I found this in my papers (the ones that are getting digitized), and thought it a striking pre-Rules of Work taste of the Rules of Work. It’s a chapter from an unfinished novella written under nom de plume in 2005. There’s more, but this much is all I’m going to share in this venue. 🙂
Excerpt from: The Insect
Chapter title: Running Out of Time
Copyright 2005, Daniel DiGriz, All Rights.
There were no physical signs. No heartburn or chronic fatigue or stress disease offered warnings. He wasn’t depressed, or lonely, or experiencing thwarted ambition or poor job fit. Instead, it was the absence of these things that worried him. In an environment ornate with personal therapists, petty embezzlement, malingering, office affairs, antacids, stress balls, and caffeine addictions, David Doss simply felt . . . nothing.
He turned to look at Shelly Hinkel’s cube, the only one into which he could see without standing. Shelly watered her plant every day. It was fed by the fluorescent lights and a little box of Miracle Grow she had stashed behind her monitor. On her computer was a plastic Slinky. She had a calendar that, each month, displayed a different vacation spot. March was Italy. David had studied the photograph of Sorrento, city of three sunrises. He imagined Shelly Hinkel in bathing suit and visor walking up from the bay to one of the hotels, her eyes on the mountains behind, a towel over one shoulder. She breathed in the way people do when sleeping peacefully on a Saturday night, with all of Sunday before them. The odd thing was that he felt no lust.
Just below the level of busied perception, reggae drifted from Kirk Melon’s tape player two cubes down. Bob Marley’s “Jammin” seemed entirely out of place in a gray, modular world of technology and inter-office mail. The rattle of M&Ms in a jar broke his thoughts. Susan Dallas in the opposite cubicle made that sound five times a day, sometimes six. The last one popped over the rim and dropped, leaving the distinct quiet of emptiness.
David closed the file he’d finished, and the window that displayed the directory. He paused to stare at his own desk. There was no photo of family, no proudly displayed diploma, no bobble-head or mug with inspirational maxim. There was no candy secreted away in a drawer, no radio, and no hand-exerciser to justify the march of moments like lemmings over the cliff of corporate time. His area was, in a word, bare.
“You leaving?” Shelly had startled him, though there was no reason why it should be startling. “Another day another migraine,” she chuckled effeminately.
Have a good weekend!” She was clicking away at the keys. He knew she wouldn’t hear exactly what he said but only notice if he didn’t answer at all.
The elevator took 72 seconds up, 55 seconds down. Why David knew this, without ever having glanced at his watch, he had never questioned. Realizing that he was tapping his foot to the seconds now made him nervous.
The garage was half empty. He had stayed exactly 35 minutes over the official time he should have stopped work. The underachievers had gone home, and the overachievers were still at it. He pressed the key fob twice and heard the SUV in space 46B unlock and start. The exhaust odor was somehow comforting, though David could see no reason why he should need comfort.
When he reached his front door, he paused with the key, and realized that he didn’t remember the ride home. He pondered, trying to recall a detail. The guy in the white jeep tailgating him. But that was yesterday. The pleasant weather. But that was just a perception of every day during the past week. David could recall not a single moment in the last 42 minutes. It had been 42 minutes every day that week, except this day. Today, it might as well have been zero.
David laughed to himself and turned the door handle. So, I am all right, he thought. It gets to everyone in some fashion. This is my response to it all. I’ll put in for counseling first thing Monday morning. Then, I’ll have my pills or stress ball or slinky to get me through the day. The thought of no longer unconsciously counting the moments appealed to him. He made a double scotch from a bottle he kept for guests, but never opened, and actually spent the evening watching horror movies on TV. He even had a bath and fell asleep on the sofa in his robe.
He woke up at exactly 9:44 in the morning. The phone was ringing.
“Are you coming to work?” It was Shelly Hinkel.
“Work? Is there something special going on?”
“You tell me. Are you sick, David? You’re never late for work.”
“You do realize it’s Saturday, don’t you?”
“Wow. You must have really cut loose this weekend! It’s Monday, silly.”
“Monday? Shelly, if this is some kind of a joke . . . “
“It’s no joke, kiddo. It’s Monday. Don’t worry, no one has said anything. I turned on your computer and kind of shuffled some papers around on your desk to make it look like you’d already been in. As far as anyone knows, you got here early.”
