Casualties

An espresso machine. iStockphoto.com i i

An espresso machine. iStockphoto.com adam smigielski/iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption adam smigielski/iStockphoto.com
An espresso machine. iStockphoto.com

An espresso machine. iStockphoto.com

adam smigielski/iStockphoto.com

For Round 6 of our contest, we asked you to send us original works of fiction where one of the characters tells a joke and one of the characters cries.

In the heyday, by which I mean 2007, little luxuries began appearing in the office. Fruit baskets from happy clients. Bigger baskets of rarer fruit from management, happy that we had happy clients.

A refulgent espresso machine in the break room, accompanied by a selection of espresso in a rainbow of metallic pods. Chocolates artfully sculpted and engraved as if they were intended to rest upon a velvet bed, displayed in a softly lit Lucite case. Once the initial delight wore off, we no longer bothered to figure out where any particular item came from.

"Fairies brought the goodies overnight, slipping them in with their luminous little fingers," Lila joked, but we kind of believed her.

When the rococo chocolates ran out, and no reinforcements followed, we thought we could handle it. The disappearance of the fruit baskets was more debilitating. The head of our group, Jason, liked to drop Civil War allusions that none of us could remember enough from high school to verify or refute. The casualties may seem bad, he told us, but remember that the Seven Days Battle ultimately burnished Lee's reputation. He spread his fleshy cheeks into what I suppose he thought was an encouraging smile.

The fine teas vanished over a weekend; the spot where they used to sit on the counter glowered in its blankness. Opening the cabinet one Wednesday morning, I found that the coffee mugs seemed to have shrunk, but someone had simply replaced the generous cafe au lait bowls with prim cups half the size. "So we drink less coffee," I said, thinking aloud.

"You are well known for your reconnaissance, Gen. Burnside," said Jason, chortling. "Is that a joke?" I asked. An unsettled feeling took hold in my chest, squeezing my sternum from beneath.

It is hard to recall whether the people began to disappear before the toilet paper went from two-ply to one. Didn't we know things were bad? Sure, we could see the clients portfolios drift and then race downward. CNBC was on all day in the background. We knew, we knew; but we didn't want to know. Even with the wispy toilet paper and the torrent of layoffs, we just couldn't let ourselves think even fleetingly that our circumstances had been irreversibly altered. To get out of bed in the morning, it seemed necessary to believe that the fairies would return, that the jewel-hued espresso pods were the rule and not the exception.

As the months wore on, the remaining few of us had grown despondent; even if there had been snacks, we had no appetite. There was still work to be done, and Jason tried to rally us.

"Team," he proclaimed, "we may be diminished in number, but that doesn't mean we have to be timid. Think of Gen. Lee at Chancellorsville!"

"Why are we always the Confederacy?" Lila asked, and her words unlatched a trove of details I didn't know I had ever learned. Facts rushed forth in a torrent: battles, people, numbers, dates. I rose from the lumpy desk chair that had replaced my Aeron and thrust a finger into the air. "The toilet paper," I said, "was our Gettysburg."

They all looked up at me, with an earnest hopefulness borne of months of pummeling. Only Jason looked away. I stared at him. He stared out the window. The others looked from me to him and from him to me. Minutes passed. My arm grew tired. Finally, he looked back, his eyes wet with tears. The turning point that is clear only in retrospect, he said, his voice breaking. And so it was.

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