Brandon looked out over the floor – with its winding counter and Plexiglas shield segregating hundreds of staff from a legion of customers, with its myriad stanchions webbed together by criss-crossing tape that formed Möbius lines, with its three lazy fans that did little more than shuffle the stale sweat air from armpit to nostril, with its never-ending symphony of phone-rings and baby-shrieks and tired-grumbles accented by improvised solos of the irate, with its Byzantine maze of signs and symbols and arrows hanging from the ceiling, with its vague jaundiced grey hue that covered everything in a sticky film of neglect – and gasped.
“Well, hello,” sang a woman, startling Brandon all over again. She was a head shorter than him, wore a frizzy lilac sweater – hand knit – and held a clipboard. Her pink lipstick smeared a bit at the corners of her mouth, and her nametag said, Pamela Rosen, (Acting) Junior Shift Manager III.
“You must be the new hire!” she continued. She glanced down at her clipboard and then up again, her eyes gleeful wide. “Bradley!”
Brandon glanced at the writhing mass of human misery, doing its best to stay within the ever-shifting lines, and swallowed hard. “Um, it’s Brandon, Ma'am.”
She clicked her tongue and wagged her finger. “No Ma’ams here, Bradley. That’ll be (Acting) Junior Shift Manager Pamela, if you please. Although,” she giggled, “my friends call me Junior Shift Manager Pam. Play your cards right, and you can too.” She unclipped a nametag from her clipboard. “Now, onto business. Your nametag,” she said, affixing it to his shirt, “says Bradley. And gosh golly gee, it would be pretty silly if a nametag was wrong, wouldn’t it?”
“And we do so love team players here, Bradley. You are a team player, right, Bradley?”
“Um… yes Ma–(Acting) Junior Shift Manager Pamela.” He swallowed again. “I’m a team player. I really need this job.” He could feel his rent run a bony finger down his spine, and the prospect of unexpected medical bills whispered sweet everythings into his ear.
Her grin spread as wide as her eyes narrowed. “Good.” She glanced down at her clipboard again. “All right, it says here you completed the classroom training with a grade of ‘Yes’, so why don’t we head over to your station?”
It wasn’t really a question. Pam walked down the winding line of stations, each filled with a bloodshot-eyed co-worker, their monotone drone a pleasant backdrop to the lamentations of the customers. After what felt like an hour of walking they finally came to an empty desk. Nothing there but a worn plastic chair, a forty year old computer, a little sign that could be toggled between a green Open, a red Closed, and a yellow Notice, two stamps (Denied and Approved) and a three-inch ring binder chained to the desk, labeled Manual of Procedures.
“Please sit, Bradley,” Pam said. “And toggle your station to Open. It’s time to serve our customers.”
“But,” he felt a lump in his throat as he opened the heavy manual. “In class we only had a three page pamphlet, and we only covered one case, and we didn’t even–”
“Shh shh shh,” she said, patting him on the shoulder. “There there, it’ll be all right. You’re a trainee. We don’t expect you to be an expert out of the gate. You’ll learn on the job, and that’s what I’m here to help you with.”
“Oh yes, of course. Stick with me, kid, and you’ll go far. Now, you just smile, open your station, and we’ll go through the manual together. Relax, Bradley. Customers are very understanding of new hires.”
Bradley toggled his sign to open, and a gaunt woman with wide-eyes stepped forward.
“Hello, Ma’am,” Brandon said.
Pam tutted and tapped the manual with her finger. “Please look at your script.”
Greet the customer with, “Hello (Sir/Madam).”
“Oh, sorry.” He turned to the customer again. “Hello Madam.”
The woman didn’t reply. She only placed her forms on the counter with a shaking hand. Pam tapped the manual again, and the next step said to confirm her identification.
“Do you have any ID, Ma’am–er–Madam?” The woman dug out a driver’s licence.
Next Pam walked him through validating the customer’s forms, which required flipping back and forth through the manual, which frequently told him to reference things on different pages. With each form, the customer’s eyes grew wider. At one point, she stopped blinking. At another, she stopped breathing. But finally, after nearly two hours, Brandon stamped the last of her forms Approved and the woman finally gasped for air.
“Congratulations, Madam! It looks like your application is app–”
Pam tutted, and tapped the manual again. The final step was validating the customer’s personal details. Brandon went through the steps on page 334, and when he got to the month-of-birth section, he scanned down to March, which told him to go to page 998.
The customer is declined. Please inform them to try again at a later date.
