“First time to the Factory?”
Mr Thomas turns. It’s a man in a black suit, whispering, eyes the same color as his clothes.
“Yes, it is,” Mr. Thomas says shortly, and begins to turn back to the front before he changes his mind.
“Do you work there?” Mr. Thomas asks.
“Lots of us do.”
Its lawn is green and geometric. Some hand not present has mown overlapping circles and squares into the grass and Mr. Thomas stares at them as he approaches the entrance. The man in the black suit is gone. He’d gone another way, a way Mr. Thomas could not follow.
“Name. Business. Time.”
The man at the desk says these things abruptly, a wind-up machine.
Mr. Thomas writes the required on a pad of bright yellow paper sitting on the black desk like a flame.
Mr. Thomas sits.
Sitting, he can observe the Factory. He is in a cavernous hall, removed from the front door through which he’d entered, where he’d had his eyeballs scanned, his finger pricked, a sample of his hair taken. He hadn’t asked why. The ceiling is as high as a church, cast in shadow. The chair is straight and black, the floor an astonishing expanse of white marble. He stares at it, looking for dust, a dimple. There is none. It is flawless.
“Thomas. This way.”
It’s the man at the desk, away from the desk. He beckons Mr. Thomas stiffly with his arm. Mr. Thomas thinks he must need grease.
He is walking up then he is walking down. The passageways wind like snakes and Mr. Thomas begins to think they are underground. The air feels close like a burrow. Yet he thinks they’re walking uphill. The effect is dizzying.
“Are we walking up or down?” Mr. Thomas asks the man at the desk, who is leading him.
“Both,” the man says, then turns his head slightly to look back. “Dizzy? It will pass.”
It does pass. The smooth white floor levels out and the corridor widens. It should be dark, Mr. Thomas thinks: there are no overhead lights, no sconces, no windows. Yet the hallway is lit. The light doesn’t come from anyplace; it just is.
“Sit,” the man at the desk says again. There’s a chair by a door.
Mr. Thomas sits.
Waiting. The perfect white floor. The light that comes from nowhere. Then a command. “Come,” a door opening with a sound like snake’s scales.
“Sit,” and Mr. Thomas sits again, but he has to grope for the chair. Its silhouette is fuzzy, the light from nowhere is nowhere and the room is dark.
“Forgive me,” the voice says, and there is light, too much, and Mr. Thomas sits down blinking.
Before him is a man in a pale suit—Mr. Thomas can’t tell if it’s white or beige. Perhaps a faint gray. He is leaning against a massive desk, piled high with papers.
“Did you bring the paperwork?”
Mr. Thomas nods, and reaches into his briefcase. He hasn’t put it down since he’d picked it up this morning and he flexes his fingers, which ache. Inside are the papers. He draws them out and hands them to the man in the pale suit.
The papers shuffling are reptilian coils in the bright, dry room. Too bright. Too dry. Mr. Thomas feels thirsty and tired.
“You are here on behalf of Schadcorp,” the man in the pale suit says, eyeing the papers.
“Yes,” says Mr. Thomas.
“And what is the problem Mr. Schaden is encountering?”
“There is…there is some bad press.” Mr. Thomas swallows, searching for the words. “Mr. Schaden had an…indiscretion with an employee. She is pressing charges. People are…very angry. The photographs of her injuries were leaked. Mr. Schaden would like a solution.”
“Ahh.” It’s all the man in the pale suit says. He stands and walks behind the massive desk.
Mr. Thomas watches him. His eyes feel very dry. He puts the briefcase down again, for it it’s suddenly heavy.
“Mr. Thomas,” the man in the pale suit says, “would you like some water?”
The man in the pale suit points. Following his finger, Mr. Thomas sees a cart with a pitcher and tall slender glasses. He hadn’t noticed it before; he’d only seen the man and the desk.
Mr. Thomas rises and goes to the water. The pitcher is cold in his hand. When he drinks, he tastes cucumber.
“Mr. Thomas, how serious would you say Mr. Schaden’s situation is?”
“Serious? Well…very serious. The news crews are outside his house and headquarters all day and night. Sales are down. Boycotts in Chicago and New York. I’d say it’s…it’s very serious.”
“Alright,” says the man in the pale suit. “Let’s get down to business. Sit, Mr. Thomas.”
