Mastodon Have a Seat - Richard Charles Schaefer - Stories - Sensitive Skin Magazine

What do banal pricks dream about? You know the type; if he’s not your boss, he’s your boss’s boss, your father, or your stepfather. He exerts influence over some part of your life, and it’s not unreasonable to wonder: what does this banal prick dream of?

My particular banal prick is speaking to me via webcam from his home office. His name is Will, he’s the director of my department, and he’s explaining to me why I didn’t get a manager role I interviewed for. I keep my mic muted and nod on cue.

I didn’t end up here on purpose. Generationally, I landed just on the far bank from the gig-economy, but I’ve never thought of any of my jobs as a career; I stay in them until they become untenable, then another year or two after that, when my disgust at what I can become acclimated to becomes pride in my ability to survive, and I become disgusted with my pride. Eventually I will move to a new city to prove that this is not my life, that it never was; that it was a single blink in time. This particular blink has lasted nearly ten years.

I look at my unmoving face mirrored in the corner of the screen and wonder what the banal prick I see there dreams about; and of.

“Look, man, you’re a qualified candidate, but your answers, they just weren’t… manager level. I mean, you talked about creative writing? No one cares about that. And you mention some projects that didn’t go anywhere. We need results. And the way you present in the interview… I know you’re enthusiastic, but you need to show the panel.”

Will is on the interview panel; he picks the other members of the panel; and he gets final say in who he hires. He is the fucking panel. I stay silent.

“So what else you got for me?” he asks. You never go into a meeting with Will without having “something else” for him. I came prepared. I want to kill him, but instead I open an Excel spreadsheet and explain some data. I can’t hear my own voice over the rush of blood in my head.

Why is it “data” and not “numbers”? Because these numbers represent people and their efficiency, and we in this industry do not reduce people to numbers, no sir; we reduce them to data. Data is life-giving manna, the ambrosia by which we read the future; it’s wrung from the veins of our employees and sold back to them as a balm to improve the “employee experience.”

“That’s great, man. Look, let’s set up some time for me to give you interview feedback, okay?”

I thought this was the feedback, but I nod.

“Great. What else is going on?”

They call our workspace an open floor plan; that’s what you’ll call it too, once you’re working in one. The low walls are part of a social experiment measuring how long it takes before people become comfortable picking their noses within sight of each other; it’s not long. If the cubicle environment has been compared to a hive, this one’s inhabitants communicate through pheromones derived from farts, perfume, and tuna sandwiches. The high employee turnover keeps the farts from getting too stale or familiar, but the tuna remains the same. Taped throughout the space are signs proclaiming the floor an “odor free zone”, but the resistance is legion.

If it hasn’t happened to you, you’re thinking that it won’t, that you’ll never be part of an open floor plan fart-hive; you won’t compromise your morals and, if you ever did, you’d manage to hold your farts in. You’d be the one who doesn’t pick his nose. And you may be right, for a while. But there will be a gradual realization that while you’re here, placing finger in nostril is the most intimate act of self-affirmation you’re capable of without using break time.

Some people decorate their cubicles with whimsical figures, affirmations, or coloring book pages; mine has none of these things. I don’t have photos of my family, nor even a calendar. I think the few napkins I keep on top of my cabinet add some personal flare for, though they’re unused, they’re a bit rumpled. If someone needed a napkin, and I handed them one of these, they wouldn’t take it without first receiving some assurance from me, such as “it’s clean, I just had it in my pocket.”

And, while the open floor-plan might be a previous generation’s response to the current batch of college grads’ dependence on their cell-phones, the use of such technology is shameless; in every row, employees are crushing candy, taking selfies, online shopping, and watching Youtube. I’ve seen more than one new-hire swiping through Tinder while speaking to customers. My own boss spends large parts of the day with her credit card propped between keys on her keyboard, ordering clothing through MLMs on Facebook.

I started with this company in the entry-level job most of the people around me currently have. I stood out from my peers by virtue of the fact that I appear to work hard and I’m told that I’m good at networking. This is quite incidental, for I assure you I’ve never spoken to anyone within these four walls with the intention of building a connection, personal or professional. I think of myself as a normal enough person and, though I might approach things with a bit of a smirk, I take hard work seriously. A lot of people here mistake that for passion, and I don’t care to correct them.

My department is the contact center of a large insurance company. Our policyholders mostly call when they are confused or dying; in the case of the former, our employees form a bond with the caller by showing them that even we barely understand their policies, and in the case of the latter we assure them that, though they are dying, their policies will also be very confusing for their beneficiaries.

