Joyland

The Midwest |

Slowly Fading Out

by Edmund Zagorin

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

Wake up and don’t fall back asleep. Wake up and thank the noise which sounds like a submarine in trouble. Make your lunch and put it in the brown bag. Thought you’d be done with the brown bags after grade school? Think again. You’ve gotten too comfortable. You lack discipline. And the only remedy for this sorry state, this collection of bad habits now called Your Life is to undo the encouraging judgment of Dad and the principal and even that worthless guidance counselor who spoiled you utterly with cooing cough-drop-scented aspirations of World = Oysterism and never telling you that you were soft and lacked even the barest prospects of professional success. It’s all a big joke, a shaggy dog story whose repetitive punch line has brought you to this morning, to every morning, waking up to a blaring S.O.S. noise in order to put that sense of urgency back in you, to give you a wandering itch that never stays still enough to scratch.

Stand in the shower and feel wet. Let that sublime feeling of wetness swell over and consume you. Remember when you were destined for greatness? You used to dream of standing behind the microphone in smoky cafés surrounded by the sunglasses of everyone important, basking in applause. And now here you are, and you’re having genuine trouble selling an old lady a landline.

The office smells like mildew beneath the cover of over-sprayed Febreze. Behind the reception desk a fire-cheeked Gertrude rolls her eyes into the telephone receiver and rearranges her collection of tiny plastic animals playing horn instruments into a small but aggressive phalanx. Gertrude has long nail extensions with neon Hello Kitty stickums, and every one of her clerical accessories has a pink tassel. The word “secretary” contains the word “secret,” and you think: what secrets does Gertrude contain? Imagine yourself cradled in her pudgy embrace and getting your back scratched to hell by those nail extensions. Hear her moan some mindless coital platitude, breathy and watermelon-scented in the shape of those pouty magenta lips.

Gertrude titters over the phone, transfers another call to Solutioneering, which is your office’s specially designed new buzzword for telesales. Solutioneering, you remember, has recently appeared in some hideous variations of Copperplate Gothic on a dozen vinyl table skirts now piled up in the supply closet with menacing portents of future use. The little lobby in front of Gertrude’s desk is tense and hushed with fresh-faced young women in tightly buttoned cotton blouses and a few boys wearing their daddy’s hand-me-down suits. Walk by without making eye contact. Hope none of them notice the week-old mustard stain on your lapel.

Back in the Staging Room the whiteboard is covered with sales numbers from Kevin and Angie who are busily marking jagged exclamation-points around the Daily Team Superstar Goals for Kickassery. Nod at Kevin and notice when he doesn’t nod back. Read the Internet on your phone and pretend no one is judging you. Aziz strolls into the lobby, eyes the seated newbies and swaggers just a little. The newbies are looking at the floor, too scared about not getting this job to notice the bravado. Aziz enters the Staging Room and sidles up to where you’re leaning against the bookshelf of motivational texts on time management and personal improvement to give you a bro-ish shoulder punch. Hey buddy, he nods. Hey buddy, you nod back. Watch newbies blinking with under-caffeination. None of them ever realized that work (read: the majority of hours left in their lives) would be this boring.

Kevin circles a column of sales numbers. Numbers are columned by nickname, K-Rizzle, Doober, ZeeZ, Lady-A, Mare-Bear. Yours are low this week, Doober. You are not Making Us Proud. Angie calls you a Dewberry, and Kevin and Buck and Candi giggle. Even Aziz laughs a little, nervously. Feel small and oddly ashamed, as if you have failed something bigger than a sales goal. Realize that you should be way more thick-skinned after all this time when some part of you still dies a tiny bit, even though you do not know what a dewberry is or why it is funny that you are one. It’s how Angie said it that matters, like she could have said something way worse, and you wouldn’t have been able to come back. Maybe you need a better sense of humor. Maybe that’s the problem.

Sit down at the conference table with the other “Associates,” talk about the weekend in vague terms that mirror in almost exact replica the banter of the previous Monday. And the Monday before that. Talk about the Territory Idiots in other campaigns, the ones who had caused some old lady to call the police for trespassing, or what about these other T.I.s who were dressed like Jehovah’s Witnesses out in West Detroit. Compare Territories, repeatedly let slip that you got shafted, stuck with a dry well while the others feign sympathy. It’s OK, Merry says. She’s a quiet one, like you. Maybe she even means it today, that it’s OK your numbers are bad. You’ll get one this afternoon, she says, I’m sure you will. She gives you a smile.

Smoke with the other Associates in the parking lot. Stare up at the glass window of the third floor conference room where Aziz and Merry are giving the newbies their training. Teaching the vocab. Practicing conversations as if we speak English too well and need to learn how to become more lifeless, less caring. Talk about the weather. Candi makes eyes at Buck, says, “See you at lunch.” One by one the other Associates drop their cigarettes, stroll off to their cars. Toss your butt at the screw tail of a broken light bulb and gun the engine down I-75.

Back in the Territory, two old mechanics don’t trust the Internet. They like rotary phones, they say. Just switch ’em over, you say, trying to match their accents. Why not? Save some cash, you say. They close the door in your face, nearly bust up your nose. How many noses have been flattened by a sale gone sour? Maybe the Territory is rotten after all, just like you’d said before Merry said, “It’s OK.” The brown bag lies crumpled in a wad on your passenger seat floor mat, its contents wolfed down hours ago. Feel your stomach rumble uselessly. Pull over and think, try to figure out how you fucked up, not just last sale but the last seventeen consecutive ones before that one. See the sun twisting sadly through the branches of a white oak leaning across your windshield and drum your fingers where the light hits the dashboard, barely noticing as the radio ad man shrieks, “...Like Never Before!”

Editor's Note: This story is part of Joyland's Michigan stories series. Come back throughout April for more Michigan stories.