A Corporate Spectacle

Credit: Tim Patterson

Before I started writing full-time, I had a corporate sales job. I sat in a cubicle for eight hours a day, managing the delivery of products that I would never use to places that I would never visit. The job was routinized. There were specific tasks that needed to be done in a certain way, and at a certain time every day. There was comfort in always knowing what was expected. But with that comfort came boredom, and with that boredom came frustration, and before long, those cubicle walls started to close in.

Left unchecked, that frustration can become poisonous to company morale; so most businesses try to find ways to break the monotony. At this company, that came in the form of an annual talent show. Every year, for one day, the corporate drones transformed into dancers, singers, magicians, and comedians. It was a chance to learn a lot about people I saw every day, but never spoke to. The quiet nerd from IT who wouldn’t make eye contact with girls in the hall wrote moody guitar rock. The mousy lady from Human Resources, who never said more than two words to anybody at lunch, had an operatic singing voice. The guy from the warehouse could barely speak English, but he could do a mean Elvis impersonation.

The talent show was held every year at Halloween. The entire company would shut down for that day, and each department would decorate its offices according to a theme they had chosen. The owner would tour each department and choose the best decorated.

This entire spectacle was the owner’s idea. Each year, he sat in the front row of the talent show like a king. After the show, he walked through the hallways snapping pictures of everyone in costume. He paid special attention to the youngest female employees wearing the least clothing. Even though this tradition had been born from his love of Halloween, he never dressed up himself, he never took part in the talent show, and he never acted in any of the skits. His roving eyes and non-participation gave the entire experience a creepy vibe, as if we were all just there for his amusement.

Each year, there was a daily prize giveaway during the week leading up to Christmas vacation. A tiny figure of Waldo from the Where’s Waldo books was hidden somewhere in the office, and clues to his location were emailed to everybody. Most people read the clues, smiled, gave a few shots at figuring it out, and then went about their day, but some people became obsessed with finding Waldo. They were looking for any excuse to not be at their desk. Finding Waldo, whenever they managed it, was a concrete achievement in a job that felt devoid of meaning.

In such an environment, it’s rare to see any true emotion. When it is expressed, it comes out in an outburst — a supervisor yells at an employee, or an employee who’s finally had too much lets his boss have it. These bursts of humanity are so rare that they stay burned in the memory forever.

Find Finnian is about one of those outbursts — the departing wail of a woman, Mary Ellen, who’s given her entire life over to the corporate world. Instead of following her descent through her own perspective, we hear the story from a disinterested narrator — a cynical, misogynist jerk, who’s only passing along the story for the rush of excitement that sharing such gossip will provide. We don’t know what exactly has happened to trigger Mary Ellen’s outburst, because the narrator doesn’t know.

It’s a frustrating thing when a writer says that they don’t know the answer to some secret that’s implied in their story, but I can’t tell you what’s happened to Mary Ellen, either. At the end of the story, the narrator shares several different possibilities that he’s heard in rumor — that she may have lost a husband or a son. It’s also implied that she may have died in the meantime — suggesting that a terminal diagnosis may have led to her breakdown. Those all represent possibilities I played with while conceiving the story. I couldn’t decide which was worse: to have to deal with the banal stresses of office life while also dealing with a personal crisis; or just one day realizing that working life meant nothing. So, I let the reader decide.

I’m fascinated with office “legends” that spread from person to person. It happens in every workplace, in every part of the world, with even the most mundane of stories. We’ll never know if Mary Ellen’s breakdown was as dramatic as the narrator describes it, because we weren’t there. And it’s likely that he is embellishing, because why wouldn’t he? He’s less concerned with the truth than with keeping his unseen reader on the hook.

But even as callous and guarded as the narrator appears, and as cynically as he tells this story, something about Mary Ellen’s experience stuck with him. Even in a boring job, odd things happen every day. But this moment embedded itself in his memory. Maybe he has to tell the story, to expel whatever it is about seeing that woman’s breakdown that haunts him. It may be guilt. Early in the story we see him treating Mary Ellen with causal disrespect — maybe carrying on her memory is his way of making up for his behavior. Or maybe it’s that in that final moment, when he sees Mary Ellen — a strong, authoritative figure, reduced to a creature of pure, shrieking anger — he saw his own anger laid bare. The ritual of the storytelling, then, becomes a distancing device, a way to protect himself from his own buried emotions.

In that sense, the narrator has been just as depersonalized as Mary Ellen was. She stifled her emotions for decades in the name of the company, but he’s displaced just as much of his humanity, as shown by his lack of empathy towards her. In the end, the greatest evil is that which causes us to lose our ability to see the other as a part of the same whole as us.


Matthew Guerruckey is the founding editor of the online literary magazine Drunk Monkeys, and a fiction writer. His short fiction has previously appeared in The Story Shack, Connotation Press, Bartleby Snopes, Cease Cows, and The Weekenders Magazine. Matthew lives in North Hollywood with his wife, poet SC Stuckey, and their cats Lennon and Harrison. He is working on his first novel.


Find Finnian

Did anyone ever tell you about Mary Ellen? She was the call floor supervisor back when I started here. She was this tiny lady, middle-aged, probably forty, but she walked like she was older, always hunched over and talking about how bad her knees hurt. She was always dressed in these real proper suits, the kind that have those huge shoulder pads in them—people who’ve been here since the start say she just never changed her wardrobe from the 80’s. She used to hover over our shoulders during calls, and if she heard you lose a sale she’d drag you aside and correct your technique by telling you all the things you should have done to keep them on the line. She came in early every morning and used to sit right there by the time-clock. If you came in even a minute late she’d give you a big lecture about how ashamed you should be for wasting the company’s money. She asked me once if I was proud of what my tardiness said about me. Can you believe that shit?

