Episode 5: Standard Ink

“Potter!” George called out to me across the aisle of cubes. He was walking my way, and he had a big smile on his face. I leaned on the edge of my cube wall as I waited for him to get to me. He ambled along the opposite corridor and turned the corner down from my cube.

He had an uneven and frenetic gait that seemed like he would fall down at any moment. He also sported a slight hunch forward, likely because of his huge gut, and his arms flung by his side as if he were attempting to take flight but couldn’t get his weight off the ground. His chubby face, adorned with a full, thick mustache, looked swollen and ruddy. His bushy, unkempt eyebrows danced above his bulbous eyes.

Today, he wore a light blue, short-sleeve dress shirt with a turd-brown tie that had diagonal, faded gold stripes on it. His shirt had a faded stain on the front of his belly that he likely couldn’t see given the curvature of his gut. He stopped short of me and levered his arm against my cube wall to steady himself as if the walk across the floor had exhausted him.

“You ready for lunch?” he asked. He seemed positively giddy, which perplexed me since our lunch would likely involve yet another lame sandwich from the shop in the lobby. No one at Standard Ink ventured far from the building it seemed. Most of the good restaurants and shops were down the street quite a ways where many of the new, modern office towers stood.

“Yep. Where do you want to go? Top Bread?” I asked, suggesting the sandwich shop in the lobby. I wanted to get this over with as quickly and painlessly as possible. Given the age gap, George and I had nothing in common, but somehow we’d developed a connection sort of like two people who are thrown into the same cell in prison.

“Nope. I’ve got just the place for you. Let’s go.” He walked past me and motioned for me to follow him. I fell into his wake and followed him to the elevators.

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” He continued to wear that big, goofy smile. His eyebrows perched above his eyes like birds of prey. I felt mildly uncomfortable, but that feeling was fleeting compared to what was to come.

We were the only two people on the elevator for the whole ride down to the lobby, and I heard him chuckle to himself, as the bewildering smile danced across his face. I began to think that maybe he was a psychopath who preyed on new college graduates. After all, there had to be an explanation as to why there were no other new graduates in Inside Sales.

I put my reservations aside as we walked into the dingy parking garage and took the rickety elevator up to the fourth floor. I thought I heard another chuckle from him, but it was hard to tell. I noticed George had these unusual ticks where he made seemingly unconscious noises. He’d breathe heavily, snort, or make a popping sound with his tongue. I made small talk to fill the uncomfortable void.

“What’s good at this place?”

“Oh, you’ll see. There’s a lot good there. I mean a lot.” His whole goofy demeanor spilled out as he said this as if he were in on some secret. I began to wonder if I were being hazed. I could tolerate hazing in the name of a good fraternity party, but being raked across the coals by some old dude violated even my fleeting youthful sensibilities. I heard him laugh out loud as we walked to his car, and I briefly considered excusing myself and returning to the office.

He walked in between a shiny, black Lexus and this cranberry-colored TransAm. I knew immediately which car was his. The TransAm hadn’t made it out of the 1970s. I’d seen two versions of this car in my lifetime – one that had been well-maintained and displayed in classic car shows and another that was one pothole away from being obliterated. George owned the latter. The car whined when he sat down in the driver’s seat and leaned over to unlock my door. I felt like I sat on the ground when I lowered myself into the seat. The vinyl seats had tears in them that pinched my legs. A stench similar to a microwaved Filet-o-Fish filled the air inside the car. Fast food wrappers littered the floor at my feet.

He looked at the wrappers as I kicked them out of the way. “Sorry about the mess. I haven’t had time to clean her lately.” It didn’t look like the car had been cleaned in a long time, and I wondered what George did with his time outside the office. Whatever he did, I was certain it didn’t involve any cleaning.

He cranked the car, and it’s engine roared to life. The whole car rattled and vibrated. The radio blared some indiscernible music from its tinny speakers before George flipped it off. He struggled to look back as he maneuvered out of the parking space. He gunned it forward once he backed out like he was trying to impress me with his muscle car. I felt more embarrassed than in awe.

Once we merged onto the street, his goofy smile returned. “Potter, I’m taking you to my all-time favorite lunch spot. You know what’s so great about it?”

“What?”

“Lunch is free.”

“Free? How’s that?”

He laughed as if he had told a joke. “You’ll see, my son. You’ll see.”

We rounded one corner and then another. I couldn’t help but think of a movie I had seen when I was younger where this child was abducted and taken to an abandoned warehouse by her captor. She was rescued eventually, but she was forced to stay with her creepy captor for a while until the cops found her. George could easily pass for that guy.

I saw the muted neon sign in the distance before we arrived, and as we puttered further along the street in the traffic and he started to slow down near the sign, a feeling of discomfort and awkwardness washed over me. I laughed nervously.

“Where are we going?” I asked. In my head I said “No. No. No.”

“Where do you think?” He turned to look me square in the eyes as he nosed the car into one of several open spots. He laughed out loud, and I thought I saw an evil gleam in his eyes.

“They serve lunch here?”

“Yep!” he said proudly. “Don’t worry, they keep the food separate from the dancers.” He laughed out loud, a big belly laugh that most people reserve for something so funny that they can’t control themselves.

I couldn’t believe that we were having lunch at a strip joint. I’d only been to a strip club once before when one of my older fraternity brothers had had a bachelor party, but that place had been somewhat posh, at least as much as these clubs could be. Fanny’s was the polar opposite of posh. It stood wedged into a semi-basement of a row of old buildings in the back alley of the city. The parking lot smelled of urine and vomit, much like the average city bus that trundled up and down the streets.

