A short story for a change. The slow tale of new joblessness.
White Zone (Paralipsis)
There were two forces acting on Nolan when he passed through the glass double doors. One was an earnest desire to leave the mind-numbing world of random digit dialing behind. The other was his boss’s boot. Nolan stumbled down the shallow flight of fake marble steps and found himself standing uncomfortably close to a car stopped in the white zone outside. A young boy in a child seat pouted up at him through the Honda’s dark window. Not a foot from Nolan’s elbow, a woman—the boy’s mother, judging by the empty driver’s seat—was giving another son—this one a teenager—a tight hug.
“Call us when you get there, sweetie.”
She had pulled back and was fretting with the older son’s backpack straps.
Nolan watched in silence, paralyzed by proximity, as the boy disengaged from his mother and disappeared down the nearest escalator into the BART station. Once the boy was gone, Nolan and the mother turned to face each other.
“O-oh, hi,” she said.
The mother smiled nervously, opened her mouth to speak, then turned and scurried around her car with all the grace her bulk afforded her. She slid into the driver’s seat and began talking to the boy in the back. Nolan couldn’t tell by sight but he figured that the mother’s window was open. He heard her asking her son questions over the roar of traffic. Was he alright, had she taken too long, would he like some cheerios, did he miss Larry already. Through all this the boy kept his eyes trained on Nolan. Finally the car pulled away from the curb to rejoin the herd. Nolan leaned against the disused parking meter, a holdover from before the curb’s acquisition of its current white coat, and took a deep breath.
Opting not to capitalize on this opportunity to reminisce about the last time he’d seen his own older brother, Nolan looked back at the doors of the office building behind him. When he’d been kicked out by his boss he’d imagined for a second that he’d keep moving, maybe let momentum carry him out into the street, where the endless stream of cars would guard his body against being at rest. But the white zone had been occupied, and its occupant had barred him from the street.
Nolan didn’t want to think about his job or how he had lost it, how in this economy he was acting the part of the spoiled brat to pass up on employment. It would have been convenient if his phone had buzzed, alerting him to new RSS items or tweets, distracting him from his condition. Three minutes of denial passed before it ceded to his wishes. Nolan flicked through the news with robotic fingers, dismissing the notifications. He didn’t read anything, barely skimmed the headlines. There was no enjoyment in Nolan’s news subscriptions. There was only ritual. He was just going through the motions, the same motions he’d repeated every fifteen waking minutes for years. The same motions which had tipped his boss off to his laziness and ultimately spelled the ‘end’ in his dead-end job.
A red Ford pickup truck pulled up. A middle-aged man with neatly-trimmed facial hair got out and walked around to the parking meter. He fumbled with it briefly, attempting to push a quarter into its disabled slot. Finally he threw his hands up in frustration and was about to walk away without paying when he caught Nolan looking at him. He narrowed his eyes, then forced a friendly laugh.
“What’re you starin’ at? Thing’s outta service.”
Nolan nodded. He didn’t want to mention that the man’s pickup was not in a real parking space. Behind the amiable, well-groomed face lurked a volatile physicality. Nolan quirked one corner of his mouth in an attempt to smile casually.
“Good,” said the man, puffing his chest before striding three yards down the block into the Quiznos.
Nolan spotted an approaching parking attendant and didn’t want to be there when the Quiznos customer discovered the imminent ticket. With what seemed like the most effort he’d put into anything that week, he shifted his weight forward and began walking. He passed a pawn shop, a nail salon, and two boarded-up vitrines before stopping at a red light. An old woman was waiting at the same crosswalk. The light changed, and the small dog on the woman’s leash began yapping furiously. Nolan sympathized with it. The rattling sound made by the traffic control apparatus to signal crossing time was irritating to say the least.
“I won’t tell you how many times that noise has put me in a similar frenzy, ma’am,” he said as he increased his pace to match the woman’s.
“Snickers isn’t frenzied,” muttered she, pointedly not making eye contact.
Nolan sighed and slowed down, letting Snickers and the woman leave him behind.
The sky was white with thin but pervasive fog that morning. There was light enough to see by, and it wasn’t particularly cold, but despite this the weather still weighed on Nolan. He’d just escaped the dreary white walls of his job, just plunged down the white steps, just loitered on the white curb. He wanted something bluer, some sort of sign from the natural world that maybe it was okay of him to quit. Or to be fired. He didn’t particularly want to check his memory for which of the two scenarios was reality, so he focused on the blue and made for the square opposite the opera house.
Ringed by awkwardly out-of-place palm trees, the fountain in the center of the square pumped colorless liquid in a two-foot diameter arc. Nolan looked down at the basin around the fountain. The color of aquamarine tiles leaked through the water and tinted it blue. The occasional metallic glint betrayed the presence of coins in the fountain. Nolan crouched down at the lip of the basin and tried to count how much money had been thrown away in this spot. He lost count at $10.72, amazed at how many old-school silver dollars there were but unsure of whether he’d counted that one penny one time too many or twice.