Sometimes I ask myself why I stay, but the answer falls far short of the sort of angst-ridden heights asking that question used to whisk me away to; I stay because I need money, insurance, and because finding a new job is a pain in the ass.

Why did I apply for the manager role that the aforementioned banal prick so recently told me I didn’t get? Well, money, for one thing, and, though I’m loathe to admit it, it’s hard not to buy at least some of the propaganda about upward mobility when it’s being sold on every street corner. Yes, I really thought I deserved it. Like I said, people here like me; they think I’m passionate and smart. So maybe some of them lead me to believe I was a shoe-in for this manager role, that I was the only choice, that it was my fucking destiny like I was the fucking Dalai Lama and I’d just picked the right cup from the blanket full of them.

Well it turns out they were wrong. I know that if I talk to them again (and I will, because I’m so fucking good at networking) they’ll tell me the same things again, to keep at it, that next time’s definitely mine, that sometimes they don’t give you a job just to see how you handle it, that it wasn’t my time.

The worst part is, I came out of that second interview feeling like I’d done well—no, I can’t say that; I came out of that second interview desperately convincing myself I’d done well, but couldn’t stop tearing apart every word of every answer I’d given, and hoping the panel wasn’t tearing it apart with as fine-toothed a comb as I was. It was a painful cycle of regretting everything from my intro to my goodbye, then telling myself “I’m sure it was fine.”

Sometimes I remind myself this is just a game, that I don’t need to take it as seriously as the other players, because I have stuff going on outside of work. Artistically satisfying accomplishments. I don’t talk about it at work more often than I have to, but I’ve had a number of short stories published in small literary magazines. You’d be surprised how often a “fun fact” is required for an ice-breaker at a meeting, and this is usually mine.

And, though I don’t keep photos of them on my desk, I have a family. Two children and a wife. I do all this for them. By “all this” I mean “stay at this job”, because children are always going to the doctor; it’s nearly impossible to see a doctor without insurance, and nearly impossible to get decent insurance unless it’s through your employer. And the anger about how little my insurance pays distracts me from the anger at how much the doctors charge. I myself rarely go to the doctor.

I also tell myself “I do all this for them” when I write; although I’m not young (I’m 32), I’m “young enough” to believe that someday I might make money off of my writing if I work very hard. So far I have made $0, or less if you subtract the submission fees I have paid to magazines that haven’t published me.

My mother used to joke that I’ll pay back every cent she’s ever loaned me once I make a million dollars as a writer; she doesn’t make that joke any more. Take from that what you will.

My wife “believes in me” and I “believe in myself”. What does believing in me mean? It means my wife calls me on my more grandiose procrastination (the “woe is me” school of writer’s block does not fly in our home); it’s worked well enough that I completed a novel, though not well enough that I’ve gotten it published. Believing in yourself is like religion; it’s fine behind closed doors, but the rest of the world doesn’t follow the same rules. Your writing teachers don’t tell you how much of a “writing career” consists of proselytizing your talents to cynical, uncaring masses.

But, you may say, I have no “writing career” and therefore no perspective from which to speak on this matter. Well. I mentioned before that I’ve never considered a paying job I held to be a career; on the flip side of the same coin, I consider writing my career even though it’s never earned me a dime. I’ll have to wait and see.

I don’t mean the kind of waiting that this interview process submitted me too, the kind during which I could do nothing to alter my destiny. I truly believe that a more satisfying punishment for Sisyphus than rolling that rock would have been if he was stuck for all eternity waiting for that rock to arrive. If his tormentor was constantly assuring him, “I know, it’s been 10,000 years, but that rock’s gonna be here in five minutes,” that would have been worse than any actual labor.

No, the waiting I mean isn’t really waiting at all but gathering my defense against a future of mediocrity—so waiting for my writing career to begin consists of the act of writing. If you believe that you can just wait around for success, and don’t actually have to pursue it, I have this to say: your rock’s gonna be here in five minutes, I swear.

My point is that I don’t derive all of my satisfaction from my job, which is good, because I don’t derive any satisfaction from my job. I’d be more likely to receive nourishment from my mother’s 60-year-old tit. And yet, I’m still disappointed that I didn’t get that manager job; when you’re plopped down at the base of a flight of stairs, it’s hard not to want to climb it. Human nature says that the second floor’s got to be better than the first—haven’t you ever been to a friend or acquaintance’s house and been stuck on the first floor, just dying to know what’s upstairs? Rationally, you know it’s always just bedrooms, but you hate not knowing. That’s how it feels to be on the corporate ladder.

