Monday, January 9, 2012

Dollars Per Hour Chapter 2

     At five o’clock, SpectraCom and Atum Insurance Guardians let the mice out of the wheels for lunch, and the plaza fills up with business-casual broken souls that trudge from one end of the asphalt to the other, deciding if they want pizza, Chinese, or other fast food. We usually opt for the pizza joint at the far corner, sitting outside at the dirty, green plastic deck furniture on nice days like today. As Kurt, Alicia, and I approach, my other roommate, Chloe Isis hails us from the middle table, flanked on either side by our SpectraCom coworkers, ducking and covering their ears against the constant stream of slurs and curses spilling out of Chloe’s mouth.

    Chloe has a special talent to out-burp, out-fart, out-chauvinize, and out-do me on about everything you can imagine. She is the only girl who has ever pointed out another female to me and said, “Yeah, I fucked the shit out of that bitch.” Despite the constant rumors that we are dating, I could never fall for a girl who is more of a man than me. Chloe has a tall, tightly muscled frame, scarlet hair, bewitching eyes, and a sexual appetite that would put a rabbit to shame, but inside her lithe body is a 300 pound beer-drinking truck driver with a four-inch beard, and that’s just not my type.

    After we order our food, the three of us join Chloe at our table outside. I extend my arm and say, “Chloe, I would like you to meet our newest comrade, Alicia Higgins, who has been kind enough to take my calls for me today. Alicia, this lovely vision is Chloe Isis.” I pull out a chair next to her and sit. “Chloe is our Third Musketeer. We alone know the deepest and darkest secrets in the world of SpectraCom. If ever you ever need to know how to do something, no one else will be able to help you. No one. Don’t even bother asking.”

    “What about a manager?” she asks, her voice quivering.

    “Managers,” I groan wistfully. “We have recently discovered that the managers on the floor are actually a type of cyborg that SpectraCom had designed to infiltrate Communist governments and seize control in bloodless coups. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the project was abandoned, and the cyborgs were reprogrammed to serve as training modules and customer liaisons. They have half a dozen phrases they are given to spit out, rarely relating to the subject at hand. You don’t want to ask a manager anything; they usually just complicate whatever they touch. Kurt... what is it that we call them? ”

    “Completely incompetent,” Kurt says.

    “Completely incompetent,” I confirm. “Part of the programming is that they will do and say anything to provide you with a wordy and detailed answer to any question you ask. Problem is, 95 percent of the time, they're wrong.”

    “Cyborgs?” Alicia asks incredulously.

    “Cyborgs,” Chloe tells her, deadly serious.

    I shake my head. “Most of the managers have not spent more than 10 or 20 minutes on the phone before they come to take your call, and usually don’t know a damn thing about the job. I’ve actually seen them hire one off the street, walk them right into the office and make them take a call. One was homeless.” I lean in close to let Alicia know just how serious I am here. “That doesn’t stop them from talking though, and they have no programming to stop them from telling the customer anything they want to hear, even if it’s an out-and-out lie.”

    Chloe nods gravely. “Today, Ms. Gall told someone that the customer would be credited their entire balance just because I told them they were delinquent in their payments.”

    Alicia stares at her in disbelief for a moment before asking, “She didn’t get it, did she?”

    “No,” Chloe cries. “The credit was rejected within the hour!”

    “So what do I do?” Alicia asks with a covered gasp.

    “Come to us,” Kurt says dramatically.

    I double over, giggling into my hands. “Jesus,” I say. “I think this is the most ridiculous conversation I’ve ever had.”

    Kurt extends a hand to Alicia across the green plastic table. “Welcome to hell,” he says, and takes another bite of his cheeseburger.

    Chloe says nothing. She is no doubt sizing up Alicia and trying to come up with a strategy to get her in bed, have her voracious way with the innocent young girl, and then leave her behind forever. I wouldn’t call Chloe gay, or even bisexual–just sexual, with anyone being a potential victim of a one-night stand. I haven’t met anyone who isn’t safe from Chloe’s claws, and generally, she usually gets whoever she decides is tasty. If I want to make a play for Alicia’s affections, I’m going to have to move fast before Chloe starts the blitzkrieg.

    “So how did you all start working here?” Alicia asks, sounding more like she wants to change the subject than actually wanting to know.

    I’m taken back six months, sitting in the human resources office, lounging back in strong, confidence-exuding sprawl, hands knitted behind my head, chest and vital organs exposed.  The recruiter is sitting across from me, thinning, sandy hair close cropped, greying goatee neatly trimmed, studying my application intensely, occasionally gazing up at me over his horn-rimmed glasses, as if SpectraCom would be paying me to do something more important than functioning as a rapidly widening ass in a seat. “So, Mr. Valentine,” he says in a practiced drawl. “Describe yourself for me in three words.”

    I flash a thin smile and narrow my eyes. “Unstoppable killing machine.”

    He raises his eyebrows slightly. “You’re hired,” he chimes, extending his hand to shake mine.

    “I had just come back from exploring the country,” I tell Alicia. “I didn’t have a job, didn’t have any money, and I was living with my parents again. I didn’t have much of a choice, did I?”

