Stuart’s review sheet was waiting on his desk when he got back from lunch. He slit it raggedly with his finger and puffed air into his cheeks, blowing it out in a lazy exhale. Nothing exciting.
There was a bit of card beneath it.
Stuart flipped it, expecting the kind of inter-office memo such stock bespoke. ‘Meet me for lunch‘ or ‘your package came, it’s at my desk.’
Well, Stuart. Overall your performance has been good. Exemplary, even. But I would like to see you try harder. I believe you’re capable of more than you’ve been giving, and I think it’s only fair to the rest of us that you give it your all.
I know I’m just a co-worker and in no way your boss, but this is a personal request, from me to you.
Stuart dropped the card and shot it the finger. Jesus. That was the last thing he needed.
Work was done by four o’clock. Fifty games of minesweeper later, he was ready to leave.
Arlene, his immediate supervisor, was holding a hallway conversation with Dolores, the front desk girl. They spoke in the jittery whispers of office women. Stuart wanted to ask about the card, but by the time they turned to look at him he’d forgotten already. Instead he wished them a good night, and they did the same.
Tuesday there was a card in his lunch sack. Stuart considered it for a moment. Was it—-he turned it over—yes, it was the same prissy, neat script. The lines were thin, too. Probably kept his pencil razor-sharp.
Sorry to be a bug about this, but you’ve been storing your lunch on the top shelf. It’s an unofficial rule, but I thought it was well-known that the top shelf is for sauces and relish only. If everyone starts storing their lunch on the top shelf, there won’t be any room left for the communal condiments.
I know you don’t mean it, so don’t sweat it.
Just for fun, Stuart made the arduous journey to the fridge and opened it up. There was no shortage of room on the top shelf, which held only a bottle of ketchup, Arlene’s thousand-island dressing, and a dried-out, half-eaten muffin. Stuart gave a contemptuous snort.
After a bathroom break he found another card, taped face-down to his door like a test with a bad grade. Stuart tore it off with no small amount of ire.
Your phone was ringing, but your door was shut. Please think of your coworkers in the future. I was unable to get to the phone, and the ringing was very disruptive. Please don’t let it happen again.
Stuart turned to Sophie, who was adding to the rubber-band ball in her cubicle.
“Did my phone ring?”
“Huh? Oh–” she shrugged. “Maybe. you have a machine, right?”
There was another card that had apparently been slid beneath the door. He stepped on it before he picked it up.
I also noticed you give the wrong information in your answering machine message. You gave 1108, which is the code for the old office. Anyone calling to locate you would have a pretty time trying to find you. Please fix it.
Stuart cast an eye over the cubicles. Sophie’s cubicle was the only one near enough to the door that she could hear the phone clearly. He tried to look for suspicious heads, of someone bent too intently over their work. This being immediately post-lunch, he found no one.
Stuart knuckle-rapped Arlene’s doorjamb.
“Can I bug you for a minute?”
“Okay.” Arlene was squinting at a pile of forms, a repairman stood off to one side of the room.
“Can you ask Phil to lay off my back? He’s gotten the idea in his head that he’s my copilot.”
“Sure thing, where’s he sit?” she asked without looking up.
“I don’t know. I keep finding these—” he produced a little card from his pocket. Arlene took it and squinted, her glasses left dangling around her neck. She mouthed a little as she read the words.
“Wow, someone has a lot of love for you,” she said, handing it back.
“Can you do anything?”
“Sure, just bring him in the next time you see him.”
“That’s the problem,” Stuart said as patiently as he could, “I never see him. He keeps slipping these in my things.”
Arlene took the card again, studying it. Stuart could see her mouth the name.
“Well, I’ll see what I can do. Poor guy’s probably been stressed lately.”
Stuart hunted among the cubicles as he walked back. No suspicious industry.
The next card was on his chair seat. He didn’t see it and spent a blissfully ignorant morning thinking it had been dealt with. He stood to go to lunch with Katie and she pointed behind him.
“You dropped something.”
Stuart picked it up, and a little pebble of dread dropped into his stomach.
That was very hurtful of you to go to management immediately. You could have talked to me, and we would have met a much more peaceable solution. I do not appreciate being treated like a problem.
I try to be a good coworker, and all I ask is that you do the same,
Katie looked it over at the sushi restaurant. She whistled low.
“Guy’s after your nuts, I guess.”
