Workplace (Part 1)

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(As he pressed his arms against the restraints of the operating chair while Oscar slowly peeled off what he guessed was now his eighth fingernail, he suddenly remembered how only a few weeks ago he wanted nothing more than, and would have told him anything, to be here. Yes, a tiny voice inside him said in spite of himself, there is probably a good reason why I ended up like this, and it’s probably my fault.)

There he was, fifteen minutes early of course, in business casual of course, sitting with what he thought was perfect posture in a chair in front of that desk. It was huge, but it was anyone’s guess what anyone needed all that desk for: all he saw were some scattered papers, one of those little pendulum office toys with the pewter balls swinging back and forth transferring their momentum from the first ball to the last, and a desktop nametag that simply read OSCAR.

The office he was in was just as sparsely filled up as the desk. To your right he could only see, next to an unassuming and silently turning clock with a white face, one framed picture hanging upon the wall: approximately three feet by one and some inches in change, it depicted a lush beach scene, young beautiful revelers bathed in a warm pink sunset glow, their hands raised in celebration, surely gyrating to some music or other. One of beachgoers was not like the others, a noticeably older and fatter man, wearing considerably less than even the others in their relaxed beachgoing gear, a purple beach thong that was so small it almost did not fit the man, and did nothing to hide excessive fat rolls and body hair that maybe should have been hidden. The white blocky text below the picture only said one thing, BEACH PARTY TONIGHT. What did that mean? Was the picture a notice for a beach-themed office party planned for later on? Was it a souvenir from a party that the man about to interview him had attended before? Was the man about to interview him, he thought with a shudder, one and the same with the fat man in the picture?

The office was wide, but almost empty except for the desk. On his right, however, he saw a table, just as large as the desk, with what looked like afternoon tea set and waiting for at least twelve aristocrats. Fine china and teapots strewn about and resting on a luxurious white lacy tablecloth, with stacks of even more fine porcelain plates, cups, and saucers taking up whatever space was left. Beside the table there was an aluminum baseball bat lying against the wall, and above the wall hung a sign written on a dry-erase board, with a message that meant to assuage concerns but for him only stoked them further: 38 DAYS WITHOUT INCIDENT!

The door finally swung open and in walked, due to a bravado that made him appear as if he owned the place, none other than Oscar. Perhaps a little older than he was, a little portlier, a little uglier, wearing almost the same business casual but didn’t fit him as well as other people would have liked. With mere seconds left before the second hand on the clock glided to the twelve, Oscar smiled and offered to shake his hand.

He looked at Oscar’s hand and hesitated, noticing that he was wearing rubber gloves smeared with blood. Still, not wanting to make a bad first impression, he shook Oscar’s hand anyway. It was then that Oscar realized he still had them on, and letting out a faint oops he peeled them away and threw them to the floor. Oscar shook his hand again, getting blood on his hand from the blood left over from the last handshake, and wiped it off on his black pants. Seeing Oscar do this, and guessing that he could do what Oscar did and not be ashamed, he wiped off his bloody hand on his pants likewise.

Oscar plopped himself onto his own seat and acknowledged him with a warm smile, hands folded on top of his desk. For two full revolutions of the second hand back to the twelve nothing was said between them both. Finally, Oscar broke the silence:

—My dad always told me if I’m about to negotiate with someone, I should never be the one to speak up first. So…

He made no reply to Oscar. He was not trying to stonewall, but really had no idea what to tell him, where to even begin. Oscar let out a laugh and slapped his hand on the desktop.

—Well goddamn. I can tell already I’m gonna like you.

*

            (He couldn’t help but remember the rest of the interview, and his first day on the job, even now, as Oscar began to smash each finger on his left hand individually with a ball-peen hammer.)

He walked through the building, a seemingly endless hallway full of doors that all looked the same, an old surf-rock song playing on an intercom in all the rooms and throughout the hallway, tinny-sounding and lo-fi like supermarket muzak. He stopped at the door to room 1A and opened it. He could barely see three feet ahead of him. the floor caked with dirt, the clinking sounds of metal against metal fill the room, sounds of iron chains and grinding cogs of machines. A whip cracked over the din and a man howled in agony. He could make out dirty, bleeding, ragged men and women, handcuffed to chairs, chained to walls, forced to sustain various painful positions, all unrecognizable due to the black burlap sacks they wore over their heads. Others, dressed in the usual business casual, whipped and beat the unfortunate people covered in the hoods, put them inside iron maidens, turned the wheels on racks. There seemed to be on display every variant of torture he saw in old Medieval wood carvings, and perhaps a few more. It was then he realized he made his first mistake: he was supposed to go to room 2A, which meant he’d be late for his first meeting.

