Are you in the office?

“Dr. Theolosticus is brilliant. There aren’t a lot of brilliant people. We have some fine, hardworking faculty in this department, but none of them are brilliant. I’m not brilliant,” said the Scientist, brilliant. He had multiple letter combinations at the end of his name, even more than Borgensen, who inhabited the office next door. Borgensen was no slouch, except he was, and he smelled like formaldehyde and chewed loudly, a fact about which various faculty members would whisper as they wandered the department halls, hands clasped behind backs. The Scientist’s letters were earned, and meant something profound, except for FISMAT, which the Scientist had added on a whim several years prior. The department’s website now boasted that the department boasted one of the country’s few FISMATs.

“When I was a younger man, with a shock of wavy, brown hair, I would have been thrilled to be invited to the Deconstructing The Stratified Opposition Between Religion And Science In Favor Of A Dialectical Approach conference as one of only three Esteemed Penultimate Keynote Introduction Speakers,” the Scientist continued, “But today, as a wheezing Professor With Tenure and Vice Chair In Charge Of Research Chair Appointments, having long since collected all of the accolades I could ever want, I am simply proud to prepare the attendees for Dr. Theolosticus’s presentation.”

“What I’m asking for you to do is consolidate and spread my PowerPoint slides, and to give them a bit more visual flare. This will be an audience of PhDs; Dr. Theolosticus himself, slouch that he is, ha ha, graduated with honors from Harvard University in Massachusetts and then went on to a little place called Cambridge. Theolosticus, whom I consider to be my hero, will be pleased with slides that delicately dissect Genesis from a scientific perspective, paying the appropriate amounts of attention and reverence to the text.” Borgensen’s chews penetrated the office walls, sending a shiver down the Scientist’s spine. He prayed for God to either annihilate Borgensen or give him an office in another building.  

Down the hall, where the corridor widened to a central space, in the back corner of a honeycombed cluster of cubicles, a sundress- and N95-clad Professor With Tenure—head of a genetic research and treatment group—stood guard over her support flock. An Assistant, a shy new hire who ended each phone conversation with an apologetic “mmbye,” fought back tears over an earlier call. The offending patient had accused the Assistant of not caring about her. The Assistant’s supervisor was out all week on jury duty, and the day’s barrage of neurotic clients had driven her to the brink. 

The Sundress Professor With Tenure, in her best therapy voice, consoled the Assistant: “There is no place for that type of behavior in this clinic. Next time somebody calls, ok, and talks to you in that way, you tell them that disrespecting you—the lowest rung on the totem pole—is the same as disrespecting me—the highest rung—and that they’ll be discharged if the language continues, ok? You have been gaslighted. She gaslighted you. That is typical gaslighting behavior, and means that this patient has a personality disorder. Anyone who says things like that has a personality disorder, ok? Check the DSM V—301.7 (F60.2). I actually am acquainted with one of the writers of the page, David Porter MA, LADC; at a conference, I proved one of his talking points wrong with an acute rhetorical flourish. He’s very smart. Now, when talking to someone with a personality disorder, as soon as you encounter that type of gaslighting language, you turn that mental switch, and you give it right back to them, ok, and you tell them that, actually, you do care about them, which is why you’re working on scheduling their appointment, ok?” The assistant nodded. Everything was ok now.

Hovering in cyberspace, pure academic energy channeled by the Macrohard Community platform, another Professor With Tenure muttered into the void, asking, “Are you there?” as the Coordinator on the other end of the connection tried unsuccessfully to recover Community audio access. The Professor With Tenure, who refused to show her face onscreen due to a severe bout of jaundice, gave up and called the Coordinator on his cell phone. “Ok, can you hear me now? Good, but not good enough. You’re going to need to be on Community too so I can show you things. Oh god, my eyes are so bloodshot and I’ve been coughing up a lung all day. Can you make a few edits to the PowerPoint I sent over? I’m not happy with it at all. I noticed that you said it was done when you emailed it to me, but it’s never done until Mama gives it the ok. You’ll learn this. Send it to my other email address next time. No, the other one. No, the first one. Also, next time you’re in the office, you should really walk the long way to the restroom so you can have more facetime with the tenured faculty. It’s too hard to walk over to you. Follow along with me on Community now; are you on Slide 1? It looks ok, but the bottoms of the shapes should line up with each other. Over the years I’ve learned that this is better. Can you just make the change now while we’re on the slide? I know there’s only 30 minutes left in the day, so just do what you can, and I know you have a train to catch and you’re off tomorrow, so I’ll just have to finish whatever you don’t.”

