Marie at the Door

ALL EMPLOYEES:
Failure to wear proper safety equipment as specified in the appropriate operations manual(s) is grounds for immediate dismissal.

Marie inserted her plastic identity card into the reader next to a black metal door, one of several such interruptions in the towering white wall that was the main facility and corporate headquarters of Monolith Printing Inc. Ltd.

It was dark inside compared to the dazzling white of the featureless building. Marie stepped blindly to the right and felt for the door to the small utility room where her cleaning cart and materials were stored. Eyes wide she peered into the dark, fumbling for the handle. She wheeled the cart backwards out the door where the light was a little better and she could read the duty chart left on a clipboard by a maintenance worker on the previous shift, someone she’d never met.

There was only one work order on the duty clipboard.

MAINTENANCE REQUEST
Location: Women’s washroom, 2nd floor
Category: Electrical
Production, Safety, Admin, Other: Safety
Priority 1-5: 3
Skills/Training needed: none
Detail: Please fix flickering overhead light.

Marie would plan her maintenance route by the tasks the clipboard outlined. The light could wait while she cleaned the counters and work surfaces in the foyer where the receptionists worked. It was a busy area. By the end of the day the floors were littered with scribbled notes, the crevices with paper clips and broad worktop was covered with a tangle of telephone cords. Marie would clean every phone with her special blue cleaning solution which she mixed herself and kept in a spray bottle. She’d wipe the counter with her all-purpose cleanser from company supplies. But first she’d untangle the cords and place each phone neatly on the right side of each work station. Except Harriet’s. That went on the left. Marie had loved Harriet, ever since she had received a hand-written note from her complete with a smiley face.

Cleaning staff: Hope you had a good day! Please try to leave my phone on the LEFT side of my work station as I’m left-handed and the cords already get tangled up enough!

Thanks a lot!

Harriet

Marie kept the note in her apron. It was a memento from the old days. Cleaning the foyer was easy now. Nobody entered it except a security guard on his regular patrol.

EMPLOYEE ASSESSMENT
Name: Marie Dawn Legere
Date of Hire: April 10 1980
Position: 1980-2015 Assistant office cleaner
Observations: Employee is rarely late and has taken no sick leave. No complaints have been entered in her file. Colleagues say she is cooperative and capable. She is sole supporter of her two school-age children. She has no allergies and is capable of lifting a 25 kg weight to counter height. She has a small credit card debt but no major financial obligations. Her financial situation and demonstrated ability to work independently make her an ideal night shift employee.
Signed: Joe Frosst, Personnel Associate, 10/12/1980

Marie’s job was limited to the business facilities, a cluster of offices and work areas along one side of the Monolith building. She had never seen the giant printing press which occupied the rest of the building. Soon, she knew, it would emit an ominous moan as it came up to speed for another printing run. Then it would churn and clank like a monster lizard chained to the ground. The walls and floors would vibrate. Sometimes dishes would fall off tables in the employee lunchroom and Marie would be needed with her cleaning cart. The constant moan was a background to her work. Marie was afraid of the pressroom.

She was not an important employee like the men who served the press. She had found their funny hats in the lunchroom. They were made from newspaper pages, folded into box shapes. Marie loved the pressmen because they were creative and brave.

They weren’t afraid of the press. According to the company video which had been shown to her by the personnel department, the pressmen worked right inside the clanking monster as it ran, worming their way among the whirring pullies and gears. Sometimes they would hold one finger against a madly spinning drum, just skimming its surface to remove a tiny speck of dust. A dust speck, said the video, produced something called a hickey, a tiny white spot on a page where ink could not print.

Marie could hardly bear to think about these men. What if one of them caught his hand between the huge rollers? Would he be dragged into the press? Would the huge paper trail be soaked with blood?

CAUTION: FOR EMPLOYEE SAFETY AND SUPERVISION VIDEO CAMERAS HAVE BEEN PLACED THRoUGHOUT THE BUILDING.

The plastic card Marie wore contained a chip that tracked her movements. She knew she appeared on camera from time to time, even in the women’s washroom.

She dared not take a minute longer than necessary on her bathroom breaks– not even to thumb the romance novel that had captivated her for weeks, since she found it in the lunchroom.

She looked in the washroom mirror. A short, slight woman with a pinched face. She wasn’t tall enough to reach the fluorescent light that flickered above. She glanced at the video camera as if to its indulgence. She’d have to find a ladder before attending to the light.

Marie kept waiting for the press to start. It had been quiet longer than usual.

On her way back to the supply closet, Marie visited the company bulletin board. She loved the board. She scavenged for snippets of news among the safety notices and shift changes but found nothing new. The notice about the pressmen starting a jazz band had been there for months. Under that was the old page from a brochure showing a sailboat leaning into the wind, complete with happy family: $3,500 obo, see Joe in Bindery. Marie’s rummaged under the directory of safety officers for her favourite picture, showing a toddler sloppily enjoying an ice cream cone on a woman’s lap. She had furtively drawn a heart on it.

Marie tried to avoid looking at the most recent notice on the board.

ALL EMPLOYEES
Monolith is pleased to announce the sale of the company to XYZ inc., a South Korean conglomerate. The press and related equipment is being merged with the company’s other holdings in Pictou. As far as possible employees with be offered jobs in the new location. Those we can’t accommodate will be offered a settlement package in compliance with Subsection 3(b) of the Nova Scotia Labour Code. You will be notified individually by your supervisor of the date and time of your meeting with our Personnel Office.

The notice had appeared earlier that week, but Marie had not heard from her supervisor.

