This interesting article was written by
Nikolaus Maack (former owner of this website)
Names changed to protect the innocent – i.e. everyone.
Rebecca decided at work one day to write a romance novel. She minimized the data entry program, fired up Word for Windows, and started typing. When she’d finished a paragraph or two, she turned to me and asked me to read what she’d written so far.
“You have that degree in creative writing after all,” Rebecca said. “You’re the expert.”
Our supervisor watched all of this happen from a few feet away and said nothing, but her brow furrowed in annoyance.
Rebecca’s long chestnut hair was always pinned back in a loose ponytail. Perky blue eyes danced behind glasses way too prim for her freckled face. She had the sort of personality that demanded freckles. A skipping, merry happiness was the only emotion that ever came out of her. Even when she said she was tired, or bored, or pissed off, all her feelings came dancing out, sparkling with joy.
It could get pretty damn irritating.
After a few hours of chitchat, I get antsy. There was work to do! I preferred doing data entry with my headphones on, ignoring everything and everyone. Sometimes, when I was typing like a fiend, I imagined I looked like one of those mad composers, pounding on the piano, my long hair soaked with sweat, tuxedo tails waving, hands flying up into the air before slamming down on the keys with violent passion. I could almost hear the music of data entry, peeking over the music from my headphones.
Rebecca kept getting in the way of my data sonatas. I’d have one hand up in the air, poised to smash into the keys and make that perfect note, when she’d call out my name. I’d have to take my headphones off and listen to her insights.
“Nik! Nik! Check this out! Mohammed Mohammed?” she’d giggle. “That can’t be right, can it? The first name is the same as the last name!”
Rebecca was a big fan of astrology, and knew all about every star sign, and claimed to have a prediction rate of 85 percent. She became convinced there was a pattern in all the birth dates she was typing into the computer.
“They’re such smooth numbers,” she said. “Listen to this one. 1966, 11, 22. You see it? See the pattern? 22 is two times 11, and 66 is two numbers!”
“Yeah, I guess I see that.”
Rebecca was a single mother. She had a lot of nasty stories about her ex, and enjoyed telling them. They started dating when she was 15 and he was 27. They’d met in a tattoo parlor. Her mother didn’t approve, so she loved him all the more. She got pregnant; he took off. It wasn’t a very original story, but it was hers, and she told it well. And often.
Being a single mom, she didn’t get out very much, and there was a hunger about her. It was obvious that she wanted a man. Any man. She talked about that too, without much embarrassment. Her ideal, she said, was someone older than herself — she was 21, and the age range she had in my mind was 30 to 35.
“Because I’ve always been so much more mature for my age.”
I was living with a woman, and I was 31 years old. I hoped Rebecca thought I was much younger. It wasn’t that she was unattractive or that her personality was so awful. It was her neediness. She wanted someone right now, and I kept feeling her fingers clutching at me, pulling at me, trying to drag me to her face so she could stuff me in her mouth.
She wanted to go to The Ex, and ride the roller coasters. “But I can’t find anyone to go. No one wants to go with me, and I have to go this weekend, because I finally found a baby-sitter for the day. I love the Ex! I never got to go as a kid, and now I finally have a chance, and I don’t want to go alone.”
Then she just stopped and stared at me. Was I imagining things? Rebecca knew I was involved with someone. Why was she doing this to me?
“I hate The Ex,” I said. “Noisy, gross, same thing every year. I’m not big on rides. I did the whole thing to death as a kid anyway.”
“I love the rides! The food! Everything! It’s too bad I don’t have anyone to go with.”
“You tried all your friends?”
She listed off all her friends, and all the various personal tragedies that were keeping them from going out: children with cancer, failing marriages, and a new baby. (In my opinion, a new baby is the worst tragedy that can befall a young couple.)
“I guess I won’t be able to go,” Rebecca said.
“That’s too bad,” I replied, as sympathetic as I could be.
She sighed then went back to work — on her romance novel.
One day I was looking for a black marker and couldn’t find it. Bored, I started talking to myself in a playful, overly melodramatic voice. “Where is it? Damn it to hell, I need it now! Where could it be hiding? Come forth, foul utensil!”
“Are you looking for the stapler?” Rebecca asked.
“No, no! I don’t want your crude stapling device! Where is it, that thing I most desire? Why does it conceal itself from me?”
“You sure you don’t want the stapler?” Rebecca teased. “It’s right here. Right here on my desk. Do you want it?”
“I want a marker, not a stapler! Fuck your stapler!”
Which had been a little more than I’d wanted to say. Sometimes I get carried away.
“Fuck the stapler?” Rebecca giggled. “Ow, that would hurt. I’d get stapled in there and… Ow. Besides, I’m not that desperate.” She paused, then said miserably, “Not yet, anyway.”
