Knight Literary Journal
short story,
Knight Literary Journal, Volume II, Spout Spring Virginia, USA,
April 2004.

I'm still at work, stuck in a conference call, tied to my desk with a phone wedged between my shoulder and my ear. It's 5:40 on a Friday afternoon. Eastern Standard Time. Everyone else on the call is in California. Pacific Time. It's still the middle of the afternoon for them. They're all running full tilt on the premise that they will accomplish Many Other Things today. People keep joining the call and then leaving again. I can't keep track of who is on the line. We should have had this call last week but people kept canceling. Each time it got put off, I came to dread it more. Now it's finally unfolding - sloppy and mistrustful - just as I had feared.

It is the end of the day for me. The end of the week. I've been at work for three more hours than anyone else on the call. I am wilted and done for, and worst of all, I have an echo on my line. We've all experienced this kind of conference call echo before. Sometimes everyone can hear it; today it's just me. I sound like I'm two inches tall and stuck in a tin can. Hearing my own voice distorted in this way makes me feel edgy and inadequate: no matter what I say I feel as though my words lose weight and come out sounding hollow. I tried hanging up and calling back in but it didn't help. It's a continent issue - there's nothing to be done.

Don't even ask me what this meeting is about. Really, don't get me started. Everyday is like one big giant meeting only interrupted by the occasional change of scenery or the introduction of new characters. It's hard to get anything done with so many people panicking about how much stuff they have to get done. Now people are actually calling meetings to discuss previous and impending meetings.

Hank and I had our own meeting before we went into this conference call. We agreed that we would not be able to build the brand new on-line event registration system that marketing's been asking us for. We figured we had a perfectly acceptable contingency plan, but no. Liz still wants the whole shebang and will not be thwarted by technicalities. She says she doesn't want to know about the backend. She says it's too late for a work-around. Liz loves buzzwords. Anthony, calling in from his cell phone, is furious that no one told him about any of this earlier, even though we had been trying to arrange this meeting for ages now. The buck-passing is escalating. Micro-management emerges as a form of denial. Things are decidedly out of control. As the issues overlap and become exaggerated people start taking things personally.

"This is NOT personal," I insist to a woman named Sylvia, who I've spoken to often but never actually met. I don't know how I got off on the wrong foot with this woman but I'm not doing a very good job of reassuring her now and it's making everyone on the call anxious. I wish everybody would just calm down. I am so distracted by the echo on the line that I lose track of what I'm saying. I am getting ahead of my self as I speak. I am getting into trouble.

"All I'm saying is that we already have an on-line registration form for this type of event. We don't need to build an new one."

"Yeah," Hank pipes up. "We can't keep re-inventing the wheel."

"Look, if you guys think I'm doing such a crap job here…" Sylvia is up a tree again. Thanks a lot Hank, I think to myself, thanks a lot. He's right of course, but I wish he wouldn't say it quite like that cause now Sylvia is telling us all over again how hard she's been working. She has been, but the same also goes for everyone else too. Now, sure enough, Liz is talking about how little bandwidth any of us has, which drives me crazy. Technically speaking, we have lots of bandwidth. We have a duel T3 for crying out loud, but no one would get that kind of humor at this point, so I keep my mouth shut.

I don't know how such a non-technical bunch came to be working for a software company. No one wants to hear why something doesn't work, they just want you to make it happen for them. Plus, it's politics. Some things may very well be technically possible, but that doesn't make it a good idea. The more I try to come up with a solution that works for everyone, the more complicated everything seems. The more I try to simplify, the more muddled I feel. The empty sound of my voice on the phone line taunts me. To hell with technology, the phone doesn't even work. Hank keeps agreeing with everything I say, which, for some reason, is making things worse. An echo in triplicate. I take off my glasses and put them on my desk. I am trying to convince Liz that even if my department had the time to build a whole new system, it wouldn't exactly work the way Sylvia wants it too. When Anthony cuts in and starts talking about a completely different issue, I put my head in my hands. Who called this meeting anyway? It's hard to reconcile the continent between us and the interdepartmental conflict of interests at hand. I can't shake the hollow sound of my own voice mocking me somewhere in the distance. I want to shout at the phone - "You're twisting my words!"

