Albert Schnayman was feeling under the weather. It was Monday, and this was typically his under-the-weather day. The sidewalks beneath his office building burgeoned with slushed greying city-snow as he walked along 57th Street. The umbrella he held habitually too far above his head (the better, so he thought, to protect his woollen trilby from the elements) was spattered with rain. Schnayman always held his umbrella in his right hand; in his left was a half-full briefcase made of faux leather.
Schnayman had once read that the French tried to ‘seize the moon by the teeth’ when they attempted the impossible. This idiom he had never forgotten, unlike the convoluted verbal protuberances his mother and aunts had used around him as a boy. As he carefully took the three tall steps to the revolving doors he mused on the idiocy of idioms, though only for a moment.
At the fifth floor he stepped out of the elevator to the chirruping of fax machines and printers, and the smell of over-brewed caffeine, but as he reached his desk he felt the attendant settling of his neurons. Small, grey-walled with a lopsided pinboard, his workspace (Alcocell had recently vetoed the word ‘cubicle’) was empty but for a computer the colour of curdled milk and a plastic tray filled with invoices that were days—or weeks—old.
Several hours were spent cataloguing individuals—most of whom were unlikely ever to encounter Schnayman or, if they did, to recognise him—before his neurons lifted their metaphorical heads from the screen. The third white tile from the front wall of the office, perched as it was just outside of its frame so that Schnayman could see into the ceiling cavity when the sun hit it at 11.15 a.m., was leaking.
He stood and turned his saturnine face upwards toward the tile. It was not that something was leaking through the tile; the white synthetic corner of this weird quadrant was itself leaking, disintegrating and dropping like a viscous fluid onto Albert Schnayman’s keyboard. In a final, paste-like splatter the corner of the tile hit the desk in front of him, and small globules of the stuff sprung onto his arm, sticking to the fine downy hair and making Schnayman feel slightly nauseated.
For the remainder of the day, he worked at an empty desk. The speckles on his arm, in spite of the lowest common denominator bathroom soap, could not be erased. It was Monday, and Schnayman felt under the weather.
* * *
Drifting snow filling the gutters and disguising the danger of dormant ice had little impact on Schnayman’s Tuesday morning. Subdued by the single note sonata of the coffee machine and its counterpoint, the printer, he reached his desk early, sat down to a clean keyboard and waited for the tubes in his old monitor to warm up.
He tilted his head back to examine the misplaced tile and heard a shuff-thump from behind. Swivelling around, he realised that he had dislodged a narrow wedge of snow from his trilby onto the floor. He removed and examined the powder-covered hat as though it were some foreign body. Why, thought Schnayman, didn’t I take this off at the door and hang it on the coat stand? More to the point, Albert, he thought, where is your umbrella?
He mentally reversed his routine and moved toward the coatstand to hang his hat over his navy blue jacket. Returning to his desk, his mind spun with figures, disembodied names and anonymous spreadsheets.
Soon Schnayman’s head began to thump, drawing his gaze away from the monitor and in the direction of the small corner which passed for a kitchen. He could smell the coffee dripping into the pot, taste the tupperwared lunch he had stored at the back of the refrigerator.
He turned back to the monitor.
Morton Prince, Millerstown, WA.
Jon McGregor, Palo Alto, CA.
Robert Holtet, Warrensburg, MO.
Eventually, like an expanding bubble of sensation, the vessels beneath his eyes seemed to pop. Not without some ill-movement, noticed though not commented on by colleagues in neighbouring workspaces, Schnayman stepped away from his desk and stumbled to the bathroom.
He looked in the mirror. Above his right eye there was a noticeable bump, a protrusion as foreign to him as his beloved trilby had seemed that morning. There was no doubt that the pulsation was nestled there, and though Tuesdays were his good-frame-of-mind day, he was having difficulty living up to the schedule.
He rolled up his shirt sleeves to his elbow and cupped his hands beneath the faucet. Schnayman doubted the efficacy of this method of washing his face, but he had seen it countless times on television and felt that there must in fiction be at least a grain of truth.
