I don’t think it started small. That’s not how I remember it. I looked out the window, that morning in June, as I always did. I looked at the skyscrapers of a downtown that might as well have been the Eiffel Tower on a postcard so far removed did it all seem from my cubicle. II looked up from my computer screen and there they were. Not just one or two of them, not a colonizing family, oh pioneers.
They arrived like a conquering civilization.
The biggest of the spiders were, I don’t know, like half the size of a fist. They were black; all of them were black without markings. It wasn’t just the size of them, the way they looked like raisins coming to life in a bowl of untended porridge. It wasn’t just the quantity of them, spiders in their hundreds. They’d set up webs across the windows, across all the cubicles but I never heard anyone else say a word about them. Hundreds of them, but no one saw or if they did no one cared. It was like they knew about us before we knew about them, and that their webs were meant for us, but only as a last resource, in case the webs we’d built ourselves into failed to contain us.
It was the motion of them that unnerved me.
The undulations of the web, caused by the second-storey prairie wind outside, became hypnotic, a nightmare lullaby. Their movement immobilized me. I felt as though I had been commanded to observe the peril of the trapeze walker become assassin. For the first three weeks of June, I watched a band of blackened mimes traverse the sky, to confirm my death foretold already in the fascination of the prey for his predator. My god, they were plump. Yet so fast! And the glass so clear, I could see their eyes and I came to recognize ten or twelve of them, to know their distinguishing features and to know that they saw me. I hated them, but I hated my work more and so I stared at them until they became indiscernible from the black letters on my screen. The scurrying cursor jolted me as much as the spiders did, each running tricky missions without purpose – one fulfilling tedium, one offering the illusion of escape from it.
The Axeman offered to me a similar illusion.
His name was Chad Hammond, and in the two years I’d been working in that building he’d been the Director of Human Resources. I’d been hired the summer before, as a temp. I was one of twenty temps hired to do the backed-up paperwork left behind by the last round of layoffs over which Chad Hammond had presided. Everyone else left, went back to school, but I clung to my position, like those spiders in the wind, out of instinct more than tenacity. I wasn’t afraid of the fall, but outside of the machinations of the ho-hum, what did I have?
Chad Hammond didn’t earn his nickname exclusively because of the layoffs. Chad Hammond was a player, a real ladies’ man, said to have laid and then laid off a series of single, young clerks, and also a married middle manager. It was never good to be noticed by Chad Hammond. When you got summoned to Chad Hammond’s fourth floor office, you erased your history, powered down, and took with you on your final ascent everything you could not leave behind.
It was the second week of June when Rosa Kwon told me to report to Mr. Hammond’s office. Rosa Kwon was my immediate supervisor. That February she had made the four of us under her command sign a birthday card for Chad Hammond. None of us, except Rosa, had ever met Chad Hammond. Yet we signed, “Happy Birthday, Mr. Hammond! Hope you have an awesome day!” That was the kind of power Chad Hammond had. Feared more than a fatal flu by four hundred people, Chad never saw anything but radiant smiles anywhere in the office he chose to saunter.
The prospect of termination wasn’t that big of a deal. I was twenty, it was June. The carnival was three weeks away and if Chad Hammond axed me it’d be with pay and it’d be freedom from the spiders, the spiders who knew me, the spiders who watched me and waited.
I was on the third floor, only one down from the executive floor where The Axeman worked, and where my ambitions propelled me. Whichever architects had designed the building had managed to build futility into every possible pace to ever be taken in the building, their legacy a cackle against endeavour. Office buildings across these prairies preserve a temporally bound yet cosmic despair, where the sky above and the desecrated earth from which they sprout seem confused more than perturbed by the excrescence that sprout separation. What sort of creature takes pride in novel forms of wilful deformity? I was never sure if I had a rear window or a front window or what because I could never figure out even the basic shape or intended shape of the building. There was a parkade, on the second floor and a lot of people came in that way, but the main entrance was on the other side, a floor lower. Except no one could ever find the main entrance on account of it faced an empty field. None of this mattered. The building was built away from the city, like it hated the city and was pegged and clenched against encroachment that never came. Dirt lots to the other two sides, a highway to the south. Tromp le oiel, the corridor where I worked, like a line that stretched so long you’d circumnavigate the earth without a dip or a swirl. Like walking against a moving sidewalk in a funhouse on a ship headed towards a storm that never arrives.
