6.03 / March 2011

Contemptibly, A Hair

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Contemptibly, a hair – a hair not sprouted from Stan Manley’s own largish pores-floats there, follicle and all, atop the khaki-colored surface of his steaming cup of generic white-label coffee, flavored artificially with the powdered variety of non-dairy-hazelnut creamer, the kind that tends to clump together when introduced to a liquid, rather than dissolve completely since creamer and powder seem like, for all intents and purposes, two mutually exclusive things.

However, taking the office-brewed coffee black is simply not an option.  The powdered non-dairy hazelnut creamer, so goes the theory, serves to allay the inescapable bitterness that seems ever-present in the office’s blackened second pot of the morning, a pot almost always brewed by either Madeline Van Lancaster, The Agency’s Senior Director of Human Resources, or Kathy Adkins, Madeline’s personal-slash-personnel assistant, both of whom, Kathy and Madeline, attempt to cut cost and save-even shave-time from the overall process of drip coffee preparation by simply adding fresh (loosely-termed) generic grounds to the old (literally-termed) generic grounds, thereby reusing both a coffee filter and the previously-brewed generic grounds to make a “fresh” (see above) pot that is both 1.5 times stronger and manages to be somehow twice as bitter than an average pot of coffee brewed to- and under- normal human standards and conditions, respectively.

The resultant mixture is something more akin to a steaming batch of sub-nuclear swill-a batch in the sense that the mouthfeel and texture of the second pot has an uncanny, almost chewy quality to it, somewhat reminiscent of soupy Malt-O-Meal®-a tactile sensation not entirely unlike the full-bodied mouthfeel of an unfiltered Belgian wheat ale when compared side-by-side to that of its much lighter Pilsner counterpart, though the batch of Van Lancaster/Adkins-brewed mahogany swill is indisputably less satisfying and far, far more stomach churning.

So then anyway, there was the hair-ah, yes, the hair-wavy and intractable, backstroking and pirouetting to and fro in the pseudo-milky stratum of Stan’s nigh-unpalatable imitation coffee drink, a happenstance that just about serves as the solitary straw that breaks Stan’s proverbial camel’s back, proving enough to send him right over the Postal-type edge since, by god!, he has to drink this shit every morning, just so he doesn’t fall asleep right where he sits at his fucking too-low desk under the sickly flickering of the fluorescent lights above his head-lights that flicker even when the bulb is brand new, just out of the plastic shrink wrap-Stan himself, this morning, feeling utterly exhausted from working extra late the past three nights in a row; working until the clock invariably ticked over to the half dozen hours predicated with an A.M., updating The Spreadsheet, the infernal spreadsheet that documents incoming referrals to The Agency and the ratio of units worked versus units remaining[1] that thus correspond to each referral’s specific case and client, etc.

Stan Manley [2] is The Agency’s overworked and underpaid IT and data entry specialist, working double the duties for single the pay, both of which are causing a collective strain at home with Stan’s wife Anna. Why is he coming home so late? Why is he not getting paid overtime?  Never-mind that Stan agreed to a slight-very slight-bump in pay when he agreed to work on salary just before the new State contract ultimately had him working hellish hours and seeing his family only on the weekends, ostensibly.

Ever since The Agency signed the new contract, Madeline Van Lancaster has demanded that The Spreadsheet receive consistent and rigorous updating since the new contract requires that all referrals must be renewed every 30 days, even the months with 31 and 28 days, a stipulation Stan has found only a tic mark or two shy of completely insane and unnecessary not to mention how the process wholly fuckers up the calendrical cycle of things; calindrical, a word Stan found himself compelled to invent to describe the fucker’dupness of the whole damn situation..

However, if a referral[3] from The State-Stan would say The Imperial State of the Evil Empire-specified there were to be 50 units provided and the Agencyy worked 57, then there would [thus] be seven units The Agency could not bill for, a scenario sure to send Madeline into paroxysmal conniptions.  And when you multiplied a number of un-billable units by the 400 cases The Agency worked at any one given time, it potentially added up to a veritable shit load of hours/units The Agency would then not get paid for.  So then, of course, it’d be Stan’s ass in the fryer if this scenario were to ever pan out-a scenario he consequently staves off every morning with the potted turbo-charged, snuff-colored draff-and really, the only thing he asks for in return is that the torrid liquid be free of contemptible, wanton hairs, with or without follicles, regardless of whether or not the hair in question came from the presumed to be divine scalp of his boss or her über-treasured assistant.

Is that too much to ask? Stan wonders. Fucking seriously!

