The Ass and His Masters

Gary Smalls never thought he’d work at a place like the Corporation. He was a recent college graduate in Future Studies, broke and sticky-fingered, with a plump, boisterous girlfriend named Molly who made love to him like heaven was on fire. And he wanted to marry her. He wanted to marry Molly and give her the obstreperous, round-faced, donut-inhaling children she dreamed of, but his degree in Future Studies was as meaningless as his first hand job as a teen—it was fun, even enlightening, but ultimately inconsequential, much like Gary was starting to feel himself.

He got the job at the Corporation through his friend, Jake, who he knew through their band, Future Mammals, that started through another friend and Future Studies major Gary met in college. Jake was the kind of guy who never needed school. What did he need a liberal arts degree for when he could sell you anything? Blenders! Mobile phones! Overpriced cable! Fungi! His smile made you feel like you’d never been wrong a day in your life and you were perfect no matter how contorted your face may appear to others (and, let’s admit, even yourself), or how much weight you’d gained over the brutal, cake-filled winter, or how paralyzingly boring you realized you were after each breakup, always vowing to read more books.

Jake got him the job in Testing. “Easy money,” he’d said. Gary would barely have to do a thing.

At first, Jake’s promises were true. The job paid well, and he did little. Testing didn’t require much more than answering email queries with, “Yes, it’s been tested,” or, “No, it’s not ready for testing,” and running reports by clicking the button “Run report” every half hour then waiting the fifteen minutes it took for the report to assemble itself. What exactly was being tested Gary didn’t know or care. As the reports ran, he caught up on the reading Molly wanted him to do for their two-person book club. Many of the books were inspiring tales about women overcoming near-death incidents or abusive childhoods or addictions due to said childhoods. Gary didn’t care what he was reading, really, as long as he was able to retain enough of it for their date, which consisted of talking about that month’s book, getting drunk whilst discussing the finer details, and having rambunctious sex in Gary’s rickety bed well into the night. The book club was his ticket to bliss.

But soon the Corporation wore on him and he picked at the thin skin getting him through the days until it broke and he bled. He couldn’t take the drudgery much longer! “Yes,” “No,” “Run report” times infinity. As a Future Studies major, he thought he’d one day be on the cutting edge of the future. He would for all intents and purposes BE THE FUTURE. A famous Futurist professor, proselytizing for all the world to see, bringing them their future, book after book. This was not the life he was meant to live, strapped to a computer, running meaningless reports, scratching his balls and reading indulgent memoirs as the days whipped by. And the book club was no longer leading to the rowdy sex it once did. Now Molly wanted dinner before drinks, which left Gary with a skimpier wallet and substantially less drunk by the time they got home.

So he went to his manager, Mack. Mack was a gruff, middle-aged man who dressed sharply, wore a shirt and tie every goddamn day of his life, and stuck a large hand in his mop of thick, prematurely gray hair when he was feeling stressed, as he clearly was now, when Gary said he needed and deserved a raise. Gary tried not to stare at the scars on Mack’s face. It was never discussed, but it was clear Mack was burned badly at one point in his life, which made him look at once menacing and—when his blue eyes looked at you long and thoughtfully—painfully kind.

“I don’t know what to tell you, kid,” Mack said. “You’ve only been here six months, and I can’t ask the big guys to give you a raise for answering emails and running a report every half hour. It’s the nature of the job, if you see what I’m saying.”

Gary rubbed his moist palms on the top of his khaki covered thighs. “Mack, I got more to offer the Corporation than this.” He didn’t say this, but he also thought, I’m smarter than most of the staff in this shithole and I deserve more! Why he wanted more and if he’d be happier with whatever that more was, was not a question that crossed Gary’s mind. He felt driven by an unnamable desire that left him feeling open-mouthed, parched, and completely out of control.

Mack stared at his large, interlocked hands on top of his desk and nodded in agreement. “I know you’re a smart young man, Gary. Now let me think. We do have an opening in Sales, but would you even want to go in that direction? You wouldn’t be working for me anymore.”

“How much more would it pay?” Gary asked.

“Almost double what you’re making in Testing.” Mack smiled a knowing smile like he’d had this same conversation many times before.

“When can I interview?” Gary said.

