She has published a short story collection and three novels, and also won an O. Henry award in 1998. She lives in New York with her dog, Philip K. Dick, and her cats, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte.
Karen’s latest anthology, The Inner City, will be published on February 26 2013 (ChiZine). To celebrate the new book, here is one of the stories it contains:
Truly the most astonishing thing happened when that new employee Mindy walked into the meeting wearing Paulina’s hair.
Paulina’s hands immediately went up to her head. Bald. Maybe a little patch of stubble.
Paulina gasped, but her coworkers at the meeting smiled a bland welcome to Mindy. Couldn’t they see what had happened?
Paulina’s hands began to shake in anger. Her pencils had been disappearing, even her scotch tape. And now this!
She knew perfectly well that women without hair didn’t last long, speaking corporately. Management was hair-ist. Paulina had always maintained a middle-of-the-road hairdo: pretty much all one length to her earlobes, parted on the right side, with the back sort of wedge-cut. Mindy hadn’t even bothered to change the part, and the color and length of the bangs were exactly the same. “Good haircut, Mindy,” Ron Unterling said in his loud I’m-top-dog tone. Mindy beamed, but the edge of her eyes wickedly slid Paulina’s way.
“Well, well, well,” Ron said. “Enough about hair.”
So the meeting on the Reports went on as if nothing unusual had happened. Reports celebrated the status quo, and Paulina was a big proponent of the status quo, since it paid her a pretty good salary for very little effort. Her job consisted of making up questions and answers used to evaluate various corporate projects. She looked at what the company was doing and found a way of discussing it so that it seemed innovative and generous. She liked to look on the positive side of life, generally, and that had seemed to work so far.
But she was beginning to think things had changed. Ron beamed upon the company. “The gala Report on Reports is coming up, and I thought this year we’d push our presentations to the limit. You know, put some zip in their zippers. We’re going to make this the best review ever!” He looked around at the fawning faces. “See what you can do. Put extreme into the routines! How’s the Facilitation Report, Paulina?”
“As you can see by looking at—let me see—page 2,” she began, “the main delays in project completion or status achievement break down into personnel indecision, end-usage misidentification…”
“It’s a beautiful Report,” Ron interrupted. He had never interrupted her before. “And so long.” His smile paused for a second, just enough for Paulina’s heart to throw out a mismanaged beat.
“I try to be thorough,” she said defensively (always a mistake: the zebra about to be corrected by the lion surely has just that tone).
Ron nodded and Paulina slumped slightly in relief. “It just needs a little jazzing up. I think Mindy could help you there. A little of her style added to your expertise would really sell it.”
Mindy smiled gaily; Paulina tried to keep her eyes from darting around the room. “I didn’t realize you wanted style,” she said plaintively.
Ron looked over to Mindy and then back to her. “I do,” he said.
Paulina had never asked a hard question because she had never wanted a hard answer, but that was not the way Mindy worked at all. “Way too obvious,” Mindy said, crossing out things on the printout Paulina handed her. “You’re letting everyone off easy. Let’s have some fun with this.” She gave a little shake to her head; her hair shook with it.
“That’s a beautiful hairstyle,” Paulina said as nicely as she could. She wanted to see if Mindy would show any guilt at all.
“Why, uh, thank you.” Mindy seemed to be searching for something to say in return. “I like yours, too. It must be so easy to take care of.”
“I used to have hair like that,” Paulina continued.
“I don’t recall.”
“Exactly like that.”
“Well, I’m sure it will grow back.” Mindy smiled and turned away.
But it didn’t grow back. By the next week there was no more fuzz than there had been. She began to wear a hat. One day Mindy tapped her on the shoulder.
“Excuse me,” Mindy said, “I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but your hat is bothering people.”
“Bothering people? How?”
“Well, they stare at it,” Mindy said. “They’re trying to figure it out. You know: why is she wearing a hat? Is she covering something up? Didn’t you notice how many times Jim said ‘cap’ at this morning’s meeting? It’s very distracting.”
“There was a meeting this morning? I wasn’t even there.”
“See? That’s how bad it is.” Mindy was quietly triumphant in a sympathetic kind of way. She had one of those deliberately soft voices that are supposed to be nonthreatening.
