Nevil Neuman looked at the clock over the door on the faraway front wall of the office while he typed. He absolutely had to get this presentation paper done for his boss, Sutton Wheatley, or there would be trouble. It was now 12:25 and everyone else was out at lunch while he sat at his little desk in the corner of the back row typing columns of numbers for his boss to refer to during a 1:00 PM meeting. Mr. Wheatley had given him the assignment at 11:30 and told him he needed 25 copies made to hand out during the meeting, if the subject arose. Nevil’s heart had sunk hearing this. He had hoped to go outside with his sack lunch to enjoy the sunshine but he didn’t dare to say anything to Mr. Wheatley other than, “Yes, sir.”
He was trying not to make a mistake, it was easy to mix up numbers when transferring them. Most of the workers in the front of the office had the new word processor computers, but Nevil and five others in the back row still used electric typewriters. Nevil had nothing against the big IBM Selectrics with their type-ball elements that held the type faces. He loved the sound and feel of them and his model had the correcting feature so simple mistakes were easy to fix, but even minor editing chores still meant retyping the entire document. With the word processing computers, edits were performed on the screen and then everything was sent to the printer. Nevil could not wait until the back row got word processors too.
He was down to the final part of the work which was entering historical production figures for the division broken down by month and product. The entire table was in the last corporate report but Mr. Wheatley wanted the same table inserted at the end of the new mission statement along with selected minutes from the board’s meetings. It wasn’t that big of a project, if Nevil had been given a day to do it, or even a whole afternoon.
Nevil was concentrating so hard on the figures he was getting a headache. He had the corporate report propped up to his left in the document holder and he was careful when moving the horizontal rule down the page so he transcribed the correct line.
The key to getting a clutch job like this done right was to do it right the first time and not have to keep backing up. And the key to that was to go as slow as you could and concentrate. The problem was that he knew he wouldn’t finish on time at his current pace. He had to focus and see how close he could get before he had to cut corners.
The phone on his desk doodled and his eyes darted to the blinking red light on it. He almost stopped and answered it, but caught himself realizing that any interruption now would cause disaster.
Next to his phone he saw the back side of his heat-folded clear Plexiglass desk name plate. He could see the name on it in reverse as he looked through the transparent plastic. They had misspelled his last name as Newman when it was Neuman. He’d mentioned this to his boss when he got it six years before and was told not to worry about it. Nevil agreed it might not be a big deal.
“Darn!” He said as he typed 65 instead of 56. You see. It happens just that way, he said to himself and corrected the error and continued. The phone continued to beedle its warbling tone.
Nevil’s eyes darted back and forth between the source document and platen of the Selectric, double-checking his work as he typed. He could still see the red blinking light on the phone in his peripheral vision as its deedeling went on.
“Pick up that goddam phone! Whoever it is back there,” someone shouted from the front of the office.
Nevil knew that voice. It Ted Dunphy, the senior editor in charge of advertising copy. Dunphy was very important to this floor and everyone said he was in line for promotion to the corporate operations section, two floors up.
Sweat broke out on Nevil’s hairless upper lip and balding head. He hadn’t realized anyone else was working through lunch, let alone Dunphy. This could spell trouble for him. When you went to lunch you were supposed to forward your phone to the operator so that someone would answer and it wouldn’t bother anyone still working in the office.
Nevil considered ducking his head and continuing his typing but if whoever was calling didn’t give up soon, Dunphy might come back to investigate and that would open a whole can of worms. Plus Dunphy might be able hear Nevil’s big Selectric from way up there at the front of the office.
He had stop typing. Darn it!
He stopped and said aloud, “Sorry! Sorry!” and picked up the phone. “Hello. This is Nevil Neuman.”
He heard a click and then the dial tone as whoever it was, hung up.
Nevil set the receiver back into the cradle and looked at the sheet of paper in the platen to find where he left off and then began again to transcribe the rows of digits.
He began slowly and soon he was back up to his deliberate pace.
The phone rang again, this time a doodle-deedle. The change in tone signaled that this was an outside call. Who would call him from outside the company? He needed to finish this line of numbers before answering, just a few more digits.
