MEANEY returned from ascertaining the state and quality of the restrooms looking pale and shaken. He was a tall, skinny man with sparse red hair that stood up stiffly from his round head. His suit appeared to be at least one size too large for him. He was out leader, and had called this meeting.
“That bathroom,” he said slowly as he pulled himself back onto his stool, a fresh double bourbon gleaming in front of him, “is too disgusting to shit in.” He picked up his glass and studied it. “I'm going to have to burn these shoes later.”
The bar was crowded and noisy. We'd arrived early and secured three precious stools right near the taps, where Joan the bartender, in skintight black jeans and tank top, was guaranteed to appear on a regular basis. This afforded us frequent refills and frequent glimpses of her plump, frenzied body. Joanie had the shtick down: There were evenings even old salts like me imagined she might really be flirting, might really be going home with me that night. These were usually evenings which involved more than four cocktails, which was to say all of them.
“What happened?” Carl asked, wheezing sweatily.
Meaney shook his head slowly, still holding the bourbon in front of him. “Not one specific event, I don't think. Years and years of horror, crusted on top of itself.” He held the drink up as if making a toast. “Gentlemen, that bathroom cannot be cleaned. It will have to be destroyed, and rebuilt.”
“Jesus,” Carl said. “I had a big dinner.”
I sipped my beer and wondered, not for the first time, what Carl would do with his time is Meaney weren't around to tell him. Probably sit around a bar like this and wait fro someone like Meaney to show up and issue orders.
My glass trembled in my hand. I closed my eyes, and I could see the words, like hot coals burning in a dark room.
“All right,” Meaney said suddenly. I opened my eyes; he was holding his bourbon up in the air like a trophy, his narrow eyes squinted at it. “Let's have a toast. Our fingers are bloodied and our throats are raw, but fuck if we didn't make our numbers this month! Can I get a huzzah!?”
Carl and I raised our glasses and cried “Huzzah!” in unison, and we all drank. Meaney slammed his glass down on the bar and pounded it a few times.
“Joanie!” he shouted. “Joanie, another round for the best fucking phone sales team in the world.”
Meaney had been at the company for two years. He'd said he could sing the script in the shower, that he woke up muttering it, and I believed him. He'd been designated our Team Leader when Carl and I started, this short, skinny man in a well-worn corduroy sports jacket and a white shirt with a yellow ring around the collar.
He'd walked us through the basic procedures and the script by noon and took us out for a liquid lunch. Around two o'clock, when Carl and I were starting to get nervous about being fired on our first day, Meaney made the Pyramid speech for the first time, and Carl fell in love.
“We're slaves,” he said seriously. “You may not think so because we get paid our sad little salaries and can't get worked to death—but we are. We're just like the slaves who built the fucking pyramids—anonymous, brilliant, unappreciated, and eventually sealed in between meaningless stone blocks.”
We both stared at him as he drained his glass.
“What I'm saying is,” he said with a cough, wet and boozy. “What I'm saying is, don't waste your time, because your work is anonymous. No one will ever remember if you did a good job or if you were a malingerer. You could be the best fucking man on the floor back there, and who will know it a hundred years from now? Quick, Byron, who sat in your cube before you?”
I smirked, checking the time surreptitiously. “I have no idea?”
“That's right. And no matter how good or bad you are, kiddo, no one's gonna remember you, either. The Pharaoh, they'll remember. But not us.”
He was right, of course, but I doubted Meaney was the first to think of this. Carl was in love, however, and stared at Meaney in the same way I imagined he'd stare at Jesus if Jesus were to appear and offer to buy him a drink with holy water ice cubes.
Joanie appeared in front of us. “Next round's coming up, guys, but these are on me,” she said, placing several shot glasses in front of us and puring a bottle of questionable bourbon over them as sloppily as possible, spilling more than she got into the glasses.
Meaney grinned. “You getting soft on us, Joan?”
She winked. “Hot to trot, baby!”
