Today Claudette is wearing her pale blue suit with the power shoulders and extermination strength Happy in her quest to win the scent war with Red Jeans Ronnie down the hall. “Did you watch Obama last night on The Celebrity Apprentice?” She looms over my desk, having just greeted me with a few morning duties: Print the overdue payment notices, Call the toner guy, Research a better price for Windex – she doesn’t know I just refill the bottle with organic stuff and a few drops of blue food coloring.
“Missed it,” I reply, multicoloured snowflakes falling behind my 6 AM eyes. “Why? What was his schtick?”
“Well, it wasn’t so much a schtick,” says Claudette, clearly touched by the show and wanting to touch me in the same way. “The teams had to plan a political event…” Over the warm-up hum of the computer, Claudette gains enthusiasm, “and Team Hope beat Team Change because they planned this event called Bank Buster where all the big banks had to attend and the CEOs would be put into dunk tanks to raise money for charity. Obama loved it! He said it would give the banks a new way to get in touch with the American people. And it is, don’t you think, Audra?”
“Sounds fab,” I say, checking my email. Two new messages from Kove.
SUBJECT: The Eagle Has Landed
I’ve always wanted to say that.
SUBJECT: Meet at five downstairs
I’m dumpstering some rolls of paper from Staples. Scavenge 3 packs of labels, 6 markers, and 4 ink cartridges if you can get them past Block Parent.
(Block Parent our code word for Claudette due to her instinctual neighbourhood watch personality.)
“Such a good looking family…” Claudette daydreams about a black version of herself, fingering the drooping tulips on the desk ledge until the stack of papers she’s holding catches her eye. She wants to revise them – now, her workaholism gnawing. “Well,” she holds up the papers and gives them a few spanks. “Busy, busy, busy.”
I should be. She always is.
“Don’t forget to reformat those files,” she adds.
I’m boss here. It’s important that we both remember that. Even when I need someone to talk to.
“Ola, Audra. Cómo estás?” Spence from accounting tips his imaginary hat to me as he passes. I often wonder what type of hat it is. A fedora? A beanie? Maybe a court jester hat. “Jjjjust another day,” he marches onward, elbows first.
In the Groundhog Day of the office, I seem to have the same conversations with people daily, like in The Legend of Zelda when Link ventures into some shrubbery or behind a secret wall to encounter a merchant or an old lady who tells him the same clue each time: “the last I saw the princess she was running through the woods. Good luck on your quest, young soldier.”
“Morning, Audra. Have anything fun planned for tonight?” Red Jeans Ronnie delivers her line as she breezes past in a burst of buttery daffodil. Usually I’m annoyed at the effort of having to make something up when I have no plans. Just watching a movie, I usually tell her.
“Just watching a movie,” I call down the hall.
She never asks which one, thankfully. It’s not in the script.
I swivel my chair over to my arthritis-inducing keyboard and use half my brain to check Outlook while I send some personal faxes. Then, after a somewhat lengthy chat with Denver the toner guy – the conversation veering from laser printers to Lasik eye surgery to why only 20/20 and not 100/100?, then some stealth Windex apothecary followed by printing the Auschwitz list of poor suckers about to be sent off to collection companies to be illegally threatened with legal ramification, I head upstairs to the stock room where we keep, among other things, the outdated celebrity cell phone models, such as the Hannah Antennae and the Katie Roams, and I dial Kove.
“NBC,” he answers in xylophone song. “Never Been Cool.”
“They’re having a board meeting with ex-employees of Rogers, T-Mobile, and Bell at around five,” I cut to the chase. “There will be some dirt-digging, some schmoozing, and then it’s ours. How’s your day?” I rest an elbow on The Where The Fuck Does This Go Shelf, someone having thoughtfully masking-taped the shelf containing ceiling fan parts, a few banana-yellow Blueteeth, and a beat up copy of Scarlett.
“Well… I got caught dumpstering some day-old bread from Cob’s by a chick who worked there. She was far more tripped out about it than I was. You?”
“Just hiding the bodies.”
“Audra, you know I don’t judge you for selling your soul.”