He finally reached his destination, a whole floor above him, and stepped into the workroom, dimly lit with a barely-working flickering fluorescent light, his shoes scraping dirt and bits of glass along the floor, and looked over his first customer. He or she, since he could not determine the gender due to sack over the customer’s head and gagged mouth underneath it muffling groans, arms cuffed behind the chair, clothes already shabby and torn now caked with dried blood and dirt due to the last employee’s careless interaction, did not stand up to meet him.

I’m an expert at customer service, he told Oscar back then. Most of my work experience comes from addressing customer complaints and transforming them into customer opportunities. First, I take ownership of the situation. I acknowledge that a mistake has been made and I apologize. He remembered Oscar nodding with vigor and smiling, scribbling notes onto a clipboard, eating up everything he had to say.

—Good afternoon. I understand you had a not-so-good experience with us not long ago. I’m sorry to hear that. The balloons, uh, are for you.

The customer grunted something through the gag, neither accepting or refusing the small bundle of helium balloons in your hand. He consulted the training manual for when a customer refuses the complimentary balloons, and found nothing.

—Okay. I guess, uh, I’ll hold the balloons myself for now.

Then I begin to build rapport. I find in this work that a lot of guests initially come to me in not ideal circumstances. They’re disappointed to say the least, they’re confused, disoriented, and you could even say they’re in pain. It’s important to let them know I understand this, that I know where they’re coming from.

—So it looks like in your last interaction you were asked for rather high sums. I do of course understand, especially in this uncertain economy, that not everyone is prepared to give as much as others.

The ask ladder was clear. It admonished him to open with an ask of one thousand.

—I’d like to start by asking if you’d be willing to contribute one thousand.

He consulted the manual once again, while the customer grunted something inaudible.

—I of course understand that one thousand is of course, um, also a high sum. Still, I do hope you understand that we never know what people are capable of until we ask. I’m now instructed to tell you that I’m taking out a canister of lighter fluid. Since, I guess you can’t see through the hood…

As the customer screamed through the gag, he looked to a small table to his right. There was a box on top, labeled RAPPORT-BUILDING INSTRUMENTS. He found the lighter fluid inside and placed it on the table.

Then, of course, it’s time to solve the initial problem. The goal here, of course, is to exceed the customer’s expectations. They’re already going to expect the worst, and when you instead go above and beyond redressing their original grievance it will make the customer want to use our services again and again. More satisfaction for the customer, more business for us. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

—Okay, perhaps you’re willing to contribute five hundred? Or maybe four monthly installments of one twenty-five?

The customer continued to scream. The manual instructed him to pour the lighter fluid over the customers head upon a second refusal. He did so.

—Well, we’re even willing to accept a contribution at a level of fifty, or even two monthly installments of twenty-five a month. They may not seem like much, but they do add up.

The customer, through the gag under the hood, refused once again. He was instructed by the manual to search within the rapport-building instruments for a lighter. He flicked the lighter in front of the customer’s face three times and told the customer, as the manual told you to do, that his surviving spouse and two children are disappointed in the customer’s weak resolve.

In short, the goal of customer service is to create raving fans.

He lit the lighter, and his sleeve erupted into flames. He screamed and ran around the room, frantically waving his arm to put out the flames, and the customer, having long since given up any hope of making any sizable contributions, screamed just as loud as he did.

*

            (The shame of that first day on the job smarted him, just as much as it hurt him when Oscar finished breaking each finger on his left hand, and proceeded to do the same to each finger on his right. That was part of it, of course, the symmetry of torture. As bad as it is on the one extremity, it’s inevitably going to happen the same way again, on the next extremity, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.)

—So. Roughly, percentage wise, how much of the combustible agent was successfully combusted upon the customer?

Percentage wise, roughly zero percent. He looked to the floor of Oscar’s office in shame, his right shirtsleeve seared off, brittle and browned, almost a makeshift toga. Oscar frowned at him, a facial expression he never saw on his face until that day. Once again, he had no excuse, no reply, and said nothing to a stone-faced Oscar. The second hand slapped the twelve twice before Oscar let out a sigh and clenched his eyes shut.

Oscar glared at the stack of fine china, and he looked to the same place, noticing that the sign now said 39 DAYS WITHOUT INCIDENT!

Oscar took out some prescription pills and a bottle of water, puts two pills in his mouth and gulped down from a bottle of water.

—Hey there! Chin up, will you? No worries. It’s no problem. It’s your first time, this sort of thing happens to the best of us! Well, it never happened to me, true, but that’s neither here nor there! Just write up a detailed report and try to do better next time, yes?

Oscar let out a laugh, got up from his seat and placed a hand on his shoulder.

—It’s not all about the pledges, you know. You really think any of them have anything? Oh, look, your shirt. Please, take mine.

Oscar began to loosen his tie and unbutton his shirt, as he started to protest.

