A drop of water condensed on the air conditioning vent overhead, dangled for a few seconds, then silently fell. It landed with a tiny plop on the bald spot at the crown of Morrie Steinowicz’s head. “Damn!” he muttered. “Deities ain’t supposed to put up with this shit.”
Lucinda Delgado let out a laugh. She took another bite out of her ham on rye and repositioned herself in the creaky office chair next to the battered metal desk where Morrie sat.
Just then, a voice came over the speaker phone: “Dear Heavenly Father, it’s me again, Molly. About that baby…”
Morrie dabbed the top of his head with a napkin and rolled his eyes. Third-rank deities couldn’t even enjoy a lunch break in peace. “Ah Jeez, Lucinda. It’s her again.”
Lucinda looked sympathetically at the speaker phone, imagining the human being in prayer at the other end of the line.
“Don’t it just break ya heart? They all think they’re talkin’ to the Big Guy direct. What a letdown if they ever found out it’s just Morrie in the Jersey-PA district office.”
The voice continued, “No disrespect, Lord, I know I said I would never ask you for anything again if you found me a husband; but my mom wants grandkids, and she’s really puttin’ on the pressure.”
Lucinda looked at Morrie, surprised. “She’s married? Wasn’t she supposed to be an old maid cashier?”
Morrie flicked his hand, swatting the idea away like a persistent mosquito. “One of Fred’s gals over in Delaware got hit by a car. Sean Hannigan, the guy Fred’s gal was supposed to marry, never got a chance to meet her. He was getting so morose at being single that we got a work order variance from DipAss for him to marry one of my gals. Molly was pestering the life out of me to find her a husband, so we fixed Sean up with her. Shut her up for a good couple of weeks before she started in about the baby.”
Lucinda looked around, as if she thought someone were listening. “Deputy Assistant. Please. You keep callin’ him DipAss, and you’re gonna slip up sometime when Thaddeus is around.” She flashed a wicked little smile. “That snotty little cherub. I’ll bet you didn’t know he started out as a Christmas tree angel.” Morrie raised an eyebrow, waiting for the punchline. “Didn’t you ever wonder why he always looks like he’s got a stick up his…”
Lucinda winked. Then it hit her that her old pal Morrie had actually married off one of his humans to the ward of a Deity Second Rank, and she looked at him incredulously. “You got a variance? That’s pretty impressive.” Morrie was about to answer, but Molly’s disembodied voice, which had been droning along in the background, became more insistent.
“I’m 35 already, and all my friends have kids. That’s all they talk about any more. I feel like such a freak…”
Morrie looked intently at his computer monitor. “I could fix this up right now. Let’s see. I’ve got some red hair left over from when DipAss was on that whole Fiery Irish kick, then changed his mind at the last minute. And that one set of legs that Thaddeus sent back because they were too short…”
Lucinda put a restraining hand on Morrie’s arm. “You’re not. Don’t even think it. Deputy Assistant does not like freelance projects. You know that.”
However, Morrie was already intent on fixing the problem, and he barely noticed. “I know. But she’s been houndin’ me every day for five years about this baby thing.”
Molly continued, “And Sean’s got a steady job now, and I really could use some company around the house. Plus it would be great to have a kid to help out with the housework. All my friends’ kids help them with the housework…”
Lucinda rolled her eyes. “You didn’t install the Mom Package in this one, did you, Morrie?”
“I could teach it algebra and geography…”
“No I didn’t, Luce. The work order didn’t call for it, and it’s not standard equipment any more. Not since DipAss went on that Women’s Lib kick. She hasn’t got the Empathy Module either.”
“This doesn’t look good,” Lucinda mused. “Think about the poor kid who’s gonna get her for a mom.”
Morrie looked up from the monitor. “I know, I know. But the husband’s a good guy. His original work order actually specified a coupl’a kids.”
Molly was building up steam now. “My mom says, ‘Molly, you’re not really an adult until you devote yourself to the well-being of a child.’ Thirty-five years old, and I’m not a real woman yet. I’m gonna be the world’s only menopausal child! Look, I know all those Bible moms had their first babies when they were 80, but it won’t matter by then for me! My mom’s gonna be long gone by then, and all my friends are gonna be senile, and I’ll never get a chance to be normal…”
Morrie could feel a headache coming on. “Ah Jeez.”
Just then, Lucinda glanced toward the office door. A golden glow beamed faintly through the frosted glass window, and a Sarum plainsong wafted through the air vent. Say what you would about Thaddeus the cherubic errand-boy, the little twit certainly knew how to make an entrance. “Hit the mute button, Morrie. And put the screensaver on. Here comes Thaddeus.” Morrie covered up the evidence of his illicit project and tried to eat his pastrami sandwich with an air of nonchalance, without dripping mustard on his shirt. Thaddeus, dressed head to toe in designer silk, sauntered into Morrie’s office. He wrinkled his nose slightly at the sight of his seedy surroundings, then unrolled a parchment sheet and began to read aloud.
“Mortimer P. Steinowicz, Deity Third Rank, of the Southern New Jersey–Eastern Pennsylvania Region! I, Thaddeus, Cherub Messenger, bring you an edict from the Deputy Associate Procurator to His Most Omnipotent Holiness, Northwest Global Octant!”
Lucinda tried valiantly not to laugh, but realizing that an impending guffaw was about to get the best of her, she walked to the window and focused all her attention on two pigeons mating on the ledge across the alley. Morrie, who couldn’t escape as easily, was annoyed. “Taddy, just deliver the work order and get on with it,” he sighed, as the headache claimed a small piece of territory toward the back of his skull.
Thaddeus drew himself up a little taller and used the stern authoritative look he had been practicing all week. “Do yourself a favor and show a little respect. I won’t be a cherub forever. I’m up for an internship in the Western Hemisphere office this summer. You don’t want to be on my bad side when I’m the one mapping out strategy. And you’re not exactly on the Deputy Associate’s list of favorites. He’s already taken Princeton out of your district, and if you don’t watch it, he’s going to take Lambertsville and East Brunswick next.”
Morrie rummaged in his desk drawer for a couple of aspirin. “Yeah, yeah. So what’s the order this time?”
“The Deputy Associate Procurator has decreed a major resurgence of industry in the Mid-Atlantic states twenty years from now. He’s going to need a major influx of domestic factory workers, and that means they have to be born ASAP.”
