At 62, Dick had held five jobs, been fired from all of them, and was now settling nervously into a sixth. If anyone cared to investigate the cause of these curtailments, and few did, they’d have discovered he had not always been wholly to blame, but by the time of the third or fourth blow, he’d grown incompetent almost to gratify expectation.
He had every reason to look wretched, and for the most part he did. His skin sagged, there was a tremor in his fingers, and a slight droop to his lower lip. Even his long, lean body seemed stretched the better to expose more mass to shame. And although he did not smoke, he seemed to have incurred all the penalties of a smoker—everything that should have been white was yellow, and a mustiness hung about his clothes. Yet there was something in Dick’s bearing that hinted at a buoyancy of nature, a looseness of limb gave him a not altogether deceptive appearance of ease with fate.
Six months after he had been appointed editor-in-chief of First Folio, Dick faced, or was supposed to be facing, an impossible task. The firm had been taken over by a larger company and he had been asked to advise on the future of its forty employees—namely, which twenty were to be cut. Briefly, painfully, he had attempted to evaluate who was critical to proceedings. But he found himself answering, alternately, everyone and no one. The pitch of panic at which all business at First Folio was conducted—reckless acquisition, hasty editing, cursory libel readings, no marketing, minimal publicity—made it almost impossible to say. When looked at closely, the whole enterprise—publishing bad books badly—was absurd. But it was the deeper truth behind this that gave Dick pause. Among the rejected, dejected, eccentric, indolent, ingenious, mad, curiously gifted employees of First Folio, an addiction to struggle, even failure, had planted itself over time. The futility of their daily efforts obscured wider failures, explaining them as part of a universal impossibility. Dick glimpsed this truth and shrank from it.
Several weeks after the takeover, in the absence of any further prompts from above, Dick had almost managed to push the matter to the back of his mind. He was enjoying a quiet morning adding some personal touches to his office, taking particular pleasure in fixing his collection of antique printer’s type to the wall. He’d bought an assortment of metal letters—roman, italic, gothic—back when old presses were going out of business and had the choicest of them set in a series of small display boxes. He was going about the task of hanging them rather indirectly, attaching one box a metre or so above his desk, standing back to survey the effect from different angles, then detaching it, moving it an inch or so one way or the other, and starting all over again. Arriving at last at a vertical arrangement of the letters that he felt showed the collection to best advantage, he crossed to the other side of the room to gauge how the exhibit appeared on entry, but was startled by the sight of the closed door of the publisher across the hallway.
Harry often shut his door; he spent a good deal of time fielding phone calls from his five-year-old twins, and his job involved protracted phone calls explaining delays, mistakes, absences, and the need for extreme haste. But Dick, who had made a study of closed office doors over the years, saw something ominous in the very way it had been shut. He hovered for a moment trying to work out who Harry might be talking to then crept a little closer down the corridor.
“Tell Tilly to go get it out of the garbage,” he heard Harry say. “No . . . yes, yes . . . that’s what I said . . . No—don’t! Hold on. There’s a call I’ve been waiting for on the other line. I’ll have to take it. Don’t hang up!”
There was a brief silence in which Dick applied his ear directly to the door.
“I’ll have someone send out letters to every author. And I’m assuming that where rights have reverted, we can just destroy stock. . . How many are unaccounted for? . . . Oh—yes—that is slightly more than we thought. That must include tertiary figures.”
This last statement, Dick knew, did not mean anything, but Harry had a facility for dropping such diversions into conversation. Dick realized now that Harry was speaking to David Matison, the new director.
“Could you just hang on a moment . . . Bella? Are you still there? Can you put your mom on the phone . . . David, me again. Tomorrow? Do you want me to call a company meeting? . . . Yes, I’ll have someone draw up a warehouse destruction list. No, not yet. I don’t think anyone’s aware of the extent of it.”
Someone was coming towards him down the corridor; Dick was forced to move out of earshot and pretend to scrutinize the bookshelf opposite.
“Dick. Can I have a word?” Eric, the managing editor, stood before him carrying a bouquet of jacket samples, sheets of paper filed between the fingers of his right hand. He propelled Dick back towards his office.
“We’ll never do it. No way. Not possible,” Eric began as soon as they reached Dick’s desk. This pronouncement broadly covered Eric’s opinion on most subjects. “It’s far too late to add all this new stuff and no one’s checking anything.”
“Wait. We’re just waiting for photos of the actual dogs, aren’t we?” Dick ventured, picking up a pen and turning over a fresh sheet of paper.
