WELCOME TO THE REAL WORLD
By Roland Goity
The Montréal Review, May 2011
"Days end" by
Stuart Luke Gatherer
(2010, Oil on canvas, 20" x 30")
The World Series is on the tube, Phillies and Rays this year, and I try to muster a care from my spot on the couch. Footsteps patter on the apartment's hardwood floor as I take another swig of Guiness.
"Here's to success!" Maryanne says, blindsiding me. She knocks her bottle against mine. "And to you, Reggie McKeenan, for becoming gainfully employed!"
She's really pleased, not mocking me, but the whole idea puts me off. "Let's not talk about it, okay. As it is, I'm gonna be up all night worrying."
Maryanne eases her way onto my lap, obstructing my view of the ballgame. "You'll sleep just fine tonight, Reggie, trust me," she whispers in my ear. "I'm going to rock your world."
She slides one hand under my black Bulldog Amsterdam t-shirt (a well-worn souvenir from a Dutch hash bar), and her fingertips slowly glide along my chest. Her other hand slips inside the waistband of my jeans, and soon I'm at a loss of breath. Whoops and hollers come from the neighbors upstairs and I wonder a moment if they're hip to our action. But after Maryanne opens my zipper and goes horizontal on the couch, Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell and some other guy cross the plate after a home run. So the neighbors don't have a peephole or anything. They're just Phillies fans.
I'm on the 7:27 train, spent. What's left of the coffee in the Styrofoam cup I hold is stale, cold. Not worth another sip. I stare out the window and gaze stupor-like as we whiz by shack-like homes with backyard clotheslines. Maryanne can walk to work. To the salon where she cuts (styles, I mean) hair. I have to leave the city for the corporate "sticks." Ambrosia Networks-where today I start work-is built on a landfill just off the bay. There's not much culture out there. Just a bunch of corporate parks and lots of weeds and water. The open sky is often postcard-perfect, framing the jumbo jets that depart and land nearby, but the air has a certain stink to it. Methane, I think, from prior dumping.
I slept nary a wink. Maryanne rocked my world alright, yet I still couldn't help but fret about today, about my new job, what they'll think of me at Ambrosia. I've only waited tables, painted homes, and installed stereo equipment. Never have I worked in a corporate setting. And thanks to Maryanne performing every move in her sexual bag of tricks, not only will I spend half the day like a narcoleptic, but I'll probably walk funny, too.
"Next stop, Foster Shores," says a voice over the train car's loudspeaker. That's my station, so I quickly get up and bound off the train.
Ow! Shit! I twist my ankle jumping to the boarding platform. It hurts like hell. There's a shuttle to the corporate campus, so I limp to a nearby newsstand to grab a free paper. It's freezing out, windy too, so I huddle in my hoodie, and wait with eight others gathered at a pickup point with a glass roof and windbreak. My new cohorts are sharply dressed, unlike me. But even I wear slacks and a dress shirt with a yellow-knit tie under my jacket. Not that I'm happy about it. My shirt collar is at least a half-inch too small and it's all I can do to keep neck skin from getting wedged under the top button.
A bus comes and we hop aboard. Like my fellow passengers (dangerously soon my co-workers) I flap loose the local daily and read the headlines. An upcoming city council meeting will address new zoning restrictions-big fucking deal. Below the fold, however, an article piques my interest. It's about a middle school girl who stepped in front of a train earlier in the week. (Perhaps the very same one I rode this morning.) Authorities are trying to determine whether her presence before the speeding train was intentional or an accident. A little of both? I wonder.
I haven't even arrived at the front door of my first "real" job, and already I get a funny feeling. The veins in my neck throb uncomfortably against my tight collar, my hands and fingers feel clammy. I begin to yawn and cough as if to re-stoke my breath. No one on the bus seems happy to be here. All are mum with scowled faces at this early hour of morning. Me, too, of course. If it weren't for the promise of a steady paycheck, I'd never be here. 'Why do you think they call it work?' is one of my friend's favorite phrases (he coined it, I think). I've never answered him, but assume it's a rhetorical question. That work is a necessary drudgery we all must endure, an ongoing battle against ennui and self-doubt. Something to abide by until the weekend, which is ultimately what we're always working for, that is, an opportunity to not work.
