Caffeine 

For the last few weeks I have been trying to avoid people who might ask me what I do for a living…

-Heinrich Boll


I'm a consultant. Mostly I work naked from home. But sometimes the people at Head Office start to freak out if they haven't seen my face in a while. They like to make sure I'm doing things their way; they also like to give me a little hell if I'm not. Truth is, I don't mind going down there that much. Sometimes it's nice to see other humans and drink their coffee for free.

Today, for example, I get to Reception at eight like they ask, and Frida buzzes me through. Joe just called, Frida says. He's running late. Okay, I say, is Jane here? She's with Joe, Frida says. Okay, I say, even though I wonder why Jane and Joe had to meet off-site today. They both live in this town, I live six hours away, I'd think that Joe being my boss would want to make the most of my time. What about Myra? I ask. I'm also supposed to meet Myra. Myra won't be in until ten, Frida says. Do you want something to read? Maybe I could check e-mail, I say. Have a seat, Frida says, and I'll try reaching Phil.

Phil from IT waddles out, and we shake. Phil's a fat man with fatter hands. Didn't know you were coming, he says. I was hoping to jump onto e-mail, I say. Phil winces, then sighs. That's gonna be tough. I glance around wondering why. There are ninety-six people who work here and only three or four at their desks, but Phil tells me there aren't any computers. We might be able to set you up somewhere at twelve-thirty when folks go to lunch. Thanks, I say. No problem, Phil says. Good to see you, I say. You too, Phil says, reaching out that bulbous hand once again.

Ann sees me in the hallway and says, I didn't know you were here. What's going on? I came to see Jane and Joe, I say. And Myra too. Myra's at home, Ann says. She's got a plumber. The way Ann says this makes me wonder whether the plumber is there for pleasure or work. I know what you're thinking, Ann says when I smile. What? I ask. You naughty thing, she says, and I shrug. Well, hope to see you, Ann says. Me too, I reply.

It's nearly nine, but I can't get much done without Jane, Joe or a computer, so I go to the kitchen. Mister Man, taking a break, Sherry says to me in her sing-songy voice. Sherry spends entire days drinking coffee and seems glad to have an accomplice to help her slack off. Hi Sherry, I say. Hi Nick, she says. It's Nate, I say. Oh, Nate, she says. So what are you up to these days, Nate? The usual, I say. Isn't that the pits? Sherry says. Sometimes, I say. Hey, any idea when Joe's coming in? Why? Sherry asks. You meeting Joe? Well, yeah, I say, Joe's my boss. He is? Sherry asks. What exactly is it you do?

I'm about to explain what I do when Vera from Human Resources enters the room. Oh God, traffic sucks. Forty-five minutes in freezing rain. Vera talks with a nasal twang and doesn't seem to notice I'm here. They said it might turn to snow, Sherry says. God, I hope so, says Vera. I could use a day off from this place. I don't know if we'll get that much, Sherry says. Just maybe enough to come late. Jesus, have some goddamned compassion, says Vera. I'm so sick of this place and these people, I think I could kill. This is when Vera sees me. Hey, she says, I know you. You used to work here, right? Right, I say. Now I'm a consultant. Nick, right? Nate, I say. Right, Vera says, leaving with the coffee I just poured for myself.

After this, I go out to my car and eat a banana. I hunker down low so as not to be seen. This car's a rental, and so nondescript that it makes me feel like a detective. For a long time, I've thought I would make a decent detective and lately I've been thinking that when the Economy goes bust I might do it for real. Except for the part where you have to wear clothes, I think I'd be a decent detective because I notice things. I notice, for instance, that these car seats have burn holes from cigarettes. I wonder who would do such a thing. I worry about a world where people do these kinds of things. I turn on the radio; but the news is all bad, so I kill it and go back inside.

