Working 9 to 5 in a Building Beset by a Mystery Disease
“Paper Masks” by Jim Ruland, original fiction recommended by Electric Literature
AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
In another decade, Jim Ruland’s “Paper Masks” might be an episode of The Twilight Zone. Reading it, I can hear almost hear the deep voice over, can picture doctors in coats scuttling down a black and white hallway, backs to the camera. The elements are all there; an impenetrable bureaucracy, something sinister lurking beneath, anticipation building toward an awful conclusion.
The narrator of “Paper Masks” is employed as a construction worker by a corporation that is literally faceless; employees must wear paper masks over their nose and mouth to prevent against a tenacious sickness known only as “the crud.” When the narrator receives his masks at orientation, “nested inside each other like cups… stiff and light, like a bouquet of dried flowers,” the description evokes the masks worn by plague doctors, who stuffed dried flowers into their beaks to avoid the smells of the dying. Reading that sentence, one can only imagine what horrors await.
The style of “Paper Masks,” what I might call matter-of-fact gothic, calls to mind Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. The mastery of that novel lies in dueling supernatural and rational explanations for every strange occurrence; is it a ghost story about a very haunted house, or a psychological thriller about a troubled woman? “Paper Masks” thrives on a similar tension. The corporation is housed in a unnamed facility that was once a penitentiary and before that, a prison. The narrator describes being compelled away from the building, “without having made up my mind to do so, like something was pushing me away.” And yet his assignment to the HVAC haromization unit is normal enough; his job is to “bring three different heating and ventilation systems installed in three different centuries into accord.”
The mastery lies in dueling supernatural and rational explanations for every strange occurrence.
The problems of the facility are the normal problems of any aging building. Even former mental health facilities and institutions of rehabilitation need construction crews. Perhaps there is an explanation for everything, and “the crud” is merely from asbestos, or legionella. Perhaps this isn’t an episode of The Twilight Zone, but just a regular day on the job.
That interplay between the everyday and the sinister is what makes “Paper Masks” such an exhilarating read. I always admire writers like Jim Ruland who needn’t look far to see the gothic, who find the supernatural all around them, who take a close look at reality and see the horror glinting within.
Editor in Chief, Recommended Reading
Working 9 to 5 in a Building Beset by a Mystery Disease
by Jim Ruland
The trouble started when I went to see the doctor. I wasn’t sick but I had changed jobs, relocating from one city to another, and I was told I had to see the doctor for a screening.
“A screening for what?” I asked during the question and answer session that followed the medical module of the orientation video.
We, the new hires, were assembled in a large windowless classroom in a prefabricated building. We watched the videos on monitors at our desks. After each video one of the women from Human Resources asked us if we had any questions. We had lots of questions, but the women only answered those that pertained to the video we had just seen. Some of my new colleagues asked questions just to ask them, to make their voices heard, or so it seemed to me, but I wanted to know the purpose of the screening and if it had anything to do with the paper masks that all the women from Human Resources wore. The new hires had not been given masks.
“We need to assemble a baseline,” the woman replied.
That was no kind of answer, but I didn’t want to antagonize her. The contract I’d signed was very lucrative and there was no need to jeopardize that on account of my surliness, which had gotten me in trouble in the past. The truth of the matter was I had made a mess of things at my last job. Things had started out well enough but then everyone turned against me and I was eager to start fresh.
But the idea of a doctor visit troubled me. I was raised to believe that seeing a doctor when you weren’t sick was inviting illness into the body.
Eventually, I forgot about the screening and turned my attention to the other videos, which weren’t half-bad, but I must have looked concerned because when it was time to sign out for the day one of the women — I couldn’t see her face because of the paper mask she wore, but her nametag read “Diane” — said to me, “It’s nothing to worry about. Everybody gets sick during the first month. You’ll see.”
On the second day of orientation, my concern turned to annoyance when I learned I would have to see the doctor immediately. The women from Human Resources were adamant about this: “Employment is contingent upon completion of the screening.”
