Third cubicle on the left

Something Blue, part 1

Power on. New file. ... And now I've been looking at a blank screen for several minutes, with no idea how to make anything make sense, but I'm going to type it anyway.

Things never stop not making sense, but I'm handling it all 2/3 as well as anyone could expect. Every day I'm still confused about something or everything, but writing it down usually helps me figure things out, so I'm writing it down. Crack my knuckles and here goes. I don't know how the story ends, but here's how it started.

♦ ♦ ♦

Two-hundred-fifty mornings a year, I drove to a bland office building, flashed my badge at the front door, turned right, walked to the end of the hall, and sat at the third cubicle on the left. For nine hours I stared at a screen, and keyed in numbers and codes that mattered to someone somewhere but not much to me.

Half a dozen people sat in cubicles near mine, doing the same work. Management called us 'associates' instead of cogs in a wheel, and we were the 'Excellence Squad' instead of data-entry, but it was the same as any other corporate office job. The company provided bad but free coffee, health insurance, and two weeks of vacation annually, which kept suicides to a minimum.

The work was boring. My co-workers were boring. I was boring. Maybe we were all fascinating in real life, but you have to be boring at work or they'll replace you with someone who is.

Should I go around the office, and introduce my boss and each member of the 'squad'? Nah, except for Raoul they're all irrelevant to what happened.

Raoul and I barely knew each other, back then. He had only been there for a few months, so he was still 'the new guy', and I'm shy around strangers so I hadn't said much to him beyond answering some work-related questions.

He was twenty years old, the youngest person in the office, where everyone else ranged from their late twenties to decrepit like me. And he was cute, but I'm old enough to be the boy's mother so I wasn't supposed to notice (but, I noticed).

Walter sat in the cubicle next to mine, and Walter was not cute. Everyone else walked in and said 'Good morning' whether they meant it or not, but Walter usually came in snarling. His first words might be "Damn it all to hell" and then he'd slam a fist on his desk and mutter about his neighbor or his ex or his neighbor's ex's dog. There was always something Walter was angry about.

He was also the guy who tattled to the boss when he thought you'd made a mistake. He asked pedantic questions at meetings, and interrupted co-workers, especially women. His 15-minute breaks lasted half an hour, and his half-hour lunches took an hour. He knew the answer to every work-related question, but his answers were usually wrong. On Fridays he brought fish soup for lunch, microwaved it, and ate it at his desk. Yeah, Walter was that guy.

Most of our 'squad' had complained to management about Walter, but his productivity was good so his job was secure. He could get away with anything, and he knew it, and he especially liked making new hires feel stupid by pointing out their mistakes, loudly and publicly. Raoul, being the office newbie, had been Walter's primary target.

One afternoon when Walter was on another of his elastic breaks, Raoul came to my cubicle and said, "Tina, why is Walter such a big fat jerk?"

I smiled and said, "Congratulations, your probationary period is over and now you're one of us. Everyone here hates Walter, even Walter."

A little later, Raoul sent me an email: "Tina, what would you think about slightly sabotaging Walter's work?"

The cubicle walls were too tall for anyone to see, but I'd always kinda wanted to be an actress, so I put on a performance just for myself. I sat up straight in my chair, said "Tsk tsk", hit 'reply', and typed: Absolutely not. Walter may be difficult to work with, but he's part of our Excellence Squad, and we all need to pull together. I hit 'send', and walked to Raoul's cubicle.

He was already reading the email I'd sent, and I said quietly, "Raoul, that's the company's email. They don't monitor it much, but if they want they can read every message any of us send — so don't write emails like that. If you want to sabotage Walter, though, count me in."

It didn't take much effort or imagination to make Walter miserable, since he was miserable by nature. I poured a few drips of root beer into his keyboard after he'd left one night, which rendered it out-of-order the next morning. Raoul stole Walter's soup from the office fridge, and returned it a week later when it was moldy. We replaced the battery in his mouse with a dead AA, once weekly. I cranked up the volume so Walter's desk phone rang way too loud. His Garfield calendar wandered into the recycling bin. We did whatever petty things we could think of, hoping that Walter would one day lose his temper, throw a fit, and maybe he'd either quit or get fired.

