Archive for January, 2014

Fiction Fragment # 4: The Agency

The Agency


Regional headquarters. On the edge of a midwestern downtown. Row after row of metal desks arranged around a grouping of metal file cabinets. A table with boxes of index cards that provided a guide, like in a library, to the contents of the file cabinets.


Around the perimeter of the room were windowed offices so the managers and professionals could view and be viewed by the floor staff and by one another. Like a complex, segmented aquarium. Working the floor involved answering incessantly ringing telephones, interviewing people and retrieving files from the cabinets. The overall purpose of these activities is not germane to our story.


Tommy shared a spacious office with two old guys – an Irishman who went by the name of Murph and Jim who probably wasn’t that old but suffered from advanced multiple sclerosis and was confined to a wheel chair so his condition made him seem to be of advanced years. Jim talked with difficulty and when his head and arms moved jerkily it was as though he were a marionette. Murph told stories all day long but they paid him no mind because they had heard them all before.


Their jobs – Tommy and Murph and Jim – were to compile and analyze data from the floor operation and field offices. There were formulas and protocols to help them find meaning from the numbers and to write reports. The work was neither difficult nor time consuming leaving Tommy plenty of freedom to explore his surroundings. He found the floor workers fascinating in the same way that a child could become fixated with ants on an ant hill. He could also see into the immediately adjacent office housing three typists – Betsy, Danielle and Linda – who clickety-clacked their way through the reports and other documents. Betsy was a pretty girl with a  hillbilly accent. Danielle also had a pretty face but thighs the size of tree trunks and a big ass that she showcased proudly with short, tight skirts. Tommy imagined what it would be like between those thighs before concluding that he’d probably wind up a quadriplegic in a motorized chair like Jim’s. Linda was a towering redhead of about 6‘ 3”. She was a chain smoker and the most jovial of the three. Tommy always tried to give his reports to Betsy.


Daniel, the Director, had the only office without an interior window. He rarely emerged. Daniel had 16 children though he was still in his early forties. Apparently they were arriving in sets of two. Tommy had yet to meet the wife and kids. They hadn’t even shown up for the Christmas party. Tommy concluded that Ms. Daniel was so spent from her spawning that she lacked the time and energy for anything else. He likened her to a mother spider who gets eaten by the baby spiders once they’ve hatched. The Daniels, devout Catholics, had taken the be fruitful and multiply thing far too seriously but when the Director arrived early in the morning, slumped and haggard, Tommy thought he secretly harbored desires for subtraction or division.


Even though Tommy was the junior member of the staff by a margin measured in decades he was pretty good at the job or perhaps because of that very reason. He had yet to sour on the routine and treated the reports like writing short stories. He would sprinkle in double entendres and inside jokes and anecdotes and amusing language mostly to entertain Betsy until she confessed that she didn’t need to read a document to type it. Tommy waited for many weeks for praise or a reprimand from the home office before coming to the conclusion that nobody there was reading the damned things either.


So, unfulfilled by the work or Betsy he decided to shift his attention.


He learned that her name was Carlene. Carlene seemed to spend less time on the phone than the other floor workers and more time gliding in and out of the file cabinet pit. It was her walk that had caught his eye. Shoulders thrown back. Small, perky tits thrust forward. She swayed like a cutter through gentle waves. Rumor had it that she had a young daughter and was still married though the husband was absent from the scene.


It didn’t take much of a pretext to establish contact.


“Hi. My name is Tom,” he said with an outstretched hand which Carlene viewed with suspicion before a dainty grasp and a quick shake and release.


“I know,” she said.


“I wonder if you would help with something.”


“With what?”


“Well. You seem to know the files quite well.”




“I’m doing some research and I need some samples. A couple of dozen files of mixed age and gender.”


“Why can’t you get them yourself?”


“Like I said. You know the files quite well so you might do a better job of selecting them.”


“But what would I be looking for?”


“Um. Well. People with extensive experience with the agency. Not newcomers. It shouldn’t take you long with all your knowledge. And besides, I’m pretty busy right now.”


“You guys don’t seem to do much of anything except stare out onto the floor, at us.


”We analyze data and write reports.”