    Her eyes move to Kurt, who tells her, “I had just moved back after college, had no job lined up after that, no money, living with my parents... Same deal, pretty much.”

    “What was your major?” she asks.

    “Graphic art,” he says. “Not the biggest job market for it here.” He eats a french fry.

    Alicia looks over at Chloe. “Try to find a job around here doing anything else,” Chloe says, not bothering to look up. “If you aren’t working for SpectraCom, you’re doing something just as degrading.”

    I point to the raggedy figure approaching. “Speaking of degrading,” I say. His head turns as our scent hits his nostrils, and his body lurches in our direction, a shamble of baggy jeans, golf sweater and dreadlocks, carrying a two-liter cola bottle in one hand and an oil-stained brown paper bag in the other. As he arrives at our table, I nod to him and tell her, “Alicia, I would like you to meet my dearest friend and partner in crime, Dr. Filth.”

    “Dr. Filth?” she questions harshly.

    He says nothing and sits down, pulling a salami sub oozing with mayonnaise out of the bag to attack it, biting it nearly in half with one bite.

    “He's a superhero," I say. "But don’t ask where he got his PhD,” I say. “He mans a chair at the Atum Insurance Guardians call center on the other end of the plaza, across from SpectraCom.”

    “The insurance company doesn’t drug-test,” he grumbles. “SpectraCom does, that’s why I work where I do.” He sneers hatefully and spits, “I would have thought differently, seeing as their CEO is into black magic and the occult. You would think he would loosen the drug policies in the workplace.”

    “He also knows the secret history of everything. Generally, you don’t want to engage him in conversation in any way.”

    “Not in the least,” he moans. “Who is this?” he asks, as if Alicia isn’t there.

    “Alicia,” she says, offering her hand to his limp, uninterested shake.

    “She’s taking my calls today,” I explain.

    “Lazy bastard,” he growls at me. His eyes loll to Alicia, looking her over as sympathetically as he can muster, shaking his head the entire time. “Do you want to quit yet?” he asks, pounding a cigarette out of his pack, jamming it into his mouth and lighting it, his eyes never leaving her golden cheeks.

    “No, it’s kind of fun,” she says with half a chuckle. “Rubin’s funny, I don’t mind it.”

    “Not funny ‘ha ha,’ but ‘funny queer,’” Doc says.

    "Give it a few months," Chloe warns. “You’ll hate this job like you wouldn’t believe.”

    “That’s encouraging,” mumbles Alicia, never breaking a smile.

    “Like Rubin said,” Kurt tells her. “Come to us if you want honesty.”

    "Where is Tommy Guilt?" I ask Filth, taking a giant bite of my steak and cheese sub. "Isn't he joining us for lunch today?"

    "Do I look like Tommy's keeper?" Filth says, sipping from the cola bottle. "He was probably in the middle of selling a year's subscription to the paper and couldn't get away." He holds up the cola bottle to the light and looks at the half-empty contents with disdain. "Are we still going writing tonight?" he grumbles. "I don't have much money; I don't want to be out late.”

    “That’s fine,” I say. “It’s my weekend to work here, so I don’t want to be at the bar until close. I haven't had a chance to type up what we wrote last time anyway."

    Chloe finally looks up at Alicia. “Rubin and the Doctor believe themselves to be movie-makers,” she cries in an exaggerated drawl, throwing her arms wide, bearing her chest to the sun.

    “No,” I correct, waving my arms with flourish. “We are writing a film script together. We are going to be movie makers.”

    “Whatever,” Chloe says with a short. “They spend their evenings in a bar with a notebook between them, trying to come up with a script. Usually, they just drink themselves into a stupor and don’t accomplish anything except a pair of hangovers.”

    I shrug. “Yeah, that sounds about right.”

    “That’s interesting,” Alicia says. “What’s the script about?”

    “It’s about us,” I say. “About the poor saps who work in call centers. The people who have to deal with the trash of society on a daily basis and pretend we like it. We are going to be using ideas from the actual calls we take, you know, loosely base it on our own lives.”

    “Basically, it’s their warped little confessional,” Chloe clarifies. These jokers are convinced that people want to hear about their lives.”

    “Of course they do,” Dr. Filth tells her. “We’re the ones on the inside, the ones who are in the know, the ones in the same position they are. They want to hear what we’ve so painfully endured. It will validate their own sufferings and unite them in the cause against Corporate America.”

    She shrugs. “I guess that’s a start.”

    “Going to be the biggest damn movie in the world,” Filth says matter-of-factly. “Everyone in America is going to come to see it. Every one.”

    “Then maybe you could pay off your bar tab,” Kurt chides.

    Doc Filth ponders this thoughtfully. “That could be an option,” he grumbles.

    “You a bit hungover, Doc?” I ask.

    “You were there,” he says. “You saw how much I drank.”

    “I didn’t see much of anything last night,” I tell him.

    “Good point.”

    “Oh, the life of the artist,” Kurt moans and eats the last of his cheeseburger.