Morrie stared at Thaddeus, crestfallen. “Taddy, you know my people are already stretched about as far as they can go. This latest recession is hittin’ them pretty hard. There ain’t a lot of spare cash lyin’ around to feed a bunch of new babies.”
“That’s not my concern, Mortimer. Your colleague Zebediah should never have launched that unauthorized project, and now you Third-Rank Deities are paying the price. By the way,” Thaddeus sneered, “Zebbie sends his regards. He’s settling in quite nicely in his new assignment in the northern Uzbek provinces.”
“But the kids…”
“Oh come on, Mortimer. These are working-class people. They know how to tighten their belts. They’ve been doing it for eons. Just start those urchins gestating, and be quick about it.” Thaddeus plopped a thick stack of work orders into Morrie’s in-box, did an about-face, and marched out the door. The Sarum plainsong swelled briefly, then faded down the hall, along with the golden glow.
Lucinda cringed at the thought of thousands of couples suddenly realizing that there would be another mouth to feed. “Just get those urchins gestating, and be quick about it,” she mocked bitterly. “And did you see that new aura? I wonder who he had to—ahem—’laud and honor’ to get that.”
Morrie feigned shock, then burst out laughing. He reached over to the phone and took off the mute switch, then jiggled the mouse to take off the screensaver. He fiddled around with his spare parts inventory spreadsheet, looking for something he could assemble into a decent-looking kid for Molly. But Lucinda, clearly worried about the latest batch of work orders, called his attention back to the matter at hand. “What’s all this stuff about recessions and payback and all? I thought your district was in a Peace and Prosperity Cycle.”
Morrie pushed his pastrami sandwich to one side and contemplated the thick stack of work orders that Thaddeus had left behind. “We were scheduled for a P&P Cycle all the way through 2010, but DipAss cut it short. Payback for the Bubba Project.”
Molly, who apparently had a lot on her mind, continued on, unabated. “And I know you’re almighty, and you can do anything you want. And it’s not like I’m asking for a miracle. People have babies every day…”
Morrie’s headache set up shop in his right temple. “Five. Long. Years. I gotta listen to this stuff. I’m her assigned deity. She was never meant to have kids. It was so much easier when the Mom Module was standard. DipAss don’t keep track of his options when he’s setting up work orders now. We got Strong Nurturers with no Fertility Unit. We got Strong Fertiles with the Commitment Switches disabled. There just ain’t no consistency no more.”
“And Francine and Dave had a baby last year, and it’s fat! It’s got rolls of fat all over; I would never let my baby get fat like that. It’s disgusting…”
Lucinda stared incredulously at the speaker phone. “I bet when she nurses, it comes out soy milk.” Morrie crumpled his sandwich wrapper and threw it at Lucinda, but he was laughing. Lucinda continued, “So this Bubba Project. What’s that got to do with you? I thought that was old Zebediah’s project down there in the Ozarks.”
Morrie smiled at the memory. The Bubba Project had gotten them all in a lot of trouble, but it was a lot of fun while it lasted. “It was. DipAss decided to slam the whole sector just so nobody would pull that stunt again. You gotta admit it was pretty funny. An Unauthorized Headcount makin’ it to the White House. And then gettin’ re-elected to a second term.”
Lucinda mused, “Big Guy musta been pretty pissed about that.”
“I doubt Big Guy knew. He was probably off somewhere spawning a new galaxy. But DipAss went into major panic mode. When it looked like Bubba’s VP was gonna win the next election, DipAss had to step in, rig the results, and anoint that frat kid. Kid wasn’t too bright, but he had the right family connections. DipAss surrounded him with a bunch of seraphim working undercover, you know, company men, clear on the mission. Restored the natural order of things, or at least DipAss’s version of it. Ol’ Dippy was not happy. He don’t like workin’ out in the open like that.”
Molly was deep into planning mode, talking mostly to herself now. “And I know this immigrant woman who could watch the baby during the day while I’m at work. She don’t speak much English, but what the hey. The baby won’t either for a couple years, right?”
Morrie, ignoring the stack of work orders, made notes on a scratch pad as he searched his spare parts database. Five years of putting up with this woman’s persistence had worn him down, and he was going to give her a baby one way or another. Even deities had limits to their patience. “I could give the kid an Irish face, but I’m gonna have to go with a German torso…” Lucinda held her arms out straight in front of her and did a stiff-legged Frankenstein walk around the office. “Nyaarrrrgh.” Morrie ignored her as another option occurred to him. “You know, this is a really big work order. Think DipAss would notice if I delivered one kid to the wrong address?”
Lucinda turned around, incredulous. “Do you hear yourself? You wanna wind up in Lower Bessaronia or something? Besides, this Hannigan woman is clueless. What’s she gonna do with a baby?”
“Five years I been listening to her hit me up for a kid. She’s wearin’ me down. Listen, I save all my spare parts. I could put together a pretty decent kid, and it wouldn’t even show up on the inventory. What could it hurt?”
Morrie smelled a faint whiff of cinnamon. Or was it just his imagination?
Molly finally had to admit to herself that she was pregnant. There had been no morning sickness, no sense of anything out of the ordinary going on inside. Only a string of missed periods hinted that things were not going on as usual. At first, Molly was pleased to add one more triumph to her long list of small successes in life. She had learned that persistence usually pays off in the end.
She was in this frame of mind when she broke the news to Sean. He had recently cut back his teaching load to part time so that he could return to school for some coursework that would allow him to get a better teaching position. The timing could not have been worse—the family budget was stretched thin, even with Molly working full-time. And here she was, talking about quitting work after the baby was born, seemingly oblivious to what this would do to the family finances. Still, Sean was happy at the thought of a child, and he knew that Molly had been worried about becoming too old to have children before they could start a family.
At first, Molly basked in the approval of friends and family. She read everything she could about nutrition and health care. She religiously followed the exercise program her doctor gave her. Her mother helped her foot the bill for a modest maternity wardrobe. Molly, who had always been proud of her petite figure, was taken aback at the elastic panels and shapeless waistlines, but she consoled herself that her regular clothing would fit just fine for the time being.
As the months wore on, Molly began having second thoughts. She dieted to maintain her figure as much as possible, relenting only slightly when her doctor sternly lectured her on the importance of keeping her baby well-nourished. It wouldn’t do to have a sickly baby; people would think she was incompetent.