Carlene looked at Tommy doubtfully.


“It requires a lot of thinking,” he continued.


She squinted with a grimace. An almost painful expression. He would learn only later that it was a form of contorted smile.


“And I do my best thinking when I’m staring out the window.” Tommy tried to keep the desperation out of his voice.


“What if we need the files while you have them?”


“I won’t keep them long. And you can always come and get one if someone needs it. Or call my extension and I’ll bring it to you.” Tommy’s smile had hardened like a clay mask.


“How will I know if someone other than me is looking for a file that you have?”


“You can tell them.”


“One by one? In a group meeting or something? How?



Sensing his helplessness and exasperation, she took pity. “When do you need them?”


Tommy visibly sighed with relief at her acquiescence. “No rush. Before the end of the week.”


“Okay,” she said and walked away.


Tommy felt the cool dampness in his armpits as he walked back to his office realizing that Murph and Jim and Betsy were watching him. He slinked behind his desk without making eye contact and pretended to read a document while he waited for his heartbeat to return to normal.




He had waited patiently for the files. On Friday, after he had gathered his coat, she intercepted him as he was leaving. A stack of files in her arms, clutched to her bosom.


“I thought you forgot,” Tommy said.


“No. I just thought it might be best if you did your research over the weekend when we’re closed.”


“Good thinking.”


She walked away with eyes in the back of her head because she knew he stood riveted watching the impressive show she puts on.


He took the files into his office. Murph and Jim were already gone, Jim having been collected by his twenty-something daughter who though mobil was already showing the herky-kerky movement that would someday doom her.


Tommy sat at his desk to collect his thoughts until he realized Betsy was still there. In her coat. Standing beside her desk, talking on the phone but staring at him with an ambiguous expression. He managed a feeble smile then got up and left, leaving the files behind.


Here are the things he thought about as he drove home to his young wife and infant son. Words, music notes, numbers, DNA. It’s all the same. Finite entities made interesting by almost infinite combinations. Yes there were patterns. Duplicates and so on. The way his wife, Melanie, vaguely resembled Natalie Wood. Maybe it will all be over when all of the combinations have been exhausted. All the roads traversed. Entropy. Stasis. But he knew it wasn’t true and that it was a stupid train of thought but it beat thinking about Melanie’s tuna noodle casserole or hamburger helper or whatever godawful culinary travesty awaited him or Carlene or Betsy or how he found himself in this predicament in the first place. Although he looked forward to Tommy Junior bouncing on his knee and the thought made him smile genuinely for the first time that day.




On Monday of next week Tommy felt he was in a fishbowl. He tried not to look out onto the floor because people were looking at him looking and likely knew what he found so captivating.


Carlene seemed to venture closer to the fishbowl than before. Swaying more. Chum in the water.


When he’d given the files back to her, she displayed the same grimace that passed for a smile and asked if they had been useful and he said they had while he studied her  lush hair that based on her eyebrows and vaguely olive complexion was certain to be at least one shade lighter than natural. Like dark, rich honey.


Betsy who had so painfully neglected him now viewed him with interest, looking up from her typing to glance through the window that separated their offices, rising from her chair when he entered the typing pool to take the sheets from his hands rather than allowing him to place them in the in-box. Smiles. Eye contact. Touching of hands. Clasping of arms. All of the signs of courtship were suddenly there. She even winked once. The heat of his blush had surprised him.




Friday nights had always been bowling nights with buddies back in his single days. They didn’t really give a shit about the bowling so much as the comradeship and the drinking in the tiny bar in the bowling alley.


That hot August night after several Highlifes, Tommy, who was well acquainted with the gutter ball, couldn’t even manage that. Instead, his ball flew into the the adjacent lane where two pretty young women, one of them vaguely resembling Natalie Wood, were enjoying themselves.


Later, in the darkness of his parked car in the Gala Bowl parking lot, Tommy imagined he was fucking the real Natalie Wood instead of the drunk bowler he had met only a couple of hours ago.


