Joyland

San Francisco |

We Were Professionals

by Benito Vergara

edited by Lisa Locascio

It's my first desert ever and I'm disappointed. I was hoping for untrodden movie dunes scalloped by the wind, my shoes eagerly filling with sand. I wanted to see travel documentary cactuses, those tall ones with arms outstretched to the sky. Different desert, apparently.

Nothing around us but sun and more sun. The low hills are a dull brown, stubbled with scrubby bushes and loose rocks. I think it's called scree, Brian says. The word is unfamiliar, like everything here. Scree, like the sound a man makes when he falls down a slope covered with it.

Also I can't deal with this dry heat. My people come from the jungles, where water drips from foliage, where monsoons take out entire villages in their wake.

Back in Vegas the ACs are cranked up to keep it at bay, on the other side of the tinted windows. The city teased us with the heat, a sweating concrete smell rising from the pavement between casinos, toying with us via little blasts between frigid car interior and hotel foyer.

But out here in the desert, in the desert-desert, there is no escape. Sure, the heat felt great at first, a long snort of fresh air in our nostrils. Our air-conditioned limbs thawing, swaddled by something alive and powerful. But then the heat starts to smack me around like a cop's open hand. Soon it presses into my eyelids, its fingers squeezing my temples tight.

#

It's been almost an hour and we should've seen the petroglyphs by now but see nothing except forlorn tufts of grass.

We need to head back. But I don't want to be the guy who quits, so I say nothing.

"Maybe that mound of rocks over there," Brian says. I am doubtful but we walk over anyway. It is just a mound of rocks.

"The hill was to our right earlier," Jim says.

"Sure it wasn't our left?" I ask.

We keep walking but the hills still look like they're in the wrong place and still no petroglyphs.

"I don't think this is such a good idea anymore," I say.

"We came all this way already," Jim says.

We walk another ten minutes and I can't stand it any longer.

"I think we're lost," I say.

Jim does our guided listening thing, playing Mr. Zen Master, his face blank. It's the face he shows clients when he disagrees but can't tell them just yet. Brian scratches his beard.

"We're not," Jim says. "Keep going."

"Are you guys waiting for a show of hands? A calendar invite so we can discuss this?"

"Hey, relax," Jim says. "We're not lost."

"We should go back." I raise my arm and so does Brian. I'm surprised because they never agree with me. We have matching crescents of sweat on our office clothes.

"We're not lost," Jim says. "But fine, if you guys want to head back." He points to the horizon. "Road's that way."

#

We trudge around another hill and another, until they're far behind us and still no road.

Brian pulls out the map he printed. "That might be north," he points—but if he had gestured behind him or to his right or left it wouldn't matter. Everything looks the same.

"We drove down here," Brian says.

"No, we drove down here," says Jim, pointing to another capillary of a road about a knuckle's length away from where Brian was pointing. I squint at the map. The roads are probably miles apart.

My ancestors would have looked at the length of shadows, calculated wind direction, and found the way. I look at the map on my phone again but it's all blurred pixels, my antenna icon stubbed down to nothing.

"We're lost," Jim finally says.

"This is messed up," I say.

"We're professionals," Jim says. "We're a nimble self-organizing team."

"I'm not kidding. This is really messed up."

"I'm not kidding either. We're a good team," he says. "We've pulled ourselves out of tight spots before. Like the PCO report?"

I remember. Our asses saved via an all-nighter, that small conference room filled with the smell of coffee, flop sweat, and General Tso's Chicken congealing in takeout containers.

"This is different," Brian says. "This is life or death. We've never done life or death."

#

Recriminations begin, but without enthusiasm. We're still unfuzzing our heads, knowing each accusing finger had three pointed back at you, or whatever it was schoolboys yelled at each other. Knowing we all had a hand in the arc of our fuckup.

We blame Brian for getting the map wrong, then blame ourselves for not double-checking. We blame Jim because he was more outdoorsy and should've known better. They blame me for my great suggestion: we climbed a hill for a better view, but ended up gasping for breath, standing on baked rock, looking at more acres of nothing. I blame myself for not speaking up sooner.

