David J. Nagore
Jason took the job because he had to. The glamorous life of a freewheeling fiction author didn't turn out so glamorous after all. Instead of chicks, money and booze, all he seemed to have succeeded in getting was the booze, and a rising stack of bills that seemed only to be matched by the mass of rejection letters that littered his floor and desk.
His desk. What a waste. He often looked at it, his inspiration dried up, and shook his head. It made for an excellent laundry rack, garbage can, and dining table. It was about all he had gotten in the divorce. His ex told him to cart it away, that she didn't want anything that reminded her of him and the terrible year they spent together.
That morning, before his first day, he cleared everything off the desk: the dried pizza crusts, the yellowing rejection letters, the many manuscripts that had been started and stopped in a matter of minutes, and the smelly clothes; and laid a long towel across its stained surface. He had gotten up extra early to iron his clothes but, as his eyes opened to the loud and mercilessly high-pitched alarm clock (another gift from the divorce), he remembered he didn't have an ironing board, and had to make due.
He arrived to work five minutes late, a fact not lost on his new boss. "We're going to have to be prompt, Jason, consistently prompt. Do I make myself clear?"
Being completely pre-caffeine, Jason just nodded his head.
"Good. Don't let this happen again. Now come on."
His new boss introduced Jason to his new cubicle. It had a particleboard counter top with an old-looking desktop computer, a black phone, and tall, fabric walls. The counter top was decorated with gray, vaguely rough paneling to disguise the millions of bits of pressed wood within.
Jason could not call it a desk, let alone his desk. His desk sat in the one-room apartment that was his home, a good desk, an expensive desk, all of varnished mahogany and handcrafted drawers. There was a time when he would polish it constantly, spending far more time on it than any other piece of furniture in the house. It was like a nice car that always needed a good detailing. So he obliged it, doted upon it, kept it as clean as could be.
"You know," his ex told him once, "a clean desk is the product of a sick mind."
"Is that why the house looks the way it does?" he snapped back suddenly. "So you can show everyone how sane you are?" In retrospect, Jason guessed this was where it all started to go downhill. Three months later he, with his desk, was out on his ass and she was getting banged by the next-door neighbor, a stock trader named Rick.
"… Have you had a chance to familiarize yourself with the policies and procedures manual?" asked his boss.
"Yes," he lied
"Great. I'll introduce you to everyone at the ten o'clock staff meeting. In the mean time, why don't you get comfortable with your surroundings? In a bit, one of our IT people will be by to familiarize you with your computer. Oh yes, and welcome aboard."
"Thank you," Jason called to his boss, who had by then moved on to other things. Jason wasn't sure if he had been heard, but he really didn't care. Tossing his satchel on the counter, he sat down. The desk chair was prefab as well, all of pleather and formed plastic. Its so-called "ergonomic design" stabbed into his back as he leaned against it, and the swivel creaked. His own desk chair, at home with the desk, was the good, sturdy, old-fashioned kind, with a high back and arm rests at just the right height. His chair was so comfortable that he had fallen asleep in it many times; a thankful trait when he had been first kicked out and had no bed to sleep on.
The IT guy showed up as Jason finished organizing the counter to his liking. For a computer geek, he actually had some social skills. He was quiet but somewhat well spoken, and patient as he walked Jason through the computer's programs.
The system, as he suspected, was old. It was a full two hundred megahertz slower than his laptop at home, with half the memory. But as a workstation it was passable, for the tasks he would be doing, anyway.
The ten o'clock meeting was boring, as he expected. Worse, he was made to stand, just like in elementary school, and say a little something about himself. A few tasks were dolled out to him and his new colleagues, there were discussions concerning current tasks, as well as a run-down on how the company was doing, but nothing really sunk into Jason's mind.
By the time the meeting was over, it was lunchtime. However, to make up for his tardiness, Jason decided to eat in his cubicle and get right into his new projects. Starting up the word processing program, he stared at the white screen before him for several minutes without typing a word. He thought to himself, Now isn't that rich. I can't even write this crap.
