An excerpt from Devices, a short fiction piece that appears in our first print issue, Pattern Machines.
Eve Pembroke felt like a bright, dew-dappled daisy freshly plucked from the William Way Stenography and Secretarial School garden in Queens, soon to be hand-delivered, wrapped in the chafing habiliment of her new uniform (sturdy and drab as any florist’s parchment), to the desk of Mr. Herbert A. Singleman, Regional Vice President of the Cogger Medical Instruments Corporation in midtown Manhattan for her first day of work. Eve’s mother Linea, despite her advanced invalid condition, took great pains to make sure Eve’s makeup and outfit were flawlessly and most femininely done up for the occasion; after all, since her husband had passed and her own dispiriting diagnosis came in, Linea had decided that her fate rested in her daughter’s hands alone. When Eve tried to gently wrest back the lipstick from her mother’s palsied, misguided grip, Linea chided her: “Don’t, girl. Give your hands a rest – they’ll need it.” Eve had many things she wanted to say to her mother, many insolent things ready in her mind, but she said none of them, and instead acquiesced to the old woman’s demands (and told herself that she would fix the botched job once she made it to the street).
Linea had good reason to be overprotective of her daughter’s hands in particular: the hiring manager at Cogger did say that the majority of her work at the firm would take the form of typing, and her soon-to-be boss Mr. Singleman was one quick talker. At William Way, Eve excelled past all the other young ladies in this particular area, quite to her own surprise. She could work the typewriter, any typewriter — be it a Hermes, an Olivetti, an Underwood — like it was a harpsichord, and she a child prodigy. She had never questioned how it was she achieved such mastery over the device (if only because she didn’t care) until her teacher made an example of her for the rest of the class, and asked her to divulge her “secret”. “I don’t know, really. I just think about other things for a while, and before I know it, I’m all done. Ding!” The other students laughed, but the teacher was dismayed, and even accused Eve of making fun of her — as is often the method of dealing with the sincerest of people. Not wanting to risk her diploma or standing, Eve walked back her comment, and instead attributed her personal success to the instructor’s and William Way’s exceptional tutelage. The students kept their laughter on the inside when they heard that.
Whatever its source, Eve’s talent secured her the most coveted position offered to the graduating class, and which came with a salary and security that promised to bring relief to her family’s situation, if not fulfillment to her personal one.
Linea finished Eve’s face, and walked her as far as the threshold where she wished her luck (Linea seldom left the house nowadays, as the sunlight set off a fit of coughing she was powerless in stopping). Eve kissed her mother goodbye, and made haste to midtown, only somewhat hindered by her outfit.
Eve assimilated into the morning commute with the curious step of a social anthropologist. As she looked around, she wondered how so many people, as if by instinct, had learned to all walk in the same direction, staggered, and at regular cadences so as not to stampede all over each other. She wondered if, when all these strangers looked at her, they were too wondering things, or if they had become so inured to the daily assault on their senses that they thought only of the task at hand. She wondered what all these people would be doing at this hour if they hadn’t had to work, or school. She wondered what she would be doing at this hour if her father were still alive, or if her mother were not, or if a distant aunt with a secret fortune had died and bequeathed it to them. She wondered, too, how this collective trust in the morning machinery (the taxi cabs, the tramway, the subways, the elevated train) came about, and if there was anything besides the lack of accidents that sustained it.
It was only after she’d caught sight of the “68th Street” placard on an underground column that she realized she’d missed her stop. She emerged from the subway, oriented herself, and made for the building.
When Eve arrived, took the elevator to the 80th floor, she was greeted by Mrs. Pass, the woman she was to replace. Mrs. Pass was now eight months pregnant, and it was agreed upon by the partners at Cogger that it would be in her best interest to retire so that she could focus all her energies on her impending motherhood. Mrs. Pass agreed too, eventually.
“Mrs. Pembroke! Your makeup!” Eve looked at herself in the reflection of an office window, and saw that she had forgotten to remedy the face her mother had made clownish with lipstick and blush. That’s why they were staring at me, thought Eve. “Oh, my!” “Here,” said Mrs. Pass, and gave Eve a tissue, which she used to wipe away the excess.
“And on top of that you’re late.” “I missed my stop.” “I was never late, especially on my first day. If youth but knew…” Mrs. Pass shook her head and said, “Come along.”