“Shelly . . . What time is it?”
“It’s 9:45 in the morning, sleepyhead. Get up. I brought donuts, today. Oh . . . gosh, are you sick, David?”
“Sick? No. I mean . . . I don’t know. Yes, I’m sick. I don’t think I can make it into work today. Would you mind calling down to HR for me?”
“No problem. You get some rest. Don’t even worry about the donuts . . . Oh, gee what a dummy. That’s a silly thing to say. What I mean is, don’t worry about us. The company can go on for one more day without you, sweety.”
“Thank you.” David paused for just that split second that one allows the other to start to speak and hung up before she could express any more sympathy.
A commercial for microwave dinners appeared on the television. He suddenly felt famished. There were no extra dishes in the sink. The refrigerator was exactly as it had been – no more food and no less. Ducking below the cabinets, and glancing over the counter, the TV seemed to be on the same station as the last movie he remembered watching.
He made quick work with a plastic fork of a processed Salisbury steak with instant mashed potatoes, imitation butter, and frozen green beans. In fact, he nuked an identical frozen dinner for the necessary two minutes, and thirty seconds, rotating once, and ate it with equal intensity. From the refrigerator, he drained a bottle of spring water at 44 degrees from Ozark, Arkansas.
He felt an increasingly oppressive awkwardness, standing in the kitchen, staring at the diminutive living room, with no idea at all what to do! Bill Gates. That was the answer to the thousand dollar question, with twenty seconds still on the clock. The game show contestant, however, was stumped. David Doss did not want to know the answer, did not want to beat time and, as the walls began to seem ever grayer, he certainly did not want to gaze into a video screen on his first unscheduled PTO in 437 days. He decided to go out.
The shirts in the closet were organized from pastel blue to white, and overall from business casual to formal. He stared at the array for a full minute, before digging for a worn pair of Dockers and a faded orange t-shirt he’d kept from college, with a smudge of green paint on one sleeve. From a duffel, he took the tennis shoes he’d worn during fitness day, placed his loafers neatly inside the closet doorway, and paused to look into the dresser mirror. Then, inexplicably, he nudged a hair out of place and took the car keys from the valet, leaving behind his comb.
The Isuzu started easily. 2500 miles until the next oil change. He realized that he’d been staring at the windshield sticker for several seconds. He wasn’t certain how long. The engine warmed up, he pulled out of the space and into traffic.
Exit 35 took him beachside, and he drove for a minute, looking for a parking space, before deciding that almost all of them were open. He pulled in to an uncalculated spot against the cable barrier, and turned off the engine. An older gentleman strolled with a pair of setters, leaving paw and foot prints along the sand. A young couple shared a cigarette and occasional caresses, laughing carelessly as they meandered along tide’s edge. The interior of the vehicle felt safe but confining, with the sunlight mediated by tinted glass. David opened the door, pressed the lock, and left the vehicle behind, stepping over the cable to walk slowly along the shore.
He removed the tennis shoes, tucked his socks in them, tied the laces together, and draped them over a shoulder. The surf was gentle, and he walked, watching the play of foam across his own toes. A tiny crab kept pace for a few moments, and then skittered under a piece of drift. The sun’s warmth was so unlike the artificially temperate air of an office or his apartment. It rose in fractions of a degree from his feet to his head. It was a bath of radiance that gave him the odd idea of a baptism. David felt as if something that held him in check was washing away, lifted from his skin like the grime of a life spent in toil.
He ceased to be aware of any pressing purpose or bodily need. Nudging a half buried shell, he bent to rescue it from a slow decent into oblivion, and washed it clean in the water, his thumb reveling in the ridges along its surface. He suddenly thought of touching a face, and found himself stroking the smooth inside, staring into the mixed gray interior as one stares at clouds, trying to discern some familiar meaning. He did not realize that he was breathing a little faster than normal, that his eyes were a little glassier, and that he was almost smiling.