So Molly walked a fine line between keeping the doctor happy and trying not to look like an elephant. She continued to work as a cashier and not think about the impending upheaval any more than necessary. She accepted the hand-me-down clothing and baby furniture her family and friends offered. She basked in the spotlight at the baby shower the girls gave her in the break room at work. She tuned out the “war stories” about the longest labor, the most stretch marks, the biggest change in shoe size.
All her friends enviously remarked on how slim she was staying, recounting their own experiences of bulging bellies and swollen ankles. Molly’s doctor continued to chide her about not eating enough.
Nine months to the day (or so she would tell people afterwards), Molly went into labor. At first, she thought she was having gas pains. She winced, but continued to clean house until the frequency and regularity forced her to admit that maybe it was time to go to the hospital. Always the perfectionist, Molly had recently read a magazine article detailing what every expectant mother should do to prepare, and she had already packed a bag with everything she would need.
Sean, who had been at home working on a class assignment, called the obstetrician, helped Molly into her coat, grabbed her bag, and put a protecting arm around her so she wouldn’t slip on the way to the car. He drove as fast as he dared on the rain-slickened streets and pulled up in front of the emergency entrance to the hospital.
The OB, who had been at the hospital doing her rounds, met Molly and Sean at the door and quickly led them to an examination room. After a cursory exam, she checked at the nurses’ station to see if a delivery room was available—Molly was giving birth.
Less than two hours after Molly had arrived at the hospital, little Alice was forcibly expelled into the outside world. Molly was momentarily repulsed by this wet, red, squirming creature, but she bravely kept it to herself and forced a smile as Sean recorded the event with a borrowed video camera. Molly was relieved when the nurse took the baby to be weighed and examined. The little creature had left a sticky mess on her hospital gown.
Lucinda looked lovingly at the tiny new baby. “You know, Morrie, there’s no work order for this kid. She’s not in the Master Plan. You’re going to have to provide for her for the rest of her life.”
“It ain’t like this is the first time,” replied Morrie. “We got Patchworks all over the place. We slip them into the cracks in the Master Plan; and believe me, those gaps ain’t hard to find. Fact is, I don’t think the Master Plan would work at all if we didn’t have our Patchworks fillin’ in. After a while, most of them get pretty good at making their own way in life.”
“Don’t it get lonely, not fittin’ in and all?”
“Yeah, but they manage somehow.”
“Welcome to the world, Alice,” Lucinda whispered.
As soon as she was physically able, Molly went back to work to help support the family while Sean finished school. Little Alice spent her days with a babysitter.
Sean finished his classwork and landed a faculty position at a small community college. Molly quit her cashier’s job and became a full-time homemaker. Sean and Molly bought a small house at the edge of a modest residential neighborhood. Most of the neighbors were older, and their children had grown up and moved away.
Play dates for Alice usually required a car trip, and Molly was too busy with housework and volunteer projects to make the time very often. She preferred that Alice spend her time in her room playing or pursuing her solitary amusements in the backyard where Molly could keep an eye on her from the kitchen window.
When Alice was old enough to start school, Molly walked with her the first few times, but once she was satisfied that Alice knew the way, Alice was on her own. Alice was carefully instructed to come straight home every afternoon after school and not burden her classmates’ parents by stopping at their houses to play. Classmates could come over at Molly’s invitation only, which wasn’t often. It usually required a great deal of pleading by Alice, and often a gentle prod from Sean.
Alice learned to be comfortable around adults from a very early age, putting in a polite appearance in the living room for the book discussion group or the committee meeting before retiring to her room for the evening. She learned that having company was a very special thing, requiring hours of cleaning, baking, and preparation of outlines, agendas, and notes for discussion. And Molly was not to be bothered afterward because she was usually in a state of exhaustion. This level of effort was reserved for adults and not to be squandered on children.
Molly took great pride in keeping an immaculate house, making a wide repertoire of nutritious meals for Alice and Sean, and coaching little Alice into becoming a straight-A student. Sean was in charge of fun, when he could spare the time from his teaching duties. He would invent little games, tell Alice stories, and teach her to make toys and gadgets from bits and pieces of things he would bring home from garage sales.
These cobbled-together inventions were often comical in their clumsiness, but Alice loved them because her father had made them for her. Sean called them his “patchwork projects”. Molly frequently complained about all the junk Sean brought home and all the little oddities he and Alice left lying around the house, but Sean would just wink at Alice and show her some new treasure hidden away in the storage closet.
At school, Alice was a model student. Always prepared for the day’s lesson, never a behavioral problem. But her teachers noticed a certain sadness about her—a melancholy that one would not have expected to see in a child so young. She seemed to enjoy the company of the other children, and she was generally well-liked; but the teachers would often observe her standing alone on the playground, forlornly looking on as her classmates shared secrets and played games in which Alice was clearly not a part.
At night, Alice had a recurring dream that she was on a playground, and lots of other kids were there too. They were laughing and playing and having a great time. There were concrete shapes painted in bright colors, and the kids would climb on top of them or crawl in and out through the oddly-shaped holes. Alice was always standing alone inside a concrete cylinder. It was too tall for her to climb out of. There were small holes at about eye level, so she could see out, but she was trapped inside. No one seemed to know that she was there, and nobody heard her when she called out. All she could do was stand there and watch the other kids play.
“She already knows she’s different,” Lucinda observed. “She’s got her dad’s second-rank aspirations, but you had better keep her third-rank so she doesn’t call attention to herself. Don’t you have some little patchwork friends for her?”
“I keep sendin’ them her direction, but that Molly keeps sendin’ them back home,” said Morrie.
Alice looked around her cubicle, making sure she hadn’t missed anything. Another temp job was ending, but she was used to that by now. She paused for a moment and thought how odd it was that the concrete walls of the cubicle farm resembled the concrete prison in her childhood dream. Gosh, she hadn’t thought about the playground dream in years. She wondered briefly what had brought it up now, then she placed her coffee mug in the small box next to her lucky mouse pad and the rest of the small collection of odds and ends she carried with her from one temp job to the next. Somehow, she felt a little less like an intruder in someone else’s cubicle when she had a few familiar things to look at.
