By Richard Charles Schaefer
Artwork “Brandon” by Alexa Gaffaney
The guy I’m replacing didn’t show up today, so Heather (who calls me Brian, even though my name’s Dustin) shows me around the office. This includes a tutorial on the photocopier/fax and the coffee maker in the break room (the coffee is free as long as we don’t “take advantage of it”), then she leads me to the meeting room at the back of the office. She suggests that, until someone else gets in to train me, I sort the piles of manila folders into the filing cabinets lining the wall. She leaves before explaining how they’re supposed to be filed. But if she didn’t say, it must be obvious enough that I don’t have to ask.
Heather left the lights off, so I don’t turn them on either. One wall is all windows, looking out on a gravel lot full of transformers and mean looking bushes. There’s a big antenna-tower at the center, and the train-tracks at the far end. I have to press my head against the window to see the top of the tower; it looks like it’s swaying if I stare too long. When I move away from the window I see that I left a smudge of forehead grease on it. I swear, I showered this morning, but there you go.
The lady at the employment agency told me Freedom Sea-Air is a customs broker and I don’t know what that means but it’s a little too late to ask. She also told me to cut my hair, and I said I wouldn’t, but I did. She said I touched my face too much, brushing my bangs out of my eyes; you go in thinking they’re going to tell you the font on your résumé is wrong and instead they tell you that. It’s a temp-to-perm assignment, so Freedom Sea-Air will ultimately be the ones to decide if they’re okay with how much I touch my face.
A couple more people come in at 9:30. I wait for Heather to tell them I’m back here, hidden out of sight, but she doesn’t. So I have to come out and introduce myself, trying to do it without terrifying them. They do seem surprised, but mostly because they didn’t know a new guy was starting.
They’re both probably around the same age as Heather, which is to say any of the three of them could be my mother, if you remove looks and personality from the equation. The one with the kind of puffy brown hair you get from a standing, weekly appointment with a stylist is named Helen, and the one with naturally curly hair is named Mary. I didn’t mention it before, but Heather’s hair is blonde, just like mine.
They don’t ask much about me, which is fine; it’s Monday, so they’re telling each other about their weekends. Heather shows me which desk is mine, right in front of Helen’s, toward the front of the office but positioned so I can’t see the entrance. I do have a view of that antenna from the window to my left.
I half-listen to them talking, because it’s stuff about people I’ve never heard of. I’ll probably learn something about all of their lives eventually, and they’ll probably learn something about mine, too, and that’s okay. Temp-to-perm usually means “permanent unless you fuck up spectacularly”, so I should get to know my coworkers some.
If this desk belonged to the guy I’m replacing, I bet he was taller than me. I mess around with the buttons and levers on my chair until I lower it, and that takes a few minutes. I’m not really sure what I’m supposed to be doing now. Helen, Mary, and Heather are still talking, so it might be rude to get up and go back to filing folders.
One of the knobs under the chair got my hand all greasy, so I want to take care of that before I ruin my pants or pick my nose and leave a black smudge on my nostril, because that’s pretty much inevitable in this scenario. I don’t get why a chair needs that level of lubrication, like some complex mechanism will jam if it’s not greased—but I’m not about to take it apart to find out, since I wouldn’t have anywhere to sit if I did.
Now that everyone knows everybody else’s business from the weekend, I’m starting to learn a little about what customs brokerage is. Basically, there’s this big book—thousands of pages—with long numbers in it, and every object on earth has a number that corresponds with it. When you want to bring anything into the country, you hire a broker to tell the government what number corresponds with whatever it is, so they know how much to make you pay in duty.
Imagine if there were a book like that for people, something that told you the price of getting in or out of a place.
I make the mistake of looking behind me and Helen has her stockings rolled part-way down one leg and completely off the other and she’s cutting her toe-nails. Seeing that’s bad enough but she sees me looking so she starts talking about how she used to be a dancer and owned a dance studio with her sister until her sister became an alcoholic. She talks about her fat daughter—her words—and how she wants her daughter to leave her husband because he’s no good for her self-esteem and that’s why she’s fat.
