The Black Opal Ring

I’m most immersed at work when executing tasks as though tech support has taken over my body. I try to work like a disembodied spirit, the apotheosis of Full-Time Employee. After a decade of existence in the same office, I maximize disembodiment. I really get into it, revel in it, elevate to an art this sense that a hyper-efficient executor of tasks assumes control. Such possession synchronizes thought with action as documents open and close and communications are composed and sent. At best, I’m taken over by an anonymous outsourced über-colleague whose real name, like the true name of God, is ineffable, or at least really difficult for me to pronounce.

          Seven billion people on the planet, 14 billion eyes, 70 billion fingers. Enough to freak anyone out. A billion stars in the Milky Way, one of a hundred billion galaxies filled with billions of stars, each with its planets, moons, asteroids, comets, meteors, supermassive black holes, dark matter. Nebulas are flouncy nurseries for the creation of new stars, all of it overwhelmed by winds going a million MPH.

          What’s an FTE to do?

          I list each of my projects on a master spreadsheet that runs three pages in six-point type. Each individual project spreadsheet scrolls down the screen more than a yard. I update each cell on the master and individual project spreadsheets as I manage projects and assign and receive work to and from contractors throughout the world. A project will originate in our Frankfurt offices, be overseen by experts in London, Boston, and Johannesburg, be developed in Melbourne and Los Angeles, be produced in India or the Philippines, and then sold online to specialists all over the world. In the center of all this global cooperative workflow, I’m a bionic spider whose body has been replaced by an all-seeing eye surrounded by eight limbs that multitask like it’s an Olympic event. Some days my pulse is elevated for so long I achieve a cardiovascular benefit despite otherwise remaining sedentary. I’ve never estimated the keystrokes and decisions I make in the course of my day but I bet it surpasses the number of eyes in the world. It’s possible that for every star in our galaxy I make a decision and a keystroke over the course of the year. Over the course of my career, the number of decisions and keystrokes will approach the number of galaxies in the universe, if not the number of stars, which would require me to work on a billion computers at once and for each of my eight limbs to branch out in a billion dexterous appendages, each with a mind of its own, each assigned a billion projects to execute.

          Point is, I’m overloaded. I do my best, but each project, if done right, requires the full-time attention of a committed in-house FTE. Some projects have so many moving parts, tracking their progress from conception to proposal to initiation to development to execution to review to production to dissemination is a full-time job. But that’s only a small part of the job. And so I self-administer improvisational cognitive-behavioral therapy.

          All the work is a forest fire within which I’m trapped as I try to extinguish it with the little spray bottle we use at home to keep the cat off the kitchen counter. This little spray bottle is an insufficient forest fire extinguisher, so I envision wings sprouting from tense hunched shoulder blades, taking flight above the forest fire, seeing the wide-open curving horizon, the forest fire no more than a candle beneath me. I nudge a thundercloud in the direction of the forest fire and then fly through it until it releases all its rain and the forest fire ceases to exist. I get over it, essentially. Instead of existing inside the work, hunched over combating spreadsheets and maintaining international correspondence as necessary, I try to see the bigger picture. Only when I do this do I deactivate the fight or flight instinct. The alternative to fight or flight is sprout wings and fly. Not bad for a genderless arachnid FTE.

          I am mostly left alone by my boss, Edith, a woman with a black opal on her ring finger. Asked about it, she says she’s married to a chunk of coal, and then she sighs, as though sighing were a socially acceptable expression of mirth. From the frequency, intensity, and duration of her sighs, it’s clear that her hypothetical spouse embodies squashed hopes for a lifetime of intimate connubial fulfillment.

          I do an above-average job, so when it’s time for my annual review I receive the highest possible marks across all categories (organization, professionalism, execution, urgency, accuracy, affability, punctuality, attendance) and a maximum 4% raise instead of the 2%, 3%, or even 0% my colleagues receive. During the first annual review after Edith had started as my manager, I told her I perform best when left alone. I promised to never raise issues as long as she treated me as though I didn’t exist. It’s not that I keep my head down at the office—I disappear into my work. So the more she distracts me from disappearance the more frustrated I become, the less work I do, the quality suffers, which ultimately reflects on her, not me, because I made it clear from the start that I was not to be bothered. In exchange for an arrangement of this type, I would deploy super-elite special forces to engage the spreadsheets, but only if moved to do so by fair compensation and a sense of autonomy/agency.