The office manager spoke to Alice over the top of the low cubicle wall, without bothering to come in. “Well Alice, I’m sorry to see you go. It’s been a pleasure working with you, but our regular girl is getting back from maternity leave next Monday. But I’m sure you have your next assignment already lined up, as good a web designer as you are. I still can’t understand why you’re working for that temp agency. Somebody with your experience ought to have a full-time staff job somewhere. You know, with benefits, a retirement plan, all that.”
Alice sighed. If only. She was beginning to think she was jinxed. She had an uncanny knack for hiring on just before a downsizing, landing the one job that got outsourced the next year, finding the stable job that drove her crazy.
And no, she didn’t have an assignment lined up. The only things lining up were the soon-to-be-overdue bills.
Maternity leave was the one benefit she was sure she would never need, at least not at the rate she was going. She had a real talent for finding Mr. Wrong. Like the man who bared his soul to his therapist, his sister, and even his dog, but never to her. Or the charming one who made love like a virtuoso performer—completely focused on his technique, expecting standing ovations and showers of roses afterwards. Or the control freak who kept her on a six-inch leash.
Alice couldn’t think about her social life right now. She gathered her things and went back to her walkup studio apartment. She called the temp agency to see if anything was available, but supply exceeded demand these days. Thinking it best to conserve her funds, Alice flipped on the TV, heated up some leftovers, and settled in for yet another quiet evening at home. Maude the cat patrolled the perimeter, looking vaguely disgusted, as if she had expected to be living in a much bigger place by now. Even the house plants looked droopy and wilted.
The next morning, as Alice contemplated a bowl of forlorn-looking corn flakes, the phone rang. The temp agency had found another job for her. Even better, this one seemed like it had potential. Aaron & Aaron, a marketing agency that was currently on a hot streak, needed someone to do some updates and minor redesigns on their clients’ websites.
The temp agent had assured the department manager that Alice could step in and hit the ground running. She had three months to get as far as she could because she was filling a slot that had been promised to a recent college graduate who was spending the summer in Italy.
“I could do this job, why won’t they hire me?” wondered Alice. But the new hire’s mother was Martha Cabot, one of Aaron & Aaron’s senior VPs, and how could Alice compete with that? On her first day on the job, Alice had a brief encounter with Andrea Cabot, the young woman who would eventually take the position Alice was temping for. Andrea had stopped by the office to go out to lunch with her mother and finalize some plans for her trip. She seemed nice enough, and she had engaged Alice in a little light shop talk while she waited for her mother to finish with a client meeting. She even sounded as though she knew what she was talking about, although she wasn’t the wizard that Alice was.
Mainly, Andrea exuded an easy confidence that told the world that she knew she could never truly fail. Whatever she tried, no matter how impulsive or daring, Mommy’s friends would be there to clear the path ahead, and the family money would be there to fix things if they should ever go wrong. The world was hers, and she knew it.
Alice felt a pang of jealousy as she thought about her own struggle to survive. From an early age, Alice knew that the world was an obstacle course through a mine field, and that she was totally and completely on her own. Small failures could take years to recover from, and large failures could mean a life on the streets. One had to pick one’s battles carefully and calculate one’s risks in advance. You could never trust anyone completely, not even yourself. She always held back a little in reserve just in case things went sour.
“She’s under my thumb…” Alice winced. Jack popped up with the same little snippet of that old Rolling Stones song so often that she wondered if he was even aware he was doing it. For three months, she had put up with Jack’s ego. After all, he was her supervisor for the time being, and this temp job wouldn’t last forever. This particular temp job was lasting longer than she had anticipated, because Andrea Cabot still wasn’t back from Italy and Alice had received an extension. It was good to have the extra income, but it was that much longer that she had to work for Jack.
“Under my thumb!” crowed Jack, in case anyone had missed it the first time. His cologne announced that he was headed right for Alice’s cubicle, and she cringed. Jack came in and stood behind her, looking at the web page that she had spent all last week designing and all this morning un-designing in order to comply with the client’s ever-changing requests. His all-teal outfit, intended to convey style and creativity, committed a visual assault that ensured you would be distracted, even if you only saw him from the corner of your eye.
“Why don’t we put an animated grif right there,” Jack suggested, leaving an iridescent fingerprint on Alice’s computer screen.
“I believe it’s called a gif, and we already have so many elements on this page that it takes more than 5 seconds to load,” Alice responded in a calm, measured voice that she hoped would mask her irritation. This project was turning into a disaster.
Kerplapf Inc., one of the agency’s biggest clients, had blown into town a few weeks earlier with a flurry of high-level closed-door meetings and drop-everything demands. Their new Hyperchrome 850, a multifunctional, feature-heavy photocopier, was just more bells and whistles on the same over-developed product they had been selling for years, but they made it sound like the biggest thing since the invention of the PC.
Alice had proposed a brief but punchy product announcement, linked to a product comparison chart, highlighting the new photocopier and showing how it fit in with Kerplapf’s existing line of products and comparing the strengths (they wouldn’t mention the numerous limitations) of each, so that potential customers could pick the product that best met their needs.
Jack had been pleased, and he gave her the go-ahead. The client had even liked the idea, but Theresa, the account manager, had gone ballistic. “This is Kerplapf’s biggest launch in years!” she had shouted in the hallway outside her office. “What the hell does this temp think she’s doing burying it in a product comparison chart!”
Later that afternoon, Jack had called Alice into Theresa’s office. Alice took a seat on one side of Theresa’s conference table, and Theresa took a seat directly across from her. Jack took a chair next to Theresa, which made Alice feel like a heretic at an inquisition. Theresa launched into a full-blown attack, accusing Alice of trying to drive away a major source of revenue and singlehandedly bankrupt the entire marketing agency. Jack sat meekly in his chair, nodding his head in affirmation and never once mentioning that he had already signed off on Alice’s idea.
After Theresa had reduced Alice to a quivering mass of jelly, she dismissed Alice from the meeting, and Alice returned to her cubicle in a state of numb disbelief. Meanwhile, Theresa and Jack sat behind the closed door of Theresa’s office and spent over an hour on the phone with the client. Theresa profusely apologized for Alice’s “mistake”, and reassured the client that the situation had been rectified.
The client, who up until this point had been very happy with Alice’s idea, followed Theresa’s lead, changing his attitude to outrage at the supposedly sloppy way he had been treated, followed by gratitude that Theresa was so on top of things. Then, in a burst of creative enthusiasm, the client laid out a series of changes to the website that had occurred to him at happy hour the previous evening. Theresa assured him that they would put all of them in right away.
Theresa silently congratulated herself on how she had orchestrated the whole incident, steering the client away from mere satisfaction, making him want something more, then want it passionately, straight through to gratitude at how brilliantly Theresa had solved this faux-problem and put things back on track. This was going to pay off big time when the client’s bill was due.
Dan Schumacher, a Patchwork who worked as a product development assistant at Kerplapf, had been pressed into taking notes for the conference call. He could guess what had just happened to that poor web designer who had just been handed her head on a platter. He wished he could contact her and let her know what was really going on. Theresa was playing his boss for a fool. Unfortunately, his boss fit the part very well.
The next morning, Alice arrived at her cubicle to find a disorganized pile of scrap paper on her desk. The requested changes had been roughly sketched out, brainstorm fashion, with very little in the way of explanatory notes. After yesterday’s grilling, she was in no mood to sit down with Jack and find out just exactly what he was asking for, and she was convinced that he didn’t really know for sure either. For the rest of the morning, she took her best guess at the jumble of scribbled notes, converting her sleek, stylish web pages to the pulsing, throbbing, jumping garishness that the client was now insisting on.
She would have resigned on the spot if her auto mechanic hadn’t just presented her with a repair bill for her old clunker that looked more like the down payment on a new Range Rover.
And now, Jack was hovering behind her, making her eyes water with his cologne and leaving his fingerprints all over her computer screen. “You know,” Jack said in his best manager voice, “when I hired you to be on my team, I expected that you would be solving problems for me instead of creating them. I have a lot on my plate these days, and I can’t spend all my time herding cats and rounding up loose cannons.”
Alice felt ill. She wasn’t part of anyone’s team, and she knew it. She was just a temp, and the only reason Jack had brought up the subject of teams at all was so he could threaten to throw her off. And she wasn’t a loose cannon. She had gone through all the right channels and cleared her idea with him before she even began to work on it. He had praised her for her innovative solution, the way that she had put an admittedly minor product improvement in a good light and showed it at its best. He had backed her up right until the minute that Theresa decided to play hero with the client.
Jack moved in closer. “You know, I could smooth this over for you,” he breathed into her ear. Alice pulled back, turning towards him to see him giving her That Look. “I, I, I’m not comfortable with that,” she stammered, not knowing what else to say. “Oh, come on,” Jack urged. “My wife is out of town for the rest of the week. You could meet me for a drink after work. I keep a room booked at the Hilton. We could go there, and no one would be the wiser. Call it good corporate relations between your temp agency and Aaron & Aaron. After all, it’s not like you’re really an employee here.”
Jack leered at Alice, and he ran his finger just under the collar of her blouse. Alice stood up and backed as far away as her tiny cubicle would allow. “I think you should leave,” she said softly, through clenched teeth.
Martha Cabot stood in the hallway outside the cubicle farm and told herself she couldn’t possibly have seen what she just saw. She didn’t need this, especially after everything else that had happened today.
Earlier that afternoon, she had sent Theresa packing after a complaint from one of the agency’s most valued clients had turned up a disastrous chain of padded expenses, empty promises, and account books that didn’t even come close to balancing. After she had taken care of Theresa’s paperwork with Frank in the HR office, Martha had gone to Jack’s office to let him know and to arrange for someone to cover Theresa’s clients until they could hire someone else. Jack wasn’t in his office, but Martha heard his voice coming from the cubicle farm nearby. “Under my thumb!” Martha winced. She was going to have to speak to Jack again about professional demeanor in the workplace. As if someone in Jack’s position should need to have it spelled out for him even once. Still, those creative types could be unconventional.
Martha walked toward Jack’s voice and saw him hovering over the temp they had hired to fill in while Andrea was in Italy. On her computer screen was a garish hodge-podge of a web page. “Where do we get these temps?” she wondered. That kind of work should never be allowed to make it out the door. Even the interns did better work than that. Well, just wait until Andrea comes back, Martha thought. She, at least, has a sense of style.
Just then, Jack put his hand down the front of the temp’s blouse. Stunned, Martha didn’t know what to do. Had she really seen that? Perhaps not, she assured herself. Just to be on the safe side, though, she would bring up the subject of workplace harassment when she spoke to Jack tomorrow. A word to the wise should be sufficient.
Frank stood in the photocopy room and swore under his breath. Once again, the Hyperchrome 500 photocopier had not only jammed in three places, but it had mangled his originals beyond repair. God, he hated this job.
He especially hated it since last Tuesday, when Jack got his latest promotion. Frank and Jack had started at Aaron & Aaron the same year, both bearing shiny new MBAs from the same college. Frank had the grades, but Jack had the connections. Ten years later, Frank was processing forms in HR and cursing the copy machine, while Jack was well on his way to becoming the company’s youngest vice president. “If I had been handed all the opportunities Jack had, I would be up for VP too,” Frank thought. “Every time he cuts a fart, the CEO issues an all-company memo congratulating him.”
Frank forced his thoughts back to the matter at hand. Martha Cabot’s daughter Andrea was supposed to have reported to work two weeks ago, but she had never shown up. Just when Frank was about to ask if the position should be put back on the market, Andrea had called her mother from Italy to say that she had met the most fabulous man. He was working as a waiter in a little restaurant she frequented, but judging from his regal good looks and his genteel manner, she was sure he must be a duke’s son who was slumming it for the summer. She pleaded with her mother to hold the web design job just a little longer. If she left Italy now, she was sure she would regret it for the rest of her life.
Martha, who could never refuse her daughter anything, agreed, and she told Frank to hang on to that temp just a bit longer. “Why not just hire the temp?” Frank had thought to himself. “She’s talented and she gets along with everyone. And unlike Martha’s pampered little daughter, she shows up to work when she’s supposed to.” But Frank knew better than to suggest it. Andrea would never have to worry about someone else taking her slot. No matter how well or how poorly she performed, the path ahead was clear. She was one of the Golden People, as Frank called them.