Her toe-nails are flying all over the place, so I’m kind of distracted when she starts talking about Karen, who I assume is her daughter. After a minute, though, I realize that Karen’s our final office-mate who isn’t here yet because, according to Helen, she’s always late, even though she lives three minutes away. I look out the window and wonder what could possibly be within 3 minutes of this place.
After rolling her stockings all the way back up, Helen comes up next to me and whispers, “don’t trust Heather,” then continues over to the front counter to drop a folder in a metal bin.
Soon, a younger woman—older than me but still under 30—hurries in, carrying two iced coffees; she has long straight hair, dyed somewhere on the spectrum between red and brown. Heather introduces Karen, who puts both coffees down, nods to me and says “oh.”
She hangs her jacket on her chair then leaves the office without saying anything.
“She’s going to have a cigarette,” Helen says.
Mary, who sits in front of me, next to Karen, turns around.
“It’s awful, people who take advantage of the fact that there’s no boss here,” she says.
“Isn’t Heather the manager?” I ask and look behind me, past Helen’s desk to Heather’s. I didn’t notice her go anywhere, but she’s not there.
“Heather doesn’t know what she’s doing,” Helen says.
“She’s worked here for 30 years,” Mary agrees, “so they made her the manager, but she’s not even a licensed broker.”
I hope they don’t think I have a license for this.
“And she’s a pushover,” Mary adds.
“Maybe to you,” Helen says. “She’s mean. She bullies me, to be frank.”
“Oh,” I say.
The front door opens so Mary and Helen pretend they’re working, but it’s just Karen.
“We were telling Brian about how Heather is.”
“Oh, yeah,” Karen says. “She can be a real bitch.”
“My name is Dustin,” I say.
The door opens again and this time it’s Heather. She returns to her desk without saying anything. I wonder where she was and how thick these walls are.
“I thought there would be walls,” I say. “Like, cubicles.”
“Nope,” Mary says. “We all work together. Hey, you seem like you like rock music, right? Aerosmith? Bob Seger?”
“Oh, uh,” I start, but Mary is already turning up the little radio on her desk.
Helen sighs behind me and then I hear Tony Bennett playing on her computer speakers. I don’t think Mary can hear it, but I’m stuck between Foghat in front of me and “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” behind me.
When Mary gets up to make coffee, Helen leans over her desk to me.
“The only reason Mary still has her job here is because her father knows the owner.”
Karen, at her desk, nods without looking up.
“So you see, they put the tariff on the paperwork, that’s what you’re going to put into the computer here.” Heather pushes on my monitor with one finger, hard enough to distort the colors where I start to type the 10 digit number in. “Include the periods.”
“Don’t I have to, like, check the tariff in the book there?”
“Not for this account. They have a licensed broker working for them, he provides the tariffs. It’s always the same stuff.”
“Why doesn’t he just, like, submit it directly? Why do they need us?”
“Because we’re their broker.”
“Oh.” I don’t push it.
“His name is Huong.”
“What?” I ask.
“He’s a know-it-all.”
“So we use the numbers he provides.”
“What is this stuff, anyway?” I ask. It’s a 40 page invoice with about 30 lines of items on each page. At the top, it says Locktite Fasteners.
“Fasteners,” Heather says.
“Right,” I say. “So after we submit it,” I start.
“Customs will approve it, we’ll get a paperless clearance back.”
“What if they don’t approve it?”
“They don’t do exams for Locktite. It’s always the same stuff, so they’ll clear it.”
“So then do we arrange the trucking?”
“Locktite has a trucker they use. They’ll arrange it.”
“Do I do the billing?”
“Don’t worry about that. Just give me the paperwork after it clears.”
“What if we don’t agree with one of the tariffs they use?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Okay,” I say, and keep working while Heather watches. After a minute, she leans close to whisper:
“Watch out for Helen. She’ll drag you down if she gets a chance.”
“I’m the only one who cleans the kitchen,” Helen informs me, wiping the sink with a paper towel. The coffeemaker is squirting French roast into my mug. The seafood Helen is microwaving smells like the breath of a mermaid hooker blowing a kiss at last call.
“Look, there’s broccoli in the drain. Heather’s broccoli always stinks up the whole place,” Helen says. “We have to bring dish soap from home and Heather refuses to ask them to buy it for us. Ask her and she’ll make it sound like they’ll just shut the whole branch down over soap.”
