February was just about the worst month. Ever, I told what’s-her-name.
Seriously? The month our son got married. Really?
I can’t remember, I said, putting the fork with the lukewarm Rice-A-Roni on it down, but, um, uh.
You’re starting to trail off again. She wagged her finger. To not finish your sentences.
You know, I pointed at her, you remind me of, er. Then I rubbed my chin. I’m sorry, it’s my job, mostly.
This exchange just exacerbated some already seething spousal tensions. By the time I reconstructed what the problem with February was, a losing parlay on Super Bowl Fifty, my special angel had gone apoplectic, reciting a litany of all too familiar complaints. Every time she’d pause for breath, I hoped the list might be complete, but it was like a song with false endings, because she kept remembering new transgressions, the capper of which involved my misplacing things I needed for work on a daily basis and then scribbling notes full of exclamation points blaming her, until the evening came when she’d prove conclusively that it was all my fault.
Well, I’m not going to debate you, point for point, I said. It’s because I’m over tired and stressed out at work.
You’ve been milking that excuse for years.
Being married to you, who needs excuses? I mean, what’s dinner with Lucille without at least one screaming fit?
She rose from the table, and things took a turn for the worse until the small bookcase she kept mostly empty for just this purpose got overturned. We surveyed the disorder, giggled together, and agreed to sit and have a civilized dialogue. Like mature adults, calmly, she ordered.
All right, I began, I’ll admit I haven’t been myself lately. I’ve been this other guy I don’t even recognize.
Other guy! You’ve been an absent-minded professor since the day we met, but you’re much worse now. Especially since you read the autobiography of that whiney misogynist who thinks he’s too good to collect his Nobel Prize in person. That’s some hero for a grown man to emulate!
Don’t even go there, I warned. Say what you will about me, drag my good name through the mud, I told her, but this is an outrage. I’m putting my foot down, I tell you. This will not stand!
So much for the what-do-you-call-it. Dialogue.
So, as spring approached, I initiated a campaign to render Lucille speechless with my charm, to dazzle her with gifts and poems handwritten on lavender-scented papyrus notepaper celebrating happier times in the Nill household. To no avail. She just kept yapping nonstop about my shortcomings. Meanwhile, lack of sleep kept making me woozier and more forgetful. Then, I embarked on a sustained eating binge. Four prodigious meals per day, with lavish in-between snacking. Combined with a constitutional aversion to any form of exercise more vigorous than using a corkscrew, this major league chow fest resulted in substantial accruals of weight. Which, of course, unleashed torrents of pent up ridicule, not only from my dear one, but also from the other aggressive sales types where I work at Hockmere, Nishkin and Chynik. Of course, letting it slip that I supported one of Donald Trump’s moves (no, not all of them!) ballooned into another relationship issue of seismic proportions. Lucille started to lash out about things that hadn’t been mentioned in years. In contrast to me, she’s got the memory of a bull elephant, and suddenly everything became fair game.
I’m exhausted from you already, she said one night. You and your weirdo sense of humor.
You’re so inappropriate. Remember after I gave birth, how you said what a miracle, incredible, but I’ll be leaving town for a while now, get back in touch when the kid’s able to play catch?
And, in retaliation for this decades-old lapse in judgment, she withdrew whatever shreds of sympathy or support remained for my current work malaise.
Wah! she said, whenever I brought it up. Wah-wah!
Do you even comprehend what I’m saying, I asked her. This junior guy, he’s with Hockmere six months max, gives his presentation, it’s like I’m sitting there listening to myself!
People steal your ideas, even your exact lines; yes, I get it. So? You’re in the business world. What else is new, Adrian? It’s a form of flattery.
But, listen to me.
Flattery! she said. You think eating poorly will solve anything? Maybe the time’s come to consider switching jobs and getting yourself together. Maybe sales isn’t a good fit for Adrian Nill at his age. I know it’s not good for us as a couple. Why don’t you get out of HNC altogether and go find some relationship management gig like the one you used to do when we were first dating? When we were happy.
Every once in a great while I have to give Lucille credit—the woman comes up with some absolutely out-of-the-box brilliant ideas.
Quit my thing-a-ma-jig? I asked. You think I actually could?
Why not? Go find some division of a company somewhere, she said, run by some New Age space shot with an HR background. Preferably a millennial.
As I said, pure brilliance!
The essentials of my new position consist of being a yes man, a glad hander. Fullmer & Gong is one of those outfits with regularly scheduled painting parties, pie contests, trivia quizzes, and low stakes bingo games. Sometimes, we sit in circles, close our eyes, and appreciate our collective energies. Every day here has its cutesy nickname: Happy Monday, Agenda Free Tuesday, Cookie and Cake Wednesday, Mental Health Thursday, Casual Friday. I’m the guy they call in to kiss up to high net worth customers, but only after all else fails, because, somehow, I’m the one best able to speak their language.
