This is a short story I wrote on the train from Taipei to Kaohshiung back in early 2012. It’s about taking it.
By: Zachary Fillingham
A vast and human honeycomb stretches out before you. It is known as an ‘insurance floor.’ Nothing disturbs the symmetry of this finely divided professional roost, with the sole exception of a few forgotten holiday decorations that twirl and flutter in the air conditioning. This is the pinnacle of history, the final stage of a well-documented experiment in perfecting the art of human labour. Here a man’s productive juices can be harvested by his superiors and mixed with those of his fellow man in order to fill the pitcher of human endeavor. Just look at how they move, so neat and deliberate, all locked in the embrace of a perfect synchronicity, driven by a sublime drum beat that only they can hear, compelled by forces unknown, possessed by… But hold on now, what’s up with that guy in the middle there? His movements are anything but deliberate and he’s totally out of synch with his colleagues. What could possibly have gotten into him?
Jay is sitting at his desk, completely oblivious to the breathtaking feats of coordinated efficiency that are unfolding just beyond the four felt walls of his cubicle. He’s far too focused on the letter in front of him to notice anything else at the moment. This letter was mailed to his office by an elderly woman- a detail that explains her preferred method of correspondence. If what its tremulous handwriting says is true, then Jay’s company has refused to pay out on medical expenses owing to a technicality that appeared, no doubt, in print too small for this woman’s time-trodden eyes to process. Jay would normally write a personal response saying that there’s nothing to be done as these are the terms that she signed her name to. This much is considered her due, because payout or not, a computer-generated response would run contrary to the company’s guiding principle of always presenting a human face to its customers.
Jay writes hundreds of responses like this every week, and up until now he’s always done so in a way that contributes to the harmonious din that hovers over the insurance floor. Yet this time is different somehow. This time it’s his pen that’s doing all of the hovering. Like a conscientious objector, it’s frozen in mid-air, refusing to come down and make contact with the blank sheet below. This bizarre standoff has gone on for about twenty minutes now, and Jay has begun to worry about how it might reflect in his monthly ratings.
And then a thought suddenly occurs to him. To test his theory, he picks up the phone and dials a random number; he’s going to try cold calling a new customer. The phone rings and rings and rings until someone answers, smacks their lips, and rolls out a sleepy ‘hullo?’ Jay opens his mouth to respond but he can’t produce any sound. ‘Hello?’ The stranger repeats in a voice now tinged with anger. Jay desperately wants to greet him with confidence, establish control over the flow of conversation, and communicate savings opportunities, or in other words execute the CCC approach that Jay himself pioneered. But no matter how hard he tries, he can’t make a sound. Vexed, he slams the phone down in anger. His theory has been confirmed and he fears the worst. It’s time to go see the only person that can help him.
He pauses for a moment outside his boss’s door, struck by the appearance of a new miniature novelty street sign. The yellow sign reads ‘Big Dog’ in large letters under the darkened outline of a particularly large dog. As a man who has always been prone to idle musings, Jay’s mind begins to chew on the sign. The double emphasis of the dog’s size tickles his fancy in particular. Is this sign building on a previous model that only contained one reference, and if so, which sign had better sales? Perhaps someone somewhere is looking forward to a new model next year, this time with a triple reference; a little something for the especially big dogs who want to differentiate themselves from the lesser ones. In any event, it makes for a cute present for children to give their fathers, even if a few foreign children lose their hands in the manufacturing process… Huh?! Jay snaps out of it, flush in the grip a mini panic. His mind may be prone to wandering, but it has never wandered into that kind of territory before. He pulls himself together and knocks on the door.
Jay’s boss is sitting in a giant leather chair, one that can boast of having successfully bridged the gap between Victorian elegance and modern swivel technology. He goes by Mr. Blue to his employees, friends, wives, girlfriends, and probably his children as well. And he looks like Santa Claus might if he ever moved to the city and started interviewing for real jobs. Every word that comes out of Mr. Blue’s mouth is utterly serious with its own solemn gravity, yet he’s also adept at supplanting his own deadpan with a well-placed fatherly guffaw.
Mr. Blue greets Jay with a smile. He looks genuinely happy to see him.
“To what do I owe the pleasure, Jay?”
“Well sir,” Jay chooses his words carefully. He never really has gotten the hang of speaking to his boss. “You know I wouldn’t bother you if it weren’t very important, but something seems to have come up.”
