fiction by Jason Edwards
Ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. The blue blouse with the starched collar and the starched cuffs. And the black skirt. She sits behind a desk all day, her web cam doesn’t show anything below her shoulders, why does she have to wear a stupid skirt? Not that it’s uncomfortable, but still. And black pantyhose. And, for the love of Christ, sensible shoes. Strictly speaking, the shoes aren’t governed by regulation. She knows others who wear slippers, sandals, no shoes at all. But when she’d gone to the uniform shop, they’d given her the hard sell. That was five years ago. Five years on the job, and she still has the same shoes. Because she sits on her ass all day.
She looks at herself in the mirror. Every weekday for five years, minus vacations and furloughs and holidays. Free parking on holidays, you see. But every other day, wake up, crawl out of bed, take a shower, stand in front of the mirror and hide the slide into her 40s with these stupid clothes that she’s required to wear.
She likes the badge though. She pins it on, finding the same old holes. Three shirts, rotated and washed week after week, same old holes in each. She likes the badge, keeps it shiny. But hates the hat. Hates the stupid hat. She hasn’t been outside in at least week, but she’s worn the stupid hat every damn day. Just like the, what is it, do the math Helen, two hundred and fifty weeks before.
She goes to her desk and sits down, turns on the computer, takes the pillow case off the web cam. Oldest computer on the force, she always tells anyone she has to interact with. Captain Jefferson checking in, asking for a numbers check on citations that week. Just a second, captain, I’ll pull that up. Sorry, slowest computer on the force. And he’d chuckle that chuckle. The one that acknowledges without committing.
The screen finally comes up. The green light on the webcam pops on. There she is, in the lower right-hand corner. Fat nose. Beady eyes. Bushy brows. Decent lips though. Nice shellacking of red on them. That made sense, at least. Stupid to make you wear a uniform when you work from home and sit on front of a web cam all day, but it would make sense if make-up was regulation. She supposes someone would call that sexist. Whatever. It’s not sexist if you’re into it. Or something.
Nine other windows, street views. Her beat is thirty-six blocks of some downtown area, under the watchful eye of two hundred and sixteen cameras. Three on each side of the street. She cycles the nine windows. Not a lot of parking, this time of day. And even those cars that are parked, the meters only just turned on ten minutes ago. Still, sometimes folks park over night, and you catch a few out.
Five years ago, she’d give them half an hour or so. She knew what it was like- you’re out late, you know you shouldn’t drive, you take a cab, figure you’ll fetch your car in the morning, and then life happens and you can’t get back in time to beat the meter. She figured she was rewarding their good behavior, deciding not to drive drunk.
Then they started enforcing quotas. And her mother got sick. And her favorite TV show got cancelled. And she turned 36 and was still single and hated wearing that stupid hat and a lot of other bullshit, so she was there, flipping through screens at 8:01 am local time, nailing every jack-ass too lazy to crawl out of bed and retrieve his fucking car. The wages of sin, assholes. Just be glad you can afford to go out at night and get drunk at all. Be glad you can even afford a car. Some folks couldn’t. Serves you right.
Nowadays she gives them fifteen minutes or so. Not because she’s being nice. Mostly because she just doesn’t give a damn. So what if she misses her quota now and again? What are they going to do, fire her? Not while she still pays union dues.
Her iPad makes a noise, and she swipes it on. A chat window. Jerry saying “Hey girl”.
She types back “Hey boy.”
“Ha ha. I’m late for work.”
“So why are you chatting with me?”
One of her screen’s edged in red, a meter expired. She selects the window, moves the camera and zooms in on the plate. What is it, 8:20? Who parks at eight AM and only pays for 20 minutes? She grabs the screen, opens her citation log and indicates the license tag number, make and model, time, location, what the asshole had for breakfast, how long he’s been married, how long he’s hated being married, where he’ll have a heart attack in a few months from eating all that crappy food, what his wife will do with the insurance money.
Erases most of that, saves the citation, moves on to another window. A few yellows, which she flags, just in case they come back and feed the mirror. Not strictly allowed. One hour max on this street, whether you pay for it or not. Apparently, that was a problem in some places. Coffee house denizens setting up shop with a computer and a caffeine addiction, pushing coins into the meters on their smoke breaks and parking all day while they sipped mochas at their novels.
Not sure if that’s a problem on her beat. She isn’t even all that sure what businesses are on her blocks. The cameras can sort of make out signs and such, but not very well. She could use Google, maybe, Streetview. But that feels too much like taking her work home with her. Nevermind that she does, in fact, work from home. Nevermind that in a few minutes she’ll take a break, make coffee in her own coffee pot, hike up her skirt and squat on her own toilet, wash her hands with her own soap and then stare out her own window at a street five thousand miles away from where those computers stared unblinking ten hours a day.
The city saves, what, thousands, millions? On coffee and restrooms and hand soap. And wages. Cost of living for an outsourced meter maid is way lower than for one who has to live in that city. A city she’d never been too. A city she’d heard of, of course, but made up of about as much reality as, well, anything she watches on TV when her shift is over and her panyhose are off and those stupid shoes are kicked to the other side of the room. So who the hell cares what businesses there are on her beat?
Her iPad beeps again.
“Helen. Helen. Helen? Hellooooo”
“Where’d you go?”
“Nowhere. Where would I go?”
“How come you didn’t respond?”
“Sorry, got distracted. Somebody was taking a dump next to one of the meters.”
“Holy shit, really?”
“Is that a pun?”
She stands up, walks into her kitchenette, makes that coffee. Opens the fridge. Take out boxes and tupperware. Lots of leftovers. Closes the fridge, walks over to her window, stares out of it. What would someone think, walking by now, to see her, in uniform, her blouse and skirt and badge and hat, standing there like that?
