Betsy Shebang - Column for 3/26

Chapter 6

Bryce is one of those people who breathe loudly. When Iím sitting at my desk I can hear him down the hall through the closed door, like Iím working for Darth Vader. At first I found it strangely comforting to be around someone who hates this place more than I do. But for the last twelve months Iíve been dreaming about work. And now, dreaming about work means spending the night with Bryce.

I woke up at my desk again with the phone ringing, which I guess had just started. Lists of numbers were scrolling upward on my computer monitor. Iíve learned to answer the phone in my work voice all the time now, in case I donít remember Iím at work until itís too late. I said "This is Toby."

I had a meeting with Bryce at eleven. It was eleven. It was Bryce. I said something businesslike and hung up. Ran to his office.

"You want the door closed?"

"Of course."

I sat down. Strangely uncomfortable chair. "What's up?"

Bryce always speaks like Iím asking him repeat each line for the third time. "First of all, I understand you've never been fingerprinted by the security department. I've made an appointment for you for tomorrow. A drug test is part of that procedure. Just letting you know."


"Second. Youíve been telling the employees that the checks were mailed out accidentally."

"Yeah. They've been asking about the amounts."

"Well, stop doing that. It makes us look bad."

It took me a second to figure out that what I thought he meant was what he meant. I tried to give a respectfully puzzled look as I said "Iím...sorry, but if we tell them the checks were sent out accidentally, that means one person thought it was a good idea to send them out that way. If we say the checks were sent out on purpose, that means everybody thought it was a good idea. And everybody knows it was not a good idea."

"If we second-guess our own actions, it makes us look indecisive."

"With all due respect, we're not second-guessing anything. We're saying we made a mistake."

"But we'd be making another mistake to acknowledge the first mistake."

"Are you sure we're not making another mistake to deny the first mistake?"

"Yes I'm sure. Next item: Susan told me you never closed the fiscal year in the database. Is this correct?"

"It's actually transferring as we speak. I started it an hour ago. It takes a while. Thereís a lot of data."

"So it wasn't done until today?"

"No. It'll be done later this morning."

"Christ. And then you're going to catch up with the first two months of this year?"

"Yeah, we'll have to do that."

"Well, keep me appraised. And get the backup of the database from before the change to Randy, A-sap."

"Right away."

Bryce nodded and reached for the phone, dialing a number without picking up the receiver. Suddenly I had the strange feeling Iíd become invisible. He held his hand by the receiver and flipped through a report, gently singing "I miss drinking" to himself as the ringing buzzed through the speaker. I got up to leave. Walking down the hall, I kept expecting to hear him call out "Thanks" or "Weíre done" or something. Back at my desk, I immediately forgot about it.

What happened next might not make sense without some explanation. All our financial information is kept in a steam-powered computer database that we bought years ago from a bankrupt real estate investment firm and never bothered to modify with our own information, so there are extra columns of numbers with titles like "Property Depreciation" that arenít used for anything. After the most recent budget panic, we were told we could not "roll over any budget surplus into the coming fiscal year". So instead of moving forward with a smaller budget, the department has been operating in a time warp for the last two and a half months, dating all our checks December 31 and trying to convince the database that weíre still spending last yearís money and January hasnít happened yet.

Finally, before Iíd fallen asleep on my desk that morning, Iíd set the database to "Close fiscal year". After several of those "Are you sure you want to do this?" messages, the computer started to run through the old information, preparing itself to "wake up" in the new year that was already ten weeks old.

When I got back to my desk after meeting with Bryce, something was wrong. Columns of numbers were scrolling upwards on my computer monitor, but most of them werenít changing. It took a while to figure out what was wrong. Nothing was being archived. All the data was being erased.

Had I set it up wrong? It was supposed to back everything up automatically. It didnít do this last year.