We blame our manager for insisting we wear business casual. Our pants wrinkled and snagged in thorn bushes; our nice shoes that knew only the weave of industrial carpet now scuffed beyond repair. Our team, forged from months of high-pressure collaboration, coming apart.

#

We were a good team, but we didn't live the glam lives of the product reps. They got to meet people, breathe unrecirculated air, go out into the world. So when the boss said a Vegas trade show was happening in May, tag along, see what it's like, of course we said yes. We knew a bone thrown when we saw it.

We landed at McCarran, the slots hailing us with a thousand pealing bells, and the next days disappeared in a blur: halfhearted shifts at the convention booth, sneaking out to see the sights and another drink and another turn at the tables and another drink.

Brian figured we almost had an extra day before our flight. "Let's check out early, drive around the desert, get some fresh air. Be like, outside for real. Like how many more blinking lights you guys wanna see?" He showed us something about ancient drawings on rocks somewhere, from a hiking website. "A quick walk," Brian said. "Our chance to see something super old." We'd never really seen the desert before so here we are.

#

How are we going to explain this when we get back. If we get back. Like, I don't know, something came over us? Things just happened. Maybe some collective desert delusion in the air, released by the scrub or radiating from the pebbles. Like when you're lost but refuse to stop for directions and keep driving, thinking a series of rights or a U-turn would reveal the true path. Decision-making in slo-mo, our heads thick and wrapped in cotton.

I've seen this before. Once I saw Brian motionless at the photocopier, mesmerized by the rhythmic spitting of white paper. I backed away slowly and left him alone. It wasn't weird. I've done the same thing.

#

How did I end up with these people. They were just teammates. Just cube neighbors.

Our department is pretty diverse, which means the managers let people bring their smelly food and everyone pretends to love it. These guys getting sunburned with me though happen to be vanilla white. Brian and Jim are nice guys; I just don't know them that well. One buys cameras with dozens of ridiculous lenses, the other talks endlessly about his bike but never rides it. One's tall, the other short, both pale. Were pale. Brian and Jim, Jim and Brian.

I'm sure my coworkers wouldn't mind how I see them. To them I'm Asian but not generic Asian—from somewhere between Vietnam and Hawaii, which I guess gets the geography right. Then they find out I'm Filipino and the reaction's always the same. "I love lumpia; I had it at an office potluck once," a coworker would gush. Exactly. My people are known by the food we offer for white consumption.

Where I was raised down in SoCal you were lucky to finish high school. But my nanay and tatay saved up like proper immigrants, reused aluminum foil and Ziplocs, moved to a better neighborhood, sent me to JC. Got a scholarship into a good college, got better grades, drank underage but responsibly because I was on a trajectory I couldn't take for granted. First time I wore a coat and tie to a job interview my parents made me pose for a photo in our living room, my arm around my mom in her caregiver scrubs. Without heels she reached up to my shoulder. She told me to never forget where I came from and that I smelled good.

I didn't get that job or the next, but got another. Moved up north to the Bay, seduced by the "do what you love" slogan the region peddled. Bounced from gig to gig the next ten years. I took that peripatetic decade and gave it purpose on my resume, made a story out of being yanked around. Ten years of How did I end up with these people. The job titles were different but the cubes remained the same.

#

Nobody's heard of us. Couple years ago our parent company dropped a buttload of money on portfolio strategy. Come up with a product, a catchy name, something to resonate with our target audience. Something with zip, the CEO said. Something with oomph. Zip and oomph were difficult to quantify but we tried. It was about audience engagement, about giving customers a product with meaning.

That became the unofficial corporate mantra, puzzled over by committees, their brows furrowed. "A Product With Meaning" joined the sign above the printer reading "Think Before You Print," "Please Wash Your Cups" in the kitchen, and the neon-colored Post-Its festooned on our monitors with their imperatives: Disrupt. Delight. Deliver.

Finally they came up with a name that sounded less like bleeding-edge software and more like erectile dysfunction medicine. We sold a service that only the IT guys understood and that we barely comprehended ourselves.

Still, I try. I write our user manuals and newsletters, I check grammar on our annual reports. I take what the code-slingers tell me and make it look good. My job description is now two pages long. Makes it hard to tell my mom exactly what I do.

"I get it," my mom said. "You work in an office."