 

It didn’t matter what he had to sell. If Jake could do it, so could Gary. He didn’t have the looks or personality for Sales, or much will, but if he couldn’t do it for himself, surely he could fake it until he made it for Molly and her dreams of a house and new car and marriage and those donut-inhaling children! As long as she kept riding him like she was drunk at a rodeo and whispering sleepily in his ear that she loved him, there wasn’t much he wouldn’t do for her. He was a man of simple pleasures, after all, so why was he unable to quiet the vague undercurrent of ceaseless discontent he felt day after day?

In his college years, Future Studies was the cure for Gary’s existential malaise. There was a certain comfort in studying and attempting to predict that which would always ultimately be unknown. It made him feel safe. Now he found himself unable to consider anything but pleasing Molly and making something of himself at what was once supposed to be a transitional job. The Corporation took hold of him with its promises of healthcare, PTO, and bonuses. But how much would he have to sell before he was happy?

During Gary’s first day in Sales, Jake said, “You’ve just made the best decision of your life, man. Before you know it, you’ll be swimming in green.”

“Hell yeah,” Gary said unsurely, still uncertain exactly what he’d be selling. What he understood about the job was little, and how he got it he understood even less. He stuttered throughout the interview, not saying anything intelligible, but he smiled. Oh, he smiled more than he had in a year. When he told Molly he got the job, she screamed, threw him into bed, then told him she’d start looking for houses. Everything was looking up! Now he only had to learn how to do the job.

After the first week, it seemed to Gary that, in so many words, he was selling lies—gigantic stinking piles of dung covered with roses and glitter. Lies so beautiful he couldn’t have made them up, and he didn’t. At least not for a while.

He began with a script he’d eventually make his own like everyone else. Even as a Futurist, he never saw this coming. And the perfect business model it was! Technically, Gary’s title was Future Consultant or, as his manager loved to call them in meetings, Shepherds of the Future. Customers called him at the Corporation and asked for an evaluation of their emotional portfolio. How could they be happier? He was at once a mind reader, shaman, business consultant, advertiser, and genie in a tie. Yes, there was some kind of science to it. He knew the basic facts of the material and emotional lives of his customers, but above all, he was paid to tell stories about how their current lives were and how they could be if only they did or had X, or tried Y, or paid the Corporation more to give them statistics about how Z could increase their stocks of happiness.

He sold the products of the Corporation’s investors gleefully, and the money rolled in. The products ranged from the reasonable—plush toilet seats for an aching tush, a self-imposed exploding pen for those times you want an attractive woman to come to your aid on that first class flight to Hong Kong, and, lastly, just regular old antidepressants! The newest ones on the market, of course. The unreasonable products were more controversial, like otter-shaped tampons to spice up your personal hygiene routine or sex toys Gary did his best to avoid ever having to talk about or let Molly discover he sold, because—let’s be honest—even he recognized how quickly and easily he could be replaced.

Six months later, Gary and Molly married and moved into a beautiful, old house in an affluent part of the city and went out to dinner at the nicest restaurants as much as they liked like a Futurist version of Zelda and F. Scott, fights and all. Molly, becoming bored with the restaurants where she could actually read and pronounce the names of meals on the menu, even began to learn French. And in another six months, while they were visiting Paris for their two-year anniversary, Molly found out she was, in her words, completely fucking pregnant.

 

Through all the changes and worldly successes, an undercurrent of despair persisted in Gary, and with a child on the way, he had to make a change. He needed to be a more moral man! To no longer tell lies! To no longer sell penile-shaped plants and other such nonsense to the flailing, depressed masses looking for the next joke, pleasure, or commodity to distract them from the truth they were all ultimately running from—their inevitable, timely or untimely, gruesome or peaceful, sad or joyous—death.

So, he went to his manager, Mack. No, not the same Mack. Another Mack. And this Mack was a real son of a bitch. He was the kind of guy that literally spit in his palms and greased his long hair behind his ears before adjusting his tie. And he was young, a just-out-of-college type who thought his shit didn’t stink, and it actually didn’t because there was a product the Corporation could sell you to take care of that.

“Gary, you know you’re one of my favorite Shepherds. Now why would you want to leave us? You’re a top performer, man! The money not good enough for you anymore?”

