New waters

Fiction by Randall S. Doering.

New Waters

"The Larson file, kid. Larson." Michael Steuben, two hundred and seventy pounds of red-faced senior architect, cornered Tom the moment he set his pack down by his desk. "I told you I needed it by close of business Friday, right? What happened?"

Tom flipped through the manila folders on his desk. "I know I finished it. I thought I gave it to you."

"Well, you thought wrong."

Tom looked through the stack again and didn’t find the file. "Maybe it's on your desk?"

"If it was on my desk I wouldn't be here, now would I?" Steuben paused. "Let me ask you something, kid. Do you like your job? Is there some problem I should know about?"

Cold washed down Tom's back. "What do you mean?" he asked. He had a momentary picture of hitting the DELETE key and eliminating Steuben.

"I mean, you've been here—what—four months now, right? You know I don't come down on people if I don't have to. If you'd put that file on my desk I wouldn’t have to be on you." He clamped a hand on Tom's shoulder. "Look, kid, I don't like being the heavy. Keep your ducks in a row and we'll get along. Right?"

"Right," Tom said.

"Better. Find that file and get it on my desk, ASAP." He left, shaking his head.

Tom watched him walk back to his office. Steuben was big and square and solid like a sperm whale. Maybe one of these days someone would harpoon him.

Should have found some other job, Tom thought, something at a warehouse, doing deliveries, anything but working for this guy. Right. As though he had a choice. Cash flow had been down to a trickle, and temp work hadn't been bringing in enough money. The recession was dumping experienced people into the temp pool, and they were getting the well-paid assignments. He'd gotten lucky with this one. They offered him a job after the first two days. It was this or move back home, which was unthinkable.

He turned the computer on. Eight thirty-five on Monday morning, and already he was looking forward to the weekend. He and Jerry and Jerry's girlfriend Shawna were going to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and then whale-watching if the weather was good. The humpbacks were heading past the Monterey peninsula, and he wanted to find a captain who'd take them right up to the whales so he could touch one. It would be great to touch something living that was that big. One of these days he'd have to take diving lessons so he could visit them in their own world.

But for now he was in Steuben's world, and he needed the Larson file. He went through the pile once more but couldn't find the folder.

"Don't get it," he mumbled. "Where did I put it?" He opened his top desk drawer and there it sat, a thin manila folder. He pulled it out and opened it. He'd finished typing in the estimated costs on Friday, as he'd said. He stood and walked to Steuben’s office. The door was closed, but through the window he could see his boss talking on the phone. He held the file up, and Steuben waved him in. He opened the door and set the file on the desk. Steuben nodded. "Yes," he said into the phone. Frowning at Tom, he shooed him toward the door. Tom felt his face flush and closed the door hard as he left. Who the hell did he think he was, Genghis Khan?

Back at his desk he pulled a yellow sticky off the top of the pile of folders. It read: Tom, pls file. Type in the Avery specs. Nothing urgent. Back from the doctor at two. Thx. Anita

There were forty or fifty files in the stack. He hefted them. There was enough paper to save at least one good-sized tree, if he dropped them all in the recycling basket. He took them to the long row of cabinets and started filing. Some were filed by name, and others were sub-folders that went into larger folders, and he had to file those by date. He shook his head as he dropped them into place. Why didn't these people use a more efficient way to store documents, like on microfiche? Did they really need all these files?

As he dropped one of the files its edge cut the skin between his fingers, and he cursed. Every time he filed he got cut at least once. He sucked the cut until it stopped bleeding. All right, where was he? The next file's tag read McCormick, so he went to M and hunted for the file. There was no McCormick, but there was a MacCormick. Same one? Now that he was looking he saw that the Macs and the Mcs were jumbled together. He stared at them a moment, willing them to put themselves in order. Then he moved them and cut himself again.

As he finished filing the phone rang, and he headed back to his desk and picked up the receiver.

"Good morning, Steuben and Associates. Can I help you?"

"Yes, you can, Tom. You can meet me for lunch." A woman's voice, familiar.

"Cindy?" He grinned. "How are you? What are you doing back here? I thought you weren't ever leaving New York."

