Oral History of the Coffee Spill in the Break Room Last Tuesday - Daniel Paul

Douglas – Office Manager: You have to understand that we don’t have any procedures in place to deal with a situation like this. The cleaning crew doesn’t come in until we close, and I’m only authorized to call them in for overtime for like a biomedical emergency or something. Blood dripping down cubicle walls; it has to be biblical. And I can’t order my workers to clean it up; that’s not what they’re contracted to do. Sure, I can try to motivate them to do it on their own accord, give them a speech about mutual respect and community, but you can only go to that well so often, and truth be told I might have used up most of the teamwork requires sacrifice juju when we cut their benefits last month. So, really, there was nothing I could do about the spill itself; all I could do was hope they handled it themselves, and try to make sure it didn’t get in the way of an otherwise productive day.

    I’m sorry . . . what was that? Why didn’t I just clean it up myself? 


Laura from Sales: If someone would have just cleaned it up, it would taken five seconds and we could all have gotten back to work. But, of course, if someone had just cleaned it up we would be living in an alternate universe in which the people who work in this office are competent, considerate, and capable of operating something with as many moving parts as a fucking sponge. I saw the spill and immediately knew that if I didn’t clean it no one would, and this time, I wasn’t going to be their fucking nanny. No, this coffee spill was a gorgeous shimmering monument to the uselessness of my coworkers, and I had no intention of desecrating it.


Autumn from Billing: It was really the worst day for this to happen. I’d had a fight with Rob while getting ready for work. I don’t even remember what about. Maybe the dog? (Yes he pissed on the floor, but, he’s old! What do you want to do? And that face he makes . . . the dog, not Rob . . . Rob makes a face too but it is not as endearing). Anyway there’s something about a fight before you go to work, where it’s like because you don’t have a lot of a time the scorn becomes compressed and hyper-concentrated. And then you know you won’t be able to make up until the evening and so the fight hangs over you all day. So there was that. And even on a normal day, my morning coffee is the best part of my workday. I almost never make coffee at home—Rob can’t drink it because of his medication, and he gets jealous—and I try not to spend money by buying it. So that free coffee at work . . . I know it’s not that good but it’s part of my routine, and if I get in a little early I can sit by myself for a few moments. Add it all up: I’m pissed off from the fight, and I’m feeling guilty from the fight, and I’m feeling pissed about feeling guilty, and guilty about feeling pissed, and all I want is my cup of coffee and a few minutes alone, but what do I walk into? A break room with no coffee except a puddle of it on the floor, pooling in the corner like an old dog had just half-peed/half-shat it out.


Krista from HR: I’d seen this kind of thing before. I worked as a barista when I was in college. Have you ever watched a coffee customer try to put in cream and sugar? It looks like a fucking war zone. Scattered granules like shrapnel from the exploding grenade of a sugar packet. Cream trails like blood spatter. The charitable interpretation would be that these people are just junkies, and to compare the counters they leave behind to a crack den or something. But, unlike addicts, these people are in complete control; in fact it’s the control that they are addicted to. It takes two seconds to wipe up after yourself, but they never do. What they are saying is that they have bought not just coffee, but the right to force the coffee shop workers to clean up after them, perhaps even for their viewing entertainment. I can’t even drink coffee anymore; it just tastes like yuppie entitlement. So when I saw this spill, it may have triggered something in me. And I thought, there may be no justice in this world, but someone is going to pay for this today. 


Zach from Sales: I don’t want to suggest that everything is political. But this whole coffee freak-out reeks of liberal overreaction. Someone spilled some coffee: big deal. Cost of doing business. If it really gets in the way of work getting done, then someone will clean it up. If not, the people paid to deal with these situations will do so whenever they are scheduled to do so. I say, let the market sort it out.


Frank from Compliance: Look, in a situation like this, the most important thing is to assign blame. I don’t even drink that shitty coffee. I prefer gourmet espresso. Or I just take speed pills. With this whole break room thing, I just wanted to know who fucked up. 


Nathan from Marketing: I almost stepped in it. I was heading to the microwave to heat up my oatmeal, and if someone hadn’t said WATCH OUT, my foot would have splashed into it; even though it didn’t happen, I could hear the humiliating, pie in the face, SPLAT sound of it. I could feel the cold spray of its droplets hitting my socks and pant cuffs. The whole sequence unfolded before my eyes: the moment of uncertainty as my loafer hydroplanes on the wet linoleum, followed by the awkward dance to maintain balance and the struggle to make peace with the possibility that I might wipe out. In that moment, I existed in two parallel dimensions—one in which I stepped in the coffee and one in which I didn’t—and I swear that I experienced both in all five senses, and that they were both each equally real.


