by Conor Kelley
"Bears" previously appeared in Tenth Muse
As Kurt Vonnegut wrote: All this happened, more or less.
This story is for Susanne and Bo.
“Did y’all need anything?” Kim asked in her Southern drawl as she poked her big fat head into our office.
The three of us looked up at her from our rolling chairs clustered in the center of the office. I tried to give her my most genuine smile. Kim, the office secretary, was a round pink woman. I’d describe her as hefty. She had glasses, a couple chins and wore lots of scarves and shawls. She looked like an antique Midwestern Mrs. Potato Head.
“No, no, we’re just fine,” Bo said. “Thank you.”
“Well awlright. Now, Jackie’s gone today, so y’all just let me know if you need anything. Okay?”
“Sounds good!” I said, too enthusiastically. Kim shot me a sharp look, then softened it quickly enough that I wasn’t sure if I saw it at all.
“Oh, bless your hearts,” she said, with something like a smile and walked out.
“Buh-bye,” Susanne said after her.
The three of us looked at each other. Susanne quickly put a finger to her lips. She pointed at me and pointed to the open door. Then she pointed two fingers at her eyes and pointed those two fingers toward the hallway. I nodded and crept to the doorway. After taking a deep breath, I poked my head out and looked up and down the hall.
“Clear. God, she’s so creepy,” I said to them as I sat down again in my chair.
“I wonder how much of that she heard,” Bo said.
“You know, that ‘bless your hearts’ thing….” Susanne said.
“Her and Jackie are like a two-headed monster….”
“…that ‘bless your hearts’ thing is, like, the Southern way of saying ‘fuck you.’”
“Really?!” Bo and I asked.
“Remember that party we had to celebrate her 20 years with the company?” Bo said. “I almost felt bad for her, 20 years and no promotion. Every couple years, watching a new idiot like Jackie become her new boss. I almost felt bad for her, I almost did!”
“Yeah,” I said loudly, getting excited now. “She startled me coming around a corner last week, and I almost shit my pants!”
Susanne and Bo stopped talking. Susanne shook her head. Bo chuckled.
“Okay, so what were you guys gonna tell me?” I asked.
“Let’s start here, Casey—how much do you know about this situation?” Bo asked.
I waved my hands in front of my face and made a motorboating sound. “Zero things. I’m a blank slate.”
“And that’s how we like you,” Bo said with a laugh.
“’Kay, so you know how Jackie’s gone today? It’s because her husband,” Susanne said as she looked around and leaned forward, “her husband died.”
“No,” I said quietly.
“Oh yes,” Bo said.
“He was found dead this morning,” Susanne whispered.
I was silent for a few seconds. They studied my expression.
“Ohhhh yes,” Bo said.
“So,” Susanne started, “I’m not sure how much you know about Jackie…how much do you know about Jackie? Right, blank slate. Okay, so Jackie and her husband have been separated for a while. They just started the divorce process. Now, you know how crazy Jackie is around the office.”
Jackie, our boss in the editorial division of that textbook company, was an honest-to-God sociopath. She was threatened by everybody in the office so she took credit for other people’s work and turned people against each other. She used to bring baked goods in for everybody but kept them in her office so she could corner one of us in a weakened state of hunger. What exactly would have happened in there is a mystery, but nobody ever got desperate enough to go for a snack.
Jackie dressed her three kids up in costumes a month before and after Halloween. We pitied her kids. They were mostly silent and looked at their shoes a lot. Her oldest, Damien, looked just like her husband. We all felt bad for Damien. He was a sweet kid, too.
“So, apparently Jackie hasn’t been letting her husband see the kids since he moved out. I feel so bad for those kids. Especially the one that looks like him. God, the one that looks like him!”
Susanne tipped her coffee cup all the way back, then took it away from her lips and shook it.
“Wanna go down to the café?” she asked me. “I’ll buy you a coffee.”
As we walked down the stairs to the café, I couldn’t speak.
The previous week, Jackie had gone on a low-cut shirt craze. Now, Jackie was an attractive woman. She was tall with long legs, blondish/brownish hair—dirty blonde, if people say that. But you know the saying among guys: “You don’t put your dick in crazy.” I’m sure there’s a saying like that among women.
Anyways, so one day she dressed like she was giving a seminar on the distracting power of boobs. She was just bending over for everything, trying to catch somebody looking—really inappropriate stuff. So, on a little whiteboard in our office we wrote “BEARS.” Bears was our code word for boobs, because you can’t write BOOBS on a whiteboard in your office and because direct eye contact with either boobs or bears is dangerous.
That afternoon, we were all working, heads down, door open, when a voice behind me asked me about the whiteboard.
“Well, bears….” I said as I swiveled in my chair and found myself staring directly into Jackie’s cleavage. I couldn’t have been six inches away.
Somebody in the office took a quick breath. It wasn’t me. I was too scared to breathe.
“Bears?” Jackie asked me with a cruel smile.
“Yeah,” I said to Jackie’s shoes as I felt my face got hot. “Bears. Are. Aggressive? And…rrr…ruthless animals who…ah…quickly…move in for the kill, which is…something. We. Strive to be? But with spelling mistakes.”