Not so Alice, the temp. She could outshine every other designer in the web division, and quite often did, but she would never catch a break. The system just wouldn’t allow it. Even if another opening came up, she wouldn’t be offered a staff job. Frank couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was something about her that marked her as an Outsider. The staff designers all seemed to have their niches in the company, right down to the summer interns, but Alice seemed to travel under a cloud that denied her even the limited degree of inclusion that the other temps enjoyed.
Without knowing exactly why, Frank felt a certain kinship with that. Even though his ten-year service plaque hung on his office wall where he couldn’t help but see it, he had never really been a company man. Passed over for promotions, having projects canceled out from under him, and seeing his ideas rejected only to be hailed as brilliant when someone else suggested them, Frank had always felt like a misfit. As if somehow his own skin had been bought for him at a garage sale by someone who had forgotten his size.
Frank gave the photocopier a savage kick and slipped out the door. He walked down the street to the corner coffee shop and ordered a double espresso.
“How long do you think you can keep that Andrea kid in Italy?” asked Lucinda.
“As long as I possibly can,” replied Morrie. “Vincenzo is helping me out, having one of his humans keep her distracted.”
“Yeah, but making Andrea think that he’s a duke…,” Lucinda chided.
“Hey, she came up with that one on her own. That Italian kid is a third-rank human from a third-rank deity. He’s never gonna be anything but a waiter, and he don’t pretend it’s gonna be any other way. Princess just don’t wanna admit that she’s infatuated with someone so far beneath her.”
“Yeah, those first-rank humans have a pretty good talent for self-delusion. Nobody ever tells them that the world ain’t all one great big amusement park.”
“Delusion is our friend right now. If I can keep her in one place long enough, my gal Alice is gonna meet a couple of other Patchworks. I’m thinking they might just make a little place for themselves in this world.”
“That’s really gonna throw a monkey wrench into the Master Plan, Morrie. You sure you know what you’re getting yourself into?”
“No, but that Master Plan thing just ain’t right. It wouldn’t have even worked this long if me and the other third-rankers didn’t keep it going with our Patchworks.”
Alice came home that night feeling nauseated and dirty. Why was it that she was the Invisible Woman when it came to getting friends, dates, and everything else that mattered in life, but not when it came time to find a scapegoat or someone to Scratch The Itch? Had she somehow sent the wrong signal to Jack? No, she had not, she told herself firmly. If she hadn’t been conveniently sitting in her cubicle, he would have hit on someone else.
Maude the cat gave Alice a quizzical look, as if to say, “What are you going to do about it?”
“What indeed,” said Alice, feeling her helplessness turn to anger. “What indeed!” She could just imagine Jack bragging to his buddies the next day if she had met him at that hotel. Then another thought sent chills through her. “He could brag to his buddies whether I do anything or not. And no one would believe me if I denied it,” she whispered. But what could she do?
Maude looked directly at her with narrowed eyes, a fierce, resolute look. Alice felt a surge of confidence as she made her decision. “My name is Alice, and I deserve better than this!” she declared, to no one in particular. Maude stretched herself and sauntered out of the room, purring softly. A faint odor of cinnamon wafted in from the bakery next door.
The next morning, Alice marched resolutely to the HR office at Aaron & Aaron, before she even dropped her things off at her cubicle. She did not want to give herself a chance to wiggle out of this. “Frank, I have to talk to you. It’s really important,” she said.
Frank noticed Alice’s resolute expression and the fact that she was still wearing her commuter shoes and carrying her satchel. “This must be serious,” he thought. To Alice, he said, “Come in. Sit down. What’s on your mind?”
Alice took a seat across from Frank’s desk, inhaled deeply, then related the events of the previous evening as calmly and factually as she could. Her hands were sweating, but she hoped Frank wouldn’t notice. “I’m going to have to report this to my agency,” she said. “I have really enjoyed working here, for the most part, but I can’t pretend this didn’t happen. If you want me to leave now, I understand.”
“Don’t leave just yet,” set Frank, struggling to process what he had just heard and wishing his second cup of coffee would hurry up and kick in so he could keep up with events this early in the day. Yesterday, Theresa had gotten sacked, and now this. It wasn’t the first time Jack had stepped out of line with a female employee either. The guy was a lawsuit waiting to happen. “Look, do what you need to do with your agency, and I will put in a good word for you. We really need you on the Hyperchrome 850 project. I will have a talk with Jack and his manager. If anything like this happens again, please let me know immediately. We don’t run the kind of company that tolerates this kind of thing, please believe me.” Frank knew it sounded weak, but it was the best he could do for the time being. He would have yet another talk with Martha, and nothing would really change. Especially not for a temp. He hated to lose Alice, but why would she stay?
Frank was still mulling things over when Martha walked into his office and closed the door. She looked haggard, as if she hadn’t slept. “This is terrible,” Martha said. I called Kerplapf this morning to let them know that Theresa wasn’t working for us anymore, and I found out that they have just fired the account rep Theresa was dealing with. Something about his three-hour lunches and his showing up at the office drunk just once too often. His assistant Mr. Schumacher showed me a horrible-looking website that this guy had let Theresa talk him into. We can’t put our name on that kind of work! By the way, he also showed me an earlier draft that our temp worked up for them. Fine stuff. Much more in keeping with our standards. Make her an offer the next time an opening comes up, will you? Put her in contact with that Mr. Schumacher, and the two of them can wrap up the project on their own. Have them run the results by me, and I’ll handle things with the client until we can find a replacement for Theresa. Also, sign Jack up for another one of those sensitivity session things. He’s been getting frisky with the staff again.”
Martha turned to go, but Frank said, “Wait. I don’t think Alice will be staying with us, and I’m not sure her agency will want to send us any more temps. Alice just told me about an incident with Jack, and we could be in serious legal trouble this time.”
“Don’t let her go,” said Martha, although she could hardly imagine how Frank could stop her. “Let me have a talk with Jack, and I’ll get back to you.” Martha walked back to her office, at a loss for what to do next. First, the scene with Jack that she had witnessed the previous evening, and now the temp had filed a report. That was the last straw. Martha had been cleaning up Jack’s messes long enough.
Just then, the phone rang. It was Andrea. “Mumsie, could you pleease hold that job just a teeny bit longer? If I leave Aldo now, I just know I would regret it for the rest of my life.”