Edward from Records: Wait, we have a break room?


Frank: So if you can’t get proof of guilt—and evidently we don’t have access to the security cameras for incidents that don’t constitute security risks, which seems a little literal minded for me, but whatever—if you have no evidence, the best way to assign blame is to just start accusing people and see what sticks. That’s how Clue works, right? And I was awesome at Clue. The only problem with this strategy is that I didn’t really know that many people’s names, which made accusing them harder.


Edward: Wait, the break room has a coffee machine?


Laura: It had to have been Zach. It’s so his style. Fuck something up and then make other people work to fix it. 


Zach: Laura said I did it? Typical hysterical bullshit. She’s just pissed because I got the Kromer account and is trying to take me down whenever she can. Like that whole thing where she accused me of emailing the wrong client some confidential information that was meant for one of their competitors. Whatever, they certainly seemed happy to receive it.  


Laura: No, it couldn’t have been Frank; he’s too stupid. It wouldn’t even occur to him to lie about it. He would have come screaming out of the break room asking someone to clean it for him like a small child crying to his mother about a boo-boo.


Frank: Laura? Yeah, I’d fuck her . . . Wait, what was the question?


Krista: Did I really think Frank or Zach spilled it? Even if it wasn’t them per se, it was one of their ilk. I wanted them to clean it up regardless. I wanted to see them bend down. I wanted to see them bruise their knees on the linoleum. I want to see them suffer as I had suffered.


Edward: I know that I work in the annex, and not the main office floor. And I know I’m not the most popular. (I can only apologize for that potato salad at the potluck so many times.) But I guess I’m just hurt that no one told me. I’ve spent a lot of money buying coffee all these years. 


Autumn: And so I’m in there, sulking, staring at the spill like I’m at a wake for my morning coffee, when in bursts Nathan from marketing without a fucking care in the world. He has those long legs, and he’s striding over to the coffee machine, not even noticing that it’s empty or that there is a moat of floor coffee defending it. What can I do? I yell at him to watch out. I might have snapped at him a little bit. He looked visibly startled. He turned to me and gave a little thank you. I thought he would leave the break room, leave me to my bad mood, but instead, he just stands there and stares at it. I couldn’t believe it. I left to use the bathroom thinking he would be gone when I got back. Nope. He just stared at that pool of coffee for like an hour. And what was really fucking annoying is that I was planning to just stare at it. But looking at his face I could tell that he was staring at it better than I was. He was having deeper, more articulate coffee thoughts than I could, so really, this was just one more thing that I couldn’t get right.


Nathan: And so, standing in the break room, staring at the spill, considering the simultaneous nature of opposing potentialities, I began thinking of all the possibilities that I had so narrowly averted. What if I had broken my neck and died? What if my father, who has already had to bury my mother, was forced to bury me? What if people asked him how did he die? expecting something conventionally unjust that confirmed that his son had be taken (that the agency for inverting the natural order of passage belonged to a felon, be it a murderer or a tumor), only to be told that his son died slipping on a coffee spill in an office break room, suggesting that at best there is no such thing as justice in the arena of death (at worst, the reaper is a sadistic vaudevillian), that there is only the decay of flesh and the ensuing oblivion, or that if there is any blame to be apportioned, it is on me, this grieving man’s son, punished for his klutziness with the indignity of a slapstick death, or perhaps the father himself is to blame for failing to train his son to watch where he is stepping? This is a man who survived the war and put in thirty years at the factory to get his children through school . . . all so that his eldest son could become a paper pusher who dies in cartoonish disgrace? How could he be expected to carry on afterwards? How could he continue to perform the mundane tasks of social responsibility—take the recycling to the curb for example—after having the curtain pulled back on death’s indifference to hard work? Or what if I survived, but had been paralyzed, never again able to walk or feel the touch of a woman? How many years before the memories of sweet, cold breath upon my chest hair fade, or become so divorced from the reality of that sensation as to serve only to replace them? I saw these futures, and I saw a million others—facial deformity, trauma induced deafness, a permanent coffee stain upon my forehead—all seemingly at once, each humiliation a single star comprising a vast cosmos of my failure.


Douglas: Was I worried about a loss of productivity? Well if I hadn’t been worried, I wouldn’t have been doing my job. I had a safety hazard in my break room with no immediate recourse to fix it. I had people yelling at each other about who they thought spilled what and who should clean it up. And I had one guy staring into it like it’s one of those hidden picture posters, only instead of a bunny rabbit it’s pussy or the like. But I didn’t get where I am today by hiding from problems. I have a toolbox for any conceivable office crisis. 

