The Cauliflower Man

Bára Hladík

Whispers of phone calls echoed on cubical walls. Reverberated sighs filled the hours as quarters turned to eighths and spun into nothing. Petra was waiting. Today, she was to vote in the company-wide presidential election. It was also her first week and third day at this office, as a working, respected member of society.

Last Tuesday, Petra was hunched over the Internet at CyberCaff looking for employment. The proprietor offered her drip coffee, eyed her growing pile of torn Dextrose wrappers on the Internet café table, and tried to replace her stained coffee cup with a clean one. Not until I’m finished, Petra said, and turned back to rereading ten-step instructions on financial administration, analysis techniques, and societal expectations in the work place. Her resume required melanin ink, false references. Petra found three companies that were deeply asphyxiated in bureaucratic administration. There was little possibility that anybody could track down a human resources representative to search the employee database and realize that Johana Heis did not exist. As Petra had hoped, the company decided that it was a waste of time to wait out the cascading melodious holds of countless departments, but because these unreachable companies did exist, they brought ‘Mrs. Heis’ in for an interview.

Petra tapped her thin grey finger on the cubicle desk. It wasn’t real, the desk. The structure was essentially cardboard compressed until sturdy, then covered in an orange plastic coating, now faded. The desk held a computer, a mouse, a miniature shelf to hold documents — empty — and a pen. Since Monday, she'd only prodded the keyboard and shifted the mouse a few times, until about twenty minutes ago when she began to tap her finger.

Gregory walked by and Petra let out a long breath to attract his attention. Gregory stopped and took a step back, his square body turning like a vending machine on a dolly.

“Hey, how’s it going?” Gregory stretched out his eyebrows, pressing wrinkles into his blotchy forehead.

“Just wondering about the elections today.” Petra leaned back in her chair and transferred the rhythmic finger to her knee, now tapping only every sixteen beats.

“I forgot about that.” Gregory paused, his forehead flattening to a greasy shine. “Anyway, I got to run.”

Petra returned her hand to the desk, but as she resumed her arpeggio she began to consider what people in adjacent booths might think. She imagined them turning their heads to stare at the thin grey fabric on the divider wall, and wonder who could possibly keep such a beat and also function properly as an employee. They would mentally retrace their trip to the photocopier and slow down their memory, frame by frame, to reveal Petra’s expressionless, and slightly aslant, face. Soon enough, they would realize it was the new financial analyst, and begin to wonder about her character. Petra could not risk the suspicion. She opened a new document and composed a complex rhythm on J, establishing the impression that she was in fact typing at a productive, perhaps even impressive, rate.

As Petra tapped, she couldn’t help but feel unsure about the logistics of the election process. She'd expected to see flyers, pins, and flags plastered with each candidate’s smiling faces before a colour that represented their dedication to the company, but there was nothing. She wasn’t even sure where to go. It was only in the interview last Friday that the man in the glass office mentioned the election: “We expect you will not forget.” Surely if she did not adequately perform a simple task such as casting a ballot, they would label her the fraud that she was.

Petra stood abruptly, her head adrift above the vast sea of cubicles. She watched people on phones, computers, writing post-it notes. They were all perfectly mathematical. The clock ticked louder. She began to walk down the hallway in what she thought was a dignified manner, like a man that had worked very hard at the right things for the right amount of time. She roamed the office building, determined to find the elections. She felt this new stride was falling into place quite well; her back gained height, her shoulders relaxed.

Petra’s office was on the second floor where hundreds of employees convened and festered over numerical patterns. She took the elevator to the eleventh floor, where people in high positions had offices, meeting rooms, and coffee machines. The hallway was lined with numbered doors. There was no sign of electoral proceedings, let alone human life. Petra wandered up five floors before she caught a glimpse of a man entering an office. The door locked shut before Petra could reached him, and the hall fell silent once again. The election was to begin in one hour.

Petra stood outside the closed door. It offered no hints of sound. She walked back towards the elevator to the soft hum of the vents in the walls. Her borrowed stance of pride now slumped back into its original hunch, her normally staccato steps now tied with the drags of her feet. Without much notice she pushed open the heavy emergency exit door and began descending the cement staircase, a steady echo followed her sluggish downward rhythm. There was no need to make it to her cubicle in any type of hurry; her deceit was over.

Petra lost track of how many stairs she'd walked down. She rounded another and then another flight. Perhaps this was the rest of her existence, walking down these cascades, circling indefinitely, an endless void of heavy feet, cracking knees, shifting weight. But soon the thud of her shoes began to mingle with something else, something new. As she slowed her pace, a soft hum emerged from below. It was soon evidently a murmur of voices, a hushed palaver. Light fell onto the wall in front of her as she reached the landing. Below, she could now distinguish a handful of men.