After making a decision never to sell his time again in 2000, Kove has been squatting his way across couches and foreclosed homes for over ten years. Is he a mooch? No, he’ll tell you – the system is the biggest parasite of all. I, however, can’t live without knowing where my next shower is going to come from. Kove calls it bourgeois; I call it sanity. We met at a SHAC demo in San Francisco where twenty people were arrested for “public mischief”, including Kove, who, once in cuffs pretended to have an asthma attack until they let him go (he has a puffer on hand for such moments, though he breathes like dryfit.) Under the San Francisco cloud cover, Kove asked why I was protesting cruelty to animals if I wear their wool, then took me to a vegan restaurant called Gratitude where the menu items were named things like: I Am Thankful, and I Am Refreshed, and across the bathroom mirror was scrawled: There Is No Other. I ordered a tortilla black bean salad, a mint lemonade, and a shot of colloidal silver, and we preached to the choir about how human tissue experiments make medical animal testing obsolete, and then he paid. “Are you trying to like…?” I began to ask. No, he said. I’m a polyamorous feminist; I have many partners in crime. We’ve been planning the action since he arrived in Seattle a month ago. He’s been sucking up his hate-on for leather to crash on the company’s thirty thousand dollar boardroom couch and I’ve been letting him burn my cashmere.
After lunch, Claudette gives me a new To Do list, which is so pretty that I deduce she may have spent all morning bolding and italicizing it. I take a quick look, crumple it into a ball, and then print 16 sheets of stickers that say:
Capitalism: the “free” exchange of goods and services in which those who have capital are able to collect more at the expense of those who do not.
Holding the stickers up to a hand-held fan I keep in the back of the file cabinet, Block Parent wafts past my desk in her Linus cloud of Happy. “Oh – Audra?” she pecks at the screen of her Blackberry, you didn’t label the 2009 files properly. But I see you’re on top of that.” She eyes the blur of my stickers, words a nuisance to her unless they’re spoken by those higher up. “Just make sure you list them chronologically.”
“You mean from the distant past to the recent past?” I inquire (asking obvious questions a technique I learned in the first grade to show participation.)
“Yes,” she says. “Good girl.”
“Woof,” I say as she walks away, then try panting just to see what it feels like. Breath, breath, breath, breath, breath. Pretty exhilarating.
At around two, while completing Item 4 – Stack coloured paper in order, ie. Rainbow (I have to go online to look up a fucking picture of a rainbow), I bring my purse with me to the stock room and load it up with markers, labels, and ink. I barely get the zipper closed when I turn to see Lana eyeing me as she reaches for some manila folders.
“Are we out of prongs?” she asks, giving me the up-down.
“I don’t know. Prongably,” I reply.
She looks at my purse. “Why do you have your bag?” she asks. Not an accusation, more of a stock room fashion faux-pas.
“Oh, you know, tampon,” I pat my bag, then run a hand through my hair and damn myself for the revealing gesture. “Bathroom,” I further explain, single words less difficult to pick apart than lies. “So what did you do this weekend?” I distract her with a Zelda one-liner.
At first I thought Lana and I would become friends. Sure she’d gotten her education in administration, which I could only picture as stapling seminars, postage machine labs, and nasal voice lessons: How To Sound Like You Mean Business, but our small photocopy chats seemed to gather momentum, each of us so seemingly excited to respond to the other that we would cut each other off mid-sentence. Then I realized that I knew Lana’s favourite earrings were peacock feathers, her favourite hairstyle was a Mad Max and the Thunderdome mullet (though she wasn’t brave enough to get one), and her favourite candy was classic candy corn (though she admitted they taste like they were made in 1910), but she didn’t know any of these things about me.
I tune in to her weekend.
“…so I was at the mall and then I went to MAC to sample that burgundy eye shadow I was telling you about. You know Shock Me, Shock Me, Shock Me – that colour, and I asked the girl to put some in my crease and…”
“In your crease?” I laugh.
“Yeah,” she replies. “In my crease, not over the entire lid, you know?” She closes her eyes to show me, opening half an eye to check out her reflection in the steel of an electrical box on the wall.
It’s not that Lana is boring. It’s not even that she doesn’t have a sense of humour. No, that’s exactly what it is. She doesn’t sense it.
With Lana I laugh alone.
“People don’t seem to get that it’s just a piece of metal stuck in the ground with a bunch of other hovering junk in space, but you’re paying for every particle of air in between. Cell phones are the single biggest scam of the decade,” I rant to Kove over the Starbucks jazzy blues or bluesy jazz (depressing music with a sad try at funk) as we siphon wireless and wait for the Cellular Royals to finish their overlord underworld plans.
“Scammier than AIG?” Kove asks, grabbing a half-full coffee off the abandoned table beside us. “Scammier than seatbelt tickets? Birth control tax? Raw sewage as fertilizer?”
“Okay, I get it. You’re bad like Che Guevara, I’m bad like MJ…” I acquiesce.