At that thought, something clicked in his mind, and he typed out: Comfort Bathroom Tissue, the tissue that lets you rest easy, and stopped. He looked at it, squinted, and rubbed his chin. Then, he shook his head, erased the tissue that lets, and replaced it with now. After adding a can after you, he smiled in satisfaction, created a virtual folder with that day's date, and saved the document. Then, he printed out a copy and inserted it into a real folder he found in one of his filing cabinets.
The rest of the day ran by quickly. Munching on a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, he wrote several more pieces of ad copy, did some Internet research on bathroom hygiene products, and continued to tweak both his work area and computer to fit his own personal needs. At the end of the day, he dropped off the day's folder in his boss's "In" box and left for his apartment. And he felt pretty good about himself, at that.
His studio apartment being an hour away, even with good traffic, it was dark before he finally arrived. Furniture-wise, he still wasn't doing very well for himself. There was the desk and chair, of course, and a mattress on the floor, but that was it. There weren't even any stools to line the short bar that separated the kitchen area from the rest of the room.
Microwaving a frozen burrito, he covered it with some lettuce, tomatoes, and government cheese. With his plate and a bottle of bourbon, he sat down at his desk and ate as he stared out to the street in front of the complex. Once, twice, he heard the crack of gunfire, but otherwise saw nothing.
A little while later, the burrito half-eaten and the bottle empty, he slumped his head down on the desk. Eyes closed, drool oozing from his gaping mouth, his head spinning a million ways at once, Jason felt the smooth warmth of the varnished mahogany against his slouching cheek. "You're the only one that's ever understood me," he mumbled thickly as the booze drowned him into oblivion.
The next day he arrived at work — on time — still feeling pretty good. As his liquor consumption had progressed, hangovers had become less and less of a problem until all he needed was a good belt of coffee in the morning to get his engine running. As he sipped his dark brew he thought about the previous day, and with the exception of being late it really wasn't that bad. He liked the work that he had done, such as it was, and even the boss seemed pretty pleasant, after awhile. So, he strode confidently through the maze of cubicles until he reached his own. Turning on his heel, he entered it and made to toss his satchel expertly beside his computer terminal.
Then the bottom dropped out.
Sitting on his keyboard was yesterday's file. Taped to it was a terse note that read, Come see me. Jason opened the top folder, and swallowed hard. Never in his life had he seen so much red ink on such little copy. He sat down in his chair with a thump and looked through the rest of his work. To a greater or lesser extent, each sheet was the same, a flood of red ink swirling around the little drops of black-font words. It made him sick. The coffee bubbling in his belly turned to acid, and Jason tasted bile.
Gathering the folder, he trudged across the cubicle bay to the door at the far end. Palms sweaty, he knocked twice. From within, Jason heard a muffled, "Come in." He opened the door and entered.
His boss, hair thinning and body swelling with fat, looked up from the paperwork strewn across his desk. "Ah, Jason," he called. "Please sit down. How was your day yesterday?" his boss asked.
Jason squirmed in the seat. He hated dealing with authority figures. "Not bad," was all he could answer.
"Good. I'm glad to hear it. Its very important to start things off on the right foot, so to speak."
"I'm doing my best, sir."
"Well," he answered, adjusting his glasses so that they were even more crooked than before, "that is what I would like to talk to you about this morning."
"Our company prides itself on the quality of our work," he began, almost as if he read the words straight from the rulebook. "Our clients expect it, the Executive Board expects it, and I expect it."
"Of course," Jason put in uneasily. The papers in the folder on his lap began to feel heavy, pushing down on his legs and compressing his thigh muscles. In his mind's eye, he saw the red marks splattered across each page, and the marks did not so much seem like ink as blood, spilling from his own veins.
"I took a big chance hiring you on. Sure, you had a few fiction works published. But I thought the quality of work in your portfolio showed real promise, and from that I thought you would make a good addition to our team. In short, I was not impressed with the work you handed me yesterday."