Remembering something from his childhood, he held the shell to his ear, listening for the surf. He heard nothing. It was just a shell, after all. It didn’t really make its own sound. But the illusion should have been there, telling his ears that he held in his own hands a part of the ocean, the way dusk tells the eyes that the sun is sinking rather than simply revolving around the earth. There was no sound. Irrationally, he shook it and tried again. He changed ears. It was as if the inner chamber were a prison where no life had ever survived. David threw it down and pushed it once again into the sand.
Why can’t I have this? he thought. What’s wrong with me? He remembered his confusion about the ride home from work. Depressed or something. The thought of a clinical environment made him cringe and walk faster. He began to run, leaving the space of a sprinter between his footprints. Saltwater splashed on his shins and his lungs drew sharper breaths, telling his heart to rise in his chest, pounding out a drum’s rhythm. His feet barely touched the sand, carrying him farther away from where he’d begun. As far as I can manage.
Doubled over, a pain in his side, he gasped for oxygen. He staggered a moment, and swayed a little, feeling a strong aversion to looking behind him. His lips tasted of salt and his chest hurt with heaving. He held his knees and tried to let his pulse slow. Too hot. Just need to cool down.
The glint from her earrings made him squint and raise his hand to shade his eyes.
“You do this often?”
“No. Never.” His own voice was a reasonable sound that called him back to the familiar.
She didn’t answer. He noticed first her hair, which was both red and brown, curled at her cheeks, stopping just short of her neck. She wore a light blue exercise suit with vertical white and royal stripes. She was olive-complected, five foot seven, and athletic.
He recalled the exercise room at work. “No, I don’t.”
“Huh? I don’t want to . . . “ He tried to recall whether she’d asked him anything else. “I’m sorry. I’m just winded.”
He sat down.
She swung a bottle of water from a lanyard at her waist. Ozarka. “Here.”
He sputtered a moment and felt some come through is nose. Wiping his face, he looked up at her. Realizing she was still smiling, he drained the remaining ounce from the plastic bottle, and crinkled it in his palm. Stupid.
“Better now?” She was still smiling.
Ordinarily, he would have looked away, but somehow she was the only tenuous link with why he had come here. Why had he come to the beach? He realized he hadn’t answered. “I . . .”
“Feels like the end of the world.”
“The ocean. Sometimes, I look out there” She gestured simply, but his eyes were on her long fingers. “and it feels like the place where heaven and earth meet.”
She smiled. “It’s beautiful.” She was looking at where the waves became flat and joined the horizon. It was a place that, if the eye watched it, made the ground under one’s feet seem to move.
“I don’t come very often. In fact, I haven’t been . . . I can’t remember the last time. As a child, I think, but I know it must have been more often than that.”
“Makes you forget, perhaps.” She sat down.
She bent her knees and let the water wash over the tops of her feet. Her toenails were painted red. Flushing a little, he looked at her face. He would have looked away again, except her eyes were still on the horizon. Even if he’d had something to add, he wouldn’t have interrupted that look. In that moment, she seemed a lord of the world, one of those beings that the elements of sky, of water, and earth were meant to serve. Flights of fancy on the periodic table.
“What’s your name?”
“David. David Doss. Yours?”
“Candace. For now, just Candace.” She smiled warmly.
Her ear held gold teardrops with diamond studs, elegantly out of place in the daylight.
“What do you do?” they both asked at once. He laughed, and she giggled.
“I’m an analyst,” he said. “I study sales trends for a technology company.”
“Do you like it?” She dug her fingers into the sand, making little starfish, and occasionally toying with a cured, sun-bleached bit of shell.
“I don’t really know. I think I must, since I keep going back.”
She chuckled. “He has a sense of humor.”
“Only today, I think.” He smiled, delicately, as if trying out making the first lines in his face. “You?”
“I work in a lab. Exciting work, sometimes. Today, though, I’m a beach comber.”
“Oh, yes. Looking for winded men to run into me on the beach and drink my last bottle of water.” Her eyes were green. Or blue, he wasn’t sure.
“I didn’t exactly run into you.”
“Near miss, I’d call it. Like I said, I am the one doing the combing.”
“Yes, I am. But you started it.”
“True. Thanks for the water.”
“That’s OK. I’ll let you make it up to me.”
He felt in that moment as if he did want to make it up to her.