I wheeled around to observe my surroundings as I stood outside George’s car. This wasn’t a place I’d visit at night or any other time really.

Hesitantly, I asked. “What do they serve here?”

“Pizza.”

“That’s it?”

“They order it. There’s no restaurant here. It’s good stuff, and it’s free, but you have to pay for drinks.”

I followed George to the door where a gruff, large man sat on a stool. He nodded to us and we passed by him without a word. On the other side of the foyer, the room was dark and loud. I could barely hear a word George said as we followed a scantily clad hostess to a table. There was only one stage in the dank room, which smelled of cheap pizza and alcohol. A single dancer stalked the stage, topless. When we sat down she confidently strolled toward us and began dancing on the stage in front of us. She turned around and bent over shaking her ass above us. George cheered and groveled. He pulled out some money and stuck it in her garter belt, while I just sat and watched the horror unfold.

I could only think of one person I’d be more horrified to have at my side in the presence of unmitigated sexuality – my mother. I felt about as comfortable as if she were sitting right next to me. George stood by the stage and groveled some more as the lady shimmied just inches from his fat face. When she strutted away to some other customers on the other side of the stage, George looked forlorn, but he kept that goofy smile on his face. You’d think a man his age would be numb to such things, but he looked like he’d just discovered it.

As he moved away from the stage, he put his hand on my shoulder. “Wow, she must be new here.”

I laughed. “Do you come here a lot?”

“I’m usually here once a week.”

“Really?”

“Potter, my son, a man doesn’t pass up free food. Speaking of food, let’s get some lunch.”

He wobbled past me to a long table against the wall. Heat lamps glowed above the boxes of pizza stacked on the table. George grabbed a flimsy paper plate, and surveyed the options before he grabbed several slices of pizza. I followed his lead and did the same before we returned to our table and ordered drinks from our waitress. George kept his eyes on the dancer as he shoved a slice into his mouth. He chewed sloppily and made noises as the lady gyrated on stage, which made me even more uncomfortable, if that were possible. I stared at my food only stealing glances at the dancer when she walked by us on the stage.

The dimly lit room made it difficult to really see the woman. She looked young, at least judging by her body, but her face looked tired and worn, which padded a few more years on her. She moved suggestively occasionally grabbing the pole in the middle of the stage and rippling herself up and down it, but something about her demeanor made her look disinterested as if she were in a morbidly boring job and was just trying to make it to the end of her shift. I could relate.

“Georgie!” a disembodied, female voice squealed in the dark. I twisted around in my seat to see this older dancer emerge from the dark and plop herself down in George’s lap. She seemed excited to see him in that fake way that many sorority girls greeted one another in college.

“Delilah!” George exclaimed. “How have you been?”

“Great, now that you’re here.” She pecked him on the cheek.

“You dancing?”

“I’m up next.” She stood up and adjusted her top, which barely covered her large breasts.

The smile on George’s face grew tenfold. “I’ll be ready for you.” He patted his leg in what I assume was a gesture to his money, or at least that’s what I hoped. She gave him another hug and scampered off toward the back.

I took another bite of pizza, but my stomach roiled. George leaned in and said, “Wait until you see her dance. She’s amazing!” His breath smelled of mediocre pizza and fruit punch. I wanted to vomit.

The irritating thumping music on stage segued to a stop, and the dancer strutted back stage like she was a fashion model. I watched the last of her bare ass disappear behind the velvety curtain that draped across the length of the back wall. The DJ announced Delilah, and even before she appeared on the stage, George stood, clapping and whooping like a college kid at a home football game. He was the only one who cheered, or at least he was the only one I could hear. The music throttled up and Delilah burst onto the stage in full stripper regalia. George almost fell over moving to the edge of the stage to greet her.

I couldn’t watch, and I couldn’t eat. I sat back in my chair and tried to look around for something else to occupy my attention, but my eyes kept falling on George behaving like a lap dog in the presence of this older woman who teased him from the stage. The whole scene was embarrassing as if it were my dad standing at the stage while my mom stripped for him. I wanted to leave, and I considered doing so. I could easily make my way to the main street and find one of those Lime scooters to get back to the office, but before I could muster the courage to take off, George returned to his seat.

“We should get going,” he said, still smiling and reeling from his encounter with Delilah. I could smell her cheap perfume on him as he squeezed past me. She had moved down the stage to another fawning, sad man.

“Yeah, lunch is almost over,” I said trying to encourage him. My feet were already pointed to the door.

We put some cash on the table to cover the drinks and a tip. I stood up to leave, but George walked over to the stage and waved to Delilah. She smiled and waved back to him, but she didn’t leave the man in front of her who had cash in hand. I made a beeline for the door only looking back to confirm that George was still following me.

I’d never been so glad to smell the dank air of a surly backstreet as I was when we emerged from Fanny’s. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. George came up beside me as we walked to his car and put his arm across my shoulder.

“Well, what’d you think Potter. I bet you’re liking this working life a lot better now, huh?”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “It was interesting.” I struggled to hide my desire to get away from him as quickly as possible.

“We should do this again sometime.”

I looked askew at him trying to hide my incredulity. I noticed some pizza sauce had dripped onto his shirt, but I didn’t say anything. I just promised myself that I’d never go to lunch with him again.

Episode 4: Standard Ink

“That’s what I do?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s the gist of it.” Julie replied.

“It’s kind of boring.”