After 6 months of rigorous and enthusiastic coupling Melanie announced that she was pregnant. A month after that startling proclamation they were married by a Justice of the Peace in a private ceremony with only immediate family present including Melanie’s glowering father who had threatened to kick Tommy’s ass even before the pregnancy. Tommy could still remember, with no small amount of shame, the ceremony with Melanie holding a small bouquet of flowers over her blossoming belly. Remembered thinking that it was the mistake of his tender young life and, if he didn’t find a way to disengage, it would probably still be viewed as singularly catastrophic in his old age.


On their wedding night, instead of screwing, they had the honest discussion they should have been having all along. Melanie confessed that she was no more thrilled than was he but they had made their bed together and now had to lie in it for the sake of the child.  She told him all of this while drinking a lot of wine though even in those days they knew it wasn’t a good idea in her condition but their mothers had done it and their mother’s mothers to no ill effect.


Tommy told her that as soon as he had a good job and could support her and the child he’d take ample care of things despite the living arrangements. At least he thinks he had said that. Over and over. Even though he had learned that the dialogue in his head rarely matched what came out of his mouth.


Now he had full-time professional employment but the pay was still too low for them to live apart and there was no longer any discussion along these lines. They had mutely decided to make the best of it but not without consolations. Tommy Jr. was a good boy and father and son loved one another unconditionally. Melanie did her best to play a role she had neither the training nor talent for except for the skill Tommy had discovered from the onset. Melanie was very good in bed.




The only other room at Regional headquarters without interior windows besides the Director’s office and naturally the bathrooms was the break room, a tiny cubbyhole with a few tables and vending machines offering candy and soft drinks and sandwiches in foil packages and thin, bitter coffee that nobody drank because there were coffee pots brewing throughout the offices and on the staff floor and though it was as harsh and burnt and bitter as the vending coffee it was free. Yet the vending coffee machine persisted, defiant till the very end.


There was also a coffee shop downstairs in the lobby. Tommy and Murph and sometimes Steve and Duane and Lucille and a few others would patronize it even though they had to pay because it offered better coffee and the place was bright and cheery and the windows looked out onto the tree lined avenue. The floor staff couldn’t afford such frivolous luxuries. Tommy liked to sit at the window and watch the pretty women, in and out of the shops and the bank across the street. It reminded him that there was another life outside the Agency but at that time he couldn’t quite imagine what it might be like.


Usually though they played cards in the break room. Hearts, spades or euchre. Tommy liked euchre. He liked being Jim’s euchre partner. With awkwardness and difficulty Jim could still manage the cards if someone else would shuffle for him and he took extreme risks, probably because it was way past the day for him to be conservative. He’d call trump on a couple of pedestrian trump cards and an off-suit Ace. Somehow he had the knack of calling into Tommy’s hand.




Just about the time when Tommy had decided that euchre fit his level of risk tolerance and he’d better just leave everything else the fuck alone, Carlene walked into the fishbowl and asked him if he’d like to go to the bank with her to deposit their checks and maybe grab a hot dog and a Coke at the stand on the corner. It was a Friday. Payday was every other Friday and that was the only unremarkable aspect of the event. No-one on the floor ever came into a fishbowl unless they were summoned and that rarely had a good outcome. Carlene did this full voiced and without reservation with Murph and Jim and with Betsy looking on though she couldn’t have heard or understood what was transpiring.


They stood in line for the teller without speaking and deposited their checks. Tommy took enough out in cash for the weekend and to pay for Carlene’s hotdog. They went back to the Agency where there were two benches out front and with mustard and relish  their breath talked about their marital entanglements. They changed the subject to the fictitious research project when Linda came out briefly for a smoke break. Linda greeted them and smiled bemusedly. Tommy was sure Carlene and he would be the afternoon gossip in the typing room.


“I’m a husband and a father,” he had said abruptly, consciously making sure it got said, that he didn’t say it only in his head. Rather than being shocked and throwing the rest of her meal at him, she said, “I’ve already been told. I only wanted to know if you would tell me yourself.”


“Who told you?” he asked.


“It doesn’t matter”, she said, “it only matters that you ‘fessed up on your own.” Then after her weird smile-grimace she added, “I’m sure you know my situation, as well.”


“I only know that you have a situation. I don’t know the details.”


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