#

They called us a successful high-performing team, our velocity high, deliverables done before their drop dates. But no one raises their hand in elementary school and says they want to be shackled to a desk when they grow up. Where one's greatest sense of accomplishment was making it to the end of the day.

Our manager treated us well but always did this weird reverse motivation thing: You're professionals. Don't quit. You don't want to be the guy who quits.

A productivity coach told us once that simply changing "but" to "and" transformed contradictions, radically changing your mindset.

I tried it out:

I was good at my job but I hated it.

I was good at my job and I hated it.

Didn't feel like much of a difference to me.

#

We'd been out in the sun maybe two hours and it felt like four. Maybe it really was four.

We have a single bottle of warm water passed reluctantly between us, anger rising in my gullet whenever someone takes too long a pull from the plastic. We finally drain it, Brian straining to drink every drop of warm backwash.

Jim has wrapped his shirt around his head, sleeves limp down his back. He looks like a drunken pirate and staggers like one too. Brian's forehead is the color of raw chuck steak. We all needed more sun, but these white guys have it bad, their fingers leaving ghosts after pressing their reddened skin.

"This is fucking fucked up," says Jim. We've never seen him like this. Guy never lost his cool with difficult people, VPs who swooped in and shifted scope on us, but this Jim was Jim 2.0, or 0.5 rather, some regressive inarticulate version of Jim who relied on the number of fucks he muttered to cope.

Jim wants to split open this fat evil-looking plant. "Don't cactuses store water?" Its orange flowers look like bulging eyes on a bearded space helmet.

We shrug. We can't look it up. No Google out here.

The cactus is the only colorful thing in this sea of brown and gray and Jim is whacking it with a stick. So he pokes and saws away at it but the impassive cactus simply stares back. Jim kicks the cactus and we end up pulling a needle out of his shoe and Jim yells fuck a dozen times before we get him to calm down.

#

Now Brian wants to pick up rocks and spell the word HELP in big rocky letters.

I shake my head. "See any helicopters up there?"

"We need to keep moving," Jim says. I don't want to, but I comply.

My head swims from hunger and thirst. That jar of individually-wrapped Reese's Pieces on my desk, the prime rib at the casino buffet, the donuts at the Marriott breakfast lounge. My parents taking me to the mall on Sundays after church for an Orange Julius. God I miss that powdery artificial taste, especially when washing down a hot dog on a stick.

Man what I could do to a bag of Cheetos right now. That crunch perfected by artisan chemists, that scientifically crafted cheese smell when you pull open the bag. That orange glory. Now that was a product with meaning.

#

Brian finds the granola bar in his backpack and we know what we have to do.

"Always better to give everyone the chance to survive," Jim says. He splits the bar with grubby hands.

Brian watches. "Careful," he says, an edge in his voice.

"Gotta divide this right," Jim says.

"Thank you Brian," I say. Recognizing team contribution is important.

I pop the piece solemnly in my mouth, like taking Communion. Chocolate and oatmeal and sand. We're professionals. We know how to negotiate and compromise.

But all day we argue and walk despite my protests and vacillate between rising panic (Brian) and feigned nonchalance (Jim), between volatile testiness (Jim 0.5) and stunned incredulity (all of us). Too dazed to do nothing but dither.

"We just got turned around is all."

"Guys we're so screwed."

"We'll be complaining about the commute to work in no time."

"Bet the road's right behind those hills. Just a few more steps."

"We need to stop."

"Shut up and keep walking."

We're in such a mess, I say to myself, and we can get out of this.

#

The mess at work was a different species of beast altogether. Our parent company jumped into a saturated market against our advice. Even though a startup had already cornered the market on the services we offered. Cornered was an understatement—more like devoured it whole and shat it out, leaving us to pick through the turds for undigested morsels.

This didn't have to happen. Two years ago our team had prepared a feasibility report telling the CEO that his product with meaning was dead in the water. No fiddling with the pie charts would make our potential sliver of market share look larger. Our CEO would still have to squint at his monitor.

On group chat Jim wrote, "We can't send this."

I was about to type "But it's the truth" when another message from Jim popped up: "I can hear you sighing from here."

Brian wrote, "Change the pie chart colors, make it stand out less." We settled on different shades of green. Green still meant money.

