Monday, November 05, 2007

The Novel Excerpt

At long last, and thanks to some encouraging comments and emails, I have here the very first chapter of my still-unfinished novel. But I swear I will finish it this year--if nothing else, even if I never become an author, I'd like to say at least that it wasn't through my lack of trying.


There are some events that can change a girl’s life forever. It’s usually expected by the general public, including me, that such events are momentous—the day you get married, the day you buy your first house, the day your father dies, the birth of your first child—but I’m beginning to discover that such events only make you more of the person you already are. Were you bitchy before? You can bet that getting married will make you the Shrew of Padua. Were you happy and motivated? Your father dying won’t suddenly make you Kurt Cobain—instead, you’ll be in charge of the memorial service (which will be held at your house), find the perfect black outfit, your kids will wash the windows (“Or be assigned to your room this instant, young man!”), and your relatives will despise you all the more for being so perky in this time of tragedy.

No, it’s the sneaky events that you have to watch out for. The non-events. The so-small-that-you-couldn’t-call-them-events events. The day you went to preschool to pick up your fatherless child, just like every other day that week, and happened to run into your ex who now lives in England but was in town for one night, and you went out for coffee and ended up getting married after all. It’s not the prom, it’s not the event that you’ve planned and dreamed and slaved for. Count on it: it’s the things we do every day that are most likely to affect all the rest of the things we do in all the rest of our days. Strange but true.

In my life, one such non-event was the day I chose to go to work at my college’s Technology and Policy office—just like every other day in my life. I finished my morning classes in the Brown Engineering Building and headed to work directly afterwards, planning on unpacking my brown bag and eating lunch while gossiping happily with the secretaries. In college life, working in the department offices—every department has one, and with 100 or so departments in any college, there’s plenty of openings—is what’s known as a plum position. You get (and this deserves the capitalization) Free Use of the Copier. This is the Holy Grail of any college student. No one has any money, and the copiers at the library charge ten cents per copy. You can occasionally get your parents to fund the copies if you buy such a thing as a Copy Card, but Copy Cards are notorious for getting lost or stolen, and there’s no way to prove it’s yours or anyone else’s; they’re not tracked electronically. Imagine sinking 20 dollars of your hard-earned money into a Copy Card. You make ten copies. You lose it. Nineteen dollars down the drain. This is a lot of money to college students. And even the most laid-back of parents tire of replacing Copy Cards eventually.

So, like me, you get hired at minimum wage on campus for maximum benefits. In addition, a campus position has the benefit of being very close to where you spend the rest of your day, and your boss understands if you call at one-thirty and say, “I won’t be there today because I need to finish (and even possibly start) a paper that’s due by five.” I probably only went to work half the time, and instead of firing me, as they should have, they allowed me to only work my shifts when I felt like it. If you can name a better job for a college student, I’ll…well…I’ll do something memorable, that’s for sure.

This particular day was a gorgeous, fantastic day in late April—as I crossed the Commons, the sun was shining, bluebirds were singing, bees were buzzing, and horny college students were frolicking, learning about the aforementioned birds and bees. The heat radiated off the red brick Policy building, and it seemed like a sin just to enter the dark hallway. I dragged my feet down the hall as I approached the Technology and Policy (T&P) office, and thought seriously about ditching the shift, just to get a much-needed tan; but since I didn’t really have anything better to do, I might as well make some coffee money—and the thought of sugar plums danced in my head. Leann, the office receptionist/babysitter, was a master cook in that Betty Crocker “I learned my cookin’ from my mother holding me over a hot stove” kind of way, and she brought treats in almost every single day. (Did I forget to mention that as one of the reasons why this job is so awesome for a college student? How the free treats fulfill one of the two major food groups of the college diet?) (The college diet consists of eating twice your fill of any free food, walking everywhere, and eating salads for dinner every day without fail.)

Anyway. I got to the office only ten minutes late, and walked in with head bowed and an appropriately repentant look on my face, expecting a side of exasperated smile from Leann to go with my nutbread, and…the desk was empty.

No treats, no Leann! Is it even been worth coming to work? I wasn’t worried about penalties for not showing—I knew I’d be able to come up with some excuse why I hadn’t shown up for my shift. No matter that I was already, actually, physically present for my shift. Yes, I am so lazy that I will turn around and walk home to avoid work if I think I can get away with it, even if I’m, indeed, already there. It’s a big internal struggle, always is, for me to not do the stupid thing. I am one of the stupidest people I know.

