They put me in a room with a pile of data that had been ruined in a flood. The CDs lay supine in their jewel cases with their labels soggy and torn, and the flat cables on the hard drives were stiffened into rollercoaster curls by the prolonged submersion.
‘Water main burst,’ said the manager, folding his hands together. ‘If you could just categorize these according to their status. Use the pulldown menu.’
I looked at the menu and scrolled down until I found the option called DESTROYED! It seemed like the best of the choices. I put that disc in my finished pile.
‘All right,’ I said.
For each disc, I had to fill out a separate form explaining the reason for DESTROYED! status. Sometimes I wrote, ‘Water main.’ Sometimes just, ‘Wet.’ In a fit of self-expression midway through my second hour I wrote, ‘This is my first day as a temp and I hope it’s my last.’ This was not sustainable, as it was long and I still had thousands of discs to go through, so I abbreviated it to ‘Temp.’
When I had finished I yawned and stood up. Several cubicles over, the manager had hold of a thick binder of papers and was dunking it quietly in a bucket of water as if hand-washing underwear, an expression of immense satisfaction on his face. I crept out of my cubicle and toward the safety of the receptionist’s desk. After three blocks, at a brisk run, I found a Kinko’s where I could fax my time card in.
When I opened the door of my apartment a great rectangular mass of ants was there to greet me, like a welcome mat or some composite pet. Rather than stomp a swath through them I hugged the wall and edged toward the kitchen, keeping my shoes on.
‘Hi! Any mail?’ my wife called from the kitchen.
‘Didn’t see any,’ I said. We were waiting for all our boxes to arrive from the flatter, more central part of the country we had moved from, to the hillier, coastal, more expensive part where we now resided. The electronic buzzer in front of our building was broken and the mailman left several frantic notes a day that he was unable to get in, but we always missed him.
‘I’m waiting for the landlord to call me back,’ she said. ‘So how was your first day?’
I told her. She sighed. ‘Here, come lie on the air mattress with me.’
We went hand in hand into the closet where we slept — it’s quite a large closet, a walk-in — and lay down on the queen-sized airbed. She lay across my chest and I ran my nose through her hair, only twitching a little as a few stray ants tickled the back of my neck. My wife is a freelance entomologist. She works from home. The only box that had managed to arrive so far — left on the front stoop by our panicked mailman — was a box of ants.
My phone rang in the other room. I extricated myself from the mattress and ran to pick it up. But it was not our landlord. It was the agency, calling with another job.
The job was putting years of service pins into envelopes. Five years, fifteen years, twenty-five years. All the employees receiving them had been laid off. As the manager gave me a tour of the office he would, without comment, rip down an ergonomic safety warning or uproot a plant from its pot. ‘Are they closing this branch?’ I said.
‘I thought it would be nice,’ the manager said, ‘if our employees had a piece of the office to take with them.’ He stomped a ceiling tile into shards as if breaking firewood. ‘We only have these little envelopes, though.’ He flung the shards at my feet. ‘Make it fit.’
I spent the day tearing motivational posters in half, snipping electric cables. I used the paper cutter to halve, then quarter a globe. Only the Scotch tape I did not divide, as I needed it to seal the bulging envelopes. There was hardly room for the pins. I left the misshapen pile there at five o’ clock when I was done.
‘Great, we’ll see you tomorrow!’ the manager called behind me.
My Hot Pockets were turning in the microwave when my wife came in from an evening run. I liked looking at her shoulders in her running outfit, gleaming with sweat, like jeweled pommels at the ends of swords. She showered and came out wearing a towel, smelling of Suave Champagne Kiss shampoo. I stood behind her and mumbled something flirtatious. ‘Don’t!’ she said. We sat on the windowsill and made out.
‘I feel self-conscious,’ she whispered. ‘Can we move into the closet?’
