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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life
by Dan Fante
(continued from Cyber Corpse #8)
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Okay thrill seekers, when we last left Bruno he was slam-dunking each and every mooch he hooked on the phone, selling anyone that stood between him and a telemarketing commission. "Taking no prisoners," to use Eddy Kammegian's phrase. Orbit Computer Products and telephone sales are proving to be the way up and out for Bruno. And staying sober is going okay too. Turns out that our hero's only problem is Jimmi Valiente, his sexy co-worker. Bruno's in love. Jimmi's an ex-stripper and a user - spelled here with a capital "U." Hard-wired against any kind feeling for anyone, save those that favor herself and her survival.
      As we tune in, Bruno has just picked up his biggest paycheck in years. Over twelve hundred bucks. Let's see what happens now...

Chapter 4

The real main difference between Orbit and the other tele-marketing rooms I had worked for in the past was their pitch. That, and that everyone dressed up and wore plastic calligraphy name tags. Eddy Kammegian's script permitted no "deals" between his salespeople and the mooch - no "gifts," no "contests," no color TV's sent to the Office Manager's home address, no all-expense weekends at Trump's on the boardwalk in Atlantic City "with this next order," no "rebate checks" mailed to a brother-in-law's address or a P.O. Box.
     At my last bucket shop job in New York selling "balloons," my office supplies presentation went like this:
      "Mary-Beth, Dave Conway calling you (you never use your real name when you're selling balloons), Distribution Manager over here at Central Supply. I just got a radio call from one of my drivers. We were making a delivery in your area. Our truck tipped over down the block from you on Fourteenth Street (or Forty-sixth or Seventh Avenue). That's the bad news. Here's the good news: nobody was hurt, and we've got fifty gross of the Paper Mate look-alikes with the crates broken open, all over the street. You know these, Mary Beth, they come in the standard dark blue or black ink. Which color do you use out there, the black or the blue?... 'I USE THE BLUE, DAVE...' Great! These are the retractables with the silver button on top and the matching pocket clip and they come boxed by the gross... Mary-Beth, as you know these normally sell all over town in bulk at thirty-nine cents each, but, because of the accident, because my guys have to wrap 'em in rubber bands and stuff 'em into plastic bags, I can let you have these today only at 29 cents a copy. You save $14.40 on each gross. It's a win-win deal for you, Mary-Beth! Now, my question is: Did you want one gross or would the full three gross be better for you?...'DAVE, TELL ME HONESTLY; IF I DON'T LIKE THEM, CAN I SEND THEM BACK?' Boy, am I a knucklehead! I forgot to mention about the premium you qualify for just by placing your order today. You're going to be glad I called! Do you like coupons, Mary-Beth? Super market double coupons? Let me say it another way: How much do you spend on groceries every week? Fifty dollars? A hundred? Well, enclosed with this order - I'm making a note right now as we speak - I'm sending out $1,000 worth of coupons on everything from detergent to steaks to baked goods to deli coldcuts. Just my way of saying thanks, Mary-Beth... Mary-Beth, do I need a P.O. or should we just go ahead on your verbal?"
     That shit.
     Now compare the above "truck tipped over" "balloon" scam pitching knock-off pens with Eddy Kammegian's Orbit presentation selling legitimate printer ribbons and storage media:
      "Bob, Bruno Dante calling from Orbit Computer Products. (At Orbit everyone uses their own real name.) Can you hear me okay?...Great! Bob, are you the one handling the ordering on the computer supplies: the computer ribbons and the re-stuffed lazer cartridges? ...Outstanding. Bob, what my company can do is price protect you. What kind of printers are you folks running out there at Bob's Saddle & Feed?...Excellent. How many of those do you go through in an average month?...Great. Now Bob, on one gross only of the 4245 printer ribbon at $36.95 per unit, to get you fully price protected on our new high-yield premium product, would the ribbons go out to your attention? "
     Completely straight. See? His people exaggerated sometimes, but there was no sleaze. Of course, at first, the guy has to object a few times, say he doesn't want any, that he has too many on hand, or that he gets them for less money. Naturally, this is all bullshit. Data processing guys always lie to get you off the phone. The other thing I found out about data processing guys from working at Orbit, is that most of them are inexplicably named "Bob."
     MOOCH: Okay, sounds great. But I'm real busy right now and I've got way too many ribbons on the shelf. Get back to me in a few months, we'll talk then.
     ME: Absolutely. That's no problem, Bob. I know when I call in cold like this you're not going to have an immediate need. But let me ask you a quick question: You do have the authority to evaluate on a new product, right? I mean, I'm talking to the head and not the feet. Right?
     MOOCH: Sure, it's my department. I'm the boss.
     ME: Great Bob. I don't want to overstock you. You'd loose faith in me, and I'd loose the potential of a good customer. Why don't we do this: I'll cut that quantity in half and go with just 72 only. You can handle that. And I'll put 'em on a slow boat and they won't even arrive until (next week). Oh, and let me give you my name and number just in case you ever need me. Have you got a pen handy?
     MOOCH: Right here.
     ME: (In this part I give Bob my name and number and make him repeat it back to me. That distracts him nicely. Then...) Good. Now Bob, will I need a P.O. on this order, or can I go on just your verbal?
      MOOCH: Duh, duh...my verbal is okay.
      ME: That's an excellent decision, Bob. I'll be getting back to you in a few weeks just to see how well they ran for you. Nice meeting you on the phone.