There was an awkward silence after that. That had to be a come-on, I thought. What else could it be? Jesus. Her words made me feel awful. Like a lot of men, I enjoy saving damsels in distress. When I can’t save them — because I don’t want to or because I simply can’t — it makes me feel terrible. I felt terrible listening to Rebecca imagining how, in the near future, she’d be so desperate she’d start having sex with office supplies.
We had an old stereo in the data lab with us. It was usually tuned to The Bear, which plays the same 15 songs over and over again. Rebecca liked to sing along with the music, but in a mindless droning whine.
“Muh muh muh to introduce myself muh ma muh wealth muh taste…”
One morning she was in the lab by herself, and cranked the stereo up so the walls shook. A government worker heard it, and filed a complaint with security. Rebecca got in trouble, but it didn’t seem too serious. Not yet, anyway.
She was cheerful, lost, and lonely and her greatest aspiration was to become an executive assistant.
“Like Smithers is, for Mr. Burns, on The Simpsons,” she said. “But not as pathetic. I’d pick up laundry, remind him to buy a gift for his wife on her birthday. That kind of thing. I’d be really good at it. I have great organizational skills.”
If I’ve made Rebecca sound like a horrible person, I apologize. She wasn’t horrible. She was very pleasant to be around. Friendly, playful, honest, and unabashedly quirky. She just didn’t work very hard. Most people managed to do at least three boxes of files a day. Rebecca was lucky if she finished one. She constantly got distracted by everything around her — one morning she loaded up a drawing program, scribbled out some ugly pink pattern, and made it her wallpaper for Windows. It took her an hour to do it, and she did it while the supervisor stood behind her, watching.
To be fair, our supervisor never said anything. Her name was Mathilda, she was in her fifties, and didn’t want to make waves. So instead of complaining to Rebecca about her poor work habits, she phoned her comments to the head supervisor, who phoned it all in to the temp agency, where it all slowly built up.
“Rebecca is not going to be around here much longer,” Mathilda confided in me one day.
“Oh,” I said, and wondered why people always want to confide in me. ME, of all people.
“She talks too much,” Mathilda said. “That’s not too bad, but she can’t work and talk at the same time, like the rest of us. She has to use her hands to talk. She turns from the keyboard, to look at who she’s talking to.” Mathilda shook her head. “Besides, the company can only pay for 30 workers, and we have 31. Someone has to go.”
I pondered what I should do. Warn Rebecca? How would I phrase it? Did I really want to be alone with her? Would she read too much into the favour? I bought her some bottled water once, and she smiled at me like I’d handed her a dozen roses. Did I really want to risk seeing that creepy, hungry, happy smile again? Maybe she’d get pissed off and confront Mathilda. Then I’d get in trouble, because I’d spilled the beans.
Besides, it wasn’t like I knew her very well or anything. I wanted to keep out of the office politics. I’d hardly known her for two weeks. I didn’t like her very much… Not really. Anyway, maybe she should get fired. I work hard (with passion, damn it) and she didn’t. Why should we keep her on?
So I said nothing.
Friday afternoon. One hour before quitting time. I had my headphones on, typing away. Rebecca was at the desk next to mine, working for a change. Mathilda the supervisor was correcting files. The other worker in the room, Suzanne, had her headphones on too.
Rebecca’s phone rang. She answered it.
The first clue I had that something was wrong was when I saw Rebecca move out of the corner of my eye. I turned to look. Was she crying? I didn’t want to look too closely. I knew what I’d seen. She was crying, but I pretended she wasn’t. Then she sniffed one of those snuffling, out of control, runny nose, weeping sniffs. I turned to look at her again, and saw it clearly. She was clutching the phone to the side of her head, tears running down her face, her eyes red with misery, her mouth a moaning hole.
“Oh hell,” I thought. “They must be firing her.”
I couldn’t bear to look at her. I couldn’t figure out what to do. So I turned away and kept working, kept my headphones on. I felt sick. There was someone next to me in tremendous pain and there was nothing I could do about it. But it was none of my business, she had it coming, not working at all and…
“Look, look, I need the money,” I heard her sob. “I’m a single mother and I… This is a really bad tuh-time!”
Damn it. Why’d they call her on the phone? Why did they have to do it like this? Some agency person, calling up on Friday afternoon. Couldn’t they have called Rebecca into the office on Monday? Couldn’t they have been a little more humane?
Mathilda the supervisor discretely left the room at this point. This feels bad, her face said, but this has to be done. Remove the cancer so the host can live. She’ll calm down in a minute.