A light started blinking. Someone on another line. Well, whoever it was could wait a moment.

"I'm all right. And I'm not leaving New York unless someone makes me a better offer somewhere else. I'm here to talk with a guy about some gallery space."

"Really? That's great! Would you have a show?"

"Don't know yet. I'm meeting him this morning to see what he has in mind." She paused, and he remembered she didn't like to talk about future events because it might jinx them.

"I hope you get a show. How did you—" He stopped. The other light was still blinking. If Steuben caught him on a personal call... "Listen, I hate to go already, but I've got to get back to work. I'll be taking lunch about two. Meet you at George's?"

"Sounds good. Talk to you then."

He tapped the other button, but the line was dead. Damn it, slip for one instant—Well, no use worrying about it now. He set the receiver in its cradle. As long as they'd been friends—two years since he'd met her in an art history class—Cindy had wanted to move to New York and try to become a professional artist. Six months ago she’d finally gone for it. They'd tried writing letters back and forth, but neither of them was much for writing, and they hadn't kept in touch. She had to be doing all right if she had an offer already.

Suddenly he realized he hadn't moved for a minute or two. All right, time to enter specs. He opened the top folder and found a mix of little pieces of paper and yellow stickies with notes scribbled on them. Where do these yahoos come from? he wondered. Haven't they heard of using normal-sized sheets of paper? Some of the slips had headings like Item Description, Item Number, Quantity and Price Per Item, but most of them didn't. He'd asked the architects to write the specs out so he could understand them, but they kept doing it this way. He set the folder aside and opened one of the spreadsheets in the computer, "Avery Specs."

There were four pages of spec tables just for the furniture involved in this project, the Avery building in Palo Alto. He had to fill the little boxes with a number or a description like "Desk, Mahogany." The architects would feed him these little bits for weeks, changing the stats constantly as they found cheaper units or ones they liked better. He glanced at the grey slip of paper on top and started hunting for the furniture specs for Executive Office E-3.

After an hour he got up to stretch and have a look outside. The office was a warehouse loft that had been converted recently enough that the paint still gave off a fresh-coat smell when the sun shone on it. Windows circled all of the loft except the west wall, which faced the hillside. The work areas were in the center of the room to leave wide aisles along the sides. As he headed back to the rear of the loft he passed the Avery building model, a C-shaped model of white plastic sprawled over foam hills and surrounding a blue-painted artificial lake. It had tiny doors and windows and even little trees. He'd first come upon the model during lunch his second day. The architects had been clustered at the table behind it, talking.

"This is what we're working on?" he'd asked, more of himself than anyone else.

The two junior architects, Sandra and Brad, had looked up.

"That's it," Brad had said. "Restoration job. Be about two years until it's done. Impressive model, isn't it?"

"Sure is." He'd tried to pull open the front doors, but they didn't move. "Hey, you know what?"

"Whoa, there, what are you doing?" Steuben had asked, and everyone had turned to stare at Tom. He'd been nervous, but he knew they'd like his idea, and he'd barreled on. "You know what would be really cool? Doors that would open. Don't you think clients would go for that? Kind of a 3-D thing. Maybe a fountain in the lake that shot real water in the air, like those displays you see in store windows. And what if—"

"Listen, kid," Steuben had said. "The model doesn't need all that. If it did, we'd have added those things. Do me a favor, and let us take care of the architectural end at this office. Now, if you'll excuse us, we're working."

He'd felt his face burn. "Sure. Sorry."

As he stared at the model his face flushed again. Steuben told him in the interview that he was joining a team, and they'd expect a team player. Great, Tom said. Being on a team that built houses and offices and parks seemed pretty cool, better than working for some company that built bombs. But if this was a team, why didn't they listen to his ideas? Five years of college to get a B.A. in liberal arts, and all they wanted from him was to do little office chores.