“What? There are dogs in it now? Are the dogs even mentioned in the book because if they’re not then I think it’s time someone stood up and said something. The photos are all set, pending permissions which I don’t think anyone’s near-likely to get to before we go to print, or ever.”
Dick shook his head in a pantomime of confusion, causing the flesh on his face to wobble as if he were physically navigating tunnels of understanding.
“Are you talking about the dog book?” he asked.
“Which dog book? No.”
“The celebrity dog book.”
“I’m talking about the nuclear weapons book,” Eric said. He paused. “The dog book won’t happen,” he stated, leaning dramatically against the wall. He never sat, but was in the habit of flicking about the room like a wasp in winter. “It won’t happen,” he repeated. “We’re officially delaying that. There’s no way, not a chance we can turn it round. Everyone’s complaining about the word count per dog. There’s only supposed to be one photo per dog, and the celebrities have sent in millions for us to choose from. No one’s even agreed that the dog owners are actually proper celebrities. Is that being copy-edited, by the way?”
“Let me ask,” Dick suggested. As to whom he might ask, he gave no thought.
“Tim said he’s worried about the sources for the nuclear weapons book, to which, incidentally, they have just added a new Chapter Three and Prologue. Do you know if it is being read by a lawyer? I mean, seriously, if any of this stuff is true, we should be selling this manuscript to the CIA.”
“Did you see that? The closed door, I mean?” Dick could no longer hold back his anxiety about what he had overheard. “Harry had his door closed. Did you notice? They were talking about a destruction schedule.”
But Eric did not seem to hear. He had come in here with his own agenda of disaster and was bent on seeing it through. “Oh, and Chad Hoops’ bio—I sent your assistant out to the printers to input the latest corrections. He’s got a cameo in some off-Broadway show and wants to add some reflections on his early years in the theater. And boy is he expecting publicity—someone better be on hand to talk him through it, or out of it . . .”
Dick stared at a scattering of eraser debris on his desk and thought about Harry’s phone call. It greatly troubled him to know that the new management were listing, itemizing, totting things up like this. In so far as he had allowed himself to think further on what sort of advice might be required of him, he’d imagined contributing to a loose evaluation of the various departments over lunch. He’d hoped nothing quite as concrete as a list would be necessary. Now he wondered whether they really had been waiting on his advice, and in failing to act promptly, he had forfeited their trust and led them to hasty decisions. He swept the eraser shavings into the trash and looked sharply at Eric, who, encouraged, stepped forward and slapped a glossy image on the desk.
Dick looked down at the photo of a well-known glamour model in military dress standing to attention in front of a barracks. He held it up to the light, and after considering it from this angle for several seconds, handed it back to Eric and asked, “Are we doing a book with her?”
“No, but that might have helped. I have no idea how we are ever going to get permission to use her on the cover. But Hoops is insistent. That’s the only image he’ll accept.”
Not for the first time, Dick felt that Eric was trying to point him towards some vital incongruity beyond the present.
“Well, so long as the context is not controversial, maybe we can rush out a permissions request and hope she’ll respond.”
“There is no context,” Eric said, sitting down and then immediately standing up again. “The copy editor is the nearest anyone has been to reading this book and he swears there’s no reference to her at all.”
In a career that had dealt largely with writers unguided by money, structure, readership, and often talent, Dick had long given up the notion it was useful to confront insanity, much less the glare of minds ablaze in autobiography. Where he suspected lunacy, he was accustomed to giving into it.
“See if Gervaise can get permission and, if so, let’s use it.”
Eric looked incredulous, and then, as if realizing Dick had discovered some ingenious means by which to outmaneuver Hoops, he grinned and remarked on his way out, “Of course, none of this is likely to matter in the slightest once they start firing us.”
Alone in his office, Dick sat for several minutes without moving. His coat was neatly folded over the chair opposite; there were three books on the shelf to his left; a couple of cover samples lay on his desk alongside an old computer, phone and unmarked pad; and the drawers contained nothing more than two pencils, three pens, and a rare, two-page guide to copyright rules. As he eyed the dreary walls hung with bulletin boards and the random assemblage of makeshift furniture, he felt a stupid sympathy with his surroundings. He thought about the mirrored glass tower in which he had once worked. There the lines and rows and surfaces had seemed to dissolve his identity; here everything seemed to reflect it, so that the shabbiness of his efforts felt fixed in the rough, stained carpets.
