Martin Barkley, 4/14/2014
Current Occupation: Can't say; they would surely kill me
Previous Occupation: Administrative Savant
Contact Information: For the record, Martin Barkley has never been homeless; in fact, during several economic downturns, he has more than once been the figurative last man standing after RIFs, firings and layoffs; nevertheless, as the story offered here is a fabrication based on composite truths, he feels it necessary to state that the names, places, and events contained herein are fictional; therefore, any similarity to real places, actual companies, or persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Martin's fiction and poetry have appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Texas Observer (as a finalist in 2012 Short Story Contest), Chamber Four, the Goodmen Project, Burningword Literary Journal, and Arcadia Magazine.
The Big Do-over
During the Great Recession—aka the Economic Downturn, aka the Global Financial Crisis, aka the Lollapalooza Clusterfuck, aka (my favorite) the Big Do-over—I was drawing unemployment from the State and required to interview with any business concern that might possibly hire me, or risk losing the $378.13 per week I received for being jobless. Each morning, I had to log on to the WorkBank, update my profile with any new skills I had acquired—always clicking none—then check the job postings the database had pushed to me the night before. Failure to meet my quota for job applications submitted was monitored on-line, so I had to view the postings—or else, as I said, risk losing my pittance—and it was during this enforced regimen that a listing in the WorkBank drew my attention:
High-Explosives Inventory Specialist
Must Be Willing to Count Dynamite
The product, though it intrigued me, didn’t matter as much as the work itself. High-tech would’ve been better, sexier, but I knew the hands-on aspects of this low-level clerk’s position—the routines of FIFO and LIFO, of stock rotations and cost analyses—and, if left alone, I knew I could manage any inventory, of any scope or dimension.
Eager to placate my taskmasters at the WorkBank, I applied for the position through the State’s on-line portal, and with minimal effort secured an interview at Langham’s Granite Quarry. Mr. Langham would meet with me personally, a confirmation e-mail said, with no HR pre-screening required. Was that a red flag? Maybe, but maybe I didn’t care; I was eager to talk to any employer who didn’t sell rainforest beef or supersized French fry orders.
* * *
That same afternoon, a Friday, I arrived at Langham’s office but found no receptionist at the front desk. Were things really that bad? Haltingly, I stepped into the office proper, its inner recesses dark.
Hello! I yelled into the dark recesses.
Then in the distance I heard a low rumble, the ground shook, and the light fixtures overhead jumped in their sconces, which deposited a fine dust on my head.
From within the recesses a man said, My apologies. Someone has to pull the lanyard on the half-hour, and right now that someone is me.
I followed his voice and found him seated behind an unremarkable gray metal desk, IBM-vintage, in a windowless cubbyhole of an office. Above him, within arm’s reach, was the lanyard he’d just yanked with such stunning results. Hanging from the ceiling tiles, the rope was two inches round, made of braided white cotton, and terminated with a silver stirrup that hung a foot above my potential employer’s head.
Oh, the things we must endure, I thought, to be included in the world’s doings.
I extended a résumé with my left hand and offered my right to receive the obligatory handshake in business-like greeting, but Mr. Langham ignored both.
Thievery, he said, looking me squarely in the face. Goddamn thievery.
Excuse me, I said, intuiting his situation from the word thievery. Are you missing high-explosives from your inventory?
He didn’t answer my question, asking his own instead.
I need someone to count my dynamite, be completely responsible for it, and keep it locked down. Can you do all that?
Was yes the right answer? I thought I’d better embellish.
Certainly, I replied. Certainly and most certainly.
I like you, he said. Three answers to a three-part question—that is smart.
Will I get to pull the lanyard?
No, certainly not. Well, we’ll see.
* * *
It turned out the cubbyhole wasn’t Langham’s office; he was there just to pull the lanyard. He guided me through hallways honeycombed with empty work cubicles, then up a set of stairs to his executive suite, a fenestrated corner office that overlooked the open-pit quarry. A white mushroom cloud generated by the recent explosion hung suspended over the pink rhombohedral cliffs of granite. Down below, a lone forklift puttered at the bottom of the man-made cavern.
That’s Rosendo down there, Mr. Langham said fondly. My best man.
By appearances, I thought, his only man.
