is an online magazine of the literary arts.
2 June 2004 | Vol. 4, No. 2
In Search Of
His cubicle wall shuddered for the third time in the last hour, and he automatically began fishing fallen thumbtacks and papers from the crevice where the wall met his desk. He'd tried talking to her. He'd tried making a joke of it. But no matter what he said, Patricia Trumble's enthusiasm, speed, and girth propelled her rolling desk chair into their shared wall space repeatedly each day.
"Oh my God," she said this time, to no one in particular. "I just took another dominatrix call. What is it about Wednesdays? Tie me up, down, all around. Whew! It's really more a Friday kind of call. People getting freaky in the middle of the week now. Or maybe they're better planners, looking for weekend dates."
She continued to talk, but he tuned her out. It was a coping mechanism.
The two of them were among five advertising accounts managers for the city's entertainment and political newsweekly, but they shared a small section of the office away from the others in the paid personals department. They accepted text and payment for personal ads they would type up, format, and ship to the layout department.
"I mean, would you place an ad like that?" she said. "Or maybe I should ask, would you respond to an ad like that?"
He kept his head down, focused on his computer screen, but Patricia stood up so she could see him over the cubicle wall. "Yoo-hoo! Earth to Paul, come in Paul. Mr. Cake, Patricia's on line one." She giggled at her own joke.
Patricia, a woman of indeterminate age, gazed at him with clear blue eyes. Her teeth were straight and pearly. She'd have better luck meeting someone if she lost weight, Paul thought. While not exactly obese, she carried enough extra pounds to be winded walking up the three flights to the office. And he hated when they both walked in together from the parking lot. Her huffing made him uncomfortable, as did her attention, which seemed to be a cross between flirting and bullying.
"What? I didn't hear you. I was busy. Working." He sighed. He actually had been staring at the calendar, trying to calculate how many more months he needed under his belt before he'd earn his two-week vacation.
"Yeah, right. Your phone hasn't rung in 20 minutes. You didn't hit 'silent,' did you?"
He looked at his phone and saw the 'silent' feature, which transferred all his calls to Patricia's line, was on. He punched it off. "No," he lied.
"Oh. Well, this woman was inquiring as to how much information should she include, like whips, or just the leather."
His phone rang, and he cut off Patricia by taking the call. Because the two of them fielded so many calls, they used headsets and wore them whenever they were at their desks. He would sometimes leave work and notice his reflection in car windows, his gelled hair scrunched down by the black plastic headband that connected to the mouthpiece.
Patricia annoyed him by watching over his shoulder as he clicked in the boxes on the computer screen. The box marked "Single White Female" created "SWF," and all he had to do was click. The computer also formatted the page layout. It was a pretty easy job. But sometimes the hectic pace combined with Patricia's overbearing presence got to him. He'd wanted a job at the city's daily newspaper, but the editors told him he needed actual experience. In the two years since he'd earned his master's degree in journalism, this was the closest he'd come. His collection of post-college jobs also included car salesman, Abercrombie & Fitch employee, and temp-for-hire.
When they were on the phone with customers, his and Patricia's cubicles produced constant chatter, keyboard clacking, a mostly businesslike demeanor mixed with an occasional neutral joke. (They used caution in joking with the lonely-hearted—their sensitivities colored everything. "They put the 'personal' in Personals!" editor-in-chief Bix Crawford would say, often enough to be grating.) After hanging up, especially if the boss was out, Patricia liked to give loud, opinionated post-call commentary that the rest of the department tended to ignore.
"Anything good?" Patricia asked him, before he'd had time to place the receiver back in its cradle. She often tried to coax the same type of commentary from him. "Come one, was it a sexy one?"
He thought of a few dirty, inappropriate responses. He already knew he would call his girlfriend, Sheila, about this conversation. But he held back from Patricia.
"Standard," he said. "The usual."
She peered at the screen over his shoulder. "Does that say dog? It says dog! SWF seeks SWM with dog! Sweet Jesus. So that's your idea of standard? What do they do with the dog? Think they let him up on the bed? I bet collars are involved."
"Maybe she just wants someone to go to the park with," he said. "Maybe she just likes dogs."
"A little touchy about the dogs, are we? Sorry I asked." She went back to her cubicle, muttering her usual refrain: "Oh, the sad, sad, people out there. What happened in your childhood, sweetie?"
He didn't know who she meant this time: him, or the SWF seeking man with dog.
When Patricia left for lunch, he dialed Sheila at the insurance office where she worked. Patricia usually got take-out from Charlie's, the Chinese restaurant one block over. She'd bring back multiple grease-soaked brown paper sacks carrying sticky spareribs, two or three large Styrofoam bins containing fried rice, crunchy noodles, and a small vat of sugared soda to drink. Her keyboard suffered. Fingertips coated in grease and sauces handled the keys, and letters or periods or the spacebar would get stuck in place. Roger, the company tech expert, semi-annually visited Patricia's cubicle with an extra keyboard tucked under his arm. When he'd leave, the others could hear his muttering.
"Use a napkin for gods sake. A wet-nap. Charlie's gives 'em out for free."
Patricia kept her top drawer filled with the unused, square, moist towelettes from the Chinese take-out. Paul had never seen her use one, though more than once he witnessed her tossing one inside the drawer.
