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15,000 Keystrokes

by Marsha Temlock

 
  Fall 2013 Fiction, Memoir & Poetry Anthology  |  Contents  |  Authors  |  echapbook.com

 

Eliot stood in front of my desk while I gathered the forty-two hand-scrawled pages he’d given me to read.

“So what did you think?”

“I’m afraid—”

“Never mind.”  He thrust the forty-two in his briefcase, stuffed with the other five hundred and six pages. He’d been doling out The History of the Implacable World from the time I started working as a vocational counselor at Voc Op, a psychosocial program for the psychologically disabled. For six months I hadn’t been able to make head or tail of his indecipherable intelligence and had finally given up.

Eliot swiped a frond of greasy black hair back over his bulldog forehead. “If you had taken the time to peruse my account of the implacable Julius Caesar, Miss Bowers, you would have learned that his downfall, as Shakespeare would have us believe, was not his disregard of Calpurnia’s warning, but his failure to solidify his relationships with his rivals. Partnerships, even with the lowly, would have served him in the end.”

“Michael is beginning class, Eliot. I’m sure he is wondering where you are.”

“I would not presume to second-guess Michael.”

“Go,” I said. “And that clock is ten minutes slow.”

He looked at his steel-banded Citizen. “Seven minutes, three seconds.”

“Go.”

Even with the door closed I could hear Eliot’s heavy lumbering footfalls as he made his way to the classroom. For a minute or so I sat at my desk and stared at the Rorschach patterns of peeling puce paint. Squinting, I made out a one-legged cat and a series of clouds. I worked steadily for fifteen minutes updating my case notes, gave up, and decided to get a cup of coffee.

The staff room was next to what was euphemistically called Voc Op’s computer training center. Michael Tomas was in front of the room explaining some shorthand function in Word. Twenty clients hunched over donated IBM computers following his instruction. I watched Eliot tapping away.

Annie, my boss, came up from behind. “Busy bees, aren’t they.”

“Check out Eliot’s earmuffs.”  

“The headphones are to drown out the voices.”

“His fingers smoke.”

“Michael clocked him at 15,000 kph on the numeric pad.”  

“What’s average?”

“Five thousand is okay. Anything around twelve thousand is impressive. But fifteen … like you said, you can smell the smoke.”

end of story

The staff room was nothing more than a glorified broom closet—a couple of shelves for the Mister Coffee, mugs, plastic spoons, and open can of coffee.

I stirred in two teaspoons of Coffee-mate, made a face, and tapped in two more.    

“Did I hear right that Rhonda Jay quit her job because she overheard someone call her crazy?” Annie asked.

“I think someone just made an offhand comment—you know how it goes—and she was sure they were talking about her so she up and left.” I sighed. “I don’t know, Annie. What’s the good of teaching them any of this if they can’t hold a job?”

Annie rested her hand on my shoulder.  “Hope is the thing with feathers—/That perches in the soul—/And sings the tune without the words—/And never stops—at all—”    

“Well maybe you should have hired Emily Dickinson.”

“She’s dead and you’re not.”

“Do you know what Julius Caesar’s biggest mistake was?”

“His togas were too short and his pecker stuck out?”

“He spent too much energy warring with his enemies when he should have been forming partnerships with his rivals.”

“Don’t tell me you actually read his stuff?”

“Eliot’s really brilliant.”

“And he’s also really …” Annie tapped the side of her head with her forefinger.  

I guess I have only myself to blame if I get discouraged. When Annie hired me to be Voc Op’s vocational counselor, she was quick to point out it was easier to sell clunkers than the mentally ill. I’m no hero. I took the job because the ink was still wet on my MSW and my divorce agreement.

end of story

Late that afternoon, Eliot Minowsky rapped on my door just as I was packing to leave.    

“Miss Bowers”

Without looking up to see who it was, I bellowed, “I’m about to take off Eliot. This will have to wait.”

“Can I come in?”

“I’d like to miss rush hour traffic, Eliot.” Too late. When I looked up, all six two of him, gangly and gargantuan, stood there in front me blocking the hall light. He stretched out his bear paw and handed me an envelope.