    No, I mean literally. Look at it. Metal, not plastic. And here’s the roll of caution tape. I just put some around the spill. Problem solved.


Laura: The problem had nothing to do with coffee, or the break room itself. I try to avoid it most of the time. It’s like a hunter’s blind for people who want to talk to you about their lives or sell you raffle tickets. The problem was that I couldn’t focus knowing that the spill was there, and knowing that no one was doing anything about it. Everywhere I looked, all I saw was that dank pool of tepid brown liquid, as if the whole office was covered in it. As if I was going to drown in it.


Jenna the Temp: I don’t think it really affected our productivity one way or another. Except maybe for that one guy who just stood in the break room staring at it all morning. But, a guy like that probably doesn’t get much done on a good day, know what I’m saying? 


Nathan: What if I shatter one ankle, and live the rest of my life with a limp? Every time I meet a stranger, I will know they are curious as to its origin. If they don’t ask, I will have to live with the knowledge that they think it (and by extension, me) is grander—War wound? Football injury?—than it really is. And if they do ask, I will have to decide whether to lie (and even a refusal to answer would be a kind of falsehood) or whether to face their ridicule by telling them the truth: that I am a man whose youth and wholeness has been diminished by a slick of weak coffee spilled in an office break room.


Edward: Do you really think I wanted to get everyone sick? Do you think I set some mayonnaise in the sun for hours thinking, Haha! I am gonna’ poison the fuck out of these people! This is going to be the best potluck ever! And are we even sure it was me? Lizzy from accounting brought coleslaw. That has mayonnaise too! And why stop there? Why not blame me for every illness past, present, and future? Feeling like your life doesn’t match your dreams for it? Well it must have been the fucking potato salad from two years ago that cursed you!


Nathan: To think, that my very being could be at risk, and made safe only by the intervention of a relative stranger. I had always liked to think of myself as a self-made man, but the truth that was shining in that dark reflective liquid was that self-reliance is an absurd fiction. We are all of us a coffee spill from death, and safe from its peril only in so much as there are those present and willing to warn us of its imminence.


Krista: I told Laura, we have to do something about this. We have to make them clean it, or, if we can’t do that, we have to make them pay. Like, maybe we could spill some coffee on them.


Laura: No, I told her that it had to be that coffee from the break room floor.


Zach: I could tell they were planning something. They kept talking to each other and looking over at us. So I told Frank to be careful.


Krista: I loved the idea. But how were we going to get it off the floor in a form that we could spill on them? Also, that one guy was awkwardly standing right next it, so we’d have to navigate him somehow.


Nathan: But then I realized that where there is death, there is also life. What if this moment of near catastrophe changes my outlook on life? What if, aware of my fragility, I am driven to nurture new life? What if the moment of saving me creates a connection between me and my savior (I think it might have been one of the women from billing) what if we fall in love and are fruitful and multiply? What if this pool of spilled coffee proves to be a primordial ocean for the infinite generations that will spring forth from our love? Or if that’s too romantic and/or metaphorical for you, consider that at some microscopic level life is flourishing in that tepid pool. Mold. Bacteria. Microorganisms. They will be born, flourish, and die in this pool. Who are we to diminish the importance of that life? Who are we to hold our existence above theirs?


Frank: I had completely forgotten about the whole thing. Like, Zach started talking to me about “Krista.” I could have sworn her name was Geraldine or something.


Nathan: Especially if you think about the relative meaninglessness of our endeavors here. What do we even do here? I stood there and watched as my colleagues simply stepped around the coffee pool, just as they stepped around me (though admittedly, I was standing in the center of the break room). Is this all we are doing here: stepping around each other, and the difficult questions of what our purpose is? Is this job simply stepping around the spilt coffee that is our lives?


Frank: No, Geraldine was an aunt of mine. Or like one of those old cousins who you call an aunt even though she isn’t.


Edward: I guess why it hurts so much is that for all of our estrangement—I know that some of you go out for drinks and don’t invite me; I’ve moved on—it felt like we did share some moments. I signed your birthday card, Krista, and I put a lot of thought into what I said. I spent all of my lunch, and I remembered that inside joke about the microwave from that time. Or you, Zach. We both were rooting for the same team that time we watched college basketball at your desk. When they scored the winning basket, we did a high five. But how do I reconcile those moments with the fact no one told me we had a coffee machine? How do I trust any of you going forward? 