One time this guy Jeff came back from lunch five minutes late, and she walked right up to him at his station and asked for his time-card. Jeff didn’t know what was going on, so he gave it to her, and she tore it up right in front of him and told him he was fired.

She was always listening in to our conversations, too. You couldn’t go anywhere in the office without her nosing around, and if she overheard you talking about her she’d pout for the rest of the day. One time I got called into her office because she’d heard me call her fat and she started crying and telling me how she’d always treated me with respect and how ‘deeply hurt’ she was, and blah, blah, blah.

We used to have this contest called Find Finnian. It was like that kid’s book, you know, with that little guy in the blue and white shirt, with the big, goofy ears and sunglasses, and you’re supposed to find him in these crazy pictures? I was never any good at it when I was little—I spent more time looking for all the dirty jokes that the other kids at school had said they’d found. Sure enough, man, there’s a few tits in there, if you look hard enough.

So the guy that owns the building had a Finnian doll, and every year he’d hide it somewhere in one of the offices, and whoever found it got a gift—usually something lame like a Starbucks card—and their entire office would get a catered lunch. He’d do this every day of the week before Christmas. They emailed clues to everyone, and made it sound like they written by Finnian himself, like if the note said, ‘oh, it sure is cold up here’, then you’d find the doll taped to the air conditioning. Stupid shit like that.

My first year here I got really into it. A bunch of us would sit down and try to figure out the clues. Usually it was pretty easy, but sometimes they were so hard they’d end up sending another clue in the afternoon, because no one had figured it out yet.

But it seemed like every time we figured it out and tracked him down someone from Majestic Realty would already be there ahead of us. They were real obnoxious about it too—jumping up and down and high-fiving and carrying on. So after a few years I quit playing.

Mary Ellen, of course, always hated the game, because we’d spend hours—sometimes most of the day—trying to figure out those clues, but Alan, the big boss, he really got a kick out of it. If he was in the office he’d sit down and try to help us. So she couldn’t do anything to stop us, but that didn’t stop her from giving us all the look of death every time we went chasing after Finnian.

Then about three years ago Mary Ellen started looking real rough, and nobody knew why. She stopped wearing those suits, and a lot of the time she’d come in wearing whatever she’d been in the day before. Deep circles appeared under her eyes, and I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but she looked spooky. At lunch she’d just sit at a table alone and stare off into space, and if you were in her line of view it didn’t matter, she’d just keep staring past you.

So Christmas is coming, and she gets super involved with Find Finnian. A week before the contest even started she called a staff meeting about our strategy to win. She kept talking about teamwork and how much we meant to her. She split us up into search parties so that we could track him down faster. The whole meeting she had this strange smile on her face—it was like her mouth was smiling as big as it could go, but her eyes weren’t. Creepy. Real creepy.

But it worked—the first day of the contest she finds Finnian herself. You would have thought she’d won the Mega Millions. So we all thought she’d relax after that, but it just got worse.

As soon as the clue came in the next morning she called us all into her office and kept us there for a full hour trying to figure it out, but while we were in there we got an email that Majestic had already found it. She was pissed. She started calling Majestic all these names—we’d never even heard her swear before, but she was really laying into them. We lost again on Wednesday and Thursday. After we lost the contest on Thursday she locked herself in her office. We could hear her throwing shit against the walls and crying. At this point, we’re all just waiting for her to snap and making jokes about wearing bullet-proof vests into the office on Friday.

So Friday morning comes, and she’s not talking to anybody, like we’re the problem. Her hair was all jacked up like she hadn’t bothered to comb it, and she smelled like she’d been running a marathon all night. I mean you could smell her from across the room.

So we get the clue, and we’re all waiting to get called into her office, but she didn’t say anything. Her door was open and we could see her pacing the floor and smacking her head. Then, after about fifteen minutes of that, she runs out of the office and we hear her screaming in the hallway. So all of us, I mean the entire call floor, run out to see what the hell is happening. We found her holding onto one arm of that stupid Finnian doll, playing tug-of-war with some chick from Majestic.

So they’re going back and forth, and a few of us are trying to calm her down, and the building owner’s just staring at her, wondering who this madwoman is, and then Mary Ellen throws her head back and screams. I mean this was one of those bottom-of-your-soul horror movie screams. They heard it all the way up on the fourth floor. The scream scared the piss out of the girl from Majestic, so she drops her end of the doll. Mary Ellen just collapses on the floor, cradling this doll like it’s a baby or something. She just sat there on the floor hugging that doll and moaning for an hour before Alan came to drive her home.

And that was it. We never saw Mary Ellen again. Some people said she got fired, some people said she quit, but no one really cared why she was gone. We were all just glad we didn’t have to deal with her anymore. Davy told me he saw her name in the obituaries about a year later, but Davy’s full of shit, and no one else ever saw it. If anything had happened to her, Alan probably would have told us about it so, whatever, she’s probably not dead.

What? Hell, who knows? Steve said something had happened to her husband, but no one could remember for sure if she was married or not. Later someone said that her son died. Rumors around here, you know? Everyone’s got a story, but no one ever gets it right. Lord only knows what they’ll say about me after I’m gone.



Matthew Guerruckey is the founding editor of the online literary magazine, Drunk Monkeys, and a fiction writer. His short fiction has previously appeared in The Story Shack, Connotation Press, Bartleby Snopes, Cease Cows, and The Weekenders Magazine. Matthew lives in North Hollywood with his wife, poet SC Stuckey, and their cats Lennon and Harrison. He is working on his first novel.