Jul/Aug 2006  •   Fiction

Off the Bourgois Track

by Katherine L. Holmes

Art by Victor Ehikhamenor

Art by Victor Ehikhamenor

"There's a staple remover on the desk there where you'll be working. The paper clips are in the desk drawer. That's all you'll need."

Stacks of papers crammed the office and concealed the walls with more than a foot of soundproofing. They made pillars and balustrades of the metal shelves. Like coffee tables, claims marbled the open spaces. A dolly near the desk was piled with policies.

Marie, the supervisor, tapped it. "Work from here. We have to get the staples out of all the claims. We'll wheel it out and fill it again." Her voice was straggly.

"Should I keep them in any order?" Sara gazed into an eclipse of eye contact. No non-essential conversation. She had entered an insurance company, a building of rest home brick, for a two-week temporary assignment. Its peace had a makeshift security for Sara, reminiscent of an untroubled time and an unobtrusive paternal presence.

"Yes, in order, as they are," Marie's look seemed to need the grooming she had given her manicured fingernails and moisturized hands. It was dislike of the stupid situation, of Sara, that Sara would sit down to such a stupid situation. There wasn't any hint of humor in her.

In removing five staples, Sara had found how to wedge the staple remover in her upper palm. Her hand was now a pincer. And a half hour was like shambling across sand, a laborious accomplishment with her clumsy metal attachment.

Marie's voice flounced like curls now. She was talking on the telephone to a window view of sky swaths on glass above a French cafe.

Sara's view was a cartoon buckling under stiffened tape. A supercilious boss standing over a frazzle-faced employee saying, "You got an overdraft? Take two memos, stay in your chair, and drink lots of coffee."

Sure, she could do the staples, she had told the temporary agency. When she was failing financially at her own pursuits. Ahead loomed a chimerical coastline, so arduous for her to find she might as well be a Renaissance explorer without a map.

The temporary agencies were plaintive about their stretches without work, the recession.

Another gawk around the fantastically stacked room halted at Marie's eyes, snappish as paper clips. Blinding, she was telling about how her infant went from bawling to making funny burr sounds during his first car trip to their cabin. On her desk was a personal "Marie"-stippled mug.

The temporary job (crude compass) can be lost by asking too many questions, sidetracking questions such as those concerning coffee. Sara clenched her palm so she could feel her heartline. Grin and get a grip.

With each staple removed, Sara allowed an irrelevant thought. She is opening her check. Paper clip claim. She is docile in line at the bank, holding a sufficient deposit. Align metal claw. After a glissando to the downstairs utility room in her duplex, her rent check shimmers through a slot to an unseen envelope. Slide litter of staples to the side.

Pluck again. She could make a long distance call to Harvey, the storyteller she came to know at the fall Renaissance Fair where she had a tent with a puppet show. The risky Harvey was expecting her arrival at a summer camp. Put stack back on dolly. Next stack. She boards puppets into their traveling cases. Stewey the Stage driver and Etta whose father is sending her to marry a Parisian logging camp deserter after they crossed canters at a barn dance. He had a friend write his letters in English to Helene at her address. Clench staple and try a flicking movement as if reins are in the hand. She'd never have enough Bellows the Buffalo puppets to sell in town if she didn't get the little horns drilled and attached. Hook the lower fangs of the staple remover for less chewing.

"You mean there's a layover on that flight to Quebec?" Marie's curling voice began to wilt until it was level. "It's only for a long weekend. I'll drop by the agency this afternoon."

A file drawer whirred and then Marie came shooting around the dolly. She pulled at her nose until Sara retrieved a claim that had floated to the floor.

"We really have to keep pace on this project. I know it takes some agility, but you're going to have to gain some speed." Her eyes seemed to pick at Sara's second-hand scalloped blouse and her longish ruffled denim skirt. Marie wore pants, purposely and permanently crinkled, and a formidable malachite buckle matching her nesty-knit jacket.

"I've just been finding the best angle for pulling up the staple," Sara said, showing that with a flick of her implement.

"I wish it would all disappear." Marie's fisted coffee and her hennaed head went though the doorway.

All meant Sara, too. She tried to pluck at a pulse for Marie. Marie, the name of her old steady's wife. Slide claim away. Grasp next staple in stack. She'd have to ask Harvey when his camp will pay her the promised summer stipend.