At least it's already Thursday. A strange day to start a new job, I figure, but they suggested it. Well, Eileen did. Eileen as in Eileen Branson, sales support manager, my new boss. I'm a sales support associate whose duties are to do as she pleases. "Just keep your boss happy," Maryanne advised repeatedly as I shaved and dressed this morning.
I'll try goddammit, I'll try.
Our shuttle bus slows and I look around at the unhappy souls who now funnel from their seats, heads down, barely able to put one foot in front of the other as they steady themselves for another work day.
I attempt to do likewise, but it sure as hell ain't easy.
"Everybody, this is Reggie."
"Reggie, this is everybody."
I'm introduced, awkwardly, to my closest new colleagues by Eileen Branson. It's my first 'good morning team' rally, a daily (and geeky), 10-minute affair that starts at 8:30 sharp. It's supposed to get us revved up, ready to go. Eileen has a milky white complexion that accentuates the shiny burgundy lipstick she wears. Her curly brown locks are expertly coiffed, and her attire-gray pinstriped pantsuit-is as conservative as her temperament appears. Still, she's a hardbody, reminiscent of a woman in college I desperately tried to bang (to no avail). That one was a card-carrying member of the Young Republicans.
When the meeting ends, everyone heads to their cubes, and Eileen escorts me to mine. Soon I discover to my unpleasant surprise that I share the cubicle with another newbie, a heavyset middle-aged woman named Olympia, who keeps a family portrait on her desk, the size and number of her extended family members enough to perhaps compete in a New Year's Day bowl game. She seems friendly enough, but has more than a faint mustache and emits a strange odor. I try to pinpoint the exact smell, but assume it to be some combination of olives and feta cheese. (Olympia, after all, is of Greek heritage, and I'm a sucker for stereotypes.) Eileen hands me a stack of papers-a bunch of rules and regulations, do's and don'ts, HR papers to sign; enough shit to keep me occupied all morning. When she heads to her office I pretend to read, but really listen to Olympia on the phone. She deals with what sounds like a cavalcade of irate customers. While my job title says "sales support," it's really about customer service. If I hadn't acknowledged that fact before, I can no longer fool myself now. Not after hearing poor Olympia trying to toe the company line while maintaining her dignity. It doesn't sound easy.
"So, it's the 360 power station that's having problems or the Mobius tower? No, sir, I have been listening.Please, I can help you. Not right now, my supervisor is in a meeting.Look, if you continue to use such language I will end this call."
By lunchtime Olympia has taken dozens of calls where she's on the defensive, blathering apologies or sticking to her guns, depending on caller and circumstance. Half of the calls are incoming, the others are ones Ambrosia Networks salespeople have requested she make. I can sense her increasing irritation; not only in her voice, but also in the humid glaze on her fatty arms and neck that grows by the second, furthering what I've already coined internally as her "Mediterranean reek."
We don't talk to each other much, me and Olympia, but I do ask her how come the customers don't just email us so we can conveniently find answers before getting back to them. She tells me most of the callers have tried that with their sales reps but weren't satisfied with the response. Besides we need to sell them additional components, training, and maintenance contracts. We've got our own quotas to meet (although there's no commission bonus).
That afternoon I'm introduced to a few or Ambrosia's training specialists, who explain how the company's computer products help revolutionize corporate America or something. Then it's off to role-playing in a conference room with Eileen Branson. The personas she portrays are of friendlier customers than the ones whom Olympia speaks with. And the sales business scenarios she suggests are a lot easier to handle than what I envision awaits me. I complete the faux tasks with aplomb.
"Great going, Reggie. You're pretty much ready for the front lines," Eileen says.
"You think so?"
"I do," she says, scooting in her chair to lean across her desk, real friendly like. "Let's get you a log-on for the terminal and your ACD."
"Your automatic call device. You'll be on the phone bright and early; the 'good morning team' rally will get you all psyched."
My heart momentarily clenches at the thought, and bile rises to my stomach and then my esophagus. Just imagining it brings shudders-me and Olympia, back to back, sweating it out with network administrators ready to tear us new butt holes if we don't fix their fucked-up messes. In Eileen's snow-powdery cheeks I expect to see my reflection looking like the figure in Edvard Munch's The Scream. Instead, I see nothing but feel myself produce a seemingly sincere smile. "Can't wait," I tell her.
