There is something sad about an unfrosted and forgotten about sheet cake — the kind of sheet cake when if finished would be eaten at the office and in celebration of a birthday, or retirement, or promotion. It’s the kind of sheet cake bought for an office party, is what I am saying. It’s usually vanilla, with white frosting, blue or green or red letters piped out on its surface, spelling out the exact reason for its existence. If the office petty-cash account allows for a splurge, there may be a raspberry filling, and the frosting could be of the cream cheese variety. Usually, though, it’s that granulated sugar frosting that I imagine nobody really likes and leaves gritty teeth and sour stomachs. When frosted, this kind of cake sits in a breakroom, and it waits, and so do the people (the office workers that is). Waiting for the appointed time when they can all gather and wish whoever a happy whatever. I, myself, like the breakroom — people tend to converse easily with each other in there, and, I can lean and drink coffee mostly unnoticed.
There is an unfrosted sheet cake in the breakroom, just sitting there, unfinished, looking like it’s meant for a party of at least twenty or more. It is that kind of big. My Boss, a gregarious sort, with like maybe seven children, a wife who teaches special education at the middle school, and a dog he pretends he doesn’t hate, had brought it in and set it on the gun-gray Formica counter. The counter is of the kind of laminate with little flecks of blue-green tossed haphazardly in its pattern. The Formica is peeling off of the wood in spots, and I picked at it recently, and I imagine I made it worse. He had affixed a Post-It note to the plastic wrapping covering the cake. The note read, Free to Eat.
For the first half of the workday, office people floated in and out of the breakroom, getting coffee, passing through on their way to evacuate in the restrooms, or to see if someone had taken the first piece. As of yet, no one had. The cake itself was a ruddy-brown, not the off white of a cake that is obviously vanilla. Karen, she runs all of our data processing and entry, was heard to wonder, “Is it burnt you think? Like just slightly overdone? That would make sense.”
That would make sense, Karen, except this unfrosted, and un-pipe-lettered cake had the sheen of a cake that was exactly as done as it needed to be. You know, that slight shininess that I imagine a seasoned baker can spot by eye, knowing the product to be done as intended. And this cake had that, a real appearance of proper doneness, Karen. Bill, he’s in product services, overhearing this thesis chimes in, “No, look this cakes doesn’t have the slight peaking in the center like an airy, fluffy vanilla cake. This cake is squat, dense. It looks substantial.”
I (being IT and generally not accustomed to having to speak to these people) don’t chime in. If I had chimed in, I would’ve asserted that this was clearly a rather large Carrot-Cake. I pour coffee from the glass pot, with the brown handle. The Boss walks in, folded newspaper under his arm, clearly having just completed what everyone knows to be his favorite part of our shared work day. “What’s the deal with the cake?” Bill is speaking to our Boss, Dan.
No one who is currently employed here was employed here when Dan was hired, and no one knows his origin story or how he came to be in charge. I imagine longevity was a key contributing factor. He just stuck it out longer than any of his contemporaries. Some think seniority is a bad reason to make someone the boss — me, I’m not so sure. Sure, I imagine in a perfect world, you’d want someone passionate or driven, or even just run-of-the-mill motivated, but this is an imperfect world, and we are in a mind-numbing business. Sometimes, just the ability to Hang, where others couldn’t, is the perfect qualification for leadership.
“It’s Carrot-Cake, a buddy of mine is the baker at the East Co-Op, someone ordered it, kid’s birthday I think, then never picked it up,” Dan said, now standing next to me, reaching over me, grabbing his mug from the cheap, particleboard cabinet. I hand him the coffee pot with the brown handle. The pot looks like it came from a going-out-of-business sale at a diner that hadn’t updated their coffee pots since 1987. “I got it for free… I’m sure it’s good. My buddy is a hell of a baker.”
Again, if I were to chime in here, as I have now had a little lead-time to think about the whole giant sheet Carrot-Cake thing, I would’ve liked to have said something witty, something with a hint of tragedy, something like, “First of all, there is something sad about a sheet Carrot-Cake for a birthday. Like what kid says to their parents, you know what I want for my birthday party, with all my friends and classmates, you know other children, what I want is the biggest, carrotiest, fucking Carrot-Cake, like huge.”