And Mindy handed her a memo Ron had signed that specifically requested no hats unless for religious or medical reasons. “Well, I suppose that’s not a medicinal hat?” she asked with raised eyebrows. “Although it looks like it might be…”
One fundamental problem was that Mindy’s mind was sharper than Paulina’s. Sharp, Paulina thought, as in sees things clearly, as in cuts without conscience.
Mindy removed most of Paulina’s questions and added this: Do you blame your boss for the delay or incompletion?
It was a jarring yes-no question and it was bound to get someone in trouble. Mindy was revising the Report in such a way that it would be necessary to actually recommend some action. Paulina had expected to retire in thirty years or so, and she could only last thirty more years by keeping herself neutral and pleasant, but she was beginning to find her nerves snapping, her teeth grating, her head filling with explosive scenarios.
And there was something in the alert way everyone was looking lately that manifestly signaled the scent of blood. Change was coming, and change was not good.
Without hair, Paulina felt conspicuous. If people stared, she believed she looked monstrous. And if they didn’t look, she was left in doubt: Was she now somehow unnoticeable? She was thrown off track; she was losing her way.
The next week Paulina appeared in a wig that matched the hair she used to have. A few heads looked at her with interest. She saw Mindy glaring: her eyelids lowered, her upper lip raised. “What a nice haircut,” Mindy said in her oh-so-nice voice. “It looks somehow familiar.”
Paulina smiled at her vaguely. “Does it?” Someone down the table snickered.
Ron settled forward in his chair, his hands almost gripping the table. “We’ve got a new twist on the Reports this year; we’ve hired a talent consultant for the presentations leading up to the Report on the Reports,” he said. “I’ve got an emcee to introduce each presentation of each Report, and to break it up, a magician in the middle, with a disappearing tiger. This year we’ll also have a choice of four entrees, all of them quite tasty. No mistakes like last year’s incident of the live goat.” He looked around benevolently. “We just need good Reports and a relaxed presentation. You can’t have a top-tier company without creativity, and that’s where we’re going—creative! Top tier!”
He started around the table, reviewing the area of each Report and discussing who would present it. Paulina had represented her section the year before and expected to do it again. Ron got all the way around the table before reaching Mindy and Paulina. He beamed fondly at Mindy, who put her hand up to stroke her hair modestly. Paulina lifted her own hand automatically.
“Now, Mindy,” Ron said, “tell us what you have in mind. You’ll be in charge of the section on company questionnaires.”
At that, Paulina’s hand dropped slowly, chastened. Mindy was now above her! When had the re-org happened, or was it still happening?
Paulina felt that she was all alone on the savannah, with something hungry moving towards her.
Ron had said to rev it up, and she would do that. And she would take him by surprise to boot. She went to everyone she’d interviewed before, going backwards through the questionnaires. She’d always filed the responses anonymously, of course, except for the letter coding in the top right hand of the first page, which indicated the department and the initials of the employee.
“Have I ever stolen anything is one of the questions now,” Mort on the third floor said, holding the latest version of the questionnaire in his hand. “Have they? Don’t they steal my spirit in return for a paycheck? What kind of questions are these? Number 91 asked if I’ve ever had sex in the office. That’s the only interesting question, and even that’s none of their business. But I’d like to know about the ones without offices. Are they using mine? Sometimes my chairs have been moved.”
“It’s a trick question. If you’re thinking about that, it shows you’re not working,” Paulina said. “It’s diabolical, actually, since once we ask the question we force you to think about it. I know what questions can do to people. They’re metaphysical, aren’t they? I never realized it before, how much I like questions. They’re the building blocks of reason!” She grinned somewhat foolishly, but she felt strangely moved. “I love my job,” she said. “I never knew it before. I love making questions.”
Mort looked at her sympathetically. “Just when they’ve started taking your questions away, too. That’s what they call irony, isn’t it?”
Paulina offered to present a small Report on the residue of Reports; i.e., does anyone remember last year’s Reports? It tickled Ron, since she could go through his predecessors’ Reports and mock them.
“You can have ten minutes tops,” he said, “or the sherbet will melt.”
Paulina was guaranteed a position, which was now what mattered. She lied about how she was going to do the Report; she had something else up her sleeve. Always before, she had made up questions that everyone knew how to answer. But what were the questions everyone knew how to ask?