Nothing. They wouldn’t think a thing.They might reach for a remote, see if they could change the channel. Reach for a mouse, click to another page. Or just go back to their cell phones. Seeing and thinking don’t have anything to do with each other anymore.
She flips on her TV, positioned to the side so no one can see it when she’s on the webcam. Not sure if it’s strictly regulation to have a TV on while she works. Not that there’s anything to watch. She doesn’t like soap operas much. Too fake. Doesn’t know if, strictly speaking, the iPad is regulation either. Well, screw em, they could cut her some slack. it’s just background noise.
The TV says something about protesters gathering in a city park somewhere. She ignores it utterly, thinking about a dream she’d had, she was a valet, parking cars illegally just so people would have to pay tickets. Her coffeemaker makes a sound, and she glances towards it, glances at the microwave. Oh shit oh shit oh shit. She dashes over to her chair, sits down, eyes locked on the screen, fumbles for the mouse. Clicks the left arrow, going back groups of screens. Click click click, damn it, why had she’d left herself so far north? She clicks in the go-to box, types in 4, hits return, the screens swim over, and she’s clicking on camera 6. Pulling back. The street is empty, no cars. She dares to take her eyes off the image to look at the time in the lower right hand corner. She’s one minute late. Damn it damn it damn it.
She’s holding her breath. Her iPad makes a noise.Without looking she grabs it, sets it face down on her desk. The clock says she’s two minutes late now. She starts to let her breath out. What is today, Wednesday? Does he even run on Wednesdays? Maybe he went earlier. Maybe it’s getting warmer where he lives, maybe he’s going on longer runs now and has to start before her shift even comes on, maybe– and there he is.
Oh sweet, sweet man. Just legs and shorts and so much skin. His jet-black Nikes, she looked it up, Nike Frees, minimalist shoes. Those calves, like bundles of thick rope. Those thighs. She’s never seen his face– he’s always running East to West, always comes on camera from the right, exits to the left. As he does, she clicks, follows him on the next camera. He has an easy, loping pace. He’s got white wires coming out of his ears, down to some device on his hand. One more screen as he runs by, she clicks over. This is the best part. On a nice day, for a few weeks, the sun catches his back, the sweat glistens, literally glistens, those sculpted traps and lats and rhomboids. She’d looked that up to.
And then he’s gone. She’s not exactly breathing hard, not exactly panting. But she finds herself touching her face, touching her hair, adjusting her hat. What’s his name? Where does he live? How far does he run? Does he have Skype? She hopes not.
A window pops up, Captain Jefferson. He’s got as smirk on his face. “Helen,” he says.
“Hello.” She glances at her own image. Is she blushing?
“How’s the beat.”
“Same as always. Five cites so far, but it’s still only morning.”
He nods. “Okay, good. Listen, we need someone to cover a few blocks later. Want any overtime?”
Sigh. Another late night. “You know, I’d be happier if I didn’t have to wear this hat.”
He laughs “Yeah. I’ll patch you in at five, your local. Thanks Helen.” His screen goes off.
Of course, hers is still on. Maybe she could take some art classes, buy some expensive paints and brushes with all this overtime money, and paint a tiny little hat on the lense of her web cam, so it looks like she’s wearing a hat all the time. For that matter, why not paint a little blouse on there too. And there she’d be, sitting half naked in her chair, no hat, no shirt, but still wearing her skirt and the hose and the shoes. Absolutely ridiculous.
The rest of the day goes by like it always does. She flips through screens, pretending to look for parking violations, actually looking for the runner to come back the other way. By lunch she’s only one away from her quota. She knows others who nail their quotas every day, never falling under but never going over, either. You couldn’t get away with quitting for the day if you hit yours early, so she imagines they ease up for a while, letting a few go, waiting for the last one an hour or so before they clock out.
The iPad makes a sound. “Hey girl.”
“Same as always.”
“Mom wants to know if you can Facetime at dinner.”
“Not sure. I’m pulling some over time.”
“So? Just turn it on, she likes looking at your face. Don’t know why.”
“I’ll still have this stupid hat on.”
She takes her afternoon break, a diet soda, some chips. Uses the toilet, washes her hands, stands in front of the TV. The Dr. Oz show. A mother and her daughter. One of them is, apparently, addicted to video games. She can’t tell which one.
A commercial for the news. The woman behind the desk is gorgeous. Tasteful but sexy dress, perfect hair. No hat. “At six o’clock, we’ll tell you about the riot that’s going on right now on the East Coast, and fish mercury– are levels on the rise?”
She turns back to her computer. Riot? She walks over and sits down. Starts cycling her screens. Sees a few reds, ignores them to cycle further. Everything looks fine. Everything looks- one of her screens is black. She flips to other side of the street, but of course, the cameras can’t see each other, they don’t have that much room to move. She flips back again, and the screen next to it is black, too.
She pages the Captain, but he doesn’t answer. Another of her screens goes black. And then another. She shifts to the last screen on the block. A face appears, scaring her. She pushes her chair back, but of course he can’t see her. His face is distorted, too close for the camera to focus. He seems to be smiling, laughing, shaking back and forth, and then that screen goes black, too.
She switches to the next block– more black screens. Tries another. Tries the Captain again. Nothing. Tries more screens. One of them is still on, but as she watches it starts to shake violently, then goes dark. Soon all of her screens are black. Every last one.
Except for the one with her face in it, in the lower right hand corner. She looks at herself, but of course what she’s seeing is herself looking at her self. She reaches up and takes off her hat. And then the entire computer screen turns off, and she’s left staring at nothing but dead glass.