Friday, June 21, 2013

Slow Burn

The heavy smog cover turning a burnt orange signaled that the sun, somewhere, had actually risen. The light barely penetrated the corporate regulation blinds down the hall as Bob counted paperclips at his desk. Just because he came in early – and left late – to make up for that lazy week of tonsillitis didn't mean he had to actually work – not until other people arrived. Which they always did, naturally. Just wouldn't be right to catch a break.

First Fred came staggering down the hall. "'Morning, Fred," Bob called with the standard cheerless politeness.

"Mmh," grunted Fred. Fred's wife had been visiting relatives in Sacramento last Saturday when another North Korean missile hit. Fred wasn't taking it very well.

Bob went back to his paperclips, his mind wandering off, as always, to Erin. As early as he made it in, Erin was always there first – smiling, clean, and with a cheerful, "Good morning!" at the front desk just for him. Well, not just for him but as long as he was alone in his thoughts he figured why not?

It could be just for him, if he'd only ask – and he fully intended to, he just had to find the right moment. Wouldn't do to walk right in and –

"Good morning!"

"Will you go out with me!"

No, Bob was more subtle then that. The kind of subtle that wanted to be friends first, that wanted to be there for her so she'd realize how much he cared. Just because that approach never really worked in the pa –

"Hey Bob!" Becca leaned over the wall of his cubicle, blocking out the overhead fluorescent light with her huge form. "Got a new batch for ya," and she let a mass of expense reports drop with a big flap onto his desk.

"Thanks," Bob mumbled. He made a show of shuffling them around in his hands until Becca was safely out of sight. When he again had a little privacy, Bob brought up the solitaire program on his computer.

But something had to be done. Or said. Definitely said because holding the door for her when their lunch breaks coincided didn't seem to be doing much. Bob would have to step up his "game," engage her in conversation – what conversation?

He started flipping through the expense reports without really looking at them. Always the same anyway, lots of charges on the company Amex to Hooters' and "other entertainment" at hotels. Hey, defending America could be stressful – or building the weapons definitely was at any rate.

Erin didn't exactly have a Hooters' body – not that Bob particularly minded. He wasn't about to go to work for Chippendale's anytime soon himself. Still, he didn't look bad for almost-thirty. Well, thirty in November but it's not like he was all that fat and bald, just a little bald and he did calisthenics whenever he remembered or caught a too clear look at himself in the mirror...

Really best not to think about it anyway. Focus on the job – and Bob stamped the Hooters' receipts so the next person up the chain would go ahead and process the expenses. Stuffed under a mound of other papers and an empty ramen cup sat the employee handbook detailing what could and could not be sent up the chain – four hundred pages all just to say, "If they're executives then they get to spend money however and wherever they damn well please!" Bob needed the health insurance too much to argue with that logic.

Conversation starters, that's what he needed. Couldn't look up any now, every keystroke got reported to Becca. He'd read some before, something about "What shows do you like?" or "What movies do you like?" Erin liked those anime movies, he knew that. She was real torn up when Japan was accidentally bombed from orbit – not like that was really the company's fault. They just built the killsats, it was the crummy government that couldn't aim.

Okay, so no anime stuff. Might be awkward... Books? Bob didn't really read many books, so that could end up worse than anime... Music? Yes, music! He liked enough that they were bound to have something in common. If not Butt Trumpet then at least Cherry Pop. Yeah, that –

"Hey, Bob," said Glenn in that always tired voice of his. "Talk to ya for a minute?"

Lousy, soul-sucking loser... "Sure."

"Well, Sheila's been having it again, y'know? Says she's sick but I really think it's an easy excuse to lay around all day ringing that damn bell whenever she wants toast..."

Bob really couldn't stand to hear Glenn babble on and on about his stupid wife or his stupid house or especially his stupid kids. God strike me down if I ever get this boring, he thought. It didn't take much effort to bring his mind back around to more important issues...

"Oh, hi Erin. Did you hear this new single by Big Important Artist on iTunes?"

"I sure did! It was okay, but not as good as Fashionably Underground Artist."

"I know, I have all of Fashionably Underground Artist's albums. Want to come over and listen to them sometime?"

"Sure. And then I can suck you off!"

Now that was just getting a little too optimistic...

"Well, thanks for listening," Glenn wheezed out after a while in that perpetually defeated voice of his.

"Not a problem," Bob said automatically.

As Glenn waddled off to pester someone else, Bob looked back at the expense reports in his hands. How much longer did he have to stamp these and dump them in the mail chute? Not too long obviously, Becca hadn't come storming by to happily demand where the hell they were.

Music, definitely music... Maybe he could strike up a conversation during lunch? He only had – Dammit! Noon already? Glenn sure must've talked a long time. Bob popped his head above the cubicle walls – no Becca. He'd be safe to sneak down to the break room for a burrito. Maybe put his plan into action...

