standard cubicle at company headquarters

"Tales of a Scorched Coffee Pot" - A6

By jasonmcgathey | Jason McGathey | 31 Aug 2023

Site of secret field studies in concentration ability


Well okay, now she has officially seen just about everything. As Glenda Jackson is opening the latest manila folder from Liberty Avenue, what tumbles out is not only the expected modest stack of invoices, but also a clipped together bundle of…word search answers? From the latest Healthy Shopper Market newsletter? Yes. Along with a little post-it note atop these, which reads, LIBERTY’S PUZZLES! Employee crossword puzzles to Be turned in!! And then a smile below the dots of those two exclamation points, which are supposed to be the eyes.

As a recipient of these newsletters herself, albeit in emailed form, she knows what this is all about. Their marketing person, Valerie Swanson, who writes said newsletters, had indicated that the first person to send her a completed word search (yes, a word search; definitely not a crossword puzzle) would win a gift basket, of mystery products from the store, worth about $50. Why this store would collectively believe that this meant they should wait a week, bundle them all together and ship these on the truck to the Accounts Payable person is beyond her, but she’s really not surprised. Unfortunately, they are going in the trash now. Doesn’t look like anyone from that location is winning anything this time around.

If being honest, though, she welcomes the diversion. She has gotten so good at tuning out the noise around her that she almost doesn’t know how to tune back into it — is kind of terrified by this thought, in a way, because what if you found that you could not stop paying attention to this swirl of conversation, music, activity, and weird human noises? Those noise canceling ceiling installations had been the hot office trend last year, and this year, it’s the open office. The open office is all you hear about, and seemingly every fourth or fifth article on her phone’s news feed discusses such. But it’s really hard to imagine how this would be a good idea, and in what scenario, anywhere. She considers herself somewhere at our near the 99th percentile in remaining focused in the vortex of a hurricane, and even she can only imagine that such an arrangement would prove a nightmare, speaking of productivity and concentration.

Because occasional intrusions punch through, it’s only inevitable. And once they do, it can take a few moments to get back into the flow. Of course, those that do pierce her consciousness become all the more surreal, these free floating blips with no connective tissue. The sweet but extremely talkative and quite large older woman, Bessie, in the cubicle right next to her, is probably among the loudest on the entire second floor, and it’s only by some miracle that she’s eventually gotten the message not to yak Glenda’s ear off all day.

Even so, there are outlying incidents, like the afternoon she wheels her chair around the cubicle wall and, her wrinkly, weathered hands shaking like they always do, extends a sheet of notebook paper in Glenda’s direction. It’s a recipe for bowtie pasta chicken with mushrooms in a creamy ranch sauce, which Glenda accepts, although wondering if Bessie is confused because they’ve never discussed anything even remotely connected to this topic. But no, the old lady is just this friendly, and outgoing, it simply popped into her head that Glenda might like this recipe, so she spent fifteen minutes or so just now writing it down. Glenda feels so guilty — and touched — that she makes the dish this same night for dinner, however, and she relates as much to an eagerly appreciative Bessie the following day.

She’s likes her coworkers, though, nearly without exception. And regarding the rest of this accounting department crew, she is out to lunch with them roughly once every couple of weeks, planned days in advance and shaking out as 50% McAllister’s visits, 50% Applebee’s. These choices are perhaps not so surprising given the demographic. Though in her early 40s she is younger than Kathy Ames by a couple of years and the other ladies by a mile.

These soirees are highly informative, if never in any true business related sense — unless gossip counts — and not at all how she would have envisioned. A car ride crammed three wide in a sedan’s backseat next to Kathy, who describes in great detail the last four movies she watched on Netflix, without coming up for air. Or like the soft spoken grandma in AR, Eileen, nearing retirement, who giggles at lunch one day when the topic of drugs comes up. Recounts a first date she went on with a boy some fifty years ago, a blind date set up by a mutual friend, during which both of them took acid before heading out that night. Pretty much everyone else present scooped their jaw off the thinly carpeted floor — Applebee’s, that particular occasion — to hear this musty if still quite scandalous revelation.

But nothing quite compares to the information gleaned from working alongside other people all day. Bellwether’s marketing guy, Carl, who is totally normal and friendly, though oblivious to how loud and disgusting his sinus clearing sounds are over in his office, just about every day. Hocking up loogies so loudly that it’s enough to make her want to transfer or quit half the time, just hearing this. One day Tracy happened to be walking past right Carl’s office as he did this, and exclaimed, “gosh!” as though startled. But it seems he did not take any sort of hint with that, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone, particularly a female working here, could possibly introduce such a topic to him. Or the exceptionally obese yet extremely knowledgeable sales rep, Ben — a living, breathing encyclopedia of anything related to music, sports, and places of interest in major American cities — who launches into such violent coughing fits nearly as often, which clearly portend some major upcoming health crisis for this gent, if he’s not suffering such already, leading half the office to ask, with palpable concern in their voices, if he is okay. And yes, most of all the conversation, even if it’s just one side of a telephone call. Sometimes not even words, just verbalized noises.

Eileen’s polar opposite, for example, would be Sharon in AR, who is clearly on edge pretty much all the time and does not join them on those lunch forays. Maybe once a week, she and surely many others can hear Sharon click her tongue with disgust — having apparently just received either an unsavory email, or possibly a text message — and then exhale slowly through clenched teeth, followed by one silent measure. Then a violent pushing back of the office chair, as she stomps off across the floor, down the back stairwell.

Glenda can even tell when the busybody directly behind her, Nancy, is looking her way. The configuration of these cubicles finds each with just three walls, the fourth fully open. An L shaped desk curves across two of the walls, and while theoretically Glenda could have moved her monitor to the side bordering Bessie’s cubicle — making it only visible if approaching from one side — Edgar had it facing outward, with his back to the open side, and she’d just left it that way. To paraphrase him, there’s almost no possible time to ever do anything non-business related here, so it really doesn’t matter.

She can tell Nancy’s snooping because, at least twice a day, that woman will back up in her chair, wheels audible against the hard grey carpeted floor. As she is doing so, will stretch and then exhale through her nose. During which, there’s some kind of Doppler effect in play as, halfway through the exhale, also audible, is the altered sound of Nancy rotating her head to stare in this direction. Nancy is too nosy to restrain herself, even though it’s unfailingly business that Glenda’s working on and probably not even all that legible from so far away. She couldn’t read an email from that distance, for example, only maybe see that Glenda has her Outlook program pulled up.

But mostly, it’s Bessie providing the unintentional comedy around here. Discussing her constipation problems (yes!) over the phone one day with a friend, and mentioning that she really doesn’t want to go see a “doc in a box,” whatever that is. Another day, calling up information — apparently this service still exists! Who knew! — and asking for the number to the nearest Chick Fillet restaurant. Then dialing said Chick Fillet restaurant and inquiring about the price of various nugget platters.

Glenda is struggling to suppress a riotous laugh, yet at the same time finds this discussion highly informative. Chicken nugget platters? She honestly had no idea these were even an option, and would guess that most other folks within earshot didn’t, either. But yes, they begin at 50 pieces, if she’s gathering correctly from Bessie’s side of the conversation, with other increments available all the way up to a 300 nugget mountain.

Really, from day one, Bessie has reminded Glenda of her maternal step grandmother, long since deceased. And each subsequent impression has borne this out. Like how she uses the word idear non-ironically, and not for laughs, but as a legitimate piece of her vocabulary. Or the day that Ben must have been rocking out to some Whitesnake with his headphones on. From the next aisle over — recreating the crime mentally, as it’s not something she noticed in the moment — there is the distinct clicking sound, of headphones being yanked from their port, followed by the incredibly loud strains of that golden maned singer guy screaming the GAAAAAA-AAAAAA-OOOOOO! part of Here I Go Again, as Ben swiftly realizes his error, and brings the volume down. During which, she can hear Bessie click her tongue a few times, disapprovingly, and then slowly exhale as if appalled by this shocking turn of events.

But then there’s also an admittedly touching moment at one of those old-lady-lunches where she gets misty eyed, telling Glenda alone, during a stretch where there are numerous conversational pockets around their large table, about a distant Christmas she experienced as a little girl. She thought her parents had sold her horse, but as it turns out, they were “selling” it to Bessie — had wrapped the certificate in a box under the tree, and put a bow around the beast out in their barn.

Bessie has only said one legitimately funny thing, taken at face value, in Glenda’s experience. Some Monday morning where Bessie’s machine must have been acting up, and she was ruing out loud to whomever cared to hear about her daily struggles, “come on, now! This don’t thing wanna work today?” before adding, a handful of seconds later, “my computer needs Geritol.”

So this is most, if not all, of the entertainment to be found on site. And somewhat local at that, for she isn’t extremely loud, not like some of the others, so there are plenty missing out on the Bessie show. Carl and Ben’s human function sound effects are twice as thunderous, for example. Still, it’s possible that nothing tops Tracy on the noise scale, when she’s merely talking on the phone, and if she is not very often the center of humor, when she is, the entire office can hear it.

Like right now, for example. Glenda would swear she could feel the consciousness spreading, across the office, as one by one they become attuned to Tracy’s conversation. Maybe there are subtle but perceptible differences in activity, though, when people stop what they are doing to listen in. At any rate, it slowly dawns on her that Tracy keeps asking to speak to some Tim guy on the phone, except that with her thick Southern accent, the person on the other end is having trouble comprehending.

“Teeeum! Teeeum!…I need to speak to Teeeum! Teee-ah-eummm! Teeeum!”

Snickers and guffaws multiply, confirming the degree to which others are absorbing this audio spectacle. When she finally gets off the phone, with a frustrated sigh, having been unable to get through to the other party, a sales rep in one of the side offices, Mike LeJardin, chuckles and asks what that was all about.

“I think there’s somethin wrong with ma headset! This lady said she could barely hear me!”

“She couldn’t hear you or she couldn’t understand you?”

“She couldn’t hear me.”

“Yeah, that doesn’t seem right,” Mike deadpans.

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I am a professional writer with 8 published books under my belt. And many other unpublished ones, in various stages of disarray.

Jason McGathey
Jason McGathey

Semi-Coherent Musings - from one of the leading masters of this questionable art form!

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