Exploring the art of prose


“Key Concepts in Ecology” by Michelle Ross

Stories that experiment with form are a joy to read. In “Key Concepts in Ecology,” originally published in The Common and included in There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), published by Moon City Press, Michelle Ross divides the story up into eleven sections, each one beginning with an ecological term and its definition. The term and definition serve as a title, of sorts, giving meaning to each section, but also providing a lens through which to look at the first-person narrator, her life, and most importantly, her job. While the story could work without these sections and their headers, the form adds another layer of meaning to the story.

The story is told by Andrea, a long-time employee at New Zeniths, a curriculum development company, and it unfolds over the course of one day at work. Because we are so embedded in Andrea’s thoughts, we get to see this workplace through her eyes. The characters and many of the situations are familiar to anyone who has ever worked in an office, and yet Ross brings a fresh look to this, by fully developing this cast of characters. This is a story that’s, in turn, hilarious and sad, and one that perfectly marries content and form.

Invasive Species: a species that is non-native to an ecosystem and that is likely to cause harm to native species.

The creature had been spotted again, and this time, accounts came from two unrelated individuals. The sightings had taken place between the hours of seven and eight that morning, both within a mile of the New Zeniths building. City officials were at that very moment developing a plan of action. What we all needed to do was stay put. This news was delivered by Claudette Bowery, president of New Zeniths, in the lobby at forty minutes after eight. She stood before the plate glass windows that offered a view of the tall pines huddled like football players planning their next play, and she advised us not to leave the building. If we hadn’t brought lunch, we should order delivery. Let the deliverers risk their lives, Claudette said. That was their job, after all, wasn’t it? Not ours. Our work was to furnish world-class instructional content in the subjects of English, math, science, and, increasingly, electives such as woodshop, culinary arts, and cattle-ranch management to the good children across America. And we were just three days out from the date on which Crispin—Claudette’s late husband and the former president of New Zeniths—had promised clients a new interface for administering testlets. My job was to write biology content, but by virtue of being the senior writer in the company, I’d also gotten recruited to test the testlets’ interface for functionality. I knew firsthand there was no way we were going to make the deadline. If Claudette knew this too, she didn’t let on. She said, “Now more than ever, we need to pull together and shine. We cannot afford to let anything distract us from that mission.”

“Like, say, being torn limb-from-limb by a wild animal,” Rhonda Maso, one of the English writers, said to me under her breath.

If we absolutely had to go out to our cars, Claudette said, we should go armed with something we could throw. Not New Zeniths’ property, of course, she clarified, but our own possessions, such as water bottles and pill bottles and the knickknacks that littered our desks. “Let me be clear, however, that I have advised you to stay indoors. New Zeniths is not liable for harm that comes to anyone who steps out into the parking lot.”

Only once before this had the receptionist, Nan Price, called us unexpectedly via intercom for an emergency meeting in the lobby. That was right after 9/11. Then, she’d walked around the building passing out little American flags in the same manner that she passed out individual pumps of antibacterial hand sanitizer every October and poison ant traps every April. It was Crispin Bowery who’d delivered the announcement then. We’d all gathered with our flags in hand to listen to Crispin say that in times like these, it was important to stand together. Claudette had held up her little flag and waited for others to do the same, and we had, every last one of us.

This morning’s announcement came the day before my forty-fifth birthday. I’d been with New Zeniths seventeen years, twelve years more than I would have predicted on that morning thirteen years earlier when I obediently waved a miniature American flag no larger than an ID card.


Limiting Factors: biotic factors (organisms) and abiotic factors (e.g., soil, light, temperature) that may limit the growth or abundance of an organism or population within an ecosystem.

I used to dream about the day I’d quit my job at New Zeniths, an event that would bring me a banner reading Good Luck, Andrea, accompanied by chemical-sludge cookies from the grocery store bakery.

But then Lewis gave up working altogether. He’d always struggled with authority. The man worked a dozen different jobs at least in our first few years together, and in not one case was he fired. He quit, and always with gusto. “That asshole can suck it,” he said. Or: “It’s lucky I did walk out of there when I did, because if I’d stayed one minute longer, I might have strangled that man. Snapped the ligaments in his neck.”

I can’t say he pulled a fast one on me exactly. I knew who he was when we got together. I guess I just thought he’d eventually figure out a way to earn an income without feeling like he wasn’t being true to himself or whatever. He wasn’t a lazy man, and he wasn’t without skills. He cooked. He cleaned. He did repairs around the house. I offered him sympathy and sex to keep his confidence up in the ways I knew how.

That thing about snapping neck ligaments, that was in reference to the last boss he ever had, a guy who owned an artisan pizza restaurant. Lewis had assembled and cooked the pizzas in a fancy wood-fired oven. They’d argued about that oven. Lewis thought the guy had been suckered. He thought he could have built him a better oven and for a lot cheaper. The guy told him he wasn’t paid to be a consultant; he was paid to make pizzas.

