Welcome Day was on the twelfth floor. There were three other new hires, all in their early twenties, like Georges, all thoroughly disenchanted, like Georges. It was Georges’ first day at JF Coms Corp.
He sat through a keynote presentation, a workplace conduct seminar, and a manager’s speech. Not the manager, but a manager. Of what? Who knows. Georges would never see the man again. In fact, Georges hadn’t paid enough attention to tell you what he looked like now. He was studying the room to keep from thinking about his dress shirt.
The morning had been hot. The sun had licked the back of Georges’ neck in sweat, in the three-hundred-meter walk from the bus to the building. The sky was powder blue. Even the winds that curled up against his cheeks were warm. Here, the windows were tinted in a way that made it look like it was always dusk. The drop ceiling tiles sported a couple brownish stains. The tiles were patterned with black dots and random slashes. Georges wondered, had anyone really looked at these and thought they looked good? If he looked long enough, his eyes got lost in the dots and slashes. If only Charlotte Perkins Gilman had been around long enough to see these. Every third tile was a fluorescent light. The one right above Georges was a coffin for a tiny fly. Georges felt bad for it. To end its life there, in the plastic casing of a fluorescent light. In its life, it had clearly been an intrepid fly, to end up on the twelfth floor. Had it taken the elevator? The stairs? Poor fly.
Georges wrapped his hands around his arms. The air conditioning made his goosebumps prickle the sleeves of his dress shirt. He’d bought it yesterday. Georges had spent forty-five minutes in the men’s section of Hudson’s Bay, contemplating the arrays of different dress shirts. The fabrics, the colours, the patterns, the ones with the buttons on the collar, and the ones without.
“Anything I can help you with?”
Georges dropped the tag on a Ted Baker shirt. From the corner of his eye, he looked at the man. The man had been roaming the department for the last few minutes. The man smelled like cologne and after-shave. His jaw was sharp. The collar beneath it was equally sharp. His dress shirt was pristine, white, perfectly pressed. He had silver cufflinks. His pants had a crease down the middle. He was tall, lean. His eyebrows were thick, tweezed. He had leather loafers with a brass buckle. The man clasped his hands behind his back. The man was immaculate. And Georges knew that the man had seen him looking at the price.
“Yeah,” Georges said.
“What are you looking for today?” The man spoke with a charismatic cadence. The kind that would make an audience laugh before the punchline.
Georges, twenty-one then, felt a mix of admiration and intimidation. He looked at the man’s shirt and said, “Something cheap.” The man nodded and showed Georges something cheap.
But as Georges sat in the foldable chair at Welcome Day, he wished he hadn’t bought something cheap. The label was made of that fabric -which was more medieval torture device than fabric. It itched. Even if he could reach over the top of his jacket, he’d never be able to reach the skin without unbuttoning the dress shirt. Georges fidgeted in his seat, which irritated his skin more, and made the chair creak. How bad would it look if he just tore off all his clothes and sunk his nails in?
“Here’s a gift from JF Coms Corp, to you,” said the manager, smiling, and motioning to a portable plastic table. Taped to the table was a ‘welcome day’ sign that was printed in black-and-white on a standard-size sheet of paper.
Georges and the three other new-hires gathered. The gift was a half a dozen JL Coms Corp pens, all white, save for a mustard yellow and turquoise streak -those were the colours of JM Coms Corp. There were also four no-name cans of unrefrigerated soda, called Sweet Bubbles. “How long you think you’re gonna stay here?” Georges asked the other newbies.
“Couple months,” said one boy, his sticker read Bill, “I’m saving up for my master’s.”
Georges wiped dust from the rim of the can and nodded.
They showed him to his office, a shared cubicle on the sixteenth floor. They’d hung a plastic slot from the cubicle, it read, “Georges St-Denis. Data Entry”. They hadn’t given him a title, everyone else had a title. His was Data Entry Guy. But Georges was fresh out of college with a General Arts degree and the pay was good. Besides, all he had to do was data entry. And he liked the way he looked in a suit, like a professional, like someone people take seriously. His work day ended at five and by then, the JR Coms Corp pen had exploded in his pocket.
His cubicle mate was a woman in her mid-thirties named Fernanda. Fernanda had a big round forehead and eyes so bulgy that she saw everything. She wore blouses, the hanger straps were always out. She had clicking Velcro-strap heels, which she usually took off around noon. It was a wonder the shoes even clicked because the office was carpeted.
“Hi, I’m Georges,” he sat down in his office chair, and placed his empty hand-me-down briefcase at his feet. It was his dad’s.