In the meantime, she wore her wig slightly askew. It made Mindy self-conscious. Paulina began to dress better, too. She wouldn’t go so far as to say she was mimicking Mindy; she was buying clothes that were like Mindy’s however, and she wore garments similar to Mindy’s the day after her rival did. She was working up to wearing them the day before.
She asked Mort: “What are the questions that really matter to you?”
“My top ten are: Is there a terrible disease beginning in me? How long will I live? Is my wife faithful? Are my kids good? Do people respect me? Why am I not happier? Where is the money I deserve? If that’s not ten, it doesn’t matter,” he said.
Paulina wrote them down and went to the departments and people she had interviewed before. “When will I be happy?” they asked. “And am I dying?”
They did their projects even in the middle of these questions. “Can my father hear me in his coma?” one asked. “How much pain can my daughter stand? Why am I afraid? Is there God, is there God, is there God?”
Paulina wrote the questions down frantically and began to organize them in an artistic way. Through it all, of course, she wore her wig, unable to regain her hair by any natural means. Mindy certainly wouldn’t be shamed into giving the hair back, so what was Paulina to do?
The Report on Reports loomed large, as did all the questions associated with it, which Paulina now considered in all their serious political consequences. Historically the janitorial and support staff were consistently ignored, and no questionnaire was ever directed their way, so she approached the building super and the janitors and cleaning women. She spoke to the secretaries and the temps and the phone-system administrators. Their questions were the same as Mort’s, only with a few more about money.
Paulina knew what she wanted to do. “We’re going to sing our Report,” she told Mort and Joe, a super, and Yvonne, a cleaning woman. “We’re going to change their hearts with the power of our questions.”
“There are some Voices on the staff,” Yvonne agreed. “I hear them late at night, emptying the pails.”
“Henry has a voice like a boom box,” Joe added, “and the moves. He moves like a wave. He should be out in front.”
“We will all be in front,” Paulina declared, “in our own individual ways. We need to show how strong we are.” Her wig felt like it was slipping; she righted it. Yvonne and Mort modestly averted their eyes, and it made Paulina waver. She might be endangering them. “On the other hand, it might be risky. Maybe we shouldn’t do it,” she said softly.
“I’ve never been in a Report,” Yvonne said. “And I’ve been cleaning these offices for twenty years.”
Joe nodded “We want to do it. This is our one chance.”
The Reports took all afternoon. The minor Reports came first, like warm-up bands; they weren’t expected to grab attention. Ron glowed with achievement; he was obviously being groomed for promotion and it looked like Mindy would replace Ron when he left. All Paulina’s hopes of anonymous longevity were squashed.
Mindy wore an iridescent pearl-colored body stocking with a long pearl-colored skirt with tremendous slits. She threw out numbers as if she’d made them up. “Fine fractals advanced to seventy-eight by knocking out the middle,” she said and did a split, her arms thrown upwards. “Move the work downwards and pack them in together.”
The crowd roared at Mindy’s dance; the bosses nudged each other. Mindy humbly bowed with arms crossed over her breasts. Her eyes held grateful tears.
“She’s wowing them,” Mort muttered.
As host of the Report on Reports, Ron introduced each participant by doing somersaults to and from the podium on the stage.
There was a mime who did a Report on Physical Inventory, then a clown who did the Financial Report, a juggler who did the Service Sector, and finally it was Paulina’s turn, the Report on Previous Reports.
She wore a long black gown with long black sleeves. She walked silently midstage and turned her back to the audience, which caused an uncertain snicker.
The stage had been prepped by the janitorial staff, which had set up pneumatic risers and small beams of light shooting up and out.
Janitors, secretaries, cleaning women, mail clerks, and cafeteria workers stepped forward as the rear black curtain rose. They moved in straight lines and broke apart to form a large slow V on stage. Then the risers rose, and they were a chorus.
My dreams have changed; why do they haunt me?
Who are these men who never seem to see me?
What happened to the joy I thought was due me?
How did I come here?
The pneumatic risers thrust different questions into the air. Each question or row of singers was answered by another row of singers with another question.
Where is the wonder, the hope?
