For your delectation here is an ever-so-slightly Kafkaesque fable of globalization and corporate America, dry, tongue-in-cheek, and ambiguously erotic (the eros of the business-meeting, the power-mongering and seduction of the job interview that isn’t). Michael Bryson is a Toronto short story writer, reviewer, critic, and blogger. He used to publish and edit The Danforth Review, an online magazine. Now he blogs at The Underground Book Club. This story is from his 2010 collection How Many Girlfriends. The photo of Michael was taken by his wife, Kate O’Rourke, who writes about her cancer treatment at Auntie Cake’s Shop (some good news there—read the latest). See also Michael’s story “My Life in Television” earlier published on NC.
By Michael Bryson
Things are breaking up out there
High water everywhere
– Bob Dylan
Life is a carnival
Believe it or not
– The Band
The boutiques full of soapstone carvings, plastic Mountie hats and paperweights stamped with 3D images of Horseshoe Falls would soon fill with tourists. The cash registers would ring loud. Camera-toting seniors would crowd behind the steel railing and complain about the water-laden air. The arcades would swell with teenagers and buses would line up side-by-side in the parking lot above the Falls.
But on this day, the rushing swell of water fell into cakes of ice; tulips peeked warily through the flowerbeds. The parking lot wasn’t half-full.
In the near-empty lower level of the casino, Lloyd ordered ribs and rice in the Hard Rock Café. He ordered an Alabama Slammer, sipped the sweet drink and watched a bar-screen video of John Lennon in New York City, circa 1975. Lennon in his green army jacket with the red star pinned to the lapel. Working class hero. Lennon about to begin five years of house husbandry. About to retreat from revolution and rock and roll. It struck Lloyd that he was older now than Lennon was then. Everything Lennon was known for he’d already done, except die. Half-an-hour earlier, Lloyd had lost five dollars, his limit, in a slot machine. Five dollars at twenty-five cents a credit gave him twenty credits. He played one credit at a time and won back none.
Lloyd lived in a small condo downtown Toronto that he rented with his long-time partner, Sarah. He told friends that now and again they spoke of marriage and children, but they weren’t looking for more. Sarah worked as a loan officer for a trust company and spent her spare time making pottery. His life was work, home, paycheque, bills: a simple existence regulated by the impulses of global capitalism. Watching Lennon on the television in the bar, he thought that he had arrived at a stable place himself well beyond revolution and rock and roll. Beyond cosmic shifts, transformation.
From his hotel room window, Lloyd could see the Falls sparkling behind beams of coloured lights. Earlier in the day he’d stood with his hands on the iron railing only feet from the falling water. He’d looked into the storm below and felt small. Uncertain. The Falls, unchanged; its bowl of thunder and cloud of mist, ever-changing.
Immediately outside his hotel was a wax museum.
He phoned Sarah and told her the wax museum reminded him of a visit he’d made to Niagara Falls with his family over twenty years earlier. He remembered drifting with his brother through the side streets and back alleys, behind the low-rent motels and tourist shops. In the days before the casinos. They spent the afternoon away from their parents and avoided the Falls and the crowds. Their afternoon highlight had been overhearing an American husband and wife talking about “how real Canadians live.” Twenty yards past the couple, his brother turned and yelled, “Watch out for the polar bears.” He pointed in the direction the couple was heading. “Two blocks that way.” Later, their mother asked them if they’d seen the “waxed Wayne Gretzky.” They hadn’t but laughed at how that phrase twisted their tongues.
In the wax museum window now, Gretzky was long gone. In his place Angelina Jolie wore the silver skin suit of Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft. Her breasts full, her bright red lips pouting. In her hands, a revolver pointed at pedestrians.
He was in Niagara Falls to arrange last-minute details for a conference of his employer’s sales force. The company had recently changed owners. Was it a take-over? A merger? No one seemed to know. Lloyd didn’t see what it mattered, though he knew the Charmer wouldn’t have sent him on such a menial mission. The Charmer was Zeke Pinion. The company he’d founded with $1,500 and his father’s maxed-out gold VISA was first named Digital Translation Services, then Digitrans, then simply DTS. Now, its name and future was uncertain except for the fact that its new owners were Texans.
Tomorrow would be the conference and an announcement, he thought, about the future. Layoffs, probably. The new owners, Lloyd felt certain, had purchased the customers, not the employees. He remembered what Pinion had said to a meeting of the entire company when he’d announced he’d sold his controlling interest. There are two types of people in this world: Those who think about doing it, and those who do it.
At 11:30 p.m., Lloyd sat on the edge of his bed in his boxers, the darkened hotel room behind him. The phone rang. It was Jackie, the L.A.-based director of marketing to whom everyone in the Toronto office now reported.
She said, “I’m in the lobby. Can you meet me for a drink?”
Two days earlier, she’d told the Toronto staff by video phone, “We don’t want to impose on you our ways of doing things. We want to learn how you do things, then make decisions about how we move forward from there.” She would later tell Lloyd her parents had been organic farmers and she’d completed her undergraduate degree before her seventeenth birthday. She was twenty-five, trim, pert, California blonde with a cliché million-watt smile.
Lloyd said, “I’ll be right down.”
They moved from the lobby to the hotel bar, empty except for the two of them.
The first thing Jackie said was, “I want you to know it’s no coincidence you’re here. I want to talk to you, and I want you to know that you’ve been chosen.”
