A narrow office on the sixth floor of a building on the west end of downtown has indecisive cream walls interrupted by kelly green carrels, a couple dozen of them set up on top of long folding tables against that wall and the back wall. Each of them has just enough room for a computer screen, a keyboard, a telephone. There’s maybe thirty stations, all told, and just about every seat is full.
“Is there someone home I could speak with? Your mother or father, maybe?”
The front wall has a bulletin board and a doorway into the office kitchen, startlingly white: formica and linoleum and fluorescent lights, refrigerator and white-handled microwave oven.
“Does anyone in your household work for a bank, an insurance company, a financial services company, or a market research firm?”
The other side wall, the one without a line of tables and carrels and dialers working phones, has a couple of tall windows and through them, past the last outriders of downtown’s tall buildings, mostly older brick, a refurbished hotel, a stark new-build apartment block hanging over the highway’s gully, past all that there are the west hills, suddenly close, soaked in shreds of low wet clouds like dirty grey cotton.
“And how would you rate that on a scale of very satisfied, somewhat satisfied, somewhat dissatisfied, or very dissatisfied?”
Up at the front of the office is a desk, an actual desk with a computer on it and a big harried guy in a lurid red-and-black plaid shirt who’s running his hand through what little of his hair is left as Jo walks in, dripping. “Ahem,” says the big guy, pointedly.
“Hey yourself, Becker,” says Jo. “Where’s Mike?”
“Gave two minutes’ notice.” There’s something on the screen that is apparently deeply puzzling to Becker. He frowns at it. “Apparently, Tartt was yelling at him.”
“Tartt’s always yelling at him.”
“This time it actually sank in.”
“Which,” says Jo, “doesn’t explain why you’re sitting in the hot seat.”
Becker looks up with a grin. It’s a sour grin. “Hi, my name is Becker, and I’ll be your supervisor this afternoon.”
“You’re kidding,” says Jo.
Becker’s eyes are back on his screen again. “If there’s a joke, it’s on me, and it’s in terribly poor taste.” He twiddles his mouse, clicks one of its buttons, pokes a couple of keys and definitively stabs Enter with his middle finger.
“You’ve been promoted,” says Jo.
“So it would seem.”
“Well, that’s great! Congratulations!”
“Lucky me. The Peter Principle still works. Look, just sit down and start dialing so my first official act in a supervisory capacity isn’t busting your late ass.” He looks up again. “I just freed up a batch of Central phone numbers. Go bug a little old lady in Duluth, would you?”
“Power’s gone to your head already,” says Jo. “I like it.”
“Shut up and dial,” says Becker.
Jo shrugs off her coat and hangs it on the back of an empty chair. She spins it around so she can straddle it and leans her elbows on the back of the chair and boots up the survey on the computer. As it’s pulling up the first phone number, she settles the phone’s headset over her ears and adjusts the mike. She takes a deep breath.
“I assure you, ma’am,” the thin young man next to her is saying, a thick clump of mascara smeared in the corner of his left eye, his rough-knuckled hands black-nailed and glittering with silver rings – ankhs, skulls, snakeheads, dice – “everything you say is held in the strictest of confidence.” His voice is deep and silky smooth and as gentle as his smile, his little nod hello to Jo. His black T-shirt in white letters says Necrophiliac, M.E. “Your phone number was randomly generated. None of the financial information we gather is in any way associated with your name and address, which we don’t even know, and won’t ever ask for.”
Jo punches her first number into her phone.
“Good evening,” she says, into her mike. “My name is Jo Maguire. I’m calling from Barshefsky Associates, an independent market research firm. We’re not selling anything; I’d just like to ask the person in your household who makes most of the financial decisions a few questions.”
“You think you know what’s going on,” says Becker. “You think you’ve got it sussed.” They’re sitting at the table in the back, in under the balcony by the video poker machines. The jukebox is singing about those strangers who pass through the door and cover your action and go you one more. “I mean,” says Becker, loudly, “sure, you’re overqualified, but you’re underambitious. So you put in the minimal amount of effort. You call out sick often enough so you can kid yourself that you don’t really do this for a, for a living. That you’re really between life-stages or you’re finding yourself, you’re working on your book or getting the band ready or whatever the fuck. It’s just a way station. But. But. You don’t fuck around so much that they have an excuse to fire you, God knows, because you can’t afford to lose this, this job, and you do this, you walk this line, paycheck to paycheck you are the epitome of mediocrity, and what do they have the nerve to do?”