‘Of course,’ I breathed. In a gallant motion I whisked my plate of Hot Pockets off the air mattress, which I usually dragged into the main room of our studio to use as a kitchen table, and hoisted the mattress under my arm. As I ran through the door of the closet I heard a faint whimper of air. I looked at the little closet doorknob on the floor, then at the exposed screw on the door, then back at my wife, who was chewing coyly at her little finger.
‘Is there a problem?’ she said.
That night as we tried to sleep I kept my finger on the tape I had stretched over the torn hole in the mattress. It did nothing, the tape, just changed the pitch of the air that whooshed out when I let up the pressure.
‘Why did you schedule the bed to be delivered a week from Thursday?’ she groaned after we had been lying there a long time.
‘Why do we have to live with so many ants?’ I retorted. ‘Why can’t you study them in smaller numbers?’
It was our first fight since we had been married. It wasn’t fair of me to criticize her for keeping the ants here. I knew she was missing her lab back in Lincoln, where we had been grad students together. The biology building and art building shared a cafeteria, and we had met there. Nobody made better sculptures out of his own hair, or out of found hair, than I did. At school you imagine limitless potential in any little talent or inclination. But outside you are a temp, or a mystery shopper, or you might perhaps be hired to hold a sign near a busy intersection, if no wooden pole is available or if zoning prohibits the placement of one. I felt like an engineer forced to emigrate and become a cab driver, or deposed royalty trying to live off what I seized from the treasury before the revolution. In my home country, I will tell my guests as I raise a goblet of slivovitz, I was the duke of Nebraska.
Moonlight illuminated the scabrous living patchwork on the floor as I went into the kitchen. The nub of Hot Pocket I had left on the counter was gone. It had been dismantled, packed up, parceled into a thousand hungry sets of mandibles ferrying it with omnivorous logic toward its destination. Where was it going, and who would buzz it in when it got there?
Another agency called at eight, just as I was getting ready to return to the years of service pins. They said a large job had just come up, that all the agencies were pooling their people, and was I available? I contemplated another day in that deteriorating office, and quickly said yes. Anything was preferable.
They marshalled us in front of a prison of bones, a long corridor where the bars were mammoth femurs and the doors were rib cages. At closer inspection I saw the bars were fake, or at least plastic, which wasn’t exactly the same thing.
Two energetic young women were dressed as prison guards.
‘Good morning!’ the taller one said, waving to the motley lot of us. ‘I bet you’re wondering a lot of things!’
‘Oh, oh, why are these cells empty?’ said the shorter one, anticipating questions we might have. ‘Uh, um, when’s lunch?’
‘They are empty,’ said the tall one, ‘because we are going to fill them with pillars of the business community! And lunch is whenever they get here! You guys are helping us with our annual Marrow Lockdown, where well-connected people agree to go to jail — fun jail, that is — to help raise money for bone marrow transplants. Today, if they don’t raise enough money by five o’ clock to get out, they’ll have to answer to us, because we’re their jailers.’
‘Their fun jailers,’ said the short one, doing a little dip toward the floor with her hips. She caught the other one looking at her and coughed, smoothing her skirt.
‘Well, then,’ said the tall one, looking around at all of us. ‘Which of you temps knows how to make veal Parmigiana?’
The potentates came in around noon, filing cheerfully into the cells, where a candlelit meal was awaiting them. I had personally arranged the napkin holders. Our trainers had explained that we didn’t actually have to be guards, since these people obviously weren’t trying to escape. We were just supposed to serve as pages, recording the tally that each inmate was able to raise through phone calls. I still, however, took a perverse pleasure in rattling my pen across the bars.
I drifted over to one of the cells, where a middle-aged guy in a suit was yelling at one of his potential charitable patrons. When he saw me watching, he threw up his hands in disgust.
‘This phone, it doesn’t work,’ he said. ‘Keeps dropping calls. I haven’t raised a dime today!’
‘Yeah, I just heard you call the last guy a cheapskate,’ I said.
‘No, I said, ‘Your voice is getting faint’,’ he insisted. ‘Look, maybe I’d get better reception if I used your phone and stood where you’re standing. That hallway looks nice and wide. Good signal.’
