The bus had brought me to the sliding doors. I had not been expecting a bus. The letter had provided hotel and flight information and said to ask for a limo at reception in the morning. When I presented myself in the morning in my pin-stripe suit and new attaché case, the bored receptionist pointed to the crowd of people near the lobby doors.
The fellow next to me on the bus slept most of the way. He rubbed his eyes as the bus harshed against the curb.
I stood in a ragged line for ten minutes before reaching the check-in desk. When asked what job I was applying for, I said "programmer."
* * *
The room was like an overgrown closet. There was one small window high up on the wall behind the desk. The floor was carpeted over what felt like concrete. I took my portfolio out of my briefcase and unscrewed the cap of my pen.
There were two interviewers. One sat behind the desk, professorial in beard, off-color shirt and knitted tie. The other sat in a side chair, lummoxy in a short-sleeve shirt.
They had interrupted their conversation when I came in the room. After greeting me and waving me to the seat in front of the desk, they resumed their chat.
"It won't work that way." The bearded one shook his head, and folded his arms with a smile. He had an English accent. The other fellow grimaced.
"I . . . that's the way . . . you know, they give you the . . . and it's like . . ." He stopped, shaking his head. "I don't know . . . what are you going to . . . ?" He looked at me and raised his eyebrows, chuckling in dismay.
I smiled back, trying to appear sympathetic but unintrusive. The bearded one rocked in his chair, musing over the absurdness of it all. He brought himself to a standstill and moved his chair closer to the desk, signaling the start of the interview. He glanced down at my resume.
"Your background is interesting. Summer job at a wetlands institute."
"Down by the seaside." He said this in a sing-song tone.
"Beside the sea."
"It's a song, not a quiz."
Another chuckle came from the other fellow. He blinked, looking at the bearded one who abruptly thrust his hand toward me.
"I'm Peter. This is Neil."
I shook their hands and settled back.
"We're not interested in your employment background so much as your . . . attitude."
I waited. They smiled at me. Finally, Neil bent forward.
"It's a small . . . we really have to work . . . typically, you may be on one thing one . . . it depends on . . . " He opened his folded hands and raised his eyebrows and one side of his mouth. Peter reached back and took a folder from the credenza. It had writing in black marker, thick letters, just above the crease: "EE TEST". He set it on the desk in front of him, and leafed through it, frowning, until he found a few pages clipped together.
"Here." He placed them on the desk and turned them around so I could read them.
"Can I?" I reached for the sheets. Peter nodded.
There were three pages of program code. I recognized the language.
"So . . .?"
"There's a note at the top explaining what the program is supposed to do."
"All right." I held up my pen. "Can I . . . ?"
The program was a mess; that was no surprise. I suppose they could have given me a perfect one, to see if I understood perfection. This was easier. I took ten minutes to read it through, jotting a few notes on my own notepad. Whenever I looked up, Peter was busy sorting through papers, and Neil was rocking back and forth in his chair, a chuckle seeming ready to erupt like a burp at any moment.
"Okay." I looked at Peter, who straightened a stack of papers and put it off to the side.
"It's . . . if you gave it to me, I'd take these chunks," I held up the sheet and pointed at segments on each page, "and put them in a macro—they seem to do the same thing; and if you could move these selection statements together, you could eliminate a half-dozen sorts . . . "
I went on for a few more minutes. Peter held up his hand.
"Enough. You pass."
Neil chuckled on cue. "That's the easy part."
I put the pages on the desk. "What else?"
"Oh, it's not another puzzler." Peter eyed me, his head turning a little. "The important thing is . . . would you be happy here?"
After a moment, I realized he was expecting an answer. I looked at Neil, his face muscles twitching in the effort to control his grinning.
"I guess I need to get a little better feel for the work environment."
The air in the room seemed to go dead. Peter sat perfectly still, a little frown on his face. Neil looked at him, but Peter did not look back. Neil opened his mouth, but the words took a few seconds to come out, as if they were on a tape delay.
"I think the question . . . are you the kind . . . I mean, it's important . . . you need . . ."
I looked at Peter. "I think if the work is meaningful, and I have a voice in how it's carried out . . ."
Peter nodded. He pulled back from the desk and steepled his fingers under his nose. The frown was still there. I carried on doggedly.
