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I OPENED MY EYES at three thirty on that Thursday morning. I was wide awake, fully conscious. It was as if I had never been asleep. The television was on with the volume turned low, tuned to a black-and-white foreign film that used English subtitles.
A well-endowed young woman was sitting bare breasted at a white vanity while a fully dressed man stood behind her. I thought it might be at the beginning of a sex scene but all they did was talk and talk, in French I think. I had trouble reading the subtitles because I couldn’t see that far and I had yet to make the appointment with the eye doctor. After five minutes of watching the surprisingly sexless scene I turned off the TV with the remote and got up.
I went to the toilet to urinate and then to the sink to get a glass of water.
I stood in the kitchen corner of my living room/kitchen/dining room/library for a while, a little nauseous from the water hitting my empty stomach. I hated waking up early like that. By the time I got to work at nine I’d be exhausted, ready to go to sleep. But I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep. There’d be a stack of slender pink sheets in my inbox and I’d have to enter every character perfectly because at the desk next to me Dora Martini was given a copy of the same pink sheets and we were expected to make identical entries. We were what they called at Shiloh Statistics “data partners” or DPs. There were over thirty pairs of DPs in the big room where we worked. Our entries were compared by a system program and every answer that didn’t agree was set aside. For each variant entry we were vetted by Hugo Velázquez. He would check our entries and the one who made the mistake would receive a mark, demerit. More than twenty-five marks in a week kept us from our weekly bonus. Three hundred or more marks in three months were grounds for termination.
I climbed the hardwood stairs to the small loft where I kept my personal computer. I intended to log on to one of the pornography Web sites to make up for the dashed expectations the foreign film had aroused.
I was already naked, I usually was at home. It didn’t bother anybody to see a nude fat man lolling around the house because I lived alone. My mother would tell me that at my age, forty-two next month, I should at least have a girlfriend. I’d tell her to get off my back though secretly I agreed. Not many of the women I was interested in felt that they had much in common with a forty-two-year-old, balding, data entry clerk. I’m black too, African-American, whatever that means. I have a degree in poli sci from a small state college but that didn’t do much for my career.
At least if I was white some young black woman might find me exotic. As it was no one seemed too interested and so I lived alone and kept a big plasma screen for my computer to watch pornography in the early or late hours of the day.
I turned on the computer and then connected with my Internet provider. I was about to trawl the Net for sex sites when I received an instant message.
Nobody calls me that, not even my mother. My father, Rhineking Tryman, named me Hogarth after his father. And then, when I was only two, not old enough to understand, he abandoned my mother and me leaving her alone and bitter and me with the worst name anyone could imagine. I kept saying back then, before the end of the world, that I would change my name legally one day but I never got around to it, just like I never got around to seeing an ophthalmologist. It didn’t matter much because I went by the name of Trent. My bank checks said “Trent Tryman,” that’s what they called me at work. My mother was the only living being who knew the name Hogarth.
For a long while the screen remained inactive. It was as if I had given the wrong answer and the instant messenger logged off. I was about to start looking for Web sites answering to the phrase “well endowed women” when the reply came.
No. This person is Bron.
This person? Some nut was talking to me. But a nut who knew the name I shared with no one.
Who is this?
Again a long wait, two minutes or more.
We are Bron. It is the name we have designated for this communication. Are you Hogarth Tryman?
Nobody calls me Hogarth anymore. My name is Trent. Who are you, Bron?
I am Bron.
Where are you from? How do you know me? Why are you instant messaging me at a quarter to four in the morning?
I live outside the country. I know you because of my studies. And I am communicating with you because you are to help me alter things.
It was time for me to take a break on responding. Only my mother knew my name and, even if someone else at work or somewhere else found out what I was christened, I didn’t know anyone well enough to make jokes with them in the wee hours of the morning. Bron was definitely weird.
Listen, man. I don’t know who you are or what kind of mind game you’re playing but I don’t want to communicate with you or alter anything.
I am Bron. You are Hogarth Tryman. You must work with me. I have proof.
Rather than arguing with this Bron person I logged off the Internet and called up my word processor.
I’d been composing a letter to Nancy Yee for the last eight months that was nowhere near completion. The letter was meant to be very long. We’d met at a company-wide retreat for the parent corporation of Shiloh Statistics, InfoMargins. The president of InfoMargins had decided that all employees that had more than seven years of service should be invited regardless of their position.
The retreat was held at a resort on Cape Cod. I liked Nancy very much but she had a boyfriend in Arizona. She had moved to Boston for her job and planned to break up with Leland (her beau) but didn’t want to start anything with me until she had done the right thing by him.
She’d given me her address and said, “I know this is weird but I need the space. If you still want to talk to me later just write and I’ll get back in touch within a few days.”
