fiction by summer brenner
AT THE OLD JOB SISSY hadn't been paid much, but it was close to where she lived. If one of the kids was sick, she could put him on a pallet on the floor of her office. Or run out on Thursdays to take her daughter to gymnastics class. No one complained if Sissy took extra time getting in or left a little early. The job was convenient, and that in itself made it an unusual and desirable situation. When Sissy first came to her old job, her boss was vice-president in charge of production. Short and tidy with cropped hair, she wore rumpled tweed jackets and boy's trousers, and always made a point of telling Sissy how great her legs were-- something men never said. This woman had lived with a female companion for over ten years, and they had had one child by artificial insemination.
At the old job Sissy managed to survive the tidal waves of cut-backs and lay-offs, even though she was officially laid off twice. The first time she stayed in her office tidying up, thinking that what was happening to everyone else wasn't really happening to her. The delusion worked because by closing time, they had found another position to offer her. She went from technical editor to telemarketer, or as Sissy put it, TEL-MAR-KETEER, sung to the Mouseketeer theme.
However, the vice-president in charge of production went bye-bye in this first round of lay-offs. The date happened to coincide with her fortieth birthday, and on the spot she told Sissy that she had made the final decision to have a sex change. All the way with hormones and surgery. She said she had always been a man trapped in a woman's body. When Sissy saw her a year later, she had a rough complexion, a deep voice, plentiful growths of hair on her arms, and a new executive job. Also, she was in the middle of a nasty divorce since her girlfriend didn't want to live with a man. Sissy realized she hadn't really been a lesbian after all. The former vice-pres in charge of production told Sissy that the greatest thing about her new life was going into the men's room and not having anyone look at you funny. It was always hard for Sissy to remember to call her "him."
The marketing manager was Sissy's new boss, and he decided that she should take the Southeast territory, meaning the last and worst choice. As far as everyone else was concerned, the South was the garbage can of sales, but Sissy was from Georgia and with her accent she left the other telemarketers with New York and Los Angeles accents in the dust. In fact, in the first month Sissy sold $25,000 worth of software on a cold call to Chattanooga.
The second time Sissy was laid off, she stuck around again. By closing, it turned out that someone in publications had upped and quit in disgust so she automatically got his job.
No one in the company wanted to lay Sissy off because of her kids. She needed the money and the health plan. But Sissy discovered that in the business world no matter how much anyone said they liked and wanted you, or how many times they told you what a good job you were doing, when it came to cuts, the word was always that it was out of their hands. Being a corporation meant you could always pass along the blame, and at lay-off time, it was the board of directors' decision, whom nobody had ever met. Sissy learned in her first experience with lay-offs that corporate life fundamentally depended on secrecy at the top.
When Sissy asked her co-workers if that was really how they wanted their world run, they always shook their heads, no, no, no. But when you came right down to it, everyone was scared in the pants about losing theirjob. In other words, no matter what you thought about the world or how unselfishly you tried to live your life, you were alwavs relieved when the other guy got it and you did not. That was how the system worked.
Basically Sissy continued to survive because everyone at the company thought she was smart. That was how she had gotten along at school too. Although she never did the best work, teachers assumed she could and rewarded her with A's.
Sissy's cousin, Ada Lynn, insisted their cross in life wasn't only looks but brains, too. Ada Lynn said that beauty plus intelligence was too much of a package for most men. And that's why they had the problems they did.
But Ada Lynn was being kind. She was definitely the one with the looks and was the cheerleader, homecoming queen, Miss Georgia Chick, etc. Since the seventh grade, Sissy had watched while boys and men responded to Ada Lynn, observing that if you were beautiful, it only served as an asset up to a point. After that point it was definitely a liability. If you were ugly, the process worked in reverse--first rejection, and then a lifetime of trust.
Part of what Ada Lynn said was true. Back then Sissy had been very smart. Now she wasn't so sure. She asked Ada Lynn how come if she were such a genius, she found herself supporting a couple kids from fathers who did nothing to help her pay the bills? That probably required the intelligence quotient of a turtle. Stupider than a turtle, she corrected. At least, a turtle left her eggs to fend for themselves.
She also wondered how, with her good looks and beauty trophies, Ada Lynn had ended up a young widow with three kids and bottomless debts.
