[Made a few touch-ups. If you've read it the first time around, you'll notice a few changes. My partner pointed out some subtle religious connotations, so I tried to explore that a bit. All comments are welcome, as usual.]
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You sigh, forcefully exhaling a wheezing lung full of second hand smoke and contempt for ‘a hard day’s work’.
You are in a nondescript drinking hole, nestled between a rather large bearded woman and a thin, wiry man with eightball eyes in a coat six sizes too big for his body. The bearded lady reaches over and gives your thigh an emasculating squeeze, but you instinctively slap her hand away before it could find its way up your leg to other unmentionable, more important parts. She stands up with an insulted look on her face, then glides over to the drunken teenagers smoking home-rolled cigars lucidly in the corner.
You follow her with your eyes for a minute or two, but lose interest when she and a tall lanky boy start necking while his friends cheer him on. The sight of her breath fogging up his glasses is too much to bear.
After a few drinks you begin to feel gregarious, in want of social interaction, and decide to strike up a conversation with the shadowy man hunched over in his seat next to you.
‘Mind passing the nuts?’ you say. The man’s face jerks up from the large basket of peanuts and chewed lemon rinds he’s been examining and swivels until his nose comes to a sudden halt just inches from your own. His breath reeks of stale cucumbers and malt liqour. It is such a pungent odor that you are forced to bite your lower lip to fight off the moisture condensing under your eyelids.
He inspects your face cautiously, his squinty eyes peeling your face apart as one would the skin of a boiled onion. You feel naked, unmasked and vulnerable. Finally, after you’ve chewed your lower lip to paste, he tilts his head sideways, flashes a slanted smile, and slides the basket across the counter.
‘Be my guest,’ he says, his thin lips stretching to his earlobes in a long, Cheshire smile.
‘Thanks. You from around here?’ you ask, resoundingly grateful for human contact and the subsided silence.
‘Not really, though I come here fairly often. You?’
You live on the other side of town, but the bars down there are absolute pissholes, havens for junk addicts and illicit activity. You explain that you are in need of a change in atmosphere. He smiles and nods, then says that he knows the feeling. His commiseration, however transparent, makes you feel an inexplicable, oddly strong sort of kinship with him. With the ice-broken, you relax a bit and trade your empties for a rye and coke.
'So, what type of job do you do?' you slur between the handfuls of peanuts you stuff in your mouth.
He puts his drink down and gives his wrist a gambler’s flick, sending a handful of nutshells tumbling like a pair of dice across the bar’s sticky counter. Leaning over, he grabs some hanging cloth on your shoulder and presses his lips to your ear.
(Normally your reaction to this invasion of your personal space would have been to forcefully push him away, but for some reason his actions feel natural and non-threatening.)
In a silky sort of whisper he says -
'I die for a living.'
- his words barely audible. In fact, the words seem to avoid your eardrums altogether. Each syllable swims from his mouth, back around to the front of your face, finding their way to your brain through your dilated pupils.
(Your brow twitches spastically – the liquor is taking hold.)
Needing a moment to make sense of what he had just said, you use your tongue to lap up the last bit of rye at the bottom of the smudgy glass like a thirsty dog. Only after wiping it clean are you able to continue.
‘How’s that? Did you just say you die for a living?’
‘That’s right – I die for a living,’ he repeats under his breath, glancing around suspiciously. ‘I’m not surprised that you’ve never heard of us. It’s a bit hush-hush, if you know what I’m saying.’
‘Are you shitting me?’ you say, lowering your voice and scanning the bar. ‘It sounds a bit ridiculous, to be honest. No offence.’
'None taken. Is it that hard to believe that in today’s world people are being paid to die? I mean, they pay you for damn near everything else. And let me tell you, it's an industry that can take you places. Not many people realize the opportunities out there if you’ve got the right contacts. For instance, I know a guy, can’t be much older than you, only he’s a witless drunk – I love the guy, but it’s true – who has fucked up every job, even the most menial tasks, he ever had. Honest to God. The grocery store fired him because he couldn’t count to ten. Jesus, he’d mismatch boxes, put them in the wrong aisles, accidentally shake bottles of carbonated water and pop, drop glass jars… just simple stuff that you could train a monkey to do.