* * *

This feeling of tele-alienation is symptomatic of a work-related condition now known as Bi-Coastal Complex. Bi-coastal complex is common to employees of global corporations. I swear I type and talk on the phone for a living. Email is the glue that holds us all together. When I get to the office in the morning there are endless messages from San Francisco from the night before. When they get to work they will have endless responses from Chicago, Montréal and New York. I know not to expect responses from emails I send off to Tokyo until the next day but I might catch Munich on the phone if I get to work early enough. The hours in which we all overlap are so few.

And then there is the travel. Sometimes you feel lost - everything looks familiar but you are not sure which office you're in. Or which city. Sometimes you feel very tired but you're not sure just how tired because you can't remember which time zone you're in. Sometimes you think you've stayed in this hotel before but you haven't. You have to keep reminding yourself of the little things like a dozen different passwords. And always save your receipts. Other symptoms of Bi-Coastal complex include knowing exactly how many air miles you have at any given moment, keeping a suitcase half packed, and stocking your filing cabinet and your laptop carry-on bag with bottles of hotel moisturizer.

* * *

Partly in order to remind myself where I am every day, I have acquired an intimate knowledge of the view outside my window. My eyes focus on the same buildings and trees and patches of grass hour after hour while my mind is in meetings in Petaluma, Paris, London or LA. Even without my glasses on, the amorphous physical world is sometimes more concrete to me than the intricacies of the arguments, the delicacies of the negotiations taking place over the phone. Today it is partly cloudy. I follow the movement of one very white cloud as it passes in front a much darker cloud while our ill-fated conference call bumbles on. Liz is tearing into Hank now. Sylvia seems to be talking to someone else in the background. Somewhere someone's cell phone keeps ringing and ringing. Suddenly I feel a pair of hands, calm and cool on my shoulders. They rest on my neck and upper back for a brief moment, more gently than a massage, and I feel a light kiss on the side of my head, just above my telephone ear. I reach up behind me. My hand finds her hair briefly, and then she is gone.

Her name is June. June sits three feet away from me. In an ocean of work, the desks form rows like waves. Every day June and I sit back-to-back, bobbing and floating on the same tides of work, gossip, frustration and change. We hear each other's phone calls. We steal each other's envelopes. We help each other with the little things - filling out expense reports, recovering disc space, and booking hotels. This is a work-related intimacy born of proximity. We are on the same coast. We speak the same language. Email washes over us in tides and gradually we are worn down: smooth and weary from weathering the storms. We used to eat lunch together; we hardly ever have time anymore. Especially not during the Tradeshow season. The tradeshows are upon us right now, like monsoons. They are vital to growth, but they flood us regularly with work. Thankfully, June's light touch just now interrupted my clouded thoughts. I smile. That was her intention. She knows what I'm going through. I've done the same for her - a ritual laying on of hands when someone is in danger of going bi-coastal during an international conference call.

Our call is still dragging on. Mercifully, I have stopped talking. I can see the situation clearly now in my mind's eye where I couldn't before. I envision the terrain of our call: we are all messing around in the waves as they break near the shore of a nameless beach, coast unknown. The play has become frantic. General splashing about has given way to fear, a loss of footing, flailing and shoving each other away while grabbing each other for support. Sylvia, as it turns out, is ever so slightly afraid of the water. I'm not the strongest swimmer either. I struggle to make my way toward her, to try and coax her to come ashore with me. She is afraid I will drag her down somehow. She panics. She kicks; her foot gets me just below the knee. I lose my footing, sink slightly, and suddenly, I feel the undertow. I don't fight it. I go limp. It drags me down. I refuse to panic. The current carries me as far as it has to go and then unceremoniously releases me. I rise to the surface. I am much further from the beach now then I had been before. It is calmer here and I begin to tread water, breathing more easily. I shake my head like a wet dog and a salty pinwheel of water whirls from my hair, a spectacle captured briefly by the sun.

Instantly I am back at my desk. I raise the height of my swivel chair. I put my glasses back on. I remind myself - I am three hours ahead. I speak from the future. I must go back in time to help get this call on track. Sylvia is still fighting for a unique on-line event registration process. I think I've finally figured out why she thinks she needs one and how we could convince her that we can give her the same results given the technology we currently have. Explaining that to her is outside of the scope of this meeting. I want to talk to her about it in person. Everyone is talking at once and no one is listening to each other. I think Anthony hung up a while ago. "Sylvia," I interrupt - "Sylvia, I am going to be in San Francisco next week. Can we take this discussion 'off-line' until then?" She responds to Hank instead. "You know, I don't even know what you guys do, I mean besides post stuff on the web." She means Hank and I. What a jerk. I bite my tongue and secretly will Hank not to respond to this comment. Later I will email him. We will bitch about this on our own time, but please dear God, let's not go into it now.

