by Michelle Ross and Kim Magowan
Kindness Woman has been working here barely seven months and already we hate her. This hate is of a different flavor than the antagonism we feel for Faye, who takes so many damn smoke breaks over the course of a day that even her emails reek of cigarettes—emails that often include full sentences in all-caps, sentences that bend and break with her scorn like the cigarette stubs she twists and grinds into a tin coffee can behind the building.
Kindness Woman’s brand of obnoxiousness sits on the opposite end of the spectrum as Faye’s. Her emails contain rainbows—each sentence a different color and a different font. Her emails invite us to help ourselves to the cake or brownies or homemade cranberry-walnut-unicorn bread that she has baked for our enjoyment on this beautiful day. Her emails always end with the word, “Enjoy!” It’s a command. As if that isn’t enough, some days she will walk around the building hawking a platter of brownies or a jar of lollipops. She stops at every desk. She says, “A brownie to make your morning sweet?” or “A lollipop to brighten your afternoon?” The price: only your dignity and having to endure her self-satisfied grin.
Kindness Woman won’t just anonymously leave her baked goods in the kitchen, like everyone else around here who wants to kill us slowly with sugar. Kindness Woman wants credit for her kindnesses. She wants applause.
“The thing about her is she never matured from high school,” says Terry, who works in HR and maintains that HR will turn the sweetest, most extroverted person into a misanthrope, so it’s not her fault she hates the world. “She’s still on the hunt for Senior Superlatives. Cheeriest Demeanor! Most Spirited!”
“Most Likely to Fill Up Your Email With Exclamation Points!” I say. Terry and I exchange a meaningful glance. Exclamation points are to us the splinters of punctuation marks. We share a deep disdain for those rows and rows of exclamation points in Kindness Woman’s emails, stiff and spiky like the barbed hooks of a stickabur. We share a disdain, frankly, for enthusiasm. Sometimes the only words Terry and I will exchange over the course of the day are “Shoot me now.” And yet—and I am being completely sincere here—we communicate so much with those three words, depending on where emphasis is laid. “Shoot me now” means seriously, it’s my turn to moan. “Shoot me now” conveys urgency, this level of bullshit is surpassingly dire.
Now Terry says these words, and she emphasizes all three. Her use of emphasis is so extreme, it brings to mind Kindness Woman’s exclamation points, but I don’t point this out to Terry. Kindness Woman is the reason for this bloated, bloodshot “Shoot me now.” Because Kindness Woman filed a complaint to HR against Faye for being mean to her.
“There’s a form for meanness complaints?” I say.
Terry squints at me. Then she says, “And who do you think Pamela tasked with the joyous assignment of investigating this complaint?”
“What’s an investigation entail exactly?” I say. “Do you tap their phones?”
Because we’re talking in the break room, we both eye the door constantly.
“Why doesn’t anyone file a complaint against Chad?” is what Terry says.
“Hard to prove a man is consciously looking at your breasts every time he talks to you?” I say. “Could be like being cross-eyed? He could say he can’t control his eyes?”
Terry sighs. She says, “For starters, I have to talk to these women. I have to sit down at a table and have conversations with the two most intolerable women in this lunatic asylum of an office. I have to get their sides of the story. I have to take the complaint seriously.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m kind of envious. I want to be a fly on the wall. Maybe you could record your interviews? Just surreptitiously turn your phone face down? I’d love to hear Faye explain why she’s mean to Kindness Woman. What do you predict? ‘Because she’s fucking annoying?’”
Terry does not crack a smile. She folds her arms over her chest and looks at me bleakly. “Do you know why I got into HR?” she says. “I thought I could do some good in the world. I thought I could have some kind of influence on, say, diversity of hires. On practices of inclusivity. Bringing in good people and, okay, slapping the bad people, because dudes like Chad deserve to have their lives made uncomfortable. But no one utters a peep about Chad! Instead I get complaints along the lines of, ‘Faye said, Get those blondies out of my face, I do not give a shit if they have butterscotch chips.’” Terry bites her lip, then passes her hand across my forehead. “Obliviate. You didn’t hear me say that.”
Terry is always doing this, letting confidential things slip and then wiping my memory clean. I let my tongue hang out and glaze my eyes in response, performing successful memory eradication, but there is no cheering Terry up today.
“I think I’ve finally hit bottom,” she says. “I think this is the bottom of the goddamn well. The ninth circle of hell, here I am, getting chewed on by fucking Satan.”
“Here’s what I don’t get,” I say. “Isn’t this against Kindness Woman’s whole ethos? Isn’t lodging an official complaint pretty much the antithesis of kind?”
Terry looks at me pityingly. She says, “Isn’t our company motto, ‘All for one, and one for all’? Yet you remember how Pamela said to Julie when she found Julie using Isaac’s office when Isaac was on vacation, “You’re not on an office-level paygrade.” And then Julie came to me about it, me in my little cubicle five feet outside of Pamela’s office! All I could do was laugh until my face hurt. I said to her, ‘Julie, when the president of the company is also the director of HR, and your complaint is about said president, what do you expect me, who is also not office-level paygrade, to do about it?’”
