The Crowded Office

by Heather Duerre Humann

The room that houses the social security office sits swollen with people on a mid-September afternoon. The people gathered there remind Alice of locusts mixed with honey, crumpling against raw flesh and sticky clothes. Her starchy pant suit and tattered hose constrict her as she tries to get comfortable on the floor. Alice has grown tired of standing, feeling hot and dizzy among this cluster. All the seats are taken. They are filled with small children, cooing for candy and cartoons, wrestling with their mothers and grandmothers, trying to escape. Middle aged women huddle together in secluded groups, gabbing thickly. They seem protective of their chairs, invested in them like they are valuable real estate. Only the gray haired couples rest calmly, as they perspire out their coffee, Metamucil, and prunes. The numbers leisurely roll by. A nursing mother with oily brown hair balances her splotchy newborn in the corner. She looks like she wants to hide him from their glances.

Through the Venetian blinds of the wire encased windows, the breezy day taunts those inside. Alice checks the board then glances at the scrap in her hand. The bold red letters on the square black board announce number seventy-two. Alice holds the number 91 ticket in her palm. She fiddles with it, as if this act might alter the digits, as if her hands could reduce them so they will match the one on the board they all watch. She notices that no one watches her. They, too, hold their numbers firmly, waiting for their turn. When one of the clerks abruptly puts her plastic “Next Window Please” sign up on her booth, a collective moan resonates. Alice hears some grumbling but soon they settle back to their chairs or the floor.

A group of young men in athletic suits, recent exiles from adolescence, pour through the doors, announcing their presence. The smallest, shiny and wearing a bright green get-up, jogs towards the make-shift desk with the security guard lazily perched behind. From where Alice sits she can hear his questions and she watches him as he moves, more slowly now, to get a number of his own. It must be up to 120 or 30 by now. She checks her new stainless-steel watch, fiddles with the band, liking its cool tinny feel. She regrets looking at it, though, because the dial mocks her as it creeps by. Next to Alice sits an affable looking girl, about her age, wearing freshly laundered khakis and a crisp tee-shirt, proudly announcing City College in vibrant yellow blocks. The girl’s black braids twist down and close in on her features, dancing, as if spurred on by the bright fasteners holding them in place. This girl smiles at Alice, shakes her head, and then digs through her overflowing purse, like she lost something and wants to find it. Moments later, she retrieves a paper from her bag. It looks like a marriage certificate. A few seats open to their left, but the now rowdy young men in their sweat suits are too quick, bullying their way among the crowd to grab a chair, almost knocking a small boy and his toy airplane to the floor. Alice watches as the boy’s mother, raven haired and squirmy in an itchy-looking golden sundress, pulls him towards her and pointedly looks their way. The mother mouths something in a foreign sounding accent.

Through the grimy glass of the windows, Alice hears the swish of an approaching train. It chugs by, piercing the room with its rattle, disrupting the faint rhythm of the room. For a moment, she imagines herself aboard that train, getting settled into a squashy leather booth in the dining compartment, making small talk with the folks behind her, and watching the towns as they go by. Loud speakers call more numbers. Folks shift, glance hurriedly at the board, and double check what they see in their sticky hands against the number that looms overhead.

The whining of a cellular telephone in the background interrupts the growing tension of the room. A few freeze at its cry, then some fumble in their pockets or clutch bags. Maybe the call is for them? A gruff looking man, his plaid shirt peeling away from his frame, answers the phone. She hears his “Hello. Hello?” and envies him for a moment. A small girl wearing a polka-dot dress enters the room alone, looking confused. The noise stops for her. Two minutes pass, and then she exits. The door closes indignantly while the rumble of the conversations resumes, as if on cue.

More numbers get called as Alice sits, more tenuously now, thinking the wait must hasten by. She checks her number again, now no longer wanting it to change. Her turn will come very soon. Behind her, she hears a young boy punching his little sister. Alice does not want to stare but finds herself looking over her shoulder, shifting slightly so she can witness them. The little girl’s face grimaces while she winces away. The tired looking red-headed mother ignores the two, and picks at her hands deliberately. Her cuticles, ragged and bloody, sprout up like kudzu over what remains of her nail beds. The mother’s hands look dry and cracked. For a moment, forgetting her annoyance, Alice wants to offer her some lotion.

The now familiar demand from the speakers begins again. This time Alice gladly answers the call and makes her way towards a booth. A swollen looking man, all pasty flesh and large glasses, grabs at her documents and begins the questions.

To him Alice says, “I’ve lost my card and want another.” Then, she adds, almost as an afterthought “for my new job”.

She does not want much really. The clerk, looking relieved (he prefers her type of request), takes her form and her photo I.D., and darts out of sight. As Alice waits, she hears the stabbing pop of the door, as it opens to let another body in. This time a middle-aged woman saunters into the room, large designer bag on her arm. She is dressed sharply but looks sweaty. Her brassy hair, piled sloppily on her head, accentuates the too pale pallor of her face. This woman looks over the room, eyeing it with contempt. She stares angrily at the filled chairs and strides towards the guard at his station. He sits there, like a fixture in the room, more closely resembling the shoddy furnishings than the viable miscellany that crowd together here.