I took the envelope and said something about how debonair he looked. Was he going out? Despite any change in temperature, Eliot typically wore a beige trench coat belted tightly at the waist, and underneath, a faded flannel shirt and baggy tan chinos, cuffs dripping over unlaced sneakers.

Eliot was decked out in a long black coat, a white silk scarf draped around his neck. Granted the coat was two sizes too large for his big frame. The sides hung like heavy drapes. All that was missing was a pair of opera glasses.

He smiled mischievously while I opened the envelope. Inside was a newspaper clipping advertising a Sears Roebuck washer/dryer.

“Are you thinking about buying new appliances, Eliot? If so I’m really not the one to ask.” I make do with anything that accepts coins at the Soap and Suds where nowadays I take my laundry.  

Eliot laughed. I’d never heard him laugh before. I’d seen him snarl but had never known his face to light up with such amusement.  

“Eliot, do you want to tell me what this is all about?”

“Bien sur.”  

I frowned because he’d lapsed into that annoying habit of speaking French to avoid saying what’s on his mind.

“Mademoiselle, je suis—”    

“Oh, knock it off,” I cried.

“I am happy to report that I am no longer a ward of the state.”

“Excuse me?”

“I am no longer a ward of the state,” he repeated exuberantly.

I stared at him in disbelief. “Are you telling me you have a job?”  

“Yes.”

“That’s what this is all about then … the reason for your outfit.”

“One must dress the part. At seven o’clock I will be conferring with a representative of corporate America.”

“In other words, you have an interview at Sears?”  

“Oui.”

“Well, how about that?” I whistled softly.

“How about what?”

I sat down and carefully formed my next remark. If this were true, I didn’t want Eliot to blow this opportunity. “Sears is a very good company to work for, Eliot. In fact it’s an excellent company. Do you know the name of the person who is interviewing you?”

“I am to go to Human Resources and ask for a Mr. Sully. I believe that was the name given to me by his assistant, the woman I spoke to when I called about the data entry position for which I am inordinately qualified.”

I blinked, still taking in the fact that Eliot had done this on his own. “This is extraordinary news.”  

Eliot folded his arms across his chest. “Why, Miss Bowers, you seem surprised or should I say astonished by my news.”

“I …I’m a bit taken aback since we never discussed your employment,” I stammered. Eliot definitely had the skills, clocking in at 15,000 kpm. I asked myself why I had never bothered suggesting he apply for work and the answer was obvious. He had unwound the scarf from around his neck and opened his too-large coat. I took in his outdated brown suit (probably a relic from his father who passed away years ago) and shirt that looked like it had been washed in tea, a button missing at the collar; and the tie—a wide red-and-black striped affair—held in place with what appeared to be a Masonic tie clip.  

Eliot searched my face. His eyes darkened. “Did you expect me to go back to making cardboard boxes?”

I blushed. “Of course not.” He was referring to an earlier job when a previous work counselor had him assembling boxes for a greeting card company.

Eliot had been a brilliant student at Princeton when he had his major psychotic break. The early signs of schizophrenia had been ignored. Medication stabilized his condition, but there were constant battles with the disease he fought valiantly. It wasn’t surprising that the monotonous assembly work sent him, tout de suite, to the psychiatric ward.

I got up and was about to clap my hand on his shoulder but remembered Eliot did not like to be touched. “This is fantastic news,” I said. “I couldn’t be happier. Are you nervous about the interview?”

“I am perfectly prepared,” he told me.    

“The interview is at seven. You probably have enough time to get a haircut,” I suggested.

“Is that advisable, Miss Bowers?”

“Advisable,” I repeated.  

“Well, then I will do it!” He slammed his hand on the desk.    

I grinned. “Let me know how it goes.”

“Bien sur.”

I winced.  

Eliot was hired to work the graveyard shift which meant he checked in with me around five o’clock. I’d given him my cell number in case he had to reach me if he had any problems.  From seven to twelve he entered warranty numbers for Sears Roebuck washers, dryers, refrigerators, lawn mowers, television sets, air conditioners, sewing machines, stereos, vacuum cleaners and snowblowers. The first two weeks he reported Mr. Sully had complimented him on his data entry precision.

