Welcome to the CorporationJul 2nd, 2011 | By Mitchell Waldman | Category: Short Stories | 737 views
The sign over the door says “Welcome to A-Vix Products.” There’s a picture of a dolphin next to the “x.” Tom wonders what that means as he pulls the door open.
Three months after the grand hoopla of the graduation event, the image of hundreds of tossed mortarboards falling from the sky, his life, with squealing brakes and a thunderous crash, hit the wide black wall of Work. Still living at home and after sixteen interviews (the sociology degree not winning him many points in the job world), he was ready to throw in the towel, take the management trainee position at Burger City, when a woman from A-Vix called him and said he had the job if he wanted it and when did he want to start? That’s why he’s here in his white dress shirt and pink paisley tie knotted so tightly it’s nearly cutting off his breath. Call it you what you will — a case of rapidly lowered expectations, a burst of the bubble, or the shiny face of Reality grinning, canines exposed, winking its cynical, blood shot eye at him -– but that is why he’s here, at this moment, on this August day.
A smiling, crew-cutted security guard greets him at the front desk.
“Yes?” the man says, looking up at him. He clears his throat. He smiles.
“Hi, I’m here to see…”
“Name,” the frowning man says, staring at his computer keyboard. “Tom Jinks. It’s my first day. I’m the new order processor. I’m here to see….”
“Wait, wait, wait. Slow down. The first name is Tom. T-O-M?”
“Yes, Tom, T-O-M, although I know some people write it like Thom, T-H-O-M, but I….”
“Okay,” the guard says, having hunted and pecked the three letters with his left and right index fingers. “Now, slowly, again, your last
“That’s it?” the guard says, staring up from his keyboard at Tom, like he’s hiding something.
“Yes, I’m sorry. Jinks is all there is.” He grins a goofy grin, just stops himself from letting loose a jittery burst of laughter.
“Jinks, okay. And how do you spell that?” asks the security man, “Dom,” as it says on his red and white name tag, although Tom thinks maybe this is a misspelling for his real name or condition, the “i” in his name having been accidentally substituted with an “o.” The man is sitting there staring at his keyboard with intense concentration, a sweat droplet starting to run down his forehead.
The man waves one hand in the air. “No, no, no! Not so fast. J (tap) I, okay (tap), got that one….”
It’s all that Tom can take. He spurts out “My God, man, you call yourself a receptionist?”
The man looks up at Tom, his eyes hard like bullets. Tom wonders if he spoke too quickly, if the man, Dom, has a gun.
“Listen, pal, I’m a security specialist, not a receptionist, and I’m doing the best I can. Just give me the rest of your name.”
Tom sighs. “Okay, where was I? Okay, I gave you J and I. N-K-S, that’s all that’s left.”
“Not really,” Dom says, “Okay, hold on, “N-K-S. Got it. Now, now, next question. Date of birth?”
Half an hour later, Tom is sitting in an office on the seventh floor of the A-Vix building that looks something like a hotel suite. In front of him, sitting behind a huge mahogany desk, is a large man wearing a white tie with a Mickey Mouse face on it, smoking a cigar, spouting smoke throughout the office. It’s all Tom can do to keep himself from coughing, and he can barely see the man in front of him. Jason Reed is his name. Tom’s new supervisor.
“Now, Jinks, listen, it’s not going to be easy, the kind of work you’re going to be doing. We work with a very specialized product in the marketplace. It’s a highly sought after product I can tell you. If you have any questions at any time, just break in.”
“I do have a question, Mister Reed.”
“Yes, Tom, go ahead, what is it?”
“What exactly is this product?”
The man behind the desk starts coughing and hacking. He looks like he’s having trouble breathing. His cigar slips from his hand and falls on the desk next to a stack of papers as he starts sliding down in his leather seat. Tom is beside himself, doesn’t know what to do. Should he call someone, yell for help, move from his seat at least, open the door, dial someone on the telephone (get up and just sort of slip away from this place altogether and try the want ads again tomorrow?) or should he should he…. What if he’s having a coronary or a seizure or aneurysm or something, this man he just met and doesn’t know from Adam? The man is turning blue, it seems, through the smoky haze of the office. And why the hell is he smoking cigars, anyway? Don’t they have municipal regulations against this?