But cynicism and banal prick-ism are effectively synonyms, so I’ll leave it alone. Cynicism is apathy by another name. I try to be earnest in what I do, but it’s only realistic to admit that, of course, I’m only here for the money, which does tend to be habit forming. I’m told that life gets more expensive as your income increases; financial need is like a gas, it will expand to fill any space—and both are silent killers.

Take, for example, an executive in my company who, unlike me, keeps a framed picture on her desk. If you sit with her, she will turn the frame to you and say “this is to remind me why I do it.” By “it” she of course means her job, a job for which she gets paid six figures. I’m sure you can imagine the smiling family in the photo, maybe posing together in the Magic Kingdom or on the beach, or wherever the fuck else families go through the banal ritual of photographic documentation.

And yet, her family doesn’t appear in this photo. It’s a photo of a green Lamborghini parked in the semi-circular driveway of a large brick house. She’s told me the model of the car before, and even the square footage of the house behind it, but I remember neither, for my brain rejects such upsetting facts as types of cars and how big a house is. Homeowners always assume you too own a home, and people with fancy cars always assume you don’t own a fancy car and are therefore jealous of them. I drive a station wagon and live in an apartment that’s slightly bigger than the car but with fewer seats.

This executive’s financial need has swollen in proportion with her income and ego. Perhaps someday I’ll be on the other side of that desk, showing my underlings a framed photo of a fridge with a built-in ice-maker; I’ve secretly always aspired to live in a household that has ice, but I’ve yet to muster the energy to buy trays. A built-in ice-maker would resolve that quite nicely, and would look great in a mahogany frame. Until that day, I’ll drink my water as it comes out of the tap, unfiltered and room temperature, and while I don’t think this makes me a man of the people it does indicate a willingness to take things as they are, a certain lack of cynicism.

One’s heart speeds up when a meeting invite arrives in Outlook, though during most of the actual meetings the heart tends to slow down to roughly a rate of two beats per meeting. Such an hour can go by with no more than four breaths entering my lungs, though my coffee consumption, and my bladder’s processing of said coffee, make no concessions for the relativity of time. I mentioned before that the freedom to pick one’s nose is one of the few unimpeachable freedoms of the office, but I’d be remiss not to mention bathroom breaks. An empty stall in the good bathroom is like a parking spot directly outside your favorite restaurant, and the meter’s been paid to 6PM. You could make a day of it, if the toilet paper weren’t so thin.

I see the meeting invite in question upon returning from one such restorative trip to the bathroom; it’s the promised follow-up meeting with Will, wherein I’m to receive my “feedback”. I gird myself to hit “accept” on the invite, and do so with no visible or audible signs of anguish. You see, I’m very good at hiding things like emotions when I’m at work, and rarely even talk to any of my employees about my family. Some must think I’m a banal prick for failing to do so, but it’s these very boundaries that keep me from screaming when I get meeting invites such as this one.

It’s tomorrow afternoon. Because tomorrow is Friday, I’ll have all weekend to think about whatever “feedback” I receive. And by “think about”, I mean “pout about”. I’m not a sullen person by nature; it’s merely circumstantial, but the circumstances seem to arise more often these days.

You might wonder how my days end: the end of my workday begins with my decision to leave and ends with me leaving. There can be as much as a half hour between the first step and the second, because in the corporate world packing up your belongings and preparing to leave is seen as a mortal weakness; the vulnerable must be captured, pinned on the long spear of a rambling question. Coworkers are all too happy to fill any potential silence with a caulk of uncomfortably intimate confessions. Something about catching a guy with his hand in his laptop bag or about to lock his desk brings out people’s desire to talk about surgeries, prescriptions, spousal conflicts—the list goes on.

I lean down to place my Tupperware in my backpack, zip it, and when I stand upright Sorrow is waiting for me.

“Hey, Sorrow,” I say.

“You have a minute?” Sorrow asks. “It can wait until tomorrow if you’re busy.” It can never wait until tomorrow. I let my backpack slide down onto my chair.

“What’s up?” I ask.

“You get any update on my request?” Sorrow starts.

“Your request?”

“You know, to get a new chair.”

“What was wrong with the current one again?” I ask.

“It doesn’t go down all the way. I have short legs.”

“Did you try switching it with someone else’s? One of the empty cubes?”

