Walking Boss Cooper wanted to show me a cask of Amontillado she had stored deep in the bowels of Our Smiley Face of Darkness. An elevator located in the recently abandoned Human Resources Department is the only conveyance that sinks to the bowels, and it is said that every chamber “Down There” is a “two go in, one comes out” sort of place.
“Swell,” I said. “How ‘bout we do that at three? I’ve got nothing going then,” I added upon consulting a jumbo pad of sticky-notes in which I had spent two hours sketching likenesses of Fred Flintstone in slightly altered poses. The object there, if I ever get back to it, is a flipbook that shows Fred making an obscene gesture. I call it Yabba Dabba Screw You.
Walking Boss Cooper (from here, WBC) is twice my height, incredibly long armed, and has the unerring hands of a pickpocket. Without as much as a twitch of her torso, she reached across my desk and snatched my intellectual property out of my hands the same way a frog tongue zaps a mosquito off a twig. She studied it, arched an eyebrow you could have heard go up across the hall, then said, “Seems to me, Ms. Allison, you’ve got nothing going, now.”
Feckless nature has capped my magnificence at 4’ 11”. Whenever I must match the lengthy strides of someone of WBC’s stature, I look like a snorting dachshund chugging alongside a sleek, effortless Afghan hound. I hang in there gamely for a while, but I soon lose interest and wander away.
WBC hooked a brisk left at the head of the hall; naturally, I went right. I held no delusions of giving her the slip, I just needed to text my buddy and associate, Renfield: WBC. BOWELS. MAYDAY. Six seconds thereafter, WBC’s reflection filled the glass face of the Snax Machine.
From that point on she kept me in front of her. My fellow employees scattered at our approach as though we were a live grenade.
Upon our entering the abandoned HR offices, a wiseass in the lowing herd congratulated me on my “promotion.” A growl then formed deep inside my throat.
You see, it is almost impossible for young college graduates to get fired by Our Smiley Face of Darkness. Educated twenty-somethings stupid enough to work here are considered the future of the company. “Shiny stars,” is what the company’s owner and CEO (from here, His Himness) likes to call us. Whenever someone gets too shiney the company gives that sinner a lofty title that’s attached to a hope-annihilating task. The idea is to “tame the rascal” and then force said rascal beg for forgiveness in the snivel-most way imaginable. This “process,” according to His Himness’ number-one catchphrase, “works as good as a goddam voodoo doll.”
And you can’t quit Our Smiley Face of Darkness, either. Company goons routinely lurk university campuses to sniff out starving grad students. The goons dangle hefty signing bonuses that smell like prime rib under the noses of persons who have spent six years subsisting on Chinese rice candy and filched packets of soda crackers. My goon got me to sign an iron-clad seven year contract because she had been clever enough to throw in a cheese burger with my bonus.
With a quick squint and a casual tug of her right earring, WBC got it across to me that the elevator had eyes and ears. Even though handy Renfield had hacked into the bug map long ago, I dutifully played dumb.
“Jeepers!” I gasped. “I better not do or say anything subversive.”
WBC shot me a droll look and activated the elevator. Up high, a tracker marked our descent. After the parking garages had come and gone, pagan runes cast eerie shapes.
All of a sudden we both began to laugh. This had nothing to do with my sterling wit. Our Smiley Face of Darkness employees do a lot of spontaneous, nervous laughing nowadays; you see, the media circus has come to town.
His Himness is running for President of the United States. Of course this isn’t the first time that someone who is famous, extravagantly wealthy, loud, and an imbecilic sound-byte machine has launched a publicity stunt campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination, but it is the first time that this kind of person stands a good chance at getting it. His Himness has unwittingly tapped into a hitherto unknown wellspring of like-minded chowderheads composed of both genders, all races, and economic classes. They say “We’ve had it up to here.” If you ask them what they mean by that, the UP2HERES (that’s what they call themselves) respond with name-calling and bizarre accusations. The movement is thriving, and to make matters worse, His Himness has selected Our Smiley Face of Darkness as his campaign HQ because it is the oldest holding in his vast empire. The whole mess gives me the heebie-jeebies.
“Ms. Cooper,” I asked after our laughter had burned itself out.
“Yes, Ms. Allison,” WBC replied with a radiant, even expectant, smile.
“His Himness told CNN this morning that when he is elected he will consider reopening hostilities with England because the National Archives refuses him access to the documents that prove the War of 1812 is over. Instead of finally exposing himself as a loon, Instapoll has him three points closer to the White House–and not just in the hillbilly states either. Tell me, Ms. Gwendolyn Cooper, Department Chief, will your shiney star remain in his orbit when the redcoats come marching up Pennsylvania Avenue?”
WBC made a facetious show of addressing her reply to the wall. “I’m only certain that neither of us know what you are talking about, Ms. Irene Allison, new Stacks Curator of O’Reilly, Case, and Harkness.
