It was only natural to zone out during employee orientation, Bob thought. Anyone would do it. It wasn’t just him and, shoot, even if it was, what was the harm? He was a quick guy. If something came up he could adjust to it, handle it just fine. Nothing exciting ever happened during an orientation. Bob had been through a few and they all followed the same pattern. Patterns were the key. Once you knew the pattern, you didn’t have to pay attention to the details.
Bob’s mind floated, recalling the basic pattern of an orientation. He had been through a few. First the introduction of the orienter and an explanation of what he would be doing. Which was bogus and brain dead since everyone already knew what they were there for. Sometimes you even knew the guy’s name already from the letter that had come in the mail.
Then there would be either a list of topics to be covered or a rah-rah speech. Topics would probably include insurance, vacation and sick leave policies, retirement, and other things that would have no real effect on Bob. Bob was only moving through. That other stuff might be meaningful later, when he started making plans, but it wasn’t time for making plans yet. You couldn’t make plans when nothing was really happening. Dress codes or punctuality requirements or conflict management processes might conceivably impinge on his style, but only to the point of making him move on a little sooner. Bob was comfortable with himself and if other people weren’t comfortable with him, well, he didn’t need the money all that badly. Things would work themselves out.
Bob got up with the rest of his group and walked down a hall. The walls were covered with calendars, most of them filled with scribbling. Some of their pages waved in a breeze that Bob didn’t feel, but didn’t think about. He scanned for racy or interesting pictures, but didn’t see any.
The group was sorting itself into four doors, two to the left and two to the right. Bob walked on past the, to be out of the way, and then turned halfway to watch the sorting. He stretched and yawned in order to look casual and in control.
He tried to sort out which group he’d like to be with, but there was no one interesting that he could see. Everyone was older, except for one kid who couldn’t be more than, what, eight? Her parent would get points for bringing her along, wouldn’t they?
At the two nearest doors, smiley rah-rah faces were going right and very worried faces were going left. Bob was about to slide down to the next two doors when he felt a tap on his shoulder. A guy with a baggy sweater and a clipboard crooked a finger at him and Bob mentally shrugged and followed.
They traveled through a maze of hallways. Bob tagged along, disinterested. He couldn’t have said when the calendars gave out.
Baggy sweater lead him through into a small conference room with a round table. There were six people seated and a few more milling around. One of the millers had a clipboard. Millers? Millees? Oh, well. One woman in a red suit had a clipboard, so there were at least two official people in the room. Bob checked to see if he was starting to get hungry and he wasn’t. He sat down in an empty chair. Baggy sweater plopped the clipboard in front of him and left the room.
That got Bob’s attention for a few minutes. Were they going to expect him to take charge, in some kind of role-playing thing? But no one seemed to expect him to do anything but sit an be ignored. He checked out the clipboard. It was a cheap clipboard holding five bland sheets of paper and a half-empty blue bic pen. Bob started doodling, drawing a line of little heads with small mouths and noses and out-sized eyes and ears, the eyes showing a series of different exaggerated emotions.
Bob was bent in concentration over the clipboard, connecting a large cluster of heads into a bunch of balloons, when he heard his name. He looked up to see that everyone was now seated around the table and looking at him. He sat up and looked attentive and willing. Then, when everyone kept looking, he decided that it must be "tell us something about yourself" time, so he started in.
"Hi. My name's Bob and I'm looking forward to working with everyone here. I'm mostly a student but I kept thinking about changing my major, so I thought, heck, why not take a year off and try working in the real world for awhile, to see what things are really like. I mean studying for a degree isn't the same thing as using that degree, is it? So I thought I'd get a real job and just sit back and live life for awhile and check things out."
It didn't seem to be going well. This wasn't what they were expecting.
"Not that I don't mean to pull my own weight. No, way. I intend to do a good job. I learn things really fast and I have good ideas. I intend to make a contribution while I'm here."
A Grandmother type with really frizzy hair and shiny glasses held out a hand toward Bob.
"Could I see your clipboard, please?"
Bob passed it over. Three pages were filled. For a second he was worried that they wouldn't like him drawing all over someone's paper, but then he thought, heck, what did they expect him to do? The Grandmother looked through the pages carefully. A fat teenager was examining the clipboard that the red suited woman had had. He passed it to a hippy with grey braids, pointing to an elaborate bush drawn in one corner. Grey braids nodded and flipped through the papers, concentrating.
Grandmother passed Bob's clipboard to a greasy biker with a bandana. She took off her glasses and looked at Bob with kindly worry. An oriental woman with blunt bangs leaned toward her and said, "he must have been going to a job interview."
"Bob," said Grandma, "none of the images you drew were complete. If you were going to complete one, which one would it be?"