It took only a minute to rewrite the concluding bullet point in a way that didn't wholly contradict our findings. "It is recommended that further studies, aligned with more comprehensive vertical forecasting data, be conducted given the current field of competition." I unbolded it for good measure.

"Looks good," Jim typed. I gritted my teeth and clicked Send. Our manager would probably delete the sentence before he sent it up anyway.

#

Our competitors were clad in perpetual youth and bushy-tailedness. Their place looked like every startup space in our city: communal desks, exposed pipes in the ceiling, beanbag chairs, commissioned street art on the walls, ping pong tables, coconut water in the break room. All that space.

My cubicle is 36 square feet, surrounded by padded sound-dampening walls of storm-cloud gray. Seniority gets you a few feet more. Our cramped homes eight, nine hours a day including lunch. We pushed aside papers on our desks to make room for takeout. We logged more flight time in our chairs than we did in our beds. Our cubes all looked the same. So did our desk debris: coffee mugs, stale mints, paperclips. Visitors ask for directions through the labyrinth of cubes back to the exits.

We tried to make our cubes look friendlier. A poster. A plant. We brought things from home, one family photo at a time, but these felt like intruders, a home invasion in reverse.

Brian had toys more appropriate for someone a third his age: bobbleheads, a Star Wars action figure used as a paperweight, a plastic solar flower. The flower does its little plastic dance, powered by solar cells. The world is running out of fossil fuel and solar energy's most ubiquitous use is an inanely nodding flower.

It is even more inane because at our office there is no sun. We had no windows, like in a prison, or casino. Our sky is a harshly glowing grid of energy-saving fluorescent bulbs that never seem to turn off.

So we made informed assumptions. We assumed that outside the sun moved slow over the canyons of our city. We assumed it shone on the lowly and the tall, on trees with limbs lifted to receive the light.

Not us. Yet we still knew when the day moved fast or slow: the clocks on the wall, the alarms on our phones, the endless mosaic wall of calendar appointments.

#

Time passes differently out here in the desert. We stop in the shade of a hill but there is neither relief from the heat nor movement in the passage of the sun that we can discern. It's high noon all the time. Our phones search in vain for a signal, their battery icons creeping closer to red, and without a whimper their little lithium-ion hearts finally give out.

#

We had such little visibility in the market. Soon our product will be discontinued, and so will we. Our team will be dissolved and Security will escort us on that humiliating walk down the aisle and out the door, our faces set grimly against the pink-slipped indignity, cardboard box of desk trinkets in hand. Brian's flower will peek its happy face above the box, dancing down the corridor to the exits. I've thought about quitting just so I'm not blindsided and can hold my head up high as I walk out.

I imagine our return to the office: the missed plane flight, the embarrassment, the cost of our stupidity. I feel that old anxiety again, that work-related churn in the gut. I focus on that hot curdling instead because it's familiar, and then the heat, my aching feet, and my possible death from thirst, all feel very far away.

#

I learned that from our mindfulness coach. It helps, when I remember to do it. But it was our customer service coach who taught us guided listening.

Day 2 of our customer satisfaction workshop. On the slide in bold 40-point type: Listen to the Client.

"Like you, the clients come from a position of need. Listen to what they're really asking," she said, drawing out the syllables in "really." She told us to close our eyes.

I peeked at my coworkers to see if they were taking this seriously before I complied. The overhead fluorescents left greenish shapes behind my eyelids. I heard throats clearing, butts shifting in seats, the hum of the overhead projector.

"Be in the moment, be present, and listen" –and here she paused— “to the client's heart," she said. I may have winced. At least she didn't say "soul."

Back in Sunday school I learned that doves symbolized the spirit. My eyes still closed, I saw a transmigration of souls, from client to service provider and back again, doves and pigeons fluttering across the conference room, a blizzard of feathers and shit dropping on our papers, then I opened my eyes and everything was back to normal.

#

We rest in the narrow shadow of a hill and Brian says to me, "You should climb it, see if you can see the road." Like payback for what I made everyone do earlier.

"You're the best person to do it," Jim says.

"I'm exhausted, guys," I say, incredulous. "Why me?"

"Because," Jim says. "Between the three of us you're probably, uh, better suited to the heat and all."

