Usually, working in an office gives you a reprieve from a brutal summer –- typically, the hotter it is outside, the cooler the corporate air conditioning keeps the building. But I’m thinking back to a particular summer, a particular week of this particular summer, when the air conditioning broke in the office I worked in.
Just as bad as the temperature was the office funk. The heat made everything in the office smelled spoiled: the bodies with too much perfume, the breath, the stagnant, uncirculated air. The “spoiled” odor wasn’t simply my imagination; it seemed to be emanating from Jane’s locker underneath her desk.
Our office was a small, tight-knit satellite off the bigger building of the US headquarters of a massive, multi-national corporation. Yes, you know the company. Our little part of the world was home to the marketing and service functions for a particular line. It was a good job -– there were no millionaires, no BMWs or Benzes in the parking lot, but everyone enjoyed a decent standard of living.
Like Jane, whose cube was stinking to high heaven. She was in her 30s, unmarried, but a devoted daughter and beloved aunt. She’d gotten into some financial trouble that she wouldn’t talk about, so she didn’t have a car. She rode the bus and bummed rides. Sometimes she went shopping before work and, in a hurry, stashed her groceries with her bag under the desk. On at least one occasion, she’d let cheese or cold cuts languish into a sickening funk. But Jane had taken some time off to see some friends and family in Las Vegas, and the key went with her.
Jane’s cube was adjacent to Rachel’s –- Rachel was a little slip of a girl, no older than 25, who’d recently joined the team and we were already ribbing her about being a diva. She’d groused about the smell for a couple of days. She wasn’t just being sensitive –- the heat made the spoiled smell worse and it hung in the air, fighting its way into all of our noses.
She called Jeff, one of the building guys, to discuss what to do. Rather than go through official channels, which could take who knows how long –- and hey, if they’d already been unresponsive to three days worth of pleading to fix the air conditioner, why would they hustle at the request to come over and unlock a cabinet that none of us had any business poking around in? Jeff decided to pop the lock and dispose of the moldering bologna himself.
It was a slow day in the office, and a few of us gathered around Jane’s cube. Jeff tinkered a bit and the drawer rolled open, revealing a bundle of gray blankets. The stench was horrible, driving the more sensitive of us into the bathroom, conveniently right by Jane’s cube. But suddenly, all of the comedy went out of Jeff’s face. He stole up the bundle and ran to the door of the lunch patio and yelled that no one should follow him.
Maybe some of us sensed what was coming next, but I didn’t. We crowded around the window, looking at Jeff outside. He unwrapped the bundle gingerly, like he was carefully, contemplatively removing wrapping paper from a gift. Then everything exploded.
I don’t know if I heard Jeff scream out and jump back first, or if I saw the tiny arms, shoulder and head. Unquestionably a baby. Just as quickly, Jeff covered the bundle and Burt, a department supervisor, physically came up and dragged us away from the window. But it was too late: the seven of us who were there already knew, and two of the older women cried. I was bewildered and numb
The cops were called and showed up relatively quickly, but first there was much conjecture. No one could believe it. No one could believe Jane –- so pink cheeked, well liked and perky, could have had anything to do with this. Had the baby been born alive? Where? None of us even thought that Jane had been pregnant. Maybe someone from the early morning cleaning crew did it? It would have been so easy, especially since Jane’s cube was the first one outside the women’s bathroom. It was easier to believe this than think that a colleague -– a close colleague who most of us had known for years -– had anything to do with this thing.
An investigation was opened, and Jane was extradited, whatever you call it, tracked down in Las Vegas and brought back to California. She was questioned, but not charged. And she opted to come back to work.
WHAT THE FUCK does not even begin to capture our thoughts. Jane felt like family, we knew she wasn’t a monster, “innocent until proven guilty” and all that -- but at the same time, no one was really sure, no one knew what to say to her, and we wondered what this said about her, the fact that she could return to her job, return to a site where something so grisly had occurred, return to a place where people wondered if she might be a murderer. Was this her own brazen denial of the accusations, like, “Of course I didn’t do this thing, now let’s get this figured out so I can go on with my life’?
