It was one of those nameless gray buildings that could be seen from the street only if Larry craned his neck to almost vertical. He never had, of course, having heard when he first arrived in the city that only tourists unaccustomed to tall buildings did so. He’d never thought about it until he’d heard the social injunction against such a thing; it was now one of the things he thought about almost every day as he rode to and from work in gritty blue buses.
Inside the building, the constant sound of recirculating dry air made Larry feel as though he were at some beach in hell, listening to the ocean, or more accurately at a gift shop in a landlocked state in hell listening to the ocean as represented by the sound a conch shell makes when he holds it up to his ear. The buzz of the fluorescent bulbs overhead sounded like the hot sun bearing down all day in this metaphor, a favorite of Larry’s.
His cubicle was made of that cheap, grayish-blue plywood that cubicles are made of; inside it, his computer sat on his desk as Larry liked to think an eagle perched on a mountainous crag much like the crag that was his desktop wallpaper. The walls were unadorned except for a few tacked-up papers in report covers explaining his script. When Larry made a call to a potential customer it always went the same way:
“Hi, Mr/Mrs (customer’s name). My name is Larry and I’m with (client’s name), and was just wondering if I could have a minute of your time?”
“Oh, no, sir; I don’t want whatever it is you’re selling.” (customer terminates call).
Larry had only ever read the first line of the script on the wall. Sometimes he had an urge to read more of it, to be ready when a customer expressed interest in whatever it was Larry was selling, but something in him—he liked to think it was an actor’s intuition that told him it was best to improvise, though he worried it was the futility of it—kept him from reading further into the script. So when Jane said, “Sure, I have nothing better to do,” he was thrown completely off guard.
“Um, alright Mrs … Mrs. Loring, I was wondering—”
“It’s Ms, not Mrs. Em ess. Miz. No ‘r,’ Larry.” She sounded patient, as if she were used to correcting people about the particulars of her title. But how often can that happen? Larry thought, and he was suddenly deeply confused.
“Oh, sorry, ma’am, uh, Miz Loring, but I wanted to know whether you’d like to, ah, buy some…” Larry put his head in his hand and started twirling his hair in his finger, a nervous habit he’d had since childhood, and closed his eyes tightly. “Why don’t you have anything better to do?”
Immediately he knew it was the wrong question. Even before the silence on the other end moved past impatience and into stunned, Larry had a mini-drama written and staged within his mind: she would call customer service and complain loudly into the representative’s ear. The rep would send a memo to the head of telemarketing requesting disciplinary action, and the head would delegate the action to Larry’s immediate supervisor, David. David would saunter over to Larry’s cubicle sometime within the next week, depending on when he got the memo and when he felt like crossing fifty feet of office space, and have one of what David liked to call “chats” but what Larry knew were lectures. After about half an hour of “chatting” David would give Larry a warning and ask him to come in for overtime to make up for the discretion, and walk back slowly to his office, making small talk with the cubicled workers on the way. The world suddenly felt too small for Larry, or he too big for it.
Quietly, with the same patience but with a bigger pain, Jane said, “My husband just left me and I thought you could take my mind off of him for just a minute,” and hung up.