On Tuesday when Imani got to work at 7:30 in the morning and found her chair missing, she was almost glad. What if she didn’t spend the whole day sitting? What if she used her feet for once? Her desk didn’t adjust. Maybe she would have to go home. “You’ve lost your chair,” she imagined. “You’re fired.” Or, “My chair is gone. I quit.” She wanted to feel self-righteous about it. She wanted to want to stand on the tips of her loafers and shout, “What absolute asshole stole my swivel chair?” over the walls of the cubicles, but she didn’t want to. In fact she was elated. For the first time in six years, she did not know what was going to happen at work today.
And anyway, who was she supposed to ask? She dropped her bag on her desk and stepped out into the maze of cubicles. The cube farm, she called it, but only in her head. Everyone she passed in the corridor had the same chair, except for the people with blue-green ergonomic balls. Maybe she should just take one of those, run up behind that woman and steal her ball out from under her nice round butt and run—an office-wide game of musical chairs!
She walked past the ball lady and made her way out of the cube farm with practiced navigation. As she passed the office of her supervisor, she said, “Good morning, Imani.” Imani stopped with awkward abruptness.
Her supervisor was drinking coffee with one of the regional managers. Imani had an aha moment—the regional manager was using her chair! But the chair he was sitting in was not a swivel chair at all. Don’t be silly, she thought. Supervisors have more than one chair.
“Did you need something, Imani?” asked her supervisor. The general manager looked up at her over his coffee, which he was slurping because it was hot. Imani tugged at the hem of her suit jacket.
“Nope. No, good morning,” she said, and walked off—not back the way she had come. That would look suspect. Instead she took a sharp detour to the bathroom. Inside the bathroom, sitting on the floor, was a man with a screwdriver and a swivel chair. He had a baby face but a balding head, very round glasses, and no tie.
“Did I forget to lock that?” he said vaguely, glancing up only for a moment before again going to work on the swivel chair, which was lying on its back.
Imani, who had no script for this kind of situation, said, “I was looking for that.”
“Was this your chair?” said the man. “Would you lock that door for me, Imani?”
“On which side of me?” He didn’t respond so she locked herself in. “I want my chair back, Jack,” she said, which wasn’t strictly true.
“There are extras.”
“Why didn’t you just use one of those?”
“They’re in the conference room and it’s locked.”
“Okay, so…” She squatted down in her heels, brushed her braids out of her face, and watched Jack muscle a screw out from the bottom of the chair. “This is my chair so you have to tell me what you’re doing to it.”
“I need the wheels.”
“For your chair?”
“No, my chair is fine.”
“You should have used your chair then.”
“I need them both.”
“You’ve got to tell me why.”
He looked at her full-on for the first time and said, “If you help me.”
They took the back road back into the cube farm so they didn’t have to pass the supervisor’s office. No one in the cubicles looked at them because they were all turned the other way. They made their way to Jack’s cubicle which was somewhere between Imani’s cubicle and all the other cubicles—space was relative in there.
“What do I do with this?” said Imani, still holding the back of her chair.
“We don’t need it.”
“You want me to just leave it?”
She left it. He handed her the wheels of her chair and wheeled his own out into the corridor. She followed him to the back of the cube farm, past the copy room, through the break room. In the break room was their supervisor, refilling the coffee cups, one in each hand. She stopped mid-sip and stared at them: Jack with a chair, Imani with half of one. Imani was wondering if she should run or apologize when Jack said. “They’re broken. Dumpster’s out back.”
The supervisor swallowed her coffee.
“What’s wrong with that one?”
“It’s stuck at the lowest height. Makes my legs cramp.” The supervisor paused, gave what was almost a nod, and walked out with her coffee. Imani gaped in awe of two things: firstly, to see someone lie to a supervisor with such complete laziness, and secondly, at how little interest supervisors had in anything that happened in offices.
She followed Jack out a back door she had never walked through before. Outside their office building was a little concrete ramp down into an empty parking lot. The building alongside their building was empty—it had been for years—and this was its parking lot. The pavement was cracking and the lines were worn away, and it sloped down towards the little paved road that connected it to the main street.
“Now as you’ll see,” said Jack, industriously guiding his chair down the ramp and onto the pavement, “the lot not only slopes down, but also to the right. So I set up these barriers to guide the chair in the right direction. He waved his pointer finger at two parallel rows of boxes. They were boxes of copy paper, unopened, weighing a considerable amount with their reams of paper. There were scores of them, each pressed flush against the next, forming a channel from the top of the empty lot all the way down the little road. At the bottom of the road, a dozen yards before it spilled out into the street, was an old conference table, propped upward long-wise by a sloppy construction of mop handles, desk parts, and more boxes of copy paper. It was padded with cushions and bubble wrap. “I’m going to have to ask that you tell no one about this.”
“You did all this?” said Imani, looking over her shoulder at the back door.
“At the rate of about one box every two weeks. During bathroom breaks.” He sounded proud.
“Seven years four months.”
“And you’ve worked here…”
“Seven years twelve months.” He lined up his intact desk chair at the first set of boxes. “I’ll take that. Hold the back here.” Imani handed him the wheels and grabbed the back of the chair as he maneuvered into it. “You can take a turn after me.”
“What’s my chair for?”
“My feet drag.” He slid the wheels under his feet and wriggled into the proper alignment. “You can let go now.”
“Jack.” Imani’s mouth was open. She looked at the rows upon rows of boxes, the broken furniture, the steep curve of the road. “Why?”
He looked at her over his shoulder and smiled, for the first time, and as her fingers began to slip off the back of the chair, he said, “For fun.”