She could look around to see it was 10:27, past the usual break time. And to see a man making clunky surface contact, as if his body was hollow, had appeared behind the cart. His age was difficult to discern, and that made him immediately interesting. Elastic, roseate, his facial skin made her think of mass produced dolls. Two bald spots above his forehead were reminiscent of sunglasses set back on the crown. He wore a warm maroon suit.

"Well, who have we here?" he asked in an auctioneer-quick voice.

"Sharie," Marie replied, coming in behind him.

No matter. Don't contradict the customer. Especially while Marie's pen was saluting this personage who was not a company crank.

"I hope to have this room emptied of hard copy before I leave for Quebec, Rufus."

Rufus smiled at Sara and said, "Do you know where the coffee maker is?"

"A quarter a cup," Marie mentioned, her tone even as a ledger.

After three narrow hallways, Sara saw the smokestack-shaped coffee maker.

"We got into a predicament with the claims clerical staff on the subject of staples. So we brought you in for the staple removing step. Think you'll be able to handle it?"

"Those stacks are traveling money to me, Mr..." The temporary maintains a reassuring aspect.

"Look for me if the walls begin to cave in." Rufus clunked off into an unfamiliar passageway.


Day 2

Marie had a small supply of hospitality for Sara. "Are you new to the city or between things? Saving up for something?" She rippled like rickrack in her pleasantries and approved of Sara's pants. They featured a fringe wafting along the outer seams.

Sara did have a life other than removing staples. "I'm trying to make enough to stay at a lake cabin for a few months this summer. The shop I used to work at went out of business."

As long as the temporary is vague and doesn't divulge personal issues, there is the mystique that office miracles might be performed. The storytelling camp director, the workshops set up with him were best left corked in the flask, wherever she had come from. Due regards had to be given the pillars of insurance policies, what Marie stood for and couldn't leave so easily.

"That sounds like respite from the city's swelter. It reminds me." Marie soon had her infant's caregiver on the telephone and was discussing air conditioning at night during Marie's Quebec vacation.

The paramount present: tweezing staples as if they were pearls in clams while Marie was in the room; resting her hand when Marie left the room. Sourly, Sara bent her knuckles into the cramp that made her clumsy when she worked on her puppets at night. Last night, she had practiced voice-throwing instead—Etta's father calling a barn dance in a voice like Rufus's.

But her thoughts, not called to duty now, had the leisure of the beach. She envisioned Harvey watching her show. Stewey the Stage driver, during a stew supper and buffalo buffoonery, realizes he is eloping with Etta, the mail order bride. Her shaved lumberjack didn't recognize her at the stage stop he had mispronounced.

Sara snickered a little while she swept staples off of her desk.

Marie was watching her, her lips a straight-edge, and then she pushed the dolly into the hallway.

Sara had a puppet with a polka-dotted face. She might make others, a colony of characters discovered to have evolved in a rainy climate, freckled as she once was, and web-toed.

"Really, can't you speed it up?" Marie goaded her, having returned with the dolly.

What was Marie naturally, nice or nasty? Was her hair naturally auburn or what? Sara channeled her own grimace to the lifeline of her hand. She jabbed at the papers with rhythm and flair. The job was becoming tolerable. Shucking mounds of corn, de-eyeing potatoes, hemming without telephones or typing or interruptions.

Still, the whole heap, a roadblock in her plans, seemed like a required lesson. She was being tormented by a claim of several years despite its being transferred like a life insurance claim. Yep, instead of being reduced to removing staples for a living on beans and peanut butter, she might have worked it out with him, signed his policy and soaked in mortgage contracts, guarantees on cars and birth deliveries, her plans set for the next decade.

Hapless puppet otherwise, compelled to wander into her past, up the ledges of her hometown and college to work afterwards, reached with a pair of towlines. The pulling of one upward, the staking of one onward.

She had found a straw hat with a lavender sash for her Laura Ashley dress. He had a new hat, too, one with a deer hide band matching the leather garter on his arm and the leather laces she tied at his collar. Their garb was for another wedding, and wearing it gave the finishing touches to furnishing his new place. He bagged his first birdie in it.

