I pause over my Jamaican meat pie to tell Frederick—one of the few people I can talk to—about another one of my amazing dreams. What happens is I swing open the office doors and find Pennypacker's Credit as usual. But no people. Our Asian-efficient, hexagon workpods still cling to the tortured beige carpet. Our dusty PC monitors poke up like mushrooms. No one slouches at the Equifax terminal. No credit reports spit from the printers. Behind glass walls, our check-processing mega-machine squats, sleeping. Then it turns out everyone is in the office, but cradled in their ergonomic chairs. They've turned into babies—diapered, bawling babies. So, I freak out. I run all over the place, yelling, I have to save the babies, I have to save the babies. I cram quarters into the vending machine for pints of milk, I try everything I can think of.
But the disappointing thing is that, right then, I wake up. I wanted to know how I would save them. So I say to Frederick, isn't that a riot? Isn't it ridiculous?
Frederick eyes me over his red reading glasses, holding an Entertainment Weekly. He hails from Key West where he acted in movies, so he keeps up on the entertainment news. “Let me think about that one.”
Before I can answer, Daisy strides into the break room, pulling my eyes with her. I check myself and turn back to Frederick. “You've had dreams that don't make any sense, right?”
“Let me ask you,” Frederick says, “why are your eyes always wandering in the general direction of Ms. Daisy?”
My vending machine meal gets interesting. “Ms. Daisy?”
She's a new DEP kid (Data Entry and Processing) and they're usually all community college or high school. They come and go from year to year, summer to summer. But Daisy's not a kid, not a girl, she's a woman—an angel. Imagine corn silk, flowing in rings and framing a perfect, balanced face. Imagine a Roman nose or Greek—a classical look—as in a painting or statue. Full lips with a slight down turn at the corners suggest, maybe, a kind of thoughtful sadness. I'm reminded of a celebrity, but I can't put my finger on which one. She is mysterious. She is . Her sensible skirts hug her hips and send your eyes down, past the occasional panty lines, to her sleek stockings and heels. Sexy legs. But I'm mainly fixated on the perfection of her face, which suggests a sweet character—a purity. I think if I tried to talk to her and she smiled at me, I'd burst into flames. Something about her, some kind of mysterious energy, rises like a force field. I think the fact that she has wings has something to do with it.
When Kip introduced us yesterday, he didn't mention the wings, and I didn't ask. I just nodded, grinned and retreated. Anyway, can you imagine? Me? Accused of flirting! The clucking tongues, the shaking heads. People spitting on me as I slouch to my desk, tears streaming down my face, revealed as a sorry, lonely freak. Old and greedy. (Not that people think I'm old, of course—I'm usually mistaken for a younger person. Don't know why. Guess I'm young at heart.) Plus, I hear Daisy has a little girl, so that raises the issue of where the father fits in.
Frederick inches his glasses lower on his nose and peers over them. “Hello, Chuck? Hello?”
“I don't think my eyes wander.”
“Dally?” He says.
“No,” I say.
“Amble? Saunter? Prance? Dote?”
“A glance or two,” I say.
“A glance or two.”
Frederick raises an eyebrow, smirks.
“Cut that shit out,” I say.
“What are you insinuating?” Frederick asks. “That I don't tell it like it is?”
“You haven't said what you think about the dream.”
“Screw you,” I say.
People joke that Frederick and I sit together at lunch, because we're both “plump around the middle” and we both have mustaches. The next person who calls me plump, I might bash them in the head with a paperweight. That's not the fucking reason. Look at the idiots near my workpod: Helen in Accounts Eval. working to cushion her SSI. She'll try to sell you Siberian mineral water or cold-pressed fig oil. Forget about Dmitri. He traps you with recitals from Reader's Digest. I'm more comfortable around Frederick, and sometimes we talk show biz. Just this week, I found out his favorite director is Truffaut.
“I have something to show you,” Frederick says. He rolls up his sleeve. A pink tattoo shines on his bicep: Muff Diver.
“Shit,” I say. “That's not permanent, is it?”
Frederick arches his back, looking offended, and brushes his fingers over the tattoo. “Why? Don't you like it?”
“Love it,” I say. “Just wondering.”
Frederick rolls his eyes. “No, it's not real. You think I would defile this body?”
“Good. I would've had to pretend until one of us quit.”
“If you're going to be that way, I shan't give you my opinion on Daisy.”
Trumped by Frederick, I go back to my haunted workpod to dig into the PFA's (Possible Fraudulent Applications) and find a dead wasp.
