“Is it working?” The squealy reverb of Frank Wahlbinker’s own voice came from the nearby television and radio sets. It startled him. The channels were both tuned in to the premiere international news stations. He switched them off then continued speaking into the live microphone. “You’re all probably wondering who cut in to your programs […]
He sat in the lobby, rubbing his palms against the tops of his legs. His hands were dry, cracking and red; nervously, he glanced about to see the closest bathroom. Not seeing one, he quickly produced a travel size bottle of hand sanitizer, applies some and winces as he rubs it in thoroughly to his hands. Everyone seems busy in their daily grind, ants moving in and out of tunnels, they weave in and out of their cubicles. It is quiet, people only seem to acknowledge one another with sideways glances, none congregating about the water cooler.
He picks up his leather briefcase and removes a spiral-bound notebook. Flipping through it he skims across company information, mission statements, and questions he has for the interviewer. He feels prepared and a smile creeps across his face. He slips the notebook back into the case and sets it back between his feet. His shoes are like mirrors. Four minutes to go, according to the cheap wall clock. He flattens out the visitor badge sticker, that has already begun to curl, on his lapel, which reads ‘DOEL, JOHNATHAN’ in all block letters.
A Jake Blues, John Belushi looking man rounds the corner, carrying a folded manila folder, that rests atop his generous midsection. Dark suit, dark tie, mutton chops…all he is missing is the fedora. Johnathan immediately rises.
“Mr. Pierce, so good to meet you.”
Slightly startled, Pierce thrusts out his hand in greeting, but a pause on Johnathan’s part brings about the slightest micro-expression of indignation and concern, which doesn’t go unnoticed. Johnathan reciprocates, with a friendly, wide, tooth exposing smile.
“My office is this way,” Pierce says, his attention brought back to the folder’s contents.
They make their way along the narrow aisles between the cubicles, Pierce still flipping through application materials. Johnathan is glancing about, identifying people by memory from their LinkedIn profile pictures, mouthing their names almost imperceptibly, while discretely sanitizing his hands, once again..
Pierce turns left into an open door, with Johnathan trailing right behind. The office has a window that offers a view of the vast parking area and in the distance a liquor and adult book store combo sits at a crossroads. A cactus, turning brown from neglect, sits on the sill. A few scant family photos sit about in frames on the desk and on the waist-high bookcase, that holds three-ringed binders full of procedures and mandated trainings. A binder, with the title “Cultural Sensitivity,” written in sharpie, looks slightly pulled out from the rest. His wife, in the pictures, is very cute, but she and Pierce seem to lean away from one another in all but the oldest pictures.
“It says here that you have your Project Management Professional certification…?”
“Yes, though I have to admit that the ink is still dry on that one. I have done a few projects in advance of getting the certification, though. Mostly I’ve been involved in conducting hiring events, software upgrades and implementing a new inventory tracking system, which required assigning lot numbers to all sub-components and finished goods.”
“Very nice. Now I attempted to check on a couple of your older workplaces, that you had listed, but was unable to get a hold of anyone to verify…”
“Yes. I know exactly which ones you’re referring to. Jamesway went out of business less than a year after I left and that private insurer was bought out by a national level company and they purged their records after seven years, which was like two years ago.”
“Oh…okay. Now it says that you have a fairly active volunteering background. Is that correct?”
“Oh yes! I’m glad you brought that up, as I was wondering if there are times that I need to lend a hand at the local animal shelter, if I can make up the time on the weekend? Animals are very near and dear to my heart.”
“Wow…same here! I actually volunteer at a nearby, no-kill shelter. I’m surprised I haven’t seen you there!”
“Hey…I’ll have to look that place up, if I get the position, as I’ll probably be moving to this area. I’m sure I’ll still drop in on the old gang from time to time, though.”
Pierce flips back and forth through the file, a slight smile on his face, his head nodding slightly, “Well…I don’t have any more questions, everything seems in order, and if we proceed we’ll do reference checks and get you in for a pre-employment physical and drug testing. Do you have any questions for me?”
“Actually, I have a couple. My first set of questions are about the culture here. How would you describe it, how does personal development fit in, and do you have a plan for every employee?” he leaned back in his seat and adjusted his body positioning to mirror that of Pierce.
“Good questions! I guess you could say that we fall in the adhocracy spectrum, perhaps leaning toward a clan culture. We definitely believe in empowerment and an…ask forgiveness later, rather than seek permission now…spirit of innovation. As for a plan…for each employee? We definitely have career ladders and succession planning, but really we write blank checks for employees and their personal development. It’s probably our best retention tool.”
“Fantastic! I will definitely take advantage of that…if hired. My only other question is, just how did a phenomenal position like this become open? I mean, this is really a dream job for the right person.”
