From Issue 2: The Girl's Desk

Alan Blaustein
Laurence Kent Halland glanced across his long, neatly rectangular office at the administrative assistant’s desk and sighed as his intercom buzzed. The cold-sounding young receptionist announced that his temp for the day had arrived, and he winced.
He’d had three temps in the past two weeks, each worse than the last. Through phone calls and bathroom breaks, very little was done and not very well despite his constant supervision. He gazed at the pile of work he had ready to be typed, and he wondered how much would actually get done.
As he rummaged through the pile, seeking what he hoped was the easiest task, the receptionist stepped through his opened office door.
“Here’s your temp, Mr. Halland.” Was there a hint of a sneer on those overly colored lips? About a week ago, he had a run-in with her over a call….
“Where is she?”
“He is right here.” The receptionist gestured over her shoulder.
Behind her was a man who seemed an inch or so shorter than she was, and the top of her head barely reached Laurence’s chin. How old was the man? He seemed younger at first due to his height, but Laurence thought he could see a few age lines.
The temp gazed up at him, mentally registering Laurence’s face. Remembering who looked like whom was a problem for most who went from office to office, and the similarities didn’t help. Halland, tall and slender, nearly blond, with a smooth face that was neither too round or too triangular, could have been close relative or even a twin of many of the men Adam had been assigned to.
Halland’s confusion was evident, and Adam was careful not to show that he noticed. In a completely neutral tone, he said, “Mr. Halland? I’m Adam.”
“You’re a…my temp?”
He stuck his head out of his office door, wondering if someone was playing a joke on him. But no one except the receptionist was near the office, and he gazed more closely at the temp. The slacks were obviously bargain-store bought, and the slightly worn-looking jacket was at least a year out of fashion, if not longer. The plain, dark-brown tie was of some fabric he couldn’t recognize.
Adam was looking at the work station, a desk-and-computer setup with overhead shelves holding worn reference books. The office was rectangular, and Halland’s desk and shelves were on the opposite end. A large window was set between the two areas, and the floor was clear except for a three-shelf bookcase under the large window.
Just then, the receptionist flashed another sly smile and walked quickly away.
Halland stared down at the shorter man. “I thought temps were girls.”
“Most are, Mr. Halland. Some men are, too.” Adam didn’t offer his hand, and Laurence didn’t offer his.
“Well, I have typing…can you type?” “Yes.”
“And a word processor–”
“I’ve used those.”
Halland gestured to the work area. “That will be your desk today.”
“Okay.” The temp nodded and walked quickly over to the desk chair. He paused for a moment to look over the desk and surrounding areas before seating himself. “Which word processor are you using?” He turned on the computer, and as symbols spread across the screen, he said, “Oh, I see it.”
Hesitantly, feeling a sudden sense of unreality, Laurence asked, “Do you know this?”
“Yes, I’ve worked with this one.” “Okay. When you’re settled in—” “I’m ready now.”
Just like that? The girls took at least a quarter hour to arrange their area, putting knick- knacks over the computer and hanging photos on the bulletin board, but the temp just sat down. His fingers flew across the keyboard, and he turned back to Laurence.
“Uh, I have a draft for you type.” That sense of unreality deepened as he took three sheets of legal paper from his desk and handed them to the temp. The man just didn’t look like he belonged there—that is the girl’s desk. He was also showing efficiency, something no one else in that spot had even come close to, but that just added to the unreality—Laurence couldn’t think of another word—of the man. He had long been able to fit everyone he encountered into one category or another, but this man didn’t seem to belong to any.
The clicking sound of fingers on a keyboard arose from the temp’s desk, and Halland went back to his suite of desk to read the day’s memos. About minutes later he heard the printer, and then the temp got up and walked over to him with the printout.
Halland thought he had detected a typo, and he felt a flash of anger. Adam had returned to his desk, and Halland stopped short as he started over to him.