"Sylvia, what about Tuesday afternoon, what are you doing Tuesday afternoon? Can we meet?" She blocks that attempt too. "I'm working like a dog non-stop all day on Tuesday," she replies. I sigh. Silently. I take a look around my office. For as far as the eye can see people are working like dogs, for whatever that is worth. I mean, how hard do most urban dogs work anyway? My mental image of this conference call taking place in the waves of an unknown beach is suddenly interrupted by an exuberant golden retriever streaking past to catch a Frisbee in mid air. He trots back to show us and shakes himself in manic, doggy joy. If only he were a sheep dog. If only the issues we are trying to settle were a wide roaming flock of sheep, they could be herded together and driven toward the pen.

"So what about Wednesday afternoon?" Everyone is talking at once again and no one hears me. "Sylvia." My voice is calm. I am the only one who hears the echo when it bounces back at me as the other voices fall suddenly silent. "Sylvia, I would really like get some face-time while I'm in San Francisco. Even if it's only for half an hour. I think it will make communication easier for us going forward." I can't believe I've had to resort to such corporate-speak. Oh well, what ever it takes to calm Sylvia down. She sighs audibly, unaware of how much she's telling me with that sigh - she's going to make a date with me to get me off her back and then she's going to blow me off at the last minute. I'm so bi-coastal by now that I know this, but I don't care any more. I'll deal with that eventuality if and when the time comes. In the interests of tying up the call, I take her at her word.

"So Wednesday, say three or four in the afternoon, can you make some time?"

"OK, which do you want, three or four?"

She is still vaguely suspicious of me. Who can blame her? It's part of the bi-coastal condition - to mistrust, underestimate and fear your counterparts in another offices. Put a few frazzled strangers working for different departments of the same company on either ends of the continent confusing the hell out of each other and accidents will happen. I feel so helpless against the tide of the call that I focus on a face to face meeting like a beacon in the storm. Things will be more normal after that. The logistical details fall away and I remember that we are just people after all - people doing jobs. There will be endless more conference calls and thousands of emails propagating misinformation and confusion. Maybe we'll never really understand each other, or the task at hand, but I will have a face in my mind at least. Knowing what the person on the other end of the phone looks like and what they do with their hands while they talk, these details are like guiding stars in a clear night sky. "Let's say four," I tell her, "and I'll confirm with you when I look at my flight information."

Liz is suddenly cheerful. "So we can all be friends now?" She hates it when there is discord, especially when she's not one hundred per cent sure what it's about. I know Hank is still smoldering mad, but he's decided to let things ride for now. Anthony is long gone. It's hard to say if we're even ever so slightly further along than we were before this meeting, but Liz takes this minute agreement between Sylvia and I as some kind of point of closure and they all rush off to the rest of their day. I hang up the phone with a grim satisfaction at a seven fifteen on Friday afternoon. It rings again almost immediately. I cringe but the call display tells me it's just my co-worker calling from downstairs. He's offering me a ride home. I gratefully accept. I remind myself that my day is over and I force myself to resist the temptation to read any of the thirty-seven emails that have found their way to me during the time of the call. There will be more before the west coast day is done. I'll download them all on Monday morning and read them on the plane.

While my computer is shutting down for the weekend, I stand up, raise my arms straight up in the air and twist my torso side to side. The waters seem calmer now. We have weathered yet another storm. Weary from the struggle to stay afloat, I survey the sea of desks, rowboats in an ocean of work, some of them still manned at this late hour in the week. Engineers mostly. They come in late and work late. They don't spend so much time talking on the phone. June left over an hour ago with some girls from marketing. All of accounting is long gone. "I'm going home," I announce, to no one in particular. No one takes this statement personally. No one even looks up. Maybe no one heard me. After trying so hard to keep my tongue in check all week I speak whatever comes to my mind just to hear my own thoughts again. Now that my call is over my voice comes out clear and definitive. It does not echo without another coast on the line.

J. R. Carpenter

This story is dedicated to Julie Gagné,
who helped me with the little things.

For more information, or to order online: Knight Literary Journal

J. R. Carpenter || Luckysoap.comJ. R. Carpenter || bio || electronic literature || publications || talks || blog