Months ticked by after Lewis quit. Then, years. Lewis stopped looking for work. He expressed no interest in the jobs being advertised around town. Nothing caught his eye, he said. Nothing excited him.


Community: all species within a particular ecosystem, which interact via trophic, competitive, and symbiotic relationships.

My supervisor, Stu Mann, said, “It’s always something,” before he shut the door to his office. He had a King Kong action figure that swung its arms around and growled when you pressed the button at its feet, and that’s what Stu did now.

Tinsel Ware could be heard from the other end of the building yelling at her husband to take off work to pick the kids up from school. “You expect me to trust the schools to keep them safe?!”

Bic Bowery, whose relation to Claudette and Crispin, nobody seemed to know, patrolled the building checking windows and doors for weaknesses a wild animal might take advantage of. When I crossed paths with him in the hallway, he raised his arm up in front of his body like a shield and made a nervous clicking sound.

In the kitchen, Lacy Sears was on the phone with her fiancé. “How does she expect us to focus on work when there’s some kind of monster running around out there?” A minute later, she was laughing. “Oh my God, truck driver hats as wedding favors would be so shabby chic! They’re ironic. We put our initials on them, L and L, like we’re a trucking company,” she said. “Ha! Bananas! Totally!”

Akiko Tanaka, whose hair always had a blunt edge as though she trimmed it every morning, stared out the kitchen window into the bosk behind the building. There in the thicket was a bright red glass toadstool big enough for humans to sit on. Crispin had had it delivered on New Zeniths’ tenth anniversary. Beyond the bosk were more pine trees.

There were often animal sightings in the bosk, especially in spring: baby ground squirrels tumbling around the dirt like toddlers, huge heaving lizards, snakes, rabbits, bobcats. Akiko, and others too, passed time watching whatever critter had been spotted. If somebody else entered the kitchen, the spectator would announce the animal and its location. Armadillo, under that scraggly mesquite.

Akiko didn’t announce anything this morning. She was quiet, her eyes scanning the ground and the trees.

Arnold Dubcheck reached his hand inside the ice machine and came out with a fistful of ice. He said, “I know a guy who saw it. Said it was big as a hippo.”

Without turning around, Akiko said, “The largest wild animals in this area are mountain lions.”

Arnold shrugged. “A mountain lion as big as a hippo, I guess.”

“Adult hippopotamuses weigh about three thousand pounds,” I said. “A mountain lion weighs less than the average human adult.”

“Whatever,” Arnold said.

Akiko smiled at me as she left the kitchen.

If she were a content writer, we might have become friends. As it was, she was a developer, and other than run-ins in the kitchen, writers and developers didn’t fraternize much. We were on opposing teams.

Bic Bowery made a quick beeline for the fridge, grabbed a boiled egg and a pickle, and was out of there without making eye contact with anybody.

“She can’t keep us here all night. She can’t hold us hostage,” Lacy said to her fiancé.

When Noelle Snope and Christie Berry entered the kitchen, they were talking as they often did about what a shitty mom Noelle’s sister-in-law was. Noelle had a voice like a reality television star, loud and lilting and self-conscious. “I bet my nephew is running around the backyard unsupervised right this very moment. Snakes, black widows, and now this, whatever the hell this thing is. It’s like she thinks her yard is free of all vicious reptiles and insects and monsters.”

“Arthropods,” I said.

“What?” Noelle said.


Christie emitted a high-pitched giggle.

That’s when Curt Bowery, the elder of the two Bowery sons, entered the kitchen and poured the rest of the drinkable liquid from the coffeepot into his bowl of a mug that read Curt Bowery, Director of Innovations. Under that was the corporate logo, a mildly pornographic image of a conical purple mountaintop crowned with a huge gold star. The logo was printed on every test, report, and marketing material. It was on every employee gift—from mugs to paperweights to rape whistles Claudette called “alarm devices.” These she’d passed around to the women after a man was stabbed to death at ten o’clock at night at the Shell station down the street. Per the updated policy manual (p. 34), all female employees were advised to have their alarm devices on hand when they exited the building after dark.

“You look at those testlets yet?” Curt said to me.

Everyone else scattered, just like that.

“Since the patch last night?”

Curt smiled, showing too much teeth. “I think we got them this time.” He returned the near-empty pot to the hot plate without bothering to switch the machine off.

“The hemipterans?” I said.

Curt stared at me.

“Bugs,” I said.

Curt turned toward the window. “I wish the city could say the same for that animal out there.” He tossed a paper towel onto the hinged lid of one of the recycling bins, where it stayed put.

“I feel sorry for it.”