“Who’s that girl over there?” Kove asks, looking across the lobby.
Sitting on the ledge of the atrium fountain, Lana is crying into her cell.
“This girl I work with. Why, you think she’s hot sauce?”
“Well,” he looks her over. “She’d be hotter as an Earth mother who didn’t shave her legs.”
“No dice,” I tell him. “She lasered it all off for about five grand.”
“We should recruit her,” Kove says. “Give her the ol’ America’s Next Top Anarchist makeover. Teach her how to build a good Molotov cocktail, overturn cars. Go recruit that girl like a Jehova’s Witness in a cul-de-sac.”
“I don’t trust her.”
“Audra, trust is just imposing our morals onto others.”
I give him a dead-eyed stare. “Anarchism and pessimism are not antonyms, Kove.”
“Look, suss it out. If she’s not into it, you’ll know.”
Sure I’m skeptical. But I was also skeptical that the grass seeds my landlords planted on the lawn outside our building would grow. We’ll see about that… I figured, inspecting the bare dirt daily. The grass did grow, of course. Too slowly to notice.
I approach Lana, furiously texting now, the atrium plants more alive than anything on the floors above, their scent of oxygen both invigorating and defeating – that elusive smell of fresh air. “What’s goin’ on?” I ask, sounding Southern for some reason. I sit beside her on the fountain ledge.
“I got fired.” Her Shock Me, Shock Me, Shock Me eyes leak.
Lana is an office favourite. One of those machine people who can turn off her brain on request, or rather, set it to their level.
“Sold some of the old cell models on eBay,” she admits.
Interesting. Lana is a thief. She probably thought I was infringing on her stash today in the stock room, pocketing Fred Ringtones and DMTexts.
She scans my pupils as she applies lip gloss, adding more lacquer effect to her tear-streaked face. “Nose jobs aren’t cheap,” she says, then defends her cause: “I’m just tweaking it.”
I look at her inoffensive nose.
“I’m the kind of person who always needs to better myself,” she explains, handing me a sheet of paper.
1) Nose Job: button. Bring pic of Lauren Conrad
2) Spring Wardrobe – (boho-chic starlet à la Mary Kate)
3) Louis Vuitton purse (rent?)
4) Botox angry lines
5) Restylene (half-dose to prevent trout pout)
I have x-ray vision into the deficiency of self-love circulating through Lana’s veins. The beauty is confidence spiel would be useless. “So…I read this article in Cosmo…” I start, making it up as I go. “No, scratch that. Have you ever seen The Matrix, Lana?”
“Yeah. Like, in the 90s,” she sniffles.
“Well, you know how they’re all naked in those liquid-filled pods and connected to those giant machines and stuck in a computer-generated trance?”
“Okay,” she looks at me, blankly.
“Well, the way to hotness, Lana, the way to get from pasty and flabby to slammin’ hot is to get yourself out of the pod.”
Lana starts feeling around for her purse.
“Lana. I know we don’t get along famously…”
“You’re just really… jokey,” she says with distaste.
“Okay, whatever. But you hate Block Parent just as much as we do…”
“I mean, Claudette. Look at it this way – wouldn’t you rather live in a world where you could never get fired?”
“What are you suggesting?” she asks.
Upon retrieving Lana, I send Kove upstairs to shower.
“We’re all animals,” Kove says. “I’m sorry if reminders of that scare you, Audra.”
I toss him the office keys. “President’s lounge, seven doors down.”
And after buying Lana a naivE spelled backwards, we head back up to the office, the lights dim after another day of violating sizzle. I leave them on low. The office is peaceful when it’s empty and dark, as though it’s been evacuated after a natural disaster or a bombing, and no one ever has to return.
“Lana, I need you to blow these letters up as large as possible and print them.” I hand her a list of letters, scrambled, so she doesn’t get caught up in their meaning.
TEH AMITXR SI HTE ROWLD HTTA SHA EBNE UPLELD EROV UORY YEES OT LBNDI UOY RFOM HET HUTRT.
OUY ILVE NI PRONISS UOY HEVA CEARTDE, CLAINLG HTEM HOSEM NDA FFICEOS, LESAHED OT YRUO 9-5 BOJS NAD NETR.
“Do we have to do this now?” she asks.
“Yes. This is all going down tonight.”
Kove emerges from the president’s lounge with slick, wet hair. “Greetings Earthlings,” he says, the smell of his bergamot soap crisp and pungent. “I’m sanitized.” He extends a hand over the reception desk to Lana, who is actually typing out the letters.
