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  • That There, That's Not Me
  • Seth Sawyers (bio)

Small stakes ensure you the minimum blues
Can't think big, can't think past one or two.

Spoon, "Small Stakes"

I work in a cubicle, next to a nice woman named Doreen who is generous with her generic-brand Tylenol when I'm hung over or on days when I've got the regular kind of headache that won't die. Doreen does the same sort of work that I do, only she is better at it. She takes notes at departmental meetings without being asked; she answers the phone in a voice that makes people want to cut out the rudeness and try on the nice. She cares about the business of writing sales proposals, and I try not to.

Doreen's got grown children and an ex-husband who's a city councilman. He left her a long time ago. She told me this one afternoon when neither of us had any proposals to work on. She keeps quiet on her side of the cubicle wall—she does not make personal phone calls—but I pass her cubicle 50 times a day, and so I know that she likes Halloween, Christmas, Easter, and especially St. Patrick's Day. She keeps statuettes in a filing cabinet—Santa Clauses and leprechauns and goblins—that show up when the season's right. She's hung a picture of Pope John Paul II on her wall and did not at all care for The Last Temptation of Christ, which I mentioned once because I knew she'd have something to say about it. Doreen smiles when she admits to her occasional pint or two of Guinness. When I sneeze, she'll bless me and then ask if I've been taking my vitamins. And then I'll lie and say that I have.

She's also told me about Andy, about how she raised her boy-genius grandson for five of his earliest years before the State of Maryland returned custody to her daughter, who has since taken the boy far away to North [End Page 11] Carolina. When Doreen had him, she fed him books and morals and ideas. She plans her vacations around her grandson's Christmas and summer breaks. She buys him things like Fender Telecasters and lessons for Irish step-dancing.

When I saw him last, Andy had grown two inches in two months, and if I didn't know better, I'd have sworn he had a shadow of fuzzy hair on his upper lip. He's a loud little guy, and I overheard him talking about the Orioles and Saturn's moons and Green Day. I passed Doreen's cubicle on the way to mine and saw him resting on her lap, facing her, his legs to either side of her waist. I sat down at my desk, on the other side of the cubicle wall.

"Mom, I don't think we'll have time to get to the mall and back," Doreen's daughter was saying.

Doreen whispered into Andy's ear. He giggled. "Grandma," Andy said, "you already know what my favorite is!"

"I know," Doreen said.

"Grandma," Andy said, "Grandma. You're hugging me too tight."

"I know," Doreen said.

Because of Andy, I know that Doreen, on the inside, is someone else entirely from the woman who eats Cinnamon Life with 2 percent milk every morning at 8:45, after she's booted up the computer and checked her email. Those five years with Andy put something inside of Doreen that neither the state nor her daughter can ever reach, that her ten-by-ten-foot cubicle cannot contain. She's got a framed, glowing portrait of her grandson Andy—maybe faded and a little distorted now that he's ten—that burns inside of her like nothing on this planet, on any of Saturn's moons, or anywhere else.

* * *

Doreen's not the only one. We—Doreen, the rest of us, me—are not who we say we are. We in the Marketing Strategy and Delivery department, or MS&D for short, are not proposal coordinators or graphics specialists, and we...


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