This morning I discovered a mystery involving the swivel chair in my cubicle on the twenty-fifth floor of the spiral tower downtown. When I lifted my legs off the floor, the chair began to turn. I assumed it would come to a stop once it found its proper resting position. It did not. Slowly it turned one full rotation, two, three, and on. I couldn’t understand how this was possible. It was as if the building sat on a giant spinning top. I knew the structure was built to sway a few feet in high winds and it had been stormy for days, but that wasn’t enough to justify this phenomenon. I wondered if the winds sailing between the surrounding architecture could clash in such a way that they caught our tower in an invisible tornado just strong enough to tilt it in subtle circles. I sat with my feet suspended for twenty minutes and the chair’s momentum did not falter.
My investigation ended only because the sales lead called an emergency meeting. We all huddled around the two armchairs constituting our lounge by the glass wall overlooking the bay. Down below, depressed tour guides stood by their schooners, scanning the empty streets. They carried bundles of raincoats, as if that was all it would take to convince tourists to chance the weather.
The sales lead handed out a laminated glossary of terms to use during pitches. The first word on the list was “Drain Cancer: A rusty drain.” At the bottom of the list was “Burlesque Artist: You, a valued member of the sales team! (Not for use during pitches.)”
We’d all heard the sales lead refer to us as little burlesque artists before. He said our pitches should be like a striptease. Make them lust for more information. When we finally get to the hard sell, “It’s a lap dance. Their arousal will overtake their senses and they’ll be stuffing cash in your G-string before they know it.” I wrote that quote down and pinned it to my cubicle wall months ago, seconds after it escaped the sales lead’s mouth. He noticed it one day and gave me a look that seemed to say he knew I fantasized about murdering him.
The truth is, I don’t think Thadeus really knows what burlesque is. Burlesque artists don’t give lap dances—at least they haven’t in any of the videos I’ve seen online, and I’ve seen them all. Their performances reveal an intricate craftsmanship. Others may pay no attention to the multi-layered costume design, use of homemade props, and impeccable musical timing, but I do. It’s more than a job for these girls. They spend a lot of time on choreography and you can tell. It isn’t easy to pull off stockings while hula hooping on a rocking horse and still look sexy. But these ladies pull it off. They pull everything off, yet always leave a little mystery, by way of thong and tasseled pasties.
There’s an innocence about it and an air of sophistication. Above all else, the girls glow with self-worth. They love it. You can’t be sure with a regular stripper. Maybe some love it but others are desperate for cash or have a history of abuse. Burlesque artists are all journey and no destination; they scintillate but withhold climax. Their audience is respectful, cheering for everyone, and there’s an even split of men and women attending. It’s all good fun. It’s naughty wink-wink, nothing dirty about it.
All of that tickles me just right. I look at the old wooden cuckoo clock above my apartment computer monitor to check how much time I wasted. I moan for the second time in thirty seconds. My pruned right hand begs the question: Would a predatory extraterrestrial grocery store sell pruned human fingers and would they have a special name of their own, similar to how pruned grapes are called raisins and dried plums, prunes? A more pertinent question: What effect might a lifetime of extra moisture do to my one hand? Will I be an eighty-year-old with a forty-year-old looking hand? Maybe. My retired father’s right hand is extra leathery from sun exposure due to a lifetime of golfing with a single glove.
I can’t help but wonder whether washing this filth in my sink every day will give it drain cancer. And as the sperm swirl, by some miracle I just now have my first suicidal thought of the day. I’ll never kill myself, I’m sure of it, but I can’t stop thinking about it. MyTherapist calls them intrusive thoughts. Says a lot of people have them. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing. MyTherapist is an online forum. It’s exciting because I’m never sure whether I’m talking to an actual PhD or an eleven-year-old.
One user once told me, “Intrusive thoughts are caused by childhood trauma like your auntie sucking on your wiener when you were a baby. Your brain remembers everything, even if you’re not conscious of it. Your brain remembers being in the womb. If your mother watched perverted porn while you were in the womb, you heard it and it might be affecting your adult life. You could be a psychopath. Do you have any weird fetishes?” I was pretty sure that wasn’t a PhD, but based on the general articulation I’d say older than eleven.
The next day at work I notice the laminated glossary has replaced my quote note. My quote note is nowhere in sight. I miss my quote note. Thadeus and his Hitler Youth hairdo stand by the water cooler, shaking hands with everyone as they come in and take the slickers off their shoes. There’s this website where people post pictures of “punchable faces.” I think it’s a horrible thing to do, post pictures of people online and ridicule them. I’d never participate. But that site comes to mind every time I see Thadeus.
Despite my disgruntled disposition, I decide to give the laminated glossary a try during my first pitch of the day. After all, they monitor our calls.
The leads I’m given for the morning all belong to ladies living in a condominium for those entering their golden years. They aren’t bad leads; old ladies are easy to swindle as long as you’re comfortable with the vortex of guilt eating at your soul. I tell my first victim what a lovely voice she has despite being of such an advanced age. She’s flattered. I tell her that the pipe under her sink is a lot like an esophagus, “and if you don’t take care of it, it’ll start to sound awful, like that of an old smoker. In fact, we in the industry call pipes that sound like that tobacco pipes. Won’t be long before it’s got drain cancer. But with Drain Solutions, your sink will sing like a pied piper.”
Her silence is telling. I’ve failed. It occurs to me that if she had a loved one past or present suffer from brain cancer, she might be offended by the bad pun. Ever the optimist, I assume it is the phoniness in my delivery that quieted her. I’ve had plenty of bad calls before, hundreds of them. This is different somehow. Humiliating. I stare at the laminated glossary with the hatred of a thousand abandoned grannies left to die and willing to put up with scheming salesmen just to have somebody to talk to. I realize Thadeus can’t take my quote note away, not really. I say, “Don’t go just yet. This is the best part. We call this part the lap dance. You see, I’m a burlesque artist and when I’m done here, you’ll be shoving cash up my ass.” I expect her to hang up before I finish the line but she doesn’t, just more shocked silence. Not much of an improvisationalist, I end the call myself. Anything I said after that would’ve been a disappointment.
I’m so high off my rebellion I feel like I can do anything. Bad at improv? I just need a few classes. I write it down on a sticky note. “Take improv class.” Somehow writing it down makes me feel as if I’m better at it already. I want to write more tasks down on my all-empowering sticky note but the rush is fading and I stop caring and go back to trying to pinpoint the moment I became a centrifuge of bitterness. I can’t figure it out, but I can at least remember the moment I realized I had changed. I was eating a torta in my car on my lunch break. I had bought it from a small restaurant across the street that was going out of business. From my car I could see a child’s birthday party behind the business, I assumed for the owner’s kid. They were playing “pin the tail on the donkey.” A woman blindfolded a little girl and spun her around and around. It made me mad. I wanted to push the woman back, strip away the blindfold, and let the girl see what the hell she was doing.
I can’t remember the name of the theory, the one that says at some point as a ship’s parts are switched out it’s no longer the same ship. Ship of Thadeus? Oh god I hope not. I realized on that lunch break watching the birthday party from my car that the changes to my ship had left me nothing like I was. I can’t pinpoint one critical moment because it happened piece by piece. That’s what the philosophy department head at my alma mater would’ve said. She was a wise woman. But I think she’s wrong about this. Despite a lack of evidence, I can’t shake the feeling there must be a single moment in my life where everything went wrong, like a whirlpool sucked the whole damn ship down to the bellows of the sea.
As my thoughts return to work a creeping nervousness fills my cubicle. I assure myself they don’t monitor all the calls. They can’t, wouldn’t be efficient. But I have no way of knowing if they’d heard my outburst or not. My time at work now feels like Schrödinger’s ticking time bomb.
The way home is filled with radio warnings of the coming tropical storm. Cyclones are predicted and the bay is closing all sea traffic until the weather subsides.
My old wooden cuckoo clock is broken and the hands are spinning endlessly. When I first came home I thought my brain’s temporal interpreter was malfunctioning and I was now going to have to live the rest of my life in time-lapse mode. I suddenly became aware of how sore my legs were, as if I really had been standing there staring at the clock for seven hours. It wasn’t until I sat down on my couch, held my hand to my chest, and felt a regular heart beat that I realized it was the cuckoo clock that was broken and not I. The soreness of my legs could be blamed on the inordinate amount of time I spent at work with them suspended in the air during my swivel chair experiments.
MyTherapist says I should stop watching so many burlesque videos and get into a real relationship. I type, “You have the order all wrong. It’s because I don’t have a real relationship that I watch these videos.” Instead of pressing “send,” I delete what I typed and close the page. There’s no point in arguing with these Internet people. It’ll drive you nuts.
The day of the big storm we get an email saying we aren’t obligated to come into work since our office is right by the bay and within the cyclone advisory radius. I’m one of few who show up. Fearing a power outage during an elevator ride, I take the twisting stairs the twenty-five floors up. The office is the most relaxing it’s ever been. I listen to the rain smack the windows while my chair turns and turns undisturbed. Thadeus, the deus, the douche, the god of drain, ends my good time by leaning against my cubicle with a smirk that fills me with the kind of dark intrusive thoughts that make you question your pregnant mother’s pornographic viewing habits.