Finally, against his better judgment, Tom gets out of his chair and walks around the desk. Jason Reed is lying on the floor with his eyes closed. Tom’s heart beats wildly. He envisions paramedics standing around the man, police questioning Tom, and, most horrible of all, he envisions himself sitting over the man, trying to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. An involuntary shiver runs through his body.
Tom gasps then as, suddenly, the man’s eyes bug open and he starts laughing. “Got ya’ there for a minute, didn’t I, Jinks? You thought I was having a heart attack or a seizure or an aneurysm or somethin’, didn’t ya’?”
Tom laughs weakly. “No, Mr. Reed, nothing of the kind. I just thought…” His mind was a blank. What is going on in this place?
The man gets up off the floor, dusting his dress slacks off, adjusting his Mickey Mouse tie back, so that, once again it’s crooked, and sits back in his seat.
He clears his throat, then says, “Now, to address your question. “The product we produce is simply referred to by our employees as ‘the product.’ That is our tradition here and that is how you will refer to it as, young man, do you understand?” Reed’s face has turned quite serious, almost angry now. Is the product drugs, Tom wonders? Is everyone here high on “the product”?
“Yes, okay. But wouldn’t it be a little easier working with something if I knew what it was I was working with? I mean, what’s all the secrecy about?” He smiles slightly to infer his next question is a joke. “I mean, we’re not talking about heroin here, or cocaine, or anything illegal like that, right?”
Reed sits stony-eyed behind the desk.
“Or arms to third-world countries, you know, nuclear warheads, or biological weapons, or the secret formula to the sauce for the Big Mac or anything, are we?”
Still Reed sits stone-faced, not batting an eyelash. His face seems to have turned redder. Meanwhile, his cigar is smoldering on the desk, an orange glow starting at the corner of one of the stacks of papers it landed by, the paper starting to
curl up and disintegrate at the edges.
Reed’s trance ends as he grabs the cigar, plants it back in his mouth, and points at Tom with a stubby index finger.
“How can I put this to you so that you will understand?” he says, a smile turning up the corners of his lips just slightly, his face red like a medium rare steak. “You will refer to the product as ‘the product.’ Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, ‘the product.’” They continue to stare at each other, Tom following two beads of sweat working their way down the left side of the beefy man’s face. Then, abruptly, Reed snaps to, leans forward and stubs his cigar out in an ashtray at the very front corner of his desk, and next, in a quick motion, douses the small fire in his stack of papers with a smack of his hand. He is left staring at Tom with a smile on his face. “Not that there is anything illegal or immoral about what we produce. There are no secrets here of any kind, actually. It’s just company policy, right from up high that we never refer to our product as anything but ‘the product.’ That’s the way Mr. Dusseldorff, our president, wants it, and if that’s what he wants, that’s the way it goes around here, if you catch my drift. Okay, Mr. Junks?”
“What? What’s that?”
“My name’s ‘Jinks,’ not ‘Junks.’”
“Yes, yes,” he says, narrowing his eyes at Tom, a thin smile forming on his lips. “I’m sure it is.”
He’s sitting at his new cubicle, where he’s been left by Reed’s secretary to wait for his immediate supervisor. (Apparently Reed was his immediate supervisor’s supervisor – therefore making Reed his not so immediate, or distant supervisor? – and, he’s been told by the secretary, his immediate supervisor is actually to be referred to as his “Team Leader.”) There are white walls to his left, in front of him, and to his right. A telephone at the back left corner of his desk, and a wire in-out basket to his right. A thick manual sets before him, which he’s been instructed to spend some time reading, to kill time, he assumes. He opens it up. The front page starts, “Welcome to A-Vix Products, home of world-renowned fine quality products. As an employee of A-Vix, you have opened up your life to an exciting world of new opportunities for career advancement, job fulfillment and satisfaction. As a member of the A-Vix Products group….”
