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The Woman in White Marble

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Cold Civil War

by Matt Thomas

Coming soon as an ebook.

28-year-old James Edwards is disillusioned with his life. He has a lousy job, an iffy home and family life, and is skeptical of 21st century American society. One day, he makes a radical choice to leave home and start his life over.  Along his journey of self-discovery and catharsis, James unwittingly becomes famous, and his fame continues to grow. As  James' fame grows, so too does his angst, and an insane chain of events is set forward that not only change James' life, but could potentially cause Americans to think deeply about themselves and their country.

 

 

 

 

I am an aspiring writer who has written for sports blogs and sports websites. I am currently working on my first novel, entitled "Cold Civil War", and I am also building a portfolio of short stories and poetry! I'm just trying to turn a passion into a career, and I am having a damn good time doing it!

Influences: Hunter S. Thompson, Chuck Palahniuk, David Foster Wallace.
In my spare time I enjoy working out, traveling, and spending time with family and friends.

 

 

Excerpts from Cold Civl War

1 SOCIETAL NORMS BREEDING PSYCHOSIS

Do I regret what happened?

Fuck no!

Well, I’ll put it this way: I don’t regret taking a sabbatical, and I especially don’t regret the stands that I took.

My only hope, as I speak to you in this interview today, is that I can continue to rectify the damage I did to the relationships with my family and my friends, including my mother and my little cousin Nicki. Thank God that little trooper still loves me.

So how did I get to this point? Well, first, I hope you’re keeping an open mind. It’s the only way you may fully understand my story. If you use your cognitive bias to portray my words to your target audience as half-truths, that’s okay. I accept that. I tried to fight such bias for a long time, but I realize now that I can’t control it. Right now, I’ll bet about half of your audience thinks I’m crazy, and the other half thinks I’m a genius.

A couple of weeks ago, I abandoned a comfortable life, with a good family, a job, and some financial security, because I was angry at the world and disillusioned about my life. I needed change. I never told a solitary soul I was leaving home, not even my family, only because I didn’t want interference. A retreat from the harsh realities of this world, and the harsh realities of my life - a life full of missed opportunities, regret, and fond memories long passed, was necessary for my mental health.

Well, what ended up happening was certainly no vacation. It was a journey that changed everything. Not in any literal shape-shifting sense that tipped the Earth on its axis or disrupted the space-time continuum, but in a transgressive, existential sense.

But then, as you know, I went on a pretty epic rant in Chicago that you’ve seen on the invisible wavelengths of information, entertainment, and decadence of the internet. It made me famous to a substantial number of people.

And then, my fame (or infamy) grew, and more insane shit happened.

Finally, a few days ago, this one particular group of degenerates caused me to snap, and I did something virtually the entire world has now seen. Obviously, it’s why you asked me to do this little chat with you today. A few weeks ago, I was just James Matthew Edwards, a simple, hard-working guy from New Jersey. Now, I’m James Matthew Edwards, the internet antihero with the bland name. It’s really astounding how your life can change so quickly in this technology-dependent world.

For you to fully understand why I did what I did, I think it’s important for you to understand my life experience - including my family, the relationships I’ve had, my education in and out of the classroom, the existential battles I’ve fought within myself, and the enlightening and laborious lessons I’ve learned about America. I’ve always been a deep thinker, and my quest for life’s truths have sometimes driven me to madness. That quest centers on a question I had been asking myself for nearly two decades:

How do you want to be remembered?

            I had to answer this question. I had to find meaning in it. Unfortunately, to adequately answer it, I had to abandon my insipid existence. Along my journey, a lot of my preconceived notions and lessons I learned about life and living in America, both good and bad, were reinforced and confirmed. Although I ended up pissing off a lot of people, I hope the story I am about to tell you today will not only provide some context, but also inspire your viewers. Most importantly, though, I inspired me. I stopped fighting my existential battles, and I reaffirmed to myself why life is worth living. The tortured, jaded soul buried deep within my flesh and bone was eradicated, and a new man emerged.

How do you want to be remembered?

If you had asked me a few weeks ago, I’d have told you I’d be remembered as nothing. Nada. Zip. People considered ‘something’ in this world are either filthy rich, have won a championship or prestigious award, were the Draconian dictators of a nation, or peacemakers immortalized in urban legends or fairy tales. It’s all a byproduct of a vain, cruel world that will have zero sympathy for you if you either fail to adapt to it or accept it. And I was among those that had failed to adapt.