Poor Andrea. She had no idea how truly lousy her timing was. For it was the sound of that plaintive whine that suddenly made everything very clear for Martha. “I’m not cleaning up anybody else’s messes!” she said firmly. “You can have your allowance and the price of a plane ticket home, but not a dime more. If you can make it on that, you can stay over there as long as you jolly well please. I’ll set you up with an employment agency when you get back.”
“But Mumsie! What about that job with you? You promised!”
“And you promised to be hard at work weeks ago. I don’t see you showing up at the office every morning. We have a temp who is doing very well at your job. I’m going to offer her a staff position.”
“Nice talking to you, dear. Have a wonderful time in Italy.” Martha hung up the phone. “I deserve better than this!” she muttered. It was very clear to her now that Jack would have to go. She knew that the going would be rough with both Jack and Theresa gone, but she hoped that the cleansing effect would outweigh the extra workload. A breeze wafted through the window, ruffling the papers on her desk. Funny, Martha could swear she smelled cinnamon.
The Deputy Associate was annoyed with the call he just had from Fred, his second-rank deity for the Mid-Atlantic states. He wished that Fred wouldn’t bother him with small crises in the second tier, but he had to admit that three second-rank humans getting the boot in one day, especially over the same silly photocopier ad campaign, could have ripple effects higher up. Plus, Fred had alerted him to rumors that several Patchworks were somehow involved. Hadn’t he put a stop to those third-rank deities sneaking in unauthorized headcount? Fred was going to have to regain control of his sector before things really got out of hand.
Thaddeus wandered into the office, preoccupied with a stack of spreadsheets. He furrowed his brow. “I can’t get these accounts to balance. The human head count is way over the number of work orders we issued for this time frame.”
The Deputy Associate groaned. It had started like this the last time things had gotten out of hand. First that Bubba Patchwork had gotten the lower-downs believing they could be upwardly mobile. Then some Patchwork geeks came up with that Internet thing. Suddenly, every snot-nosed third-rank kid could broadcast his homework project to the whole world. The Deputy Associate had worked so hard to set up his publishing industry and mass media outlets, carefully crafting the content of public discourse, and now every burger-flipper with a laptop could be a pundit.
After the Deputy Associate had disposed of Bubba and his raggedy crew, he had spent the next decade snuffing out brush fires. Patchworks were cropping up everywhere, stripping the protective cover from the Old Boy network, collapsing some of his prized corporations, and sending his best executives off to jail.
That was the problem with Patchworks. They always seemed to think that life should be fair. That those silly little rules should apply to everyone all the time. Because Patchworks didn’t have any place in the Master Plan, they had no sense of their station, and they had a low tolerance for the status quo. How could you accept your place in life when you didn’t have a place to begin with?
A faint odor of cinnamon blew in from somewhere, and the Deputy Associate froze. He had heard stories of visitations from The Almighty, and the older deities had always remarked on how odd it was that His presence was always accompanied by the smell of cinnamon.
It’s nothing, I’m just stressed out, the Deputy Associate told himself. Fred would tidy up that little mess in his district, and that would be the end of it. “OK, Taddy, what column did you add up wrong this time?” he asked wearily.
The Deputy Associate started checking the columns of figures, then suddenly looked up at his monitor screen. As the scene played itself out before him, he absent-mindedly added a third spoonful of sugar, then a fourth, to his cup of coffee, which was starting to overflow. He blinked hard, but the scene in front of him didn’t change. The CEO of Kerplapf and six of his top men were being led away in handcuffs. The Deputy Associate had spent years—years!—grooming that twit for the Vice Presidency, possibly even a run for the Oval Office.
That little counterfeiting project that the CEO had been running under the radar only proved to the Deputy Associate that he had the moxie to handle himself well in the political arena. And that ad campaign—what chutzpah! “Hyperchrome, by Kerplapf. You could, but don’t.” With that actor busily photocopying perfect $20 bills. Priceless! The Deputy Associate chuckled at the memory. So how did his man get caught? It wasn’t as though he got greedy, and the way he worked the whole thing—telling his R&D division that it was a highly classified anticounterfeiting initiative for the Treasury Department, then setting up the production operations offshore—superbly executed! And now the whole thing was falling apart.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the Deputy Associate’s district agents were reporting that Kerplapf wasn’t going down quietly. Their executives were naming names and taking four or five of the Deputy Associate’s best corporations with them.
The Deputy Associate summoned one of his senior operatives and sent him to investigate. The operative sent back a report that the initial whistleblower was some Patchwork named Schumacher who had somehow managed to work his way up the company ladder in the product development department and had figured out the whole scheme. The Deputy Associate’s field agents had worked quickly and canned the guy, but the damage was done. The repercussions were affecting the stock market, and there was talk of a Congressional investigation. The Deputy Associate knew that it wouldn’t be long until other malcontents would jump on the bandwagon and start exposing the little expediencies in their own corporations. Patchworks were like cockroaches—you might see just one, but you knew there were hundreds of others lurking behind the walls. Good thing the Big Guy wasn’t here to see this. Where was that cinnamon smell coming from?
Thaddeus obviously did not comprehend the seriousness of the situation. “So how long have you got before Himself comes for an on-site inspection? He operates on a long time frame, right? You can get things straightened out before he shows up, and no one will ever know.”
“That’s just it,” the Deputy Associate moaned, holding his head in his hands. “I don’t have any idea when He’s coming to this sector. He hasn’t made an official visitation since the 1960s—what a weird decade that was! But He used to come out here on a regular basis. Or so I’m told. That was before I was stationed out here. I can’t imagine He would wait too much longer before He checks on us again. Especially if He gets word of all these freelance projects. He must think I’ve totally lost control. I have totally lost control.”
“How could He possibly find out,” Thaddeus insisted, still not sensing the impending disaster. “By the time He gets here, you could have this all cleaned up and back on track.”
“Don’t kid yourself. He knows everything. I don’t know how, but He can be light years away and still call you to account for the smallest infraction. Don’t you remember Watergate?”
“That was before my time. I had heard that Himself had a role in that, but I thought that was just an old seraph’s tale. You don’t suppose he has spies, do you?”