Her shrill words want to startle him awake.

Alice hears as the woman asks, rather demands, “I want to be seen now.”

The woman makes no attempt to quiet her request or to hide it from the others already waiting in the room.

“I tried to call and make an appointment,” the woman shouts at the security guard, who still rests behind his small desk.

The guard, slowly, taking care to enunciate each word well, says to her “Sorry– we don’t take appointments.”

He is urging her to the other side of the room.

He points and says “You need to take a number.”

The brassy woman looks like she has been slapped as those words come out of his mouth. Alice cringes. The room has stopped its noise and has turned toward the woman as she moves, stomping impudently through the crowd. For a moment, it looks like she will comply, take a number, and wait like the rest.

Then, nearing the middle of the room, she stops and starts to preach.

“I haven’t eaten in two days” the woman, in her designer clothes, yells.

The room surveys this woman, now standing centrally amongst the chairs. She stands defiantly, looking them over, lingering longer on the ones who turn their eyes away more slowly.

“I have not eaten in two days,” she repeats.

An old black woman chuckles. Alice, still sitting at the booth, still waiting for that pasty skinned clerk, who has already well settled into middle age, ducks her head. Alice pictures the woman grabbing into her fancy label bag. Could the woman be digging for a gun?

Instead, the woman raises her voice even louder and says, “I need my check. Will anyone, someone, please give me their number so I can see someone here, now?”

?There are nervous giggles in the room, like those of a schoolgirl confronted by a rapist. No one speaks, though. The brassy haired lady looks like she wants to grab at a chair and stand on it so she can yell out again. There are no empty chairs, though. There is barely room left on the floor but she has managed to push her way to the center, kicking the people on the floor out of her path as she walks by.

Alice soon finds herself watching the crowd, the loud lady, and this scene. She barely notices when the crumpled looking clerk with the big spectacles returns. He speaks to her in a practiced and hushed voice, methodically telling her things: when the replacement card will arrive; that she needs to double-check the spelling of her name; the accuracy of the number; the address on the leaf of paper; and that she can use this receipt in the meantime, as proof for her new employer that she has a social security number. He pushes the receipt towards her, but seems to be in no hurry to have her leave. Just as Alice thinks about getting up, making her way towards the door, and out of this place, she stops.

A young man, the shiny one in the green athletic suit, jumps up. He stares rebelliously at the brassy haired woman who is still standing defiantly but with an exasperated look. She sees him looking at her. Neither shies their eyes away.

A moment passes then the young man says loudly, “Look lady, I got me a ticket here, and I will SELL it to you for fifty dollars.”

Everyone in the room looks his way. The brassy haired lady starts to say something back but Shiny interrupts, towering, despite his small frame, in the center of the room.

He smiles as he explains, “I got plenty of time lady, but no money, so I’ll trade you my ticket for fifty dollars.”

He emphasizes each word as he spits them at her.

Alice waits, still at her booth, now ignoring the watery looking clerk and the words leaking from his mouth. She hopes the security guard will get up, make his way towards the middle of the room, where the young man in the green sweat suit faces off with the brassy lady.

The guard remains seated, though, through all of this, fixed still like another piece of aged furniture haphazardly strewn in this cramped smelly room. Alice resents his apathy, but admires the way he blends in so well, and hopes, that for at least the time being, she does, too.

The woman, perspiring more now, pretends to ignore Shiny’s offer and instead, announces, again, to the crowded room; “Will anyone, someone, please give me their number so I can see someone here, now?”

She rubs her stomach after belching out those last words, probably to remind the room that she remains hungry. No one says a word. The people in the room dart their eyes away. Even the old black lady, who snickered before, keeps her head down.

The room sits gravely silent until the green athletic suit outfitted young man, again declares “I said: I got me a ticket here. I will sell it to you for fifty dollars.”

He boldly stares down the woman as he speaks these words. She does not speak for a moment, and then offers again, this time in a softer tone, trying to make her words sound sweet yet desperate.

“I don’t have fifty dollars” she says.

To this, the young man retorts smugly, “Well, I only got one ticket.”

Once he’s said these words the blond woman gazes around the room one final time, lowers her head, and digs into that designer handbag. From it, she takes a crisp, clean fifty-dollar bill and offers it towards him. He takes the money, beams, hands her the ticket, and exits the room. Seconds later, the young men who followed him in, jog out as well, bounding through the door in their bright athletic suits. Alice takes her cue from them. She does not stop to look towards the brassy haired woman but imagines that the woman now hides her eyes from the stares of the room.

Heather Duerre Humann is originally from Virginia but now resides in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where she is a student in the PhD program (English) at the University of Alabama. She also teaches English there and works as an assistant fiction editor for the literary journal Black Warrior Review.