He couldn’t yell at this man like he had other subordinates, and that flash of anger dissipated so suddenly that it seemed he had been drained of it. Feeling slightly helpless, all he could do was point out the error in a neutral tone of voice.
“No, I believe there are two “cs” in accessible, Mr. Halland.” The temp’s tone was as coldly neutral as if from a speaking machine. “I’ll check.”
He didn’t ask to, didn’t say anything like “may I?” And he corrected him…politely, but wasn’t Adam a subordinate, “administrative staff”? It wasn’t his place…but what was his place? The temp glanced up at the plain wooden shelf over the workstation and pulled down the dictionary, and all Halland could do was nod. He had to stretch for it, and he noticed that the edges of Adam’s jacket were rather frayed.
Adam sat down and opened the book in his lap and flipped through the pages. “Yes, here it is. Accessible, Mr. Halland.”
He held up the book, and Halland stared at the entry. “Oh, I see. Thanks for pointing that out.”
Coming from his own mouth the words sounded strange, and his voice faltered a little. Did he noticed the smallest hint of a sly smile on the temp’s face? He couldn’t mention that, he realized, and he couldn’t really mention anything to the man.
Something else was different from the other temps, and Halland couldn’t quite see it until Adam looked up and said he had to take lunch, agency rules. The entire morning, he had made exactly one phone call, and that was the required call to the agency. The bulletin board on the wall remained bare.
At exactly 1:55, the temp returned and sat right back down at his desk. More typing and a few corrections followed, and Halland was more mystified about him than ever. Adam conducted himself like a professional, but he wasn’t…could he be?
At the end of the day, Adam stepped over to him with his timesheet. “Please sign me out, Mr. Halland,” the temp said in that same neutral tone.”
Halland slowly took the time sheet, wondering if he should dismiss the man and wait for a girl. He glanced at the finished work and noticed the dictionary, which was still on the temp’s desk, and he decided he could live with the strangeness at least one more day.
“Yes, here.” Feeling muddled for no reason he could think of, Halland signed the slip. “I’ll be needing you again tomorrow, if you’re free.”
“Sure. Good night, Mr. Halland.”
Once, briefly, he had a permanent person. She was hired from the administrative assistant’s pool, and she had managed to aggravate him at least three or four times a week for the six months she was with him. No matter how carefully she tried to follow his instructions something was always wrong, and he felt as aggravated as if confronted with a machine that wouldn’t work properly. He paid no attention to her otherwise, and he had no idea she had been looking for other work even before she was assigned to him. She left with exactly one day’s notice.
That happened on a Thursday, and she informed him that afternoon that she would not be back on Friday and would be starting a new job on Monday.
And then came the temps, five minutes late, then ten minutes, and fifteen minutes late for the third young product of a business school.
Adam had come in five minutes early.
The word “professional” popped into Laurence’s mind as the temp strode in and said good-morning in a tone so neutral that no one could tell whether he meant it or not. He sat right at his desk chair and took the typing Halland handed him.
“I’ll be out of the office for part of the morning, Adam, but this should keep you busy.”
Adam flipped through the three sheets. “Okay, but if you have something else ready, I might have time to get started on it.”
“Well, I think….” Again, Laurence was nonplussed. All the others weren’t so—he couldn’t think of the word—so like him. “Ah, yes, here.” He handed over a second set of papers.
Halland returned around 2:00 that after noon, and a while later, an office messenger rather noisily pushed his cart into the office. Adam turned in his chair and stretched out his arm. “I’ll take his mail for him, if that’s okay.”
“Uh….” The messenger seemed confused for a moment, then a look of relief spread over his face. “Yeah, sure.”
Less noisily, he pushed his cart away. Adam walked over and laid the mail on Laurence’s desk, and his temporary employer scowled as he held up a yellow interoffice envelope, the kind that opened at the top and secured between two cardboard buttons and a string, and black lines stretched across both sides.
