When the order came to shut down, everyone at the company grabbed stacks of files and papers and walked out in groups of four or five, laughing uneasily at the unnerving novelty of it all. At the first Zoom meeting, June was impressed at how clearly she could see her co-workers, in their T-shirts and hoodies, speaking from kitchens, bedrooms, and living rooms. It was both odd and strangely jolly. Everyone agreed they were settled in, safe from viruses that were frolicking in the air and on every surface in the city. No one needed to go out for a week or maybe two. Or three.
“I’m reminded of the Edgar Allan Poe story,” June said. “ ‘The Masque of the Red Death.’ ” Blank looks greeted her. Had none of these youngsters taken an English class? Ah, the joys of consulting at a start-up. “Edgar Allen Poe,” she repeated. “Is that the one with the raven?” one of her colleagues asked. “No, no, the story in which all the rich folks hide themselves away in a castle and partied during a plague,” she said. “Well, we’re not partying now,” someone said.
Well, maybe a little. While the team was surprisingly productive during Zoom meetings, time was also taken to introduce toddlers and fluffy dogs and grumpy cats. Asking “What is everyone binge watching?” was as important as “What are the latest numbers?” June could tolerate, and at times appreciate, all the distractions but one thing really bothered her about Zooming and made her extremely self-conscious. Not so much her appearance, although the video camera highlighted the creases around her mouth and eyes and made her neck look like a road map. Usually her age was not an issue. She was the experienced marketing guru, after all, brought in as the high-powered – and highly compensated — expert. She could afford to laugh at the “OK, Boomer” cracks. Still, she began to dress carefully for Zoom meetings, with full makeup, and a scarf — the Ferragamo from Italy or Hermes from Paris – wrapped around her neck. She hid her increasingly shaggy hair under a straw hat she bought in Brazil from the charming if overly persistent street vendor.
No, what bothered her was the clutter in her messy study, which was clearly visible behind her when she used her wide-screen desktop to Zoom. Her colleagues all seemed to live in spare, neat quarters; their laptops were perched on tables in barely furnished living rooms or on desks in bedrooms with blank walls. Of course, they just hadn’t lived as long as she had. They did not yet have clutter in their lives. But she heard the voice of her mother, even two decades after her death, edged with a crisp, caustic crust: “June is such a poor housekeeper. It’s too bad because she can be so clever.” And now that failure was on display.
June had to remind herself that although her mother never did appreciate – nor likely understand – what she did for a living, she had a very successful marketing career. Nor could you say her divorce was due to a lack of dusting or scrubbing. But June remembered her mother’s laughter, always with that tiny bite, as she told friends that June was just too distracted by her career and her travels to care about housekeeping.
Because it was true. Oh yes, too true. She did clean – yes, she did. All the time, it seemed she was picking up and vacuuming and loading the dishwasher. But somehow rooms disorganized their contents by the next day, clothes threw themselves on the floor, dishes stacked themselves on the coffee table in front of the TV, and mail deposited itself in random piles on the kitchen counter.
After her children grew up and left, followed by her husband, June moved into a two-bedroom condo and turned one bedroom into a study. It became a refugee center for stuff; everything to be saved immigrated here. Here were the overflowing bookshelves, the carved statues from Mozambique, the pottery from Guatemala, the wall hangings from Panama. Here were the dusty piles of travel magazines and the file cabinets with material from old projects and the boxes with material from the newer old projects. Every time she finished a consulting job, she told herself, she would clean and cull and organize with Category Five force. Instead, she would jump on a plane.
Alas, there was no traveling now, not to the office, not downtown at all. Businesses had dissolved into the ether of the virtual world. Life had become one long Zoom meeting. June Zoomed for work and with her son, daughter, and grandchildren, and on Saturdays she had drinks with the girls.
Her son told her that Zoom had a setting that would project her image onto a cool background. By clicking on “Choose Virtual Background,” June could appear to be sitting on a tropical beach with waves actually lapping behind her. June relaxed, knowing her clutter was hidden behind a curtain of pixels.
June discovered she could upload her own photos to Zoom, so she began appearing before a Mayan ruin or in a canyon of Zion National Park or with a blue-balled monkey in Zimbabwe. It gave her something to look at because, truth be told, the novelty of Zoom was wearing off, and the meetings were becoming as boring as those in windowless conference rooms. June perfected a posture of staring into the camera, while positioning her email or Facebook just below it so she could appear to be paying attending while checking on activities of friends, her ex-husband and her ex-husband’s wife. She could still hear the voices of her colleagues; she just didn’t see their faces.