—Don’t be silly, I own nine hundred and seventy-two thousand eight hundred and fifty-three others. I can easily replace it.

Oscar removed his shirt and gave it to him. Amid his undeveloped, hairy abdomen, he noticed a piece of lint stuck in Oscar’s bellybutton, and turned his eyes away in embarrassment. Coincidentally he saw the poster of the ugly fat man on the beach, only this time the sign read BEACH PARTY YESTERDAY, SORRY WE MISSED YOU!

—Well, go ahead, put it on.

He hesitated before he removed his own burnt shirt and replaced it with Oscar’s. It was a little baggy.

—Ah! Just as I thought, a perfect fit! Just don’t go burning this one on me, too! Okey dokey, you take care now! Bye bye!

Oscar slapped him on the shoulder and ushered him out of the office, slamming the door in his face.

*

            Since that disastrous first day, every day had been worse than the one before. Every day was a new blundering interaction with his customers, another awkward reprimand in Oscar’s office, where Oscar would frown and frown for two whole minutes of silence before swallowing those strange pills and suddenly becoming much happier, acting as if nothing had happened before, which was somehow much worse to him that a simple reprimand probably would have been. Even his brief breaks by the water cooler offered him no respite from the daily grind of his poor command of the job. The board of demerits hung above the cooler, and everyone’s screwups were on display for everyone getting a cool glass of water. He led the entire company in demerit accumulation, his name on the chart above everyone else’s, so many little stickers of Mr. Yuk faces next to his name that they eventually breached the boundary of the chart and spanned several corners of the room.

Most embarrassing of all was the photo of his orientation, on display next to his name on the chart of demerits. It had been weeks since then but of course he remembered it as well as if it happened five minutes ago: Oscar took him into a workroom and trained him on how to burn a customer’s testicles with a live car battery, taking over the already ongoing operation of a more experienced employee. He remembered as Oscar took the positive cable, and told him to take the negative cable. They both held up the cables, and Oscar gave a thumbs up, as the other employee took a Polaroid picture of both of them, Oscar with a wide grin and he with the same dumb look of shock as he had at the start of the interview. They both fastened the cables to each testicle and promptly left the room, the customer’s screams and the smell of burning flesh lingering with him as Oscar ushered him off as quickly as he was let in.

There it was, up there in perfect photographic form for everyone to see, as if the thousand demerits by his name weren’t enough; that same dumb look, that told everyone getting a glass of water that he was in way over his head.

There was yet another sign hanging up in the break room promising another beach party. That would sure be nice, he thought. Not having to wear business casual for once. He sighed and looked down at the pockets on his khaki pants, smeared with blood. This wasn’t even from the job, but rather from cleanup after the countless handshakes he had to endure from management and coworkers alike, who all forgot they were still wearing their gloves. It happened so often that no one even noticed anymore, not even him, until just then when he noticed it on himself, and then he looked around the break room and saw the same stains on everyone else.

*

            He remembered the day everything changed for the better or worse: once again, he was running late. He thought he had everything under control, until he opened the wrong door. He was supposed to rendezvous with his next customer in room 1385A. Since there are no numbers on any of the doors, he figured out one day that, as he worked in room 1332A, this room was to be located fifty-three doors past his own office, but on the way he miscounted and went into 1383A. That door led to another bare hallway full of more doors, this one being hallway B, which he entered through door 527. He tried to turn around and retrace his steps, but 527B led to door 132C. In that hallway, there was a sign on a door that pointed toward hallway A, giving him hope, which led to door 4753-1A. Perhaps a shortcut through 4653-23A, only a little ways past 4753-1A, will lead to 356C which a few doors down will point him back to 527B, he hoped to himself, but the wing in hall C which led to door 527B was blocked off for construction, so he followed the short detour through 654/328/5C which led to 55579A which led to 4003C which led to 004-72B which led to 8562A which finally brought him to 526B. He went to the next door, 525B, hoping he could retrace his steps back to 1383A, and realized just as the door shut that he actually wanted to go to 527B. 525B led to 754C , and a few doors down 728C brought him back to 4003C, and the next door through 4002C led to the beach.

What? The sun was in his eyes, and he stared into an azure sky. Did he finally… He heard music. A live surf rock band played the ubiquitous song that came through the intercoms. The fat man from the hundreds of pictures on the walls was there, dancing along with other happy beachgoers. His rolls of fat bounced and rolled up and down, creating a hypnotic, wavelike rhythm that mimicked the ocean he danced beside. So it was true. He finally made it to his first office beach party!

The sun was too bright, so he put on his sunglasses. Much better. He looked himself over, business casual gone, replaced with a tropical flowery pair of swimming shorts.