So, I guess you could say that because of that, I ended up snapping. Why? Well, a big part of the reason was that my disillusionment about America and 21st-century life came to a head when I witnessed a bunch of brainwashed drones reiterate to me why the country I love and have been angry at for quite a while is on the brink of internal destruction. It just happened to manifest itself several times in the last couple of weeks, as I’ll describe to you as my story goes on.

For the longest time, I was conforming to the ‘norms’ of modern society. How do you define society, though? No one really knows how to answer that. The problem is that - too many people arrogantly think they know, and they use this invisible code to enforce arbitrary rules that benefit only themselves. For years, I tried to be one of those people, and it ended up jading me. Because I got so jaded, I failed to take responsibility for my shortcomings, and the time in which my youthful dreams, ambitions, and potential would die a slow and painful death was quickly racing towards reality.

I’m twenty-eight now, but my path towards disillusionment began when my perception of society – which, really, is shared by millions - began taking shape around the time I reached double-digits in age. When you’re young, you’re asked incessantly by family, friends, and teachers what you want to do with your life. If I didn’t adequately answer the question, I risked ‘disrespecting my elders’ - which, according to my parents, is one of the worst transgressions one can commit. And I never could give a straight answer. As time passed, I learned that most of these ‘elders’, along with society’s shallow, self-serving populace - including government, media, and communal social circles - are know-it-all pricks who unrepentantly guilt-trip you for several reasons. If you don’t work for and get high-level benefits from a multi-billion-dollar conglomerate; if you haven’t become a doctor, lawyer, or college professor; if you haven’t bought an opulent three-bedroom, three-bath house in the suburbs; or if you haven’t gotten married and had two children by the age of thirty, you’ve wrought an unforgivable contravention against your elders’ fragile egos. They don’t give two fucks about you. They just care about making themselves feel sanctimonious, so they can brag to their friends and colleagues about how they have a friend or blood relative who attained grand success before any of their friends or colleagues could say the same. You feel forced into a position where you need to do something meaningful - so others will be proud of you and not embarrassed by you. You’re encouraged to control your destiny, but you aren’t defining what your destiny is.

            To summarize, what we know as ‘society’ is a race to make as much money as possible, attain as much fame as possible, and most of all, please other people.

And, if you don’t conform to these arbitrary societal expectations, you’re a waste of talent. A loser. Then, you become either a psycho - or a fuck-up.

I already was a fuck-up.

And recently, I temporarily became a total psycho.

My life used to consist of three tedious eight-hour elements. Element one was work, where I did nothing but stare at a computer monitor, breathe, and speak into a headset. Element two was at home, where I stared at a television screen and laptop monitor while navigating through a smartphone. Element three was sleep, where I had nightmares about recycling and repeating the first two elements.  

Element one nearly killed me inside. For the last year and more, I forced myself to work a job I hated with a passion. I worked in a call center for Richard George, a major financial investment firm that was once investigated for fraud, money laundering, and unethical business practices by the greedy swine that gleam into cameras and teleprompters with a straight face and recite fabricated statements proclaiming adoration and respect for the gullible spoiled, entitled rich brats they pretend to give a shit about. I only dealt with this cesspool of corruption and phony compassion on a poverty-level wage because at least I got paid every two weeks. Not that it mattered much. Bills and student loans liquidated much of each paycheck before the full pixilation of the direct deposit appeared on my bank’s smartphone app.

Because I hated this job so much, there was only one way for me to pass eight hours of soul-sucking time faster during work: daydreaming about what I really wanted to do with my life –writing a novel about America. It is a novel I want to challenge the establishment, bring awareness to government corruption, and to implore people to stop being conceited, vain prototypes of a repulsive, decadent society. Along my journey, I began writing the novel as a piecemeal of statements based on my preconceived notions about the American dream and the American reality. After what I experienced, though, hundreds of pages worth of golden material are now waiting to be translated from brain to paper, and, well, I lived attempting to inspire people, albeit with some pretty… salient results.