This time, thanks to lots of pep-talking, I convinced myself to put one foot in front of the other, walking slowly on the industrial orange carpet to the rear of the office, where I was usually stationed. My supervisor Mary, the most efficient and busy woman I know (and the most talkative) was in her office, on the phone. She motioned at me to get right down to working with some expressive hand motions. Like most days, I checked in the in-box tray to the left of Mary’s door. Any work that student workers could do—usually something to do with making copies—was left in this tray, with Post-It notes detailing the work needed (i.e., 30 copies, double-sided) on top of each job. Unless, of course, the job was a job from Mary, and then the Post-It would read “See me”, since Mary believed that her jobs alone needed her personal supervision. Jobs like this constituted 75% of the tray on a normal day. Today, it looked like they had completely taken over. I wondered if they had found some way of multiplying, and tried to calculate the danger humanity was in if they had. Let’s see: if this department goes through one ream every two days, and…

“Did you forget how to read?”

I turned around. The primary student worker—Mike Plumerri, who seemed to be going for the record of most student hours worked for the Technology and Policy office—was peering at me over the top of the divider that separated the computer he was working on from the aisle to Mary’s office. I smiled.

“No. I was calculating the danger humanity would be in if papers knew how to multiply.”

Mike rolled his eyes expressively. “Girl, we’d all be ass deep in our own tax returns. What the hell does that have to do with anything?”

“Well, I was looking at The Tray, and Mary’s ‘special’ jobs seem to have taken over. I thought maybe they’d been eating the other jobs at night, and then I wondered if the fuel would give them the energy to have sex, and then I wondered…”

Mike held up a hand. “I’m sorry I asked. I’ve been off acid for three months, and I don’t need to reproduce previous experience by traveling down the freakish pathways in your brain.” He leaned closer, and in a stage whisper, said, “Have you heard the gossip?”

“What gossip?” It’s possible that I said this too loudly. Suddenly, the office was too quiet. I could hear Mary say, in her nasal Pittsburgh accent, “Could you excuse me for a minute?” to her caller, and Mike popped back into his seat so fast that I imagined a gigantic rubber band leash, holding him to his computer. This could have explained the preoccupied daze on my face, which was not a choice expression when Mary leaned backwards out of her doorway, hampered by having to hold on to the phone with one hand and cover the mouthpiece with the other. Both feet in the office and leaning her chair dangerously far back, she gave me the full Mary glare.

“Are you working?” she hissed. “Have you checked The Tray? You either need to work here or get out!” She swung her legs down and around, sending her rolling chair spinning, and, with one well-aimed kick, slammed her door. I rolled my eyes (albeit carefully, believing that Mary could see through doors) and beat it.

After visiting the bathroom, sighing at my hair in the mirror, applying lip-balm, walking up and down the hallway outside the office, and reading the bulletin boards three times each, I braved the office again. Mary could be understanding about student stress, demanding professors, and missed shifts—but she was a big believer in efficiency, and I could see that she was a little stressed out today. Finally I crept back to Mike. “What happened?” I whispered.

He cut his eyes towards me. “Hon, you need a filter on that mouth of yours, or you’re going to get yourself in trouble.”

I grinned. “Too late for that, and trouble finds me anyway.” This is certainly true. I have a genuine talent for getting into trouble. You need a scapegoat? I’m your girl.

Mike looked up at me from his chair, then swiveled left with agonizing slowness towards Ellen, one of the office women (read: not a college student). Ellen is a little plump, with a propensity for cats and books and a know-it-all attitude that saves her personality from being a cliché. She probably lives with her mother and thinks Thomas Kinkade is the best artist since Michelangelo, but she’s a fantastic source of gossip and owns an old-fashioned gumball machine filled with peanut-butter M&M’s. She and Mike have a friendship that’s not well-defined; apparently they hang out even outside the office, and that alone would be suspicious—I mean, a thirty-something single woman and a young, supple male college student?—if it wasn’t that Mike is openly, flamingly gay. In my opinion, this doesn’t stop Ellen from wanting him to change his mind and make love to her, but hey, if she wants to chase the impossible, more power to her.

“I don’t know, Ellen…should we tell her?”

Ellen made a big show of looking me over. “Hmm…maybe if she promises to buy the candy next time.” Ellen was always looking for people to defray the cost of keeping her gumball machine filled, but it was also obvious that she and Mike were dying to tell me. I played along, my head on one side.

“What if I promise not to tell that you ‘appropriate’ the soda from the conference room fridge?” I teased. Mike grinned, and Ellen looked around wildly.