The office had yet to come alive, and only the secretaries and some low-level mail runners were milling about. Mrs. Pass led Eve to her desk, which was just outside Mr. Singleman’s office. It was absent one glaring appliance.
“This is where you’ll be sitting. Mr. Singleman works right in there, so that’s where you’ll go for dictation. But, as the secretary to the vice president, you will also be obliged to take minutes during meetings he conducts or is present at. You were recommended highly from Ways’s, let’s see if it was merited.”
“This is all wonderful. But where’s the machine?”
“Well, aren’t we lucky? Mr. Singleman ordered you a brand new device to be delivered this morning. He had a special team of engineers downstairs working on it for some time. All week he’s been like a young boy on Christmas Eve, mooning over the thing. You should know, Mr. Singleman fancies himself a real tinkerer.”
“But it is a typewriter, isn’t it?”
“Well, what else could it be?” Mrs. Pass laughed heartily at Eve’s naiveté.
Suddenly, Mr. Singleman came bursting out of his office, his eyes bloodshot, his hair pointing every which direction, his shirt sticking to his sweat-soaked body, his suit creased, and his feet shoeless. He resembled Dr. Frankenstein being interrupted from his work by the dinner bell.
His appearance startled Mrs. Pass.
“Oh!” She cried. Eve wanted to laugh, and bit her tongue preemptively. She had never seen a man in so superior a position make such a fool of himself so shamelessly before.
“Is it here?!” said Mr. Singleman. He was practically manic. “I heard a loud noise, were they setting it up?”
“That was Mrs. Pass,” said Eve. “She was laughing.”
“No, they haven’t been up yet,” said Mrs. Pass.
“Damn! What could be taking them so long?”
“Did you… sleep here, Mr. Singleman?”
“If you can call it that. They were putting the final touches on the thing in the middle of the night, I didn’t dare go home in case they finished early. Who’s she?”
“This is Eve Pembroke. The new girl.”
“Oh, of course! My, you’re but a child! What are you, nineteen? Twenty?”
“I’ll be twenty in May.”
“What luck! I’ve always found the younger generation much handier when it comes to new technology. I bought the missus an electric Hoover last month. Took her two hours to get the damn thing out of the box. The kids were using it to haul out the trash in under five minutes. Ingenious.” Mr. Singleman saw Mrs. Pass took the comment the wrong way. “I don’t mean that you’re not technologically savvy, Rosemary. But even I must yield to youth when it surpasses my abilities.”
“Thankfully those geniuses haven’t designed a machine that can carry, birth, and raise a child, otherwise I’d be out of another job.”
“You see?” said Mr. Singleman. Eve was able to detect the sarcasm in Mrs. Pass’s voice, but she didn’t think her new boss could.
“I’ll go call the boys downstairs, and see what could be delaying them,” said Mrs. Pass, and walked to another phone on the other side of the office floor.
“Now that she’s gone, I want to tell you: today is sure to be a red letter day, and I orchestrated it just so. We’ve got the whole board coming in this morning to discuss profits, big picture stuff. Well, between you and me, the numbers don’t look so good. But they’re going to eat their hats when I show them what kind of golden egg a robust R&D investment lays. They’ll be so dazzled by this new doohickey I’ve been working on (in secret, mind you), they’ll forget all about our slow growth rate and the entrance of competitors in our already shoulder-to-shoulder niche. Because it’s going to drive costs way down! Why sell more when you can spend less?”
“I don’t know,” said Eve.
Mrs. Pass returned. “I’ve got good news, Mr. Singleman. The boys from downstairs are coming right up!”
“Well, that is good news, by gum! Give my door a knock when they get here, but don’t come in. I’m going to be changing. And Eve, remember…” Mr. Singleman tapped his nose at Eve, his co-conspirator, and went into his office.
“What was that about?”
“I don’t know.”
“Hmm. Ah, here they are.”
Two bespectacled technicians entered the floor wheeling in a cart, on top of which was an object concealed by a thick, impenetrable covering. The technicians had grave faces on, which to Eve made them look like pallbearers processing a casket to its final resting place. She felt the room had grown colder, darker. ♦
To read more, buy Vol. I: Pattern Machines today!