A lot of my preconceived notions about life formed during my early twenties. I graduated summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA and a bachelor’s degree in communications, but it was after I graduated that I learned the truth: all a bachelor’s degree earns you nowadays is a framed piece of paper you can wipe your ass with! Part of the job description of a university president is, at commencement ceremonies, to recite those scripted little tidbits wishing good luck and feigning pride in all the students that they robotically recite while forcing bright, wide smiles. What they really should say is: “You’re all fucked. Good luck!” All bachelor’s degrees get you these days is millions of years of debt and a shit job, not prestige. Then, either you continue your education and sink deeper into debt, or your life becomes an amalgamation of stress, anger, and adversity. You’re scammed into thinking you have a bright future, but - your future is one in which you remain financially dependent on your parents even when you have children of your own. I was supposed to be a filmmaker, or a historian. Instead, I got stuck at RG because I couldn’t get a damn job in the fields I studied! A sick joke executed to perfection. Such is life in America these days.

Although you may not believe it, I love America. I really do. But in college, I started learning that America is no longer the ‘United States’. Instead, we now have the Liberal States of America and the Conservative States of America, which operate at the expense of everything right and great about the so-called ‘greatest country on earth.’ My cynicism about this great country of ours began developing, however, when I discovered that one of the greatest American values is a lie. Young Americans are told that if you work hard enough, you can attain anything you want in life. What you really should be told is if you work hard enough, you can attain anything you want if and only if you know the ‘right’ people - and if you are born into wealth and privilege, you can be hired for a job by some powerful family connection even if you are dangerously unqualified. Hard work doesn’t pay off these days, and many people either empathize with that statement - or they acridly dismiss it as pretext even though they’ve never placed themselves in the victim’s shoes.

In recent years, to attempt to channel my anger into a positive, I began dreaming about traveling - partly for fun, but also to get inspiration for my novel. And this leads to where I want to begin the story of my journey.

Bored shitless one Tuesday morning at work, waiting for the next round of filthy rich swine to call and complain about the pennies of interest they felt they were being gypped out of, I planned potential routes for a road trip. I’d never traveled further than Washington D.C. in my life, so my destination choices were places a lot farther away from New Jersey. My first choice was Chicago, but I also thought, what if I went to Canada instead? How different from America would Canada look? How cool would it be to see speed limit signs in kilometers? Would people actually…ya know, treat each other with kindness and respect? Would I want to live there?

 Regardless, the trip would have served as an escape from the adversity of everyday life, especially the inevitable drama that comes with human interaction. Recently, I broke up with my girlfriend, Dana, and because I no longer had to blow money on this failed relationship, I had the personal and financial freedom to take a vacation on my terms and my terms alone. It was supposed to take place a couple of weeks from today, but of course, my “vacation” already happened.

So, later that Tuesday, I made the final decision to drive to Canada. When I scribbled down an itinerary on a blank piece of paper, I felt exultant - a veritable state of nirvana that only comes to those who think positively.

 Until…

Amid my chicken-scratching, I felt a firm tap on my right shoulder.

Startled, I looked back, and there was Michelle. She was my supervisor, but she might as well be Attila the Hun. Or Lucifer. Or whoever the evilest woman in history was. The sight of that late thirty-something dirty blonde with a face that accentuated every crevasse, curve, and jut of her skeleton made my heart stop.

“Why are you on the internet?” she asked sternly, her voice inflecting higher with each syllable, and sounding like the captain of a high school cheerleading squad. “What’s your explanation for using the internet on company time, which you know is a violation of Richard George’s employee conduct policies?” She sounded so formal, like a judge in court reciting legal mumbo jumbo. This insecure, arrogant former lawyer was about to channel all the bitterness and resentment from her previously failed career, combine it with the abhorrence she reserved in her heart just for me, and vociferously unleash it with a verbal firestorm of impeccable pronunciation and terminology.

As her bloodshot hazel eyes fixated on mine, I began thinking about how grateful I was that I hadn’t turned out like that conceited curmudgeon. I just wish the most mentally tough, physically strong, and bravest man I’ll ever know in my life were next to me at that moment, giving me advice.

How do you want to be remembered?

My father, Douglas, passed away of cancer a few months ago. Goddamn, I miss him. It’s because of his teachings that I only temporarily went psycho, but to be sure, his absence accelerated my path to near-clinical insanity.

He was a rugged but fair beacon of all that is righteous and genuine about humanity and the average American. He was the type that told you the truth straight to your face, and he never apologized for offending you. As aggressive as he got, though, he would never, ever get patronizing, passive-aggressive, or treat you like you didn’t matter. My father loved me, even though there were many times when I thought he didn’t. He never belittled me, no matter how angry he may have gotten, and his temper was ferocious.