Mr. Thomas sits.
The man in the pale suit looms above his desk, shuffling papers, looking. He finds a book and opens it.
“How would Mr. Schaden like to handle this little problem?”
“I think Mr. Schaden wanted to know some options,” says Mr. Thomas. The glass of cucumber water is too cold.
“Well,” the man in the pale suit says, flipping through the book. “Let me see what I have available.”
A moment of silence, just shuffling paper.
“We haven’t had an e.coli scare in awhile,” the man says. “Will that do? Oh, what about African bees? The media loves things with ‘African’ in their names. That’s always good.”
Mr. Thomas sips absently. His eyes are still dry.
The man in the pale suit looks up to see Mr. Thomas’s reaction. He looks slightly disappointed.
“No? Alright. What else…” Flip flip flip. “How about we have Arizona consider a bill banning…oh, I don’t know…interracial seating arrangements in classrooms. I could let our lobbyists come up with something better if you don’t like that. Or,” his voice peaks a bit with excitement, “we could have a meteor land in Minnesota. We have old footage that CNN wouldn’t recognize. That would be good.”
Mr. Thomas finishes his water. He wishes he had brought the whole pitcher over to the chair.
“No, you’re right,” the man in the pale suit says, looking crestfallen. “Too much, too much. We shouldn’t use it all at once. We might need to save the meteor for down the road if our Mr. Schaden runs into trouble again. Mr. Thomas, are you alright?”
Mr. Thomas feels like a frog drying out in the sun.
“I…I think I’m alright,” he says.
“It’s your first time,” says the man. And he looks tender. “Forgive me. You must. So insensitive of me. Let me get you more water.”
Mr. Thomas drinks another glass.
“The Factory,” he says, feeling a little drunk. “What do you make here?”
The man in the pale suit leans against the front of the desk, his expression gentle. He doesn’t respond.
“The Factory,” Mr. Thomas says again. “Surely you must make something. A factory creates, manufactures. What do you manufacture?”
The man folds one hand into the other, his eyes pale.
“Do you need me to tell you, Mr. Thomas?”
Mr. Thomas feels the sweat from the glass slide down onto his fingers. The water sinks into him.
The man in the pale suit pushes off from his desk. He pauses for a moment, studying Mr. Thomas, before he goes behind it again. He shuffles more snakeskin papers.
“I think a rapper should do it,” he says to the air.
“A rapper?” asks Mr. Thomas, only barely curious. The empty glass in his hand feels unbearably heavy. An anvil.
The man looks up from where he’s bent over the desk.
“A rapper, yes. Some controversial lyric. We’ll pull all the appropriate strings. It will be quite captivating.”
“A rapper…” says Mr. Thomas.
“Yes, that always seems to do the trick.”
Mr. Thomas feels quite faint. The glass seems ready to slip out of his hand but he manages to slowly, slowly lower it to the floor. It comes to rest by the leg of the black chair with a gentle click.
“Mr. Thomas,” says the man in the pale suit, removing his glasses. Had he been wearing glasses all along? His face seems to have changed. “Are you certain you’re alright?”
The man sets the eyeglasses down on the desk where they blend in with the nests of papers.
“Let me see you out, Mr. Thomas. I can take it from here. A rapper will do just fine. Here, take the paperwork. Inform Mr. Schaden that he’ll have his solution. No later than Thursday.”
“What day is it today?” the world seems very far away.
“Today is today,” the man says.
“Today is every day,” says Mr. Thomas without knowing why.
They’re at the door. It seems too small to walk through, a Willy Wonkian door. Outside Mr. Thomas knows there is fresh, cool air. Water. Light that has a source. But the fear is heavy. He hadn’t realized it until the moment he laid eyes on the door—the fear has been sliding its hands all over him since he sat down in the chair. It’s had its fingers in his mouth, its hands around his throat.
“But…but…” the door will bring freedom, but he shrinks from it.
“It’s alright, Mr. Thomas,” the man says, guiding him. “This is your first time. The truth is a little hard for everyone at first.”
“That’s not what the Factory makes.”
They stare at one another. The man’s face has changed again.
“Out you go, Mr. Thomas,” says the man, gesturing.
“But I’m afraid.”