Read an Excerpt
TEMPORARY STORIES (Chapter 1)
One day, early in her life as a temporary employee, the Agency called with a new assignment for Clarissa Snow. It was a long-term job, eight to twelve weeks. But it was phone work, and Clarissa Snow was not a phone person. “We know that, of course,” said Mrs. Delahanty, her Placement Counselor at the Agency. “But we’re in a pickle with this one, and we could sure use your help! You’re our best girl. You know that, don’t you?” She did know that. “And you can say no if you want,” Mrs. D. told her. “You know that, too, don’t you?” She knew that, too. But she also knew never to say no to an assignment. For while the mechanisms of temporary employment were a black box to her, its laws were simple and unforgiving. If you ever said no, you never worked again.
A receptionist in the Human Resources Office of the county hospital had quit without notice, and they needed someone to fill in. On Clarissa Snow’s first day, the other receptionist went over the Human Resources Office phone protocol: Always answer before the third ring; always answer with either “Good morning!” or “Good afternoon!” followed by the institution name, the office name, your name, a brief pause, and then “How may I help you?”; always ask the caller’s permission before putting the caller on hold; never keep the caller on hold for more than two minutes; after two minutes, always check back to ask if the caller minds being on hold; and so on. The other receptionist ticked off each procedure on her fingers while Clarissa Snow took notes. The other receptionist was a very large woman who confided to everyone, without anyone’s asking, that her largeness did not bother her. “Yes, I’m fat!” were the first words she said to Clarissa Snow. “And proud of it!” she added proudly. She took the phone protocol very seriously and spoke of it with meaningful pauses to convey that seriousness. “We are,” she said, “representatives— … of this institution. We provide— … service. And that— … is our mission.” Clarissa Snow nodded. “Representatives,” she wrote in her notepad. “Mission,” she added, and then, in double underline, “Service.”
The two of them worked in the Human Resources lobby, within a circular counter situated in the middle of a low-ceilinged, windowless room with recessed fluorescent lighting, dusty potted plants, and the oil portraits of hospital benefactors bolted to its walls. There were twenty-one chairs arranged in three semicircular rows facing one quadrant of the counter, and twenty-one clipboards with twenty-one pens attached to them by twenty-one tiny chains. And every day, from eight to five, there were twenty-one applicants rocking and fidgeting in these chairs, filling out job forms. Upon this beige-carpeted sea of employment anxiety, the other receptionist captained an efficient little ship of mission and service, gliding from computer to printer, from fax machine to phone console in her wheeled chair, which she steered expertly with her tiny feet. She could complete any task and offer any assistance without ever getting out of this chair. She could answer any question put to her and never move faster than was just necessary for whatever crisis was at hand. Clarissa Snow often caught herself staring in openmouthed awe at this woman, who spun chaos into order while turning placidly within her circular domain. She was like a twister in reverse, gliding cows into their pastures and floating roofs down upon houses.
There were eight phone lines at the reception desk, and they never stopped ringing, and Clarissa Snow’s job was to answer them. On her first day, she said “I don’t know” to so many callers that the other receptionist referred to her as the I Don’t Know Girl. “Just give them to me,” she said gaily. “Just give them all to me until you get the hang.” And as the morning progressed, so did Clarissa Snow. For some questions she consulted the Learned One, the other receptionist’s pet name for the Employment Bulletin, a black, half-foot-thick duct-taped ring binder of job listings for the entire county hospital system. Handling these calls was as easy as looking up a word in a dictionary and reading a definition into the phone. For questions that the Learned One could not handle and the I Don’t Know Girl could not yet possibly know—which schools offered EMT certification, for instance; or whether they would be hiring occupational therapists in the near future; or what the lunch special in the cafeteria was—for these questions, Clarissa Snow put the callers on hold, for no longer than two minutes, and gave them to the other receptionist, who—while simultaneously coding an applicant’s job forms or proofreading copy hot off the fax machine—took each call in turn, nodded with equal gravity to each query, and answered immediately: Northpoint College, possibly next month, and Cajun chicken with garlic mashed potatoes. Clarissa Snow noted the correct answers and eventually got the hang of these calls as well. “My, my,” the other receptionist said to her just before the lunch hour. “We’ll need to find another nickname for you, won’t we?” Clarissa Snow beamed as she left the lobby for lunch. The benefactors on the wall—a high gloss in their pink cheeks—seemed to beam after her.