Curt cocked his head. “That creature shouldn’t be roaming around people’s workplaces and neighborhoods.” Then, “Let me know when you’ve tested the testlets.” He tapped his watch. “Time is running out.” He shuffled down the hallway as though he were wearing flip-flops.


Autotrophism: the ability of an organism to synthesize its own food using light energy and inorganic substances.

From time to time, Lewis thought up some idea for generating income, and always he pursued these ideas full-throttle, at first. At one point, he was going to make a killing hiring himself out to sort through other people’s junk, price it, and sell it. His first and last client was an elderly lady down the street from us. She seemed like a windfall at first. She was living amongst towers of cardboard boxes, like she’d just moved in and hadn’t unpacked yet, though she’d been in that house for forty-odd years. When Lewis was done sorting through everything, he discovered she owned eight different hairdryers (eight!). She didn’t own anything worth a lot of money, but she owned so much that all of it together could have brought in several thousand dollars easy. Problem one was that, despite having agreed to let him help her sell her stuff, she didn’t want to let go of much of anything. I watched Lewis and this little old lady with fingers like fork tines tug back and forth on a rolled-up rug still wrapped in plastic twenty years after she bought it. Problem two was that she fought him tooth and nail over the pricing. Always she wanted more than the damn thing was worth. Those hairdryers, for instance, all of them used, she wanted ten dollars a pop. That you could buy a new hairdryer for the same price held no sway with her.

Another time Lewis got it in his head he was going to make a fortune writing erotica. Never mind that, as far as I knew, he hadn’t strung more than a couple of sentences together on paper since he graduated high school, or that Lewis didn’t read books period, erotica or otherwise. He set my laptop on a television tray and got to work writing a story about a housewife having sexual encounters with a heating-and-cooling repairman. He did this while he watched football and cooking shows. When I came home in the evenings, he read aloud passages and asked for my input. He was writing from the point of view of the housewife, and in the service of wanting to get it right, he asked questions he’d never asked before. How exactly did I like to have my breasts touched? Did I really enjoy the feel of a cock throbbing inside me, or did I just pretend to?

The erotica fell away as quickly as the junk-selling. One day he was calling me at work and reading me sentences that made me blush at my desk, and then another day he’d lost interest. It was the same story with his infused-oils business and his cat-sitting business.


Keystone Species: a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance.

I almost collided with Claudette on the way back to my cubicle.

She stood still and stared at me, a wry smile on her lips. She was waiting for something.

“Sorry,” I said.

“This is why I’m so meticulous in the policy manual,” she said. “Some people think they don’t need to be told how to walk through a hallway, but evidence suggests they do.”

“My mind was on the testlets,” I said.

“I’m sure walking along the right side of hallways instead of the left won’t delay the completion of the testlets’ interface.”

A few months back, when Claudette announced she’d landed a contract with a huge school district we’d been after for years, she’d paused for dramatic effect and, wearing a smile appropriate for a chocolate bar the size of a human head, said, “Let me tell you a secret: I have a magic power.”

In Crispin’s days as president, we wouldn’t have been surprised to hear talk of magic powers. For the State-of-the-Company Address each year, he’d worn a wizard’s hat and reiterated the same hyperbole about how New Zeniths was on its way to becoming the top-grossing online curriculum company in the country—this despite the fact that we owned less than half a percent of the market. The day before The Race for the Cure, he’d worn shorts, a T-shirt, and sneakers and jogged through the hallways of the building on the hour, every hour. The point is this: Whereas Crispin had lobbed us like a red clown nose, Claudette struck like a dagger. Even before Crispin’s death (bee stings: he was allergic), she’d been the brains behind the business, not to mention the financial manager, the personnel director, the legal consultant, and the chief salesperson all rolled into one.

After another dramatic pause, Claudette had said, “I can stand before a group of people and make them do whatever I want.”

I’d known immediately that she’d meant us as much as clients. Just look at all those little Tupperware containers in the refrigerator, all of them the exact same dimensions (p. 28). Claudette sent out an email telling us exercise balls do not make for ergonomic desk chairs, and Deena Gap and Noelle Snope both took theirs home that very day. Claudette made a big to-do about not leaving dishes in the kitchen sink to soak, and poof, people were giving you dirty looks if you let a bowl sit for a few minutes. Claudette inquired one day about the filthy blue pickup truck in the parking lot, wanting to know if it belonged to a vagrant, if she should call the police, and the truck’s owner, Christie Berry, showed up to work the next day with the truck so shiny that three birds, apparently blinded by the truck’s gleam, flew into Arnold Dubcheck’s office window, and Nan had to sweep two of their carcasses (the third mysteriously disappeared) into a dustpan and toss them into the dumpster.

Now, I smiled at Claudette. “Yes,” I said, and I continued walking.