"Well, sir," he defended himself awkwardly, "there's always a getting-adjusted period in any job. After all, I just started yesterday."
"But I need you up and running right out of the gate, son," his boss countered. This made Jason squirm. He did not like being called "son" by anyone. "If I don't see a noticeable improvement immediately, I will just have to terminate you and hire someone else."
"Good! Now get back out there and give another try at those copy assignments! Oh yes, and by the way …"
Jason left his boss's office with the bloody folder under his right arm and a stack of papers his new assignments under his left. He was fuming, terrified for his job, and more than a little disoriented. He almost planted himself into someone else's cubicle, but came to his senses when he saw the back of that person's bald head. Stepping back and hoping not to be noticed, he stood tall and looked across the huge room to get his bearings.
Finally returning to his cubicle, he tossed the papers down on the counter, fell into his non-ergonomic-ergonomic chair, and stared at it all. But what, really, was there to see besides fuzzy walls, a gray counter, a dirty phone, and a computer, all of which had seen better days? It was his studio in miniature. Putting his head in his hands, he rubbed his face, hard. "Dear God," he mumbled, "I'm in big, big trouble."
When the phone rang he nearly jumped out of his seat. Staring at it, he wondered who the hell was calling. It couldn't have been anyone in the real world. He hadn't given the number to anyone yet (as if anyone would want it); but the bell tone was for an outside line. In a split second of panic, he thought it might be his ex's lawyer. That bastard had fished out so much dirt on Jason that the judge could not help but rule in her favor.
"You are the worst kind of human being," the judge scolded Jason at the end of the divorce proceedings. "If this was a criminal case, I'd drive you myself to the state correctional facility and bury the keys where no one would find them!"
Perhaps, he wondered, the little snake had found out that Jason was newly employed, and was going to try to leech even more money from him.
Jason had the receiver halfway to his ear before he realized what he had done. Silently cursing himself, he said in the most officious way possible, "J&R Advertising, Jason Blass speaking. How may I help you?"
At first there was silence, then a voice answered, as rich and dark and female as he had ever heard. "Hi," was all she said.
"How may I help you?" he repeated.
"Where are you? I've been waiting all day."
"Excuse me? I think you may have the wrong number, miss."
"No, Jason, I don't have the wrong number! I got the number off the paperwork here at home! Where are you?"
Again reflexively, he answered, though he gave himself a mental kick in the pants as soon as he did so. "I'm at work," he said. Then, attempting to recover, he added, "Perhaps you are looking for a different Jason. This is a big company, and although I don't know everyone here, I'm sure there is another one of me somewhere." He chuckled weakly.
"Jason Milhouse Blass, stop it! You know it's me, and I wish you would stop! What kind of work? The paperwork wasn't too helpful."
Jason swallowed hard. It wasn't his ex. She couldn't sound so much like a woman if she tried, unless she was nagging. "Look," he commanded, "I don't know who this is, and I don't know how you know me, but I should inform you that I am going to call the authorities and have them respond to my home immediately! So if you are in my home, I highly advise you to clear out now, and leave everything there untouched. It's not much, but it's all I have. Thank you."
"You pig! Has the past eight years meant nothing to you? HOW DARE YOU?!"
"Who is this?!" he repeated.
"It's me, Mahogany, you jerk!"
"Your desk, you idiot!"
Jason suddenly felt as though he was falling straight into the abyss. Utter, ludicrous disbelief filled him. Every inch of him wanted to scream, "Oh come on!" into the phone. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not.
"Oh my God!" she continued. "You're sitting at some other desk, aren't you?! Tell me I'm wrong! When Chair said as much, I refused to believe it. But I should have known she was right!"
"Sorry?" he croaked.
"Don't 'sorry' me! YOU BASTARD! Who is she?! Huh?! Is she some flashy oak deal with one of those black-marble writing tops? Oh God, please don't tell me she's some particle board knock-off!"
