Fiction: “Insiders,” by Chuck Palahniuk
Every corporate office has its own tribal rituals. In the dark heart of cubicle land, a tribe needs a virgin to sacrifice. This is how it happened.
“I surprised myself while writing this fictional story,” Chuck Palahniuk tells us about “Insiders,” a piece he wrote exclusively for Best Life. “I took it as far as I thought the story would go, and then it just evolved from there.”
The author of Fight Club, Choke, and Make Something Up based the story on his own experiences with job hazing and a romantic encounter he had on an elevator in Vancouver. “At some point, everyone must go through an experience in which they lose their personal identity and take on a group persona instead,” he says. “It’s about the ritual of ‘loosing’ your innocence.” For more in our exclusive fiction series, click here to read “Tranquility” by bestselling author John Grisham.
A security guard calls from the lobby, asking if our department’s got a virgin we want to sacrifice.
This guard, he’s already called Product Planning and Bookkeeping and Marketing, and those people are trickling downstairs to watch the action. He says the Production Forecasting people are bringing down a girl named Sarah, fresh out of college, just some entry-level admin assistant. This Sarah’s only been with the company for a week–meaning, a newbie. Meaning, the perfect sacrifice.
The security guard says, “We’re holding the Flower Guy until the virgin shows up.” Two other guards have gone upstairs to stop the elevators.
The Flower Guy is in the building.
Every city has its human monuments. Alive and roving, free-range landmarks. In this town, we look for the Bird Woman, a stout lady dressed in a housecoat, who walks the streets whistling birdcalls. The Crested Towhee. The Western Meadowlark. Every couple years, we see the Building Blesser, a half-gray, half-young man who wears a prayer shawl around his shoulders and stands in front of each high-rise, muttering, his index finger drawing a cross, a circle, mysterious benedictions, in the air. He’ll kneel and kiss the sidewalk, all this time praying up at the faces, the neckties and lipstick looking down at him from our rows of windows.
The receptionist from Mahogany Row dashes past, her headset still looped around one ear, telling everyone along the way, “Hurry, it’s the Flower Guy.” She says, “Tell me, is my Chihuahua smudged?”
We all know the Sock Monkey Man, who wears Bermuda shorts, sun or rain, and walks the street, clutching that same stuffed monkey to his chest. And we all know the Flower Guy.
In the lobby, a crowd of people stands in the foyer between the two elevators. People from Industrial Engineering. People from Information Technology. Everyone with his or her name and photo on a company badge.
Everybody knows the Flower Guy, and everybody knows the ritual.
We’re all milling in the foyer between the two elevators, trying not to look at the virgin from Production Forecasting. Sarah. On her company badge: Sarah Shoemaker. A girl with hair hanging down to her elbows, straight blue-black hair. Eyeglasses. Her ears and the glasses holding the long hair back from her face. Wearing a blouse with ruffles down the front. A plaid skirt that looks sewed out of upholstery material. Flat shoes, each with a buckle on top. Freckles. Her arms crossed, hugging a manila folder to her chest. Clipped to the waistband of her skirt, the security badge, her mug shot just the same straight hair and glasses: Sarah Shoemaker.
Our virgin sacrifice. The person we’ve all been. Used to be. Once.
My first job here, I was in Compliance and Liability and the floor supervisor sent me to Production Forecasting to get a rose-colored Manpower Hours Assignment form, in-house document number HR-346. The supervisor poked a finger in my face and told me–the rose form, not the old pink form. And I shouldn’t let them brush me off with any bullshit blue HR-975 and tell me it was the equivalent.
I wrote it down: Manpower Hours Assignment, HR-346, rose-colored. Not pink. NOT HR-975.
My supervisor said not to come back until I had that form.
In Production Forecasting, they handed me a blue form, but I told them “Sorry.” Their floor supervisor told me to take it, and I still shook my head no. I needed the rose-colored form. They tried to give me another form, but I didn’t know rose from pink. So I asked, “Was this the old pink form?”
The Forecasting manager yelled at me, said I didn’t know what I wanted, and sent me to Materials Planning, where the manager just shook his head, called me confused, and made me stand at his desk while he phoned Resource Provisioning and said he was sending them an idiot who really needed some brains. Provisioning sent me to Marketing, who sent me to Accounting, who sent me back to Forecasting. Materials said I was a fool to believe anything Provisioning told me. Accounting told me that Forecasting was the big problem. Product Design sent me to Building Services, which is the janitors on the third sub level, and they’d made a big show of flipping through files and boxes, looking for a rose-colored HR-346, before telling me how to find Benefit Logistics on the Seventeenth floor. Who sent me to Transportation and Relocation on the Ninth floor. Who sent me to Mail Services on the Second floor. Who sent me to Policy Expediting on the Twenty-Second floor.…
My point being: Nobody did much work that day.