That’s how I imagine I’d begin. I imagine, at this point, Bill, and Dan, and Karen would be smiling, slightly, and maybe there would be a hint of a chuckle, or maybe even a real laugh, it may just be uncomfortable nervousness at the profanity in the workplace. “Second, since we’ve established like no kid in their right-mind willfully chooses Carrot-Cake, and, this is like a motherly-type-choice, an ‘ugh, if we must have a cake at your birthday, it’ll at least be the one with a vegetable in it’ type of choice. Then, what had to happen for this Carrot-Cake to get left behind? Like, was little Felix (the kid’s name is Felix for the purpose of this absurdity) acting like an asshole or something.”
At this point, I imagine I have their attention, weaving a narrative, and again, using the profanity to set a tone of discomfort at the vulgarity, but, not using the profanity in service of itself. “Maybe Felix is a shitty kid, like, with a really bad attitude. And he gets all lippy one day. Mother is all ‘that’s it, if you keep going on this way, I’m canceling your birthday!’ and then Felix is all like, ‘Fuck you, Sharron! Whatdya gonna do, cancel my Carrot-Cake,’ and then, that’s what she does, and then the Carrot-Cake, which Dan’s friend had put effort into, a cake he was just on the cusp of frosting and finishing, sits lonely, and isolated, not belonging with the other cakes in the cooler.” These are the things I imagine myself to say, getting animated in the process.
I sip my coffee — everyone would get a chuckle I imagine. The coffee isn’t exactly hot, but it’s not cold either. Dan hands me back the pot, and I place it back on the little hot plate that keeps it warm, I notice it had been turned off at some point. I continue to drink my lukewarm coffee even though I know lukewarm coffee tends to upset my stomach.
Dan didn’t bring the paper plates that one typically associates with office celebration cakes, and there were no plastic forks. Searching the drawers only yields a stack of brown take-out napkins from a submarine sandwich shop, a plastic knife, and two round-headed plastic spoons, not the kind with the little prongs that make them useful for any food, but, just like, your ordinary spoon-type-spoon. Dan cuts a straight, horizontal line across the cake, towards the first third of the cake, then he makes like 5-6 vertical slashes to make the individual slices. Others gathered by now.
Karen, she tried scooping the Carrot-Cake (which after cut, exposed the fact that it had an inordinate amount of carrots in the Carrot-Cake) onto the napkins for people, but this proved to be harder than anticipated. It crumbled, and it stuck to the bottom of the large box in which it had come. The gathered people (most of the office had now come in and formed a little line taking a piece and moving on), dropped little bits of brown cake and the odd bit of carrot as they tried to eat the cake with their hands. Some were more successful than others. The ones who were successful, they jammed the cake into their mouths quickly, utilizing momentum to minimize the amount of cake they lost to the faux-tile linoleum floor. Some trod on the bits of cake as they absently shuffled back to their work stations, I stay put, and I pour a second cup of the lukewarm coffee. No one talks anymore.
I imagine myself watching this, but like not this, I imagine myself watching pigs at the trough, but like not pigs in the sense that I find these people to be like pigs, rather, I imagine what these people would be like if they were pigs. There could be anything in this food they are eating, it was rather unspecified, just dropped in front of them, and they took it as safe and as good — on faith. Not that Dan has the capability or want to harm them, but more like, Dan, he took the Carrot-Cake, because, well, it was a free cake, and these people they are eating the cake for much the same reason. Nothing about this cake is particularly appetizing. The whole thing is Pavlovian, like pigs at the trough, trained to accept whatever is inside. Want. Actual want of this cake, this giant party-sized Carrot-Cake, factored nowhere in any of the decisions surrounding the cake, the acquiring, the preparations for consumption, or the consuming.