He looks as if he wants to continue, but thinks better of it, choosing instead to look down at his knees and fidget. A slightly patronizing smile spreads across Mr. Blue’s aged face.
“Cut it out Jay. There’s no need to get worked up into a state. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that sir,” Jay responds in a meek voice, “it seems that I might not be able to carry out my duties for the company anymore.”
“And why is that?” Mr. Blue raises one of his sprawling white eyebrows.
“I know it sounds a little crazy, but all of a sudden I find myself unable to take it anymore.” Jay pauses for a moment, before adding “any of this… shit.” His voice cracks like a teenager on the last word.
The color quickly evacuates from Mr. Blue’s face.
“I just can’t take it anymore,” Jay holds the line. “I don’t know whether it’s my body or my soul or whatever, but I can’t go on doing what I’ve been doing. Whenever it’s time for me to take it, my body won’t cooperate on the physical level, like it’s trying to protest or something.”
Mr. Blue reclines in his seat, producing a series of clicking noises with his tongue. Jay takes them as evidence of deep contemplation.
“Alright then, how about we get to the bottom of this together? Now tell me exactly what it is that you can’t take anymore.”
Jay considers it before responding.
“It’s hard to say exactly what it is. It feels like I can’t take any of it.”
Mr. Blue inhales sharply, sucking in so much air that Jay wonders if there will be any oxygen left for him.
“You mean to tell me that there’s more than one thing that you can’t take?”
“Hmmm… Worse than I thought.”
Mr. Blue slowly swivels back and forth in his huge chair, clicking his tongue as he goes. The rhythm sounds faintly familiar to Jay, like it might be a popular sixties song. Eventually, he plucks a leaf from a fern on his desk, examines it, and then flicks it away with an air of disdain. Jay privately adds fern picking to the growing list of Mr. Blue’s contemplative tells.
“Well then, what about the scale of these things: macro or micro? Are we talking a big picture or small beans here?”
“I don’t know what you mean, sir” Jay replies.
“C’mon now, it seems like a fairly straightforward question to me. Can you not take living in a world where people die for lack of the very things that me and you throw away or do you simply wish that Judie in accounting would stop being such a bitch?”
Jay carefully considers the question before responding.
“Both, I guess.”
Mr. Blue frowns. He appears to be rounding on a conclusion that this boy is beyond saving.
“Now you look here son. People take it every day, and you know what they don’t do? They don’t come crying home to mamma about it. So what makes you so special? You think you’re better than all of these good people who pollute themselves, taking things into their bodies…”
Mr. Blue stops abruptly as if something just occurred to him.
“Are these things you’re taking… sexual in nature?” He asks, in no way attempting to hide his obvious suspicions.
“No sir,” Jay replies.
“Are they criminal in nature?”
“No sir,” Jay repeats.
Mr. Blue doesn’t look like he’s entirely convinced.
“In that case, I just have one more question for you: how many times a week do you find yourself taking it?”
“I never really paid much attention before, but I’d say the rate at which I’ve been taking it has increased at a steady clip over the years, so much so that I probably took it around thirty times yesterday alone. But sir, I need to be clear on one point: I’ve never minded taking it before. It’s my body that’s the problem; it seems like it has had enough.”
“Ahh yes,” Mr. Blue replies sagely, “I’ve seen this kind of thing before, just never quite so acute. I liken it to a deeply ingrained rot that can only be cured by way of amputation. Of course, your case isn’t so cut and dry because we can’t amputate your head. Thus, the only remaining logical course of action is to numb you to the complexities of what it is you’re taking at any given time. I’m envisioning something along the lines of a stamp and a blindfold. Of course, your salary will be lowered commiserate with your relative inability to take it vis-à-vis your coworkers. Short of this, we’ll have to let you go, because we run a ship that is crewed exclusively by people who take it.”
Jay opens his mouth to say, “the stamping position will be fine, sir.” But once again, he finds himself unable to make any noise. Mr. Blue raises one eyebrow, and then the other. He speculatively clicks his tongue once, twice, three times before declaring that he’s been left with no choice but to end the meeting and afford Jay an opportunity to try his luck in a job market that’s teeming with people who take it and then ask politely for another. Even as he’s being told to pack up his desk, Jay is desperately trying to give a voice to his final surrender. But fate has made sure that it will never see the florescent lights of day.