UNPLEASANTNESS: GHOST STORIES FOR THE DEPRESSED challenges the notion of the ghost story itself. Two deceased workers haunt an office until turnover and management decisions erase all memory of them. A woman is driven into a life she never wanted by a vision of her future self. A man sees a ghost, but just for a second, and it ruptures his already distorted worldview. A convict acquires second sight and uses it for profane purposes. A desperate young man is compelled to steal by ghosts that are altogether absent. In his debut collection, Nathaniel A. Giles retrofits the ghost story for the twenty-first century and in doing so pushes the boundaries of the genre and questions whether this century isn’t already bad enough without ghosts.
Targeted Age Group:: 18+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Years ago, I had a brief obsession with ghost stories, and read anthologies of M.R. James, Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, H.P. Lovecraft, J.H. Riddell, E.F. Benson, F. Marion Crawford, and others. I love the form. In 2016, I decided that I really wanted to write some ghost stories of my own. As I came up with concepts and started filling them out, it occurred to me that a lot of modern ghost stories try to imitate older stories and sort of edge around the problems of modernity. I thought it would be interesting and sort of satirical to write ghost stories that embrace modernity and even make use of it to add to the horror. I also wanted to write stories that weren't about normal, well-adjusted people. I wanted to write about the kinds of people I know–people who suffer, whose lives are problematic, and whose lives are actually scarier than any ghost. These kinds of people are underrepresented in our culture, and I bet that a lot of people can relate–even people you wouldn't expect.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
My characters are usually some combination of myself and people I know. I kind of inhabit the character I want to create, and then fill in the details with how I think things would work out for me. And I have often have a negative outlook. I realize that's a personality flaw, and I take pains to hide or minimize it in real life, but the fact is that I expect things to be bad. In my writing, however, I don't hide my real expectations. My characters don't have good luck or good lives, they're not winners, they're not successful. Most of them aren't good looking. They're not doing great things. They're people who are struggling to get by, trying very hard just to keep existing without having some kind of breakdown. I feel like far too much fiction is about the exceptional. Good looking, rich, young people with glamorous jobs, and inexplicable amounts of free time. I try to write about more realistic people.
The Haunting of Cubicle 1134
Silverman Schumer Pryor, LLC, established as an S corporation in 1980 and converted to an LLC in 1993, was headquartered in a severe eight-story modernist granite block on Orange Street, not far from Rodney Square and the Del Tech campus. It stood out in a neighborhood that was largely twentieth-century poured concrete or nineteenth-century red brick, but it was designed to be distinctive regardless of context. Silverman Schumer Pryor, LLC did not lease the building, they owned it; and they did not purchase it, they commissioned the Graves Architectural Group to design and build it in 1996. There was no mortgage or lien of any kind on it, and it was self-insured. SSP had offices in Fort Lauderdale, Pittsburgh, Plainfield, Irving, and San Jose, but these were satellites. The Orange Street building was the main location. The LLC was founded there, its name partners lived there, and it was said (but not substantiated) that hourly workers made more money there and that the partners protected them from layoffs there because even in lean years they wanted the building full to project a sense of abundance.
The first floor was a huge high-ceilinged granite, steel, and glass reception area with a highly polished black basalt floor, several discrete groups of six or eight big dracaenas that each looked like a little palm forest, uncomfortable high-concept furniture in the waiting area, bathrooms and conference rooms in the back, and some mysterious maintenance rooms. Somehow Alejandro Rojas, Operations Manager of Intake, got the idea that one of them was called the pump room, but he never specified which, and there were no signs. Facing the four glass entrance doors were two oblong reception desks in delta formation at an angle of about 130 degrees, each housing two beautiful receptionists—from left to right, Monica, Amelia, Karen, and Champaign (after the city, not the wine)—each with a headset and three large monitors. Mostly they fielded and transferred phone calls, accepted deliveries, and monitored the security cameras that covered the site inside and out. During audits they greeted client reps, and prior to job interviews they seated and directed candidates. They were the points of contact for outside maintenance crews, they buzzed in employees who forgot their security badges, they politely declined the advances of male colleagues who mistook their sweetness for interest, and they beamed beautiful, bright-white smiles at everybody they saw.
The second floor was mostly accounting, which had a group of real offices in addition to cubicles because there was a group of real accountants in addition to accounting assistants and operations managers. It also housed the mail room and floating offices for visiting attorneys, visiting accountants, compliance specialists, and client associates who came as often as bi-monthly to audit and schmooze.
