• Tony Artuso

"The Temp"


The minute I laid eyes on her, I noticed something different about the woman seated in SMP’s 5th floor reception area. I don’t mean just the 60’s-style Marlo Thomas hair, which looked like a wig, nor the black cat eye frames of her faux-diamond-studded glasses, nor her pink sleeveless A-line mini dress, another retro affection on a par with her glossy white vinyl go-go boots. I did the double-take when I saw her white-gloved hands, folded demurely in her lap. Who the heck wears white gloves these days, except for actresses on Mad Men? I thought as I strode past her to my cube buried in the windowless core of the building.

Now, don’t think me rude for saying nothing to the young woman. As the only female on the floor, I scrupulously avoid doing anything that risks my being mistaken for a receptionist. In fact, after the promotion of our last receptionist, George, to the QA department, we put a large sign on his former desk advising visitors to dial the number of the person they’ve come to see. We’d hire another receptionist as soon as we hired all the coders we needed, a mission-critical task, as my know-it-all boss, Mitch Testa, reminded me whenever I asked for a permanent marketing assistant instead of a still another temp for a few weeks.

When I reached my cube, my VOIP phone’s message light blazed red as a Christmas tree bulb. I grabbed the receiver, punched the button for messages, and listened to a raspy voice, “Uh, hi, this is Trixie, Trixie Starr. I’m, uh, the temp who’s here to do a project for, uh,” here, the message paused as Trixie rustled papers, apparently seeking a name, “Gloria Stern. I’m waiting in the lobby whenever you’re ready, Ms. Stern.” Setting down the receiver, I clucked to myself. The speaker sounded male, the voice vaguely familiar. Did he remind me of someone on an old YouTube video about Gamezilla, the company SMP acquired five years ago? I shook my head. The person in the lobby clearly presented as female. Maybe Trixie smoked or naturally possessed a throaty, Marlene Dietrich voice, I decided as I retraced my steps.

The woman looked up as I approached. “Hi, I’m Gloria,” I offered my hand.

“I’m Trixie,” she squeaked, despite her voice’s generally low register, as she rose and demurely squeezed my palm. “Nice to meet you, Gloria.”

“Likewise, Trixie,” I replied, surprised how far I needed to crane my neck to meet the deep brown pools of her eyes. I filed this peculiarity, along with Trixie’s other eccentricities, under “things for later consideration.”

“Let me show you where you’ll be working,” I led the way to the empty cube near mine.

***

Two days later, I’m sitting with Mitch for our weekly 1:1 in one of the few conference rooms that haven’t morphed into offices because of our chronic space crunch. When I first suggested to Mitch that we meet here instead of his office, as usual, I congratulated myself on my cleverness. Sitting here, not in front of his computer screen, meant my boss no longer faced the irresistible temptation to do e-mail while we talked or, to be more precise, ignore me while I talked at him. Now, as he tapped away on his iPhone, I wrapped up my current point, “The social media campaign for the 5-year anniversary of Gamezilla’s acquisition is going great. There’s lots of fabulous content, plenty of opportunities for customer engagement.” Determined to switch things up, I pushed aside the sheet with my typed agenda and asked, “Do you have any questions?”

Sensing a challenge, he glanced up. “So that temp we hired to help you with the campaign is working out okay?” he grinned, proud of himself for coming up with a relevant query so quickly.

“I think so,” I hesitated, unsure how to pursue this ticklish subject. “But, uh, how much do you know about her?”

Mitch shrugged, “She’s just whoever the agency sent over.” He again consulted his phone’s screen, apparently seeking a response to his last text. “Why do you ask?”

“She’s a bit, uh, unusual.”

Mitch chuckled, scrolling on his phone with his index finger. “Aren’t we all?”

“Most of us don’t dress like we came off the set of Mad Men.” I crossed my arms. “Who wears white gloves anymore? Or miniskirts and go-go boots?”

Mitch shrugged. “Sounds like she dresses retro. Plenty of people do that. Remember, we don’t have a dress code here.” He eyed his phone’s screen again, as if willing a new text to appear.