And any time he ever sensed intimidation or fear in me, he’d recite his favorite phrase:

“MAN UP!”

That’s most likely what he would have said to me if he were next to Michelle and me. Instead, I was reminded of another moment in which my use of the internet got me into trouble. Shortly after I entered high school, my parents purchased our first personal computer for the house. At the time, I was friends with an eighth-grader named Pete who lived right down the street from us. My parents knew his quite well, so they entrusted Pete’s mother to babysit me for a couple of hours after school each weekday. Pete was probably the only person I considered a ‘friend’ back then. I lacked the sufficient social skills to be ‘popular’, ‘liked’, or ‘accepted’ by different cliques in school, but Pete never judged me based on that criteria.

Pete’s parents were one of the first people I knew that purchased dial-up internet access, and I used to watch Pete talk to random people in online chat rooms - some with weird, humorous screen names - and I became utterly titillated by the possibility of forging a connection with a colored pixelated box on a screen. Back then, we didn’t have Skype, FaceTime or webcams, so when you communicated with a ‘person’ via instant message, you had no choice but to assume you were talking with a human.

Because I was desperate to improve my social skills, sense of humor, and wit, I entrusted those silly pixelated boxes. It was the best way I knew how to learn to be the ‘cool’ guy in social situations. Chat rooms were the perfect tool to practice human interaction, because not only were you never judged by your looks, your posture, or how you spoke, but you had room for error. If you typed something wrong or awkward-looking, you could always alter it before sending it. Most of all, you could enunciate your real thoughts without fear of retribution or scorn.

Bolstered by an unflinching desire to be more social, I pled with my Dad to get internet access for our new PC. After many begging fits, he finally relented, but only because he wanted to experiment with this ‘worldwide web of shit’, as he called it. My father placed stringent rules on my access: never give out personal information such as your name to a stranger without consulting him first, and never go online unless your homework is done. And it was important, considering my father’s temper, that I adhere to those rules, because it went without saying that committing transgressions, such as revealing my home address to an anonymous pop-up screen, would have resulted in a slow, painful death.

Well, on one balmy May afternoon towards the end of my freshman year, after a particularly rough day at school, I felt rebellious and desperate, so I decided to break my father’s rules. I returned home from school at 3:30, so I had an hour and a half window to navigate the chatrooms until my parents returned home at five. I soon struck up a conversation with the screen name ‘JessicaMarie1’ in one of those chat rooms for teenagers. JessicaMarie1 didn’t seem like one of those shady pornographic screen names like SuKmYDyk69 or some shit, so I figured she, or it, may be worth talking to. We began by chatting about music and movies, and as the conversation progressed, it became flirty. I totally lost track of the time.

Suddenly, at 5:05, my mind snapped back to reality when I felt the heavy stomping of my father’s size 14 feet. It was too late to shut down the computer and retreat to my room to pretend to do my homework, and it certainly wasn’t wise to concoct a lame excuse such as ‘I was using the computer to do homework’ to explain my actions. Seconds later, he was standing next to me. I knew I was fucked. My father, all 6’3 and 250 pounds of him, stood over me like a giant monster shadowing over the insignificant specs beneath, his blue eyes seemingly popping out of his aviator glasses like water bursting through a cracked dam. The beet-red cheeks of his perfectly clean-shaven face were expanding like a balloon, and his beach ball-sized beer belly was grazing my cheek. He angrily demanded for me to relinquish the computer mouse. Then, he slapped the computer’s power button with his index finger, and the monitor instantaneously turned black. Terrified, I froze, and attempted to cease all cognitive function so not to overreact; I couldn’t look my father in the eye for fear of his facial expression bringing me to tears. He wanted me to be the disciplined military man he was - a tough guy molded vicariously into his external image and his internal functions. This meant: don’t show emotion, and never make excuses.

 “Tell me why you’re on the internet during homework time?” he asked in his loud, bellowing baritone that sounded like the echo of a church organ.

“I…I’m sorry,” I nervously mumbled. “I lost track of the time.”

“Yeah, right,” he snapped.

“I’m serious, Dad,” I stressed. “I…I got into a conversation with this girl…”

“Are you sure it was a girl?”

“Her name was Jessica.”

“Based on what?”