“This isn’t my department,” Halland said angrily, scowling. He reached for the phone, but Adam quickly got up.
“I can take care of that for you, Mr. Halland.”
That odd sensation on his face was a smile, Halland realized, surprised and slightly taken aback. “Oh, okay, Adam.” As he handed the envelope to him, he realized that he had addressed the temp by name for the first time.
Adam quickly dialed the mailroom. The same clerk rushed in, this time without his cart but with the correct envelope. Halland glanced up at him, but before he could say anything, Adam handed the envelope to the messenger. Looking even more relieved than before, the messenger darted out.
That afternoon, Halland decided to give him had a different kind of work. “My wife and I invest in art,” he explained, “and we need this material prepared. This isn’t…well, this is personal.”
To his surprise, Adam laughed, showing more emotion than Laurence had so far observed. “Mr. Halland, I’m not concerned at all about the content of my work. Personal, yes, but from my standpoint I am making a living. What could be more personal than that?”
Laurence laughed, and suddenly it seemed as if Adam had grown larger right in front of him, had filled out, taken on weight, height, even—
But he was still the same smaller person, but now he was three- dimensional, rather than—
How had Laurence thought about him? An adjunct to the chair? A mechanized typist? All this ran through Laurence’s head in the minute he handed the materials to Adam. “And you’ll check our spelling, too, right?”
“Sure!” Adam chuckled and turned back to his computer screen.
Later, the temptation to talk to Adam became overwhelming. “Tell me, do you do, uh, other kinds of work?”
“I know what you mean,” the temp chuckled, rather darkly. Halland felt a twinge of embarrassment at how easily the temp detected his real question. “I’m between publishing spots right now, editing. I told the agency to send me to publishing or non- profit…but I need the work, so here I am.”
“Do you like this kind of work, though?”
“Well, as a representative of my wonderful agency, I can’t disparage the client’s business.”
“Of course not.” Was he actually finding himself liking this unclassifiable individual? “But suppose you weren’t a representative,” Laurence smiled, secretly surprised at his sudden glibness, “What would you say then?”
“I’d say it sucks. This isn’t fun, believe me. But that publishing spot is out there. Do you like everything about your job?”
“No, not everything,” he admitted. “But the money, the lifestyle…the work is mostly okay. But some of the people here….”
You don’t want to know what secretaries in your personnel department said about you, Adam thought, keeping his expression neutral through long practice at dealing with men who were as alien to him as he was to Halland.
“The thing is, support people can get resentful and find ways to screw you around without breaking the rules. And the word “people” is what counts here.”
“You mean they are, uh—”
“They have feelings and lives outside the office, and I’m sure they aren’t happy to do the work they are doing. Anyway, is everything all right with the copy?”
“Copy?”
“Yes, what I typed,” Adam said patiently.
“Oh, publishing term. Okay. Yes, and thanks.”
Adam left for lunch, and Halland decided to go out himself for a change. As he walked through the office to the elevators, he first thought that a whole new support staff had suddenly been put in place. But they were the same people, he realized as he gazed at the faces. He noticed that they were trying not look at him. Something had changed about them, though, and he couldn’t make out what it was.
Feelings and lives…he continued the conversation Adam in his mind, and recalled how the temp had become a living, breathing, three-dimensional person to him. Was that what it was about the others? He stopped short at the realization that, yes, they were real people. He had never thought in those terms.
When he stepped into the street, his first thought was that something might have happened because so many people were out.
But nothing had occurred. He walked several blocks toward where he thought the crowd was larger, and he was puzzled to find that it wasn’t.
It wasn’t until he was home that he realized that the street was no more populous than before.
He just hadn’t noticed.

 

Alan Blaustein wrote and edited mass-market magazines for the Mavety Media Group, Ltd from 1991 to 2011. His short genre story, “The Worst,” was published in the July 2009 Necrotic Tissue digest (now defunct). His article “…And I’ll Send You The Money” appeared in New York Minute Magazine.