O hubris of the temporary employee! For that very afternoon Clarissa Snow received a series of phone calls for which she was completely unprepared. “So,” began a woman on Line Six. “Do you think I should apply for this position to get my foot in the door and take the chance of getting stuck in a dead-end job? Or should I risk waiting for the job I really want to come up, which could possibly be never?” “Tell me,” Line Three implored. “Tell me I haven’t missed the application deadline for the job in Medical Records. Please, please, please. Please tell me that.” “Guess where I’m sleeping,” Line Four began. “Okay, I’ll tell you. I’m sleeping on my brother-in-law’s living room sofa. I’m a forty-four-year-old man sleeping on my brother-in-law’s living room sofa, and if I don’t get a job by the end of the month, the punk is going to toss me out on my ass.” “I see,” Clarissa Snow said. (What else could she say?) She was, by the end of the day, distressed and befuddled. But the other receptionist was encouraging. “A good day’s work,” she told her as they locked the lobby doors. And Clarissa Snow was comforted.
The next day was worse. One caller with questions about openings in Occupational Therapy proceeded to tell her about his messy divorce from “that bitch.” (Later that week, a woman would call and discuss her divorce from “that bastard,” leaving Clarissa Snow to ponder the coincidence.) A woman calling from a pay phone near some sort of major traffic artery shouted absurdly generic questions about employment—“What kind of work do you have! How much do you pay!”—then abruptly asked if you had to skip a meal, which one would you skip? An ex-priest struggling to get back into the job market confessed, with quivering voice, that he was scared. And there were more such as these, caller after caller who took Clarissa Snow’s rote offer of help and service too readily to heart; who begged her for work and pumped her for advice; who shared more than she needed or wanted to know about themselves, and without warning sent her sprawling into the intimate muck of their lives, clutching at her simply because she was the one who picked up the phone.
The other receptionist, of course, handled these calls expertly. She had an answer for everyone. Platitudes bubbled out of her as if from a ceaseless wellspring of benign concern. “That field is very promising. And that kind of work can’t be replaced by a machine, you know.” Or, “Well, breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Breakfast is definitely a keeper.” Or, “These are difficult times, darn it! But try back in the spring. Things always come up in the spring!” She nodded appreciatively, uh-huhed understandingly, then blissfully reeled off whatever cliché popped into her head.
By the end of her second day, Clarissa Snow had the jitters. And by the end of Week One of her eight-to-twelve-week assignment, she had developed an eczema rash on her neck and arms. She was popping aspirin like breath mints. Her hands would not stop shaking. Her bus ride to work in the mornings felt like the Bus Ride of Doom, her mind racing in loops of dread of the day to come. And out of this heat of her frenzied anxiety came the Jobless Beast, the coalescence of all callers: a large, sad, hulking thing that lived only to forage for employment; that slept in its car under freeways at night and emerged by day to make calls from pay phones; that loped from Human Resources Office to Human Resources Office, presenting itself with an awkward smile and a jocular tone edged with desperation, stooped and cramped from its hunger for work, for any morsel or crumb that Clarissa Snow had to offer, crying out to her, I’ll do anything, I’ll do anything, just help me, please. Why me? Why me? she implored the Beast in her mind. Because, the Beast implored back, because you answer the phone.
Her lunch hours, once easeful respites from the office, were now taken up with escape maneuvers from the Beast. She trekked as far from the hospital grounds as possible, hoping the malign presence of the Jobless Beast would diminish. It did, a little. She found scant relief at whatever bench or stoop would accommodate her, where she managed to eat her lunch: several raw brussels sprouts, a slice of apple on a bagel, a fistful of toasted soy nuts. An hour later she was back at her station behind the phone console. And after just a few calls her gut would begin to fill with a sadness so bloating that whatever she had managed to get down her throat at lunch would come right back up by afternoon break. As she dashed for the bathroom, the hospital benefactors regarded her from their ornate, theft-proof frames with undisguised pity.
Midway into Week Two, Clarissa Snow had spoken to a lonely retiree looking for part-time clerical work—“Anything!” he laughed—who kept her on the phone for twenty minutes; to a recently laid-off medical transcriptionist whose wrist tendons had been surgically severed to alleviate her pain; and to a man who wept that he had been looking for a job for two and a half years. “I’m sorry,” Clarissa Snow began whispering into her mouthpiece, “but I can’t help you. I’m just the receptionist.” At which point many of her callers said, “Let me talk to the other one, then.” They did this so frequently that the other receptionist had a little chat with her.