One day the president of Sissy's company (and there were five in the last eighteen months of its existence) announced to Sissy that he had saved her job at the last board meeting. He had told them what great work she was doing, how many kids she had, what good grades they made in school, and how smart she was. Blah blah blah. Although Sissy was grateful, she understood that now she owed him something and it was a smarmy feeling at best.
A few days later, the president asked Sissy if she could possibly find time to help him pick out a pair of new dress shoes. He explained that he never made the right decisions when it came to clothes, and since his wife had left him, he needed a W-O-M-A-N to come along.
It only took Sissy a moment to recall a piece of her genetic inheritance--stone coldness, straight from her grandmother Olivia--and very effectively Sissy icily explained that surely the president must understand that as a single mother, blah, blah, her responsibilities outside the job were overwhelming. In other words, she could never in a million years and not if he were the last man on the planet.
This president prided himself on the efforts he made to be open and clear to his employees, with the expectation that each of them should tell him everything. This was the result of management training courses in sensitivity at Harvard Business school. "My door is always open," "don't think you can't come to me with anything," blah, blah, blah. "If you're having problems" or "if you see someone else having problems, etc.
Honestly, he did try to be communicative, and it was true that his door was always open. But it mostly served to let everyone hear the arguments he had with his ex-wife's lawyer. As president, this man functioned under the illusion that the company was a tribe planting the same seeds, reaping the same harvest. The difference was that he was making an annual $100,000 to dig for roots, while Sissy was making a crummy twenty-two.
A week after he asked Sissy to help him find a new pair of shoes, he must have noticed that she had stopped speaking to him. One morning as she slithered past his gaping door, he called out, uSissy, could you come in here for a moment? I'd like to speak to you." After asking her to sit down and shutting the two exterior doors, he invited her to express her feelings. Unless you've been asked to go shopping by your boss, it would be impossible for you to know how disgusting a request this was.
"Has something I've said offended you?" He inquired. "Has it anything to do with suggesting you go with me on an innocent trip to the mall?"
Sissy told him she hated to shop for other people's shoes and then she got frank. She said that she resented his friendliness and his assumptions. She probably would have lost her job on the next go-round, but he got canned a week later. She felt bad when she heard he didn't even know about it until he arrived at the board meeting.
At this company it was the joke that you couldn't get hired unless you were handicapped or aberrant. Sissy's claim to being strange was her mysterious past. Anyone could look in her face and see that. One of her incisors was gold and she had a crescent moon tattooed on the inside of her left forearm. She had lived in Guatemala and almost died when her appendix burst on a bus in Afghanistan. She had walked across Borneo and followed the sacred elephant with the Buddha's tooth through the mountains of Sri Lanka on the second full moon in August. Sissy's face showed stories which she never told anyone. Who would believe them after seeing the kind of ordinary problems she had now?
The last aberration to come on board before the company went under was a man whose voice was so high that it was reasonable to assume he had had a terrible accident in the vicinity of his private parts. However, once the company really started to roll downhill, his voice lowered two octaves, and he officially took over as comptroller.
Towards the end, Sissy unofficially changed her job title to Czarina of Sales because her territory in two years had expanded from the pitiful Southeast to the Eastern division of the entire United States and Canada. From educational and textbook distribution to international markets. In other words, she had the whole world, and it was all her vast but crumbling empire.
Sissy's greatest friend at the old company was a world renowned chef who had fallen on hard times. He came to fill in as a receptionist and stayed on. Not only was he a master cook, but he knew everything about opera. He explained to Sissy the difference between a Mozart and Verdi soprano and told her that Callas' greatness was her mortality. "When she sings," he said, "you can hear her burning up.
After the company closed down, he stayed on to help sort files, discovering that every company transaction had been documented dozens of times. He said the nightmare of the entire century lay by the ton in the dumpster out back, and in these times the only reason people had jobs was to create files that no one looked at or needed.
Although it wasn't loyalty that made Sissy stay, after so many internal troubles, financial vicissitudes, and a vicious lawsuit, loyalty was how it appeared. Sissy had stayed as the company declined from its original robust sixty to its pathetic finale of seven employees. When it was over, the last president commended her and the others for their doggedness over a bottle of expensive champagne.
