Robert Thomas walks through the shiny glass doors of DiBartolo’s Costumes Inc, the fifteenth company he will have worked for in the last two years. All of these companies have become more symbols than places now to him, representations of one all-encompassing corporation that seems to run the whole kit and caboodle. This particular place is just a shadow on a wall. Like Plato, he thinks. Or maybe it is more like Heraclites, a river in constant change. Either way, it’s bigger than he is. No matter where he has gone in his ingenious guise as a temp, it has been the same, drudging away days in the bowels of office buildings. He has braved many environments in his time. Once, he was even placed in a dark, damp basement swarming with mice and roaches. He arrived each day at 9:00 on the dot, taking his customary seat at a foldout table. As the hours passed, he shooed mice and squashed bugs. Weeks passed, then two months. Toward the end, he stopped shooing and squashing. Instead, he left little pieces of crumbs for both. He came to understand the true meaning of community. Then his term was up, as it always happens, just as he was becoming comfortable with village life.
The receptionist who greets him is pretty and perky. Maybe that’s her superpower, to exhibit perk at 8:30 in the morning, leap boredom in a single bound. Beside her desk is a tall, leafy plant, the kind that you can’t ever figure out whether it’s real or not. Other workers come in. They already work here, so they move right past her without a word to wide-open-spaces offices or boxy compact cubicles. Not even the men look at her. As far as they are concerned, she may as well be the plant. After telling her who he is, she picks up a brightly colored phone to tell the other end that he’s arrived—yes, him, the unquestioned hero of the story. She then tells him to take a seat. As Robert waits, a security guard comes in, a big hulking man with linebacker shoulders and arms like clubs.
“Morning, Liz,” he says.
“Oh, hey, you. How was your weekend?”
“Real nice. Went to see my sister and her kids in Jersey. Been a real long time since I seen them last.”
“Good for you.”
“I’ll tell you, that little girl of hers gets more adorable every time I see her.”
The conversation goes on like this: the receptionist describing her weekend with her fiancé; the security guard telling her about his desire to buy a house; the whole while people in business formal streaming in, saying nothing to either. Finally, the boss calls for him. He’s sent up a glistening chrome stairway to the left of the receptionist. As he walks up, he notices soft musical stylings of an unknown origin trickling down from above. He tries to separate the different sounds he hears. There’s a horn-like instrument. Also something that resembles wind chimes. He wasn’t even aware that wind chimes could be used as a musical instrument. When he gets to the top of the stairs, a squat little woman with stringy brown hair is waiting for him. Her dress is some strange color that mixes aqua and teal. Unlike the younger girls, he has seen at the offices, her shoes are sensible and flat. That’s probably why she is the boss—a tough go-getter hell-bent on being taken seriously.
“This way,” she says, without a bit of banter.
Robert follows her through gray halls, passing cubicles and closed doors. The further she takes him into this place’s belly, the colder it gets. Air conditioning pumps constant cycles of processed air even though summer is still two months away. Such arctic paradises placate computers and copiers, all the bold machinery of business. Robert is prepared, though. He’s brought a thick woolly sweater with him. The closer to 5:00 it gets, however, the more the sweater’s resistance to cold weakens, until it disappears altogether like Cinderella’s glass slippers.
He has come to the room where he’ll spend the day. It’s large and orange, resembling a public school lunchroom. He wonders what this room’s purpose was before he arrived. Boxes upon boxes are stacked around a tiny desk. Beneath the desk is a plastic, uncomfortable-looking chair much too small for most fully-grown humans. There’s a computer snuggled in the crevice between the boxes. At least there’s a window across from the desk where he’ll be working.
“Okay,” says Boss Lady. “Organize these files in numerical order. Highest number followed by lowest. Every file must be entered into Excel. If at all possible, I’d like it done before the close of the business day.”