Niche: the relational position of a species or population within an ecosystem (e.g., which resources it exploits, its habitat, its place in the food chain).

At my desk, I discovered two emails from Nan. The first was a news article link sent to all employees. The portion of text Nan had copied and pasted into the email stated that a team of snipers was being assembled to hunt for the creature. The email reiterated Claudette’s warning that we should stay indoors. If we went outside, we not only jeopardized our own safety; we jeopardized the work of the snipers.

The second email was sent to me only, asking which Texas landmark I wanted on my upcoming birthday banner. Be sure to let me know before lunch, please!

Birthday banners were four sheets of paper taped together lengthwise, the words Happy Birthday _________ bordered by clip art chosen to represent the individual’s response to that year’s theme—animals the previous year, candy the year before that, hobbies and interests, favorite city, and so forth.

Of forty-seven sub-management employees, only two had just one birthday banner on display in their cubicles, and one of them was Lacy Sears, who had been at New Zeniths for less than a year. Everyone else plastered the banners up and down their cubicle walls like wallpaper. Noelle Snope was the record holder—eighteen years’ worth. What she hadn’t been able to fit on her walls, she’d taped across the drawers of her filing cabinet.

The only exceptions to this rule were me, Rhonda Maso, and Akiko Tanaka, though, to be honest, I did display the first one for a few months before I looked at it one day and saw it for what it really was. Even now, all these years later, I still feel ashamed that one of those sad scraps of affection once adorned my wall.

Of the six lower-management employees, only one displayed birthday banners, and that was Tinsel Ware, whom everyone believed was promoted for some not-quite-understood political reasons. She came to work in spandex mini-skirts, made only slightly less scandalous by the loose, shapeless tops she wore with them. Every email she produced was so grammatically strange it sometimes took ten minutes to puzzle out one sentence. She interrupted people midstream and took her shoes off at meetings, sometimes picking polish, always blue and always sparkly, off her toenails while she spoke.

The office walls of upper management were bare except for framed degrees.


Carrying Capacity: the maximum population size of a species that an environment can sustain given the available resources (see Limiting Factors).

One morning a few months back, Lewis said, out of the blue, that he had good news. I’d learned by then to be skeptical. I said nothing. I waited.

“I didn’t want to say anything too soon, in case I was terrible at it. I couldn’t take another disappointment, but, well,” and he paused and smiled, then said, “I’ve been taking acting classes! I’m pretty good at it, Andrea. I mean, like, really good. That’s what the teacher says. And don’t worry—I worked out a bartering system with her. I’m doing repairs on the acting studio. It’s kind of run-down, plenty of work to keep me paid up for months. It’s not costing us a dime. I’ve been going for several months now, and, shit, this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me!”

We were seated in our little kitchen at the ugly yellow dining table I’d wanted to replace for years, and I startled as the cuckoo bird thrust out of its wooden pentagon box, which was long on the bottom half and squat on top, like a vampire coffin.

I said, “Acting. Huh.”

He said, “The teacher says I have a natural talent. There could be money in acting. I mean, there is money in acting. People make shitloads of money acting. Why not me? If no one ever believed in themselves enough to take a risk, think how much we wouldn’t have. Airplanes, rocket ships, you name it.”

I stared at him.

Lewis said, “I was worried you might react this way, but then I thought, No, Andrea loves me. She’ll be happy for me.”

I knew well that the stress of being jobless can make people desperate and irrational. Sometimes people in Lewis’s situation pick up an addiction. They start drinking heavily, and when their partner tries to help them kick the habit, they hide the alcohol in whacked places, like emptied bleach jugs. I’d been on the lookout for that type of thing. I had not been prepared for this.

And now here I was, seated inside my little cubicle, tasked with selecting a Texas landmark for my birthday banner, while Lewis was probably, at that very minute, pretending to be someone other than himself. If I could have traded places with him, I would have done it in a heartbeat.

When I was younger, I never imagined working a forty-hour-a-week office job, in a cubicle no less. When Lewis and I moved in together, I’d believed I would work just long enough to fatten up our savings account so I could quit and start up a photography business. I’d thought I would be a nature photographer, sell my work at art fairs and cafés and on commission. Our savings account never really fattened, though. I can’t tell you where the money went. We didn’t budget in those early years, this was true, but it’s not like we traveled Europe or bought fancy cars either. When I try to think where it went, all that comes to mind is mundane, routine shit like car tires and air conditioners.

That’s what I was thinking about when I fired off my response to Nan. Waco, I typed.

Almost immediately, she came back with What landmark is in Waco?

The Branch Davidians’ compound or, heck, a picture of David Koresh himself.


Competition: a negative interaction between organisms (or populations or species) in which both require the same limited resource(s).

