The Temp Job
The central office for this line of cruise ships was sandwiched between old buildings in a neighborhood that had been run-down for decades. The styles, even the colors of the buildings brought to mind an era when life was slower, when people stopped to talk to each other. Most of the commercial buildings on this street were one or two story, with overhangs and other details that welcomed a little shade for kibitzers, for back then, it was not called loitering. Pale blue, tobacco brown, even some lemon yellow paint chips valiantly hung on for dear life on stucco walls that were crumbling, a feast for termites.
Stella stepped off the one rail people mover at the Banyan Avenue station; she unfolded the small piece of paper where she had scribbled the address and phone number of her temporary assignment. “Iliad Enterprises” was not too far from the busy downtown area she knew well.
Stella had taken many assignments downtown. She would work a week or two, replacing office staff on vacation or on sick leave. Most of the offices were finely built out, furniture and carpets of rich textures and finishes. The tall office buildings displayed granite and marble and brass details. Well-dressed workers would rush into mirrored elevators or to lunch breaks in tailored suits and hair done in perfect waves and cuts.
By the time she had reached the Banyan Avenue station, the unmanned people mover car was almost empty. She found herself alone on the high platform, looking down a steep escalator that hummed menacingly. She now became aware of her heart thumping under the white polyester blouse she had chosen to wear today. It didn’t need ironing and it was of good quality, having been drastically marked down in a good downtown department store.
Stella decided to step on the escalator, feeling her palms wet with sweat as she tightly grabbed the black rubber banister. Looking around from the height of the escalator, she saw the tall downtown buildings in the distance, but closer in the landscape became very different. There was an unkempt railroad yard to the left and some vacant storage type buildings flanking it. The narrow gauge railroad tracks, running parallel to these buildings, probably had not been used in years.
Now she was on the ground level and quickly stepped off the escalator. There were no people anywhere. According to the piece of paper, Iliad Enterprises was within a block and a half of the Banyan Avenue station. It was broad daylight and she had her, just in case. Stella decided to dial the number of Iliad.
“Welcome to Iliad Enterprises,” the voicemail announced. “Our ships are bigger and better than Love Boat.” Stella decided not to leave a message, but kept the cell phone to her ear. If anyone approached her, she could call 911 without fumbling through her purse. She noticed a sign announcing 4th Street. The 300 block, the address of Iliad, had to be across the railroad tracks headed west on Banyan Avenue.
“Ouch!” Stella yelled as she stumbled over the tracks. She had put on a pair of shoes with narrow heels and her ankle twisted on the rough, small rocks spread between the cross ties of the tracks. There was a strong smell of tar and petroleum in the air. How she wished a train would come. Then she would feel safer because of some human presence. But as she looked down the steel tracks, they showed no sign of wheels recently having ground across them. The long stretch of steel was rusty, with weeds crawling over parts of it.
“Clang.” A piercing, hollow sound filled Stella’s years and her entire body stiffened. Turning around, she saw a young man within ten feet of her. He lowered his arm. Then he stooped down and picked up a rock. Stella couldn’t move. She wondered how he suddenly appeared out of nowhere. She continued to clutch the cell phone to her ear and began speaking in a low voice, pretending to have a conversation with someone.
“Clang,” went another sound as the young man flung a second rock against the metal corrugated wall of a storage building nearby.
The young man didn’t seem to pay any attention to Stella. She continued walking. The next twenty feet leading to the entrance of Iliad Enterprises seemed more like twenty miles to Stella. When she finally found the hand-lettered number ‘320’ of Iliad, she pressed the button next to a heavily barred and wired door.
Mr. Wister, the man she was to see, sat behind a desk cluttered with long lists of foods, desserts and wines for the various cruises. The offices were very small and seemed to have no filing cabinets or any definite workspaces. It was too late for Stella to cancel this assignment. What could she say? It would not do to be honest here, to refuse to work a day, no, an hour, in this messy, horrible place and put herself at risk of getting killed on the way home. The temp agency would not understand and would probably cancel any future assignments.
The job market was not very good, at least for Stella, and the temp assignments were what held her from homelessness and destitution. Could she suffer this place for one entire day?
Her thoughts were interrupted as Mr. Wister walked her over to one of the cluttered desks and brushed some papers aside.