“Have you seen how tall she is?” Of course not, I thought furiously. You never leave your office and mingle with “little people.” “Or heard her speak?”

Mitch sat up, startled by something that popped up on his screen. He looked up, confused, as if he’d only just noticed I sat across from him. “What are you getting at?”

I dropped my voice. “I think she wasn’t always a she. At one point, she was a he.” I leaned forward. “And he, I mean, she sounds like someone I heard talking on YouTube about Gamezilla. He, uh, she may have worked for that company.”

Mitch shrugged. “Okay, the temp’s transgender. So what?” He focused again on his phone and began tapping as he spoke. “I can’t legally inquire as to her gender. She presents as female. I can’t stop her from using the ladies’ room. Are you uncomfortable with that?”

“No,” I shrugged. “He, uh, I mean, she behaves herself in the women’s room.” I emphasized the non-sexist term. “She doesn’t bother me—and I’m the only other person who uses that bathroom.”

“All right, then,” Mitch muttered. “Case closed,” he announced and triumphantly hit the “send” button on his phone.

***

The next morning, I heard a tentative rap on the edge of my cubicle. I looked up from scrolling the impressive spreadsheet compiled by Trixie to behold the women herself, in an outfit 10 years more retro than yesterday’s: she wore a scarf around her neck, an angora sweater, poodle skirt, and saddle shoes. “Hi, Gloria,” she beamed. “I’m checking on that file I sent.” She stepped in and perched on the edge of the visitor chair in front of my desk. “Will that work for you?”

“It will more than work for me. It’s a treasure-trove of tidbits about Gamezilla from a plethora of sources. Great work, Trixie!” I beamed.

She beamed back, her blazing red lipstick glowing against her pearly whites. “I’m so glad you like it. I really enjoyed creating and debugging the macro that compiled it.”

I sat back. “You programmed a macro to do this? You didn’t just scan the files visually and copy and paste the relevant bits?”

“Of course, not,” Trixie looked equally stunned. “That’s a lot of manual work, subject to human error. A computer’s much better at extracting and compiling relevant data.”

I shook my head. “But all those data were in different formats—e-mails, IM’s, Facebook posts, even old-fashioned memos. One program can’t scan all that.”

Trixie shrugged. “It took several macros, actually, but the base logic was identical: search for text strings of key phrases and then extract those, parsing out the sentence before and after as well as the sentence containing the key phrase—in addition to metadata, such as the quote’s source document and date—then compiling those into a spreadsheet.” Trixie tipped her chin in the direction of my computer monitor.

I sat speechless, head spinning at Trixie’s matter-of-fact description of the intensely complex process. Something in her nonchalant manner reminded me of the flipness of some techie I’d recently heard—where? On YouTube maybe. I shook my mind to clear it and ventured, “Well, from what I understood of what you said, which, honestly, was half,” I conceded, “it was brilliant, but wasn’t it kind of overkill for a one-time project?”

Trixie frowned. “But I’ve automated the solution. The process is perfect!”

“True, but why spend the time automating a process for a one-time event?”

“You don’t know that it’s a one-time deal,” she sniffed. “Besides, it’s more fun this way.”

I struggled to prevent my jaw dropping. “Writing complicated macros is fun?”

Trixie shrugged and stood with a ruffle of skirts. “Different strokes for different folks.” She winked mischievously, turned, and, with dainty steps, despite her stature, threaded her way between cubicles back to her workstation.

***

With the conference room in use during this week’s 1:1 with Mitch, we defaulted to his office again. At least he left his phone in his desk drawer this time, instead glancing periodically at the monitor that sat between us, tapping at his keyboard only occasionally.

During one particularly long stretch of his pecking at the keys, I faltered in my recitation then fell silent. “I’m done, Mitch,” I sighed, thoroughly defeated.

“Okay, then, tell me how that temp of yours is doing,” he glanced up at me from his screen. “What’s her work like?”

“Like I told you last week, she does great except, well,” here I paused, hesitating. “Sometimes she’s a bit over the top.”