"'Cause, you know," Brian says.

"No, I don't know," I say.

Jim gestures awkwardly, pointing to their sunburned faces.

Brian pauses. "I mean, you don't burn so easy. Because of where you come from."

Now I get what they're trying to say. But my brown skin feels hot and raw too and I want to prolong this moment.

"I grew up in L.A. with a liquor store selling two-buck Ripple a couple blocks up," I say. "What're you talking about?"

"Yeah, L.A., that's what I meant," Brian says. They glance at each other, look at their feet.

"Forget it man," Jim says.

"Uh huh," I say. Their discomfort hangs thick in the hot desert air. I drink it up like a cold Orange Julius.

#

Sweet Jesus what a relief when the sun finally goes down. The sky shading from blue to red with bits of green, the sun exploding into orange. I think of Cheetos again.

There's a couple of scraggly trees in the far distance Jim thinks might be an oasis. We complain about walking more but he's right. Just in case it's an oasis.

The two scraggly trees turn out to be just two scraggly trees. It's getting too dark to see road signs or fences or scorpions so there's no point in wandering around anymore. I turn away from the sunset and it's like we're on the brink of light and ahead nothing but the swallowing dark.

I look for my phone in my pocket. It's dead but feels right somehow, a piece of aluminum reassurance in my palm.

#

Brian digs through his knapsack for the twelfth time, looking for another granola bar at the bottom. He takes out what looks like a ream of paper and straightens it on his thigh.

"What are all those papers for?" Jim asks.

Brian looks at him as if he were insane. "For the presentation on Monday."

"That's not even your presentation."

"Yeah, but I want to prep in case I need to step in."

"Brian," Jim says slowly. "We won't be back on Monday. I can't believe you're using up all this energy hauling all these papers on your back."

"And I can't believe you're using up all this energy getting on my case about this. I just need to look them over."

"It's his knapsack, let him carry it," I say. My head is splitting and I want them to shut up. "We can use the papers to make a bonfire. Good thinking, Brian," I say, making him think it was his idea. Old trick I use with clients.

Brian glares at us in the moonlight. "Nice try. I need these papers. What's wrong with you?"

"We need a bonfire or we're going to die. It gets down to 20 degrees in the desert," I add. Actually I have no idea, but it was getting cold.

"Don't be stupid," Brian says. "You can't make a bonfire out of paper alone. Plus we don't have matches."

Jim transforms into Jim 0.5 and snatches the papers from Brian's hands before he can say anything. He flicks on a lighter and the flame casts a light on Brian's shocked face.

The twigs and leaves we gather make a lot of smoke at first. Jim 0.5 holds the papers to his chest and feeds the fire slowly and grimly. I would have taken a more collaborative approach, but I'm grateful for once that Brian didn't print double-sided because there is twice as much paper. A pie chart shrivels and turns brown.

Brian stares at the fire. Tension still hovers over the flames. I want to smooth the edges, make this team whole again. To snatch the slide deck from the fire, to clutch at the bullet points before they're consumed by flame.

#

"Is that the Milky Way?" Brian asks.

"I don't know," I say. "Closest I'd seen it was in a planetarium when I was a kid."

Stars so close you could touch them. We talk about our plans for the morning which was the same as what we did all day which meant there was no real plan. Resting our blistered feet is enough for now.

Tomorrow I'll hurt even more. Brian at least has his backpack for a pillow. I think of my chair: my sleek, ergonomic office chair, perfectly calibrated to support my lumbar region, my wrists positioned just right, the seat tipped forward to make me sit up straighter.

The fire is dying but we're too tired to feed it. Brian's acid-free 8 1/2 x 11 paper reduced to thin black wisps in the ash.

Our company was an edifice built on paper, until that too was replaced by zeroes and ones flung into the ether through the cables snarled behind our desks. All that remained were reminders of the humans erased from the work. Digits. Fingerprints. Eyeballs.

Somewhere out there a Paiute artist had scratched images on rock 15,000 years ago. Something that wouldn't be shredded or deleted.

I'm starting to shiver. Filipinos aren't cut out for a night in the desert. The sum of my people's experience with lower temperatures is an air-conditioned mall in Manila.