‘Well, he got in touch with me after getting canned, saying that his wife was doing the plumber or something and that she was going to leave him if he didn’t scrounge up enough money to pay the bills. He asked me if I knew of any places that were hiring. He said he’d be willing to do just about anything. He is a real genuine bastard, so I knew that despite his lack of brainpower he’d be a solid workhorse, an asset to a company like ours that lives off of blood and sweat and tears. As a matter of fact, I told him over drinks a while back, I’ve got this new gig that would be perfect for you. A year later, he’s the best goddamn employee we got, dies right up there with the best of them.'
He stops for a moment and jams the neck of his beer bottle halfway down his throat, tilting his head back and letting his adams apple do all the work. He sets his drink down on the counter noisily, sending droplets of inky brown rain onto the countertop.
‘Is that so?’ you say. ‘I’d like to hear more about this company you work for.’
‘Here,’ he says, sliding a hand into his overcoat. ‘I don’t usually do this, but you seem like someone who needs a break.'
His hand quickly materializes, producing a worn out, badly creased business card.
With surprising vigor (given your deteriorated sobriety), you snatch the card from his fingertips and hold it close to your nose. Combined with your dusty haze, the crease makes it nearly impossible to decipher the cryptic ink scrawls marring its surface. A small coffee stain smudges the man’s name and position, further complicating matters. You can only make out what looks to be a long phone number, and with poor body control you jam the card so forcefully into your coat that you nearly tip off of the stool.
'I work in an office,' you blubber after regaining your balance. 'I make reports.' Your voice comes out in a giddy squeak, making you feel like a five year old at his first show and tell.
‘Is that so? What kind of reports? And for what company? I might’ve heard of the place.'
You try to recall exactly what it is that you do, but every attempt your mind makes to touch the last five or six years draws a blank. And, try as you might, you find it damned near impossible remember anything noteworthy that transpired in the last eight hours. In fact, your employer’s name altogether escapes you, leaving you speechless and flustered.
‘Gimme a second, I need a drink.’ You step off of the stool and lean over the counter, snapping your fingers feverishly at the bartender chatting with some drunks at the other end of the bar. After five or six snaps the stout sloth of a man looks over, says something that draws a laugh from the regulars, and saunters over, grumbling obscenities under his breath. You ask him for another rye and coke as you slide a five onto the table. His chubby fingers quickly confiscate it.
'So in other words, then, to get back on topic, you are either unemployed or your job is so horrible that you repress every goddamn minute of it. Am I right?’ the man beside you asks, snapping you out of your reverie.
‘Suffice to say that I’m not unemployed, though I imagine my life would be so much fuller if I was,’ you mutter.
‘One of those jobs, eh? Shit…that’s too bad. Well, what kind of skills do you have?’
Thankfully, before you have a chance to swallow that pill and face the fact that you have no redeeming talents and seem to be valuable only as the series of ones and zeroes in some giant corporate zoo, the bartender slides a glass filled with a suspiciously fruity looking liquid across the counter and walks away, still mumbling sentence fragments laced with profanity. Just in time, you sigh with relief, wrapping yourself around the glass and depositing its contents into your gaping word-hole.
It tastes horrible, like diluted Kool-aid mixed with cheap children’s cough medicine, but it’s a welcome break from the conversation at hand.
‘Well, I mean, I –‘
‘Wait, before you start…’
The man stands up and excuses himself to the john.
‘Soft bladder,’ he adds with a wink before turning towards the washroom.
As he walks off you let your eyes wander back to the bearded lady flirting with the boys in the corner. As you watch them take turns exchanging saliva, short fragmented memories seep back into your consciousness…
You think about the austere shoebox masquerading as your office, how it reeks constantly of nail polish remover and soiled bandaids, and how you have to sign a never-ending ‘permission form’ every time you feel the urge to expel bodily fluids.
You think about the three legged chair you've been assigned, the one that seems to move a foot to the left or a foot to the right every time you try to sit in it, and how week after week your pleas for a replacement get lost in an asphyxiating sea of corporate jargon.