My least favourite Midway ride was always The Octopus. It turned my stomach. The design of the building made me just as queasy. After several wrong turns, I found Chad Hammond’s office. The door was open, and before I could knock, or say a word, he beckoned me to an empty chair. He didn’t ask me anything, even my name. He just started talking.
Chad Hammond had heard from Rosa that I spent too much time listening to my iPod at loud volumes, and not enough time working. Apparently – and I got this directly from Chad – there were concerns over my ability to focus. That was all true. But it wasn’t because of my iPod, which I hadn’t taken the time to update in several months, and which, in any case, reflected much more the musical tastes of one of the previous temps who had bequeathed it to me upon her return to school. It was on account of the spiders I had lost my concentration, but I didn’t say that.
Chad Hammond asked me to produce my iPod.
I had no reason not to, so I did.
While Chad sized me up through musical taste, I evaluated him through more conventional means.
Chad was fifteen years my senior, maybe twenty. He was handsome in a way I recognized, but in a way I hoped would never happen to me. He wore no jacket and his shirt, worn without care, was rolled just below the elbows. It had once been a white shirt, in an indifferent and fine check, but puddled now like a shadow of a never great sartorial age. The stubble on his face seemed related to an epic misadventure from the night before. So too did his belly, which even when it was hidden behind his desk, dominated his physique. It was quite a gut. It seemed to reach up past his spinal cord to drag down his jowls, his neck, even the corners of his lips, the malignant life force of the pilsner-churned abyss. If he knew people were afraid of him he gave no sign of it. The grin on his face seemed to have no purpose that wasn’t genuine. There seemed no connection between the effortlessness of the swivel, the ease of the recline and his reputation as merciless hatchet for the bottomliners whom he served.
I didn’t know what it was, but it was clear as I watched Chad Hammond that his attitude towards me had changed. He looked up and made me meet his eyes.
“You know why they called themselves The Doobie Brothers, right?”
I actually didn’t. I didn’t spend a lot of time wondering where bands got their names. It seemed like the worst possible interview question a band could ever receive. I felt my face flush. This was Chad Hammond talking. I don’t remember what her name was, but the fondness of some random co-worker for The Doobie Brothers was my only asset, and I thanked her silently.
“You know, smoke a doob?”
Chad Hammond operated as though his position as Director of Human Resources was an abstract concept, one he found difficult to fix in his mind. I’d heard Chad Hammond had fired my predecessor over an absent stapler. I was unskilled in the art of office politics and a conversational naïf. The possibility that Chad Hammond’s purpose might be entrapment, nonetheless suggested itself to the novitiates running my mind, who relayed the order for the following rejoinder:
“Reefer Madness,” I said.
Laughter, his and mine, caromed off the walls of his office. It was a corner office, with an actual wooden desk, and my laugh was giddy with so much space to explore, it stretched its legs. As a Director he rated one plant and two framed pictures, supplied by Stationery. These were “Courage” and “Wisdom”. I don’t remember which, but one had a hangglider sailing off a cliff. The primary responsibility of all office workers, as with all prisoners everywhere, is to do time. Finding within routine, areas of elasticity is no parlour game; it is the whole game, and without this skill it’s either the street or it’s solitary. We laughed longer than we needed to, and long enough that I heard that our laughs were not the same, and although we both continued to laugh, our laughs were strangers to one another, like passengers crammed at the back of a city bus yelling into phones.
I laughed in nervous relief, and because even if you didn’t feel at all like laughing when Chad Hammond laughed, you did. You laughed louder, although not too much louder because that might mean getting canned. I thought Reefer Madness had been maybe a clever line, and I was entirely prepared to embark upon a career as office jester, any position available. But Chad Hammond never laughed at anyone else’s jokes because Chad Hammond never heard anyone else’s jokes. Chad Hammond never heard anyone else at all. He seemed to live inside memories of his former splendour, and it was in anticipation of the stories he could tell that he laughed then, as always.
From a desk drawer, Chad Hammond produced a glossy 8 x10 B&W shot and tossed it across the desk. It was a good toss, with English on it, as though Chad Hammond could curl or play Ultimate with the same sort of ease with which he could no doubt hit a backhand drop shot, or sink the centre at crocono. It was a publicity still. There were five boys, none of whom appeared to have quite summited puberty yet, but each of whom appeared to have pointed their nascent masculinity in the direction of Donnie Osmond’s shag, his unfathomable smile. They seemed to be a Country & Western band. One boy drew drumsticks from twin hip holsters. Three of them wore bandanas around their necks. Two wore cowboys boots. The picture was framed with a white border, maybe an inch thick. In the bottom portion of this was stamped the following: CHGY-TV “The Howdy Hello! Players” Weekdays, 7 a.m.
