Chapter 2: The Professional Temp
The phone—a less-than-state-of-the-art, Cisco 5-line corded telephone with LCD display—rang. The name on the display was NLSN MRBLCRST.
"Hello," said Ada Quarkhammer, after answering the call, obviously. "This is Ada."
There was a moment of quiet before the caller spoke.
"Aren't you supposed to be answering the phone ‘Mr. Summersteel's office’?"
"So I have been advised," said Ada. "But, while it is true that I have been temporarily tasked with the duty of answering Mr. Summersteel's phone, I am not ‘Mr. Summersteel's office.’ Not by a long shot. I am a human being. I am made of flesh, and blood, and other organs and fluids that would probably make you cringe to hear mentioned—so I won't—but point being: I am a unique individual with a strong and well-defined personality, and how I choose to earn income should not hold sway in the forging of my identity."
There was another moment of quiet.
"Is Gary in?"
"Who shall I say is calling?"
"Do you have a last name, Nelson?"
"And what's the nature of your business?"
"He knows me."
"Well, I don't know you. And I wouldn't be a very good temporary assistant if I forwarded willy-nilly every Tom, Dick, and Harriet who dialed his digits. So please tell me the nature of your business, and I will make a determination as to whether or not you are worthy of Mr. Summersteel's time and attention."
"I'm calling to make golf plans."
"Has Mr. Summersteel golfed with you before, Mr. Marblecrest?"
"Many a time, yes."
Ada considered the legitimacy of Marblecrest's story, biting her thumb as she did so, which was sort of an adorable, endearing, and memorable quirk. Ultimately, she decided that the caller was probably on the up-and-up.
"Just a moment. I'll patch you through."
Ada was an attractive young woman, twenty-two years old, who was of an indeterminate ethnicity, although definitely not white. Her attractiveness was thanks in no part to any amount of primping or grooming, activities she considered gratuitous—the habits of a person with a failing of self-respect and a depthless desire to cover up what was underneath. But Ada was proud of her underneath. She was proud of her brain, which had read many books and viewed many award-winning documentaries, and sent magnificently worded sentences to her mouth on a regular basis. She was proud of her heart—well, the heart part of her brain—which held compassion for all of the underprivileged, disenfranchised, and socially put-out, and allowed her to work vigorously on improving her powers of empathy. She was also proud of her reproductive organs, which had enough sense to stay modestly tucked inside for the most part, rather than dangling crudely from her body like a wrecking ball from a crawler crane.
More than her physical appearance, it was her manner of dress that tended to draw one's eye. Rarely was she seen not wearing her signature knee-high riding boots, studded with various faux jewels she had manually removed from pieces of costume jewelry and then adhered into place with bonding glue. Her legs were typically otherwise covered by shorts and stretch leggings—the leggings ranging in color anywhere from heliotrope to thistle—and she wore a belt around her hip with a buckle the size of a bread plate, which featured an embossed, clenched fist in the center. When it came to tops, she liked to mix it up, but tied around her neck and flowing behind her at all times was a Byzantium cape lined with white fringe. She was frequently asked why she sported a cape, to which she would generally respond by settling on some garment of the questioning party and asking them to answer the same question.
The phone rang again. This time the name on the display was GARY SUMMRSTL.
"Howdy, Gar," Ada said into the receiver.
"Hi, uh—it's probably more appropriate if you call me Mr. Summersteel, Ada."
"Certainly. As soon as you start referring to me as Ms. Quarkhammer, Gar."
"Oh. Um—all right. Anyway, could you hop in here for a second, darlin'?"
"You want to try that again without the sexism and condescension?"
Summersteel wasn't in the habit of stammering, but Ada's unusual directness—especially coming from a temp—put him off his game.
“Yeah, sorry. Just—do you mind coming into my office for a sec?”
“I don’t mind at all. Be right there, Gar.”