Of course the birdie landing in the wall net didn't tilt his pinball machine, the Mongol and Norsemen chess set, the checkers on the cafe tablecloth, the mounted collection of playing cards, the shuffleboard rug, or the computer tennis game. His toads leapt a little, limbering for the people coming over.

It was a stage set for destruction. Within months, the Great Khan would be missing, the toads skittery, the computer denying access to the tennis court, the pinball spring lackadaisical, and the curiosity of the friends quenched. They would be sitting around in T-shirts perusing warranties.

And then there would be another wedding, another place.

For the sort of man he was, her attention to him was as critical as if they were climbing bluffs; she had to wait at each ledge, matching her movements to his. And then they were facing an unforeseen plain, the future, and their venture was over in the abrupt way they had fallen in love. They might as well detach the rope lines.

For him, that moment must have occurred the day he came in early from work with a friend. It was Friday and she was under the swelled bubble of her hairdryer, getting ready to spill champagne on his new kitchen counter. He yelled, "Tow it out of the living room!" Then she revealed her rag curlers, an experiment she was planning in miniature for her puppets.

The moment for her came just after he called her from making stroganoff—stew, he termed it.

He and his friend were playing chess. All the pawns were in rag diapers and safety pins; so was a toad, reduced to crawls on the shuffleboard rug. Before she left, the rag curlers were burnt in the fireplace and a chess castle was scorched. She still had an antique deck of playing cards with bicycles built for two.

A few years later, she received a Christmas card from him saying he was engaged to a Marie: she had naturally curly hair and she kept game rules and warranties in files. Keep those cards.

Plucking with her pincer, Sara estimated days by the stacks of policies in the room. The insurance company's Marie had her husband on the telephone. "You'll have to take off at noon that Friday. Tell them the other flights are filled. Or should I get single seats on different flights?" Her sentence suddenly flipped up at the end.

The stage of the Good Life. A man comes home from work, off the wall where he picked at paperwork day after day. He relieves the cramp in his mind with reveries of wandering around Montreal in search of a game with French explorers in it. He plays Bridge one or two nights a week, poker on a third night, and golf on Saturday afternoon. His children stand to inherit an attic of games. In The Good Life, not always a mundane drama, the puppets have policies insuring their stage, claims against their destructions.

On this stage, the freedom Sara had chosen was foolhardiness.

She could always apply for a library science program.

Milo Bagholm. Charles Barncard. Harlow Bangs. Edward Basking. Herbert Blaha. They had put money on their lives, on their cars, on their health, on their homes. It was so nobody they knew would have to pull out staples for a living, whatever the inclemency, whatever got wrecked.


Day 3

Were staple removers designed as ambidextrous instruments? Sara tried pulling out a staple with her left hand. The night before, her right hand felt as if it was made of papier-mache, except at her lifeline where she had sporadic pangs. There were still buffalo without horns.

What could Marie expect?

"You've really got to keep pace," she prodded.

"You could call the temporary agency for a second worker if it looks like it might not get done in time," Sara suggested.

"I could call for someone fresh," was Marie's smooth rejoinder.

"Why don't you scissor off the corners with the staples?" Sara attempted to divert Marie.

"Because the papers probably wouldn't feed into the copier," Marie replied.

Sara could map out Marie's next moves. She would call the agency with an inventive complaint: that Sara didn't have the manual dexterity for the job. The agency would swiftly send another worker, dropping Sara lower on their list. She couldn't express to Marie how much she needed the money.

Marie's sighs spattered Sara like muddy water at bus stops. Then she ripped computer paper from her printer, lurched around her desk, and made her metal drawers skid. Next she called her husband to say she might be needing medication for a migraine. Could he pick up their infant? The phone clattered to its cradle.

De-eying potatoes, shucking corn, hemming. Sara pulled peaceably at her post with the conviction that, with a soaking of Epsom salts every night, she could remove staples for seven more days. Over a weekend, she could count on a check for her rent and transportation to her summer engagement.

In her mind, she kept clipping a piece of information with each claim: she hadn't chosen the long term boyfriend whom she didn't marry. He had persevered in a mating game in which the man chose. She had seldom gotten to do the choosing.

During an early lunch, Sara roved the halls without finding where Rufus was stationed. She meandered into an empty women's bathroom and prepared her last recourse. Rufus's voice. She had been throwing his voice, tenor tones in an auctioneer's cadence, for the last three nights. In the bathroom while the insurance employees were at their desks, she tried running his words while emphasizing certain phrases. With a migraine coming on, Marie's hearing might be about that of a person wearing a helmet. She needed some reassurance.