“Close the door, please,” Stu said. Then, “David Koresh?!” He laughed. Then he immediately grew serious. “How is David Koresh a Texas landmark?”

“At the very least, Waco is a landmark because of him. That was my original request. I just included his name to clarify when Nan asked what landmark was in Waco.”

“You and I both know Waco isn’t on anybody’s list of Texas landmarks.”

“Whose list? Was there a list I was supposed to choose from? Because I never received that list,” I said.

Stu sighed.

“Me too, Stu. Me too.”

“Do you really want a banner with a picture of David Koresh on it?” he asked.

“If I have to have a banner, then yes.”

“Why didn’t you just say you didn’t want a banner?”

“Is that an option? It wasn’t presented as an option.”

“Okay, look, I know you’ve had it testing the interface for testlets. I know it’s a waste of your time, and I’m sorry about that, but if we don’t do it, we have to listen to Curt and his people go on about how the reason we don’t have testlets is because the content writers don’t want to write content. We have to keep showing that it’s not us; it’s them.”

“I bet you a million dollars that seventy-five percent of the bugs I reported yesterday are still there,” I said.

“I know. I know. But, see, Nan is the real victim here. She knows that if she puts up a banner with a picture of David Koresh, she’s going to hear from Claudette, and so now she’s forced to take this request to Claudette to find out what she should do, make the banner or don’t make the banner. Then Claudette comes to me, and now I’m talking to you. And that’s a waste of a lot of people’s time too.”

“Nan goes on about how she loathes Claudette, but she loves, loves, loves to take shit to Claudette. I’ve seen her with her notepad and pencil, recording when people leave ten minutes early. I’ve seen her in the kitchen jotting down the names of who took up more than their share of refrigerator space.”

Stu stared at me. “So you don’t want a banner? Do I have that right?”

“I do not.”

“I’ll tell Claudette. Thank you.”


Predation: a trophic interaction in which individuals of one species (the predator) kill and consume individuals of another species (the prey).

Starting at noon, the building was visited by a wave of delivery guys toting sandwiches, pizzas, tacos, you name it. Nan sat behind the reception desk and dialed extensions, and when individuals didn’t answer, she called them to the lobby via intercom. “Arnold, please come to the lobby to pick up your food.” “Stu, please come to the lobby to pick up your food.”

The delivery guys brought more than food. The one who delivered Rhonda Maso’s gluten-free Greek pizza said he’d just finished delivering pizzas to the police station, and he’d seen half a dozen men in full camouflage. They were talking strategy, how they planned to take the creature by tranquilizer if they could, but they’d be prepared to shoot to kill if they had to. The guy who delivered my chicken burrito said he’d seen a flash of something huge and furry in the pines just across the street as he was on his way to New Zeniths. The town was so quiet that he’d been startled by the slam of a car door earlier, hence the salsa stain on his pants.

At about the time that everyone but Nan, who fasted two days a week, had finished their food, that’s when we heard the first round of gunfire.

I counted six shots, but some of my co-workers claimed to have heard more. Tinsel Ware said, “I have super good hearing. Perfect pitch too. There were twelve shots.” She leaned over and rested her breasts against the kitchen counter as she ground coffee beans. Arnold Dubcheck stood there and argued that there’d been eight shots, but when Tinsel stood upright again, he walked away.

Barely a cup’s worth of coffee had brewed when Curt Bowery entered the kitchen and filled his cup, oblivious to Tinsel standing by the pot, waiting.

“Did you test the testlets yet?” he said to me.

“Five times in the last two weeks,” I said.

“I sent you an email nearly an hour ago. I really need you to test them pronto. See if we took care of the big bugs, the deal breakers.” His neck, or what little part of it was visible over the top of his navy blue turtleneck, was beet red.

“What makes something a deal breaker or not a deal breaker? As far as I’m concerned, everything I’ve reported is significant. Every last bug.”

He laughed nervously. “How about you just report whatever you find?”

“What about Bic? Isn’t this his job? I guess I just don’t understand what Bic’s job is exactly. I thought he was paid to do quality control.”

“You’re paid to do it too.” Curt smiled and stood a little straighter. “Your job description says and other responsibilities that come up. All our job descriptions here at New Zeniths include that phrase. That flexibility is part of what allows us to accomplish as much as we do with a staff of about sixty.” He’d taken the words straight out of his mother’s mouth.

I said nothing.

“Ball’s in your court,” Curt said as he walked away.

Akiko Tanaka entered the kitchen and looked out the window again. I joined her. She turned and gave me a solemn smile. “I hope they missed,” she said. “I hope that animal is fast.”

“Me too,” I said. “Me too.”


Parasitism: a symbiotic relationship between species in which one species (the parasite) benefits, while the other species (the host) is harmed.