“Everyone has to start somewhere.”

I stood up and peered across the sea of cubes. Heads poked above the short walls in just about every cube. I was, by far, the youngest person in the department. I saw more gray hair and bald heads than anything else.

“What about everyone else here?” I looked down at Julie who sat in a ragged chair she had dragged into my cube from the conference room across the hall. It was the last day of my training. I had spent three days with her, and I didn’t want it to end.

“What do you mean?”

“It appears I’m the only new college graduate in this department.”

“Inside Sales is the backbone of the company. A lot of people make a career of it.”

I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish the week doing this job, much less spend 30 years doing it, but some of the people I had met over the last three days had been at Standard Ink for their entire careers, and they were limping toward retirement spending their days calling prospective customers to sell them ink.

As Julie had explained to me, my job was fairly simple. I had a book, a literal notebook of printed pages, not a list on the computer, that contained the names of current, past, and potential customers. My job was to call on those customers and get them to buy more ink from us. Every day, I was expected to come in and spend the day on the phone trying to solicit orders for ink. That was basically it. Sadly.

The computer on my desk was used only to enter orders and respond to emails from my boss or customers. The order entry program looked like a throwback from the mainframe era I had read about in my history class, and that’s because it was. Standard still ran mainframes in a central room somewhere on the fifth floor of the building. The program ran in an emulator that produced a putrid monochrome green and black screen where I had to use the tab key to move among the fields to enter an order. The email client was also an anachronism from the days of desktop software. The only thing advanced about the computer was its security software, which prevented me from doing anything other than email and order entry. There was no browser installed, so I couldn’t waste time surfing the internet. I’m not even sure Standard had heard of the internet yet.  I felt like I was a little kid again when my parents used parental controls to limit my access on my computer.

I sat back down and looked at Julie. “So what’s next?”

“Well, it’s time to turn you loose.” She smiled at me and my heart melted a little. I didn’t want her to turn me loose. It felt like she was dropping me off at prison. I tried to remain hopeful in her presence.

“I can’t wait to get started.” I almost choked on these words.

“Good. You are going to do great. You’re just what this department needs.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. This department, this company, needed a lot of things, and I wasn’t it. “Thank you.”

She stood up and I joined her. For a brief moment, we looked at each other in a semi-awkward silence.

“Will I see you around?” I asked, stalling the inevitable.

“I’ll come down and see how you’re doing, but if you need anything, just give me a call.” She handed me one of her business cards. I cradled it in my palm and examined the raised letters on its surface. Her name, bold with a serif font, gave me small comfort in the sea of misery of Inside Sales.

She extended her hand and I shook it. I inhaled her perfume one more time before she turned and walked down the hall. I watched her walk away, enchanted by the purposeful sway of her gait. She was like a bright star in a singularly dark sky, and I wondered why she worked here. She could do so much better. I never asked her that. I filed that question away for the next time I saw her.

With Julie out of sight, the dreadfulness of Standard Ink seeped into my bones and pulled me down into the creaky chair in my cube. I sat down so hard that I thought the chair would break, but it only whined and crackled like the popping of tiny firecrackers. I stared at the ominous green screen on my computer and then the old, bulky phone on my desk.

My first call on my own went about as well as expected. My opening spiel was met with a click. I stopped mid-sentence to confirm that I had been unceremoniously dumped by the potential customer. I marked through the name in the call book. Half of my next ten calls ended in the same way until I reached a pleasant lady who sounded lonely. Not to brag, but my call definitely brightened her day. We chatted for over ten minutes about everything from the weather to my college mascot (the dodo). By the time I got to the punchline of my sales pitch, she was ready to order. She also asked if I planned to do a sales visit. She was disappointed when I told her no.

An hour had gone by, but it felt like a whole day. I felt bored, despondent. When I was a young kid and was learning to swim, I had ventured out into the deep end of the neighborhood pool one day while my parents sat in lounge chairs at the shallow end. I had confidently swam out to the deep end on my own, but once I was there, I suddenly panicked and thought I was going to sink to the bottom and drown. I wanted to call out to my dad, but fear had sucked all of the air out of my lungs and I was left paddling in deep water trying to stay afloat. I eventually mustered the energy to swim over to the wall of the pool and climb out, but I never forgot that feeling of being trapped on the deep end fearing for my life. I felt the same way sitting there in my cube. I was in too deep.

“How’s it going, kid?” George, one of my coworkers, said. He leaned against the edge of my cube with a stained, ceramic coffee cup in his hand. He took a sip while he waited for my answer.

“Okay, I guess.”

“It’ll get better.”

“I hope so. I only landed one order in an hour.”

“Where’s your trainer?” He gave a Cheshire Cat grin and glanced sideways up and down the corridor. George was typical of the people in Inside Sales. He was in his fifties, or so I guessed, bald save for the ring of wispy, gray hair that circumscribed his oblong head, and overweight. His gut hung so far over his belt that I couldn’t see the belt I supposed he wore. He wore short-sleeved dress shirts that had ghosted stains and frittered edges on the sleeves, not torn, but just just enough unevenness to make it clear that the shirt was well past its prime. He wore an outdated tie whose pattern may have been hip back in the 1980s, and his dress pants were too long as if he bought them with the intention of growing into them, like my mom used to do for me when I hit my growth spurt in my early teenage years. He didn’t wear his jacket once he reached his cube, probably because it was too small to button over his prodigious gut.

“I’m done with training, so she’s moved onto the next one.”