I saw the keys to the cells on the celebratory dessert table, next to the cake.
‘Why don’t you let me make a couple of calls for you?’ I said.
‘You?’ he said. ‘Do you have the connections? Did you spend seven years in sales before working your way up to vice president of marketing? I don’t think so. They’ll let us out at the end of the day, but you’ll have to live with the knowledge that you didn’t do all you could to bring that kid some marrow. That’s what I call a prison of the mind.’
‘All right,’ I said, ‘just a few calls.’ I found the right key and brought it back, handing him my phone as he walked out.
‘Why don’t you check the candelabra in there,’ he said, dialing. ‘It’s defective.’
As soon as I entered his cell to re-light the candle, which was still smoking from being hastily puffed out, the door slammed behind me. ‘Jesus, the door’s blown shut!’ he said. ‘Quick, hand me the key so I can let you out.’
I passed the key through the plastic bars, giving one bar a push with my other hand as I did. It was dismayingly solid. ‘Kid, you’ve just been marketed to,’ he said as the key disappeared into his pocket. ‘If you ever need a job at my company —’
‘Yes?’ I shouted.
‘We’ll keep your resume for up to a year,’ he said, and disappeared down the hallway.
‘Hey!’ I yelled. ‘At least give me back my phone!’
He was already gone, as were all of my fellow temps on this floor. There were a couple of hedge fund managers in the cell next to mine who could have made calls on my behalf, but they ignored me. At least I was racking up extra hours on my time card.
I sat, dejected, on the prison cot. My eyes drifted shut, and I probably fell asleep, which was forgivable considering how badly I had slept on the deflated air mattress the night before. I awoke to a familiar, nearly comforting sensation: one ant, then another crawling across my arm. I looked up and saw my wife smiling at me from the other side of the bars.
‘Hi!’ she said.
I leapt to my feet. ‘How did you —’
‘I tried to call you,’ she said, ‘and some guy answered. He said he had stolen your phone and you needed to raise five thousand dollars worth of marrow donations to get out. Not that I didn’t think you could do it. But just in case, I brought the ants.’
‘But the key,’ I said despairingly. ‘He also took the key.’
‘What, these keys?’ she said. ‘Interchangeable. C’mon, it’s only for charity.’ She proved it by opening the rib cage door, which swung inward with a low creak like a chuckle. I stepped out and whirled her small body around in a hug.
‘I’m sorry you have to keep taking these jobs,’ she said. ‘You’ll find something in hair sculpture soon.’
‘I’m sorry I made you get rid of our ants,’ I said.
‘I’m done with these Argentines anyway,’ she said. ‘The fire ants are coming.’
As we passed the hedge fund managers I saw them backed against either end of the cell to avoid the martial black lines of insects. ‘Come on, buddy!’ one of them yelled at me. ‘I’ve raised four thousand three hundred and eighty-five!’
I had learned my lesson. Instead of answering, I borrowed my wife’s phone and took a photo, which I sent to the bone marrow foundation.
‘Here’s how you raise real money,’ I added in a message. ‘Charge people to watch a hedge fund manager get covered in ants.’
We ducked out the back door. A mail truck was fortuitously pulling away from the building and we jumped into the back of it. We huddled against each other in the dark.
‘Do you think that’s our mailman?’ she whispered.
I couldn’t see the face of the man driving, but I didn’t want to give us away by shouting ‘Are you our mailman?’ at him.
‘If our stuff is in the truck,’ I whispered back, ‘then he’s our mailman.’
I tried to focus my eyes. I looked for familiar things: our flowery couch, my framed hair collages, the arched back of my mother’s wooden chair. The cargo did look familiar, but none of it was mine. Clearly yesterday’s employer had found someone to finish the job. Stuffed into a thousand envelopes were the office’s last remnants — the lid of a laser printer, a cylinder of coffee creamer, a swivel chair’s black knob, glue, nails, brick, wood, plaster — being delivered along with us, like ashes to the ocean, by whoever was driving the truck.