Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Without a ghost (I)

She stayed on in the office after the others had left, doing a bit of cleanup on an article that had been passed on to her for a quick polish. The author of the piece was capable enough, she thought, but he had seemed to lose interest in the assignment halfway and left the ending in a bit of a muddle. She couldn't blame him, really; it was hackwork for both of them, just something to fill in some back pages and provide a plausible teaser for the cover. She had met him once or twice, but he hadn't made much of an impression: just another awkward young man with a disposable container of coffee in one hand and a disordered valise in the other, coming in to drop off a typescript or pick up research materials, waiting for an editor who was either stretching out a lunch hour or engaged in a long telephone conversation behind closed doors. She was sure he either had other jobs elsewhere or more likely was occupied, like the rest of the freelancers, in searching for one. Between running from one prospect to another and going to movies with his friends he had managed to find sufficient time to sit down at a typewriter and slap the piece together, knowing as well as she did that it would be taken apart and reassembled before it ever saw print. She was grateful not to have had to write it herself from scratch, as she often enough did without earning — or wanting — a byline for her trouble.

Bound volumes of back issues lined the cheap wooden bookcase across from her desk, along with a shelf of style manuals she rarely needed to refer to. She kept a jade plant and a few African violets on a white enameled stand by the window; she was known to have a way with plants and would often be delegated to rescue specimens that had been neglected by the occupants of the other offices. Her overcoat hung on a coat stand behind the door, next to the empty waste receptacle in which she stored her umbrella, her one essential and cherished accessory. She couldn't be bothered with a handbag and used her briefcase instead, or a small purse for special occasions. Her glass-topped desk was kept bare at all times, with the exception of her phone, a rolodex, a wooden box for incoming mail, a stapler, and a caddy containing her writing implements as well as a collection of paper clips and binder clips in various sizes. Everything else, except for whatever manuscript she happened to be working on, was tucked away in a pair of three-drawer metal cabinets. She favored a straight-backed, padded wooden mission chair on casters, purchased in an antique shop in the Village, which allowed her to access her files without having to get up. There was another, simpler, wooden chair in the corner, which was for the convenience of visitors. On no occasion did she require a third chair.

As evening advanced the lights came on in a few of the offices across the street, though most would be dark until morning. Directly opposite her window, through partly opened vertical blinds, she could see the heavy-set, white-haired man in shirtsleeves and tie who never seemed to take an early evening off. His office was cluttered with boxes and file cabinets and stacks of what looked like blueprint tubes. Over the years she had watched this accumulation grow until, eventually, it had begun to build up from the floor just inside the glass; within a few months she expected he would disappear from view entirely. There was a scraggly locust tree outside her window, though she could only see its topmost branches. The wind had blown a strand of what looked like crepe paper up from the sidewalk, and it fluttered now among the leaves, impaled on a thorn.

At around 7:30 the phone rang. It was her sister, calling from New Jersey to say that her youngest boy had come down with the measles and that the dinner planned for the coming Saturday would have to be postponed. They didn't talk for long — she could hear crying in the background — and when she had set down the receiver she felt thirsty and decided to stretch her legs. The fluorescent lights in the hall were always left on for her; she never really felt afraid working in the evening alone but the illumination made the empty corridors a bit cheerier and the faint hum of the bulbs afforded her an illusion of company. The water cooler was at the end of the hall, outside the copy room in the building's corner; from there the corridor turned sharply, leading out to the reception desk, the deserted lobby, and the locked glass doors. She took a paper cup from the dispenser and pressed down on the valve, then waited as the water trickled out, cooling the cup against her hand as it filled. From where she stood she could see Sixth Avenue and the fleets of yellow taxis bustling through the night. There was a clock, an advertisement for a watch company, on the building on the other side; it had been broken for months and read 11:41. She threw the empty cup in the basket, cast an indifferent glance at the collection of burned-down butts in the ashtray on top of the file cabinet beside her, and returned to her office.

It took her only a few minutes more to finish her evening's work, but she didn't hurry to leave. She dropped the finished copy in the bin outside her chief's office, knowing that he would barely glance at it in the morning before sending it on to the production department. She sharpened a few pencils and brushed the shavings into the wastebasket, looked briefly at the mail before tossing most of it in the same place, and straightened the desktop glass, which as always had worked its way a fraction of an inch askew during the day's labors. Across the street the white-haired man was still working at his desk, though she saw that a fifth of liquor now stood beside his hand. Beyond him the hall appeared dark and labyrinthine.

She took her coat down from the stand, put it on, and gathered up her umbrella and valise. Flipping the wall switch, she left the door to her office open behind her and headed down the hall, turning off most of the fluorescent lights as she reached the corner. The reception area lay ahead of her, dimly lit and silent. She didn't know the new receptionist very well, in fact she wasn't sure what this one's name was — Terry? Tammy? — something like that, and guessed that she too would move on as soon as she had the chance.

She turned the stiff metal knob that secured the door, stepped through the opening, locked the door with her key, and pressed the button next to the elevator. As she waited she looked down the dark hallway, past the water cooler, at the faint glaze of light on the window that looked out over the street.

No comments: