by Steel Metro
The calls can wait. Tim White needs a break.
|Sitting in his cubicle, Tim White stares at his blinking computer screen while his head- set rings over and over again in his ear. His last call just ended five seconds ago, and another call is coming in. Its busy tonight – and they are understaffed. (It’s always busy – and they are always understaffed.) To take the call he just has to press a button on his keyboard and start talking into his headset. If he doesn’t pick up after so many rings the call will be rerouted to another operator. Of course, he’s supposed to pick up after the first ring, but he can’t bring himself to do it. He needs a break. He was supposed to be on a break a half hour ago, but a call ran long. They always run long when he has an upcoming break. Right now, he needs a cigarette. Bad.
He looks at the back door that leads to the smoking lounge and back to the screen. The call has already been rerouted to another operator and he feels bad for a split second – he gets over it. The next second his head set is on his desk and he’s heading towards the lounge door. His quick exit has made his ergonomically correct chair spin like a carnival ride designed to make passengers puke.
The smoking lounge at the call center is an ample, multi-functional space. Not only the smoking lounge, it is also the employee pharmacy (for both legal and non legal pharmaceutical necessities) the social hub, coffee shop / bar. It is also the employee parking lot. The smoker’s lounge has seen its share of affairs and fights – both those related to the amorous affairs and those having nothing to do with them. Like Tim says, you don’t have to wait until July 4th and New Years Eve to see fireworks in the parking lot. (Another not so secret tidbit about the smoker’s lounge is that for four years running, on New Year’s Eve, it has taken on the dubious role of open air urinal since Ron Rickles started working at the center.)
Like many of his coworkers, Tim dreams of some day being allowed to smoke while taking calls. Unfortunately for Tim and the 95% of his coworkers that smoke, they do not live in Spain and the year is not 1970. Most of his coworkers already smoked when they started. The few stragglers fell in line shortly after starting at the call center either through solidarity or job stress. Some started smoking for no better reason than to get in on the extra breaks smokers enjoy. (The few non-smokers at the center are treated like freakish outcasts.)
As Tim opens the door, the freezing January air chills him to the bone and he immediately goes into the smoker’s hunch: Shoulders up, neck down, elbows in… As he opens the door the frigid January air demands attention – taking his breath, blurring his vision and shrinking his neck into his shoulders. Tim loves living in New England – he just hates the weather. In his rush to sneak away he forgot both his lighter and his coat. Tim isn’t worried; he knows it takes just one lit cigarette to keep the world smoking.
“Hey guys and gals, anybody got a light?” Tim asks as the smoking circle automatically expands to let him join.
Three or four people offer Tim a light at once. Tim waves his hands and says in a fun tone, “Careful you’re gonna singe my eyebrows with all that fire in my face!”
Bruce chuckles both at the joke and the fact that he has lit Tim’s cigarette and already returned his Zippo lighter to the leather holster on his belt while a few people are still offering a rainbow assortment of Bic lighters and more than one lit cigarette.
Although he’s missed a lot of the ongoing conversation, Tim knows what they are talking about. If the men and women in the lounge aren’t complaining about their respective couples and the problem with the opposite sex they are talking about really important matters – the NFL playoffs.
The usual suspects are in their standard open huddle formation (although the cold weather has made the huddle smaller than usual): Don, Rick, Mary, Brenda, Ken, Donna and Bruce. Don’s a diehard New England fan who thought the Pats had a chance in ’85 against the Bears. Rick, born in ’86, thinks Tom Brady should be president. Mary knows just enough about the game to be comfortable in the conversation. Brenda, who goes nowhere without Mary, even though she doesn’t smoke knows nothing about football but because of her pretty smile and reputation is more than tolerated. Bruce is barely tolerated. He hates football but he’s generous with his cigarettes. He says whatever he wants and most of the time people agree with him just in case they run out of smokes and need ole Bruce to give them a smoke. Bruce puts on a scowl when people bum a smoke, but secretly he loves giving out free cigarettes. Especially to Mary who has caught his eye but she’s out of his league and married. (Not happily married but married.)
Tim joins the circle as Don scoots over to let the circle widen. Tim’s entrance momentarily interrupts Don and Rick’s argument about some Fantasy Football nonsense. “God, can’t just watch the game anymore. Now you have to follow statistics to see who not only wins the real games but the fantasy games, too. Sport through statistics? Fantasy Football: football with homework. I just don’t get it. What’s wrong with these people?” Tim asks himself.