He looked over at the manuscripts in progress neatly piled in the corner on top of an old trolley. The tidiness of the stack was misleading—there were five, six versions of some, bearing no obvious relation to one another, save in a few cases where they appeared to be, but were not quite, identical. He had not allowed himself to get caught up in their individual crises, but rather chose to regard them as a block that occasionally needed lifting from one spot to another. When it came to it, he would probably take the very latest version of each and print it. He was aware that at every stage of their life—from misguided conception to botched execution—mistakes had been made, and that, probably, he should trace these. But he couldn’t help thinking that doing so would overturn a system on which the company somehow relied. He had learnt quickly how whole books at First Folio might unravel. The manuscript on the bottom of the pile was one he’d spent days editing soon after he started there, only to discover, at the last minute, that it had already been published (same contents, different title). He had permitted himself this intelligence for a split second and then simply had to ignore it.
There were no new manuscripts in his submissions pile. All but one was addressed to his predecessor. The truth was, he had not kept his contacts up. Even the word faintly repelled him. Over the years, he’d followed personalities and gossip, and made some powerful acquaintances. Across the industry he was liked, but largely ignored. He’d grown to mistrust the pride he encountered, found something unspeakably vain in the lunches booked months in advance, the pronouncements on what “worked” and “didn’t work,” and the grand, inexact despair.
He imagined the moment in which these pages had been stuffed into an envelope and sent over to First Folio. How had he ended up the arbiter of these unwanted scraps? It was as if the very exercise of editing, of imagining his way into other people’s heads, had made him less and less capable of any sort of assertiveness. It seemed that the more he read, the more hesitant he became, and the lower he had sunk. He’d lost the ability to highlight, to pinpoint, to sell. Even his position at First Folio seemed tenuous—the result of having been in the office the day the editor-in-chief resigned. (He had been delivering a typescript he’d been hired to “organize”). Harry had spotted him in the corridor and offered him the job there and then. He’d snatched at the opportunity, sensing in the cheery briskness of Harry’s manner what he had already hoped—that First Folio was an institution in which it was possible to hide.
He sat at his desk turning these thoughts over for some time, until at last he picked up the cover proofs that Eric had brought and began reworking the clumsiness of the text, sharpening the description, tugging for meaning, catching the mistakes everyone else had missed. He would speak to Harry about reorganizing staff as soon as he could.
It was lunchtime when Dick bounced lightly into Harry’s office, a smile wavering on his face and a notepad in his hand. Harry was sitting at his desk flicking through the pages of a manuscript in front of him while looking over at a row of jacket samples propped on a chair opposite.
“Hi Harry,” Dick apologized. Even so short a statement was delivered with some hesitancy. “I just wanted to get up-to-date on the takeover.”
“Sure. Sit down,” Harry said, nodding towards the large white sofa against the opposite wall. “How’s Hoops?” he asked, glancing at his phone,
Frequently on the run from the facts at hand, Harry apprehended difficulties immediately, assessed most were of an unserious nature and extinguished them by the quickest means possible, usually with a brusque, barely voluntary, “Got it.”
“I had to work through a lot of details with Eric this morning, but the book’s on target,” Dick said, still undecided about which end of the sofa to sit on. The phone began to ring. Harry paused, took a glance at the wall calendar, then picked up.
“Eric. Are the pages in? . . . Got it. Ask Gervaise to get permission and then put it through. Okay. Thanks . . . Oh—remind me that Chad Hoops’ wife gave me some photos of her dogs to pass on to you.” He put down the phone and looked back at Dick.
“Actually, there’s something in particular—about the takeover—that I wanted to run by you—if you have time.” From the spring-less dip of the sofa, Dick wondered whether he might not be at better advantage standing. “As you know, they’re going to cut a lot of jobs here and I’ve been asked to help—to offer insight into how each department is doing.”
Harry’s phone began to ring again—a first line then a second. Harry quickly checked the callers’ numbers and gave a dismissive wave. “Plagiarism,” he explained. “Both authors ours.”
Moving to the more robust side of the sofa and sitting upright, Dick continued, “They want to cut 50 percent of staff. I’m worried that they’re expecting some sort of definitive list from me—but I don’t think that’s possible—there must be another way. Really we should be using everyone.” Suddenly aware that Harry might feel slighted by his having been given this managerial authority, he added, “Probably because they expect I am less attached. That’s why they chose me. Why they asked me to do it—I expect.”
For a moment, Harry looked more puzzled than affronted.
“When were you told to do this?” he asked.
“When they first told us about the cuts,” Dick replied.