Why is my heart drawn down at the start of each day?
And my spirit wasted?
They had wonderful voices, both magical and mundane. It was their one chance to ask the questions that bothered them; no one would listen to them again.
When I was young, I never thought to come here.
How did I come here?
At the last word the risers in their various positions descended, and the spotlights went off scattershot, like ducks being hit at a midway.
“Lights up! Lights up!” Ron shouted, rushing out with his arms raised. He beamed broadly, as if he knew quite well what everyone was thinking. “Weren’t they terrific?” he cried insincerely. “But my, my, my, weren’t they a downer?” He winked broadly. “And wouldn’t you know it—it couldn’t come at a better time—the next one up is Manny Gomerson with his Judgment on the Reports. How we doin’, Manny?”
And to Paulina’s dismay (she hadn’t known their performances would be rated), Manny came out in a full-fledged tuxedo with a bunch of large interoffice envelopes in his hand. “Oh that one wasn’t good for morale,” Manny stated, shaking his head and rolling his eyes. “I mean, this is a job, right, not a psychiatrist’s couch. But enough philosophizing—let’s get down to work. We have seven prizes and eight Reports. How should we do this, Ron? Everyone made a great effort, and they all deserve prizes, but we don’t have enough to go around. We have to do some eliminating, okay? Can I have everyone up front?”
Mort patted Paulina on the shoulder—a loser’s pat, Paulina thought glumly.
As the last one off the stage, she was the first to go back on, and lined up with Mindy, the mime, the juggler, two clowns, a baton twirler, and a man who did a swing dance with a manikin. “They’re all going to win and I’m going to lose,” Paulina thought. She told herself that winning didn’t matter, that she had wanted to show off the truth and beauty of the chorus—but the chorus was huddled in the wings with disappointed faces.
“Only the first two rows vote,” Manny warned (those rows were reserved for bosses). “You just send in a number on your cell phones (everyone’s got a line to the Tally Committee now, right?). One to ten, ten the best. Here we go!”
The audience cheered and booed with absolute abandon. Ron encouraged it, striding across the stage like Groucho Marx and stopping to hold his hand over someone’s head for the vote. “Mimes are in a revival,” he shouted. “They’re kitschy, they’re quaint. But we still hate them, don’t we?” And the audience roared. They roared for Mindy (“Who knows what she said? Look at that dress!”) and it was obvious that the crowd was roaring at Ron, not the performers. When he got to Paulina, he said, “We all appreciate the effort involved for everyone concerned, let’s give them a hand,” and the crowd clapped politely but unenthusiastically until Ron added, “For the anti-Hallelujah Chorus.” Cheers and catcalls rang out.
A phone rang onstage and Ron picked it up. “We have our winners!” he shouted, holding up the envelopes, and he named everyone but Paulina. “Congratulations all!” he crowed. “Your contract is renewed for another year.”
Paulina stood empty-handed. “Contract? I never had a contract.”
Ron rushed forward. “Which brings me to our latest announcement. As of today, all Report positions will be contracted out on a competitive basis. Sorry, Paulina, your bid lost.”
Paulina’s heart was sinking in full view. “Bid? Bid? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You didn’t think you had your job forever, did you?” Ron asked with theatrical sympathy and turned to the crowd. “Who thinks they have their jobs forever?” The crowd booed. “See?” he said, turning back to her. “It’s just the times we live in. The times require sacrifice.”
The crowd cheered. Ron raised his hands and shook them together. “The party’s over!” he said. “Your jobs are all secure.” The audience applauded and laughed and began to leave their seats. He turned to Paulina as Mindy came over to join them.
“Well, that was utterly fantastic,” Mindy said, linking her arm with Ron’s (was Mindy now on Ron’s level?). “We’re both very impressed.” She raised her eyebrows to show how impressed she was.
There was something familiar about those eyebrows, Paulina thought. “Those are my eyebrows!” she cried. She rubbed her hand above her eyes: nothing!
“Did you hear her?” Mindy asked, laughing. “Did you hear how odd she is? I think she’d make a good comic, much better as a comic than as a whatever she is. What is she? I forget. Oh that’s right!” she smacked her head lightly. “You lost.”
“She worked in the blah-blah department,” Ron said. “Which is due for restructuring.”