Sheila didn't answer the phone. She must have been at lunch, too. He left her a message, then tried her cell phone. He and Sheila had been together for almost a year. He spent nights at her apartment, but had no plans to move in with her or even get married. They had time. Sheila answered on the third ring. She was in the middle of lunch and sounded distracted.
"Hey, baby," he said. "Yep, I'm the only one here."
He and Sheila talked about Patricia every day. Sheila reveled in the Paul's stories, ever since the two women had met six months ago at a company party, shortly after Paul started the job. Sheila, never one for tact, had asked Patricia when she was due. Patricia set down her cocktail and napkin on an end table in Bix Crawford's ultra-modern living room, patted the rolls of her unpregnant belly, and confided, "Well first of all, sweetie, I've got to get myself LAID. That usually comes before getting knocked-up, if I'm not mistaken. It's been awhile, but I think I still remember how it's done. Know anybody who can handle the likes of me?" She eyed Paul across the room, nudging Sheila painfully in the arm with her surprisingly bony elbow. "What, I bet he's wild, huh? He likes to get all the pervert calls. Bet he likes it all dirty."
Sheila had backed off with a muttered "Whatever." She rejoined Paul across the room, and Patricia waggled her fingers at them as Sheila whispered angrily in Paul's ear. Ever since, when Sheila asked about Paul's day, she specifically meant Patricia stories. From her desk job at the insurance agency, she'd call for updates in the middle of the day.
Though he'd interrupted Sheila's lunch, she was eager for the latest installment. He described the noise with which she devoured a bag of microwave popcorn that morning—Sheila particularly liked details of Patricia's eating habits. Then he told her about Patricia's interest in the dog call.
"She won't stop talking about sex," he told Sheila. "She's a fiend. I think she's about five minutes away from jumping me."
He heard a rustle, and suddenly flushed when he understood the noise came from Patricia's desk. Usually he heard her coming a mile away; he didn't know how she had managed to surprise him. He awkwardly tried to save face. "Yeah, yeah, the callers. They're pretty crazy. Well, listen, I've got to get going. I've got a call coming in." He hung up with Sheila, and his phone rang. Patricia's phone was ringing, too. Throughout the day, in the lulls between calls, it was totally silent. Patricia still hadn't spoken to him by the time Bix Crawford came by their desk pod late in the afternoon. He pinned a flier on the outside cubicle wall's bulletin board, updating the "Your Rights As an Employee" information the company lawyers provided.
"Kids, how's business?" Bix asked them. He rarely waited for replies. "Patty, listen, we're having an editor's meeting, and I wondered if you could sit in. Paul can handle the phones. It's about one of the ads you took—the guy who goes by 'White Male.' Just White Male, no single, no searching. Remember him at all? People are calling left and right. This guy has become an instant celebrity. He's loved and hated."
Patricia stood up, blushing. "Yeah, I think I remember. I get so many calls. But his. Yeah, it stood out a little. OK, sure."
Paul was curious—and a little jealous—about the meeting. He grabbed last week's paper and opened to the personals. There he was, just as Bix said:
STOP BLAMING IT ALL ON ME.
NOT EVERYTHING'S MY FAULT.
I'VE GOT MY OWN PROBLEMS.
GET OVER IT.
The advertising department wanted to run the ads on the side panels of buses, on park benches, anywhere the newsweekly's name could be attached. They had to set up a second voice mailbox to accept all the calls White Male was receiving. Other calls to the main switchboard both praised and criticized White Male—and the paper. Some saw the ad as political, racist, or a joke.
"It's a freedom-of-speech issue," Bix, a white male, said. "The guy's got a right to express himself. Hey, it's about time somebody said something like this. Nice job, Patty, way to land a real moneymaker!"
As if she had anything to do with it, Paul thought.
In his kitchen that night, he popped open two bottles of imported Belgian ale, handing one to Sheila. He took a long swig before launching into his regular tirade about the day's events. He felt guilty for what he'd said, sure that Patricia had overheard him. Then he felt angry at Patricia for making him feel guilty.
"She's like this hippo, right?" Paul demonstrated his co-worker's heavy, rolling waddle. "But she's a hippo on too much caffeine. A really loud, obnoxious hippo. Or maybe she's a drunk hippo. It's all like 'Bang! Whap! Fer Chrissakes!' Knocking over the cubicle, trampling small children. Every move she makes is an event."
Sheila giggled, egged him on, but he was beginning to feel worse. He drank from his beer and looked through the cupboard for something to eat. Sheila shrugged off her tailored black suit jacket and sipped her beer, smearing her lipstick on the bottle.
"Order a pizza?" he asked.
"You know I'm on Atkins. Get me a salad, please." Sheila already was as thin as a catalog model, but she insisted she needed to lose more weight. She claimed her brown curls and green eyes shone more when she hit her target weight, which was ten pounds lighter than the recommendation for her height, five-foot-five.
She handed him the phone. "Hurry, Patricia's probably about to tie up their line with her order."
He dialed, facing the shiny black door of the microwave, and in its reflection he could see the usual headset indentation in his hair. He smoothed it out with his hand, feeling the stiffness of dried hair gel. Sheila wouldn't touch his hair, but she often told him it looked good and she liked how it smelled.
Girls always had liked his looks, and he'd always had girlfriends. He was of medium height, strong but not threatening, good-looking in a forgettable way. Even when