Got him this far.
He burped up some of that morning's breakfast paste, which had been concocted, according to the minuscule promises on the side of the tube, to replicate a nutritionist's concept of how mama's flapjacks topped with fresh blueberries tasted. His hand leaped to his mouth before he remembered he was alone. The attorneys had leased four floors, a sleek warren, and hadn't been doing too bad for themselves from the extent of their renovation. The floors above were chopped up into drab and modest suites, with dreary watercolors hooked into the spongy drywall of the waiting rooms and the same scuffed puke-pink tiles underfoot. Amenable leases made for a varied group of tenants, as motley as the collection found in the average rush-hour subway car. His unit swept consulting firms with fleet and efficient-sounding names, they poked through the supply rooms of prosthetics dealers and mail-order seed companies. They swept travel agencies nearly extinct in an internet age, the exhortations and invitations on the posters hitting shrill and desperate registers. On nineteen, they walked in formation through the soundproofed rooms of a movie-production house that specialized in straight-to-video martial arts flicks and in the gloom mistook a cardboard cutout of an action hero for a hostile. They were in the same kind of places day after day. Keys for the communal bathrooms down the hall hung on His and Hers hooks in Reception, affixed to broad plastic tongues. Recycled paper stretched expectantly across tables in doctors' examination rooms like a smear of oatmeal and the magazines in the waiting rooms described an exuberant age now remote and hard to reconcile. It was impossible to find a gossip magazine or newsweekly that had been published beyond a certain date. There was no more gossip and no more news.
When they stepped into the lawyers' suite they stumbled into a sophisticated grotto, as if the floors had been dealt into the building from some more upscale deck. In the waiting room, their helmet lights roved over the perplexing geometric forms in the carpet that they sullied with their combat boots, the broad panels of dark zebra wood covering the walls with elegant surety, and the low, sleek furniture that promised bruises yet, when tested, compressed one's body according to newly discovered principles of somatic harmony. Their three lights converged on the portrait of a man with flinty eyes and the narrowed mouth of a peckish fox - one of the founding fathers keeping watch from the great beyond. After a pause their lights diverged again, groping for movement in the corners and dark places.
Mark Spitz felt it the instant they pushed in the glass doors and saw the firm's name hovering in grim steel letters over the receptionist's desk: these guys will crush you. Tradition and hard deals, inviolable fine print that would outlast its framers. He didn't know the nature of their practice. Perhaps they only represented charities and nonprofits, but in that case he was sure their clients out-healed, out-helping-handed, overall out-charitied their competing charities, if it can be said that charities competed with one another. But of course they must, he thought. Even angels are animals.
Once inside, the unit split up and he swept solo through the workstations. The office furniture was hypermodern and toylike, fit for an app garage or a graphic-design firm keen on sketching the future. The surfaces of the desks were thick and transparent, hacked out of plastic and elevating the curvilinear monitors and keyboards in dioramas of productivity. The empty ergonomic chairs posed like amiable spiders, whispering a multiplicity of comfort and lumbar massage. He saw himself aloft on the webbing of the seat, wearing the suspenders and cuff links of his tribe, releasing wisps of unctuous cologne whenever he moved his body. Bring me the file, please. He goosed a leprechaun bobblehead with his assault rifle and sent it wiggling on its spring. Per his custom, he avoided looking at the family pictures.
Excerpted from Zone One by Colson Whitehead. Copyright © 2011 by Colson Whitehead. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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