by: Thomas Hill
A rousing work of fiction that challenges the notion that technology brings people together in constructive and healthy ways, all the while singing the praises of that which is tangible…
Joe Harbung knew the third cup of coffee was a mistake the moment the moment he drained it. He usually restricted himself to two cups in the morning and a booster cup in the afternoon, but today was a special occasion. Now, though, he regretted his decision. The extra caffeine seemed to hit his system instantly, making him feel as if ants were crawling around under his clothes.
Normally Joe would have taken a brisk walk around the neighborhood to work off the excess energy, but that simply wasn’t an option today — partly because of the event that was due to start in a few minutes, and partly because the world outside his dining-room window was a silver-white curtain of rain. Inside the house, the thermostat showed a temperature of seventy-six degrees; Joe’s wife, Carolyn, liked to crank up the heat when she was sick. Joe’s skin felt clammy in the excess heat, even though he’d just showered and put on a freshly pressed and laundered shirt.
Joe sat back, opened his eyes wide for a moment, and did a quick, absent minded drum roll on the edge of the table with his hands. Ultimately, he settled for some quick calisthenics in the living room, feeling slightly silly crouching and bending in his light-blue oxford shirt and tie.
Before heading downstairs, he went down the hallway to look in on Carolyn. She was sitting up in bed, looking tired but alert. She managed a smile for him.
“Sorry I’m going to miss it,” she said.
Joe sat on the edge of the bed. “It’s my fault. I should’ve rescheduled for a time you were feeling better.”
“Oh, I don’t want you to do that. I know how much you were looking forward to this.”
“Ummm…okay,” Joe replied. She gave him a curious look but didn’t follow up.
They talked for a few more minutes, then he headed downstairs. The house was a medium-size split-level in a modest, pleasant neighborhood. The living spaces were upstairs and the garage and Joe’s office were on the house’s lower level.
Joe’s office was decorated completely in a cool bluish-gray: the carpet, the sleek modern desk, even the lamps for the track lighting that were the room’s only source of illumination. When he was setting up his office, he’d somehow missed how monochromatic its color palette was until it was too late. To compensate, he’d bought one of those electronic frames that display digital photos in slideshow fashion, and had loaded about one hundred of the most colorful shots he could find into it. It was surprising how quickly they all cycled through, and months later he still hadn’t gotten around to adding more photos into the queue.
He sat down at his desk, powered up his computer, and opened the webcam program. He input a few more commands, but the picture that came up wasn’t what he expected to see. It was an image of what appeared to be a fairly messy studio apartment, with a futon in the middle of the floor and clothes strewn about. After a moment, a young man with short blond hair, wearing glasses with octagonal frames, a T-shirt, and gym shorts, walked by. He glanced toward the camera, did a double-take, then stopped and leaned in toward the camera eye on his own computer. His proximity to the camera made his face distort. Joe involuntarily drew back, then heaved a sigh.
“Damn it, not again,” he muttered.
The young man on the screen spoke.
“Wer bist du, und warum sind Sie spioniert mich in meinem Haus?” he asked.
Joe hit reset. The screen cleared, then resolved into what he’d been expecting. The screen was split into quarters. The picture in the upper left quadrant displayed a small TV and DVD player sitting on a wooden table, in front of what looked like a generic background for portrait photography. Each of the other three mini-screens showed a different person.
Carl, Joe’s district manager, was in the upper right. He was a slender man in his early fifties, with a monk’s tonsure. He wore a black suit, white shirt, and tie.
“Good morning, everyone,” Carl began. “We’ve gathered here to say goodbye to a respected co-worker and a terrific salesman, Joe Harbung. I know that all of us who have worked closely with Joe have some thoughts we’d like to express, but first we have a very special treat: Our CEO, T. Arthur Spokeman, would like to say a few words.”
In the upper left hand screen, a hand came out from the edge of the frame and switched on the TV and DVD player. Spokeman appeared on the little TV’s screen, a balding, heavyset man, wearing a gray three-piece and sitting in an enormous leather chair.
“Good morning,” he intoned. Everyone murmured “good morning” in response.
“We’re bidding farewell to our esteemed colleague, Joe Harbung.” Joe couldn’t be sure, but it seemed that the sound of Spokeman’s voice changed when he said Joe’s name.
