A WRITER'S WIT
Sometimes, surely, truth is closer to imagination or to intelligence, to love than to fact? To be accurate is not to be right.
Born January 30, 1931
Untitled: Part 4
It wasn’t your idea to work here, but since you were dismissed from a job you’d held for twenty years, you took what you could find. Yes, Ms. Markham took pity on your soulful female face, as you poured out your heart to her. Though you didn’t cry, she handed you a tissue as you told her how the school district let you go because you dared to teach a certain book—not because you were a poor teacher, not because you approached one of your more approachable male students or even slapped someone silly for talking during your lecture. No, it was because you chose to teach a book about a young girl who gets pregnant and has it terminated. On your last day, you saw a total of nine mothers-to-be among your one hundred and fifty pupils—squirming in their seats, wondering why no one had told them their rights about participating in such a process. By sixth period, when you got to the part of the book where the young heroine is lying spread eagle in the stirrups and her parents barge into the procedure room (it’s not an operation), the principal dismissed your last class and ordered you to his office. For an hour you screamed at him. From your cell phone, you called a union representative, who dispatched posthaste an attorney before the last bell. All to no avail. You were canned. Over and out. With all those years under your belt, you’re only now eligible for a pension. But you will have to wait another twenty years to actually draw the funds, because you know no other school district will ever hire you. Should you withdraw the retirement money, or start over in a different career? It’s a conundrum; you’ve never known anything but teaching.
Markham Finer Toyotas is located at the edge of the city on one of those monster lots. A luxurious, low-slung showroom of four thousand square feet is attached to a larger warehousey building where mechanics keep Markham Finer Toyotas in shape and meet all the finer Toyota requirements for routine service. It’s not like any dealership you’ve ever seen before. To begin with, the people in sales must meet challenging quotas, or it’s buh-bye, take the highway. Eddie Klaas has been at it the longest, so he’s sort of assigned the silver-haired set, although he could sell a Toyota to just about anyone. The walls of Eddie’s little glass cubicle are lined with Plexiglas Salesman of the Year awards, going all the way back to the eighties. Yesterday you listened in on his pitches, which are very warm and genuine. No high pressure. He offers some kind of discount right off the bat, to let the customer know he’s not trying to take them for everything they’ve got. Very disarming.
After savvy customers realize they’re getting all the options for free, they also realize Eddie’s got them where he wants them. If they’re really savvy, they’ll deal for a Toyota on the last day of the quarter, when sales personnel have to file quota reports. They can take Eddie down to where he makes five hundred dollars a car, and if he feels like it, he’ll let them have it for that. Sweet. Eddie’s sixty-eight, with long silver hair he keeps slicked back. He has a bit of a paunch, too, but he enters the dealership each morning with great purpose, as if he were going to teach War and Peace (your all-time favorite novel), when at most, all he’ll be doing is selling one of those huge Sequoias.
In a free moment, you think ahead to what a dealership might look like in a hundred years. Little women in individualized hovercraft will be offering you hits of cinnamon coffee that you snort instead of drink, because by then the species will have evolved to plump little piggies with tiny mouths and big limp ears from all the iPod listening, all that truncated cell phone banter (yo, dude, sup)––not to mention enlarged thumbs from, well, you know. It’s frightening to think about, so you move on to your next chore. You recall the brief encounter with Mrs. Markham the day before.
“Ariella,” Markham said. “I want you to check on the rest rooms.”
This set-up seems very un-Toyota. You crawl back to the men’s rest room and grope your way down the ladder. You replace the ceiling tile, just as you begin to hear rustling of skirts and the click of heels against the floor in the hall (and those are just the men, har har). Yes, very un-Toyota. Why, you just have to look at the finished product. Such honest and clean lines. Such fine workmanship.
“Ariella, we like all our employees to know the feel of the line,” Ms. Markham told you near closing time. You still didn’t really know what your job was all about. You’d done nearly everything except sell a Toyota. “That way you will want to work your hardest. We’re all about team effort at Toyota.”
Everyone is so nice, really nice. You never hear a cross word. You never hear anyone curse. You never hear a heated argument or even one of those held in private, with loud asides. People hold doors for one another. They bring cake on someone’s birthday. Well, they even do that on The Office, often with hilarious results, but then TV life is always so much funnier than your own very real life.
At the end of the day, you report back to Ms. Markham and ask about the tunnels.
“Very good,” she says, tapping the edge of her desk with her long red red nails. “Otherwise, I would’ve had to let you go. And that would’ve been a shame. You’re so smart and attractive. So young.”
“I’m forty-two,” you say.
“We won’t split hairs,” she says. “I’m twice your age.”
“No, really?” you say, because she could pass for seventy, seventy-five.
“It’s what happens when you keep working. All my retired friends are dead, even one of my sons who quit working at fifty-five.” She pauses a moment, as if to pray.
You keep quiet, hoping she’ll dismiss you, so you can go home and check your messages, scroll through your e-mails for job appointments.
“That business up there is left over from the last agency,” she says, pointing to one of the barely recognizable charcoal squares in the ceiling. There exists a checkerboard of black-and-white acoustical tiles, so unless you’re informed, it’s rather hard to discern which ones are use for surveillance. “A GM agency that didn’t make the grade.”
“But spying . . . it’s so top-down,” you say. “I thought Toyota was above it all. Teamwork and all that.”
“Righto,” she says. “But things have begun to disappear.”
“Like what?” you ask.
“Oh, honor. Loyalty. Integrity.”
Not toilet paper? you think. Pink soap? Packets of coffee?
“I can’t figure it out,” she says. “On paper we’re selling everything but the kitchen sink, but at the end of each month, I, the owner, am making less and less. I’ve called in my accountants, and all they do is scratch their heads. I’d fire them but then everyone would know something was awry.”