"Look," he explained, suddenly feeling foolish, "I'm not at a desk. I'm sitting in a tiny little cubicle with a crappy little counter! Are you satisfied?"
At first there was silence. "You pervert!" Mahogany screamed. "Now that I'm ugly and can't give you what you want, you go somewhere else, is that it?!"
"Yes! That's exactly it!" he yelled back before he realized it. "As soon as I dried up you should have been there for me, and you weren't! Well, I know you don't, but I like having a roof over my head and food in the fridge, so here I am!"
"You're fooling around with Fridge, too?" she accused, seemingly at her wits end. "I should have known! You spend enough time with your face buried inside of her and your ass waiving in the air! It's so obvious now! You slut! That's right, I'm talking to you, you freon-sucking floozy!"
Several people in adjacent cubicles peered at him over the walls. He looked up and felt even more foolish. "Sorry," he apologized. "Trouble at home."
"Look," Mahogany started again, but her tone had changed. It was mellow, restrained. "I love you. And I'm willing to forgive you. Just come home, please? Here, Lappie wants to talk to you."
"Daddy?" a little girl's voice buzzed into Jason's ear. "I miss you, Daddy. Please come home. I want to play a game with you. Do you want to play chess? That's my favorite game, 'cause I always win. Please come home Daddy. Please?" Jason heard sobbing for a moment before it faded away.
"Now she's crying. What did you say to her?!"
"Look," he began after taking a deep breath, "I don't know who this is, but this little joke has gone far enough! I am going to stay at this crappy job, get paid these crappy wages, and come home TONIGHT to my crappy apartment where I can open up another bottle of crappy booze and drink until I pass out! So I would appreciate it if you get off the line and let me do my job, okay?! Advertising is enough of a joke profession without this kind of crap happening to me, so good day!"
"You bastard. We'll just see who's here when you do come home," Mahogany cried icily, and then hung up.
As he hung up, Jason heard someone clear his throat. It was his boss. "Jason, come to my office. Now."
Jason stared at his apartment door. His hands were laden with everything he had brought to work. "I'm sorry, son" his boss had used "son" again "but we just can't have these kinds of disruptions going on in the work place. I'm sorry. Goodbye."
He had expected that middle-managing yes-man to say, "Good luck," as well, but he didn't. In fact, his boss's lack of well-wishing scared him more than losing the job. So he gathered his things, threw them into his old, dented, rusting Pinto, and left. The drive home was a daze, a gray fog of awareness in the middle of honking horns and screeching tires. His hands, so used to driving on their own every time Jason left a bar, did most of the work. He stopped only once, at a liquor store a block from the apartment complex.
Putting some of what he had on the ground, he rifled for his keys. He found them, selected the one he needed, and put it to the lock. He then stopped. "We'll just see who's here when you do come home." The voice echoed in his mind. It was just too bizarre. It was another unnerving moment in a whole unnerving day.
He looked at his watch. The time was a little before noon. He smiled. He could make some frozen burritos and wash them down with his brand-new bottle of cheap gin. So the day could end well after all.
He realized he was still standing in the hallway with the keys brushing against the doorknob. He shook his head and inserted the key. He turned the key, and then stopped. The door was unlocked. Silently, he placed the rest of his things on the ground and picked up his new gin bottle by the neck. He opened the door with the bottle raised high above his head…
…And let it fall to his side. The apartment was almost completely bare. The mattress, the chair, and especially his big, beautiful, messy desk, were missing. Even the closet, which was open, was devoid of anything, not even a spare shirt.
Slowly, he entered. Standing in the middle of the room, he let the bottle fall to the ground. With a thump, he joined it, his head swaying back and forth as he got one view after another of the bare space that had once held all his worldly possessions.
"I've been robbed," he mumbled in disbelief.
"Nope, you weren't," said the ancient toaster on the counter, the only thing left in the studio that was not nailed down. "But I feel fer ya sonny, I really do."
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