You think about how your parking spot is not even five feet wide, and how the fat man who works in the mailroom always parks his moped in your fucking space. (Once, in a fit of rage, you almost convinced yourself you pop his bike’s front tires, but the urge didn’t stick.)
You think about the fake plants absorbing fake sunshine coming through fake windows and the curiously flavored, cloudy yellow liquid dripping from the watercooler’s nozzle.
You think about your coworkers: faceless Q-tips shuffling silently down cubicle row, carrying files and overloaded cardboard boxes from place to place like sedate lemmings.
You think of the line of cocaine you did in the men's room at lunch.
(You forgot, incidentally, to sign out, and you begin to worry about what repercussions that may have tomorrow at the office.)
The man returns, zipping up his fly as he plants himself back on his stool.
‘So. You never answered my question. Do you have any skills that readily apply to your chosen vocation? Whatever it is you do, it can’t possibly make you happy. I’ve known you for twenty minutes and I can tell you’re a wreck.’
'No, it doesn’t make me happy,' you say bitterly. ‘I wish I were dead.’
Though the words were hard to summon, you feel immense, indescribable relief, as if you’ve just passed a kidney stone or, better yet, given birth to a Chevy. He shakes his head somberly then claps you on the shoulder.
'You know, it takes a real big man to admit that. Maybe it's time to start looking for a new job.'
'Maybe. You’ve got me curious: how did you get into that line of work?’
'I know people,' he replies frankly, producing a thin, hypodermic needle from his coat. You watch him lift it absently to his gums, but when you blink it vanishes. You brush it off as part of your buzz.
'It's easy money, too. You only have to die, what, twice a week? Three times for overtime.'
‘What’s your average workday like? Busy?’
He smiles fondly and begins outlining the assignments he carries out on a day-to-day basis…
1. Testing flame retardation in spandex shorts.
2. Ingesting rat poison.
3. Measuring the toxicity of felt pens.
4. Drinking gasoline.
5. Taking bullets for high-paying celebrity types.
6. Setting off unstable explosives.
(He pauses to explain the intense rush of spontaneous, remorseless dismemberment: ‘It’s so empowering. You feel as though you can control everything,’ he stops, then adds, ‘like you become God.’)
'You sound like you enjoy your work.'
'We all have to go – why not get paid for it? Besides, once you die, life means that much more to you. You no longer live in fear. It’s comforting, believe it or, knowing the exact time you are going to die. It’s easier to deal with it emotionally when it’s spelled out for you on your time card.'
'Does it pay well? Because my lifestyle isn’t cheap, you know.’ You say this with forced conviction, as if it were irrefutable. Deep down, though, you ache for purpose, not monetary gain.
'How could it not? Dying professionally isn’t for everyone, but if you can break into the business you’re set for life.'
'Do you have dental?'
'Of course.' He grins, exposing two perfect, clean rows of long shark’s teeth.
'Will I get my own parking spot?'
'Sure. No one gets preferential treatment. There’s a spot for everyone.'
You study his face. Here is a man who loves life – who lives recklessly and still has time to relax. In spite of your high blood-alcohol level, the world suddenly seems perfect and clear. You will die – the calling you’ve been waiting for your entire life.
'Well, I’m looking into switching jobs – play the field a little.'
'What's the risk?'
'There’s no risk. Trust me, everyone in this business has a future. We value our employees. If you die well, management upstairs will see to it that you’ll get what you
deserve. After a few assignments, it will be like clockwork. In fact - '
'When can I get an interview?' you interject.
'You haven’t figured it out yet?'
He orders another round.
'I say we drink to your future,' he says as the bartender, on cue, slides a rye and coke your way. 'This one's on me.'
You drown yourself in the liquid in front of you, misty eyed and hopeful.
‘Gimme a call tomorrow, and we’ll get you all set up.’
He finishes his drink, flicks a twenty on the counter and disappears out the door.
The world is your oyster. All that’s required of you is death.
"Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the like of which has never been seen... there you have me in a nutshell, and kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change."
From his Last Will & Testament, Marquis de Sade