The nameplate almost ran the width of the desk, because whoever had made it had a love for a large capital typeface and also disliked the use of multiple lines. It bore the unpunctuated legend “MR TRENT GRAYSON 2ND ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF TERTIARY SUPPORT COMMUNICATIONS” and Mizzy got dizzy turning her head a full 120 degrees reading it. The only other feature on the desk was a clock that made an irritating not-quite-but-almost-inaudible tick every second. As Mr. Grayson’s office was soundproofed like some Presidential nuclear bunker, the ticking made the silences and pauses of conversation unbearable, like a weird itch beneath the skin that she couldn’t do anything about except whack it with a plank of wood, hoping to convince it to stop.
“What gives, Mizzy?” Mr. Grayson said, tanned and lean with hair gelled to resemble an oil slick. He wore a brilliantly white shirt that was split in two by a black tie that was too long for his short torso. A black jacket hung on an anorexic coat rack behind him, with a pair of shades protruding from one of the breast pockets; the man had obviously watched Reservoir Dogs more times than was good for him. Gold-coloured cuff links in the shape of some unrecognisable animal adorned his wrists.
“You’re one of our best – pardon my language, Mizzy – goddamn people here and I am tearing – I say, tearing – my hair out trying to find the reason why you are flushing yourself down the john. The john. Yesterday you came in drunk. Today you’re trying to set fire – I mean, really, fire – to my office by lighting up here. I can’t be seen to be approving of this behaviour. As I said, what gives, Mizzy honey?”
He obviously didn’t use his desk, Mizzy observed, he might as well give it up to someone who needed it. Every cubicle she had seen was awash with paper, printouts and masochistic stress reliever toys that begged their owner to hit them, squeaking in response. Her own toy never made her feel any better, yet it always looked happier and smug somehow after punishment. It taunted her that it was capable of taking abuse and bouncing right back, which was precisely what she had hoped it would enable her to do when she had bought the damn thing. Some days there was an informal squeak-a-thon, at which the women would deliver a collective strike at their squeaking toys, an underground, subversive event that managers would only ever hear about through whisper and rumour. It might not have been Fight Club, but it served a similar purpose.
The ticking was driving Mizzy insane and she had to answer her manager to drown it out. Mizzy sucked on her cigarette momentarily and blew smoke out so fast that she whistled. She was still a novice when it came to the art of smoking. “I’m sorry, Mr. Grayson–” she started.
“Please, Mizzy honey, call me Trent.” He opened his arms in a laid-back style, but only succeeded in looking like he was about to pounce.
“I’m sorry, Trent, sir, but as my responsibilities keep increasing I feel that I’m doomed to fail. Did you ever hear of the Peter Principle? That people get promoted into positions of incompetence? I worry about that all the time.”
“Yes honey,” Trent said. “I’ve heard of the Peter Principle.” The smile on his face vanished and his gaze drooped into the nameplate, a border to his spotless desk. It only took him a moment to bounce back like Mizzy’s squeaky toy. “It’s nonsense, made up by bitter people who weren’t successful. Forget about it.”
“But I worry, Trent, sir. I worry all the time. Just today another pile of documentation arrived on my desk and I wanted to push it straight into the trash. You know, I can’t do it, I just, I just can’t do it anymore.”
“This wouldn’t be anything to do with your fiancé problems last year, would it? I heard something about that.”
“Absolutely not. I’m over that terrible, terrible episode of my life.” Mizzy whistled smoke again. “No, no. I’m over that. Right now is an altogether different crisis. Maybe you should just fire me. Get it over with, put me out of misery. Drown me in the river with a bag full of unwanted kittens. You know it makes sense, Trent, sir. I know you can do it.”
Mr. Trent Grayson straightened his back and cleared his throat. One of his pep talks was being downloaded, she could see it in his eyes; he was a corporate robot, make no mistake. “Mizzy, I am not about to fire my best – pardon my language, but the situation calls for it – fire my best damn employee, now am I? I’m going to give her the warmth she needs, keep her well fed, make her chicken soup when she feels a bit sick. I’m going to make sure she gets all the best breaks she can get, because damn it Mizzy, I like you. You’re a shining example to the rest of them. I’m not saying anyone is a bad employee, of course, I’m just saying they could be so much more. They could be just like you.”
He paused for Mizzy’s reaction. Mizzy made a point of not reacting. He waited some more. Mizzy continued to not react.
“You can go far, you listen to me now, listen. I’ve never seen anyone file those tertiary communication reports as quickly as you can. That’s just hola-hello amazing. Look at me, now, look at me.” He pointed two fingers of his right hand at her eyes and swung them around at his, directing her, she surmised, to stab his eyes with a two-pronged fork. “You get back out there and do your job to the best of your ability. I won’t say anything about the drinking and the smoking if you just quit those things right here and now. I can’t be seen to be approving such self-demeaning activities, especially in a positive, healthy work environment such as we all share here.”
He hesitated, apparently to drum up some excitement for the coup de grace. “Mizzy, work is family. We’re a family, Mizzy, and you’re my wife, that’s what it’s all about.”
The pep talk, full of energy and focus, was complete. It hit every note perfectly. It dotted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’. Mizzy was depressed.
“Yes, Mr. Grayson, sir.” The last thing she wanted to be right now was anybody’s wife.
She persisted at work and tried not to smoke or drink. At least not simultaneously. The stress was ever-present but she repressed it with quiet dignity as she filed the tertiary communication reports into the correct sorting repositories with efficiency. Red reports, yellow folders; blue reports, green folders; black reports, transparent folders. Alphanumeric sorting, reverse chronological ordering, version indexing. Memoranda, memoranda, memoranda, the office sang.
She didn’t want any more responsibility piled upon her because it was all bound to go wrong one of these days and she didn’t want to be there when it did. A mis-filed report here or an unsigned request there could mean the difference between appreciation and depreciation of a team player’s value. All of this danced in her mind one evening as she drove out of the office car park after having only one drink or two, or possibly three because the afternoon was hazy to be perfectly honest. Her second-hand Dodge Neon then veered all by itself into an obstruction that collapsed upon impact. She broke hard.
There was a moment of reflective tranquillity as she sat in the car seat, heart pounding, feeling grateful to be alive. Phew. The downed obstruction then raised a single, gnarled hand into her field of view, hovering over the hood. It teetered there, suspended for a few seconds as if trying to get the attention of a teacher to ask a question, but fell out of sight with the question unrealised. When Mr. Trent Grayson sir awoke from his coma a few days later, he had a distinct change of heart regarding Mizzy’s career.
Fortunately, the bumper of her car was merely scuffed by the episode.