The buildings all look the same after a while. The only way I can tell this one from the next is the gold painted number bolted to the brick above the open front door. I take a deep breath and, pencil in hand, climb the stairs to the fifth floor. By the time I get there I'm breathing so hard I see spots. I figure it makes more sense to start at the top. So that's where I start.
"Ma'am, I'm with --"
She shuts the door. Pencil hovers over ready forms and I've got the list of questions memorized. Knock again.
"Hello. I'm here to --"
I dart my foot onto the threshold and the door bounces off my toes. I yowl. She pushes harder.
This job takes patience. A lot of patience.
I flash my badge, a laminated paper card with a grainy digital image of my face. Honestly, it doesn't even look like me. The guy in the picture could be six-four, a linebacker with a big neck. I'm short with narrow shoulders, a pencil thin neck. I think they choose pictures at random to put on the cards. No one really looks at them anyway. The woman lets up on the door enough for me to hop into the apartment where four pairs of eyes stare back at me. Two women on the couch, a girl on the floor, an old man in a chair, mouth open and a little drool hanging off his lower lip.
I took this job because I was out of work and needed something. Sure it's temporary, but then so is life. I figured it would be easy to count people.
"How many kids?"
"Three are still with us."
Jesus Christ. "How many people you got living in this place?"
"Well, including Rodrigo, my fourth cousin, his wife and three kids, and Consuela, the blind woman who lived next door to us in Colombia, twenty-five," she says.
There isn't enough room on the forms.
"Do you all work?" I ask.
"You won't tell, will you? My husband, Victor, he is the only one with a green card. My children were born here, so were Rodrigo's, but we are not from here. I wash dishes for a hundred a week; Rodrigo and his wife sell batteries on the subway. Consuela -- well, she is having a hard time finding something."
My mother thinks I should have been a doctor; she says I have the disposition for it. I'm looking for something I'm good at. My last job they fired me. Said I had a tendency to show extreme anger and lash out at authority figures. I was an accountant. Well, assistant. All right, junior assistant file clerk in an accounting firm. Ed, the file room supervisor, told me I had a bad attitude. I dropped a year's worth of bound logs on his foot. I apologized, picked up the binder and threw it through a plate glass window. Before security dragged me out of the building I grabbed a box of pencils.
Victor comes in from the back room. He's a little guy with a neat black mustache and a round face. A tattoo of the sun with eyes and a mouth stare at me from his right arm as he clenches his fist.
"You should go," he says.
There are more questions on the form. I whip out my badge. "I-C-E," I lie. "You're all under arrest."
He snatches the laminated badge, studies it, looks at me, then flicks the card away.
"You're looking for trouble."
He takes my pad of forms, three hundred of them, enough to last the whole day, and, veins in his arms rising, tendons in his neck bulging, rips the pad in two. He goes to the window and tosses the ruined pages out. A gust catches and carries them like confetti across the sky. I look for the parade but there isn't one.
"That was government property you just destroyed," I say and grab his arm. I reach for my cuffs. Damn! Why don't they give census takers handcuffs? He shakes me off and I swing at him. He ducks; my fist goes through the cheap plaster and into the cinder block wall. He twists my good arm behind my back, pulls my throbbing fist out of the wall and pushes me out the door. I tumble two flights down, stop on the landing between the second and third floors. I wipe off my jeans, the knee torn, a little blood. Nothing bad.
"We'll count you yet," I call up to Victor who, I imagine, is standing at the top of the stairs waiting for me to come up after him. I have a problem with authority but I'm not stupid.
Worst part of the morning is that my pencil broke during the fall.
I go back to the soup. That's what they call the warehouse. Four-hundred-seventy-three computer terminals on flat rectangular press-board tables, many of which are buckling under the weight, lined up in rows in one huge room. Each monitor is faced by a wide-eyed monster with fingers racing across a keyboard, eyes not leaving the stack of filled out census forms in front of them. They all type at the same steady pace: tap-tap-tap, crinkle of a page turning, tap-tap-tap. When I first started I was one of those. Guy named Fishbinder told me I had to attain a minimum PPM of eight-point-six in thirty-seven minutes or I'd be gone. He came back in forty-five and told me to get out, I'd only gotten two-point-one-five. As I was leaving Dale Walters grabbed me and sent me to the field, said I was perfect counting material.