“Oh,” Brandon said, crestfallen. “I’m so sorry, Madam, it looks like, um, you’re actually declined.” The woman wailed soundlessly and crumpled to the floor, and Pam tapped the desk, beside the second stamp.
Brandon picked it up, unsure of what he should stamp, since all her forms were already Approved. Pam tapped the woman’s licence.
“But, that’s her driver’s–”
“–It doesn’t matter, sweetie,” Pam said.
Brandon stamped Declined over her photo and slid all the customer’s materials back to her.
“NEXT!” Pam shouted. “Oh, I’m so sorry, Bradley. I should have let you do that, but I just love that part.”
The next customer was ultimately declined because he didn’t fill out the optional section of form 114-D-21. The one after that, because she misspelled October on form 56-F as Oct. The one after that, because the approval process took more than thirty minutes – which Brandon apologized for profusely, but it didn’t make a difference. The one after that, because it was 3:12 PM. And so it went, always ending up on page 998.
By the time Brandon went home that evening he hadn’t helped a single customer, but Pam didn’t seem worried. Indeed, she had told him he was doing just fine and would be a great addition to the team. He wasn’t so sure, but he hoped so. The money was a welcome thing.
The rest of the week went much the same. Pam was more and more hands off, and he got a little faster at flipping through the manual, but every customer still resulted in a Declined for one reason or another. By Friday he had declined fifty-seven customers. Some nodded stoically, expecting no less. Others broke down and wept, or screamed at him, or argued, or threw things. He didn’t even realize when it happened, but he had taken up smoking again, and he knew he had to say something to Pam.
She came to him for a Friday-end-of-day check-in. “How did you find your first week, Bradley?”
“(Acting) Junior Shift Manager Pamela,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t think it’s going well. I keep declining everyone. And these people, these poor people, I swear some of them have been waiting in line for days! It just breaks my heart. Surely there’s got to be some wiggle room?”
“Aw,” she said. “Your concern for the customers’ wellbeing is commendable. We put our customers’ satisfaction above everything, after all. But no, no wiggling. Just follow the manual. Trust the process.”
“Yeah, right,” he said, “but here’s the thing. I was reading the manual during my spare time–”
“–Ooh! You go-getter you,” she grinned, fanning herself.
“Er, right. Well, so I just came up with a bunch of hypothetical situations, and no matter what I do, I end up at page 998.”
“If that’s what the manual says.” She shrugged.
Brandon leaned in closer and whispered, “(Acting) Junior Shift Manager Pamela, I think there might be a problem. I’ve talked with some of the other staff too. I think maybe all roads lead to page 998. Like, there’s no way for a customer to be approved.”
Her smile strained, and her blinks sharpened. “What an… interesting observation, Bradley. Tell you what. How about I bring this to the attention of my manager.”
“Thank you,” Brandon said, feeling relief surge through his muscles.
“And how about you spend the weekend thinking about what this might mean, with a particular focus on how it might affect your continued employment.” Brandon’s muscles cramped again.
He didn’t sleep over the weekend, and Monday rolled up much too quickly for his liking. Had that been a threat? Did he misread how nice Pamela had been? Well, at least how not-overtly-hostile she had been? When he got into the office on Monday morning, he found her already waiting by his desk, standing there with a wide grin and her clipboard.
“Good morning,” she sang.
“Good morning, (Acting) Junior Shift Manager Pamela.”
She giggled. “Oh, I have some great news for you, Bradley.”
She unclipped a piece of paper from her board and handed it to him. “Ta-da!”
Brandon frowned at the sheet, labeled Front-line Memo #88992-DR-231-09. It was written in 6 point Comic Sans, even though the bottom third was all whitespace. “What’s this?”
“Management was impressed by your finding, and it turns out: you’re right! It’s basically a widespread typo, a terrible mistake. We should never have been sending people to page 998 in all of those circumstances.”
“Oh, that’s fantastic!” Brandon said. He felt himself smiling, and actually looking forward to the work day. Maybe he misjudged this job, and Pam, entirely. Maybe he could make a difference.
“The memo just goes to say that we basically spent the whole weekend printing off a new manual for everyone, where all the places we redirected people to page 998 should now go to page 753.”
Brandon flipped to page 753.
The customer is approved. Please congratulate them, and thank them for their business. Ask them if they would like to fill out a satisfaction survey, and either way, pat yourself on the back – you did well today!
His grin widened and he actually chuckled. Oh yes, this week was going to be much better. He took his seat and prepared for the morning rush.
