A few days before Noreen arrives, our manager, Matt, calls a meeting to explain: She’ll be in the office, he says, consulting. He mentions she’s from McSkinsey. As soon as I hear the word, I look around and notice everyone else is scanning the room, too, wondering if we’ll get picked off one at a time or all go in a major wave.
Matt senses the tension and continues. She might ask a few questions, he says, but she’s not there to make any big decisions, so we shouldn’t be worried.
As soon as I get back to my desk, I erase my Internet history, my bookmarks, my cookies. I trash seven years’ worth of stored-up stuff: memos from bosses long gone, archived files. I realize a pilfering problem: My drawers store more than fourteen notepads, seven boxes of pens, cases of paper clips. I haven’t used a paper clip in years.
All of it goes back to the supply closet, and I return with a foamy spray, lay it on a little too thick, swab the desk like a punished pirate till sweat beads on my brow.
I stand back, wonder if it looks too clean, if it makes me look compulsive. The space needs something, I decide. Something that makes me seem human.
It hits me: Ginny, Ed’s assistant, never returned from maternity leave. Her area was like a Hallmark store: Beanie Babies, American Idol posters—ephemera of arrested development.
I make a move to loot her cube, but all that’s left is a picture frame with a black-and-white photograph of a lab sitting on a porch, its head between its paws, looking earnest and loyal.
Noreen’s a heavy breather, carries most of her bulk up front. Since starting at the office, I have the habit of freezing whenever a superior swaggers by—hold my breath and wait. In her case, it takes forever. She spots something and stops.
—Wait a minute, she says. Who’s that guy?
Dear lord, she’s hovering over me. She smells like a combination of camphor and Angostura bitters.
—Is he yours?
She’s pointing to the picture of the lab.
It’s all I can muster.
—He’s so sweet. What’s his name?
—Voltron, comes out of my mouth.
She gives me a funny look.
—I let my nephew name him, I say.
—I have to get to a meeting, she says. But we’ll talk more later. I have a five-year-old Jack Russell. Named Coaster.
After it’s over, Alex, the girl who sits next to me, pops her head over the divider.
—Voltron? she says.
—Don’t, I say.
—You don’t even have a nephew.
She looks to my computer and sees the screensaver in full swing.
—I’m busy, too, she says. I have this Princemore project and could use some help.
—Sorry, I say.
—How long do you think you can get away with this? she says. You’re an only child for christ’s sake.
Over the next few weeks, Noreen keeps her word and provides daily updates on Coaster. Most of them begin,
—You’ll never believe what he got into this time…
Soon, though, she senses her monopoly and asks,
—What does Voltron do?
—What do you mean? I ask.
—Does he do anything…funny?
I point at the picture.
—You know, he more or less does that.
She looks at the picture and back at me.
—He’s getting pretty old, I say, but when he was a puppy….
I trail off.
Aware of the awkwardness, Alex stands and says,
—Luther, here are those Princemore files I was talking about. Thanks for helping me with this. You’re a lifesaver.
Noreen, remembering this is an office, says,
—I’ll let you get back to work.
When she’s out of range, I mumble,
—You’re a lifesaver.
—I’ll need those files back by noon tomorrow.
A few days later, there’s an encounter in the kitchen. Noreen’s over by a vending machine with a floppy dollar gripped in her fist.
—Do you know how this works? she says.
—Sure, I say. Let me help.
—See, I’m not sure if the numbers refer to the item to the left or right.
—Left, I say. Which item do you want?
—Cookies? You sure?
—What do you mean am I sure?
—I…I meant…I was just confirming C-6. I didn’t mean anything about the…you know.
I make the mistake of nodding toward her stomach.
—I have it from here, she says.
The updates about Coaster stop. After a week of silence, I ask in passing, trying to open things up. She says she’ll come by, and then never does.
This is the recession we’re talking about, so no action is too extreme. I go to a rescue shelter, select a sad-looking Boston terrier, bring it to the office on the pretense of a vet visit.
Noreen wants to be curt, but when she sees the ugly pup, she can’t help but melt.
—What’s his name?
—Ernest, I say. Because he looks like Ernest Borgnine.
—How’s he getting along with the lab? she asks.
I take a deep breath and then stare down at my belt buckle.
—What? she says.
—He was old, I say, with a shrug.
—Oh, she says, placing a hand on her chest.
—I haven’t been sleeping. Just missing the little things. Like the sound of his paws on the wood floor.
—Oh, she says again, begins fanning herself like she’s hot.
I’m owning it. Alex, unable to keep her face straight, stands and abandons her neighboring cube.
Noreen bends down and introduces herself to Ernie. He rises to meet her, quivering with goodwill. It’s like we’re already a team. In that moment, I grow fond of him, maybe even proud.
Noreen removes her phone and says,
—Let me get a picture of you two.
For the rest of the week things go great. She stops by to ask about Ernie, keeps mentioning how she’ll get me a copy of the picture.
—Just e-mail it, I say.
—No, she says. I’m going to Kinkos anyway.
Noreen arrives at my desk. I can tell by her expression something’s happened. The corners of her mouth are anchored with disappointment. She holds out a small frame still wrapped in its thin skin of plastic. Inside is the picture of the lab on the porch, same as the one on my desk. Filler.
She says nothing, just walks away.
The past four months haven’t been easy. Jobs scarce, money tight. Probably couldn’t get through it if it weren’t for Ernie. It’s nice not to go it alone.
Ben Cake lives and writes in New York City and Charleston, South Carolina. He has worked for Esquire, Women’s Wear Daily, Runner’s World, Life & Style, and a host of other national and international publications.