Caroline Taylor, 7/10/2017
Current occupation: writer and editor
Former occupation: publications director, speechwriter, and magazine editor
Contact Information: Caroline Taylor's short stories have appeared in Work Literary Magazine (one, two, three, four occasions) and other online and print magazines. She is the author of two mystery novels and one nonfiction book. Visit her at www.carolinestories.com
Nearly every office has its would-be thespians—staff members who are asked to partake in the annual holiday skit in which the actions of management are parodied by the staff. To Corliss, it was looking more and more like she might be the only person foolish enough to have done it twice. And, the only reason she even considered it the first time had to do with rumors that staff members who went that extra lap around the Christmas tree—whether providing food and drink, decorating the conference room, or acting in the skit—might see just a bit more pay in their holiday bonuses.
The first time was back when Corliss was writing grant proposals for the state historic preservation league, a place ripe with the scent of old wood and old money. Her colleagues, she’d learned, were people of cultural refinement and obvious good taste who found the mission of protecting the state’s architectural and historical treasures a worthy task for their specialized talents. Thanks to Corliss’s winning prose, a generous mix of state funding and private donations made it possible for everyone to be paid to do this noble work.
That should have made them happy, but the preservation to which they were so devoted seemed to apply only to inanimate objects. The knives slipped into unsuspecting backs were long and sharp. So, yeah, she should have known better when she agreed to take part in the skit. She should have known that the rumors of an extra generous holiday bonus were as believable as trees on Mars. And she had to know there was bound to be somebody among the high and mighty managers about to be lampooned who lacked a sense of humor.
The cast for the holiday skit included the league’s affable president, who, everyone suspected, was already grooming himself for a higher-paying position; the brilliant vice president and chief operating officer, who did not get along with the president but knew far more about architecture and preservation; the clueless vice president for marketing, whose skills at yacht racing far outmatched his business acumen; and the aggressive chief financial officer, whose power over the purse strings had terrorized the entire organization, including the board of directors. The president and two vice presidents were men, so the role of “Bonnie Cashbox” landed in Corliss’s lap like the contents of a freshly microwaved cup of coffee.
She had to admit it was a great name, though—combining the CFO’s real name, Bonnie (who was neither sunny nor blithe), with a word neatly summing up her job.
“Hey, guys,” Bonnie would say, barging into a meeting with her blouse only half tucked into her mini-skirt. “Sorry I’m late.”
Yeah, right. We’ve only been sitting here for fifteen minutes.
Then, she’d throw herself into her chair, hoist her legs up onto the table, cross her ankles, and proceed to shred the theories of whoever happened to be talking, all the while snapping her chewing gum.
Corliss could tell right off that such louche behavior had never before been witnessed by the Talbots and Randolphs and other patricians whose blue-blooded cohorts still governed the league. Perhaps they tolerated Bonnie’s belligerence because she was a CPA with an MBA from Wharton. She knew where the secret budget fat was deposited and how to surgically excise that deposit from beneath a vice president’s stricken gaze faster than you could say “gotcha!”
The role itself was a cinch. All Corliss had to do was arrive (ancient metal cashbox in hand and, of course, late) to a meeting of all the other “managers” and then pull “a Bonnie” by plopping into her chair, throwing her legs onto the table, crossing her ankles, and snapping her gum.
“Can’t do it, guys,” Corliss said. “I don’t know how to snap gum.”
Oscar, the IT guy who was going to play the sailing vice president, offered to instruct Corliss. But he was immediately overruled by Chaz, the architect who would play the president-loathing VP. “Just blow bubbles,” he said. And somehow manage to keep that bubble from popping each time the script called for Bonnie Cashbox to say “no.”
Corliss managed to pull it off. In fact, the audience, employees and their families, laughed so hard, some of them probably snapped a few straight laces.
It took a couple of days for the euphoria to wear off, leaving in its wake a lurking suspicion that perhaps it was better that Bonnie herself had skipped the holiday party in favor of a ski trip to Vail.
“I’m okay,” Corliss kept telling herself. Maybe Bonnie would never find out. And, if she did, she wouldn’t dare fire the league’s best proposal writer. Bonnie was not without friends, however, so naturally she did learn all about it, probably even watched a video captured on somebody’s cell phone.
One day the gum-snapping CFO dropped by Corliss’s office. “I am so sorry I missed the holiday skit,” Bonnie said with a warm smile. “I hear you had them all in hysterics.”