Fog City Tavern is the closest drinking establishment to the apartment Maryanne and I share. Before joining Ambrosia Networks, I patronized the place a few times a month. Now, after nearly two weeks on the job, it's my home away from home, where I watched nearly every inning of a World Series in which I had no rooting interest. The girlfriend's with me tonight, drinking merlot. Maryanne realizes that a trip here is what constitutes a night out together these days.
The tavern's got Barbary Coast décor. Stained glass windows mask the goings-on from the street. And inside an iron anchor and an oak ship's wheel are encased behind glass, one on each side of the narrow entryway inside the front door, along with scrolled maps, draped fishing nets, nautical compasses, and other seafaring ware. There are tiffany lamps on wooden tables, an antique panoramic mirror behind the bar, and framed photos from a century and a half ago on the tavern walls. One picture's of a barroom like this one, only more raucous: the men with handlebar mustaches raising toasts and fists, busty women showing bright bloomers and a good time, and felt card tables with royal flushes and sevens and elevens. I love that photo. It and a couple whisky shots take me worlds away from Ambrosia in practically no time at all.
Our bartender is Crazed Craig, a good guy, and a surprisingly mellow one at that. He was an all-conference football lineman for State a decade ago, where he got his nickname (back then he bit the heads off lizards and baby birds before games), but has gone ultra soft around the middle. He relishes in telling tales of his playing days, which I dig, but that annoy Maryanne no end. He's wiping the counter area around us with a white towel; some old Led Zeppelin song plays in the background and people have raised the volume of their conversations to compete with Jimmy Page's amplified guitar.
We finish our drinks and I get Maryanne to agree to another before we pick up Chinese from the joint around the corner (some kung pao and mu shu for our place). Crazed Craig returns with Maryanne's wine and my beer and takes the twenty I hand him and heads back to the register. He returns with change and I tell him to keep a fiver.
"Hey, thanks man," he says, and gives an appreciative nod.
"Sure thing," I say.
"Reggie's got a good job now," Maryanne says, just as the Zeppelin song ends and a rack of pool balls are broken. "At a public company with loads of opportunities. He can spend his entire career there."
"Yes, I've heard," Crazed Craig tells her.
And he has heard. Traipsing here nightly upon my return from work, my new favorite bartender and I have become rather chummy. After my third shot of Jameson the other night, Craig heard how the only thing getting me through my dreary workday was a mental image of the tavern's carved redwood sign above its front door, knowing I'd eventually pass under it and enter a friendlier world. That's when Craig said one of the three regular bartenders is moving back to Oregon, and asked if I'd replace him.
I said it sounded tempting but I intend to stick with what I have. Even so, I bitched about how Ambrosia treats customers like dirt, how our customers treat sales support like shit, and how my boss and cube mate and everyone there treat me with indifference. The job's been every bit the nightmare I expected and more: I've been late for the 'good morning team' rallies and lectured to afterward; I've tried my damnedest but been told I need to get my calls per hour (CPH) up- way up; I keep hearing how my paltry sales numbers are bringing down the team and making Eileen look bad to her bosses. All part of my daily dose of corporate hell.
What's keeping you there? Craig had asked, and I admitted it's the money. That's something everyone needs, including me. Especially me, Maryanne thinks. We've been living together for nearly a year now and her father-back in Phoenix -is growing skeptical of my prospects in life. She hasn't said so directly but I can tell whenever she gets off the phone with the old guy. I met him once. He gave me a stern look and a "cold fish" handshake.
Crazed Craig said the pay's good when factoring in tips and his offer to bartend stands, but I haven't told Maryanne. Now that she's bragging about how good I've got it, maybe I never will.
We settle our tab at the Tavern and pick up our Chinese. I cradle the paper bag full of hot cartons; it warms my hands in the evening chill as we head up the steep hill for home.
"I'm proud of you, Reggie. You're my working man."
"Yes, very," Maryanne says. "Seeing you up bright and early, dressed all sharp, stepping out the door in polished Oxfords. I don't know.it's nice."
"It's not that nice, believe me," I say.
