Illustration by Milano Chow
Vice: This story is written from a pretty reprehensible point of view: A racist guy in an office who is obsessed with his black coworker. It’s harsh.
Neil: Yeah, it’s interesting. This kind of thing really grows out of the moment for me as a writer.
So it didn’t grow out of a long-standing idea?
No. Writing things like this is almost an experiment for me.
Was there a point when you were writing it and you just said, “Hmm. This is too much”?
For me, there is no “too much.” I want to provoke an audience, but only in the best sense.
You mean that you want them to think about things.
Yes, and that audience includes me, you, and the readers. I want to get people to respond to this kind of thing. Ever since In the Company of Men, I’ve been interested in office politics and power dynamics. This is a take on all of that.
’ve been shitting in L’Tesha Jackson’s desk drawer for months now and I see no reason to stop. I really don’t. See, the thing of it is, it started as this little prank, a sort of dare that a buddy of mine put me up to and that was that. A one-time deal. I stayed late one night at work—no big thing, very normal, lots of folks do with the sliding deadlines that they’ve got us on (we might as well be chained to our desks, practically)—and I played around on my computer, did a little filing, made a Cup-a-Soup in the microwave, etc., all while keeping an eye on everybody else as the ranks were slowly thinning out (this was a Friday, which made sense what with the weekend coming up). By ten that night, the place was a graveyard. I’d been alone for a good hour or more and the moon was shining in through the big windows that face the park across the street. It was a beautiful evening, from the looks of it. I made one last check of the back cubicles and all of the restrooms—there are two sets on our floor—and then moved quickly over to her desk. She had one near the window which hardly seemed right since she was fairly new; a “must hire” friend of somebody from upstairs and she’d settled into a recently vacated spot that most of us had had our eyes on. Pretty soon it was covered in pictures of her two kids—she’s a “single mom,” big surprise—movie-magazine photos of the Denzel Washington/Will Smith/Jamie Foxx variety and all kinds of other crap that would make your head spin if you saw it. Even a few of those Kwanzaa cards (I’m not kidding!) that are the gaudiest colors and some half-deflated balloons from a birthday party that we were compelled to throw for her—she shares a birthday with Diana Ross she was quick to inform us. Also Leonard Nimoy and the poet Robert Frost—I made a quick check online—but they received no mention from her, which did not surprise me one little bit. Anyway, it was a beautiful night, the evening of the first assault; I moved briskly across the room, unbuckling my Kenneth Cole belt and dropping my trousers as I approached her area. I then opened her top drawer where she kept all her pens and pencils—right next to her “Big Brothers/Big Sisters” eraser—and let my ass hang down over the lip of the wood. I made sure it landed—the shit, I’m saying—all over her new ruler and her paperclips and then shut the drawer behind me. The pileup of feces was pretty substantial and it just barely cleared but with a little coaxing everything was back to normal (as it were) when I finished the deed. Five seconds after, I gathered myself up and shuffled off toward the men’s room to give myself a good wiping, trying to not let the edge of my shirt touch my backside. It was as easy as that and I was home watching CNN about 40 minutes later. Well, obviously it didn’t stop there. I would’ve ended it then, I promise you I would—the whole thing began only because she took a parking spot that my friend on security liked for this old ’74 Nova that he drove but she wouldn’t hear of it as they had assigned that spot to her when she was hired and it was near the elevators so that was that. To be fair, the guy even offered her some cash for it but she made a whole big deal out of it, screeching at the top of her lungs to his supervisor that he better “back off” and “get up outta her face.” After that, when he—Gary’s his name, by the way, “Gary”—had covered himself with one of those “airtight” alibis that they love to talk about on the television cop shows, Gary asked me to do him a little favor and take a dump in her desk to teach her a lesson. I’d already lost out on the window seat so it didn’t take much—two beers at the bar around the corner—for me to say “OK” and start planning the job. Afterwards, on that Monday that we returned to work, it was just, well, pretty unbelievable the way she went off. Yes, true, she had a mound of crap in her drawer but you would’ve thought she was there on some African beach, screaming at Spanish slavers as they were taking her sons and daughters away, never to see them again. First, it’s always the discovery—which was amazing, quite frankly—and her falling back out of her chair and screaming at the top of her lungs (have you ever heard a black woman scream?), all while she was retching and hobbling around in her high heels, going down to one knee, pointing at the desk and tears pouring out. My God, it was quite a show. Of course I joined in on the whole patting her on the back and shaking my head of it all, covering my tracks with each hug and offer to clean it up for her. I did, in fact. Scooped the whole drawer out of the desk and carried it off toward the basement of the building. Entire thing had to take at least three hours out of the day—which didn’t suck—and we had to individually go talk to our supervisor as we retraced our steps of the previous workday (the Friday past) for her. She’s this big, old, nosy woman that’s been working there for, like, 50 years or some crazy number and I could care less what she thinks but I was perfectly nice and made up a few lies and was back at my desk with plenty of time to say “good-bye” to everybody and head on home. L’Tesha had to leave at noon, of course, unable to stomach what had happened to her and feeling faint. And she didn’t even have to take a personal day, either, as the folks up in Administration were no doubt preparing themselves for a