Chapter 5

Jimmi Valiente was new at Orbit Computer Products too. Her ass was sensational. Hard. Packed and round like a stuffed foam pillow from Motel 6. "Masume" was her real name from her mother's side, but she made everybody call her "Jimmi." Exotic. Beautiful. Half Mexican, half Iranian. Her desk was located one behind mine in the Incubator, a separate trainee room where all new telemarketers start out. Eddy Kammegian interviewed and hired us both on the same day.
     Jimmi was twenty-six, beautiful and street smart, from the Pacoima projects. Completely self-reliant. She had an intense, in-your-face honesty about her. Long black hair and long legs and coffee-with-milk skin and shocking, defiant, blue eyes, and two tiny gold hoop rings piercing the skin of her left nostril. She was six months sober off rock cocaine and alcohol. That first day of our phone training, when we were all introducing ourselves around, Jimmi, like a man would, shook my hand and smiled. When I sat down, I felt my pants. My dick was hard as iron.
     She was born and raised in L.A. like me. On the phone or talking to our supervisor, Rick McGee, she spoke perfect television American. But, one-on-one, her dialect was a cross between Van Nuys gang-banger and 12-step newcomer.
     At the end of day three, the final day of our phone training before our written test, we met after work at Norm's Coffee Shop on Lincoln Boulevard to study and memorize "The Seven Keys Of Selling" from Charles Roth's book, Secrets of Closing Sales, an Orbit requirement. Jimmi guzzled three Pepsis while I drank coffee. Everything that came out of her mouth was direct and unedited, completely up front.
     When we were done with our memorizing, she offered me a ride home in her rag-top bug, then paid for both our drinks while the cash register guy oogled her perfect ass and attempted to make chitchat, wanting to know if he had seen her on TV.
     We laughed and talked more on the ride. The back seat of her bug was filled with Barbie Dolls. Sad and old, some with their soiled dresses looking like forgotten hookers in the L.A. soot. Jimmi kept one between her legs as she drove.
     When we stopped at a traffic signal, she grabbed her tits and began screaming a crazy imitation of a high school valley girl brat demanding an implant boob job from her parents. Nuts. Very funny.
     Outside my sober living house in Venice, as I opened her bug's car door to leave, she put a hand on my arm. The blue eyes were like two flame-throwers. She pulled me back. "So," she said, already using Orbit's boiler room jargon, "I AM FULLY PRICE PROTECTED! RIGHT?"
     "Right," I said, playing along, "TWENTY-FOUR MONTHS. THE TOTAL PRICE FREEZE."
     Jimmi cooed, "You were a big help to me today, baby. You know this shit."
     "Hey, any time."
     "You think I'm funny, right? I mean, for a towelhead-wetback bitch?" She grabbed her tits. "DO THESE GO OUT TO YOUR ATTENTION?"
     I had to laugh.
     Now the perfect, beautiful smile. A three-finger Pacoima gang-banger salute against her chest, slipping into vato hip-hop, "We're da team, esse. Jou know? Iz jou 'n me, homie."
     I copied the salute against my ribs then turned to get out. She held to my shirt. "What?" I said.
     Reaching across me she pulled my door closed. "I need you to talk to me a minute, man - like real people - okay?"
     She clicked the bug's ignition off, and the motor sputtered dead. "Gimme a cigarette, okay?"
     I handed her the pack.
     "Okay, this is like AA, okay? We're both program people. Sober, right? I truss you. Like one alkie talking with another alkie. Okay?"
     "Talk," I said.
     Jimmi lit a Lucky and took a deep hit. Then it came out, flooding her bug like a backed-up Van Nuys storm drain. Two years at Santa Monica College studying drama until her drinking and amphetamine habit got out of control. Her amazing looks got her a dozen TV commercials, a full-time Victoria's Closet modeling gig, and a twenty-thousand-dollar check for a nudie spread in Man's Man.
     Taking another hit, she blew the sweetness at me. "But see," she sneered, "alla tha shit was 'BC.'"
     "BC?" I asked.
     "Yeah, you know, before crack."
     It made me laugh.
     Her life fell apart. No longer able to hide her drug problem, the disgusted husband, Sean McCarthy, a football player turned TV actor, had given up and moved on. Jimmi got jail time after two arrests in Hollywood for possession. Out on the street again, afraid to deal dope again and violate parole, to support her habit she took up the only gig she could hold: Lap dancing and performing nude at STRIP CRAZY on Century Boulevard. During her private session with the jons, she would lean close to ask if they wanted full service. Her blow jobs were two hundred extra.
     But, like me, not much had improved in sobriety. "Attitude problems" caused her to quit or be fired from three dancing jobs in three months. Lately, her older sister's husband, Caesar, had begun demanding that she catch up on back rent or vacate their rear bedroom at the house in Los Feliz. Collection agencies rang her phone in the middle of the night; she had a dresser full of traffic tickets gone to warrant. The pressure of staying clean and working too was making her nuts. Jimmi considered Orbit Computer Products her last shot.
     She grabbed my arm. "Pretty screwed-up, right mijo?" she whispered. "I mean, lap dancing. Private booths with red curtains. Suckin' dick for money. Tha shit. Thaz deep down even for a loca chola."
     I lit my own cigarette and tossed the match.
     There was a connection between us. We both felt it. Two fuckups holding on by our fingers. "People do what they gotta do," I said..."I'll help. We'll work together."
     In gratitude, smiling, she ran a long finger over the hair above my ear. "Right," she breathed, "'don't quit before the miracle.' Right, Bruno?"
     But then something was different. She twisted away in her seat. The eyes went empty. "Hey Bruno, know wha?"
     "Troof? Okay to say the troof - to say what's up?"
     "Okay. Sure."      
     "Well...don' be mad, but you're like a pussy. You kno?"
     The words stung. I felt my anger. "No," I said. "I don't know."
     "Before - when we was havin' Pepsi's - and right now. You lookin' ah me. All sweet. All fuckin' watery baby-dog eyes n' shit. I mean, you're a pussy. Easy meat. Know wham sayin'?"
     I popped the car door open to get out, then turned back. "You're the one who wanted to talk."
     Leaning across me, she pulled the door closed. Her thick, perfumed hair was in my face - her smell, her tits hard against my arm and chest. Before I could pull away, she was licking my face, my cheek. Two big, wet, slow, swipes the way a friendly Irish Setter would kiss its master. Then she kissed me, deeply. Slowly. Her tongue twisting in my mouth.
     Afterward, seeing my eyes and my reaction, she fell back, laughing. "See? Was I wrong?"
     I pulled away, angry.
     "If we was in the club," she hissed, "you was wit me - private - I could get an extra two hundred, maybe three, no problem."
     "So I'm like a trick, right?"
     She giggled, took a new cigarette from my pocket and lit it. "Done get all mad'n'shit, man. It's jus' the troof. You're easy."
     It was enough. Outside her bug, I put my head back through the window. My mouth wanted revenge. I dug in my pocket, pulling out fifty or sixty cents in change, flinging it on the seat. "This is all I've got," I said, tossing the coins at her. "After we get paid our first checks, I'll have more cash. You can suck me off and lick my asshole then."

Chapter 6     

Cold calling in telemarketing is a weird test of survival. Too confronting for normal people. A hundred calls per shift - face deep in the lion's mouth, hour after hour - dialing for dollars. The bodies pile up fast. By Tuesday afternoon of my first week on the phones, two trainees from our group of four, Jeff Baitz and Prince Johnson, had already quit. Blown out.
Jimmi and I were talking again. I knew it was because she was using me, needing my help. We ate lunch together every day. As friends. I didn't care. I liked the company.
     But by late Thursday afternoon, she was sinking too. Behind me at her desk, I could hear her slamming her phone down after each cold-call rejection from a receptionist or a data processing manager. Her pitches were monotone; customers were saying "no" easily after sensing the clumsiness in her typed-out delivery. She had only six deals for the week, four under the minimum limit. Grounds for termination.
     On the other hand, I was home, taking no prisoners. After the initial hour or two of uncertainty adjusting to Kammegian's pitch, my old sales adrenaline had taken over. Without cocaine and booze, my head was clear. I was like a dog with a rag in its mouth. I refused to hear "NO." I'd cut the quantity, give a dollar off per cartridge as a discount, defer the shipment, propose an 18-month price freeze, whatever it took - then CLOSE the deal. My success ratio of pitches to sales was higher than it had ever been. I had 26 cold-call deals for the week, tops in the company. Twelve hundred and seventy dollars in solid commissions. Already Frankie-Freebase was bragging that he'd discovered the new wonder mouth on the sales floor.
     Then, finally, Jimmi bled out. It was Friday morning. She had no deals at all before the break. Sitting together in her car in the parking lot at lunch, I sipped my coffee and watched her chain smoke and drink Pepsis. In boiler rooms, you have it or you don't. "YOU BUY THEIR TEARS, OR THEY BUY YOUR TONER!"
     Furious and sobbing, she grabbed me around the neck. She'd never make quota. She knew it. Today was her last day. All I could say was, "I'm sorry, Jimmi." It was then that I realized something: I would do anything to keep her around, help her save her job. Anything at all.