“They didn’t have trainers who looked like that when I started. I had some old fart train me.” He grinned wider than I thought possible. His leering look gave me the creeps. The thought of some old man pawing Julie, even with his eyes, disgusted me. I didn’t know what to say, so we stood there in an awkward silence filled only with George’s unspoken lust. I felt like I had stepped in a pile of dog shit and couldn’t wait to scrape it off my shoe.

“Hey kid, now that you’re officially one of us, we should go to lunch tomorrow. I’ll give you the run down on the inside.” His looked shifted from lascivious to hopeful.

I couldn’t imagine a more boring lunch partner, but I needed to get to know my coworkers if I was ever going to survive this job. “Sure.”

He looked relieved as if the seconds that passed between his suggestion and my answer were unbearable. “Cool, I’ll swing by tomorrow. I’ll take you to my favorite lunch spot.” He gave another mischievous grin as he turned to walk away. I didn’t know what he had in store for me, but I imagined it couldn’t be worse than the hazing I endured when I joined my fraternity in college. This was the professional world after all.

 

 

Episode 1: Standard Ink

My dad always told me that I had to make good grades if I wanted to get into a good college and that gaining admission to a good college was half the battle in landing a good job, but I didn’t listen. He’d lecture me so frequently about this that his delivery is forever etched in my mind. He’d get this serious look on his face, arching his eyebrows inward as if he were concentrating on something productive. He’d spread his arms out wide and say “All of this…,” meaning the house in which we lived, “…is the result of your mother and me going to college.”

He had been reduced to appealing to my tangible and superficial side after his noble appeals to my intellect and logic failed miserably. I don’t remember the first version of this lecture too much, but the one where he talked about all the things I could have if I went to a good college stuck with me for some reason even though I didn’t take to the inherent message. At the time I didn’t think I needed to get into a good college to get these things. I had them already. It was only years later that I discovered the flaw in my logic.

For what it’s worth, Dad’s life didn’t seem too enviable. Sure, we had these things he liked to point out, but he worked long hours, traveled endlessly, and rarely spent any time in the house he was so proud of. What was the point of working so hard for stuff he didn’t enjoy? That’s what I wanted to ask him, but I never had the gall to ask him that. Instead, I just stared intently at a spot on the wall above his shoulder until the lecture was finished, and then, I’d mope off to my room to play video games.

My grades weren’t failing, but they weren’t the stuff of legend either, not by a long shot. My biggest claim to fame in my entire school career involved a hook shot of a wad of paper from the back of my eighth-grade classroom that threaded through my exasperated homeroom teacher’s hands and landed squarely in the waste basket to the stunned amazement of my thirty or so peers. I earned detention for that careless shot, but my place in the annals of school legend was assured because of my brash stupidity.

By the time my senior year in high school rolled around and my peers were making big college decisions, I was relegated to the community college route, hoping to get my grades up so that I could sneak into a big-time college. After spending a couple of years at a community college not far from my parent’s house, I managed to squeak into one of the lesser state colleges to finish my four-year degree. It was there that I realized how true my dad’s words were.

The state college was nothing more than a degree mill for the less-capable among us, which I had become by default. Everyone graduated as long as they gave a minimum of effort, and if I’d proven anything in my life, it’s that I was good at giving the minimum. I was just a few weeks from graduation with a major in business, not marketing, finance, or accounting, just business, which as far as degrees are concerned might as well have been basket weaving because nothing says “aimless” like a broad, nondescript degree.

The state college had a rudimentary career placement office, mostly because no one of substance recruited from the school. The state itself practically owned the meager career fair held late in the fall semester hiring wannabe bureaucrats for its endless array of departments and agencies. Nothing depressed me more than the thought of rotting in some mindless state bureaucracy for the rest of my life. The few companies that did show up for the career fair were mostly has-beens in their industries, old or failing companies that were one innovation away from death or were in industries that had been completely disrupted by the future but had failed to recognize it.

With nothing better to do, I walked the languid, makeshift aisles among the tables at the career fair eyeing the men and women in cheap suits suspiciously. My dad had warned me that I would have to start paying him rent once I graduated, and I had no intention of doing that, so I decided I had to get a job so that I could move out on my own. I stopped at a few tables and talked to rotund, middle-aged, balding men about their boring state jobs. After each conversation I felt a sense of gloom so great that I wanted to run screaming from the conference center until I noticed a gleaming jewel in the gray sea of the career fair.

At the far end of one haphazard row of tables, I noticed a beautiful, blonde woman standing behind a table smiling and greeting passersby. I quickened my pace to get to her table, almost running past tables for the State Treasury, the Office of Corrections, and some state agency responsible penalizing people for no apparent reason. A small crowd of mostly male students had gathered around her table. I listened as she talked to one particularly listless student who hadn’t even bothered to dress appropriately for the event. Even I had replaced my usual t-shirt, board shorts, and flip-flops with a reasonably appointed suit my dad had bought me for graduation.

I waited eagerly for the student to finish his conversation with the woman. He gave her a gummy smile as she talked and sort of snort-laughed after he said something. I could tell she was a little disgusted, but she kept flashing that big smile. Finally, the student moved on realizing either he had no interest in whatever agency she was pedaling or that he had no chance of asking her out.

The woman didn’t even watch the student leave. She simply turned in my direction, and I stepped forward and introduced myself, cutting off another male student who had probably been standing there longer than I had, but he was too feckless to protest.

“Hi, I’m Travis Potter.”