“I’m the fastest data entry clerk in the department.”

“That’s good news, Eliot. I’m not surprised.”

The third week on the job Eliot was not as sanguine. Two co-workers were giving him a hard time. “You don’t have to be friends,” I said, “but you should make an effort to get along with them.”

“Like Caesar.”

“In a way.”

The next call was to tell me he had solved the problem. The two co-workers were adding their work to his pile.

“I don’t like the sound of that, Eliot,” I said. “You mustn’t let those men take advantage of you.”

A week later Eliot called at one a.m. By the time I realized my cell phone had gone off, I missed his call. I debated calling him back, but I knew if I didn’t, I would worry all night.      

“Mr. Sully is going to fire me.”

“How do you know? Did he criticize your work? Maybe you’re just being … too hard on yourself.”

“He knows I’ve been doing Pompy’s and Casey’s work. He put us all on warning.”

“He’s giving you all another chance, Eliot. Don’t let those guys trick you into doing their work. You hear?”

“I’ve got to slow down, I guess, or they’ll get into trouble.”

“Well, that’s not right. Jeez, Eliot. Think about it, huh.”

The next time Eliot called he said Casey had been let go. “He kept coming in late and Mr. Sully finally got onto that he was fixing his time sheet.”

“Well that’s good,” I said. But Eliot said there were other problems. He found some stuff on his computer he hadn’t put there. My ears perked up. “What kind of stuff?” There was a deep silence. “Did you find porn, Eliot?”

“I didn’t put it there.”

“I didn’t think so. Maybe that guy Casey was getting back at you. You better let Mr. Sully know if he doesn’t know already. There’s something called employee surveillance, a way of seeing what employees put up that doesn’t belong there.”

“Disgusting, disgusting, disgusting.”  I sensed Eliot’s shudder. “I told Pompy and he got rid of it.”

“That’s not the point.”

“Pompy is my friend.”

“Are you still doing his work?”

“I can’t talk anymore.”

“Eliot, answer me.”

“I don’t mind. He’s not like the others.”

All that day and later that night, I thought about Eliot. I considered stopping by Sears and meeting this Pompy. But, hell, that was Eliot’s problem. He’d have to solve it. I was turning into Voc Cop.  

When I didn’t hear from Eliot for a solid week, I figured he had worked the Pompy problem out. He’d been at his job for two whole months. He rarely checked in so work must be going okay. I drummed my fingers on the desk and decided I would call Eliot and make some excuse about having to update my case notes. Maybe we’d meet somewhere. Take him to lunch. That’s what I’d do.

“He’s at work,” Mrs. Minowsky told me. “They changed his schedule. He goes in at two and works until eight.”

“Well, that’s nice,” I said.

“But I told him not to go in today,” his mother said.

“Is he sick?”

“No, but I had this dream there would be trouble. Do you believe in dreams foretelling the future, Miss Bowers?”

“Not really. I think sometimes we have strong feelings that are based on certain information. Do you know something about Eliot and what’s going on at work, Mrs. Minowsky?”

“Call me Calla. Mrs. Minowsky makes me sound so old.”

“Do you know something about Eliot and work?” I repeated.

“No, it’s just this feeling.”

“Please have Eliot call me when he gets home, Calla. He has my cell number.”

“He shouldn’t have gone in.”

I wondered about Eliot’s mother. They say the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree. And then I forgot about both of them because that night was Annie’s farewell party. For weeks the staff and clients had been planning the event. The board members, corporate sponsor, and the bigwigs from the Department of Mental Health would all be there. One of the board members had gotten his local golf club to give us the ballroom. The clients had retreated to the corners. Most of them had never been to such a posh event, and were standing around eating canapés and nursing their soft drinks. We’d specified that under no conditions was alcohol to be served.

I was charming the hell out of an IBMer, telling him how great the new old computers were when I got the call.

“Will you excuse me? It’s a client.”

“You are never off duty, are you?” the man said.