Previously, Langham explained, the quarry had employed two hundred full-time workers, but now the roster included only himself, his trusted foreman Rosendo, and a small contingent of temporary workers. Post-economic crash, with commercial building-starts at zero, Langham’s Quarry had become a skeleton-crew operation.
Mr. Langham and Rosendo worked Fridays, but the quarry was only open for regular business Monday through Thursday. When they were operational their effectiveness was hamstrung by the inexperienced temp workers, who, Langham believed, had done more than reduce the pit’s efficiency. The fucking riffraff, he swore, had stolen god-only-knows-what from the family-owned enterprise. Why, he rambled on, his great grandfather had supplied the stones that built the State Capitol, a legacy of business that spanned four generations, and he’d be goddamned if he’d tolerate a bunch of lowlife trash stealing from him.
Screw WorkBank requirements, I thought to myself. Did I want to sign on for this kind of shit-assed trouble? That is, if I had a choice?
Mr. Langham, though, had settled the issue in his own mind. He liked me, as he’d said before, and wanted to make me his ordnance officer and inventory drudge. I would service the lanyard as well as manage the keep. What more could I ask for, in terms of duties?
His offer was the first proposal of work I’d received in seventeen months. If I refused and the WorkBank heard about it, I would instantly lose my unemployment pittance. On the other hand, appearances suggested Langham’s Quarry was a sinking ship; Mr. Langham himself seemed a little tilted; and the mere suggestion of dynamite missing from the inventory scared me effing shitless.
But I felt I had no choice. Unemployment payments allowed by the State were ending soon, at the close of eighteen months, and if I should be cut off and still jobless, I knew, in a matter of days, I’d degenerate from homebound slacker to hardcore vagrant to hirsute curmudgeon panhandling change on the overpasses of the Interstate.
Thus, this vision compelled me to cement a deal with the eccentric proprietor.
Salary and benefits? I queried. Did he have any sense of my worth?
Oh, Oliver, my boy, he said, have some faith. Trust me, you shall be generously compensated.
* * *
Out in the warehouse, Mr. Langham introduced me to Rosendo and then promptly returned to the office. It was nearing the half-hour, he said; the lanyard had to be serviced.
Barrel-chested, Rosendo laughed—at me, I supposed—his ample gut jiggling beneath a filthy T-shirt of a pinkish hue. Then he stopped laughing, gave me the mal de ojo, and in Spanish informed me that he was, on general principle, suspicious of all pendejo new-hires. He left no doubt that his wariness of untested help included me.
Of course, he didn’t realize that I might actually have the requisite skills to help him do his job. A competent inventory drudge insures that the keep is always stocked with the items necessary to conduct daily business. No kingdom or customer’s order should ever be lost for want of a nail. That’s the promise I brought to Langham’s Quarry. But how was Rosendo supposed to know that? I’d be suspicious, too, if someone agreed to take on a spring-loaded position like the one I’d just accepted.
I didn’t think Rosendo was the culprit, the thief Mr. Langham had mentioned, but I thought he might know something.
I non’t work for you, he said, after wordlessly staring me down.
Rosendo, are we missing any high-explosives in the inventory?
No me molesta, he said.
I won’t bother you, I promise, except where the dynamite’s concerned. Es un problema muy serio.
Jou ass heem, he said, pointing to the office. No sé nada sobre esto.
Translation: You ask him. I don’t know anything about that.
Good answer. That’s what I’d say.
When I heard the concussive blast, unaccustomed as I was to the daily routine, I fell cowering to the warehouse floor, pink and gritty with granite dust, and from that prostrate vantage saw Rosendo standing over me, laughing his ass off. It was now the half-hour plus one.
* * *
Despite the initial oddities I experienced at the quarry, I made, under the guise of courtesy, a triumphant kiss-off call to the WorkBank.
Thank you for giving me money, I said, in my time of need, and for making me feel like conniving vermin in the process. See ya. Wouldn’t wanna be ya.
And then I made a suggestion, admittedly untoward, regarding the violent insertion of certain unlikely objects into the State’s collective rectal cavity.
A bridge burned?
Place a note in my file.
* * *
Loosed from WorkBank ties, I fell to the task of achieving a commendable, if not perfect, count. As I worked I heard the periodic blasts in the pit, but I was prepared for them now and not nearly so unstrung by the earth-rending noise as before.