“How do you do it?” Clarissa Snow pleaded. “How do you talk to them? Nobody can help these people.”
“But they have no one else to call,” the other receptionist said. And then, more firmly: “We— … are the department of last resort. This— … is Human Resources.” Clarissa Snow nodded wearily. “Human Resources,” she wrote in her notepad. And under that, “Last Resort.”
For the rest of that morning Clarissa Snow made a fragile alliance with the tenets of mission and service that her job demanded. “Well, military service may be a viable job option,” she told one caller, “but is it the option for you?” “No,” she told another, “I don’t think a second opinion is always necessary, although it can sometimes be necessary.” “Yes,” she agreed with another, “divorce is a tough row to hoe, isn’t it?” For a while at least, she was getting the hang. It did not last.
“Can you help me?” Line Two said. “Because, you see, I’m at my wit’s end here.” It was a woman’s voice, flat and uninflected. It came from a pure, dead silence, without background noise of any kind, and it gripped Clarissa Snow’s innards like a fist. “So I was wondering,” the voice continued. “I was wondering if you could help me. Because, you see, you’re my last hope.” Clarissa Snow shuddered. The buttons on the phone console winked at her. She quietly slipped the handset into its cradle and told the other receptionist that she was leaving a little early for lunch.
Outside, it was high noon in midsummer. The air was thick, and you could see the heat moving through it, rising visibly off the pavement, corrugating everything in the distance, and lending to the concrete-and-steel permanence of high-rises and overpasses a disconcerting waviness. It was a sweltering day, an unbearable day, but a day borne nonetheless. Lunchtime throngs swarmed the sunlit streets in search of food. Clarissa Snow zigged and zagged among them.
From a pay phone in front of a mini-mart four blocks away, she called her Placement Counselor. While on hold, she pulled out a cigarette; she’d started smoking again. Her hand shook as she lit it. “Now, now,” Mrs. D. told her when she came on the line. “I want you to get a grip. Get a grip and tell me all about it.” Clarissa Snow begged for a new assignment—anything, anywhere, she didn’t care. “Why, of course, dear,” Mrs. D. said. “I can do that. I can do that for you. But you see—” And from the modulations and pauses in Mrs. D.’s voice, Clarissa Snow knew that she, too, was lighting a cigarette, pausing now to draw the smoke into her lungs. Clarissa Snow inhaled with her. “You see, that puts us in quite a pickle.” She was their best girl, Mrs. D. said, their cream of the cream, and what would it look like if their cream of the cream curdled on an assignment? Then she wouldn’t be their best girl anymore, would she? No, Clarissa Snow had to agree, she sure wouldn’t. She dropped her cigarette on the ground and stepped on it. She thanked Mrs. D. for the pep talk and hung up.
A bank of tall, narrow trees stood along the edge of the mini-mart parking lot. Their topmost leaves shimmered in the sun, and Clarissa Snow—for sheer want of knowing what to do next—stood peering up at them as if they were her last hope. She then searched her bag for another coin, dropped it into the pay phone, and made another call. She was briefly put on hold. And when the other receptionist thanked her for holding and asked how she might help her, Clarissa Snow told her everything.
Autumn in the city was crisp and clear and bright. It was a time of year when the windows in the high-rises flamed yellow-gold and the sunlight burnished every reflective surface to a painful gloss: the marble columns and cornices of building exteriors, trolley wires and turnstiles and door pulls, the brass filigrees on handrails and drinking fountains and trash receptacles. Windshields of passing vehicles flashed like gunfire, and broken bottles glittered in the street. The air was scattered with needles of light that made Clarissa Snow squint.
She was sent on a four-week assignment to an insurance company. Her job was to type and edit a Secret Report for the Executive Vice President, and this was her routine. At 8:00 a.m. she took the elevator to the Claims Unit on the twelfth floor and unlocked the door to an office that had been converted to file storage. Sagging boxes filled the room, leaning in precarious columns against the walls and each other. Just enough space remained for a desk and chair and computer and printer. She spent the day typing and revising and editing the Secret Report, and at 5:00 p.m. she delivered a computer disk and a manila envelope with her revisions to the Executive Vice President’s Assistant on the twenty-ninth floor. Between 5:00 p.m. that day and 8:00 a.m. the next morning, someone would slip an envelope with new copy and revisions under the door of her office.