He turned from the model and walked to the windows at the rear of the office. This was the last place he'd ever thought he’d end up, next to the financial district. To the east he could see the stone and metal money pumps of downtown sucking cash away from schools and social programs to fill fat businessmen's pockets. To the north he could see the bay. The wind had churned up whitecaps, and there were few boats. The clouds were like a rumpled blanket, as grey as the water. Across the bay the hills of Marin were brown. If there was some snow at least everything would look pretty. Now it just looks dead. Wind whistled through a hole somewhere, and he shivered. I'd hate to be on the streets.

He glanced at the fifty gallon saltwater fish tank which stood on an oak cabinet against the west wall. It had a floor of colorful pebbles and several large rocks to give the fish hiding places. Thin ribbons of bright green seaweed grew up from the bottom. Half a dozen clams clung to the rocks, their shells open and blue mantles spread. Tom could just make out their tiny eye spots, which always blew him away. Why did clams need eyes?

Cruising the top of the tank was the Steubenfish, six inches long and torpedo-shaped with vertical stripes of brown, black and white on its body. Actually it was a Black Volitan, but Tom had named it the Steubenfish when he saw how it dominated the tank. Its dorsal fins were poisonous. Not enough poison to kill a person, but enough to be very painful. Two Naso Tangs—silver dollar fish, Tom called them, since they were round and thin—cruised too close, and the Volitan lunged at them. They darted into the plants.

Most of the fish in the tank were Tangs. They were pretty, with veins of blue on their dorsal fins and orange anal fins, and they didn't cause trouble with other fish.

Tom searched for the newcomer, a Green Bird Wrasse. Steuben had added it to the tank a week ago, and it spent most of its time hiding behind the big rock in the back corner. Sometimes it would stick out its long snout, but Tom had never seen it venture into the tank. He was starting to wonder it if ever would. He didn't see it; it had to be hidden behind its rock. He leaned against the tank, trying to catch a glimpse.

"There you are," Steuben boomed, and Tom jumped and whacked his forehead into the glass. "Why are you away from your desk? Has Greg Lasky called?"

Rubbing his forehead, Tom turned to him. "Well, I needed to take a break—"

"Great. He probably called while you were over here daydreaming."

"I—"

"Don't worry about it," Steuben said, waving dismissively as he turned away. "I'll call him. When's Anita coming back?"

"Around two, her note said." What did he want to talk to Anita about? What if Steuben canned him? He could go to his dad for rent, but his dad had already paid most of his way through college. He pictured himself as a lamprey, his round mouth locked onto his dad's wallet, draining it dry. No way.

"Tell her I want to see her when she gets back."

"Okay." He could already hear what would be said. "Get a new one, Anita, this one’s got his head up his butt. Take an ad out tomorrow and start interviewing Monday."

He followed Steuben back as far as his desk. The spec tables went on. Item: lamp, retractable-arm. Quantity: four. Color: black. Item number: He squinted. Well, it was either 013579 or QL3579 or OL3579, or was that 9 a 4? He left the square blank and went on. Item: Table, End, Mahogany. Quantity: eight. Color: He paused and then typed, "ultraviolet." He'd take it out in the next draft. Item Number...

The front door opened, ringing the little bells as loudly as they could be rung. Anita was back. "How'd it go?" she asked as she came in. She was a tall black woman with a short, no-nonsense haircut and striking dark eyes. She crossed the reception area to hang up her trench coat. When he'd first interviewed for the job Tom had thought she was one of the partners, the way she talked and carried herself. He wished he had a supervisor who was a little less sharp.

"All right. It's been quiet." He hesitated. "I think I lost an important call that Mr. Steuben was waiting for." Better to tell her now than to have Steuben bring it up.

"Um-hmm," she said.

He tapped his foot. "He said he wanted to see you as soon as you got back."

She laughed. "I'm sure he does. He's playing head games with you, is what he's doing. All that's going to happen in there is he's going to say he has"—she deepened her voice—" 'grave reservations' about you, and he wants me to keep an eye on you for a while. I'll tell him I will, and that'll be that. When he's through talking at me you can take off for lunch."

"Okay."

She went into Steuben's office, and Tom noticed Steuben shut the blinds on the glass panel next to his door. Bad news.

Ten minutes later she came out, shut the door behind her and walked slowly to her desk.