“Here, you can work from this desk,” he said and gave her a long, folded printout of various items to be ordered for an upcoming one week cruise. Stella could see this would be very boring and without the proper adding machines and calculators, it would take a long time. She would probably make many mistakes in the process.
Her thoughts went to those plum assignments where she just had to look pretty, while sitting behind a finely polished mahogany desk, answering a few phone calls and having pleasant chats in the coffee break room.
A temp worker was always welcomed. They were no competition. Stella remembered having been hired as a permanent employee, working her way up from a temp job. As soon as the papers were signed in the personnel office, the rest of the office staff became as military guards, giving her no mercy at all. She had quit that job within six months and reverted back to the temp jobs. But this one, on Banyan Avenue, might just be the one to break her.
The job assignment was for one week. Stella handed the time sheet to Mr. Wister during the half hour lunch break and he put it in his drawer. She wondered if Mr. Wister would just forget about it or lose it altogether. If she didn’t get the time sheet to the temp office by five o’clock Friday, her paycheck would be a week late.
“Hi,” said a low voice, as Stella looked up from a pile of papers and an antique adding machine that was in sore lack of a new ribbon. It was a man, about thirty years old who had apparently been in one of the other little rooms in this complex. He had tightly cropped hair in a crew cut and his face was red, as if having shaved too closely.
“Hello,” Stella answered, trying to smile.
“Are you the new temp?” he asked.
“Yes,” Stella replied, “I started this morning.”
“I’m Skip,” the man said, looking down her blouse.
Stella felt the blood rise up in her face and didn’t say anything.
“What’s your name,” Skip said, raising his voice several notches.
“Stella,” she said, hoping her voice wouldn’t show her fear.
“What do you do at night for entertainment?” Skip continued, again looking down her blouse.
Stella knew the buttons were all closed and her bra was the new one. She knew there was nothing suggestive or unusual about her blouse. It was Skip who was the unusual one. Stella had the urge to take the heavy old adding machine and fling it at this character.
“Oh, I stay home with my husband,” Stella lied. She was not married. She wasn’t engaged, why, she had no boyfriend at all.
Stella could see that this was not the answer Skip wanted to hear. He seemed annoyed and walked away without saying anything else.
Stella had planned to grab a chicken salad sandwich at one of the local fast food places in the downtown area, or perhaps a hot dog and chili from a sidewalk vendor. She realized that there was nothing in this area that looked like a store, nor did she want to go out to find one. At one point she thought of calling her friend Ella to ask her to meet her here at five. But she dismissed that thought. Why bring Ella into this scary place and risk losing her friendship.
“I’ll be back in a couple of hours,” Mr. Wister said, walking past Stella’s desk with a case of what looked like champagne bottles.
Stella smiled and nodded her head.
She head the door slam downstairs, the one with the bars and wires.
Within minutes, Skip was at her desk.
“Guess what?” he said, leaning close to her. Stella froze in fear.
“I’m going to kill you,” he continued, with a smile. His face was red, swollen and his short bristled hair seemed to stick out like thorns.
Time seemed to stand still. Stella slid from her chair and ducked around Skip with a sweeping motion. Then she was out the door, having almost flown down the flight of old wooden stairs. She heard the heavy door clang shut behind her as she began running toward the 400 block of Banyan Avenue, toward the people mover station.
She heard the door clang shut again. It had to be Skip following her.
Stella had slipped her shoes off, running barefoot, with flimsy pantyhose between her soles and the rough street.
Then the air filled with rocks, making zinging sounds as they flew past her head and body. She heard low screams of pain, coming from behind her back. She saw a dozen young men, some teenagers, on the other side of the railroad track, swiftly throwing one rock after another. Then they moved across the tracks and ran past her as if she were invisible.
Stella couldn’t look back, but kept running to the escalator and, taking two steps at a time, climbed up to the people mover platform.
She didn’t look down until the mover had pulled up and the doors closed. From the window she then saw the gang of young men hitting a man on the ground. As the people mover swung around toward the downtown loop, the men dragged him onto the railroad tracks. The people mover now crossed the tracks and Stella saw the tracks fading into the distance, to an infinite point on the horizon.
Stella lives in another town now. Her new apartment in not near any railroad tracks. But whenever she hears a train whistle, she remembers the tracks that could have taken her life, but in the end, saved it.