Yes, my pod is haunted. It started off innocuously. I'd put a pen down. It would disappear. I'd set my favorite mug down, get up to access to the Equifax terminal, and when I came back the mug would be in a different place. Then it was folders—all my folders would be totally rearranged. Just a mess. There's no way it's a person. I can tell.
As Head of Fraud, you deal with PFA's, although you still deal with the obviously phony applications: “Mickey Mouse” has finally come on board as a customer and wants a Pennypacker's card. “Mr. I. P. Freely” kindly requests a line of credit. “Popeye The Sailor” files an application. But uncertainties always cross my desk: Herb Flamenco. Kortney Noggles. Thayton Buckmaster, III. Are they for real? They need to be researched. And despite being the best employee, I'm on the opposite side of the room from the other floor supervisors (Jennifer, Gia and Frederick) and they toil right in the office action. Kip enjoys a glassed-in office with an actual door, close to the rear exit, the reserved parking and the golf course. (Not that I'm complaining. Especially not with the company's sagging performance.)
I'm by the bathrooms.
Later in the day, we hold a floor meeting. Kip, neckless and burdened with a fat head (not to make fun of him) gathers us around him in the center of the office. The supervisors line up next to him, but he requires that the data kids stand at their workspaces, still tethered to their headsets in case of calls. Our old manager Dewey would have worn his green foam Stetson “Money Hat” and handed out twenties to staff who could recite the mission statement by heart. Kip canceled that tradition.
Angel Daisy taps her fingers on her workpod divider. Her pink top reveals arms dusted with freckles. Like cinnamon on vanilla ice cream. Her wings stay clasped, hiding how she wears clothes over them—a big hole in back?
Kip says, “Okay, second shift, good news. The productivity figures are in and you've maintained a steady—what was it, Jennifer?”
“Seventy percent,” Jennifer says.
A couple of kids ooh and ahh sarcastically , but Kip just nods at them. “And our accuracy is ninety-five percent.”
He lists our stats with DDA2's, which are pretty super, and reels off our keystroke numbers.
“So, what I want to say is keep up the good work. Also, on a different note: We received a very angry call from a customer in Hawaii. It seems someone here called her and asked to verify how many children she had—at 2 o'clock in the morning.”
I join Jennifer and Gia in their grim looks.
“There is such a thing as different time zones,” Kip says. “The next person that does this? That individual, or individuals, will be fired. Okay?”
Meeting' s over.
But what do you do? We have to be fair and wait for more evidence. It's not like I can finger the culprit. It's not like I have proof.
Monday nights I don't make deliveries for Dunkin' Donuts, so Frederick hauls me across the oily parking lot to the Crab Shack for ten-cent wing night and orders us beers and baskets.
When our order shows up, he says, “I recommend you leave her alone.”
“I know. I know.”
“Why cause drama?” he says.
“Who says there'll be drama? Do you have a crystal ball?”
“I do,” he says, raising his eyebrows, “and I keep it at home in a special box. And it tells me all the frightening things to come.”
“Good for you.”
He continues to stare and tilts his head. What he wants I don't know, so I pick at a red saucy wing in my basket.
He drops the arch look. “And how's your son?”
I say, “He's great. I guess.”
“You haven't heard from him, I take it?”
“Not a peep,” I say. “He's impossible to reach. He's always out. Or on the way out. Last time I got him he said, I'm busy. There's the job, there's errands, the band, singing lessons... ”
“Keep trying,” Frederick says.
“Truth be told, we fought the last couple times I called. He told me off, said I was a jerk. For no reason.”
“Do you ever write?”
“I write checks. That's how nice a father I am. Who knows what he does with the money.”
“Children,” Frederick says. “Ingrates.”
I could change the subject and ask Frederick about his mother, who lives with him, or about Key West, but I'm not too hot to ask why he left the Keys. Makes me uncomfortable. Truth is I'm pretty tight-lipped about my past, so it's only fair I don't ask about his.
After my wife and I divorced, I felt like I was waking up after a long sleep. I left my position as a project coordinator at Sun Splash Title Insurance and launched into the following jobs: dispatch clerk, lineman, sales manager, linen deliverer, peeler, QC inspector, massage therapist, and TV/VCR repairman. I held a few at the same time to put together a full income. It's just the way I am.
My first job was age eight. My father was an apartment developer, so I cleaned the buildings' basements and picked up trash. I remember he agreed to give me twenty-five cents an hour. Of course, that seemed like a fortune. I worked so hard, and over time I put together twenty hours—that made five dollars. I was dreaming about that five dollars.