Uncertain where else to go, Nolan wandered over to the nearest park bench and sat down. Pigeons scuttled to and fro like all the pickup-driving Quiznos customers, big chests and stately faces. Cars roared by in all four directions. He’d been hoping for a quieter scene—a break from the incessant noise of his compatriots making their phone calls all around him—but the traffic noise was mostly white noise, and the aggression of drivers was nothing compared to the slights Nolan had received on the phone day in and day out for months. Most people seemed to respond to the center’s calls with a seething “fuck you.” He frowned as he realized that his crappy job had dropped his standards so low that the world had become a better place.
It hadn’t been so bad at first.
At first, Nolan had likened his job to a white parking spot: three minutes for unloading passengers or mail. That was what he had told himself. By the end of the second week, however, Nolan had yet to make a single phone call last more than three minutes. He had joked to Harry, his then-cubicle mate, that maybe everyone on his list was on a cell phone in a loading zone. The response had been flat and automatic: “I don’t think you need me to tell you how silly that was.” And while it had been a lame joke, Nolan had realized something in telling it: those abortive calls were what was brief. Not his stay at the call center.
Harry’s words had stuck with Nolan, and he had reused them that morning when his boss Paula told him he didn’t need to waste cell minutes making his allotted calls for the company. Her statement was, in fact, quite silly: he was neither making company calls nor wasting cell minutes. He was dismissing RSS notifications. There he’d stood, cell phone in hand, shirking his duties entirely, and when Harry’s dismissive words resurfaced and issued themselves from his lips, his boss had grinned wide. First Nolan had remembered that she’d been looking for the perfect opportunity to boot him; then he had remembered that he’d been looking for the perfect opportunity to quit. When Paula had rejoined with, “I don’t think you need to come to work tomorrow,” he had grinned right back.
Nolan checked the time on his phone after marking a couple hundred new RSS items ‘read.’ Eleven o’clock. That exchange and the subsequent firing had only taken place an hour ago.
Issues of employment and rent struggled to dominate Nolan’s consciousness, but he beat them back and focused steadily on the fountain. He would have plenty of time to worry about his problems tomorrow. For now he was alone, with no immediate obligations, basking in the tranquility of the world, in the absence of wired telephones and canned introductions.
It was in this state, eyelids growing heavier, only dimly aware of whatever passersby happened to be traversing the square, ignoring his cell phone’s occasional buzzed alerts in his pocket, that Nolan heard his name being called.
He started back toward wakefulness as Ron, his latest cubicle mate, sauntered up.
“I’m sorry about the—well, you know.” Ron smiled with half his face. “Shit sucks.”
Nolan nodded again.
“But enough on that. We don’t need to talk about it if you don’t want to. Tell me something else, buddy. You always stashed yourself away somewhere during our lunch breaks—”
“Oh, is is it lunchtime?” Nolan laughed at himself as he checked his phone for the time. Noon. “Right, lunch. When I saw you, I wondered if she hadn’t let everyone go.”
Ron chuckled and made a motion with his neck like he wasn’t completely comfortable.
“No, no. I still have my job, I think. I hope. Yeah, it’s just lunchtime. Listen, you avoided me like a ninja for the whole summer and now I finally catch you. Might seem weird now that you’re gone, technically, but is it too late to grab cheesesteaks together?”
Ron stretched expressively and shifted his weight away from Nolan. Nolan didn’t have a good impression of the guy, but he also didn’t have a good read on him. His negative impression was based only on the brown-nosing tone Ron affected whenever their boss popped her head into the cube. They’d shared a couple square feet since May and never had a real conversation. He’d tried to develop friendships with various coworkers in the past, starting with Harry, but he’d had the job for what seemed like ages while cubicle mates came and went as though it truly were temporary. That, and most of his own attempts at outreach ended with him in a crosswalk and his would-be interlocutor hurrying away, dog in tow…
“I’d love to,” he said slowly, standing. What was weird, he knew, was how he had avoided his cubicle mate. That Ron should catch him off-guard like this and still be interested in sharing a meal was a welcome coincidence.
“No need to effuse,” joked Ron, betraying a hint of surprise at Nolan’s acquiescence.
It was Nolan’s turn to chuckle. As the two men walked away from the fountain, Ron lit a cigarette for himself and offered one to Nolan as an afterthought. Nolan turned it down with a hand gesture.
“You probably don’t need me telling you that you seem like a loner,” he said.
“Probably not,” agreed Nolan.
“I always figured you were the kinda guy with a Bachelor’s in evasion.”
“Looks like I should polish my certification.”
“Not as good as you used to be?”
“You caught me, after all.”
“Yeah, well, I like this park. Anyway… got any jobs lined up?”
“That’s bad news, man. You’d been doing this for how long, you said?”
Nolan hadn’t said.
They sidled into a hole-in-the-wall which claimed to be better than the best in Philly. The stench of grease assaulted Nolan’s nostrils, but he kept his peace. A chalkboard on the wall listed the options. They all involved cheese and steak.