The Executive Vice President’s Assistant was a tiny, no-nonsense woman, impeccably attired and of indeterminate youthfulness; she looked like a dour little girl playing dress-up for the day. She instructed Clarissa Snow not to socialize with anyone on the twelfth floor. “I’ve memoed them to not talk to you,” she said. “Eat lunch alone,” she told her. “Take your breaks outside the building or in your office. Keep your door locked. This is a Secret Report. That’s why we hired an outsider for the job.” She placed one of her perfect miniature hands—pallid and smooth—upon one of Clarissa Snow’s, which by comparison seemed a vast, bony landscape of knuckle and joint. “The Agency says you’re their best girl,” the Executive Vice President’s Assistant said. “So we’re counting on you.” Clarissa Snow nodded conspiratorially. She was thrilled with the secrecy. It excited her.
Although no one on the twelfth floor was supposed to talk to Clarissa Snow, adherence to this directive broke down quickly. During Week One of her assignment, Claims Unit employees winked at her in the elevator and put their index fingers to their lips in gestures of complicity. After one of the Claims Analysts mouthed a silent “Good morning!” to her in the ladies’ restroom, other employees began to greet her in hushed tones. “How are you!” they whispered. “Fine! Thank you!” Clarissa Snow whispered back. Soon the Claims Unit Manager was knocking on her door, inviting her to potlucks in the lunchroom. “We know you’re not supposed to,” he’d say, then, looking up and down the hallway and dropping his voice, add, “Do it anyway!” He was an affable, red-faced man who wore wide, ugly ties, but wore them with irony; there was an ongoing contest among the men in his unit for who could wear the ugliest ties. The Claims Unit employees held birthday parties and years-of-service celebrations and maternity leave bon voyages on a regular basis, and they invited her to all of them. When she didn’t show up, they came looking for her, knocking urgently at her door: “Are you all right in there?” They were kind and solicitous, eager to make her a part of things, and Clarissa Snow wanted none of it. She did not want to partake of their lives. She attended their gatherings under duress, making a brief appearance before returning to her Secret Report, often laden with paper plates of macaroni salad or potatoes au gratin. But for the most part, they left her alone. They did not take her aloofness personally.
Clarissa Snow was an extraordinary typist and often finished her work well before 5:00 p.m. On these days, she spell-checked the Secret Report, proofread it two or three times, then spent the rest of the afternoon thumbing through magazines she had smuggled in her bag. Her interests were varied and sundry, and wholly vicarious. Because she was afraid of flying, she bought travel magazines, wherein she browsed the pictures of exotic lands she would never visit. She read gourmet magazines, as she did not cook; gardening magazines, as she had no garden; dog- and cat-breeding journals, because her apartment building did not allow pets.
When she was done with her magazines, she stared out the window. She’d heaved some file boxes out of the way and discovered a floor-to-ceiling panel of tinted shatterproof glass. It gave her an unobstructed view of the high-rises across the street, and the high-rises beyond them, and the dim yellow mist that obscured everything in the distance. When this bored her, she snooped around. A narrow linoleum trail wended its way through the file boxes, which were labeled by fiscal year—FY72–73, FY71–72, and so on—some going all the way back to the 1930s. The older boxes were filled with brittle, yellowed claim forms. They were smudged with carbon-paper stains and freckled with typos. The signatures and countersignatures were elaborate and ornate, and Clarissa Snow imagined the signatories trying to outdo each other, engaged in inked battles of loop and filigree across the bottoms of their staid documents. She looked forward to her late-afternoon forays into the company’s past, perusing the archives of a world without correction fluids and highlighters and Post-it notes, a world where—in Clarissa Snow’s rude, romantic vision—policies were never canceled and claims were never rejected. Whenever she came across a previously unexplored file box, her heart would thump. When she lifted the lid and peered inside, the dust motes of sixty years would waft up and dance around her head.
Because she received sections of the Secret Report out of sequence, Clarissa Snow was at first baffled by its contents. One section discussed the technical specifications for computer networks and telecommunications protocols. Another section consisted of pages and pages of balance sheets, the figures unlabeled. And another delineated the agenda and minutes of a business conference in Ireland. (Ireland! she thought, unable to imagine business being conducted in Ireland.) But one morning during Week Four—the last week of her assignment—Clarissa Snow received the opening pages of the Secret Report and discovered its secret. It was a proposal to eliminate the Claims Unit and to transfer all of its functions to an overseas vendor. In two months, the twelfth floor would become a records storage facility, and everyone in the Claims Unit would be out of a job.