Half an hour later, in the middle of a sale, the solution came to me. A plan. For the next three hours, I dialed my ass off, slamming DP Managers and stock clerk mooches, cutting prices, pushing partial boxes of ribbons, whatever it took. At ten minutes before the last order pick-up of the day, I had six fresh sales in my desk tray. They were small deals, but the size didn't matter.     
      Scooping them out, I erased my own name, then wrote "Valiente" and Jimmi's Orbit ID number on four of the orders.
     I got up to go to the crapper, and on my way passing her desk I slid the pages into her "out" basket. I knew they would put her at quota and save her job.
     After I returned from the bathroom and a smoke, I was at my desk totaling my commissions when I felt the thud of a thick eraser against the collar of my shirt. Behind me the blazing Siamese eyes held nothing back. "Thanks, babee," Jimmi cooed. Then, as an afterthought, she grabbed her crotch. "Wait, vato," she whispered, "I suck your dick for free."
     We both laughed.
     At five o'clock she was still on the phone, so I decided to go to the bookkeeper's office to ask for an advance. I had won the cold-call bonus for the week: $250.00.
     New Incubator people were normally required to wait an extra seven days to get their first check because of the lag time in verifying orders, but, because I needed the money and because I had won the contest, I'd convinced Frankie Freebase to ask Kammegian for an exception and get me a $1,000 advance.
     It took almost half an hour for me to collect the money. Tilly, the payroll lady, kept ringing Kammegian's line, unwilling to cut me the check and cash it without the boss's personal okay. I didn't mind waiting. I'd had my biggest telemarketing week in years. Twelve-hundred-and-eighty-six dollars for five days work. Take home. No taxes were deducted, because Orbit paid all its phone people as Independent Contractors.
     Tilly finally got through to Kammegian and obtained his okay. I signed the pay vouchers. She only had enough money on hand to cash my $250.00 bonus, so I was given a payroll check for the rest.
     I was leaving Payroll when Doc Franklin walked in. Orbit's top salesman. We hadn't met yet, but I had heard about him from Frankie. My supervisor, with a sneer, let me know that Doc would be easy to recognize. His trademark at work was his crazy hats. The man behind me in line sported a thousand dollar business suit topped off by a leather WW-I aviator's helmet, complete with a beanie propeller.
     Tilly introduced us. Franklin's smile was ear to ear. Honest and friendly, not filled with grease like Kammegian and Frankie-Freebase.
     Doc put his thumb and pinkie finger to the side of his head pantomiming a telephone, "DO THESE RIBBONS GO OUT TO YOUR ATTENTION?"
I played the game, snarling, "BOB, I AM FULLY PRICE PROTECTED!"
"First two weeks, right?"
     "Right. First week on the phone," I said.
     Playfully, Doc snatched my pay vouchers from my hand. After seeing the amounts, he thrust his palm in the air to be high-fived. I slapped skin. "My man!" he roared. "Only one week on that horn! Almost fifteen hundred bucks! Twenty-six new accounts! Outstanding!"
     "Thanks," I said. "Feels good."
     "You're sober too, right?"
     An odd question. "Four months," I said. "Why? Does it show?"
     Doc laughed, then reached up to give his helmet propeller a spin. "Just a guess. Around here, we're all ex-juicers, junkies, and crack heads. I figured you for a member of the club."
     I smiled back. "I've joined an AA cult, right?"
     "More like a sober success machine. Around here, it's white flags or toe tags. Eddy calls it, 'sur-fuckin'-render!'"
     Tilly handed Doc his sealed pay envelope. After signing the voucher he tore the flap open, then passed the check to me. He hadn't looked at the amount inside. I read the numbers in disbelief: $7,099. One week's commissions.
     I handed it back. "Hey," I said laughing, reaching out to check the amount again, playing the sales pitch game, "that really is THE PRICE PROTECTION."
     Franklin shook my hand. "Keep it up, my man! You're on your way. Orbit's a million dollar deal. Problem is, we shove it up your ass fifty cents at a time."
     We laughed.
     When I got back to the Incubator, Jimmi was gone. The room was deserted, the lights out. I was about to leave when something drew me to her desk. A queer need to be where she had been, to be intimate, to feel her presence.
     Looking around to make sure I was alone, I pulled her chair out and sat down. Jimmi's heat, her perfume, the pulse of her, was everywhere. I could feel her.
     On the desk pad next to her computer was her office stuff: a freshly washed coffee mug, a row of sharpened pencils, a calculator, a scratch pad, paper clips, brochures to be envelope-stuffed and mailed out, and a stack of order blanks. A Barbie Doll in a Harley Davidson outfit rested against her phone. Everything was neat, ready for the morning. I began touching and handling each thing, wanting to experience what she experienced.
     The Incubator door hissed open. Toxic Bob, another trainee, came in. I stayed motionless in the semi-darkness. Without looking around or turning on the overhead lights, he went to his desk, grabbed his jacket off the back of a chair, then left the room.
     Alone again, my fingers found one of Jimmi's pencils, a short one. I handled it, then wrote my name on a scrap of paper, then rolled the wooden-ribbed sides against my lips. The same fingers that had written with this pencil had also visited the magic place between her legs. I licked the yellow covering until its salty taste was gone.
     Pulling open her top drawer, I continued my tour. At first, there wasn't much: A pack of Kleenex and more office paraphernalia, a cheap stapler, erasers, paper clips, a glue stick, a lined box of 3X5 cards, and two Baby Ruth candy bars. But lifting the cards, I discovered a small treasure: Jimmi's lipstick. The dark red that touched her mouth. Sacred.
     Sliding the gold tip off I drew a thick line on my tongue. The taste filled me, shocking my mouth. Jimmi's taste. Wondrous. Intense.
     I was seized by a perversion. For a moment, before acting, I listened for footsteps in the hall. There were none. Then, unzipping my fly, I pulled out my cock. Taking my time, I painted the head of my dick with the gooey red stick. With each smudge my cock got thicker, more swollen. The fear that another late Incubator straggler might reenter the room intensified the trip.
     Lowering my pants to the floor, I began to jerk off. Long, slow strokes. In less than a minute, I felt myself ready to cum. Grabbing the closest thing - Jimmi's Pepsi mug - I let go my load. Blast after blast, into the cup.
     When I was done I found the pack of tissues and wiped my cock, then pulled up my pants.
     Stealing her lipstick was a petty thing to do, but I had to have it. It was hers. A relic. Clicking the top back on, I dropped the tube into my pocket, then left the room.