Because Deity or not, it’s still disgusting…

Stan, daydreaming about his wife at home-how she’s probably right now fast asleep in their warm and inviting bed-briefly considers simply pouring the semi-viscous liquid out of his cup and starting over with whatever’s left in the pot, but before he can even think that quickly-it’s still quite early, given his ultimate, prevailing state of sleeplessness-Kathy Adkins swoops in, as only she is wont to do when moving about the office, and dumps the remainder of what’s left in the carafe into her thermos-sized mug before commencing-as the sign above the office’s 1980s Bunn coffee maker declares as a matter simply of both policy and etiquette-to make another pot, inspecting the Bunn’s grounds-receptacle and muttering something unintelligible to Stan in her syrupy-sweet voice that everyone except for Stan finds endearing-he finds it nails-on-chalkboard painful-while he merely stands to the side, mouth agape, still vexed by the wayward auburn hair still adrift in his own cup.

Finally, after determining the initial grounds were not yet satisfactorily vaporized, Kathy Adkins proceeds to layer in an additional scoop of “fresh” generic white label coffee grounds atop the already twice-used grounds that are now giving off an aroma, in Stan’s opinion, like utterly-rancid, burning horror.

Kathy then pours in the requisite 10 cups of water and leaves the Bunn to work its dark and mysterious alchemy while Stan mutely watches the preparation from the center of the break room.

In the time it’s taken the always-much-too-bubbly Kathy Adkins to swoop in and flit off from the break room-practically bounding away, like some magical cartoon nanny or jackelope-Stan hasn’t moved a muscle.  He isn’t even certain he’s taken a breath through the proceeding occurrence, though he’s seething underneath his guise of disaffection and authentic disbelief.  A new “fresh”-here, Stan even pictures air quotes around the word fresh-a “fresh” cup seems wholly intolerable at this point, especially now considering the reuse of the thrice-brewed original grounds.  This whole experience, Stan thinks, is an undisclosed social experiment in the-workplace-as-sadism.

Stan begins pondering the idea of dropping in a couple d-CON® or RATAK® pellets from under the The Agency’s office’s kitchen sink and merely watching on as the concoction’s bitterness masks the taste of the brodifacoum as either one, or both, of his oblivious tormentors keel the fuck over.  However, the potential collateral damage of accidentally poisoning one of his more or less likable colleagues dissolves his anarchistic reverie, as does the thought of spending any extended length of time in prison.  Stan is decidedly not built for prison.

His final option, he realizes, is to do what he’d initially hoped to avoid: submerge his clammy index finger into the chalky, clumpy sludge and fish out the foreign body, i.e. the wavy and intractable auburn hair he is unequivocally certain does not belong to him.  As his finger disturbs the surface of his drink, Stan is almost saddened to realize that any bit of warmth that once made his repulsive morning cup-of-productivity even the least bit palatable has completely dissipated, leaving a chilly and disheartening mug of infinite melancholy and disgust behind.

Now Stan is faced with no other contingency than to use the-on its best day-electrically-sketchy Daewoo[4] microwave, that, for whatever reason, smells permanently like SpaghettiOs® with a hint of unreserved shame and hopelessness, the insides of which having been thoroughly spattered with multiple layers of who-knows-what, and that no one has ever bothered to clean up, time and time again.

Stan mindlessly punches in 90 seconds and watches his cup rotate on the circular faux-glass platter in the center of the microwave.  The buzzer buzzes and he opens the door, which also dings when the latch is released, his drink now piping hot, almost too hot, almost impossible to handle with bare hands in fact.  He’s pretty sure the antiquated Daewoo operates with a slight electrical malfunction in that it seems to output more wattage than advertised on the side.  The lights in the office will often dim briefly when someone is nuking something, a clear testament to Stan’s extra-wattage hypothesis.

Both the microwave and the refrigerator are a vomitous shade of harvest gold-the inexplicable color du jour of 1980s infamy-and thus, for aesthetics’ sake, placed in an ill-advised part of the break room, at least as far as both usability and safety are concerned.  The microwave sits precariously atop the refrigerator, forcing shorter would-be users to stand on their tip-toes in order to heat their desired consumable, and the refrigerator itself sits behind the only door leading into or out of the Agency’s break room.  The other stipulation to using either the fridge or the microwave is that you have to close the break room door completely.

And so, just as Stan is removing his imitation-porcelain mug with an oven mitt and hot pad-regular standby items for users of the mostly unpredictable Daewoo-Kathy Adkins bursts through the break room door, slamming it into Stan’s back and propelling the whole of his body into the front of the refrigerator, which, of course, sends the newly-scalding contents of his mug splashing all down the front of him.

As if it all happens in slow motion, Stan’s stark white mug with the words Talk nerdy to me! screened on either side of the handle drops precipitously to the linoleum floor where it bounces once and then shatters in every conceivable three-dimensional direction against the steel broadside of the locking cabinet where management keeps the nice Chinet® disposable plates and red plastic Solo® cups.