A miniscule gong sounded by an inchling demon informed us that we had reached the bowels.
On the day the media circus arrived, his Himness immediately dismantled Human Resources because “… [HR] makes people sissies who run to their mommies and daddies every time somebody hurts their feelings. I say you let the shiny stars work out their own dust ups. You’ll see that it works as good as a goddam voodoo doll.”
In a weird and twisted way that I’m certain will end poorly, His Himness has steered the supervisor-peon dynamic into wild waters. He has conscripted all the older managers (including the former HR employees) to work on his campaign. Not a soul left in my department is within a holler of thirty (this includes WBC, for whom I threw a twenty-sixth birthday bash last month that moved my neighbors to hang me in effigy). WBC is deservedly a Department Chief ten years early, but she is as still just as much a cat that has thumbs and the keys to the gun cabinet as any of the rest of us. But she isn’t a bully who throws her weight around, nor does she hold with the Our Smiley Face of Darkness’ boot-licking method of getting out of trouble. If you’ve got it coming, she’ll devise a sinister, brilliant payback; but if you can mount a clever counter-offensive that she finds amusing, then all will be forgiven. I figured that this was my only chance, because I didn’t like the way WBC took glee in my new job title.
The doors slid open to a beige hallway that smelled like a contradictory combination of extreme cleanliness and day-old peed pants. I timidly poked my head out the door and saw that the hall bent to a quick curve at both ends, and that the elevator shaft itself was the inner wall. I also caught a cringing vibe from the walls that suggested they often had to bear the terrible shadow of Cthulhu. Naturally, there wasn’t a soul in sight.
Surpassed only by the substructure below the Sydney Opera House, Our Smiley Face of Darkness lies atop an eleven-story “Down There’’ that is shaped like an upside-down dunce cap. Obviously, this makes for circular floors that get tighter the farther you go down.
“Gadzooks,” I said with a whistle, “we’re hella Down There.”
“Right?” WBC laughed. “Any deeper might give you the bends on the way back up.” She then poked me in the back and directed me to the first and office door I saw. Some wit had attached a handmade sign to the door: STACKS: ABANDON HOPE.
As soon as entered the office, WBC flipped on the lights and slammed the door closed with an impressive and highly non-WBC swing of her hips. Her Walking Boss Cooper persona then went the way of the dodo and civility. Before me stood my good friend Gwen — sometimes even “Gwynnie” — but her next sentence told me that she wasn’t in a Gwynnie kind of mood: “I ought to kick you in the balls.”
“I hope that you mean that only in the metaphorical sense, Ms. Cooper,” I said loudly. “I’d hate to have anyone listening get the wrong idea about me.”
“The room’s clean,” she said. “Nobody gives a rat’s ass about what happens down here. How I wish you did have a set. I’d goal kick them to the moon. That would be sweet.”
I rolled my eyes and spun around on one heel so I could size up the chamber that Gwen had obviously intended to be my new home away from home as payback for any one of fifty sins. The room was spacious, but made small by clutter. It was beige and the matching carpet had been worn to the cord. The ceiling was an uneasy mix of missing panels, water stains on the ones that were still there, and plastic light fixtures heavy with dead bugs. Throughout the chamber, perhaps as many as a hundred large interoffice memo cartons lay among a tumble of obsolete tech-devices. My eyes met Gwen’s and I followed her joyous gaze to a pair of small desks that held a matched set of bargain basement computers that linked to a shared printer/scanner.
“All right, Gwynnie,” I said, “ what’s the gag?” Less than ten minutes had passed since Renfield had texted me that she saw WBC heading my way with an ax-killer glow similar to the Madonna’s halo, and that I ought to “GIT!!!” Unfortunately, WBC happens as suddenly as the creature in the Alien films; that, and Renfield’s penchant for sending windy texts that get to the soul of the thing a bit late, had landed me a fate similar to that of Fortunato in the Poe story that WBC had alluded to earlier at my desk. (Gwen minored in World Lit at Stanford. She delights in giving her twisted schemes a literary touch.)
“Didn’t ‘swell,’ ‘jeepers,’ ‘gadzooks,’ and ‘what’s the gag?’ go down with the Titanic? But I guess that your vocabulary, though odd, is what it is. Now, if you are asking me what I as your supervisor have done for the benefit of O’Reilly, Case, and Harkness — and even a little for you — I’ll be delighted to explain. Please consider this a teaching moment.”
“Whatever, rat-bastard,” I said as sweetly as such a thing can be said.
“Last night I stayed late and watched the wranglers prep Duke Douchenozzle for that CNN interview you streamed instead of doing your job. Trying to get the simplest things across to him is as useless as teaching a ferret calculus. He gets Big Ideas all the time. instead of finally understanding that New England is on American soil, he leapt at the notion of collecting the papers for, get this, his Presidential Library.
