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The Watcher


by Lorna Garano


My boss was a camera. Oh, I reported to a real person—a real person named Rosemary Northbridge. (A name that seems altogether wrong. Too Victorian, too old-fashioned for a team leader at Blast, Inc.) But my real boss was a camera that tracked my every keystroke, my every click, every bit of data entered or deleted. I was never told explicitly that it eyed my email, but I didn't take any chances. Not that I wrote anything damning or embarrassing, but still the management at Blast, Inc. didn't need to know when I was meeting Rudy for a game of table tennis or how much I hated the last Bond flick. So I kept the email communication to co-workers and job-related matters. Can I get a breakdown of reduced-price sales for the last week for all Midwest vendors? I need a list of Canadian orders for the month of July. That sort of thing.

The camera took a picture of my screen every ten seconds and at the end of each day and each week a program linked into the camera produced a data profile that compared my productivity with the other team members and with my own previous performance. Then at the end of the month, like a digital thresher, the program sliced and diced all the daily and weekly data and spat out a report for Rosemary that began with a number, an aggregate of the measures that filled the rest of the report. They gauged everything from my average time per order, to the average number of keystrokes per day, to the average number of orders entered per hour. After three months of employment at Blast we were expected to compete against ourselves, with a certain percentage of improvement per month in key metrics, like order input time.

In my monthly evaluations with Rosemary she smiled when she circled certain numbers on the report. Usually, this preceded her assigning me some new task, based on a particularly high measure. I had a feeling that there was no limit with Rosemary, like she would continue to add tasks as if time weren't curtailed by the workday, the workweek. I should have felt as if I was on a collision course with her, but something about Rosemary's raspberry-lacquered lips and her casual pony tail and the whole air she had of paying me a compliment as she loaded on more work made everything seem possible.

About six months into my job at Blast I moved to a new apartment and started taking a different bus (the 19) to and from work. At the beginning and end of the day when I rode the bus I jammed in my ear buds and cranked up the music. I tried to blot out the tedium that I was headed to or that I had just finished with. On the way home, the 19 wound its way up to the hills where some of the chi chi houses are then dipped down back into the flatlands and let me off two blocks from my apartment building.

            I may have noticed her on the first day home to my new place. If it wasn't the first it was close. Definitely in the first week. She was in her kitchen, standing at the counter making dinner. “21st Century Schizoid Man” by King Crimson blasted in my ears as I locked on to her. The house was a white 1950s ranch with shrubs trimmed immaculately into cubes and planted on both sides of the front steps.  It stood at a corner of a four-way stop and the bus often had to linger a bit in front of the house at the stoplight, so the woman wasn't just a flickering image. I usually had a little time to watch her.

A glass-enclosed addition was built on to the back of the house that I only noticed because I turned my head as we passed and I saw it jutting out off the house, like a bubble. There was a car in the driveway, a silver Mercedes. From the distance I saw her the woman couldn't be anything more than a generic figure, and here's all I can say about her physically: she was thin, probably around 5'5, and had brown chin-length hair. That's it. I think of her as in her fifties, on the cusp of old, but this may have just been because of the clothes, which, at least from the distance of the bus appeared to be a lot of business casuals. Maybe they were in earth tones or maybe I was just so far away that the colors muted.

So, how to say this? There was something about watching that generic lady that gave me a charge. If you're thinking that this is sexual you're right, but only to an extent. It was as if the sexual thrill was a byproduct of the initial buzz. A frisson. Yes, a frisson. Not a word I would normally use, but when I looked in an online thesaurus for the world “thrill” it popped up. So, the frisson came first and then the stir of arousal. At least in the early days, and I believe that's an important fact. I wasn't just some perv who gets turned on by looking at an ordinary woman doing an ordinary thing through a window. I'm a normal guy, well within what you might call the mainstream of sexual desire. I had never experienced anything resembling this before—I can't stress that enough. It's also worth mentioning that I have no criminal history and I think it's fair to say that the two major girlfriends I've had in my life wouldn't have anything beyond the normal complaints: I'm not ambitious, not terribly open to new experiences, like routine. Wendy would probably whine about having to buy me new clothes so I didn't walk around in rags, but, in truth, she loved doing that and we both know that I would have bought my own clothes if I had to. I have no will for greatness, or disruption, or innovation or any of the other qualities that are expected of everyone today, but that doesn't make me a bad person.  In fact, I might even say that it makes me—well, if not better than some others— at the very least, more realistic than the doomed strivers I see all around me.

My new place was a lot closer to Blast than my old one and for the the first few days of taking the 19 I showed up to work a little early because I hadn't adjusted my schedule to figure in a few more minutes of sleep or some time to read or listen to a podcast in the morning.  One day I arrived at work almost a half-hour before my shift was to start and I heard Rosemary's voice coming from behind the closed door of the conference room where Blast management held weekly meetings.

            “Cue funeral dirge,” she said.

            Rosemary voice was usually strained and creaky, as if it had been narrowed down by some emotion that I imagined was nervousness. I often thought of a hand-cranked meat grinder when she talked. Now, she sounded full-throated, confident.

            Laughter.

            “Rewind for a sec, I want another look at his face,” a male voice said.

            “Your employment with Blast is terminated as of today,” that was Rosemary's normal voice.

            “There's that look. There's that ‘Oh, shit' look. It's universal. Saw it at Krebbs too,” the same male voice said.

             “We'll have security escort you out,” Rosemary said.

            “And the axe falls again.” That was a female voice. 

            “Practice keeps it sharp,” Rosemary replied.

            “It's Goodbye and thanks for playing, Jim,” another male voice said.

            Jim sat in the cubicle next to me. He kept a family-sized bag of Cheetos on his desk at all times and I could sometimes hear him crunching them. More than once I'd seen a neon orange dusting on his keyboard.

            “Alright, now that we've been to the movies can we get on with the meeting?” I was pretty sure that was Carol, the customer service director, even though I'd only talked to her once or twice.

            I backed away from the conference room and headed to the cubicle cluster where I sat. Jim's desk had been cleared off. No writing implements in his mesh pencil holder, no post-it notes on the burlap-lined walls of the cubicle.

            I didn't need to wonder about why such an innocuous person had been fired. It had to do with the numbers.

That night was when it started. The arousal began crowding out the frisson. It occupied it until there was nothing left of that original feeling. When the bus would roll up to the stoplight I'd look over and see the woman in her kitchen, working at the counter top and I could feel my skin getting hot. There I was on the 19, with its blue plastic seats and floor mottled with dried out old gum wads and grime, feeling like my insides were being struck by a match. Don't think I didn't feel a fair amount of embarrassment. I know some people would call this “escalating,” but I wouldn't use that word because at the end of escalation is only horror, violence visited upon the innocent and I wasn't capable of that. I refer to this as “the shift.”

I also started to see myself as having a kind of affliction at this time. I once read about a man whose seizures were triggered by the light filtering through the trees in late afternoon. I thought of my reaction to the woman in the kitchen making dinner as something akin to that, some unfortunate glitch in my wiring.

Soon after the shift I changed the music I listened to on the way home. Up until then it had been 70s hard rock, but the raw—the unapologetic—sexuality of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple struck me as unseemly against the peering in at the woman. Too unmediated, too testosterone drenched, too much. I changed over to psychedelic-rock: Beachwood Sparks, The Byrds, Mazzy Star, the stuff that was all wispy and loose and swirling.

Usually, by the time the bus jolted to my stop the flush of sexuality was replaced by a sadness that drilled inside of me like loss. Sometimes I was able to shake it off and watch a movie or play a video game, but other times I would drift off to sleep feeling as if my mind had been plugged with gauze.