“Goddamit. I can’t get any work done this way. Do you want me to come back there and be your goddam secretary?” Dunphy yelled from his desk at the front. Every day coming in to work Nevil walked by Dunphy’s desk. It was the first thing you saw when you entered the workroom. Dunphy didn’t like people standing around looking into his office but Nevil had peeked every chance he got.
Dunphy’s office cubicle was big and it had vertical walls set around it to give it privacy and noise shelter. The walls were a maroon burlap and Dunphy had hung pictures of his vacations on them. There were beaches and ocean surf scenes and sunsets and boats. There was a luxurious potted tropical plant that had to have been six feet tall in the corner behind his chair. On the smaller side of his big L-shaped desk was a sleek charcoal-faced case with a built-in screen, a keyboard and a slot for a floppy-disk and the name Wang emblazoned on its front. Sitting next to it on the counter was an electric typewriter connected to the Wang by a cable that could type out whatever was created on the big Word Processor computer. It looked like a shimmering vision of paradise to Nevil.
He stopped typing. “Sorry! I’m so sorry! I…” He picked up the phone. “This is Nevil Neuman.”
“Nevil Neuman?” A woman’s voice said. Nevil’s heart sank, was this necessary?
“Yes, this is Nevil Neuman.” Silently praying that they would make this fast.
“Nevil. How are you today?” the woman asked in a bright and friendly voice.
Nevil thought he felt a molar crack as he said, “Fine, fine. May I help you?”
“Nevil, this is Ellie at Dr. Chowdury’s office.” She said the words as if speaking to a stroke victim who couldn’t concentrate. “You have an appointment with doctor to have your annual cleaning and checkup tomorrow at 5:15 PM and we just wanted to remind you of the appointment.”
“Yes, thank you. I have that here on my calendar. I’ll be there. Thank you so much for calling. Good bye, uh, Ellie,” Nevil said as quickly as he could without sounding rude.
“Goodbye, Nevil. We’ll see-” He hung up on her and then felt bad that he’d cut her off. Sure he was busy and way behind, but it wasn’t her fault and he had no right to act rudely when she was just doing her job. Jeepers, he could really be exasperating some days. He thought maybe he should look up Dr. Chowdury’s number and call her back and apologize for hanging up so abruptly. It would be the right thing to do.
Nevil’s hands shook as he realized how far behind he'd gotten by answering the phone and now this pointless line of thought. But manners mattered. It wasn’t pointless to consider apologizing. How we treat each other was the very basis of any civilization.
A small cry escaped from his lips as he felt torn by these thoughts.
His head throbbed with pain and pressure as he turned back to the paper in the platen and found where he had left off. He slowly began again and established his rhythm, moving his eyes back and forth from the document holder to the paper in the Selectric, over and over, transferring the digits, checking his work as he typed. His speed gradually came back up to where it had been.
Nevil glanced at his watch and saw it was 12:45 and he had at least 25 more minutes of uninterrupted work still to do and that was before going down to the Xerox room and standing in line to make 25 copies. He felt the doom creeping up on him. It was rising around him like cold dark water, it was at mid-chest level, but soon, soon it would be at his lower lip. He shivered and his lower lip shook. His head throbbed and he saw flashes of light in time with his heartbeat.
Nevil would not finish this project on time. He would have to stand up and tell Mr. Wheatley that he had failed and beg forgiveness. He’d never been fired or let go from a job before. His work record was pristine until now. This was a blow that Nevil was not prepared for. He would have to tell his parents about this when he visited them for the Thanksgiving Holidays and it would crush them. Would he be able to find another job before Thanksgiving? It was only six weeks away and with this on his record, he might have to start over in the mail room or perhaps the loading dock.
Many people turned to drink when major downturns like this occurred, he’d read about such things. He might wake up one day with a tattoo of a bird on his arm in some strange woman’s apartment. Sweet Jesus, don’t let me suffer through such degradation. Take me to my heavenly home now, please. He begged in silence but nothing happened. He was forsaken. It was all coming true.
He checked his watch, 12:52. Another few wasted minutes. At least he could show a little dignity and go down typing.
He looked at the paper and found where he’d left off. Nevil began typing slowly at first and then he gradually built speed. As he typed he heard people coming back into the room from their lunch breaks. He heard the scattered ends of conversations and laughter. These were the sounds of failure to Nevil. Still he typed on.