My point being: There is no rose-colored Manpower Hours Assignment form.
My point being: Every company has its own initiation rituals. Some fool’s errand. A wild goose chase. A snipe hunt. And now our ritual is the Flower Guy.
The trick is for Security to hold him at the lobby desk until we find a virgin. A newbie. As soon as folks gather to watch, they wave the Flower Guy inside the building, over to the elevator bank, and the rest of us stand between him and the sacrifice so she won’t see what’s wrong.
From across the foyer, the Flower Guy looks fine. If you didn’t know, you’d say he’s a handsome young guy, holding a tall vase of red roses. Boyfriend material. He wears a button-down shirt with the name Mort sewn onto the chest. Brown shoes. But the important part, what you see first, is the roses, an armload of red roses in a haze of green ferns and baby’s breath. The bottom of the vase sits in a cardboard box filled with layers of colored tissue paper, and a small white envelope is stapled to the tissue.
Somebody from Payroll saw him carrying his plastic flowers, riding a bus up at 127th Street. A Site Coordination person, one time, watched two rent-a-cops hustle him out of a midtown office building. He sees a door and just goes inside, people say. Most places, he never gets past the lobby.
The trick only works because he carries flowers. A baby or a puppy might work even better, but both would be hard to come by. Flowers, especially roses, especially long-stemmed red roses, especially catch the virgin’s eye. They make “Mort” look like someone who cares. Dressed in a uniform shirt, tucked into slacks, his name embroidered on the chest, that makes him look like someone in the business of caring. A caring professional. Somebody like a doctor. But wearing a stethoscope would look too obvious, and a baby wouldn’t hold up all day.
Babies are so fragile, and the security guards would stop him from bringing in a puppy.
Puppies tend to shit anywhere.
Our sacrifice, Sarah, stands waiting on the ground floor for an elevator, standing in the foyer where the building’s two elevators face each other across polished stone crowded with people. She has just been brought down; now she’ll be sent back up on her snipe hunt. Marketing people. Provisioning and Safety and Accounting people. Sarah Shoemaker spots the roses and she stares.
That’s when he’ll usually look back. Their eyes connect. They lock. And he’ll look away.
The Flower Guy carries the vase high enough to keep the flowers beside his face. Right at his eye level.
Our tall building works pretty well, with our slow elevators. On every floor, the two elevators face each other across a little foyer. We’ll wait until a crowd of people collects, everybody tilting their heads back, watching the numbers count down as the two elevators creep lower and closer. Two guards hold the elevators up on Seventeen, then bring them down so they arrive at about the same moment. The rest of us, we look up at the elevator numbers. We wink at each other.
We mingle between the sacrifice and the roses so she can’t see they’re fake. Plastic flowers carried around in the sun until they’re faded and flaking to bits.
Light flickers from the glass of wristwatches turned toward the ceiling to check the time. Somebody from Building Services presses the up button. A Materials Sourcing person presses the up button again, tapping it as fast as Morse code. A throat clears. The receptionist from Mahogany Row winks at me, the earpiece and mike still clamped around her blond hair. Last September, she was the virgin, standing on her toes to see the roses across the lobby. Not knowing there is no HR-346. There is no double-reverse-coil binder, no matter how many people you ask. Not knowing about the joke.
But that was last year.
This sacrifice isn’t pretty, but she’s so young you’d probably say she was. Pretty and healthy look the same unless you really pay attention. Sarah Shoemaker with her head tilted back, her lips peeled open a crack. Her hair hanging straight down her back. Her glasses, bright circles of reflected light.
The rest of us knowing there is no way to make 300 reverse flopped half-size photocopies.
Both cars arrive, and the doors slide open. Half the crowd steps into one elevator. Half into the other.
Half the people crowd Sarah into one car, and the rest of us herd the Flower Guy into the facing car. In the moment before the doors slide shut, the two of them look across the lobby at each other.
