|Jul/Aug 2004 fiction|
She awakened to the sound of street sweepers.
It was a craggy, sibilant din, mingled with the slush of her dream. Then a new tension shattered her sleep state completely: street sweepers... Tuesday... thirty-six dollar ticket—why couldn't she ever remember? She slid into untied shoes, threw on a robe, and snatched her keys on her way out the door. Halfway down the steps she could see it, a hissing yellow truck, scraping the street with its brushes. But wait, there was her Nissan across the street, parked securely under the Monday sign.
She had remembered. Her shoulders lightened, though her relief carried a dour afterburn that she couldn't quite turn into humor.
Twenty minutes later, Irene was driving Logan to kindergarten, fielding his litany of questions. His theme today was phones. Why did some need wires while others did not? And how did the phone know when someone had dialed it? Could it distinguish its own unique pattern of button tones? He expressed the concept by imitation: "When you push the two, it goes deeee, but the nine sounds like doooo."
She answered with forced patience, feeling guilty that what she really wanted was a micro-second for her own thoughts. Finally, unable to stop herself, she seized a lull to think about Gordon, the man she was meeting for lunch. She pictured a moment back at the potluck; he had just offered her a glass of wine and delivered what she considered a fairly wry joke: "...talk about coincidence, my wife and I also saw a marriage counselor before our divorce."
Irene guided the Nissan into the drop-off zone of Misty Mountain School, relieved she was only two minutes late.
"And what about car phones?" asked Logan.
"What about them?"
"Deeee. Doooo. I don't know."
"Did you know that the Provident Financial Network transfers over 50 million bytes of data every day? That translates to almost 20 billion a year."
Irene jabbed delete and purged the email, which could only have come from Gung Ho Susan. She hated these daily inspirational factoids, though she had to admit they served a function, not only drilling in the intended minutia, but frequently sparing her from having to ask about things she was supposed to know.
The next message was from Dan Konike. "Hi gang. Won't you please stop by the conference area at 10:30 for a short demo on our rapidly expanding Internet capabilities. Should only take about twenty minutes. Promise."
An uneasiness tugged in her chest. She knew how these things went: twenty minutes could grow into forty, forty could go past an hour. Suppose it pushed into her precariously timed lunch with Gordon, who had emphatically warned that it was impossible to reach him by phone?
"Are you aware there's an ad hoc staff meeting in ten minutes?" Aron Paulo, a thin African American who was always adjusting his glasses, had drifted into her cubicle. His radish colored eyes made her suspect that he had been paged last night, as it was in fact his week on the pager.
"Tyurin called it. He wants to see all of the implementation staff in the conference area."
"Maybe we're all fired."
"I heard he was going to announce your appointment as chief liaison to the phone company."
He was pushing the joke of the week. It went this way: someone on the staff, you know, that sandy-haired woman down in Implementations, had fallen into a big squabble with the phone company over her home account. It got so heated, and this woman became so agitated, that at one point she started to scream, "Go ahead and disconnect your fucking service!" So they did. For two days she had been without a telephone.
"Don't rub it in, Aron. This morning even my five-year-old found ways to remind me I screwed up."
Ten minutes later Irene and her fellow associates—the words co-worker and colleague had been exorcised from the Provident vocabulary since March—drifted into the conference area and took their places around the table, while Tyurin sat informally on the window sill. He was the most casually dressed person present, in jeans and faded shirt, all rendered legal by the United Way dress-down sticker gummed to his breast pocket.
"Hope I didn't get everyone's blood too stirred up with the suddenness of this." He looked a little embarrassed, and his complexion had the soft pallor it reflected when he was underslept; his own pager duty was unending, but that seldom delayed the seven A.M. start of his work day. "You probably all saw this morning's email about Dan's Internet demonstration. Well, I recently made the mistake of talking up this project to some people over at Corporate, hoping to keep them out of our hair, and guess what? It backfired. Someone over there has gotten so jazzed up that they want to bring over a small group and sit in. Sorry, Dan."