She stood and offered him a hand. “Unless you think I’m being too forward.”
“You’re picking me up?“
“Well, I occasionally pick up things on the beach. Usually, it’s just shells.” He shuddered a little and put the thought of his earlier experience from his mind. “Today, I just happened to find one that’s occupied. Besides, it’s not every day I get to rescue something from the surf. You don’t already belong to someone else, do you?”
“Huh? No.” He could feel the blood rush to his face. “I . . . no, not at this time.”
“Uh huh. Good. Well, then I’d say you owe me at least a glass of wine.”
“All right. I can do that. My car is just down the shore . . .”
“We can take mine, unless you’re planning to run all the way back.” She put a slender hand on his back. “Remember, I don’t have any more water.”
Her touch was electric. It crawled between his shoulder blades and up along his neck until he shuddered a little, without being able to help it, and hoped she didn’t notice. “You’re making fun of me.“
“Who’s making fun? I’m truly worried that I’ll have to wave down cars and beg for something cold and refreshing.” She displayed an immaculate set of teeth between lips that were, he realized, naturally red.
“All right, let’s get you a glass of wine, so you’ll forget about this … Say, you aren’t hungry are you?”
“I could eat. But really,” she grinned, “it was just a little water.”
“Come on,” he said. He slid his feet into his shoes without bothering to tie them.
“That one’s mine.” She pointed at a white mini-van parked the long way against the barrier.
He looked down the roadway where it seemed his own vehicle was a speck in the distance. Then he realized, as the speck moved in the opposite direction, that it wasn’t his. In fact, he’d run far enough along the shoreline that the road curved away out of sight.
She opened the passenger door for him, holding it with a silent smile. The interior had that vague new car scent. He leaned over and tried to open her side, but he couldn’t find the button that controlled the lock.
She slid in, buckled up, looking to make sure he had done likewise, and turned over the ignition. Her key ring had no fob. It was just a wire loop.
“New?” he asked, as she made a U-turn onto the roadway.
“Hm? Oh, yes it is.” A cyclist passed with a slight nod, going in the opposite direction.
The center line curved around a bend, until he saw the tow truck backing up to his SUV.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“That’s mine! I’m getting towed!”
“Are you sure? Maybe he’s just . . . “
“Maybe I should have a talk with him.”
“I don’t see why, it’s my car . . .”
She grinned at him devilishly.
“Oh. Well, I still don’t see why he should be towing me. It’s free parking here, and its only been parked three hours.”
“I’ll enjoy taking care of it.”
She left the minivan running a few yards from the truck. In a moment, she was talking with its agitated driver. Her arms were at her side, but her hands balled. The driver appeared unable to comprehend what she was trying to convey.
David pressed a button on the armrest and rolled down the window. He could hear her saying, “You’re early! Can’t you people do anything right?”
She took a cell phone from her hip pocket, flipped it open, pressed a button twice, and held it to her ear. “I’ve got him, but your guy is fucking it up. Tell him he’s made a mistake.”
He felt frozen in a dream, in which she was suddenly less friendly and far less of a chance meeting than a moment before.
The tow truck operator wore a black tank over heavily tattooed pectorals. The driver looked toward the van and saw David watching through the open window. His pulse raced. Candace turned to follow the driver who now trotted toward the van. Time broke to the beat of his footfalls, two per second across pavement.
“Idiot!” Candace screamed. “Get my keys!” The face behind that voice was contorted in rage as David sprang behind the wheel, dropped the van into drive, and accelerated just short of spinning the tires, whipping the van around and back onto the roadway.
Adjusting the rearview mirror, David saw the cyclist turning in to join Candace and the driver leaping into the cab of the tow truck. He mashed the accelerator and sped to 95mph, forty-seven seconds from the onramp.
Sliding into traffic, he passed the next exit, and made it to the left lane with nothing familiar in the rear view. He slowed to 80, only then realizing that his hands were shaking on the wheel. He stared at them until they grew calm, and considered going home.
For a moment, he couldn’t remember where he lived. When the address and then the exit appeared in his mind, he found that he didn’t want to remember. He flipped on the air conditioner and buckled his seat belt as the mile markers went from high to low.
It was 6:45 when he realized he was no longer in the same state.