Everything’s a Secret, But All is Known

Mari Miller-Lamb

This manuscript came across my desk several weeks ago. The envelope in which it was delivered was stamped with the postage of several eastern European nations. Dirty and stained, slightly torn, it was obvious that it had been in transit for a long time. There was no return address. The mailroom had forwarded it to me after opening the envelope and ascertaining that the language in which it was written was nothing that would easily go to the French translator, the German translator, or any one of the common known European languages. Instead, it arrived on my desk because my specialty is obscure Eastern European languages. But it was difficult to translate, as the dialect in which it was written had died out under Stalin’s purges; the native speakers having perished in the concentration camps long ago. Still I have used what I know and have made educated guess as to what I am unsure of. I am convinced that no translator working in the twenty-first century could have done better. I present this manuscript for your perusal for the collection of short stories entitled “They Came From the Office: Writers Write About Business.” I await your reply.


Seveltsken has always worked here, the girl told me in response to my inquiry. I could tell she was startled by the question. No had ever asked that before. He seemed like so much a part of the office furniture that no one had ever supposed there had been a time when the office had existed without him. Indeed, Seveltsken seemed to dress so as to blend into the office furniture. His suit was of leaden grey or muddy brown (the color was difficult to define) and rumpled like discarded newspapers. Or perhaps it was the other way around, the office seemed dressed to blend in with Seveltsken. The walls were the same shade as the suits he wore, and when Seveltsken worked behind his desk, it was sometimes hard to tell where he left off and the desk began.

I used to get him his daily cup of tea. I was new and knew no better. But it seemed like a harmless favor to do at the time. Besides, I thought it behooved me to ingratiate myself with someone who had worked for the division from the beginning. And I thought that this was enough. Now I know better. It is never enough.

The Monday that I mean to tell you about was like any other day. I made my way back to the desk where he worked in a corner, surrounded by stacks of paper. In all the time I worked there, I never once saw the towers of paper lessen by the slightest millimeter.

“Here’s your tea,” I said, handing him the cup. “How was your Sunday?”

“Fine, fine,” he murmured. Seveltsken never shouted or spoke forcefully. I never once heard him interrupt or even initiate conversation. He murmured all his responses so that sometimes you had to crouch to hear him.

“Mine was good, too. How long did it take you to get here this morning? My commute was really terrible.”

“Yes, it’s always like that when it rains,” Seveltsken agreed.

“The weather around here is always crazy.” I offered.

“You can never tell what it is going to do from one day to the next.”

I looked at the clock. I think I had been talking to Seveltsken for less than five minutes, but it had felt like an hour. However, it was hard to tell because the clock was broken and there were no others. And of course we were not allowed to bring wristwatches to work. We were solely dependent on our supervisors to ensure us of the correct time. But I had lingered long enough.

“Well, I have to prepare for that meeting later on, so I better–” At my words, Seveltsken froze. His eyes fixed my mine with a bright blue glare. I had never noticed his eyes before–or perhaps it is more accurate to say, that he had never met my eyes before.

“Did you say–” he spoke slowly, enunciating each syllable so that there could be no doubt about his meaning, “–you are going to prepare for this meeting?”

I nodded, somehow unable to respond.

“So you truly expect this meeting to be productive?” he asked.

I gulped. What was it about this man that filled me with this sudden inexplicable terror? I felt as if I were in the grip of an alien scientist and about to be vivisected. Abruptly, he relaxed and my body, that had been held immobile with tension, slumped in relief.

“You’re new,” he stated flatly. “I forgot.” His eyes behind his thick glasses had lost their fierceness and had faded back into their usual blandness.

“What,” I managed, “does being new have to do with it?”

He leaned back in his chair. “Meetings around here can never be productive.” He said this not sarcastically or jokingly, but merely as if he was stating something that he had read from a textbook.

I decided to try for a contrite tone. “It sometimes feels that way, I’m sure, but sometimes you can accomplish things in a meeting.”

“No,” said Seveltsken. “It is not allowed.”

I swallowed nervously. This absurdity passing for a conversation had gone on long enough. It was time to make my retreat.