Harry seemed to take a moment to absorb this, then, licking an index finger, resumed turning the pages of the manuscript in front of him.
“I’d just send them whatever it is they want.” he said, pulling out three or four of the pages and putting them in the trash. He then gave the whole manuscript a neatening bang on the desk and abruptly got up to close the door. “Now might be a good time to tell you I’ll be leaving. I’ve been offered a position as publisher at HMP and I’m taking it.” And then, as if this was some sort of concession, he added, “But I won’t be leaving you until the takeover here is done.”
Dick leant back on the sofa. Then, shaking his head in a congratulatory show of disbelief, he rose to grasp Harry’s hand. “Fantastic!” he said, smiling. He had once held the position to which Harry had been appointed.
“Thank you,” said Harry, “It’ll be an interesting change.”
“We’d better sort out the front titles before you go,” Dick said, “and get up to date on all the advances.” The news obscured the problem he’d wanted to address, and he did not know how to return to the question; Harry’s hand was now on the door handle.
There was a difficult silence, into which Harry volunteered, “So my position will be open.”
Dick remained where he was, clicking the point of his pen in and out. He laughed through his nose; “I’ll get that list to David by the end of the day—let him know, that is, if you speak to him. Tell him I’ll try to include some comments.”
This, Dick knew, was his last job. And despite the bewildering misfortunes of his past, from the moment Harry hinted at the possibility of promotion, he felt a revitalizing clarity. He moved through the rest of the afternoon determined to compile the list of those who should be let go the moment the last of his colleagues left the office. At around eight o’clock, he sat down at his desk and decided on an approach: he would first make a list of those he thought should stay—those who were most straightforward, hardworking and focused. In doing this, he would gradually work towards discovering the opposite.
With surprising ease he jotted down four or five names, but as he went on, it occurred to him that the most capable of his colleagues might actually be those least in need of First Folio, and better off elsewhere. He saw he’d have to flip the two lists round, so that those unequipped for a career outside First Folio might be spared. He added another two names, and then considered his assistant, Gervaise. The younger stratum of the company, he couldn’t make out at all. Sometimes Gervaise seemed bored and resigned to the chaos of the place, but he could also appear conscientious, quick with ambition. Dick had recently witnessed him berating a designer for a sepia-colored cover he had described to her as ‘looking like shit—literally’. For a second Gervaise had seemed genuinely impassioned, furious. The designer had looked amused, almost indifferent, as if Gervaise were not addressing her. Dick wondered now whether perhaps she had known she was about to lose her job.
He was struggling to think of more names and in reviewing those he had already put down, began to question whether dedication to such a failing enterprise might not point towards instability in other areas of life. Certain people, Eric, for example, he could barely imagine outside the building. He was amazed at Eric’s ability to hold so many fractured structures in his head at once. He wondered if in fact this was his most valuable quality; he knew Eric did not read much, despite being one of the longest serving employees at First Folio. For a second, he tried to regard him purely in terms of his role. Why was this man processing books—why specifically books? Then as though the two questions were mysteriously connected, he considered the corporate takeover as a whole. What were these men of business doing here, here where there was no business? He felt an enormous blankness until his train of thought simply disintegrated.
He got up to turn on the light and then wandered down the corridor. As he walked past the conference room, the sound of light rain on the windowpane drew him in. He might have to root about the office to find an umbrella to get him home. He thought he should also call his wife and tell her he would be back late. He walked over and sat on the table in the dim glow of a street lamp and let his legs swing free, luxuriating in the silence of the room. He leaned back, lowering himself first onto his elbows and then resting his spine along the tabletop. Closing his eyes, he tried to make his way round the office in his head, stopping at each desk in an attempt to fix a person’s role. But his thoughts kept slipping towards broader considerations, and he could not tell whether these were evasive or vital. He was appalled by how quickly he was able to strip a person of value—how function could be concentrated, reduced, blotted out.
He looked at a dark pyramid of books rising to his left. Earlier in the day he had seen the author in here mailing out copies to reviewers. In recent weeks, a number of writers had begun taking production matters into their own hands. The last person to leave that evening had been the author of a book about a spate of kidnappings in Louisiana in the 1930s. Dick had passed him, lodged in front of a computer, working on his own page layout. Perhaps writers had been warned that changes were afoot? He suspected most people feared the worst.