I wanted to listen in on Rebecca’s phone call, but I didn’t want to at the same time. It seemed rude to take my headphones off. It seemed rude to leave them on. Not knowing what to do, I kept doing what I was already doing. I typed. I worked. I pretended everything was normal. There wasn’t a weeping, wounded human next to me. La dee da.
The phone call seemed to last forever. I don’t know if Rebecca begged and pleaded some more. I don’t want to know.
When she hung up the phone, I decided it would be appropriate to talk to her. I took my headphones off.
“What happened?” I asked. Asking the question and already knowing the answer made me feel like slime.
“They’re fuh-firing me!” she sobbed. “They, they said, that, that I played the stereo loud that one tuh-time and… And that I talk too much! I’ve never been fired before in my whole luh-life!” She turned her tear-soaked face to mine. Looking at her was painful. “Do yuh-you think I tuh-talk too much?”
I had no idea what to say, so I said, “I don’t know, ” then laughed nervously.
Rebecca stood up and staggered around her desk. She started grabbing her things at random and stuffing them into her purse. The purse dropped from her hands and hit the floor. She grabbed on to the back of her chair and knelt down, nearly doubled over.
“I promised my daughter I’d take her to Toronto in two weeks,” she said quickly. “I saved up the money and everything, now I’m going to have to use that money to pay my ruh-rent. What am I going to tell her? What can I say to her?”
All I could do at this point was look sympathetic. I didn’t want to hug her or touch her. I could feel myself distancing myself from her. Rebecca was dead, gone. I would almost certainly never see her again in my entire life, and if we did meet, we would pretend not to know each other.
But I felt awful for her. What was she going to do? How badly would this mess up her life? Would she have to go on social assistance again? She’d told me she’d been there before, how proud she was when she finally got off of it.
Mathilda came back into the room, and saw Rebecca standing there, still sobbing. “Come on,” Mathilda said. “Let’s go talk about this. Bring your purse.”
Rebecca staggered from the room, Mathilda trying to support her as they walked away. I turned back to my computer then turned away from it again. A few minutes later, Suzanne, the other worker in the room, took her headphones off. She’d finished entering the files she was working on, and went to get another box. There was a big smile on her face and she whistled a tune.
“Holy Jeeze,” I said.
“What?” Suzanne asked.
“They just fired Rebecca.”
Suzanne looked floored. “They did? When?”
She hadn’t noticed. She’d had her back to Rebecca the entire time, her Walkman turned up high. The whole thing had happened in the same room as her, and she hadn’t heard any of it.
Suzanne and I talked about it. Neither of us knew how we were supposed to react, or what to say. So we didn’t say much.
Mathilda came back.
“That was brutal,” I said.
“Brutal,” she agreed, nodding. She sat down at Rebecca’s desk and was silent for a moment, staring into space. Then she said, “They didn’t have to do it like that. I don’t like their methods. They could have given her some notice, let her try to find another job. Why did they do it over the phone? Anyhow, I talked to her. I told her to go see the agency on Monday. Try to straighten out this misunderstanding.”
It was creepy to see Mathilda distance herself from what she’d done. She’d complained about Rebecca. Yes, there’d been other complaints from other supervisors (or so rumour had it) but it was Mathilda who pushed just enough to get Rebecca fired.
Mathilda looked over the incomplete files Rebecca had left behind. She looked over Rebecca’s computer. There was a disk still in the disk drive. Mathilda pushed the button on it, and the disk popped out. A gray disk, no label. It contained the beginning of Rebecca’s romance novel. Maybe two pages of words.
“We’ll hold on to this for her,” Mathilda said, putting the disk on the desk beside her.
“Is she gone? For the day, I mean? She’s not coming back?”
“No, she’s not coming back.” She paused. “Let’s call it a day. It’s quarter to four. None of us are going to be able to work, after that. It’s… unpleasant, seeing that.”
We all started packing up our stuff, shutting down our computers.
I looked at the disk, and decided Rebecca was never going to come back for it. She’d be too embarrassed to come back, too humiliated after that emotional explosion. The just-started romance novel was going to sit there, never finished. It would sit there for weeks. Maybe months. And then finally someone would pick up the disk, not knowing whose it was or where it came from. They’d look over the files, a little curious, maybe. After the thrill was gone, they’d format the disk, and use it for their own purposes, whatever they might be.
That’s what I expected, anyway. I was wrong. Rebecca was stronger than that. Monday morning, she showed up, looking a little pale but dressed in her best business outfit. She was on her way to the temp agency, hoping to get a placement somewhere else. She’d stopped by to pick up her disk. Mathilda handed it over. With a nod and a weak smile, Rebecca left.
Maybe there’s hope for that romance novel yet.