“Yes,” I said. “Well, I guess I’ll go and start working on that file–”

“Sit down.” It was a command. Seveltsken had seemed to grow in the time we had spent conversing. Power now rolled off of him in tidal waves of building strength. It had never before occurred to me that Seveltsken was built like a mountain. His massive form dwarfing the other items in the room, to the point of almost vanishing. I do not know how it was, but in this office, at this time, I could see nothing but Seveltsken. He had become the focal point of my irrelevant existence. He leant back in his chair. I wondered that the chair did not break; he had grown so large. As he spoke, his voice gained in majesty and cadence. Later, I would wonder why no one interrupted his speaking, surely he must have disturbed the work of others? But gone was the murmuring little man; in his place was a giant.

And so he started to talk. The edges of the office seemed to shimmer into an incoming haze, as if I were suddenly looking into a mirage. The only object in view remaining formidable was Seveltsken. And I seemed to understand then that I was looking into a time past and yet not so past. As if something that had occurred long ago had been written so as to be forgotten. He spoke:

“It was years ago that I first started working here. And it was understood then that nothing must ever hinder the true purpose of our division–”

Here I interrupted, a trifle impatient. “Of course, this is obvious. We must never hinder the work of our division for any reason–”

Seveltsken continued on as if I had not interrupted. “As you know, we have meetings at the request of the supervisors. Well, I was new then and the rest–all of the bosses–sat around the conference table. We, the new people, took care never to interrupt them, but sometimes our opinions were asked for and we responded as we were required. Then we conducted our business as we usually did. Back then we were…more efficient, I suppose you could say. But, then, our quotas were higher. The Central Office would send down a memo–so and so many people of those type today, a certain number to be dealt with at the end of the week.”

“A weekly accounting?” I asked.

“Yes! Yes, a weekly accounting. None of these yearly statistics. We were audited every week, mind you. So I was new, yet not so new as you are perhaps now. And we hired on a man; a good man, or so we thought. There had been the usual background checks and there was nothing to indicate that he would cause trouble of any kind. No suspected leanings or hanging out with the wrong crowd.

“At these meetings, it was customary for the bosses to speak first, in order of precedence, of course. So Gorbodiev, who was in charge of education, spoke:

“‘Classes are going well. I am pleased to report a higher number of attendees than usual due to the efforts of the public relations committee.’ There were the expected nods and smiles from the head of P.R. Gorbodiev continued:

“‘We’ve worked hard to make the program an interesting and stimulating one. Our students are even now taking imitative and teaching classes for themselves.’

“‘What are they teaching?’ This was from the new man. Malnokov, was his name. Startled silence greeted his question. No one had ever asked that question before. The answer was, as it is now, quite obvious.”

“After a pause, Gorbodiev spoke: ‘The approved curriculum. As I said, the response has been quite good–‘

“‘I don’t understand,’ said Malnokov. ‘What approved curriculum? I don’t remember ever seeing a copy.’

“‘They are kept in the file cabinet. Anyone can have a look,’ someone said. I think there must have made an attempt to quell the questioner at this time–an elbow shoved into his side, a muttered ‘Shhhh’. But he would not be deterred.

“‘But the filing cabinet is kept in the office that is always locked.’

“‘Then find the key,’ said Gorbodiev. All pretense at bland acceptance had vanished. He looked distinctly annoyed. As did several other bosses. As for me, I started to break out in a cold sweat. Because annoying the bosses is something that one simply does not do. Even you know this, I think.”

The eyes of Seveltsken bored into me like a pneumatic drill and I swallowed. No, one must never annoy those in charge. It was unthinkable. Who knew where their wrath would fall? What if they saw this new employee speaking with other coworkers? Would they, too, feel the effects of associating with someone who was on the outs with management? And their families, what about their families? I distinctly began to hate Malnokov for being so inconsiderate as to put his coworkers and their families at risk. This man was behaving as if he was a new arrival in our society. It was an unconscionable action, this senseless questioning.

Even I, who did not know much, knew this very basic fact at least. It was one thing to question one’s inferiors, as I had previously questioned the girl regarding Seveltsken’s length of employment, but to question one’s superiors! I thought of cars pulling up to apartment buildings late at night, their occupants taken away, never to be heard from again. Even their neighbors knew not to ask, to go on singing in the shower, and when replacements arrived, to treat them with courtesy. And above all, continue as if nothing happened.