"What's up?" Tom asked, but he already knew the answer. He was screwed.

She shook her head. "He gave me two weeks' notice. Says we're too slow to keep an administrative manager." Her voice hardened. "How do you like that? Of all the penny-pinching, no-brain ways to run a business... He doesn't have any idea what it is we do. You know that? He thinks you're going to be able to keep up with their payroll and their correspondence and type their specs and make deposits and file and fax and run errands—"

"I can't do all that!"

"That's what I told him. He said I was doing it all before he hired you, and he figured you've been here long enough to handle everything. I told him I've got six years experience, and we've just put on another architect, but he didn't want to hear it." She stopped. "Now, don't get that hangdog look. I'm not blaming you. Looks like he's planning on shaving the budget by replacing me with you. In that case we've got to get you up to speed."

"You can't mean you're really going to teach me to take your job?"

She raised her eyebrows. "And what am I supposed to do? The next place will ask for references. You know I've got a little girl. I can't afford to say what I'd really like to." She glared at his office. "I suppose once he figures out there's too much work for you he'll hire somebody else fresh out of school to be your assistant, at two-thirds my salary." She looked at her watch. "Why don't you go to lunch? Take as long as you want."

George's was a half dozen blocks from Steuben Associates, and Tom ran. Car, compact. Color: navy blue, he thought as he passed the car. Quantity: one. He caught himself and winced.

It took him a minute to spot Cindy among the few people braving the chilly wind. She wasn't wearing her traditional black. Instead she wore a flower-patterned dress and huge red-rimmed sunglasses. Were those supposed to give her a "Cool New York Art Scene" look? Her black hair was shorter than he remembered, sort of a boyish cut, but it looked sharp. Wasn't she freezing in that dress? Not that she'd ever admit it.

"Hey, good to see you," he said as he walked up.

She made an odd sound. "Whoa, didn't recognize you," she said. "Check you out! Office slumming, huh? I thought you were going to be working at the Rainforest Action Network by now or off to Malaysia somewhere."

"Didn't work out." He pulled out the plastic chair and sat across the table from her. "How'd you get my work number?"

"Rick."

"Oh." Rick and his wife owned the in-law studio where Tom lived. They had his number in case of emergency.

She patted a chair. "Grab a seat. Got a large salami and pineapple coming. Sound good?"

"Great." He sat.

"So what happened with the Peace Corps?" she asked.

He grimaced.

"That bad, huh?"

"Well, it's not that so much as everything together. Nothing's worked out. I'm kind of drifting right now. You know what I mean?"

"Sounds like post-graduate angst to me. I remember what it was like after I got my B.A. and worked for six months. Lot of boring crap. Went right back to school, you'll notice. So what about the Peace Corps?"

"Well, they're getting really picky about who they take since there're so many volunteers. They only want engineers and doctors and people with teaching experience. Can you believe that? I did math tutoring my whole senior year, and I figured that was good experience. Not good enough, I guess."

An acne-scarred teen-ager came and set the pizza and two plates on the table. "Enjoy," he said as he retreated, though he didn't look as if he was enjoying anything, personally. Cindy picked up a piece and tore into it.

"That wasn't the only thing you were looking into though, right?" she asked. "What about the Rainforest Action Network?"

"Oh, that. They're famous, so there're all kinds of people flocking to them. Seems that most of the ones who get in volunteered there while they were in school." He shrugged. "I just didn't plan far enough ahead. My dad kept telling me I'd better start checking into this stuff, but—I don't know, I figured I was smart and had a good attitude, and he was worrying too much." He drummed his fingers on the table. "So here I am, doing this stupid no-brain job. Anyway, let's get off this. What's this show you were telling me about?"

She swallowed and wiped her mouth. "Guy owns a gallery out here saw my pieces in a little corner of a friend of a friend's gallery in New York and asked if I'd be interested in showing in San Francisco. Sounded real serious. So I said what the hell and got one of those el cheapo flights that leave at one in the morning. I thought it would be better if I came out in person than if I just sent the slides."

"So what does he think?"