My role is to make sure that these clients feel comfortable with the way we handle their money. Confidence is huge in this game. Buy in. So, I’m the closer; on the rare occasions where they push back, I spring into action. A few of our investors are somewhat high maintenance, and pretty much all have their eccentricities. Some need to be called every Monday at a specific time; others are okay with attending a once-a-year meeting, or playing golf monthly. The job, in plain English, is cake. Because I don’t have to even do any heavy lifting, I can delegate most of it to my staff.
Being a parasite (or “sales weasel” as we were affectionately known at Hockmere), able to coast on my well-honed sycophantic skill set, was thrilling. In the beginning, I focused all attention on schmoozing Marshall, the founder, and on pumping his CEO ego up, because it was abundantly clear that the work of my department had little impact on the company’s actual success or strategic direction. Perfect! When the big guy would rail against government regulations, I’d be the one to jump in at an appropriate pause and say, Damn right, it’s enough to turn you into a libertarian! Afterwards, I’d slink down the corridor to my office, draw the curtains, put the sign up saying Do Not Disturb…Genius At Work, and surf the Internet. I had it licked. Finally, my dream job. I was rejuvenated. No stress. Lucille and I began to really enjoy life again.
At night, though my head would hit the pillow, sleep would not come. Two, two thirty, wide awake. I’m not really fat, I’d tell myself, instead of counting sheep. I’m just bloated. It’s a water retention thing. Glandular. I started arriving at work bleary eyed, and the forgetfulness problem compounded. Despite all the daily ha-ha’s, I learned that not everyone felt ecstatic at Fullmer. Then, I found out I was becoming a major topic of conversation. Why? My status as the guru and high priest of looking busy while not doing a damn thing did not go unnoticed. People would ask: how does he get away with it? They began to make pilgrimages from different branches and departments to observe, trying to ascertain my secret powers. Soon, every nut on the payroll started camping out at my door.
Some would come in and expound outlandish theories. One wild-haired marketing director, who carried around a piece of torn blanket wherever she went, told me, to be really healthy and, therefore, productive, you have to eat tons and tons of clarified homemade beef broth. My whole apartment reeks of it. Yes, sure it’s disgusting, especially the jelly, but the nutritional therapist recommended that whatever your weight is in pounds, drink half of that in ounces of water daily, unless you also consume alcohol, then increase your water intake even more. The key to success: top every meal off with eight ounces of beef broth. Do you mind if I excuse myself? I’ll be right back.
Somehow, I became the company’s unofficial ear. I’d play confidante/psychiatrist to everyone who’d come see me with problems. I’d assure them that all their secrets would remain safe with me, because I could barely remember what these secrets were long enough to repeat them, even if I wanted to. Stuff like: But she said she loved me, dammit, she swore. And I’d listen and dispense the wise-sounding counsel of a condescending elder, as in: Welcome to reality, son. People say a lot of things; it’s time to move on.
This endless parade of advice seekers, with their mundane problems, turned out to be almost as draining and stressful as the HNC job, where the quantities I sold were measured by a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual report card that documented the results.
One of the other VPs complained to me over lunch: As soon as you use a little brains around here, you get kicked in the ass. Then he looked at me sharply. Some of us do, anyway. And excuse my French.
I thought it odd, but Marshall dispatched me to South Africa as part of a delegation to drum up new business. It was good to get away from the nut factory headquarters, if only for a week. Before I even got back, though, it came to light: a blurry picture of me appearing to do some questionable things with a baboon. Something of dubious legality in every state but Wyoming.
My beloved and I shared another calm conversation around the dinner table.
The Internet makes mistakes sometimes, I told her, it’s not infallible. People are out to get me, you’re aware of that, right? There’s this thing called Photo Shop you may have heard of. Look, most of my Fullmer colleagues are so jealous that they banded together and marched into Marshall’s office to inform him that his shiny new toy, which would be me, is all surface glitter, and that the supposed work that I do doesn’t amount to a damn thing. So guess who’s on top of his thing-a-ma-bob list now? The big guy called me in today with an ultimatum: I better come up with a solid plan to start earning my keep instead of just surfing the web all day. Or else.
Wah! my wife said. Wah-wah!
Never mind that, I told her. How long do you think I’ll have to pretend, before it’s safe to go back again and just do nothing?
About the Author
Since 2015, AN Block’s stories have appeared in Buffalo Almanack (recipient of its Inkslinger Award for Creative Excellence), Umbrella Factory Magazine (a 2016 Pushcart Prize nominee), The Maine Review, New Pop Lit, Falling Star, DenimSkin, Per Contra, Burningwood Literary Journal, Crack The Spine, Constellations, The Bicycle Review, Lakeview International Journal of Literature and Arts, Flash Frontier, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Down in the Dirt, Contrary, the Blue Bonnet Review, The Nite Writers Literary Arts Journal, Lowestoft Chronicle, and The Binnacle, the latter of which won Honorable Mention in its Twelfth and Thirteenth Annual International Ultra-Short Competitions. He has an MA in History and is a Master of Wine, who teaches at Boston University. He is also a contributing editor at the Improper Bostonian.