I pressed the button in the elevator to go up to the boss’ office on the fifty-second floor. I was thinking how useless this was going to be. I was thinking of how I should just let this play out into the disaster that it was already becoming. At least it wouldn’t be clear who was at fault. The boss would be unhappy, but he wouldn’t know exactly who to blame.
Instead, I was going upstairs. I knew it wasn’t really my fault, but it was the boss’ fault, and that meant that it would be blamed on whoever brought him the news. And I still wasn’t sure how I had become the messenger, but I was already in the elevator on my way upstairs. So, it was too late to worry about it.
The elevator stopped at the twentieth floor and a guy wearing coveralls stepped inside pushing a cart in front of him. The cart was covered in tools and spare sections of pipe. I asked him what he’d been up to, and he answered that there had been a plumbing problem on the twentieth floor.
I thought quickly, which is unlike me, but I immediately exclaimed that I was about to tell the boss about a plumbing problem with the building. I wasn’t sure why I was the one doing it, since I didn’t know anything about plumbing. I paused to think for a moment, trying to look like I was thinking. I already knew exactly what I was going to do, though.
“Maybe you should tell him about it instead?” I said.
As I’d expected, he wasn’t crazy for the idea. He was shaking his head, but I could see that some part of him was hesitating.
“Hearing about this from someone who actually understands plumbing is going to be better than hearing it from me,” I said.
“I might understand plumbing, but I don’t know what the problem is.”
I proceeded to explain that we’d been trying to cut down on the amount of water used in the bathrooms. We’d managed to do it by restricting the amount of time that we gave for bathroom breaks. I didn’t tell him that this had been the boss’ idea. It had sort of worked, but the result had been that many people hadn’t wanted to use their precious time washing their hands. As a result, a large part of the staff had gotten sick. Enough that the savings we were making on water were cancelled out by the amount we were losing because of absences. Never mind the morale problems that naturally arose from it.
He pointed out that didn’t seem like a plumbing problem, exactly, but I could tell that he was thinking about it. I could already see the cogs working in his mind of how he would deal with this problem.
“Could probably rig something up with the taps to shut off by themselves.”
“You should suggest that. He’s always open to new ideas.”
“I heard the opposite,” he said.
“Well, you have to be tactful, but I’ve never known him to just be a dictator.” That was a lie, but I didn’t want him to be scared of the boss. Even though he should have been.
After some more hesitation, he agreed to do it. He told me that his name was Dan, but I managed not to tell him my own name. I immediately started trying to convince him to switch clothes with me. The boss liked you to show him respect and showing up in coveralls wasn’t respectful. He wasn’t thrilled about wearing a tie, but he managed.
We had just gotten our clothes switched when we arrived at the fifty-second floor. We both exited the elevator – him looking like a businessman, and me pushing the cart and looking like a handyman. As soon as we got off the elevator, we were already in the office. The whole floor was the boss’ kind of grand hall, so you didn’t go to the fifty-second floor unless you were going to see the boss. He was the only person to see up there.
I directed Dan forward and snuck off into the shadows at the sides of the huge room so that I wouldn’t even be seen. I saw him advance toward the far end of the room where the boss was standing with his back to the elevator. I saw the boss turn around, frowning, when Dan hailed him.
There was a brief conversation that I couldn’t hear, but I could see that it wasn’t going well. The boss never smiled, and it was clear that Dan was uncomfortably doing all the talking. The boss wasn’t contributing at all to the conversation.
Until the very end. He spoke very briefly and then turned back away from Dan. The handyman hung his head and started walking back toward the elevator.
I was curious to hear what had happened, but I resisted and disappeared even further into the shadows at the edges of the hall. I had no desire to be called out on the lies I’d had to tell. I watched Dan enter the elevator without making myself known. He stopped and looked around for me, but when I couldn’t be found, he just continued on his way.
A few minutes later, the boss turned around and he also exited the hall. As he passed on the way to the elevator, he saw me lurking in the shadows and nodded towards me. “One of my lights is flickering. Check it out.” Then he made his exit. I imagined he was on the way down to let my compatriots know that their messenger had been fired. They wouldn’t know that it hadn’t actually been me.
I knew that I’d have to take on the role of handyman since the boss had seen me. If he then saw me in a meeting, I wouldn’t survive. So I went to the other end of the hall to check on his light. Sure enough, there was one flickering in a lamp beside his desk. I tried tightening it, but it kept flashing.
I looked on the cart and saw some lightbulbs. I pulled one out and replaced the flickering bulb in the lamp. It worked, and though I knew that actually being handy was a great deal more complicated, I was smiling as I walked away.
As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry. Not really knowing what else to do, I just stashed the cart in my own office at the end of the day and then closed the door. When I went back next morning, I found the cart in the same place I had left it. I had put on the coveralls again, and I just spent the day pushing the cart around the building with the air of someone who actually had somewhere to be. I didn’t, of course, but I made sure I always looked like I had a destination.
After several weeks of that, it was clear that I could just keep “working” that way. I changed some lightbulbs and tightened some screws, but I was avoiding any really “handy” work. When something came up, I just brought to the attention of an actual custodian, and then they would handle it. I would disappear until another lightbulb needed to be changed.
I stayed off the twelfth floor as much as I could. That’s where I had worked before, and I didn’t want to run into any of my old work colleagues in this new guise.
However, one day I was on the elevator and Stacy entered. I retreated into the corner as much as I could and tried my best to focus on the wall. She didn’t even notice me. Without a suit and tie, my face didn’t set off any bells. On the twentieth floor she exited the elevator, and I was no longer in danger.
I had been up to that deception for almost a year when I saw Dan again. It was on the thirty-third floor. Not the top floor, but definitely higher than I’d ever gotten. He obviously hadn’t been fired, and it was clear that things had changed for him. He was in close conversation with the boss who was actually smiling and laughing.
Dan looked over at me. I was away from my cart looking at an electrical outlet. I had picked up a few things in a year, though I still had no idea what was up with the outlet other than the fact that it wasn’t working.
When he saw me, he was just at the end of a laugh himself. Unlike Stacy in the elevator, I was sure he recognized me. He smiled at me, but not in a friendly way. Couldn’t say I blamed him. Any success he’d been able to have wasn’t my doing. He must have worked hard in a difficult situation to make himself into what he had become. I’d left him in the lurch, and he’d managed to stumble into a good place from it.
He tossed his head and asked me to take a look at the faucet in his bathroom. A plumbing problem.