Clarissa Snow snapped her eyelids shut, but it was too late. She could not unread the paragraph she had just read. She slapped at her skull with the palms of her hands, but neither hand nor fist, neither brick nor rock, could dislodge what she did not want to know. Inside the lids of her closed eyes she saw the terrain of her office multiplied a thousandfold, column after column of file boxes looming in a dense fog of gray dust.
That afternoon she locked her door and made some additional changes to the Secret Report. Using the search-and-replace function of her computer, she substituted all occurrences of the Executive Vice President’s name with the word “Dickhead.” Other Executive Vice Presidents became “Bunghole” and “Pedophile” and “Pig-bitch.” She changed “downsizing” to “butt-fucking,” “remuneration” to “masturbation,” and “capital outlays” to “steaming piles of shit.” She printed a copy and read it aloud. She hoped this would make her feel better. It didn’t. She reversed these changes, of course, and destroyed the adulterated copy. She moved on to the file boxes. She selected one of the oldest ones—FY29–30—and poured diet soda into it, just enough to soak in and ruin the contents without seeping out. There was no relief in this, either. But Clarissa Snow—while ashamed at inflicting such petty vengeance upon these venerable and innocent artifacts—was nonetheless resolved to petty vengeance. What else could she do? Somebody had to be punished. So she carefully poured the rest of her soda into several more boxes.
That afternoon, on her way up to the twenty-ninth floor, the Unit Manager cornered her at the elevator. “We hear tomorrow’s your last day,” he said. He was wearing a tie that looked like a rainbow trout, its tail fin knotted tightly beneath his chin and its head hanging wide over his belly. “You know,” he said, “we’re really going to miss you.” Clarissa Snow’s stomach churned. She thanked him.
The next day, she finished the Secret Report, assembling and formatting its sections until it was the perfect and uniform document she was hired to create. She downloaded and inserted graphics, cross-referenced an index, printed out and assembled the required number of copies, bound them into their gray report covers, and slipped them all into a box, which she was instructed to tape tightly shut and leave locked in the office along with her office key. She was done by 3:00 p.m. and was gathering her things to make her escape—the stairwell was only two doors away; no one would see her if she timed it right—when there was a knock at the door. It was the Unit Manager. “We’re having a little birthday party,” he told her. “And you’re invited.”
A banner taped to the lunchroom wall read GOODBYE CLARISSA! A cake on the table was decorated and frosted to resemble the screen of a computer terminal. The message on it read WE’LL ALL MISS YOU! Everyone from the Claims Unit was there: the Analysts and the File Clerks, the Specialists and the Secretaries, and all the ugly-tied men. People she had never met before hugged her and handed her slices of cake and told her how wonderful it was having her. “We hope you come back!” they said. “We’ll get you a job here!” they said. And who, who should Clarissa Snow see at this moment among the press of well-wishers but the Executive Vice President’s Assistant, arising out of the crowd as if from a hole in the floor, head weaving at shoulder level—toward her—like a predatory balloon, and who, upon reaching her, executed the following in seconds: a brisk, professional hug; the cool touch of a doll-like hand upon her own; and—to Clarissa Snow’s horror—an impish wink of the eye, a wink like the shutter-click of an insidious camera, a dirty little flicker of implication passed from one to the other like a pornographer’s contraband. And then she was gone, slipping into the mob around the table and gliding away with a plate of cake in her hand and—to the delight of the Claims Unit employees—a creamy blue smudge of frosting on her chin. And then attention was called for—the clang of a spoon against a coffee mug—and presentations to the guest of honor were made: a bouquet of flowers, an immense tin of homemade oatmeal cookies, and, after the Unit Manager stammered through a little speech, a card signed by everyone in the Claims Unit. Clarissa Snow started to cry. Three women she didn’t know cried with her.