          And yet: at eleven in the morning she appears; arms crossed, black opal leveled at my narrowed eyes. She asks if I’ve got a sec, usually she sends an email asking me to “pop over a sec” or tells me to “come ‘ere a minute.” I finish the task at hand before I “pop over a sec.” She sits at her desk, tiny white-sneakered feet barely touching the ground. (She should really work in a forest setting, not in an office. Like the little forest creature she resembles she would be happy towering over the squirrels and chipmunks and moss. It would be best, most fitting on a spiritual level, if this forest setting were also ablaze.) She gestures to close the door. I close it and sit in her spare chair.

          She tells me a mistake has been made on such and such a project. I say it’s not a catastrophic error, it’s easily fixed, it’s not the end of the world. She asks what happened. I say I make a billion keystrokes and decisions a year, some of which may be insignificant errors easily corrected.

          I say I never hear from anyone when projects are executed with absolute precision, totally errorless, but when there’s a minor error caused by the lack of other FTEs in my department, a minor error caused by a workload so extreme it might even be illegal considering that three years ago a smaller workload consisting of simpler projects was executed by as many as five FTEs plus a full-time assistant to handle menial tasks, and now all this falls to me, in terms of my responsibility for assigning and overseeing the execution of the workload by international contractors, and yet you make a big deal over such an insignificant mistake? I say it seems like we’re coming up against unrealistic expectations of perfection, Edith. And then I leave her office and fume at my desk.

          I consider deleting all spreadsheets, all essential communications, all project files, ensuring they’re wiped from the server, and then never returning to the office, cashing out my savings account and even my 401K, and moving to a country where the sun always shines, and where sunshine, plus maybe a tortilla or two with some salt and lime, is enough to live on.

          Seven billion people on the planet and I have to be managed by Edith. Four billion years ago there may have been a civilization on Mars before its atmosphere burned off. Earth’s atmosphere might burn off one day, too, not so much because of emissions—a disruption of the geomagnetic field that holds the atmosphere in place might do the trick. The geomagnetic field relies on the tilt of the earth and forces expressed from the molten core of the planet all the way out to the solar wind. It holds the atmosphere in place and protects us from cosmic rays. If I weren’t so overloaded with projects simultaneously proceeding across various stages I would better explain its significance. You can read about it online. But knowing about it won’t ease your concerns about the long-term prospects of life on this planet. Without the geomagnetic field, the Earth will survive, but it will look more like Mars.

          There are forces so much larger than us at work on such unfathomable scales they make my overloaded spreadsheet manipulation seem like a drop of water with ripples limited to the circumference of a puddle, not even a pond and certainly not a lake or ocean. The most significant thing I can stress is my insignificance in the face of all this, which is why, most likely, considering the compounding complexities of unfathomable expanses of time and space, I often have difficulty accepting my situation in the here and now. One can grin/bear it or take steps to make some changes, such as enticing a male colleague to seduce Edith and steal her ring.

          Stefan originally worked in the Swiss office but transferred here years ago. Divorced in his home country, he now deploys his accent and general aura of Euro all-knowingness to behave like a total ho-bag. For a twenty-something, such behavior could be excused as uncontrolled hormonal surge. But for Stefan, it’s a little creepy. He’s gym fit but his tanned skin no longer clings to muscle beneath it. His hair is thick and full and colored dark orange. He often inquires about the installation of a treadmill desk to counteract the detriment a sedentary life causes his game. Seven billion people on the planet and if Stefan seems intent on spending the rest of his life trying to sleep with several hundred of them, who’s to judge?

          At happy hours he has propositioned me, omnivorous lust trumping gender nullity, and whenever I reject him I tell him he owes me one or else I’ll inform HR about his insatiable horn-dog act. Stefan laughs it off but he knows I’m as serious as he is about one day adding me to his thousand-plus head count. So I lead him on. I suggest that if you rise to this challenge for me, I’ll do a little thing for you. Stefan raises the difficulty of courting Edith in a way that seems sincere, not to mention the expense. I say bill me. He says he’ll do it, if only because he’s bored with his typical conquests.

          Stefan’s progress reports belied the stereotype of Swiss precision but whatever he was doing seemed to work. Edith blossomed. It was unmistakable, the glow of getting it on the regular for the first time in a long time, possibly ever. She seemed to prance through the office space, pirouette around corners, thrum as she sat at her computer, smiling as FTEs popped in a sec.

          Stefan too seemed happy, dazed even. Gone was the depravity so often apparent across his Nordic features, akin to men on erotic paperback covers, although with shorter hair. He seemed patient, the raging desperate horn-dog tamed perhaps by the ring I’d sent him to steal.

