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.