This was wrong. Doodles were just doodles. He was sorry that he hadn't been paying attention. He could have understood it if they had been annoyed, or even flat out mad, but making out like his doodles were something big and important, that was just weird. Maybe it was their way of getting back at him. You know, a put on.
"The bunch of balloons was almost finished."
"Yes, but they're obviously stationary balloons. And balloons don't stay stationary if no one is holding them. Who would you have drawn holding them?"
Bob thought about the bush on the red woman's clipboard.
"They could have been tied to a tree."
"Fair enough. What sort of tree would it have been? And how tall?"
Bob considered that they might want him to draw whatever he described. He could do a jagged Christmas tree, like kids did. No -
"It's a tree that's been cut down. You know, just a stump left, but it's put out this sucker, see, and the sucker's been cut off, too, only higher up, maybe about a foot off the ground. And there's this one little branch that's got a few twigs and leaves on it. And the balloons are tied to that. But the balloons are pulling up and you can tell that if a wind catches them, that they're going to rip that little branch right off."
"A complete image, but not much sense of connection," the biker said.
"The balloons are connected."
"Only because they have to be. And they're all basically the same head. So they're really only connected to themselves. Like a guy walking down the street talking to himself. He's having a conversation, but he isn't really connecting."
"The stump is connected to the ground," said the woman in red. There was a pause while everyone looked at her.
"I think that's important to you," said the fat teen (was it a girl?), "but I think that Bob, here just thinks of the ground as blank background. He's not thinking of the earth, he's thinking of blank paper.."
"It is a stubborn stump, though," said Grandma. "And they're stubborn faces, too. They pretend to be as different as you please, but all the time they're staying the same."
Bob almost said that the balloons were connected to strings. But he could tell from the pattern of the conversation that the next question would be about what were the strings like. And when he thought of that, he thought of drawing little floating imp faces on the slack ends of them. He sure wasn't going to say anything like that to these people.
Bob took another shot at looking attentive and willing.
"Perhaps Bob needs something undemanding and quiet to give him a chance to just relax."
"Does he have time for that? He's really only still in the corridors because of his cousin. . ."
Damn. Was Bill doing him favors again? Bob hated listening to his family's advice and he hated Bill's advice most of all. If he got a job because of Bill, family time was going to be hell.
". . . and she's young and can be presumed to be going through a phase."
Kayla? Was he here because of Kayla? She was just a kid - an earnest, quiet kid.
Bob checked to see if he needed to go to the can or something. He didn't. Damn. Usually his bladder was more reliable than that.
"We have to put him somewhere. Sorting is easy."
Bob started to zone again. Talk about boring jobs always did that to him.
"No I think he needs to make a connection. Maybe he can work the counter?"
"Does he have enough focus to work the counter?"
Hey, that was insulting, wasn't it? Except for the bangs woman, Bob was loosing track of which person was saying what. Bangs had an edge to her voice that he didn't like and couldn't ignore.
"We'll have to check it out with Mell, of course. He never takes anyone else's advice. Easier to ask him than to guess whether Bob would fit. If Mell takes him, then that's the place that he should be. If Mell doesn't take him, we need to find someone who will. Don't think of the job. Bob doesn't need a job, he needs a mentor."
"Is he Telemachus, then, keeping his father's house while he's away?" Boy did he hate that voice.
"Congenial co-workers, then."
Bob checked out the walls, then the ceiling. The ceiling was covered with those acoustic tiles with the holes in them, like the ones he had seen on that Twin Peaks tape that his mother had rented. It had been a killer shot, looking like it was starting in a deep dark tunnel and then pulling out to an innocuous, plain ceiling tile. It had even been cool after his father had made some pointless comment about asbestos and how everyone always thought they were saving the world and contributing to progress while yada yada yada.
Bob wouldn't mind seeing the world go to hell in a handbasket if only he could discover a way it could do it without his father pouncing on it joyfully, as if it were his personal accomplishment.
A completed silence impinged itself on Bob's awareness. He looked up. The red suited woman was being led away by the fat teen (damn, it was a girl!) and the hippy. Grandma was standing and smiling at him. Smiling his most cooperative smile, Bob got up and walked toward her, hoping Bangs wouldn't come along.
She didn't. The Biker did. The back of his grungy, sleeveless denim jacket had 'Street Dogs' drawn on it in gothic letters with a felt marker. You could almost feel the stencil looking at it. They led him through a few more corridors and into what looked like a busy burger joint.
When his guides frowned and looked uncertain, Bob slid into a molded plastic booth and prepared to wait. People were milling like maggots.
"Damn, I forgot it would be lunch rush. We'll never get near the counter."
"Perhaps we can flag an employee and send him a message."
"He won't leave the counter during rush. Not for anyone."
"Hey, I can wait," said Bob.