Her smile broadened and her eyes brightened as she took my hand, “I’m Julie White. I’m here for Standard Ink.” Her handshake was warm and comfortable but firm. I liked her immediately.

“Standard Ink? What does that agency do?”

“It’s not an agency. It’s a company.”

“Oh. What does it sell?”

She looked at me like I had missed the joke. “We sell ink, as in ink pens.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes.” A worried look flashed across her face as if she thought the conversation had taken a turn for the worse. For my part, I couldn’t believe there was a company dedicated to selling ink in a world that had mostly converted to digital. I barely used a pen in class, and my school wasn’t known for being a trend-setting educational institution.

“Do you sell ink for printers?”

“What kind of printers?”

“Like the ones attached to computers.”

She shook her head as if I had just asked her to have my child. “No. We’re a very focused company. We do one thing, and we do it very well.”

I must have had this incredulous look on my face because she immediately followed that up with “We’re the best in the industry. We’re a leading producer of ink. Our ink is in all of the leading pens around the world.” She seemed confident and self-assured by this. “Would you like to learn more about the positions we’re hiring for?”

I shook my head mainly because I didn’t want to leave her just yet. Her radiating beauty held me into an orbit around her, and I found myself willing to endure anything, even the inane idea of an ink-focused company in 2018, just to hold her attention. She leaned down across the table and opened a glossy brochure with lots of pictures of people doing serious stuff in offices. All of them were focused on writing something on paper with an ink pen. There was even a photo of a classroom of students, all with ink pens, writing notes in notebooks at their desks. Even in my community college, all of the students had laptops in class. I don’t remember a single Luddite taking notes with a notebook and pen.

She flipped to the last page of the brilliant brochure. Some high-quality ink had been used to produce it for sure. “Does your company produce the ink used to create these photos? I asked, hopeful that this company was at least trying to be part of the modern era.

She shook her head. “We believe focus is the key to success, so we only do one thing. We’re the best in the industry.” She smiled proudly. I must have stared at her dumbly because she kept going. “You’ll find we have that same focus in terms of career development. All of our new hires go through an extensive training program to teach them the Standard way. What’s your major?”

“Business.”

“Great! You’d be perfect for Sales.”

“Me?”

“Yes. You have that look of determination that we seek in our sales staff.”

I looked around us. The crowd of fawning young men had dispersed as if they had intruded upon two necking lovers in a public place. A large, lumpy student who wore jeans, sandals and an un-tucked white shirt with a red, paisley tie looked at me from across the aisle and then looked at Julie. He shot me a look of envy. I felt like a dull bulb in a box of burned out ones.

“What do you think? Julie asked. I felt despondent. Nothing looked good at this career fair. I was either destined to work a dreadful, boring job or live at home with my parents for the foreseeable future. Most of my friends had jobs at exciting companies, startups, or consulting firms. Many had already moved to bigger and better places. I was stuck and in decline already at the ripe old age of 21.

“When do I start?” I said jokingly, smiling back at Julie.

Her eyes brightened and, if it was even possible, her smile grew bigger. She pulled a business card from her suit pocket and handed it to me. “You are going to love working at Standard Ink. Here is the business card for our sales trainer, Bert Mullens. I just need to get some information from you.”

Julie pulled a clipboard from beneath the table and handed me an ink pen (of course). “Please fill out this form and sign at the bottom.” She pointed to the lines and rested the tip of her well-manicured finger near the edge of the signature line. She had leaned closer to me to explain the form, and I could smell her intoxicating perfume. I didn’t care if this was the right choice for me. I just wanted to work with Julie everyday. I looked up from the form at Julie. She kept smiling for me.

“The training center’s address is on Bert’s card. Please be there at 9 AM on Monday. If you have any problems, just call the number on the card.”

“That’s it?”

“Uh-huh,” she said through her radiant smile.

I had been prepared for a much more grueling process or at least a few tough questions. I wasn’t prepared for this. I apparently had a job. I relaxed a little, probably a little too much.

“What do you do at Standard Ink?”

The smile on her face flipped off like a light in a dark room. “What?”

“What’s your job?”

She paused for a moment. “Oh, I’m the Senior VP of Outbound Communication, Inquiry, and Recruitment.”

“Wow, that’s a mouthful.” I chuckled at my joke. Julie did not.

“Hi!” she said as she ended our conversation abruptly and greeted another student who had survived the perilous sea of damnation and boredom to make it to Julie’s table. I watched for a moment as she interacted with the student. Her approach seemed like a recording of our conversation, and I realized I wasn’t so special after all. Deflated, I walked away from the table and directly toward the exit. Outside, the day had turned cloudy and drizzly, much like my future, but at least I had a job.

Episode 3: Donna Quixote

Before Donna opened her eyes, she could sense the unfamiliar around her. She’d had a dream of her mother and she hoped that by keeping her eyes closed she could linger in the dream just a little longer. She missed her mother dearly and thought of her every day. The day her mother died had been the second worst day of her life.

A low hum droned next to her head on her right, a faint chatter echoed somewhere away from her, and she could feel someone next to her. She slowly opened her eyes. A young Indian man stood next to her cloaked in light blue scrubs and a white coat. She took him in with half-closed eyes and blinked hoping that he’d go away, but he remained next to her making notes on a tablet.

“Good morning, Ms. Scott. I’m Dr. Kolachalam,” he said. Her name rolled off his tongue in a strange way, but she understood him. “How do you feel?”

Donna turned her head to the side and felt the stiffness from her shoulder roll up her neck. She felt pain in her expression. “Where am I?” she asked.