When I returned to my desk, there was an email from Claudette: I feel it is my duty to remind you at this time that you can sign on for disability insurance at any time you wish. Of course, you are not required to enroll, and New Zeniths does not pay for disability insurance premiums, but please remember that New Zeniths does not pay for time off due to disability or extended illness.

The first thing I thought was that she envisioned me being mauled by that animal out there. When I realized that what she was really alluding to was my birthday, that forty-five signaled my decrepitude somehow even though Claudette was twenty years my senior, I did what I often did at moments like these at work: I closed my eyes and breathed. When I opened my eyes again, I tested the testlets. If I dared put it off any longer, Curt or Claudette would say I was responsible. Why don’t we have testlets? Because Andrea had better things to do than QC.

Just as I was about to send another email full of bugs to Curt, I turned to find him staring intently at my computer screen. I startled. He smiled as though he’d intended for this to happen.

“So?” he said. He appeared to be trying to read what I’d written.

“I was just about to send it to you,” I said.

“Why don’t you just tell me what you found?”

“It’s kind of a lot to sum up. How about you read what I’ve documented and then let me know if you have questions?” I said.

The blush crept up Curt’s neck again. He took a deep breath. “Look, nobody expects the interface to be perfect at this point. All we need is basic functionality. The bells and whistles come later.”

“It’s not my call what’s basic and what’s a whistle. Isn’t that your job? Or should I copy Claudette on this?” I said.

Curt closed his eyes for a moment. “That won’t be necessary,” he said when he opened them. “Just send it to me, please.” He started to walk away, but then turned back toward me. He pointed to his watch. “It’s nearly two in the afternoon. Almost an entire day lost.”

“Just trying to do a thorough job,” I said. I pressed the send button.

A little while later, Stu called me into his office again. He leaned back in his chair, which was black leather to my magenta canvas, and said, “Now I have Claudette asking me why it took you so long to test the interface.”

“Good old Curt doing what he does best,” I said.

Stu looked tired. “What do you want me to do? You want me to tell Claudette you think her son isn’t pulling his load?”

Weight, I corrected in my head. Weight, not load. “No, I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

The way Stu stared at me, it was as though I were back in the third grade, being accused by my teacher, Mrs. Pell, of tattletaling on another kid in class, a boy I’d seen scratching the F-word into the seesaw’s red paint with the key he wore around his neck on fuzzy yarn.

“It’s just that this stuff isn’t good for employee morale,” I said. “Already there’s almost no recognition of who around here works hard and produces quality work. No distinction is made. Last year it was made public that everyone in the company got the same percent raise no matter the differences in our performances. That kind of thing doesn’t inspire people to work hard. It doesn’t inspire greatness.”

“Greatness?!” Stu laughed.

I was thinking not just of Curt, but of Arnold Dubcheck, who could be heard snoring every morning between approximately the hours of 10 and 11:30, sometimes in the afternoons too; and Lacy Sears, who was almost always either talking on the telephone or texting; and Noelle Snope and Christie Berry, who spent two hours a day, easy, gossiping in one of their cubicles or, more often than not, the middle of the hallway. That was just my side of the building. Hector Mendez played video games half the day, and he wasn’t even sly about it. Tinsel Ware changed into a leotard and tights every day at noon and proceeded to do yoga and Pilates in her office until well past the end of her lunch hour.

It occurred to me now that perhaps my co-workers, whom I’d despised all this time for their laziness and mediocrity, were actually smarter than me. What had my work ethic gotten me? I’d been with New Zeniths for seventeen years. I made a decent salary, that much was true, but I had yet to graduate to an office. I got absolutely not one atom of respect from management. And I was pretty certain I wasn’t paid any more, or not much more, than my much less productive co-workers.

What would it take for me to finally accept that I was busting my ass for myself, and no one and nothing else? What did this make me but the biggest fool in the company?

As I stood to leave Stu’s office, another round of shots was fired. This time I counted nine.

Soon after that, Claudette announced via email that water was pooling behind the building. There was a leak in the plumbing. A sniper bullet, she mused. A plumber was on his way, and the water would be shut off for much of the afternoon. If we were thirsty, Nan kept bottled water at reception for homeless people who occasionally wandered in off the street asking for a drink. If we needed to use the restroom, the toilets could be used, though they could not be flushed; or we could leave the building, but we were strongly advised to use supreme caution, traveling in groups of three or four preferably. If we did choose to leave to use a restroom elsewhere, she noted, no PTO would be deducted from our accounts.


Biogeochemical cycles: pathways by which chemical substances (e.g., carbon, nitrogen, water) move through both biotic and abiotic components of Earth.

Two men worked out back shoveling dirt and mud to expose the building’s plumbing. Neither seemed the least bit concerned about being outdoors while snipers were, at that very moment, hunting a wild animal.