Rachel refused to be there, and she was granted leave. The rest of us tried to go on about our business, tried to act normal. Our company did not simply fire the overnight cleaning crew, they hired a new company. I think we all took comfort in this, since it supported the theory that most of us clung to so we could do our jobs without screaming.
“Welcoming” Jane back was not easy for any of us, but it was harder on no one than it was on me. You see, my name is Jane, too. (The truth: her name was not really Jane. My name is not really Jane. But we did share the same first name; it just wasn’t Jane.) Everybody knew the other Jane -– she’d been there for nearly 10 years, everyone knew she liked country and sang along to a little transistor radio she kept on her desk, everyone knew her kindness, everyone knew her easy smile and soft voice.
I, on the other hand, was slowly climbing out of a gothy phase, wearing nothing but weird black clothing to work every day. Despite the fact I hid them with long sleeves and turtlenecks, everyone knew that I was covered in tattoos and my arms bore thick scars from my years as a cutter. Around our little satellite office, my colleagues knew that I was quiet, smart, shy and considerate, but around the bigger workplace, people only thought they knew who I was. And a lot of them thought that I was the Jane who might have been the baby killer.
For about two weeks, my phone rang at least once an hour, mostly with people calling and just hanging up. If I stepped away for a break, I would come back to hear messages of BITCH, DIE, YOU FUCKING CUNT. And people from the big corporate building next door would randomly walk over, then hover at my cube. My department was all told not to talk about it, so I couldn’t say, “Hey, you’re ogling the wrong woman; the baby killer is sitting over there by the bathroom.”
It made me nervous, but it also made me incredibly sad, forcing me a back a little deeper into the shell of introversion I’d been working to come out of. My company installed surveillance cameras all over the offices and parking lot, so at least I didn’t feel too afraid.
For over a month, we all kept at our business. Things started to feel almost normal -- for me, the phone calls, snooping and stalking tapered off. The office enjoyed uninterrupted air conditioning. Then one morning, about eight police officers stormed the building, guns drawn, came in, and took Jane away. She didn’t fight them or try to run; when they lead her out, she was in handcuffs and she looked back at us and gave us the most uninterpretable smile. This time, she did not return.
We were able to piece most of the story together: Jane had been carrying on with a married dude for quite some time. She got pregnant, and he urged her to keep the baby, kept telling Jane that it was her that he wanted, and he’d take care of her. Then just like one of Jane’s bad country songs, he disappeared. We don’t know how far into the pregnancy this was –- Jane hid it from all of us. She’d never been particularly fashion forward; I am not sure why it never occurred to any of us to ask her why she was swaddling herself in layers of wool during one of the hottest summers on record, but it just didn’t.
She carried the baby to term, then came into work very early one morning, went into one of the stalls, and gave birth to a live baby that she later killed in a way that I’m glad was never revealed, then stuffed the infant’s body into a cabinet by her desk.
The thing that is most troubling and begs the most questions is that the baby, a little girl, had lived for a few hours before Jane disposed of that little life. What was Jane thinking? Did she hold the baby? Had there been at least five minutes when the baby was cuddled, cooed over, made to feel loved? Had Jane known what she was going to do all along? At that point, Jane killed the baby and stuffed the body into her locker, and we found it about two weeks later. And for one of those weeks, Jane came in every day and sat a foot away from that tiny corpse in her locker.
Despite the tabloid nature of the atrocity, we left it all behind as quickly as we could. The case got some press, but it didn't advance our knowledge of either the event or Jane’s fate. But it ate at most of us. How could this woman that we all knew and liked, who liked us, do this? What happened? Mainly, I wondered if there was someone who could have stepped in and made a difference to Jane and her baby.