I finish my second cup of lukewarm coffee as I watch the rest of them shuffle out. Aside from Bill, Dan, and Karen, there is Susan, she manages the office, resupplying everyone on The Floor with what they need. And also, Doug — Doug has been on a hot streak lately, and last week he moved six of our most expensive telephone units on a law firm looking to update all of their interoffice communications systems with the newest technologies. Ours, they weren’t the newest technologies but an adequate facsimile carrying the name of a generic brand. When Doug leaves I am alone in the breakroom, there is well over half the cake left, and everyone already did have at least one piece, a few came back around for another, and we hardly made a dent. I imagine Doug, selling high-tech communications systems, belly-full and inundated in sugar and molasses and cinnamon and carrot. I imagine him getting sleepy later in the day, and I imagine this will lead to some interoffice crankiness. I imagine myself saying to him, “Mondays… am I right.” I imagine myself saying this around 4:00 PM and I imagine myself saying this in an ironic way that telegraphs humor — like I know how lame what I am saying is. Then I imagine asking Doug to come to Kavanagh’s Pub for a beer, saying something like, “Only an hour left in the salt mines… Kavanagh’s, you in?” I Imagine he makes some excuse, tells me next time, and we never speak of getting beer again. Now, Dan pokes his head back in the breakroom, and he looks at the Carrot-Cake, still more than half uncut and intact, he tells me to head back to my desk, and I refill my coffee mug — on which, the word DeKalb is printed over a logo of a flying ear of corn. I’ll have to wait at my desk, looking at my screen, for at least two hours before I can come back to the breakroom — that’s office policy.
The systems this whole place runs on are simple and ubiquitous. Like the same (system-wise) as any other office you’ve probably worked in, or, are at least aware of in a tertiary way. Like you know there are offices, even though you don’t work in one, and in those offices they have certain computer programs (email systems, data systems, spreadsheet generators, and word processors). This office runs on the same systems as any other office. IT work, in turn, is not complicated and that suits me just fine, but my desk is far away from the clumps and clusters on The Floor. I have my own private space, and I have administrative access to the computers on The Floor. That is what connects me to them.
I imagine myself as part of their lives, but only the parts I can see and touch (digitally that is). My predecessor, he moved on for a start-up downtown, he warned me about the boredom, and he told me Dan never comes back here. He (my predecessor) watched T.V over the internet while at work.
When I remote into the computers on The Floor there is a flicker on the screen that lasts about a full second — it’s a real tell. And, to complicate the matter, the people on The Floor all know this flicker and its implication. I look at the clock in the bottom, right-hand corner of my primary monitor: 3:45 PM. fifteen more minutes and I can go back. The coffee in my mug is now stone-cold. My stomach aches, but only slightly. They know this flicker because they call me sometimes when they’ve done something to make their computers behave in an anomalous way. These are the user errors that real IT guys (in real IT departments) make jokes about. When they call, I have to talk to them, so I say, “Let me take a look,” after they’ve explained their issues. When I remote in my monitor flickers, and I know theirs does too. Then I say, “I’m in.” I usually work in silence after that, making short work of the simple issues that tend to crop up, and then afterward I say, “That oughta do it.”
I’ve been remoted into Karen’s computer since the AM. She walked past my desk to get more Post-Its from the supply closet a short while ago, and the air around me still smells like rose-water and lavender, which is her scent. She mostly works when she’s at work, which, is kind of anomalous. She has an ongoing email correspondence with our supplier of printer toner even though she has no real reason to emailing with the toner supplier, but they both keep up a convincing ruse of him wanting her advice on business data management. They write to each other in a friendly and very familiar way.
I imagine they are fucking on the sly. I imagine I see through the ruse. She has three browser tabs open. She actually has many more browser tabs open, but these three are not work-related and the most interesting. The first is for Weight Watchers. Karen is not skinny, but she is not fat. She is in that head-space people sometimes live in where you can tell they are in a constant state of worrying about losing ten pounds. I imagine her trysts with the toner supplier beginning and ending in hotel rooms, where they order room service afterward. His name is Lawrence, and I imagine Karen feels guilty for both the sex and for the hamburgers with fires they consume afterwards.
She’s not married but she is Catholic. She subscribes to Daily Reflections and Bible Verse of the Day emails. I imagine wanting to have sex with the toner supplier has very little to do with her reasons for actually having sex with the toner supplier.