"Soup's for wussies," he said. Dale is a huge man with a shiny, sweaty face. His underarms are always wet and his Panama shirts are ringed with the white residue. The skin of his face has grown around his thin, frameless glasses the way tree bark grows around a knot. He drives an old Buick Rivera with no hubcaps that smells like cigarettes and burnt coffee. The floor and seats are covered with empty and partly-empty Styrofoam food containers, plastic potato chip bags, crumpled up in wads, empty cans of soda, all diet, and hundreds of empty paper coffee cups. He could build an eco-friendly house with all the trash he's got in there. The first time I met him was the only time I'd ever seen him out of the car. The vinyl seats have memorized his shape and built levees to prevent his fat from flooding the garbage on the floor. He didn't even ask me any questions that day, just snapped my picture and handed me a warm plastic card, a stack of forms, a green and white striped printout of addresses, and sent me out to count people.
I wind through the maze of tables and wires and cables until I find Gloria Morehouse in her cubicle in a corner of the soup. From afar she looks sultry and alluring, like an actress on the cover of Playboy. But as you get closer you see she's well past the good side of fifty, a mound of dyed brown hair that sits on her head like she found it in a tree and didn't know what else to do with it. A tight blouse reveals too much of her dumpy, sagging breasts and she has eyes that droop to match. She was probably pretty hot once. Once. She shakes her head at me when I tell her I need more forms.
"I gave you three hundred this morning."
"I lost them."
I don't look away as she glares at me then fumbles through a drawer for another pad. "Don't lose this one."
"Do you have another pencil?"
She hands me a standard government issue yellow with six flat sides and the number two stamped near the end. The eraser is all but gone and the barrel looks like it's been chewed by a Rottweiler. I hold it with two fingers.
"What?" she says.
"Can I have a new one?"
"Christ." She spins around in her chair and unlocks a cabinet with a key dangling from a chain around her neck. Inside there are boxes and boxes and boxes of fresh, new yellow pencils. Thousands of them. She snatches one then quickly closes the cabinet and locks it. I push the pencil into the battery operated sharpener on her desk.
"What are you doing?" she asks.
She peels her eyes at me over the whirring of the motor, through the smell of freshly shaved wood and lead. "Get out," she says, a crooked finger pointing towards the main floor.
The security guard, Jessica, says, "Where ya going?" She has a nice smile, big, white teeth, and her blue uniform hugs her curves. Her hair is stretched tight across her scalp.
"Jamaica," I say.
"Need a ride?"
She drives a Hyundai import, starry silver, that smells brand new even though it has seventy-five thousand miles on it.
"You live out this way?" I say.
"No. But I know how well the buses run," she says. "You come back to the office a lot."
"I'm trying to get a promotion."
"Can I ask you something?" I nod. "What do you say if they don't let you in their homes?"
"I tell them I'm with I-C-E. Got a new immigration policy. I ask a few questions about family members and jobs and money, send in the forms, few weeks later they get a green card good for the whole family."
"They buy that?"
"Sometimes. If not I sneak around, look in the windows, see if I can guess."
I shrug. "Government work," I say.
Dale Walters answers his cell phone on the second ring.
"Simmons?" Pause. I listen to his jaw chewing. "Don't tell me."
"How many times is this, Simmons?"
"I don't know, sir."
"I count six, Simmons. Six. A record. You know that? A fucking record."
"Sir, it wasn't my fault."
"It's never your fault, Simmons. You think the government's here to save your ass? Think, just because you're counting people means we need you? Think I'm gonna call the president of the United States, tell him one of my temporary employees is in trouble, I need to help him out? 'Can't count anybody without Willcox Simmons, Mr. President. The best I've ever seen.' Fact, your name's in the budget. Section 342, part 1045, sub-section double Z, number 12, line G: Apportion-- How much is it, Simmons?"
"Three thousand, sir."
