Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
The new girl, Rachel Shapiro, kept getting flowers. They started coming her second week. Benny the cross-eyed mail guy brought them in, going, “Is there a Rachel Shapiro here? Does a Rachel Shapiro work here? I never heard of a Rachel Shapiro. Anyone?”
Rachel Shapiro had a rudely wide forehead, eyes that were miles away from each other, and bangs that didn’t help. She was overqualified for the job, with two degrees in computer science. Cornell. That’s what her resume said. And I was the one showing her the ropes. We got new ones, new coders I mean, every three months or so, and it would go like this. They’d come in and I’d show them the ropes, and after they left, no one would hear from them again.
But Rachel Shapiro was different. She didn’t need the experience. For years she’d done complex coding for big companies like Johnson & Johnson. She was the only female on the floor, the first girl we’d had since Stephanie Peters, and she knew more about code than any of us. Even so, she never got bossy, never showed off on purpose, and this was of course more embarrassing for all of us.
It got me thinking, I’d like to know her better, like, what else was she hiding?
Benny was doing his best to look around the room, going, “Rachel Shapiro? Hello? Anyone? Rachel Shapiro?”
“Rachel Shapiro,” I said. “She’s right here.”
We were building a website that sold baby onesies. We’d been looking at a screen for hours, trying to untangle a mess of buggy code that was causing all sorts of display problems. That was all fine by me because I got to sit next to Rachel Shapiro and look at her through the reflection of the monitor. While she tapped away at her keyboard, I nodded a lot, just fantasizing about taking her in different positions, knocking the mystery right out of her.
The first bouquet was roses, a dozen red ones, like right out of a movie. She plucked the card from its little plastic fork.
“Who’s it from?” I said. All the guys on the floor were looking. Joey Mercury, our boss, whistled.
“No one,” Rachel Shapiro said.
“No one?” I said. A rash sprouted under her shirt and moved up toward her neck.
“It’s anonymous,” she said.
She put the vase down by her feet and tucked the card into her bag and cleared her bangs from her forehead and got back to her keyboard. I thought I would like to send Rachel Shapiro some flowers. Or maybe I’d surprise another girl, an old fling like Amy Chang, just to make her go red like that.
Next day, Benny was back, this time with lilies. You could smell them before you saw them. “Rachel Shapiro,” he said. “More flowers for Rachel Shapiro.”
Rachel Shapiro and I were back at it with the onesies and she smelled good, like peppermint, like something recently cleaned. Same messed up code, endless, endless.
“Boy, oh boy,” Joey Mercury said.
“Who’s the lucky guy?” Todd Fields said. He started miming sex moves with his desk. Doggy style. Benny stood dumbly in the doorway holding the vase. Jamie Chagall said something really inappropriate.
I thought okay, that’s enough.
“It’s nobody,” Rachel Shapiro insisted. She swept her bangs away, revealing her pink forehead. My crotch tightened. I was already getting anxious about her leaving the job. I knew I would never see her again. I thought of the ways I could keep her there. Maybe I’d assign her a project that would take forever. Maybe I would hint at a bonus or a raise, though I had nothing to do with that kind of thing. Her desk was so clean that I saw suddenly that mine was a wreck: empty coffee cups, candy-wrappers, and also my own high school yearbook picture which the guys had tracked down and printed out and left there a while ago for me to find. Big glasses, braces, zits, all of it. I’d never tossed it. It was a reminder that I’d come far. I didn’t have any of that junk on my face now. My teeth were whiter.
After work we went to McShea’s like usual while Rachel Shapiro stayed late working on the onesies.
Joey Mercury finished his pint and belched. “My guess is she’s sending them to herself,” he said. “She’s too damn ugly.”
“That’s right,” I said. “That’s not a bad idea. You’re on to something,” I said. I finished my beer and ordered another one. I was ecstatic with possibility.
“You are definitely onto something,” Todd Fields said. “I wouldn’t touch her with a ten-foot-anything. She’s no Peters.”
“Exactly,” I said. “You’re definitely right about that.”
Stephanie Peters was a coder from a couple years back who all of us had gotten some time with. She came up occasionally when we felt like reminiscing about screwing her.
Though truth be told, I’d started to fantasize about more than just screwing Rachel Shapiro. I’d started to think about owning something together, a dog, or a TV. And I’d also started cleaning up my apartment, getting rid of stuff—stacks of DVDs, old kitchen appliances, a window fan that was covered in sticky dust—I’d leave my apartment just to walk back in, imagining Rachel Shapiro was with me, and I’d survey the living room, the kitchen, my bedroom, deciding what to throw away.