"Oh, you " Maryanne says, pretty much accosting me there on the sidewalk, clasping her hands behind my neck, pushing aside the bag I hold to press her wool-sweater covered breasts against my chest. It feels even better (and warmer) than the Chinese food, which was pleasant enough. She kisses my neck a few times before saying, "I'm gonna rock your world tonight, working man."
"Enough about work, already. It sucks, really. It really sucks," I say.
Maryanne instantly releases her hold and distances herself from me.
Drinking on an empty stomach has made me lightheaded and careless with my thoughts, my words. "It's just that there are so many ridiculous rules and regulations," I say. She's got her hands on her hips, skeptical, but clearly willing to listen. Only I keep blathering like an idiot. "You know, my cubemate's a woman, my boss is a woman. Most of my closest co-workers are women or gay, that's pretty much the deal. It's tough on me, get it? You know how it works. Women who work together get their cycles aligned. They go on the rag simultaneously, in one big fucking swoop. So every day I'm up against bitchy women, stupid rules, asshole customers. It sucks. Totally sucks!"
Maryanne just stands there, and looks at me as if I'm a complete stranger, and a dangerous one at that. Like I'm a crack addict mumbling to himself, who might have a knife, and might have the indiscretion to use it. I keep up the hill, toward our apartment, but Maryanne lags. I look over my shoulder to see she's barely moved, is at least twenty yards behind.
"Come on," I tell her. "What's taking you?"
"I'm coming, Reggie!" she exclaims for the whole neighborhood to hear, her voice echoing between the renovated Victorian apartment buildings lining our block. "But forget what I said about later. You won't be getting your world rocked!"
Weeks go by and Thanksgiving's just days away. I'm on the phone-I'm always on the phone. "I'd be glad to assist you Mr. Gupta, but according to our records you have not purchased maintenance and support for that product, so it's 'no can do.'"
The skewed bushy face of my new work buddy James Cleary pops over my five-foot cube wall just as I'm being taken to task by an irate network administrator calling from his company's site. However, my computer monitor screen indicates Mr. Gupta's company has purchased very little with Ambrosia, allowing me to be a bit flippant with the poor fellow who sounds as if he's going into convulsions. "No, no, no! You not do dis!" he belts in his sing-songy accent. I lower my headset to my neck so the little speakers dangle around the tips of my collarbone. I point to the tinny voice coming from the headset, and mouth "Idiot" to James, who I'm sure would undoubtedly agree. He's probably dealt with this very same idiot on a previous call.
"Again, I'm sorry, Mr. Gupta, but until your firm's account is settled there's nothing I can do. Thanks for calling," I say, and hang up the phone.
"Let's get lunch, it's five after already," James says. And although I'm signing off my ACD now six minutes after my scheduled lunch break, we'll have to be signed back in by the top of the hour. So I hustle, rearrange a few papers and then wave a temporary goodbye to Olympia who's undergoing what appears-from her coming-to-a-boil face-a horrendous call of her own. (We still don't talk much, so a wave of the hand or a nod of the head suffices in lieu of conversation.)
We beeline through the maze of cubes as long and wide as a football field, and then make our way down the long hallway to the front door There we swipe our ID cards at the infrared scanner, a required task not only when entering, but leaving. Ah, freedom! We head off in James' car to a deli slash liquor store just off the corporate campus. It's on the way to a long stretch of dirt parking areas along the bay, where we like to set up camp with sandwiches and a six-pack.
James and I don't have a whole lot in common. He's not into professional sports or indie bands or mountain biking. Plus, he's a generation older than I am, and gay (one of the many in our division of Ambrosia). But we strike a chord together on two key issues: We both like to party, and we both hate (and I mean hate ) Eileen Branson and our jobs at Ambrosia. Another thing we agree on lately is Fresh Air on NPR, although today Terry Gross's guest is a composer of musicals. James seems rather interested in the program, but I tell him to shut it off.
"But this guy apprenticed under Sondheim," James says.
"Not a Sondheim fan," I reply.
Minutes later, James has finished his vegetarian on wheat and I've put away my hoagie. We're also on our second beers and Jim's lighting up the joint he's brought along. (His turn today; we alternate.)
"Eileen blew a head gasket this morning monitoring one of my calls," I say.