“Her screen name,” I spluttered. My heart was bubbling like a bar of soap inside a boiling-hot oven. Before becoming a cop, my father was a sergeant in the Marine Corps, where not only was he taught discipline, honor, and respect, but how to not take shit from anyone. As a cop, he learned the fine art of distinguishing truth-tellers and liars, and he became great at it. It impresses me to this day. Bullshitting my father was impossible. You could place 999 honest, integrity-laden people and one pathological liar in a room, and he’d instantaneously identify the liar.

“Oh, I see,” he retorted. “We had this discussion when we signed up for the net, didn’t we? You realize how many scumbags and shysters in this world create screen names like that to scam people? Huh, James?”

“I know…”

“You knew, but you did it anyway,” he snapped. “Imagine if you had given out our address and phone number! Some serial killer could show up at our door and murder us! Do you want that?”

Formulating any reply was impossible. None would satisfy him.

“At some point in history,” my Dad griped, “this is how we’ll all be communicating, and it makes me sick to my goddamn stomach.”

“Why are Pete and his brothers allowed to do it?” I asked, foolishly defiant.

“Because Pete’s parents are morons!” my father bellowed so loudly the walls shook. “And I’m a moron for allowing this! Shit, I’m going to have a little talk with his father later.”

“Dad, if…”

“This is not the time to talk back, James. This is a betrayal of trust. You begged me for the privilege of internet access, and I relented because I trusted you would use this privilege responsibly and adhere to the strict guidelines your mother and I placed on you - which are in place for a reason, James! I’d better not see you chatting on the web during homework time again!” he said while pointing his finger in my face. “If I catch you again, I’m canceling our internet service! Permanently! I mean it!”

“Okay, Dad. I understand.”

“Look at me and say it!”

“Dad…”

“Look at me! Now!”

Looking into his eyes and fighting back tears, I once again told him I understood. After he took a deep breath, he smiled, thanked me, patted me on the shoulder, and offered to bring me a soda. He knew the exact moment to move on from a tough situation. He was the perfect communicator.

“Listen, I’m going to ask you an honest question,” he said – calmly as he pulled up a folding chair stationed near the desk, unfolded it, and placed it in front of me. Sitting down, he leaned forward. “Do you want to be remembered as the kid that got scammed by some random asshole on the internet and dragged to a dark alley and shot? Do you want to be remembered as that gullible moron? Do you want to be remembered as a statistic?”

And then, it came, like a bolt of lightning crashing into my brainstem:

 “How do you want to be remembered, James?”

On the inside, my blood boiled, and my heart pounded out a thousand beats at once. On the outside, I let out a light chuckle. Suddenly, the chuckle became overdubbed by Michelle’s loud, conceited teenage cheerleader-type voice howling into my ear, promptly ending my daydream and sending shockwaves throughout my body, directing me to posture myself perfectly and not appear to be zoned out in a blissful dream world. And I had to sit there, listen and keep my mouth shut. Otherwise, the direst consequences were in store for me, like a biblical firestorm of verbal fury she would not hesitate to unleash.

How do you want to be remembered?

If I dropped dead of a heart attack right then and there, I’d be remembered as the one Michelle drove to an early death.

            And you know what? In a sick, twisted way, I kind of wish she had. Michelle was one of the ones that caused me to snap. Michelle, along with a myriad of other factors, both realistically and existentially, caused this whole chain of events of the past two weeks.

 

2 DISSENT BY THE NON-INFLUENTIAL

Ah, Michelle.

She’s the reason I left that banal job.

For too long, I took her abuse because I was terrified of getting fired. I can deal with a lot, but dealing with Michelle was nearly impossible. There are anally retentive, obsessive-compulsive personalities, and then there’s Michelle’s. If your job performance isn’t perfect, and if you ever question her, she verbally rains down fire and brimstone on you. She exploits, with malicious glee, the fact that being good at your job gives you license to treat your colleagues with unmitigated contempt. Her favorite tactic is using gossip to cultivate a negative perception of you.

And that’s the thing - she hated me, so she went out of her way to cultivate a workplace perception of me. To Michelle, I’m an underachieving, erratic, scatterbrained failure. What I really was to her was a scapegoat for her personal shortcomings. Prior to working for Richard George, she was a lawyer. She perfectly fit the role; she knows how to argue, fight, lie, and systematically dismantle the character and integrity of witnesses. She became a psycho at one point in her life, and if I had to guess, it occurred the day she got disbarred. Michelle refused to talk about it, but she most likely unscrupulously pissed off a judge, lost a very prestigious case, or worse. She says that being disbarred was the best thing that ever happened to her. Bullshit! It killed her, but she’ll never admit that. Michelle’s ego is as expansive as the universe, but I’ll put it into perspective this way: she’d think it is beneath her to be considered a fuck-up or a psycho.

