My coworker George, the one who used to sit in the cubicle across the way from mine, asked me to pick out his obituary photo. He asked by leaving a sticky note at my desk. I notice you’ve got a good eye for photography, he added after his request, all that writing crammed onto the yellow square he stuck to my monitor after I’d left for the day. In the morning, when I peeled it off and read it, I instantly knew I needed to tell the boss that George wouldn’t be in, today or ever again, but first I had to clean my computer screen of fingerprints and sticky note residue. Nothing was as urgent as that, the need to disinfect. My cubicle was a point of pride for me, spick-and-span and decorated with framed photos of beautiful things that made me feel calm, mostly pictures from Better Homes and Gardens of well-curated spaces. I was impressed that George had noticed the photos. The police told me later that the sticky note was the only suicide note George had left.
His wife gave me a shoebox full of photos, not organized in any way. She drove the box to my apartment. She said I could scan the one I liked directly to the newspaper, they needed it sometime in the next day. Her eyes looked like she had a bad case of pink eye, but of course that was from the crying. She was bereaved.
“He was a nice man,” I told her. “A good coworker.” She nodded, pinching her face up to stop the tears. I wanted to tell her that I wasn’t having an affair with George, that I barely knew him. We’d never even shared a table in the lunchroom. We’d never even shaken hands, but of course, I can’t shake hands. It’s one of the rules I have. The germs you can get.
I put rubber gloves on before I went in the shoebox, where I found wedding pictures and pictures of George as a kid, and there were pictures of a thirty-year-old George holding a baby who he’d never mentioned. A son. I’d been surprised that George had a wife, and I was even more surprised that he had offspring. I’d always thought he had a life something more like mine. I looked around at my apartment, at its perfect neatness, everything dust-free. I’d had boyfriends, in the past, but they were messy, and they always ruined my routine. I liked a routine. My mother, who was very old now, nearly as dead as George, called me every Friday and told me I needed to get a cat or a dog before she went. Someone I could care about. It was a good idea, of course, not to be so lonely, but I couldn’t stand the thought of animal hair clumping up under the bed, blowing across my floorboards. I couldn’t stand the thought of the endless dander.
I had to look through the whole shoebox, trying to find some order to the photos, before I finally got to the one I needed: George at a company picnic. He was wearing a polo shirt with our office logo on it. His face was so familiar now that it was coming out of that shirt, he again was someone I recognized, someone I saw every day, someone part of my routine. He was holding a hot dog in one hand, and there was yellow mustard squirted down his white polo shirt. He was laughing.
I put the photo in the scanner, and then I went to the fridge and opened it. The light came on. I stared at the row of condiments, ordered from smallest to tallest, and ran a gloved finger over their sponged-clean white caps. I wished I had the power to make such a mess. To have the power to laugh about it.
Annie Hartnett is the author of the novel Rabbit Cake. She was the 2013-2014 winner of the Writer in Residence Fellowship for the Associates of the Boston Public Library, and has received awards and honors from the Bread Loaf School of English, McSweeney’s, and Indiana Review. She currently teaches at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston. She lives with her husband and their beloved Border Collie in Providence, Rhode Island.