Just an Expression

The job posting on the Newark Advocate’s website read, “Do you have an expressive face?” Beneath that single question was an inky little drawing, like a grayscale watercolor, of a man’s face. The only other text on the ad was an address.

The face from the ad had a kind of careless artistry about it, like it hadn’t taken much time or effort, but still hinted at a real mastery of proportion. More importantly, it was my face. It wasn’t a detailed drawing, just a smudge of a thing. But the angle of the nose, the jawline, the receding hairline, even the stippled hint of a five o’clock shadow were all mine. I’d seen them all in the bathroom mirror moments before opening my laptop.

It had been more than five months since I could reasonably call myself employed, so I was ready for a sign of hope from the universe. Hell, I would have settled for something vague. The faint s-curve of a dollar sign burned onto my toast. A fortune cookie promise of wealth. This wasn’t vague at all. It was right there on my computer screen in black and white. My face was on a help wanted ad.

My hands started shaking before I had finished running the iron over my interview shirt. I hated interviews. I also hated walking into a job without knowing a thing about it, but getting evicted was still the greater evil.

I did my best to think of witty small talk on my drive to the office park. I thought we could have a laugh at how much I looked like the little drawing.

“Looks like I’m you’re man,” I’d say.

“Ha, what a fun coincidence,” my soon-to-be boss would reply just before offering me a sizable signing bonus. Sure.

I found the address and parked. The office looked just like every other office in the complex, a brick façade with mirrored windows that showed nothing of the interior of the buildings. The door swung open just as I was getting out of my car. A young man with tidy blond hair and a charcoal gray suit stomped down the front steps scowling and muttering to himself.

He saw me heading toward the door and shook his head.

“I wouldn’t bother,” he said. He threw his arms up in exasperation and continued walking.

I decided to ignore him. After all, it wasn’t his picture in the ad and he didn’t seem like someone I would want to hire anyway.

The door to the office read, “Miriam Wilcox: Animation and Design Consultant.” I took a moment to smooth my hair and straighten my tie in the mirrored glass of the door. Realizing that someone could be standing just inside the door watching me preen, I swallowed and went in. The door opened on a small lobby. Everything looked crisp and bright. There was a reception window like in a dentist’s office, though unoccupied, and half a dozen white leather chairs were arranged along two of the walls. To the left as I entered was a bright yellow accent wall covered in framed company logos. The word “clients” was painted in an impressive script in the center of the cluster of frames. I recognized a number of animation studios including Disney and Pixar, plus some software and videogame developers among numerous names and logos that weren’t familiar.

“Hello out there,” said a woman’s voice from somewhere deeper in the office. “Here for the job?” There was a singsong quality to her voice, like someone overacting a fairy godmother role in a play.

“Uh, yes ma’am,” I said.

“Good. Good. Come on back then. The door to the right of the window.”

“Sounds good,” I said and cringed at the awkwardness of the reply. “Be right there.” Just stop talking, I thought and headed for the door to the back office.

The rest of the office looked much like the front, clean and bright with a sense of quality and professionalism. A short hall led me to an open studio space. It was a large room with more than a dozen easels setup here and there. There were several tables full of expensive looking cameras and computer equipment and in the center of the room was a large black chair a bit like an overstuffed barber’s chair.

Miriam Wilcox was standing near the empty chair beaming at me. She was a short woman in a nearly floor-length white lab coat. Somehow, she made the outfit look both formal and fashionable. She had red hair and emerald green eyes. The intensity of both the colors made me think of hair dye and contacts. Those colors couldn’t have come from nature. I couldn’t guess at her age. She didn’t seem young, but I couldn’t pinpoint any signs of aging either.

“And there you are,” she said, doubling down on her singsong cheer.

I returned her smile and thought of the banter I had planned.

“Yeah, I thought I looked just like the picture in the ad, huh?”

“Of course you do,” she said. “I’m a professional.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of that, so I just nodded and kept smiling.

“Now then,” she continued, “if you’ll extend me a little trust, I suggest we put off the formalities of your employment and dive into the work at hand. Now that word is out that I’m back from my sabbatical, the orders are pouring in and one of my more insistent client’s needs something today.”

I nodded.

“As usual, it’s a subtle job. The client needs a precise mix of two specific emotions and he simply won’t move forward on the project without my help. Prudent man.” Miriam smiled and actually winked at me.

I nodded again and smiled. So much smiling.

“Shall we begin?” she asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

Miriam clapped her hands together and continued to beam at me.

“Good man. I’ve been thinking on this one and I believe you’ll need to go to the west storage room and get into file 212.”

She gestured to a door on the western wall.

“Off you go,” she said and winked again.