Forty-five minutes later, in the thinning light of late afternoon, she sat hidden in her office. She was on the floor, with her knees to her chest, in a far corner of the file-box labyrinth. There were occasional knocks on the door from potential well-wishers, which Clarissa Snow ignored. She was listening for the Claims Unit stragglers to just go home, her ear attuned only to the inevitable sound of an empty office—the enormous quietudes of Friday that roll through the corridors and lap into the conference rooms and cubicles like a submerging tide. And then she could slip away, slip down the stairwell and outside and into the din and clamor of the evening exodus, leaving behind a tin of cookies that she would never taste, flowers that would be dead by Monday, and a tightly taped box heavy with Clarissa Snow’s best work.
The sun was gone, and a cold wind gusted, sending trash into whirlpools on the pavement. As she walked along, Clarissa Snow set herself to the task of tearing up the going-away card. It was filled with signatures, black with names and phone numbers and congenial exhortations: “Let’s do lunch!” and “Come visit!” and “Give me a call!”—forays into a world of easy acquaintance that Clarissa Snow (alas!) would never make. She tore the card into bits thoroughly and well, but left in her wake a confetti trail. It fluttered and capered behind her as she bobbed and weaved through the rush hour teem, racing for her bus. And to the momentary amusement of passersby racing for their own buses, Clarissa Snow looked like a woman in flight, like a fugitive pursued by a tiny, relentless parade that, no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn’t shake.
Winter came and went. Weeks of heavy rains, sheeting down concrete slopes and declivities, gushing in cataracts from gutters, sputtering from downspouts and roiling into storm drains—all of it subsided, then ceased. The sewers now sang with the rush of winter runoff, and the city, having hunkered down for the rains, seemed now to lay itself out to dry, its sidewalks steaming contentedly in the sun.
Spring was here, and progress was abloom in the Municipal Clerk’s Office. A major project was under way; it was called the Conversion, and it was exactly that—the conversion of all records into a computerized database management system. Birth and death, marriage and divorce, the purchase and sale of home and property, the licensing of business entities and the bankruptcies of same—the paper trail of perfidious Fortune’s sway over the lives of the inhabitants of the city would be represented as coded entries on a data field screen, tagged and cross-indexed for easy access and retrieval.
Clarissa Snow was assigned to this project, which was expected to last through the summer. The job was a plum, and Clarissa Snow—having gotten Mrs. D. out of many a job pickle—was now reaping a bounty of plums. Life in the Agency had tempered her into a loyal and hardworking employee. Her evaluations were impeccable, and her reputation was beyond reproach. She had moved into an echelon of temporary service attained by few, which conferred upon her the Agency’s most coveted emblems of appreciation: the Exceptional Performance Pin and the assurance of permanent temporary employment.
Her workday in the Municipal Clerk’s Office began at 8:00 a.m. This was her routine. A doughnut, an orange, and a cup of coffee at her desk accompanied her review of the contents of her in-box, which contained the previous day’s Data Entry Error Run (her error stats down, always down) and the current day’s Municipal Records Register Inventory. Then she was off, inventory in hand, to pull her Registers for the day. They were kept in an abandoned conference room next to the Conversion Manager’s office and were stacked everywhere: on the table and the chairs, on the floor, on the wide sill along the window. Entering the dim, silent room, Clarissa Snow always felt for a moment as if she were interrupting a secret meeting. The Registers were narrow books half a yard long, with brown leather covers. Some of them had become dark and stiff and webbed with cracks, while others had been worn to a dull gold. She ran her hand over the pebbled surface of one Register, along the fissured length of another. Something stirred inside her. If she lingered, she would have imagined things about these books: that their covers, for instance, felt like maps coming to tactile life, their topographies—puckered and stubbly with age—emerging beneath her fingers; or that they looked like tiny church doors, the weathered portals to miniature cathedrals. If she lingered, she would have wondered about who filled these pages with their crabbed entries, about the lives of clerks long gone who scrivened day after day in witness to the transactions of others long gone. But Clarissa Snow did not linger. She logged out two Registers and returned to her desk.
Morning break was signaled by the appearance of the Database Systems Coordinator, who stopped by on his way to the kitchenette, his head hovering like a benevolent planet just above Clarissa Snow’s cubicle partition. A twenty-second stroll to the lunchroom together, empty mugs aloft; idle chat while waiting for coffee to brew, about the Conversion—its glitches and bugs, its progress and its promise; the preparation of their coffees with creamers and sweeteners; and the return stroll to Clarissa Snow’s desk, whereupon the Database Systems Coordinator, a kind and shaggy-haired bear of a man, thanked her and trudged off to his own desk. This was morning break.