Seveltsken returned to his story:

“‘I can’t find the key,’ said Malnokov. He, too, was starting to sound impatient. At this point, I stepped in, in an attempt to calm the situation.

“‘The question of where to find the key can be put on the agenda for the next meeting,’ I said. ‘We have much more important things to discuss at the present time.’ Everyone relaxed at this. We were quite safe with this plan, because of course, there is no agenda, there is never an agenda. This seemed to satisfy, or at least mollify, our inquisitive friend as well. And we continued on as planned. The next to deliver his report was Smirnovosky.

“‘Shipments of grain are proceeding as planned. The students have more than enough to eat at present, but if we look to increase the dried fruit products–‘

“‘I have not seen any of these shipments. And what students are we talking about anyway? I thought it was our business, too–‘

“Meera, sitting to the right of me, screamed and fell onto the floor, feigning an epileptic fit. She was faking of course, but it worked, successfully diverting attention from the terror that our esteemed coworker was about to voice. The doctors were called and Meera was led away, shaking and drooling. In the hustle and confusion, the meeting was forgotten and all adjourned to our respective work areas. But not before taking up a collection for flowers for Meera. We are a considerate bunch and it looked as if she would be out for at least week, such was the severity of the doctor’s diagnosis.

“I think at this time, attempts were made to re-educate Malnokov. We are not animals, after all, but human beings engaged in a very important business. I know I certainly tried. I took him out to lunch one day and tried to explain.

“‘Look, this place is very easy to work for, I am sure you would agree, would you not?’

“‘Yes, it is easy. But I can’t figure out exactly what it is that I am supposed to be doing.’ His face has an open, honest, disturbingly frank quality about it. He made me shiver. But I am nothing, if not patient. And persistent.

“‘My dear Malnokov,’ I laughed. ‘Why worry, my friend? We are supposed to be working.’ I smiled at him knowingly, but he persisted in looking stupidly blank.

“‘I try to work,’ he said. ‘But I get nowhere.’ The other day I called about the shipments of grain to our students and the supplier said they had been delivered two weeks ago. But when I interviewed one of the students, he said they’ve been on half rations for four weeks.’

“‘You talked to one of the students?’ I said and tried not to sound too interested. ‘You, ah, did not get their names, did you?’ My mind raced with possibilities. If he got one of the names, and the student stupidly had given him a real name and not a fake one, I could turn the student in, because complaining was not allowed. If, on the other hand, Malnokov had started to learn something and had deliberately given me a fake name–but of course that is not significant. There were quotas to meet, after all. I could have the credit on one, and he on the other, at another time. No matter.

“But Malnokov frowned. He looked genuinely perplexed. ‘It’s a funny thing,’ he said. ‘But he asked me to not give out his name. Why do you suppose he asked me to do that?’ He looked at me earnestly, as if he really expected me to answer. I tried not to let my mouth gape in amazement. A sick thought occurred to me. Perhaps Malnokov had been planted by management to see if I was loyal. That must be the answer then. But then Malnokov seemed to be too innocent, too naïve. It has been my experience that informers are at least moderately clever men. And Malnokov seemed too honest to be clever. To cover my confusion, I laughed.

“‘People are strange, my friend! Who knows why people ask for anything?’ Then I turned the conversation to inconsequential matters, resolving never to have anything that could be construed as an intimate conversation again with this man. I was careful to avoid him after that.

“I was not the only one attempting to re-educate the man. There were other attempts made. Never let it be said this business does not give one every opportunity for success! I saw Malnokov studying the pile of literature that he had received from our librarian. Or from someone who had been told to be a librarian. I forget which.”

At this point I interrupted Seveltsken, inquiring as to where this literature was kept and if I could get my hands on it. The bosses had stressed to me the importance of being pro-active. If there was literature making its way through the office, the very least I could do was to be aware of it. He thought for a minute. He was really pondering the question; thinking hard, I could tell.

“They were kept in the library. But that part of the complex burned down five years ago. I think those papers were moved to the Headquarters before that fire. You will have to contact Smemlkrytn.” I did not point out to him that Smemlkrytn had not worked for us for five years. There was no need. And in any case, Seveltsken was quite aware of that fact as it was he who had told me of it not two days ago. Seveltsken continued with the story.