“These have not been easy times for Consolidated Products,” Spokeman continued. “We’ve been through several rounds of downsizing, rightsizing, outsourcing, and finally decentralization, with our different functions and departments now spread out around the country and around the world.
“As with all changes of this type, there have been both challenges and opportunities. One of the opportunities is that employees such our honored guest, who used to have to commute to an office — with all of the expense and inconvenience that involves — is now able to work from home.
“And that same paradigm extends to the celebration we’re holding today. Now, some might feel nostalgic for the days when a retirement party would involve people physically gathering in one place for cake, presents, what have you. But with the help of technology, we’ve been able to put together what I think is a very workable alternative.”
As Spokeman proceeded to give a thumbnail history of the company, Joe’s attention wandered to his home office’s one window. He thought of his walks. When he was pressed for time, which was often, he had to keep his walks to twenty minutes or less. That meant sticking to his immediate neighborhood, an area that was nothing but houses. When he felt he’d earned a little reward, he would head for the park, twenty-five minutes there and twenty-five back. He would usually have to avoid the unwanted attentions of Rusty, his next-door neighbor’s overzealous Irish setter. Joe was really more of a cat person.
When he’d first begun visiting the park, Joe would simply do a brisk lap around the perimeter and then head for home. After he’d begun telecommuting three years ago, he soon realized that this time in the park would often be his only chance all day to interact with people out in the world, so he started striking up short conversations with strangers. On other occassions he would stand still, look around, and choose some little detail to observe for a few minutes, like trends in popular sneaker colors. Or he’d look at the thick woods that bordered the park and think about how generation after generation of neighborhood kids had fervently believed they were haunted.
Joe’s attention drifted back to the video conference. Spokeman was making his apologies, saying he had a meeting to get to, and he signed off. Carl took over.
“OK, from Mr. Spokeman in his office in New York, it’s over to me now in Chicago, all to honor our guest in his home in Wisconsin,” he said. “I’d like to second what Mr. Spokeman said about how technology has helped us through these difficult times. I know there’s a joke going around about how no two C.P. employees work in the same city any more, and there are times when it might feel like that’s the case. And I agree with Mr. Spokeman; this new era we’re in may feel strange sometimes, but on balance I think we’re all going to find that we prefer the new system to the old.
“Mr. Spokeman mentioned the advantages of not having to deal with commuting. I’d like to add something to that. There are certain other difficulties that can occur with being in an office, which employees like Joe, working from their homes, will never have to face.”
Carl looked into the middle distance, his eyes taking on the look of a person in a reverie.
Oh, crap, Joe thought.
“For example, by not being surrounded by co-workers, Joe will never find himself in the position of being a hardworking district manager, just doing his job, putting in the hours, sacrificing time with his family, patiently waiting for the next vice president opening and hoping his efforts have been noticed. And then one night, after he’s actually been interviewed for V.P. and is waiting on tenterhooks to get the news, he gets a little careless and forgets to lock his office door. And then a twenty-four-year-old smarty-pants so-called wunderkind with an MBA who’s been in the business for all of fifteen minutes sneaks in, rifles through the recycling bin, and finds the caricature that the district manager drew of the CEO, in an isolated moment of frustration and poor judgment. And not only does this hardworking district manager not, needless to say, get the promotion, he has to do some fast talking just to not get fired from his current job, while the little wunderkind gets the V.P. position and is soon in New York, up to his nostril hairs in German luxury sedans and powerful corporate women, some of whom are bound to be redheads. Then our district manager finds that his career, not unlike his house, is in a cul-de-sac that he finds more distasteful with every passing year.”
Carl broke off, looked disoriented for a moment, then glanced at his camera and took in how everyone else was shifting in their seats and avoiding eye contact with him. He quietly cleared his throat, straightened his tie, and continued.
“But I digress. Now we go to Washington state, where Penelope from the I.T. department would like to say a few words.”
