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LAce Posted Monday, March 22nd, 2004
The Telecommuter
Nick Taylor

Don't shoot the Instant Messenger, Richard tells himself.

The conversation scrolls on.

"Are you there Richard??? I need you NOW!"

"I'm here, Josh," he types. "Relax. I'm here."

"Like HELL I'll relax!!!" the supervisor replies. "I need to see the latest round of changes NOW!!!" Josh is in the habit of hitting Enter every few words, flushing his diatribe across the Internet line by line.

Richard left the city a year ago to move out here. He accepted his the company's offer to stay on the payroll as a telecommuter.

"Josh," Richard types calmly, "the upgrades will be ready for you on Monday. That was our agreement. When you changed the database structure, that pushed it back a week, remember?"

"You're shitting me, Richard. [Enter] You ASS HOLD!!! [Enter] ASS HOLE!!! [Enter] Didn't you get the e-mail last night? [Enter] The deadline's been pushed up TWO weeks. [Enter] ADG wants the beta sooner than Herzog expected. [Enter] He's gone fucking nuts. [Enter] Which means you need to PUSH IT!!!"

"Sorry," Richard types. "It will be ready Monday. First thing."

Josh doesn't reply. Richard rummages through the crap strewn across his desk for a mug with some coffee left in it.

The Instant Messenger window pops up again.

"Holy shit! [Enter] That was Herzog. [Enter] He says if we don't have a build by six tonight we're staying all weekend!"

Richard pulls his watch down from on top of the dresser. It's a little after five.

"I'm sorry, Josh," he writes. "I have to go."

Richard clicks open another window from the row along the bottom of his screen. A nubile Asian woman spreads her legs and sticks out her tongue. Fearing nights of mind-numbing boredom, Richard treated himself to a full subscription to the best porn site he could find. The problem is that the Depression-era phone lines on his the dirt road where he lives weren't designed to handle this type of entertainment. The webcam feed comes through in fits and starts.

Impatient, Richard closes the window. He opens up a gallery of stills he downloaded the previous night. A Swedish couple copulates on a bearskin rug spread over bed-sized block of solid ice. He moves the mouse to his left hand and slips the right under his waistband.

The Instant Messenger bell chimes and the little gray placeholder blinks blue. Out of habit, Richard moves his mouse over it, but he hesitates before clicking. It's after five, after all. He's off duty.

Another chime announces the arrival of a personal e-mail. Richard brings up the mail window and sees a message from his mother. His parents live in Washington, near where Richard used to live with his wife and daughter. Annoyingly, they keep in touch. Richard sends Madeleine a check every month, but he suspects that his father gives her money too.

"Dear Richard," his mother writes, "I'll bet you're beating off, so I'll make this quick. Your father and I are still furious for what you've done. Especially your father. He wanted to retire this year. Now what another five years? More than that, probably. Thanks to you."

Richard clicks back to Instant Messenger.

"I'm still here, Josh," he types.

The cursor pumps a few beats against the whir of the computer fan. Outside, a patch of blue jays shrieks into the oak near the window. They peck at one another and scream and beat the air. An acorn falls from a higher branch, caroming off a furrow in the bark, knocking against the glass. The jays turn at once to Richard and fall silent.

"God damn you, Richard!" Josh responds. "Herzog just said we can forget about 6PM. [Enter] We're staying the weekend. [Enter] It's final."

"I'm sorry Josh," Richard types. "You don't deserve that."

"I'm glad somebody isn't afraid to say it," Josh replies. "Thanks for the sympathy."

"No problem."

"Hey Richard," Josh writes, "if you don't mind my asking, whatever happened with your wife? You left in such a hurry, I never got a chance to ask."

Richard clicks the Instant Messenger window closed.

He finds his bottle of hand lotion among the mugs and dog-eared computer manuals and squeezes a dab onto his right palm.

Behind him, the phone rings. It's his personal line. He lets the machine pick it up.

"Hey Rich," a woman's voice says, "it's Amber. Turns out I'm getting off early. There was a fire on Aisle Ten, and they've evacuated the store. I'm coming over, okay?" She pauses. "I know you're there."

Amber is a checker at Food Lion. Richard met her the week he moved out here. Although he'd promised not to get involved with anyone for at least a year, they'd met the following day for a drink. Now she's pregnant.