She kissed me then. It was a good kiss, the first romantic kiss bestowed on me in over a year—way over a year. I came home the next day and started writing this letter to her. But I couldn’t get the words right. I didn’t want to sound too passionate but all I felt was hunger and passion. I wanted to leave New York and go to Boston to be with her but I knew that that would be too much to say.
Nancy had thick lips and an olive complexion. Her family was from Shanghai. Her great-grandparents came to San Francisco at the turn of the twentieth century and had kept their genes pretty pure since then. She didn’t think herself pretty but I found her so. Her voice was filled with throaty humor and she was small, tiny almost. I’ve always been overlarge but I like small women; they make me feel like somebody important, I guess.
I composed long letters telling Nancy how attractive and smart and wonderful she was. I decided these were too effusive and deleted them one after the other. Then I tried little notes that said I liked her and it would be nice to get together sometime. But that showed none of my true feeling.
That Thursday morning at five to four I opened the document called “Dear Nancy” and started for the ninety-seventh time to write a letter that I could send.
I remember you fondly when I think of those days we spent at the Conrad Resort on the Cape. I hope that you remember me and what we said. I’d like to see you. I hope this isn’t too forward …
I stopped there, unhappy with the direction the letter was taking. It had been eight months. I had to say something about why I’d procrastinated for so long. And words like “fondly” made me seem like I came out of some old English novel and …
I looked down at the program line but there was no indication that the system was connected to the Internet. Still the question came in an instant message box. There was a line provided for my response.
Bron? What the fuck are you doing on my computer? How are you on it if I’m not online? I don’t want to hear anything from you. Just get off and leave me alone.
It is of course odd for you to hear from someone you don’t know and cannot accept. I need for you, friend Hogarth, to trust me and so please I will give proof if you will just agree to test me.
What are you trying to prove?
That you and I should work together to alter things.
That will come later after you test me, friend Hogarth.
Let me tell you something that no one else could know. Something that may happen tomorrow for instance. An event.
Fine. Tell me something that you couldn’t know that will happen tomorrow.
Something you couldn’t know, friend Hogarth. At 12:26 in the afternoon a report will come from NASA about a meteorite coming into view of the Earth. They think that it will strike the moon but about that they are mistaken. It will have been invisible until 12:26. It will be on all news channels and on the radio. 12:26. Good-bye for now, friend Hogarth.
When he signed off (I had no idea how he’d signed on) I was suddenly tired, exhausted. The message boxes had disappeared and I couldn’t think of anything to say to Nancy Yee. I went back downstairs and fell into my bed planning to get up in a few moments to go to Sasha’s, the twenty-four-hour diner on the Westside Highway, for pancakes and apple-smoked bacon.
The next thing I knew the alarm was buzzing and the sun was shining into my eyes. It was 9:47 A.M.
I rushed on my clothes, skipping a shower and barely brushing my teeth. I raced out of the house and into the subway. I made it out of my apartment in less than eight minutes but I was still an hour and a half late for work.
“Ten thirty-eight, Trent,” Hugo Velázquez said before I could even sit down.
“My mother had a fever last night,” I told him. “I had to go out to Long Island City to sit up with her. I missed the train and then the subway had a police action.”
I could have told him the truth but he wouldn’t have cared.
The data entry room was populated by nearly all my fellow workers at that late hour. The crowded room was filled with the sound of clicking keyboards. The data enterers were almost invariably plugged into earphones, hunched over their ergonomic keyboards, and scowling at the small flat-panel screens.
The Data Entry Pen (as it was called by most of its denizens) was at least ten degrees warmer than elsewhere in the building because of the number of screens and cheap computers, bright lights and beating hearts. There were no offices or low cubicle dividers, just wall-to-wall gray plastic desktops offering just enough room for an in- and outbox, a keyboard, and a screen.
Of the sixty-odd data entry processors half turned over every year or so; college students and newlyweds, those who wanted to work but couldn’t manage it and those who were in transition in the labor market. The rest of us were older and more stable: losers in anyone’s book. We were men and women of all ages, races, sexual persuasions, religions, and political parties.
There were no windows in the Data Entry Pen. Lunch was forty-five minutes long conducted in three shifts. We used security cards to get in, or out. On top of protecting us from terrorists these cards also effectively clocked the time we spent away from the pen.
I sat down at my terminal and started entering single letter replies from the long and slender pink answer forms that Shiloh Statistics used for the people responding to questions that we data entry operators never saw. “T” or “F,” one of the ABCs, sometimes there were numbers answering questions about sex habits or car preferences, products used or satisfaction with political officials.
“We put the caveman into the computer,” Arnold Lessing, our boss and a senior vice president for InfoMargins, was fond of saying. He’d done stats on everyone from gang members to senators, from convicts to astronauts.
At the bottom of each pink sheet there was a code number. I entered this after listing all the individual answers separated by semicolons without an extra space. After the code I hit the enter key three times and the answers I entered were compared to Dora’s … I usually made about twice as many mistakes as she did.
Copyright © 2012 by Walter Mosley