Above the din of chatter and ringing telephones, I try to lift my own false enthusiasm. Ten minutes from the electronic time-punch when my shift ends and another’s begins in this same space. My light blinks red; I clear my throat and pick up the phone.

“Gulliver customer service, this is Trish,” I crisp, looking at the “SMILE!” sign next to my monitor and remembering to lift the edges of my mouth, my eyebrows in mock surprised gaiety. They can hear it in your voice when you smile, Elaine told us in CSR training. “To whom am I speaking?” Type that in. Spell the last name aloud for clarity. “And your zip code?” Type in for a session number. “Can I help you?” Listen.

Listen. This call is taking longer than the recommended three-point-five minutes. The computer is slow responding to my request for data but zippy flashing my “task inefficiency” message. The call is taking too long, the customer’s voice raspy and tired, like mine without the smile. Listen. One-point-seven-five minutes till my shift ends, no overtime allowed. Must sound efficient as I let this customer go.

“Miss Lewis, I understand your concerns about this issue, and I recommend visiting our web site for the FAQ.” She cannot get there without access to the Internet, and I know what she needs is a modem driver but my shift is ending. “Let me give you a session number, Miss Lewis. This activity is recorded as A60742Z94QR. Call again if the FAQ does not answer your questions.” The “your call is being monitored” light goes on. She says how do I get to your frigging FAQ with no frigging access to the Internet. Good question.

“It could be that when you reboot your computer will find your modem.” I sound more convinced than I am. Who is my supervisor. My supervisor is a flashing computer screen telling me time is up. Please log off now. I cannot hang up on a customer. “Thank you for calling, Miss Lewis. I hope these recommendations work for you.” She sighs and clicks. I exit her account, pull up the log screen, log off as user GULL3742A. See your supervisor before you leave the building, the screen alerts.

I pack my uneaten lunch, my water bottle, my packet of mints, my photo of my dead labrador retriever, Nicholas, into my satchel. In fifteen minutes another body will occupy this six by six cubicle, this cell in a hive of workspaces, the stadium-sized room fluorescent and windowless. I click my own pen to retract its cartridge and slip it into my bag. One last look at the SMILE sign, black letters laminated onto white tagboard, tacked in place by administration. Giving the chair a last push beneath the white Formica desk, I turn and walk toward Dolores’ office.

TRISH HARRIS is a mother, a poet, and a book artist. She works as an expository writing tutor for the IAAY of the Johns Hopkins University and was invited in 1999 to attend the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference as a contributor in poetry. She lives with her two sons in South Carolina, where she is at work on a nonfiction book, A Distance Not Allowed, and a second book of poems, In the Margins.