A solid seven minutes later, Ada entered Summersteel’s office. Rather than taking a seat, which would have put her at eye level with her superior (in a hierarchal business sense only, of course), she opted to remain standing, lingering near the door with one hand on the knob.
“Did you, uh—get a call?” asked Summersteel.
“Oh. It’s been seven minutes. And you work right outside my office.”
“My apologies. I wasn’t made aware of the urgency of this meeting.”
“Ah. I should have been more specific. Well, anywho, you’re here now.”
“I am. What can I do you for?”
“Yes. This is—awkward. Do you mind closing the door?”
“Anything you want to say to me you can say in front of everyone.” Bill Roseclaw and Pamela Thunderblade, both from Accounting, happened to be passing in the hall at that moment, and they glanced into Summersteel’s office as they walked by, hoping to glean a sense of the unfolding drama.
“All right. Door open is fine. I need to talk to you about—that.” As Summersteel pronounced the word ‘that,’ he gestured toward Ada’s cape. This being one of his first dealings with his new temporary hire, he could perhaps be forgiven for making the egregious mistake of referring to Ada’s costuming in such dismissive terms.
“Yes. Your cape.”
“What about it?” There was lightning in her eyes, and it set Summersteel at unease.
“Well, you can’t wear it. It’s not dress code.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes. It’ll have to go.”
“Okay. Why don’t you go ahead and produce this little dress code of yours, and we’ll have a gander at it together.”
“I’m not just going to take your word for it that this office strictly forbids the wearing of capes. I’ll be honest with you, Gar—I find it hard to believe. Considering that all of my scandalous parts are well covered, and that my ensemble is devoid of denim, I don’t see how I could be in violation of any official regulation. And I’m not sure how it could rightly bother anyone that I’m sporting this totally righteous cape, which probably only offends you because you wish you had one exactly like it.”
Summersteel’s jaw was mildly agape at this point. He wasn’t terribly used to meeting resistance in his dealings with underlings.
“Okay. I’m going to need to phone your office.”
“What do you mean? This is my office.”
“No, your temp office. The people who sent you here. What’s the number there?”
Ada removed her phone from the back pocket of her shorts, punched in the unlock code, clicked into her contacts, and began to scroll at a pace that made her comfortable. Summersteel, who felt the boundaries of his patience being tested, tapped his feet on the floor and aggressively massaged his eyebrows for upwards of a minute before finally succumbing to exasperation.
“Forget it. I’ve got it in my Rolodex.”
“Oh. Then why did you ask me for it?”
By this time, Summersteel had tracked down the number of the temp office, so rather than respond to Ada, he dialed the number on his Rolodex card, and then struggled to stay his agitation during the many rings.
“Stoneshadow Staffing,” said a voice on the other end of the call.
“Hi. This is Gary Summersteel over at Dynamic Synergies. My assistant is on vacation this week, and you sent over a temp to fill in while she’s gone. I’m having an issue with her.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that, Mr. Summersteel,” said the voice. “What seems to be the issue?”
“It doesn’t seem to be an issue. It is an issue. This girl is wearing a cape.”
“Using the term ‘girl’ in reference to someone other than a female child is a form of infantilization,” said Ada. “I’m a full-grown woman.”
“What?” said Summersteel.
“What?” said the voice.
“Oh, sorry,” said Summersteel. “I was talking to the temp.”
“Oh. She’s wearing a cape, you say?”
“Yes. A purple one.”
“It’s Byzantium,” said Ada.
“Sorry,” said Summersteel into the phone. “Byzantium.”
“A Byzantium cape,” said the voice. “Hm. Is her name Ada?”
“Yes, I believe so. She’s wearing a cape and she won’t take it off.”
“And that’s a problem?”
“Yes, it’s a problem.”
“It’s affecting her productivity, then?”
“Well, no—other than the fact that she’s in my office right now, not working.”
“But you called her into your office, I’m assuming?”
“Well, yes. But that’s not the point. The point is that she’s wearing a cape, and it looks completely ridiculous. We’re a professional organization.”
