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"Germophobe" by Christina Hoag

The following is an excerpt of "Germophobe," featured in Volume 6: Saturn's Return.

“Sweetgum” by Vanessa Sorensen

“You’re a regular clean machine, aren’t you?”

Nigel stopped rubbing the desk with the disinfectant wipe and looked at the stranger standing in the doorway of his office. Must be new. Tall, well built, healthy head of nondescript brown hair. Brimming with confidence in his alleged cleverness.

He took an instant dislike to the newcomer, but endless social skills lessons forced on him by his parents forced him to squeeze out a smile like the last bit of toothpaste.

“Did you need something?” he said, continuing his hourlong morning disinfection ritual with the phone handpiece.

“The copy machine jammed. I was told that you were the go-to guy for all things machine-related. Nigel, right?”

“Correct,” Nigel said.

“Dwight Djokovic, people call me Jock. Started two weeks ago.” He extended his hand. Nigel gave it the minimal shake required — one downward motion, then slid out his palm. He vaguely remembered a memo from HR about a new hire. Nigel swiped his right hand with the disinfectant wipe, which he stuffed in his slacks pocket.

Jock gave a side-mouthed smile. “Can’t be too careful, huh?”

“We certainly cannot. Shall we see about that jam?”

“How long you been working at InsiteX, Nige?” Jock said as they walked down the corridor.

“Nigel. Twenty-three years and almost four months.”

Jock whistled. “You must know where all the bodies are buried.”

“We haven’t had any deaths here,” Nigel said.

Jock yelped a laugh. “Great delivery, dude!”

Nigel knew he’d said something “wrong” because he didn’t quite understand the rejoinder, but he’d learned to ignore these things.

They entered a vast room of cubicles filled with the purposeful buzz of employees talking into headsets and clacking on keyboards as they surveyed consumers about important aspects of daily life, such as how many bubbles they preferred in their soap lather.

As they skirted the perimeter to the copy machine room, Candy twisted in her chair and twinkled her fingers at Jock. Hardly a surprise. She’d been between husbands for a full year now, an unusually long time. As Nigel passed, she dropped her smile like a hot frying pan and turned back to her computer. He felt a dart of irritation lodge in his back. There was no need to bear a grudge just because their drinks night three months ago had not gone entirely well.

As Jock waited outside, Nigel entered the small room overstuffed with the bulky machine that printed, copied, scanned, emailed, faxed, collated, bound, stapled, and calculated the expense of each employee’s printing habit and sent them invoices for excessive copies.

It took him two seconds to locate the paper jam. He turned to advise Jock to be more careful and saw that Candy had joined him near the doorway.

“You weren’t joking about this guy,” Jock said. “I shook his hand and he took it like it was a dead fish.”

Nigel bent back to the machine as a wave of heat flushed him from top to toe. He tried to focus on freeing the imprisoned paper, but their conversation drew him like a magnet. He found himself shuffling closer to the doorway.

“He wears the exact same outfit every day,” Candy said.

“I hope he washes it,” Jock said.

“I wouldn’t get too close to find out,” Candy said.

Jock chuckled.

Nigel looked down at his white Oxford shirt and dark blue slacks. Of course, he washed them. He owned five sets of work clothes. Wearing the same thing every day was practical. He could stay in bed for a full seven extra minutes every morning because he didn’t have to dither over an outfit, not to mention the shopping time he saved.

“You know what we should do?” A mischievous tone crept into Jock’s voice.

“What?” Candy said.

Jock’s answer was lost in the sudden boom of “Nigel Birdsall!” The girth of Tanya Crossman appeared in the copy room. She cradled a sheaf of bulging manila folders against her shelf-like bosom. “Come into my office when you’re finished. Make it snappy. I have a meeting to get to.”

Tanya was the assistant deputy executive senior vice president, of what, Nigel wasn’t quite sure, but she kept a very orderly desk, which was more than you could say of most people, so he felt an affinity for her that bordered on like, which was also more than you could say of most people.