 How much did Michelle hate me? Every month, she sent me and her superiors an email detailing my performance, but not anyone else. These emails outlined every one of my fuck-ups in great detail - including the time and date they occurred -mand every bullet point in the previous month’s email that I did not improve upon. Then, she’d issue idle threats like reducing my phone time, before hostilely imploring me to correct my mistakes before facing consequences like termination. If she ever ‘eulogized’ me at my funeral, she’d read every single ‘disciplinary’ email, then brag about how neatly organized and succinct they looked to promote her writing prowess. Honestly, she just wanted to look commanding to manipulate her way up the corporate ladder.

            Two hours following the internet incident, I saw how sour she was about it based on the frown on her face when I walked by her cubicle, two down from mine. When I sat down in my creaky white ergonomic office chair, I felt like I was trapped in purgatory. Mostly, it was because I was anxious, but also because my cube looked purgatorial – the beige backsplash, a ghost-white desk, and my black computer monitor and telephone stuck out like burn scars. Or a gateway to a black hole or hell, depending on your perspective. All it took was one slip-up for the gateway to open.

At around 4:25, close to the end of my shift, I fielded a call from a customer named Edith Aldous, who wanted to verify her account balances. When you work customer service in the financial industry, you typically serve two types of people. One is the scum of the earth; the other is the filthy-rich. Wait, let me rephrase that. The filthy rich are the scum. You know those types - they live on Park Avenue, wear name-brand suits and dresses and million-dollar diamond jewelry, host dinner and wine parties, and they’ll condescend to you out of some arbitrary self-absorbed sense of satisfaction, yet they’ll think they are nice. Money is everything to them. And I mean everything. I’ll bet more than 90% of them inherited their money from their rich mommies and daddies and never had to work for a dime a single day in their life. They can all go fuck themselves! As it turned out, Edith Aldous, the most socialite-sounding name of all-time, was among the scum.

The call, at first, was pleasant. She asked me how I was doing and if I was having a good day. Easy enough, I thought. Calmly and professionally, I followed my standard security procedures, provided Mrs. Aldous exactly what she requested, and she was satisfied. Suddenly, after I offered my generic salutations script and prepared to reach for the disconnect button, Mrs. Aldous, speaking in a thick Brooklyn accent, vehemently begged for me to stay on the line.

“So…because the balance of each of my CDs is below $250,000.00, I am insured for all three of these accounts, correct?” she asked.

“No, Mrs. Aldous,” I replied. “The federal insurance limit is $250,000.00 per individual, per institution, not per account.”

“Surely, you must be joking,” Mrs. Aldous said, derisively.

“No, ma’am,” I calmly replied. “Federal guidelines stipulate that depositors in any banking institution in this country are insured up to $250,000.00 per individual, per institution, not per account. It doesn’t matter if you have one account or a hundred.”

“Wait a second - I spoke with someone recently that said the complete opposite!” Mrs. Aldous shrieked.

“Do you remember who you spoke with?” I asked with a hint of smart-alecky pithiness.

“How the hell would I remember?” Mrs. Aldous snapped. My neck began sweating, and my cheeks turned beet red.

“I apologize if you were misinformed a previous time, ma’am,” I spluttered, “but I can assure you it is per individual, per institution.”

At the exact same time, an instant message popped up on my computer screen. It was from Michelle: You missed “per ownership category, per institution!

My heart sank. She was eavesdropping on my conversation! Was she that paranoid of me making a mistake?

“You know, I’ve really had enough of your bank,” Mr. Aldous continued. “You and the rest of your representatives all need to be consistent. It is downright disturbing that you all can’t get your facts straight!”

I remained silent as Mrs. Aldous continued her rant about the discrepancies between my insurance limit statement and that of some other moron. Then, another IM appeared: “Make sure to give her the official script, please.”

Michelle is so anal that she types her messages in perfect English; commas, contractions, and all. No emojis, no shorthand, no “LOL” or “SMH”; perfect, unabridged, English words. It was entertaining sometimes, to be honest.