When the time came to pay me, my father gave me two dollars and fifty cents. I said, two-fifty? I was heartbroken. I asked what happened to the other two-fifty.
He said, Do you like the roof you live under? Do you like the food we serve you? You have to contribute to the family.
That's a lesson about work I never forgot.
Whatever happened to Frederick, he probably made some kind of awful sacrifice.
“What were some of the movies you were in?” I ask Frederick.
“Do you know the name John Frankenheimer?”
“No. Name some of his movies.”
“Oh, you wouldn't know this one. It was a little thing.”
“Try me,” I say.
Frederick says, “Why am I drinking a beer? How come I'm not drinking a great fruity cocktail with a pink umbrella?”
“I'm not stopping you,” I say, but he doesn't answer. He sips his beer.
Tuesday, Daisy catches me staring. Once here. Once there. Awkward! I can't talk to her yet. The fact that no one else seems to find her as attractive as I do makes for a mystery. (Not that I read minds and know what anyone feels. Who knows what anyone really feels?) She floats around—sometimes literally—eats lunch, chats with people by the water fountain, and people just act like she's nobody. It's like I'm seeing a different Daisy. As Frederick might say, “Hello, people, she has wings.”
Really, I should be working through PFA's, contemplating Billiejoe Wiglord, Cleo Cottongin, Gaylord Krabbenhoft. You never know the truth with these people. We have a real Santa M. Claus in our database— he lives in Nebraska.
As fate would have it, Frederick darted out for lunch early with Gia, and now Daisy graces my usual table. I shuffle toward her trying to keep my over-full cup of coffee from spilling, and settle two chairs down. For a few minutes, silence sort of congeals. The pressure builds. I sip carefully at my Styrofoam cup. The TV, tuned to one of the talk shows I hate, prods her for attention. I keep her in my peripheral vision, while I essentially stare into space. This is one of those times where you have to look deep in thought to explain why you're not sitting with anyone, and yet you're not reading a magazine or watching TV. The surface of my Folger's brew takes my interest. I glance at her. She glances back.
Finally, I give. “How're you doing?”
“I'm watching TV.”
“You know that meeting yesterday? Those are typical. Don't worry about it.”
She smirks, and I notice a pimple near the corner of her mouth. “I can't say what I think about that.”
I shrug. “Who am I? Go ahead.”
Her upper lip curls. “I think Kip's a punk-ass bitch.”
My coffee wobbles in my hand as I try to take a sip.
She leans in close, blue eyes bright. “And his little meetings suck my asshole.”
Life is strange.
I try to set my coffee down—it dumps into my lap.
After scrubbing my pants with tap water and pearly-pink soap from the Men's room, I return to my desk, and Daisy appears next to me.
“Make sure you pre-treat those pants before you put them in the wash.”
“Thanks,” I say. “I will.”
“You have some dead bees or something on your desk.”
Five wasps, arranged in a circle.
She turns, and she's gone, leaving me to cradle my Fraud Awareness Binder. (“It's F.A.B.ulous!”)
When Frederick strolls past laughing, he flicks a wave at me, but detours after seeing the serious face I must have made.
“What's wrong,” he says. “You look like your cat died.”
“Dumped coffee all over myself.”
“That would never have happened if you'd gone for sushi with us. The salmon rolls were
“I had a weird talk with Daisy.”
“No. Did she throw the coffee on you?”
I shake my head.
“I told you she was trouble.”
“She doesn't talk like you'd expect,” I say.
“What, is she from another country?”
“Remember Jules et Jim ,” Frederick says.
I've seen Jules and Jim, but how the hell could that possibly help me?
I started at Pennypacker's working my butt off at Daisy's job. Processing DDA2's, DDA1's, WAR's and RAD's. Taking credit card apps over the phone. People in the Pennypacker's stores might want to make an expensive purchase, and the salespeople try to get them to put that sale on a Pennypacker's credit card. So, then the salespeople try to get the customer approved for a card, and that's where our office comes in.
You pull up the person's credit report, using their social security number, and you scan through the mistakes of their life. You see the other department store credit card gone bad, the three missed car payments, the massive student loan or the mortgage, and you piece together the story of their medical bills or court judgments—usually child support payments. (I know about that business.) Every life has these mistakes. Look closely, whether you get the story right or not, you'll find them.
Most of the time, we fire apps through the system, it scores them, and then it usually shoots out a form KTA2 or WAG1 decline letter stamped with Kip's signature. They spool off a twenty-foot-high roll of paper back in Production. Always lots of declines.