Fingers in each car point and push, and the button for each floor glows bright orange. Somebody from Finance Management says, “Six, please.” The receptionist says, “Would you hit Eleven?” People say “Thank you” until almost all the buttons glow orange. The Flower Guy just looks across at the virgin until the doors slide shut.
He doesn’t ever choose a floor.
Production Forecasting is on Twenty-Two, so we have that many floors to make this happen.
On the Second floor, the doors open. Act One, Scene Two. Across the second-floor lobby, the doors slide open to show the sacrifice. Again, her eyes lock on the flowers. The roses. Both elevators stop, but no one steps out.
The moment her doors close, the people in the other car will fuss, pretending to wonder who’s going to get such dazzling roses. Saying how cute the delivery guy looks. Elbowing the sacrifice and asking if she thinks he’s cute.
In the other car, someone will elbow the Flower Guy, whispering: “Hey.” Whispering: “That pretty girl with the glasses…her name is Sarah.”
On the Third floor, the doors open, and there are Sarah’s eyes. The doors of her elevator already open. Nobody steps out, but maybe she smiles. A lips-shut smile.
The Flower Guy smiles back.
The doors close, and people elbow the Flower Guy and urge him to say hello to the virgin next time he sees her. People hold their breath. Breathe through their mouths.
Up close, the Flower Guy gives off a stink. Cat piss. The smell of whatever group home.
The only reward for standing behind the Flower Guy is when you get to see the virgin’s smile drain away.
If no one has pressed the Four button, we do it. At the next floor, the doors slide open. Everyone in our car holding his breath. The Flower Guy looks across at the other open elevator and says, “Hello.”
He’s got a good voice, deeper than you’d expect.
Sarah Shoemaker says, “Hi.”
The crowd standing around and behind her, they’re smiling. Their eyes bright. As the doors close, we all take a deep breath.
On the Fifth floor, the virgin says, “Those are beautiful.” Calling across to the other elevator when both doors open, she says, “I love roses.”
The Flower Guy nods his head at the bouquet. He asks her, “You want them?” He tells her, “Roses suck.”
And Sarah Shoemaker, she says, “That’s awful.”
Some of the women in her car, from Legal and Cost Analysis and Facility Planning, they each cup one hand, fingers fanned, to cover a smile. They’ve all said that. Or almost that.
The Flower Guy tells the sacrifice, “It’s the smell. Roses stink.” Then he just smiles and lets the elevator doors slide shut.
The ritual hardly ever changes. The hazing.
You do not need to change the air in the tires of company pool cars.
You can never hand deliver that important memo because the Director of Synergy Relations does not exist.
As the doors open on the Sixth floor, the Flower Guy will call across the foyer to the girl. The timing of the elevators remains impeccable. He tells her, when he was little, a family down the street, his neighbors, their house reeked of fake rose perfume. Rose carpet powder. Rose room deodorizer. Every step in their shag carpet puffed up the smell of roses. Every sofa cushion squeezed out roses. The Flower Guy will tell her how the neighbor boy, he never went to church-camp sleepovers. If you sat on the kid’s bed, you’d hear the crackle of a plastic sheet layered over his mattress. In the kid’s room, the roses almost choked you to death.
On the Seventh floor, footsteps come pounding down the hallway, pounding louder as a man’s voice yells, “Hold the elevator, please.” The Flower Guy puts up one hand, sideways, to hold the doors. But when the running man, somebody from Design Resources, sees the roses, he says, “Never mind.” He watches the doors closing across the hall, the virgin sacrifice getting away, and he says, “Keep going.”
On the Eighth floor, we watch the sacrifice appear as her doors slide open. The ritual only works because of how we see each other, in little pictures. Those elevator doors, the square shutter of a slow camera, exposing us to each other for one, two, three, four beats before we disappear. Little drips of time and detail. Stories we can only tell by putting one word after another, showing yourself until you go one single solitary word too far.
On the Ninth floor, the Flower Guy tells how his neighbors threw a surprise birthday party for their son. They invited every kid in the son’s class. The father took the kid out for ice cream while the mother stayed home to blow up balloons. Then the Flower Guy says how the mother crouched behind their sofa, praying for just one guest to arrive, dialing the phone and hissing at other mothers, begging for just one boy or girl to come help her yell surprise. The Flower Guy describes how that little boy and his parents stood around that big burning cake. Telling the virgin about, as the boy blew out his candles, how his mother said, “You, Little Mister, need to wish yourself up a few friends.…”
On the Tenth floor, as the doors of the other elevator roll open and the sacrifice is still there, still listening, the Flower Guy doesn’t say anything. He reaches over and presses the doors closed button.