“There are other branches?” I ask.
“Our home office is in Rhode Island. You must have interviewed with someone there.”
“I got hired through a temp agency.”
“And another thing about Heather,” Helen says, “she never communicates. She didn’t tell us you were starting today. I’m happy you’re here, don’t get me wrong, I think you’ll add some much needed relief to the tension. But could have taken five minutes to tell us about it before hand?”
“Yeah,” I say, “it’s weird.”
“I’m so glad you agree,” Helen says.
Marie runs into the break-room and dumps her coffee in the sink.
“It got cold,” she explains. “God, the sink’s always filthy.”
“Anyway,” Helen says, “Brian agrees that Heather is out of control.”
“It’s Dustin,” I say.
“I’m sorry, Brian is my son. You remind me of him. Before he got depressed. He won’t leave the house now. He watches TV all day with his father. Why? Because he’s vain. He put on a few pounds and he used to be such a peacock but now he won’t go outside. He needs rehab, but how much can I do? I’m only his mother.”
“That’s right, Helen,” Marie nods. “You can only do what you can.”
“And don’t get me started on my sister. You know she’s not doing well. Try to tell Karen that and she won’t talk to me for a month. Poor Danielle, she doesn’t know what’s happening in her own home. She lets Karen live there with that boyfriend, smoking cigarettes and never leaving their bedroom, doing god knows what in there in addition to smoking.”
“They’re engaged now,” Marie says.
“And not even living in their own house. Ask Karen and she’ll say it’s so she can take care of her mother, but her mother’s the one paying for the house. What does Karen spend her money on, besides cigarettes? But she’s always broke. Karen gets paid more than I do! I got her this job and she makes more than I do. I can’t even ask Heather for a raise because you know what she’ll say, she’s a bully.”
The coffeemaker heaves a final sigh. I take my mug and step out of the room as quickly as I can.
“He didn’t empty his pod out of the coffeemaker,” I hear Helen say. “I swear, I’m the only one who does anything around here, and does anyone say ‘thank you, Helen’?”
Most of this stuff comes from China. The things that make other things—bolts, little metal pieces, and machine parts. There are binding rulings to decide what all of it is, like a federal court that decides if a lamp is really a lamp, if its essential character is illumination or decoration. When Freud said that a cigar is just a cigar, he wasn’t thinking about importing them.
It makes you want to stop, take a look at everything around you, and consider the millions of component pieces of your house, your car, your phone. They were gathered from myriad points around the globe to be here now, and you can make your head hurt trying to figure out what’s holding them together.
Conversationally, I’m at the center of the office. If words were bullets, my desk would be shot to hell, like a car that’s left in the middle of a battlefield. I try to keep my head down and do what I understand of my job.
Mary’s talking about the trip she and her husband made to Peru to adopt their daughter. It’s a story everyone in the office but me knows well, given the way Heather suggests details that finish Karen’s anecdotes.
“Don’t forget the waiter,” she says.
“That’s right,” Mary says, “our waiter on the beach—you understand, we had to wait days before getting our Susana—he was such a flirt, and my husband, instead of getting angry like you’d expect, used it to our advantage, to get free drinks.”
“And it worked,” Heather says. “Oh, tell him about the stomach bug!”
Tell him? I realize Mary’s been telling the story for my benefit.
“I think that’s really nice that you adopted your daughter,” I say.
“Even though she is adopted, we really think of her as our own.”
“I think it’s nice.”
“God knows she tried getting pregnant,” Heather says. “We all went through that with her. Hormones, fertility specialists, testing. We were on the edge of our seats rooting for Mary.”
“I gained 40 pounds during that time,” Mary says.
“I never had kids either,” Heather says. “I live with my parents and my nieces and nephew visit all the time.”
“This is bullshit,” Karen says suddenly, jumping up from her desk, holding her cell-phone up, and running over to Helen’s desk.
“What is it, dear?” Helen asks.
“Auntie, how could you send this to Mummy?” You probably put it together from what Helen was saying before that Karen is Helen’s niece. I can’t imagine working with one of my aunts. I can’t imagine living with my parents either, though, so I guess everybody’s different.
“Oh, that,” Helen says, squinting at the phone. “Well, she’s sick, and no one is telling her to take care of herself.”