Joe liked Penelope. She was in her late twenties, wore terrible cat’s-eye glasses and styled her brown hair pulled back tight and huge. Today she wore a dress that looked like it had been pilfered from the Mad Men wardrobe department. When Joe teleconferenced with her about technical problems, she had a way of relating the needed information to him in a way that was extremely helpful and clear, while looking away from the camera; so whenever he thought of her, he pictured her in three-quarter view. But then, maybe once or twice per call, she would turn toward the camera, make eye contact with Joe, and give him a smile of such shyness, self-consciousness and wistfulness that it melted his heart. Because of the ghastly glasses, Joe had teleconferenced with her half a dozen times before realizing how attractive she actually was beneath those horrid frames.
From her station in the lower left hand corner, Penelope began haltingly. “I just want to say how much I’m going to miss you, Joe. You always had such a nice smile for me. And I’m sorry that I couldn’t always get your questions answered as quickly as I should have. I time myself, you know. It’s kind of a point of pride with me. Last week, you asked me a question that I should’ve been able to answer in two minutes flat, and I went all the way to two-thirty-six.”
“No, no,” Joe said. “You were always great. I’m not that good on the technical stuff, and you saved my bacon more times than I can count.”
He was going to say more, but Penelope blushed so fiercely and looked away so quickly he was brought up short. There was an awkward silence. Finally, Penelope looked his way.
“Such a nice smile,” she said.
Carl said, “Perhaps we should move over to Jared, at the warehouse in Colorado.”
Jared was in the lower right hand corner. He wore his usual dark-blue Carhartt work shirt, but instead of wearing it open-necked, with a triangle of tie-dyed T-shirt peeking out from underneath, today he had buttoned it all the way up and strapped on a tie. The tie was striped, in rather dingy tones of brown and amber, like something he might’ve borrowed from a grandfather. Jared had longish strawberry-blond hair that stuck out on the sides, and even though he was in his mid-twenties he was still struggling with acne.
Jared leaned in toward his own computer screen and emitted a frat-boy-style shout of whoop. The resulting whine of feedback made everyone wince.
“Sorry about that,” Jared said with a giggle. “But Joe, man, I just wanted to say you’re the bomb. You, like, saw how much we were poisoning our Earth by burning fossil fuels and you said to yourself, I’m not going to be part of this any more. I’m going to do my part by leaving my car in the garage, am I right?”
“Um…” Joe said. “Thanks, Jared, but that’s not exactly…”
“I mean, I’m all about saving the Earth. In fact, I play bass in a band that’s totally environmentally-themed. Did I tell you I was in a band?”
“You might have mentioned it,” Joe said dryly.
“Yeah, we’re, like, totally green. We’re called Mister Nice Gaia, and we just put out our first CD…” Jared held up a disc in a jewel case. “And every song on it is about protecting Mother Earth. In fact, the CD’s called Be Nice To Your Mother So She Won’t Be A Bitch To You, and if anyone’s interested, we’re selling these for $9.99 each, and you can get one by…” He stopped. “Sorry, heh-heh. Not appropriate, right?”
Joe glanced down and saw that his right knee was vigorously jiggling up and down. He hadn’t been aware he was doing this, and had no memory of when it had started. The extra coffee from before was really making its presence felt.
On the screen, Carl was saying, “I want to get back to something Mr. Spokeman mentioned earlier. As much as I hate to contradict him on anything, he seemed to imply there wouldn’t be any cake at this retirement party. I’m happy to say, that’s just not the case.”
On cue, as if preplanned, Carl, Penelope, and Jared all produced sheet cakes. Even in the upper left hand corner, a pair of hands emerged from the edge of the frame to deposit a cake on the table. Carl looked at Joe. “Don’t worry, you haven’t been left out. Look behind you.”
Joe turned. Carolyn was coming around the corner, carrying a cake. She set it on the desk, then draped her arm around the back of his neck.
“Rascal. How long were you waiting back there?” Joe asked.
“Since…” she dropped her voice. “Since Carl began his monologue.”
“Oy,” he replied.
Joe turned his attention back to the screen. Each of the five cakes was identical with big black letters on a white background, reading “Wisconsin” in smaller red letters at the top, simulating the state license plate. The black letters read, “Goodbye, Joe: May the road rise to meet you.”
“Wow,” Joe said. “Thanks, everybody. That’s really something.”