“I know. I’m trying not to let it get to me, but…” Stuart stabbed his boba pearls with his straw. ” You know any way I could find out who this guy is? I’m not going to get him fired. I just want it to stop.”
Katie chewed her unagi, cheek working as she looked the card over.
“Pete Hellstrom?” She took a swig of green tea. “He’s a stand-up guy, gave my car a jump last August when I got stuck in the lot. Also, he works in the mail room, so he probably knows where everyone is.”
Stuart treated her for that.
Pete squinted at the card. “You want me to find Bill—”
“—Phil, here? He got something on you? I don’t want to be an accessory after the fact.”
“No, no.” Stuart coughed. “It’s not like that. The guy’s just leaving passive-aggressive notes without speaking to my face. It’s driving me nuts.”
Pete looked him over. “…that’s all?”
“That’s all, man.”
Pete dropped an envelope on his desk before end of day. Stuart was surprised by the promptness, but even more surprised by Pete’s suddenly gruff manner.
“Here it is. Didn’t have to dig too hard for it. but man—” he jabbed a finger in Stuart’s direction, “you better leave him alone, that’s all I’m saying.”
Stuart held his hands up. “Hey, I told you what this was. I promise, I swear.”
Pete gave a little head shake, like it was all too much, and got up from his seat. Stuart waited until he had left the room to open it up.
It was a collection of photocopied status reports and memos. Stuart had a feeling these were a little less-than-legal, and made a mental note to burn them.
Apparently the guy had been having bad year. Attendance sporadic, sudden departures in the middle of the day, arriving late and leaving early. His work quality had suffered in suit. Stuart turned the page and it dawned on him what an absolute asshole he was.
The sudden departures had been medically excused. Stuart had a precise timeline of all his tardy days, which lined up exactly with hospital visits. Apparently his wife, Gladys, had cancer. Stuart was already regretting this deeply when he turned to the last page and saw the request for extended grief leave. It was typed, not handwritten, and suspiciously dotted in some places. It asked time off to attend his wife’s funeral. The end was signed.
Stuart was so shaken it took him a few read-throughs to notice it. At first he excused the signature for being shaky, because the signer was obviously under stress. Poor, poor old Bill–
Stuart reread the signature. It said Bill Linklater.
Stuart pulled out a card. Aside from the dramatic difference in writing quality, the card very clearly said Phil Linkletter. Stuart stared at both of the papers, not even knowing where to begin.
“I want to register a formal complaint of harassment,” he said.
He dumped every card he had gotten so far on Denise’s desk. The HR troll rolled her eyes just a bit as she slid a form forward. He slid an already-complete form back to her.
“Please,” he whispered urgently, “I don’t know what this is all about. These have been appearing everywhere. They were on my desk. They were in my office.”
Denise took a card, made a cursory examination, and then waddled to her filing cabinet.
She waddled back. “My records show that Mr. Linklater has not been in for two weeks.”
Stuart’s voice cracked a bit as he said, “Link-letter.” He nudged another card forward.
Denise looked over the card again. She waddled to the back. She was gone for quite a while. Stuart looked up and down the hall. Jerome from sales was describing a baseball game to Heather from the phone bank, who was looking desperately interested. The repair man was ratcheting something in the ac unit. Paranoid sweat itched his neck. God, let this be a practical joke.
Denise waddled back in a hurry. “I need you to fill out this form.”
Stuart looked at her until she dropped eye contact. “He doesn’t work here, does he?”
Denise held the form so hard it crinkled. “Do you have a time frame for these?”
Stuart described where each card had been found, and when.
Denise nodded feverishly, writing it all down.
“This might be a security matter,” she told him, “get an escort to your car tonight. We might need you to provide description for the person.”
“I’ve never seen him,” Stuart murmured with a sinking heart.
“Nevertheless, keep close to your phone.”
Stuart hit the third floor button. Pete would probably be a stand-up guy about it and escort Stuart to his car. Unless it was Pete. Godammit.
The repairman ran, waving. Stuart held the door for him.
The repairman dashed in, holding his sides as the doors swished shut behind him. He was dotted with perspiration.
Stuart waited, humming tunelessly, rocking slightly back and forth on his heels. The repairman took out a flat carpenter’s pencil and proceeded to note something on a tiny white card. Then he took a key from the ring dangling at his waist and slid it into a matching keyhole beneath the elevator buttons. He turned it. The elevator stopped between floors.
“I asked you not to go to management,” the repairman said.