Chapter 7

The night clean-up guys were wheeling in their maintenance cart as I was leaving. It was five-thirty. Orbit's parking lot was empty. I'd missed my ride with Frankie Freebase, but I didn't mind. If I wanted to, I could take a cab home or call a limo service in the phone book or stroll over to Santa Monica Boulevard and write a check for a down payment on cheap used car. I had enough money to do whatever I wanted.
     Sitting on the Lincoln Boulevard bus bench, smoking Lucky cigarettes, I began to think about Doc Franklin and his amazing paycheck. My brain swarmed with monthly and yearly income projections. Doc was knocking down over three hundred grand a year. If he could do it, I could do it too.
     I came to an immediate decision: fuck my writing career. My head was clear for the first time in years. I could foresee my own future. Novelists and screenwriters like Jonathan Dante died broke in L.A., humiliated, compromised. Their balls and their talent sacrificed to a ridiculous Hollywood success fantasy. No one cared about words any more. Literature was deader than a Seinfeld rerun. Seventy percent of Americans now got all their opinions and information packaged, formatted, spoon fed through a three-foot square marketing box. The preposterous dream world created eighty years before in Los Angeles between the sand and the planted palm trees and the tumble weeds, Sam Goldwin's and B.P. Schulberg's and Mayer's and Karl Lemmle's image of America, was now the national mind set. A nation of mooches. Writers were dinosaurs. Chumps. Real life was a cop show and a pair of silicone tits. So what.
     A noise interrupted my mindtrip. The jolt of a honking horn. Looking up, I saw Jimmi's dented, sputtering, rag-top bug at the curb five feet in front of me, her smile whiter than a priest's collar. "Hey, homie white boy," she laughed. "GOT A FUCKIN' PEN HANDY? Wake up and get in, fo some vato motherfucker mugs your sleepy pendejo telemarketing ass."
     I felt the blood go to my face. Walking to the curb, I got in. Before pulling out into traffic, she leaned across the seat and kissed me. Not a long kiss, no tongue this time, but a sincere kiss. A good kiss. A Barbie in its pink dress was between her legs. "Thanks for today, Bruno," she sang. "You saved my ass."
     I smiled. "I did it for me, not for you," I said.
     We drove to Orbit's bank, so I could cash my pay check before six o'clock. Her driving was more homicidal than before. Aiming at pedestrians, weaving in and out between cars, screaming at the other drivers. She yammered on about Rick McGee, our Incubator supervisor. He'd called her into his office to congratulate her on making quota and pump her up, even promising to give her special help and coaching.
     Leaving Washington Mutual Bank on Lincoln Boulevard, my pants pocket was stuffed with bills - hundreds and twenties and tens. Back in her bug, I suggested that we drive to Venice Beach. I wanted to celebrate by buying us dinner at The Sidewalk Cafe. Jimmi aimed her VW in the direction of Rose Avenue, then stomped the gas pedal.
     The heat of the day had faded, and the breeze off the Pacific had a dry, sweet, taste. We got lucky and found a parking space half a block from the sand. She threw her Barbie in the back seat, and I took my tie off. We left our shoes in the car.
     On the boardwalk at the Sidewalk Cafe, I spent fifty bucks on salads and pizza and two chocolate ice cream pastries shaped like Elvis. Laughing and talking. I told her about the poetry I'd published, leaving out that I hadn't had anything in print in years. When our waiter came to collect for the bill, I did a version of the Orbit sales pitch on the guy, trying to PRICE PROTECT him on giving up his tip. Walking away from the restaurant, Jimmi kissed me again. A long, hard, tongue kiss.
     Next door at Small World Books, I stuck my head in and asked if they had any Jonathan Dante titles. The lady behind the register looked at me. "Jonathan who?" she said.
     At an outdoor stand, I bought us cigarettes and cappuccinos, and we began walking the strand. Men we would pass looked back at Jimmi, their eyes aching. She ignored it, sucking her cappucino, happy to hold my arm. Playful.
     We stopped to look at the beach vendor stuff: the jewelry tables, tee shirts, knick-knack and souvenirs stands, the tattoo artists and fortune tellers. Jimmi bargained with the Latino peddlers, shouting negotiations in Spanglish. Her smile changed everything - she had them cold. While she was talking to a jewelry guy, I palmed a hundred dollar bill and handed it to his sales clerk for a beaded silver necklace in a gift box.
     In half an hour, we had two shopping bags full of junk; knock-off perfumes, literature from the Hari Krishna's, sun glasses with exchangeable lenses, stuffed Disney toys for her nieces I had never heard about, a cigarette lighter shaped like a skull, a 12-pack of cold Pepsi, a cheap watch, ten kinds of incense. Crazy shit. And two gold pillows with the words "VENICE BEACH" sewn across the front.
     With me towing the bags, Jimmi pulled me by the arm the width of the wide beach to a place near the surf where we could be alone. Flopping back in the sand, she pulled her skirt up above her hips revealing long, brown, strong legs. At the top I could see a pair of silky black panties. The sight of them made me choke.
     "Pussy brain," she snapped, when she saw me staring. "Hey Bruno, YOU GOT A FUCKIN' PEN HANDY? Stick your eyes back in your face, man. You seen legs before."
     "You can't see my bush, can you?"
     Licking her fingers, she reached over and shoved them into my mouth. "Guys! Always thinkin' wich yo dicks. Don'chu know tha makes a women feel all creepy'n shit?"
     "Then pull your dress down," I said, sucking the fingers. "Stop flashing YOUR SHIPPING ADDRESS... Are the underpants silk?"
     "How 'bout I pull 'em down so you can see my monkey; how 'bout tha shit, mister telemarketer, mister literary genius richass fifteen-hundred-dollar a week success phone guy?"
     I laughed. "You're making my tongue hard."
     "Hey Bruno, chill. Fow I buss a cap in your white-boy ass."
     I pulled the felt box containing the silver necklace out of my jacket pocket and put it in her hand. "Okay," I said, "I've got a surprise."
     While my heart thumped, Jimmi bent the lid open to look inside. She smiled when she saw the gleaming trinket with its inlaid black stones. She took it out of the box and held it up. "Jesus, mijo," she whispered, sliding toward me across the sand, "thaz beautiful."
     Then, a second later, her face was dark. Changed. She handed the box back.
     "What's wrong?" I asked. My stomach had gone hollow.
     "I can't take that from you, man."
     I searched the stained-glass eyes. "Okay, why?"
     "You know why, man. You bought me nice stuff today," she whispered, "Fun stuff. But this don't mean tha, this means somethin' different. I know how jou think, man, okay? Jou thinkin' it's you'n me. Tha ain gonna happen, Bruno. You and me ain in love, okay?"
     I should have waited, filled my mouth with a handful of sand or seaweed before talking, but I didn't. "So, you're a mind reader," I snarled. "A psychic. Madam Jimmi from the Pacoima sewer. Because I bought you a piece of fucking jewelry, now I'm going to ask you to marry me. Is that it?"
     "Baby-boy," Jimmi whispered, touching my arm, her nails teasing my skin, "I like you. Jou my man. Jus forget the flowers'n shit, okay? Jou'n me ain down wid tha."
     I jerked away. "You're right. Fuck it!"
     "Chill man. I tole you - you'n me ain tha way."
     While she looked on, I got up and flung the necklace as far as I could into the surf.
     "Yo, man! Why'djou do tha?"
     "It's mine, that's why! I bought it and paid for it with the money I made working, closing MY sales. I feel like feeding the fucking sharks, it's my business."
     She was on her feet spinning in the direction of the boardwalk. "How'bout this, bitch; you suck my dick. Okay!?"
     Then she was gone.
Ten minutes later, the sky had gone dark red. Still carrying the shopping bags, I made my way back across the sand and down the boardwalk to where we had parked the car. Jimmi was waiting there, smoking a cigarette, sitting on the front fender of her bug. Walking up, I dropped the bags at her feet. "These are yours," I said.
     She opened the car door, then stuffed the bags inside on the floor. She handed me my shoes from the front seat. I could tell she wanted to make up. "Clean your feet off before you get in," she whispered. "Please. Okay?"
     Leaning against the car, I slid my socks on then pushed my feet into my loafers. "Fuck it," I said. "I'm walking home."
     "C'mon man, be nice. Get in the car."
     But I hadn't had enough. I peeled a twenty dollar bill off the wad from my pocket and thrust it toward her. "Here," I spit. "Gas money. Thanks for the ride."
     She pushed the bill away.
     Turning away from the beach, I began walking toward Pacific Avenue. Then something caught my eye - stopped me. Several cars away, up the block, a fat, grey-shirted meter maid was forcing a parking ticket under the wiper on a jeep's windshield. Looking over at Jimmi's bug's window, I saw she had one too.
     I felt my anger. Stepping to her car I yanked the pink cardboard envelope out from under the wiper then read the inked-in handwriting: "OBSTRUCTING HANDICAPPED ZONE - $237.00." Jimmi's car's front bumper was a foot or two into the blue area - sloppy parking - but clearly obstructing nothing. "Hey you, ticket bitch!" I yelled up the block, unable to stop my mouth.
     The meter maid heard me but didn't look up. Fifty feet away she was occupying herself writing an expired-meter summons.
     "Hey," I yelled louder, losing control, waving the cardboard ticket over my head. "Hey, parking cunt! What in the mother-fucking goddamn fuck is this!"
     Jimmi was beside me, clutching and grabbing to hold me back. But it was too late.
     The uniformed woman was tall, over six feet, a heavy-framed black lady. As I stomped in her direction, she thrust her arm out, her flattened palm toward me, in a cop-like "stop" gesture. "Hey yourself," she barked, tossing her ticket book on the roof of a ten-year-old Camaro, "hold it right there!"
     I kept coming. "This is bullshit!" I yelled. "Two hundred and thirty seven dollars worth of handicapped, blue-curb, bullshit!"
     Reaching her, halting inches from her face, I tore the ticket in half, then in half again, then tossed it against her huge tits. "How 'bout that, fatasspigparkingfucker? Half cop piece of shit, half fuckin' gofor civil-service, Gestapo parkingmeterfuckingcocksucker!...Fuck you! How about that?"
     The big lady leaned forward. We were chest to chest.
     I shoved back - hard - losing my fists in her tits.
     "Mister," she snarled, "that's assault! You just impeded the duties of a City of Los Angeles Parking Enforcement employee. Now you got you some real trouble."
     Pulling a two-way cop radio from her belt, she punched the broadcast button. "This is P-V-B-217. I've got a problem here. Come back?"
     Jimmi's eyes showed her panic. With the strength of a man, she yanked me away by my shirt, then steered me five feet in the opposite direction. "Bruno, Jesus! Stop it, man."
     I wrenched myself free.
     "Quit!" she pleaded. "I told you I've got a drawer full of tickets and Failures To Appears at home. Man, they run my plates, I go to the fuckin' slam!"
     Sidestepping me, she swiveled and came face to face with the meter maid. "Sorry for the problem, Miss Officer," Jimmi begged. "My friend's an asshole. You know, from New York."
     The big woman's walkie-talkie was still to her mouth. "That man just assaulted a municipal employee," she barked. "There's back-up on the way."
     Jimmi was in my face, yelling. "Gimme your money!" she hissed. "All of it!"
     Reluctantly, I dug in my pocket for the wad. She grabbed the bills then, whirling, facing the woman, she peeled off three hundreds and handed them across.
     The meter maid clicked her radio off. "What's this?" she demanded, a thick arm holding up the money. "Now you attempting to bribe a civil employee?"
     Jimmi handed her another hundred. "Lady, I don't need any trouble. Please understand?"
     The woman eyed her coldly then stuffed the money into her pants pocket. "Girl," she snarled, "you'd bess watch yo man. He got hizzelf a bad mouth and some real ugly manners."
     Huffing, with effort, she bent to the sidewalk, scooping up the fragments of the torn parking ticket, then tucked the pieces in her pocket with the money. For the first time she was smiling. "We gonna forget all this ever happened."