Pam set down a pen and a jar of correctional fluid on the counter.
“What’s this?” Brandon said.
“There’s a second memo this morning,” she said, and then unclipped it and passed it to Brandon.
Attention: all front line staff. Please remove pages 998 and 753 from your manual. Then apply the correctional fluid to each page number, and once it dries, re-page page 998 as page 753, and re-page page 753 as 998, and replace the pages in your manual.
Brandon’s jaw dropped. “This doesn’t change anything!”
“What do you mean? Nobody will be sent to page 998 anymore. Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“No! Yes! I mean–people will still keep getting rejected! I wanted to start approving people!”
Pam’s face softened. “Oh, Bradley. Approving people costs money. If we spend money on approving people, we won’t have it to spend on employee wages. You do like earning money, don’t you?”
“I–” Brandon’s words tripped him up. “I do, but not like this.”
“What if I told you, you get a bonus for every one thousand declines? Think about it. You already know the secret of the manual. You could fast-track each customer to page 753. Accumulate those bonuses. Afford your own nifty hand knit sweaters. Heck, afford to dream of retirement one day. But, you know, just dream.”
“A bonus?” he asked. “What, uh, what kind of bonus are we talking?”
Pam leaned in and whispered lustily, “A ten dollar gift card to Starbucks, and access to the leftovers from Management’s Thursday pizza lunch.”
Brandon closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He grit his teeth. He weighed his needs against his morals, his rent against everything his parents taught him.
“No.” He opened his eyes. “Sorry, (Acting) Junior Shift Manager Pamela. I can’t in good conscience do that.”
“I see.” She drew away from him, straightened her back. “Then you know what this means?”
“Yes, I think I do. I’m resigning.”
“That’s a shame, Bradley. I thought you had a lot of promise. I thought you were one of the good ones.” She unclipped a sheet from her board and handed it to him. “Please fill out form 114-D-21, Notice of Two-Weeks’ Notice, and get in line.”
Brandon took his form and lined up.
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I gotta say, the title drew me in here, but the story didn't disappoint. It was mysterious and suspenseful in a way. I had no idea what to expect. Very creative and unique approach to this prompt! :)
Thanks, Anne Marie! I'm glad the story worked out for you :) It was leaning a bit more into the surreal this week. I appreciate the feedback!
I'm not sure if you've seen it, but your story kind of reminded me of a new Apple TV series called Severance. It's like your MC didn't quite know what he was doing; he was just following a script. Very surreal, indeed!
I haven't seen it - got a bit of streaming fatigue, since it seems like every company is doing their own exclusives now. But yeah, I like that idea of subconscious scripts.
Totally understand the streaming fatigue. If you ever decide to check something out, I think you would enjoy it.
I wouldn't say this story was surreal. Have you ever seen a visiting visa application to the U.S.? Question 1) Have you ever been a drug trafficker? Question 2) Have you ever been involved in human trafficking? Question 3) Are you or have you ever been a terrorist? Question 4) Have you ever been married to or related to a drug trafficker? Question 5) Have you ever fought a war against the U.S.? Apparently if you answer "yes" honestly to any of these questions there is a chance you can be put on probation and allowed to eventually enter the...
Oh, I didn't know that! It kind of makes sense though. I bet most countries have a version of question 5, and I've heard some horror stories about lying to border services backfiring.
You should also check out the citizenship application for about 100 of these.
Fun story in the burgeoning dystopian corporate humor genre. My last trip to a DMV office felt just like this. Many great lines that ring true for corporate speak, "Just follow the manual. Trust the process.” I've heard exactly this so many times.
Thanks, Scott! I was actually picturing a DMV with this, though I suppose that's not entirely fair since I've mostly had good experiences in them. But they *do* have a reputation. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)
I wish I could like this twice, Michal. Of all the delectable humourous treats you serve, you serve Kafkaesque the best. The story moves from ROFL to GASP smoothly and I truly felt chocked by the time I reached the end. You have so cleverly coded this piece, it can stand true for endless iterations with different variables- career, relationships, geopolitical happenings, family dynamics... there is so little that's in our control and all we can do is to take charge of it or can we? Seeing Bradley/Brandon joins the same line in the end. This...
This comment made my day :) I'm glad you got that Kafkaesque vibe, as that's what I was going for. We don't really have a tag for it, so I was torn between funny and horror, heh. But I think horror might have given people the wrong impression. That's interesting you mention applying this kind of idea to other fields. I was picturing specifically an office environment (more specifically, probably something inefficient and bureaucracy heavy run by the government) but you're right, we can find this in other contexts too. Thanks for pointi...