Floors three through six were cubicles as far as the eye could see, except for the tiny clear acrylic-walled pseudo-offices clustered in the corners and inhabited by department managers. These were the dreaded, shunned floors, peopled almost exclusively by hourly workers without degree-specific vocations. Three through six excreted the most abundant product of both SSP and law in general—documents. Though they called these floors the cube farm they were more like a factory that prepared, peer reviewed, digitally executed, printed, notarized, served, filed, scanned, saved, and shredded every document for every case, from complaint to decree. The workers had no input, nor did they write anything that was ever filed in any court. Every document was generated with software that used stock language written ages ago by the senior attorneys, and had fill-in-the-blank interfaces into which workers manually typed the key particulars—dollar amounts, dates, the names and addresses of the parties and their attorneys, and sometimes pertinent parts of other documents like legal descriptions, execution dates, filing dates, and instrument numbers. Because of this mode of production, every single document of a certain type, that was bound for a certain court, looked and read exactly the same except in these details. It was tedious, hollow work that most of the employees could do in their sleep. Since they weren’t permitted to sleep, they wore earbuds and listened to podcasts all day. Most viewed their phones as life-sustaining devices like pacemakers or dialysis machines, and viewed SSP as the hospital where they were kept just barely alive. One of the managers was proud of his MBA and felt like this was where he belonged, but everyone else thought he was delusional about what it meant to be where he was. No one else wanted or planned to be on these floors. It was where you wound up when you hadn’t done any planning in college, and committed a few too many venal sins in the real world, and then found it was too late to repent. A terrible painting of a black dog, allegedly by a name-partner’s wife, hung opposite the elevator on six and was nicknamed Cerberus.
Seven was almost all attorney offices—some spacious with secretaries out front, some as cramped and cell-like as the pseudo-offices in the corners of three through six—but with a big cluster of cubicles in the northeast corner that housed all the paralegals. There were also several cubicles occupied by people who were mysterious insofar as no one knew what they did. One was an older guy, still young looking but mostly gray-haired, who wore jeans and boots and Harley T-shirts, and had several vines of golden pothos trained around the rim of his cubicle and secured with zip ties. Another was a young, delicate-looking man who dressed in neat business casual and had thick black hair that was complexly styled, stiff, and looked like it took a lot of product and forty-five minutes or so to do. The others were less distinctive but equally mysterious. The wage workers in the cube farm speculated that they did internal audits.
Eight was strictly name partners, senior partners, and their executive assistants, so everything about eight was different. It had thick gray-and-black carpeting that gave a little under every step you took, and absorbed so much sound that as soon as the elevator doors opened you felt like someone had pressed the mute button on a TV or turned off a white noise machine. The entire floor smelled faintly of industrial disinfectant and moderately expensive men’s cologne, and everything was dark—the doors and much of the furniture was walnut with oxidized brass hardware, and the chairs and couches of brown or black leather. The walls were a dignified gunmetal gray, and the ceiling maybe three shades lighter. There were no cubicles anywhere on eight, and all of the offices were dignified though they varied greatly in size. Each of the name partners got a corner office, as did the CEO. The CFO and COO were also housed here in offices that were big and nicely furnished but not corners. There was also a big break room as well as executive washrooms and the large conference room.
The people on seven and eight, having all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of executive types, came and went as they pleased during the work day. They were often satisfied with staying on their home floors, though, because eight was so nice, and the people on seven felt connected to the status of eight. The accountants on two, who also were executive or at least professional types, but whose floor wasn’t nearly as richly apportioned as the attorneys’ on eight, often fled for hours at a time, especially around noon. Even though their assistants and administrators were wage workers like their colleagues on three through six, they were so close to the ground floor that it was not a big deal for them to go down one flight to get some air and take a walk—no one complained as long as they weren’t excessive about it—and at lunch they would often wander down to Rodney Square and eat outside. Some of the older ladies power walked in groups. Some of the younger ladies would lie down on the grass, which the older ladies didn’t really approve of but mostly kept quiet about. But generally speaking, this group was satisfied with their lot.
The hourly workers from the cube farm had more complex issues. They wanted to go to Rodney Square or at least for a walk outside, but usually didn’t, fearing that, due to all the elevator and walking time, they’d spend the bulk of their thirty-minute break in transit. Even if they walked fast, they might get back a few minutes late and therefore—the horror—have to stay late. So they sat in their cubicles for nine straight hours, or ventured into the dingy break rooms on their home floors, looking frustrated, eating Lean Cuisines, mostly of the type that didn’t have to be stirred after three minutes. While this is a normal circumstance of the corporate world, they saw it as a significant problem, and one of the biggest drawbacks to working at SSP. Being tied to the mostly-beige cube farm and seeing fluorescent light almost exclusively—the windows were tinted—coupled with the soul-eroding nature of their jobs made it a hateful place to many. The dreariness of their surroundings and the relentlessness of that dreariness often overcame them. And many of those people were stuck, knowing their other employment options paid less or were less stable.