lawsuit (which she has never done to this day, which I must give her proper credit for). If the company had offered to settle in “food stamps” it probably would’ve been a different story—I’m just kidding, I made that joke to a friend of mine from an office downstairs and we laughed about it over lunch one time—but it has not, as of yet, come down to any kind of legal situation. And that may be why I keep doing it. Shitting in her desk, I mean. Now it’s become more of a habit than anything; I’m serious when I say that, because I’m not even really into it anymore. Sure, it’s funny when she stumbles on to one—she has moved to four different areas (I’m happy to mention that the coveted window station was taken over by yours truly) but L’Tesha continues to be plagued by this recurring event. I honestly believe that she’s convinced herself that there’s some kind of voodoo going on (you know how those people can be) and she had a family member—older woman with wild hair and these honey-colored eyes—come in and do some sort of religious mumbo-jumbo to her latest desk and chair. I can’t swear that there was chicken blood involved but she did rub some sort of crap all over the place from a little baggie that she pulled out of her purse. I’ll let it go for a few weeks and then every so often, wham! She’ll come in late—this is a habit with her and I’m not saying it as a racial thing because I don’t have a mean bone in my body—and she’ll be juggling a Diet Pepsi and some crappy piece of art that her son did at school and barking out “Good mornings!” to whoever might be willing to listen. That’s what it’s like with her, most days; she’s really not much of a worker and that’s simply a fact, not a slur on her race or creed or color (I get those mixed up but I’m sure you know what I mean). And it’ll be waiting for her, curled up in a side drawer or slopping over the edges of her stapler or wherever the mood strikes me. Another load. It really is kind of funny, you’d have to admit if you saw it even once—I’ll bet they’d play it on one of those America’s Funniest Videos or “You Tube” except for maybe the poop part—and then off we go, the whole 32nd floor, through another round of bonding and holding her and anger and desperate reviews by corporate counselors of our employee files. For added protection, they even installed cameras on our floor which I believe is against the law—I kindly pointed this out one day (through an anonymous note)—but they’re only turned on when the office is empty. At night. Of course what they don’t know, couldn’t really be expected to guess, is that I only do it (a bombing run, as we now call it) on evenings that coordinate with Gary’s schedule so that he can get to the tape in the early AM and erase the ugly truth from the video records. You can practically hear the clack-clack-clack of security footwear as they run down to the vault and desperately check the playback after another incident is reported—and there it is, our humble little office, slumbering away through the night by the collective glow of our inactive monitors. It’s pretty classic. I don’t really like L’Tesha; I suppose I would agree to that if you were to push me into a corner on the subject—sent me to prison (where I’d no doubt meet a cousin or brother of hers) or put me into one of those secret CIA dungeons and tortured me for a few days—that’s what I’d say. “No, I don’t much care for the lazy, silly, ugly, useless bitch.” That would be the company line, at least, the one I’d go to my grave reciting; and I don’t hold anything against her—not even the way she was hired—and it certainly has nothing (or very, very little) to do with the fact that she obviously has some black mom or dad and God-knows-what-else for a parent. Vietnamese, maybe. I do this, what I’m in the process of doing even at this very moment, because it’s funny and addictive and one of those things that becomes a kind of ritual in your life. And, quite honestly, in some weird way I find that it helps me to understand her—Ms. L’Tesha Jackson, with the one gold tooth and the ratty hair and a penchant for dark purple clothing—and her kind at those moments of crisis when I’m standing there holding her, letting her cry directly onto my Arrow dress shirt. I watch her, as she looks up at me with those big eyes of hers and I can feel the rise and fall of her breasts, breasts that even after two illegitimate children seem to be full and firm and ripe, and with my arms enshrouding her, looking out with my sad face at my surrounding coworkers—who are all nodding and crying in some sort of communal grief—my hands can make out the top, the absolute rise, of what seems to be an astonishingly solid and beautiful ass, just beneath the cheap fabric of a flowered skirt. And at those moments, these few seconds that we spend together once or twice a month now, I feel all the hatred and fear and desperation of black and white and man and woman drop away and we are free, L’Tesha and me, as we clutch one another there on our industrial carpet—as free as the first plantation owner who ever dipped into that well must have felt, holding some young dark-skinned beauty close to his heaving chest. Yes, she and I are merely associates and working our way through a little office tragedy, but in my mind L’Tesha and I are free, drifting freely out the window next to my desk and sailing off into a perfect sky, above the park and the buildings nearby, away toward the glowing ball of yellow sun that sits hovering on the distant horizon… NEIL LABUTE Yep. This piece is definitely a bit rich. Obviously you’re creating a character that’s very different from you. Does it take a long time to write in a voice that’s so foreign to your own? No. It came relatively quickly. It was a matter of days rather than weeks. Do you do a lot of drafts of one piece? I’m a tinker. I do a lot of little tweaking, but I don’t think of any of it as vast enough to call it a draft. It’s funny how I’m still fixated on trying to categorize this piece. Is it a character study? Satire? An attack on the follies of humankind? Just call it a documentary. It’s something I did a while back and I needed to get it off my chest. [laughs] That isn’t going to make my job any easier, you know.