“I’m Fernanda.” She sniffed, “Are you wearing cologne?” He was. The department store man had inspired him. “This is a no fragrance zone, Georges.” Georges didn’t like the way she said his name. “It’s to protect sensitive noses like mine.”
Georges nodded and pretended to arrange something in his briefcase. “They told me you’re bilingual.” Georges could feel her eyes still on him. She was smiling now.
“I am. French and English.”
“Say something in French,” her smile was two-parts gum, one-part tooth.
“Bonjour, je m’appelle Georges,” he muttered.
“Come on, even I know that.” Fernanda swivelled back towards her computer.
There’s a French-Canadian saying for people like Fernanda, she is what we would call, “une mange marde.” The only good thing about la Mange Marde was that she arrived every day at seven, meaning that she left at three.
On the other side of Georges’ cubicle was the only other data entry person in the office, Lisa. Lisa was a Jamaican woman in her early sixties, with braided hair and a smile that was audible over the cubicle. Lisa’s voice was calming, her cadence was slow and musical. Over the course of his first week, Georges got to know her. She had one son in Jamaica and a daughter who lived here, and who’d just given birth to her first granddaughter. She had worked at JP Coms Corp for thirty years. She was the most senior employee on the sixteenth floor. And she worked until five PM every day too.
At three-twelve PM on Georges’ fifth day, he felt comfortable enough to ask the question that had been on his mind, “Why is everything so shitty?”
Lisa had a big husky laugh, “Because everyone needs to approve everything.”
“I don’t think I’m gonna stay here long.”
“For your sake, I hope you don’t.”
That was nine years ago. In that time, Lisa, somehow, hadn’t aged. She was in her early sixties then, as she was now. Georges had. He was thirty. His chin was weaker. His cheeks were fatter. He had bags under his eyes. He had had a few girlfriends. And he still had the itchy dress shirt. But now his bloated stomach roared against the buttons.
He had become moderately good at elevator talk, or at least, he’d become somewhat more comfortable with it. He was still getting up at five thirty, five days a week to go to this job. Five thirty was too early to take a shit. Meaning that Georges had been constipated for nine years.
His suit was stiff and grey and limited the movement of his arms. His briefcase was still empty. He spent his days hunched in front of his computer. He’d once asked Lisa what kind of data they were entering. Fernanda interjected, “You don’t have high enough clearance to know.” Nine years of Fernanda’s interjections. Nine years of entering God-fucking-knows what kind of data. Nine years eating the cafeteria chili. Why? The pay had steadily increased.
Georges had wanted to be a photographer.
One morning, Fernanda wasn’t there. Her desk had been swept clean. “Where’s Fernanda?”
“You didn’t hear?” Lisa said over the cubicle, “She got promoted. She’s up on nineteen now.”
Fernanda had one thing Georges wanted. He looked at her empty desk, the ergo chair. Georges’ back hurt. He had a regular chair. You needed a doctor’s note for an ergo chair. But now her desk was vacant and he wanted that chair. Badly. He listened for the sound of Lisa’s nails tapping against the keyboard. Rolled his non-ergo chair back, and disturbing his weight very gently so that his feet didn’t shuffle on the carpet, he rolled the ergo chair to his desk, and pushed his old one into the vacant cubby.
Georges felt triumphant. He hummed, wrestling chili out of his molars. God, he hated that chili.
“Did you take my ergo chair?” Fernanda.
Georges swivelled towards her, trying to act as if he hadn’t been startled. “Fernanda, I thought you got promoted, moved up to nineteen.”
“I did.” Her eyes were bulgier than normal, “Did you take my ergo chair?”
“Don’t you work on nineteen now?”
“You need a doctor’s note for an ergo chair. Do you have a doctor’s note?”
“I don’t know if this is your ergo chair. It was there when I got here. I just sat in it.”
She looked at Georges suspiciously, her ponytail tied tightly at the back of her head. “You can’t have an ergo chair without a doctor’s note.”
“Have a good day, Fernanda.”
“You have to email your supervisor, attach a doctor’s note. They will send it to Occupational Health and Safety and assess your case. If they think you need an ergo chair, they will get you an ergo chair. But it takes several weeks, Georges.”
Georges got up, looked very defiantly at Fernanda, and rolled the ergo chair back towards the vacant desk. Fernanda left in a huff, her ponytail swinging behind her.
“Don’t you love bureaucracy?” Lisa joked over the cubicle.
That was the thing about working in a massive bureaucracy like JJ Coms Corp, nothing ever got done. And when it did, it took weeks, dozens of emails, and usually amounted to something useless like the implementation of anti-fragrance posters in the eating lounge.