I guess we need to huddle for warmth. I wish I had a jacket or any of the free T-shirts from the convention. Jim keeps repeating, It's for survival. He's clearly uncomfortable, but I let it slide. None of us thought we'd be cuddling our coworkers for body heat either. Also we stink.

#

"What's that sound?" Jim asks, his chapped lips close to my ear.

"Maybe a coyote?"

"I think those are from Arizona. Desert crickets maybe."

"You're making that up," Brian says.

I know what it is. If I put my ear to the cold soil, I know I would hear it: the slow creak of the revolving earth.

#

Sunrise smells like early-morning commuters: deodorant and mouthwash, the reek of freshly drizzled cologne, cigarettes hurriedly smoked before the bus arrives. Here the sun smells like soil, sore limbs, and hunger. It rises all pink in the dark sky, no buildings or tinted glass to obscure its dazzle. Its pitiless inevitability, its warmth both beneficent and vengeful, fills us with dread. A new day.

We start walking, see if the new angle of the sun and a fitful sleep improves our mood and bearings. They do not.

There's too much sky, a slab of pure blue weighing down on our heads. Too much sun and all this emptiness.

The desert isn't quite empty though: an old campfire, beer bottles drained for target practice, a torn plastic bag clinging to tumbleweed. Humans were here. Somewhere near are lottery tickets, beef jerky, cigarettes, Coors Light in a fridge. Home is out there. We just can't find it.

#

Will the state troopers see our car? Will they call it in on the second drive-by, the third? Will they see our car rental receipt, figure we were tourists out for a quick walk?

And if we somehow manage to make a call for help, how would we answer?

"Where are you? What's your location?"

"We're lost. Really lost."

"You need to be more specific than that, sir."

"Uh, I see a bush, I see a hill, I see another hill."

#

My Filipino ancestors whittled weapons from sticks, made snares to hunt beasts of the jungle. My people fed themselves from fertile verdant lands and pure streams of water.

But in the desert there is nothing. The plants scrawny and withered. The earth only ribs and backbone.

My people have the tanned hands of farmers, of warriors, with calluses from the hoe and bolo. Surely I can scrabble through the soil with my bare hands, pull tubers and roots out of this dead land.

I look at my hands, nails clipped short for typing. They needed moisturizer.

Brian and Jim, maybe they had deer hunters in their lineage somewhere. Fur trappers who navigated coasts by the slant of the sun. Dirt farmers who could feed an entire unwashed brood from a single sad potato. Surely our combined heritage, as travelers to this great continent searching for opportunity, would help us survive.

Could we trap and kill a coyote? Could we turn over boulders looking for worms to eat? And when we had no more choice, when only blood and tired muscle remained, what then? What would we be forced to do?

I look at my teammates and push the thought away. No. If we could only focus. I think of all the brainstorming we could've done with a Sharpie and whiteboard. Instead we've gone soft and shaking from hunger, heads addled by the sun, bellies filled with nothing, a land with nothing, no landmarks, no signal.

#

"We're going to die," Brian says repeatedly in a cracked hiss. "Like a bunch of incompetents," he whispers. He mutters about vultures. I look up but no birds circle overhead.

Jim 0.5 turns to Brian. "Pull your shit together or I'm snapping your head off," he says.

I look at Jim, and now I know, with a terrible certainty, that despite months of team-building exercises, Jim 0.5 would be the one to eat me, the one to tear me apart with his teeth and hands.

#

"We need to keep walking," Jim says wearily. I don't want to but we keep going.

But we've walked in the same circle too many times, seen the same rock, the same patches of grass. My mouth and tongue and throat one inflamed muscle. I am seconds away from heatstroke, one twisted ankle away from disaster. My mind, once supple from multitasking, is fried by desert sun and brutally compressed to a single focus: to put one foot in front of the other. I count to myself, a childhood memory between my blistered lips: kaliwa, kanan. Left, right.

I have never been surrounded by so much nothing and I am scared. I look at Brian and Jim, their burned faces, the same look of fear in their eyes.

I'm done. I'm tired of going along with what everyone says. I'm going to be the guy who quits.

I stop and fall to the ground, the gravel biting into my hands. I lie down and roll over to face the emptiness above me.