Numerical order, Robert thinks. My specialty. He wants desperately to tell her how he’s broken records, how no one else can come close to his prowess at numerical order. She is already walking away before he gets the chance. He sits in the hard chair, cracks his knuckles, then goes to work. First, he creates an Excel file. The blue screen of the computer is like a sky, he thinks. Not such a wild thought. After all, they create skies all the time in movies by the clever manipulations of machines like this. Yes, the rectangular boxes in the Excel file are clouds. The numbers he will type into them will be rain. He starts with the box closest to him.
“200 in the same box as 15! How did these poor bastards ever get along without me?”
The first two boxes go quickly, leaving only 98 more. Before moving onto the next box, Robert remembers the window across from him. It looks out onto Chestnut Street and one of the tallest buildings in the city, Liberty Place. For a moment, he lets himself imagine climbing its glistening blue glass with sucker fingers then buzzing around its steeple like a giant fly. Down below, an ambulance maneuvers through traffic. If only he was designed for flight and speed, then he could propel rocket-like through the clouds to help the person in the ambulance before they needed an ambulance. What a pity. Too much time given to daydreaming, he thinks. Back to work.
After a few hours, he has done 20 boxes, and it’s time for lunch. In the office universe, lunch is always open for debate. Some take it at 1:00, others at 2:00. Some even take it at 10:00 and don’t come back until 2:00. It depends on where you fall in the pecking order, whether you’re a raptor tearing the throat from some unfortunate rodent or a little gray pigeon pecking breadcrumbs from some geezer’s hand. Robert is a traditionalist, an old-fashioned sort. Lunch was at 12:00 for Grandpappy Thomas, and he’ll be damned if it’s not going to be at 12:00 for him, too. And when he comes back, it will be 1:00—right on the dot. No questions asked. He takes one last look at the 80 boxes he has remaining. He’s definitely behind, but it’s lunchtime—out of his hands now.
A bag lunch hangs from his fist as he dips and dodges fellow pedestrians. There are days he thinks he might take lunch at a restaurant. Then he remembers that each of his paychecks is a holy relic kept in the tabernacle of his bank account, only to be released for specific occasions during any given month: grocery shopping and rent on the 1st, electric, gas, and telephone on the 5th, credit card on the 10th, and insurance on the 15th. No matter. The day is mild, spring having breathed a breath of cherry blossoms into the exhaust-clogged air. People are out walking sun-slick sidewalks, talking and laughing as though the day has been made pleasant for their benefit. He decides to eat at Rittenhouse Park. He’s ecstatic at this prospect and is proud of himself for thinking of it. When he gets there, he finds that his idea isn’t so original after all because every bench is taken. Robert can’t help but brood over this. This is how it is for him, it seems, a great idea always to be squashed by fellow workers with similar ideas. He makes a place in the damp grass beneath the bloated white blossoms of a stubby dogwood.
He opens the brown bag and takes from it: one ham and cheese sandwich (no mayonnaise), one apple (starting to brown, but still good), one diet Coke (have to watch that waistline), and one sandwich bag filled with Oreos (after all, he’s got to live a little). He’s tempted to start with the Oreos, but that wouldn’t be prudent. After all, would Grandpappy Thomas have started with Oreos? No way, Jose. He spent 40 years on the banks of the Delaware loading and unloading freight from ships. He would’ve eaten the sandwich then the apple. Hell, good ‘ole pappy probably wouldn’t even have a sandwich bag filled with cookies. Instead, he would’ve had a thermos of coffee for dessert, a squirt of whiskey to sweeten it. When finished with the sandwich, Robert moves on to the apple. Apples have always been a crapshoot for him. If they’re good, they’re really good. Usually, they’re long past their prime, making it so he has to bite them in spots, just to avoid the sour brown parts. He’s been sipping the Coke occasionally through the entire lunch, and now the can is close to empty. This depresses him. It’s not hot out, but it is warm, and he’s enjoyed sipping from that frosty can immensely. If only one of those smarty scientists who can send a man to the moon or clone a sheep would invent a can of Coke that would last as long as you need it to last. If he were a scientist, that’s exactly what he’d be working on. Screw fiber optics. It’s the bottomless cans of Coke that is the wave of the future.