“That’s me,” Chad Hammond said. He leaned forward and tapped the photo with two fingers of his left hand. There was a ring on each, a simple wedding band on the third finger, a class ring with some sort of magenta stone on the index. The boy he tapped stood in the middle of the group, and had an acoustic guitar strapped around his neck. He wore an entire buckskin suit, fringe like cactus blocking out the extremities of his bandmates.
“You probably watched us when you were a kid,” he said. “Top rated morning show in the city, four years running.”
I told Chad Hammond that his band looked awesome – which it did – but that I had moved to the city only two years earlier, and in any case had not been allowed TV when I was child. I didn’t say that, judging by the bell bottoms of their pants, I would not have been born for several years yet.
“Yeah, we used to get recognized everywhere we went,” he said. “Variety show type deal, you know. House band. Wrote all our own songs. Played some covers. Monkees. Usual stuff.”
“That’s awesome,” I said.
“You in a band?”
I told Chad Hammond that I had never been in a band, but that I had always wanted to. This wasn’t entirely false. I had wanted to be in a band the same way I had wanted to walk on the moon, or cap the ass of wildcat fires in the Middle East, or hug the corner in Indianapolis. Perhaps less, because being in a band seemed to place undue emphasis on the ability to communicate in small groups with people of disparate provenance and discordant personalities. As with all work in contemporary society, the rewards seemed incommensurate with the toil.
“I wish,” I said.
“Country for a Day.”
The air in Chad Hammond’s corner office grew pregnant with expectation. For the first time in our short interview, Chad leaned forward, his hands supplicant towards me as though we had been partnered in charades and the clock was ticking down. It was the only time in my entire relationship with Chad Hammond that he needed anything from me.
“Country for a day,” I repeated. “Totally.”
Like the doors of an elevator closing, Chad Hammond’s blue-grey eyes, slid towards each other, and I knew I was looking at the face that had fired over 100 office workers in the past year alone. Chad Hammond glanced down towards my iPod without seeming to release me from his gaze. The face of a former child star contains lines of triumph and disappointment in patterns that seem to indict us all, cyphered crags of individual collectivity, as though he’d sacrificed himself for the good of a future world only he had visited. I felt guilt for the physical ravage evident on his face, as though the puffy cheeks, the splotch of red on his nose had been planted there by my own indifference. Chad Hammond, former child star, nurtured a resentment over his current oblivion, a pain so deep it seemed obvious nothing would ever muster an assuaging reach; he seemed well within his rights to fire us all. Even if it made neither he nor any of us happy, there was still justice in it.
A nonchalant spin sent the iPod skidding back across the desk. I could tell by the raised eyebrows that I was meant to listen. I put the buds in my ears and pressed play.
The screen told me it was “Listen to the Music” by The Doobie Brothers.
I was surprised to know it was on my IPod; I had no recollection of ever having heard the song before. The volume arrived pre-set, and so even though it was loud enough to prevent me from hearing my own voice, it was also loud enough that sound bled out into the office. Chad Hammond sang along on the chorus, “Oh-oh-oh! Listen to the music! Oh-oh-oh! Listen to the music.”
Even with the buds tight, I could hear Chad Hammond’s voice, and it was no different than the voice of the singer. Chad Hammond could sing.
I still didn’t know what any of this had to do with Country for a Day, but Chad’s eyes were wet with excitement when the song ended. “Named our band after a lyric in that song.”
I hadn’t heard the lyric. But I was happy that Chad Hammond was still in a band.
“You’re the singer?
“Singer AND guitarist,” he said. “Lead.”
“Axeman,” I said.
Chad Hammond didn’t seem to hear me. He was staring past me towards the open door, as though he was hoping passersby had heard him sing, were listening to him now. “Been playing guitar since I was five,” he said.
Chad Hammond talked to me – over me – for a long while. I nodded or proclaimed things awesome, but said little else. I knew that Chad Hammond had called for me in order to fire me, but I was no longer sure whether Chad Hammond remembered, or was willing to execute his decision. He told me that his band played weddings mostly. Weddings and Christmas parties. While he was talking about shows he had done, and a four-date tour the Howdy Hello! Band had done opening for an acoustic Burton Cummings, he seemed to be contemplating what to do with me.