“Well, the gentleman that had the position before passed away suddenly. He had only been with us for three years. We are all still reeling from it. It was actually good timing on your part, having submitted an application when you did, as you are our first interview and, off the record, might save us a lot of time filtering through other applications and interviews, as promising as you are. Plus, you applied before he passed, so you’re not one of those obituary vultures.”
“Oh, wow…I’m glad to hear that—off the record—and hope that I can fill his shoes and hit the ground running. Yeah, I never understood the practice of trolling the obits for job opportunities…just seemed so…so opportunistic. I pride myself in being proactive. Anyway, I can’t wait to wrap my arms around the position, work on my cross-functionality and get some cohesion with the group. I’m really not big on sand-boxing or hoarding knowledge. Oh…Frank’s passing must be why everyone seems so despondent. They all must be grieving the loss.”
“I’m sure there is some of that, but I think that there is quite a bit of guilt, as well. Frank was probably the only square peg in the place. Almost everyone out there wished at one point or other that Frank would move on, yeah…move on is probably the best way to put it. Strangely enough, he was big on pointing out when someone was stepping in his sandbox, and he always kept his cards close to chest. It’ll be a breath of fresh air having someone in this position who believes as you do. As the rest of us do.”
“Well, Mr. Pierce—”
“—You can call me Roger, ” he says with a broad smile.
“Well, Roger, I don’t have any more questions at this time, though if any come up between now and when you get through checking references, I will surely call you.”
“Awesome! You’ll be hearing from me by the end of next week, either way,” he says with a wink.
Johnathan makes his way out of the building, stopping momentarily at the reception desk, to give thanks for assistance. He walks out, crosses the parking lot, and gets inside his car. He closes his eyes and smiles.
* * *
Johnathan sits at a bar and orders a drink. Glancing over at the guy sitting next to him he notices a company issued, name tag on his lapel. Axiom Industries. QUARRY, ROGER. He orders Roger a drink.
* * *
Johnathan walks into the same bar and gives Roger a wave as he takes off his coat and hangs it on a rack. He signals the bartender with two fingers and points back and forth between himself and Roger.
* * *
Johnathan is assisting a very drunk George up the stone stairs that lead to George’s colonial, which sits at the end of a cul-de-sac. He reaches into George’s pocket and pulls out his keys, flips through them to find the right one, but hesitates. He looks at George. He wipes the keys off with his scarf, presses the keys into George’s hand, then shakes them loose onto the entryway. Holding George by the lapels, he backs him to the edge of the stone stairway.
He lets go.
I’m finally alone. I rest my hands on the cool, metal surface of the table and quickly take inventory of all the old scars and fresh wounds that mar my once nimble hands. Band saw, tig welder, claw-hammer, drilling, milling, lathe, tapping and the list goes on. Three of my fingernails are black, most have dents, and all are grooved with little vertical lines that I feel as I scratch my thumbnail across them. I feel strangely detached, like my life is not my own, but rather a movie I’m caught up in. My hands flip over palm-side up, like a couple dying fish kept out of the water too long, and the callouses and the dirt and grime that never seemed to come out reminds me of a wasted life. These hands once flitted about the keys of a word processor, composing sonnets and short stories. There used to be so much potential in these hands. Clenched tightly, a scabbed cut on one of the knuckles breaks open and begins to trickle.
The detective enters the room, places a tape recorder on the table, slides a pack of smokes across the table and takes his seat. He clears his throat.
“Okay, from the top,” and the record button is pressed.
I still hadn’t gotten used to third shift hours and the 45 minute ride home was treacherous, but I was thankful to have a job; college loans were coming due, even if I didn’t get a diploma. I felt the heaviness of my eyelids and a moment later the baradadadada of the rumble strips snapped me to—they were my newfound guardian angels. Rubbing my eye with a hooked index finger and the immediate sting of salty tears penetrating a gouge was felt. I glanced up and noticed a pair of headlights following closely behind. The headlight housings looked square and my stomach sank as I imagined red and blue lights strobing on the roof. My car was four months late on the inspection.
I could immediately feel my pulse throbbing in my carotid, my breathing became shallow and my eyes had better focus than they did in months. Razor-like attention was placed on keeping the car between the lines long enough to make it to the next turn-off. My hands gripped the wheel and the headlights in the rearview seemed to get even closer. There was a turn-off in about an eighth mile.
“Jeez-jeez-jeez, come on…I got this. Jeez-um,” I muttered.