Cubicles on three through six were not singles with one person, they were big square enclosures housing three people—one per corner with the entrance where the fourth corner would be. These cubicles were arranged in clusters of four, forming a grid of twelve-person mega-cubes equally spaced across the floor. For administrative purposes the cubes were numbered, and each cube had its number posted on its visible sides. Cubicle 1134, on the sixth floor, had at one time been occupied by Karla Turner and Woody Derenberger, who were both legal assistants in Litigation. Karla’s job title was senior legal assistant, whereas Woody was just regular legal assistant, so he thought she thought she was queen. She actually didn’t do anything arrogant or act any particular way, but Woody was sort of out there in the tinfoil hat area and had mildly paranoid fantasies about almost everything.
They mostly didn’t talk. Woody was quiet. Karla was stern and serious at work, as she was older and came from the never let them see you cry, and never let them see you in a bathing suit school of women workers who had started in the late 70s and early 80s and had fought to be taken seriously. She was better at getting everything done the right way with all i’s dotted and t’s crossed and had great confidence in her recall of situational protocols, relevant laws, and company policies. Woody was faster and bolder with decision making, and his judgment was usually pretty good despite his tinfoil hattish tendencies, but he made noticeably more mistakes than Karla. IT had installed that area’s communal printer in the corner where there otherwise would have been a third person, so they were a duo. Each separately fantasized about the other quitting, and then having the cubicle to him or herself. Though they didn’t really know this about each other, they each felt uncomfortable around other people and preferred to be alone. They each had issues. Each had been abused as children, and each had a lot of anger that they had to make a conscious effort to suppress. Neither recognized this in the other, though other workers in that area could see clearly that they were angry, unhappy people. Karla and Woody each thought the other behaved pretty much normally.
Karla died first. On August 17, 2015, she stayed fifteen minutes late to finish a batch of discovery responses. Then she clocked out, got her things together, walked all the way to the parking garage in the rain, climbed the steps to the fifth level (she was lateish that morning and felt lucky to find a spot even on the exposed roof of the garage), only to remember that she had sat her car keys down between her scanner and monitor stand that morning and never put them back in her bag. She would have to walk down five flights (the parking garage elevators were maddeningly slow), all the way back to the SSP building, take the elevator up, get her keys, take the elevator back down, walk all the way back to the garage, and climb five flights again.
She was frantic and angry on her way back to SSP. Her husband, who worked a 6:00-3:00 shift, was waiting for her at home, but she didn’t actually care about that—or him anymore, really, and sometimes not even their children. She was numb and addicted to routine and pretty much desensitized to everything in her personal life. She was frantic and angry because she wanted very much to be out of this place and at home where things were clean and nice and no one could fucking email her, and she knew that the later she left, the worse traffic was going to be on 495. And that’s what did it. Worrying about traffic and the passing of time occupied her attention. Through the worry and frustration, she barely knew what she was doing.
After she got her keys and went all the way back to the garage, she mounted the stairs. Karla was 5′1″, so stairs were difficult to begin with, and they seemed bigger the second time around. Her legs hurt from all the hurrying, she was wearing heels—as she believed proper working women should—and she was slightly out of breath. The stairs were concrete with crosshatched steel nosings meant to keep people from slipping. But they didn’t work. The rainwater on the rusty steel was effectively lubricant—the crosshatching did nothing—and she slipped. As she was falling, she wasn’t sure what happened. She didn’t know whether she had lost her balance or slipped or broke her heel, but somehow her right shoe failed to make firm contact, and she was in the air. Everything slowed way down during the fall but that did not surprise her. She had been in several car accidents, and this was just what happened. As she waited for the impact, she wondered in a detached way how bad it was going to hurt, whether she would sustain a real injury or just a series of bruises, whether any of her things would be damaged. When she landed, her thigh hit the edge of one of the stairs with all her weight. Her femur broke right in half, severed her femoral artery, and she died of internal bleeding right there on the stairs between the fourth and fifth levels of the parking garage.