    “I live the life of a bill collector, my boy. Until I can find a publisher who says, ‘Mr. Valentine, we want to offer you a huge book deal with a giant advance,’ I will be living the life of a bill collector.”

    “At least until they fire you,” Kurt adds.

    “They wouldn’t fire me,” I gasp. “They love me, I’m the meanest bastard on the floor. I can bully anyone into a payment. I’ve made them a ton of money.”

    “Whatever happened to your plan to write for porno magazines?” Chloe asks. “I haven’t heard you mention that in a long time. You were all about that for a while.”

    “You were going to write for porno magazines?” Alicia asks with a giggle.

    Roses bloom on my cheeks and I gurgle an uncomfortable laugh, eyes fixing on a smiling Doc Filth. “I had considered it,” I admit. “I figure those magazines must pay quite a bit of cash for a story, and it’s not like it takes Kurt Vonnegut to churn out one of those things. I figured I could spank one out, pun intended, in a few hours and with no more revisions than transferring from my notebook to the computer.”

    “Interesting...,” Alicia says, trailing off.

    “I mean, it’s not like I’m doing anything dirty, except maybe with my pen, so I wouldn’t have anything to be ashamed of.”

    “And how did this turn out?” she pushes.

    “It didn’t. I wrote one story, and it was kind of creepy, so I didn’t pursue it.”

    “Wrote one, eh?” she asks. “I’d like to read that.”

    I turn away. “No, you wouldn’t.”

    “Why not?” she asks, still giggling.

    “All you need to write one of those is a sexthaurus, if you will. Have a few descriptions of settings to set a mood, and then the monstrous cocks start ramming into quivering beavers in carnal ecstasy until bodies spasm in crushing orgasm, and BANG! you’ve got a winner!” As Alicia stares in shock, I offer a weak, innocent shrug. “After all my talk about it, I’m kind of embarrassed to have written it. Doc read it. He can tell you what it was like. He’s an expert on the subject.”

    “It gave me wood,” he injects.

    Kurt backs away from the table. “Way more than I needed to know.”

    “Vibrating cars give you wood,” Chloe snorts. She hooked up with Doc Filth at a party at my place a couple months back. She said he was so drunk that he forgot what he was doing and passed out. She won’t admit this to anyone, and only told me because I wanted to know why the good Doctor was half naked in my bed. He has never mentioned it, and I doubt even remembers. Chloe swore to me that it ended before there was any spillage of bodily fluids. I still thought about burning the mattress.

    “What can I say?” Doc grunts. “I’m easily amused.”

    I jump when a hand falls on my shoulder and Tommy Guilt says from behind me, "Hey guys, sorry I'm late." He slips into the chair next to me, eying everyone with an empty grin. "I was in the middle of selling a year subscription to the paper, and I couldn't just let it go." He drums his hands on the plastic and adjusts his black-and-yellow-polka-dot tie. "They don't come along every day."

    "Hey, Tommy," Chloe says. "What are you up to?"

   "The top of my team for the last four months," he says with a sneer. "I think I'm the top salesman in my division." He rubs his knuckles on the breast of his crisp milk-white shirt. He scans us again and his eyes settle on Alicia. "Why, hello," he purrs. "Tommy Guilt."

    She shakes his hand firmly, shaking Tommy's entire body. "Alicia," she says with a smile and a nod, hand darting back under the table.

    "Tommy works up in the office above SpectraCom," Kurt  Vance tells her. "He sells newspapers."

    "No, no, no," Tommy says, adjusting his tie again. "I put local and national news, sports and weather, into the hands of more people in this community than anyone else, not to mention the good dose of laughter, the world's best medicine, in each week's Sunday comics, all for a low-low price that's just pennies of what you would pay getting it from a newsstand."

    "Because he does too much coke," Doc Filth says, finishing the cola bottle. He holds it vertical a few seconds, jiggling it to get that last drop of whiskey at the top of the bottle.

    "So I can sell more newspapers," Tommy says in a condescending tone, shrugging and holding his hands up like scales. "Duh, so I can make more money."

    "So he can buy more coke," Kurt grunts.

    "Exactly," Tommy grunts, pulling a stray french fry out of my basket. "What are you guys doing tonight?"

    "Going to the Spot," I tell him. "Want to go?"

    "Naw," he moans. "I owe Zombie some money, and besides, I got this bitch coming over to my place tonight. I'm pretty sure I can get her to put out." He pauses, grins at Alicia and whispers, "Excuse my French and all," and scans the rest of us again as he says, "but yeah, I think I might be able to knock her in the fart-box." He steals another fry and says, "I'll go out tomorrow night, it's Friday, there will be more girls out." He smiles wolf-in-sheep's-clothingly at Alicia and asks, "Will you be making an appearance with us this weekend? You're kinda cute."

    "Tommy!" I scold.

    "I'm just askin'!" he protests, holding up his hands, palms out.

    "She might not be ready for your level of uncouth," I growl. "Do you think you could act like a half-way-decent person for just a few minutes?"

    "Oh, sorry," he says, looking from me to her. "I didn't know you two were together."

Go to Chapter 3

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