“Well, she does have a creative approach,” Mindy said, cocking her head at Ron.
“A good sense of humor, too. Or is it drama?” His face got furrowed.
“No one cared,” Mindy said. “Why should they? But no hair, no eyebrows—will it upset the employees?” She took a quick glance over her shoulder to look sympathetically at Paulina.
“Everything upsets the employees,” Ron said resignedly.
“So they need cheering up. They need to laugh. I can see her as someone who would give us all a laugh.”
“That’s true. We could maybe do something with her.”
“Wait!” Paulina cried. It was painful, standing there as she was discussed. She had thought her chorus was terrific; she had dreamed of praise about it. How had she been so out of touch? There was a nakedness she felt now, her scalp bald under the wig, her face bald out in the world.
“But she won’t need a desk, will she?” Mindy said, ignoring her. “Comics don’t sit at desks, that would be silly.”
Ron frowned. “But wouldn’t silly actually be the idea?”
“No,” Mindy said. She shook her hair, Paulina’s hair. She raised her eyebrows, Paulina’s eyebrows. “Desks make things look important. That kills the laugh.”
“You always get straight to the crux,” Ron said.
“So here’s the story,” Mindy said, turning to Paulina. “You’ve been fired from your position—or, to avoid lawsuits, actually, your position’s been fired in response to the economic slowdown. You’re just collateral. But because we care—”
“We always care—”
“We’re going to make you a mopper. You mop things up. You keep your salary, you keep your hours, but you have to mop floors.”
“In a clown suit?” Ron asked eagerly.
“Just a clown nose, don’t you think? We don’t want to overdo it.”
“In a clown nose, then.”
“But wait,” Paulina said, clenching her hands. “You can’t do this. I don’t want to mop floors. I was a supervisor.” She heard herself and marveled at how quickly she had been transformed. “I am a supervisor.”
“Mopping floors is an important position. Essential, even. Just think of all the used gum there. Someone could get hurt.”
“You’ll be doing a service to humanity,” Ron added. “You’ll bring joy and relief to life. That’s the company motto, isn’t it?” Ron turned to Mindy.
“We have a company motto?”
“This isn’t what I want!” Paulina cried. “My message was to elevate the masses! I never meant to be one!”
“Oh message,” Mindy said dismissively. “Look around you—everyone has left you here alone. They just wanted a little time to vent. You just took yourself a little too seriously. Too personally; you took yourself too personally.”
“It’s because you stole my hair,” Paulina said, pointing her finger at Mindy. “You provoked it.”
“Nonsense. People lose their hair all the time. Strand by strand. You really can’t claim those hairs as yours once they leave your head, can you? Besides, once you start mopping, you can keep all the hairs you want.”
“That’s obvious,” Ron said agreeably.
“Anyone’s hair,” Mindy added. “Mine if you want. Just gather it up.”
“That, plus you get to keep your paycheck.”
“That’s what’s important in the long term, isn’t it? Much more important than hair or where you sit or if you’ve got great eyebrows? A paycheck.”
They began to walk away and Paulina was motionless, considering what had happened. She had gone too far. Asked questions of the wrong people and pushed where a push would be noticed. Such consequences were predictable, to everyone but her. She had expected too much; she thought she could stay hidden in the herd even as she ran along outside it. She was amazed at her own stupidity, grateful that she had been spared the final blow. She would take what they gave her, gratefully.
She did still have a future, after all, she told herself. She had bills to pay, many bills to pay, and no savings worth noting. She should accept the position and begin to save money so she could protect herself. Why had she cared about protecting others when they could either save themselves or perish? It would be humiliating at first, mopping around her former coworkers, who would, no doubt, shift their eyes away when they saw her. But soon enough it would be normal, even if a new kind of normal.
She had been misled by details, but she could paint on eyebrows, she supposed. She could even paint on hair. Maybe she would get a pair of eyeglasses, just to give her a sense of her new self. She would absolutely refuse the clown’s nose. She even suspected they were joking about it, proposing it just so they could show how easy it was for them to compromise by removing the request just to please her.
And it would please her!
The mops, she supposed were in the basement.
She turned around and headed there, quickly.
I will be posting an interview with Karen Heuler on February 27th.