Now Sissy had a new job. The duties were the same as the old job, but the new company was in Lafayette where she didn't have her own office, where she had to commute, where there wasn't a pool to swim in at lunch.
At the new job Sissy noticed right away that the place was full of weirdos, and it was nearly an identical set to the old place. There was a transsexual, man to woman, in customer service. And the technician who set up Sissy's computer was a soft spoken guy like her antimacho friend Roberto at the old company. Besides gentle manners and the same first name they both wore baggy purple pants and two tiny gold hoop earrings in the same ear.
In the cubicle next to Sissy's was another familiar face, a robust Irishman with a Dolby stereo voice. He brought in donuts, organized frisbee tag at Friday lunch, and obsessed about Women. He was a version of her fellow cheerleader and rival in the old telemarketing department.
On her second day at the new job, the Irishman cornered Sissy by the xerox machine and asked what kind of music she liked, where she went on weekends, if she liked to go out dancing, etc. A series of enthusiastic questions from him was followed by a round of listless responses from Sissy. Finally, after a few weeks he asked her what she thought a man should do who had a crush on a girl who never noticed. "Nothing," Sissy said. Absolutely nothing at all."
The two women who ran the art department at the new company were exactly like the two who had run it at the old. Thin, cheerful gals nearing forty, with neatly combed pony-tails, oversized glasses, and lipstick that never cracked. They wore outfits, meaning they shopped in department stores, and never cut or dyed their hair themselves.
The young man who supervised shipping at the new company was a version of the one who had run it at the old. Both were skinny shag blonds whose calf muscles bulged like rolled socks. They typically wore cut-offjeans, cropped Van Halen T-shirts, and drove four-wheel-drive trucks plastered with myiar decals.
At the new job there were two clerical gals who Sissy could have been friends with, but it would have taken five years. They were good looking black women whose large plastic earrings always matched their blouses. They did their job fine but they made relentless fun of the place. Something Sissy totally approved of. After all, they weren't being paid not to.
On the other hand, Sissy's new boss was being paid plenty to take everything very seriously, and he had the car to prove it. Sissy, however, liked him a lot. He was handsome, tall, foreign with an elegant wardrobe. Most of all, he was smart. He ran the company like the province that his family owned in the third world country of his origin. Nothing went out without his approval.
At the old job, coincidentally, the company's founder had also been tall, foreign, suave, and wore custom-made clothes from Hong Kong. And at both companies this sign hung by the coffee machine:
Nine World Religions In A Nutshell
Taoism: Shit happens.
Confucianism: Confucius say, "Shit happens.
Buddhism: If shit happens, it isn't really shit.
Zen: What is the sound of shit happening?
Hinduism: This shit happened before.
Islam: If shit happens, it is the will of Allah.
Protestantismt: Let shit happen to someone else.
Catholicism: If shit happened, you deserved it.
Judaism: Why does shit always happen to us?
They were all pretty good but Sissy liked the Protestant one best. It fit in with the feeling everyone had at lay-off time.
It didn't take long before the similarities between the old company and the new company had Sissy spooked. Multiplying coincidence times probability, she came up with a few slight variations and a bunch of uncanny resemblances. Something greater than weird.
Sissy tried to reason, tried tojoke, but the more she pushed the similarities out of her mind the more the new job appeared like a phantom clone of the old. Soon it wasn't funny. Maybe she had died one night on the freeway coming home from work and was instantly reincarnated as an office worker. That's why things were a little off. A classic case of bad karma.
Sissy had watched enough episodes of the Twilipht Zone with her kids, especially the 24-hour marathon when they all curled up in front of the television and ate popcorn for dinner, to know that people did get lost in time or space and did end up in places that seemed like somewhere else.
Sissy, in fact, went through the list of psychological maladies, family curses, and various religious beliefs, to try to figure out explanations for her circumstance. All around her, Sissy saw variations of the same people she had already met and worked with in another town at another place.
She called her cousin Ada Lynn to ask if she had ever considered her to be crazy.
"You know, like a nut," Sissy asked. "Like the kind of person that grows on trees in our family.
Ada Lynn told Sissy that the only time she ever thought she might be a little off was when she took up with the sax player who didn't have a real house and camped out in the woods. Ada Lynn said she thought that with all the troubles Sissy had keeping the kids together, she might have hooked up with someone a little more substantial. But it hadn't lasted long, and Ada Lynn assured her that except for that one little incident of romantic misguidance, she considered Sissy the sanest person she knew.
