Service with a Smile
I’m convinced that the clock is out to get me.
Each second is excruciating, a test of sheer willpower. I swear I can hear the clock laughing at me. “Tick, tick, tick” it chuckles. I glower at it, unamused by what is surely a joke at my expense. The air feels thick with unused time, and the smell of industrial floor cleaner clings to each breath. I’ve taken to pinching the back of my hand so as not to drift off into the merciful arms of sleep. Streams of busy citizens flow past the window, each individual with more purpose on their face than I’ve been able to muster in some time. Their presence is disconcerting, but at the same time I’m reminded that there is a life outside these walls.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see through the window a familiar face round the corner into view—a friend! I beam and give an enthusiastic wave. The stranger returns a confused expression, offers a conciliatory nod and hurries on their way. The hallucinations are getting worse.
To pass the time, I invent new games. I play several riveting rounds of “Stare at the Wall.” I have yet to beat the wall. Its monochromatic vastness holds steady against my best efforts to topple it with my mind. Next, I play “Take a Drink of Water.” Admittedly, this game has become a guilty pleasure despite lacking any real substance. I play it often during my stay. Finally, I play “Counting.” My current record is nine hundred and thirty-seven, at which time I became distracted by a passing dog and lost my place. It was small, with long ears and a curled tail.
All at once, the monotonous whirr of the oversized printer’s oversized fan is split in half as if by a sudden bolt of lightning: the phone rings, its shrill tones echoing off the cement floors and whitewashed walls. I scramble—“Hello! Vassar College Service Desk. How may I…” Click. They’ve already hung up. I hang up too. “Tick, tick, tick.” I shoot another displeased look clock-ward. As I turn to continue my interrupted round of Stare at the Wall, the phone cries out again, its anguished wails a plea for sympathy. I answer.
“Hram- arm-ala helnnsa urrhumm,” says the person on the other end of the line.
“I’m sorry?” I reply. “You’re going to have to speak up. There’s something wrong with the connection.”
“Computer, my computer broken. Help? Computer dead. Need help to computer,” the caller clarifies.
“Right…” I say, hesitantly. “Can you be any more specific about the issue?”
“No,” they offer, bluntly, all hints of disconnection evaporated.
“I see,” I return. “Would you be able to bring the computer to the desk, so that we might better diagnose the prob-” Click. Another hang-up. I sigh and start a round of Take a Drink. “Tick, tick, tick.”
Just then, a customer sidles in. Never one to dismiss a distraction, I rush to greet them, my “How may I help you?” lanyard jangling loosely around my neck. She doesn’t look happy; they never look happy. “Good morning, ma’am! What can we do for you today?” I’m met with a stare sharper than the sound of breaking glass.
“It won’t turn on,” she hisses, and slaps down onto the table with too much force a computer no less than a decade old.
“Oh,” I reply weakly. “Well, you see, after a certain number of years, most computers…” This time her glare feels like getting cracked in the ribs with a cricket bat. The air leaves my lungs involuntarily.
“What? You can’t fix it? I thought you tech people fix things.” A bead of sweat trickles down the back of my neck, and I glance at my colleague, who is pointedly ignoring the situation.
I smile. It’s the kind of smile only berated people know how to smile. It’s a smile that says “it’s my job to help you,” a smile somewhere between obstinacy and resignation. It’s a service smile. She makes a noise somewhere between an indignant gurgle and a scathing guffaw, and, grabbing her relic of a machine, leaves without another word. Crisis averted.
My relentlessly ticking adversary reminds me of its presence. “Tick, tick, tick.” As I glance up to scowl, I notice the time: half past closing. The pit of my stomach bottoms out and I have to steady myself on a table so as not to fall over. I gather my meager belongings and am out the door in a minute flat. It’s been over seven hours since I’ve last tasted the sweet air of the outside. I will relish my freedom; tomorrow brings with it a similar sentence.