It was late in the Zoom meeting when we came around to the question, that question that haunts every communion of co-workers and has done ever since the year 2020.
“Have you ever been to the Office?” one inquiring voice wanted to know.
We all looked askance at her from our particular squares. We wished she had not asked.
“No,” my co-worker said. “I think Kurt went?” His voice faltered. “He hasn’t come back.”
“Of course he hasn’t come back,” laughed a voice from the lower left corner of the Zoom. “He won’t be coming back.”
“They say it’s lovely there,” another voice said, “and that if you went, you’d prefer it to working from home.”
“That’s what they say,” Marlow’s voice said, low and drowsy. Somehow he always managed to be in the lower left corner, and the light that played on his face was of a different quality than the light that illuminated ours, so that his face seemed to be made not of pixels but of parchment. “You know,” he added (and I knew we were in for another one of his tales), “I went to the office once.”
“I’d better make Marlow the co-host,” I said, “because I have to go in a few minutes and he usually takes his time telling about the time he went to the Office. It becomes kind of a Joseph Conrad pastiche.”
“They said I had to go to the Office,” Marlow said. I made him the co-host. “‘You’ve got to come back to the Office,’ they told me. ‘It’s full of bees.’”
“Although I am a lover of the honeybee,” Marlow went on, "given the profound industry and innumerable benefits the pollinators confer upon mankind, I must confess, I hesitated at this invitation. Simply being informed that a place is full of bees does not naturally bestir me to make inroads upon that place. My hesitation was evident to my interlocutor, because he said, ‘The bees are there on purpose.’”
“Why?” I said. (You may assume that Marlow is talking now; I muted myself, turned off my video and started folding laundry.)
“They wanted people to come back to the office,” my companion replied, “so they got bees and they put a whole hive in the office. Lots of companies are doing it now. They say people love the bees and always have a lot of questions about the bees.”
“I also have a lot of questions about the bees,” I replied. “Why are we filling the office with bees?”
“They just thought, most people don’t have bees at home.”
“No,” said I, “deliberately.”
“Just come to the office, Marlow,” my co-worker resumed. “Kurt loves the bees. Kurt will explain everything to you when you get there.”
So, in a word, I set out. When I reached the lobby, I could not help but notice how many plants had taken root. The place bristled with green. A tree spread its branches in the elevator bay, and in its shade thrived something I think was an avocado. Mint had made its way from the confines of a few window boxes and now ramped along the security guard’s desk. It all seemed to hum with vibrant life.
“Green offices are big now," the security guard volunteered. "The plants put people at ease. Makes the office more like the natural world, they say.”
I nodded, though I did not feel at ease. The elevator was full of life, too. The whole floor was carpeted with moss, and vines crawled up the sides. I pushed the button for my floor. As the elevator heaved upward, I thought I heard a faint rumbling in the underbrush at my feet, like a growl.
I took a steadying breath. The plants were simply there to make the office more natural. I had no cause for alarm.
I arrived at the Office, and although our floorplan was open, I still became almost immediately lost. The desks were all covered in the same pervasive green, and the buzz of insects was louder here. I saw something with a stinger flitting among the leaves. A lizard crept along a vine and flicked its tongue at me.
I picked my way through the thicket. There was a rubber tree next to the water cooler that I was able to use as a landmark, and I located my desk. It still had a coffee cup on it that I had not emptied in March 2020, and I expected to find it rife with mold. But it was not so. The mug had a large bite taken out of it. Only a piece was left. What was once “World’s Best Dad” just said “B.” The bite was not a mouth I recognized.
I fumbled on the desk for something with which I could arm myself and decided upon my hole puncher, which was sturdy and had a solid weight to it.
“Marlow!” boomed a voice from behind me. I say a voice. It was a voice, certainly, but it was muffled by a buzzing that grew louder as the voice approached. “Put down that hole puncher, Marlow! It is only I, Kurt, your co-worker!” I did not dare turn around.
“Hello, Kurt,” I said.
“It’s quite all right, Marlow!” said the voice, and the buzzing was so very close. “We have bees in the office now. I captured their queen in a little cage and attached her to myself, and they all flocked to me. I am their queen now. And I’m happy, happy here at the office, happier than I’ve ever been!”
The thought then of what my mind would supply in place of what was behind me was more terrible than the thought of turning, and I turned. There was Kurt. Or, it was the figure of Kurt, but swarmed all over. When he moved, bees moved with him. He was enveloped. “Welcome back to the office, Marlow!” he cried. “There is much here that I would show you! Much you cannot experience at home!”
“I cannot argue with that assessment,” I said. But I did not lower the hole puncher. A bee landed on it, but looked indifferent to me. The bee did not seem to be at fault in this situation.
“The bees alone would have been wonderful enough,” Kurt said, and as he spoke a bee flew into his mouth and back out. “We are going to do some branding that involves them. But there is much here to enjoy. Plants such as you do not have at home — we have a corpse flower in the conference room! But more than that, all sorts of wildlife you would never encounter otherwise! You must tell everyone how wonderful it is here in the Office! You must tell them all to come!”
Kurt went on, gaining speed. “I will get you a queen of your own, and a hive of your own! And we will have honey tastings, and it will build camaraderie, and we will love to come to the Office again and see the snow leopard and the clouded leopard and the nest of carpenter ants.”
“I assume,” I said, “that since the Office is now full of wild animals, our health benefits have increased.”
Kurt blinked at me, and his bees blinked with him. “Why would they be? Proximity to a mama grizzly bear and, elsewhere in the office, probably behind you, that grizzly bear’s cub is prize enough on its own without — nonsensical inducements no one wants.”
“No raises, then,” I clarified.
The bees throbbed. “What better reward,” Kurt said, "than an office full of bees.” He laughed, cheerfully, and then it stopped being cheerful, and he kept laughing. I wanted to make my way toward the elevators, but he stood between us. And I remembered the growl I had heard beneath me in the elevator. I made for the fire escape.
As the door slammed behind me, Kurt shouted, “What more incentive could you drones stuck at home possibly want?" Then he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: "The office! The office!”
Through the door, I heard a muffled chorus of growls and yips and buzzing such as I hope never again to hear in my life.
Several boxes flickered on the Zoom.
“And then what?” one co-worker asked.
Marlow shrugged. “I haven’t been back since. But I assume Kurt is still there. Some say he never left when the rest of us did, that sitting so long in the fluorescent lights did something to his mind and gave him the idea to fill the office with bees and all manner of dangerous wild animals.” He sighed, studying the tips of his fingers. “But that doesn’t explain why corporate went along with it.”
“Easier than giving us benefits we actually want,” I said, and shut the Zoom off. Then for a few moments, I sat there at my computer, staring into the screen of an immense blankness.