Without a second’s hesitation, Stan lets out a terrifyingly visceral scream-a real bloodcurdler that would make Hollywood starlets from the Golden Years of Horror Pictures genuinely proud.  Stan is soaked with scalding dreck and the only thing he can think to do, at this very instant, is stop, drop and roll as if he were on fire.  Kathy begins screaming as well, more like shrilly screeching Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod! over and over before running pigeon-toed from the break room to the cubicle area and shouting unnecessarily for “someone” to call 911! (shouting unnecessarily since she, herself, was, in fact, already dialing 911 at a phone in an empty cubicle).

The entire present staff roster begins amassing in the break room-which, really, is not at all large enough to accommodate more than three people-while Stan writhes around on the floor, soaked to the skin with extra-burnt-smelling coffee, mopping up an entire layer of dust particulates off the floor in the process.  The floor underneath Stan, it turns out, is surprisingly quite a bit shinier than the matte finish that weeks of built-up dirt and grime have produced over the area Stan hasn’t managed to wriggle yet.

After a couple minutes, Stan realizes he’s on the floor and the pain of being severely, albeit only briefly, scalded begins to subside.  He looks up at the horrified faces of his coworkers, noticing them now for the first time just as he hears the unmistakable wail of paramedics’ sirens, followed immediately by the sound of heavy boots tramping down the hall toward the break room.  Despite his pleas and declarations that “he’ll be OK, he’ll be OK,” the firefighters and EMTs insist they take him to the hospital to “check out those burns” of his.

Soaked in coffee and now covered in a special kind of grime that seems to only accumulate in professional office settings, specifically the break rooms of professional office settings, Stan sits speechless on the gurney-utterly humiliated as his coworkers look on-the team of firefighters and EMTs wheel him out to the ambulance giving Stan what amounts to a mortifying ride of shame down the office’s hallway.

As they reach the door and Stan feels the cool air of the parking lot rush in, Kathy Adkins power walks her way up to the scene and asks, is there anything she or Madeline can do?, and flusteredly says that she and Madeline are both just so, so sorry this happened, and is he sure there isn’t anything he would like either herself or Madeline to do for him while he’s home recovering?

For the first time since being wheeled from the break room, an austere focus comes back into Stan’s eyes and he looks directly at Kathy and says, in a tone as matter-of-factly as he possibly can:

“Yes, Kathy,” he begins, steeling his resolve because he sees an opportunity here.  He sees a way out and a chance to right all of the wrongs done to him over the past three years that may as well have been a lifetime.  Finally, he has an opportunity to say what’s on his mind, what he’s so desperately wanted to say since The State contract with The Agency changed and he was left to the mercy of salary.  Yes, here was his opportunity, smiling in his face, beckoning him that he should only utter the words resting on the very tip of his tongue.  His thoughts can set him free. “Yes, in fact, there is something you can do for me.  You can go f-”

Before Stan can finish his sentence, the paramedics slam the ambulance doors shut and quickly motor away, sirens awail.

Kathy Adkins looks around at the other employees; everyone is speechless in the hush that has fallen over the crowd.  Madeline Van Lancaster finally emerges from the building and looks around at the thunderstruck group assembled just outside The Agency’s front door.

“So,” Madeline says after a minute, “was there anything he wanted us to do for him while he was home recovering?”

Kathy glances around to see if anyone heard what Stan’d said as he was being forcefully shoved into the back of the ambulance.  “I think so,” Kathy says, though mostly unsure.  “I think he wanted me to go and… find something, or maybe file something for him? Maybe?  I dunno.  But it’s sure chilly out here!  Isn’t it chilly, everyone?  Let’s all go back inside and I’ll brew a fresh pot of coffee for everyone!”

[1] Unit conversion is an equal 1:1 ratio, with respect to units-to-hours, where 1 unit equals 1 hour, etc.

[2] Stanley Anderson Manley, his initials, SAM, his full name, one given to him, he suspects, by his parents as an early example of tough love to, somehow, hopefully, prepare him for the harsh and cruel world that awaited him.

[3] An official government document authorizing The Agency to provide services to their clients.

[4] The company, itself, has been defunct since 1999.

Joseph Michael Owens is a 29-year old MFA student at the University of Nebraska, currently living in Omaha with his wife and five dogs. His work will appear in The Houston Literary Review, has appeared on The Rumpus, and in Grey Sparrow Journal, where he is also a regular contributor and editor. Additionally, his short story "We Always Trust Each Other, Except for When We Don't" was nominated for Dzanc Books' Best of the Web 2011 anthology. He also manages the website, Category Thirteen, dedicated primarily to the process of writing.
6.03 / March 2011