Gould’s coming to the office with the sock puppet was the unspoken confirmation that something was wrong. We’d already suspected it. At least, I’m sure I did. And I suspect the others suspected it as well judging from the side glances they’d give him during the coffee breaks. But we never spoke about it. It was as though we wanted to be wrong in our suspicions, as though by the subconsciously imposed collective silence we could somehow mute them into unreality.
It started with the talking to himself. My office cubicle was connected to his and I thought that he was just having a conversation on the phone. But at a certain point it grew loud and distracting so I stood up and looked over the cubicle wall to tell him to keep it down. He didn’t have a phone with him. His back was turned to me and he jerked his head behind him to look at me, his back heaving and collapsing with a slow steady panting and his shoulders closed inward as though in protection or hiding of some small object or creature not to be made manifest. I didn’t think much off that at the time.
“What is it,” he said.
“I was just wondering if you could keep it down a little. It’s just. It’s a little hard for me to work with the noise.”
He turned his head back but preserved his hunched defensive posture. “Alright,” he said.
He still continued to talk to himself after that incident, albeit more softly. I tolerated it. I thought it wasn’t for me to judge how people voice out their thoughts.
But then not much later things started to go missing around the office. Things of almost negligible value. Pens. Mugs. Knickknacks. Things you would have thought were lost by chance or even petty carelessness were it not for the fact that so many were getting lost and all within the same period of time. We started to comment about it to each other but his name never came up as suspect. We had no reason to suspect him. Until he made the remark.
“Benjamin did it,” he said. On this occasion he must have heard us talking about the missing things.
“Benjamin?” I said.
We looked at each other with subtle side-glances. In those frowning eyes and slackened mouths I read a looming anxiety, almost horror, like a slow darkening of clouds.
“There’s no one named Benjamin in this office, Gould,” I said.
“Of course. He doesn’t work here.”
“Do you know him?”
“Do I know him?”
“How did he get in here?” I said.
Gould laughed. There was something in the tone of it that made my scalp tingle. I had heard him laugh before but never like this. “He does whatever he wants,” he said.
“Can you get him to return the things to us?” one of the officemates said.
He continued to smile at us for a good moment and then shrugged and turned to get back to work on his desk.
We looked at one another in silence. That was the only communication we ever had about the incident. It was forgotten voluntarily and left unremarked.
But the sock puppet not only reignited but seemed to focus and coincide all suspicion like a straight line of matches laid out and then lighted retrospectively. He entered the office with the black sock stretched out all the way to the crease of his arm. He held it to his chest with his other arm as though nursing a broken limb. I would have thought it were some injury or burn were it not for the fact that he was muttering something to it rapidly like some litany or incantation. Our heads all turned together as though synchronized, watching him as he made his way to his desk and sat there hunched up.
I was the first to make a move to him.
“Are you alright?” I said. “Something happen?”
“What do you have there on your arm?”
He inclined his head toward the socked arm and muttered something inaudible to it. He looked up at me, his gaze dark and intense as though contemplating a stranger unknown and threatening. He bent back down to the arm. He talked to it. And then as if in slow motion he moved his arm away from his chest and turn the sock-covered palm of his hand towards me.
The sock was thick and old and worn out, of the brittle and flaky texture of breadcrumbs on a pie. On it he had glued two googly eyes, each about the size of a coin. He had bent his wrist and folded his thumb to his outstretched fingers to give the puppet a mouth. There was something childish yet abominable in it, his solemn conviction and gravity having removed all sense of humor or laughability and shrouded it with a hint of black terror.
“This is Benjamin,” Gould said. By this time the other workers in the office had started to come and crowd around to behold the unsettling spectacle. At this Gould started and pulled the arm-puppet back to his chest. “Back,” he said. “Back. Not so many. He’ll get nervous.”
We looked at each other. “Not so many, I said,” said Gould. “He doesn’t like it when many people are watching him.” I nodded to the others and they understood. The ones who had come later went back to where they stood in the office and watched from there with necks outstretched. Three of us were left there around Gould.
Gould brought out the puppet again and made its mouth turn to us. He bent his face down to the puppet and whispered something to its invisible ear. The puppet turned to him and he nodded in a sort of encouragement or assurance and then the puppet turned to us.
“Meet Benjamin,” Gould said.
“This is Benjamin?” one of the office workers said. “A sock? What the hell’s — ”
“Careful with what you say in front of Benjamin,” Gould said.
And then it spoke. Benjamin. “Pleased to finally meet you all,” it said.
