Men at Work

Men at Work

Van, an obstetrician

Eventually, new nurses and interns broach the subject of starting respiration with the father’s breath, not my slap on the bottom. “Yes,” I always say, “and fill the child’s lungs with cold or flu viruses the father didn’t know he was incubating.” That ends the discussion.

There is another reason I don’t mention. Call me a cynic, but I think it’s a disservice to the newborn to let them think the world is going to be gentle with them.

Ike, a jeweler

You don’t sell anything, letting it sit in the display case. When a customer looks at a piece like he really wants it, I get it right out.

I designed the lighting in here. I know how to hold any cut—brilliant, Princess, emerald, whatever—so it sparkles where the customer’s standing. I rock it slowly, and the light plays in their eyes. I use the soft words: pledge of your love, once in a lifetime, everlasting tribute.

And, most of the time, it works. I get them into a trance, and they follow the suggestion to open their wallets. You know, I should have been a hypnotist, only it doesn’t pay as well.

André, a chef

The man was a tyrant, a Nazi. He came into my kitchen, telling me he wanted healthy dishes, no trans fats. I told him, I cannot make cassoulet without goose fat, I cannot make sauce hollandaise without butter and egg yolks. Then I quit. There are other positions for me, with owners who will not take the classic dishes off the menu or change them into something they don’t resemble.

Food is art. Those who want to erase the memory of great dishes, for any reason whatsoever, are like the Nazis who burned classic literature to improve the minds of the Master Race.

Tappy, a women’s apparel salesman

It’s not a dream job. The gals who come into the store think I can make it look like they’re on a runway. Most of them have downright ugly chassis, and no cut or color scheme is gonna hide that.

Mink and Dora both tell me my sex drive’s fallen off. I can’t help that. Like they say, the best way to kill interest in a hobby is to make it your career.

Lon, an actuary

My work is winding down. Angie and I are discussing things like IRAs and retirement communities. Whatever we decide, we’ll bear in mind two meticulously researched sheets of paper in my drawer: his-and-hers charts with his-and-hers bell curves.

Jack, an office supervisor

I’ll let my desk prism speak for me: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, and None of It Is Small Stuff.

Levi, a library volunteer

It took me a long time to figure out why I picked this place to fill my otherwise unstructured widower existence. It’s so quiet in here, just like being in church. Of course, this house has ceilings only twelve feet high; it was built to honor something other than God.

Imamu, a public defender

I knew he robbed her because he told me so. I also knew the DA’s office had a weak case: no physical evidence, only one witness apart from the old lady. This time I decided, don’t bargain it down, duke it out. It was a smart move. When the second jury hung, that was it—only a windfall of new evidence would make the DA go for a third trial.

People ask why I defend people I know are guilty. I could make an idealistic speech about justice being best served by a presentation of arguments pro and con, not a system where the accused can’t trust even his own lawyer with the truth. The thing is, these people have already made up their minds, so I flip them off: “Even the devil has to have an advocate.”

Brendan, a secretary

The crash was two years ago. Now I’m the best sec I know how to be. My typing speed is 224, I learned every kind of business software there is, my Gregg is fast enough to keep up with an auctioneer. And I don’t make such a difference to the sec pool; there still isn’t a functional dick in it, anywhere. I got a special desk to fit my wheelchair, and I’m gonna do my level best at women’s work, the only work I’m good for.

Wallace, a civil servant

What they said would happen didn’t.

I’m seven months from pulling the pin. I’m not in line for promotion before then, and dismissal takes a full year, so my pension is safe no matter what I do. When I started work, people said I’d lose my commitment over time; when I got close to the finish line, I wouldn’t give a damn about my work results.

I wish they were still around so they could see how wrong they were. I’m still first to arrive at the office. When one of my duties was buying supplies, any personals bought the same trip were kept separate; I paid for my own coffee and postage stamps. I don’t shuffle anyone to another department if we can help them here. Yesterday a woman came in and said she’d bought part of an old industrial site that had been rezoned—she wanted to know if it was safe to install a well and kitchen garden. It would have taken her days to root up all the land use records, so I did it that afternoon and mailed her copies with a summary. The chief got hot about it, but CYA doesn’t mean a thing to me now.