It was then that I had the kind of Marcel Proust experience that youíd expect to happen only on the witness stand, when a whole chapter of memories, forgotten for months or years, floods back with such eerie clarity that they seem to have been generated not from actual events, but from the anxiety and pressure of the moment theyíre recalled. A year before, Sandra had hired a consultant to modify parts of the database to accommodate more users. It ran much faster afterwards, and I believe Sandra started backing up the database manually after that. Four months later, she left the company. Now, the database hasnít been manually backed up in eight months, Iím the resident expert on the database, and Iíve just erased the data for the whole fiscal year.

Sometimes Iím lying beside a hot tub in a placid dusk. The last rays of orange sunshine warm the Western-facing side of my face and body. Iím naked. All worry in life disappears behind the horizon with the departed day. Evening birdsong and a rich blanket of narcotic music hold the whole world still for what may be an endless retreat.

A harsh daylight flashed in like an arc of rude lightning that failed to disappear after striking. Something slammed against my foot. A shrieking shadow flapped its arms up and down on the walls and ceiling.

I pulled off my headphones and sat up on the floor. The door to the handicapped bathroom had slammed open and Clive was sillohuetted in the doorway, rushing toward me, with a panicked voice bursting from his mouth: "Oh my god - Toby, are you okay? Speak to me!! Are you breathing?!"

Iím really sick of being exhausted all the time. Iím sick of being too tired to do anything and too manic and frustrated to go to sleep when Iím in bed. I curl up under the covers thinking about who would remember me if I died tomorrow and whether Iíve wasted my whole adult life or not. My whole life. When I think about it I just start hating everybody around me and in the end I donít know whose fault it is. Probably mine. That doesnít help me sleep.

Iím leaving. I donít know where Iím going, but Iím leaving.

I went by the ATM tonight and took out the $260 from my bank account and $300 each from both credit cards. Peggy will drop by my room to tell me she gave our phone number to another stalker, but sheíll open my door and find Iíve gone. Iíll be hundreds of miles away. Or thousands. Maybe I need a motorcycle. Iíll get different clothes.

Suddenly I understand. I understand why bikers call themselves rebels, even while they all wear the same uniform. The whole mindless idiot world is opening up to me. People spinning in circles to counter the rotation of the Earth, everybody just fighting to stay where they are and hoping to God nothing ever really changes, no matter how much they complain. Iím sick to fucking death of every last inch of it.

There is a world beyond this one. There is a world where things make sense. I used to think I'd find it through writing. Now I don't know where it is. I'm running out of places to look.

I found Peggy in her bedroom. Her door was open. She was lying across her bed typing on her laptop computer. I didnít even know she owned one. Her bare feet pointed towards me. I stood in the doorway and looked at them.

She turned towards me. "Yeah?" she said.

"Hi. Iím moving out and Iím leaving Washington and I want to make love to you before I do."

I felt like Iíd sprung a leak. I felt like I would go spinning around the room backwards, like an emptying balloon. A giant, horrible, wonderful laugh was building in my stomach. I was either going to start cackling like a madman or I was going to shit my pants. I felt good. I felt like Iíd put my last dollar in the slot machine and I just wanted the wheels to keep spinning forever. My work here was done.

"Youíre moving out?"



"I donít know."

"Well, do I need to start looking for another housemate?"

"I just said I wanted to have sex with you! Iíve wanted to for a long time!"

"Well, this is a lot to hit me with! What do you want me to say?"

"Well you could start by acting surprised."

"Maybe I'm not surprised."

"You're not surprised." I fought the urge to keep repeating it.

"You've made it pretty obvious," she said, with a tired look.

I was consumed with the wish that Mel could be there to hear that. I crossed my arms. I ran my hand through my hair, just like my dad does when heís mad and losing an argument.

"So is this, what, thirty days' notice?" Peggy asked, with a sigh.

"Yeah. It's thirty days' notice."

"Okay. Do you know anybody who needs a room?"

Copyright 2002 Betsy Shebang

Columns by Betsy Shebang