"Apportion three grand so Willcox Simmons can get out of jail. That what you were thinking?"
"I was only trying to do my job, sir?"
"Jesus Chr-- Hang on."
The phone clicks. I imagine him squeezed behind the worn wheel, stubby fingers fumbling for a cigarette and lighting it, taking a long puff, tapping the ashes onto the floor where a paper cup smolders. Flames rise, the car erupts. Dale is stuck, too wide even to fit through the door.
"You're on your own, Simmons. Bus full of new recruits just dove into the East River. I got six days to get this fucking count done."
He hangs up and I'm left standing at a pay phone in the holding cell.
Sixteen hours later I haven't slept and I'm back in the soup.
"You look like shit," Jessica says. She's changed her hair. It's hanging down to her shoulders, wavy, looks wet still.
"What're you doing later?" she asks.
I smile politely, roll my eyes like I'm thinking about it. "Nothing," I say. "Want to get a drink?"
Gloria stares at me, eyes empty. "What happened to you?"
I ease into a cheap metal folding chair. "The one I saw getting undressed."
"How did you manage that?"
"You know, counting people. What do you think I do?"
"You realize that we have standards for our employees?" she says. "The U.S. Government does not approve of its employees -- and you are a government employee, temporary as you may be -- peeking in people's windows. That's just not the way the census works. Are you listening to me?"
I nod. I slouch in the chair, lay my head against the backrest. My eyes are closed, but I can hear every word she says.
"Fuck you doin'?" a voice says. It's Dale. Big, fat, smelly, sweaty, balding, Dale. I open my eyes and he's smiling at me, yellow teeth gleaming through dirty hairs. Gloria is gone.
"Fuck you are," he says.
"Is that language necessary, sir?"
"Fuck, yes. You got a problem?"
"Wrong again, Simmons," he barks. "You got big problems." Oh, God, I think, the gas. I left the stove on. My house has burned down. "You're coming back to the field," he says.
"What are you doing out of your car, sir?"
"Can't believe I'm doing this. I got a soft spot for crackheads like you."
"I mean, how did you get out, sir?"
"I've got very little time here, Simmons. Lost twelve recruits yesterday, another twenty in the hospital. Need someone with experience, Simmons. Someone who knows the ropes. Still got the old magic?"
"You look even fatter standing up, sir?"
"Come on. I'll drive you out to the neighborhood."
"Here's the deal, Simmons. I got more people comin' in to replace the ones I lost, three days. Got six to get this area done. Means you gotta bust your ass, sixty-seven F.U.'s by tomorrow, three o'clock."
"Family Unit. Christ, were you asleep during orientation? Never mind. List and forms 're on the floor there-- fucking-A, Simmons. You're stepping all over my paperwork. Move your damned feet. Christ, were you raised in an outhouse?"
Along with by black footprint, the forms are mangled, torn, smell like rotten eggs, and are coffee-stained. I straighten them out, dig around, find the green and white list. Dale stops the car.
"Get out and get some-fucking-thing done."
He drives away, kicking stale water on my torn jeans. I realize: I forgot to ask for a pencil.
Start at the beginning.
"I'm with the census--"
"Janey, can't you see I'm trying to talk to this man?"
She's a young woman, early twenties, oval face, big breasts, long black hair, red fingernails long as steak knives, gold inlaid design like little snowflakes. She wears tight black jeans and a thin gray T-shirt that reads, "Worlds Greatest Mom." She's not wearing a bra and her lactating breasts are leaking. Janey, looks four, has curly black hair and clings to her mother's leg.
"Go to you're room before mommy smacks you." Janey disappears down a dark corridor. "Come in," the woman says.
The floor is covered with torn newspapers, magazines, and dirty diapers, smells like a shit bomb went off.
"Clean often?" I say under my breath.
"How many kids?"
"Three. Todd's at school, Emily's with her father."
"Does he live here?"
"That bastard does not take one step in my house, not for all the diamonds in Peru. Fucking my best friend, Gia, but no, he's careful, doesn't get her pregnant. Me, he cares more about yesterday's news." From the back room the girl screams. "Shut up, Janey, or I'll beat you into college. I want all my kids to go to school. Education is important. How else are they going to support me when my ass falls? Coffee?"