In seven months, I’ll get a plaque praising my service for umpty-ump years. Everyone does when they retire, and I guess most of those plaques go into a closet. Mine is going on the living room wall…to me, it means something.

Miyah, a navigator

Maybe I should have been born earlier. Every day, I pass the watch looking at monitors with nice, crisp imaging. The GPS shows the ship’s exact location. The Doppler shows weather fronts hundreds of miles off. I get wind and current readings accurate to one degree of angle and a tenth of a knot. I know about shallows and surface obstructions way long before I have to. ETA, adjusted for fifty things, comes up with one push of a button. I never have to leave the navigation room while I’m on duty; I might as well be in a cave.

At night, in my bunk, I wonder what it was like before helming a ship got almost foolproof, when you had to stand on an open bridge with a compass and paper maps, watching the sky, tasting the air, looking for little things that don’t mean squat to a landlubber. We lost that: the uncertainty, the fear, delicious fear of an element our race evolved away from and forgot.

Wade, a mason

I like stone, any kind. I like brick. I don’t like artificial stone. It’s wrong—a brick that’s ashamed of itself, pretending to be something it isn’t.

Mr. Phipps knew what he wanted, exactly what, and I put a three-foot wainscot on his house, two kinds of artificial stone. I got it on time and under budget. It looks tidy as you please, and Mr. Phipps was real happy. I’m not; the stones still look ashamed. But I’ve never tried to talk a client out of a job his heart is set on. The shame doesn’t rub off.

Godfrey, a high school history teacher

Most of my colleagues—especially the ones who’ve been teaching as long as I—say I shouldn’t get worked up over the students who aren’t trying. I disagree. I’ve learned two very important things in my discipline. First, a nation that stops trying to excel is left behind. The second thing runs counter to the Emersonian principle that history is only biography. The success of an idea or a nation relies mainly on people that history does not record: people like me.

Allan, an investment banker

I have to be honest with myself—I’m gambling with my clients’ money. Yes, I know what I’m doing and the odds are in my favor, just as they favor the dealer in a casino. But that’s where the comparison ends; if the dealer loses, the casino has millions more to put up.

Jerry, a polling place worker

The precinct I got was a battleground, and I mean that literally. We’re right across the street from the campus. The governor announced education cuts the day before the election, and don’t think the reaction was a mild one.

My eyes stung all day from the residuum of Monday’s tear gas. We had to bar a dozen people for wearing clothes with electioneering statements, also some underage freshmen who tried to vote. If voting had lasted ten more minutes, the ballots would have run out, and we’d have had our own mini-riot inside the polling place.

Civic spirit makes me put in twelve-hour days twice every two years, for less than minimum wage, to support our democracy. And I say, what this country needs is a little more apathy.

Hooter, a recycler

Now they’re wadded-up bales fresh from the compactor. Later they’ll be new, shining bottles and cans. They’re sour-smelling right now, like the inside of a garbage truck. But what have you got to start with, before new grass turns into a cow’s meat and milk? A rotting corpse must smell a lot worse.

Cal, a convenience store clerk

It’s the sight I hate: a flashing light on my answering machine. I just got home from graveyard, and the manager’s message is to show up for night shift.

The worst thing about working on-call isn’t missing dates and not knowing when I can sleep. For me, it’s not having a dog. Dogs are creatures of habit. They have to eat a certain time, likewise for walking. If you’re in and out at different times and there’s no one else at home, they can get separation anxiety and tear the place apart. Carnosaur did that, and I had to give him away.

All animals are like that, really. They wake with the sun, or go to sleep if they’re nocturnal. They shed in the summer and hibernate in the winter. At Circle K, I get people who want hot dogs at two AM and Icees when there’s an ice storm outside. It’s taught me—man isn’t the animal that makes tools, he’s the animal that forgot the rhythms of nature.