Pamela enters the breakroom then, so I quickly switch the subject. I say, “Yeah, I started buying the generic sparkling waters. They taste the same but they’re nearly half the price.”
“Which flavor?” Terry says.
We try to look like we’re not monitoring Pamela out of the corners of our eyes as she slices a chunk of Kindness Woman’s latest will-you-please-be-my-friend bribe: something crumbly and weirdly white, like it might just be made entirely of sugar. That or cocaine.
“Lemon,” I say, “though the coconut is pretty good, too.”
Normally, I take pride in my ability to quickly come up with inane shit to talk about in Pamela’s presence, but right now, for some reason, I feel this sickening sadness. A lost-every-tooth-in-your-mouth kind of sadness. And that’s when I remember that I had this weird dream last night that I was excruciatingly depressed. Weird because normally I dream out-of-this-world shit, but a dream about being depressed is dreadfully of-this-world. In the dream, I was walking very slowly through a putty-colored landscape. I was on my way to buy Cascade liquid-powder combination dishwashing capsules; my shoulders were slumped. When I first woke it wasn’t immediately clear to me that I had been dreaming, or was now conscious, or what, if anything, distinguished the two states. I actually said out loud, “Wait, what?” and rolled over to my left. But of course there was no Karl lying next to me.
“Anything wrong, Grace?” Pamela says. She’s watching me narrowly with her bulbous eyes.
“I was just remembering this incredibly boring dream I had,” I said.
“Hmm. People say they have interesting dreams, and when they describe them, they’re incredibly boring. I wonder if that would make a description of an incredibly boring dream interesting? Or would it just be that much more boring?”
Pamela’s affect is so flat and deadpan that it’s impossible to distinguish between her philosophical observations and her jokes. Terry takes a gamble and laughs, and Pamela smiles graciously, so we know Terry guessed right.
“Well, I’ll leave you two to your dreams and sparkling water,” Pamela says, and departs holding aloft her powdery square of Kindness pastry.
Terry raises her eyebrows. “Now I know how to get Pamela to make a fucking fast exit. That was even speedier than when Sam starts telling stories about the latest accomplishments of her twins!” She looks at me more closely. “Hey, what’s up with you? You look like someone hit you with a hammer.”
There are a lot of things I could say at this point, but what I latch onto is what I woke up thinking, what made me so sad my reflection in the bathroom mirror shimmered and blurred. “I miss Karl.”
Terry looks at me, just looks at me, then nods. I’m pretty sure I know what Terry’s thinking but not saying—that I was the one who pushed for the separation, that I said Karl lacked the introspection to really love someone.
We hadn’t yet separated when Kindness Woman first showed up, and I told Karl about that woman’s damn emails and her peddling her treats around the office, and he said, “You sound like that Faye woman. It’s like you’re allergic to kindness. It’s like you want to be miserable.” I tried to explain to Karl that that’s the thing: it’s not kindness if you’re constantly begging for credit for your actions and if you’re pissed off when people don’t give you the thanks you believe you’ve earned. I said, “Maybe she believes she’s being kind, but that’s not kindness. It’s phoniness.” I’d talked before that point about us separating. I’d already said many times that I didn’t believe he really loved me. I’d said to him that I believed he believed he loved me, but that I didn’t feel genuinely loved because I was constantly having to ask him to be thoughtful towards me, and that on the rare occasions he was thoughtful, he made a big fuss about wanting me to praise him. When I called the Kindness Woman phony and manipulative, that was the turning point for Karl. That’s when he said, “You know what? I think you’re right. We should separate. Because you’re impossible to please.”
That’s when I thought, shit, he really doesn’t love me.
“Shoot me now,” I say.
Terry, who passed me Kleenex six months ago and said, “But Grace, isn’t the point that you didn’t really love him either?” nods again, turns her fingers into a gun, and takes aim. I’m standing there waiting for that too-slow, invisible bullet to pierce my heart when Kindness Woman enters the kitchen. She looks at me. She looks at Terry. Then she turns around and leaves, as though she couldn’t remember what it was she’d wanted.
Kim Magowan lives in San Francisco and teaches in the Department of Literatures and Languages at Mills College. Her short story collection Undoing (2018) won the 2017 Moon City Press Fiction Award. Her novel The Light Source is forthcoming from 7.13 Books this July. Her fiction has been published in Atticus Review, Cleaver, The Gettysburg Review, Hobart, New World Writing, Smokelong Quarterly, and many other journals. Her story “Madlib” was selected for Best Small Fictions 2019 (Sonder Press). Her story “Surfaces” was selected for Wigleaf‘s Top 50 2019. She is the Fiction Editor of Pithead Chapel. More at www.kimmagowan.com.
Michelle Ross is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Colorado Review, Pidgeonholes, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other venues. Her story “One or Two?” was selected for Wigleaf‘s Top 50 2019. She is Fiction Editor of Atticus Review. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. More at www.michellenross.com.