"Well, the more the merrier," replied Dan with an eager, great sport smile. Irene shot Aron a glance. Their private name for him was Asslick. She also did a bit of clock math: this could easily set things back an hour, which could push it in terms of her lunch with Gordon. Maybe she should leave him a message and propose a new time. But the problem was acknowledgment. If Gordon tried to respond on her home machine—the only number he had—he would get a disconnect. And if she left her number at Provident and she didn't happen to be at her desk when he called, he would find himself relayed to the Customer Service pool, and from there anything was possible. Her friends had been complaining for years. No, better stick with noon.
"So the good news is that we've got a chance to present this thing to Corporate with our own spin on it," said Tyurin. "But on the debit side we don't have the necessary space in our conference area, which presents us with an opportunity." He emphasized opportunity with a satirical drawl, clearly in reference to the video he had been required to show last week—all level-two managers had been required to show it—in which the narrator repeatedly made a point of switching the words opportunity and problem. "Fortunately, I think we can reserve one of the new conference rooms up on eighteen."
A team was assembled with Gung Ho Susan at the lead. She wasted no time giving out assignments: Aron would secure the equipment, the new billing clerk would procure access codes, and Irene would reserve the room. The only problem was she had no idea who to call, and she knew if she asked Gung Ho, she would be made to feel like an idiot. Instead, she logged onto the Provident Corporate Directory and did her searching there, but in mid-process decided, why not take a crack at reaching Gordon at work?
"Hello, this is Gordon. I'm not here to take your call right now..." Well, that's what he had predicted. She then tried her home phone, just in case the problem had miraculously rectified itself, but midway into the first ring came the squalling disconnect signal.
She returned to the Corporate Directory and eventually discovered that the person she needed to contact was someone named Barbara Walukiewicz on the twenty-second floor. Rather than call, she chose to go to twenty-two directly.
"The new conference hall?" asked the heavy woman with proud, arching eyebrows who had been pointed out as Walukiewicz. Her cubicle was filled with snapshots of men in boats, none of whom bore a familial resemblance to her, or for that matter, each other. She squinted incredulously at Irene's request, as if "reserve" and "conference room" were oblique concepts you read about in arty journals. "And when did you want this reservation?
"This morning, for about one hour," said Irene.
"Is it already reserved?"
"I didn't say that. I said reserving it wouldn't be possible."
"May I ask why?"
"Look. There are only six people in California who can claim time on that room, and unless you can convince me you're one of them, there's absolutely nothing I can do."
The line was too firmly drawn to step across without triggering a confrontation. A moment from last week's skirmish with the phone company came to mind, that compressed flashpoint when she had snapped, "That's absolute bullshit, and you know it." But here you couldn't do that, even if you didn't swear. People would hear about it; there would be consequences. And why go through all that when there was clearly a better solution: just dump it back on Gung Ho.
"That's total nonsense," said Gung Ho, the body-rich strands of a new haircut swinging past her ears. "I know for a fact that Maggie Pestine booked time in that room, so did Bill Hogleshaw, and they're not on any list. Let's go back upstairs and straighten this out. But first give me ten minutes in the ladies room."
Ten minutes. An awkward block of time to fill. Irene went back to her desk and pretended to scan her email, but like a bubble riding the wind, her mind drifted back to the potluck with Gordon. She recalled their quick laughter upon concluding that they were equally impossible to reach at work, and the upbeat logical way he had added, "...but it's no problem, we have each others' home numbers. We'll just communicate by answering machine."
Idea: perhaps all she needed to do was call the phone company, eat a little crow, and have them restore her service. These days such transactions could be concluded at light speed. People bought homes on the Internet, for God's sake, all with the click of a mouse. She glanced about to make sure Gung Ho had left the room and punched in the phone company's number.
Good morning. To help direct your call, please select one of the following options: For customer service, press one. To report a problem with your lines or equipment, press two.
She pressed one.
To open a new account press one. For information about our products and services, press two. For billing questions, please enter the telephone number and area code you are calling about. For all other service needs, press three.
She pressed three.
Under California law, telephone privacy is your right and our responsibility. During this call we need your approval to use your service and usage records to discuss products and services offered by our family of companies. If this is okay press one. If this is not okay press two.