Arnold Dubcheck didn’t seem the least bit concerned about the toilets not flushing. He was in the bathroom for four or five minutes, and then, as usual, he stuck his bare hand into the ice bin.

Lacy Sears, earbuds in her ears, pink phone in hand, said, “God, Lawson, it’s like she thinks we’re animals.”

If she hadn’t been on the phone, I might have informed her that we, in fact, are animals, but I resisted. Anyway, she had a point. Had Claudette really meant to suggest we may wish to opt to use the non-flushing toilets? Did she really think that little of us?

On some level, I didn’t blame her. Just look at all those birthday banners. Claudette had to have noticed them. The woman was sharp, the way she stared at you across the conference table with those dead shark eyes. She probably thought every last one of those people was an idiot.

But if Claudette thought any differently of Rhonda, Akiko, and me, I sure as hell couldn’t tell. We didn’t have offices like Tinsel Ware did.

Just as I was getting desperate for a bathroom myself, Nan announced via intercom that the water was back on temporarily, for about ten minutes, should we wish to use the restrooms at this time.

When I entered the restroom, I found that the toilet in the open stall was clogged with shit and toilet paper. The shoes on the floor in the other stall belonged to Claudette. On any other day, I would have left the restroom and come back, but given the limited window of time, I waited. As usual, Claudette flushed before she pulled out a toilet seat cover and sat down. Why she did this, what it was about, was a thing I was curious about. Did she think she was protecting herself from flecks of someone else’s feces flinging up out of the water like microscopic Godzillas? After flushing a second time, she came out of the stall, and she said, “How’s your husband’s job search going?”

Lewis had been out of work for nearly ten years at that point, and still this was the only thing Claudette ever bothered to ask me about.

“Nothing yet,” I said.

“It’s a tough economy,” Claudette said.

“Yes,” I said, though it pained me to agree with her, as though I were admitting I was trapped smack dab where I was.

It was only when she turned toward the sink that I noticed the tissue seat cover tucked into the seat of her pants like a lobster bib. I stood there frozen in place.

Claudette raised her eyebrows. “Were you going to say something?” her reflection said to me.

“I,” I said. I stopped.

Claudette turned toward me. She grabbed a paper towel from the dispenser on the wall next to me. She was still watching me, waiting. She looked impatient. “Well?”

If I told her, she would resent me for it. If I didn’t tell her, she’d parade around the office with that seat cover flapping after her like a flag. Her humiliation would be tenfold. While the thought of this was pleasant, to be sure, she would eventually conclude that I’d chosen not to spare her this.

She shook her head and started to turn toward the bathroom door. That’s when I blurted out, “Wait! You have a toilet seat cover hanging from the back of your pants.” I said it quickly before she could meet my eyes.

“What?” Claudette said, as though she hadn’t understood. She reached down and felt the thing, and the brief moment of panic that overcame her face was precious. She muttered about not knowing how it had gotten there, as though it had jumped from the wall and attached itself to her like a squid. She returned to the stall to remove it, and I had to wait again for my turn to use the restroom. Claudette flushed the seat cover and rushed out of the restroom without uttering a word of gratitude.

My relief over finally getting to use the toilet was short-lived, for when I went to flush, nothing happened. I tried again and again, but no matter what direction I moved the handle or how long I held it, my turd just floated there. It seemed impossibly long, like it couldn’t have fit in my intestines. I thought then about all the shit generated every day by the employees of New Zeniths. And what about over the course of a week, a month, a year? I knew about sewers and waste-treatment plants, but still, I couldn’t fathom it. Cities full of shit funneling into these plants day after day after day.

I heard Lewis’s words: “Life is serious shit, Andrea. If there’s something you want to do, you need to do it. You need to go after it. You don’t get another chance. This is it!” He’d waved his arms as though he were conducting an orchestra. “I’ve realized that now. I’ve been forced to think hard about what I really want, what I really care about.”

“Find a way to make it pay the bills, and I don’t care what you do,” I’d said.

“I’m not an idiot for thinking it’s possible to make money acting. It is possible. You’ve got to be optimistic about things, or otherwise, what’s the point?”

“And human-engineered sea vessels explore ocean trenches, but that doesn’t mean I can build one.”

“Maybe that’s your problem. You’ve said it yourself. You lack confidence.”

“I don’t have the luxury to do what I want, Lewis,” I’d said.

Of course, that wasn’t really true. I could walk out and never come back, and nobody could stop me. People quit jobs every day, regardless of whether they can afford to or have other job prospects. I simply wasn’t that sort of person. I was the type of person who stammered in front of her boss, wasting the last few minutes of flush time. I was the type of person who felt smug about rebelling against birthday banners, while the rest of my co-workers put their feet up all day. I was the type of person who picked up their slack.