He picked up his glass and held it up again. “Huzzah!” he shouted, and drank it rapidly, sputtering into a coughing fit.
“Oh my god,” he wheezed. “That's fucking turpentine.”
For all his talk of slavery, Meaney was very good at his job. He knew the script perfectly, in four languages. he knew every branch of the flowchart. nothing threw him or discouraged him, and he took nothing personally. Hang-ups, insults, smart-assed teenagers—he took it all in stride and plowed on. He racked up sales and kept the steady stream of newbie employees trained, informed, and entertained.
The coffee pot was next to Meaney's cube, and I often stood there, fixing coffee, silently mouthing the script along with him. It bubbled up from within me like an exhaled breath, eager to escape, pushed out by some invisible pressure.
Meaney was good—but it was the script, really, that sold. It was beautiful, in its way. twenty-seven pages of tightly-packed typescript, black on white, spiral-bound and present near every phone in the office It attempted to cover every possible conversational twist and turn that could emerge. The script was a novel, a free-form poem—it was beautiful, in its way, and it worked.
You got hung up on, insulted—sure. But if you got to the second sentence, they hesitated. If you got through the third line, they wouldn't hang up. By the end of the first paragraph, by and large, it was a sale, guaranteed. The script worked. once you learned it and learned to use it, your sales skyrocketed.
I rubbed my tired eyes and paused a moment. I was exhausted. Meaney was talking about the latest batch of new hires to not make it through the first week—we experienced a lot of churn; people either quit within days or stayed on forever.
I was making a lot of money, but I felt like I hadn't slept in days. And the script kept running through my head, in a loop, and kept wanting to bubble up in answer to anything said to me.
But that was okay. The script was beautiful.
When it got crowded, the after-work group of kids looking to muster the courage to get laid, we moved to one of the wobbly wooden tables, thick with varnish and spilt drinks. Every movement sent the table tumbling, Carl and me scrambling to save our drinks. Meaney never budged, although he was the worst offender, squirming and leaping and throwing his arms out in protest. But no matter how precarious his bourbon became, he ignored it.
After an hour, we were enveloped by them: Youngsters playing dress up in their suits, with their briefcases and cell phones, screaming at each other while spilling drinks on us. Burning cigarettes, Meaney just leaned in closer to us, shouting hoarsely.
“You guys have been here, what, six months?”
I nodded, and realized I was humming. I'd made up a tune for the words of the script in my first week—a memory trick of mine. It was similar to an old cartoon theme song, and in the past few days I'd found myself humming it, the script racing jauntily through my mind.
“So your sales are going up, right?” Meaney didn't wait for a response. “Of course they are. Everyone breaks through at about six months. It's when the script really gets embedded in you. It's when you're not reading the script any more—you're speaking it.”
I reflected on this while I stared at my cocktail, pretending to be absorbed. I realized, with a jolt of adrenaline that I couldn't quite interpret, that it was absolutely true. The script's different parts, its lines and breaks, its explicit and implicit instructions, had become my vocabulary. I felt I could almost speak sentences just reciting different parts of the script in various orders.
Meaney suddenly shook himself, shot his cuffs and peered at his watch. “Okay, time to go. You guys should go too. I'll settle up the tab.”
Slowly, ponderously, as if he weighed three or four times as much as he did, Meaney stood up, patted himself down for no apparent reason, and headed for the bar, carving a path through the after-work crowd with curses and violent gestures.
Just like that, we were dismissed. For a moment Carl and I just sat there, paralyzed.
At work the next day, I felt like I had a football lodged in my head. I moved with rusted, stiff joints, the script the only thing I could say reliably. Meaney, though, came in like gangbusters. Eyes bright, smile in place, he guided a huge cup of coffee to his desk, sat down heavily, planted his headset on top of his stiff, cockeyed hair, and winked at me across the room. Almost before he punched up a number, he was reciting the script.