Fave line, “A ten dollar gift card to Starbucks, and access to the leftovers from Management’s Thursday pizza lunch.” That one made me laugh hard enough that my back popped. 'getting back in line and grumbling...'
Heh, thanks Kevin :) I'm glad you enjoyed it. Always happy to get a laugh :)
I thoroughly enjoyed this Michal. It really appeals to my absurdist side. The ending in particular was excellent. :)
Thanks, Jay! Very glad to hear that :) I didn't initially know how this would end, but then this occurred to me, and it seemed ideally, depressingly suited.
Wow! This is so good! What a dystopian reality you manufactur here, not quite unlike the world we live in to be honest.
Thanks, Rama! Yeah, it sure seems like it sometimes :) Endless lines never going anywhere, arbitrary rules, petty bureaucracy.
Congrats on reaching thirty submissions without skipping a single week. That's some serious dedication right there. Slick interpretation of the prompt, too. Like, of course a new hire counts as a "newcomer." Gave me one of those "Why didn't I think of that?" moments. Also, I appreciate how universal this feels - anyone who's worked a job like this, with management like this, will be able to relate. Thanks for finding the humor in a bleak situation. Other things I enjoyed: Loved the use of "(Acting)" within the dialogue. Such a little thing...
Thanks, Zack! I set out on this Reedsy thing with a goal of building writing discipline in mind, so I'm pleased with 30 stories in 30 weeks too. Goal's a year; we'll see what happens after 52. I'm glad you liked it. "Fun, if a little frustrating" seems to be the order of the day. It would also make a pretty good epitaph :) I appreciate your keen editorial attention to detail. "clip board" definitely slipped through the cracks. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of text-to-speech, but there's still some things like this that get missed. Th...
Michal! This was fabulously grim. I love this take on the prompt, it was so clever and the message was so pointed. You set the tone right away with the name tag. It was an amazing but subtle way of letting the reader know what they were in for. WELL DONE!
Thanks, Hannah! "fabulously grim" - heh, I like that :) It was fun to write, though the setting did make my skin crawl :) I appreciate the feedback!
It was such an unsettling thriller! I imagined all the workers with an uncanny smile. Just enough to feel “off”. But I love the larger message. The system is so tightly wound that you can’t seem to beat it. And when you try, it just adjusts itself to outplay your attempt. But I admire Brandon for taking his stand. For refusing to become a cog in the big machine.
I think I need a content warning with this story because it triggers so much past trauma for me! Too much history with government and corporate bureaucracy. I have a couple suggestions but I think it's more personal preference so feel free to ignore it. The opening paragraph was a mouthful. I know you were going for a gasp at the end but it is so long that I forgot the subject of the sentence when I got to the gasp. The description was great but a couple breaks would help. Change "stale sweat air" with "stale sweaty air" I loved the seco...
Heh, I didn't even consider a CW, but I see what you mean :) Bureaucracy can be infuriating. Thanks for pointing out those spots! I'll make another pass over it tonight. I'm pretty sure I had blood-shot on my mind when I wrote bloody-eyed, but sometimes the fingers do their own thing. I appreciate the feedback!
No problem. I enjoyed the story. I was kidding about the CW even though your story did trigger some past trauma and future angst about government bureaucracy. I've been wondering if there are any books out there that chronicle the frustrations of ex-pat life.
This job sounds like an absolute nightmare. I really like how you made the job and the training and the policies all vague enough for the whole concept to be universal, like a commentary on corruption in big business. The long line of sweaty, frustrated people was so realistic. Screaming babies too?! Torture. This feels like a warning too, like this is where the world is heading if people abandon critical thinking skills. I enjoyed the dialogue here, and the fact that Pamela was wearing a frizzy homemade sweater…that little detail alone ...
That's an interesting point about the critical thinking! I agree though, abandoning that or even just down playing it, causes no shortage of issues. *Is* causing no shortage of issues :P It does sound like a nightmare job. I'm sure many do, where you do soul crushing work for meagre compensation. But what can you do? Can you really leave? It sometimes seems like there are systems in place to keep people trapped, because it's profitable to have someone need you, particularly if they are too weak to negotiate a fair deal. Thanks for the fe...