“They promote your ass to supervisor,” says Jo.
“They promote my ass to supervisor,” says Becker. “Why? Why me?”
“Scraping the bottom of the barrel,” says the thin young man with all the rings, dumping a third spoonful of sugar into his coffee.
“Maybe,” says Jo, “Tartt figures you already know all the tricks, so you’re ready for whatever the rest of us will try to pull.”
Becker’s face sours contemplatively. “Tartt’s not that smart,” he says. “Is she? Do you think – ” He smacks his forehead. “Shit. Here we all are getting fucked-up drunk and you people are all going to call out sick tomorrow and expect me to cover for you.”
“He catches on quick,” says the short, older woman with the loose wattle under her chin and the whiskey sour. “For management.”
“I’m not getting drunk,” says the thin young man with all the rings.
“Shut up,” says Becker.
“I will not,” a woman says loudly enough that they all look up. She’s climbing out of the booth by the video poker machines, small black shoes kicking awkwardly at the end of long pearly grey stockings up to a short slip of brownish mushroom grey hemmed with yellowed lace. Black hair glossy in artful tangles swings as she reaches back for her coat.
“Sit down,” says whoever’s still sitting in the booth, and she looks away, and sighs, and then sits.
“Damn,” says the thin man, appreciatively, and then, jerking back, glaring at Jo, “Ow.” Jo smirks over the rim of her glass at him. “For that,” says the thin man, “you owe me dinner.”
Jo downs the last of her rum and Coke and thumps the glass down. “You keep that dream alive,” she says, leaning forward, scooting her chair back.
“You aren’t leaving,” says Becker.
“Bathroom,” says Jo, standing. Grinning. “I’m not nearly drunk enough to pull off an epic hangover tomorrow.”
“You guys,” says Becker, and he sighs, heavily.
Jo snorts a laugh and steps away from the table, turning, colliding with the woman in the mushroom slip, who’s climbed back out of her booth. “Whoops,” says Jo, reaching out, catching the stumbling woman’s upper arm. “Whoa.”
The man who swarms out of the booth isn’t tall but he is lanky, slick green track suit flapping as his long arm quickly plants a bicycle-gloved hand on Jo’s chest. He leans into a shove that sends her pinwheeling into the back table.
“Hey!” barks Becker, as the thin man kicks back his chair, standing.
“Don’t,” says the lanky man in the green track suit. His voice is thin, reedy. He’s young, for all that his hair is silvery white and closely cropped. Green sunglasses with jagged, sporty lenses ride up above his forehead. Blue and white headphones cling to his neck. “Do not touch her.”
“The fuck?” snaps Jo, shaking her head.
“See,” says the little guy in the dark suit. He’s holding a flashlight and a book with some 19th-century-looking man on the cover, all pointed mustaches and ludicrously mesmerizing eyes. “Your problem is your diet.”
“Really,” says the big guy in the dark suit. He’s sitting behind the wheel.
“Yeah,” says the little guy, who’s sitting in the passenger seat. What little hair he has is lankly grey, clustering around his ears and struggling in vain to launch a curl almost precisely midway between his brow and the top of his skull. “The mucus and stuff. Builds up from your diet. Meats and breads and stuff, it gets all, you know. Sticky. Mucus. Clogs up the entire pipe system of the human body.”
The big guy has a beard the color of rich mahogany furniture, bushy enough to bury the knot of his skinny black tie. Most of his hair straining against the leather thong that pulls it taut into a clumsy club of a ponytail. “Mucus,” he says. He wears a pair of classic black sunglasses. The left lens is covered with spidery words painted in white ink.
“Listen to this.” The little guy flips back a couple of pages in the book that doesn’t so much tremble as vibrate, thrum almost, in his jittery hands. “‘We took a trip through northern Italy, walking for 56 hours continuously without sleep or rest or food, only drink. This, after a seven-day fast and then only one meal of two pounds of cherries – ’ Uh…” He turns the page, runs a finger down it. “‘After a 16-hour walk – ’”
“Cherries,” says the big guy.
