by Steve Himmer
I spent nine, almost ten years as Assistant to the Director of Brand Awareness at Second Nature Modern Greenery, charged with making our plastic plants (we preferred "hyperefficient") into household names. My supervisors envisioned a world in which trees and rosebushes reminded consumers of our reproductions and comparisons were made in our favor.
"Look at the spots on those leaves," we wanted the plant-buying public to say. "My Second Nature trees never have spots."
I wrote letters to newspapers in the voices of interior designers and allergy sufferers and executives with green thumbs, all of whom I had invented and all extolling the virtues of Second Nature. I wrote to trade magazines about how wonderful some corporate headquarters was and within that paean to carpets and windows and confidence-inspiring presence on a formerly bereft city block I might mention a potted plant spotted on the mezzanine level and refer to it as one of ours. Even if the actual plants in the actual building weren't Second Nature, the brand had still taken root, and who other than us bothered knowing what brands of fake plant were where?
Over time the arrows in my quiver changed and I focused my energies on the "information superhighway," as a certain breed of manager insisted on calling it then. I frequented bulletin boards about business and gardening and home decoration, trolling discussions for any topic I could somehow connect our Greenery to, however tangential or tenuous that connection might be: a science fiction newsgroup on which some green moon arose in conversation, or forums about cities I had never been to but were fertile for debate about the trees on their traffic islands.
Later I kept dozens of weblogs, registering one account after another under myriad names, using all the services and hosts I could find, and in post after post I shared the intimate memories and diverse speculations of the imaginary crowd I'd created. Sometimes my bloggers left comments on each other's sites, and they commented on other sites, too, which drew more traffic and potential Modern Greenery buyers into my marketing web. Though who knows if those commenters I took to be genuine people were themselves the inventions of some other person doing a job just like mine. Perhaps all those early blogs were the mouthpieces of four or five busy marketing schemers, stirring up flame wars in hopes of selling their plastic palm trees and flavored milk drinks and guides to selling products online.
Each moniker and avatar had a backstory, a family or else an explainable lack, a history of comings and goings and ups and downs, minor successes and major failures. Second Nature's viral campaign spanned the gamut of human feebles and foibles, a menagerie of personality and peccadillo, across a range of registers from borderline psychotic to contemplative, from fractured English to erudition. All those voices emanated from me and yet I myself hardly spoke: my cube was in a far corner near some filing cabinets to which the keys had been lost, so apart from occasional walks to the bathroom and my twice-daily route between front door and desk, I must have been easy to miss. No one at Second Nature knew the exponential extent of my marketing project, and since in all my years working there I never met a Director of Brand Awareness for me to assist, no one asked what I was doing. Which is how I came to be forgotten, and how I held onto the job for as long as I did even after I'd stopped writing about Second Nature and let my shills take on lives of their own. Their weblogs grew longer and longer, spanned months and then years as they made projects for high school and graduated from college, grumbled or raved about various jobs and enjoyed visits from growing grandchildren. They took trips to Hawaii and endured bouts with cancer, spent good days at work and suffered blind dates. Some gave birth and others died.
And sometimes I left my computer sleeping for days or for weeks and just watched a trickle of water rise up and wash over the cairn of reconstituted brown stone in my desktop fountain, the same few cubic inches of liquid coming and going again and again, until the soft sound of water and the whir of the fountain's electric pump sent my mind adrift like a carpet flies over a desert, away from plastic plants and corporate intrigues and any awareness of what, if anything, the brand Second Nature meant to the national psyche.
So when a newly appointed submanager finally noticed my name in his files and made inquiries into what, exactly, I was paid to be doing, it came as less of a shock to be fired than to hear someone speaking my name.
Late on a Friday afternoon, at the hour human resources handbooks advise for these things, I was summoned into his office. The submanager took a stab at small talk, speculating about the year's Wimbledon prospects for a player who had been retired a decade by then. Years earlier, before I was forgotten, before this particular submanager's time -- before he was out of short trousers! -- a rumor had somehow started that I was a big tennis fan (which I wasn't and never have been). One of the best things about being forgotten was the cessation of tennis-themed holiday cards and questions about tournaments I'd never heard of but felt obliged to offer cryptic opinions on every time I was asked, and for the sake of which I began reading up on the world of tennis so I wouldn't let down my side of those forced conversations. I pretended to have insider knowledge I wasn't able to share, and most people seemed willing enough to buy that and deferred to whatever I told them even though I made it all up. Perhaps it was more satisfying to know me as "the tennis guy" than to wonder who I actually was, and then it was easier not to know me at all.