Fine. During the lunch break I got in line to sign up for an appointment with one of the company doctors. The woman’s nametag read “Gayle” and like the others she wore a paper mask with the company’s logo on it.
Gayle seemed pleasant enough as she keyed in my particulars and scheduled an appointment later that afternoon with a Dr. Lee.
“He’s one of the good ones!” Gayle exclaimed before hastily adding, “They’re all good, of course. You’ll like Dr. Lee. Everyone does. Can I confirm your appointment this afternoon?”
After a moment’s hesitation, I told her she could.
“Good luck!” she said.
It didn’t occur to me until much later that this was an odd thing to say to a healthy person before a doctor visit.
After we finished orientation for the morning I took a walk and had a look at the building where I’d be working. I’d learned that it had been used as a mental health facility and then as an institution of rehabilitation — meaning it had been an insane asylum and a penitentiary. The massive structure had stood empty for over a decade before my new employer purchased the facility (that’s what everyone called it, the facility) and was having it renovated for an unknown purpose. The building was barnacled with scaffolding.
I’d been hired on to the HVAC crew. I’d intended to walk around the facility, but the work sites were walled off with plywood so I gave up and studied the entrance instead. The front of the building looked as if it hadn’t changed in a hundred years. It was made of dark stone and was anything but cheerful. The air was cold and damp and before I knew it I was walking away from the facility without having made up my mind to do so, like something was pushing me away. I wanted to turn and have one last look if only to assert my will over the place, but I didn’t look back. I hunkered down into my coat and went straight to the clinic and my appointment with Dr. Lee.
The doctor was exactly as I had imagined him. Youthful but not young. Thin but not frail. His hands were slender but you wouldn’t call them dainty. He wore a paper mask, as did everyone else in the clinic, but what little I could see of his features did not suggest a man who was lovable or warm. In fact, he struck me as quite cold.
He asked me in a perfunctory tone if I had been ill or if I was on any medication. He checked my eyes, examined my ears, and peered down my throat. Other than a few keystrokes he made on his computer at the beginning of the appointment, he didn’t take any notes.
He was a serious man, and I got the sense that this screening was as annoying to him as it was to me, an attitude that contributed to a sense of pointlessness. In fact, I’d only been in the room with him for about five minutes when he thanked me and told me we were done.
As I stood up and put my jacket on, Dr. Lee did a curious thing: he opened the bottom drawer of his desk and lifted out an enormous white cat that he cradled in his arms. I couldn’t have been more surprised if he’d pulled out a bottle of whiskey and a pack of cigarettes.
“So you will be working in the facility?” he asked.
I nodded but Dr. Lee did not return the gesture. He just stood there, stroking the cat with his slender hands. Both he and the cat wore the same watchful expression, the same look of penetrating intelligence. I got the sense that I was intruding and left the examination room.
A shuttle approached as I exited the clinic and after displaying my new employee badge I boarded the bus. Everyone but me was wearing a paper mask.
Orientation continued. There were fewer new hires in the room. The empty seats were as obvious as missing teeth.
During the lunch hour the women from Human Resources escorted a few more new hires away from their workstations. The guy next to me, a young man who pounced on every opportunity to take a smoke break and returned to the classroom smelling of tobacco and, strangely, apples, leaned over and whispered, “They refused to go see the doc.”
I nodded that I understood though in fact I did not.
“Not that it matters. Just a rubber stamp to cover their asses. If you get it, you get it,” he said with a chuckle.
Get what? I wanted to ask, but Diane announced the start of the next module and I turned my gaze toward the video screen.
At the conclusion of orientation, certificates of completion were passed around as if we’d achieved something of our own doing rather than sitting quietly while that something was done to us. The certificate that was handed to me had someone else’s name on it, but I didn’t correct the error.
The women from Human Resources were huddled at the exit, two on each side, passing out plastic-wrapped bundles to each of the new hires as they passed through the doors and on to the facility. When it was my turn I knew what was inside the package as soon as it was placed in my hands: paper masks, nested inside each other like cups. The package was surprisingly stiff and light, like a bouquet of dried flowers.