My advice to Daisy would be don't think about those rejections, the shamed and disappointed guy trying to buy a ring for his fiancé, or the embarrassed couple who wanted a sofa standing awkwardly with a furniture salesman. Look out for yourself.
Wednesday, Kip calls the supervisors into his office. He swivels back and forth in his faux-leather chair as he tells us there's been another incident.
Gia says, “Oh, no!”
Kip says, “Oh, yes.”
Twice someone dialed a customer in Alaska, made sexy moaning sounds, and hung up.
“The call came during this shift,” he adds.
I nod gravely as Kip swivels. On one wall, he's displayed a poster-size glamour shot of his wife caressing a red Camaro.
Apparently, IT is installing MoniTek, a Windows-based call monitoring system that we'll need to learn. We each get a cross section of people to track. I see Daisy's in my section and I'm both terrified and excited.
Kip stops swiveling in his chair. “Got it?”
“I got it,” I say. “No problem.”
On the way to the mailroom, I pass Daisy. She stretches her arms, stretches her legs. Her wings shiver. She curls her purple-nailed fingers back to stroke her hair. She's not beautiful in the same way since the break room fiasco, and I'm tempted to just corner her and force a confession.
Yes, I'm pretty sure Daisy made both calls. I overheard Dmitri asking around about the 2 a.m. call the night it happened, and Daisy sunk down in her seat, looking guilty. She's new, but is that really an excuse? What if I accuse her, and she says I've been leering at her like a pervert? Or she says something like I tried to blackmail her for sex? She'll have to be busted sooner or later, but I'd like to hold onto my job.
Seeing a puff of feather on the back of her chair, I resist the urge to pluck it up.
Next day, despite Frederick giving me an exasperated look, I follow Daisy outside into the humidity, plop down at the cement picnic table and open up my leftover spaghetti.
“Did you make that yourself?” she asks.
“Looks good,” she says. “My cooking blows.”
“Practice. That's how I got good.”
Daisy looks skittish. Glances up at the office building. Best to tend to my spaghetti and not scare her off—basic psychology.
“Guess you're not married,” she says, after a moment, and lights a cigarette.
The office building borders a public golf course. Sprinklers emerge from the green and spritz in arcs. There's also a kind of mucky retention pond, where one time a woman in Accounts saw an alligator bite a duck, or maybe a duck bite an alligator. Not to mention the DEP kid who said he saw a swamp man.
As for marriage, I give Daisy the story, edited heavily.
Maybe I worked too much. Or I made my wife cook food she didn't like. We weren't compatible or whatever. Really I don't know why she divorced me. I could never figure out how to please her. Nothing I did was enough. I'm a nice guy, so I finished last.
Daisy says, “I'm waiting on my knob-headed boyfriend to get his shit together. But he's kind of having it tough this year.”
“His dad died. Fell off a roof. Caught his chin on the edge of an empty swimming pool.”
She lifts her head, pulls on her cigarette, then turns her head away. She exhales in a long sigh.
I stand up and turn my back on her to survey the golf course.
I don't need to relive that feeling of when your wife starts sleeping in another room.
“Must be tough to, you know, have your daughter, and then your boyfriend's dealing with that.”
“Fuck yeah, it is.”
“How old is she now?”
“Well, I've been there.”
“That's what my mother says too.”
I imagine her mother—wings too? I turn back. “Your daughter gets on okay with your boyfriend?”
“Of course,” she says, looking at me funny. “But I remember when she was just a few months old, whenever me and Bryan wanted to slip into my bedroom for a little oral, that baby started fucking wailing. Like she knew. Every damn time.”
I'm thrown by the honesty. Guess she feels comfortable around me. A wind picks up, and it flips a few napkins into the grass.
“Tell you what, when she gets older, do not question her decisions, or tell her how stupid it is to postpone college. Do not suggest alternative plans or careers, or you risk having your daughter accusing you of being a selfish jerk.”
“I doubt I'll remember that.” She pinches away some of her hair blown against her lips. “Did you know some people got busted for fucking out here a couple years back?”
“Are you kidding?”
“Right around the corner, against the side of the building.”
“News to me.”
She stubs out her cigarette. “See you.”
At my pod, another group of dead wasps are circled and I wonder about exorcisms or blessings, or better yet, contact with whomever this spirit is. I pick up the phone, think of dialing my son's number, and then set the phone back down. I suppose I could drop everything and drive up there, but he doesn't like surprises. I try not to think about my son. He moved to Asheville, North Carolina. Supposed to be beautiful there or something—I don't know. He thought about weather, he thought about his career, he thought about expenses. Living farther from me, that was something he didn't think about. (Not that I say anything. You get punished for telling the truth.)