She pressed two. Hard.
Please hold. A telephone service representative will be with you shortly.
An airy instrumental began in the background, a brightened-up, heavy-on-the-xylophones version of something old and elusively familiar. A part of her brain filled in snatches of the lyrics: ...the only thing I could do half right, but the words just come out wrong... The elapsing time was starting to concern her; Gung Ho could return any second, and it was well understood at Provident that all employee calls were subject to monitoring.
I'm sorry. All of our customer service representatives are presently assisting other customers. Please call back at another time, or at the sound of the tone you can leave a message.
She started to slam down the receiver, but at the last moment restrained herself and recited her case particulars, at the end adding, "This disconnection was strictly a mistake on the part of the phone company. Please restore my service immediately." Then she did slam the receiver, exhaling peevishly, her eyes fixed on the desktop without focus. A moment later she looked up and found herself staring at Gung Ho.
"Corporate would flip if they knew how many people they were paying to reserve a damn conference room," said Gung Ho, punching the button for the twenty-second floor.
Irene responded with a concurring hum; she had to force even that, but at the same time she was surprised to note a blossoming sense of solidarity with Susan as the elevator propelled them upward. The word "accelerate" popped into her mind, and she briefly speculated as to how she and Susan might appear from a perspective in which both building and elevator had winked into invisibility, so all you could see were the two of them, side by side and ascending.
They found Barbara Walukiewicz at her desk, peering irritably into her monitor and rapidly clicking her mouse. Gung Ho started off the encounter with pleasantries, and it quickly became apparent that the two were acquainted.
"So how's the new homeowner?"
"It's been great," said Walukiewicz, releasing her mouse and turning to face them. "We were lucky we bought in when we did. You know what two bedrooms go for now in that neighborhood?"
"Jesus. But the same thing's happening on our side of the Bay."
The exchange made her think of Marshall, her former husband, who used to mock this kind of conversation—"the real estate conversation"—sometimes turning it into a full blown comedy sketch. And the memory of herself laughing, of throwing her head back in flushed release, struck a rare node of fondness she did not want to embrace at the moment. Instead she performed a quick rehash of his bad points: his workaholic side, the consecutive Thanksgivings he had abandoned her to production crises. She could see herself someday unburdening all this to Gordon, perhaps in a French-windowed cafe, his eyes guileless and soft as he listened with rapt understanding.
At some point Irene noted a change in tone between Gung Ho and Barbara.
"So are you telling me that one of us can't sign for this room at your desk? We have to physically go to Requisition and Supply on Bryant Street?"
"That's correct," said Walukiewicz, her lips meeting in a flat, resolute line, which for the first time imparted a resemblance to one of the boatmen pinned up in her cubicle. "It's a security issue. They need your John Hancock in person."
"Why can't we just use email?"
"Because neither of you have a bitmap of your signature in my system. It's the same kind of file we use to put signatures on checks."
"I know what a bitmap is. Can't we put one on your system?"
"Of course you can."
"Then let's do it."
"The turn around time is forty-eight hours."
Gung Ho rolled her eyes in exasperation and looked at Irene. "Bring your car to work?"
She drove out on Harrison, trapped behind a slow-moving bus. At the first opportunity she mashed the accelerator and pulled around, calculating as she maneuvered. It was nine-fifteen; if she could have this done by nine-thirty, if Aron and Gung Ho could set up by ten-thirty, if the meeting could begin by eleven, there was still a chance, even a good possibility, that she could get to the restaurant on time for her lunch with Gordon.
At the corner of Sixteenth she saw without believing—bounty from the parking gods!—the entire curb in front of Requisition and Supply was wide open and bleached in sunlight. Then she noticed the sign: "Street Sweeping—No Parking 9:00 A.M. to 11:00 A.M.," which explained why the full length of the opposite curb was jammed with cars. She had to park five blocks away, then hurry back in a speedwalk, sweat forming under her blouse.
"The person you want to speak with is Cory Potter, in room one-twelve," said the frosty-haired, thin-fingered clerk at the reception desk. "If he's not there, just wait. He might have stepped out for a minute."