“None of them go low enough. You said you’d look into ordering me one.” I begin to inch the backpack strap back up my arm, towards my shoulder.

“Right.” I definitely never said that. “I’ll send another email. You need a chair that’s… lower. Did you try adjusting it?”

“That’s as low as it goes. Short legs.”

“Yeah,” I nod, “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable. Definitely.”

I consider my own chair. I have to admit that, while its pamphlet claims it to be ergonomic, to actually improve posture, I’ve never been able to get it to quite the right height. My legs are always either dangling or uncomfortably scrunched. The armrests are unkind to arms, leaving my elbows angry and red at the end of the day, and they’re almost never even in height. In fact, to reach my keyboard I have to keep them low enough to avoid the top of my desk, too low to really use. More than one pair of pants has been chaffed to the point of uselessness by the knobs under the seat. And all of this is to say nothing of the seat itself, which is made of a material that’s itchy enough to be felt through the pants and slippery enough that I can’t sit too close to the edge without sliding off.

“…right?” Sorrow asks.

“Right, I’ll follow up on the request,” I say. I don’t tell her that I missed everything she just said because I was meditating on my chair’s many inadequacies. I get my keys out of my jacket and lock my desk.

“Alright, well, good night,” I say.

“I have another question, but it can wait until tomorrow.”

“Right,” I nod. Sorrow returns to her desk, sighing as she sits down.

I try not to talk about work outside of work, which means that I end up talking about it a lot more than I want to. More than if I told myself it was okay to talk about it and did it and then was done. I’m worried I sound like a banal prick to my wife. We should be talking about lofty things, like art or our ambitions, but instead I talk about office politics like some people talk about daily soaps; the bigger the tragedy the more indulgent the chatter.

So I tell my wife about my day. And, when it’s done, I sleep badly. There’s no “tossing and turning”, nor are there nightmares, but the quality of sleep is lacking. If this night’s sleep were milk, it would be skim, and close to turning. This is what happens when I don’t read before falling asleep, but recently I’ve been too tired to do so. I also get heart burn and eczema now, which I’d never experienced until a couple of months ago. There’s a ball of hot bile waiting in the wings of my diaphragm at all times.

These are things I can sleep through, but the worst part is the dreamlessness. I can’t remember the last time I retained the memory of a dream; without being able to analyze my dreams, I feel like I’m being denied access to key evidence in the case of my continued sanity. My wife tells me I sleep badly because I sit too much at work (that damn chair!); I tell her I sleep badly because I live badly. When I say I “live badly” I mean working at a job I’ve grown to hate and letting that hate trickle out into other facets of my life. I don’t think my life is “bad”, but I worry about the lack of dreams; a waking life without dreams is a text without a lexicon, a maze without a map. If it sounds like I’m putting too much credence in dreams, it’s easy to overvalue something you are missing; give me back my dreams and I will determine their proper value on the scales of my heart.

Leadership is a form of lying; feigned enthusiasm, false confidence, and denial of crises are daily states of being for me. No wonder I forget how to smile, and to frown. I understand the farce, having seen my own bosses’ pitiful attempts at it; surely I’m less convincing at it than they are, since I care far less about things like “career” and “business mindset” and “where I’ll be in five years”. How should I know where I’ll be, or if I’ll even be alive? I don’t let my concerns about mortality shadow my work performance.

I remember what Sorrow asked me, because her mention of her chair has rendered me unable to ignore my own; this item, made of plastic and metal and fabric, that’s supposed to address the needs of my body has instead decided to revolt against my elbows, my thighs, my butt, and my back. Or perhaps it’s my body that offers resistance, though I’ve never considered my butt to be much of a revolutionary. Either way, the unease lies across my whole surface, magnified by the thought that this product cannot possibly have been incorrectly manufactured and that, therefore, it’s my body that’s defective.

The discomfort spreads to my feet. My left shoe is tighter than the right; I fan my toes against the binding leather, to no avail. The too loose right shoe is no better. My pants are riding up in the crotch, forcing my underwear into crevices where there shouldn’t be crevices; once I developed a blood blister on my scrotum and I suspect it was this very posture that caused it. My belt digs into my waist and my shirt is too short in the cuffs. The collar scratches at my neck. A long strand of hair, combed to the wrong side of my part, tickles my ear.

I stand up to take a walk and realize how full my bladder feels, and that I’m meeting with Will in only four minutes. Enough time to run to the bathroom.