“The boss wants to see you.” His eyes flicker over the laminated glossary on my cubicle wall. “I heard you’ve been using them. The terms.”
In the boss’s office sits a woman with extremely small eyes. She wears a suit and holds a briefcase in her lap with her hands over the locks as if she might open it at any moment and unleash a dozen spring-loaded prank snakes. I always wondered if those things could poke your eye out so I squint just in case. I’m not sure my thinner-than-average eyelids are protection enough but I don’t want to shield my eyes with my hands and look ridiculous.
The woman tells me she represents the estate of Mrs. Harrelson, who passed away recently. Her will stated that all those present at her death receive a fraction of her inheritance. She died with her phone in her hand and her last call was from Drain Solutions.
“The family is devastated that they weren’t there at the end of Mrs. Harrelson’s life, but they aren’t contesting the will. No need to look suspicious; I have a written statement from the family if you’d like to see it.” I’m not suspicious, just still squinting from the potential snake attack.
I get the impression Mrs. Harrelson and her descendants are beyond wealthy. The fraction that is to be awarded me, the sole person there at the time of death, is one hundred fifty thousand dollars. It doesn’t quite sink in when she tells me.
She turns to my boss and says, “You must have the call archived, correct? The family would like to have a copy of her final moments.”
My boss says, “We archive about five percent of the calls for quality assurance purposes, but we don’t have the facilities to record them all and I apologize, the call to Mrs. Harrelson wasn’t saved.”
She frowns, pulls out a voice recorder and points it at me. “Could you at least tell me, more or less, how the conversation went?”
She presses record. I can’t think of anything to say. One image dominates my mind’s attention: the sticky note on my desk that reads, “Take improv class.” Haunting. I should follow my impulses more often.
I look to my boss for help. I know right away he’s suppressing an urge to laugh. He knows. He’s heard the call. He lied to this woman’s face, and all for me. I almost tear up. A boss who cares for his employees. If only we’d known. Hell, I am tearing up.
“It’s all right,” says the woman. “I understand if it’s difficult for you. You just found out. We can do this another time.”
“No, no. I’ll do it. It’s just, well it wasn’t much different from my other calls. I was giving a sales pitch. Mrs. Harrelson was very kind. I told her she had a lovely voice and I meant it. She was curious and asked questions. I don’t think she cared about our product but she enjoyed the conversation anyhow. At the end I said something and she didn’t respond. I thought the signal was bad. Happens all the time of course. So I disconnected. I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
A few formalities later the woman drops this bombshell: “Now that it’s all settled, the money should be wired to Drain Solutions by the end of the month.” When she sees my face she adds, “Oh no, I’m sorry, was there a confusion? Because you were working here at the time, the family finds it appropriate to give the money to the company. The Harrelsons are longtime supporters of small businesses. And after all, anybody here might’ve made that call, but only because they worked here.”
It’s clear she’s uncomfortable now and eager to leave. She mumbles a few things to my boss and hurries out of the room. My boss levels with me.
“Look, she’s right. Anybody could’ve had that lead. You were given the lucky ticket but it doesn’t mean you deserve that money. Remember, it’s the company’s lead.” He goes on and on and the words swim around the Jacuzzi in my head. He says he promises me a year-end bonus. I ask how much. One thousand bucks. I feel powerless. But then he says, “If you think about it, Thadeus distributed the leads, so it’s to him you owe that thousand-dollar bonus. You should thank him.”
Contrary to popular moral belief, hate, known for inspiring destruction, can be a strangely creative force. I feel dizzy, but I’ve got the donkey’s tail in my hand and if I pin it just right, my whole life could change.
“Ha. You think they’d believe you?” But he knows they would. You can see it in his face.
“I need more than a thousand dollars. I need half.”
We barter. I end up with 10K and unemployment. I’m so hyped on my success that my spatial awareness is impaired and I walk out the building and directly into a cyclone coming off the bay. I plant my feet and hold my balance. I know that cyclones can’t survive long on land so I’m not too worried, but it’s strong enough to spin me in circles and that’s what it does.
I close my eyes and envision my future despite the force of nature. I’m going to open a swaggy bar with live burlesque every night. The regulars will call me Soft Hand Bill. I’ll sit in the balcony booth in the back and waste the time away. In five years I’ll write the douche Thadeus a letter on the back of a review for my bar reading, “You were right, I am a burlesque artist.” MyFinancialAdvisor said 10K isn’t nearly enough to cover the costs of opening a bar, but that’s probably coming from an eleven-year-old. I’m going to turn my life around, as soon as I stop spinning.
Rumpus original art by A.D. Puchalski.