A sudden attack of the heebie-jeebies threatened to shatter me to pieces. Gwen uncoiled one of her long arms and held me together.
“Prince Peckerhead,” she continued, “wants an electronic copy of every scrap of paper addressed to It, which I find odd from someone who never allows his mail to be opened or recycled.” Gwen then stage whispered, “he’s afraid it might go off.” Then she kicked one of the memo cartons. “This crap accumulates like dust. Since 1985, the Supreme Shithead has averaged two-thousand incoming letters a week. Even in this age of email he gets that many — even more than that since the campaign got going. And no matter where it goes it all comes here for storage. This stuff in here is only a tiny sample.”
Two-thousand a week times thirty years equals very depressing, I thought.
“Since your job category is Information Analysis Implementation, all you require from me is information to analyze and then implement,” Gwen continued. “I’m sure that you’ve already deduced that you and your rancid little shadow, Ms. Renfield Stoker, as soon as I nab her have many years of scanning ahead of you. Under normal circumstances I would have thrown a generation of interns and energy drinks at this project. But I’ve decided that you and Renny will do it alone. You see, I can’t kick King Klown Kollege in the balls, but I can take it out on you. Would you like to know why I feel this way?”
“Yeah,” I said, “it has crossed my mind.”
“When it popped into that soft shell crab of a brain of his to set up his archives (here, Gwen did a spot on imitation of His Himness), he said, ‘I want somebody with stones on this. Someone with the big brass. I say give it to Walking Boss Cooper. She’ll do it as good as a goddam voodoo doll.”
“Right? And how the toadies and buttkissers and shitheads-in-general all brayed like donkeys at my expense. Since last night, it’s been nothing but ‘Walking Boss Cooper’ this and that. I know that the Magnificent Meatball couldn’t have thought that up on his own; and hearing something oh so you and Renny dribble out of its maw has done evil things to my serenity. It only took ten minutes to find someone willing to rat the two of you out. I’ll say this much for Renny, she’s hella better at keeping a nose to the wind than you are. If you were an antelope you’d be lunch. She’s given me the slip twice; but she’ll be down here with you, by and by.”
“Never,” I laughed. “Renfield is a ninja. She’ll avoid you forever and a day.”
Gwen laughed. “I requested that the cafeteria serve mashed potatoes with brown gravy congealed to perfection for lunch today.”
Renfield was sunk. When it comes to brown gravy congealed to perfection, Renfield becomes as easy to catch as a knock knock joke. I could have texted her and told her that it was a trap, but it wouldn’t have been any use. She’d even probably get mad at me for wasting time that she could have spent on eating.
Gwen’s cell beeped an incoming text. She studied it, arched that noisy eyebrow of hers, and shone that ax-killer glow so like the Madonna’s halo.
“My snitch has Renny in the lunchroom, doing this,” Gwen said and extended her phone to me. Renfield was licking her plate and getting ready for seconds or thirds.
“Gross.” Normally, Renfield is as fastidiously clean as a cat. Not so much when it comes to brown gravy congealed to perfection.
“Right? Anyhoo, I’ve gotta run. Duty calls and all that. I hope you girls have fun for the next eighty or ninety years. Are we still on for martinis after work, or are you a sore loser?”
“I’m only achy,” I replied. “You and your VISA better be at the pub at five-oh-two, and not a second later.”
Nowadays, Renfield and I spend a lot of time together. So much that a FIFA-style slap-fight broke out between us over the ownership of a bag of pork rinds. After that had been settled to my disadvantage, we made up and decided that the only way out of our tomb is to launch a counter-offensive.
We also decided that no matter what, our retaliation must be based on a work of Edgar Allan Poe’s, as to give the sordid affair a sense of symmetry not present in real life. I suggested that we charge an actual cask of Amontillado to WBC’s department account and have it sent down to us. Further research, however, showed that the cask in the story is a “pipe” — which weighs almost five-hundred litres. Even if we could fit it into the elevator, it and the brutes necessary to move it might cause the car to come down like a meteor (no scaling down revenge; it must be life-sized, bigger, or not at all.) Renfield suggested The Purloined Letter. Since we’ve got three-million letters to go through, it seemed possible that one might be stolen. Hence, we’ve begun to answer His Himness’es mail.
The letters in our office hail from 1985. Of which there are only three types: Crazy, Crazier, Craziest. Renfield is currently one floor up going through the archives for a TYPE 3 letter of a more recent vintage.
It’s fallen on me to pen the reply. I don’t know what will go between the address and His Himness’es “ signature” (we found an actual autopen among the techno-rubble), other than WBC’s cell number and email address as the contact information. But I know I’ll end it with this: Remember to vote for me; that’ll be the same as you kissing my ass. I think that will be as good as a goddam voodoo doll.
It remains to be seen how this mess works out. All in all, the only thing I’d like to get out of it is less of the heebie-jeebies.
Header photograph: By Nenyedi at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons