Jun/Jul 1998  •   Fiction

Temporary Finally

by Katie Howenstine

The office has no outside air circulating in it. There is no pretense of the possibility of opening windows, they are all fitted glass with no hinges. At the entrance to the building there is a small plaque that says "This building contains carcinogenic materials and possible materials harmful to reproductive health." The plaque is tiny.

People march in and ride up twenty two flights of stairs knowing where they belong. Women with mustaches go straight to the mail room on the third floor please. White men in suits go on up to the top floor for your complimentary continental breakfast, corner office, and one attractive secretary of your choosing. Chicano men go straight to the loading docks and lift with your knees, not your back. Temps fill in the cracks, step into the seems and smooth over all rough edges, any floor please.

The security guard in the elevator, Asian, male, prone to eyeliner, sometimes is extremely happy and the rest of the time sullen.

On one of his good days Chris asks, "You real happy today?"

"Yeah," he grins , "wanna know why-"



"Nice." Chris says and they both giggle.

Every morning Chris adds paper to the copy machines and gets large shocks.


"I love the shocks", one of the secretaries says "they wake me up."


On her first day there a young guy approached her.

"You temp?"


"Me too. I've been here ten months."

"And you're still a temp" she asks, "for all that time?"

"Yep, they'll try to get you to do the same." he leans over to Chris and whispers, "It's real great. At Christmas time we don't get any time off and if there is a meeting for our department we get to go but have to take notes and aren't allowed to talk." His words slide past partitions and plush carpet into her sad ears.

Every morning Chris hole punches every single piece of paper that needs to be filed that day. With an electric hole punch. It takes two hours. Buzz, click click. Buzz, click click.

Every night Chris bikes home wondering at her life how did I get here? When is my real life going to start? If I'm destined for something great, when is all that going to happen?

Boredom comes and boredom goes Monday through Friday. Chris tries to do weird things at work to pass the time and to make her own underground world larger. She goes to the bathroom at least eight times a day and steals toilet paper. On her key ring is a cross shaped key that will open almost any toilet paper dispenser. It's a secret where she got it. She also calls all the lawyers by their first names and are chummy with them, watching their aghast expressions at the breach of hierarchy. And of course she calls her long distant friends just to chat. There is no fear of someone reprimanding her because it doesn't matter, she doesn't really work here.

"So you're back again for another week Christine, you have lasted longer then most temps, you must be harder up." says the computer systems man who has a definite air of molester about him.

"Yeah, it's Chris actually, it's not so bad here." She looks away hoping he will disappear.

"You're too new to know the politics of this office. You can just sit back and not worry about anything." He has recently been passed up for a promotion because he knows almost nothing about computers and probably because of the molester energy too. Even Chris knows this.

"Hmm yeah." She hopes the phone will ring.

"There is something about you that makes me feel very old." he stares with ugly eyes.

"Well, you are probably thirty years older then me, that might be it." she smiles at him, dazzling with hard teeth while the phone refuses to ring.


"Hi snooks, how was work" Sam asks.

"Mostly I filed and copied and mailed but I did half a big Sunday crossword too. I hung up on accident on a lawyer who called back and yelled at me. Joe showed me the new web site for Aliens 4 and Siggy looked really amazing. I think I am getting poisoned from the copy machines."

Chris tries to find something too eat. She finds two rotten bananas, some weird smelling rice and a half smoked cigar. A cigar? "Can a girl get something to eat around here"


"Another temp was hired today, he seems nice but doesn't know much English and the English he knows is all about southern California."

"Cool dude."

"Yeah, and I kept on giggling when he talked, I hope he didn't take it wrong. This is the third job that he works. He doesn't get a day off ever."


"Also today I fantasized staging a 'take this job and shove it' scene at work but I don't have the guts and I need the job. I wish I was independently wealthy."

"Me too, you could buy us food." Sam says, staring forlornly at the bananas.

"I don't know if I will ever be able to quit there. It's so numbing.."

"I'll help you come up with a plan."

"Thanks oh knight in shining armor."

"Exactly." Sam says and hugs Chris tightly.


On Monday there is a fire drill in the afternoon. All the people on the seventh floor go down to the third floor, people on the ninth floor move down to the sixth floor. What about people on the 22nd floor? They go down to the 19th floor. "Wouldn't we want to try to get out of the building if there was a fire?"

"No, they need to count us."

An uptight lawyer leads secretaries and copy girls downstairs. He opens the door and then bounds manic down the stairs so he can be first to get to the next door to open it for the women. He kicks one secretary on accident, in his hurry. He doesn't say sorry.

"This is the first time I've ever been on the stairs" Chris says.

Normally, you can only use the elevators to get between floors.

"One time, well I was on a diet and I tried to use the stairs," her boss says "and a voice immediately yelled at me. 'I can see you get off the stairs immediately. Get off the stairs immediately'. I felt so guilty, but also like some exotic James Bond girl."

"Wow" Chris says, "It's like we are already in the future."


Chris comes home to Sam folding laundry that is all light blue.

"Oh dear, I told you."

"I know, I just hate separating. I never did my own laundry until college my house being the feminist utopia, and then it was like woah, separating by color? Desegregation has to start at home."

"Hi Sam."

"Hi Chris, I think this shirt looks better."

"Except the stains." They are quite a dark blue now. You can't really get attached to things with Sam around. He wrecks everything, but also makes everything better.

"How's my little temp girl?"

"Tired and disillusioned. There were free doughnuts at work and I ate too many" Chris says.

"Ouch, talk about corporate corruption."

"I don't even like doughnuts. You look beautiful."

"Thanks" Sam says, and looks pleased with himself sitting in a pile of blue laundry.