“Close that right now, before you get sucked into the propaganda.” Tom swivels around in his chair. A short-haired brunette in a black dress with thick black-framed glasses stands before him, hugging a legal pad and pen to her chest. “Sally Goforth,” she says, extending a hand and, in the process, dropping her legal pad. “Oh, shit, I’m so clumsy,” she says.
“Here, let me get that for you,” Tom says, but he’s too late, Sally has already picked up the pad.
“You have to remember that anything you read, anything anyone here tells you, none of it is true. It’s all a cover up.”
“A cover up,” he says, looking right at her.
“Yes,” she says, a small, sly smile on her face now.
“A cover up for what?”
“Well,” she says, looking down at her shoes now, and looking back up at him after a second. “A cover up for what they don’t want you to know.”
“Uhh, I see,” Tom says, wondering if the woman is all there.
“Well, anyway,” she says, hugging the legal pad to her chest, and extending her free hand, “welcome aboard.”
He shakes her hand limply. “Thank you. I guess.”
She turns to leave, then, just when he thinks she’s gone, peeks back around the edge of his cubicle and whispers. “Don’t trust anyone, or anything you hear. That’s my final bit of advice.” Then, as soon as she appeared, she’s gone.
He goes back to reading his manual. He reads for about three minutes before someone else knocks on the edge of his cubicle. He cocks his head. It’s a thin woman with curly blonde hair in a white pants suit. She’s carrying a clipboard. “Tom?” she says.
“Yes.” She smiles at him and extends her hand. “I’m Muriel Cole, “your Team Leader.”
“Nice to meet you, Muriel,” he says, shaking her hand. And then, he can’t help himself: “So that would make me a Team Follower.”
“What?” she says, looking at him with foggy eyes.
“Nothing, nothing. Just a little joke,” he says. She does not smile. In fact, she doesn’t (beyond the “What?”) seem to react at all, just plods ahead, a starchy smile on her face as she says: “Tom, I want to welcome you to A-Vix products. Have you figured it out yet?”
“Figured out what out?”
“Good, good, that’s very good,” she says, raising one eyebrow, and quickly jotting something down on her clip board. He has no idea what’s she’s talking about or writing. She grabs his arm suddenly. “Come on, I’ll give you a tour of the place.” Then she pulls him out of his chair with a strength that he wouldn’t expect from a woman of her slight frame.
She shows him the usual workplace spots: “the coffee/break room to your left, the bathroom down here to your right, the copy/fax room, the computer server room, the file room” (“where,” she says, “we keep records of all our files concerning the product”), the conference room, which has a long square desk in it with about twenty chairs around it. But, along the way, she skips a couple rooms, one with a large asterisk on it, another with a question mark on it. At the first of these rooms, he asks her about it as they pass. She stops suddenly in the hallway, looks at him, then, says nothing, but jots a note on her pad. Then she moves forward, apparently expecting him to follow, with no further explanation. When they pass, without comment, the room with the question mark on the door, he decides it would be better not to ask, lest she stop and jot another note about him on her pad.
After the tour of these other rooms, she brings him around to meet some of his new coworkers – Andy, Ray, June, Marty, Paul . . .and several others. Too many to remember. All with pale complexions, dull clothes and unforgettable faces. They could all fit into one big bowl of fellow employees or “teammates” as Ms. Cole tells him he is to call them. And then there is the last of his “teammates,” Sally Goforth with the thick black glassed, to whom he says, when they’re standing in front of her, “I believe we’ve already met.” Sally looks at him incredulously, nervously tapping her pen against the back of her hand and saying, “I think you’re mistaken. I’ve never met you before in my life.” After which Tom stares at Sally, then glances to his left at Cole who he suspects will be jotting a note about this, but–surprise–is not, but, rather, is staring absently in space, somewhere above the computer in Sally’s cubicle. Then, all of the sudden, she bursts out with a loud “Ha!”, just one, then looks at Tom as if that did not just happen, her face the dull color of bored. “Well, ready to start some work?,” she asks, then turns to lead him back to his cubicle. (Maybe she should issue him a company leash, he thinks).