Irene headed down the thickly carpeted corridor, which took her past a succession of cubicles where lighted phone consoles and large monitors glowed for no one. It was a stark contrast to the exterior of Requisition and Supply, which looked like little more than an industrial shed.
Potter's office was empty as the clerk had intimated. On the other side of the counter, she noted his computer's screen saver, which she recognized as the type that randomly generated nonsense sentences: WE, WHO ARE WOMBATS, HAVE NOT FESTOONED YOUR NIGHTSHADE. COULDN'T WE BOIL THOSE RIVETS?
Irene had herself once considered a humorous screen saver, but took pause when she heard about that man on nineteen who, with Hal the Computer from 2001 in mind, had programmed a large scrolling banner to read: I'M AFRAID, DAVE. The wrong person saw it, and the man found himself on probation.
"What can I do you for?" asked the tall, loose-limbed man who had appeared through a side doorway. His hair was combed in thinning grooves, oddly out of parallel, and something about the way he planted his elbows on the counter evoked precisely the tension she associated with describing her car's symptoms to the mechanic at Walley's Shell.
"I need to reserve a conference room, and I understand that I'm supposed to sign something here."
"This wouldn't be for the eighteenth floor on Van Ness, would it?"
"As a matter of fact, it would."
"Those anal cretins," he replied, with a sniffed laugh that seemed partly a signal of alliance. "They've been sending me about ten memos a day. Actually, you don't sign. But if you give me your I.D., I'll get you into their system faster than you can say red tape."
He took her badge, then grew busy on his keyboard. "So how long have you been working at Provident?"
"About three years," answered Irene, hoping her brevity would discourage him from talking while typing.
"I've been here ten. Last year they were going to shut us down, then ended up bumping the budget. I can live with that. Oh, shit."
"Is there a problem?"
He shook his head and continued to type, but now in bursts and stops, his shoulders hunching closer to the screen. Then, with a finalistic breath, he dropped his palms to the counter top and regarded Irene directly.
"For how long?"
He answered with a wry smile, underscoring the futility of her question. His monitor, meanwhile, had reverted to screen saver mode: SHOULDN'T WE BE HECTORING SOME PUMPKINS?
On her way out of the building, Irene stopped in one of the unoccupied cubicles and used the phone to leave Gung Ho a message about what had just transpired. Then she snuck in two additional calls: one to her home number to see if the message she had left the phone company had miraculously reaped results (it hadn't), the other to Gordon's voice mail. "...so noon is looking doubtful," she explained. "Would there be any possibility of moving the time back a bit? Unfortunately, I'm on this screwy customer service line, and if you leave a message, there's about one chance in ten that it will get to me. Instead I'll give you the number of my friend, Aron Paulo. He can transfer your message directly to my voice mail."
I should have made it lighter, she thought after getting off the phone. I should have sounded more like Cokie Roberts. I should have added something funny at the end.
She returned to the office and found it empty. In her cubicle, the message indicator on her phone was glowing a liquid red. Gordon? So soon? She lifted the receiver and punched in the passcodes. "Bulletin broadcast review," announced an ebullient female voice. Then a man spoke: "Hello, I'm Joe Steele. As we approach the end of the financial quarter, I'd like to take a moment to reflect on where we stand in relation to this year's goals. The challenges ahead of us are huge. But so are the rewards. I know many of you have been working long hours, and you have been doing your utmost to institute our policy of client focus..."
She debated skipping the message, but it would just repeat the next time she checked voice mail, and until it had cleared, the system would not let her retrieve any new messages in the queue. Eventually, the announcement ran its course, and Irene received the critical bit of information she had been waiting for: No new messages.
A knot of gloom contracted in her stomach. Just because she checked phone messages twenty times a day didn't mean that Gordon did; she saw an image of him calling her home phone from the restaurant, his eyebrows kneading together when he heard the disconnect. But here was an idea: maybe she could reach him by email. He worked at Tridex. She could call up their page on the Web and look for a staff directory. This would not be without risk: non-business use of the Internet was contrary to Provident policy, and all activity was subject to monitoring. Provident Truth, the in-house periodical, had recently included a feature explaining the company's perspective. But to hell with that. She had just called up the Yahoo search page when, in a corner of her vision, she detected the approach of Gung Ho. Okay, don't look guilty, don't act hurried. Without shifting her gaze or changing her typing rhythm, she pressed alt tab, arrowed over to Lotus Notes and, presto, Yahoo was gone.
