Thursday, January 05, 2006


It's quite a big room. Several families of refugees could be put up in it, without a fuss. The ping-pong table could be set to one side, and sleeping-bags laid out on the beige-carpeted floor. Machines along one wall supply soda-pop -- a dollar for 20 ounces -- and candy bars or jerky or corn nuts. With enough change you could live here for a long time.

The lights would be irritating. Flourescent lights, motion-activated. Everytime a sleeper rolled over the lights would come on, and everyone would grump. Also, the TV plays continually, though I've never seen anyone watch it. It plays the company channel, interviews with vice presidents and company commercials. But the sound is off, at least. It loops along doing its own thing with admirable indifference. But otherwise not much would trouble you. The room is almost always empty, unless someone like me wanders in to get a snack.

No refugees will ever be put up here. It reaches its maximum population once or twice a year, when ping-pong tournaments are arranged by zealously team-building middle-managers. Otherwise it's a quiet place, refrigerators humming, TV flickering, lights buzzing faintly, day and night.

The nicest thing about the room are the big windows. The whole south wall is windows, from thigh-height to the ceiling. Half-open blinds hang over them, so everything is glimpsed in long narrow horizontal bands between the slats. Your field of vision is mostly occupied by the parking lot and a vast box of dull yellow, some place of light industry, I suppose, across from it. But while that building, as a building, is breathtakingly boring, its roof -- visible, because we're on the second floor here -- is a labyrinth of fantastic coiled piping and stacks and ventilators, and mum steel boxes corded with power lines, which rise from the tarpaper and make queer sillhouettes against the horizon.

That horizon, and what's beyond it, is what I really come to this room to see. I buy an Almond Joy and walk over to the little alcove between the last snack machine and the windows. I raise the blind so I can see without stripes.

Beyond the dinosaur shapes of the neighbor's roof is a low, somber green ridge of fourth-growth doug fir; beyond that again a misty blue ridge only a little higher. Beyond that is the sky.

I have tried to understand why the skyscapes from this room are so compelling. Is it just that I gaze at them from my captivity? Possibly. Or is it because they're half-screened by the blinds, and framed below by the dinosaur-roof? Whatever the reason, the sky here always fascinates me. It's deeper here, more detailed and elaborate, wilder but more coherent. The sun sets through a pounding surf of cloud; landscapes emerge and vanish; towers of mist crumble into gray ruin; sudden hopes of light gleam through the tattered robe of the sky. I'm so still sometimes that the lights decide no one's here, and wink out.

I chew the sickly-sweet candy -- it begins cloying almost at once -- and stare at the sky.

I look a long time. Finally I lift my hand to let the blinds down again. The site managers have asked us to leave them down; otherwise the south side of the building gets too warm. The lights respond to my movement at once, winking back on in apologetic haste. ("You should have said you were here!") I crumple the wrapper and toss it into the wastepaper basket. The door closes behind me. Five minutes from now, when I'm sitting in my cubicle again, they will wink back off. But the noiseless TV will play on, in the empty room.

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