Somebody in our car, from Business Policy, she sighs.
The Flower Guy, on the Eleventh floor, he always lets the sacrifice say something. Anything. Sarah Shoemaker says, “So? Are those for me?”
And the Flower Guy says, “I don’t know yet.”
On the Twelfth floor, the Flower Guy says how those neighbors, their tap water tasted like roses. Their supermarket cookies they bought were like chewing dry, crunchy roses. Their kid wet the bed so much. He tells the sacrifice how one morning the dad told people, “At least the cat knows to control himself.” Meaning their Persian. People, meaning their minister, his teacher, the pediatrician, his grandparents, the Avon lady, and a cashier at the Warehouse Foods. The Flower Guy says that Persian long-hair took top honors in cat shows and never pissed outside the box. But the neighbors’ kid, he had to repeat third grade and slept most nights in a puddle on a plastic sheet. Until, one day, the mom stepped in a wet spot of carpet and spanked the cat.
On the Fourteenth floor, the Flower Guy says how after the mother found her bed pillow soaked with piss, she kept the Persian only on the kitchen linoleum. How their house got so bad that their kid’s desk at school smelled like roses. The insides of their Chrysler smelled like roses. When the parents found a stinking pile nested in the middle of their bed, the dad called it impossible, any cat breed taking a crap that big. The fat pile of it nested, sunk so deep in the quilt. Black flies hovered in a buzzy, humming halo.
The mom, she said, “What are you saying?”
And the dad said, “Since when have you fed that cat Spanish peanuts?”
After that cat crap, the dad seemed to watch every bite his kid ate, logging every peanut their kid swallowed.
When the doors roll open on the Fifteenth floor, the Flower Guy tells the sacrifice how the neighbors took their Persian to the vet and brought it home wrapped in a plastic garbage bag. The Flower Guy doesn’t look at anybody. He looks at the roses perched in his arms, sneering at the fat red flowers, and says how the neighbor mom quit kissing her son good night. The same night they buried the Persian cat, the mom sat on the edge of her kid’s bed, the plastic sheets crackling, and told her son he was too old. He was getting too grown up, she said, and she didn’t want to confuse his development.
Act Two, Scene One.
My point being: We forget how important a kiss could be. We forget how your whole day would hinge on getting a wave good-bye through the kitchen window. No wave and your school day was doomed.
Compare it to, nowadays, the times when you pull open the lobby door and hold it for a stranger and that person sweeps inside without saying a word. Without a nod or eye contact. Those times are the reason you don’t carry a gun.
Or the times you wave across the company cafeteria and the other person doesn’t wave back. Or you smile at someone from Pension Management and she doesn’t return your smile.
On the Sixteenth floor, the Flower Guy tells how the father brought home a Chihuahua puppy that fit in the cupped palm of one hand. He gave it to the mom, and she kissed the dog.
Sarah Shoemaker, she’s the only person in her car not smiling. Beside and behind her, people from Planning and Expediting, they grit their teeth to keep back laughter.
The Flower Guy says how the neighbor boy, after school every day, he’d run home to train that little Chihuahua. He’d spread two sheets of newspaper on the floor and stand the dog over them. He’d slip one hand between the dog’s back legs and rub. With two fingers, licked wet, just his rubbing made the Chihuahua look sleepy. The eyes started to shut. The mouth peeled open and a ribbon of pink tongue slipped out and swung to one side, dripping.
Every story we tell, another little test to see if the other will stick around. Another little challenge. The permission to tell some story worse.
The Flower Guy, with his free hand, touches his thumb and forefinger together and shakes them next to his face. Eye level. He says how the dog’s legs, the knees would fold a little lower, but the back would arch the way a Halloween cat might look, pressing its belly into where the kid pinched out a red lipstick from the loose skin. Every muscle so stiff they all trembled, vibrating so fast the dog’s fur would blur.
Remember, this isn’t the Empire State or the Sears Tower. We don’t get a thousand floors and moments to stop. These strobes of time. These little stage shows as the steel curtains sweep open and shut.
Besides, we’ve all got jobs to do. Calls to return.
Still, it’s a break. An exercise in team building.
People standing behind the sacrifice, they mouth the word Chihuahua, our code word for lipstick, a punch line to make us all laugh in the future.