Stan's a strange man. Stan collects those pictures of perfect families you get when you buy plastic frames. I don't know what Stan does with his days. Stan has a nice office and Stan always seems busy. But I've never gotten an e-mail from Stan, he's never called me, and when I'm in Stan's office, his phone never rings. Hi Stan, I say, poking my head into the room. Hi, Stan says back without looking up. Busy? I ask. Reading up on Identity Theft, Stan says in a monotone with his eyes glued to the screen. Truth is, with things gone to hell, I wouldn't mind having mine stolen. Be a relief really, he adds.

Who are you and where are you going? Mary asks when she sees me poking my head inside empty rooms. Mary works with Vera in Personnel and, like Vera, Mary never remembers my name. Just seeing who's here, I say. And who might you be? Mary asks. Nate, I say. And do you work here, Nate? Yes, I say. Just mostly from home. Must be nice, Mary says, backing away making little crosses like I'm an awful disease. At eleven, Myra comes in wearing gloves and a hat. Finding all that you need? Somewhat, I say. What does that mean? Myra asks. Well, Joe's late, I say, so I've been touching base with other people. Joe's always late, Myra says. The bastard is chronic. Everything okay at home? I ask just to be nice. Everything's fine, Myra bristles. I couldn't concentrate, though. I had to get out.

Now I'm in Myra's office. Her desk is a mess. There's a glass next to her keyboard with yesterday's pink lipstick circling the rim. I'm hypnotized by this glass. I'm also repulsed. I don't like seeing dirty glasses on desks. Myra isn't here. She went to get coffee. I wonder why she didn't take her dirty glass to the sink. I wonder why Myra's such a slob. While Myra's gone, I begin reading through documents for my new project. It's a study on Efficiency that was started by Jane in November, but then got handed to Geri. When Geri went on Maternity, it got shuffled to Myra. Now Joe claims it's urgent and wants me to take over. All along I thought it was strange to give an urgent assignment to a woman everybody knew was about to give birth. But I didn't say anything because, in the past, people who used logic were fired. So, Myra says, when she returns. Want to grab lunch? Oh, I say. Is it lunch time already? Well, it's a little early, she says, but I need to get out.

It's ten past eleven when we reach Greenways Café. I haven't eaten lunch this early since kindergarten. But we're not the only ones here from the office. Kara from Special Projects is here too. Kara seats herself at our table even though we didn't ask her to sit. I've met Kara at least seven times, but we have never had a real conversation. What we usually do is smile, nod, and keep walking. It's good to see you, Kara tells me today. And I say, You too. Kara chews her food so loudly that I barely hear Myra ask for my vision of the project she's dumping. Well, I say leaning forward, I have to talk to Joe about a thing or two first. Myra seems confused, but all she says is, Okay. Then nobody says anything. We're all busy chewing our lunches. Then Kara sneezes. You getting sick? Myra asks. Everybody's got it, Kara says. The whole stupid building is sick. Don't get me sick, Myra says as she backs away making little crosses at Kara. I'm going drinking tonight. Tomorrow would be great to be sick, just not tonight. What about you, Nate? Do you want to get sick? Huh uh, I say. Hey, I heard it might snow, I add just to make conversation. Jesus, I hope so, says Myra. If we had a snow day, I wouldn't have to get sick. I'm pretty sure I've got Swine Flu, Kara says as she sneezes onto my plate.

Back at the office, I see Joe shuffling down the hallway shoving a muffin into his mouth. I've been looking for you, he says as crumbs hit the floor. Well, here I am, I say, thinking maybe Joe will finally take the time to sit down for a talk. Good to see you, Joe says as he keeps chewing muffin. But Joe doesn't stop, he just keeps dragging along down the hall.

At one-fifteen I finally find Phil. I looked for you at twelve-thirty, he says. And I tell Phil, I looked for you too. I realize that what probably happened was we walked in circles looking for one another. I followed Phil, and Phil followed me. I explain this to Phil and he agrees that that's probably it. So, I say, is it okay to check e-mail? Actually, Phil says. I can't do it now. I could have at twelve-thirty, now I'm going to lunch. What about two? I ask. And Phil says: Let's make it three.