She took lunch at 1:00 p.m., a late lunch to avoid the crowds. She had discovered, at the top of a multistoried parking structure, an abandoned rooftop park. There were untrimmed trees and a weed-spattered lawn. Moldy concrete benches surrounded a scummed-over pond that once contained fish. Skinny pigeons lurched about. No one else ever came here. This was her respite. Fifteen minutes to get to the park and fifteen minutes to get back to work left her with a half hour. She spread a newspaper on a bench and sat on it. She ate her bag lunch: sliced pineapple rounds, a handful of green olives, a bran cupcake, a can of vegetable juice. She closed her eyes. She listened to the rumble of cars moving beneath her and the rustle and whisper of neglected trees, still damp with rain.
She was back at work by 2:00 p.m. And upon her return every afternoon, she found sitting in the geographic center of her desktop a piece of candy, a foil-wrapped chocolate coin. (Computer monitor and keyboard were attached to an insectlike ergonomic device that suspended them in the air next to her chair. Her desktop, save for an in-box and a yellow legal pad and the day’s Registers stacked neatly, was thus blissfully bare. There was no phone.) Sometimes, while settling in for the afternoon’s labors, she unwrapped and ate the coin. But because chocolate held no power over her—it was merely sticky, then chalky, in her mouth, and hard to swallow—she more often than not tossed the coin into her bag and forgot about it. The mystery of the chocolate coin—Who left it? Why her?—niggled at Clarissa Snow for only the first few days of its appearance; thereafter, the regularity of its appearance on her desktop slipped easily into the regularities of her afternoon routine.
And what can be said about the rest of Clarissa Snow’s afternoon? In-box: the Conversion Timeline Update and the Key Entry Rate Run (her entry rate stats up, always up). Afternoon break: nibbling on a handful of pearl onions in a far corner of the lunchroom; thumbing through a magazine, a monthly that delineated the success stories of small-business entrepreneurs; and acknowledging the halting hello of the Database Systems Coordinator, the kind and hovering largeness of him blotting out the light whenever he came upon her. Bathroom break; watercooler break; a run to the Supplies Cabinet for a fresh legal pad. And then quitting time: returning and logging her Registers and, while exiting the database and shutting down the computer, making her mental assessment of the day’s work—a good day’s work, she thought. She was delayed by chitchat with the Conversion Manager while dropping off her Register Inventory for the next day’s Timeline Update, and then she was gone, zooming down the stairwell and outside to race for the 5:17 express.
She maneuvered expertly through the crowds and soon found a spot in the curbside boarding line for her bus. And as she ransacked her bag for correct change—the line was moving briskly—a shadow fell upon her and a desperate wheezing sound caused her to look up and into the stricken face of the Database Systems Coordinator. He was gasping for air. But he was also trying to speak to her, struggling with a hem and haw that—combined with his struggle for oxygen—made what he was trying to say unintelligible to Clarissa Snow. She caught something about how fast she walks, then gleaned a question of some sort, something about tomorrow’s lunch hour. But she was stepping up and into the bus, and its engine was revving for departure. Impulsively, Clarissa Snow reached into the bottom of her bag and then out through the closing doors, and—by way of apology for her distraction and haste, for her inability to understand—poured into this man’s massive and gentle hands a rain of coins. Gold- and silver-foiled bullion spilled around his feet as the doors shut on him and the bus roared away from the curb where he stood. Until finally he turned his head away from the receding bus, stooped heavily to pick up the litter of sweets on the pavement, and lumbered homeward, unwrapping and eating along the way each and every one of his unheeded offerings.
The 5:17 express was crammed, as usual—a stew of human heat, dank and thick and close, and Clarissa Snow loved it. She loved to ride the bus, to feel its pitch and roll beneath her feet and the vibrations of its aggrieved engine thrumming into her leg bones; to hear the swell and lull of muted conversations around her, their cadences broken by the exhilarating punch of laughter. Riding the bus, she felt immersed in the world, felt its press and push and jostle, its gentle and yielding weight sliding past and around and against her body. For this is what she loved most of all—the simple touch of another, random and intimate and essential. For no one is alone on a bus. The lowering sun flashed between high-rises, and the light that flickered in the grimy bus windows was harsh. She stood swaying blissfully against her fellow commuters and closed her eyes to the light that strobed in the windows all around her—sheets of light flipping, flipping like the pages of a dozen golden books that she would never read.
TEMPORARY STORIES Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Orozco.