Mastodon Discarded - Linda Boroff - Sensitive Skin Magazine


The silent, empty cubicles of the Discarded remain untouched, their gray, padded walls still displaying the cartoons, awards, and post-it notes of their late occupants. Computer towers stand inert beside telephones patiently blinking undelivered messages. Ads announcing revolutionary product launches droop from their push pins.

I walk among these cubicles pondering Schrӧdinger’s living dead cats: If an employee is fired but unaware of that state, does the Cosmos consider them employed or unemployed? I tiptoe past the deserted cubicle of Herman Brandwine, a pale, broad-hipped software analyst with a frizzy hairline. For some reason, Herman had seemed to visit the restroom on the same schedule as I did, homing in on his forked male symbol with an urgent, duck-footed gait. Several times, he and I had nearly collided.

Penny Dahlen, an accounts payable clerk, has left behind the wolf posters that decorated her cubicle. The ochre eyes of the abandoned wolves track passersby with a cornered, territorial glare. Penny had a lopsided grin and long, oily blonde hair. Her nasty ex-husband Royal had stalked her, lurking in the bushes outside the building or in the parking lot, ranting of betrayal, orgies and child custody.

These Silicon Valley firms sometimes self-destruct, I am discovering, much like supernovae: a period of instability will suddenly culminate in a massive ejection of employees, accompanied by a spewing of gaseous press releases. In the coming months, a smaller, denser entity will emerge, composed of odd particles and hierarchies. Or the company might continue to decay, vanishing eventually into a sort of black job hole, pulling other firms into its vacuous heart.

To me though, the layoffs seem more ethnic cleansing than cosmic event. Secret cadres meet; rumors fly. Work grows random, minimal. People gather in tense, whispering little knots, exchanging questioning looks and shrugs. A pervasive sense of helplessness causes some to grow feverishly self-indulgent, wasting money on frivolities and sauntering in late from lunch, as if to beckon fate. Others, bitter, declare themselves unappreciated, conspired against. Most simply wait numbly. Every end is a beginning they remind one another, without conviction.

When the fatal day arrives, many simply disappear with Stalinesque suddenness. Others are plucked away in mid-task by their managers, never to reappear. From my window, I had watched stoic security guards escort the dazed former colleagues through the parking lot, ducking their heads like mob informants.

My department, Marketing Communications, had warred with Corporate Communications. Now, outmaneuvered in the boardroom, we collapsed like Carthage, our director banished to the Gulag of Systems Administration, our functions outsourced. Inexplicably, I alone have survived, shielded perhaps by my indifference.

After all, nobody really plans a career in Marcom. This is, rather, where we end up—aspiring actors and singer-songwriters, shell-shocked English teachers, addled psychology majors, law school dropouts and starving would-be novelists like myself. We churn out “content” as it’s called—or worse—”text.” We sneak into ChatGPT or Google and depart as stealthily as shoplifters, carrying the language it vomited out. After all, we are serving the insatiable need of technology to be understood, to be felt; to speak the human tongue to the human mind even as it consumes, digests, and finally eclipses that outclassed bucket of pudding. I apprehend AI not as my tool but as my predator. I am the once mighty mastodon fleeing Homo Sapiens and his deadly atlatl, hurling flint projectiles at my heart. I will not survive.

My company’s latest slogan is “Reaching New Horizons.” On the website, metallic server hardware glows amid towering cumulonimbus or dances in a star-littered cosmos. Back on earth, heroic disk drives conquer Half Dome or rest atop Venezuelan tepuis. I can hardly watch a sunset without imagining some computer entrail imposed on it.

Tall, thin, and dark-haired, with round hazel eyes, I resemble a Modigliani but yearn to be a Klimt—sensual, powerful, profane. I paint my eyes into an upward slant and affect a Klimtish hairstyle, but a vague, rather mournful look persists.

Day after day, I type away listlessly at emails intended to rebuild morale: The layoffs have so lightened the company, I write, that it has gone airborne, soaring into profitability! I assure myself that nobody will actually read this clatfart, and even if they do, will not believe it.

To preserve my sanity, I surf the Web blatantly, reading Moby-Dick, and visiting a message board for survivors of Strep A, the flesh-eating bacteria. Some of its victims had merely barked their shins or pricked their finger with a needle before being half-devoured by the opportunistic germ. White whale, seamstress or marcom, our fates await the agenda of some other creature.

“This is going to hurt, Margi,” warned Ron, “but I have to get it out. I’ve met someone.” The air between us sags under the weight of his confession. “You don’t know her. She’s in my chemistry class. I didn’t plan this.”

“I was going to move anyway,” I lie quickly. “The commute will kill me now that my company is going hybrid.”