“How’s morale on three?” he asked me. I think he mistook the silence that had followed the end of his spiced up biography, and which preceded the abrupt return to the mundane, as strategy. I hadn’t really been listening to Chad Hammond for the past several minutes, not because I wasn’t interested, but because the occasion was too great for me, and his references to the vanished rock heroes of an era I had not known too obscure for me to follow.
I caught the question, though: “Rosa Kwon,” I said, “is an inspiring leader.”
“Rosie? Yeah that Rose is a real firecracker,” he said. Silence welcomed my return. Chad Hammond continued: “We’ve got Rock ‘n’ Ribs coming up in three weeks,” he said.
I knew about this. Every year, on the Friday the Midway came into town to inaugurate the annual carnival, our company threw a party called “Rock ‘n’ Ribs.” The tradition went back to the 1970s when the city’s corporate culture encouraged its employees to stay happy, and also mildly drunk, most Thursdays and Fridays, from 2 p.m. on. We were one of the few companies of any significance to maintain the Rock ‘n’ Ribs carnival tradition, and to do so with free booze. As a temp the previous year, I hadn’t been invited to attend, and I was looking forward to my first.
“Ever seen a real rock ‘n’ roll band?” Chad Hammond asked me.
I said I had seen Depeche Mode once in a hockey arena.
“I said a real rock ‘n’ roll band.”
I said that I hadn’t.
“Country for a Day is a better band than Howdy Hello! ever was. Easy. No contest.”
When I returned to my office, I did so as the Chair of the Rock ‘n’ Ribs Party Planning Committee. I understood, although Chad Hammond had said nothing directly, that I was to use the majority of my $1,200 budget to hire Country for a Day. Chad Hammond had mentioned that the band’s per-gig fee was $1,000, and that they were the best party circuit band at twice that price. Rosa Kwon was waiting for me by my cubicle when I returned. I felt as though I understood then, for a moment, Chad Hammond’s power, and I felt the urgency of authority, the intoxicating effect of wielding fear as a weapon. Rosa’s eyes were murder, but on her face a smile, bestowed towards me for the first time.
“Congratulations,” she said.
The spiders scurried towards me. I saw them, even as I held Rosa’s gaze.
“Did you know Chad Hammond is in a band?” I asked.
Rosa’s eyes spun in place, like floored tires in mud; she wanted to roll them towards the fluorescent ceiling lights very badly, but would no longer do so in front of me. “Country for a Day,” she said. “I thought you knew that! They play our staff Christmas party every year.” Rosa leaned against the edge of my desk. I picked up a ballpoint pen from the edge of my blotter and rolled it between the fingers of my hands.
“I think they’re going to play Rock ‘n’ Ribs this year,” I said.
Rosa nodded. We were talking to each other almost with our backs touching, the way people do when they don’t want other people to know that they’re talking to each other. I watched the spider webs blow in the wind. Rosa said, “Did he tell you they’re going to play?”
I said that he hadn’t.
“You should probably book them,” Rosa said. There was cheer in her voice, but only the coating.
I told her that I didn’t know if I could afford ribs and booze and mix and vegetable platters for 200 employees, plus hayseed decorations, on $200.
“I’ve got space in my budget,” she said.
Rosa stood up and leaned over me. She pretended to study my monitor. There was nothing on my monitor, just the desktop which contained links only to two in-house computer applications, neither of which was open.
“It’s my ass on the line now too,” she whispered. “If Mr. Hammond wants to play, then book his goddamm band. I’ve got four years in this company, and I’m not going to lose my job because some punk kid doesn’t know how things work.”
“Why doesn’t he just book himself?”
“He can’t, you idiot! Conflict of interest. But if the head of the planning committee invites him to play…”
It was odd, the two of us staring at my desktop, just a light blue screen with a couple of icons, while having the most intense and furtive discussion of my life. “I don’t know how to fill out a purchase order,” I whispered.
“You better figure it out,” Rosa Kwon said.
Later in the day, I returned to the fourth floor. Chad Hammond reclined behind his desk. He seemed to be expecting me. I gave him the purchase order, and he handed me an invoice.
“Best rock ‘n’ roll show of your life. You’re not going to regret it.”
I told him I couldn’t wait.
“Listen to the Music?” I said. I was learning this game, I was learning it fine.
“Roger that, little buddy. That is guaranfuckingteed.”
I rapped the knuckles of my left hand against the frame of the door twice the way I had seen guys in my office do. It stung a bit, but I could see how it felt good.
