October 19, 2006

The Promise in the Cellar (5 of 12)

Thread: Mission

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.

Posted by: The Harbour Master @ 2105

October 12, 2006

The Promise in the Cellar (4 of 12)

Thread: Mission

“Hi, Michelle, this is a nice surprise,” said Jack. “But I’m afraid Billy’s not in right now.”

“Please call me Mizzy, Mr. Gardiner.” Mizzy looked up at Mr. Gardiner with an open glare like bright headlights, lost and needy, that made him want to wince and avert his eyes.

Mr. Gardiner blushed. “Well, um, please call me Jack. Mr. Gardiner seems a little too formal, I think,” said Jack. “As I said Billy’s not in right now. I’m not sure where he is, you know.”

Mizzy was forlorn. “I see.”

“Is everything alright?” asked Jack. Mizzy hadn’t stopped staring upwards at him with those lost headlights. Please save me, he imagined they blinked in Morse code.

Her eyes moistened. “I really wanted to talk to Billy about something.”

“Look, Michelle, I mean Mizzy, is there’s anything I can help with? I’d grab Dawn if I could, you know a woman is probably better for a heart-to-heart than – “ he chuckled “ – an old man like myself, but she’s out at the moment too.”

“I’m not sure if I can go through with the marriage,” she said, collapsing into his chest in a fit of tears. “I’m so scared.” Jack couldn’t actually hear anything she said after that, but his shirt probably did. He took her indoors.

On the sofa, she poured out his heart to him, in between pouring out tears. The little girl was distraught. “I just don’t know if it will work, Mr. Gardiner,” she said. “Many marriages don’t work, I don’t want to be a divorcee by the time I’m 21. That would be just… just awful.” Jack thought she was twenty years of age which made divorce over such a short time span unlikely.

He sat beside her on the sofa with his arms stretched out far and wide, trying in desperation not to physically comfort her, because it just didn’t feel right. Meanwhile, she burrowed into his chest in emotional panic. He had always liked Mizzy but he did not know her very well. She had seemed quite self-confident but now it was a sea of tears. Where was Dawn when you needed her? Taking care of his daughter-in-law-to-be was the not the kind of thing he was genetically built for. He would have blamed his parents if possible, but they were dead, and it possibly didn’t top the list for Essential Qualities in your male offspring. He certainly hadn’t considered it for Billy. Maybe it was time to start thinking about such things.

“Mizzy, look at Dawn and myself. Twenty years of marriage and we’ve never had a doubt. Not a single infidelity. Not even a major argument. Marriage is certainly hard work and you’ve got to put some effort in… but I’m sure you’re the kind of girl that could do a great job. I doubt you’re going to be a divorcee in one year. That’s just crazy, Mizzy.”

Mizzy emerged from depths of his chest that Jack had no idea existed and said, “Do you really think so? Mr. Gardiner? Do you? Really?” What had been beautifully applied mascara had now turned Mizzy into a panda. Her face was soaking wet with tears and her eyes were bloodshot. There was even a little snot dribbling from her nose. The full force of this visage hit Jack hard, or perhaps it was Jack that was hard. It implored. It begged. Please help me, Mr. Gardiner. Please, I need you.

He surprised himself when his arms snapped out of their assigned positions attached to the sofa and moved to hold her gently. “It’ll be fine,” he whispered to her.

Her pupils dilated and piercing, she seemed to stare directly into his brain and rip out what was going on in there. “Do you really think so, Mr. Gardiner?” Her voice was barely audible, cracking over the syllables.

“I know so,” he said and moaned as he leaned into her face and took her lips against him, snot and tears intact. It was such a long time since he had felt such young flesh against his own and guilt fired through him for enjoying this forbidden pleasure. The guilt fired up something in his trousers too.

So they did it on the sofa. They also did it in the marital bed that was meant only for the marital couple. They did it in a motel room three times. Once they did it in the kitchen when Dawn and Billy were waiting for dessert in the main room, but Jack was not proud of this, because he was supposed to be a distance runner when it came to carnal athletics. Every single time she shouted, “Oh Mr. Gardiner,” he felt that what he was doing was incredibly immoral which made him ever the more insatiable to defile her young limbs.

The day before Mizzy was supposed to wed his son, an event that Jack himself had difficult feelings about, the sheriff turned up at the door. Apparently Mizzy had accused old Mr. Gardiner of raping her on a regular basis, threatening to tell Billy if she ever went to the police. Oh woe she was and she could no longer bear the burden. She had cried as she explained that Mr. Gardiner had taken her against a tree once, which Jack was understandably upset about because he would have loved doing it up against a tree sometime. The police were quite taken with her story and those needy, imploring eyes swung their hearts.