Georges stared into the cubicle, the fabric was patterned with grey waves. He couldn’t remember what Lisa looked like anymore. He’d attached the voice to the grey waves.
Georges’ suit grumbled, his guts filled with the impossible-to-digest chili. His computer screen was starting to give him a headache. No matter how hard he blinked, the light seared his eyeballs. He rolled his chair back and went to the window. He noticed he’d put his shirt on inside out. How did that even happen? He’d left it buttoned from yesterday and it was dark when he was getting dressed, but still? The seams were on the outside. Georges wondered why no one had told him. Had people been noticing but felt too embarrassed to tell him? Or worse, had no one noticed?
“Hey, Lisa,” he turned. Her desk was empty. Lisa had gone to the washroom.
He looked enviously at the street below. He could tell it was sunny today by the way light glinted on store fronts. Georges felt so far removed from that street. He was past disenchantment. He felt like a ghost. He had no impact on anything. He pressed his fingers against the glass, it was warm. Radiating through his fingertips was the hope of being elsewhere. Things stopped feeling real. The same day had repeated itself, five days a week for nine years. Maybe if he blinked he could be on the street with the others. He blinked. The air conditioning made him shiver. People down there had impacts, they had presences, the hot dog vendor handing a soda to a businessman. The women bumping into each other. There were smells down there. The street was fragrant. The fresh hot dogs, car exhausts, the autumn winds, urine, trees, women’s perfume. He wanted it all.
That was the day he read Catch-22 instead of entering data. He’d always meant to read it. He brought it along everywhere he went, but he never read it, because the bus gave him motion sickness, and he was too exhausted after work. The cover pages were beaten up and dog-eared, but the spine was still crisp. The book crackled as he opened it. Georges smiled. He liked that he was reading instead of entering data. It made him feel powerful. For a bit. But a week had gone by and he hadn’t done anything. He became suspicious, waiting for someone to say something, waiting to be reprimanded. Two months passed and nothing. This made him angry more than anything. Georges wanted to be reprimanded. Because if Georges was reprimanded, it meant someone had noticed.
“Lisa,” Georges said, “when’s the last time you entered data?”
There was that husky laugh again. “I haven’t entered data in ten years.”
Georges felt frustrated, like he had been doing Lisa’s work for her. Then, he realised, that was the secret: it wasn’t real work. “It’s not real, is it?” Georges asked.
“What’s not real?”
“The numbers. The work. The work isn’t real.”
Lisa didn’t respond. “Lisa?”
Georges put his shoes back on and buttoned his collar. “Lisa?” He went around the cubicle. Lisa’s desk was empty.
Fernanda came by that day at three. This is it, Georges thought, here we go.
“I just wanted to let you know that it’s Tom’s birthday tomorrow. You can sign his card in the eating lounge.”
“Tom from finance.”
Georges had never heard of a Tom from finance. “Where’s Lisa?”
“Yeah. Where is she?”
Georges rolled his chair back and faced Fernanda. She hadn’t been on nineteen so long as to forget Lisa. “Lisa. The woman who works data entry with me.”
“Georges,” he hated the way she said his name, “you’re the only person who works data entry.” Fernanda seemed concerned.
Georges got up and stomped around his cubicle to Lisa’s desk. It was empty. Lisa, Lisa, Lisa, Lisa, Lisa, Lisa, Lisa. “This place is making me crazy.” Georges rubbed his scalp.
Fernanda had disappeared in Georges’ cubicle. That was never good.
“Were you reading?” She put emphasis on the word ‘reading’, as though the very sound of it appalled her.
Georges ignored Fernanda and left work early. He needed fresh air. By five o’clock most days, the sun was already obscured by the skyscrapers. It was frustrating to see the pinky hues of the sun setting just beyond the skyline. But today, he got out early enough to catch it. His skin was still cold from the air conditioning. Georges walked out of the shadows and into a patch of greenery just at the edge of downtown. He sat on a bench, next to some pigeon shit and a crumpled napkin. The wood was warmed by the sun and if he pressed his back deep enough against the bench, his residual shivers started to go away. Was he going crazy? He sat there on the park bench until the sun had disappeared, leaving peels of pink and orange clouds just beyond the trees.
The following morning, Georges’ stomach was upset. The door next to his cubicle beeped open. Fernanda. Georges sighed. Fernanda heard. She knew he didn’t like her. It was an open secret. “Actually, Georges,” she started, “I’m here to deliver good news.”
Georges set his book down and looked at Fernanda. Fernanda saw it and swallowed, “After much deliberation, we’ve decided to make you a senior in your position.”
“What do you mean? A senior in what?”
“A senior in data entry.”