Bob inherited his job when Ralph got fired for saying logical things in meetings that people weren't willing to hear. One thing Ralph said was there were so many meetings he couldn't get anything done. Since Ralph left, Bob goes to meetings but mostly keeps thoughts to himself. Bob gets away with stuff and he's lazy. I'm pretty sure Bob knows I'm aware. Because of this, I don't think Bob likes me, and I don't really like Bob. But today I'm here to be polite and take an interest in the people I see. How's it going, Bob? I ask. Fine, thanks, says Bob. Whatcha up to these days? The usual, I say. And you? Same old, says Bob. Sounds good, I say. Hey, I sent you an urgent e-mail, says Bob. What was it? I ask. Just read it, he grins, and let me know what you think. Sure thing, I say. Well, see ya, we both say at once.

It's three-fifteen, and I can't locate Phil. I call his extension. I call his cell phone. I even go to the bathroom and call out his name. It seems Phil has vanished. Finally, I have no choice but to ask Frida if she's seen Phil and she says, Poor Phil had to go home after lunch. Did you have a meeting scheduled with Phil? He was going to set me up on e-mail at three. Oh, Frida says. Poor Phil got nauseous. I think there's dust in his ducts. Poor Phil's so pale that I worry. Phil works with computers, I say. He's supposed to be pale. Oh wait, Frida says. He left you a note. Then Frida hands me a piece of paper folded up like a football. On the outside, someone has scrawled: For Nate... CONFIDENTIAL. I step away from Frida, open my secret note and read under the light: Gone home sick. Take care, Phil.

I pass Jane in the hallway on my way to see Joe. Technically, Jane's my direct boss. Jane over me, and then Joe over us both. I haven't seen Jane all day, and now she's walking as fast as she can with a box of her stuff. She's not crying, but her eyes are puffed like she was. Hi Jane, I say. Bye Nate, says Jane. So, Joe sighs when we finally sit down to talk. Getting lots done? About like usual, I say. Good. Great, Joe says. It's good to see you, Nate. You too, I say. Then Joe doesn't say anything else for a while, but instead sips his tea. Joe never drinks coffee, and I'm not sure what I think about a man who only drinks tea. So, Joe says after a long awkward pause. What's your opinion of things around here? Any observations from the real world? Well, I say. I'm on the verge of saying some things and maybe asking things too. I'm on the verge of all this when Joe's phone starts to ring. Joe picks up, and now Joe's mother's on speaker. Joe's mother tells Joe she can't reach Joe's sister. Joe asks his mother if she tried calling her cell. Joe's mother doesn't have that number. Hold on a sec, Joe says, but then he can't find that number either. Joe tells his mother their father might have the number. Joe's mother says she can't phone Joe's father because he left his cell phone with her. In fact, she's calling from Joe's father's cell. Where is he? Joe asks. I don't know, Joe's mother says. That's why I have to talk to your sister. I think maybe she knows. Joe and his mother talk back and forth like this for a few minutes without resolution and then they hang up. Well, Joe says when it's just the two of us in peace once again. Thank you so much for coming into the office today. It's very valuable when our consultants spend time like this. Sure, I say as we stand and shake hands. So, when will we see you again? Joe asks with a serious look on his face. Whenever you want, I say. Okay, great, Joe says. Good. It's half past five when I walk out the door. In six more hours, I'll be home where I can strip off these clothes and get back to work.

Robert McGee is a native Texan who spends much of his non-writing time mentoring an autistic teen while creating a self-sufficient homestead near Asheville, NC, where he grows (or barters for) most of his food. His stories have been published by (or are forthcoming in) The Sun Magazine, Carve, the Raleigh Quarterly, The L Magazine and Timber Creek Review. "Fats", his story about mobsters gambling on Little League Baseball, is being developed as a feature film. His work has been included in three books: Short Stories Illustrated by Artists (Front Forty Press), NPR's National Story Project Anthology, I Thought My Father Was God (edited by Paul Auster) and The Mysterious Life of the Heart: Stories from The Sun about Passion, Longing, and Love. Many of these pieces come from Fragile, a recently-completed collection of linked stories dealing with office workers. McGee is now at work on at least two novels, one of which is called My Memoir.

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