He stood up and walked over to the bookshelves lining the walls. Slotted horizontally at the top of one shelf was an early work by one of his favorite travel writers. He hadn’t known First Folio had been the first to publish him. He wondered who had been reading the book and left it there. He took the volume from the shelf and started to read the first page, but it had become almost impossible to see in the dark. He glanced at his watch. It was late. He needed to fax the list to David Matison before he left.
He switched on the main lights for the floor and walked in a loop back to his office. As he wove his way around empty boxes, stray books, and redundant office furniture, he was struck by the astonishing mess of the place—disguised in the flurry of daytime, now overwhelming. He passed the publicity department and tripped on a small curl of carpet that he always tripped on. Kicking it back into place, he considered gluing it down for once and for all, but he needed to get going on the list. As he bent down to give the corner a final pat, he noticed one of the publicists had tipped a whole block of her business cards into the trash.
They had dressed up to be fired. Curiously, this, for most of them, meant wearing twice as many clothes as usual. Shirt tails poked from over-stuffed trousers; old ties, thick as curtain, puffed from itchy v-neck sweaters; heavy skirts clasped new blouses, creases still visible from the wrapping; the youngest members of staff were encased in blazers, and wearing the last pair of shoes in which there had been parental involvement. The overall impression was of a huge surplus of cloth as one by one they shuffled past on their way to their exit interviews. For many, it was the first morning they had been on time for work in months. They emerged quickly, smiling, and holding a blue folder.
A week had passed since Dick had sent in his list and, although he had heard nothing back, a memo had gone round inviting employees to individual meetings. It did not strike him as odd that his proposal had not been discussed—he’d taken it as a sign of respect—but the silence increased his guilt. On the morning of the interviews, afraid to acknowledge his colleagues but unable quite to shut himself in his office, he threw himself into reorganizing the twenty yards of cabinets that had served as the company’s chief filing system for the best part of two decades. He took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and began arranging the contents into papers to be kept and papers to be discarded. He made no real distinction between the two, but simply favored one pile then the other until he was finally interrupted by two moving men trying to angle a sofa down the corridor. He instantly transferred his energy to helping them clear the way—a display of deliberation that baffled the men and ended with him holding half of one of the piles and backing up against the cabinet as they inched by. They were carrying Harry’s sofa. There had not yet been a formal announcement of his departure.
The cushions tumbled to the floor as the sofa passed and Dick lurched to one side to catch them, but his hands were still full of paper. He wedged the files under his arms and picked up the cushions. As he did so, the associate designer rushed past, nearly knocking him over. She was probably already on her way to another interview—she looked almost transformed. In the end, he felt he had reached the right decision on most people, but he knew how each would take this final verdict on their efforts: I did not even want this job and now I have gone and lost it.
He followed the men to the corner where they were trying to lift the sofa round the tight bend. He thought about asking if they would also take away some of the useless furniture that cluttered up his office. Then perhaps he’d make a start on shifting the cartons of books that seemed to have always been lying about in reception.
“Could you just clear all these boxes—this mess,” one of the men said, suddenly addressing him and vaguely signaling half the office. “We need to be able to move about here.” He took the cushions from Dick, who picked up a box that happened to be at his feet, and started off in the rough direction the man had indicated. One of the files slipped from under his arm and he crouched to recover it. As he straightened, he caught sight of the marketing director sitting at her desk in an office nearby. She was motionless, staring down at her hands, which were spread, as though she were assessing what they might be capable of. He wished she would move, get up, busy herself. She was squat and overweight, and for the first time he saw all the friction and difficulty in her bearing. When trying to evaluate her, he had been unable to escape the sense that she worked in a field that had run far ahead of her, and of which she was now ignorant and afraid. But in the end, he could imagine nothing else she could do and had decided to spare her.
She suddenly wrung her hands together, as though in prayer. Her phone rang and she turned towards it, continuing to stare without picking up. Her face was blotched with a cruel shade of purple and round her eyes he could see insult had dried into fear. He knew she had been fired.
He entered the conference room with his lined pad tucked beneath his arm, his walk stiff then slack, as if enacting a small comedy of intermittent assertiveness. The human resources representative remained in her chair, head down, circling, dating. He noticed how tiny and angular she was, poking up from behind the large desk that separated them. When she finally looked at him, she seemed barely possessed of enough skin to stretch a smile. His own smile emerged from the extremities of his jaw, like that of a dog, a desperate grimace of appeasement and hope. Unable to summon words, he produced a thin squeak that he hastily smothered with a dry clearing of his throat. He knew that he did this and was horrified, but there seemed nothing to do but press on through time, so he rattled a chair out from under the table and set himself opposite her.