His head throbbed and he could hear the beats like a muffled bass drum in his ears. Somewhere in his fevered thinking he could hear the countdown of the clock to 1:00 PM.
As his co-workers filed in in greater numbers and took their desks, Nevil felt something inside of him grow and his ears rang, dimly at first but with growing intensity. Then his fingers stopped moving on their own and lay lightly touching the keys of the humming keyboard. His eyes turned to the silent phone sitting on his desk and from there to the backside of the transparent Plexiglass name plate on the front edge of his desk. He looked at the backwards name applied to the front of the plate in some kind of opaque material. He focused on the W in the last name. He listened to the sound of his heart beating in his ears behind the incessant ringing. His vision flashed in time with the beat.
Then his phone deedled and the little red light flashed in his peripheral vision. He was transfixed by the W on the name plate. As the phone deedled again the thing inside him doubled in size. It felt as though it was crowding the organs in his chest. It was hard to breathe and his peripheral vision disappeared. He was looking down a dark tunnel at the W on the plastic plate.
As the phone deedled a third time, what he was looking at changed. The W began to shimmer and then smoke. The plastic plate that held the misspelled name crumpled as it lay there. It twisted and compressed as if it had been heated and subjected to some large external forces. The plate became a misshapen and blistered object that bore no resemblance to the name plate it had been.
As it changed, Nevil’s headache disappeared along with the ringing in his ears and tunnel vision. He felt refreshed and alert as if he’d had a short nap. He sat up and took a deep breath and looked around. The office activity moved as if nothing had happened.
Nevil thought for a moment. Had anything happened? He looked at the crumpled piece of plastic on his desk and then reached out for it. As his hand approached the object the phone deedled once again and his hand moved to the receiver and picked it up.
“This is Nevil Neuman,” he said, at ease, with no sense of who it might be or what it might be about.
“Newman. This is Mr. Wheatley. I need that work you were doing for me, pronto!” The gruff voice said.
Nevil felt a brief jolt of panic that disoriented him.
“Mr. Wheatley. I, I, uh…” His thoughts scattered to the four corners of his mind. He felt light-headed and then he caught sight of the crumpled plastic on his desk and he stopped.
“Wait a moment, please,” Nevil said and he considered what had just happened. He leaned forward and touched the hunk of plastic with the index finger of his free hand to see if it was warm. It wasn’t, so he picked it up and held it in front of his face examining it. He turned it around.
It was clear to Nevil that he’d just done that. He wasn’t imagining this. He’d just, uh, caused this plastic to bend and fold and wad up like this. No, that wasn’t quite right. What he meant was, he’d just bent and folded and wadded this thing up like this, with his mind.
“Newman. Are you there?” Mr. Wheatley said impatiently. “Have you got my paper or not, dammit!” He sounded angry.
“Please wait a moment. I’m thinking.” Nevil said still considering the ramifications of this thing.
He had done this with his mind and he thought he knew how he’d done it. If this was true he had to be careful. This could be dangerous, no it was dangerous. He did not know what limits there were to this. How much force and at what distance? A little practice would make this stronger and more controllable, and more dangerous. Enough to kill. Oh! He must be careful.
For an instant, Nevil thought, no, they must be careful. I am a dangerous man. These thoughts came to him with something like bad pride or a cheap sense of power. But he could see that this kind of thinking was not right. This wasn’t like finding $100 on the street. No, this kind of power could cause real trouble. He had to think about this.
This strange turn of events required restraint and responsibility. It was a good thing this had come to him. He shuddered when he thought what could happen if this power had been given to someone without a conscience and benevolent nature. He was the right person to handle this.
“Now Mr. Wheatley,” Nevil spoke as if he was describing a flat tire to a stranded motorist. “I wasn’t able to get that job done. It was a much larger job than you thought. It will take the rest of the afternoon.”
“But while I have you on the phone, there’s been a small accident and I need a new name plate for my desk. One that has my last name spelled correctly,” Nevil said as he put his feet up on the edge of the desk. He looked around and thought that his little work area wasn’t big enough for a Wang word processor and printer. He would have to move, and Dunphy would be going upstairs soon. Perfect.