One morning before the daily check in, she idly decided she wanted to re-read “The Masque of the Red Death” to see if it were still as haunting as she remembered; she discovered the entire text online on a “Poe’s Page” with images of graveyards and haunted houses. She clicked on one image of a marvelously creepy interior, with shelves of what appeared to be bottles of potions, a cobweb-covered window and a fireplace with red and green flames. A broom was stashed in a corner near what appeared to be the nose of a rat, and there were books with runes half opened on a table resting on curiously clawed feet. The image was rendered in such fine lines it was hard to tell if it was a drawing or a photo. June and the kids had always liked scary movies – her ex, the wimp – hated them. She made a screen capture and uploaded the image to Zoom; it would be her tribute to Poe.
This background sparked remarks. June joked in a carelessly self-deprecating tone that this Poe room was cleaner than her study. That got a laugh – perhaps a bit too loud, she thought. The meeting went longer than usual; June caught up on email. As the meeting drew to a close, one of her colleagues spoke up. “Hey June. Where did you get that background? I love the way a rat scurries by every now and then.”
June was startled. Must be a quirk in Zoom. “Oh, just off the internet.”
“And that shadow is so wild,” said another. “It is really spooky the way it moves.”
June didn’t know what to say and clicked Leave Meeting. But at the afternoon meeting she kept an eye on her screen. Her background was the same as always; she appeared to be sitting in front of the table with the claw feet, under a chandelier made of linked bat wings. Nothing was moving. But wait, wasn’t the broom now on the other side of the room? That was weird. She pinned her image and was looking at it so closely, she almost missed the team supervisor, Lauren, saying it was now time for her report. “Oh, yes, sorry,” she said. “Hang on, I want change the background.” She clicked on the little arrow to get to the background options but nothing happened. She clicked again. Nothing. She heard Lauren clearing her throat. “Sorry, Zoom doesn’t seem to be working,” and June plunged into her report, a bit flustered that technology had failed her. She finished; there were no comments, and she switched on the mute button.
Then June remembered the original screen capture – she could compare it to the Zoom image. But she couldn’t find it on the desktop. She kept searching, trying to listen to the discussion, but became increasingly upset that she couldn’t find the original capture. Ah wait. Here it is. She clicked and enlarged it. Yes! The broom had originally been on another side.
“Whoa!” came some simultaneous voices from the meeting. “Hey, June,” said Lauren. “Maybe you should change that background. It’s getting pretty unnerving.”
“Sure, sorry,” said June, unclicking the mute button. “Something’s wrong with Zoom.”
She clicked the icon that would shut off her video feed altogether, but nothing happened. She tried again.
“I’m sorry,” June said. “Something is messed up. Let me get out and try again.” She clicked on Leave Meeting and to her relief, she was out, the screen clear. She was angry and embarrassed. She had looked really stupid. What the hell was wrong?
She moved her mouse to click on the link to return to the meeting but hesitated. Instead she just clicked the Zoom icon. She would change the background first before going back. Her image appeared, her head and shoulders so much larger than in the gallery view. And behind her, the Poe room. She examined the screen. Nothing was moving. The broom, however, was definitely in a different position. Maybe she had just hit Mirror Image or something like that; technology had all these tricks, always trying to mess you up, to catch you doing something stupid. Maybe it was time for her to finally retire, to take a trip to the most exotic place she could find. But who knew when anyone could start traveling?
Perhaps she had missed something in the image; it certainly had a lot of details that she hadn’t noticed before. She realized that she was looking at only part of a large room. Through the window, she could glimpse a forest, green and lush, with curiously shaped hills in the distance, like the mountains found in Chinese scroll paintings. Those cobwebs just needed to be brushed away for a better view. And the floor could use some sweeping. The books on the table were all askew. They should be neatly stacked – that’s what her mother should do – or arranged alphabetically in the bookcase. The room just needed some straightening up. A squirt of Lysol here and there. Then she could see what was outside the window. There might be a door out of the room. She turned around, loosened her Hermes scarf, and reached for the broom.
Stephanie Schorow is a Boston-based freelance writer. After a career in journalism, including eight nonfiction books on Boston history, she is working on her first novel. See www.stephanieschorow.com