“Eastside Hospital. You had a fall and hurt your shoulder. The EMTs brought you here this morning.”

She thought about this for a moment. She remembered falling and pain radiating up her shoulder. She remembered the tinny voice on the end of the line when she dialed 9-1-1, and she remembered wondering if the dispatcher recognized her voice.

“You’re lucky it wasn’t worse, Ms. Scott. It appears you fainted from low blood sugar and fell against your kitchen counter. You’ve got a sizable bruise on your shoulder, but it should heal in time. Have you been taking your insulin as prescribed?”

She couldn’t remember when she last took her insulin, but she usually took it at night before she went to bed. “Last night,” she replied. Her voice croaked as if she hadn’t had anything to drink in a very long time. “Can I get some water?”

“Sure.” The doctor turned to the space behind him and poured some water into a plastic cup. He pushed the cup toward her lips, but she stuck up her hand and he put the cup in her hand instead. She swallowed large gulps of water as he watched.

“You should be fine, but you need to ensure you take your insulin. The bruise will hurt for a few days, but nothing is broken. The nurse will be in to discharge you. You can go home.”

“Is the ambulance going to take me home?” she asked.

“Do you have someone who can take you home?”

“No. I live alone.”

“Oh, let me tell the nurse. She can help you.” A look of sympathy washed over his otherwise stoic face. His eyes lingered on her a bit longer before he turned and disappeared behind the room’s swinging door.

Donna pushed herself into her pillow and looked away from the fluttering door. The machine next to her bed had been disconnected from her and turned off. She wondered what her blood pressure reading was. She wanted to compare it to what her own readings had been to see if she’d been getting incorrect numbers. These thoughts rippled through her mind as a wave of exhaustion washed over her. She closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.

A murmur of hushed conversation woke her from her slumber. At first, she just heard the disembodied voices hovering over her, but as she slowly opened her eyes, she could see blurred faces. It took her a moment to realize her eyeglasses had slid down her nose. She pushed them up to her eyes and took in the two women staring at her.

“Ms. Scott,” the nurse said, “your daughter is here to take you home.”

Donna looked at the woman beside her. She had aged a good bit since the last time she had seen her, but she still had that dismissive look on her face, one that she had worn so well for so many years.

“Ms. Anderson called me and said that an ambulance had brought you here. I’m glad you’re okay.”

Donna blinked and looked away toward the skinny window in the room. The light outside had dimmed.

“Are you ready to go home?” her daughter asked.

She turned back toward her daughter. The nurse had left the room. “You didn’t have to come here.”

“I know, but I thought I should. Ms. Anderson was very worried about you.”

“She needs to mind her own business.”

“Donna, be glad you have a neighbor who cares.”

“She doesn’t care. She’s just nosy.”

“You haven’t changed a bit.” Her daughter shook her head with a look of disdain framing her face. Donna looked toward the window.

“Alright, at least let me take you home. Otherwise, it’s going to cost you. Can you get dressed, or do I need to call the nurse back?”

Donna shifted her gaze back to her daughter and then winced in pain as she tried to sit up.

“I’ll get the nurse.” Her daughter turned and left the room, and a few moments later, the nurse returned smiling a bright white smile that even made Donna want to smile in return.

After the nurse helped her get dressed, she sat in the lone chair next to the bed. Her shoulder throbbed, and her heart pounded in her chest. She grasped the bottle of pain medicine the nurse had given her. The door swung open and her daughter’s sour face hung above the bed in her line of sight.

“You ready to go?”

She nodded.

“Do you need help, or can you walk yourself?”

She nodded again and stood up as if to offer proof.

“Let’s go.”

Donna took a tentative first step and then shuffled toward her daughter. Silence engulfed them as they rode the elevator down to the main floor and walked out to the parking lot. Her daughter walked in front of her and she followed her broad back down the aisle of cars and through a line near the back of the lot until her daughter stopped at a small, red Kia.

“This is my car,” she said. Donna stopped and backtracked to the passenger side. She waited for her daughter to unlock the door, and then, she slid into the passenger seat, which felt like it was almost on the ground in the small car. When her daughter cranked the car, the radio came on louder than Donna cared for, but she didn’t complain. The piercing noise of the music drowned out the words left unsaid.

The drive to her house only took about ten minutes. Years ago, when she had her children, the nearest hospital had been almost an hour away, but in the intervening years as her neighborhood became something she didn’t recognize, the town around her grew in importance, enough so that it now had its own hospital. Donna watched the world go by outside the passenger window, a blur of buildings and houses, some new and some old blended into a smear of colors in the late afternoon.

The car came to a stop in front of her house. Donna almost didn’t recognize it from the outside since she rarely looked at it from this angle.

“Do you want me to help you?” her daughter asked.

Donna shook her head without looking at her daughter. She took a breath and opened the car door.

As she stood up and before she could shut the door, her daughter said, “Donna…”

Donna bent down and peered into the car at her daughter. Her daughter froze as if she had forgotten what she was going to say.

“Take care of yourself,” she said after an awkward pause.

“I will,” Donna replied. She shut the car door and turned toward her house without another word or glance at her daughter. She heard the engine hum and the crackle of tires on the asphalt as her daughter drove away. She felt a sense of relief mixed with exhaustion as she walked toward the planter on her porch that hid the key to her house. She couldn’t get back in her house soon enough to get away from the world that shunned her.