Gary smiled until he felt like the sides of his mouth might tear. “Of course not, Mack. It’s just, I’m looking for more.”

Mack smiled a smarmy, self-satisfied smile. “I get it, man. You want even more money.”

“No, that’s not exactly,” Gary interrupted. “That’s not exactly what I mean.”

“What is it then?”

Gary hesitated, considering the possible consequences. “I’d like to do something I find a little more, I don’t know, meaningful?”

Mack laughed. “You’re a Shepherd of the Future! What more meaning could you possibly want?”

Gary sighed and only said, “I,” before trailing off, exasperated.

Mack sat in the enormous, black leather chair Gary often saw him rolling down the hall in, seeing how fast he could go while yelling at his Shepherds to watch. Gary looked at him. Mack looked so young and wanting that Gary began to feel sorry for him and all the sadness that must be beneath the gimmicks.

“Listen, Gary. I do get it. I know you all think I’m a joke.”

“No,” Gary said, elongating the vowel until Mack looked at him sheepishly like it might be true.

“I’d like some more meaning in my life, too, you know?” Mack looked off into the corner of his corner office. “Don’t tell anyone I said this.” He leaned over his desk, motioning for Gary to come closer. Mack waved his hand in a circle, at first a swing just large enough to encapsulate the whole room, growing in its vigor to signify the entire Corporation as he said, “I know this is all bullshit, man, and so do you.” He looked away before turning back to Gary, saying, “But, you and I both know, there are worse things we could do.”

 

And that is how Gary became Manager of Testing—Young Mack ultimately forcing Old Mack into early retirement. Hadn’t Old Mack been through enough with the scarring and hair pulling, anyways? Who knew the truth could really set you free? At least that’s what Gary thought at the time. Getting out of Sales would be the answer to his worries! He was now a moral man. He no longer sold lies. He only managed those who tested just how effective the lies were that others sold. Where did the responsibility really lie? Certainly not with him. How much could one man carry on his back, anyways? Two children it turns out.

Shortly after the first, Molly became pregnant again, this time with a girl. Harry, Holly, and Molly. The loves of Gary’s life. The reason he continued to live and breathe! Yet, the birth of Holly caused a reaction in Molly that Gary could have never anticipated. It drove her to visit Tibet one summer where she learned about Buddhism and suffering, and when she came home she talked a lot about “presence” while wearing wooden beads around her neck. Something else was also different in Molly that took Gary longer to notice. She was at peace and fulfilled in some way he couldn’t quite understand. It was the small things. Like she no longer complained about him leaving his socks under the living room table after he got home from work and took his shoes off. Instead, she picked them up joyously and put them in the laundry basket. Or, at least she didn’t complain anymore. Strangely, as the months passed, Gary found himself envying her, yet unable to change, unable to wake up earlier and go for a run or stay up late and read a book that might make him think or feel differently.

Harry, Holly, and Molly, they all grew so expeditiously as he stood still as a Manager, a man who managed, who oversaw, who engaged as little as he could at the task at hand—that of living, of becoming who he’d always wanted to become, which was what?—so he could feel, safe? Nothing? He was unsure. All he knew was that sometimes he had a dream that he was walking an invisible tightrope high in the sky, anchored to nothing but the clouds, his stocky body ambling uncertainly until he always fell and a tightness rose in his barrel chest. When he woke, he’d grab Molly’s arm and lean in close without waking her, his ear pressed to her nose to check her breath, and he would listen, holding her until he fell asleep again.

As the years passed, some days at the Corporation, Gary would do little. He’d sit at his desk looking out at the cubicles housing the testers wearing their headphones, crumbs atop their breasts, coffee cups stacked in the corner of their desks, and he’d feel envious all over, waves of anger and confusion and lust for something he couldn’t name rolling through him to the ends of his fingers and toes until it retreated only to begin again. He missed the simplicity and certainty of the “Yes,” “No,” “Run report” times infinity, and he wondered out loud to himself if going back in time would even be enough.

 

Image courtesy of LibreShot

About the author

Rachel Ann Brickner is a writer from Pittsburgh. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Joyland, The Los Angeles Review, and PANK, among others. Her essay "Another Year Older and Deeper In Debt" appears this year in the revised edition of Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class. Currently, Rachel's at work on her first novel.

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