“Be right there,” he said.

She tottered off on her six-inch stilettos, which due to the weighty protrusions of her bust and watermelon-size midriff, made her pitch forward as she walked. Nigel always wondered how she didn’t fall flat on her face. He’d once suggested that he could research a diet and exercise program for her, but to his surprise she hadn’t accepted his offer. He received a less-than-stellar performance review that year.

Nigel extracted the offending ink-smudged paper, smearing his fingertips. He whipped out the wipe from his pocket and gave them a vigorous scrub.

“Whoa, buddy. You’re going to take off your fingerprints!” Jock said. Candy giggled. “Or maybe that’s the idea.” Jock barreled on, encouraged by his audience like a class clown. “You have a side hustle we don’t know about, a little bank robbing maybe?”

Candy upgraded her giggle into a chortle. “Jock, you’re too much!”

“That’s what all the gals say about me, Candy. Get used to it!”

They guffawed. Ah, the matins of mirth and merriment in the Chapel of Xerox, Nigel thought. He pressed “Resume Job,” and the machine clunked to life with its rhythmic spew of pages. He hurried on to Tanya’s office.

Her door was open, but she was absorbed by her computer screen. He cleared his throat instead of knocking. No need to touch surfaces when not strictly necessary. He had just read in the Journal of Public Health & Hygiene that community transmission of COVID-19 had appeared.

“Shut the door and take a seat,” Tanya said.

He sat in the chair in front of her desk, spine like a steel rebar, and clasped his hands in his lap, wondering what this was about. He still had eighty-seven days until his annual review.

“As I’m sure you’re aware, the coronavirus is turning into a bad situation.”

“It’s actually a novel coronavirus. The common cold is a coronavirus.”

Tanya pursed her lips and carried on. “I just came from a meeting on the top floor. You’ve been promoted to chief sanitation officer in charge of all anti-contagion measures company wide, effective immediately. I think you’ll agree you’re uniquely suited for the job.”

Nigel was stunned. He’d never been asked to do anything that didn’t involve fixing machines. He slumped against the chair back, then remembered that upholstery held a frightening amount of bacteria and erected himself. “But…who will do my regular duties?”

“You will. There’s no raise, so don’t bother asking. You need to get going on it ASAP. Feel free to purchase supplies, but don’t overdo it.”

He bobbed his head, feeling the heavy mantle of responsibility settle on his shoulders.

“I’ll send out the memo now. We’re counting on you.” Tanya’s fingers were already tapping the keyboard.

Nigel walked back to his office in a trancelike state. To think how far he’d come from his inauspicious start as a part-time market research associate in his last year of high school. He’d taken the job at the urging of his guidance counselor, Mr. Mendoza, who thought it would help him develop his people skills.

But Nigel thought market research was a colossal waste of time. Instead of asking people inane questions about trivial habits, researchers should educate them. In his first survey, which was for the state lottery commission, he informed Powerball players that they had a one in 13,983,816 chance of hitting the jackpot, and the cash they spent on scratch-offs would be better invested in cleaning products. He was given a second chance after Mr. Mendoza intervened with the manager, who then assigned him to a poll about anti-wrinkle moisturizer: How likely did users believe that RidRinkl worked? Extremely likely, very likely, somewhat likely, more or less likely, just a bit likely, just a bit less than just a bit likely, or no fucking way likely. The last option was the only correct one, he lectured consumers. “You’re better off saving your money and staying out of the sun. Do things like dust baseboards.”

The manager was about to fire Nigel when he found him repairing the phone switchboard. Upon further investigation, he discovered that Nigel could mend everything from the thirty-dollar Mr. Coffee to the twelve-thousand-dollar Xerox. He was hired full-time after graduation and given a cleaning cupboard as his office. And now, Nigel had climbed the corporate ladder to chief sanitation officer. If only Mr. Mendoza could see his meteoric ascent!

Nigel barely registered Candy and Jock, who were still engaged in their tête-à-tête as he walked by.