"Rush lasts for hours, man. Maybe we'd better try someplace else first. I've got my own stuff to do."
"As do I, dear. But we can't just leave him here, he's not asleep."
"Hey, I can pretend to be asleep, no problem."
"No, dear. Sleeping people come here to eat and you couldn't do that."
Bob frowned at the oddness of her words. Something wasn't right. The pattern was off. People didn't mill in a burger joint. They went for what they wanted. If they had to wait in line, they waited, maybe fidgeted or rocked in place. These people were milling - milling and wandering. Most of them never got near the counter or the salad bar. Something wasn't right.
Reluctantly, Bob focused on the people closest to him. Half of them had no faces. Their faces were blurs or blobs or spheres of short hair, as if their heads had two backs. One guy had a turtle neck sweater pulled up to his eyebrows. And some of them were definitely milling. They would walk in one direction until they bumped into something and then they'd turn just enough to be able to walk in another direction and continue on. Most of the time the thing they bumped was another person.
Bob looked further. Even the folks who had faces were weird. Some were in their pajamas or nighties. One wore a tuxedo and top hat and huge Scooby Doo slippers. Bob stopped looking and shrank down into the booth. A kid in jeans and a flannel shirt covered in blood wandered up.
"You're not eating anything. Want some of my fries?"
"No thanks, dude."
"If you don't have any food yet, you're supposed to stand in line. Why aren't you standing in line?"
"Ah, shit," said the biker. "Don't answer. You've already answered one question. Let him get on a roll and he'll never stop. That's the way sleeping kids are."
"He looks like he's more than sleeping with that blood all over him."
The kid grinned.
"That's probably because my mom keeps saying that I'm going to break my neck if I keep doing that."
"All kinds of things." The grin stretched. "So what are you doing here if you're not going to eat?"
"Don't. I'm warning you."
"They say I need to find a coach."
"Shit. Didn't I tell you not to answer."
"The Coach isn't here. I know where The Coach is when I'm asleep and it isn't here."
Grandma and the Biker stopped short and stared at the kid.
"You know The Coach, dear?"
"Sure. I talk to him all the time. I've even seen him when I'm asleep. He's big and fat and looks like he'd have trouble walking fast, let alone running. But he's a great coach."
Grandma and the Biker looked at each other.
"So where would The Coach be, exactly?"
Bob had heard of people who rolled their eyes toward the ceiling when they thought, as if they were reading the answer off of the top of their heads. The kid looked like he was doing exactly that. Nothing but the whites of his eyes showed.
When the colored bits rolled back into view, the kid said, "He's in the support cubicles, the ones near the frog, in the autonomous section. I can take him there if you'd like."
Grandma and the Biker checked each other out again. Bob could see it coming. He was used to everyone having more important things to do than to deal with Bob. No sense waiting to be brushed off.
"Come on, little dude. Lead the way."
"Cool. This way."
"Wait." Grandma reached into her pocket. "We can't have you getting lost once you've dropped him off."
She handed the boy what looked like a half-eaten bun.
"Put it in your pocket and follow the trail of crumbs if you get turned around."
"Sure." Said the boy, jamming the lump into a fold that didn't look big enough to be a pocket. "This way."
They re-entered the corridors, and again it seemed like a maze to Bob.
"You sure you know where you're going?"
"Sure. I can always find The Coach. He's helping me train to jump off of the roof. Mom's going to hate that."
"You sure he's on your side, helping you do that? You could get blood on you for real."
"Blood's not that big a deal. But I'd hate to sprain my ankle again, or to break something. He reminded me how hard it was to just sit for so long. And he said that I needed to work up to it. That at first I'd better not jump off of anything that I couldn't jump up on. To build up my legs. Mom thinks I've gone nuts. I jump up and down, on and off things every chance I get - metal railings, picnic tables, whatever. I can feel my legs getting stronger. Coach says maybe when my legs are stronger I ought to try pole vaulting."
"That sounds like a plan. Especially if you can get someone to teach you when you're awake. Like a school coach. That would be, like, organized. Moms don't get nearly as upset over organized stuff as they do over stuff that you make up yourself. No matter what they say, if everyone else was jumping off a cliff, they'd probably let you do it, too. They might even ask what was wrong if you didn't want to jump off a cliff. 'Your cousin Bill jumped off of cliffs higher than this when he was twelve'."
The bloody boy laughed as Bob's voice went high and fluty.
"Cool. You're probably right. I hadn't thought of that. That's so cool. . . You sure you don't want some french fries?"
"You could just hold them, or whip them around, or throw them at someone or something."
"Hey, I got it, Gimme a few."
Bob arranged the fries in his buttoned down breast pocket, as if they were a hanky.
"We going to be there soon, dude?"
"Do you want to be there, yet?"
