From the window in his kitchen Paul can see the city perfectly. It is not the bird’s-eye view of one of the big Depression-era skyscrapers, nor the elevated, almost providential view from the top of the hill to the east. The apartment is in a newish condominium development at the foot of the hill, on the third floor. The whole of downtown rises up before him like a great gray oak tree he has taken refuge beneath. It towers above yet maintains its distance from him; it dwarfs but does not dominate him. Each morning he greets the city formally, in the mode of a monk saying prime.
For some reason the picture window in Paul’s apartment is sealed shut around the edges with a strip of spongy clear caulking, the only one in the building so fitted. There is a stool at the counter so that he can look outside while drinking the day’s first coffee, though by the time he sets to work at nine there is little to see outside. The canal down below is at all hours aggressively placid, as if no known force could induce a tremor in its thick brown water, and in fact it would take a great act to move this retired, retiring stretch of workmanlike water.
He turns a spoon around in his coffee cup and unsettles the sugar from the bottom..
On the far side of the canal there is a sidewalk where people sometimes pass. In the early afternoon young college students, women mainly, come down the hill to run along the canal. If he sits here in the afternoon, which he likely will, he will be able to watch them in their tight black yoga pants while he works. He hopes it doesn’t rain, though the clouds are as gray and foreboding as the city itself, if not quite as dour. It will probably rain.
Next to his coffee the computer is open and Paul is sliding his index finger back and forth across the slick, greasy pad at the base of the notebook. He is looking at the desktop of a woman who works in accounts, and also her facebook page. The woman hasn’t bothered to put up a picture (and even if there were a picture, judging from her pre-Nixon birth date it would be of her dog), so he cannot imagine who she is. Stephanie DaCosta. The name sounds attractive: he imagines one of the joggers along the canal wearing a tight pink shirt above her tight black pants, a long dark ponytail bouncing jauntily behind her. But no; impossible. This Stephanie DaCosta will be different. With only one cup of coffee behind him he can hardly expect imaginative refinement of himself, and for now Ms. (Mrs.? Miss?) DaCosta must remain a two-tone gray silhouette.
A gray silhouette with a virus. A rather vicious virus, too, one the antivirus software should surely have blocked. And yet, the first ticket of the day has brought him here to this woman’s desktop to manually restore the hard drive brutalized by this new virus which has somehow made it past the hermetic seal of corporate security. He has been working at it for nearly an hour now; was woken up early, in fact, by the humorless Head Tech who insisted he “punch in” early and get to work. “Punch in”, as if those time-clock cards were even still being manufactured. Perhaps in Ohio. “We’re swamped”, he had said. “Swamped”. As if the whole company was sinking into that muddy canal at this very moment.
Such terrible abuses of the metaphorical capacity of the English language cannot be permitted, not by a sworn defender of the mother tongue such as himself.
He prods his finger into a dry, crackly scone and decides against eating it.
This is why a simple restore has taken so long: poor use of overly expressive metaphors. “Clean it out,” the Head Tech had written on the e-mailed service ticket, “I need that computer spotless”. And so, Paul had cleaned it out, the only way one can clean up a computer short of a sponge bath. He had wiped the hard drive. It was spotless. Not a speck of data left.
Stephanie DaCosta had not been pleased. The Head Tech said she “literally threw a fit”, and he had nearly bitten off his tongue trying not to respond with a quip about the impossibility of picking up and throwing a fit. He averred that it was all a mistake, a misunderstanding, and that he would recover the data immediately.
And some data it was. Looking through her files he can see that Stephanie has not read the employee handbook very thoroughly. If she had, she’d have known that keeping personal documents on a work station was not permitted. Such documents become company property as soon as they are saved to the hard drive. Such documents as a divorce proceeding generates are not in the interests of the company to own, he imagines, but then it really isn’t his call, is it? The world isn’t just about him, after all.
Paul dutifully sends the documents along a few minutes after ten.
For lunch he slides across the waxed tiles of his kitchen collecting the disparate elements of a sandwich: tuna, cranberries, mayonnaise, cheese, bread, thin-sliced avocado and red pepper. He combines them in careful proportion and eats the sandwich quietly, at the counter, next to the notebook and the dried-up scone.
New service tickets have come in and since they have been reasonable requests and sensibly worded, he dispatches them as quickly as possible. He’s not one to cause people problems simply for his own joy: he does so only for the edification of others, a quiet inquisitor who teaches hard lessons. The Head Tech has learned a lesson, perhaps, about the proper use of the English language. It’s more likely that he hasn’t, because of course Paul can’t say directly what the lesson is, but must instead create situations from which the desired meaning can be inferred, a process which is a challenge in any circumstances, but doubly so when your student is your supervisor and you must teach from a remote location.. In better circumstances he could produce better results, but the way things are Paul has to settle for making merely incremental improvements in the world.