The work always did calm me, though, the activity of counting being as much an art as a learned skill. To tally an inventory, one must have the sense of possible wholeness wrested from scattered, disparate particulars. That possibility, and the challenge it poses, gives the inventory specialist the impetus he needs to strive for flawless results, even in the face of a glorious clusterfuck. We are also by nature anal, type-A personalities—and difficult to deal with, I should add—precisely because we adhere to process, never expediency, process affording the best chance for a just scale and balance.
However, there was no balance in the initial count, and I had to tell Mr. Langham the disappointing results. The keep was short a case of Bon Ami cleaner, a gross of eight-ounce Styrofoam cups, seven cases of C-fold paper towels, twelve cases of two-ply toilet paper, five fourteen-inch rock hammers, thirteen neon-orange hard hats, one horse-hair push broom, a medical defibrillator, a 1000-count bottle of low-dose aspirin, and five hundred pounds of C4 explosive. Not dynamite, mind you, but fucking C4.
That, sir, is a big diff—C4 versus dynamite—plus, I don’t have to tell you, that is a ginormous discrepancy.
Go figure, he said. Do-over.
You heard me. Do-over. Count the keep again.
Sir, there’s no need. My accounting methods are very thorough.
No arguments, he said calmly. Besides, it’s time to pull the lanyard now.
* * *
It was four o’clock, time for the penultimate detonation of the day, and Mr. Langham let me service the lanyard for the first time.
Causing a remote explosion from the windowless cubbyhole was exhilarating. The rush I felt as I gripped the silver stirrup, yanked the lanyard, then heard in the distance the sonorous BURRRUMPH, was a feeling I hadn’t experienced since as a boy I ignited a garbage can full of cherry bombs on the Fourth of July. As a direct result of my action, the ground shook, the light fixtures leapt in their sconces, and dust drizzled down on my head. It was a cathartic experience, I have to admit, but probably not a sound business practice if exercised too frequently. This wasn’t some kid’s low-grade gunpowder explosive.
Langham, though, didn’t seem to understand that. Throughout the day, he explained, he exploded the C4 at his pleasure, which was at the half-hour for eight hours a day. He had inherited the duty from one of his laid-off clerks, but he expanded the timetable to suit himself. He thought the frequent detonation schedule gave, as he put it, the appearance of structure amid the chaos outside the confines of the quarry.
As part of my training, I observed the last explosion of the day from Mr. Langham’s corner office, while he serviced the lanyard in the cubbyhole. With pyroclastic velocity, the blast tore a huge crevice in the granite cliff face, expelling detritus for hundreds of yards. Post-detonation, Rosendo cleared a path through the rubble with the forklift, then set the charges again for the next detonation. It was all too Sisyphus-like, I thought, for poor Rosendo. Besides a paycheck, he obviously endured the routine out of devotion to Mr. Langham. At his command, Rosendo would probably chip away at the rhombohedral structures until there was nothing left but pink dust.
What’s the demand for all these detonations? I asked Mr. Langham. You’re only operational four days a week. How can you afford to blow up C4 sixteen times a day, five days a week?
Topaz, he said. In the granite cliff there’s a seam of topaz, and we’re going to find it.
Topaz like the jewel?
Like the jewel. Exactly.
* * *
Fuck me. I had signed on with a crazy son of bitch, I groused alone, as I counted the keep again. I had given up my unemployment payments—short-lived as they would’ve been—signed on with this crazy son of bitch—having no idea how he’d pay me—and now I had no choice but to hang on and hope that Langham knew what he was talking about.
Topaz, my ass.
The reality was that this make-work, this spurious quest for a bonanza of elusive mineral wealth, no longer reflected a respectable business supplying a marketable product. No, like a fool, Langham was on a treasure hunt, and I had, without prior knowledge or consent, signed on to assist in his lunacy.
Dejected, I didn’t stay late to finish the do-over. Instead, I went home that night, drank two India pale ales, and checked to see if my WorkBank log-on was still active. As I’d anticipated, my account had been deleted.
* * *
Monday morning, as the temps returned to work and were milling about in the warehouse, making requisitions for picks and shovels and hard hats, the recount did not go well, my aplomb at multi-tasking notwithstanding.
