What We Break


Madge has a thing for the maintenance guy so she breaks something every day. Barry is happy to have something to do. There are two offices in the building: ours, and a startup that can’t afford utilities, so those people aren’t there when it’s either hot or cold outside, which, in the Midwest, is always.

Her name is Margaret, but she goes by Madge, which sounds like how she’s shaped: like a pile of root vegetables. She says it’s because she loves Madonna. Madge and I take turns slamming drawers, walking around, and eating chips louder than the other. I think we are enemies, but I like her.

Madge calls me “Letter-opener.” She summoned me to her office on my first day and after a long, wet breath, held up a letter opener between us, kitty corner to an eye she’d pinched shut, said, “I can barely see you behind this thing.” So now my name is Letter-opener, which is funny actually because I almost never open letters. I spend most of my time licking envelopes, which is nauseating, but, “bottled moistener isn’t cheap, Letter-opener.”


Madge dials the phone before anything is broken. She stomps over to my desk.

“Hello, Barry,” she says into the phone. She opens the bottom drawer of my desk while I eat a chip and think it might be the loudest chip I’ve eaten yet.

“Yes, again, Barry,” she says. Barry hasn’t been here yet today, so she kicks a foot through the bottom of the drawer, a flurry of papers swooping up and out the sides.

“Oh, you know Letter-opener, Barry,” she says, hopping in the drawer with her other foot. “A wild animal.”

She stomps around like a baby duck in the mess of papers and begins kicking them in the air one foot at a time, grinning into the phone, a dumb thing Barry can’t see. It seems overdone, but she doesn’t ask me what I think about it.


Madge has a husband or maybe an ex-husband named Greg who most days shows up and asks to see her. She shuts the door of her office and he sits on the couch in the waiting area by a plant I allowed to die. He eventually sighs his way out the door, but I can smell his woodsy deodorant for a couple hours after.

Greg is sitting next to the plant.

“Letter-opener!” Madge yaps.

I count to twenty-seven before heading to her office. When I get there, she has the cord of her phone wrapped around both hands, the middle taut and between a canine and a pre-molar.

“Can I borrow your phone for a minute?” She asks, words half garbled, juggled under and over the cord in her mouth. “I need to call Barry about this cord.”

From the waiting room, I hear Greg sigh.


I eat the same thing every day because things in cans seem digestible and the only kitchen tool I own is a strainer. I have a pantry full of pop-top beans and an unplugged refrigerator.

I am watching water filter through the kidney beans in my strainer when my phone rings.

“There’s a mouse.” It’s Madge.

I don’t say anything, just turn off the water.

“This seems like something you should deal with,” says Madge.

“What about Barry?” I ask.

“What about Barry?” Click.

It’s dark by the time I get back to the office because I like to live as far away from my life as possible. Madge is sitting in her car outside when I park, the air just cold enough for the two exhaust pipes on the back to spew fat, grey smoke like a couple of nostrils.

I tap on the driver’s side window and she doesn’t roll it down, but starts talking as though she did, and our conversation disintegrates into gestures, then vulgar ones. She grabs a receipt off the floor and writes on it in squiggly letters. “Cold.” I nod. She flips the receipt and writes some more. She scrawls, “Kill it” over the thermal paper, a list of groceries beneath it. She nods and reverses, finally rolling down the window as she drives out of the parking lot to splutter a piece of gum on the pavement.

When I go inside and turn on the lights, the mouse looks up at me as though it is guilty. I walk up until my toes are nearly touching the mouse. It isn’t afraid of me so I start to cry and when I sit down on the floor, the mouse puts its nose on my knee like we are sisters.

I make her a home in the space underneath my foot rest, the only space I can think of that Madge might not destroy. When I leave, the mouse is sleeping, and I finally have something that’s mine.


Greg is already sitting on the couch when I get to work the next day. He is sipping on a bottle of water but still, I ask, “Do you want anything to drink, there, Greg?” He holds up the bottle but keeps his head down and I think how pleasant of him to not look right at me.

I throw my coat over the back of my chair before peeking in at Madge, who is highlighting something. Her nose is running and a drip is perched perfectly in a nostril like dew.

“Oh, Letter-opener. Good. Did you kill the mouse?” She asks, still highlighting.

I shake my head no, which she doesn’t look up to see.

“Letter-opener, old reliable,” she says before shooing me out of the office with her non-highlighting hand.

I check on my mouse by dropping a pen and pretending it rolled away somewhere. “Oh, wow! I wonder where it went,” I say as I wave at the mouse and pat her head with a digit. “What a strange thing!” I say, fluffing up her tissue bed. “Oh my, well, I guess it’s just disappeared!” I say, climbing back into my swivel chair. When I look up, Greg is staring at the palms of both hands.

An hour later, Greg’s still there. A girl scout shows up and I talk to her in the doorway for twenty-five minutes.

I ask her questions like, “How did you become a girl scout?” and “What’s your favorite color?”

She asks me questions like, “What do you do in this great big apartment all alone?”


I can hear Madge from the parking lot and I know that my mouse is dead. I leave my car running, keys in, door open and beeping, and I’m inside. Greg and I meet in the entryway, and I shove past him through the second set of doors.

Madge and Barry are nose to nose in front of my desk, which is not what I expected, so I stop, and Greg crashes into the back of me. Madge is yelling and yells, “I love you,” to Barry, who has his eyes closed, but then opens them, and a deep sob rises in Greg, and we are all standing there looking at Madge, until my mouse runs between Madge and Barry, and roosts on the top of my shoe.

Our mouths are all open and one of us is screaming but none of us know which one.  

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