“He’s the Almighty, you nitwit. He knows everything, sees everything. He’s probably watching us now, biding his time until He sees how deep a hole I can dig myself into. Then He’s going to move in and really give it to me. It’s those damn third-rank deities. They have just cost me my career. Why couldn’t they just let well enough alone? I had it all set up. The best people would run things, and I would make sure they had everything they needed to do it right. Money, connections, luck. And they would raise their children to be leaders. Right from birth, they would start to learn what it takes to properly manage money and power. Those unplanned misfits have no idea about the Master Plan. And those who suspect that there is a plan are doing everything they can to tear it to shreds. They are going to ruin everything.”
“No they aren’t, Harry DiPasquale” said a voice that the Deputy Associate recognized as Lucinda’s. He was taken aback for a moment. He had been either Hairy DipAss or Deputy Associate for so long that his real name sounded unfamiliar. Not bothering to turn around, he turned his attention back to the problem at hand.
But Lucinda continued, “The Patchworks have been part of the world from the very beginning. The whole thing would fall apart if they weren’t there to adapt, connect, get things done, make up for the inadequacies of your Master Plan. The Patchworks keep the world fresh and alive. Your folks have would have run themselves into a rut long ago if the Patchworks weren’t there to keep things stirred up. The Patchworks are the only humans with enough creativity and resourcefulness to set things right when your Master Plan hits a snag.”
The Deputy Associate and Thaddeus didn’t turn around. They didn’t have time to listen to the prattling of a third-rank deity. How did she get into the office anyway? And what was that cinnamon odor he kept smelling?
“You’re not in a crisis, Harry” Lucinda continued. “Things are humming along just the way they are supposed to.”
“Lucinda! How did you get past the receptionist?” the Deputy Associate snapped. “I can’t expect you to see the big picture, but these things have a way of starting small and spinning out of control.”
“My control. I’m responsible for all this, in case you hadn’t noticed. I make the strategy, I allocate the resources, I put the humans into their assigned places, and I make the whole thing work. And I take the rap if this thing falls apart.”
“Take another look. Things seem to be working out rather well without your intervention.”
“Look, I don’t have time to sit around and explain myself to some third-rank deity. I have problems to solve.”
“You’re a Deputy Associate deity. You have all the time in the universe.”
“OK smart-mouth. For one thing, what you see as stagnant and entrenched is really the order in the system. A place for every person and every person in their place. And what you see as corruption, that’s the oil in the machine. Resources flow to those for whom it has been intended.”
“I see,” said Lucinda’s voice. “Where does Life Itself come into the picture?”
“Life itself! This is life itself!” snapped the Deputy Associate, plainly annoyed. He turned his attention back to the debacle playing itself out on his monitor, hoping that Lucinda would take the hint and leave. “Taddy! Turn that halogen lamp down, you’re about to blind me with that thing.”
Thaddeus looked confused. There was no halogen lamp in the office, but something was awfully bright.
“No, you’re misunderstanding me,” said Lucinda’s voice, which sounded somehow deeper and more resonant than before. “I wasn’t referring to life as you set it up or life as you’re trying to make it. I mean Life Itself. What do you think motivated these little creatures to raise themselves from the primordial ooze, grow legs and brains, and start writing sonatas and trading commodities futures? See that janitor down there? Why do you think he’s leaning on his push broom and dreaming of winning the lottery? Why did that geeky little boy just ask the prettiest girl in school to the junior prom? Why do you think all those Patchworks keep pushing the envelope?”
“I have no idea, Lucinda,” said the Deputy Associate. “Taddy, I said turn that light down! My eyes are starting to water!” But Thaddeus was sitting bolt upright in his chair, ashen-faced and transfixed by something behind the Deputy Associate. Harry turned around and dropped his cup of coffee on the floor. Lucinda had vanished, and in her place was a blinding white light.
“Do you recognize me when I look like this?” said a voice that sounded like Lucinda’s, but infinitely bigger. It wasn’t louder, but it sounded as though it originated in some unexplored dimension of hyperspace and worked its way upward, gathering strength along the way.
“In every generation, some humans decide to go after more than their fair share. And they come up with hierarchies and entitlement and divine right of kings so that they can take things that aren’t theirs. That’s where you and the Master Plan come from. Those humans made you. Life Itself made me, and I make Life Itself. Life, my Patchworks, and I have been creating each other and evolving together from the very beginning.”
“But—and I mean this with the highest respect, Your Worship—how can a bunch of accidents make a Deity, especially one so exalted as Yourself?” Harry sincerely hoped that he wasn’t making a career-limiting move by asking.
“How isn’t important,” the voice said. “Life is important. Messy, unpredictable, creative, irrepressible Life. Life made you too, even though you don’t realize it. Those power-hungry people of yours belong to Life, even though they deny it at every turn.”
“But what about The Almighty?” Harry was sure that he was signing his own ticket to Pluto by asking, but he couldn’t help himself. The smell of cinnamon was so strong that it made him giddy, and he closed his eyes to make the room stop spinning. When he opened his eyes again, the bright light had faded, and Lucinda was sitting across from him, laughing. Harry didn’t so much hear her voice as feel it, like a thought planted very clearly in his mind. “I’ve been here all along,” she said.
Dan Schumacher took a deep breath, then called the cell phone number Alice had given him, hoping that it was her phone and not Aaron & Aaron’s. He hadn’t talked to her since they had wrapped up the Kerplapf Hyperchrome 850 project. After his boss was led away in handcuffs, it didn’t take long before Dan was exposed as the troublemaker who ruined a good racket, and he had been given ten minutes to clean out his desk, under the watchful eye of a security guard. Dan had started to call Alice several times, but the embarrassment had been too much. Aaron & Aaron was hit hard when it lost the Kerplapf account, and one of Dan’s friends had told him that he had seen Alice back at the temp agency. Dan knew that if he didn’t call now, he might lose track of her entirely.
The phone rang four times, and Dan almost hung up, but Alice answered. Feeling relieved and nervous at the same time, Dan said in what he hoped was a nonchalant voice, “Hey Alice. We haven’t had much of a chance to talk lately. Would you like to, um, sometime when you’re not busy, you know, like to get together for coffee after work? I know a place that sells the best cinnamon biscotti.”
“I would like that very much,” said Alice, wondering how Dan knew that she had been craving cinnamon all week.
Nancy McGuire, a New Mexico native and former research scientist, currently works as a science writer in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. She is devoting 2012 to rest, renewal, blogging, and preparing her essays and works of fiction for publication. “Patchworks” is her second published work of fiction.