The turn-off was just ahead, so I put on the signal, slowed to make a comfortable turn and a moment before turning the wheel the car behind put their signal on to go in the same direction. My chest went tight and I involuntarily tapped the accelerator, causing the Monte to lurch forward, but just as quickly I let off. I couldn’t afford a ticket for no inspection AND a speeding ticket. I had to make another turn, but this was a road that I’d never taken and so was unfamiliar. A resume the state limit of 55 miles per hour sign became visible. At that speed it would be even more difficult to make a turn on a strange road. I slowly eased the accelerator down, but before hitting 45, I saw the green reflective glow of a street sign on the left and immediately put on the turn signal. The car behind was so close now, that the headlights couldn’t be seen…just a glow from behind the bumper. Slowing to make the turn I squinted to see if the tail was going to follow me further, but the proximity made it too difficult to tell. I held my breath and made the turn. They kept straight and roared off into the darkness.
I breathed a sigh of relief and after going a safe distance pulled over onto the shoulder. I laughed at the situation and at my reaction to it, swung the door open and puked all over the blacktop. I wiped my mouth with my sleeve and clicked on the radio. Tom Petty was belting out American Girl and I was immediately reminded of The Silence of the Lambs. I shivered.
There was no problem staying awake the rest of the ride home and the adrenaline dump coincided with my head hitting the pillow, so I was asleep within seconds. I slept better that night than I could remember ever sleeping.
My record was four and that night I’d nearly came in my pants. Four turns and the car was still behind me! Now I’m no idiot, I’d figured out a while ago that they were all different cars by the shapes of their headlights, but this was The Game. I quickly graduated from a police officer needing to fill a quota following me, to a hitman sent by some jilted ex-girlfriend—to ramp it up. Four…darn…turns! I bet I wouldn’t ever be able to top it.
I hadn’t gotten better than a two in weeks. Sleeping sucked ass and I felt like a zombie all the time. Color was draining from my world. Sleepwalking…that’s what life had become. I found myself getting lippy with co-workers, like even getting my ass beat by some fucker with hands the size of canned hams would be better than this. Wake up!
The back roads were becoming my friends—every curve, straight-away, and hill had become intimately familiar, like the landscape of a mistress’ skin. I’d painted the Monte with flat, black primer two weeks earlier and on nights like this I would turn the headlights off and cruise like a ghost, disturbing only the freshly fallen leaves along the roadside. The waxing moon gave just enough illumination to keep my nerves steady. I spotted what looked like an old man walking a small terrier along the ditch. I let off the gas to come in silent and cloaked in darkness…close enough to blow the old man’s baseball cap off and then hit the accelerator to continue on the hunt.
When being followed stopped getting the job done, I began to imagine myself as the hitman…paid by some loan shark looking for the ultimate settle-up. I was the tail and followed for as many turns as I could. The smell of their fear drifted into my open window and filled my nose like a lover’s perfume. I imagined the panic in their eyes, the panic that was once mine, and my muscles flexed in anticipation of the envisioned wet-work ahead. Unfortunately, four had become a curse. Inevitably the car would turn into a driveway after the fourth turn-off, usually sooner, and so four was quickly losing its luster. Sometimes, like tonight, I would come upon a car while my headlights were still off and I would get really close before turning them on and watch with a smile as the car in front of me would swerve as if startled by my sudden existence. Then The Game was on.
The red of the tail light’s glow, like those ahead, had become my favorite color. My right hand slid into a cardboard box that sat in the passenger seat. I felt the stickiness of the side of the roll of duct tape, the cool hardness of the crowbar, the ridges of the blade release on the box cutter and the roundness of the recently purchased ball gag. Had I gone too far in picking up the ball gag? The day I went into Adult World to pick one out I felt like a sexual deviant, as if I wasn’t careful I’d find myself buying a rubber suit and nipple-clips…that’s how these things progressed and I was no sideshow freak. The multiple-pierced, checkout girl gave me a knowing smile. She was cute even with all the hardware. But it was the untraceable .357 tucked in my belt that had me feeling the wonderfully familiar on-edge sensation. Ramping up. Turn two.
Turn three and my cock was straining against the inside of my jeans. Turn four, throbbing, I knew it was just a matter of time before a driveway would swallow the prey in safety; safety…what a weird concept. I let off…four car-lengths ought to do it. The car turned into its driveway. I slowed to see the number on the mailbox and hit the accelerator. Around the next bend I double-backed, headlights off. I let off the gas and coasted to a stop. The mailbox. I cupped my hands around a cigarette, lit it and drew in deep. A smile crept across my face.
I put the cigarette out in the little round, glass ashtray in the center of the cool, metal table and exhaled, “…the Game,” and I think how if I hadn’t throat-punched that asshole in the quad, treating his girlfriend like trash, I would’ve never came up with The Game. Maybe these hands weren’t so useless afterall.
The detective shut off the tape recorder and began sorting through his paperwork. I looked down at the length of chain tethering me to this bolted down chair and judged just how deep I could get my thumb into his right eye. My cell might be six by eight, but I’m gonna sleep like a baby.