As for the little bit of extra pay in the holiday bonus, who knew? Nobody shared that kind of information for fear it would produce even sharper knives. As memories of the skit faded, Corliss began to relax. But then, two months later, the league lost its biggest donor, and Corliss was let go. She kept telling herself it was simply coincidence. It had nothing to do with her role in the skit.
It wasn’t because she loved to ham it up, either. It had started when she was only sixteen. She’d made it to the finals of the Louisiana Music Educators Association statewide vocal competition where she won first place for a solo folk song called “He’s Gone Away.” Getting to that point had required a serious investment in voice and music lessons. But the award was based, not just on vocal prowess, but also on interpretation—which was not at all difficult for a hormone-crazed teenage girl whose boyfriend had just enlisted in the Marines.
Once a performer, always on the lookout. That at least partly explained why Corliss couldn’t help saying “yes,” when her thespian talents were again requested at the annual holiday skit put on by her new employer, a federal cultural agency headed by a woman. “Please call me Chairman Alistair,” she’d announced when first meeting the staff. “I don’t cotton to chairperson or, heaven forbid, chairlady.”
There would be no padding, real or imagined, to the holiday bonus this time because Uncle Sam did not play that game. But he did acknowledge teamwork—in the form of contributing to and participating in the holiday party. Serious Brownie points were at stake for those who sought them.
Corliss was one of several employees who reviewed grant applications. But she saw more of Chairman Lisa Alistair than would normally be the case because Alistair happened to live two blocks away, and they often encountered each other while Corliss was out running and Alistair was walking the family dog. They had even more in common since Corliss’s nickname happened to be Lisa. The two women were also about the same height, although Corliss was a blonde and about ten pounds heavier than the chairman.
Alistair had only been chairman for a few months. Her appointment was not controversial, perhaps because her husband was a distinguished federal judge. They hailed from one of those western states known for big skies and small populations.
“How can I make fun of her?” Corliss asked her colleagues. “She’s too new! She’s too nice!”
“You’ll figure out something,” was the response.
After much deliberation, the skit writers settled on a comedy routine in which “Chairman Lisa” was feeling stressed out by her new job. Donning a brown wig, Corliss decked herself out in a western outfit, complete with cowboy boots and a leather belt that sported a big brass buckle.
Drawing on her earlier success as a singer, Corliss belted out new lyrics to an old-time country tune called “Why, Oh Why, Did I Ever Leave Wyoming?” The original lyrics had needed only slight alterations—changing the name of the state, for example—to suggest the noble “sacrifices” that the Alistairs had made by relocating to the hazy skies and overcrowded roads of Washington.
This time, Corliss had learned her lesson. Long before the curtain went up on the holiday skit, she’d insisted that the revised lyrics be put through the agency’s version of the “humorless staff” test and also vetted with various higher ups.
During Corliss’s boffo performance, Lisa Alistair laughed so hard, her face turned beet red. Afterward, she approached, grabbing Corliss’s hand. “Love your outfit. It’s so Wild West.”
Corliss felt her face grow hot. “I hope you weren’t offended.”
“Don’t be silly,” the chairman laughed. “As a matter of fact, Frank and I are going to be hosting a chuck wagon dinner in a couple of months. I might want to borrow your belt.”
Afterwards, though, Corliss sensed the tide of opinion shifting. Several colleagues who’d once found the skit hilarious were now pointing fingers at her (back, of course), whispering, “The fool!”
Corliss ignored them. This time, she’d not be handed a pink slip under the guise of “downsizing.” It was not that easy to get rid of civil servants. All she had to do was outlast Chairman Alistair, who would either move on to a more prestigious appointment or, if the other party won the next election, be replaced by a new chairman.
Instead, a few months later, Corliss found herself rewriting the lyrics to “Thanks for the Memories,” in preparation for a farewell party celebrating her own transfer to a job in a government agency that turned out to be so enormous, there would be no chance that anyone could possibly put together a holiday skit making fun of top management.
That more or less marked the end of Corliss’s amateur thespian days—at least when it came to skits lampooning senior management. She’d had fun doing them, even though her two forays onto the stage had turned out not to be particularly smart career moves. The occasional spoof newsletter? Roasting a departing colleague? Sure. But, if there actually were amateur thespians at the new job, and if they had big ideas for the holiday party entertainment that involved a risky “but morale boosting” skit, Corliss would have no problem whatsoever pointing out just how fond she was of safe.