"I hear yuhhh," James says, sucking back the words along with cannabis smoke deep into his lungs. "Got busted myself this morning, yesterday, too. Been told I'm too 'accommodating' with customers."
"And here you thought you were just doing your job."
"Nothing more, nothing less," James says.
We smoke, and stare through the windshield to watch gulls travel across a breathtakingly blue sky. It's pleasant; I could sit here for hours. But I glance at the clock in the dash, and see it's ten of. My hand reaches for the cooler behind me, one James always keeps on the backseat floor. I raise my eyebrows and widen my eyes. "Time for one more?"
"Sure, why not?" he says.
I open two icy bottles with the butt of my lighter. We guzzle half our beers down before I peek at the dashboard clock again. Seven till.
James burps, emitting a sour smell in the car that competes with the skunky smoke. "You hear the VP from Merrill Lynch flies in tomorrow?" he asks. "Their IT guy. It's a pretty big deal. Eileen wants us to be on our best behavior."
"Fuck that. I'm tired of putting on airs. Let's give it to him straight."
James just glances my way without making eye contact, and I notice the way the glinting sunlight exposes the grayness of his sideburns, of his hairline. He fiddles with his keys and finally sticks one in the ignition. I finish my beer and glance at the clock; we need to be signed on in three minutes and it's a two-minute drive back to the lot. James reaches into the console, whips out a bottle of Binaca breath spray and zaps himself. Then he passes it to me, and, as I spray a shot, asks, "You won't go off like a loose cannon tomorrow, will you?"
I toss my empty beer bottle back into the cooler and snicker. I've got a good buzz on now, but my teeth float and I'll piss like a fire hose once we're safely back at work.
James shakes his head, then starts the car. "Just be careful, McKeenan," he says over the rumble of the engine. "I think they've got it in for you."
The following morning Eileen patrols the cubicles or resides in the secretive room across the floor where the managers and supes do their monitoring. (I hate that room!) I'm stressed beyond reason, fumbling with my tie until I practically choke myself. After a series of unsavory conversations with disgruntled customers I notice how my pearl-white shirt has soaked at the pits into a tobacco hue. And every time Olympia clears her throat and audibly jostles her phlegm around it makes me want to scream! I awoke so tired today, like a POW who'd been drugged and tortured. The city's garbage trucks arrived well before my alarm, turning me into one of the living dead on the morning train. But now, with adrenalin kicking in plus the caffeine from five or six cups of coffee, I could go fifteen rounds. Or at least long enough to throw a roundhouse or two, and give me a puncher's chance.
I finish a call with some asshole named Funderburke-an Ambrosia sales guy (one of our own)-who's visiting a federal client site, the Buffalo Bill Dam and Power Plant in Cody, Wyoming, where he claims it's "goddamn freezing." I discard my headset and summarize the call in our corporate database, when I happen to see Eileen (from her forehead on up) walk past and bump into a VP, Luke Berry (nose on up). Foregoing my immediate duty, I listen with a detective's ear to their conversation. "He's here?" Eileen asks. "Just arrived," says Berry . "He's meeting in the next building with Cheryl and Arnold. He'll come here next, and then you can show him around, introduce him to your team."
Last night, I again tried to tell Maryanne about my situation here. We were in bed, lights out; I kept squirming. She asked if something was wrong and I explained my precarious teeter-totter of responsibilities, and the dilemma I face over whether to do my job the right way or do it the "company" way; and whether I should conduct myself with a moral obligation and sense of purpose or do what I need to keep the bosses happy and earn a (dis)honest living. She just hit me with a pillow and told me to stop thinking so much and get some sleep. "Welcome to the real world, Reggie," were her last words before she broke into a snore.
Eileen steps into the cubicle (her hair sprayed into a perfect curl; painted nails appearing as fingertip sparks) and motions for Olympia and me. It's time. Time for a pre-arranged sit-down with the bigwig from Merrill Lynch. Olympia eagerly gets up from her seat and I eventually follow. I think of Maryanne, and what she would say if she could whisper in my ear: Don't do anything stupid . Remember who your boss is.Welcome to the real world . I don't know exactly what's going to happen minutes from now, but I don't think Maryanne will be pleased.