He blinked. “Hybrid? When were you planning to tell me?”

“I… was just waiting for the chance.”

Before the pandemic, I had driven every morning from Santa Cruz to San Jose over Highway 17, a sinuous black python winding through mountains of oak and redwood. The highway is poorly engineered, with blind curves, precipices, and straight descents that terminate in tight loops. Commuters share the road with double-jointed gravel trucks, tractor-trailers, and gasoline tankers.

An inattentive, complacent, or inexperienced driver might round a curve to see (perhaps the last thing they ever do see) the rear end of an elephantine cement tub complete with girlie mudflaps and “Higher Powered” bumper sticker, toiling along at ten miles per hour in their lane.

Intent on survival, I grip the steering wheel, my eyes darting about with primal alertness evolved over millions of years, called upon now to help me dodge not leopard or lion but Audi; not charging aurochs but careening Range Rover.

“You won’t last six weeks up there in Silicon Valley,” Ron had said, confident as an FBI agent talking terrorism on CNN.

Yet, despite the layoffs, I have come to feel oddly secure here. The numeral world persists within its teeming chips and raceways: every virus, phish, and worm—even mighty AI itself—must obey its Boolean logic. In contrast, the corporeal world is lumpy, irrational and chaotic, as unsettling as the glare of a doomsday prepper.

Marooned now in my empty department, I am grateful when Kevin, the Information Technology guy shows up at my cubicle. In the wake of the layoffs, he is as welcome as an old acquaintance in a refugee camp.

“Thought I’d check your memory while I’m in the neighborhood,” he sings out, as if nothing in the world is wrong. He slides into the chair beside me before I can protest that my memory was only recently upgraded.

At first I feel a little violated as he deftly accesses my applications and probes my extensions, not even bothering to ask my password. Under his coaxing, hidden recesses of my hard drive yield themselves, opening their most secret domains to his touch. I feel myself succumbing to the intimacy of a shared monitor as our eyes merge onscreen, fingers tapping the keyboard in hesitant unison. A work order lies across our laps, our knees touching beneath its discreet mantle. Once, when we both reach for the touchpad, his hand inadvertently covers my trembling hand.

Kevin shakes his head and murmurs, “You need some memory, girl.” And yes, that is exactly what I need. Remove those stale and depleted histories: the bullies of middle school; my academic failures and irrational fears and rejection slips and social media gaffes. Wipe the damaged sectors, and don’t stop there. Take war, lies and genocide along, unavenged outrages and race hate, profiteering and exploitation…

The voice comes out of nowhere, dragging us back to reality. Kevin looks past me, and following his gaze, I see Royal Dahlen, Penny’s psycho ex-husband, as incredible and out-of-place here as a Venusian. His belly sags over a silver and turquoise belt buckle; a buck knife is strapped to his bluejeaned thigh. The obligatory wizard tattoo peeps from his sleeveless undershirt, and his lower arms bear cruder tattoos—the Nazi totenkopf, a knife dripping blood, and, of course, the swastika. His hair, gray-streaked brown, hangs past his shoulders.

“I said, where’s Penny? Where’s my wife?”

“She’s gone,” I finally blurt. “She was laid off days ago.”

“Lies and more lies,” Royal says. “Will you never learn?”

I do not see the gun in his hand until it speaks. Kevin suddenly cries out and slumps over the keyboard—a marionette whose strings have been cut. A small red spot on his back swells like a thundercloud into the weave of his blue shirt.

Royal bends to study my face. He reeks of alcohol. “The govermint’s plantin’ computer chips in our brains,” he says. “That’s what you’re helpin’ it do.” The air molecules around me suddenly explode and reverberate, and I am thrown backward in my chair. Royal turns and strides away, disappearing among the cubicles like a flea in a dog’s coat. I hear more gun blasts, oddly muffled, as if fired through layers of carpeting.

Only now do I think to run, and my shaking legs somehow propel me through the maze of cubicles, down the stairs and through the front door. Outside, a brisk breeze cleanses my face; giant ferns offer their stalks to my grasping hands. The sun, occluded with cloudlets, drops suddenly behind the polished angular wedge of a nearby building, leaching the warmth from the air around me. But the sun has not dropped. Rather, I have fallen prone on the damp shore of a fountain-fed lake. Close up, a dead water skater floats past, others attacking its corpse. During the heyday of the dinosaurs, opportunistic vermin hid among them, awaiting their call to destiny. Swarming from their recesses, a plague of mammals overwhelmed the wrecked, rotting earth. The veil before my eyes parts, and behind it, at last, I see what it all meant.

–Linda Boroff


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