The telephone's ringing across the hall again -- ringing into the silence of the empty room. Usually I ignore it, but sometimes I stroll over and pick it up. My voice sounds strangely remote and amplified, like a tape recording.
"No, he's not here I'm afraid. Yes, he's out of town. That's right -- on vacation. No. He's not here either. Sorry."
The caller doesn't insist. But then nobody does much these days. Because it's the same story everywhere. All over the city telephones are ringing into the void. Echoing in vacant rooms and corridors.
Washington's on hold. Nobody's home. Please call back in September.
The depletion of office personnel begins with a trickle in late June, followed by a steady drizzle all through July. They casually mention Florida, California, Bermuda as their chosen place in the sun. Anywhere, at any rate, away from the stultifying heat of Washington. By the beginning of August it's a downpour, with a skeleton staff left behind to man the office. A few phantom souls flitting about. Footsteps ringing hollow on the empty stairs.
These weeks are truly exasperating for people trying to get things done. The brisk office pace has switched to slumber speed, and though officially open for business there are few signs of life.
Out in the empty corridor, the water cooler plops to itself -- no longer the center of gravity for those tight little huddles, which you either eagerly join or whisk by speedily. There are no angry sotto voce discussions, no sounds of giggling or smirking. Nothing stirs.
And even for those of us who have sat out the summer before here, the new situation takes some getting used to. There seem to be several tricky stages of readjustment before we actually begin to enjoy the lull in activity and to take advantage of the sudden loss of companionship:
Stage 1: Resentment and feelings of ill-will to all absent colleagues.
This is linked to a deep sense of abandonment and self-pity and usually takes the whining form of "Why have I, alone of all my tribe, been left to stew out the summer here while they are cavorting in the Caribbean? It's not fair."
Stage 2: Lack of purpose.
This is identified by a tendency to potter dejectedly about the office. You file something here, rearrange a shelf there. Dust the neglected plant and then sadistically overwater it just for good measure. You look out of the window often, as if waiting for someone. Then coming back to your desk you flick dispiritedly through the letters to be answered and, realizing it's all limp, half-hearted stuff, nothing to get your teeth into, get deeply depressed.
Stage 3: Reassurance: In a high state of anxiety you take to the corridors.
Roaming about in a restless search for human contact. Inventing errands that involve a complete tour of the building, you set out to seek other life forms. At this point you're desperate and you know it. But you can't help yourself. You need to be reassured that you are not alone -- the last cowboy in Dodge.
Stage 4: Relief.
Finally you can say with all sincerity -- "Thank God they've gone." You're going to make the most of it. It's clean-up and catch-up time. Time to come into your own. You make a determined decision to make every day count. Apart from keeping the office quietly ticking, there will be personal accomplishment, growth and progress.
And so at lunchtime, instead of running out of the office to trade gossip while bolting down a sandwich, you'll find me at my desk mulling meditatively over a yogurt while composing episodic letters home. An astonishing three, sometimes four in a week, making up for months of guilt and neglect. And what a relief not to come back from lunch drained and haggard after one of those marathon back-biting sessions, which seem inescapable during the rest of the year.
Summer is good for the soul, I've found. Because in my lunchtime letter-writing stint I've discovered and named all kinds of joys and evils lurking on the edge of my consciousness that I've never had time to explore properly. This is enough to carry me through to 5:30 without watching the clock.
I notice that it's in summer, too, that I'm suddenly endowed with miraculous powers of decision and a clear-sightedness that fails me the rest of the year. No more chronic fumbling and shuffling with the steady waves of paper that are washed up onto my desk. As they come I dispose of them. Answer. File. Trash. Daily I try to make a clean sweep of what turns up on my desk so that I can start from scratch each morning. Amazing, I think: Just when the office has ground to a virtual standstill, I'm suddenly as synchronized as a Swiss clock. Nothing daunts me.
I even have the nerve to delve into the unsavory corners of the bottom drawers of my desk -- a task from which I usually shrink. Among the paper clips and crumbs of feasts past, I find half a box of stale crackers, a quarter and two crumpled Christmas cards that I never did get around to taking home.
Probably the most remarkable thing about this time of year is that we few remaining are unusally amiable among ourselves. There's a relaxed, informal air on all levels -- a chummy camaraderie that goes right out the window come September. We get very chatty. Show consideration. But it all has the slightly reckless edge of something you know won't last -- a temporary cease of hostilities.
They give us pitying glances as they leave, as if to say: Poor devils slogging out the summer in Washington. But when they begin to drift back at the end of August there is a special satisfaction in knowing that they have just missed the best part of the whole year. And quite frankly, they're in pitiful shape. Dazed from delayed flights and jet lag. Frazzled by the non-stop demands of whining kids. Turning white at the sight of a check book. Very much the worse for wear, I would say.
As for me I feel marvelously serene. As fresh as a daisy. I'm just about ready to slide out of the place as the pressure picks up again. Not for me the crowded boulevards, jammed airports and overbooked hotels. And you wonder why we poor devils smile enigmatically and stay put in Washington for the drowsy dog days of July and August? Well, so long. See you sometime in October.