Each weekday, I rode downtown on the streetcar, anticipating the pleasures of sitting at my desk, the rumble of the traffic eight stories below me. Before reaching the city center, however, one had to pass a grim procession of empty storefronts, vacant lots, and derelict buildings - a particularly blighted district. Nevertheless, despite the proliferation of such neighborhoods, the good San Franciscans seemed to rouse themselves each morning to perform at least the motions of civic life, producing an air (however false) of gainful industry. This impression of restorative public energy helped me to put myself aside, so to speak, and by month's end I had made progress on my lectures, producing my first coherent set of notes.
Then, shortly after Labor Day, as I sat down to draft the first talk in the series, I found that the acoustical qualities of the office, previously so regenerative, had abruptly changed. Cutting through the pleasant social drone from the streets below, superseding it in both pitch and constancy, was an odd whirring sound, like wind rushing through a keyhole. And just audible above the whir, coming in uneven and therefore intrusive intervals, was a speaking voice, but only its sibilants and dentalizations - only the tongue and teeth, as it were. I am certain it was only the general darkness of my mood, but I felt there was something mocking and threatening in this sibilance, for the sound drew me to it the way a cat is lured - psst, psst - for drowning.
I jumped up from my desk determined to know the source of these intrusions. Immediately I suspected the doors to the adjoining offices. My room, small as it was, had two interior doors to what were once communicating offices, both doors now kept locked. Aside from noticing the fine wood of which they were made, I had paid these vestigial entryways no attention, as I had never heard anything issuing from them. Indeed, I had had no awareness of the other offices at all, my goal in securing my own room having been, as I have said, to find a place outside of my own life, so to speak, to immerse myself in a general, anonymous social sea.
Now forced to consider the reality of the tenants around me, I went out into the hall. The stenciled letters on the office door to my left identified its occupants as "Consulting Engineers." I moved my ear closer and heard nothing, but through the frosted glass in the door's upper portion (unlike my office, many doors retained their original etched-glass panels, with finely wrought patterns), I could make out two heads moving, as if over a desk or drafting table. The only odd thing I noticed about this office was that its number was out of sequence, being 803, whereas mine was 807, and my other neighbor's 804. I then recalled the building manager saying, when I signed the lease, that tenants, as they changed offices over the years, were permitted to take their numbers with them as long as they remained on the same floor, their suite numbers obviously constituting some kind of property or identity. And indeed, as I looked around the hallway, I saw that the office numbers were a complete jumble, 832 next to 812 next to 887, and so on, indicating that the lessees had proved themselves loyal to the building and to the eighth floor but were otherwise restless and inconstant. I wondered for a moment if I should want to retain 807 in the event that I should move away from my neighbor, and I decided that I would, for there was something orderly in the descent from eight to seven passing around zero, and, in the number 7, perhaps an aura of luck.
Rousing myself from these distractions and resuming the surveillance of my neighbors, I came to the office on my right, number 804. As I drew closer, the whir became unmistakable, as did the voice. There was no glass panel in this door; its gold letters simply read, "Dora Schussler, Ph.D."
I stood immobile in the hall for some seconds. My first association with the designation "Ph.D." was that this Dr. Schussler should be an academic like myself, and that she and I should coexist quite well, her time being spent in the quiet pursuits of reading and writing. Why, then, was there this whirring, and this persistent hissing? And why hadn't I heard it from the first, on the day I inspected what was then my still prospective office, thereby preventing me from being bound to such an incompatible neighbor?
From By Blood by Ellen Ullman. Copyright 2012 Ellen Ullman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux LLC. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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