Denim shirts tailored for the obese dominated the milling crowds of the second floor parkade, where a small stage, decorated with bales of hay, had been set up on one end, a u-shaped enjoinment of tables the other. Members of the “planning committee”, besides Rosa and I, consisted of: the other three members of our pod, and 15 or so mostly middle-aged women of Indo-Asian descent. Rosa said they worked in Data Entry, a windowless room in the office’s basement where no talking was allowed. Rosa had started in Data Entry; she was the only person anyone had ever heard of who’d been promoted out of it. It made complete sense to me that she would do whatever it took never to have to return.
Together, we stood behind these tables, serving up paper plates of glazed and gooey pork ribs. There were no vegetables after all, but nobody cared about anything except the beer kegs. Each employee was allotted two red coupons, one coupon per plastic cup, but it was my job to police this, and I didn’t know how. There were some impressively drunk accountants by mid-afternoon.
People were happy. After this, they would get to go home or go to a bar and from there directly to the Midway, if they wanted, where the party could continue. But, drunk as many had become, no one seemed loaded enough to keep talking, or to turn their back on the Axeman. A Day in the Country took the stage just before 4 p.m.
Chad Hammond looked to be the youngest band member by a decade, and his gut, tight against the buttons of his own denim shirt, was easily the smallest, the only one that could possibly be sucked in if need be.
A Day in the Country was not tight, but Chad Hammond certainly was.
Rosa and I exchanged nervous looks as we began scraping the remnants of ribs into large trash cans. The band started and restarted the first two songs. You could hear some murmurs. Midway through Trooper’s “Raise A Little Hell”, they gave up all together. Feedback screeched and the party planning committee, most of whose members worked in enforced silence all day, clutched their ears. Chad Hammond seemed to have forgotten the words to the chorus, which, even given my limited musical knowledge, seemed a more difficult feat than otherwise.
It was the sort of spectacle from which every kind spectator would naturally turn away. Except this was The Axeman. And no one could turn away. We weren’t allowed to turn away. And so we watched, as Chad Hammond former local TV child star, kept drinking what was clearly not water from a large Slurpee cup, and his band of incompetents searched for the groove that Chad Hammond had stored in a safe place called 1975.
For the finale, Chad Hammond sent the band off stage and sang “Listen to the Music”, just he and his acoustic guitar. I stopped cleaning and I walked near the front of the stage, where a small group of women close to my age were gathered. I knew Chad could still sing, and I was glad that he had fans because he had once had fans and it was never lack of talent that had made him a middle-aged hatchet man. Nothing that had happened to him seemed to have had anything to do with him. When he sang this song, it didn’t matter that he was drunk. He sounded better because he was drunk. He didn’t sound like a Director of Human Resources; he sounded like a kid who had never heard of a thing called Human Resources, and the way he sang it was a better thing than anything all of the Human Resources departments in the world had ever done. His voice reverberated through the parking lot and it seemed to fill the future night, leaving traces of itself against the tacky building, giving glory to a space undeserving of it, magnanimous in its generosity.
There was real whooping and there was clapping and you could tell that it wasn’t forced; and that people were clapping for Chad Hammond even though they hated Chad Hammond now, but that they didn’t hate what he once had been.
Then Chad Hammond, drunk with whiskey and with the acclaim of the young, female clerks around me, decided on an encore. I checked later, and this song wasn’t on my iPod, but I knew it. I don’t know why I knew it, or why Chad Hammond decided it was a good song to sing. The song was “I’ll Make Love to You” by a boy band called BOYZ2MEN.
As he sang the lyric, “I’ll make love to you/if you want me to/ and I’ll take my clothes off too” he began removing his shirt even as he motioned to a young, blonde woman beside me. Janelle, from Collections on the second floor, wore a look of terror, but this drunk man, now with his hairy belly two feet from her face, was still Chad Hammond, the axeman, Director of Human Resources. She turned to me, white with fear. I motioned towards the stage. “Get up there,” I said through clenched teeth. She took his hand, as he helped her on stage.
Shirtless and acapella now, Chad Hammond danced through Janelle, all the while singing, sometimes into the microphone, sometimes not. With both hands he grabbed her bottom and grinded himself into her blue jeans. “I’ll make love to you,” he sang again and again until it became a pant, a plea. Eventually, Country for a Day’s drummer jumped onstage and freed Janelle, who jumped off. “Uh, thanks a lot, folks,” the drummer said. “Happy carnival, everybody.”
When I arrived for work on Monday morning, all of the spiders were gone, and so was Chad Hammond. Eight months later, we were bought out by a Fortune 500 company from Phoenix. They waited two months before laying off the lot of us.