“What is it you do again?”
“We generate dynamic synergies by ideating value-added microservices and fast-tracking pain points.”
“So what are you going to do about this situation? Are you sending a new girl?”
“Woman,” Ada reminded him.
“Woman,” Summersteel reiterated.
“Let me understand clearly,” said the voice. “The wearing of capes is prohibited by your company dress code, is that correct?”
“No, not specifically.”
“Oh. So it’s acceptable attire, then.”
“It’s a fucking cape.”
“I understand that, Mr. Summersteel, but if Ms. Quarkhammer is not in violation of an official dress code, it isn’t really grounds for dismissal.”
Summersteel’s blood was simmering.
“All right, well, I just don’t like her then. Take her back and send someone else.”
“I would, Mr. Summersteel, only—and correct me if I’m misreading the scenario—did you call a female employee into your office and then request that she remove an article of clothing not specifically barred by company policy?”
“Because if you did, and I think that’s what I’m hearing, it’s probably best that you ride things out with Ms. Quarkhammer. I’m familiar with the way she operates, and if I might suggest—it would be unwise to press the matter.”
Summersteel, who vividly remembered his interactions with HR from the prior year concerning the unfortunate incident with Gigi Snakerider from Purchasing, had no desire to go down that road again. His frustration-fueled perspiration quickly turned to anxiety-fueled perspiration.
“Oh, no, look, I didn’t mean—”
“I’m sure you didn’t, Mr. Summersteel, but I’m far too busy over here to get embroiled in yet another legal battle with one of our clients. I’m sure neither of us has the time or energy to devote to that meshugas.”
“Certainly not. She can wear the cape. It’s not a big deal.”
“I’m so relieved to hear you’ve come around on the matter. Enjoy having Ada the rest of the week. She really is an excellent and efficient worker!”
“Thank you so much,” said Summersteel, whose mouth was so full of crow his tongue was practically molting, whatever you might imagine that to mean. “Take care now, buh-bye.”
“Good-bye, Mr. Summersteel. Please give me a jingle if there’s anything else Stoneshadow Staffing can do to make your day a pleasant one.”
The man who belonged to the voice was named Toren Fingergrace, and he hung up his phone, as the call had come to a satisfying conclusion. Toren, who had wild, unmanaged hair as red as the Target logo, was basically in love with Ada. He had known her ever since she had first walked through the doors of his temp agency three years ago, and he had been immediately taken by her no-nonsense demeanor, her courageous sense of self-confidence, and her inimitable style. His infatuation had only grown as he had come to learn more of Ada’s preoccupation with righting social ills, since he had always fancied himself something of a theoretical activist for human rights. He had long yearned for an actual, physical vehicle through which he might make a genuine difference, and Ada had proved to be that vehicle. Together, and with the help of Kira Ambercrow, whom the reader will soon meet, they had striven for and frequently provided social justice in circumstances where previously it had been lacking. Also, he wore glasses.
Toren’s mother, whose hair could not have been less red if she’d tried, could not understand her son’s obsession with Ada. In Mrs. Fingergrace’s view, Ada often spoke antagonistically, did not seem to have much drive in terms of career aspirations, and dressed strangely. While Toren could not necessarily deny any of these accusations, what it came down to was this: he was simply a sucker for a woman in a cape.
Because Toren wished to spend as much of his time as possible in Ada’s company, and because he ran the damn temp agency and could do as he pleased, he regularly hired himself out to the same companies which employed Ada. He would have his phone forwarded to his new, provisional line, and conduct his own company business from there. He was an excellent multi-tasker, so it was rare that a client of Stoneshadow Staffing caught wise or complained.
“Thanks, Toren,” said Ada, as she passed her friend/employer’s desk on the way back to her own. “That was about to get ugly.”
“Anytime, Ada,” said Toren, who nervously adjusted his aforementioned glasses and straight-up giggled.