Some say I am a people person. None are/ have been/will be my co-workers. I find myself too readily annoyed by my co-workers who are not just eccentric but truly anomalous, a panoply of more odd ducks per capita than any other place I’ve worked. I pretend to pay no attention, but I’m always watching them. Wherever I am they are always there. What keeps them here? Never intimate, their interactions are always as artificial as the lighting, always trying to transform whomever they are with into someone with whom they wish to be.
Despite the miserly wages and dictatorial directives from management, those who work here are grateful. Each and everyone has been displaced from a former professional position and is now conspicuously unemployable anywhere but here.
Except for Glinda, I know them only by the names I assign to describe them.
Typical of the menagerie of my coworkers are MR. RUBIX CUBE and THE WRITER, neither of whom ever speak to another worker. MR. RUBIX CUBE wanders from room to room never making eye contact, relentlessly absorbed with pretending to solve his puzzle. THE WRITER, Glinda tells me, has published nothing other than a few letters to the editor. She says the editors of his high school year book designated him Most Likely To Be Indigent Before Our First Class Reunion. A stooped, question mark of a man, a detumescent, sigmoid function of his former self, THE WRITER is always adorned in his oversized Sears suit of the day. Before each work day begins and at every work break, THE WRITER retreats into the same corner of the break room, directly in front of the snack machines, blocking access, pacing the floor like a bird in a cage, spiraling a pattern of ever narrowing parabolas as if he were trying to carve a vortex for escape. No one ever approaches him although the first time I saw him I asked what he was doing. “I’m sketching a parable,” he said, quelling my curiosity once and for all.
There but for the grace of God….
Little about our workplace can be divulged. All information is proprietary.
What happens here stays here. Once you enter the front door every thought, every utterance, any note you might scribble, any aside you might whisper, anything you can imagine and everything you dare not admit that you hallucinate belong to management. Too much disclosure and someone might catch on to what’s really going on. I can only tell you I can’t tell you what I’m doing here.
What can be divulged is this is not a place you’ll find a suggestion box.
What can be shared is that this workplace has an anal retentive ambiance and erasers are in short supply. I discovered this when Glinda, a displaced Human Resources Director who suffers from a quick mind, large breasts, pretzel thin legs, dyslexia, and two unrelenting needs asked for one. (Glinda’s two unrelenting needs can also be shared: 1) to leave this place and 2) for me to accept her repeated invitations for dinner at her home. For as long as Glinda works here and I’ve not accepted her invitation, the absence of an eraser will no doubt remain a subliminal, third unrelenting need.)
As far as this company’s records go, as an independent contractor who has yet to earn the quarterly wages required for a 1099, Glinda does not exist — my friend Glinda is invisible. (This distinguishes Glinda from most friends I’ve had in life who have been imaginary.) But, in a 2500 square foot room designed to discourage intimacy, an invisible friend is a welcome friend.
Within the primary work room tables and chairs are arrayed for a hundred people. Most workers are paid the same as I. Supervisors are considered contractual employees, entitled the benefit of health insurance, their parachutes golden. The owner drives Maseratis – that’s right, a different one for each day of the week.
The first time I entered the building, I asked the secretary, “Who belongs to the Maserati?”
“You have to understand anything outside this office is beyond my purview,” she replied, turning her head away. Now when I enter I avoid small talk and gossip. I just nod as I hasten past the secretary to the area I’ve dubbed affectionately “Robert Frost’s Fork.” Here, like Hamlet in Elsinore, I face the dilemma of turning left into the break room or right into our work area.
Rather than risk a return encounter with THE WRITER, the break room has become for me the path less traveled.
Turning right, I take my seat next to Glinda to observe the arrival of my coworkers. If there is poetry about this place it is that the occupants are caricatures not only of humanity, but even of themselves.
First to follow me across the threshold is the ANDROGYNIST – a waif like girl — so extraordinarily effeminate in manner he/she could be a gay guy.