I wasn’t sure what was going on exactly, but it sure seemed like I had gotten a job. I made a beeline for the west storage room and file 212. Miriam patted me on the back as I walked past.

The storage room was even bigger than Miriam’s studio, though it was absolutely stuffed full of filing cabinets, card catalogs, dressers, wardrobes, chests, plastic storage bins, and other strangely shaped furniture covered over with plastic tarps or heavy burlap. There also seemed to be numerous doors opening off of the storage room.

Thankfully, the first line of files just inside the door started at 200. They were standard two drawer stacked filing cabinets like you’d find in any office. The drawer marked “File 212” wasn’t more than ten feet away from the entrance.

I was already pulling on the handle before I realized that I had no clue what it was I was supposed to be retrieving. The drawer glided open and didn’t contain anything, but it also wasn’t empty. Where the bottom of the drawer should have been was just an open space and a narrow set of polished black stairs leading down into darkness. My stomach turned and a sudden feeling of vertigo made me sway on my feet.

I had opened the top drawer. I reached under the drawer and felt the metal beneath. It was solid. I stuck my arm into the drawer up to my shoulder and felt the stairs. They were also solid. The knot that suddenly appeared in my stomach also seemed pretty solid.

I stood there for a moment looking from the impossible filing cabinet back to the door to the studio and back again. I could just leave. I could go ask for some clarification. The whole thing felt ridiculous. Sure, I needed a job, but was this a job?

The reasonable thing to do would have been to go demand some explanation. It would have been reasonable, but it just didn’t feel right. Did the guy who stormed out of the office as I arrived ask for clarification before he was told to show himself out? I thought of the logos in the lobby. Companies that created fantasy. Whimsy. Maybe this was some elaborate test to see if I had the right sense of adventure, the right spirit of discovery.

“Well,” I said to the staircase in the drawer, “she did say to ‘get into’ the file.”

I pulled the drawer out as far as it would go and hiked up a leg to step inside. I had to sit on the top steps and scoot down until I was past the frame of the filing cabinet, then I found I could actually stand up straight on the staircase. I’m not usually claustrophobic, but having to sidestep down that stairway with my arms pinned to my ribs by the narrow corridor walls made me think of being buried alive.

I kept moving downward and I managed not to panic, at least not until I heard the door slide closed and the little rectangle of light that had been my main source of strength and comfort went dark. Then I panicked. I screamed just to scream at first. I was sure something was rushing up from the bottom of the staircase to grab me. I was equally sure something was rushing down from the darkness above to grab me. I screamed and screamed and nothing happened.

Eventually I started screaming words. I yelled for help. I called Miriam by name. Nothing. Not a sound.

My heart was beating in my ears and I was beginning to sweat. Standing still started to weigh on me, so I began moving down the stairs again. I don’t know how many stairs I had descended before I fell. Enough that I had become comfortable with the regular rhythm of the staircase I guess, so that when the stairs ended and the shaft became a smooth slide I was taken completely by surprise.

I tried to press against the walls to slow my slide as I fell, but the walls were too smooth and in the cramped space I had no leverage to push. I wanted to scream and laugh at the same time. The situation was terrifying, but it was also ridiculous. I was falling to an unknown fate deep within the bowls of a filing cabinet.

I passed through the ceiling of Miriam’s studio and fell directly into the padded black chair with a thud. I flinched and squirmed at the sudden brightness and change of scenery. Miriam was a red and white blur, circling me and taking photographs.

“Fear and incredulity,” she said in a whisper of her usual melodic voice. “A tricky mix. Subtle. Bravo. Bravo.”

I rubbed my eyes and sat in the chair panting. I searched for a word to scream or a laugh to laugh, but nothing came I was so torn between… well… fear and incredulity I guess. So, I just sat and tried to take deep breaths and slow my heart rate.

Miriam set her camera on a table and took up a brush and a vial of something dark and began slashing at a canvas faster than seemed possible. A moment later, she was finished and there I was again in black and white. This time my face was a strange mix of something like terror and mania, but with the hint of a crooked smile just beneath the surface.

“It’s… beautiful,” I said after a moment.

Miriam looked from the canvas to me and smiled. It struck me as the first sincere smile I had seen on her face.

“This is usually when people quit. Do you quit… I’m sorry I didn’t catch your name.”

“Richard,” I said, “and no, I don’t quit.”

Miriam’s smile brightened.

“But, I think you are going to pay me very well and I’ll have health insurance and dental and some vacation days and… and a retirement plan.”

Miriam nodded.

“And sometimes clients are searching for emotions much nicer to experience than fear and incredulity,” she said. Her singsong voice had grown in intensity to a level that seemed hardly human.

“Well, that sounds okay too,” I said and then I got to my feet and shook hands with my new boss.

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