He finally gets to his reward: that bag of chocolaty Oreos. The intake of sugar gives him a shot in the arm. His good mood returns. Now everyone is beautiful to him. Well, except for the homeless guy sitting on the edge of the fountain, soaking his feet in its gritty water. Other than him, it seems his eyes can’t get enough beauty. A gurgling pigeon horde surrounds one woman as she tosses them pieces of a sandwich. Her sheer legs are crossed as she dangles one pump from the toes of a stockinged foot. Beside her is a man. He is tall and boyish—painfully handsome—probably only a few years out of college. Both are lean and glowing. Robert envies the man’s height. If only he had such height, the world would have been his oyster long ago. He, too, would be sitting in a park with a woman with such legs. Robert checks his watch. It’s 12:45, which really means 12:55. The watch has been ten minutes off for two years, and he has no conceivable idea how to fix it, so he simply calculates his life ten minutes slow.
Back at the office, five minutes later than he had intended, he returns to the boxes. Most have great difficulty gearing up for work after lunch. The body gets used to rest and abandoning mindless tasks. Robert, however, doesn’t suffer from the same frailties other humans do. Well, he suffers from most of them, just not this particular one. Put him in the ring with Dr. Octopus and he’ll be torn into lean strips. Put him into a room with files in a state of total chaos and he turns into The Flash.
“How demanding the world is of us chosen few,” he sighs as he lifts box 21 onto the table. Beside him are several stacks containing files from boxes 1 through 20. Now it dawns on him that he has completely forgotten to enter them into Excel. Drats! Foiled again by his feeble memory, the kryptonite of his existence. Bills have gone unpaid, birthdays uncelebrated, phone calls uncalled. Now he must go back and enter the completed files. This will undoubtedly test his resolve and quite possibly bring his reputation to the brink of extinction. It’s his spotless record in temping achievement that keeps employment rolling in. Once he fails to meet a deadline or screws up, the work will slow. Some new go-getter will receive top billing. The computer’s dull glow beckons, and he wonders if it’s hooked to the Internet. He clicks the mouse’s pointer on Explorer, but it doesn’t connect. No, this computer is all business. Its sole purpose is to receive, not to give. This is a blessing of the disguised variety. He must get back to work.
File after file enters then leaves his hand into order with such speed and precision that he hardly realizes his body is in motion. There are times he lets himself admire his hands. He can’t do this too long because he must pay close attention to each file’s specific number. If he were to miss even one number, the whole day’s work would be destroyed because he’d have to go back to every stack to see where his ordering broke down. Still, if only his power transferred over to a different body part, like his legs. What if he could run as fast as he filed? Not a single bullet could catch him. Days would belong to the job, but his nights would be spent chasing down potential rapists, murderers, and terrorists.
Boxes 21 through 39 are now under his belt, and it’s only 3:00. This time, he remembers to enter them into Excel as he goes. His pace has definitely sped up. Seeing how well he is doing, he gives himself a little break. He stands to stretch out his tight back and leg muscles. Before sitting back down, he notices a closet on the other side of the room. He eyes it. The unknown of it, its what-can-be-in-there-ness quality tugs at him. Curiosity is his other kryptonite. From Kindergarten through college, it kept him from getting the best grades because while he should have been listening to what was to be on tests, he was staring out windows, looking through open doors, or strolling through his mind. Not this time. He will get this job done by 5:00. Nothing is going to stop him. Sure, they will probably let him come in and finish tomorrow if need be. That’s not what he’s known for, though. His reputation is at stake. Some can invent light bulbs. Others can run miles in under four minutes. But only he, Robert Thomas, can finish filing projects in record time. He again sits, but the closet’s presence taps incessantly at his skull. The effects of that unknown place are already apparent. Sloth has sapped his speed. He is powerless against its ravages. He must know. He promises himself that he won’t spend a single moment more than he needs to. He’ll find out what’s in there then get right back to work.