As he’s walking away from Sally Goforth’s cubicle he glances back over his shoulder and she’s shrugging her shoulders, an apologetic look on her face.
At his cubicle Muriel gives him a fifteen minute description of what his job entails – answering the phone, entering the orders on the computerized order sheets, printing them out and stacking them in the wire in-out basket on his desk – one copy on the top one on the bottom, the proper manner of answering the phone, “Hello, A-Vix Products, how can I help you today. . .etc. etc. (“The entire procedure is outlined in the company manual on page twenty-two,” Muriel tells him). And there are Internet orders that will be routed to him as well, all of which scratches his curiosity, though he doesn’t bring it up in conversation with Muriel, as to what exactly these orders are for! It’s enough to drive anyone insane!
Once she’s gone he looks over the manual for another half hour, then starts with the Internet orders, processing them in the folder on the computer where incoming orders are stacked. Curiously, the orders say simply “Number of Units” with a number after them and give a customer’s name, address, and the total price. There is a description of the Item as well, which says on Product A, Product B, Product C, etc. The prices vary from $1.95 to $1995.00, the product letter coinciding with the price, A being the cheapest, XX being the most expensive. It is very strange. Is this a money laundering scheme? A drug trafficking scheme? Are they selling secret classified intelligence information to other governments? Or is it a used auto parts operation? Who knows and who can tell. In the manual he scours every word for a clue, but none is to be found.
This is the damnedest job he has ever had.
He decides it’s time for a break and makes his way to the bathroom. On the way he runs across the room with the question mark on it and slows down. He stops in front of the door and looks both ways, making sure that no one is looking. He’s sure the door must be locked but tries the handle anyway. He turns it and, surprise, it opens, but what he sees what’s inside he lets out a yelp and closes the door quickly, then looks around again to see if anyone has noticed him. But the coast is clear. His heart is pounding. His palms are swearing.
Could he really have seen what he saw? Five or six suits hung up not just on hangers but on what looked like human skeletons dangling from hangers? He must have been imagining it. He takes a deep breath, looks both way down the hall, then calmly turns the door handle again, but this time it’s locked.
When he gets back to his desk, he starts answering the phone. Apparently, Muriel has gotten his line hooked up.
He answers the phone in the appropriate manner. “A-Vix Products. How can I assist you today?”
“Hey there, pinhead. Let me have 24 units of Product X.”
“Certainly. No problem.” He opens up his computerized order form. 24 units you say?”
“You got something growing in your ears? Yeah, that’s what I said, Beauregard.” Okay. Maybe just a cranky old guy.
He gets the man’s name, address, credit card number, and enters the 24 units, Product X, and the total comes up automatically. $ 32,833. Wow, this guy must have a large credit limit on that card.
But, what the hell. Maybe he’ll give it a try, try to figure it out. I mean, almost $ 33,000 the guy’s buying and Tom has no idea what for. Is it something Tom could get arrested for? (On his tour with Muriel, he had noticed various cameras located near almost every exit and doorway. There was even one on the way to the restroom. What was that all about?
“So, Mr. Dumas, would you like your purchase gift-wrapped?” No, that was totally out of line. That was definitely not in the employee manual.”
There was silence at the other end of the line for a moment. Then the old crab burst out: “What the hell, are you some kind of smart ass or something? Do I have to talk to your supervisor or something? Do you know how long I’ve been doing business with your company?”
At the word “supervisor,” Tom felt a panic in his chest. His first call and already they were asking for his “supervisor.” How would that look?