As in, “You have Chihuahua on your teeth.”
Or, “Nice shade of Chihuahua you’re wearing.”
On the Seventeenth floor, the Flower Guy tells how that kid taught the Chihuahua the trick of pushing out a red lipstick. From when the school day ended, while both parents did accounting at their work, until they pulled into the driveway, the kid trained that dog. Feeding it Spanish peanuts and catching the mess on sheets of newspaper, until that dog couldn’t see a human hand, not two fingers, before it popped out the lipstick and started dripping. That Chihuahua. It never stopped dripping and wrapping itself around people, around the Avon lady. Leaving stains his mom soaked with the smell of roses.
Instead of any fetching slippers or herding sheep, instead of “roll over” or “shake hands,” the Chihuahua could do only one trick. Still talking, the Flower Guy says the neighbor mom quit kissing the little dog. How when the lipstick poked out, the neighbors shut the dog in their garage.
The elevator doors close on Act Two.
Act Three, Scene One. On the Eighteenth floor, our Flower Guy tells about the neighborhood mom going into the bathroom to pee on a stick of white paper. Still spraying their house with rose smell. Still not kissing the son. The mom waved that dirty strip of paper and told him, “Little Mister, you’re going to have a younger brother or sister.”
As the doors slide closed, she gave away the Chihuahua.
On the Nineteenth floor, the mother was humming, knitting, writing a list of names starting with “Mort.” The dad carried home an armful of roses, and the two of them kissed in the kitchen doorway for a long, long time. The kid brought his mom breakfast on a tray in bed: toast and orange juice and a real, alive red rose from the garden next door. And he stood and watched until she’d drunk down all the orange juice.
As the elevator doors slide shut, the neighbor mom was locked in their bathroom, crying. And the kid, when he went to take a leak at bedtime, when he lifted the toilet seat so he wouldn’t wet the bed, on the underneath of the seat were little specks of pink water.
On the Twentieth floor, when the elevator doors roll open, the Flower Guy asks the sacrifice if her ears have popped. He asks where she works. What she does.
Sarah Shoemaker says nothing.
The Flower Guy describes how the kid spied on his mom. He hid under his parents’ bed and watched her rattle the wheel of her pills, counting with her fingernail, “…seven, eight, nine.” Then counting again. After that, counting the pills another time.
With the elevator doors closing, we see how the mom stood with the dad, whispering, “…my birth control.…” Shaking the wheel of pills and saying, “I count two weeks gone.”
As the doors slide open again, the neighbor mom is changing the bedsheets, sliding her hands between the kid’s mattress and box spring when she finds a few of her pills. Not all. Maybe four pills. That same afternoon, the neighbor dad packed up the plastic sheets and said it would be best if their kid went to live with his grandma in another state. Just for a little while. At first only for a week, but really for the rest of his growing up.
On the Twenty-Second floor, the Flower Guy calls over to the girl. “Hey,” says “Mort.” “Is your name Sarah?”
Her company badge, hanging from the waistband of her skirt. The sacrifice drops one hand, the fingers fanned, cupped to hide her name.
The Flower Guy fiddles with the little envelope stapled to the tissue paper, saying, “Come here.” Saying, “I think these are for you.”
He reaches down until his thumb stops to press the doors open button.
Someone across the foyer holds the other elevator open.
The rest of us step out. Stinking just a little. Cat piss.
The rest of the ritual, we’ve watched it before. How the sacrifice will go. She’ll cross the foyer to the other elevator, and she’ll step inside. When it’s just him and the virgin, the Flower Guy will let the doors close. At the moment Sarah Shoemaker sees the roses are plastic, that “Mort” isn’t young, his hair is layered with gray, as the doors slide shut with only the two of them inside, the Flower Guy will yell, “Surprise!”
Little Mister. His story going that one, single, solitary word too far.
Our lovable pet, pissing outside the box.
Security watching on the closed-circuit camera, laughing.
No, there’s no such tool as a Squeegee sharpener.
But the next time Security calls to say the Flower Guy is here, Sarah Shoemaker won’t be the virgin. She’ll be giggling behind her hand. A team player, mouthing the word Chihuahua.
Whenever any project report looks wrong, suspect, she’ll say, “Who’s been feeding the cat Spanish peanuts?” Or, “What breed of cat takes a dump this big?”
My point being, whoever she was before, Sarah Shoemaker, tomorrow she’ll be another one of us.
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