“I wouldn’t go near Shapiro,” I said. “Peters was one thing.”
“Peters was one thing,” Joey Mercury agreed.
The next day, a beautiful live orchid came through the door, Benny behind it, all of us just waiting to hear her name. Rachel Shapiro sat behind her computer and I sat behind mine, across the room, because according to Joey, the period of me showing her the ropes was now over. Benny didn’t call out her name, he just walked over to her and set the orchid down. It was waxy and springy and purple, kind of appealing, something I might have picked out myself.
“No idea who it’s coming from?” Benny said, grinning. “No idea at all? Could you sign for it?”
Rachel Shapiro kept typing like she hadn’t seen the orchid or Benny.
“Hello?” said Benny. “Anyone home?” He rapped on her desk, staring straight at his own nose.
“I don’t know,” she said. Her voice went up and down like she was going to start crying. She kept her eyes on her screen. I brought up whatever she was looking at on my own monitor. Baby clothes of many sizes and colors rolled by. It looked like she had fixed the bug. The images stacked beautifully now and something behind my chest tightened—a feeling of regret and desperation.
“I’m sorry,” said Benny. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I am always hurting girls’ feelings.” His eyebrows came together, which made him look insane. “Could you sign?” he said. She sighed and took the pen and moved it across Benny’s delivery slip.
“I’m sorry,” he said again and sulked out the door.
“You got an old boyfriend?” Joey Mercury said. “Maybe it’s your dad?”
“Maybe it’s your daddy?” Jamie Chagall said, and they all started howling.
“Hey,” I said, but I didn’t know what to say after that.
“Hey what?” Todd Fields said. They turned to face me. “Are you her daddy, Kurty?”
“No,” I said. “I’m no one’s daddy.”
They all got a kick out of this and said the word daddy a few more times. Joey Mercury got up and walked over to Rachel Shapiro’s desk. “All I’m saying,” he said, “is that this is all getting a little distracting. These flowers and everything.” He nudged the orchid with his shoe. “I’m just trying to work here.”
“I’m sorry,” said Rachel Shapiro. She got out of her chair and walked off toward the bathrooms. I considered following her to say don’t worry about them, but that would have been the end for me. The guys started cracking up. “You made her cry,” Todd said to Joey. “You made the girl cry two weeks in!”
Joey didn’t seem to care. He dragged the plant from under her desk and put it next to his computer where everyone could see it. “Out of sight, out of mind,” he said, but of course we were all watching Rachel Shapiro when she came back a few minutes later with a splotched face to find the orchid missing. “Oh,” she said. She looked around and I saw her catch sight of Joey’s desk. She sat down and wiped at her cheeks and dragged her sleeve under her nose.
“You coming, Daddy?” Todd asked me. He’d spent the most time with Stephanie Peters, even though he’d had a girlfriend. He had the looks of a boy who peaked in high school. His face was soft and pink, his hair beginning to thin. I was sure he was the one to go through the trouble of printing my yearbook photo, cutting it out, leaving it on my desk. In the photo I held a single polyester rose, which I was instructed to hand to the next person in line after me, and I remember that that person had been the football quarterback, a boy with a brick-shaped head.
“Work to finish,” I said. I knew that meant it was me they’d be talking about at the bar.
But it was also me who’d get to be alone with Rachel Shapiro.
“What work?” said Joey. He snapped his gaze between Rachel Shapiro and me.
“Work day’s over, Romeo,” he said. Then he brought the orchid to me. “Why don’t you just give it to her yourself,” he said. “I mean, if you don’t have too much work to finish.” He moved some gum around in his mouth. The orchid was pert and vibrant, more romantic than any of the others.
“All right,” I said. “That’s funny. That’s very funny, Joey.”
Rachel Shapiro blushed but her fingers kept going at the keyboard. That made me feel a certain way, that gave me a little boost. The guys were going, “Goodbye, Romeo,” “Have a nice night, lover-boy,” etcetera. That was all fine. Because who was winning? Me.
It was quiet in the little office, just the two of us. Through the windows I heard their engines start up. I thought about my apartment. I’d left my bedroom window open to let some air in, to freshen up the place, in case, and I’d gotten to work early to clear everything off my desk, hoping she’d say something about how nice and neat it was, but she hadn’t.
“Do you ever take a break?” I said. “Why don’t you call it a day?”
“I’m almost done with this,” said Rachel Shapiro.
