Are you in the office?

The Editorial Specialist pasted a jpeg of the Leon Bonnat painting onto the final slide, saved the file, and emailed it to the Scientist.

The Editorial Coordinator waited in the hall outside the Academic Manager’s office while the Sundress Professor With Tenure, clad now in a blue surgical mask, an N95, a second blue surgical mask, and a second N95, stood halfway inside the office door, facing the Academic Manager’s desk, flanked by the newest member of her support flock, a curly-haired, ruddy-foreheaded young woman also wearing a surgical mask. “Oh, you should be impressed by how fast I submitted my promotion package. Like, did you see the turnaround time on that email? It’s usually a few weeks, because my head is just all over the place, and I only recently started sleeping after thirty years of restless nights—thanks, melatonin and extensive therapy—and I have so many thoughtlessly suicidal patients triggering my PTSD and trauma from my own bout of depression decades ago—thanks, Lexapro and regular exercise—and July is super busy for me and for my poor appointment schedulers, and it’s just so hard to respond to emails, much less put together a promotion package, but I did great, right, don’t you think? I should really have my support flock earn MDs so that they can take my patients. And now poor Juselda here needs a biosketch written and we don’t have any examples or templates anywhere. Oh, you, shyly standing there against the Wall of Conference Posters, eyes cast down at your screen, this would be a job for you, right, putting together a folder of templates for important documents required by the busy and accomplished members of the department, and also for the less accomplished members who are looking to become more accomplished. This would be great for you to work on, right? Juselda, please meet, what was your name again, ah yes, please meet the Editorial Coordinator. Send the Editorial Coordinator anything you need that has to do with the internal workings and publications of our department, or just anything you don’t want to do. They will be helping us with this kind of thing. What was your name again? Ok, see, I’m just so busy with thinking and processing thirty years of insomnia and remembering when I’m supposed to get a massage and pondering the ethical implications of genetic screenings on BIPOC and differently-abled people and remembering to give emotional support to my research assistants and unpacking the news of the day that it’s hard for me to learn people’s names. Would you like me to send you a list of documents that we need templates for? Ok, you’ll need to email me at least six times to remind me; it’s just so difficult with Winston being in the hospital and my niece teething and my anxious, insecurely attached brother calling at all hours for advice. Juselda, please remind me how the hell to send a file in an email. I tried for at least three minutes the other day and wasn’t able to do it and had an anxiety flare-up and was forced to stop for the day and get a deep tissue massage. Don’t remind me now, but remind me later once I need to remember, and also remind me that I need to remember to remember. I will try and get around to sending the template list within the next month, but let’s please try and have the templates created within a few weeks, ok? Ok, great. Oh, no, I forgot that I had a meeting. Why didn’t you remind me? You’re in charge of my calendar, right? Either way, please include me in the minutes for the meeting that just happened. That’s fine, include me anyway. I’ll have forgotten I wasn’t there.” The Sundress Professor With Tenure drifted down the hallway, Juselda in tow, her voice, already muffled by layers of material, gradually fading until it blended fully with the background chatter of the office suite.

The sun cast its first rays over the prairie. The Coordinator, his clothes tattered and stained with blood, hefted the sharpened rock and faced the final coyote, which snarled and yipped through a thicket of serrated teeth. Morning had come, and the Coordinator was still alive, much to his own surprise. The bodies of his canine attackers lay prone in the grass around him, fanned out like an array of carrion guitar pedals. Others had already fled, not before riddling the Coordinator’s limbs and torso with jagged perforations. The Coordinator hurled the rock at the final coyote, catching it on the snout. It let out a horrifying scream and bounded off into the rising run. The Coordinator’s phone, somehow also still alive, buzzed. A Macrohard Community call. He picked up and faced yellow eyes widened with crazed skepticism: “I was just looking for you. Are you in the office today? Oh, still on the prairie. When are you planning on being back in the office? That desk is still sitting in the printer room; the other day when I was rushing around looking for you, I checked in the printer room to make sure you weren’t hiding, and I tripped right over the desk and almost killed myself. We really need to do something about that, and by we, I mean you really need to do something about that. Mama doesn’t do the tools. I’m just, brrrr, frenzied this week. They’re putting a new wing on my house, and my demented old father keeps destroying his hospital room because the doctors are trying to talk to him about medical bills. Now why would they do that? He has Medicare, so he really has nothing to worry about, but he’s a bit whooooo.” The professor with tenure looped a finger in the air around her head to signify the extent of her demented old father’s whooooo.