Finally the submanager exhausted the tennis-themed small talk I'm sure he'd planned out in advance. "So," he said, "Mr Finch." Then he paused as if hoping for silence to deliver his obvious message, and we sat for a moment avoiding each other's eyes until the awkwardness had done its job and I grew tired of waiting to be told what I already knew.
"Ah," I said, and rose from my chair.
The submanager continued without showing the least hint of surprise or acknowledging a long moment had passed. "You have two weeks of vacation pay coming, and a generous...," he paused to shuffle some papers and find the one he was looking for, "a not unreasonable severance package." He stood and reached a hand toward me across his desk, and his forearm knocked over a framed photograph of an ugly little girl who, for some reason, was facing the visitor's chair instead of his own.
"It's not you, of course, Finch. Tough times. You know how it is. And you should be proud that you've done such a fine job with...," he scanned his papers again, "at brand awareness. You should interpret this... readjustment as testimony to how valuable you've been to the Second Nature family. How effectively you've fulfilled our goals. And, naturally, if there's anything we can do for you in the future..."
I nodded as the submanager pumped away at my hand, grinding my knuckles against one another like a fistful of marbles. Then I walked back to my cube, past coworkers intensely interested in computer screens flickering with meaningless spreadsheets, conspicuous in their casual attempts to avoid looking at me as I passed. I sat in my chair for a moment, rolling back and forth on the semi-opaque plastic carpet protector, wondering if there was a way I could steal it -- it was, in fact, a very comfortable chair; the carpet protector I could do without. There wasn't much else in the cube I wanted to keep, not that I could sneak out of the building. There weren't any photographs tacked on my walls, no figurines, statuettes, or novelty trophies standing on the desk or adjustable shelves. Not a single piece of promotional swag from the sales conferences I never attended, not even a totebag or obscenely outsized golf umbrella. I kept no extra shoes under my desk and no spare sweater for days when the office was cold -- and the office had never been cold I realized then for the first time, and it had never been hot for that matter; it was always generically, uncomfortably tepid. There was just the computer, not actually mine, and a filing cabinet overstuffed long ago with paper versions of all the same documents stored in the computer and backed up in several locations both onsite and off. And there was a plastic model of the company logo which I suppose was some sort of plant but had always looked to me like a martian.
In the end I took only my miniature fountain in its gray but not concrete basin. I pulled the fountain's plug from the overcrowded powerstrip under my desk, and the whir of the electric motor had never seemed so loud as when it went quiet. The water flowed for a split-second longer due to leftover force from the tiny vacuum the pump had created, then it settled into the basin, becalmed.
The computer had fallen asleep during my meeting with the submanager, but I bumped the mouse while moving the fountain and the monitor came to life with a ping. I might have made final postings for each of my online personas, bringing their imaginary lives to some closure, but the idea of dozens of people who had never existed simply vanishing all over the web had an appeal of its own -- and, indeed, all of those voices falling silent at once, having said everything they had to say, remains the most satisfying accomplishment of my tenure at Second Nature. So I set the fountain down on the desk and went online for the last time (though I didn't yet know it would be) to erase all my records of fake usernames and their passwords, removing bookmarks to those many sites created by me but belonging, most likely, to Second Nature. I didn't know then if anyone would replace me, and I don't know now if anyone did, but I know they were never able to make my congregation of characters speak to sell plastic plants or to celebrate birthdays or just to vent about a bad day at work. All the lives I'd created and shared for so long went into stasis for as long as they stayed on their servers.
When I had finished erasing my online tracks, I lifted the fountain in both hands and wove through the cubicle maze toward the exit, trailing a dark thread of water across gray industrial carpet. As I walked to my car, I smiled to think that the trail, too, would would vanish within a few minutes and I would go back to being forgotten.
About the author:
Steve Himmer's stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in Night Train, Pequin, and the anthology The Bush Years (So New Media). "Reconstituted" is an excerpt from a novel in progress.