          I was the only one in the office who knew what was going on between Edith and Stefan, and so I was the only one who attributed improved office-wide morale to whatever they did after hours. It was like consecutive days of excessive humidity, gray billowing skies, thunderstorm activity that threatens but never quite bursts. Everyone’s occupied by churning, oppressive, leaden air and then in the middle of the night, the rain comes, a full-on holy downpour. Days afterward are bright and clear, so much so that all life on Earth is not only livable but enjoyable. Existence assumes the form of a sunflower raising a weighty head to acknowledge early morning radiance. An eagle turns circles for nothing more than the miracle of flight. That’s what office life was like as Edith and Stefan fell in love. The only one who worried about it was the only one who knew why. I had joined two unhappy pieces. Now I worried they’d join forces against me.

          Stefan lied when asked for updates. Something new in his eyes seemed to flow through his body, if not out his mouth. He was working on it, he said. All was going as planned. I told him I wanted the ring sooner than later. I didn’t say I wanted to put an end to worries they’d turn against me. Or mention that they seemed happy and their happiness, compared to the black opal on Edith’s ring finger, would be temporary. And then one day it occurred to me: Stefan, I said, you must insist she give you the ring as a sign you two are serious. Stefan said yah, yah, it is a good idea. He would ask for it and, if she agreed to remove it, he would give it to me.

          Edith must have known about its ability to absorb and store negativity. In the wrong hands the ring could be used for evil. But I wanted to use it for good, or at least a sort of sustainable neutrality. Like a pyromaniac firefighter at work on a global scale, something inside me hoped to endanger the world so I could save it.

          In exchange for adequate pay and benefits and somewhere to be every weekday morning, in exchange for a function interdependent on other functions, I had reduced my territory to where I sat, content to communicate each day across several continents. Sedentary, solitary, strapped to a desk, I exchanged a sense of the wide-open world for its semblance.

          The more Stefan and Edith bloomed to inhabit their ever-widening world, the more the walls closed in on me. My commute seemed like a tunnel. I feared the next step: work-induced blindness, the complexities of the spreadsheets so internalized they became all I saw, all I thought about, all I felt, my dreams structured in columns and rows.

          Once streaming with interpenetrating astral continents of lilac and azure, all my atmosphere had begun to burn off. Days when my spirit lavished in endless possibilities seemed like a billion years ago. I’d contracted the world into something like a black opal.

          And the more Stefan and Edith fell in love, the longer their joy seemed to last, the less often I requested updates. Edith no longer wore the black opal. Her hair grew longer and darkened and took on a healthy sheen as she dealt with her underlings in such a way that no longer made them grumble. After a diamond appeared on Edith’s ring finger, Stefan and I wordlessly decided to forget our agreement, including compensation for accrued expenses.

          Their happiness seemed like celestial heat. Exposed to the interstellar winds of their affection, I performed a sort of cutaneous striptease, shedding layers of skin in long, graceful strips, molting like a tropical fish left too long in room-temperature water. I would have worried more if others had noticed. At most colleagues asked if I’d lost weight.

          I still had my wits about me. I didn’t ask anyone if I looked more diaphanous than usual, or if my skin seemed shredded and transparent. But by the time Edith and Stefan returned from their honeymoon, I could see straight through my chest to a little black stone that had replaced my heart.

          This black opal inside me pulled me toward Stefan’s fancy new treadmill desk. I resisted the impulse to ransack his drawers until I held Edith’s ring close to its complement in my chest. If I wore her ring on a chain around my neck, the magnetism between the two rocks might restore me? I had wanted to save the world. Now I only wanted to save myself.

          Earth’s atmosphere relies on magnetic attraction to keep it in place. It has something to do with the angle of its axis, the north and south poles separated by all that ocean and earth. I didn’t love thinking of my heart as a quasi-metallic magnet, and yet this magnet of mine powered the strongest telescope to scan the heavens in search of a meaningful life. Sighing had worked for Edith. Worked wonders for her, really. I now felt like the embodiment of sighs, 100% steamy spirit, impatient for geomagnetic reversal, until one day I emitted a current of exasperation that conveyed me upstream, back to where it all began, long before I lost what had once made life worth living.

          Edith and Stefan gave notice. They planned to sell everything and see the world. The Frankfurt office tapped me to assume Edith’s responsibilities. Stefan must have informed her of my desire, for she left the ring on her desk with a Post-It indicating it was for me, like crown and scepter bequeathed to office royalty.

          My home life has since gone to hell as I put in extra hours, but such sacrifice is worth it for a sense of renewed purpose. Reflected in the bathroom mirror, animated by the dark arts of leadership, my eyes seem present again—and from its perch on my ring finger, in command once more of the satellite office, oh how the black opal gleams.

LEE KLEIN is the author of Neutral Evil (Sagging Meniscus, 2020) and the translator of Horacio Castellanos Moya's Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador (New Directions, 2016). He maintains a comprehensive compendium of his literary-related activities and impressions at litfunforever.com.