He/She would be really pretty, but God stopped just short. His/her look is the same every day. He/she: 1) Must be really indigent, or 2) must really like khaki, or 3) must dress in front of a carnival mirror.
Next in this morning’s parade is THE PERVERT, a middle aged man with a ski-sloped forehead, pasty pock-marked skin, gapped yellow teeth, a mouth that is incessantly agape, a delusional sense of self-importance, and a hook scar on his cheek. Everyone knows THE PERVERT because he is quick to approach every newcomer to introduce himself. Standing within Arabic proximity, wearing a frozen, insipid, menacing smirk, he shares the story of the scar carved on his cheek by the brother of the teenage girl he raped. “So, I guess I’m the resident pervert. Maybe you and I can be best friends” he always concludes. Everyone talks to him at least once, but only once. I can’t speak for anyone else, but the upside of my own conversation with THE PERVERT is I no longer question my own social inadequacy.
Today, THE PERVERT is distracted by the arrival of a new employee, THE GODDESS, aka THE PERVERT’S PREY who struts into the room like a runway model, wearing short shorts and the smile of the cat who swallowed the canary. (It should be noted here that THE PERVERT and THE GODDESS are the only people in the room wearing shorts. Conspicuously, their shorts and the plethora of bruises on their respective pallid thighs are the only things THE PERVERT and THE GODDESS have in common.
With her full, rounded Barbie doll breasts, a delicate mole resting on her shoulder like a displaced pea peeking out from beneath the slightly askew strap of her satin top, and the strut of a former runway model, THE GODDESS is a mirage, an apparition, exuding an ethereal aura of detachment, unavailability.
There are scores of us, but she is well aware there is only one of her – unparalleled, inimitable, incomparable. She does not belong to this world of the infirmed and inadequate. She is so gorgeous, I can’t resist idle thoughts, imagining myself in her ruby slippers: Can you be well adjusted when everyone hates you?
What it would be like to be stalked by the male animal everywhere you go? She is so gorgeous I can’t resist imagining THE PERVERT’s idle thoughts:
Her allure fading, she is vulnerable, available to me. I picture her as Boxing Helena without the depth,. Perhaps I can make of her a statue – one like Diana with her arms lopped off.
She is out of his league, yet from my seat, I watch and listen as THE PERVERT approaches. I listen as he shares the story of the scar on his cheek, of the teenage girl he raped. “Maybe you and I can be best friends” I hear him say.
But as THE GODDESS turns to walk away, THE PERVERT shares a new story:
“I’ve stopped masturbating,” he begins. “It’s not productive. I think of it as a Bible lesson finally learned. I’ve decided it’s time I got married so I wired $2500 to the Ethiopian government. They’ve promised my mail order bride should arrive any day.”
As I wonder why anyone would say anything so depraved to someone they have just met, THE GODDESS does step away. Looking back over the mole on her shoulder she offers her own peculiar, parting comments: “I have three kids by three different guys. My current boyfriend bought me this past, present, and future ring from Wal-Mart to celebrate the tying of my tubes… and, yes, my senior year in high school I wrote an essay arguing what a great idea it would be to give us another year, a thirteenth grade. I mean how many chances to you get to be a prom queen twice?”
As THE GODDESS seeks a seat, I wonder why anyone would say anything like that to someone they just met, why anyone would say that to THE PERVERT.
Obviously, she is a little too trifling and self-absorbed for me. Otherwise, I’d jump her bones.
Princess like, she takes a seat next to me – hers now the only cushioned ass in the room, planted in the only pillowed metal chair.
I watch her sketch a caricature of THE PERVERT, featuring his grin and the half moon scar from the blade of one who knew him as a pedophile.
I decide to stop masturbating.
Today our work is delayed as our MANAGER (who did I mention drives a different Maserati each day of the week) appears to make an important announcement.
