A Better Place
by Fernando Meisenhalter
I return to my workstation only to find Sandra, my coworker, calmly reading a Raquel Welch memoir. The title is Beyond the Cleavage.
She brings books to the office, to fend off boredom, she says, books like How to Raise Your IQ by Eating Gifted Children; and, How to Succeed in Business without Having a Penis; and, Why is Everything I Love Illegal?
“Sandra, you’re more than an hour late,” I say.
“A drunk fell on the tracks at El Cerrito BART station,” she says. “There was a huge delay.”
“You could’ve called,” I say.
“How was I to know it was going to take this long?”
“When a drunkard falls on the tracks it always takes long, Sandra, you know that.”
“But why spend so much time saving a wino? That’s just enabling behavior. He’ll be boozing again tomorrow. BART is totally codependent.”
I don’t argue with her. I have more important things to worry about. We’re on a deadline. We need to finish this copying order, so I load color paper into the Xerox machine, set it to double-sided, and start printing.
“The world is full of idiots wasting our time,” Sandra says, “And they’re everywhere, Fernando, just everywhere.”
“I know,” I say, looking straight at her.
“Fernando, you work too hard. You should take a vacation.”
“Sandra, I temp. The only vacation I get is called unemployment.”
“I took a vacation once,” Sandra says, “to the Grand Canyon, the dumbest place ever. Why are people so proud of it? Did we build it? No, we stole it from the Mexicans, who took it from the Native-Americans, who found it already there, as is, some thirty thousand years ago.”
The machine runs out of toner and I can’t find a replacement cartridge. I search while Sandra yaks on about that ugly pit we call the Grand Canyon, the worst case of erosion on the planet, and how we might as well just give it back to the Mexicans.
Is this all there is to life, just listening to people jabber nonsense all day long?
Next she tells me about her uncle, a former bus driver in L.A.
“He once saw a man shoot a woman on his bus,” she says. “Luckily the bullet went through the woman's afro.”
“Did they take her to a hospital?” I ask.
“No, Fernando,” she says. “This was in the seventies. They just took her to a hair salon.”
“That's crazy,” I say, still believing every word she says.
It takes me twenty minutes to find the toner. It’s hiding behind one of Sandra’s many books, one called Revenge of the Lawn.
“Is this book any good?” I say.
“Good?” she says. “It’s brilliant: Richard Brautigan, America’s greatest writer ever, now sadly forgotten.”
“How come forgotten?” I ask.
“He went to a better place,” she says.
“You mean to Canada?”
“No, you fool,” she says. “He killed himself.”
I load the toner, restart the copy machine. There’s still a ton of work to do.
This day has hurt written all over it: the mauling of the soul for minimum wage and no hope.
Sandra hardly works. She doesn’t have to. She has a note for narcolepsy from her doctor so she can fall asleep on the job anytime she wants and no one can fire her. I don’t enjoy such privileges. If I slack, I’m gone. It’s called at-will employment, it’s everywhere, and they call it progress.
“Did I tell you about the time I started a threesome to spice up my marriage?” Sandra says.
Sweet baby Jesus, not another dumb ego-boosting story!
I’m about to ask her to please spare me the nonsense, to have mercy on my poor immigrant soul, when I stop myself and ponder: did she just say a threesome? I feel the pinch of true interest reanimating my tattered spirit; the rise of a feeble flicker of hope in my otherwise frayed universe; a dim glow of light appearing at the end of that proverbial tunnel.
Hey, this might be interesting.
“No,” I say, “I don’t think you’ve told me that one.”
“Oh,” Sandra says excitedly, “this was back in San Francisco where everyone does it, even the normal people.”
She read some books to educate herself, she says, books like Stuck in Between, and Polyamory Made Simple, and The Rule of Three. She tells me all about it, in detail, and I listen, and truth be told I’m enjoying her story. I’m learning to use her narcissism as a form of entertainment.
I guess this is one way to survive in this cold, cruel world, with all that sick, alienating crap in it. This probably won’t save my life, but at least it’ll keep me from killing myself during the next eight hours.
I continue copying and listening, staying busy, taking no breaks, working and working until I feel better, until I feel don’t have to worry about anything anymore.
Fernando Meisenhalter is of German ancestry, raised in Mexico City, a full-time immigrant in the US since 1995, and a God-fearing citizen since 2002. He's MFA-free, has somehow survived the brutal gentrification of the San Francisco Bay Area, and still writes flash fiction.