I didn’t sleep well that night. The housing block was noisier than usual. There seemed to be an unusual amount of activity in the rooms on my floor, and although the units were quiet the people passing back and forth between them were not. Eventually, I fell asleep but woke early, anxious about what the day might bring.
On the shuttle to the facility, I sat across the aisle from the man I’d gotten to know during orientation. He was eating an apple and I was relieved to have solved this minor mystery. His name was Dustin and he wasn’t wearing a paper mask, which brought both confusion and relief because I had spent several anxious moments that morning trying to decide if I should wear a mask to the facility or not, and if not should I bring them with me and if so how many? Everyone else on the shuttle wore a mask. None were as clean or as new as the three I had in my pocket.
“Those things won’t help,” Dustin shook his head and laughed. He was a man who didn’t appear to take much of anything seriously.
“They’re not required?” I asked.
Dustin snorted with the derision of the workingman who viewed all employers through the same cynical lens. There were men like Dustin at every site I’d ever worked.
“Probably gonna sell mine,” he said.
The job site was a job site. The work was work. There was plenty to do and not enough resources to do it, which was reassuring and discomfiting in equal measure. Time was a resource. I was another. This arrangement was familiar to me and the familiarity brought comfort.
My supervisor, Julio, did not wear a mask. Neither did Dustin nor Manuel, but Hector did. He was the oldest member of the four-man crew to which I’d been assigned and his mask was shockingly discolored. At first I thought it was a black bandana. I couldn’t fathom how a mask made of paper could get so dirty and still hold its shape or what would make a man want to strap something so filthy to his face. Hector’s eyes were red and watery and I avoided looking at him.
I was assigned to the HVAC harmonization unit. Our job was to bring three different heating and ventilation systems installed in three different centuries into accord. We worked in three three-hour shifts: three hours inside the facility, three hours outside, and then another three hours back in. When we were outside we were encouraged to eat or smoke or do whatever we liked as long as we were close by and available for muster. Many played cards. Some slept inside the shuttle bus and others went to the clinic. We all came to resent this long break because we got double pay inside the facility and half-pay outside of it. When I asked Julio about it he said something about limiting our exposure to the facility, but if he knew more, and I don’t think he did, he didn’t tell me.
On the second day, Dustin told me he’d sold his masks for some pills. Apparently, if someone in your crew gets sick, the whole crew has to go see the doctor. He’d gotten the pills from someone in another crew.
“Sick how?” I asked.
“Coughing. Congestion. Dizziness. They call it the crud.”
Dustin stuck out his hand: three bright red capsules rested in his palm like pomegranate seeds. Before I could ask him what they were supposed to do he popped all three into his mouth and swallowed them down. I was so stunned I didn’t know what to say. Dustin laughed the laugh of the doomed and walked away.
That afternoon I looked at the other members of my crew in a new light. I focused on Hector and his filthy mask and wondered if he was okay. At the end of the shift I took him aside and offered him one of my new masks. He took the mask with a look of wonder I’d not seen a grown man’s face since my father died in the weeds beside the house, a heart attack so fierce and strong it knocked him down and he never got back up.
A few days later Dustin showed up for work coughing up wads up flesh-colored phlegm.
“You’ve got the crud,” Julio said to Dustin. “You’re all outside today.”
“The whole day?” I asked.
“That depends on the doctor,” Julio said, not without sympathy.
We each had to return to the doctor who’d performed our initial screening. Hector went to his doctor, Manuel went to another, and Dustin and I went to see Dr. Lee. Since Dustin was the one who was sick, he went first. The nurse gave us paper masks to wear, which Dustin wasn’t too happy about.
I leaned back in the cool plastic seat and closed my eyes. I must have drifted off because I was jolted awake by a nurse whose masked face was frighteningly close. I composed myself and followed her down the hall to the examination room where I sat down in a chair not unlike the one in the lobby and felt myself succumb to a lethargy so powerful I feared I’d fall asleep again. The door opened and in walked Dr. Lee.