A gale of phlegmy coughing buzzed the Coordinator’s eardrum. “Oh god, this is horrible. I can’t leave the house. I look like a monster. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’ll just have to finish what you don’t finish, though. I’ll just have to. Ok, let’s move on to the next slide. Not good. Can you change the color of the plus sign to match the color of the text? I don’t understand this technology. Otherwise I would do it. They made us learn that MixPoint junk and I just hated it, but then I got used to it, and now we’re doing the same thing again with Community. Where are you going on your trip? Chicago, well, ok. My brittle son’s been there. Ok, now we’re on Slide 13. That one looks ok. Now, make Slide 16 look like Slide 17, and then delete that heading from Slide 17. No, Slide 17. No, 17. You’ll have to excuse my voice; I sound like somebody shoved a handful of gravel down my windpipe and then gave me jaundice. The Chicago art museum is nice, but it’s expensive, and the people in Chicago are nasty, like they are on the East Coast. Ok, there’s only a few minutes left in the day, but you have that list of edits, right? Just do what you can, and then I’ll have to finish it. I’ll just have to. Oh, this is awful; I sound like I’m dying. I’ll just have to finish it.”

The Coordinator, huffing down the platform, watched the train pull away.

“Do you have a minute? How goes the PowerPoint for the Deconstructing The Stratified Opposition Between Religion And Science In Favor Of A Dialectical Approach conference?,” asked the Scientist, his wiry, six-foot-five frame swaying gently over the Editorial Specialist’s cowering figure like a palm tree in a South Florida breeze. “Dr. Theolosticus, that slouch, ha ha, who attended both Oxford and Yale simultaneously while also running a three-year barefoot race against himself in honor of Jesus Christ, the original scientist, sent me several emails inquiring about my Esteemed Penultimate Keynote Introduction talk. Were you able to spread, consolidate, and add visual flair to the slides? I haven’t been able to check the computer yet today; I seem to have sprained a finger on my right hand while trying to execute a flip turn during my morning swim in the university Vice-Pool-For-Research, a heated body of salinized water, located on the bottom floor of the newly constructed Dr. Arvadus D. Faistrel MD, PhD Building For Scientific Progress and Funding, in which senior faculty are encouraged to soak and splash to promote brain function. I in fact knew the late Dr. Faistrel; he was a sturdy, workmanlike researcher, maybe not accomplished enough to warrant his name being affixed to a building, but a good man nonetheless. This is not to say that I, a mere Professor With Tenure and Vice Chair In Charge Of Research Chair Appointments, deserve my name on a building.” The Scientist did deserve his name on a building—a large building—and had already drafted a gracious acceptance speech for any ribbon-cutting ceremonies that might occur.

“Long story short, I am unable to click the mouse button to access my computer mail or my e-calendar. Would you mind coming over to my office and finding Community on my computer, and then clicking through the slides that you’ve edited? I have a grain bar with your name on it. Also, please send my July availability to Dr. Bo Bo; we’re meeting virtually to discuss the possibility of instituting an optional, encouraged morning prayer ritual in the Community Outreach and Engagement Research Center. Some of my calendar events are tagged as flexible, like swimming and agenda-setting, so feel free to move them to accommodate Dr. Bo Bo’s busy schedule. Let’s have a look at the slides. I was thinking about Martin Luther this morning during my swim, about the precision and concision of his Theses, and I wanted to apply the same principles to these slides. I don’t want to remove the Biblical text; I want the audience to soak in God’s word with both their eyes and their ears. Perhaps we can add some early Christian artwork for visual flair, assuming we don’t run into any copyright issues. When you get a chance, can you please reach out to the estate of Leon Bonnat to inquire about the rights to his 1880 painting, Job? It’s not early Christian, I’m aware, but it captures a certain air of humbly receptive suffering that I would like to impart on the attendees of the conference. Here, grab a grain bar.” As the Editorial Specialist opened the door to exit the Scientist’s office, a pall of formaldehyde curled into the air-conditioned room and settled like the Shroud of Turin did over the corpse of Christ. Hands pressed tightly behind his back at his standing desk, the Scientist squinted and swore that Borgensen would pay for his sins.

The Coordinator trudged along the shoulder of the highway, black duffel bag slung across left shoulder, right thumb sticking up like a wilted flower. A red Porsche Cayenne whipped by; its driver, a thumb-shaped man whose head was encircled by a pair of insectoid sunglasses, hurled a homophobic slur and a half-empty can of Michelob Ultra in the Coordinator’s direction. The projectile missed, clattering into the roadside scrub, but a few drops of watery beer splashed up into the Coordinator’s mouth. He grimaced, licked his lips, and sighed. The Coordinator’s phone buzzed. A Macrohard Community call request. How did he still have reception way out on the prairie? He picked up. The jaundiced Professor With Tenure, eyes still watery and yellow, but perky enough to be viewed on camera, raised her eyebrows: “Where are you right now? Oh, the prairie? I’ve never been. My brittle son has been there. Why aren’t you in the office? Oh, you’re out today. Well, I guess you must have missed your train. Not to disturb your walk, but it looks like you’re not doing anything, and I need help with a figure for a publication. It will just take a few minutes. Mama needs her figures formatted. I’ll text it to you, and then you can make the edits on your phone. Do you have Word Processor on your phone? Good. Do you see the file? Ok. Can you just move the virus boxes so that they’re horizontal along the bottom instead of vertical? Then make it alphabetical from left to right. Ok, that’s not bad, except it is, and it could be better. You didn’t do it wrong, but I have the final say on things. You’ll learn this. Now, move the boxes closer together so I can have my one-inch margins. I tried to do it, and I was like wooahh.” The Professor With Tenure rolled her head and yellow eyes backward, a silent movie pantomime, to illustrate the extent of the wooahh.