(He remembered this first office beach party, when he dug his toes into the sand, and it felt nice after walking through the long hallways in his constrictive dress shoes. It felt much nicer than it did handcuffed to the chair, as Oscar moved on from his now adequately-broken fingers and proceeded to crush each of his toes with the same ball-peen hammer, and the pain of that made him dig his bare heels into the dirty floor, which made the glass already embedded in his soles go in deeper, which certainly didn’t help matters much.)

—I sure hate this song! Don’t you all hate this song?

A few dancing beachgoers, apparently great fans of the song, booed at the fat man’s polemic, while others cheered in approval.

—Don’t you all wish someone would just shoot the singer or something?

The naysayers discouraged this course of action, while the others continued to cheer the fat man on. A fat-man-supporter dancing nearby produced a shotgun, pointed it at the band, and blew the head of the lead guitarist clear off. The musician’s body toppled to the ground, making his guitar clang with a loud feedback-driven twang. The band disregarded the fallen guitarist, whose neck looked like a can of red paint tipped over and emptied, as the rhythm guitarist slash singer decided to pick up the slack and play his own solo while the bassist and drummer laid down the necessary foundation.

—You can’t always get what you want!

The fans of the band ran away screaming, as the others laughed at the fat man’s jibe and continued dancing. He approached the beach party.

—Look what we got here! The second-worst employee in the company!

The fat man snatched away the shotgun from the partygoer, pointed it at the man’s stomach and pulled the trigger.

—I mean, look what we got here! The worst employee in the company!

The soon-to-be-dead beachgoer looked at the open wound in his stomach and let out a laugh.

—Woohoo! I just got promoted.

He looked on in dumb horror as the beachgoer fell to the sand dead with a grotesque grin now permanently etched on his face. The fat man threw the gun to the ground, inside an area marked with a circle and a nearby sign that said DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, REMOVE THE SHOTGUN FROM ITS CIRCLE. YOU WILL BE FIRED ON THE SPOT —MANAGEMENT. and turned to him.

—Look, friend. You’re going about it all wrong. Everyone thinks you need empathy to make it in this company. Rookie mistake. The thing is, everyone already has too much empathy to begin with. When you feel compassion for your fellow man, you start to lump them all together. We’re all connected, we’re all on this earth together, we’re all not so different you and I, when you boil it all down. That’s a recipe for failure. You have to look at them as individuals. We feel compassion for mankind as a whole, but individual people bother us. It starts with a little thing, and then it escalates to a lot of little things, and before you know it you’re ready to despise individual people enough to squeeze out every little thing you need from them to make the company grow and you rise up in the ranks along with it. And before you go back to your next mark thinking, wow, that guy at the office beach party really helped me out, remember to really ask yourself, did I though? Did I really help you at all?!

He mulled over the fat man’s words for a while, as the fat man once again headed toward the circle with the gun.

—Goddamn it I hate this song! I wish there was just some way…

The man pushed him away from the party, back through the door he walked through to get in, and he saw him point the barrel to his head as the door slammed shut.

He looked himself over. He was dressed in his business casual again, the complimentary balloons were in his hand, he was looking right at the door he was supposed to be at, and he was right on time.

*

(Oscar then put on a pair of steel-toed boots three sizes too big and just stomped on his feet with them, over and over. The shards of glass dug so far deep into his soles they eventually touched pieces of broken bone. After the masterly precision Oscar showed in breaking each of his toes with the hammer, he got the humor in this latest act by Oscar and probably would have laughed out loud if it wasn’t happening to him.)

—Good afternoon. I understand you had a not-so-good experience with us not long ago. I’m sorry to hear that. The balloons are for you.

It no longer surprised him when the customers refuse the complimentary balloons. His office was already chock-full of balloons meant for aggrieved customers. He sighed and tied the string to his wrist.

—So it looks like in your last interaction you were asked for rather high sums. I do of course understand, especially in this uncertain economy, that not everyone is prepared… um…

Something happened to him after stumbling across the office beach party, after hearing the mad ravings of the fat man on the beach. He had gone for weeks following the manual to the letter, and where did that get him?

—But… but we never know what people are capable of until… until we…

Something inside him made him try something new. He approached the customer, ripped off the burlap sack and untied the gag. It was a man, around the same age as him. The man sputtered and took in deep frantic breaths as he looked up at him in terror.

—Please… please, no more. I don’t… I don’t have any… I don’t even know what… ten thousand what? Money? I… please, I’m begging you, no more…

He looked the man over. Wait a minute. He seemed rather fat, now that he was noticing. Not as egregious as the man on the beach but comfortably plump. There was a little jowly chin that quivered as the man begged and stammered. And… what was this? A thin goatee? A man this well-fed, with facial hair like that, how much could he really be suffering? He walked over to the rapport-building instruments, then turned to face the man with a scowl.

—You know, that goatee makes you look really stupid.

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