“Why does nothing work around here?” he asks. “The answer,” he says “is all around us. We just keep missing it. It is us. We are the reason. From now on,” he proclaims, “we must not place swizzel sticks in the sink drains, must respect none other than the proper positioning of our food in the refrigerator, and, above all, are never to shake the drink or snack machines no matter how much or how often they take our money and yield no reward. Many people in the world develop skills, talents, and hobbies that are unusual or important. Last year, there was a man that would travel the world with a toothbrush, clean it, and have his picture taken while doing it. This hobby is unusual because you don’t see many people travel the world to clean a historical place. Also, he sometimes, does it at night so that he won’t get caught.”
I decide the moral of his story is: if you shake the snack machine, if you drop swizzle sticks down the drain, whatever it is you do, just don’t get caught.
Assured we have been properly inspired and/or having properly admonished us, the MANAGER invites our TEAM LEADER to begin our work day. OurTEAM LEADER bears remarkable resemblance to Ben Franklin. What is truly unnerving is so does the guy who sits next to her. Like Ben, she has much to say.
Unlike Ben, she isn’t pithy. The art of aphorism is not part of her skill set. Rather, she shares everything she knows: god must always be capitalized, the exact number of dots on a $5 bill, the human tongue has 10,000 taste buds, catfish have 100,000; cats can’t taste sweet, butterflies taste with their feet…. To inspire us our TEAM LEADER shares an anecdote: “William Lishman’s work is more like research. At first he wanted to see if birds would go along with it. To find out, Lishman unhatched eggs to fly in formation behind his plane.”
At play here with our TEAM LEADER.is pretty fundamental psychology – anger, lots and lots of anger. I’ve noticed this phenomenon among other female Franklin look alikes. In fact, I’ve observed it is a pattern so prevalent and predictable, it might just as well be granted standing alongside Newton’s Law of Inertia, given its own altar in the pantheon of universal TRUTHS, constants as certain as rain on your parade. Once unleashed, no force but her own exhaustion can slow her. Underground texts tell us Ben compensated by being a rakish skirt chaser. There are no texts to tell us how to cope with either the transgender Franklin malcontents or the causes of their maledictions. Society tells women they must be beautiful. Its genetics call to 911. Our TEAM LEADER can be certain her appearance won’t propel her to be the next pop icon, her visage and form plastered a la Brittany Spears or Beyoncé on billboards and TV screens. No, this woman will never be spotlighted as a cultural icon, never to give an ED challenged Bob Dole or his mutt even a contrived, commercial stir.
Whether uncertain she has finished or of what she means, a small smattering of applause begins but is interrupted abruptly as the ever tardy OBSESSIVE FAN enters carrying both the souvenir Dolphins’ lunch box he bought for forty dollars last week and his omnipresent Nerf ball just in case today is the day someone wants him to play. If not for his glasses arching in tandem with his coal black eyebrows the OBSESSIVE FAN would pass as a balding, stooped shouldered doppelganger for the Pillsbury Doughboy. Always the last to be chosen, he won’t divulge the contents of his lunch box but insists it will double in value by next year.
Unexpectedly our TEAM LEADER stops, throws her arms into the air, and abandons the room. I’m not certain if it’s because she’s finished her presentation or disrupted by the arrival of THE DOUGHBOY. Applause erupts throughout the room as whatever has just happened has inspired my co-workers to begin whatever it is they do.
My hands remain apart, supporting my downcast head. “Join me for dinner,” Glinda asks again. “You’re lonely,” she pleads. “No,” I say declining her invitation. “No,” I say denying her consolation. “I’m not lonely. It’s misanthropy.
Misanthropy I have mastered, my imaginary friend. Now I must perfect misogyny.”
When Cameron Yow was a younger man, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. described Cameron’s critique of Vonnegut’s work as “a work of art.” Vonnegut described the prospect of that critique being published as “skylarking.”
Inspired by Vonnegut’s encouragement, Cameron never stopped skylarking, dedicating everything he writes to the thesis of Vonnegut’s art: “the purpose of life is to love whomever there is to be loved.”His initial foray into flash fiction “Dawn, again” appeared in the Vestal Review in February, 2014.
Cover photo: angus mcdiarmid https://www.flickr.com/people/angusmcdiarmid