“As you’re aware, the company has been taken over and the closure of your imprint and others means we won’t be keeping people in this office on,” she said, looking at him through her spectacles, pen at the ready, as if waiting to fill out a form with his responses.
“Well, no, I wasn’t really informed,” he stuttered, laughing lightly, terrorized. She seemed not to hear, and drew a document from her bag.
“But what about the list?” he asked.
“You asked me for a list of who—well, of who we should be thinking of letting go.”
“But everyone in this office is being let go. First Folio is closing. The decision was made two weeks ago.”
She slipped the document into a blue folder with some leaflets.
“Because of your seniority, we wanted to offer you a job in our Philadelphia office.”
“Philadelphia? But I live here. My family is here.” He paused, winded, and heard himself whimper again. He stared weakly back at her, but did not seem able to suppress his bizarrely hopeful bent of mind. “What kind of work would it be?”
“It would be in technical support,” she said, her eyes flicking to his as if catching a small but vital stage in an experiment.
“I have no experience in that. I don’t know what it is . . . I can’t.” He thought he saw cruelty heat her face, or perhaps it was relief that the absurdity of this offer would bring the meeting to an end. She was already handing him the blue folder. He was surprised to see dirt under her nails. “How many people are staying on?” he asked.
The tremor in his fingers had spread. In between the middle fingers of his right hand he’d lodged a pencil; the hard wood pressed on bone.
“We can only keep on a couple of employees and we were hoping you might be one. But—“
“I can’t…can it be, can you keep on my assistant. He’s good—a great reader. He’s fast, too, and he’ll fit in with you— with your—.” His tongue felt swollen with the effort of expression. “Can’t he take my place?”
“Would he be willing to move to Philadelphia?”
“No, no, he’s an editor. I meant, couldn’t he be one of the people who keeps a job?”
“We actually offered him a position as assistant to the new publisher, but he barely seemed to listen.” She smiled.
He looked at the document in the folder she had given him. He was horrified to feel his eyes thickening. He wanted to leave straight away but couldn’t stop himself from reading the page, scrutinizing the words, processing black dots, as he had done his whole life. Occasional sentences lodged themselves in his consciousness, their significance pricking his memory, but they invoked no clear response from his mind.
Then, as if he had suddenly arrived at a general impression of the overall manuscript, he looked up and asked, “No severance pay?”
To his utter shame, he was crying. A tear dropped heavily onto the paper, dissolving a column of words. He kept his eyes up, looking at her. She moved slightly further back in her chair.
“We offered you a job, but you refused it.”
He could see she was angered and disgusted by the way he hung opposite her, waiting to be told what to do. She was tired, impatient to leave.
“Why don’t you take a few moments to look it over and then sign this,” she said, gesturing towards the termination agreement and standing to offer him a pen.
Suddenly seeing her full form shocked him. Her body was misshapen—there was a heft to her middle that tapered off into her legs like the root of a dead plant.
The office had lost its familiarity. Objects seemed too sharply defined—hard, factual, vivid—so that he had to concentrate to avoid banging into them. The piles he had made from the filing cabinet had been knocked off the shelf where he had put them and no one had bothered to pick them up. There was a footprint on one page and another was screwed under the wheel of a trolley. Someone was arguing loudly at the front desk. He walked towards the water cooler. He passed boxes that he had not noticed earlier. They were marked TRASH, CHARITY, and ROOM 2. And he now saw that a few desks had already been cleared, exposing lines of thick dust and tangles of electrical chords. Someone had removed the barrel of water from the dispenser.
The raging at the front of the office had grown louder. It was one of the executive editors. The energy of her voice forced him to rest against a desk for a moment. Her lipstick was bright and excessive, and she seemed to loom on her heels like a slowing spinning top. As he got closer, he realized she was talking to Gervaise who was sitting at the reception desk. But they were not arguing; she was telling him about her plans to set up her own business, hurling the idea at him as though he were raising doubts rather than labeling a pile of envelopes. He heard her say, “I haven’t started contacting my contacts yet.” He did not want to see Gervaise’s face.
The first thing he noticed when he stepped into his office was a large book placed in the middle of the room. It was on the coffee table that usually stood against the wall. The scene was oddly sacrificial. On top was a note from Eric: “43 historians have written in to complain about the inaccuracies—controversial pages flagged.” He wondered where Eric was. He picked up the book and walked over to his desk. Taking his pen and lined pad, he opened the book at the first flagged page and began to read through the problematic paragraph.