Marie’s stomach was queasy. She retreated to her special spot, a utility closet that nobody used. It had been a godsend at times when the press was at its loudest and employees shouted in the hall. Gradually it had become hers. She had even added furniture, a broken chair from the dumpster outside, an old blanket from home and even a candle that furnished enough light to read by. Marie loved to read. She wrapped herself in her blanket, lit her candle and took out her paperback:

“The only way out is up that ladder,” shouted the fireman, his rugged frame silhouetted by the leaping flames below. The ladder disappeared into the smoke above. Helen hesitated, trying to quell her fear. Without a word the firemen scooped her up in his manly embrace and threw her over his shoulder. In seconds they had reached the safety of the palace balcony.

“Lady Helen,” cried a voice, “thank God you’re safe!”

Marie clasped the book to her bony chest. She was glad Helen had survived and finally met the fireman. She knew they’d find a way to share their love despite their different stations in life. She couldn’t hide in her closet for too long. She could return to the book on her lunchbreak.

When would that printing press start? It was like waiting for the other shoe to drop in the apartment above. Marie couldn’t rest until she heard its ominous moan. Even though she was afraid of it, the noise was the background to her work.

Ladder balanced on the cleaning cart, she headed for the women’s washroom. In the hall along the way was the door to the press.

PRESSROOM: AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY
KEEP DOOR CLOSED AT ALL TIMES

Marie had never dared even touch the door. She was sure to be spotted on a video camera and no doubt the electronic card would show where she had been. Even so, she broke her step and hesitated for just a second, like a small animal, alert for the slightest sound.

In the washroom she set up the step ladder and removed the cover to the fluorescent light fixture. She reached for a new fluorescent tube before realizing she had forgotten it. Marie felt a stab of anxiety. She was afraid of getting old and this was just one more sign of age. Shaking her head in a pantomime of exasperation for the benefit of the video camera, she came down off the ladder and headed back to the storage closet.

Still no press sounds. She was about to pass the door but paused in mid step. What if she touched the door, could anybody blame her for that? Before she could stop herself she reached out, hoping to feel the vibrations in her fingertips. Nothing. She snatched her hand back.

She reached the storage closet and took a fluorescent fixture from the top shelf. She had to walk back down the hallway past the door to the press. Please make it start.

Marie knew how to deal with fear and anxiety. The pit of her stomach was often unsettled. Just meet your fear straight on but at your own speed, said the experts. She had read that in a magazine article she’d found in the lunchroom. Take your time, they said. The key is to relax while gently confronting your fear. Gradually it will subside. That was how she’d been able to climb the stepladder. Gradually, first one step ten another, clammy hands clamped on the handrails. It had taken weeks but now she climbed its four steps without needing the handrail and was able to reach overhead without getting dizzy. Marie was proud.

This is just another challenge she thought. Just a door. One peek won’t hurt. She placed a damp hand on the brushed steel handle. What if an alarm sounded? Well, she’d say, I thought there might be something wrong. I didn’t actually go into the pressroom.

Just push the handle down, she thought, but don’t open the door.

She felt the handle move all the way down. The door could be pulled open now. There was nothing holding it in place. All it would take was an inch of movement, just enough to peek in and see if she could see people working. They were probably making some repairs that took longer than usual.

Her breath quickened as she tugged on the handle. The door seemed stuck. She planted her foot an inch from the door to prevent it swinging open, then pulled hard on the handle. Suddenly it opened, smacking into her foot.

Marie gasped. There was so much light! She had no idea the pressroom was so bright. Was somebody using a welding torch?

She peered through the crack but the light hurt her eyes. She couldn’t see anything.

She tried to shut the door, but it was jammed. She couldn’t push it shut.

She heard a voice: “Marie– Open the door.”

Marie recoiled in fear, backed away and huddled on the floor making herself as small as possible. She was blind. The interior was so dark and the outside so bright. She wanted her blanket.

“I’m sorry,” she thought. “Just let me close the door and I’ll never do that again.” She took a deep breath to master her fear and warily came to her feet. She felt along the wall for the door and listened for the voice.

Absolute silence. No, wait, there was a sound. Was that a bird? Were there birds in the pressroom?

“Marie. You have to leave the building. Come to the door. I’ll help you.”

The voice was achingly familiar. “There’s a ladder outside. I’ll help you climb it.”

At last Marie understood. She felt a rush of love for the brave fireman who had waited so long. Without hesitation she came to the door.

There was a bird singing afterall. It made a lovely sound.

1 thought on “Marie at the Door

  1. There was an atmosphere to this that I really enjoyed. I always wondered what it might be like as a cleaner and maintenance worker to wander around large building early in the morning or late at night when no one is around. I suppose you would get used to it, especially if you’re not around when it’s busy, but to me there’s something a little spooky about it. The empty halls, the dark rooms, the quiet.

    One of my favourite bits was Marie’s “pantomime of exasperation” at the CCTV. It’s a strange mix of being utterly alone while at the same time constantly being watched (if only in theory, assuming no one is monitoring the footage 24/7). Really lovely.

    If you are indeed going for this sort of mood, you could even play it up a little more, describing the emptiness, the loudness of her footsteps in the hallways, shadowy corners of darkened rooms, that sort of thing.

    I like the way you play with the temptation of the door to the pressroom, and I really felt the tension as Marie was waiting – hoping – for it to start making noise again, even without understanding *why* this was important. Or because of it even. It’s that sense of things not being as they should be, of something being out of place, the fear of what it might mean, the fear of not knowing.

    All that said, I’m afraid I don’t really understand the ending. What happens when she opens the door? Who is speaking? I assume that the ladder-bit is a deliberate reference to the book she was reading, but I’m not sure what it means, or if she’s imagining it. Or what the bird singing means? It all reads as though you definitely know what you’re intending, but unfortunately it just doesn’t come across to me, and I’m mostly left confused.

Leave a Comment