I looked up at Jackie’s face. She seemed pleased.
“Is that so?” she asked.
“It’s like a motivational thing,” I said as casually as I could.
“Interesting,” she said, turned, and walked out.
Bo put his head in his hands.
“She’s got the fucking place bugged,” Susanne whispered.
Now, I don’t know what you call that. Not sexual harassment, but something.
But this was more serious than anything else she had done. This was murder. It usually doesn’t get more serious than murder.
“Remember our code word BEARS?” Susanne asked as we reached the café counter. To the barista: “Two coffees, medium, black, room for creamer.”
“Yeah, actually, I was just thinking about that.”
“You were just thinking about boobs, huh?”
“I was thinking about the whole situation, not just boobs, thank you very much.”
“Okay, so remember how well you executed that secret BEARS mission?
“I mean, I was thinking about boobs a little bit.”
“Focus, Casey. Okay, this situation needs, like, three times the effort you showed with the BEARS mission. Four times more. Because there’s more…thank you, no, no, keep the change, thanks…because there’s more to this situation.”
We took our conversation to the creamer station, and as I poured hazelnut creamer in my coffee, I asked, “How much more?”
“We’re talkin’ motives here.”
I looked around. “You mean, beyond custody?”
“Those supervisor evaluation forms we trashed her on? Her bosses set up a meeting with her about them. Looks like she’s gonna get canned. But if she’s bereaved….”
We were almost to the top of the stairs by now.
“None of this gets talked about in the office, though. Too much risk. Especially with Kim lurking around. Kim’s just as dangerous as Jackie. Plus she’s been here for about a century. She knows all the secrets around here.”
“Yeah, what’s her deal today?” I asked.
“Um, she’s the devil, Casey. Try to keep up.”
We all got an email later that day saying Jackie would be gone the rest of the week. We looked at each other wide-eyed, then put away our work and began a discussion of grunge music that took us right up to closing time. At one point, Susanne said her soulmate was Eddie Vedder, so we talked about that for a while. We discussed whether Kurt Cobain killed himself or if he was murdered. It was established that there was something awful about Nirvana shirts being sold at Target.
The next day, we took a two-hour lunch, walked down to a little sub sandwich shop downtown, and discussed all the possible outcomes. The most obvious one was Jackie would be convicted, sent away, and her children would be put up for adoption. We agreed that would be in everybody’s best interest. We talked about plea-bargains, witnesses, and all sorts of things we had seen cops discuss on TV shows.
The three of us finished our food pretty quickly. Afterwards, as we sat there with balled-up napkins and wax paper in front of us, Bo slurped the ice at the bottom of his Styrofoam cup and solemnly said:
“What if she gets away with it.”
Susanne and I looked at each other, then back at Bo.
“Bo, come on,” I said. “She’ll get caught. She’s got all the motive in the world, and she’s a nut. The cops will see all that.”
“That’s not enough, though. What if she planned it out right, didn’t leave a shred of evidence. I bet she had Kim help her, like some twisted little assistant, like her fat little Igor. Think about how crazy Jackie is already. Now picture that same psychopath with the added confidence of GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER.”
He said it with a little smirk on his face. It was all a little unbelievable for us to take too seriously. Still, though, my sandwich wasn’t settling well.
When we arrived back at the office, the lights were a little dimmed. It was quieter, like some people went home early. The reception desk was empty. Kim’s voice was coming from somewhere, though.
Giving Susanne and Bo the five-finger stop sign, I followed the voice. It was coming from Jackie’s office.
“Yes, of course I’ll tell ‘em, honey,” she said. “An ex…ten…ded… leave of aaaab…sence. Okay, got it. Uh huh…uh huh?…well, he sounds like a fine lawyer…of course, of course…God bless your little heart. Bye now.”
As I heard the phone cradled, I crept a little closer and peered around the corner. Cardboard boxes were lined up just outside the office. I bent down to take a better look. Poking out of one of the boxes were sheets of paper and the nameplate from the office door:
MANAGER OF PROOFREADING DIVISION
I looked up and craned my head to read the frame on the opened door. The piece of paper, in neat handwriting, read:
INTERIM MANAGER OF PROOFREADING DIVISION
And there in the office was Kim, reclined in Jackie’s chair with her feet crossed on the desk, holding a folded newspaper open to the crossword puzzle, tapping a pencil to one of her chins. She looked like she had moved in.
The next week, a professionally printed plaque replaced that paper. So, a couple weeks later, I hugged Susanne and Bo, and they wished me good luck at my next job and told me to stay in touch and that they meant it.
On my way out, I stopped by Kim’s office to say goodbye. Kim had baked chocolate-chip cookies for my last day and made me take one as I left.
“Oh, I insist,” she said.
But as I walked out the door, I dropped the cookie in the garbage.
I hoped wherever I ended up, there wouldn’t be more bears.
Conor Kelley writes from Seattle, Washington. His work has appeared in literary magazines and newspapers across the United States and Ireland, most recently Hippocampus Magazine, Word Riot, and Tenth Muse. His first book, a baseball instructional book titled The Catcher's Handbook, will be released by McFarland Books in 2014.
Back to Issue 18
Back to Issue 18