She gave him a disgusted look. "He's a wishy-wash. He doesn't like most of the pieces I showed him. He likes my new stuff, but I only have a few in that style. So he's talking waiting a year so I have time to paint more new pieces. He's using a lot of ifs and maybes. I guess he wasn't as serious as I thought." She started chewing again.

"That sucks."

"Yeah. Worst part is that it cost me three month's savings for this nonsense. But at least the trip's not totally wasted. I'll be here all week. We can get together if you have time."

"Yeah, that'd be good."

She finished her piece and started another while Tom nibbled his. Salami and pineapple wasn't exactly his favorite. Her appetite amazed him. Where did it all go? Every other woman he knew was always talking about calories and diets and weight-watching.

"Well," she said, "at least you're working. I know a lot of people who would feel lucky to have any kind of job."

"Yeah, well, one of them can have mine. You wouldn't believe what happened today." He told her about Anita's being fired.

Cindy pulled her glasses down her nose and peered over them. "That's cold. That's Arctic cold."

"Yeah," Tom said. "But I guess you're right. I'm lucky to be working at all. It's just that I thought I'd be in Malaysia by now. I mean, everything's kind of fallen apart, and here I sit wondering—" He crossed his eyes and said, "Uh, what the hell's happening? Where am I? Which way do I go? Uh..."

Cindy laughed and reached over the table to squeeze his arm. "You can still go. It'll just take a little longer than you thought it would. Oop! Sorry, I've got to get back to the gallery. Jonathan wants me to meet some of his friends." She stood. "Come on, smiley face." She made a big, phony smirk, and he snorted with laughter. "I'll call you later and let you know what happens with this guy."

"Good," he said. He felt the wind again and realized how cold he was.

"And I'll call you tonight. We can get together at a cafe or something. You'll be home?"

"Yeah."

That afternoon Anita walked him through setting up the spec tables. "Basically it's pretty simple," she said as they finished. "You can set them up like I showed you, or you can find a table in the old project documents that's about the size of the one you need and copy it into the new file. That's what I usually do. It's faster."

"Got you," Tom said. "Listen, I'm sorry about what happened. It's really unfair."

"Don't you worry about it. I’ll take care of myself. I do have one piece of advice for you, though. Learn everything you can here. It never hurts to have a skill to on. Oh, by the way, Brad brought by some changes to these specs while you were at lunch, and he'd like a draft of the tables with them incorporated by close of business."

"Wonderful."

A few minutes before five Cindy called. "He decided definitely not to go with my show for another year," she said, sounding irritated. "He says he wants to see more of the new pieces."

"That's lame," Tom said.

"Tell me about it. Well, I'm out of here. He's giving me a ride to Michelle's. I just wanted to let you know what happened. Talk to you later."

"Sounds good." He set the receiver down. Cindy had a master's. She'd moved to New York, made contacts, worked her butt off, and what had that got her?

"I'm going to lock up in a minute," Anita said. "You ready to go?"

"I'm just going to see how the Wrasse is doing," Tom said.

"That fish? All right, but hurry up. I want to get out of here."

He walked to the rear of the loft, looking out the windows as he went. Patches of clouds glowed white and grey among the darker masses. Sunlight broke through here and there. The branches of the trees in the lot outside bent in a strong wind, their leaves all pointing eastward.

Anita had been axed the minute Steuben figured Tom could handle her job. All her experience hadn't done her any good.

His chest constricted. It would take at least a year to save enough money to travel to Malaysia on his own, and every day he'd come to work wondering if he had a job or not. And, after that, how many more offices? How many more assholes like Steuben?

The Volitan was cruising the top of the tank, scattering the Tangs. The Wrasse was behind its rock, eyeing the Volitan.

"Come on," Tom said, annoyed. "Get out and do something." He tapped the glass, and the Wrasse shivered. Then it started edging from behind the rock.

"Hey, that's it. Keep going, guy."

The Wrasse swam cautiously out into the middle of the tank, just above the pebbles. Then the Volitan noticed the movement and lunged, and the Wrasse shot back to safety.

"Well, I suppose it's a start," he said, and he turned to go home.

--by Randall S. Doering