“Nigel,” Jock called.

He halted. Jock threw an arm around his shoulders and squeezed. “Thanks for fixing the copier, buddy.”

“You’re welcome.” Nigel wormed out of Jock’s embrace. “By the way, you’re standing too close together. Social distancing recommendations state you must remain six feet apart.”

Jock craned his neck and mockingly searched the air. “I hear a gnat buzzing.”

Candy spluttered with laughter.

Tanya Crossman teetered up behind them. “No, you hear our chief sanitation officer. If you were at your desks as you should have been, you’d have received the memo. Nigel, carry on. I have a meeting.”

“Will do.” Nigel drew himself up and strode back to his office.

He rubbed his hands as he sat at his desk to issue his first edict. “Since COVID-19 is a zoonotic virus, Bring Your Pet to Work Day is heretofore cancelled.” He pressed send with a gleeful flourish. Thank god. He’d long wanted to eliminate that potential source of pestilence.

He then went down to the basement and lugged up boxes of hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray, distributing them to each workstation.

“Thanks,” said Wendy Nguyen, who sat next to Candy. “I have a question about your memo. Does it apply to goldfish? They live in the water, so they must be clean, right?”

“Send me a memo,” Nigel said. As he walked away, he felt a pleasant sense of satisfaction at his official-sounding response. He was born to lead.

He sent out another memo saying all employees must wear face masks and sanitize workstations in the morning and afternoon. He then toured each floor to diagram one-way traffic flow patterns.

Before he left for the day, he googled whether goldfish could harbor communicable disease and found that it was rare but possible. “Goldfish are indeed a source of infection. You cannot bring your fish to work,” he replied to Wendy’s memo.

He walked the six blocks home with a buoyant step. It had been the best day in his life, he reflected, really a remarkable reversal from the years he spent in every kind of therapy his parents could find: cognitive behavioral, dialectical behavioral, psychodynamic, interpersonal, gestalt, primal scream. It turned out he was perfectly fine as he was. It just took a pandemic to reveal his aptitude for management.

He arrived at his one-bedroom cottage, painted a sterile white inside and out, washed his hands and opened the fridge. All the foods were labelled with Post-It notes stating their expiration date and/or date of purchase.

He prepared his “tasty triumvirate” (protein, carbohydrate, and fiber) meal of chicken, potato, and cauliflower with prunes for dessert. As he wiped the plate and cutlery before use — dust could accumulate in drawers—he wondered if he should order a jacket with his new title embroidered on the breast. He would pay for it himself since Tanya had warned him “not to overdo” expenses.

He chewed each mouthful the requisite thirty-three times, ordered the jacket online, then reclined in his armchair and clicked on his favorite movie Space Wars XXIII. He’d watched all thirty-one Space Wars movies sixty-eight times. He loved the depiction of Spartan life aboard spaceships, the ascetic whiteness, the lack of human clutter, not to mention the fact that spaceships never got dirty. The characters were just like him — always wearing the same outfits and imbued with a sense of serious mission. Nigel often rued that he’d been born too soon. He belonged in the future of space colonies. Not anymore though. He nestled his bottom into the cushy seat.

When he changed into his pajamas at precisely 9:43 p.m., he noticed a long streak of black marker on the back of his shirt, extending from the shoulder blade to the waist. He reviewed the day and couldn’t think where he might’ve run into a marker. He tossed the shirt into the garbage. Not to worry, he had a stack of replacements for such casualties.

...To see how it ends for Nigel, Volume 6 is now available on amazon.

Christina Hoag won a prize for writing interesting stories when she was six years old and that’s what she’s been doing ever since. She is the author of novels Girl on the Brink, named Best of YA by Suspense Magazine, and the noir crime tale Skin of Tattoos, Silver Falchion Award finalist. She is also the co-author of Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence. A former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press, she reported from Latin America for nearly a decade for major media outlets including Time, Business Week, Financial Times, and the New York Times. Born in New Zealand, she grew up in seven countries and now lives in Southern California.

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