“What do you mean?” He arched a skeptical brow as he peered at me over his monitor.

“I asked her to scan several databases of old social media posts from Gamezilla before the acquisition. The easiest thing to do would have been to scan with her eyes, take notes, all that. Instead, she wrote this elaborate set of macros that automated the whole thing, with Boolean logic search strings, and such.”

Mitch clucked, “Sounds like she did a good job. She certainly lived up to our request for someone with good tech skills. Probably saved herself—and us—tons of time.” He glanced down at this monitor and pecked away some more.

I considered my agenda, half the items on it as yet untouched. “Well,” I began, staring down, “the actual search may have only taken seconds, but writing and debugging the macro took hours—and all for a one-time use.”

“Who knows?” Mitch shrugged, addressing the screen in front of his nose, not me. “We might do another campaign like the Gamezilla one someday.”

I leaned forward, sensing opportunity. “You’d consider resurrecting my original suggestion about doing a campaign for the Starbird Games acquisition? It happened at the same time as Gamezilla’s purchase, after all.”

I finally got his attention. He scowled at me over the top of his monitor. “That again? I told you, nobody remembers Starbird. Gamezilla, on the other hand, has a following—even now.” Mitch once more dropped his gaze to his screen, signaling that he’d closed the subject—again.

Stymied, I took a deep breath, decided to make the offer I’d been dreading. “You know, Mitch, I hate to lose a good temp, but Trixie’s a natural-born coder.”

Mitch started and looked up at me from his monitor as if I’d reached around the screen and slapped him. “What are you saying?”

“You’re always telling me, we’re short on coders.” I shrugged. “Maybe we ought to hire Trixie permanently—to fill one of the open engineering roles.”

Mitch snorted. “Are you serious, Gloria? It just won’t work,” he laughed. “I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous. Trixie’s a girl, isn’t she?”

I straightened in my chair. “She’s a woman.”

“Whatever,” Mitch rolled his eyes. “The point is that she’s a temp, not an engineer. Besides, woman can’t code.”

“What do you mean?” I demanded, leaning forward. “Women can code!”

“All right, Gloria,” Mitch held up his hands, as if fending me off. “Sure, women can code, but I don’t see a female coder working well on any of our teams. There’s a reason you don’t code, Gloria.”

“I don’t like to, but Trixie’s different.”

“Yes, she’s different—so different, in fact, she’ll never fit in any of our teams.”

I bit my cheek and said nothing. After all, I needed my job.

***

After lunch, as I stood at the sink washing my hands in the women’s room, Trixie emerged from one of the two stalls and took her place beside me at the room’s other sink. With a deep breath, I summoned up courage to broach the subject of coding. “So, Trixie,” I looked into the mirror, addressing her reflection. “Were your ears burning this afternoon?”

“No,” Trixie looked up. “Should they have been?”

“Well,” I said, elbowing the cold faucet off, “I was singing your praises as a coder to Mitch.”

“That’s very kind,” Trixie nearly purred as she rubbed into her hands the soap from the dispenser that hung on the wall between our two sinks. “Thank you!” she chirped.

I sighed as I turned to the paper towel dispenser. “You don’t have much to thank me for.” I tore a sheet off with unintended force. “Mitch wasn’t receptive.”

Trixie shrugged as she ran her hands under the stream of water pouring into her sink. “I’m not surprised, really. We have a whole floor of coders here, and only two of us use the ladies’ room—you, a marketing manager, and moi, a Kelly Girl.”

I paused as I dried my hands, cringing at her casual use of not one but two sexist phrases in the same sentence. “Aren’t you a temporary administrative assistant,” I emphasized the appropriate term, “because you want to be?”

“I coded in a former life,” Trixie finished rinsing her hands and elbowed her faucet off as well. “But I took a break and dropped out of the field for several years, and, now, no one will hire me as a coder—so I temp instead.”

To give myself time, I examined my plain, short nails then wadded my used paper towel into the smallest possible ball. Finally, I looked directly at Trixie. “If you don