* * *

Five minutes later, back in her bug, Jimmi popped a Pepsi, then lit a cigarette. "Jou like a two-year-old brat, mijo."
     "Four hundred fucking dollars! Are you joking?"
     Instead of answering, impulsively, she kissed me. Passion-ate. A long kiss. Her sweet, squirming, tongue filling my mouth. When she was done, she opened her eyes and drew back, her hand on my leg. "Jou in love wit me, right? I know it so don lie, man."
     Taking a chance, I moved her hand across to my crotch. Her smile was playful. She flung the Barbie between her legs into the back seat.

The red sky had turned mostly black, but it was too early for stars. Another kiss. Long, hard, and deep. When she was done she unzipped my fly. My dick was iron.
     Afterward, we were both smoking, staring into the impeccable night. "Feel better now?" she whispered.
     Then her hand was between her own legs, rubbing her spot. "I want that cock inside me, Bruno," she breathed. "Can I tell you what else I want, what makes my twat wet?"
     "A necklace. Jewelry?"
     "I want you fucking me while that fat-parking-bitch watches us. Like she's standing on the sidewalk with her fucking ticket book in her hand looking in the window. Rubbing her cunt while she's talking on her cop radio, reporting us. Your cock is everywhere in my body. And she's watching you lick me. Then you cum again, and I suck every drop and spit it out all over my tits...Is what I'm saying making your dick hard, Bruno?"
     Laughing, another deep kiss, her tongue squirming - probing. Her hand was back in my pants, stroking my dick.
     "You're good at this," I whispered.
     Jimmi laughed. "Two older brothers, mijo. I should be. I been sucking dick since I was seven."
     Wetting two long fingers in her mouth, she reached down between her thighs. As she did, I felt her tremble. "Right now. Okay? Fuck my cunt. Fuck me right now!"
Pulling the fingers up I watched as she held them to her mouth then licked. Then she forced them between my lips. "You hear me Bruno, I want you in my cunt, now!"
     She was on me, straddling me in the passenger seat. Black sweet-smelling hair wet against my face, her powerful hips like a battering ram, fucking my dick like a death monster.