He struck on being a singer a few years back. When I heard about the band his girlfriend formed and how he might be lead singer, I remember I said, “That's great. Just remember to work really, really hard and cross your fingers.” And then I told him about Kent Florentino.
He was a friend in college who wanted to form a band. He dropped all his classes and sunk his student loan money into a Yamaha solid body PAC12 in dark blue metallic and a shitload of equipment. He hooked up with some musicians through the Music Emporium. They formed the Starlight Jets. Kent swore they would hit it in the first weeks, playing bars and clubs all over. But it didn't work out. I won't even get into why. He had to pawn two Fender amps, a Casio LK1, and a Metal Master effects pedal just to recoup half his losses. And he ended up dying in a motorcycle accident.
It's easy to think you'll work hard and get something, and you end up with nothing. I remember wanting to impart a better lesson to my son the day he left the house, but I just didn't know what to say.
Friday morning, I'm standing at Frederick's desk telling him a recurring dream. In this one, I'm an Egyptian king. I'm whipping a slave who's been caught conspiring against me. Before I can finish, Kip calls me and Frederick into his office. Gia and Jennifer are already there.
“I got a call,” he says, tapping his finger on the desk, “from an elderly woman in Boca Raton. I checked her records, and she's spent tens of thousands of dollars with our company and has held our credit card since 1971. It's quite possible that she's one of our best customers.”
He taps his desk, takes a deep breath. “She informed me—and informed the president of the company—that someone called at 9:45 pm, someone who appeared to be disguising their voice, and told her, courtesy of Pennypacker's, to suck an asshole.”
The sound in the office mutes, and Kip becomes this head with moving lips, from which nothing comes out. Then everything tunes back in. No question Daisy is the culprit.
“Now that the system is running, I would like you each to check your call records for 9:45. You should have a list of your people and the numbers they've dialed. I want you all to bring those lists to me, and we're going to go through them together line by line.”
He stops tapping. He raps his knuckles on his desk. We're dismissed.
Back at my pod, I brush away more wasps, and I pull up my records, because I want the evidence laid out.
I walk over to Daisy trying to look casual. On her desktop, there's a 3x5 from the Pennypacker's photo studio: backdrop of diagonal blue lasers, her daughter laughing.
Daisy looks up, lips parted. A front tooth is smudged with pink lipstick.
I ask her back to my pod, she logs off her phone, and she follows.
Daisy says, “The rumors aren't true. I didn't show my tits. Not to anyone.”
“Actually,” I say, “I hadn't heard that. ”
“It's cause I cussed, right? I said that thing about Kip?”
I say no, and ask her about the call.
Tears well in her eyes. She crosses her arms. Denies it.
I reel off bull-shit questions. “Did someone maybe log on to your phone? Did you give out your code?”
She says, “No—maybe—who knows?”
“You realize what the reaction from the boss is going to be.”
Her lips quiver, revealing a flash of dimples. She folds her fingers tightly one over another. “My boyfriend's not working, because he's so depressed. I don't want to be stuck back at my mother's again. I can't go back there. I can't fuck up again.” She looks at my desk like she's never seen one.
It doesn't take much for me to cave.
“You made some mistakes,” I say.
I reach for Daisy's arm, and she shrinks away.
“I'm sorry,” I say.
“Sorry,” she says.
“Go back on the phones. Forget about it, okay? I forgive you.”
She stares at me and wipes her eyes. “Seriously?”
For awhile I sit and wonder if I shouldn't have pursued a side career in ventriloquism or impressions. Orlando has the market for entertainment like that. I imagine myself in a gutter, a paper bag on my head for a hat, shitting in my pants—not even my own pants, some pants I found, next to the gutter, while splayed there with a bag on my head.
I get up and take a little tour of the office, cruising by the check processors entering dollar amounts on payment after payment. Who are they? If they looked up, would they wonder the same thing about me? Dmitri and Helen and everybody, they don't seem so bad now. My haunted pod, a woman with wings, my son: they'll just be mysteries I'll have to live with.
I slip into the white-walled, futuristic IT room where hundreds of blue and yellow wires nest among boxes of flickering green lights. One great brain, thinking in code.
I drag myself towards Kip's office.
I'm not sure what I'll tell him. Not sure if I can come up with an excuse that makes sense. I'll tell him I made the calls, used Daisy's phone. I'll tell him he's a shitwit, and if he says one single thing, so help me God.
Maybe Daisy will remember me. I'm horrible, but maybe she'll think: He helped me. He did the best he could. Whatever you think he might have done, he should be forgiven.