Her death was painful and took a long time. No one came to help her because she refused to recognize that her leg was broken or to call out for help to the people she heard on the levels below. She didn’t want to admit to some stranger that she was so stupid that she fell, she didn’t want someone calling an ambulance, she didn’t want to see a doctor. She just wanted to go home. She was determined to rest a bit, get up and get to her car, recover at home that night, and be back at work the next morning—and if the pain made her limp, she’d hide it by not drinking anything so she wouldn’t have to get up to pee every hour or so. But instead she slowly lost consciousness and died alone in a rust-stained concrete stairwell, suppressing moans and taking sharp breaths to dull the pain. Before she was officially found by a woman named Ruth Jones, a man named Michael Colby saw her on the steps as he was making his way up to his car. He paused briefly, not thinking anything at all, just looking to see if she moved in any way. She did not. He sort of shifted himself over to see if her eyes were open. They were not. She looked pale and was not breathing. Her left leg was swollen. He climbed over her, got in his car and left. He, too, had been late that morning and was forced to park on the roof in the rain, and here he was leaving at the worst part of the day for traffic. He didn’t want to get bogged down in paperwork and police for a person already dead. Like Karla, he just wanted to go home.
Eleven days later, while working late that Friday evening, Woody Derenberger, a big, square-headed moose of a guy, got a sudden headache, stood up at his desk in cubicle 1134, and then collapsed. It was 5:53 p.m. Legal Assistant Tricia Atwood, who thought she was the last person on the floor, left at six and walked right by his cubicle on her way to the elevator. She didn’t see him at his desk, his monitors were asleep, and of course there was no reason for her to check and see whether he was lying on the floor. She assumed he had gone for the day. Because of the climate-controlled conditions in which his body lay, the coroner felt confident that Woody had died between three and six Sunday morning, meaning he lay there on the floor, still alive but probably unconscious, for somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty-six hours. He was found early Monday morning by a cleaning crew, and the cause of death was later determined to be complications following a cerebral embolism.
In the days after the deaths, things on six were just sad. 1134 was right by the hall door and there was a communal printer in it, so it was a high-traffic area, even after Karla and Woody died. People walking back and forth in front of it all day were constantly reminded that two people in the same cube died eleven days apart. It wasn’t quite a coincidence, and it wasn’t quite a curse, but it was a bleak reminder of the random nature of the universe, and the constant presence of death within it. Somebody put flowers on Karla’s desk to try to dispel the gloom, but nobody put anything on Woody’s, and this made everyone feel sad about his outsider status, and how long he had lain on that floor alone, in the dark. Later, someone put a pewter beer stein there as a general sort of manly gesture, but it was removed when it came out that Woody had been in recovery for nearly a decade before his death.
Though Karla’s belongings were boxed up and given to her husband, it wasn’t clear to whom Woody’s should be given, so they stayed where they were. Rumor had it there was no one to give them to. This was in fact true. There wasn’t much there anyway. There were ear buds and a scratched, chipped, third-generation iPod in his desk drawer. There was a box of granola bars with one bar left. There was a bright yellow paperback copy of Feeling Good by David D. Burns, M.D., and a black-and-red paperback copy of Aldous Huxley’s The Devils of Loudun. There was a big snake plant that actually belonged to SSP, but since he had been with the company so long and had taken it with him every time he changed desks, no one knew that anymore. Someone picked up the snake plant and put it on his desk next to a battered banker’s box with the rest of his stuff. The snake plant was several feet tall and now seemed to occupy Woody’s space, a bonfire of green-and-black flames like a heavy metal album cover. Both the plant and the banker’s box were getting dusty.
The sleeve of The Police’s last record, Synchronicity, was push-pinned to the wall of the cube. No one knew that was the sleeve of the very record he bought the day it came out—June 17, 1983—at the record store at Price’s Corner that later became The Wall but was now a women’s clothing store. Woody had loved The Police. He saw them four times. August ’81 at Liberty Bell Park Racetrack, January ’82 at The Spectrum, August ’83 at JFK Stadium with REM and Joan Jett and some other band he could never remember the name of, and February ’84 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. There was no one living who knew this about him anymore. The medical examiner noted that Woody had two tattoos on his back. On his left shoulder blade was a circle, but the ME had missed the little spot in the middle—he had mistaken it for a freckle or mole. On the right shoulder blade—much bigger, much more complex, faded and blurry and indigo blue, and probably never very clear to begin with—was what looked like a stick-figure monster strangling itself with its own hands. No one else knew about the tattoos except a couple of women he had slept with who never thought about him anymore, and a couple of old doctors who had no reason to call him to mind. The ME forgot about them after a few days and another fact disappeared from the earth.
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