Push – Final Episode

Marvin Cantor pushed his way up the stairs leading out of the subway station. He felt like he was swimming against a school of fish that had surrounded him. Most people dodged left and right to avoid him as he rushed up the steps. He felt his right shoe flapping loosely against his foot, and he feared that he’d lose it, but with a thousand dollars waiting for him, he didn’t have to worry. Or did he? What if the strange man wasn’t waiting for him in the alley as he’d promised? A moment of panic washed over him. Had he killed another man for nothing?

The daylight flashed against his face as he stepped from the station’s exit. The crowded sidewalk crushed him, but people made way for him as he turned left and headed toward First and Macon streets. He turned left again and hurried through a narrow alley until he came out on 10th Avenue. He stopped for  a moment and observed the rush hour crowd walking by. He hesitantly turned and looked down the alley, but no one was following him as he had feared. He took a deep breath. The sweat beneath his layers of clothes chilled his skin. He’d use some of the money to spend the night in a hostel, maybe even get a shower. He couldn’t remember the last time he had taken a shower.

He walked as casually as he could down 10th until he passed in front of Schulz’s. He peered through the big windows, but he didn’t see Schulz. He walked by and turned down the alley next to the deli. Down a ways next to the dumpster, stood a dark figure leaning next to the wall. Marvin felt as if someone had trespassed into his home. This was his alley. He spent many nights here.

He had a sense of unease as he approached the dumpster. He could barely see the man’s face as he approached him. He waited for the stranger to speak to him as he stopped a few feet before the metal trash bin. The door to Schulz’s deli was to his left. The man stood up straight and took a step toward him.

“Did you do it?” he asked.

“Yes.” Marvin’s voice shook.

“Did he die?” The man seemed agitated.

“Yes.”

“Did you see the body?”

Marvin hesitated. “No, I had to get out of there before the cops came.”

The stranger sighed. “How do you know he’s dead?”

Many thoughts raced through Marvin’s head. His memory flashed back to the moment he had pushed the man onto the tracks. He remembered distinctly the wailing of the train’s horn, the screams of the crowd, the rush of the riders as they went to and fro on the platform. He had heard a sickening thud and a screech of metal on metal, but he didn’t turn around to see anything. He’d simply hurried away, too scared to see what had happened as a result of his actions.

The truth was that he regretted what he had done. He didn’t know the man that he had pushed onto the tracks, and the stranger hadn’t shared anything about the man to justify his killing, but Marvin was desperate. He needed the money.

“I heard the train hit him,” Marvin replied.

“I need more proof than that.”

“He’s dead. Now, where’s my money?” Marvin tried to sound confident, but it came out weak.

“You don’t get to decide when I give you the money.”

Marvin took a step back and stammered, “I did what you asked.”

“You’re nothing but some worthless homeless guy. You don’t get to decide anything.”

“Come on, man, I just need the money. I didn’t want to kill someone. I don’t even know why you wanted him dead. I don’t care. I just want my money.”

“I’ll tell you why. Because he was a worthless husband. His wife hated him. She wanted him dead.”

Marvin kept his eyes on the man. A fear rippled down his spine. He felt a breeze to his left and turned to see Schulz opening the back door to the deli. He thought to tell Schulz to go back inside, but as he turned to the old man, he noticed a long shiny object in his hand. Before he had time to react, Schulz plunged the knife into his chest. Marvin stumbled backwards and looked at Schulz in shock. He felt the warm blood run down his chest. He put his hand on the handle that protruded from his body, but he was too weak to remove it. The stranger moved closer to him and sneered at him as he fell to his knees.

The alley spun around him alternating between light and dark. He thought he could hear the rush of blood from his chest. He tried to put his hand on his wound, but both of his hands were too heavy to lift. Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Feet shuffled near him. A car horn honked in the distance. The din of traffic echoed through the alley.

He heard muffled voices over him, but he couldn’t discern what they were saying. He opened his eyes and strained to see, but his eyes were blurred by tears. He tried to say something, but he couldn’t force any words from his mouth. He heard footsteps moving away from him. Nothing but the usual sounds of the city engulfed him as the blood drained from his chest.

His breathing became labored and his chest hitched and jerked before he took his final breath. His last thoughts were of the sound the man’s body had made when the train had hit him.

 

Push – Episode 5

Fred stepped through the door of his home into the dark hallway just outside the kitchen. The garage door rattled shut behind him piercing the silence that otherwise engulfed him. Another dreadful week had come to a close ending with him exhausted and ready to go to bed at 8 PM. He crossed the kitchen diagonally and beat a hasty path to his office where he dropped his briefcase onto an empty chair. He shrugged off his rain coat and hung it on the hook behind his door before he returned to the kitchen.

He took a deep breath and surveyed his surroundings. He listened for any signs of Shelly, but he knew she was out with friends for the night. She did that a lot lately, more so than she had before Alan moved out. When Alan lived with them, she spent more time at home with their son, cooking meals or just watching TV with him. They’d always been close, so much so that he often felt like a third wheel or an interloper in his own home. That had changed now.

The light above him struggled to fend off the darkness in the living room. The house felt somber and abandoned without his wife or son around. Fred pulled open the cabinet near the refrigerator and removed a bottle of scotch. He filled a small glass with the honey-colored liquid and gulped it down. The burn made him exhale loudly. He poured another and held it above his head, staring at the liquid through the kitchen light before he sucked it down too. He quickly lost track of how many drinks he had poured.