It took a month for the whole thing to get straightened out without charges. Consequences were mandatory, however. Billy never talked to his father again. Dawn divorced him in months; twenty years of faithful marriage down the trash compactor. On the plus side, he discovered that deep down he was attracted to pliable, young women and hung out in disreputable bars earning the disreputation of the local lech, buying drinks for any girl who walked through the door and a little extra for any girl who worked through the door to his crotch. It was a far cry from his position as an upstanding pillar of the community, but he was comfortable with his new role. Mizzy had unzipped his trousers and the beast she had unleashed had no immediate plans for a withdrawal.

He heard some things. He heard that Dawn had put her vast alimony funds to good use, such as putting a hit out on Mizzy, changing her mind and paying for the hit to be stopped, then paying blackmail money to the hired/unhired contract killer who had said he had taped their conversations and would send a copy to her ex-husband if she did not meet his demands. The tape was extremely clear.

He heard that Mizzy never did marry Billy. Apparently, it was all too traumatic for her, even though Billy begged her to go ahead with the wedding to spite his father. Well, at least she never had to worry about the possibility of divorce.

Posted by: The Harbour Master @ 2109

October 7, 2006

The Promise in the Cellar (3 of 12)

Thread: Mission

“Mi-chelle! Mi-chelle! Mi-chelle!” her Mom chanted from the track’s edge. At the halfway point, Mizzy was the leader of the pack. “Come on, Michelle! You can do it!”

She could do it. Mom had drummed into her that second place is loser’s place; second place was not going to happen. It was more likely that Julie behind her in loser’s place would spontaneously combust and shower the spectators with human ash. Running every day without fail, aided by her Mom who held a stopwatch like she had a beating heart in her grip, the timings had got better each day. Fait accompli. Her feet rode the track with experience, propelling her ever closer to….

Now here was the thing. If she was victorious, she would definitely go forward to represent the school in the state tournament next year. Was she good enough for that? She could beat everyone here, wipe the canteen floor with them bringing out an unfamiliar shine in its surface. But all those other girls from other schools? She didn’t know any of them, their strengths or weaknesses. The finish line was not the line of victory; it was the divide between the certainty of success and the discomforting arrival of the potential to be second. If she made it over the line, her confidence could come to a sticky end. She needed confidence when she went to the prom, not this worry crawling around in her head like termites setting up shop. Eddie would say, hey, what’s the deal, girl? He wouldn’t want to do It with her. And It was more than merely important, It was of celestial significance. Global warming and the plight of the third world was hinging on It. Eddie was sooooo gorgeous.

Anxiety was issuing threats to her legs. Look, legs, her anxiety was saying, stop it, stop it yeah. Do you know what you’re doing? Huh? With its limited lexicon, it made its point.

And where the hell was Dad?

With that thought, her right leg went down sideways and her body pivoted around it, the sprinter becoming ballerina. There was a sound like she had crunched up some nachos, but these were nachos that were inside her leg. She collapsed two metres from the finish line like a building under controlled demolition, causing no damage to any of the nearby sprinters. Julie, after sprinting across the finish, did the Samaritan thing and checked to see if Mizzy was okay. Julie even said, with charitable concern, that Mizzy should not even think about going to the prom for the good of her legs and take it easy over the coming week. She said that, right there on the track.

In the hospital, Dad said everything was cool and was really sorry he couldn’t make it because of the big business deal he’d pulled off with the Cartwrights, which meant the family wallet was going to be not just fat but obese in the years to come. Mom was more than cool, she was Titanic-sinking iceberg cold that her baby could not win one measly race, one measly race was she listening, and commented that Mizzy was the probably the biggest disappointment of a daughter she had ever laid eyes on. She did concede that Mizzy’s leg probably hurt a lot, so okay then, but at least Mizzy should stop crying like some silly teenage girl. Eddie came to see her once but thought that he might break Mizzy’s leg again if he took her to the prom and slept with her afterwards, so he did the right thing and took Julie to the prom and slept with her afterwards. Second place is loser’s place.

Mizzy was comfortable with her stalwart self-esteem and chose to end her athletic pursuits. Running every day would become something she had done in her youth, a pleasant memory. At every dinner, Mom taunted her with that memory by fiddling with the training stopwatch while they ate. Click, start. Click, stop. Click, start. Click, stop.

Winning was not important, knowing you could win or could have won was. And, not that it made her feel any better, oh no not at all, but that bitchwhore Julie got pregnant after prom night.

Posted by: The Harbour Master @ 1841