I'd found that I could speak the script without thinking. I could close my eyes and just recite it, letting my mind wander. As the morning wore on, I found myself over and over again startling back to awareness, five or six calls completed, a sale or two made, and no memory whatsoever of any of it.
The rest of the day wen by in flashes of consciousness. Ten-thirty, noon, two—I'd jump and blink awake, and there I'd be, headset on, call log full, hand numb and neck stiff. At two, I dialed the break code into my phone, stood up and walked to Meaney's cube, my legs feeling like they were made of small twigs, wrapped in plastic.
Meaney glanced up as I appeared in his doorway and held up a finger, turning away from me, murmuring the script into his mouthpiece. My own lips moved along with the script. I realized, and was alarmed, but didn't try to stop myself.
“Okay, young Byron, what can I do for you?”
I shook my head. “I don't know, Meaney, all day I've been. . . I don't know. . . I can't seem to—”
I nodded. “Yeah. How—”
He waved a hand dismissively. “It happens. Don't worry about it—your numbers will actually go up.”
Blinking in confusion, I looked down at my shoes and then back up at him, searching. “And that's—that doesn't bother you?”
Meaney smiled, his teeth crooked, gums too red. “I just said, your numbers go up. Don't try to make sense of it. It won't make any.”
I looked at him, and then decided to take him at his word. I turned away and stood for a moment. The sea of voices cascaded over me, a soft breezy current, a hundred people like me reciting the script. I was swimming in the script, breathing it and absorbing it. I held my breath.
“Takin' and early lunch,” I said over my shoulder.
At Sally's, I slid into the leather padded barstool and signaled the bartender. It was dark and cool at the bar, and I felt hidden from the lunch crowd which was making noise in the dining area, smacking their lips over burgers and gossip.
“What'll you have?” the bartender asked, wiping down the bar in front of me.
“Gimme a Scotch,” I said, running my hands through my hair. “Neat.”
I repeated myself. This just made him lean in and squint at me.
“This some kind of joke, buddy? 'Cause I ain't interested in buying shit from you.”
The script. I realized with a start that I'd recited it without thinking. I'd opened my mouth to say one thing and had recited the script instead. Swallowing hard, I doubled my order in slow, overly enunciated words. When the bartender walked away to fix my drink, I slumped and prayed that no one else would speak to me.
When I got home, there was a message from Meaney on my answering machine. It began with “Hey there, kid!” and then launched into a minute and a half of the script. I was feeling thick and heavy with ebbing booze. I got a cold beer and sat with it pressed against my forehead in the dark, listening. As Meaney's voice filled the dim air, my thoughts synced with him and the script ran through my mind like a bright ribbon, lighting up the whole place.
As I sat there, falling asleep drunk as my father had, my lips moved of their own accord, mouthing each word of the script.
The script, the script, the script—I woke up, startled, shouting the script—line twenty seven from page fifteen. Sitting up in the chair, arms and legs stiff, I continued to shout the words for a few moments, and felt a splash of dread slice me in half, a warm rush of pleasure at speaking the words of the script the script cauterizing me back together again.
I clenched my teeth against the script and the script danced through my mind instead. I sucked in the script and breathed out the script, deep breaths, over and script again, until I felt my script slow and the script flow back into my legs and arms.
Head pounding, I stood up on shaky scripts and rubbed my forehead. Too much script the night before was the problem, and I determined to clean up and shake off this script. Maybe I'd need some script to clear my script. But no script would script me.
I'd started for the script, filled with script determination, when the script rang, piercing and disruptive, freezing me in place, filled with dread and scripting. My machine picked up, and my voice sounded strange and scripted. I couldn't understand a script I said. It was as if I were speaking script on the recording.
Then the script, and Meaney's script filled the script again. Like the script before, he launched into a recitation of the script, without script or script. Just script script floating through the script.
On a whim, I reached over and scripted up the script. Scripting, I scripted “Script, script script script.”
I paused, staring. Meaney's script worked into my ear: Script script script.
This story originally appeared in Bare Bone #7.