As I left the bathroom, I passed Rhonda Maso on my way to the kitchen.

“If that animal’s smart, it should be halfway across the state by now,” she said, shaking her head.

“I hear that,” I said.

I entered the kitchen, which was empty, and I headed straight out the back door and into the bosk. I sat on Crispin’s toadstool and faced the pines. Around me, bees buzzed, lizards scurried up and down tree trunks, mourning doves cooed. No sign of anything out of the ordinary. Then I turned back towards the building and saw Akiko Tanaka staring out the kitchen window at me.

“Key Concepts in Ecology” was originally published in The Common, Issue 10, 2015 and is included in the collection There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), published by Moon City Press.

MICHELLE ROSS is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Passages North, Electric Literature’s Recommended ReadingTahoma Literary ReviewTriQuarterly, and other venues. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review and a consulting editor for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. She can be found online at www.michellenross.com.

Author’s Note

To crudely summarize, “Key Concepts in Ecology” is a story about a corporate office that is shown to be its own ecosystem. There are predators and prey, producers and scavengers, mutualistic relationships and parasitic relationships. And the ecosystem of this corporate office is part of the larger ecosystem of the town, which includes a mysterious animal snipers are hunting; delivery guys bringing lunch to the office because the employees have been warned not to venture outside; and the longtime-out-of-work domestic partner of the story’s protagonist, Andrea, who works in this office as a science writer.

Early on, I knew Andrea’s story and the story of the office she works in would be bound up with the story of the natural world outside the building, specifically the story of the creature being hunted around the town. I knew Andrea would identify with this creature her coworkers have deemed a threat. What I was less sure about was how to convey this animal. At some point, I experimented with identifying the animal as a mountain lion, but this choice didn’t feel right. Naming the animal seemed to put it into a box. We have pre-existing ideas about mountain lions. We think we know what they are. They’re predators. They’re dangerous. Heck no they shouldn’t be roaming neighborhoods where children play.

Instinctively I felt that the animal’s identity should be unclear. Not naming a thing pares it down to its essentials and lends a mythic quality to that figure. And what really matters in this story, after all, is not the animal’s identity but its circumstances. This creature is being hunted by snipers not because it has done any harm but because it’s unfamiliar, an outsider, and thus deemed suspect. Of course, it’s quite likely the creature isn’t an outsider at all, but that it’s been dislodged from its home by urbanization. This is a familiar story. In a way, not identifying the creature makes it scarier, more of a monster, but I also think it helps make the creature’s plight more empathetic.

At the same time, I fretted about making the creature mysterious. Not naming the animal gives this rather realistic story a somewhat otherworldly feel, which I loved, yet I felt sort of like I was breaking some rule by allowing in this one otherworldly element. That is, writers talk about it being fiction’s job to either make the familiar strange or the strange familiar. Insofar as this story is set in a corporate office, but applying key concepts of ecology to the relationships within, the story would seem to be doing the former, making the familiar strange. But this creature seems like a fantastic element, and insofar as its story becomes an empathetic one with which Andrea can relate, the creature seems to be the strange made familiar.

Here’s the thing, though: The more I think about what distinguishes  the familiar made strange and the strange made familiar, the less sure I am about the distinctions. The binary falls apart. Freud’s discussion of the uncanny comes to mind—the uncanny being that which is at once both familiar and strange. Maybe because it seems both alive and dead, both human and animal, or both home and not home. Walk along the grass, and there is a world beneath your feet you know almost nothing about, yet there it is, right beneath you, hidden in plain sight. Scientists are constantly discovering new species we’ve been living on this planet with for thousands of years if not significantly longer than that. When so much is already unknown or strange about the “familiar” world, the constructs of reality and fantasy break down. I’m hard-pressed to identify an example of anything that is familiar that isn’t strange, and vice versa. Is using key concepts in ecology to understand the dynamics within a corporate office, or within a family or any other brand of human relationship, really an example of making the familiar strange or is it perhaps an example of making the strange familiar? I can make an argument in both directions.

And we are perhaps as strange and unknown to ourselves as anything else. A character in “Key Concepts in Ecology” says of the president of the company on the phone to her fiancé, “It’s like she thinks we’re animals,” and Andrea thinks to herself that if her coworker hadn’t been on the phone, she might have informed her that humans are, in fact, animals. What a startling feat of the imagination that we can forget this basic truth. At the same time, as estranged as we are from our home, is it any wonder that we forget?

MICHELLE ROSS is the author of There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (2017), which won the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, Passages North, Electric Literature’s Recommended ReadingTahoma Literary ReviewTriQuarterly, and other venues. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review and a consulting editor for the 2018 Best Small Fictions anthology. She lives in Tucson, Arizona. She can be found online at www.michellenross.com.