Ralph was the type of employee who was selfless with his use of time. It made him nervous to pull up yahoo and check his personal email, even if it was necessary to confirm with the babysitter or plumber. He kept the employee handbook on his desk and was always the one asking the waitress at lunch to bring the check—checking his watch, ensuring he and his coworkers got back to their desks by the time 60 minutes was up. And he certainly didn’t indulge in conversation, other than work-related conversation, at his cubicle. One colleague, a salesman at a printing company, had mistaken Ralph’s affability for friendship and would call Ralph on his office line. “What’s up?” the man would say, or, “Que pasa?” He’d give unsolicited reports on last night’s Jets game or make remarks on his wife’s cooking. It only took the man a week or two of these calls to understand that Ralph, as a policy, didn’t waste company time, lest he be held back from promotion, or accused of not being a team player.
Now Lucy, the editorial assistant, stood in Ralph’s cube entryway. It was the morning of Lucy’s third day on the job, and she was telling him about an incident on the freeway during her commute. Never mind the fact that some commuter’s breakdown on the entrance ramp was hardly a story worth telling, in Ralph’s view. He was trying to get to work. The day was slipping away already, and he couldn’t hold his strained smile to which Lucy was oblivious. If he saw the bouffant puff of Clairol-brown hair that belonged to his boss Patricia glide into the department above his cube wall, Ralph thought he just might break out into hives.