“I recommend adding the mushrooms,” said Ron.
“Not my thing,” shrugged Nolan.
Once they had made their orders and chosen a table Ron looked out the window, craning his neck to catch a glimpse of passing fire trucks.
“What is your thing, if you don’t mind me asking,” he said without looking at Nolan.
“Sorry,” said Nolan reflexively. As he stumbled over possible he answers, he considered telling Ron that this was the longest sustained interpersonal interaction he’d had since his job interview, but thought better of it. The situation was awkward enough.
Ron’s number was called, then Nolan’s. They sat back down with their food and chewing replaced talking for several minutes. When Nolan leaned back in his chair, exhausted from the race, slurping water to clear bits of cheese and cheesy bread from his gums, Ron leaned forward.
“Between you and me, Paula’s got her panties in a bunch over nothing.”
Nolan rolled his eyes. “Can we please not talk about the boss’s underwear?”
Ron glanced disbelievingly at Nolan. “Dude. Expression. C’mon. Look, I’m just saying, you’re probably fine. This is her, not you.”
Nolan raised an eyebrow. “I won’t question your judgment.”
“Nolan, man, you’re losing me. What’s with all the preterition?”
“Pretewhat?” Nolan blinked.
“Never mind,” said Ron. “Well, I’m glad I saw you again, caught you as you said, but it’s about time I got back to work. Don’t want Paula going after me next, right? Yeah. It’s been real, Nolan. Take care. Maybe I’ll run into you in the park again sometime. I live nearby, so I still pass through during the school year.”
“Maybe,” said Nolan. He didn’t let the idea of school stay linger, allowing it to be eclipsed by the sheer absurdity of that square with its meager fountain and beleaguered palm trees being a ‘park.’ More off-putting still was the fact that lunch break was already over. He pulled out his phone and checked the time, dismissing notifications and alerts as a matter of routine. It was already a quarter of one in the afternoon.
Ron excused himself and had left the eatery by the time Nolan pocketed his phone. Nolan sighed and went outside. The sky was still white, the streets still full to brimming with cars. Through shaded windows Nolan occasionally caught a glimpse of someone on a cell phone. He wondered if they’d not gotten the memo about driving while on the phone.
A car pulled into the white zone outside the cheesesteak shop, and three excited teens disembarked, rushing past Nolan while screaming about curly versus garlic fries. Nolan didn’t feel the need to state his own preference (cheesy). He made brief eye contact with the teens’ chauffeur—a kid who must have gotten his license more recently than his latest bath—and walked away.
Nolan lay on his bed fifteen minutes later. His phone was off, lying halfway between the bed and the trash. A bland pattern of gray-blue flowers was peeling away from the walls near the dusty carpets. Sounds of traffic wafted in through the open venetian blinds along with the chill misty air. The roaring of engines, the screeching of tires, the creaking of breaks. The occasional horn or indignant pedestrian’s profanity interrupted the regular flow of things and comforted Nolan. They reminded him that there was still a human element in all the tumult. He stared at his ceiling, wide awake. The call center was behind him, but he could still feel his boss’s boot on his back, the fake marble steps under his feet, see the child in the backseat staring at him as though he were some otherworldly aberration.
He walked through every failed interaction he’d had that day. It wasn’t any one of them in particular that had bugged him. There had been no breaking point, no aha moment on the streets. He was simply tired of all the false starts and stops, of endlessly pulling up just to drive off.
Nolan couldn’t let his newfound joblessness become an excuse to withdraw further from humanity. And he wouldn’t bother twittering his resolution to rejoin the world of the living, either. He’d looked up preterition in his phone dictionary between the cheesesteak shop and his apartment. What had started as a disparaging retort from his first cubicle mate Harry had become a way of life.
But now, for seemingly the first time since he’d set foot in that call center, he was at rest.
Nolan enjoyed the feeling for two hours—the full timer on a gray parking spot—and then it was time to move on. It was time to start fixing things, beginning with why he’d stayed at the call center after his first summer there had ended. Though he had glossed over Ron’s invocation of the school year at the time, the phrase kept coming back to him. He retrieved his phone and turned it on. He ignored RSS and Twitter outright, not bothering with his ritual of dismissing the notifications, and dialed a number he’d known by heart his whole life. A woman’s voice answered with a businesslike hello.
“Nolan? Is that you? Honey! New number? What’s happening? I haven’t heard from you in forever! Are you okay? Are you alright?”
“Nolan! Tell me what’s up, buttercup.”
Nolan had a hard time conjuring his mother’s image. It’d been years. The first thing that leapt to mind when he tried picturing her was the Honda mom offering her boy cheerios. What’s up, buttercup? Nolan smiled and felt like sneezing. He had a lot to say. Issues of employment and rent struggled to dominate his thoughts, but he beat them back for the time being. Tomorrow. For now:
“I guess I don’t need to say I miss you.”