Joe noticed that Carl seemed to be staring thoughtfully at a particular point on his own screen. When he caught sight of Joe watching him, he made a show of directing his attention elsewhere. Joe scanned all four screens, then he saw it. Whoever had done the cake for Penelope had accidentally left out one letter, so that it read, “May the rod rise to meet you.”
Joe bit his lip, trying to keep a lid on his amusement. Don’t look at Carolyn, don’t look…
His willpower failed and he looked at her. She’d seen it too, he could tell. Her lower lip was quivering as she struggled not to burst out laughing. Joe looked back at the screen. He tried to look casual, but apparently either he or Carolyn had given something away; Penelope’s smile was fading as she took a closer look at her cake.
“Oh,” she said in a small voice. “Oh, no. No, no, no. I’m a detail person, I don’t miss things like this.”
Penelope’s face crumpled and then, to Joe’s shock, she threw the cake to the floor and thumped the heels of her hands on the sides of her head.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid! This was supposed to be your big day and I ruined it! How are you ever going to be able to…”
“Penelope, it’s alright,” Joe said hastily. “Don’t worry, it wasn’t your fault. I appreciate the thought.”
By now, her face was as red and swollen as a spider bite. She stared into the camera, apparently trying to think of something to say, then took her glasses off and put her hand over her eyes. Joe held his breath. She wiped her eyes, put her glasses back on, looked at Joe again. “And you with such…such…such a nice smile!” she said.
Penelope stood up so abruptly that her swivel chair spun all the way around twice without her in it, and she ran out of frame, sobbing hysterically.
Everyone was silent.
“Well,” Joe finally said.
Carl said, “This might be a good time for a break. Shall we reconvene in five minutes?”
Joe pushed his chair back and stood. He and Carolyn embraced, then pulled back so they could look at each other, their arms still encircling each other’s waists.
Mischievously, she asked, “So how was your morning?”
He laughed. “Splendid.”
They hugged again. Joe looked around the room, thinking of some possibilities for renovation and re-purposing.
“Not such a bad house, is it,” he murmured.
She hugged him tighter. “Not such a bad home, either.”
Carolyn headed back upstairs to continue her bed rest. As Joe followed her, he noticed that the switch from the dry coolness of the basement to the cloying warmth of the upper level seemed to happen instantaneously; he could just about pinpoint the step he was on when it occurred.
In the living room, Joe stood in front of the the house’s big picture window. He watched the rain as it puddled in the uneven spots on the concrete driveway. He looked at the flower beds next to the driveway and thought about the hidden journey the rainwater was making, down to the roots of the flowers and bushes.
His five minutes was just about up.
Joe walked down the hallway and stuck his head in the bedroom door. “Back in a little bit,” he told Carolyn.
“Where are you going?”
“For a walk.”
“In this? Your umbrella’s by the front door.”
In the entryway, Joe took his coat off the hook and donned it. He started to pick up his umbrella, stopped, looked out the window for a moment, then put the umbrella back in the stand.
Out on the driveway, he slowly rocked his head back and forth and then from side to side, until his entire head was wet and bracingly cold. He felt as if his skin had been brought back to life, and with a little aerobic exercise the rest of his body would follow suit.
When he brought his head level again, he saw that he was being watched. Rusty, the neighbor’s overzealous Irish setter, was on his own patio, gazing at Joe. When their eyes met, Rusty jumped up and made a beeline for him across the wet lawn.
Joe watched the dog’s paws get muddier with every step. He started to stiffen, then forced himself to relax. Rusty cleared the distance between them in no time, and when he was in front of Joe he reared up, planted his front paws on Joe’s chest, and fixed him with an adoring gaze.
Joe took Rusty’s left paw between his thumb and forefinger, lifted it, and looked at the brown paw print on his light-blue oxford shirt. For some reason, the shape of the print made him think of the map of Bolivia.
He looked into Rusty’s eyes.
“Did you make a map of Bolivia on me?” he asked. “Are you a smart boy? Who’s a smart boy? Do you want to go for a walk?”
Rusty recognized the last word. His ears pricked up, and he stared at Joe as if wondering if this was too good to be true.
Joe gently set him back down on all fours.
“C’mon, let’s go to your house and get your leash,” he said. “Who’s going to go to the park with me? Who’s the smart boy who’s going to take me to the park? You are! That’s right, yes you are!”