"Do you have a pencil?" I ask.
She screams to the back room. "Janey, bring mommy a pen."
Six hours later, four of which were spent stuck in a cold, creaking elevator pock-marked with bullet holes, I call Jessica from a pay phone in a coffee shop.
"Hey, Will. Dale's looking for you."
"Good for Dale."
"How about that drink?"
Guy's standing behind me, tapping his foot, arms crossed, wearing a grease splattered white apron. My stack of crumpled forms is on top of the phone. I'm filling them out, making shit up as I go.
"How much do you make?" I ask.
Write it down. "Kids?"
This is the last one and my imagination is spent. They all look the same after a while.
"Anybody live with you?"
"I live alone. What's with the Dragnet?"
"How long have you lived at your current address?"
"What's going on, Will?"
Guy behind me taps his foot faster and faster. "How long you gonna be, buddy? I gotta call my wife."
"If you would stop tapping your god-damned foot I'll be able to finish what I'm doing and you can make your fucking phone call, ass-head." He really does have a head like an ass, round with a nose like a crease running down the middle of his face.
He uncrosses his arms. "What did you say?"
"Go fry a fucking egg."
Jessica says, "Who are you talking to?"_
"Impatient fuck here wants to use the phone."
"Maybe you should let him," she says.
The guy grabs the phone out of my hand. "He'll have to call you back." He pulls me out of the half-booth, throws me to the floor, forms following. I scoop them up.
"What's all this?" he says.
He tries to kick me but I grab his foot, pull it away from him; he smacks the linoleum next to me.
"The fuck is going on out here?" Tall, hairy white guy comes out of the kitchen, pencil behind his ear, cigarette dangling from his lips, white cap on his head, neck as big as Canada. Sees his employee on the floor, picks me up like a puppy: from the collar. "You causin' trouble?"
"Fucking cook thinks he owns the place," I say.
I have to learn to keep my mouth shut.
The big guy tosses me out the door. I slide across the pavement on already torn jeans. My forms follow me; they float like snow in a globe. The pen Janey's mom gave me rolls into the sewer. No big loss.
Jessica is at the security desk. "How about that drink?"
"I get off in an hour," she says. "Wanna hang around?"
I walk through the soup, thousands of faces lit by green lines on black screens, alien, diseased. This is a thankless, mind-numbingly dull job.
Gloria has her back to the door. She stares into the open cabinet of pencils. The room smells of wood and coffee. I drop the forms on her desk. She turns, startled.
"Have a seat. We've been waiting for you." She presses a button on her phone and I hear a familiar voice.
"You finish, Simmons?" Dale says.
"Knew you'd come through for me, Simmons. Had a feeling. A fucking feeling about you."
"Glad to hear it, sir."
"Got a little proposition for you. Lost some people the other day, tragic accident, couldn't be helped. Need someone up here, training, leading. You've got the touch, the gift, the way of dealing with people, gets 'em to talk to you. You're magic, Simmons. Gold. We need people like you on our team."
Gloria taps a pencil against the forms I just handed in.
I sit on the cheap metal chair. "You're offering me a promotion?"
"Full time, with benefits," Gloria says.
I say nothing.
Dale's voice comes through on the phone. I wonder if his face has swallowed his glasses. "I know you've got some unorthodox methods. That's what we call creative counting. Need more of that around here. Creativity. Sure, thinking outside the box sometimes gets you in trouble, but without it how do we ever progress? It's the way change is made, when people like you show people like me there's more than one way to count these sheep."
Turns out I have a flair for counting people."What do you say?" Dale says. "I know we've had our differences in the past, Simmons, but we can work 'em out, can't we? We need you."
Gloria stares at me. Dale wheezes. For a moment, none of us speak.
Jessica waits at the security desk in street clothes: black shirt, tight jeans stuffed into calf high black leather boots. She smiles when I hand her a pencil.
"Aren't you going to need this?"
I shake my head, rock back on my heels. "I've got a whole cabinet full in my new office."