Chapter 8

Over my two weeks at Orbit, I'd gotten Eddy Kammegian's personal history in bits and pieces through Frankie and some of the other sales guys. The company's president was a born again symbol of success. He had sobered up after five years of being a hopeless, homeless, juice head and coke hype. While still in a residential recovery program, Kammegian found phone sales by accident as a temp job. For him, it was like hitting the lotto. After only six months on the phone selling computer ribbon, he managed to "close" an uncle who owned grocery stores on lending him the seed money to open his own supply business. ONE CALL TURNS IT AROUND. Orbit Computer Products was an instant success. After that came self-help and sales courses: The Forum, Tony Robbins, Og Mandino, Brian Tracy, Zig Ziglar, Tommy Hopkins.
     Eddy staffed his small telemarketing business by rolling up to AA meetings and alkie recovery homes in a white, leased, four-door Benz; passing out pockets-full of business cards, pitching the barely-dry newcomers on sharing the dream.

* * *

Jimmi's attitude toward me was different since the weekend. I assumed the change had come because of the meter maid incident and the money. We'd had sex again. Only once, but it was good sex. For her own reasons, she had stopped allowing me to kiss her. We would eat lunch together every day in her bug, parked a dozen blocks from Orbit on a side street near Santa Monica Airport, smoking cigarettes and talking.
     My Chrysler Fifth Avenue was repaired and purring like a kitten. Three hundred and fifty horses humming on all eight cylinders. Cuco, the Panamanian guy down the block who did moonlight mechanical work out of his two-car alley garage, got it running good. Cuco's hourly labor, a rebuilt battery and boiled-out junkyard replacement carburetor and spark plugs cost me just under four hundred dollars. It was a good investment, because I was sick of standing in the cold, before dawn, listening to Frankie-Freebase's nut-job rantings.
     My AA sponsor, Liquor Store Dave, made sure my nights were filled with Alcoholics Anonymous obligations. Like a goose-stepping robot, on instruction, I would leave work promptly at four P.M. to pick him up. After that, we would have dinner at Norm's or Denny's on Lincoln Boulevard with a couple of the other guys he sponsored, then we would all go to an AA meeting. When it was over, again following Dave's orders, me and the other guys would pass out our phone numbers to the newcomers, then help sweep up. I still didn't like AA much. All the smiles and hugging and over-worked cliché's and bad coffee hadn't made me feel any more comfortable. There are Twelve steps to do in the Alcoholics Anonymous Program. Liquor Store Dave told me I was still on Step number one.
     I had just celebrated five months sober, and a couple of weeks had passed since I had had any desire to drink; even so, not sleeping remained a major deal. No matter how tired my body was, at night in my dorm in the recovery house, my mind refused to shut itself down, hour after hour regurgitating and resifting preposterous, infinitesimal shit. Sometimes there would be waves of panic, crazy ununderstood fear about losing my job or losing Jimmi. My mind rehearsed all our conversations in advance, careful to conceal the depth of my feelings, the intensity of my need for her. Eventually, exhausted, I would find myself downstairs in the community kitchen with Jonathan Dante's old portable typewriter, doors closed to contain the sound, writing unpunctuated, rambling poems and crazy letters that I would never mail. Page after page of the shit would come out until I had tired myself enough to go back up to my room and fall asleep.

* * *

Two weeks later, at five-thirty on a Friday, I stayed late at work, waiting in line for my regular commission check. Jimmi was still on the telephone selling. Because it was pay day I had negotiated permission with Liquor Store Dave to take the night off from AA. My plan was for Jimmi and me to have dinner at the Mexican restaurant at the top of the Huntley Hotel on Second Street in Santa Monica, then get a hotel room until midnight, my curfew time at the sober living house. I wanted something expensive with a view of the ocean.
     After picking up my check, I came back to the Incubator to discover she was gone. Loomis, one of the guys in her row, was the only employee left in the room. I asked if he knew where she was. Snickering, he pointed a finger in the direction of our supervisor, Rick McGee's office. The door was closed.
     I felt a stab in my stomach. Like being knifed. It was hard to inhale. "You didn't know, my man," Loomis sneered, "your pal, hot little Ms. Valiente with the Barbie Dolls, is McGee's pet project." Then he grabbed his crotch. "You know, pet, as in pet-da-pussy?"
     "Since when?"
     "All this week, man. After work. Ya dig?"
     "You're saying you saw them?"
     "HEY DANTE, I'M GIVING YOU THE FUCKING TWO GROSS PRICE HERE. My desk faces McGee's office. You go home at four o'clock. I stay late, so does Miss Valiente. And here comes tall-ass McGee...I see her go in there after work for half an hour, an hour sometimes, ya know, then come out. Every day. You tell me what they're doin'."
     "It's none of my business," I said. "Valiente can hump the Boniventure Hotel for all I care."
     "Yeah?" jeered Loomis, "tell that to your face, man."
     I hated him. I wanted to yank the cheap ball-point pen from his shirt pocket, then jab the fucker into the eye socket behind his nerd-shit eyeglasses. Instead, I walked away, back to my old desk, pretending to be checking to see if I had any phone messages.
     I had to know for myself.
     I hung around until Loomis went home. Then I shut the Incubator lights off and moved to another desk with a better angle view of McGee's office, keeping my eyes fixed on the line of light beneath his door, holding the phone to my ear, ready to fake a conversation in case they came out. Soon, thinking it through, I realized Loomis was right. I felt it. I was a fool. God had found a way to fuck me again. I mocked myself and cursed my heart. She had stopped letting me kiss her. I should have known then. This woman sucked cock the way most people say "hi" in an elevator. I hated her for the whore she was.
     Disgusted and shamed, seeing the truth and my stupid obsession, I got up and moved toward McGee's door. I was about to slam it with my fist when cowardice - like the smell of something dead - stopped me. The thought of seeing her with McGee made me freeze. Turning my back, a whipped dog, I walked out of the Incubator.
     In the break room, I smoked a cigarette, stalling, guzzling stale coffee, thumbing through magazines. I had to see her. There was no purpose to it, just crazy, addicted need. It didn't matter that a hundred feet away she was probably on her knees licking McGee's cum off her lips.
     Three stragglers from Doc Franklin's sales team, waiting for their pay checks to be printed and signed, came in and poured coffee. Having fun. Joking. They hardly noticed me with shame and self-disgust oozing from my pores.
     One of the girls, whose name badge read "Sylvie," recognized me and said "hi." Pretty. Outgoing. We'd met before. A week prior in the copy room. Sylvie had been impressed by how quickly I had caught on to Orbit's telemarketing program. She'd even congratulated me on winning my first cold-call bonus. Then we'd had a ludicrous conversation where I had pretended to be grateful for the compliment and acted as if I were interested in how she was doing. As if I gave a fuck.
     She stood above me. Smiling. Making conversation. She wanted to know what team I would be on when I left the Incubator. I couldn't answer. I looked up into her eyes, but I couldn't talk. My mouth began twitching. A mute dufus, I half tried to form a word shape, but nothing came out. Finally, I lurched to my feet, then left the room. All I cared about - my single intelligible thought - was McGee's office.
     I decided to wait for Jimmi in the parking lot, watching the exit until she left the building. No one would bother me there.
     Walking down the hall past the payroll office, the glass door suddenly swung open. It was Jimmi, her check envelope in her hand. A young male employee was holding the door, watching her pass, leering at her ass. Then, a second later, McGee came out too.
     Seeing me, uncomfortable but trying to act pleased, she shuffled up. "Yo mijo," she whispered, "where you been? I've been looking for you."
     She pulled me a few feet down the corridor and gave me a long hug. "I found out I'm okay," she hummed. "My orders went through and got verified. I made quota again. I got my check."
     Face to face with her, I was wet bread. "Look," I said, fumbling for my two Orbit checks, pointing at the numbers, grinning like an idiot, "I'm rich. Over two grand. Let's drive to the beach. We'll have dinner."
     Her smile was a wonder. The eyes, two flawless blazing blue beads. "Sorry, baby," she whispered, pulling me closer, "I can't. I'm staying. Rick's been helping me, coaching me with my pitch. We're going to get a bite, then go back to his office."
     She was lying, and I knew it. My anger hissed like spit. "It's Friday night, Jimmi," I snarled. "Almost six o'clock, Friday-fucking-night."
     "Man, shhhh! Keep your voice down. He's helping me. He wants to work late. Okay?"
     "Hey, what about this, I'll come too. I need his fucking 'help' too."
     "I said no, Bruno. Okay? I tol'jou, man. I'm busy."
     I was yelling now. "How fucking stupid do you think I am?! You're sucking McGee's dick!"
     "Mind jour bizniz, motherfucker!"
     I was out of control, but I couldn't stop. "Answer this then: while you're fucking him, do you whisper that you want it up the ass!!? Do you beg him to cum in your mouth?"
     She stepped back. "I said shut your face, man!"
     "Did you lick his asshole?"
     She tried to edge herself down the hall in the direction of the ladies room, but I grabbed her arm. Screaming, she pulled back, but I held on.
     The commotion brought tall McGee rumbling down the corridor. "Let her go, Dante," he demanded, cuffing me from behind. "Let the woman go. Right now!"
     Freeing one hand, I shoved him off. "Tell the truth, asshole! I want to know! Are you fucking my whore?"
     "Last time, Dante. Let go!"
     "Lick my scrotum, gerbil shitbrain!"
     McGee's punches came in rapid succession. By the time the throbbing started, I was sitting on the floor with my back against the hallway wall, holding my nose, blood and snot dripping down on my shirt from between my fingers.