“Ma’am,” I continued, “I…I sincerely apologize you disagree…”

“Of course, I disagree!” Mrs. Aldous interrupted. “I have nearly a million dollars with your bank, and I place a lot of faith in you people!”

Why aren’t you doing exactly what I asked? Give your customer the script immediately!

She was referring to a statement carefully crafted and edited by RG’s legal department, required to be divulged to a customer following any inquiry regarding insurance limits to comply with some dumbass law. Everyone else in the office was permitted to present the script to their own personal specifications so long as it avoided compliance violations.

Not me, of course! Michelle instructed me and only me to read the script, verbatim, exactly as concocted by the legal department. And if I didn’t, it became a statistic on her “Let’s Humiliate James” email.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” I continued, “government insurance limits cover up to two-hundred fifty…”

Cover depositors

My heart started pounding.

“P..puh...per individual…”

250 THOUSAND DOLLARS

You could literally hear the pounding in my chest. Pop. Pop. Pop.

“Per ownership category, per institution. If you have a joint owner on your account…”

DON’T MENTION JOINT OWNERS

The vibration of each pop started causing my headset to move.

“That individual will also be insured up to $250,000.”

YOU DIDN’T COMPLETE THE SCRIPT

Now I was hyperventilating.

PLACE YOUR CALLER ON HOLD, PLEASE

It took more than fifteen seconds to get Edith Aldous to shut up so I could obey my bosses’ orders. Of course, that wasn’t quick enough. Clearly, I was expected to work miracles for her. And God forbid I pointed out that she didn’t use a period after the word PLEASE in her message. She’d have two stroke fits: one for me calling her out, and a bigger one at herself for committing the grammatical infraction.

 At second three:

AGAIN, PLACE HER ON HOLD AND COME TO MY DESK, PLEASE 

At second nine:

ARE YOU THERE?!?

No response.

UNREAL. SIMPLY UNACCEPTABLE.

So now, not only was I in trouble for not placing my caller on hold, I was in trouble for not typing back instantaneously after receiving the message. In Michelle’s world, the only acceptable timeframe for completing a task is breaking the sound barrier. This is a woman that once wrote me up for arriving at my desk one second after my shift-start time of 8:30 AM! She’s that irascible!

With my head slumped down, I pulled myself up off my chair, furrowed the lapels of my white, buttoned-down semi-wrinkled pinstriped shirt, and made a right turn toward her desk. Suddenly, I tilted my head up and froze in horror. Michelle, clad in a red polyester shirt like the devil himself, was standing in front of me, nearly nose to nose. I was stuck. I had no choice but to listen to the bitch regardless of my opinion or feelings.

“Do I have to print out the script for you again?” she asked in that grating, obnoxious sing-songy squawk. “You should have the script in your notes, your email, pinned to your wall; I don’t care! Why didn’t you give your customer the script exactly as it was instructed to you?”

Remaining silent, I refused to make eye contact with her. My calf muscles were ready to burst through my dark brown khakis and leak lactic acid all over the floor. Producing the best poker face I could muster was the only logical response.

“I shouldn’t have to tell you again to adhere to the script!” she continued. “I don’t know what your problem is, what issues you have at home, or why you see fit to disrespect your superiors, but this is unacceptable, James!”

My frozen poker face thawed, and the vibrations in my legs tripled in frequency and extended to my feet, fluttering my brown loafers and black dress socks. Blood rushed from my brain to my wrists. My anger was palpable. She had no right to make such a baseless presumption about my personal life, no matter how she termed it or spun it.

My father always implored me to stand up for myself. This was the time to do so to Michelle.

“Excuse me,” I interjected, exaggerating the U syllable.

Fatal mistake.

“No, excuse me!” Michelle shouted at the top of her lungs. “I don’t want to hear anything you have to say! Return to your cubicle immediately! I’ll be right back!” She stormed off, muttering incensed gibberish under her breath in the process.

I slumped deep into my chair, feeling defeated. I remained frozen. Only Mitchell, the fraud department assistant supervisor, bothered to ask me if I was okay, but I barely even acknowledged him. He must have assumed I didn’t want company at that moment or something, so he walked away in bewilderment. Did he think I was getting the ax? Hell, the rest of my coworkers must have assumed the same, because no one else approached me, possibly for fear of being rude. What was I going to say? Oh, I’m just peachy? Don’t get me wrong; I genuinely appreciate when people express compassion towards me. But if it is blatantly obvious that compassion and comfort is no remedy for such a sensitive moment, smiling and lying through my teeth is the worst thing I could do.