Brian and Jim look at each other and without a word, without hesitation, they sink to their knees.

We all lie down. We quit. And as the sun beats down on our faces, as we stare at the uncomprehending sky, I understand, dimly, that they have finally followed my lead. We are a team. My team.

We imagine death will creep like a blessed chill, and we will be grateful. We will let the cold take our feet and hands first, then the rest of our bodies, and we will surrender to the pure hunger of animals, to tooth and talon. We will let vultures shred us to pink confetti, strip our bones, our faces, pluck our eyes and fly them away to their hungry brood atop a mountain aerie. And if our eyes, dangling from vultures' beaks, could somehow see, they would still refuse the vastness of sand and stone and the sameness of it all, and baby vultures will feast with meaning and delight.

#

Anyway, we get up after a while. We turn left at some hill and come to a chain link fence with No Trespassing signs and follow it until we stumble onto a road. Asphalt laid down by humans and not just pebbles strewn randomly by nature. Then we see a pickup in the shimmering distance and we jump like fools flagging it down, the driver pulling over in a cloud of dust.

We take turns sitting in the cab with the AC. I'm fine being bounced in the back though. All I want is to not do anything anymore.

Not even fifteen minutes later we drive past a subdivision with driveways and SUVs and cable dishes and lawns of alien emerald green. My heart aches to see home so close. The soothing geometry of rows of burnt umber roofs blending into the hills beyond it. And I know that if I listen, I mean really listen, I would hear the desert silence broken, by lawn sprinklers switching on in hissing sympathy with each other, the water pattering softly on grateful blades of Bermuda grass.

I lie in the bed of the pickup, a dirty tarp over my head. Thinking I'd nap but instead I sit up and peek out at the hot blur of the yellow line in the road, at the desert that disappointed me. Squinting at the horizon looking for those tall cactuses but then I remember. Different desert.

#

They keep us in the hospital for dehydration. We're in and out too soon for anyone to send any flowers so we leave our rooms as bare as when we entered. We re-emerge into the sun, like wobbly newborn lambs, smelling of ointment, our arms sore from the IV drips.

We sit at the airport gate, still groggy. But I find the din around me comforting: the flight announcements, the slot machines tempting the departing tourist for one last spin.

I need to be the one to say this.

"Guys," I say.

Brian and Jim look up from their phones.

"We were professionals out there," I say, nodding.

They nod slowly. I know I don't need to repeat it.

"We got shit done," I say.

"That's right," Jim says. "We were challenged with a series of critical issues—"

"—And we collaborated on solutions," Brian says. "We were a good team."

"Exactly," I say. "We'll tell them we were a good team."

#

Our manager lets us take the rest of the week off. I stay home and watch TV with all the shades drawn so my face is bathed only in blue light.

#

Monday. I'm greeted by office smell: toner, microwaved curry, old cologne, carpet shampoo.

People from a row over want to hear the story of how we pulled off our own rescue but we apologize, we have a lot of work to do. Brian and Jim go into Do Not Disturb mode, headphones on, waiting for their emails to finally finish downloading. Our team firing up, raring to go.

Back. My coffee mug, my papers, a bus schedule tacked to the wall. My monitor angled just right. My chair cradling my ass just so. Surrounded again by the same three and a half padded walls of gray.

I look closer at the walls and see, for the first time, that each panel is different. Seashell spirals, a grid of flower petals, dots planted in rows like an orchard in an aerial photograph, all weaving into each other.

The walls absorb noise, in some way I do not understand, some magic property of the color, perhaps, or something about the fabric, the arrangement of its molecules, capturing those vibrating waves of sound and distributing them like a delicate mesh over the surface, like a floating net of sonic particles. And though I am too embarrassed to do so, I want to hitch up my slacks, and kneel, right down there on the carpet, not caring if I wrinkle the crease in my pants, and I want to put my ear to that soft wall. And I know that if I listen, I mean really listen, that somehow I will hear the soft whir of printers, fragments of chatter, the tapping of fingers on keyboards, alarms and rings and pings, the hum and creak of the building, the whoosh of data through wires, alive.

On my way to the bathroom I peek out through the sliver of window to the street below, see people taking smoke breaks in some sort of garden. There's something down there kind of looks like a cactus.