The first day he shows up, Boss looks like he wandered in from People’s Park. It’s okay: we don’t deal with the public, but Jesus, it’s your first day on the job. Maybe wash your jeans or something.
He immediately rearranges the office so as to minimize its functionality—including turning his desk to face mine. Foolishly, I decide to let this slide in the interest of establishing rapport; I reason that it will be fine as long as Boss doesn’t turn out to be a prick.
A deceptively un-pricklike gesture: he hands me a letter opener with a quarter taped to its back, and tells me the Chinese do this when giving each other something sharp (No one involved, by the way—the quarter included—is Chinese). Keep an eye on this object, coin piggybacking on a blade. It will make an appearance again, you’ll see, as a weird little weapon of justice, a foreshadowy, lackluster back-to-bite-you-in-the-ass.
His ineptness becomes increasingly clear. I constantly have to argue with him about whether we’re going to meet deadlines. This isn’t like me; I tend to take my time. I also tend to take the path of least resistance. But look: This is a magazine we work for. It’s an industry that uses time-based words like periodical and quarterly. People are expecting their magazine during the month that’s printed on its cover.
Rather than subscriptions, though—which are a sort of contract, and a shitty one to break, nothing being sadder than a lack of mail—rather than subscriptions, Boss wants Lists.
And so my job description shifts to include spending hours on end generating Boss’s Lists. Boss means BUSINESS. He may be one big hippie mess, but he sees some numbers out there beyond the ether, and those numbers WILL become subordinate once they attach themselves to Lists. Despite the fact that the magazine is nonprofit, we are out to make some money.
Lists, he tells me, I need more Lists.
Boss proceeds to take over payroll, and tells me my check will be ready on the evening of the 1st. Special trip in at 7 pm, only to open the drawer and see no check. Where is it? I email him, having spent my last four dollars on train fare.
Now it’s the 2nd. Where is it? I email again, and call him, my bank account overdrawn. It’s there now, he writes without apology. Another special trip and yes, there it is, finally, and now it hits me that this uncashed check won’t pay for my train ride home. I rummage around in the bookkeeper’s drawer for some nickels, do an under-the-furniture scan. I’m almost there, I think, clenching the coins in my fist. All I need is one more quarter.
I think you can guess the rest. Why does this feel like a victory, though, the loosening of the coin from the blade? I’ve just left my pride under the desk where I scrounged for spare change.
Things are deteriorating rapidly. No magazines mailed, no renewal notices sent, no letters thanking donors. An unnecessary printer has landed in the middle of my workstation. My inbox now perpetually contains the same two items: a useless highlighter and a tub of gummy bears (I don’t ask). People call to complain about not receiving their magazines. The traces of tape on the letter opener turn yellow, then darken with grime: abandoned hope. Boss, who has always behaved as if on a sinking ship, increases his demands for Lists. Lists are his white whale.
Rather than Lists, I work on my opus: that collection of incident reports that need to be worded just right. This is creative writing. I’m not exactly making things up, but as with fiction, it’s important to know which details to include. Bring to the surface the worst of his offenses, leave out the ones that are simply my own overblown pet peeves. Pour my heart and soul into this, because this is Important. At last—as sad as it may be—at last, I’m writing something that will make or break whether I can pay my rent. So this is what it feels like when people get paid to write.
And my readers? A personnel board, unfortunately: a meeting of easily flattered egos. In my literary frenzy, I forget the importance of sucking up. This is how Boss got where he is: servile lies and bland reassurances. I’ve seen him at work on the phone. A propagandist, not a writer.
Resulting in MY termination.
Of course. Suck-ups are always bestsellers.
Wield that letter opener, I guess, and be grateful for small, pointless victories.