“But all of our good deeds came to naught. It was really the oddest thing. The more we tried to bring him on board, the more he continued with his infuriating questions. But his questions were more than infuriating, they were downright rude. My skin crawls sometimes when I think of the nerve of that man!” Here Seveltsken imitated what I supposed was the voice of Malnokov:

“‘But the numbers say there are this many people, but I only counted such and such!’ Or, worse yet, ‘But I have checked the statistics twice and the need for so many is simply not there!’

“Can you imagine the nerve of this man? But it gets worse. Ha, I can see by your face, my young friend, that you are puzzled. I think you are now wondering, how can this get worse? But it did. Because he began voicing his ridiculous concerns to people outside the division.

“I found out about this quite by accident. At a party, a slight acquaintance of mine, who worked for the division of statistics, happened to catch me by the elbow and tell me of a very puzzling call he had received from a member of my division. Something about wanting to check last year’s audited reports. I did not even have to hear the person’s name. I knew it was Malnokov.

“This had clearly gotten beyond my control. I did the loyal thing, of course. I called upon the bosses, but they were quite aware of the situation. I could tell them nothing new at all. The eldest boss looked at me with that compelling glance we know so well:

“‘We know all about our friend Malnokov. But you must understand, that in order to deal with the situation–‘ here he paused and looked at me significantly ‘–we will need the support of loyal men like yourself.’ I nodded and a feeling of almost inexpressible glee took hold of me, as I am sure it would take hold of you, too, if you were to be part of such an important task. It would not guarantee me promotion–no one is ever promoted–but it would help ensure that I stay in my present position.”

Here Seveltsken stopped and looked at me. “How do you suppose we dealt with the situation?” he asked. I smiled. I was not Malnokov, I was not stupid.

“I am sure he was dealt with in the most appropriate way possible.”

Seveltsken beamed with good humor. “Yes, yes. He is not here anymore, that is the main thing. Of course, his wife came in once or twice looking for him, but she soon stopped. Unlike Malnokov, she was never more than a minor inconvenience.”

I nodded. Everything now was quite understandable, how silly I was not to have seen it before.

At the meeting, I sat in the proscribed place and paid attention to when I was supposed to speak. I said what was expected, murmured in agreement when appropriate, and listened to the information given out by the bosses. It was an odd numbered month, so the meeting had to go on for two hours. About an hour into it, something strange happened. But I am sure this was due to the fact that I was feeling quite sleepy–as one often does at these long meetings.

I was sitting in the meeting room, and I yawned and blinked. I glanced over to the right. In the corner of the room there was a chair that I was almost positive had been empty a moment before. But now a man was there–a man made nondescript with rigors of starvation and physical hardship. Gaunt, with skin stretched so tightly over his skull that you could see his skeleton. He was dressed in thin, ragged clothing and his hands were chapped and red, as if he has spent a long time out in cold weather. He looked like one of our students. But I knew he was not one of our students.

He looked at me out of hollow eyes, quietly, steadily. He had the look of one who had achieved death long before his heart has ceased beating. And I couldn’t help but meet his eyes. It’s difficult to describe, but I felt as if he saw through me somehow, as if he saw something in me that had been long gone, if it had ever existed to begin with. No one, certainly no one in the division, had ever looked at me that way before.

I squinted. It was the strangest thing, but the more I looked at the man, the more I could see his slow starvation when his rations were cut because he could not meet his work quotas. I saw the cold so vicious, it stabbed his gut every time he took a breath. I saw him stumbling about when he lost his vision, and his fellow inmates pushing him aside in annoyance. I saw him recover briefly before the end, and carve his name with shaking fingers on his plank, begging his friends to remember his name. And I saw his body piled with the others by the front gate of the camp, before a contingent of drunken guards shoveled that day’s dead into a massive pit. But only after they had run each body through with sharp knives, to make sure they were all really dead.

In a moment he disappeared, and I mentally shook myself and then glanced around surreptitiously, to see if anyone had noticed my…dream. For it could only have been a dream–a phantom of a brief unauthorized nap. It certainly could not have been anything else. It would not have been allowed and I knew this without asking.

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