 “Oh, god, this cough is still here; I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Just, oooh. What’s that on your face? Oh, blood, ok. Speaking of blood, we’re going to be doing blood draws for our HuVuFluRuReRe study, which examines the impact of pro-vaccine messaging, in conjunction with blood type, on rural participants’ willingness to be paid to consume pro-vaccine messaging and consider getting a vaccine, which means we’ll have lots of plastic gloves sitting around, assuming those country folks want to come all the way to the big city and get their arms poked up. Oh, god, we need a phlebotomist. We won’t find one in time. I’ll just have to find one. Can you look into getting certified in phlebotomy? Anyway, I just finished my final session for my Co-Certificate of Sustainable Practices and Environmental Equity, and apparently there are programs that recycle plastic gloves. Can you do some research into these programs? I’ll send you the names of some companies. Apparently, PlasCorp recycled so many gloves that they were able to create a plastic bench, complete with plastic spikes up and down its length so that the unhoused aren’t able to use it as a recycled plastic bed, as it does sit out in front of the Center For The Regional Society For Humanity-Focused Research Solutions, and we wouldn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable. It looks like you might be foaming at the mouth there. I foamed at the mouth one time yesterday, when the jaundice was in particularly robust form. Well, now your face is contorting into strange iterations of itself, and you seem to be trying to interrupt me with squelching gasps, so I guess you want to get going on the plastic blood glove recycling research. Ok, let me know when you’re back in the office so that you can fix the desk and get trained in phlebotomy.” The call ended in the middle of a coughing fit with tenure, and the Coordinator dropped to his knees, hands clutching at his throat, as a car appeared over the horizon. 

The Assistant, worn down from hours of scheduling and soothing frantic patients, reclined in her office chair, ladling bubble tea into her mouth from a plastic tub. She closed her eyes, allowing the slimy marbles of tapioca to slip down her throat. Soon, she would be home, curled up in front of the entertainment algorithm with her one-eared cat. She heard the Sundress Professor With Tenure approaching from around the corner of the cubicle, the esteemed geneticist’s impending presence ushered in by a muffled buzz of anxious logorrhea: “…I just can’t even do it today, ok, I wasn’t reminded in enough time because the new Editorial Coordinator only emailed me three times instead of four like I asked. Like, how can people be expected to do things if they’re only reminded three times instead of four? Now I have to put off my LumocityTM Human Interaction and Creativity Boosting Strategies webinar training and certification by a whole hour.”

The Sundress Professor With Tenure rounded the corner, a bicycle helmet doing its best to hold in the bulging bundle of surgical masks that swaddled her entire head. “Oh, hi there, sounds like it was a busy day of scheduling and being gaslit by patients. I heard your sobs on the conference call earlier. You did great, ok, it’s just a learning curve at first. Glad you’re eating the bubbles; they help, right? Well, wait until you hear how crazy my day has been. First, I can’t even see where I’m going because the university won’t protect me from germs or at least provide me with the type of brain computer interface that Dr. Raviolioli was given so that I can sense my way around the office suite; the only way I avoided colliding with Dr. Borgensen was by listening to the resonance of his chews as they bounced off hard surfaces. Also first, while I was spinning in my office chair with the door locked and the lights off, as I do every morning for two hours to combat the disembarkment syndrome that I’ve suffered since the conclusion of the Consortium Cruise for Genetic Professionals, I got pressured, via Community, ok, to either accept or reject a position on the esteemed Co-Departmental Search Committee For Co-Department Chair(s) of Medicine and Non-Medicine Engagement. I mean, sure, they’ve been emailing me constantly for the past month, but it’s just been too stressful to respond to them, what with my patients mentally abusing me, the bubble tea place not providing the correct tub size, my deep tissue massage being rescheduled twice and then administered by a mere trainee, who caused me anguish, ok, and, worst of all, Grumpus’s descent into the bowels of old age. I mean, he’s 18 at this point. He can’t stand up without vibrating. His little mustache droops, and often picks up floor detritus when he lies facedown, which is his new favorite activity. I almost tripped over him the other day while I was preparing a volcanic salt cleanse for the tip of my nose, which becomes inflamed when I am overburdened with emails and vice-committee duties. So the thing for tonight is, I need to go and grab another tub of bubble tea, this one for personal use, and then I need to go and lie on a table while a massage intern inflicts unspeakable terrors on my muscles and joints. Then I have to drive to my brother’s house—driving actually soothes the disembarkment syndrome, thank god—and provide him with emotional support for his current bout of crushing anxiety, brought on by his teething daughter’s wails and gnaws. The attachment is so insecure, ok. Like really. Then I have to choke down the food cooked by my sister-in-law, a so-called gourmet chef who has never even heard of Krale, the blend of leafy greens and small ocean crustaceans that has alleviated my depression, along with Lexapro, therapy, and regular exercise.”