Chapter 9

The Monday morning following the trouble, I was drinking coffee, taking a break, demonstrating a quick close technique to my new teammate, Neil. A move I had learned while selling porno movies. It works like this: The mooch says, "Look, I don't need any videos (or light bulbs or gizmos) right now. I've got a year's supply in my storage room." Acting surprised, the salesman says, "Look Bob, I would never want to overstock you. But let me ask you this: it's your department, you're the boss, right?"
     The quick close works eight out of ten times. I mean, what's the mooch going to say to that kind of question - "No, I'm a lackey, I only clean the toilets here."
     Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Frankie Freebase come down the stairs from a meeting in Kammegian's office. He walked directly to my cubicle, then motioned for Neil to go back to his own desk. "You're wanted upstairs in the boss office," he said, spitting the words. "Now!"
     "Okay. What for?"
     "Well dicko, let's just say that Kammegian ain't invitin' you up there to present you with a new Chevy SUV. Get goin'."
     I slid my chair back and stood up.           
     Frankie was leering. "You didn't tell me what happened outside Payroll last Friday. Now, you're fucked."
     "It was an argument. Nothing. It wasn't important."
     "Swell. Try running that down on Kammegian. By the time you get back here to your desk, I'll have your shit packed up and you'll be ready to rejoin that sparkling-fucking, unique-fucking, thrilling-fucking team of cocksuckers selling vacuum cleaners and home maintenance crap where you worked before. You're history at this company, asshole!"
     I had tried to call Jimmi all weekend. Once an hour. Twenty or thirty times. I kept getting her answering machine. I knew the locations of all the AA meetings she attended: the one at 26th and Broadway in Santa Monica on Saturday night and the other one on Sunday at 12:30 on Ohio Avenue. She hadn't showed up at either place. I had even driven by her house, but her car was not in her sister's driveway or parked on the street. All weekend I had stayed in my dormitory room near the hall pay phone, smoking cigarettes and trying to read. Waiting. She never called back.