Eileen leads us around a section of floor, peering into the cubicles of my fellow "teammates" who she also claims with a beckoning finger. James' is the very last, and when he pops out and catches my eye, he quickly turns aside, as if embarrassed. I slow and let him catch up to me.
"I know you're going for it today, McKeenan," he says quietly so no one else hears. "And I'm not sure what to think about that."
"Think positive," I say, patting his shoulder. When we're about through the door of the conference room I ask, "Can I count on you for moral support?"
He nods. "You got that, but I can't offer much else."
"That's good enough for me," I say, and he takes the seat beside me at the long oval conference table, one made of some sort of marble. There are eight of us on Eileen's team. We sit with our hands in our laps or cupped on the table, awaiting further instruction from our leader who's outside the doorway surveying for our guest. This is the third time in the half-dozen weeks of my employ that we peons have been called upon for such a get-together. Our task is simple: impress the potential client with our professionalism, camaraderie, and knowledge, and give them confidence that their corporate computing needs will be met from top to (in our case) bottom. Basically, it's a ten-minute bullshit session where we're expected by Eileen to act happy and not fuck things up. The first time I did indeed try to impress. The second such meeting I was more skeptical, but managed to put on a good front. This time, however, will be different.
We sit silently for minutes; no one exchanges even a whisper, not even me or James. Then Eileen appears with a nattily dressed milquetoast of a man, pasty-white and balding, with tortoise-shell glasses. Not the kind of high-powered Wall Street executive I imagined.
"Everybody, I have a very special guest today who's come all the way from the Big Apple," Eileen announces. "This is Alexander Riverdale of Merrill Lynch. Let's give him a hearty team welcome."
He receives one (minus my participation and with James offering only a half-hearted greeting) as he and Eileen take seats across the table from me. The rah-rah team bit is so demeaning, like being in Romper Room and having Captain Kangaroo visit. Olympia must be in her fifties (though I've never asked), and Ellie Krupalski (who always cooks borscht in the break room's microwave at lunch) probably a decade older than that, yet-like the rest-they play by the rules and act as obedient children.
"It's a pleasure to be with you all," says Riverdale, adjusting his glasses as if he can't believe our stupid grins and glazed-over eyes, hoping we'll appear a little more solid and competent with a different focus. "You know Merrill Lynch is among the largest, wealthiest financial institutions in the world, and we go to great pains to ensure we stay that way. We do business with only the best companies in their field. Like Ambrosia for our computing solutions. We're about to shake hands on a truly significant deal with you folks. So it's nice to meet face to face, even with you all here. You may simply consider yourselves sales support staff and not that important in the overall scheme of things, but that's not my thinking. I see you as the foundation of our computing success, the nuts and bolts of Merrill Lynch's ability to maximize its technological assets for financial gain. Your role in this is exciting!"
Any chance of me sticking my chin across the plate to take one for the team implodes with Riverdale's condescending arrogance. So now it's not a matter of if, only a matter of when.
We proceed as always. Eileen introduces us individually and our guest nods at the sound of our names. Then she asks if someone would like to tell Mr. Riverdale about some of our daily duties. The "plant" who volunteers is someone who long ago brownnosed his way to such responsibility: Richard Hsia. He's Eileen's chosen one. Hsia is pronounced Shaw, like George Bernard, but I call him Hiss-y-uh. I hate the slimy fucker.
"Ambrosia's commitment to its customers doesn't end at the sale, it begins there," Hsia says as if scripted by the smoothest Cyrano de Bergerac in our advertising department. "Our support group, especially Ms. Branson's team here, takes tremendous pride in meeting not only our customer's immediate needs, but drawing attention to ways we can further serve them. That's true for all of us." He extends an acknowledging arm, points to us individually: "Juanita, Olympia , Ellie, Sebastian, Sheryl, James, and... everybody," he says, glancing at me but avoiding my name.
"Great to hear," Riverdale says, cupping his hands like the Allstate logo.
Then Eileen spoon-feeds some leading discussion points (what our responsibilities are, types of calls we handle, how we alert clients to new, innovative products). And, as the minutes wind down, the tone of her voice grows homey and affable. She makes eye contact with Riverdale and then taps her stylish wristwatch (shiny silver upon her freckled skin). Riverdale exhales and smiles, and I grow increasingly nauseous. Running on fumes, caffeine and anxiety, I'm unable to convince myself this is all simply a bad dream. No, this epitomizes the corporate existence, and my place in such a world ends- NOW.