Immediately after lunch he unrolls a mat over the tiles and lies down on it. He will complete one hundred and fifty crunches in three minutes, followed by fifty pushups, followed by a series of cardio-crossover moves, followed by some body-weight strength training using a chair. After that he will take a shower and return to work at one o’clock.
By one o’clock things have slowed to a crawl, and the Head Tech’s complaints about being in a brackish, forested wetland seems not just inept but inaccurate as well. There hasn’t been a single new ticket. Things cannot be so bad at the office on this lovely afternoon.
In lieu of assigned work, Paul begins to browse the live log of internet activity the company uses to keep tabs on its employees, and he is surprised by what he finds. The customer service staff seems to be anonymously (and unknowingly, perhaps) attacking each other on the industry’s major forum, which surprises him. Does anyone still use forums? He can imagine them in their call center-cum-panic room, fending off idiotic confused customers with one hand while flaming their next-cubicle neighbor with the other. Morons, he thinks, but honorable morons, not like the folks up in sales, a least two of whom are viewing adult content during working hours. He considers printing out the log and sending it along the human resources with selected entries highlighted and annotated, in case they don’t understand the subtly of “beardom”, but that would entail an admission, at least to himself, that he had broken into the log in the first place, “broken in” being one of those cute anachronisms that had wandered into the world of technology but didn’t quite fit. What he had done was hardly breaking and entering. It was more like window shopping.
The sun has begun to lower itself and glints off the polished metal of the sink. He shifts his body away from the intrusion.
Stirring sugar into his fifth cup of coffee, Paul begins to question the decision to work with people. He had fled to this relatively acceptable work-from-home position after a year of service at the on-location help desk at One Financial Plaza. Each morning he had gotten up with the sun to walk along the cracked belittered sidewalks of the city to the glass-sheathed monstrosity that was the company’s regional headquarters, to sit in a particle-board-and-pink-fabric box with a clunky desktop computer and explain to aging executives that a firewall had nothing to do with insurance policies. He had braved the hollow camaraderie of the break room for twelve months, trading light-hearted jokes, resisting the urge to scream.
When the opportunity arose Paul fled across the river to the security of his apartment, his notebook, and the protective cocoon of his virtual life. Here he could imagine that the world ended at the picture window. Here imagination and Metallica could turn the entire world into a game. Here he could get the nourishment he needed without having to feel like a steer being led to slaughter.
And yet, he still does.
He gulps the coffee down in one shot and walks to the picture window. Well-cut suits are coming back from long lunches, headless but jovial in the short shadows. He turns the coffee maker on and shakes in a handful of grounds. It gurgles with reluctance but finally begins to spit water onto the dust.
Paul sits back down at his computer and opens facebook: a friend request. “Do you know Delia Lombardo outside of facebook?” He is taken aback by the directness of the question and stares at the screen for a moment, hesitant. The blurred outline of his own form stares back at him, the blue dialog box with its little Roman letter superimposed over his face.
“Fuck off,” he mutters to himself and walks to the bathroom.
Paul types quickly: “You’re kidding me, why?”
The text appears in the messaging program’s dialog box. There’s no immediate response. He walks over to pour himself another cup of coffee, his seventh, and to find a few cookies to eat. He delays returning to the computer. His right leg wobbles uncontrollably so that he can hardly stand up. He grips the counter for support as he shakes some crumbs from a box.
When he gets back there’s a response.
“Erasing hard drives hacking the net log and violating confidentiality policy all = termination. You know the rules.”
Paul drops onto his stool and it nearly topples under the weight. The sun has shifted and there is no longer enough glare to reflect back to him even the bares outline of his face: he sees only the cold words of the Head Tech on the screen. A certain acute awareness of the sudden and harsh manner in which a life may change is close to hand but he refuses to reach for it. Paul feels a if he is on a turbulent plane ride and can only sit in the cabin and wait for the tremors to pass.. But it is his life. It is his to control. He thinks he might throw up but sits down insteads. Shadows begin to cross him and the late-afternoon sun goes down outside.
In a burst of energy he types:
“What kind of person fires someone with a poorly-worded instant message? You should at least sit down with me in person and discuss your decision. I’ll walk to the office now. I’ll see you in fifteen minutes.”