“What do you want from me?” you say.
“Good old fashioned snooping,” she says. “People won’t suspect you, Ms. Pines. You haven’t developed any alliances yet. Have you?”
“So you see what’s at stake here,” Markham says, standing and smoothing her expensive knit dress of red and gold. She is a thin woman, but not shrunken like many people over eighty. Statuesque and well groomed, she may be kidding about her age. But then you catch sight of her hands; no longer smooth and white, they’re mottled, the joints accentuated, though you don’t believe they’re arthritic. No, they don’t look crippled, just old. “I could play along as if nothing were wrong. I’ve plenty of funds. Whoever’s doing this could run the place into the ground, and I’d be fine, personally. No, it’s for all the employees who’ve been faithful to me and Toyota.” She momentarily lifts a blind and looks out into the showroom.
Then she sits again. “It’s a very fine organization. You know, my late husband hated the Japanese. He fought at Iwo Jima. He knew how stubborn and vitriolic they could be. Before he died in 1970, he was only forty-five, he knew they’d stage a comeback some day, he just didn’t know it would be like this.” She lifts one of her mini-blinds again and points out to the floor, to all those beautiful cars. “I think that one could be our problem.”
“Marcus Whitfield,” she says. “He’s twenty-eight and been with us since he graduated from university. He’s Eddie’s nearest competitor. Every month he gains on Eddie’s totals a bit more, and yet there’s something wrong. He doesn’t sell near as many units as Eddy, and I keep losing money, to boot.”
“Seems like something your accountants should be able to spot, doesn’t it?” you say. “That’s where you ought to start, isn’t it?”
“I’ve already had them in twice. Besides, that’s what I want you to figure out.”
“Ridiculous,” you say. “I teach . . . taught youth . . . how to read and analyze fine works literature. My checkbook is always off a dollar . . . or five.”
“But don’t you see,” she says. “That’s why I plucked you from the edge of your dilemma.”
“During your interview, I could tell by your wardrobe, your jewelry, that you like nice things, that on your salary––I was on the school board at one time, a travesty if you want to know what I think––you probably have no savings.”
“I’ve announced that I’m bringing you in as my personal assistant, in charge of boosting sales.”
“And that’s why I was changing light bulbs this morning at six forty-five?” you say.
“A ruse. I wanted it to look as if you were learning the business inside out. From bottom to top.”
“From the floors to the tunnels.”
“I don’t think we’ll fool him, or anyone else for that matter.” You stand, and she hands you a key and remote.
“Here, take that silver Avalon home tonight. I’ll have your car delivered to you. You’re exactly whom I need. Someone objective, who can read the situation and make an analytical assessment.”
You realize that anyone who elects to use whom correctly can’t be all bad. You realize when you get home that there will be nothing on your machine, no e-mails, no shining offers. You realize that if you do this and do it well, you will get to keep living in the house you’ve mortgaged for another fifteen years. You will be privileged to drive a beautiful car. You may even get to read a few minutes each day, pretend like you’re studying sales reports on your tablet. You’ve been dying to get at Kerouac again. Yes, something about traveling appeals to you right about now.
* * *
You continue to observe, as you go about your duties, which seem more nebulous as the days go by. One day Markham has you serving croissants and coffee to staff during an early-morning meeting, where most of the croissants are ignored in favor of crème horns and bear claws. Another day, Markham has you perusing financial records, as if, with your lack of training you might know what trail of breadcrumbs you’re looking for. And on yet another, she asks you to accompany her to Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc. in California. It’s an event she attends every year. You feel strange, leaving your “work” behind, fearing that MFT might fall under heavy attack, in your absence.
“Things will be fine,” Markham says, as you board the tiny jet at your local airport. It has exactly eight seats, two facing two in one configuration and another set of four near the back. An attendant takes your coat and hangs it up, tucks your luggage away as well.
“I keep a place near the headquarters, so I never pack anything. You’ll be staying in my guest room over the weekend . . . unless you have other ideas.”
“Oh, no, sounds fabulous,” you say. “What a treat.”
You’d like to nod off for the next three and a half hours, but Mrs. Markham keeps you busy, first with her plans for an expansion of the dealership, and then with her family problems. Seems that one of her nephews is hitting her up for money.
“I’ve never trusted him. All his siblings have professional degrees, have real careers. He did two years at the university, then has been floating from thing to thing. I’ve written check after check for dear Lenny, all loans, mind you, but he’s never lifted a finger to pay them back. Now he’s close to fifty-five, and he wants in on the action.”
“He couldn’t be siphoning funds off your profits, could he?” you ask.
“I don’t see how, he has no access to my business . . . as far as I know. I’ll just put in a call to my lawyer.”
And she does, while I lie back in my chair. The rush of air on the outside of the flying machine puts me to sleep, and when the pilot informally announces that we’re almost there, I awake with a start. Mrs. Markham is staring at me.
“You look so like my niece,” she says. “So lovely.”
Such talk makes you uncomfortable, but you try not to show it. You land and in a few minutes, you step down off the jet. You take a copter (wow) to the place in Torrance, just south (Markham says) of the 405. She and the driver bandy about inside/outside the 405 as if it’s supposed to mean something. All you see when you get there is the sprawl of urban blight at its worst. Huge, meandering buildings, at least ten times the size of MFT back home.
[Here, fine reader, is where I’m stuck. Don’t know where to go. Help! Not only what should happen next, but is this story worth saving? Do you like either Mrs. Markham or the narrator? The point of view? Let me know, either by way of the Comment feature or the Contact feature. I would love to hear from readers. Thanks. RJ]
FRIDAY: NEW YORKER FICTION 2014
SATURDAY: GROG FOR THE GAME!