 “I just can’t, oohh, with the technology. Can’t teach an old puppy the new tricks. Ok, that looks better. Now make it so the “n”s are all lined up with each other at the bottom. Let’s see how that would look. By the way, do you know how to fix things? If someone brought tools into the office, would you be able to take apart a desk in the printer room? It’s sitting right in the middle of the floor, and I’m afraid that I’ll trip over it and bust all of my bones. I’m very clumsy. You’ll learn this. I don’t know what to do with it. You could probably fix it with tools. Or just move it out of the middle of the floor. You can do that when you’re back from the prairie. Ok, that looks better with the “n”s lined up. Now move the boxes closer together and reduce the length of the connector line between the virus box and the vaccine boxes. Ok, now reduce it again by half. And again. Ok, that looks acceptable. Where are you again? Oh yes, the prairie. Ok, now email me the document. I’ll probably call back soon with more updates. I just want to take some time to look at the figure and soak it in. I’ve gotten a pretty good eye for this over time. Ok, enjoy your walk. Oh, my throat; it feels like somebody punched me in the throat with a cheese grater fist.” The setting sun bled over the interminably flat horizon. In the distance, a coyote howled, its humanoid cry soon joined by several others to form a ghastly choir. The sound grew closer as the sun became a half-circle and then a brilliant slice of orange. Hallucinating from exhaustion and dehydration, the Coordinator stretched an arm out toward the rippling piece of fruit, attempting to pluck it from the sky. His forward momentum carried him into a patch of tall grass by the side of the highway, where he lay, his phone buzzing.

The Sundress Professor With Tenure, clad now in a disposable blue surgical mask and an N95 that was stretched overtop, stood in the communal kitchen, next to the minifridge that was shared by seventeen people and across from the loudly humming microwave, which had been working away on the Editorial Coordinator’s leftover chicken wings for the past two minutes and thirteen seconds. Struggling to make herself heard over the roar of the machine and the hiss of the increasingly hot bits of poultry, the Sundress Professor With Tenure shouted, “Oh, I was supposed to ask you about this. You know the research meeting from Friday? From Friday? I wasn’t there because it wasn’t on my calendar. I would never just skip the meeting; I didn’t realize that it was happening. I must have just hit decline on the invitation because it was initially supposed to be on a different day and then it got rescheduled, you know? Like, I would never accept a meeting that was on a Thursday, because I’m in clinic, and my patients need me to be present physically, mentally, and emotionally. They’re very fragile, and often very frenzied, and sometimes verbally abusive, like when they ask me if I’m listening to them, which implies that I’m not, which is upsetting to me. This meeting was on a Friday, but the same principle applies. I wouldn’t just accept a meeting and then not attend, just like I wouldn’t accept a meeting on a Thursday when I’m in clinic with my abusive and genetically-challenged patients. So, if I wasn’t there on Friday, I must have not accepted the meeting. Are you in charge of sending the invitations? Even so, can you make sure that I’m on the next one? I didn’t even know the meeting was happening until I saw you sent out the minutes and I saw I wasn’t listed as present. And then I freaked out, like ‘What happened? Did I decline the meeting because it was initially on Thursday and then not know that it was moved to Friday? Was I not invited to the meeting?’ You know? I thought for a second that I was being gaslighted by a sociopath with antisocial and oppositional defiant features. No offense. Like, Dr. Borgensen texted me during the meeting and was like ‘Are you attending the meeting?’ And I wasn’t there. I was out buying a tub of bubble tea that was to be shared among the members of my research flock to promote morale. So, can you make sure I’m on the invitation for the next meeting? Even so, please make sure. Ok, thanks, bye.” The chicken wing hiss had gradually died down, and the Editorial Coordinator’s lunch now lay stewing in its own twice-heated and now twice-cooled grease, which had pooled up in the bottom of the cardboard wing container. The Editorial Coordinator set the microwave timer for another minute and pressed “Start.” The Sundress Professor With Tenure poked her head back into the kitchen, this time with a second blue surgical mask stretched over the N95: “Oh, I was supposed to ask you about something.” The microwave roared.



Ben Gibbons is a Pittsburgh-based writer; his blog, Bored In Pittsburgh, covers the local music community, and his music writing has also been featured in The Pittsburgher, Melted Magazine, and Weird Smells Zine. He has recently branched into fiction that explores the surreal and the absurd; his debut short story was published in Pinky Thinker Press. Ben recommends donating to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Monday, January 30, 2023 - 22:02