Ken is always as close to Donna as he can get. Donna doesn’t mind; she wishes Ken would talk to her more than he does. He rarely talks to her. Ken is in love with Donna, though that’s not how he thinks of it. He wouldn’t put it in those words. He thinks of it this way: Donna is a coworker and friend. You help coworkers and friends. There isn’t anything he wouldn’t do for Donna. He would like Donna to move. Not that she is uncomfortable where she lives now, but he wants her to be more comfortable, safer, with a better land lord etc. etc. He doesn’t want her to move far away, maybe just across town so she’ll still work at the call center. Ken finds himself thinking about the following scenario more than he would like to admit...Donna announces she is moving. All her friends and coworkers offer to help, but come moving day, no one shows up. No one, but Ken. It’s a cold, rainy Saturday and he helps her move in her furniture and bed and all her things. He stays all day helping her arrange her furniture and clothes, everything. It’s a long day, Ken shows up with some bagels and coffee for breakfast, they share a pizza for lunch and Chinese take out for dinner. He loves that Donna isn’t picky and that they like the same food. They share the Chinese take-out like a long term couple. Donna thanks Ken over and over again for helping “when no one else even bothered to show up.” Ken says there isn’t anything he wouldn’t do for Donna. Donna realizes she is in love with Ken as much as Ken is in love with her. They embrace and kiss and Donna says, “This place isn’t too small for two people is it?” Ken answers, “For you and me; it might be too big…” Ken knows it will never happen, but he is leery of making any weekend plans just in case Donna announces she will be moving one weekend. Ken knows it could take a long time for her to ever move, but he knows it’ll be worth the wait.
Don says hello in a friendly tone that contrasts his grizzled beard and matching personality. “Hey Tim, how many breaks you gonna take today?”
“As many as I need!” Tim answers while faking a desperate drag on his smoke with trembling hand and bulging eyes. Everyone in the circle laughs. Everybody likes Tim and feels a little sorry for him about his recent divorce. Tim’s divorce is a tricky subject. They only talk about it when Tim brings it up. Tim never brings it up.
“Good one, Tim!” Bruce chuckles a little louder than the rest. Nobody likes Bruce. He gets no pity about his long ago divorce. In fact, most of his coworkers don’t believe he was ever married. The idea of someone marrying Bruce is too hard to believe. Bruce makes a mental note to use Tim’s one liner as his own. It may take a while before he’ll be able to use it, but he’ll wait. He’ll remember the line and use it as his own whenever no one that is here now is around. Only problem is he’ll forget who is here now. He’ll repeat the joke to someone who is present and they’ll remember it was Tim’s joke not Bruce’s. Nobody likes Bruce.
Mary tries to follow the conversation about Special Teams or something but can’t help thinking about the grocery list she’s been making for three days or the call to her mom she has put off for twice that long. She tries not to look too pensive, so no one will notice and ask her what’s on her mind. Imagine if someone knew what was on my mind? She smiles and before she has to hide it the group is laughing. Tim just said something that made everyone laugh so it looks like she was following the conversation. "That was close," she thinks.
The conversation, like their cigarettes, is burning out. The huddle breaks and members of Team Smoke fling their cigarettes away as they head back inside. Rick’s hands are cold and his flicked cigarette nearly hits Don in the face. Don makes a face like he’s nearly been assassinated. Rick apologizes with a laugh. Don jokes that Rick nearly killed him. The cigarette didn’t come within a yard of Don’s face. He’ll ride Rick for months to keep alive the moment he made people in the circle laugh.
And just like that, Tim is alone in the cold January wind. His smile freezes into a grimace and he feels the chill that friendly banter was keeping at bay. He shivers and wishes he brought his coat and thinks about his ex. Just like that. Out of nowhere, she just pops up. She is right below the surface; always there when he’s alone with no friends or coworkers to try to make laugh. Their marriage wasn’t all bad, and it wasn’t all her fault. Well, it’s all in the past now. As he extinguishes the cigarette on the sole of his shoe, he flings it away and for now, he stops thinking about his ex wife. He looks at his watch. Not bad, just a few minutes. Can’t call that a break. Besides it’s just a smoke – not a real break.
He pulls the door open and the stale, warm air embraces him like a tropical heat wave. He sneaks over to his cubicle making sure the manager doesn’t see him and is just in time to grab the incoming call blinking on his computer screen. As he puts on his headset, he takes a deep breath, tries to find an ounce of good customer service in his voice and can just barely manage to sound civil. His contempt for the call, the caller…his life in general is just barely concealed. He touches the button to answer the call, exhaling contempt and frustration into his headset as he answers, “911, what is your emergency...?”