“She’s not sick,” Karen says. “The doctor said she’s getting better.”
“Dear, no one gets better from MS.”
“You shouldn’t of sent her this,” Karen says.
“She won’t hear me when I talk to her, I thought putting it in writing—and she shouldn’t have shared it with you. This is between me and her.”
“You know how close we are.”
“I know you live in the basement there with your boyfriend and I know you never leave. She told me she had to shovel the walk because you or Jimmy wouldn’t.”
“That’s bullshit! She never asked me. By the time I woke up it was done.”
“Then you shouldn’t sleep so late. I’m worried you’re depressed. You don’t eat enough.”
“I don’t want to talk about this in front of—” Karen waves at me, like she’s dispersing cigarette smoke.
“Dustin,” I say.
“No offense,” Karen says, “but this isn’t your business. You wouldn’t understand.”
“He understands,” Helen says.
“Did you tell him about personal family business?”
“I’m not saying I told him or didn’t tell him. I’m saying that anyone with a heart would understand, your mother needs help.”
“He’s from the outside!” Karen says.
She runs back to her desk and grabs her stapler. I don’t think she’s trying to throw it at me, but it flies my way; I duck and it hits the big window behind me. The window’s made of thick glass so it doesn’t shatter, but there’s a good little chip where it hit. Karen runs out of the office and Helen stomps out after her. They don’t look much alike, but they’ve got the same walk when they’re angry.
Before Helen comes back in, Heather and Mary fill me in on what’s going on. It’s mostly stuff I’ve already put together, but I nod along.
“She didn’t mean to do that,” Karen says.
“Of course not. If anyone asks, we’re going to say we don’t know what happened. I’ll put in a work order to get it repaired,” Heather says, and right as she does Helen comes back in.
“Oh, that you’ll fix, but not the dispose-all?” Helen says.
“The dispose-all isn’t broken,” Heather says. “You just can’t put bones in it.”
“I refuse to get into this with you again, Heather. Everyone knows how you feel about everything and nothing ever changes your mind.”
“I’m very fair,” Heather shouts.
“That’s the statement of the year! Karen will be back in a minute but she asked me to bring her bag to redo her make-up. So I’m doing that and then I’m leaving.” Helen grabs Karen’s bag from under her desk and walks out again.
“I don’t know why she’s so mean to me,” Heather says. She’s crying a little bit. “I’ve talked to her about it and I just don’t know!”
“I know,” Mary says, “You’ve never done anything to Helen. You know how she can be. It’s just her way.”
“Well,” Heather says, “why does it have to be me she takes it out on?”
I feel my cell phone vibrating and take it out to see who’s calling. When I see that it’s the temp agency I pick up.
“Hello, this is Stella from Mertzer-Howe Staffing. Dustin?” Stella’s the one who told me I touch my face too much.
“Yeah,” I say. I step out into the hall with my phone. Mary is rubbing Heather’s back as she cries into a tissue, so they don’t notice.
“I’m afraid there’s been a mix-up,” Stella says. “A rather large one. The egg is on my face.”
“We sent you to the wrong assignment.”
“Yes, I’m so dreadfully sorry. You were meant to be at Virtue Bank, on a temporary assignment, but instead we sent you to Freedom Sea-Air, which is a temp-to-perm assignment and one you’re not qualified for.”
“Wow, I’ve been doing it all day, and I think I can do it.”
“I’m sorry, Dustin. It’s my mistake but it is a mistake. One we must rectify.”
“So I’ll go to the bank tomorrow instead.”
“Another mistake on my part. I sent another employee to the bank job and we’re keeping her on that assignment. We can’t have you continue this one. We can contact you when something that matches your qualifications does open up but it’s a very competitive job-market right now, and entry level jobs are rare.”
“You’re very bad at your job,” I say, and hang up the phone.
I’m about to go back into the office to grab my stuff, when I remember that I don’t have anything to grab. I can get right in my car and be on the highway within five minutes. But that’s just an imaginary world out there, painted roads leading to invented destinations. I live in the real world and I don’t think anyone can name all the pieces that compose it.
I step back into the office. Everyone is at their desks, quietly working like nothing ever happened. I sit down at mine and do the same.