“C.J.! No one can know about that, especially today! Watch it!”

I rolled my eyes, exasperated. “Why not today? Just tell me, already!”

Ellen pouted, but she agreed. “WELL,” she said, drawing out the intrigue, “it turns out that a certain member of this office has been stealing money from the university!”

“NO!” I was truly shocked. “Not Leann?” So that was why Leann hadn’t been there!

Ellen nodded, eyes dancing. “The very same.”

I took an overly generous helping of M&M’s and fastened my attention on Ellen. “Dish.”

“Well, I was late this morning because my cat, Boopsy, was sick all over the rug—he’d gotten into the garden yesterday…” Mike sighed so loudly I thought Mary would fling open her door.

“Ellen! Do you think C.J. wants to hear about your cats? For God’s sake!” He took some M&M’s out of my hand. “Girl, I walked in this morning at nine o’clock and the place was in an uproar. The Head’s office” (shorthand for, “the Head of the Department) “was closed, but I could hear Leann inside, crying and carrying on. Two rent-a-cops” (the campus policemen, not always respected by students) “were at Leann’s computer in the front, unplugging it and packing it up. I asked them what was up, but they completely ignored me, as does everyone else in my life.” Ellen and I rolled our eyes at each other—Mike, a drama major, often complained that no one listened or paid attention to him. As we were both currently hanging on his every word—and spent most of our office hours doing so—this was patently ridiculous, but no attention would ever be enough for Mike.

“Anyway, I gave up on them, and I got the idea that this would be a touchy subject that Mary wouldn’t be crazy about sharing, so I listened in the old fashioned way.”

I nodded. “The window.”

“You got it.” The Department Head office has a window that overlooks the grassy strip outside, called “The Commons” by students, faculty, and staff alike. Sometimes Mike and I would sneak out of the office and sit peacefully under the window, which was usually open this time of year. We got a fair bit of our gossip this way.

“It turns out,” Mike continued, “that Leann has been embezzling money from CMU for some time; they estimate two years. The officers, by the way, seemed to be impressed with her scheme: she actually opened a small business account at a bank, and called it Staples and Clips, Inc. Then, she ordered almost all office supplies from this company, and wrote the checks, which seemed to be going to a perfectly legit business, and deposited them into her account. To actually replace our supplies, she used her administrative power to get a bunch of keys from different department offices made, and she took their supplies, a little at a time. I guess she actually had a schedule drawn up, detailing the best way to lift supplies without getting caught.”

I was stunned. “And she got away with it?”

Ellen snorted. “She sure did, on a grand scale—close to seventy-five thousand dollars.”

“Seventy-five thousand dollars!” What couldn’t I do with that much money? “How’d she finally get caught?”

Mike grinned even wider. “You’ll never believe it. It turns out she was TOO good at lifting supplies from other departments. She began to lift the really good stuff, better than the supplies we usually get.”

Ellen, Mike, and I rolled our eyes simultaneously. The low quality of our department supplies was a constant grievance. The computers were absolute dinosaurs, Apple computers that didn’t even have resale value. This was especially frustrating for Mike and me; not only were we PC fans, but we spent all our days in campus computer clusters—on one of the most wired campuses in the country—and at home in the dorms, and the slowest operating system in both areas was Windows XP. Having to manipulate our way through the convoluted Apple OS, and then waiting for ten minutes between each command—it got old, very quickly.

But Mike was continuing: “The Head liked a certain brand of new pen so much that he asked her where she got them. She said she got them from ‘Staples and Clips, Inc.’, so he looked for them on the web. When they didn’t have a website, he looked for catalogs in her desk. Not finding any, of course, he would have thought no more about it except that very day he happened to lunch with his friend, the Head of the Statistics department, and when his friend signed the receipt, he had the same pen. Our Head went through the normal, ‘Hey, nice pen, I have one too, where’d you get yours?’ routine, only to be given a strange look by his friend.”

I shook my head. “Stop, don’t tell me. They were made especially for the Statistics department.”

Ellen nodded, taking over the story. “Bang on the nose. ‘They’re made especially for the Statistics department,’ his friend said. Our Head looked more closely at his pen and, sure enough, the pen had ‘Statistics-The Future in Numbers’ engraved on the clip. Then his suspicion was aroused.”

I took more M&M’s. “Leann. I can’t believe it. I wonder why…” Mary’s doorknob began to turn, and this time I was on the lookout.

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