A simple life is what he wanted, leaving his wife and infant daughter and the sprawling chaos of the Washington suburbs. He was antsy, beyond antsy, to the point where his behavior was completely unpredictable, even to him. He felt like a sock pulled fresh from a Laundromat dryer, fully charged with static electricity, liable to stick to the wall.

The life he'd found in the country was simple all right. The country, he'd learned quickly, has no tolerance for the type of neurotic give and take that made social dealings in the city such a burden. Out here relationships move fast, and they follow a straight line. A woman named Amber can go from grocery store checker to the mother of your child before you have a chance to say I'm not ready for this just yet.

Your balls work fine, the country says. You're ready.

The Instant Messenger flashes again.

"Richard!!! [Enter] I need you!"

"I'm here, Josh," Richard types.

"I just spoke with some of the guys. [Enter] We think it's only fair that if we have to work all weekend, then you do too."

No way, Richard thinks. He'd planned to take Amber to the National Parks lodge at the Peaks of Otter this weekend. It's his last chance, he's sure, to convince her that she doesn't want this baby, not really.

"Gee Josh," Richard writes. "I really wasn't planning on working this weekend. We said Monday, remember?"

"God damn it, Richard! [Enter] I know we said Monday, but that was before Herzog pushed the deadline back. [Enter] Are you paying attention at all???"

An acorn knocks against the window. Two jays shriek and flutter into a hazy blue commotion.

The phone rings again.

"Richard, this is your father," the answering machine squawks. "I have some bad news, son. Madeleine is at the hospital right now with Hailey. The pediatrician thought she had an ear infection, but now they're running some tests to make sure it's not meningitis. She might have to stay overnight. Hello? She'd sure love to see you, Richard."

His father exhales into the receiver. Richard knows that the machine will cut him off any second.

"Christ, she's your daughter, Ri " Click.

Richard checks his watch. Half past five. When did Amber call? She said she was coming right over.

Richard opens his web browser and searches for an online flower shop. They'll deliver to the hospital, right? Of course they will, he tells himself. That's what flower shops do.

At a quarter to six, Richard turns off his computer. He notes his hours for the day on a scrap of paper and switches off the light in his office.

He steps out onto the back porch for a smoke. The sun is setting over the thick canopy of oak trees behind his rented house. A couple of blue jays swoop down from a perch in one of the oaks, crying out their shrill throaty caws.

Richard listens for Amber's truck on the road. Maybe the fire department came and cleaned things up at the Food Lion. Maybe Amber won't come right away. Richard hopes so. He was counting a few hours alone to get his thoughts together. A gentle gust of wind rustles the oak leaves, loosening a few more acorns, blowing Richard's hair down into his face. Three more jays and a mockingbird zigzag down from the canopy. The birds cackle at one another, nipping tail feathers. A clutch of chickadees joins the action.

Suddenly one of the jays makes a sound, a quick peep-a-dee-peep, and the birds line up in midair. They dive forward, tracing a line deep into the forest. Their flight has a frenetic dip and roll that Richard understands. He feels that way too. He wonders what it might be like to join them somehow. They took on a mockingbird and some chickadees why not a man?

He could disappear forever this time.

He notices that one bird, an enormous blue jay, remains in the hollow. It caws and points its beak at the house. Richard feels sure it's speaking to him.

Follow me! it seems to say. It's just a little farther now. This is it, I promise.

Comments [post a comment]

Posted by Nicholas Beem [ nickbeem@yahoo.com ] on Wednesday, March 24th, 2004 at 8:35 AM
A beautiful window into a postmodern life. I particularly like the metaphor of "flushing his diatribe across the internet". The last few sentences are lovely. From one Nick to another, well done!

Posted by Katharine von Ter Stegge [ guapacita@hotmail.com ] on Wednesday, March 24th, 2004 at 6:32 PM
Ah, the plight of the rural porn consumer. I love it.

Posted by Todd Pontius [ tpontius@mindspring.com ] on Saturday, April 10th, 2004 at 3:30 PM
I love how a guy working from home (so sure you want that gig?) can have so many conversations even though he's by himself. Great stuff, Nick!



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