Standing at the urinal, aiming the trickle of piss at the metal guard in the center of the porcelain, I consider Will in all has banal prickitude. He was unpopular in his former role and that unpopularity somehow blossomed into an ugly flower of success. He ate his lunch alone then and he eats his lunch alone now; I eat my lunch alone, so what of it? He was never part of a fraternity with the peers that are now his subordinates. He likes to hire blonde women; he likes to offer to take them to lunch and calls them girls instead of women and sends birthday cards to all of our home addresses. He seems insecure in his current role and I believe that his choice not to hire me was a mistake.

I shake and tuck and zip and button and buckle and wash and dry my hands according to the social convention that deems them clean. I take a cursory look at myself in the mirror, though I’d only notice the most egregious of differences from this morning—a hair out of place would fly under the radar of this glance, but blood dripping out of my nose, or any other part of my face, would not. I return to my desk.

This meeting, like most of my meetings, will be conducted via webcam, because many of my coworkers live in other parts of the country. Thousands of people work in the building I currently occupy, but I interact with few of them. I don’t like to think about it too long because I can’t do so without wondering: at what point, what number of people, does it become more likely than not that you’re sharing a space with someone who has killed another human? This is what I’m thinking as Will appears on screen and greets me.

I greet him back.

“So, how do you think you did?”

“I’m doing alright, thanks,” I say. “Wait, you mean in the interview. I, uh, I could have answered some of the questions better, but I don’t think any of my answers totally—none of them were duds.”

“Okay,” Will nods. “Well.”

“Right,” I say.

“I’ll start with your ‘about me’; it could have been tighter, but overall, not bad. What do you think about your body language?”

I hate being asked this kind of question; it’s anything but rhetorical, but I know my answer doesn’t matter.

“Well, it was on camera, so it was hard…”

“Lots of interviews are gonna be on camera, man. You read nervous. Uncomfortable.”

“Job interviews are kind of…” I start. Job interviews are uncomfortable. I slide forward in my seat, and lean toward the screen, resting my chin on my hands and my elbows on my desk. “I guess I was nervous.”

“Yeah, man, I know. So the first question, we asked you about one thing you’d change. You told me something about hiring more remote employees, which is what we already do.”

“That wasn’t… That was just me setting the context for my answer, not the actual answer.”

“It’s what I wrote down, man, which means it’s what I heard. I don’t know what to tell you.”

“I guess I can do a better job getting to the substance of the answer sooner.”

“And then you mentioned… Shit, you mentioned the morale project, that thing was a disaster. It left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths. Mentioning that… Do me a favor and never mention that again. Not in an interview, not on your resume…”

Is this… I knew I didn’t get the job, but I thought the interview was alright. Not terrible, certainly. My mind has turned to liquid nitrogen and the cloud of gas that used to be my brain is spreading down into my chest and limbs, freezing my blood, my lungs, my fingers.

“Overall it just wasn’t a manager quality interview. I mean, look, you’ve got ideas, but you need to show us that you’ve actually implemented some of them. And, come on man, using so many examples from the time you were interim manager? It’s like… I get it, you did that. But come on…”

I mute my microphone. There’s a rushing in my ears that I’d think was my blood flowing if I weren’t certain that my heart’s stopped. I let Will talk; he goes through the questions, one by one. I listen for a tonal shift that might indicate praise, but hear none. I focus on my chair, my butt against the cushion, my spine against the backrest, my arms on the arm rests, flat now, fingers wrapped loosely around the ends.

The chill has spread; I can’t stop thinking about my body, because I feel none of it. When one of my fingers falls off, I lean down to pick it up and pop it back into place without Will noticing. As easy as retrieving a pencil that’s rolled off a desk. But when my arm falls off, I’m at a loss what to pick it up with, forgetting for a moment that I have another arm, resting stupidly like there’s nothing wrong. I’m angry, not just at Will, not just at myself, but at this fucking chair, which can’t keep me together when I’m falling apart. My thigh slides into the space between the seat and the armrest, wedging there, briefly, before clattering to the floor. My pelvis thrusts toward the truant limb, but I let it go. I let it all go.

All I can think to say when Will finishes delivering his feedback is “thank you.” I say it more than once. I say it as my fingers fall from my hand, as my ribs bloom out to release a cascade of organs, as my genitals roll into the aisle and my head lolls against my desk, no neck to support it, but still my tongue finds the letters on the keyboard, T H A N K Y O U, again and again.

By the time he says “you’re welcome,” the chair is empty and perfect in its emptiness.

–Richard Charles Schaefer


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