Autumn: So I bit the bullet. I just said fuck it, and I went downstairs to the Starbucks. I paid like $3.50 for a coffee. And I could just hear Rob saying you spent 3 bucks on a coffee in that voice of his. I tell you, that Starbucks coffee was completely burnt. But thinking of how angry it would make him . . . it was delicious.


Krista: So, the only idea I could think of was—and I know it’s disgusting—but if we use a straw, we could siphon the coffee and spit it into a cup. Like fiends do with gas. It would be absolutely gross, but, are we willing to debase ourselves if it allows us to debase them more? I mean, we are already debased in their eyes by virtue of being women; let’s positively reappropriate it!


Laura: I told her that her idea was terrible and there was no way I was going to do it. I suggested that we just wipe it up with paper towels and then wring them out on Zach and Frank’s desks.


Krista: Her idea was way better.


Laura: But when we went to carry out the plan, someone had already cleaned the spill up!


Linda from Accounts Payable: Uh, yeah I cleaned it. I didn’t know there was any drama or anything. I didn’t get to work until after lunch—I had a dental thing—I saw there was some coffee on the ground and I cleaned it. Was it annoying? Yeah, I fucking hate going to the dentist, and I think he’s trying to scam me into some orthodontal work . . . I’ve never really trusted orthodontists to be honest. Oh, sorry, you want to know if cleaning up the spill was annoying? Not really. It took like thirty seconds. I didn’t really do that great a job.


Bill - Cleaning Crew Member: No, she didn’t do a good job at all. She mostly pushed it underneath the counter rather than actually absorbing it into the paper towel. But, frankly, it barely registered. These people are fucking disgusting. You should see some of the messes that they leave for us.


Linda: Put it this way: have you ever heard of a kid that the orthodontist doesn’t think needs braces? You’re telling me that every kid on earth needs braces? What did the human race do before braces? But you get a couple cute girls wearing braces with pink rubber bands, and it’s suddenly culturally ingrained that everyone needs them. Nah. Fuck that!


Autumn: And I sat and drank my coffee in that little half patio they have in front of the store. Which is weird, because they only have like two tables, and it isn’t cordoned off from the sidewalk, so you are basically just sitting at a table in the middle of a sidewalk, acting as if this is completely normal. People had to walk around me. There was a nice breeze. No one knew whether they should look at me, or go out of their way to not look at me, which was kind of hard because I was in their way. The ambient noise was strangely pleasant. I was alone with my coffee, but not hiding my solitude; it was proudly on display for all to see. 


Bill: This one time, a guy had some sushi in his desk drawer. I guess he was trying to eat at his desk without anyone noticing. Anyway, this guy got fired before he could finish his lunch. They walked him out with security and everything. And they didn’t replace him. Weeks later, I notice a smell. I opened the drawer and it was like a mermaid had died or something. And these people had been living with it for all this time. Something is seriously wrong with them. That’s all I’m saying


Edward: You know what: I am glad you all got sick. I’d do it again.


Autumn: I’ve drunk my coffee downstairs every day since. I tell you, I’m never going into that break room again. 


Nathan: In the woods, near my house growing up, there was this dank water hole that me and some other kids used to swim in. We’d go out there during the summer, and invariably one kid or another would say that we had to jump in or else we were pussies. I got the sense this was something that they had heard from their fathers—my dad never swore; I suspect he got such machismo out of his system in Vietnam. Anyway, I always jumped in, and not because I worried about being (or being suspected of being) a pussy. I probably didn’t even know what the word meant the first time I went into the water. And even at the height of my adolescence, when the question of whether or not I was a pussy was one that occupied my deepest introspections, I do not think it motivated me to jump. For wouldn’t someone whose sole reason for jumping was to avoid ridicule be acting out of fear and, thus, be a pussy par excellence, as we understood the term? 

    No, why I jumped—and I always jumped—was because even though the water was disgusting, we were all in it together, and so part of the filth and film that coated my skin was the residue of the other boys past and present: a tactile sense of fellowship that is perhaps the most precious thing we lose when we start wearing clothes that are not meant to get dirty, and living our lives in sterile, artificially lit rooms that do not court wildness, nor indulge its surprises.


Edward: Enjoy your fucking coffee. I hope some accident doesn’t befall the cream.



Daniel Paul received his MFA from Southern Illinois University. His fiction, non-fiction and humor writing has appeared or is forthcoming in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Puerto Del Sol, Hobart,  New Delta Review, Lumina and other magazines. He has been awarded prizes for short fiction from Briar Cliff Review, Yemassee, and elsewhere. He lives in Ohio where he is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Cincinnati as a Charles P. Taft dissertation fellow.