Sissy said that even though she might not be crazy, maybe she was having a nervous breakdown. Maybe the strings that had held her together while she made the money to go to the store to buy the things the kids needed were starting to wear out. Maybe she was losing it. Ada Lynn told her if she were having a nervous breakdown, she probably wouldn't know it. Her kids would know it, her boss would know it, but she wouldn't be calling up with an inquiry. That just didn't make sense.
Okay, so Sissy wasn't crazy, wasn't cracking up, then why did everything that was different look the same? Ada Lynn said she had had times when the world looked the same way to her, too. Ever since she was a teenager, Ada Lynn had always had more than one boyfriend. Even when she was married, she had someone on the side. Ada Lynn swore that from time to time something would happen where she couldn't tell the men in her life apart.
"Talk about horrible," she said. "I would go into a panic. I could not tell which was which, who was who and got so scared that I was going to get their names mixed up, I stopped seeing all of them. I moved out of the master bedroom and in with one of the kids for a week. Don't you think I thought I had some kind of disease?" Ada Lynn asked. "Sure as hell I did. Don't you think I drove myself to the neurologist in Atlanta as fast as I could. They took tests and gave me tranquilizers, but they always told me there was absolutely nothing wrong with my brain, Sissy, and that is what I am telling you.
"Then what is wrong?" Sissy cried.
Ada Lynn suggested that maybe there was another explanation. Maybe Sissy had already seen too much in her lifetime, traveling to Borneo and Sikkim like she had, having all those different colored lovers, living in a tepee in New Mexico, eating peyote and psychedelic mushrooms, etc. Ada Lynn said all that had soaked up Sissy's capacity, "saturates, was the word she used, to see the differences in things like office work. At that level it probably did look alike. Ada Lynn said maybe everything was starting to blend.
"But don't you think blending sufficient cause for alarm?" Sissy asked.
Sure, she did. "That's why you have got to quit your job," Ada Lynn told her.
Sissy knew that was the truth, but she didn't know how she could. She'd been working in an office and taking care of kids and doing laundry and washing dishes and paying bills for a long, long time. Bad habits are always harder to break than good ones.
"Quit," Ada Lynn said. "And do what you want for a while. See what happens. Things will work out.
Do what you want. Do what you want. Do what you want. For a week those words rolled around in Sissy's head like a sackful of marbles.
Then Sissy called Ada Lynn and told her that she had decided she didn't care if the kids ate popcorn for dinner. "It won't kill them. In fact, it's good for them. Good to see that motherhood isn't a crucifixion." Sissy said that she was turning in her resignation the next day.
In the morning Sissy shouted into the hall of the two-bedroom apartment. When the kids arrived at the dinette table, Sissy was standing at the stove flipping Swedish pancakes, a dish usually reserved for Sunday.
"Mama, how come you're making pancakes on Tuesday?"
"Mama, how come you're not dressed?"
"Mama, aren't you going to work today?"
"Mama, will you take me shopping?" "Mama, are you sick?"
"Mama, why aren't you going to work today?"
Why, why, why? The word bounced off the walls of the apartment a hundred times, as expressions of alarm passed along her children's faces.
"Because I want to do what I want to do for a while," Sissy said, low, slow and trembling.
That sounded good enough to the kids, for after all, they tried to do what they wanted to whenever they could get away with it. But as the sentence tumbled out of Sissy's mouth, it was terrible. Childish, unmotherly, irresponsible. Yet she made herself repeat it, until the words got louder and more cheerful and she was singing, "I Ain't Gonna Work on Maggie's Farm No More" like a crazy woman. Singing and flipping Swedish pancakes.
After the kids left for school, Sissy called her best friend and sang to her. Called her ex-husband and sang to him. Her cousin Ada Lynn and sang to her. Then she went to her boss, stopped into the unemployment agency. And all the time she was singing. And you could hear mortality in her voice. You could hear Sissy burning up. She sang she didn't want to work on Maggie's farm no more. Sang she wasn't going to work on Maggie's farm no more. Said she had had enough of working on Maggie's farm. And thanks to Bob Dylan, everybody knew what she meant.