“Ha, ha, just a little joke, Mr. Dumas. No offense intended. Just trying to keep the spirits up, add a little levity to your day. And…give me a break, please, Mr. Dumas. It’s my first day on the job.”
“Ha. Yeah, okay. Don’t worry. This is just between you and me. No offense taken. Just process my order and get the stuff out here. That’s all. My lips are sealed.”
“Excellent. Thank you. I’ll process that order right now. Thank you…and…I mean A-Vix Products thanks you for your business. Have a blessed day.” (Yes, that had, in fact, been in the manual.)
“Same to you, young man. Same to you.”
Now what the hell was that all about, the blessed business? This place was getting funnier by the minute.
As he sits there staring at the phone, an email pops up on his screen. From Lloyd Lawson, A-VIX CEO. He opens up the email. It’s talking about the bad economy, that business is down generally but that there’s nothing for employees have to worry about. Our profit margin is stable, the email says. In fact, because of the last month’s strong revenue figures, free donuts have been place at the file cabinets that border each group of cubicles.
He hears a sigh, a sort of collective sigh, then sees people, coworkers, droving past him, smiling, smacking lips, rubbing their hands together. “Donuts,” he hears one white-shirted stout man with black-framed glasses say as he walks by, Tom feeling the breeze as he walks by. Something out of a comic, a cartoon. He gets up and peers around the corner. There’s a small herd of people surrounding an open box of Krispy Kremes. “Blueberry,” one person says, “I just love blueberry donuts.”
“Okay,” Tom says, holding back, keeping himself from diving into the fray, even though he had nothing to eat this morning and his stomach is growling. But…this is just a little bizarre. They’re donuts, for Chrissakes.
Just as he’s standing there with arms crossed, a voice sneaks up behind him.
“It’s great what these guys do for the company. I mean . . . isn’t this just a great place to work?”
He turns around to face the person with the exuberant high- pitched voice.
“I don’t know,” Tom says. “It’s my first day.”
“I thought you looked unfamiliar.”
“Yes,” he says. “I’m very unfamiliar.” He doesn’t know why he says that, but it leaves an awkward moment in their conversation.
“Stacy Highbald,” the woman says. She’s a plump woman, in a large black dress. And now she’s holding her small hand out to him. He shakes her hand. She pumps his heartily. When he lets go of hers he feels the residue of the sweat on her palm, but doesn’t want to wipe it off (his first inclination), too awkward, with her standing right there.
“Anyway, welcome. . .”
“Tom. Tom Jinks.”
“Welcome, Tom Jinks, glad to have you aboard!”
He feels a sudden shift in the ship, feels like he’s about to fall over. He’s not sure why, but rests against his cubicle wall, which seems more than a little flimsy.
Stacy grabs his arm with a meaty hand.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“Yeah, okay,” he says, then straightens up, the little flashbulbs in his head fading out now. “Guess I just haven’t got me sea legs yet.”
She looks at him oddly. It was a joke, he wants to say. One that followed the “Welcome aboard.” Never mind, he thinks.
“Well, as long as you’re all right.”
“I’m fine, fine,” he says, getting off the wall and walking around a bit, to show here he is, in fact, all right.
“Okay, well if you need anything or just want to talk, I’m in cube A 2-121Z. Right down that hallway,” she says, pointing down a row of identical cubes.
“Great, Stacy. Thanks.”
As he’s walking back to his cube he almost runs into another coemployee, who’s too busy sucking cream out of a donut in his napkin as he walks, penguin like, to watch where he’s going.
“Sorry,” Tom says.
“No, my bad,” the man says. He’s short and round, balding on top with a short-cropped beard.
After a moment of awkwardness, the other man extends his napkin hand, but it has cream on it and, thinking better of it, withdraws it.
“Sorry,” he says again. “Mel Begum. You must be the newbie.”
“Huh? Oh, yeah, the newbie. Tom. Tom Jinks.”