Like: -Pam needs her full title. -initial customer exchange -cheapness of the bonus -non-specified bureaucratic office. -nice timing on Pam's notice, a cliffhanger-- then you reposition to false fix. So, Monty Python does _not_ try to resolve this situation. You do. Little Britain has Carrol ("Computer says Nooooo" cough hack cough). Love it when the old Gentleman overcomes Carrol...gets approved... And he hacks at her back. You character can't even quit without approval. Clapping. It has a nice balance.
Ha, love Carrol :) I remember the hack-back. Yeah, you can quit a crappy job, but can you quit a system that makes crappy jobs? Hmm, maybe. Maybe we can change it. Seems like a lot of work though. I'm glad the story came out all right :) Thanks for dropping by!
Pretty interesting story. I love stories that describe different ways people live. (Sorry if that doesn't make sense.) Plus, a $10 dollar gift card for Starbucks is a bonus, if you ask me. :)
Thanks, Shark! I had a funny idea in mind when I started this, but it got kind of a depressing vibe as I wrote it too. I won't knock free coffee though, definitely a bonus :) I appreciate the feedback!
No worries. Plus, kind of random, are you reading any books currently?
Yeah, always have something on hand. The last of The Expanse books, A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink, and Copyediting by Karen Judd. You?
The Queens Gambit by Walter Tevis.
Pardon to interrupt. It did not come off depressing.
Heh, fair enough :) Lumbering bureaucracies just make me uneasy and remind me of Vogons.
If Kafka worked at Wal-Mart... This does not feel like fiction at all, but it is a brilliant takedown of workplace culture and the problem of 'doing your job right when you know things are wrong'. Excellent work, sir!
Thanks, Kendall! Yeah, it can definitely be an uphill battle, when people get too set in their ways, or apathetic, or their goals don't really line up. I appreciate the feedback!
I love this line, way better than, he needs the money ... 'He could feel his rent run a bony finger down his spine, and the prospect of unexpected medical bills whispered sweet everythings into his ear' BTW this is a horror category, or if you have been thru immigration- nonfiction.
Thanks, Marty! Heh, I was actually debating between funny or horror, but I settled on the funny tag as I didn't want to give people the wrong impression. You're right though, there's a lot of needlessly long and obtuse processes out there, which can be a nightmare to deal with. Especially if they have massive impacts, like immigration, yeah.
Ha! I love how the gasping protracted prose mirrored the poor protagonist's experience in that first paragraph; I almost had to take a deep breath after reading it! The characterisation of (Acting) Junior Shift Manager Pamela is just so funny; I could picture her type perfectly with all her breezy cheery, soul destroying posturing and strangling everyone with red tape! I'm in the process, nine months on, of applying for a British passport for my daughter living overseas and I feel like every road leads to page 998...you've absolutely ripped ...
Heh, thanks Rebecca :) I'm glad you enjoyed it. The inefficiency in some processes, which just leaves us asking an exasperated "why!?", is both funny and depressing :) There's so much in life that seems like there should be a better way of doing. Oh well. I appreciate the feedback!
Love this story of mindless bureaucracy, and the fact we don't learn what he is actually approving or declining works so well as it is represents all these sort of systems. Pamela is especially well characterized, I love how this tiny of amount of power has totally gone to her head and she buys into the importance of what they are doing by declining everyone. The turn it took once he discovers this 'error' on the form was so good, I love how he feels he has finally found some purpose to this meaningless job and then it just continues churn...
Thanks, Kelsey! Yeah, little tastes of power can derail some people :) I'm glad it was enjoyable! Thanks for the feedback :)
Hi Michal! This was a funny one! I love how righteous this character was and I totally felt like I was enduring his first day with him. Endless bureaucracy can feel insane, but I honestly don’t know if I could come up with a better system. I would love a sequel where we learn Pam’s backstory. Is her name REALLY Pam?? ;)
Thanks, Amanda! First days can be rough, for sure. I don't know if anyone really plans for bureaucracies, or if they just happen. Ideas seem to be much simpler on paper than in real life, and we get bogged down by all the things we didn't account for when we implement them. Though I guess it's possible to profit from complexity too, which sucks, but here we are :) I do believe her name is indeed Pam. A sequel like that's a fun idea. Now I wonder, was she always like this, or did she try to beat the system from within, and was herself slowl...
Kafkaesque surrealism, or nightmarish bureaucratic dystopia reminiscent of Borges or Cortazar, this was well done. It also reminded me of the 1980s movie "Brazil," for some reason. Congratulations for the 30 in 30 achievement. Quite impressive.
Thanks, Mike! On some level, I think I like nightmarish bureaucracies. They seem like a pretty good metaphor for much in life. I appreciate the read :)