"21.35 is completely reasonable, especially these days," said a low voice.

"It's the only way to keep things running," someone else agreed, there was a pause.

"But, how do we keep it quiet?"

Petra stepped out of the shadows; the light was coming from an open door at the next landing. Three men stood in the stairway and four more were visible in the hall. They shifted as she approached, allowing little room for her to join them on the landing. They gave her a quick nod and resumed the conversation.

"Doesn't matter if they are quiet, just disrespected," said the man standing closest to the door with a pale angular face. His lips rested in a thin straight line under his triangular cheekbones.

"Anyway, there are no other options," the man with the low voice said, his thick dark hair atop a round face. Petra peered into the hallway.

"They should be opening the doors any minute," spoke the pale man. Petra nodded, stunned that she had in fact found what she was looking for.

The men funneled into a room and seated themselves at various tables. The tables were so numerous and disorganized that Petra had trouble navigating the room. Some were pressed so closely together it was challenging to walk between them, some were spaced at an absurd distance. Chairs crowded each table, Petra could hardly sit. The room itself was enormous, cluttered, and much too big for the few who were in attendance, causing a distracting and highly irritating echo. Petra sat down and waited patiently for the designations to begin.

Finally, a man entered the room. He wore a stiff tailored suit and brown-grey cropped hair, the cartilage on his right ear was swollen and deformed. Petra had only seen such a disfiguration on guys boxing in the basement of the Old Warwic Hotel. They called it cauliflower ear.

“Alright, welcome. Please stand,” said the cauliflower man. The men stood with murmurs and scratches as they pushed their chairs and tables around. Petra also stood, and an attentive silence fell over the room.

“We all know why we are here. As usual, the representatives will enter and a brief introduction will follow. This year there are three candidates. Once we have introduced them all, the ballot box will be brought in. Please clearly indicate your candidate of choice on the ballot and return to your workstations. That is all, you may return to your seats.” He spoke slow and monotonous, like a pre-recorded audio instruction manual.

There was another minute of noise as the men seated themselves, then the door on the far side of the room swung open. Two men wearing suits entered carrying a large wooden desk. They placed the desk at the front of the room and left.

“Mr. John C. Remington is a well-seasoned and assured financial manager,” said the cauliflower man, “over the years he has always maintained a stable presence, working to increase permanence and organization. If elected, his mandate will follow a structured and thorough assessment of each financial department in hopes of filling the corners of every bureau to increase productivity." Everyone clapped politely. The men in suits carried out the desk. Petra looked at the seated men; they stared ahead. The cauliflower man looked at the back of the room, his expression blank. The door opened once again. There was only one man now; he was carrying a white coat stand. He placed it at the front of the room with the quiet ding of metal against hard floor. Petra started to sweat.

“Mr. Ray Beuterdon is our longest standing administrator,” the cauliflower man droned. “He has stood behind our employees with dedication and diligence since the beginning. He intends to focus his directive on investment in extra administrative layers to increase the efficiency of each department.” The vacant men once again clapped while the suited man carried the coat stand out the door. Petra unbuttoned the top of her shirt and rubbed her hand along her neck, now moist. A man was asleep at the back of the room, his head down on his chest as if he had been turned off. Petra opened her mouth to say something to someone close by, but let out a small cry of pain, and by then the two men in suits returned with the final candidate: a black leather revolving-chair.

“The current president, Mr. Rupert Kingstone—” the cauliflower man’s voice echoed and distorted, his ear blurred and shifted form. Petra felt the enormity of the room; the men drew far away, contracting into a distant stain. She wanted to stand but her feet were molten. The cauliflower man’s voice tuned in and out. Emptiness seeped into the room thick as molasses.

The men were standing now, arranging themselves in a line for the ballot box. Petra envisioned herself lifting the box high above her head, raising her voice to fill the room with a deafening bellow. The men would scatter, tripping over tables and chairs, awoken and afraid.

But the men cast their vote, one by one, and filed out of the room to return back to their hourly designations and coffee machines. Petra eventually stood and walked out the door. She joined the other men in the stairwell, the melody of their leather shoes on cement stairs descending and descending.

Bára Hladík is an artist and writer based in Tiohtiá:ke, Montréal. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Cosmonauts Avenue, Event Mag, The Whale Road Review and elsewhere. She is the managing editor of Theta Wave and her micro-chap Book of Mirrors was recently published by Ghost City Press. Tweet her @baroslavka.