In the keep, on an unused lower shelf labeled Miscellaneous, I discovered the mummified remains of a rat the size of a Daschund weenie dog. In the bottom drawer of what was now my desk, I found $29.73 in pennies in a pickle jar, the contents of which I rendered to petty cash. And I sussed out a large cache of Nineties-era porn magazines squirreled away in a hole in a wall concealed by a girly calendar. But not the missing C4, of course. It just wasn’t there, and I was unable to resolve the discrepancies of the first, unsuccessful count.
The practice of willy-nilly writing off such losses is ill-advised and can result in unwanted audits from banks, third-party investigators, even law enforcement. Because it wasn’t the consumables or hard hats or hammers or mummified rodents or back issues of MILF Jugs Magazine that mattered. No, only the C4 mattered. 10K’s worth.
Sir, I said, the missing plastic explosive is simply not located in the keep. Now I must advise you against writing off the loss, if that’s what you have in mind, because that action will create a huge negative adjustment on your balance sheet, and that will most certainly draw unwanted attention from people I’m sure you’d rather not talk to.
And yet, he said cogently, we can’t hide the fact either, can we?
No, sir, we can’t; we must resolve the discrepancy by investigation and discovery—on our own, and quickly—or else you will have no choice but to reveal the loss to your creditors. And, I might add, to the authorities.
Well, he drawled Reaganesquely, above all, we must remain positive in the ordeal. Perhaps today Rosendo will find the vein of topaz in the mine, and that will ameliorate all, including the losses in the keep.
No, no, no, I said, we had to fix the problem by finding out what had happened—by identifying misuse or key-entry error, or by charging some temporary puke with theft—because that was the only course of action that would answer the demand of the moment, which was, very simply, a documented resolution of the gross discrepancy without bullshit lies or lame excuses.
I don’t know what we’ll do just yet, Langham said offhandedly. Just hold on, don’t do anything, and let’s see what happens with the dynamite.
Sir, it’s not dynamite. It’s C4. And that’s a big diff.
Well, if it makes a big bang, it’s all dynamite to me.
Oh, the things we must endure, etcetera, etcetera.
* * *
Desperate to resolve the discrepancy—because I didn’t want to be involved in a criminal investigation, even when I could prove my innocence—I implored Rosendo to help me explain the missing explosives.
Ya te dije, he said, annoyed. I alreedy toll you—I non’t work for you. I work for el jefe.
Yes, I know you don’t work for me, I said in broken Spanish, but if the boss doesn’t find the missing C4, then there may not be any more work.
Ass heem, he said, repeating the imperative from our first conversation. Él sabe.
Ask him. He knows.
You mean to tell me he’s stealing from himself?
Mándame? he quizzed, perplexed by the reflexive construction in English.
Señor Langham, el jefe. He steals?
Sí, por supuesto, he said. Es el mero chingon.
Yes, of course. He’s the head hauncho.
* * *
Finally, Rosendo trusted my motives enough to tell me the truth. Mr. Langham detested internal procedures which he felt imposed on his managerial prerogative. What’s more, he thought paperwork was an aggravating formality from which he should be entirely exempted. Since he’d fired his last drudge in the keep, Rosendo witnessed, Langham had exercised no controls whatsoever on the inventory, and had in fact run fucking amuck, handing out tools and supplies and raw material—like the effing C4—without any notion that there might be a day of reckoning.
The crazy son of bitch, I said.
Es verdad, declared Rosendo. Es chingazos sin abrazos. Which, translated, means to get screwed doggy-style without even the courtesy of a reach-around. It was true, he said, I was on the receiving end of the executive phallus.
And maybe I was.
That’s why Rosendo had at first laughed his ass off at me, but he was sorry about that now. Well, sort of, he smirked.
I have delivered the account in sparser terms than Rosendo did in his colorful Spanish idiom. He invoked many other colloquialisms—chinga, chingao, chingalera, cabroncito, güero pendejo, pinche sanavabiche—to express his own displeasure at Langham’s behavior, because even he, a simple pit foreman, knew that proper records had to be kept.
Many times, he said, he tried to deter el jefe from his reckless course, telling him that Señor Langham must make an effort to follow procedures as the predecessor had done—his slipshod storage protocols and porn addiction aside—but without success. Langham had recorded nothing, keyed in nothing, and had defiantly done just as he pleased.