“The onesies?” I said. I sat on the corner of her desk and then, feeling strange, stood back up and shoved my hands into my pockets.
“They’re onesies,” I said. “And as far as I’m concerned, you’re done. It looked nice. I saw.”
“Almost,” said Rachel Shapiro. “I just want to finish.”
“Give yourself a break,” I said. “They’re onesies.”
“I know that,” said Rachel Shapiro. “Stop saying onesies.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “About the guys. Guys will be guys.”
“I never understand what that means,” said Rachel Shapiro.
“Well,” I said. “It’s not often we get a girl in here.”
“I just mean they’re excited because they like you.”
“Oh,” she said.
“Why did you leave your job for this shit hole?” I said, waving my hand around the room.
“Harassment,” she said. She wiped her bangs out of her face and they fell right back. She looked up at me, waiting for my next question.
“Why don’t we go out for a beer?” I said. I had my hands wound up in my pockets. I’d gotten rid of a lamp in my living room. I’d put it out on the sidewalk and from my window watched a man and woman bend to inspect it and decide not to take it, which had made me angry at either the couple or the lamp, I wasn’t sure.
“I don’t really drink,” said Rachel Shapiro.
“My parents were alcoholics.”
“They’re dead from an accident.”
“A driving accident?” I said. “What kind of harassment?”
I thought of other kinds of accidents. I wanted to know but I knew I was pushing it. I wanted to protect Rachel Shapiro from harassment and also from death. I could be separate from all of that. I could be her mother and her father and her man.
“Let’s go out,” I said. “I’ll drive you back to the parking lot afterwards and you can get your car.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I should get home.”
“You have a dog?” I said.
“Something that needs to be fed?”
“Well, then,” I said, and I could tell she was holding back something, words or maybe a smile. She liked me. She shut her computer. I could see our house and maybe a few babies relaxing in those bright onesies. They would grow up and do the things right that we’d done wrong. That was sentimental thinking, I knew. I didn’t even know what we’d done wrong yet. I handed her the orchid. “I picked it out special,” I said. The rash crawled up to her neck. I felt my own face get hot.
“Stop,” she said. “I’m embarrassed.”
But she was laughing! We took the grimy elevator out to the parking lot. I’d never had a girlfriend. Unless you counted Stephanie Peters. On the weekend I had her to myself, I took her out to Rehoboth, to the boardwalk. We licked ice cream and went to Funland where the lights from the rides made the sky turn orange. She liked that. She was good at skee-ball. Over and over she got the ball into the middle hole and that made me feel like I was the only one she wanted. We fucked in the air-conditioned motel room, victoriously, like teenagers. The sheets were starchy and sandy and her body was covered with little moles. Back at work, I would get hard thinking about them, and no one else knew about them, and I felt like a king.
But it turned out everyone was doing it with her, everyone knew about the moles, everyone was keeping their secret until we went out and got too messed up one night to hold it in. She’d asked everyone for a recommendation when she left.
“Comes right on time,” Jamie Chagall had said. We were at McShea’s. “I could definitely say that about her.”
And now Rachel Shapiro was carrying the orchid across the lot, to her car, and I was behind her, and as we got closer I saw that in the backseat of the car were the roses, the lilies, collapsing with sunstroke. It seemed so wrong, waiting for something alive to just die. She opened the door and put the orchid down next to the others. A wave of rot—like garbage and bad breath and soap—escaped from the car. I had to breathe through my mouth. I felt dizzy. “You didn’t want to bring them inside your house?” I said.
“I don’t know who sent them,” she said. “I told you.”
“Oh, come on,” I said. “No idea? You sure? Just think.”
“I don’t know why no one believes me,” she said. She shut the door but the smell hung between us. I felt it would never leave my clothes. It occurred to me that it could have been one of the guys all along. It could have been Joey or Jamie or Teddy sending them. It could have been me. I felt her looking at me. I set my gaze past the big grey and beige office buildings. The sunlight made the sky look dusty. I was sweating through my shirt. We crossed the lot to my car and the doors unlocked. We got in. I didn’t know where I’d take her. The guys were probably two beers in. I could have taken her out somewhere public, but I wanted her all to myself. I wanted her to see the inside of my clean apartment and believe that somewhere, maybe a long time ago, I was a nice guy.
“Where to?” I said, starting the engine, then buckling my seatbelt, then reaching a hand to her knee.
Eve Gleichman is a graduate of Brooklyn College’s fiction MFA program. Her fiction has also appeared in The Kenyon Review.
Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.