To strengthen my powers of description, and to preserve my impression of this place at this time, I am about to embark upon a comprehensive examination and interpretation of my workplace and its denizens and expatriates. My mind will be allowed to wander freely, and insidiously try to lose any readers that attempt to follow its chain of thought. If anyone connected to the office happens to stumble upon this somehow, no offense is intended.
There is a paperclip beside my laptop, bent like Arjuna’s bow, at angle to which only Arjuna (or possibly Hercules) could bend such a weapon. My laptop is black, except for the green “This medium is UNCLASSIFIED US Government Property” and “APPROVED FOR TRAVEL” stickers, but it also feels out of place on my brown finished desk, piled on one side with papers and pens, the other with a box of hanging folders and a couple of notebooks, as well as a large glass mug full of pens and pencils that Colonel S— gave me originally so that my desk wouldn’t look bare.
Ms. B— is talking in the background, telling someone what they ought to be doing, her strong ghetto accent punctuating the air with its rising and diving pitch. She may be retired, but to most people she is still a sergeant major. When she’s not talking, she raises her chin slightly and tightens her lips, which can be even more terrifying than her loquacious rage.
“Sweetie, come here and sign this form as a witness.”
It doesn’t take long, however, for most people to realize that she has a heart of gold. I obey. She further calls in the secretary, Ms. S—, to be a second witness. A young officer needs something notarized, and Ms. B— will go to any length to get something done. I have sometimes thought that the reason she hates her computer is because she can’t effectively chew it out when it does something wrong. And its progeny will not appreciate the dark chocolate and pretzels she distributes.
The fan in the high ceiling is constantly heard during the summer, when the enormous windows prove a curse rather than a blessing. Ms. S— rustles about in the background, presumably engaged in one of her endless administrative tasks. Southeast Asian by origin (her first name is twelve letters long), French by surname through marriage, and American by language and accent, she is the office tugboat. Everything takes three times as long without her efficiency; she has the ability to line up the calendars of everyone in the office and understand the network that we all (theoretically) must use.
“Ms. B—,” I call as I work diligently (while also writing this entry) on the federal directory. “What is Major Novak’s first name?”
“How d’you spell that? N-O-V-A-C?”
I am told to take a few papers over to the Director’s office. Walking through the atrium, I notice how much it is like a cathedral, only whitewashed. The marble floors are color-wealthy enough, though a simple red, cut into large rhombuses that do not quite line up from one end to the other, but the round pillars on either side stick up three floors like the shafts of Q-tips. At the highest level, before the arched skylight that runs the length of the atrium, the flags of the fifty-four states and territories float in the artificial wind produced by the air conditioner. The security badge hanging from my breast pocket keeps bouncing and turning around and around. It must be because of the way I walk, which is apparently very jerky. Or I’m just too thin to provide it any cushioning.
Sitting back at my seat at that desk set up hastily for me, where I block Ms. B— whenever she tries to get in or out of her cubicle, I notice the wallpaper, the fibers of which are gray, white, and pink, but the effect of which is a roughly gray-green or gray-blue impression. The pattern is like sets of short double bars of mirrored heigh contrast going vertically. Briefly I entertain the fancy that they are some deep religious or political symbol; the bars look vaguely like blackletter capital “I”s, and for some reason my mind goes to the Illuminati. This wallpaper might just prove the conspiracy theorists correct. Perhaps I ought to take a picture of it and become famous.
Two contrasting figures enter the office; one, 1st Sergeant M—, is tall, slender, and muscular, his rough-hewn face and dark eyes smiling as usual. The other, Specialist A—, the Chief’s driver, follows pulling something behind him. SPC A— is short and round of features, with small glasses and teak-colored skin. The 1st Sergeant holds brief converse before exiting. Another strange and alien figure arrives, Mr. W—, the Deputy Chief of Staff. Tall, with a spacious, balding skull that seems to extend out the back to hold his immense brains (like Jeeves’s), he stares through his glasses at everyone with the usual glare and wordlessly enters his office. I have not yet been able to decide if his sense of humor, his intelligence, or his customary grumpiness and abruptness is his most distinguishing personal characteristic.
Above my desk is a large frame of dark wood with a folded American flag within, accompanied by a certificate saying that the flag was flown over the Multi-National Corps-Iraq in the Army National Guard’s honor during Operation Iraqi Freedom. It sits beside Colonel S—’s door as it has since I’ve worked here. It displays an unusual reverence for the flag that seems somehow greater than that displayed by my local car-dealer. Hmm. Back to working on that directory. I need to finish that so I can study algebra for the GRE.
Depending on where you are in the building and the attitude of the employees that particular day, the Readiness Center can be either a stark, geometric presence, like a temple to modernism and rational order, or have the soft colors and dramatic light of a Tintoretto painting. It is often colored by the millions of paper-sheaves that fly down the halls, pulling helpless clerks and colonels alike after them in their endless races around and around.
COL S—, the Chief of Staff, is talking on the phone behind her closed door, her voice thin but not high, rather gravelly. Whenever she comes through the office, moving quickly so that the Irish red hair that is cropped above her collar sways, she seems to instill life in even the most inanimate of employees. She can give an hour-long speech on a five minute notice and fill the building with laughter and efficiency. And she commands respect, although, like any other mortal, she suffers from an inability to make herself invulnerable to Ms. B—’s examinations and to track her eternally wandering cowboy, our blue-eyed executive officer, who looks like he could appear in a western as a hard-bitten sergeant or gunslinger, Texan accent and all.
The morning went quickly…. I still need to finish updating the directory so I can study…. So here is an end to this exercise.