Lloyd shrugged. He looked towards the bartender. Ordered a rye with Coke.
He raised his drink to Jackie’s.
“Tell me something about yourself,” she said.
“Is this an interview?”
“I prefer to imagine that it is.”
“Think about it however you want, however it makes you comfortable.”
She was close enough for him to smell her perfume, a soft scent of lavender. He thought she’d probably been drinking before she called him.
He said, “Something about myself?”
“Anything. Do you play hockey?”
“Not any more.”
“Why did you stop?”
“Playing aggravated my knee. Made it hurt.”
The television over the bar was showing a baseball game. Had the season started? Maybe just.
She said, “What do you want to do that no one has to ask you to do?”
“That’s a pretty personal question.”
She finished her drink and ordered another.
She said, “You don’t have to answer.”
He thought about it.
He said, “Eat, sleep, drink, breathe: the basics.”
She laughed. “I thought you’d start somewhere higher. Reading or watching kung-fu movies. Polkas. Curling.”
“This time of the day,” he said, “I’m a simple man.”
She said, “Here’s a hard one. Are you ready?”
“What’s your answer for life?”
“I didn’t know there was an answer.”
“Pretend there is.”
“Renovate. Keep renovating. Life’s all about renewal.”
“What’s the story with your former CEO?”
“Did you hear we called him The Charmer?”
“No! That’s wonderful! Why did you call him that?”
“The nickname is descriptive. He was a charmer as well as The Charmer. Very charismatic. Could talk a dog off its bone.”
“He built a good company, too, or we wouldn’t have bought it.”
“He was a good capitalist, talked people out of their money. An evangelist for capital. What the company does is nothing special, it just feels special because it’s well packaged and we take care to manage our relationships.”
“You really are an honest man,” Jackie said.
Her cell phone rang. She looked at the number then turned it off.
“I have something I need to give you,” she said.
“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?”
She said it couldn’t, paid their bill and led him to the elevators.
Twenty minutes later, Lloyd lay on his bed. His shoes were still on. He glanced at the clock radio beside the bed. 1:05. Jackie had walked him to his room. Then she’d disappeared down the hallway. He closed his eyes. Depending on what happened next, he would either have a story to tell Sarah, or he wouldn’t. It had been twelve years since he’d been with another woman. He wasn’t sure what Jackie wanted or what she was up to. He wanted to please her, because that’s what he was good at. Please her in a professional way. In a job-related way. He wanted to keep his job and not get laid off. So he could go on as he had before. Day-to-day. Managing what needed to be managed. Watching the clock and taking care of business. His reliability was well-known. His dedication was taken for granted. His lack of ambition had been noted, but then Jackie had said he’d been chosen. What was he doing here? He didn’t know.
There was a sharp rap on the door.
Then another. Lloyd opened his eyes. Was it morning already?
Another knock. Lloyd rolled off the bed.
“Lloyd!” a voice said. He opened the door.
Jackie said, “Can I come in?”
Lloyd stood with his shoulders in the doorway.
“I don’t think so – ”
“Just for a minute, there was something I was supposed to tell you – ”
“Tell me here, now.”
“I should come in. It will take more than a moment.”
Lloyd backed away from the door. He noticed that she’d changed outfits, into a summer dress with a floral pattern, and that she was holding a bottle. Lloyd sat on the edge of the bed. Jackie pulled out a chair from the desk and turned it to face him.
“Champagne?” she said.
“No thank you.”
“Just one glass. I won’t be long.”
She handed the bottle to Lloyd. “Can you open this? I’ll stand back.”
On the bureau were four glasses wrapped in paper. She peeled the paper off of two of them.
Lloyd took the bottle. Put it between his knees. Tried to ease the cork out of the bottle with his thumbs. At first, it didn’t move, but then it did. He pushed harder and the cork started to slide.
Jackie said, “Don’t point it toward the light!”
Lloyd pointed the bottle towards the corner of the room and the cork shot out. The POP rang in his ears.
“Great!” said Jackie. She held out the glasses. “Fill them up.”
Lloyd did as he was told, then set the bottle on the floor at his feet. Jackie handed him one glass and held the other in the air between them. “Cheers,” she said.
Lloyd held his glass steady. Jackie moved hers to meet his.
“Drink,” she said.
“Jackie,” he said, “what are we drinking for?”
“For you, Lloyd.”
“Why for me?”
“We’re going to make you a corporate VP.”
“Are you going to teach me the secret handshake?”
“Will you smile for once, please!”
“Now drink,” she said, her blonde hair bouncing on her neck.
When Lloyd tilted his head back and emptied his glass, she emptied hers. Then she handed him an envelope, shook his hand and left. Alone, suddenly, he couldn’t have felt more strange if he’d been zapped and turned into a cockroach.
He fell quickly into uncertain dreams.
The next morning, he was half surprised to find himself alone.
It was already half-past seven.
“Shit,” he said, leaping from the bed.
He glanced about the room. No champagne bottle. No glasses.
It hadn’t happened. Surely, it hadn’t.
No, it had.
There was a note. A letter, actually. On company letterhead.
Terms and conditions. An employment offer. A deadline.
Training in California and then a posting in Manhattan.
He quickly threw on his pants and shirt. He reached for his tie, steadied himself.
The phone rang.
He looped the tie around his neck and pulled the knot tight against his throat.
(Author Photo by Kate O’Rourke)