"I got your message. But guess what? We're off the hook."
"Corporate cancelled," she said, with a live-and-learn shrug. "Tyurin got the call just a few minutes ago. Dan's going to go ahead and do the demo just for our group. He'll start in the conference area in about ten minutes."
It was eleven o'clock. As soon as Gung Ho stepped away, Irene left Gordon a second message letting him know she would be able to make lunch after all. When she arrived in the conference area, Dan was telling one of the clerks something about caulking shower tiles. It was to his credit, she supposed, that he did not reserve his congeniality just for the higher ups—maybe she had gotten too attached to thinking of him as "Asslick"—and yet, despite the democratic veneer, sometimes even his hobnobbing struck her as a self-conscious, vaguely smarmy aspect of career building. She recalled the advice a teacher had once given her during a stint as an aide: "Stay in the good graces of the janitors—they can make you or break you."
"As you know, most of the services we offer are pretty much Web-enabled," Dan explained, once the meeting had begun. "But now we are trying to take this capability to the next level." He referred to a monitor on which the entire product line was represented by a mosaic of icons. Any icon the mouse passed changed to a pop-up menu filled with—take your pick—descriptions, thumbnail photos, downloads, even animated tutorials.
It was eleven fifteen. She was feeling optimistic about the time and increasingly heady about Gordon. What was that crack he had made about his programming job? "I help litter the world with junk mail." So unlike Marshall, the inveterate techie, who could never bring himself to say anything cynical about work.
She remembered their final night of love-making: they had been pumping each other hard, as she did her best to track particular features of his face. It was a certain boyishness to his overbite which drove her crazy, it was that tremble in his bottom lip when he was close to coming. Was he aware how it quivered? Would it embarrass him to know that she anticipated and waited for it? Her vigil had just been rewarded when his pager went off. The way she remembered it, there was an exact synchrony between the electronic chirps and the hard knotty thumps of his penis. Her body went rigid as she waited to see how he would respond. She felt his penis recede, which conjured an image of the Baypoint train taking the curve in the Transbay Tube. Was he really going to do this? A minute later he was on the phone, talking about missing delimiters and runtime libraries.
"...and that's about it," said Dan. "We hope to have this operational by the end of October."
"Can we access this from home?" someone asked. Dan didn't answer right away. His eyes focused on a point just beyond the alcove, and it took Irene a moment to realize that he was locked onto an approaching figure.
"Oh my God," said Dan, a robust smile lightening his face. "We've just received a surprise visitor."
The newcomer was a middle-aged man with a salt-and-pepper crew cut and rounded shoulders that compromised the crisp lines of his suit. He struck Irene as familiar, but she wasn't sure why.
"Hope I'm not butting in," he said with a self-effacing grin.
"Not at all," Dan replied. "We were expecting a bunch of you upstairs, but then we heard that you got held up."
"We did, but our tour guide cut me loose."
Dan addressed the entire group. "For those of you who don't know, this is Bob Anderson."
Anderson—of course—she had seen him repeatedly in the pages of Provident Truth. To her dismay, Dan, who was showing every sign of turning back into Asslick, started to repeat the demonstration for Anderson's benefit. Afterwards, he went around the conference table and introduced the associates one by one, "...Susan Horvath, a specialist in operations and systems, Irene Dennison, our senior implementation associate..."
It was eleven-twenty.
Anderson started to talk about why he was in California. "Soon you will be hearing about major product developments coming down the pike. Some of this may change the way we've been used to doing things, but that's not a challenge you haven't encountered before. This is an era of great expansion and, frankly, I can't think of a more exciting time to be in our industry..."
Ten minutes later he called for questions. To Irene's relief, no one stirred. Then Asslick asked a question: "As we consolidate our domestic platforms, how will this affect subsidiaries overseas?"