At first Walter groused about the things we'd done — "Damn it, my mouse is dead again? I replaced the battery just last week!" — but soon he figured out that something was up. He surprised us, though: Instead of raging in response to our sabotage, he mellowed. He started saying 'Good morning,' shortened his breaks, and interrupted less often at meetings.

"This is not the result I'd expected," I said to Raoul one morning. "He's becoming bearable. Maybe we should call a cease-fire?"

"Too late," Raoul said. "Walter doesn't know it, but he ordered a cheap butt plug yesterday. It's fluorescent pink, and it's being sent to Mr Schreckengost's office, with a card that says it's a gift from Walter."

Well, I wasn't sure what to say to that.

Mr Schreckengost was our boss's boss's boss. His first name was known to be Randolph, but he was always addressed as Mr Schreckengost, probably even by Mrs Schreckengost. He was extremely serious about everything, and if you mispronounced his surname he would impatiently correct you. He didn't seem like the kind of executive who'd appreciate a pink butt plug.

"Gotta ask," I said, "What does a butt plug cost, and am I supposed to chip in half the price?"

"It was $24.99 plus ten dollars for shipping and handling, and no, you don't have to chip in — it was my idea, so it's my treat."

"Are they going to know it's from you?"

"Nah, I'm pretty sure it can't be traced back to me," he said. "I ordered it by mail, not on-line, with Walter and the company as the return address. I paid with a money order purchased at a convenience store, and the card will say it's a gift from Walter."

I marveled at the boy's deviousness, and hoped his purchase really was untraceable. After that, though, we agreed to pause our Walter warfare.

The package arrived a few weeks later — a plain brown box, addressed to 'Sweet Randy Schreckengost', which got laughs in the mailroom. Raoul told me the note inside said, 'To Randy, from Walter on the Excellence Squad', but I never saw the box or the card or the lovely pink present. I heard the panic in Walter's voice, though, after the phone rang at his desk. "What?" he said. "I don't know what you mean," and then "Yes, sir," and he hung up. "I'm going to Mr Schreckengost's office," he said, with a confused look on his face.

Only Walter and Sweet Randy know what was said in that upstairs office, but I'll wager it was said loudly. Walter wasn't fired, because even Mr Schreckengost must have known they were both being played, but when Walter returned to his desk he was red-faced and grumpier than usual, and the next day he turned in his two weeks' notice.

Did I regret any of it? Maybe, but not enough to apologize. Mostly I regret that it was Raoul's idea, not mine.

We got away with it, too. Everyone in the building despised Walter, so he couldn't guess who had set him up, and there was no memo from management, explaining company policy on butt plugs. On his last day, the office gave Walter a card and a cake and a 10-minute going-away party. Mr Schreckengost was invited, but had a prior appointment. Raoul and I ate cake and pretended to wish Walter the best, and it was my favorite day at that job, ever.

All the above is preamble, though, and matters only because that's how Raoul and I became office buddies. We were an unlikely pair, an old lady and a young buck making jokes at each other's desks, and someone said that I'd become Raoul's "work mom." Still, he wasn't one of those rare co-workers that you'd hang out with after hours. Raoul was just the boy in the corner cubicle, good for a laugh.

Raoul's cubicle was where it all started, maybe a month after Walter quit. It was late October, bitter cold outside, and cold inside too, because the company was cheap and the building's furnace was still 'off' for the summer. I was returning from the ladies' room, where I'd had an ever-so-slight shot of whiskey for the warmth. As I walked past Raoul's cubicle on my way to my own, he whirled in his chair and said, "Hey, Tina, can we talk?"

I expected a joke, but he seemed serious, and motioned toward the door to the conference room. I shrugged and followed him, but the doorknob wouldn't budge, of course. The conference room was always locked unless it was reserved for a meeting, and only managers could reserve the room, so good luck with that, Raoul.

"Oh, crap," he said. "Maybe outside?"

I shrugged again, so we bundled up in our jackets and walked into the winter, across the parking lot that fronted the building. Standing on the sidewalk, Raoul said with a shiver, "This is going to sound nutty," and he was right. What he said next did indeed sound nutty. 

Next: Part 2

Republished 5/6/2024   

Something Blue
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