“This is a special case. The call is from one of our working clients. He’s doing data entry for Sears Roebuck,” I bragged, although my legs felt wobbly.

“Then by all means take the call.”

I rushed into the lobby and called Eliot back. I did not recognize the number. It took two tries before he picked up. “Where are you?” There was a lot of street noise and I figured he had stepped outside to make the call. Then I remembered Eliot did not have a mobile so he was probably in a phone booth. I didn’t know how many were left, but apparently he’d found one because that’s where he was calling from, he said.

“They stole my briefcase.”

I made him repeat what had happened, but it was difficult making sense of what he was trying to tell me. Either he was crying or the line was breaking up.

Two club members were returning from a round of golf. They looked down the hall and hearing the noise, one of them said, “I think Bill said tonight the loonies had booked the party room.”

My face burned. “Eliot,” I cried, “you’ve got to slow down. Tell me what happened. You said Mr. Sully fired Pompy. What does that have to do with you? Pompy blamed you because he got caught? Well he had a right to get fired. He was using you. I’m glad you told Mr. Sully what Pompy was up to. No. That wasn’t it.” I pressed my cell closer to my ear. “You did what? You entered phony names and warranty numbers in the computer? You messed up their database. Jesus, Eliot. Why did you do that?”

“Pompy knew he was going to get fired and he told me we had to get back at corporate America.”

“He said that? No, it wasn’t Pompy? I don’t understand. Who did, Eliot? Who told you to screw up the system?”

I gulped. “Where are you, Eliot? What’s wrong? Stop crying, I can’t understand you. Damn it, Eliot.”

“Mon chef d’oeuvre.” He was wailing.

“Shit. Where are you? I can’t help you if you don’t speak English.

Are you anywhere near Sears?”

 “Oui.”

I wrinkled my forehead and tried to think what to say, to do. “Eliot I’m at Annie’s farewell party. In three minutes I’m supposed to make a speech and tell the whole damn place how much we are going to miss Annie.” I was sweating. My dress stuck to my thighs like a sausage casing. “This is a really bad time for you to be calling me. Go home and come by the agency tomorrow and we’ll talk.”

He moaned like a sick calf.

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Eliot.” It suddenly occurred to me there might be no tomorrow. “Okay, don’t do anything. Stay exactly where you are. I’m coming to get you, Eliot. I’m coming.”

“Oui. Yes.” His voice was growing fainter.  

I told the kid who parked my car to pull it around while I rushed back into the party, found Michael, and explained I had to leave. “It’s Eliot. I’ve got to meet him and no, it can’t wait. Fill in. Say something about how fantastic Annie is.”

Michael looked like he’d been hit by a truck. “What should I say?”

“Quote Emily Dickinson. The thing about hope has feathers.”

I prayed while I drove. Eliot, please don’t do anything before I get there. What was I afraid of? That my client was going to strangle himself with the telephone cord? That he was going to throw himself in front of a car or bus?
God, he screwed Sears. He was screwing corporate America.

When I located the phone booth, Eliot was curled into a ball, his face pressed to the floor. I reached down and managed to pull him up. I wrapped my arms around him, held him until he stopped shaking. Then I walked him back and forth because he needed to get some air in his lungs. I put him in the backseat of my car while I made a phone call and begged a perfect stranger to send an ambulance.  

Eliot spent a month in the psych ward of a state hospital. When I visited, he was so doped up he didn’t know who I was. He never came back to our program; he stayed home where it was safe. He became a permanent ward of the state. E.W. Minowsky’s History of the Implacable World ended with the failings of Julius Caesar.

I learned that Pompy had seized Eliot’s briefcase when Mr. Sully discovered that all the data he’d entered was falsified. Out of spite, Pompy dumped the contents in the Sears Roebuck parking lot after threatening to beat Eliot to a pulp. Eliot managed to get away. He hid in the phone booth where I found him.

When I went back to collect the hand-scrawled pages, the ones that had not blown away shimmered under a full moon. It was the same moon that was said to cause insanity in those who looked directly into its face.

 

end of story

© 2013, Marsha Temlock Go to top