The shift coincided with a strange sensation taking hold of me at work, which I'll do my best to describe. It was like I was bifurcating, as if I had split off and was watching myself in the same way that the invisible camera watched me throughout the day. I saw myself in my cubicle: a tall man with sandy hair banging away at a keyboard doing boring, but useful work, keeping the flow of commerce going. I felt my self, my whole identity being relocated to the watcher me and the watched me—the guy at his cubicle who wore button-down shirts and jeans never faded to a shade lighter than cobalt—seemed a stranger. I started to think of myself as a mentally displaced person, as if psychologically something had thrown me out of everything I knew without breaking my routine. In my mind I was a Polish refugee somewhere in rural post-World War II Pennsylvania.

A few images of the woman stay with me from this time. Once, I just barely saw the movement of her arm as she worked a knife.  Another time I saw her with her ear pressed to her shoulder as if she was holding a phone. One day she wore what I think was bathrobe.

The day after I saw her arm move I bought the binoculars.

For most of the time I was at Blast the camera kept me focused, attentive to detail, but now that I was watched not just by it but by myself I developed a kind of anxiety that burbled below the surface. I grew at once careless and hyper-conscious of my body's movements. Whether I sat with my legs stretched out or bent at the knees became more important than my work speed or accuracy. 

When Rosemary called me in for my May performance review, a vase of tulips that were clenched as tight as acorns sat in the middle of her office table. She pushed them out of the way when she shoved the file of my screw-ups toward me. Not only was my score in the toilet (my average order processing time had nearly doubled), in the last month I had sent a shipment to the wrong address, keyed in three incorrect product numbers, and failed to process a batch of returns.

I wanted to slide the tulips back to obstruct my face, which I kept imagining on the screen of a laptop at one of the management meetings. I began to inch it over from the outer orbit of the table, but Rosemary shot me a confused look. I concentrated on looking as blank as possible. I imagined my face a white sheet flying on a clothes line.

“You've been in the 150-200 range for the last eight months, and your performance increase has been within or beyond expectations, but I was surprised to find this when I pulled the report for April. What's going on, Kevin?” That's when she circled the 80.

            I felt the bifurcation like a chasm running across my mind. A man sat dumbly across a table across from a woman who looked like a teenager grilling about him some stupid number.

My heart starting hammering and I muttered something about doing better. I could see my anxiety transfer to Rosemary. Her face flushed and she started bouncing her leg.

“You'll have to,” she answered, with an officiousness that reversed the anxiety.

Then she said something about a “Level 1 probation” and slid a paper in front of me for my signature, which I quickly signed.

            That night the bus sailed through a green light and I only caught a glimpse of the woman. When I twisted my neck to look out the window a reflection of the poplar trees that edged the woods across the street from her house projected over my vision like a cataract. Green sentries whose intrusion enraged me so much that I wanted to smash my fist through the bus window. I pressed the button to signal a stop before my normal one. The bus came to a halt just as it finished descending the hill that the woman's house was perched on, and I started my upward trudge. I had grown flabby from all the sitting at Blast and by the time I was halfway up the hill I was out of breath, sweating, and huffing. I realized then that my rage had been absorbed by the exertion and was replaced by something I had never felt before, a kind of fear that reassured me, that reintroduced a necessary limit.

            I walked the rest of the way home. When I got to my apartment I took the binoculars, which I'd left on the kitchen counter, and put them under a wad of clothes in the bottom dresser drawer.

I watched that gangly man whose shoulders stooped over from too much time at a keyboard get up and go to work for the next few days. I didn't interfere when he made mistakes—serious ones. When he sent an oven to the Bitteroot Forest because of a mistake in the ZIP code I said nothing, and was even a little amused by it. He was supposed to credit an account $80 for a returned yard set, but put in $800 instead. I could have stopped him. I saw the extra zero and I could have halted his finger before it hit “enter,” could have prevented Blast's legal team from having to get involved to resolve matters when the recipient fought the correction downward. He did sloppy work when it came his turn to produce reports, neglected to include New Jersey and Delaware on a summary of quarterly sales for the East Coast. But I did nothing. I let the errors pile up, refused to remind him the camera was clicking away capturing his slow down and that a record of his mistakes were being compiled by the omnipotent machinery of Blast, Inc. All I wondered about was when Rosemary would fire him. Would she wait for his monthly evaluation or intervene before then?