“Yeah,” says the little guy. “See, he eats only fruit, right? Because it doesn’t have any mucus. Mucus, see? Clogs you up. So. Cherries. Apples. Figs.”
“I hate figs,” says the big guy. “Heads up.”
Halfway down the block out from the door under the red neon sign comes the woman in the mushroom slip, struggling into her camelhair coat. The big guy takes off his sunglasses and opens his door with a popping squonk. The little guy drops the flashlight and the book and fumbles for a pair of sunglasses. The owl’s feather tied to one side hangs them up on his jacket pocket. “Friggetty fuck,” he says. “It’s her?”
“It’s her,” says the big guy.
“Persistence,” says the little guy sliding his sunglasses onto his face, owl’s feather dangling to one side, “pays – shit.”
“I see him.”
The door under the red neon sign pops open and out at a stalking half-run comes the lanky man in the green track suit.
“Damn,” says the little guy, one hand brushing the owl’s feather away from his cheek.
“A knight?” says the big guy, pulling himself back into the car.
“Damn,” says the big guy.
“Wait and watch,” says the little guy. “Watch and wait.”
The door under the red neon sign pops open one more time, and out comes Jo Maguire, Becker on her heels, the thin man bringing up the rear.
Halfway to the corner, she’s stopped. His bicycle-gloved hands are on either shoulder, clenched under the faux fox shawl of her coat. “This is none of your concern, miss,” he’s saying. They’re both looking at Jo, who says, “I just made it my concern.”
“She’s going to get our asses kicked, isn’t she,” says the thin man.
“Shut up, Guthrie,” says Becker.
“You do not understand,” the man in the track suit starts to say. The silver stripes down his sleeves and pants shine unearthly in the pinkish orange street light. He wears outlandishly puffy running shoes, strapped and gussetted, spotlessly white.
“I understand just fine,” says Jo. “She said ‘No.’ And that’s it. That’s the end. You let go. You walk away.”
“Is this, this guy bothering you? At all?” says Becker to the woman.
“Yes,” she says, simply, and steps back away down the sidewalk from his hands left hanging there in space.
“Lady – ” he says, stricken.
“Back off,” says Jo.
“Would you like us to walk you somewhere?” says Guthrie. “Bus stop, maybe?”
“Would I,” says the woman, looking down, away. “Would I.”
“Your car, maybe?” says Becker.
“I would,” says the woman, looking up at Jo.
“That’s that,” says Jo.
“Lady,” says the man again, as she says, “There is, you see, a party. I’d like to attend.”
He takes a step closer to her, hands dropping. “Lady, please.”
“Of course,” says Jo, her eyes on the man in the track suit.
“We’d have to walk,” says the woman in the mushroom slip. In the windows of the jewelry shop behind her fantastically encrusted eggs glitter, hard greens and reds, brash golds, in the bright hard beams of little spotlights. “It’s up in Northwest – ten, fifteen minutes away? If any – or all – of you would like to come?”
“I, uh,” Becker starts to say, as the woman smiles at him and says, “I insist. To thank you for your chivalry.”
“We’d love to,” says Jo. Her eyes still on the man in the track suit, who steps back now, hands at his sides. Guthrie shrugs.
“Fuck it,” says Becker, looking at his watch. “I’m calling out sick tomorrow.”
“You are wrong, my lady, to do this,” says the man. “But I will accompany you.”
“Not if ‘my lady’ doesn’t want you to, you won’t,” says Jo.
“Your mother,” he starts to say, as the woman says, “He may tag along. I don’t mind.”
“I cannot leave your side,” he says. Looking back along the cars parked on both sides of the street. The red neon of the sign above the bar’s door gleams from the drops and streaks and puddles of fresh rain on windshields, hoods, chrome trim, the dark wet pavement.
“Shall we?” says the woman in the mushroom slip, brightly.
“Your Gold Teeth II,” written by Donald Fagen and Walter Becker, ©1975 MCA Music Publishing. Prof. Arnold Ehret’s Mucusless Diet Healing System, written by Arnold Ehret, as quoted in Kooks: A Guide to the Outer Limits of Human Belief, ©1994 Donna Kossy and Feral House.