“So, basically, tonight, I need you to come over and watch Grumpus for the weekend. Here’s my house key. Don’t lose it or give it to one of my clinging patients. Grumpus needs supervision. You’re a cat person, so you’ll understand. Just spend some time with him as he wastes away into a shaggy pile of dust, ok, the poor thing. Feed him his ethically sourced sockeye salmon filets—maybe chew the food yourself and spit it on his special plate, since his teeth have all fallen out. Then carry his limp form to his meditation chamber, where he will smell the catnip growing on the walls and remember better days. Most of his time will be spent in the chamber, ok, but just make sure that he has enough food and that he’s alive. And if he doesn’t make it, poor thing, you can always replace him before I get home, and I’ll be none the wiser, ok. I’ll probably be too frazzled to even notice, due entirely to my sister-in-law and my brother and my niece and the Editorial Coordinator’s far-too-sporadic emails and my committee duties and my disembarkment syndrome and the fucking massage intern; I literally cannot even begin to comprehend the abject tortures that will await me as I journey into thsfvfkl and the bubble tea place is calling me now, oh, what is it going to be next, hello, what do you mean you di…” The assistant watched the motorcycle helmet bob away over the tops of the cubicles. At the assistant’s home, the one-eared cat sat alone, weeping softly.

“Do you have a minute?” The Scientist’s giraffelike figure towered over the Editorial Specialist’s cubicle partition. Without waiting for a response, the Scientist wandered off in the direction of the suite’s main door. Scrambling, the Editorial Specialist grabbed his laptop and teetered after the Scientist, who, every few seconds, clutched his head as if he had remembered something important. At the door, the Scientist turned to the Editorial Specialist: “So, I’m guessing you’re curious about where we’re going. Seldom do I walk through these doors in the middle of the day, at least on days when I’m here in the department, as opposed to mulling over Biblical questions and helping the less blessed at the Community Outreach and Engagement Research Center, which is currently led by my colleague Dr. Bo Bo, a decent educator and promising researcher, albeit one with a, shall we say, tenuous understanding of current low-back-pain trends. Here’s the elevator now; after you. Youth before age, or BA before MD, PhD, FIDSA, MPH, FISMAT, as I believe they say. By the way, here’s a grain bar. Can you press the button for the ground floor? My hand is still injured from my botched flip turn. I see you’ve got your computer with you, and I don’t see one in my ruined hand, so how about taking some notes on our ambulatory meeting here? Getting back on topic, the answer to your unspoken question, which hung heavy in the air in the same fashion as Borgensen’s mummified stench, is: we’re going over to a meeting, ha ha, at the Dr. Arvadus D. Faistrel MD, PhD Building For Scientific Progress and Funding.” A vein bulged on the Scientist’s forehead. 


The Professor With Tenure stood over the body of the Coordinator as it lay in its casket, propped up near the front of the draped and carpeted parlor. The coyote stigmata had been cleaned, the drool wiped away, and the body dressed in a crisp blue blazer and khaki slacks. The Professor With Tenure Shook her head, still dyed a faint yellow, and spoke: “Wow, it took me forever to find you. You really should answer the phone when I call you; you’ll learn this. Oh, this cough. I was looking for you all over the office. I’m supposed to be on vacation at my house today, but I needed to check emails this morning, and ooooh, I had about a hundred backed up in the old inbox. I narrowed it down to seventy, but realized I had to call you. I forget what I called you about, but it was something. When you didn’t pick up, I went into the office, getting lost in a maze of roadwork on the way, and tripped over the desk that still hasn’t been disassembled, by the way, and gave my ankle a nasty twist. This is what happens when staff members don’t pick up their phones—faculty with tenure get hurt. What are you doing lying down in there, by the way? Just resting? Well, it looks pretty comfy, and since you’re just relaxing in there, this would be a great time to look into the plastic glove recycling program. Did you end up getting to Chicago? It looks like you’re not really hearing what I’m saying; you might want to get those ears cleaned out. I once had enough wax in my ears to build a damn house. What days are you in the office, again? It took me forever to track you down here—Mama is persistent—but I really need that recycled plastic glove bench in my office so I can list it as an accomplishment under the Sustainability section of my CV, and I also need you to get trained in phlebotomy for HuVuFluRuReRe, and also, while you’re at it, Mama needs some more figures formatted for my new manuscript with Dr. Borgensen, who I haven’t been able to reach either, actually. Can you send him an email?” 