"Does that matter," asked Bob. It never had before, that he could remember.
"That's all that matters, here. Well not all, but it's a big part of it. I can feel The Coach whenever I think real hard about wanting to win. But I can't open a door and have him on the other side unless you want to go through, too."
"Sorry, short stuff. It's not that I don't want to meet your coach. The guys advice sounds good to me. It's just that I'm not sure that I want to go to work for him."
"Oh, you wouldn't be working for him. This is the autonomous section. That means no bosses. Well, sort of bosses. They call them advisors and make fun of them behind their backs."
"They do that with regular bosses, too."
"Yeah, but this is different."
"If you say so."
Bob and the boy kept walking. Bob wasn't getting tired of walking, not exactly. At least, his legs weren't getting tired. But walking, and the idea of walking more, eventually began to pall. The boy kept eating his fries and sloping along in that bouncy, I'm glad to be pressing my feet down against the ground way that some kids do.
"Cubicles don't sound very autonomous."
"I'd like to have my own cubicle. That would mean that I'd have my own computer and drawers to fill with my stuff and walls to tack things onto."
"Just because it's my cubicle, doesn't mean I get to do whatever I want."
"Sure it does. It's an autonomous section. If you do what the advisors don't want you to do they get all disappointed and helpful, but only during meetings. Or when they're walking by," the boy admitted.
"That's not too bad. Maybe. What's your name, little dude?"
"Whoa. My name's Bob. How odd is that?"
Bobby shrugged. "Maybe not too odd. The Library Lady says that all Bobs are One Bob. Of course she'd a little odd, herself. She makes lists. She's trying to figure it out."
"Figure what out."
"Life, the Universe, and Everything, she says. She says that Everything is capitalized."
"Hey, I read that book. That book was cool."
"Well she's one cubicle up and one cubicle over from The Coach."
"Who else is there?"
"I'm not sure. I only get to go in to see The Coach. And folks tend to stay in their cubicles. I've seen the Engineer, but he doesn't talk and he looks gross. And there's the Cat Lady. And the frog. And a guy that no one sees because there's a fog around him."
"Has anyone ever kissed the frog."
"No." Bobby said that the way boys say 'that's gross'.
"Or walked into the fog?"
"Does the Cat Lady have cats or do they call her that because she has whiskers."
Bobby giggled. "There's at least two cats."
"And what kind of support do they do. Even if I don't have to do it because the advisors will only be disappointed and nothing else will happen."
"It's prayer support."
"It's like the support line for when people's computers don't work, only it's for prayers."
"Dude, God does prayers. Or someone. I'm not involved in anything like that."
Bobby stopped. He looked earnestly at Bob. Red shone from his chin to his knees.
"Look. I can eat the fries. I'm only asleep. If you're in the corridors and you're not asleep you're either one of the workers or you're dead. I know that much. At least, I know it when I'm asleep."
Bobby waited for a reply. Bob didn't seem capable of a reply. He was thinking of the words: 'he must have been on his way to a job interview'.
"No. Apparently I'm dead."
"That's okay. The Coach is dead, too. He told me about it once. I forgot it when I woke up, but I can remember him telling me."
"The Coach is dead."
"As in, he used to be alive."
"He's not some weird freaky thing that eats dead people's heads, or something?"
"He's a nice guy who used to be alive and who likes sports."
"And when kids pray to win, he answers their prayers."
"Yeah. That doesn't mean you'll win, it just means that he answers."
"And the Library Lady used to be alive."
Bobby shrugged in a way that used about 7/8 of his body.
"I've only ever talked to her through the cubicle walls. I never asked that."
"Is there something that I ought to be warned about. Maybe killer demons wandering the corridors and hiding behind doors waiting for someone who doesn't want to find anything to open a door?"
"Not that I know of. The Coach said that you're not supposed to bother the frog, though. If the frog gets upset he farts reeeeeeeally stinky. The advisors don't even talk to him anymore."
This time it was Bob who giggled. The giggles settled in for a bit and kept going. Bob wondered for a moment if this was hysterics, but decided that hysterics probably didn't feel good. Bobby waited them out patiently.
Bob looked around. The corridor was beige. The walls were beige and blank. The floor was beige and mottled. The ceiling tiles were off-white and didn't even have the little holes to make them interesting. Even the doors were beige - the same shade as the walls.
"Is the frog beige?" Bob asked.
"Don't know," said Bobby.
"Let's find out," said Bob, and he grabbed the nearest door and opened it. Fog dribbled along the floor. There was a muted sound of ringing telephones in the air and a sense of wide, high space overhead. Bob recognized that the ringing was only there because he expected it. It was his interpretation of prayers dialing in. It would go away if he ignored it.
He turned to Bobby, the brightest thing in the corridor.
"Take me to him," he said.