The name on the tag was the same, the man’s hair was black, and his features were identical to Dr. Lee’s, but he seemed much more relaxed and at ease. He greeted me warmly and shook my hand with great feeling. When he asked me “How are you adjusting to things here?” I felt he really wanted to know, that he truly cared about me. I was filled with a sudden desire to tell him that I wasn’t adjusting well, that the work was fine but the nights were lonely. I’d kept to myself so as not to repeat the mistake I’d made at my last job of quarrelling with the crew.
“So how are we feeling today?”
“I’m feeling fine,” I admitted. “I’m not the one who’s sick.”
“Probably nothing serious,” Dr. Lee said. “The new hires all get sick.”
I found myself nodding my head in agreement, as if I knew what he was saying to be true. “Is Dustin going to be okay?” I felt moved to ask.
“Don’t you worry about that,” Dr. Lee put his hand on my arm and in that moment I felt that everything would be okay. Whatever measures were being taken to protect the workers were succeeding. We were all fine.
I left the clinic feeling better than I’d felt since arriving at the facility, but as I crossed the wind-swept lot that feeling began to dissipate. Each step I took toward the facility brought me closer to the way I’d felt on my first day, and now that it was back I recognized it for what it was. That feeling was dread.
That night, there was a knock at the door to my room in the housing unit. I’d opted for the extra deduction so that I wouldn’t have to share sleeping quarters. I’m not an old man or a young man but I know things about myself and I’ve learned not to put myself in a position where those things are on view for others to criticize and judge. So when someone knocked, it caught me off guard. My first visitor.
I got up out of bed and opened the door. There was no one there. I peered out into the hall and looked up and down the corridor but it was empty. Then I looked down.
On the doormat sat a small paper bag. I opened it up and saw a meat pie, fragrant and warm. It didn’t come from the canteen or one of the machines in the lobby. It smelled delicious. Tucked in the foil was a card that read, “Thank you! H.”
At my last job, I caused one of my co-workers to be injured. Kyle was an undependable man who was liked by the others but made no effort to get along with me. Like Dustin he was preoccupied with getting high as soon as his shift was over, but that isn’t a fair comparison. While Dustin is a rebel in spirit I have never heard a complaint about his performance at the facility. Kyle seemed all right at first, but over time he revealed his true self to me. His heart was filled with contempt, which he took out on me every chance he got. We shared a room and I knew his secrets.
One morning he showed up at the site looking ragged and mean. He had spent the previous night making a spectacle of himself at the company bar trying to acquire more of the substance he could not do without, and he was surlier than usual the next day. A problem arose in the boiler room: a high-pressure leak had been detected and Kyle and I were tasked with finding it. These leaks can be dangerous things. You can’t see them or hear them and they have a way of finding you if you’re not careful. Kyle was unfamiliar with such perils. I had located the leak but when Kyle swaggered in and waved his hands in front of the pipes as if he were warming them before a fire, I left the compartment, and I didn’t come back until he started screaming.
When I returned he had his injured hand wedged into his armpit to stop the bleeding. His face was as white as new milk. He’d found the leak, and the job of collecting his fingers fell to me. No one blamed me for what happened, but I knew, and every time I heard a siren or a teakettle’s whistle, I thought of Kyle, and probably always would.
I felt if I could share this story with Dr. Lee, he’d help me move on and start over.
I dreamt I was the ocean. A wilderness of raging waves and bottomless depths. But I wasn’t the ocean: the ocean was inside me and its awful, urgent wildness wanted to get out. I lurched out of bed and made it to the bathroom just in time to spew into the toilet, a surge of savage intensity that left me breathless but not empty. I got the seat down and positioned myself as the ocean roared through my lower hemisphere.
The meat pie. Hector’s gift had spoiled. He’d poisoned me.
When the rotten stew was through with me, I slumped to the bathroom floor and passed out. When I came to Julio was lifting me to my feet, leading me back to my bed. Hector and Manuel were there, too, but not Dustin. They helped me into my jacket and shoes and then down the stairs to the shuttle that ferried us to the clinic. The sun was out and the shuttle was warm, a tube of radiant heat. I felt much better. After a little water, maybe some food, I’d be back to my old self, but Julio shook his head. He was wearing a paper mask now. They all were. My crew, the driver, the nurses. Everyone but me.