"You raise an interesting point," said Anderson. "Coincidentally, I've just come from a meeting in Dallas..."
He went on for twelve more minutes. It was eleven-forty-two when he finished. Irene made a snap assessment: yes, she could make it, but she'd better leave fast.
She drove up Van Ness, precariously threading through traffic. The closest spot she could find was four blocks from the restaurant, and even there, strapped to a power pole, were three sets of parking restrictions to consider: Tow-away 4:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M; Street sweeping Mondays 8:00 A.M. to 10:00 A.M.; One hour limit 9:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. Only the hour limit was immediately applicable, and since she wouldn't be gone much beyond that, Irene decided to take the chance.
She entered the Splash Cafe and there he was, sitting with a Cappuccino and sprout-filled pita bread, his eyes issuing a genial welcome the moment he was aware of her entrance. Part of her wanted to flee. Why did she think this would be easy? And for an instant the notion of being back in her cubicle, doing setups for Bechtel or Sally Beauty Supply seemed the most comfortable proposition in the world.
"Glad to see all my frantic messages didn't confuse you," she said, feeling steadier and more thoroughly cast into date mode once she had reached his table.
"No problem," said Gordon. "I just thought it would be easiest to stick with the original plan."
She went to the deli counter and returned with a turkey sandwich. Gordon, in the interim, had become absorbed in his Chronicle, just as if they were an established couple settling into their routine.
"Look at this," he said, indicating the page he had been reading from the real estate section. "This house in the Excelsior is listing for fifty K more than it was a week ago. Same house."
Irene took a deep breath. She hadn't prepared herself for disappointment. But a few minutes later, when she laid out her saga with the phone company, she found him an attentive and insightful listener.
"How could the phone company screw up your answering machine?"
"That was how the whole thing started. They were doing some kind of upgrade, and the new dial tone confused a chip in my machine, actually in a lot of machines."
"So they knew about the problem?"
"You bet they knew. It was in the paper—a reporter dug up internal memos. Their staff was instructed to tell customers they were unaware of any problems, then refer them to whoever manufactured their answering machines. That's what they told me."
"And that's when you went postal?"
"I'd probably just cancel my call waiting."
She laughed heartily, very aware of how their eyes stayed locked and the modest distance between their hands on the table. All too soon lunch hour was up, not to mention her time in the one-hour zone, which could translate to a hundred-dollar fine. They parted with pats to the elbows, and she headed back to the office in time to start two new setups.
"Why can't I work the windows?" asked Logan irritably as she drove him home from after-school day care.
"Because on this car, only the driver can work the windows. The buttons are all up here."
"But some cars have handles."
She thought of saying something pedantic about safety but then followed a more practical impulse.
"Which kind of car would you rather have someday?"
"Handles," he shouted in mock anger, as he turned an imaginary crank.
She allowed herself a silent pat on the back. There were times she could wing it as a parent with perfect competence.
At home it was the familiar ritual: Logan's hamburger, her Lean Cuisine pepper loaf, his lunch for tomorrow, her lunch, his clothes, her clothes, and where the hell were those pictures of three household objects he was supposed to take to class on Wednesday?
With a sting of despair she realized there was little time left before bedtime, so she could wake up tomorrow and do it all again.
Dammit, where was her time? Where was leisure? Where was the time you got to look out the window at the moon and contemplate the view from its craters?
Gordon would like that thought; she was sure of it. She picked up the phone to call him but instantly slammed it down, determined not to get ahead of herself. And then it struck her. Had she heard what she thought she heard? She lifted the handpiece again. Yes. A dial tone. It hummed like the drone of benevolent insects, like the rhythm of a throbbing primordial mind.
The sound followed her to bed as the day's events passed in a tumble: staff meeting, voice mail, screen saver, pop-up menus, staff meeting, voice mail. She had survived another shift. A new relationship was in the air, something which hadn't happened for years. Her phone troubles seemed to be over. Logan had fallen asleep without problems. Her car was parked in a Monday zone, safe from the wrath of the street sweepers. It was a good day.