Mel smiles. “Good to meet you Jinks. They set you up with anyone for lunch yet? They never think about doing anything like that on a guy’s first day, so if you don’t have other plans, I’d be honored to do the lunch thing with ya’.”
“Cool, Mel. That would be great.”
Tom tells Mel where he’s located, and Mel says he’ll stop by at about five of 12. Then he goes back to his donut and on his way back to his cube.
For two and a half hours he takes orders over the Internet and over the phone, all the time trying to pry information out of the customers as to what it is he’s selling them, but not getting one bit of information. A couple of the customers are almost laughing at him, like it’s a big joke. After a while the intrigue of trying to get information almost makes the job interesting. Every once in a while Muriel shows up to see how he’s doing. She has this way of sneaking up behind him, spooking him a couple times when he doesn’t see her.
He’s just put the phone down where there’s a knock on his cube wall. He looks up to see Mel, the donut eater.
“Five to twelve, Tom. What do ya’ say? About ready for some grub?” No sooner does he open his mouth to answer than Muriel shows up with her clipboard and a strange look on her face.
“Yes, Muriel?” he says, with a half-cocked smile. He doesn’t like the look on her face.
“I’ll come back,” Mel says, waving, than waddles away.
“Mr. Reed would like to see you in his office.”
“He would? Okay, I was just about to go to lunch with Mel, there, and. . . .”
“Yeah, well, no. He needs to see you now, I’m afraid.” She’s staring down at her clipboard, tapping absently on it with her pencil.
“Sure, okay,” Tom says. Then gets up and follows after Muriel, not knowing what to think.
She brings him to Reed’s office, knocks, then leaves him with the man. He’s still behind his desk with a cigar, just like he had been this morning.
Reed waves him in. “Come in, sit, sit, young man.”
Reed is smiling at him as Tom sits in the leather chair.
“Tim,” he says.
“Tom,” Tom corrects.
“My name’s Tom, not Tim.”
“Oh, oh, yes. Sorry about that. I’m sorry, Tim, but it’s not good news. I’m afraid we’re going to have to let you go.”
Tom’s stomach sinks. Had a customer complained about him?
“Is it something I did. If it is, I’m sorry, I’ll try to do better, I’ll, I’ll…”
“No, no, it’s nothing like that,” Reed says, taking a pull on his cigar and spouting blue smoke across the room. “There’s been a call for a lay off. Just came in.”
“A lay off? But you just hired me. I don’t. . . .”
Reed shakes his large head, and bellows with laughter that turns into a coughing fit. Hopefully, Tom thinks, he won’t wind up on the floor again.
“Can I get you some water or something?”
Reed waves him off, as the coughing fit dies down. “I’m fine, I’m fine, Son. Sorry about that. It’s these damn things,” he says, addressing his stogie. “My wife keeps telling me, but.. . I’m just too old and stupid to change my ways, I guess.”
Reed gets up from behind his desk and walks over to Tom, puts his hand on Tom’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry about this, Tim. It’s nothing we could control. The word came just a few minutes ago from on high, corporate headquarters. It’s the market. The economy. The times. There’s nothing I can do about it.”
Tom says, “Okay,” and gets up.
“Sorry,” the older man says, “I wish there was something I could do.”
Tom is at the door now, walking down the hall.
“Best of luck to you,” he hears behind him as he walks. “We’ll send you a check in the mail. A full’s day’s worth. No hard feelings.”
Tom walks to the elevator, presses the button, then steps into the padded metal box of the elevator, which zooms down and opens its doors on the main floor. He walks into the lobby, past the “security assistant,” who’s reading the sports page, who doesn’t even look up as Tom, feeling like an apparition, floats through the corporate ozone, through the revolving door, back out onto the street of the Market, the Economy, the Times, and Unemployment, where he loosens his tie, to breathe, breathe, walks across the bridge, where he stops, rips the tie off his neck and tosses it into the water, where it floats for a few feet, then sinks down, down, beneath the sudsy green surface, never to be seen again.Help Support T21 with your Dollar Donation Today
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