Should inventory control be required to give a justification to authorities for the lost explosives, what would I say? Oh, didn’t you hear? Mr. Langham no longer quarries granite for the construction industry. No, now he’s on the hunt for topaz, which no doubt explains where the five hundred pounds of C4 went. No worries. Just trust us. We’ll make good on all the unexplained losses when Señor Quijote hits fricking pay dirt.
I could stand no more of these revelations. It was the half-hour and time to service the lanyard. Which I would now refuse to do. But for credibility’s sake, I’d have to throw Rosendo under the bus.
Mr. Langham, Rosendo tells me that the temporary workers are in no way to blame for the discrepancies. In fact, he tells me you dispersed the C4 without following proper paperwork procedures. In view of this information, I regret to tell you that I will not be servicing the lanyard today. To do so would be absurd.
You will, my boy, service the lanyard, or else this will be your last day at Langham’s Quarry.
I serviced the lanyard. BURRRUMPH went the charges. The ground shook. The light fixtures overhead rattled in their sconces. A fine dust precipitated down on my head. Rosendo cleared a path in the debris field; he set the charges again. And all was as it had been before, except now I knew that Langham was a liar.
* * *
In answer to the crucial moment of his revealed hypocrisy, Langham expanded his folly, donned a neon-orange vest and hard hat, and descended into the pit with Rosendo and the temporary workers. He would mount a concerted effort himself, he said, to find the vein of topaz. Against all odds, he said, we had to reject cynicism and remain hopeful, and he would show us the way. Yes, in a display of solidarity with the workers he had previously blamed for goddamn thievery, he was ready now to be numbered among the riffraff.
Go figure, he’d said. Do-over. Was that his touchstone for all of life’s impasses?
I watched from his office picture window as he led the platoon of temp workers in the direction of the fractured cliff face. With pick axe in hand, he marched in the vanguard, while Rosendo on his forklift took up a position on the right flank. They approached the jagged crevice in the granite rhombohedron, as a group hesitated there before entering, and then disappeared from view.
I called Mr. Langham on the two-way radio used for communication in the pit.
Sir, you have entered the mine with the charges set. Over.
Sir, I repeat, you have entered the mine with the charges set. Is this proper protocol? Over. It seems like a really bad idea. Over.
Still no reply.
* * *
Desperate—for leverage, escape, hope?—I phoned my former tormentor, the WorkBank, from Mr. Langham’s office. Perhaps I could re-start my benefits on a fresh calendar, ipso facto, just by asking nicely. Another do-over. Administratively, they often functioned as clueless dumbasses over there; the ploy could work.
The State voicemail labyrinth eventually delivered me to a disembodied human voice.
Yesss, said the voice with self-assured hostility.
Hello, I said. I’d like to apply for unemployment benefits. This is…
Yes, we know who you are, the voice interrupted. And if you were Steve Jobs incarnate and down on your luck, we still wouldn’t help you again after what you did.
What? What’d I do? I mouthed off a little bit, that’s all.
See ya. Wouldn’t wanna be ya.
* * *
It occurred to me then that Langham had been wayward paperwork-wise in more than one area of his business. He’d not only eschewed necessary documentation while filling the position of inventory drudge. Having furloughed his entire HR staff, he had, on hiring me, also failed to process the requisite W-4, W-9, and probative I-9, and therefore I was off the books, so to speak. If I walked away now, there would be no official record that I had ever been employed at Langham’s Granite Quarry.
Then, from the topaz mine, Rosendo called on the two-way radio.
No importa qué, no tire de la lanyard. El jefe está loco.
No matter what, don’t pull the lanyard. The boss is loony.
I won’t pull the lanyard, Rosendo. Nunca. Te lo prometo.
Never. I promise.
Then, garbled, El jefe tiene un detonador.
The boss has a detonator.
Whereon BURRRUMPH went the explosive charges, the very ground itself rocked, the light fixtures vaulted in their sconces, dust rained down on my head, and everybody in the topaz mine died, never having found topaz, or even so much as a speck of fool’s gold.
* * *
I have a cardboard placard, finely wrought calligraphically, unique among the panhandlers who contend for squatter’s rights where Yeager Lane passes over Interstate 35. And it reads thusly:
The WorkBank Ruined my life
I will not work for food
I will not grovel for quarters
I will sit right here
and die a slow death
forcing you to watch
OH! THE THINGS WE MUST ENDURE
TO BE INCLUDED IN THE WORLD’S DOINGS