". . . then I suppose I would be happy."
Peter spoke suddenly. "Is work what makes you happy?"
I looked over at Neil. He seemed to have retreated into his chair.
"Well, it's not the only thing."
The silence and waiting came again. I endured the void only briefly before plunging ahead.
"I also enjoy sports. I like to read, enjoy a good meal, a glass of wine or a beer . . ."
Peter interrupted me. "Happiness is very important here. It is the most important thing in our workplace. But not the kind of fake happiness that comes with ice cream on Friday afternoons . . . "
Neil chuckled in relief. "Though we often do have ice cream on Friday afternoons."
Peter continued as if he had not heard Neil. "People here derive great satisfaction from their work. A sense of joy. We do everything we can to encourage that."
I looked around the room and tried to conjure a joyful image.
Peter spoke. "Our surroundings may seem . . ."
"Ascetic?" I filled in the blank with a slight smile, hoping to lighten the mood without seeming sarcastic.
"Ascetic?" Peter repeated the word seriously. "Not the word I would use. I think you'd be surprised when you get around a little here. Not that you'll find it . . . "
"Sybaritic?" I regretted the word as soon as I said it.
One side of Neil's mouth grimaced downward. "I don't . . ."
Peter did not seem to have heard me. He was busy packing up files into a knapsack. He finished and opened a small diary. "We have to keep moving here. Quite a busy schedule." He took a sheet of scrap paper from a bin on his desk and drew a few lines on it. "We're here. Just walk across the courtyard, go between these two buildings, then through the double doors. Ask for Mr. Torrance."
They both stood and were at the door before I could get up. Neil looked back at me and opened his mouth, but didn't say anything.
* * *
It took me a few minutes to find my way out of the building. One false turn took me into an open office space where twenty or so people sat in cubicles or stood in groups talking. A girl led me to the right elevator, and I made it to ground level on the right side of the building.
The sun had come out, and there were people dotted around the lawn area in the courtyard. It was a pleasant setting, with shade trees, benches and a circular path running around the perimeter. It felt calm, like a college campus at mid-morning. Not exactly joyful, but pleasant.
I walked across to where the double doors were and went in. A young girl sat behind the reception desk reading a magazine. When I asked for Mr. Torrance, she brought up a schedule on her computer screen.
"He's running behind. You can wait over there," she pointed to a waiting area with couches and a low table, "or you can go into the cafeteria if you want coffee or something."
I bought a coffee in the cafeteria and sat at one end of a long table. At the other end sat a girl eating yogurt and reading a document, occasionally making notes on a pad. She looked over at me, and I smiled, but she went back to her reading without responding. I crossed my legs and stretched out, consciously trying to feel the ambience of the place, but it felt like any cafeteria I had ever been in, if a little quiet. I looked over at the girl again then picked up my coffee and walked around and sat across from her.
She paused in her note-taking. "Yes?"
"I'm interviewing for a job here, and am just trying to get a feel for . . ."
"A feel?" She twisted her head a little, almost flirtatiously.
"Well, what's it like working here?"
She put down her pen and closed her notepad. "What kind of person are you?"
"What are you looking for in your work."
"A sense of accomplishment and purpose, I suppose."
"What’s more important to you—getting to something, or the act itself?"
The word "act" lodged in my mind, its suggestiveness giving way to a discomforting menace. She sat very still and stared at me. I shook my head and looked around. The place was beginning to get a little busier.
I turned back to her unnerving gaze. "I don't know, both, I suppose. I mean, it's important to have goals."
"Not as important as you might think. It's really the joy of the moment that matters more here." She smiled, or at least her mouth did.
"Right. Joy and happiness."
"Yes, that's it."
"What's your workload like?"
"Load? I don't think of it that way."
"Well, I mean do you put in long hours?"
"I haven't thought of it. I suppose—" She laughed. "I'm not sure how I would count them."
I persisted. "Do you work late, or weekends?"
She drew back and folded her hands on the edge of the table. "Are you sure you want to come here?"
"That's what I'm trying to figure out."
She stood and picked up her notebook and papers. "See you around."
Her sarcasm seemed out of place. I finished my coffee, trying hard to feel the joy and happiness. Or even a cult-like, glazed-eye version of the same.
I went back out to the receptionist who directed me to Mr. Torrance's office. He had a secretary, who brought me right in to see him.
Torrance was thin and bald and looked very much the middle-management type, a type one did not really see too often anymore. His desk had an inbox and an outbox, labeled as such. It was a calm space, not modern at all, with a window looking out on a green patch in back of the building, the edge of a wooded area.
There were two cushioned club chairs in front of his desk and he waved me toward them.
"I'll just be a moment."
He was moving papers from one side of his desk to the other, making small check marks and notations. He finished this within a few minutes and methodically straightened the stack of paper and dropped it in the outbox.
"Now." He put his hands on the desk. "We can have our little chat."
I looked at my watch and decided to time how long it took for the word 'joy' to appear.
"You've done the application?"
"And you met with Mr. Wilcox and Mr. McHenry?"
"I guess. That's Peter and Neil?"
"Neil and Peter, respectively." He smiled at this minor witticism. "And you had a chance to mingle a bit with your potential future co-workers." He said this as if there had been a reception of some sort.
"I had a coffee and talked to one girl."
"I didn't get her name."
He waved his hand. "I'm sure it was her."
I thought to ask how he could be sure, but decided not to. As I looked at Torrance, I noticed that there was a set of knobs on the desk, at the bottom of a section that had a glass panel insert.
Torrance continued smiling at me. "Do you want anything? Coffee, a soda, water?"
"I just had a coffee—but can you point me to the rest room?"
"Sure, sure." He hopped from behind his desk and bounced to the door. He opened it and pointed. "Down the hall on your right."
As I stood in the bathroom, it became clear to me that this building, or at least this section, was older than the other. The tile in front of the urinals had bare patches where the feet of its users had shifted over the years. The glazed glass window was open a crack, and I could see the branches of a shrub planted next to the wall.
I washed my hands and took a minute to look in the mirror, adjusting my tie and combing my hair.
When I came back into the room, Torrance was back behind the desk, fiddling with the controls installed into the desktop. They had a Heathkit aspect, as if they had been pilfered from a hobbyist's kit and adapted poorly to their purpose. Weak Mantovani sounds filtered from a speaker that seemed to be hidden in what looked like a drinks cabinet, which I had not noticed before. There was a pitcher and a few bottles on top of it.
There was something odd that I couldn't quite put my finger on. Torrance pulled his chair forward and ran his hands across my resume, flat on the desk.
"Enjoy the fishing, did you?"
I started to cross my legs, then stopped for some reason. Maybe I thought that was a sign of lying.
"Fishing?" I hadn't mentioned any interest in it.
"You spent time by the ocean." He said the last word in such a way that suggested it was code for something distasteful. "The wetlands institute."
"I did. But I didn't do any fishing."
"Of course not. Why would you?"
"Then why did you mention it?"
"Sorry. I won't bring it up again. I can see it bothers you."
He looked at me like a parish priest who had caught a boy peeking into the girls' locker room. I stared back.
"It doesn't bother me."
He smiled as if a puppeteer had pulled on strings attached to the edges of his mouth. He kept the smile going with some effort. As I stared at him, I realized he had changed his tie. It was now a dingy regimental stripe.
"Why did you change your tie?"
Still holding the smile, he pulled the strip away from his chest and cast his eyes down to it.
"So I did."
"No particular reason."
"I leave the room to go to the bathroom, and you change your tie?"
He scraped at the desk's surface with a fingernail.
I got up. There was a framed print on the wall next to the window. It was a fox-hunting scene—the riders in red jackets, the horses' figures somewhat elongated, the fox, all four legs off the ground, fleeing a few dogs.
He rolled his chair back. It made a smooth sound. "How do you feel about the commute?" I looked at him. The chair was on a hard plastic mat, there to save the rug, I suppose. I touched the gilt picture frame.
"I don't know."
"It can be a problem."
"Why is that?"
"Well, it's typically quite long."
"Really? Couldn't I get an apartment close by?"
He laughed, folding his hands on his lap. "You could."
"But for some reason, you think I wouldn't?"
"It's up to you."
"So . . . is it for the open space?"
"I enjoy open space, and that's what I find in my long-drive-from-the-office apartment."
"Oh, house, I would assume."
"House? I'm not sure I can afford that."
"You'll take out a mortgage."
"But what about the down payment?"
"You've scrimped and saved."
"Of course. Putting the coins in the jar. It's amazing how that adds up."
"Over the course of time."
"Yes, exactly. But I wonder if the cost of gas will be prohibitive."
"I should think you'd take the train."
"Right. Forgot about the train." I returned to the chair and sat, crossing my legs. "But if I'm really out . . . where the space is . . . I could have a long drive to the train. There's that to consider. Plus the parking."
"Your wife could drive you."
"My . . .?" I stopped. He gave a little chuckle.
I nodded and smiled back. "So."
"So. What do you think?"
"I think I could like it here."
His face drew inward a little. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves."
"I'm just telling you what I think."
"What makes you think you would like it?"
"I don't know. I admit it is sort of an odd place."
I looked at him quizzically. "Sorry . . ."
"Not even—that is, odd versus even." His eyes held the hint of a laugh.
"I get it."
"I'm beginning to think you do." He looked at his watch. "We've got to keep this moving. You have one more session."
The door opened. Neil's head and trunk leaned in. He spoke. "Sorry, I'm . . ."
Torrance rocked back in his chair and put his hands together. After a moment, Neil came into the room and stood by the drinks cabinet. Torrance looked at me in a way that made me feel I should be silent.
Neil spoke again. "We have a little . . . they couldn't get . . ."
Torrance picked up his briefcase and snapped it shut. "No surprise there." He stood and walked over to a closet in the wall to the left of the desk, from which he took a grey-checked blazer. He put it over his arm and headed to the door. He opened it, and Neil went out ahead of him. Torrance followed him then turned back. He looked at the ceiling briefly, then spoke.
"Joy will help you."
"My assistant." He left the room.
I checked my watch, but was not sure whether to treat this as a true use of the word. Torrance had closed the door, and the room was quiet, like a doctor's waiting room. I got out of the chair and went to the drinks cabinet. I had a sudden urge to pour myself a glass from one of the decanters. They appeared to contain what one would expect, whiskey, gin, etc. I walked to the closet and opened it. There was a hook on the back of the door, from which hung a tie, presumably the one Torrance had been wearing when I arrived, although I did not remember it. I took it down and was examining its label when the door opened.
It was Joy. Her hand went to her mouth.
Once more, I felt I had been caught doing something illicit. I rolled the tie up and held it in my palm, looking at her expectantly. She had a small slip of paper in her hand. She held it out.
"You are to see Ms. Palmerton."
She turned and left the room. I picked up my briefcase and followed her out. She was standing by her desk and handed me the slip.
"Just down the hall."
I walked down the corridor and found the room. The door was open slightly. I knocked and a familiar voice called to come in.
The girl from the cafeteria—Rebecca—was standing by the window. She turned and evinced no surprise at seeing me.
"Have a seat."
I stepped in, reached to close the door behind me and realized I still was holding Torrance's tie. I hesitated then put it in my jacket pocket. I looked up to see Rebecca watching me. We looked at each other for a few seconds. Then she stepped behind the desk.
We waited each other out, and finally she sat, looking down at the desk and making meaningless movements with her hands across its surface, a pantomime of paper shuffling. She finished her little act and sat erect, her hands flat on the desk.
“I don’t suppose there’s much I can tell you.”
“No, I suppose not.”
“There’s no need to be sarcastic.”
“I wasn’t.” It was the truth.
Her fingers tapped out a quick rhythm on the desk, then she retracted them to her lap.
“You're ready, right?"
She opened the large center drawer, looked in and shut it. She looked at me for a long time.
She spoke. "So?"
I tilted my head in inquiry. She pushed her head forward.
"What do we do?"
I took out my portfolio.
"Start with Torrance."
"Please." The anger and disgust were palpable.
"It has to be done."
She stood. Her fingers on the desk reached up like roots to her hands, arms and shoulders.
"What about Wilcox?"
"I wouldn't advise it."
"Correct." Her head seemed to establish connection with her neck and body. "McHenry?"
"They're the easiest type."
She barked a laugh. It fit her well.
"Where do . . . ?" I turned my hand palm up and moved it away from my body.
She just looked at me then walked to the door. She opened it, and I arose and went through. I put my hand in my jacket pocket, felt the tie and chuckled.I had a feeling it would come in handy.