"I'd like to chime in here before we wrap," I begin. Perhaps I'm outwardly calm, but I can feel blood coursing in waves through my arms, my neck, my temples. Everyone's startled by my interruption: Riverdale, Eileen, my co-workers. All except James. He knocks his knee against mine under the table, perhaps for encouragement, but more likely as a warning.
Eileen rises from her chair and strolls over to where Riverdale sits. "I think we're through here, actually," she tells us. She literally blows hot air, momentarily suspending her tangled bangs "We're done."
"I don't think so!" I yell, slapping my hands on the conference table so hard x-rays may soon be required.
It really gets everyone's attention, though. Riverdale slumps like a sack of autumn leaves in his chair, mouth open but no sounds escaping. Eileen's powdery white cheeks appear doused in grenadine. I've seen her pissed, but never like this. "Let's go, everybody up," she says, doing reps of air curls with open palms. But her unquestioned authority seems on the fritz. No one moves, not even Riverdale.
"Doesn't Merrill Lynch wanna know what really goes on here?" I ask. "Before shaking hands on a truly significant deal?"
"That's enough!" Eileen exclaims, and in the room's fluorescence I see perspiration budding the rim of her glossed upper lip.
"Let me hear him out," Riverdale says. "What's your name?"
"I'm Reggie. Reggie McKeenan," Other faces at the table wilt upon eye contact. "I haven't worked here long, but I've got lots to tell you."
"Holy shit," James mutters beside me.
For the next few minutes I have Riverdale's (and everyone's) rapt attention. A diatribe's unleashed. I go on about how we're taught to undermine service to better our ACD-monitored stats. How the old adage about the customer being always right doesn't apply in Ambrosia's case. How our quotas ensure we push needless products and services on clients, oftentimes billing them for goods they never actually order.
"Why are you telling me this?" he asks finally, his face scrunched more in contemplation than anger, in puzzlement than gratitude.
"Because I care," I say. "Not about Merrill Lynch, believe me. I'm no fan of financial services companies; I despise them. But I care because I have to speak the truth, and that includes being true to myself."
"What a load of crap," Eileen says
"Thank you, Reggie," Riverdale says, and then, "Thank you, all," addressing the group. He gathers up his portfolio folder from the table, smiles at Eileen standing by the door, and leaves the conference room. Olympia first, and then all my fellow teammates, including James, follow suit. I'm last.
"You're fired!" Eileen groans through her teeth as I finally pass through the doorway.
"Of course I am."
Within an hour I secure my valuables and bid all adieu. No one's sorry to see me leave, of course, except James. He buys me a "celebratory" lunch at Pirate Pete's, a seafood dive that offers fish n' chips, tall pilsners, and bayside views. We enjoy all in abundance, and at record speed since James has volunteered to drop me at the train station before heading back to work and through the security gate and back on his fucking ACD before the hour's up. But there's no way he'll make it.
"Do you think the Merrill Lynch guy will second guess the deal after what you said?" James asks just before we finish off the last of our beers.
"You flatter me, James, but, no, I doubt that dude cares much about what I think. Even if he did Eileen would straighten him out afterward. Tell him I was a boozer or a druggie or a child molester. Maybe a terrorist, a modern-day Unabomber. Who knows?"
"Yeah, probably so," he says. "But, things might be for the best. I don't think you're corporate material, McKennan."
He reaches across the table and grabs my hand for just a moment, giving it a little squeeze. "Not in the slightest," he says, getting up from the table. "But I mean that in a good way." He withdraws a pair of twenties from his wallet and slides them on the table. "Shall we?"
He drops me at the station minutes later. We bear hug, wish each other luck, and vow to stay in touch. Whether we will is an open question, but I'll always have fond memories of our lunches together. And of toking away in the car or on sea-mossy breakers before hightailing it back to our awful, monitored afternoons.
With the next train for the city twenty-seven minutes away, I make a few calls from my cell phone. First, I dial Fog City Tavern and share a spirited conversation with Crazed Craig. Then I call 2-Dye-4, where Maryanne cuts (I mean styles) hair. I make small talk with her friend Justine until she finally finishes shampooing and rinsing someone's hair.