“But-” Georges started, “there isn’t even a title for my position. I’m going to be Senior Data Entry Guy,”
Fernanda thought for a moment, “that’s right.”
“How can I be Senior Data Entry Guy if I’m the only data entry guy?” I’m really going crazy, Georges thought.
“We’re promoting you because you’re the most experienced in Data Entry. Are you not?”
“I am.” I guess.
“We really like the work you’ve been doing lately.” Fernanda smiled, “It pays more.”
“Fine,” Georges said. “I’ll be Senior Data Entry Guy.”
That night, Georges turned his suit entirely inside out. He popped out the shoulders, twisted the sleeves, unfolded the collar. He went to work like that the next day. Nothing. He went out and bought a box of blue hair dye. The next day, his hair was blue. Nothing. The day after that, he didn’t show up. The decision had been very last minute. He arrived at the foot of his building and relucted to open the door. His arm reached out for the handle.
Two blocks away, there was an electronics store. He bought a camera and spent the day in the park.
But that was too much. Georges really felt he had gone too far. What if Fernanda had come to see him? How could he explain? It’s not like he was working, but at least he was there.
Georges returned to the office the following day at nine AM. Like every morning, he was groggy. He’d been through the morning litany; the excruciating wake-up, the hours-long bus ride, the air conditioning shivers, the elevator small-talk, he reached out and tapped his pass against the plastic scanner by the door. His arm had missed, he’d hit drywall. The scanner wasn’t there. He looked over his shoulder. It was meters away from the door. It had never been meters away from the door. It had been moved. Someone had moved it. Why had someone moved it?
Georges hated that they had moved it. Not because it was now less convenient, but because of what it represented. He thought about the amount of effort that must’ve gone into moving it. It meant that someone in the office had had the idea to move it, then they sent out an email about it, setting off a chain of two-dozen more emails, to the supervisors, to the technicians, to the budget people. There was probably a meeting. The whole thing must’ve been months in the making. And for all that effort, Georges had to walk several steps backwards to scan his pass to unlock the door.
When Fernanda came in that day, he mentioned it to her, “Did you notice they moved the pass scanner?”
“They didn’t move the pass scanner, Georges,” she said.
“They did.” What does she know, she works on nineteen now. “They moved it further from the door.” Again, Fernanda looked concerned. I’m not crazy. This place is crazy. This place is crazy. How could she not have noticed?
There was an office picture taken there once, he could prove that they moved the scanner. The picture was printed in black and white, and pinned to the corkboard at the back of the office. Georges rolled his chair back and checked, “’Sti de mange marde,” he breathed. It had been moved.
Georges was pretty handy. His dad had taught him. He figured he could probably move the pass scanner back closer to the door. The whole thing would probably only take two hours. But cutting into the wall? That’s the kind of thing people notice. It had to be at night. He needed tools.
After work, he had dinner at his apartment and got his tools. How would he get into the building? The stairs. The door doesn’t lock. There are no security cameras in the stairs. The building closes at seven. Georges came back at eleven PM.
And he was right. The whole thing only took two hours. Except he had broken the pass scanner. And he had destroyed the wall. The drywall had crumbled, the paint was chipped off, the wall was heavily scarred now. The old Georges would be nervous. This Georges didn’t break a sweat. In fact, he was happy. This they would notice.
He packed up his tools and headed for the stairs -no, not the stairs- the elevator. Georges was grinning. The elevator dinged. The doors slid open. The lobby was enormous. His steps echoed for so long that they echoed over one another. There were cameras everywhere. He left through the front door.
The next morning, Georges got up at nine, put on a pair of jeans and a sweater and went downtown. The day was beautiful. He brought his camera with him. The sun was hot, but the air was cool. Orange leaves crunched beneath the weight of pedestrians, rustled against the sidewalk, swept up between rushing cars. The cars honked, the breaks squealed, the sound of distant construction. Georges loved it all. He took a long deep breath, feeling his chest inflate against the soft fabric of his shirt. George’s breath sparkled in the sunlight. Something about the sappiness of the tree-lined street made the air sweet. The clouds were puffy and rounded like stacks of pearls. Georges wished he could climb them. The sun formed a ring around his vision. There was a woman in a red dress, her hair and the fabric of her dress danced to the wind’s choreography. Her perfume was tangled in the air behind her.
By noon, Georges was hungry. He walked down the street that he had once watched through his sixteenth-floor window and stopped by a hotdog cart. The smell was intoxicating. Caramelised onions, juicy sausage, the bread was grilled, hot peppers, sour relish. “Anything else?”
Georges got a soda. He opened it, it fizzled, the bubbles popped against his cheeks. He took a sip –ice cold.