No one was even near the corridor where Marie understandably had an office alone. Sara stood at the wall adjacent to the doorway and, hearing Marie tapping at her terminal, performed.

Rufus: How's it going with the staples?

Sara: Oh, pretty well.

Rufus: At the rate you're going, you'll clear that room soon enough. Good job. Keep it up.

Marie's chin was jacked up at her desk and she had a self-satisfied smile, acknowledging Sara's entrance.

The stirrings of success.

Sara's sights had gone beyond her steam shovel movements with the mounds of papers. The last weekend of the Renaissance Fair, Harvey moved his storytelling near her tent where they alternated stories with puppet shows. Once while Stewey was driving his stagecoach, Harvey changed costumes in her booth and the tools he carried with his explorer character began ringing. The audience thought it was part of the act. She improvised a peddler stowing on the stagecoach; then Harvey improvised Bellows the Buffalo wearing a cowbell after Indians regaled him. After three months, what were Harvey's motives in asking her to that camp? Lower, pull up, shove staple aside, stack. Her arm really did operate like a steam shovel crane. She couldn't think past the office pit that was anathema to Harvey. She had her superstitions.

Afternoon actually passed, and after break, the real Rufus stepped in. When he asked how things were going, Sara answered blithely. She was pleased that she had gotten Rufus's phrasing right.

"Marie, magic has happened. The filing clerks have backed down. They said they would remove the staples one last time. So you're relieved after today, Sharie."

"Finish out the day if you like, and answer my phone, would you? Rufus, I must leave early. Maybe my migraine will be gone by tomorrow now." Marie's smile went wispy.

After Marie left, Sara called her agency.

"We thought that would last a few weeks, Sara. You're on the waiting list now. A long one. It's been slow."

Sara ruminated through the policies, having to choose. Either she would go to her camp stint without paying rent and write her landlord an explanatory letter, or she would pay rent and forego the camp and the workshops since the stipend was modest. She saw she was tearing at the sage game board of the claim holders. On assignments with other temporaries, some whispered about misfiling for tyrants. She channeled each grimace, each flare of anxiety, and each stagy rage through her pained palm, shredding the creed of paternal payment in every crisis. These people hadn't kept their word with her; they were preventing her life.

She had actually chosen Harvey. She realized when they walked through the Renaissance Fair's stockpile of hay to recline near a stand of Lombardy poplars. They had finished duck drumsticks, and he had been telling her about the rebuffs and renunciations in his life, how he had to go on a week's trek to locate a college professor he had only seen on video. Concealed in the blaze-high grass, she trusted him for asking the video camera operators at his school performances what they had seen on their way to work, and when they stammered, asked the children if they knew what their parents saw on the way to work.

He was wearing his Joliet French explorer get-up when the Fair's night policemen, dim and peppery as television figures, came pacing the thoroughfare to check identity tags. They pranced the darkened grids of the human chessboard, making knight turnabouts that caused Sara to laugh. She didn't have the authorization to sleep in her fair tent, and the unlucky Joliet's papers were all catapulted from his canoe. As they were leaving, she saw send-offs and provisional places because he did not attach lines. He ambled onto the immense prairie.

He might be at the next Renaissance Fair.

There might be more staple removing.

What if he hadn't really chosen her? As if she had a choice about some of her belongings becoming jetsam when she moved necessities into a U-Haul.

Marie's telephone rang.

Overboard would go her city possessions. Sara flung a stack of papers onto the dolly and shoved it aside as she forged to Marie's desk.

"Sharie, I mean Sara, did my husband call this afternoon?"

Marie's voice was curling, and Sara was clasping her palm over the phone's mouthpiece because she was watching a landslide. The dolly had hit empty shelves, which were buckling forward while the full ones spouted papers into the pillars that had begun collapsing all over the floor. The claims from the cart had spilled behind the empty shelves.

"No, he didn't," Sara said, funneling her voice into the mouthpiece.

Then she heard Marie in her flat office voice. "It's almost 4:30. Just leave the dolly as it is."

They understood about accidents, chanced it with sickness, prepared for untimely ends.