Except no Erin. Just Yolanda, the big lady from the other end of the department going through her third divorce. Or was it the third son she'd lost in the 'Stans? Bob could never keep track of all her tragedies. Tears slithered down her poofy cheeks, splashing in and around her ranch-soaked salad.

Bob, after snatching a burrito from the vending machine, opted for the furthest microwave he could find and casually stared at the wall, hoping she'd get the hint and not try to get social. As the microwave counted down the minute, he worried that out of the corner of his eye he could see Yolanda ambling towards him, those puffy red eyes of hers and that quivering lip just starved for a fresh ear to cry into. No, dammit, no! he thought, hoping to spontaneously develop telepathy and drive her off. She trundled by without a word, dropping a ranchy napkin in the garbage on her way out. He'd never seen her wash out that bowl...

Bob sat alone in the break room, chewing on the burrito. He didn't particularly like chewing so slowly, but if he finished before his break was up and Becca came in, she'd start asking in the sugary-sweet, slave-driver voice what he was still doing here.

He watched the front door closely, in case Erin had the chance to slip in for some ramen – an occurrence that kept getting rarer. Once, when he'd had the tremendous luck of riding up in the elevator with her while she delivered a package, she'd mentioned how they were promising to move her up to his department after some people "retired." She hadn't shown up after the downsizing but he recognized the same type of reports he processed now stacked on her desk.

Finishing the burrito – and with only two minutes to go! – he resolved to postpone any potential conversations until quitting time. He'd need those two minutes to ride the elevator back up and get back to his desk. Not that he wouldn't be willing should he run into her again on the elevator...

He didn't.

With half the day gone and still a full stack of reports to get through, Bob figured he should get to work – after another hand of solitaire on his computer. He could never concentrate right after lunch anyway, the cheap burritos always doing a number on his stomach – not that he had much choice with what they paid in this place, even after five years...

Afternoons always felt much longer, probably from digestion, so it felt much later then a mere twenty minutes when Becca swung by his desk with a piece of personal mail.

"Say Bob, you mind running this down to the mailroom?" she asked, as though she were giving him a choice.

The mail room? That he could only reach by walking right in front of Erin's desk? "Sure!" he said with enthusiasm – which he instantly regretted as she eyed him suspiciously.

Still, he found himself riding back down in the elevator, little rattley-sounding package gripped tightly in his sweaty hands. His mind turning over with just how to approach her – Music? No, too involving, she'd get suspicious... How's the weather? No, just plain stupid... "I got this for you!" Hell no, Becca would eat him.

He was running low on options as the elevator dinged open and he could distantly hear that melodious voice, "Good afternoon, AmArc?" with just that lilt at the end turning everything into a question.

Now or never. He wouldn’t have such a clear chance again. Something innocuous... "Hey, plans this weekend?" Sure, it was just Thursday but it might work...

"Hi Erin," he said as he passed by, cursing the quiver in his voice.

"Oh, hey Bob!"

"Hi..."

And he hurried on to the mailroom. Just not the right time. He still felt all gassy from that burrito and she'd probably get another call any second – not to mention what he'd have to deal with from Becca if she felt he took too long. No, not opportune at all.

As if to confirm it, on his way back Erin was again on the phone.

"No, Mr. Wesbecker, I'm afraid he’s in a meeting... Yes I know that's what I said yesterday... Well, he has alot of meetings?"

Bob scurried passed, not meeting her eyes. Inside the elevator, he tried to get his heart rate back under control. Damn burritos. Not like he could see a doctor about it, they'd cut health benefits back when he'd started and the salary – what little there was – made him ineligible for any more Medicaid. Technically, those federal cuts had gone into the defense budget but he had yet to see any of it...

Back upstairs, Glenn was droning on to Yolanda who sobbed in quiet support. Fred stared at his monitor like some great lump, probably still upset over his wife – maybe he could discuss it with Glenn? That would be a sight. No one else in the department of course, not after the recent monthly layoffs. Becca didn't bother to check in on him...

Okay, that didn't work, but he still had quitting time. He ran over it again while he waited – weekend plans worked much better then music, it wouldn't take as long. What if she bounced it back, asked what he had planned? "Oh, nothing much, maybe catch a movie..." Ask if she'd like to join – yes! perfect! Bob was so pleased with himself he almost forgot to rush through the reports at a quarter 'till five.

He dumped the reports in the "Out" box on his way, hoping he'd timed it just right. It was tricky, nailing the exit the exact same time as Erin. He'd only ever done it once before – entirely by accident – back when the tonsillitis was just starting up. Alone in the elevator on the way down, he couldn't help bouncing a little on the balls of his feet –

And she was gone. Only recently - he could see her through the heavy plastiglass doors as she trotted gracefully across the parking lot. Maybe if he caught up... No, that would never do. Just too damn weird.

Bob sighed. At least there's tomorrow, he thought to comfort himself. Fixing his gas mask over his face, he walked out the door. With luck, he could make it home before the acid rain began.

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