The owner of Orbit Computer Products was on the telephone at his PC when I knocked and came in. I let the door hiss closed behind me. Looking up, Kammegian motioned me to a chair.
     Behind him at eye level on the Orbit Trophy Wall of Champions was an imposing World War II photograph of Winston Churchill. I hadn't noticed the picture at my job interview, because it was blocked by his big leather chair. General George Patton was up there on the wall too. His photograph was even bigger than Churchill's. And Colin Powell. And Norman Schwarzkoff. All part of my boss's military armed-forces-self-improvement obsession. When I leaned close to the desk, I was able to make out the engraving on the brass plate below Churchill's image. It read: "NEVER GIVE UP - NEVER, NEVER, GIVE UP."
     Kammegian ended his phone call, then rolled back behind the center section of his desk. "Okay Mister Dante," he said, "let's hear your version of what happened at the Payroll Department on Friday afternoon."
     "My version is - I picked up my biggest paycheck yet."
     My reply induced a smirk. He rocked forward and let his elbows come to rest on the desk pad. "Exactly. First things first. Right?"
     "One day at a time," I chimed back.
     Kammegian stood up and extended his hand. "I would like to personally recognize you for your outstanding work last week," he said. "Winning the cold-call bonus again was an impressive accomplishment. Over two thousand dollars in commissions for five days work. Right?"
     I shook his hand. "Right. All solid deals. Everything verified."
     We both sat down.
     While I watched, my boss resituated a paperweight by his telephone, rocked back again in his big chair, then tucked his legs back under the desk.
     Withdrawing a custom-imprinted pencil from a shiny metal holder by his Rolodex, he began toying with it, running his manicured finger over the lettering on each side, then pricking his thumb with the point. I was starting to relax when, suddenly, in a kind of fit-outburst, my boss slammed the spine of the fucker straight down at his desk. Yellow fragments detonated and flew everywhere. A good-sized chunk zinged past my cheek.
     "Equivocation is disloyalty, Mister Dante! You're full of shit, and your two-thousand-dollar-a-week job is on the line here this morning. Let me caution you, I have zero tolerance for what took place on Friday afternoon. So, let's back up. What happened in the Payroll Department?"
     "You mean outside Payroll?"
     "Do not fuck with me, Mister Dante."
     "Okay look," I said, brushing remnants of pencil shit off my sleeve, "the whole deal was a misunderstanding. A miscommunication."
     Kammegian rocked backward. "Explain your version."
     "I lost my temper."
     "And - what happened when you lost your temper? Did that contribute to further miscommunication?"
     "Okay, I made a remark. Several remarks."
     "I see. And you made these remarks to another trainee or to a supervisory person?"
     "To Jimmi Valiente. And to McGee too."
     "That's what you're calling a miscommunication?"
     "Essentially. Basically. In a nutshell."
     "Then - basically - the reports I have, one from another sales person and one from Tilly Hickman in Payroll, about a fist fight by two of my employees, are both incorrect? More miscommunication?"
     "Tilly was in her office, and the other person, whoever that nosy, lying cockfuck is, was not in the hall either. In my experience, Mister Kammegian, my opinion: most people, out of some snotass ego need to make themselves appear okay in their dismal, chicken-shit, insect, ratshit, little lives, are prone to make presumptions about matters they don't know thing-fucking-one about. There were only three people in that hall: me, Jimmi Valiente, and McGee."
     Kammegian selected another pencil. This one's point was sharpened too, but the stem was longer; brand new, right out of the box. "Last time, Mister Dante: were you involved in a fight or not?"
     I knew he had me. "Okay, I was," I said, "but it wasn't actually a fight."
     "Explain actually Mister Dante."
     "What I mean is, it wasn't technically a fight in the way you mean. McGee shoved me. To me, literally, in concept, a fight is where one person physically, actually, slugs the other person. That didn't happen."
     "I see. So we're talking about a shove here, not a slug. What about the bruise on the side of your face?"
     "Completely unrelated. I'm coming clean here, Mister Kammegian. One recovering alkie talking to another. I banged my face on the metal paper towel dispenser at the 76 Gas Station on Lincoln Boulevard on Saturday morning while gassing up my Chrysler. No big deal."
     Eddy Kammegian was on his feet. He paced around the side of his desk, then sat on the thick mahogany edge facing me, his shiny belt buckle 18-inches from my nose. When he crossed his arms I could see his shirt cuffs were fastened by two gold Civil War cannon cufflinks. Fat diamond studs glistened from where the caisson spoke wheels should be. "So it was no big deal?"
     "Right," said I. "My injury isn't work related. Therefore, no big deal."
     "Is Ebola no big deal, Mister Dante? A virulent epidemic that could easily bring a company or a city or an entire army to its knees?"
     "Somebody at Orbit has Ebola?"
     "Last time, asshole! You, me, Rick McGee, Ms. Valiente. We're all eating out of the same pot. Orbit Computer Products is a finely-tuned elite assault machine. Any employee disturbance, any dissension, spreads through our sales organization like a toxic virus."
     "Hey!" I said, "I understand. Like a turd floating in Orbit's steaming vat of delicious tomato soup."
     Kammegian reached around and yanked his telephone out of its cradle. Before dialing, he turned back to me: "How many sales did you make this morning?"
     "Two so far."
     "I'll have Tilly cut you a final check."
     I was on my feet. "Wait!" I yelled, "Jesus, I'm cooperating! I told you what happened."
     "Sit down, Dante."
     I sat down.     
     "Have you been 'involved' with Jimmi Valiente? The truth, please."
     "We became friends."
     "YES or NO?"
     "We had dinner together. We hung out."
     "And McGee? What about him? Is Ms. Valiente 'friends' with Mister McGee as well? Was that the problem?"
     "Ask McGee. Ask her. I'm not involved with Jimmi. There was no fight."
     "There are three words I want you to consider before you leave my office today: Procrastination, deception, and masturbation. They are the best ways I know that a man can fuck himself. I hope you get my meaning."
     My boss crossed the room and opened his office door. "Meeting concluded."
     "I'm not fired?"
     "Have you been candid and one-hundred-percent forthcoming with me this morning?"
     "I want to keep my job, Mister Kammegian. I like my job."
     "Then go back to work. Have your manager locate Rick McGee and send him to my office. Do that now."
     "Okay," I said, walking away. "Thanks."
     "Onward and upward, Mister Dante."

* * *

My boss spent the rest of his day conducting interrogations. His secretary, Karen, was up and down his office steps twenty times, a yellow legal tablet tucked under her arm. Jimmi and McGee were called in. And a guy in the parking lot that afternoon who had seen me with my face bleeding as I left work, Bowen Kessler.
     The next morning, Tuesday, I was writing up an order when Eddy Kammegian's secretary, Karen, tapped me on the arm then stuck a Post-It note by my telephone. The Post-It read, "8:17 A.M. YOU'RE WANTED IN MR. KAMMEGIAN'S OFFICE."
     Upstairs, my boss was waiting, hands folded on the desk in front of him. "Sit down, Dante," he snapped.
     I did what he said. But as I did, he lurched to his feet, then paced to the bay window overlooking the sales floor. He began flipping the blind open and closed by pulling its strings one at a time. An imitation of Field Marshall Rommel pondering a panzer deployment.
     Nervous, knowing something bad was coming, my eyes came to rest on the shiny pencil holder by his desk. The supply had been replenished.
     Finally, he abandoned the window to walk around behind my chair. I could feel him there, his hands on the backrest near my neck. "Does the name Todd B. Baskin mean anything to you?" he half hissed. Has Frankie Freebase ever mentioned that person?"
     "This spring, Dante, a low snake coward saboteur named Todd Bennington Baskin betrayed me, violated his fiduciary responsibility to Orbit Computer Products, and was arrested for theft. Baskin was once a highly-respected commando at Orbit Computer Products. My V.P. of Marketing with an income of over 200K per year. My left hand."
     "Left hand?"
     "My higher power, the God I've come to know and experience throughout the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, is my right hand. Baskin was my left hand."
     "Okay. Right."
     "Question, Dante: Why would a man, a highly successful, trusted man, a man with a 2,200 square foot condo in Beverly Hills and partnerships in three shopping centers, a man with an honorable discharge from The United States Navy, risk everything, his entire career and his freedom, over a petty obsession? Can you answer that?"
     "I have no idea. Was he a wine drinker?"
     "Baskin burgled his reorder account books and several vital account history CD's from these premises in an attempt to open his own computer supplies operation: a felony. Of course, his attempt failed and he was apprehended."
     "And I hope the jerk got what was coming to him."
     "May I continue?"
     "Go ahead."
     "A staff sales person who was working late the night of the crime witnessed Baskin skulking around outside in the parking lot, then smuggling a box of company files into the trunk of his car. The act was later verified by our exterior surveillance video camera. The point, Dante, is that someone stepped forward. That person knew Baskin; they were friends actually, but his loyalty to Orbit Computer Products exceeded his personal concerns."
     "Great. Crackerjack."
     "Stand up please."
     I stood up.
     Kammegian was in front of me. He started to say something then paused a moment - the death pause - then he handed me a an envelope.
     "What's this?" I asked.
     "Open it."
     Inside was a payroll check for $311.00 along with a pink form paperclipped to the top. The form read NOTICE OF TERMINATION. I tried to hand it back. "I want another chance," I said.
     "You've been writing front-call orders for Ms. Valiente. You've been fucking her. Both you and McGee. You erased your own name on your sales orders, then filled in her I.D. number."
     "I'm in love with her."
     "You're fired. Get out of my office."

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