After tossing the water onto his face and subduing at least some of the pounding in his skull, he found himself staring at his right arm. In three spots, in a row so perfect that coincidence seemed to be mocking him, were dirty white pustules. Hairs protruded from one of them, hairs unlike his own and yet attached, burrowed into his skin as though they had always been there.
Schnayman dry-retched, then— having gathered his frayed neurons up from the bathroom floor—pulled his shirt sleeves back down and exited. For the rest of the day he tried to maintain as good frame of mind as possible.
* * *
Like many American workers of a specific oeuvre, Albert Schnayman suffered from what some liked to call the ‘midweek blues’. Wednesday was Schnayman’s day for the blues. Beneath the arid winter sky he made his way down 57th Street watching on the periphery of his vision the shapes shovelling snow from the sidewalks. As they scraped and shunted, so too did he.
Unencumbered by an umbrella or briefcase, he was making good time. But the welt above his eye had grown overnight. A protuberance of similar proportion adorned his left brow and reached far enough across to kiss its mate on the right.
Schnayman crashed through the revolving door indecorously and made it to the elevator. A colleague greeted him, Schnayman growled indistinctly in return. It was Wednesday, he told himself, he could be cantankerous.
In the glass front of the elevator he caught the hint of a reflection and looked down as though for the first time at his own person. His appearance, usually so particular, was dishevelled and disturbed, foreign much like the welts and woollen trilby. He wore the same shirt as yesterday, his tie loosened and twisted into an unseemly knot. His unbuttoned sleeve cuffs were dressed at the edges with a coarse white hair.
Albert. His colleague was looking at him. Albert didn’t seem well, and should he be at work? he was asking. Beneath his swollen brows Schnayman could see, intermixed with concern, a hint of fear. He pushed past and headed for his desk. Under the mottled white tile, its crumbled corner still missing , Schnayman’s cubicle was waiting for him.
Whatever had happened on Monday, it had started with this unremarkable square of plastic and plaster holding the dust, cobwebs and splinters in the ceiling. Schnayman pulled out his chair, climbed on it and pushed the tile inwards until it clattered against the air conditioning vent.
Kicking off his shoes he pulled himself up using the ventilation shaft until he was three quarters into the cavity. The shoes thumped against the desk in time with his brows and he heard the dull distant roll of voices like thunder below him:
Albert—Al —what the—Alb—Schnayman—Jeez—Mr Schn—c’mon Albert— In all its permutations, his name was unfamiliar.
Like a flashlight a yellow beam had pierced the cracks in the slatted wood above him and illuminated the dusty inside of the ceiling, the splinters and the dead bugs, the mirror image of the office below. It was, Schnayman thought, 11.15 a.m.
Stretching and bursting a shirt seam, he jumped two feet from the desk chair to the ground, breaking his fall with his hands, and stared so intensely at most of his colleagues that they moved away muttering soliloquies to invisible audiences.
Shoeless, torn-shirted, Schnayman made his way to the bathroom next to the elevator. Rolling up his sleeves he brushed dirty fingers against white hairs. Bristling now not only from the pustules all over his right arm but also from his left wrist up to his chest, Schnayman was swathed in fur, a pelt that seemed—as far as he could tell—to cover all of his upper body. From the tears around the side of his shirt the same white patches, matted in places but clearly trying to burst through the rips in others, had sprung up from his skin.
Schnayman reached once more for the faucet. In the mirror above the sink the reflection of a face loomed. Not his own, thought Schnayman, tilting his head to the left and then to the right as though he believed that it was an optical illusion, a trick of the mind.
Running fingers across his scalp he drew away his dark hair with blackened nails. His hair was thinning, greying like the wintry skies, and his five o’ clock shadow was more like a five a.m. shadow grown from talcum-white whiskers. The welts above his eyes had drawn closer, grown—if anything—larger and gristlier than ever.
In his sunken eyes, he felt lost. He careened out of the bathroom and arced like an animal ballerina through the west stair case door. Grasping the railings he took three, five, more steps in one measure, past a petrified colleague climbing to the fifth floor and pushed through the exit door into a flurry of newly-falling snow.
On 57th Street, against the concrete and snow, the slushed city sidewalks and greyscale flakes on the ground, Albert Schnayman—for it was he—left in his wake an outline, a footprint and little else. [ends]