"Get to the Fog City ASAP," I tell Maryanne once she gets to the phone. "As soon as you're off."
"Look," she says, "I don't get off until at least six-thirty and I'm starving. Let me get dinner at the apartment first. Then I'll come by."
"Go straight to the bar, I need to see you."
"Okay, okay, I'll have the energy bar in my purse. Everything all right?"
"More or less, but I've got some explaining to do."
Maryanne arrives at Fog City Tavern and to her surprise finds me not at the bar, but behind it. I'm pouring cosmos, mojitos, Long Islands , all that shit. Plus pints of killer microbrew and reputable wines of every grape. Crazed Craig gazes over my shoulder, monitors my progress. But it's not like being monitored at Ambrosia Networks; I'm enjoying myself.
"Reggie? What's going on?"
Craig leans across the counter and says, "Meet our new bartender."
Maryanne just stands there blankly until I ask, "What can I get you?"
"A martini.Grey Goose.up," she says. "Do I get freebies?"
I look at Craig. He shrugs his burly shoulders at first, but then says, "All right. Just don't abuse the privilege."
Maryanne hops on a plush burgundy leather barstool, and swings her purse onto the bar. I turn around and pad my feet on the rubber tile mat that Craig assures me saves many a dropped bottle. I grab a shaker and strainer and scan the shelves for vodka and dry vermouth. Some of Craig's pals arrive and seat themselves at a window table. He quickly pours a pitcher and goes over to welcome them and converse.
"Shake baby, shake," Maryanne says, now that I've sprung into action.
I shake all right. It's as if I'm about to roll die and yell come to papa! I pour her a glass and add a corkscrewed wedge of lemon rind. "With a twist," I say, handing it to her.
"So, Reggie, what happened at Ambrosia? You quit, right? You're not moonlighting here, are you?"
"Quit, fired, something like that. Perhaps I should spare you the details." I point to the end of the bar where a middle-aged couple and the neighborhood postman (still in uniform) have pulled up, and journey over to take care of their orders. By the time I return Maryanne's martini seems to have evaporated from its glass. "I see you likee."
"Uh huh." She slides the glass back my way. "Make me another."
By now I've made all sorts of martinis, cosmos and Manhattans and the shaking and twisting has become a breeze. Maryanne soon marvels at the refreshing icy swirl that sits atop my latest concoction. "You're good at this," she observes with an easy smile. Her olive eyes are bursting wide, almost as if offering themselves to be skewered by toothpick and set in her martini glass.
"Maybe I've found my calling."
"For now, anyway," I tell her.
Maryanne makes quick headway into her latest drink, and glows bright in the cheeks, as if charmed by the idea of me working at the tavern. "How much do you make here?" she asks suddenly.
"The salary's minimum," I confess. "But it's all about the tips. Nearly forty bucks on those and I haven't been here two hours. Plus, at full-time Craig says I can get special rates on health and dental."
More people arrive and fill nearby tables. Seemingly all at once I'm inundated with folks placing orders. It's busy, busy, busy, and I shift into a higher gear. But even so I'm able to catch glimpses of Maryanne admiring me as I hustle my ass off. It's nice. I feel I've already emerged a new man from the corporate being they tried to brainwash me into at Ambrosia.
Crazed Craig waves from his buddies' table. He gives me a thumb's up. After fulfilling every drink request from the latest wave, I return to where Maryanne sits. "So, what do you think about my new line of work? My new office?" I fan my outstretched arms and have her behold the bar counter and nearby tables, the walls of Barbary-Coast motif, the tavern ceiling with its network of wooden beams.
"Me likee, me thinks," she says somewhat drunkenly, as I shake up another round. "I've got my hair to style; you've got your beers to serve. The job suits you. Besides, I get free drinks."
I hold the shaker above her glass until it freezes over and my fingers start to numb. "That's right, Maryanne, free drinks." I top off her glass; she watches it fill as if hypnotized. "Just remember: don't abuse the privilege."
Roland Goity edits fiction for the online journal LITnIMAGE, and is co-editor of EXPERIENCED: Rock Music Tales of Fact & Fiction (Vagabondage Press).