After the first month their secretaries are confiding in Chris left and right. Weird things that Chris did not know could be true for middle aged people. Chris serves time as the quiet girl who can be filled up and not join the gossip circuit because she's too new and too precariously employed.


"I cheated on my diet last night and ate a bunch of fried chicken but I'm bulimic so it's really not that bad."

"Oh, that's so bad for you, do you know how bad that is for you?" Chris stares at the chubby woman, imagining fried chicken.

"It's all propaganda honey, you just have to brush your teeth afterwards and laugh at the life God gives you."



"All my friends are becoming lesbians, is that a normal thing for forty year old women? Should I be feeling this? My husband makes fun of them."


"And I love him but a mean voice inside me says you just wait and see darling, wait and see, but where am I going to meet a lesbian?"

"How about all your friends?" Chris asks.

"No, I need a really butch woman, that's the term right?"


"I like to pop zits, don't you?"

"Well, sort of yeah." Chris squirms in her chair.

"My son is fifteen and I pretend I am doing him a dermatological favor but really I am scarring his face for life in the name of a little pus squirt."

"Ouch. That's awful."

"Yeah, and a little sexual too."

"Oh definitely."

Chris sits there listening caught between being completely enthralled and extremely uncomfortable. There are whole unexplored worlds on this earth, who needs outer space.


On a Wednesday coming to work the elevator breaks and there is another temp and a lawyer stuck in a small space dangling above the rainy city.

"No no no." goes the lawyer

"I don't like small spaces at all especially ones suspended in the air by thin metal cords" the other temp says.

"We still get paid for this right. I mean we are in the building." Chris says, and feels happy, hell, at least it's a change of pace.

"I've got to get it out of here by nine." says the lawyer.

"It?" The temp asks.

"My subpoena."

"Your subpoena!" The temp laughs like it's a penis joke. Chris giggles along.


"Sam, I was thinking today how I'm more of a catch then you" Chris says, picking at a scab on her face.

"Oops, you mean the other way around." Sam grabs her hand. Chris wriggles away and picks her scab more.

"No, you know how I am harder to be in a relationship with then you, and I am pickier, that means it's harder to catch me. And you, every girl enchants you. You're like tuna, so easy."

"No, because I'm easy and nice and real delicious. I'm endangered and sought after." He sits on the bed and wills Chris to stop picking at her face. Please oh please oh please I think I am going to throwup if you don't stop.

Sam says, "Your inner fish is some spiky thing that is all dangerous and mean and pretty."

"No trophy fish though, I mean, I don't sit on big macho men's walls."

"What does that make me?" Sam asks.

"I don't sit on your wall. Anyone's wall. Jesus."


"Do you think that just because I work for the man I am a trophy fish now?"

"No", Sam looks down.

"Jesus, I'm not selling out I'm just working there until I figure things out okay?" Chris glares at Sam. He hugs her.


Every lunch Chris crosses the street to Snow park, a corporate park, motley crewed with homeless men, dog walkers, and golf putters huddled in a small round of short grass and golf holes. She unpacks her lunch from old plastic yogurt containers and sometimes it's spaghetti with tofu balls and sometimes it's nutritional yeast quesadillas. Yum.

She eats there every day and reads and smokes one cigarette. One cigarette can't be harmful can it? She lied at her last gynecological exam because she couldn't bear the disappointed face of the doctor if she had told the truth.

When she first started to eat here she would feed seagulls and squirrel her scraps. Immediately swarms from on high would surround her and she would sit in the eye of a storm of hungry angry animals. Staring staring with eyes that knew all her secrets. Seagulls with mangled feet and stories that would make a grown man cry lunged at her head. Squirrels with balls the size of their legs stand up tall and hiss. When she tries to shoo them away they think it's lunch time and move in for the kill.

I'll just sit here and not move I guess Chris thinks, pretend I am somewhere else.


"Hi lovey."

"Hi lovey, you looked worked over."

"I am," Chris says, " over and over. I just sat around all day feeling angry and helpless."

"Ouch, I made lasagna." Sam says, wanting praise.

"Thanks. I need a vacation."

"What else?"

"That's all." Chris says and starts to cry. "Oh, I need a life too.

There's that too."


Oh lord. If I breathe every five seconds I will not have to breathe as many fumes from the copy machines and I might not get cancer. In, one, two three, four, five, out breathe. Inhales, waits, exhales. Say it, say it, there are worse jobs and worse places. Oh god, I can feel it, this place is making me chubby and pasty and mean, Chris thinks, I am growing diseases in my tits and getting stupider by the minute. I'm shrinking. Oh, God, I just have to breathe. In, wait, out. I've got to remember this as something funny to tell Sam. I've got to think myself outside of here and then walk outside and still find all my vital parts intact. I am stuck in this cubicle. Is there a reason to go home early? There is no reason. Chris feels panicked and thinks if she can come up with any lie about something to go home early.

"Oh shit." She whispers, get me out of here. All the weight of corporate boredom and complacency weigh down on her. I'm just a temp Chris thinks, I'm just a temp I don't really work here, I don't have to stay I just temp. Chris stands up and the decision is made.

On her way out two secretaries are talking about their favorite Slimfast diets. Chris walks by hurriedly and holds her breath, hoping, again that it's not all catching, that thirty years will not go by like this.

"Slimfast with crushed ice or Slimfast with Starbuck's coffee or Slimfast ultra versus Slimfast regular?"

"Ultra tastes less chalky but it has ten more calories."

"I have gone on a complete Slimfast diet instead of just twice a day and I think it's working. I know they say not to, but sometimes you have to break the rules in this crazy world."

Chris leaves.