Reed, a psychologist

Mr. Foote was starting his seventh session, and it looked like he’d end up in the L column. “Good morning,” he said with a guarded expression, and sat down. He’s ugly, and not with a simple deformity that surgery can make right. His skin is bumpy and pockmarked, his mouth looks like a scar left by a battle axe, the two sides of his face don’t honor the law of bilateral symmetry. After thirty-two years of coping by himself, he decided to see a self-esteem counselor—me.

“So, did you go out since our last session?”

“Well, I went to…I don’t remember the name. It’s that dance hall on Twenty-Fourth Street.”

Last time I recommended he try going out with women, because there must be single women who would judge him on more than his appearance. It took almost as much courage for me to suggest as it did for him to act on. Of the six women he asked for a dance, five turned him down flat, and the one who accepted seemed tense, obviously eager for another partner. The account was filtered through Mr. Foote’s defeatist perception, but I didn’t doubt a word of it. The pining divorcées and self-doubting careerists I counseled in the past were easy by comparison. I’d already used up the usual strategies for ugliness therapy. I ticked off lists of ugly people, from Abe Lincoln and J. P. Morgan on down, who accomplished great things. Mr. Foote has a dead-end job as a clerical home worker, and other people’s success stories only depressed him. And just now I failed with the beauty-is-skin-deep ploy.

“Mr. Foote, no one’s scheduled for the next time slot. Do you mind staying later? I won’t charge you extra.”

“Staying…for what?”

I reached into my desk for a stack of color reproductions, and reeled off a long lecture on the subjectivity of beauty. I had to go for broke here. I showed him Cubist nudes by Picasso, fat nudes by Rubens, and swan-necked Madonnas by the Mannerists. Mr. Foote once said he liked science fiction, so I tossed in the Borg Queen and some brass-brassiered Amazons on pulp magazine covers. The point was that every society and subculture interprets beauty differently, therefore there’s no such thing as objective beauty or ugliness, therefore Mr. Foote looked no better or worse than any other person. He took in all without visible reaction and politely took his leave.

I thought, I can’t keep taking his money, maybe another counselor will do him some good. I looked out my window at Mr. Foote as he walked down the street, expecting never to see him again. There was a full-length mirror in a store window, and he paused, just a second, for an unmistakable look of self-admiration.

Forget the L, make that a W!

Collin, a grocer

Our helpful customers never cease to amaze me. Every night after closing, we find frozen fish in the magazine rack, toilet paper in the egg case, ink cartridges in the citrus bin. I don’t know what these pinheads do for a living; I hope none of them is responsible for my taxes.

Chad, a real estate appraiser

The ink on my AARP card isn’t dry and I’m quitting. I have to; I don’t want to be sued. There’s never been a market like this, ever. Comps and book values help only so far. The fact is, I’m no longer sure what a house is worth in most neighborhoods, and fifteen per cent off is the malpractice threshold.

Our new two-bedroom is next door to a retired surgeon. At the housewarming, he said he’d gotten out before he wanted to. He noticed his hands were getting a little less steady: “There are too many people looking for somebody with deep pockets.” Now we’re both invisible, Doc.

Eugene, a mortician

I’ve done it long enough to notice a trend: there aren’t as many people who want an open casket with the usual cosmetics. Mostly it’s closed casket now, or a ceremony with the remains elsewhere, or no ceremony at all.

There are these shows about stars getting plastic surgery, and you might think we’re getting vainer, more determined to fight off Father Time any way we can. But at the very end, more people are saying, not at my funeral, don’t doll me up, I don’t want people to see me at all. Maybe we’re getting more accustomed to the idea a funeral isn’t a final bow because you’re already dead and that’s all, it’s over.

I don’t think I want to know why that makes me so sad.

Read more about Robert here.

Read more about Marcin here


  1. X.C. Atkins says:

    This kicked ass.

  2. jabrego says:

    So so excellent.

Leave a Reply