They took me to the examining room, a place that had become as familiar to me as my own room. I closed my eyes and thought of the things I would say to Dr. Lee. After examining dozens, even hundreds of people who weren’t sick, I was looking forward to giving him an actual illness, albeit a simple case of food poisoning, to which he could apply his skill, training and talent.
But when Dr. Lee entered the examining room, there was no spark of recognition in his eyes, no warmth in his greeting as he sat down at his computer.
“What seems to be the problem?” he asked without bothering to look away from the screen.
I suddenly felt very foolish as I told him what had happened. He glared at me as he asked me to explain why I thought I was suffering from food poisoning. I recounted my discovery of the meat pie on my doorstep but in my nervousness and, yes, shame, I forgot to mention that it was a gift from a friend.
Dr. Lee nodded as if to say that he understood but he obviously thought I was a fool who ate food left in the hallway of my apartment complex like some kind of scavenging animal. Speaking about my past with this man was out of the question.
I told Dr. Lee I was ready to go back to work, that my crew was counting on me, and I didn’t want to let them down. The doctor scribbled something down on a scrap of paper and handed it to me.
“Give that to the nurse,” he said as he got up from his chair and left the examining room.
I looked at the paper but couldn’t make out the words. No matter how much I studied the letters I was unable to deduce their meaning. I don’t know how long I sat there staring at the note, but a noise brought me out of my reverie. The sound, I realized, had come from the desk.
I woke up in my quarters, drenched in sweat. I gathered some time had passed. Hector and Manuel stood at my bedside, looking down at me. Although they looked sad, I was happy to see them and said as much, but they didn’t seem to hear me. Something was muffling my words, interfering with my intentions.
“He looks pretty bad,” I thought I heard Hector say, but it was hard to tell who was speaking because of the masks.
“We better tell Julio,” Manuel said.
They thought I was still sick! I assured them that Hector’s meat pie had done a number on me — no hard feelings Hector — but while it was true I felt a little dizzy my illness was over and I was well on my way to recovery.
“Screw Julio,” Manuel said. “He needs the doctor.”
“I think you’re right,” Hector agreed.
I made an effort to sit up in bed a little so that my friends could hear me. It was so good to see them. I insisted I had it in me to be a better person, that things would be different now. Hello Hector! Hello Manuel! I see you behind your masks. But where was Dustin?
“Calm down,” Hector shouted through the mask I’d given him. “Stop kicking.”
“Shit, I think he knows,” Manuel said.
“How would he know?” Hector asked.
“He definitely said ‘Dustin.’”
I asked them why they were wearing the paper masks. Didn’t they know the masks were a scam? They were nothing more than props to advertise one’s gullibility. I spent a long time trying to convince Hector and Manuel that the masks gave us something to fixate on while our bodies were inundated with mysterious toxins inside the facility, hour after hour, day after day, and there was nothing a flimsy little paper mask could do to stop them from invading our bodies. But they wouldn’t listen to me. It was exhausting explaining this to them over and over again, and I became very tired.
When I came to Dr. Lee was sitting on the edge of my bed, stroking his big white cat. He smiled down at me with his eyes and told me that everything was going to be okay. I thanked him, but I was so overwhelmed I could barely get the words out. He shushed me and said I was in the final stage of my awakening, which confused me, as I had just awoken, but the curtains were pulled tight around my bed and I had no idea where they had come from or where I was or even if it was night or day. The cat meowed and the sound reached my ears as if from a great distance. There was something wrong with its face. I realized the cat was wearing a feline-sized paper mask. Dr. Lee told me my contract had been terminated and I no longer had to worry about going back to work inside that terrible place. I told him I wanted to stay but my voice was muffled as if there was something between us that words could not penetrate. Dr. Lee bent over me, slid an elastic band around my skull, and lowered the mask onto my face.