Finally, twenty-five minutes later, Michelle returned to my desk.

“Howard’s office. Now.”

Here it is, I thought. My time at RG was surely coming to a dishonorable end. Howard is the department director, and simply put, he is the male version of Michelle. Both are cold-hearted scumbags with zero empathy for anyone or anything. They never say hello to me or anyone else, and they rarely, if ever, smile or laugh.

I probably should have just walked out and gone home, but the problem with 21st century American society is that it is carefully crafted to punish those that whistle blow or rebel against the system. Dissent from the non-influential is met with serious consequences. Clearly, I didn’t think about that much that day.

After a few deep breaths, I began the virtually eternal walk to Howard’s office. I felt like vomiting. Mentally, I prepared for the worst. To attempt to ease my mind, I imagined the world, millions of years in the future, ravaged by nuclear war and populated by a race of robots with Michelle’s brain carbon copied into each of their programming mechanisms. When one of the last remaining human survivors summoned what remained of their intelligence to crack a joke about a passing robot, his nuts were zapped by a thermal laser, followed by a light blast that disintegrated his head like a balloon popped by a needle. Then, the robot folded its arms and rolled its eyes. It’s amazing that Michelle never did that to me in real life, honestly.

Fittingly, Howard’s office is located in the darkest corner of the purgatorial fifth floor, obscured by a concrete pillar, a black trash can, and a royal blue recycling pail. The rich mahogany door to his office is always closed. If you knock on it, either you’d better be his secretary or have something important to tell him. Knocking on his door is virtually a terminable offense at RG. Thinking she was above the rules as usual, Michelle opened the door and shoved it forward as if she were a cop breaking into a suspect’s house. Chills reverberated up and down my spine as I entered the office. Howard didn’t flinch when the door opened; he just maintained his trademark blank stare. Michelle signaled for me to enter.

“Have a seat, Mr. Edwards,” Howard, a sixty-something scrawny, bald man with thin reading glasses and an immaculately-shaven face, said in a faux-British accent. As usual, he was wearing a plaid sweater vest on top of a shirt and tie, dark black slacks, and blindingly-shined loafers. I sat in the black leather chair in front of his desk close to the gray concrete wall. Michelle slammed the door behind her (clearly acceptable) and sat in the leather chair to my right. The office looked like a dark masonic torture chamber. Brown curtains behind Howard completely obscured the windows and natural light behind it, and the overhead lights and his desk lamp were dim.

 “Mr. Edwards,” he began, “the reason we’ve called this meeting is because there have been questions raised regarding your performance, and frankly, we are concerned. You have taken calls in which you either have not provided required scripts or our company’s standard greetings and salutations. I’ve also received word that you’ve been impatient and rude with customers, and you’ve engaged in unauthorized internet usage. These violations are not tolerated by Richard George. Therefore, Michelle and I are presenting to you a written warning that the three of us are going to sign today. It states the aforementioned violations documented in the last three months, and that any violations from this day forward will result in further disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”

I didn’t listen to Howard’s “speech”. I didn’t need to. It was unadulterated executivespeak: fuck up again, and your ass is gone. Blah, blah, freakin’ blah. I just sat silently. It really sucked.

He firmly placed a copy of the notice in front of me, and I didn’t hesitate to sign it without reading it. Howard asked if I had any questions, and I silently shook my head. Then, in a moment of phony compassion, Howard allowed me to depart for the day, and he encouraged me to come back to work the next morning with a clear head. In other words, he didn’t want me to cost his greedy organization a lawsuit, so he was cutting me a break.

Naturally, I accepted his offer.

Driving home in my dinky piece of tin navy blue 2000 Toyota didn’t help to subside my anger. Throughout the entire twenty-minute drive, I summoned every single ounce of strength in my body to not cry, pound my fist in anger, scream at the top of my lungs, or drive into a damn ditch. But before I arrived home, I couldn’t hold it in any longer.

“FUCK YOU, MICHELLE! FUCK YOU!” I screamed. My teeth ground into my tongue, nearly making it bleed. I pounded the palms of my hands on the steering wheel, and I instantly had to regain my composure when I swerved into the yellow double-lined median, and a loud honking ensued from the oncoming SUV on the opposite side of the road.