The second tab is a social media account, on which, she is exchanging private messages with her mother. Her mother’s personality seems cold and distant, and when they exchange well wishes, and I Love Yous at the termination of their exchanges, I imagine neither of them mean it. I read their language as disingenuous and false and lacking in warmth, and I think they’ve had a false-type-relationship Karen’s whole life. I imagine myself talking with her about my mother-type-person. Telling her about the time my mother left me to wait (on a parking block) in the school parking lot for hours. How so complete was her forgetting about my forensics quarter-final, that not only did she not show up, and forgot to pick me up, and forced me to walk the six miles home under an ever darkening sky, but, that when I got there she was so asleep on the couch, that no amount of shaking her arm would wake her.
I imagine telling her I know from cold, and from distant, and from false. I imagine telling her I understand. She cries then, but just like a little, not an off-putting amount of emoting — a rather sweet amount of tears. Endearing. She then takes me to the rendezvous place. We order room service afterward, and neither of us feels guilty.
The third tab is a listing of local AA groups and their meeting times. She only periodically frequents this page. If I were to hazard a guess, this particular page appears in her open tabs about once every 3-19 weeks with an almost randomized infrequency. I made a game of predicting when this AA schedule makes its appearances. I predict the day the schedule will next appear in her open tabs by making a mark on the calendar hanging from a green thumbtack on my corkboard. The mark is an X, in bold red Sharpie. Like, if the AA groups and times listing appeared on a Monday the 22nd, I would flip my calendar ahead, let’s say for our own sake three months (not that I am actually predicting three months, but like, as a for example) and then I’d make my large red Sharpie X on say the 13th of the following month. I am rarely ever right to the day, but it does help pass the time. The constant monitoring for the reappearance of the AA group schedule in her browser tabs can be exhausting. She writes a lot of emails, messages with friends (but mostly with her cold mother), she listens to internet radio, and of course, she continues her correspondence with the toner supplier — all of which must be read and cataloged in my notebooks for better AA listings prediction in the future.
The naked sheet cake in the breakroom still sits mostly uneaten. One fly buzzes it in a circular pattern not yet bothering to land. Just dipping in close to the surface of the cake like a fighter pilot would strafe some strategically important targeted military installment or surface of an enemy aircraft carrier floating along on the sea. The fly, I can see, is one of the fattest, and blackest flies I have ever seen. The kind that was born indoors and has had access to plenty of discarded food-stuffs. Like from garbage cans. I imagine the fly was born here (in this breakroom in specific), likely in the recycling bin, toppling recklessly with soda cans and the mostly empty bottles of vitamin enhanced water that Karen thinks will help her reduce. I notice that she sometimes only logs one (or like maybe two, if she can’t resist her stomach’s rumble) as the totality of her lunch-type-meal on the Weight Watchers site.
There is no coffee left in the pot. I have no reason to be here, no reason to lean against the Formica underneath the mug cabinet waiting for someone else to come in — maybe for more cake.
I open drawers and cabinets, and I act as if I am taken and preoccupied with a search-type-thing. I do this for the entirety of the fifteen minutes I am allotted for my break. Eventually, Dan enters, Green-Sheet section of the newspaper tucked under his arm, finished crossword puzzle visible to me. He says, “Want any more of this?” I’m trying to think quickly now, what’s something clever to say (vis-a-vie the Carrot-Cake)? Something funny, witty, something to endear this Dan to me, something that would require a chuckle of amusement.
“No, thanks though.” The words are quiet as I speak them, meek even, embarrassing really. Dan picks up the cake, walks it over to the tall trashcan, and dumps it in. I imagine him at his home, thinking about the cake, like later tonight. I imagine him alone and in tight white underwear, stained yellow at the fronts, wondering why more cake wasn’t consumed, and why no one seemed appreciative of his altruistic cake-type-gesture. I imagine he cries, alone, dreading another night of short and fitful sleep. I imagine him trying not to think about another day, having to move awkward through the office, no acknowledgment of his sacrifices (or contributions) forthcoming from colleagues, and no escape from the rush of becoming a middle-aged, embarrassing joke. At least, that’s what I imagine.
Scott Mitchel May dropped out of school when he was seventeen and moved to Wisconsin. He worked as a short-order cook for some years before getting his HSED and enrolling at Edgewood College where he graduated with a degree in English Literature. Scott is a writer, reader, and enjoyer of fermented beverages. He lives in New Glarus, Wisconsin.