He delivers a hard strike to the enter key but a little red line appears below the message. It’s a few minutes past five. The Head Tech will have just left the building. He stands up, right leg still shaking, and walks to the picture window. The college students are gone, now, and the figures moving along the canal are grave and businesslike, their shadows harsh and angular. The streetlights have come on already. It’s fall and the sun doesn’t linger long.
He pours another cup of coffee but his hand is shaking as well now and the coffee splashes onto the counter. He puts the mug in the sink and picks up a dish rag to wipe down the counter but wraps it around his hand nervously instead. The apartment seems suddenly empty and blurry.
He pushes his fist through the picture window with a stroke so clean and powerful it even surprises him. The shards go out, mostly, raining down on the sidewalk below, an unexpected and unpleasant downpour for anyone who might happen to be passing underneath. His fist stings a little, but the dishrag has taken the brunt of impact. Before he can stop himself he lashes out again, this time hitting the cabinet above him. The thin particle-board breaks under the impact and Paul does as well, sinking down to the floor, his feet pressed against the cabinets. A sob escapes, only just.
Outside the air is colder than expected and his throat balks at the idea of taking any more in: he coughs. He coughs again. His eyes adjust to the dimness of dusk. He plays with a mental map of the city and gets his bearings. He walks towards the bridge over the canal.
Traffic is beginning to thin out as the Financial District empties for the night. The clubs and restaurants beyond it, along the highway and the tangle of highway tracks, have yet to near capacity, and so there is everywhere the feel of a great mass of people fleeing, of emptiness and abandonment. Somewhere beyond is the murder of traffic on the highway, but that is merely a distant backdrop to the desperation of the sidewalk where Paul walks.
He can just about picture the place, a small greenish pub with an Irish name and a gold rail along the bar, a refined dive where the techs all go to drink after work. He has been there once or twice himself and found it a thoroughly comfortable place.
He runs across a wide stretch of road and reaches the courthouse. His steps are brisk. He has put on a button up shirt and a sport coat. It is the first time he has gotten dressed, in the typical sense of the word, in three weeks. No amount of tugging will get the end of the jacket’s sleeves to remain in place over the darkening bruises on his knuckles..
As he comes into the large green park downtown he notices for the first time the milky red lozenge hanging low over the city. The stacks of an ancient factory complex on the far side of the Financial District poke up into it, and it seems as if it is their long-snuffed output which marbles the surface of the moon. He cannot remember the last time he has seen a Harvest Moon, and so for a moment stops completely to stare at it, wordlessly, thoughtlessly.
The jostling of a passing couple brings his attention back down to the sidewalks beneath the tall buildings and to his mission of confronting the Head Tech. He marches along clenching and unclenching his fists, rehearsing in whispers a speech he feels confident will win his job back.
Again, at the break of the next block, the moon becomes visible and he pauses to look at it. He has seen a Harvest Moon before from a dozen vantage points around this city. He suspects that it always looks the same, but the long time between encounters weakens its image and makes it an entirely foreign sight this night. He would not be more surprised to see a neat circle of blood blossom on the sidewalk before him than he is to see this moon again, up there above the city, a glowing orange gone missing from some ethereal fruit cart..
He moves on again.
Inside of the bar Paul finds himself unable to move. He has stumbled through the crowd to the far side of the bar, away from the corner booth where the tech crew is sitting. They have seen him, but, unable to gather the courage to approach, he protects himself with the comforting idea that they haven’t. He finds an empty stool and stares into the pale white beer before him, its surface loose, accepting. Between jitter fingers he squeezes an orange. Its juice runs down his fingers and stings when it reaches the tiny unnoticed cuts between his fingers.
This sudden failing is as unexpected as the moon, or his dismissal: he cannot approach them. He sits at the bar long enough to drink half of his beer and yet still cannot seem to find the courage to walk across to where they sit, laboriously happy. If the choice was put to him now, he would rather put a gun in his mouth than walk across to that corner booth and talk with those men, and yet they are people just like him, no more and – he thinks with a gulp – no less. There is no reason to fear them.
He gulps at the beer, drinking in its fragrance, its earthy flavor, and its slightly disorienting fizz all at the once. His mouth feels full, but a pleasant full, not as it did when he came in an froze there in the entry-way, his tongue swollen with practiced words, when every eye in the half-empty room had turned to look on him in his impotence. The bartender comes by now and refills his glass and he hooks his feet underneath him and looks out across the room. From his pocket he pulls out a phone and slides his finger across the screen. He logs onto facebook and changes his employment status.
Paul swallows the second beer as quickly as he can manage and goes outside to look at the moon.