“Lana,” she introduces herself. I can pinpoint the second she discounts him as fuckable, although I thought she might like his post-apocalyptic hair.
“Admit that you like smelling clean,” I dare Kove.
“It’s a nice change,” he says. “But cleanliness is not godliness, Audra.”
How I can find Kove both ingenious and insane is troubling. I’m sure eventually I’ll have to pick one. “I was raised on Seventeen Magazine,” I tell him. “Forgive me.”
“Hey…” Lana starts to put some of the words together, her arms crossed like an orphan who’s caught her orphan friends sliding out the window down a rope of sheets.
Kove winks at her.
She rolls her eyes to an off-camera audience.
“You’re arrogant,” Kove says. “I like that. Arrogance is a sign that you’re hiding something and I like mystery in a woman.”
“Here,” I pass him Lana’s Looks Goals. “Mystery solved.”
Lana grabs it back, giving me a paper cut.
“For the record,” I say, “I don’t think you should Botox your angry lines. You have a very effective mad face.”
If all goes according to plan, tomorrow morning the messages will be plastered across the entrances of buildings, over billboards and overpasses, in menus, on oranges and bananas, on parking meters, license plates, homeless held signs… They will be printed onto receipts and written in chalk over the sidewalks, A for anarchy symbols even placed in the Google O’s, if all goes according to plan.
They trickle in, collecting their supplies, trading materials, and reporting progress. Workers and ex-workers of all types of collar-colours. We send them to the board room to report to Kove, who gives them the one eye, then hooks them up. We give chalk and spraypaint to a hippie mother who names her plants and swears at politicians, and give stickers to two sixteen year old bag boys who are covering the entire deli section of their Safeway in stickers that say: It’s Not That You Killed Me, It’s That You Never Let Me Live, then supply passcodes to two lesbian computer programmers who are re-directing Perez Hilton.com to a site that exposes celebrities who endorse brands that make money off child labour and animal testing. Things are running as smoothly as an assembly line of workers in debt. When over 400 people have been smuggled up the elevator, then dispersed into the night, we begin to wonder if the cops are onto us. If they’ve noticed a disproportionate amount of individuals roaming the streets.
“Are we almost done?” asks Lana, handing out graffiti markers donated by a record store, a Capitalism Isn’t Working sticker on her forehead her timid attempt at solidarity. “I need a break.”
“Take one,” I say. “There are drinks in the wet bar cooler.”
“Okay, thanks. Back in ten.”
“What did I tell you?” Kove says. “I have an eye for dissidents.”
“I want to retort with something like ‘keep your enemies closer’, but I’ll contain myself.”
He goes back to schooling the Safeway teens on wheatpasting on the high gloss surface of the boardroom table.
There was no student more compliant than myself when I was growing up. I kept a red wooden apple on the edge of my desk that read “Teacher’s Pet” without fully grasping the term, simply liking the words “teacher” and “pet”. I was so compliant that I dated boys I didn’t really like just so I wouldn’t hurt their feelings. Then I realized that no one was actually keeping score. That there was no single impression of me – simply the fabrications of thousands of individuals – each person’s perception of me different than the next. People do change. Some even become opposites of their former selves.
“Careful,” I tell Kove, his homemade glue matting the sheen of the massive table like skate marks on a freshly Zambonied rink.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “You’re definitely getting fired for this.”
The SHAC 7 were put in jail for 3-6 years and charged fines of a million dollars each for words posted on their website exposing Huntingdon Life Sciences’ animal cruelty. You can do more time for words than murder in this country. I have larger things than firing in mind.
Kove and I head up to the roof to check if the building has been circled by cops, the Gotham-grey buildings lifeless under the dome of wet night sky. Instead of resenting that I can’t see stars, I’m relieved to see no swivelling red lights below.
Back in the office, Lana is drinking Stella with the Safeway teens. “Capitalism Isn’t Working,” she yells down through the window, the only time I’ve ever been glad they don’t open.
“Shh…” I tell her.
“Shh…” she tells me back, laughing. “My favourite one is the banner that punk band is doing: “If You’ve Beat Them At Their Own Game, You’ve Lost.”
Michelle Lauren Kay chiseled her writing at the Banff Centre of the Arts. She has been a frequent contributor to The Calgary Herald's Books Section and BeatRoute Magazine, and has published short fiction with Twenty3Magazine, Spotlit Magazine, and SubtleTea.com. She currently runs dawnofanewera.wordpress.com and is a citizen of the world.