It turned out to be the latter. Goodbye and thanks for playing, Kevin.

            I didn't look for another job right away. I had always been frugal and I was able to live on my savings for a few months, maybe even a year if I really cut it close the bone—like no Chinese food and suspending my membership at the table tennis club. One benefit of having no career and seeing work only as a way to earn money is that you have no emotional investment in a job. Data entry, food service, teaching English to immigrants: one is as good as the other.

            With nowhere to go every day I started taking walks in the morning. At first I could only do half the 19 route and had to jump on the bus to make it home. When I passed by the woman's house the blinds were drawn and the Mercedes, which I had only seen carefully backed in to the driveway, was gone.

Fairly quickly I built up my stamina and I could make the full loop. I'd start at my apartment, sail by Blast, make my way up into the hills, pass the woman's house, and then walk home downhill. All in all it could take up to three hours and eventually the flab I'd accumulated from sitting so much evaporated and my posture began to straighten. My mood also began to change. I felt a kind of simplicity take hold of my mind that felt healthy and solidifying. I imagined this was the way contented people felt.  

When I saw that the local college was looking for an assistant groundskeeper I applied for the job. The day after that I left for my walk in the afternoon instead of the morning. I hung my binoculars around my neck and dug out a canvas hat I hadn't worn in years. I made my loop, stopping along the way to zero in on birds and leaves with the binoculars, clicking them into focus so that I could see textures and colors as if I were looking at them through a microscope.

When I came to the woman's house I crossed the street and walked through the poplar tree line that edged the woods. The harsh summer light was dulled by the canopy of branches and the air was laced with a fecund sweetness. I peered through the tree curtain and raised the binoculars to my eyes. Just then the 19 rolled up to the light. I adjusted the focus of the binoculars so that I could see one of the passengers as clearly as if I were sitting next to her. When the bus passed I trained my view on the blinds that sheathed the big window of the woman's house. A film of dust covered the white slats.

I sat down in the woods and waited for the anticipation to rise, for the feeling I got on the 19 to begin to build. But all I felt was a bland pleasantness. I may just as well have been on a picnic. Birdsong flitted through the woods.

When I heard the traffic begin to pick up I stood and looked across the street. Rush hour was beginning, and soon I saw the silver Mercedes approach, the woman at the wheel. She overshot her driveway and backed in so that an equal amount of blacktop rimmed each side of the car. I looked at her through the binoculars, seeing her clearly for the first time. She was younger than I imagined and taller. She wore a navy pantsuit and her walk was a confident lope, with easily erect posture. The kind maybe you got from lots of yoga or strength training. She held a wicker bag. I watched her go inside. Not a bad looking woman. Not a bad looking woman, I said that to myself a few times to see if it would pique my arousal.

Soon the shade was drawn up and she was at the kitchen counter. I scanned the surroundings. Teakwood cupboards hung above the countertop. I zoomed in on a head of lettuce and a lump of something in butcher paper. She chopped what I thought was an onion and put a pot on the stove. She was making a simple meal. She unwrapped the package of meat, threw something in the pot, adjusted the gas.

I kept watching her, waiting first for arousal and then for the frisson. Maybe my reaction would happen in reverse order with the better view. But nothing came. Nothing except boredom. I was easily distracted by the fluttering of birds and the whoosh of a gentle wind rifling the trees. A black SUV drove by and, for no reason, I followed it with my binoculars.

I stayed like this for almost a half-hour. I watched the woman put a lid on the pot, wash some dishes, pour a glass of wine. The dullness started to irritate me. I dropped the binoculars and they bounced against my now-firm stomach as I walked back home.

           

           

 

 

 

            

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