The door creaks when he opens it. He looks around to see if anyone heard. No one has, so he goes in. The closet is enormous, and it’s filled with rows and rows of clothes on hangers inside dry cleaning bags. Now he knows. Good. That’s the end of it. That tap continues, though. He can only make out hints of the clothing, so he walks down the rows, lifting the plastic: chambermaid outfit, alien mask and gown, and even a gorilla suit. His curiosity quenched, he can finally put the closet behind him. On his way out, he sees hints of red fabric glinting in the fluorescent light. He lifts the plastic to see the blue spandex shirt and pants. More importantly, he sees the cape. A cape! There’s the feeling of falling in his stomach. The little voice of his conscience whispers that he could be caught, but he ignores it. He takes the cape from its hanger and holds it before him. It flutters slightly from an air conditioning vent beneath his feet. He throws it over his back then ties it around his neck. When fastened securely, he lets it hang, feeling its slight weight pull at his shoulders. When he walks, it rubs at the back of his legs, making a faint whooshing sound. In fact, it’s pretty awkward to walk with. This doesn’t surprise him. After all, capes aren’t worn for taking long walks in the park. No, capes are worn for action, for speed, for the sheer velocity of saving lives. He peeks from the closet to see if anyone has come into the room. All clear.
From the doorway, he places one foot behind the other as he reaches his arms out in front of him. With a deep concentrated breath, he leaps. Then he’s running and shushing around the room. The cape flaps at his back as he maneuvers through thunderheads. Lightning bursts from all sides. No concern. Only those without superpowers have to worry about such things. With his precise telescopic vision, he sees a car chase spiraling through the streets. He plummets down. The chased car trips the curb, heading straight for a pack of orphans and nuns, here, no doubt, to see the Liberty Bell or Independence Hall. The car gets closer and closer, but just as its headlights are to plow said unfortunate orphans and nuns, he lands in front of them, taking the hammering blow. Car is totaled. Villain is bruised but alive. And the cops nab him with a smile and salute to Robert. All cheer as he shoots up over the buildings to disappear into the clouds. An angry voice calls from the crowd. Must be the voice of the villain, of course, telling him that revenge is imminent. It’s to be expected. Yet, this voice mentions nothing of revenge.
“It’s a quarter to five,” it says.
This is when Robert stops and sees all the faces staring at him. Many are suppressing laughter. Others gape in awe. The angry face comes into focus. It’s Boss Lady.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
He doesn’t know what to say. Sweat drools down his stomach and back, seeping through his white dress shirt. He’s out of breath. A throbbing sun of fear pulsates in his chest. Boss Lady is over by the table now, examining his effort.
“You’re not even halfway through these.”
“That’s what you get when you hire a temp,” a man says with a grin.
Boss Lady glares and his smile goes away.
“This just isn’t acceptable.”
Of course, he will not officially be fired by the agency. They simply will be unable to find him work. If he calls, they’ll swear to be doing all they can to drum something up for him, that he just needs to be patient. He will apply to other agencies and jobs. But this will follow him. Everything ultimately does.
Boss Lady’s eyes are filled with remorseless contempt. Robert stands frozen in the high beams of her gaze. Then his body makes a decision. It runs. From the large orange room, through the halls, down the chrome stairs, through the lobby where the pretty receptionist says “hi” even as he blows by her at what seems to him is warp speed. His momentous velocity stops when he has to wait for an elevator going down. He doesn’t even consider the stairs. Traversing 15 flights just doesn’t seem plausible. As he waits, he keeps turning his head to see the round-up posse headed by Boss Lady. Yet no one is coming. The elevator finally arrives, and he gets on quickly, as though still being chased. He clutches the cape’s smooth fabric to his chest.
Making his way through the main lobby, he imagines burly security guards lined up, arms folded, stony eyes chiseled into their no-nonsense faces. He swarms them with blurry kicks and punches, dropping them all in one mad, single attack. He gets to the building’s exit without a problem, then steps through the swivel doors onto the busy street. A few people look up briefly. Most don’t look at all. He looks behind him to see if anyone is chasing him, then into the clotted, honking traffic for police. All clear on each front. Triumphant, he aims his arms at the blue sky and runs up Chestnut, the cape flapping mightily at his back.