He hadn’t eaten anything since lunch, and although he was hungry, he didn’t feel like eating. Exhaustion weighed on his shoulders and the alcohol made it worse. He felt lightheaded. His stomach rumbled like a volcano spitting hot lava. The scotch wasn’t settling well. A burp threatened to erupt into vomit. He braced himself against the countertop. In spite of it all, he downed another glass.

He didn’t want to end up on the floor again. Shelly had yelled at him before for passing out in the kitchen. He stumbled a bit as he stepped toward the stairs, but he managed to navigate them quite well. His feet felt like they were trudging through wet cement. His head undulated to a dull ache as his stomach protested. The door to his bedroom stood open, but it seemed smaller than usual. He bumped his shoulder against the door frame as he entered, which temporarily diverted his attention from everything else that ailed him. He yelped and rubbed his throbbing shoulder.

He stumbled to the bed and tried to remove his shoes before he fell on top of the comforter. His face smashed against the plush material of the bed covering making it hard for him to open his right eye. He couldn’t move or he didn’t want to move. The weight of the day overwhelmed him and crushed him into the bed. He just wanted to sleep, to give into the forces that threatened to drown him at that very moment.

Before he drifted into an intoxicating sleep, several thoughts drifted through his mind, but he was too drunk to understand them or grasp the consequences that lay before him.

Shelly wasn’t out with friends. She was having an affair with another man, a younger man. He knew this man but couldn’t picture his face.

Alan had left him a threatening message, but he had deleted it before he heard his son say what he had been thinking all along.

Paolo had accosted him outside his office at lunch. The big man had not been happy about losing the lawsuit and accused him of seedy tactics to win one for his wealthy client. He could still smell the cheesesteak on Paolo’s breath, and it made him sick.

His life spiraled out of control. He floated above his body and saw himself sprawled out on the bed below him. He looked around him and saw his wife embracing the younger man, his son loading a gun beneath the kitchen table, and Paolo walking toward him with a big stick in his hand. He turned away and drifted into a fitful sleep.

Push – Episode 4

Fred sat across the table from Paolo Fenta and his lawyer, Ricardo Montes. Montes looked ridiculous in his over-sized, double-breasted suit. The shoulder pads hung over the edge of his jaunty shoulders. His skinny neck struggled to fill the collar of his shirt. He looked like a bad mob character from the 1980s with his garish mismatch of colors – dark, blue satin shirt, pale green tie, and forest green suit. He was beyond naturally tanned and had dark hair greased back like some beatnik from the 1950s. The visual dissonance made Fred queasy.

Paolo offered no relief. He wore a tight, floral-patterned, short-sleeved shirt and dress slacks that were probably a size too small. Unlike Ricardo, he threatened to burst from his clothes given his considerable bulk. His belly protested against the table as Paolo leaned on his elbows to listen to what Fred had to say. Ricardo sat back as if daring Fred to say something that he didn’t like.

“This is my client’s final offer,” Fred announced as he slid the paperwork across the table to Ricardo.

Ricardo eyed him suspiciously as he pulled the paper toward him. “Where is your client?”

“He wasn’t able to make it today. He had an important meeting at work.”

“I’m sure he’s making six figures whatever he’s doing today. Meanwhile, Paolo here had to miss another day of work thanks to your client.”

Fred exhaled exasperation. “It’s a good offer. It’s much more than you’d get if this goes to court.”

Paolo leaned over his lawyer’s shoulder to glance at the paperwork. “How much is it?” he asked. He leaned in further almost pushing Ricardo aside.

Ricardo seemed aggravated but he quickly scanned the page. His eyes darted left to right until he hit the part of the page that warranted his attention. He paused and stared for a moment before he said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“What? How much?” Paolo asked sounding like a kid whose parent wasn’t telling him something. Ricardo pointed at the amount on the page as he turned it toward Paolo. Fred could see the anger boil up in the big man. His face turned red and his eyes narrowed. “Fuck that!” he said as he looked at Fred.

“Mr. Gillian, there’s no way we’re accepting this offer. You must take us for fools.”

Paolo’s anger grew in intensity, but he seemed to struggle to find words to express it. He leaned into the table against his moaning gut and stared at Fred. His fists clenched. Fred heard his chair slide back against the carpet every so slightly.

“Mr. Montes, the accident was very minor. Paolo’s car wasn’t even totaled. He wasn’t even admitted to the hospital for his injuries. How can you possibly think you’ll get more in court.”

“I’ve missed a month and a half of work!” Paolo yelled.

Paolo threatened to bound from his chair, but Ricardo put his hand on his arm as if to calm him or restrain him in some way.

“Your client is immensely wealthy. This is chump change for him,” Ricardo said.

“My client’s wealth has nothing to do with what’s fair, Mr. Montes. That offer is more than reasonable given the circumstances.”

“Then, we’ll see you in court.” Ricardo stood up. When Paolo didn’t move, he tapped his back to get him to stand as well. Paolo kept his eyes on Fred, but Fred ignored him.

“Rachel will show you out,” Fred said to the men as he walked to the door of the conference room. Paolo maintained his angry stare and huffed as he walked past Fred into the waiting room. Rachel stood and greeted the men before she led them toward the exit. Fred shut the door and took the opposite direction toward this office.

He sighed as he returned to his desk. He hated dealing with the despicable personal injury lawyers. They gave other lawyers a bad name, especially when they sought big payouts for minor things. Fred knew Ricardo simply wanted a big payday for himself, but he also knew that his offer had been very fair. Any jury would see right through Ricardo and Paolo. He felt confident he’d win the case and that the men would receive far less than what he had just offered them. They’d regret their stance. He would make sure of it.