I wish I could say it was Gould who spoke and opened Benjamin’s mouth giving him the appearance of talking, but I cannot. Because when Benjamin spoke Gould’s mouth did not move. And it was an entirely different voice, a raspy yet firm baritone. The four of us gathered there looked at each other in a suppressed horror.
I managed to speak up. “Hello Benjamin,” I said. “I’m Solon.”
“Hello Solon,” it said.
“Welcome to our office.”
“Thank you very much, Solon.”
“So. What brings you here?”
“I finally wanted to meet you all. Make it official.”
“That I’m here to stay. That I’m here to stay with Gould.”
The days passed and he still wore the sock on his arm. He would sit at his desk in his cubicle and he would work with the other arm while he held up the sock puppet Benjamin as though taking some oath. I would hear both voices now speaking to each other in hushed up tones. During the coffee breaks he would keep to his desk by himself as the rest of us stood there with our mugs and pretended not to be watching him as we spoke of pleasant nothings, neither the speaker nor the listeners paying attention to what was being said as the blacks of our eyes flitted to the corners toward him with the sock on his arm.
At last after a week, I could not take it anymore. In part because of annoyance, perhaps. But mostly because of the disturbing pitifulness of it all. I had had enough. I said so to the others in one of the coffee breaks.
“And what do you plan to do?” one of them asked. “Talk to the boss about it?”
“No,” I said. “Listen. I don’t think it has to go to that extent. I don’t want to get him fired or in trouble or anything. I think it’s clear he already has enough problems as it is.”
“So what were you thinking? Talk to Benjamin and ask him to leave?” The others laughed.
“No,” I said. “Listen. I’m thinking that some of us get a hold of him. After work. When he least suspects it. And then we pull the sock out of his arm. What do you think?”
They took a while to consider it. “It’s worth a shot,” someone said.
That same afternoon when our boss had left the four biggest men in the office (including myself) stood around him.
“Hey,” he said. “What’s the — ” We had grabbed him by the arms and started to drag him. We took him to one of the storage rooms in the office and closed the shutters of the windows. We laid him on the table and as the others subjected his limbs to keep him from moving I grabbed hold of his arm with Benjamin on it.
“Don’t do it,” Gould screamed. “It will only make him angry.”
“You’re making me angry,” I said.
“You’ll regret it. I swear you’ll regret it.”
“It’s for your own good.”
“Don’t do it, Solon.”
When I pulled at the sock something was wrong. I tried to pull it by the head. It wouldn’t budge. As I took the arm by the elbow to try to peel the sock out I couldn’t get it to come off. It was as though it was glued to the skin.
“Pull it off already,” said the one holding down Gould’s leg. “This is getting tiring.”
“I said I can’t.”
“Enough of this. Let me do it. Here. Hold this down.”
I moved to the leg. The other one moved to get the sock off but he couldn’t do it either. He was looking at the rest of us now in exasperation.
I felt the leg I was holding down stop struggling and relax. His body started to convulse with laughter. “I told you not to do it,” he said. “Now you’re going to regret it. I told you he doesn’t like that.”
We let go of Gould. He sat up. His arm with the sock was held up and he looked at us with eyes widened. The sock puppet started to swivel as though to get a good look of each of us and engrave us in his cotton memory, as the blacks of the glued eyes bounced menacing and disconsolate. I felt a subtle chill within me as our eyes met, an eloquent exchange between warm flesh to cold plastic. Gould swung his legs down from the table and left the room without saying another word.
I do n
He bites his fingernails and stares blankly at what he’s so far written on the screen. He’s tired. He’s run out of ideas. He folds the laptop closed and wheeling the chair backwards stretches his legs out and yawns and slouches on the chair with his hands resting behind his head. It’s late and the office is empty. The rest have all gone home. The only light comes from his desktop lamp and the office vestibule.
The door creaks.
He jerks up and turns to look at it. It remains closed. He turns back to his desk and nods off.
Something grabs his head from behind and covers his nose and mouth. It’s made of cotton cloth. He can’t breathe. He tries to struggle free but the arm has locked him tight. He hears a sobbing yet languid voice, each syllable turning hazier and hazier in a constant gradient as though more and more distant like some slow fading echo: “I told you, Solon. I told you not to make him angry. I tried to stop him. I promise you I tried to stop him. But once he’s set on something he’ll do whatever he wants. I already told you.”
His body tenses up in a final and violent struggle, as though the last remaining breath were the hardest to expire. His body lies slack now. The arm drops him to the ground. Beside the body Gould kneels crying with the unsocked arm held up to his face like some penitent at prayer manifesting contrition.
“Don’t cry now,” the raspy baritone voice says amid the sobs. “You don’t need him. You don’t need anybody. Now I’ll be with you always.”