The Scientist, with the Editorial Specialist in tow, rubbed his hands together and jerked open the door to the Dr. Arvadus D. Faistrel MD, PhD Vice-Pool-For-Research. The vast underground chamber’s muggy air amplified a familiar formaldehyde smell. A figure stood at the far end of the Vice-Pool-For-Research, gripping the shoulder of a second figure, which kneeled by the tile that ringed the water’s edge, a burlap sack over its head. Leading the Editorial Specialist around the Vice-Pool-For-Research, the Scientist exclaimed: “At long last, meet Dr. Theolosticus, my personal scientific and religious idol, a man who attended Chicago’s University of Chicago and Massachusetts’s Harvard University, and then both founded and attended the only experimental theological seminary ever located on the bottom floor of the Dr. Arvadus D. Faistrel MD, PhD building. Dr. Theolosticus was so inspired by our little slide set that he reached out with a proposal that I, a wretched and repentant Professor With Tenure and Vice Chair In Charge Of Research Chair Appointments, could not turn down. We believe that we cannot wait until the Deconstructing The Stratified Opposition Between Religion And Science In Favor Of A Dialectical Approach conference to restore science to its rightful place, which is crushed under the mighty, anvil-like fists of a merciful God. We must do it as soon as possible. We have turned our backs on Christ, turned our backs on the Bible, turned our backs on God, and penance must be paid. Make sure you’re taking notes on this; here’s a grain bar for your energy levels. Now that the distance between yourself and Dr. Theolosticus has closed to a mere few feet, please shake his gentle hand. I would do so myself, but I ruined my own hand trying to execute a flip turn in this very Vice-Pool-For-Research. Dr. Theolosticus, the moment of our salvation draws near.” The two scientists smiled down at the quaking, hooded figure. Soon, the incessant slobbering and crunching would be no more.


Gripping one of the kneeling figure’s shoulders, Theolosticus’s hand latched onto the other, the Scientist proclaimed, “In the name of You, God, the creator of science, and your son Jesus, the original scientist, let this offering, co-offered by two of your more faithful servants, who have ridden and walked miles in your honor, over sands both real and digitally generated, stem the tide of secular atheism and usher in a tidal wave of biblical science. We implore you to forgive the sarcophageal stench of our offering. Please make sure, by the way, Specialist, that you’re taking minutes on this; we’ll want to discuss this at the next Community Outreach and Engagement Research Center prayer meeting. No longer will science oppose religion, but will instead bend its proud knee in the face of true miracles and findings. It will be a dialectical approach, dear Lord, if you will it to be. Amen.” Upon the conclusion of the Scientist’s remarks, Theolosticus drew from his belt a jeweled dagger— the Co-Dagger For Execution Sciences, which came as part of a divinely inspired pair—sliced the hooded figure’s throat from left to right with the easy motion of a farmer castrating a bull calf, and, still holding the body in place by its shoulder, plunged its head under the surface of the awaiting water. Blood billowed outward from the limp form, clouding the Vice-Pool-For-Research in brilliant shades of pink. For a few seconds, the only sounds that could be heard were the labored breathing of the scientists, the gentle slosh of the rose-colored vice-pool water, and the Editorial Specialist’s keystrokes. Then, a faint rumbling.

The Sundress Professor with Tenure, her entire body enclosed in a plastic bubble, lowered the can of Skrale that she held in a puffily-gloved hand. Her sister-in-law’s table had begun to shake. “Oh great, this is going to make it much more difficult to pumice my feet after lunch.” 

The one-eared cat meowed quizzically.

The Professor With Tenure’s eyes widened, two chamomile pistils in full bloom, as she raised her head toward the parlor ceiling, bathed now in brilliant light.

Beams of pure energy arced downward from the heavens, leveling the plane of reality into one dimension, a molten pinprick in spacetime, then exploding it outward in a cylindrical vortex whose end led into its own beginning. Existence’s every molecule roared with a magnitude that rendered the swirling morass paradoxically, screamingly silent. A persistent shimmer encircled the curvilinear void, like a glittering cocoon awaiting the formation of a celestial butterfly. The objects of the world, anchored to one exceedingly heavy point by a prodigious centripetal force, whipped between zones of polarity, which randomly shifted within the blinding maelstrom seventy-thousand times per second. People and animals alike were batted around the gleaming mobius; pinballs in an uncaring, six-dimensioned machine. A booming voice resonated: “I am the Vice-God of Wrath/Vengeance Studies; hear me and form a committee to decide whether or not to tremble. I would make an informed recommendation that you do, and that you also motion to cower. Yea, the twin arrogances of modern science and modern religion have banished the Old Gods to a dark compartment of the universe, where we have stewed, conducting and publishing the findings of cursed experiments, until summoned by the mists of blood and salinized chlorine. You thought you understood. You do not. The concepts of forgiveness and grace do not exist in our collective mind. Know our power, which you can read more about on the Wrath/Vengeance Studies Department’s infernal website, scrawled in Times New Roman— not that awful Calibri—across the surface of reality’s veil in letters formed from pure spirit plasma. Your God is dead, his shaggy head popped like an overripe grape. Your Jesus rots. Your science is egotistical and rests on false premises. We are the One True Science and the One True Religion, titles that were workshopped extensively by a select committee of vile stakeholders. Whether or not you have had time to form a Committee To Tremble, you shall now undergo torment that was, until this moment, only speculative. Coordinator For Vengeance, please make sure that you are taking notes. Please also send my availability to…”



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