more (or was the denial his way of getting over the guilt of sleeping with a young girl who was his employee? If he got nothing, in other words, what had he done wrong? He would be a kind of sex saint).

But then she didn’t care what was his way to explain it to himself, was just glad that she had given him this, given him something—God knows she gave him nothing at the job—and soon he seemed to reappear, to float up to the surface again and exist, and she moved to lie against him, and he buried his face in her sweaty neck, maybe ashamed of how much he had shown of himself, uneasy about how much she knew him now, though she liked knowing him—he knew her, so why not?—secretly wanted to know him more, to know everything, even though she suspected that it would be impossible, would probably never happen, that this was as close as they would ever get, this instant, this afternoon.

Isabel didn’t see Owen often after this. Only once did they meet in his house, when his wife was away. While Isabel was there, the door to the bedroom stayed closed, and she could imagine how its dark (was it oak?) wood might have to him a vexing and mysterious power—intergalactic or timeless or whatever it had been in the film—if always in that position. They used a den but mostly stayed in the bathroom, where he washed her slowly in the shower, aroused as he always was by fulfilling a function, being employed, even if the need was one he had created in her, for she did need him now, or wanted him, had had trouble waiting for him, anyway, from the time they entered his home. Otherwise, they met in his office whenever they could, for he had obligations, and—without saying so, without saying much of anything—they both regarded their time together as a gift, could not be greedy for more, just had to be grateful.

Isabel barely spoke to Martin now. Her duties seemed less stultifying, filled as they were with subtext, the numbers on her screen changed into symbols of longing found on another planet or formed in the future and fascinating; but Martin seemed even more frustrated. Isabel could hear him sighing from where he sat, and she believed it was both for her benefit and a genuine expression of dismay. She was sorry for him but not guilty, no matter how much she thought she ought to be.

One dusk, both were alone in the elevator going down, though she usually avoided exiting the building with him. They rode in silence until, a few floors from the lobby, Martin spoke a rare completed sentence.

“I know that you go with him,” he said.

Isabel started, and the little bell rang as they hit the ground floor, seeming to underline his remark. She didn’t respond, only walked quickly ahead and away from him; but she knew that things were different, had entered a new phase, she could feel it, and he had made it happen.

The next day in the office, Martin kept on talking to her—not even whispering as others went by—in this same clear voice he had either always had or acquired for the occasion, feeling he had no alternative.

“Why don’t you tell me about doing it with him?” he said.

Isabel didn’t answer, just kept looking as if interested at her screen, though she knew it was absurd to try and fool him in this way.

“I want to hear about you and him,” he said, and his voice conveyed at once the sincere needs to please himself and punish her, which was new; before he may have been selfish but not unkind.

Isabel turned to see him, and he didn’t avoid her, kept staring at her, as he had been the whole time. Her response was reflexive, though this reflex was also new.

“I won’t,” she said, and saw him appear shocked, not because she had officially ended something between them, she didn’t think, but because he was being denied something obviously available: brand-new information that would no doubt be exciting and could have been given to him easily, as if newspapers were being thrown from a boy’s bike onto everybody’s lawn but his in the days when that’s how people got current events.

As Isabel pushed by him to leave early (being privileged by her association with Owen, she did not need to explain herself), she realized that Martin had always thought her stories were true, and this made her feel differently about him, though in what way she wasn’t sure.

For a few days, to Isabel’s relief, they sat in virtual silence. Finally, Martin addressed her on their way into a meeting, among a crowd in which it would be hard for her to reply.

“I told her,” he said.

“What do you mean?” She was made to whisper back. “Who?”

“His wife. About you and him. I left a message on their machine.”

Isabel stopped, bumped by another employee trying to get past. Waiting to be alone with him in the hall, she reached out and grabbed Martin, got hold of his shirt, which she nearly ripped and which he yanked back, annoyed, so she wouldn’t. They stood there staring at each other, Isabel nearly shaking with rage both at him and her own inarticulateness; it was as if, with a few words, he had taken everything away.

Martin didn’t look triumphant; he seemed shaken, even shocked by her reaction, then grew apologetic and stammered, reverting to his old, unsocialized self.

“I—I—I had to do something,” he said, at last: a way to explain.

* * * * *

This was right before the weekend. On Monday, Isabel arrived late, and Martin was already there. He sat faced away, his complexion pale, his chin in his palm, the computer screen before him blank. Was he sick again, she wondered? Or just afraid to acknowledge her?

Soon she noticed a general absence of people around. When she looked out in the hall, many doors were shut, others open to reveal no one and a briefcase or bag hastily, even indifferently tossed in a corner or on a chair. It was like a science fiction film in which a plague breaks out—or a bomb drops—that kills people but not things. She wondered if a meeting had been called without her knowing; but now that she knew Owen, she was always in the loop.

Isabel walked out and, after a few steps, began passing others. All were either heading toward Owen’s office or returning from having been there. There was a feeling of people drifting to and from a crime scene or a free outdoor concert at which some were turned away. Isabel could not remember there ever being this kind of purposeful movement in the office, such urgency, concern and curiosity. Had the company been sold? Owen been fired? One woman was in tears. Isabel heard someone say, “I can’t believe it,” and another, “they found him in his house,” and a third, somewhat snottily, “I would have thought it would have been his wife.”

Isabel began running through the hall, her feeling of fear in action, and soon was nearly flying. She knew that if Owen’s door was closed, it would be bad news—or would it be if his door was open and people were in his office crying the way she was not yet allowing herself to cry?

Now she was running faster than anyone ever should inside, with too much speed to be contained in the office, as if she were about to burst out of it at any instant, and it was true: she would be, in a way, exploded into life by death as soon as she rounded the corner at the end of the hall.


Laurence Klavan is author of the novels, "The Cutting Room" and "The Shooting Script," published in 2004 and 2005 by Ballantine Books. He won the Edgar Award for "Mrs. White," written under a pseudonym. Last year, his story, "Hole in the Ground," was published in Cafe Irreal and his story, "What the Wind Blew In," was published in SN Review. His story, "Long Story Short," is currently in Foliate Oak and his story, "The Unexpected Guest," is forthcoming in Gargoyle. His graphic novels, "Germantown" and "The Fielding Course," co-written with Susan Kim, will be published by First Second Books in 2008 and 2009, respectively. He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics to "Bed and Sofa," the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York. His one-act, "The Summer Sublet," is included in "Best American Short Plays 2000-2001," and his one-act, "Simprov," will soon be published in The Alaska Quarterly.His web site is

The Dead End Job
© 2010 by Laurence Klavan





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