I was running out of money and looking for work. In Union Square I bumped into a friend, and when I mentioned my predicament, he told me his cousin had just left her copy-editing job, and they had yet to find a replacement for her.

‘The pay’s not great and the place is supposed to be a little weird. But it’s something, right?’

I wasn’t a copy editor, but I couldn’t afford to be picky. I asked him for his cousin’s number.

The business was located in Chelsea, on the top floor of a plain building. When I stepped off the elevator the next afternoon, I was buzzed into a loft with large windows, high ceilings and a rash of cubicles sprouting like mushrooms from a hardwood floor. A woman in a mint-colored pantsuit was walking toward me.

‘Patrick, I’m Mindy Bouché,’ she said. ‘It’s so nice to meet you.’

She had Marfan syndrome, I thought. Her hands and neck and forehead were elongated in a way that suggested Abraham Lincoln. And, like Lincoln’s, her eyes rested in ashy, swollen bags of flesh. Her bracelets jingled when we shook hands. ‘Sorry about the cold, but it’s good for the computers.’

As we made our way through the cubicles, a few of the workers glanced at us over the tops of their partitions. ‘Where are you from?’

‘South Carolina. Lucien and I make quite a couple because he’s from Paris and I sound like a hillbilly.’

She turned on the lights in a conference room. A long, dark table stretched before us.

We sat down across from each other. ‘So,’ she said, ‘we just want to fill this position and get on with our lives. You’ve copy-edited before?’

‘I have,’ I said. And then I did that thing one does in an interview in the electronic age: I produced a hard-copy of the résumé I’d emailed the day before, as if it were the original, valuable artifact.

The document may as well have been a placemat between us – which was for the best, since I’d made up the company I claimed to have copy-edited for, along with the name and phone number of my fictitious ex-supervisor. ‘Can you start tomorrow?’

‘Absolutely.’

‘And Debbie gave you a sense of what our company does?’

Debbie was my friend’s cousin; she hadn’t told me anything but Mindy’s email address. I nodded.

‘So you know there’s the stock, first and foremost,’ Mindy said. ‘We find the stock, and then we generate the story, and the emphasis is always on the story. I don’t know if you’re a fan of stories, but they’re crucial to what we do.’

‘I love stories,’ I said.

She placed her long hands flat on the table, then stood. ‘I guess I should go get Lucien, then. Your timing couldn’t be better, because he leaves tomorrow for a buying trip to China and I want him to meet you before you start.’ She walked out of the room.

I sat there beneath the humming florescent lights: be-suited, anointed. Employed. On the wall before me, anchored with thumb tacks, was a poster of a pretty blonde woman of about fifty, smiling a wry smile. Her image was photo-shopped against a purple background and surrounded by a constellation. Orion, I thought. Printed below her chin in cursive letters were the words, Athena sees good things for you.

‘Patrick!’

The voice was gravelly, like a belch. I looked up to see a corpulent man with bleached blonde hair and skin tanned the colour of peanut butter. He clutched a lit cigarette.

When I extended my hand, he pumped it vigorously.

‘You must be Lucien,’ I said.

‘I am! And I am wonderful now that I put my eyes on you!’ He sank into the chair at the head of the table and spread his legs wide. Mindy sat down next to him. ‘But I have to tell you, it has been a morning of bullshit. For the last hour, I have been on the phone with scum in Peking. You want me to pay five dollars apiece for a thousand Buddha statues as big as my thumb? Okay, and how about I fuck your mother in the ass while I pay you?’

I forced a smile.

Lucien burst into laughter. His face immediately reset itself. ‘Let me ask you something.’ He motioned with the cigarette toward the poster of Athena on the wall. ‘You are okay with all this?’

‘Yes.’

‘And you have met my passionate lover, Mindy. As opposed to my bitch of a wife.’

He was kidding, I thought; he and Mindy were married. Or he was serious and was cheating with her. I just wanted the job. ‘She’s captivating,’ I said.

‘Right answer!’ He glanced at Mindy. ‘I like him!’ Then he turned back to me and exhaled a plume of smoke. ‘And here is another question. Do you have a problem with astrology?’

I shook my head, then turned down my lower lip as if the notion of having a problem with astrology was silly. Absurd, even.

Lucien slapped his hand down over my kneecap, which I hadn’t realized was within his reach. ‘We have a deal, then,’ he said, squeezing it.

After he’d left the room, Mindy narrowed her eyes and looked at the hard copy of my résumé for the first time. I braced myself, fearing she was about to tell me she’d tried to call my made-up ex-supervisor. But she said, ‘One last question: How’s your HTML?’

 

At 8:55 the following morning, I was standing in the vestibule. Through the little window set into the door, I could see that the loft was empty and most of the lights were off. I tapped on the glass.

A minute later Mindy appeared, slouched and strolling across the far side of the room. She was dressed in another pantsuit – this one the colour of orange sherbet – and she had a plastic watering can in her hand. When I tapped the glass a second time, she straightened up to her full height, spotted me, and made her way across the floor.

‘Good morning,’ I said, after she’d unlocked the door.

‘Look at this place. Do you see anyone else here?’ she asked. ‘I don’t. They keep their own sweet time – work ethic is a rare commodity these days.’ She led me to one-fourth of a quad of cubicles in the center of the room. The desk surface bore a computer and enough coffee rings to make an Olympic flag. ‘This is you.’

Never, over the course of many different jobs, had I had a desk that was entirely my own. I sat down and ran my hands across the surface. My fingertips were crowned with dust.

Mindy walked off to tend to a nearly leafless ficus tree, and for the next half-hour, I sat there in the cold waiting to be given something to do. Eventually, I started investigating the drawers, which were empty save for a Snickers wrapper and two manuals: one for a program called Smartt Web Management, and the other for a program called HatInHand XG. I flipped through the HatInHand manual and gazed at screen-captures of drop-down menus, wondering if there was any coffee to be had.

A girl had slipped into the cubicle next to mine. A pair of large eyeglasses dominated her face, and a thick-knit sweater hugged her waist and rode high on her wrists. With a trembling hand, she fidgeted with her mouse and brought her computer screen to life.

I wiggled my own mouse. My computer screen remained dark. ‘Hi,’ I said.

She flinched. ‘Oh! Hi.’ For the instant that she looked at me, I thought she might be on the verge of tears. ‘Sorry – you’re new here, right?’

Before I could answer, her eyes were already back on her screen. She clicked icon after icon, opening multiple programs.

‘First day,’ I said. ‘I’m Patrick.’

Her head bobbed up and down in profile. ‘Kim.’

‘Hi, Kim. Are you a copy editor too?’

‘Sort of. Not really. It’s more…’ She trailed off, absorbed by her work.

Before long, her phone rang.

‘Good morning, Jesse,’ she said into the receiver. ‘I know, I…I will, I…okay, I’ll call you when it’s done, okay? Okay.’

She hung up and clicked more rapidly.

‘Who’s Jesse?’ I asked, thinking I ought to show a little initiative.

‘This woman in Nyak? She sort of manages the – well, it’s this fulfillment company we use. She can be a little…short-tempered.’

‘I see. And what does the company do? This one, I mean.’

She let out a breathy, mirthless laugh, said, ‘We sell things,’ and offered nothing more.

I got up and went looking for the kitchen.

I found it past a long row of bookshelves crammed with books about Christianity and the solar system, world history and the power of gem stones. Most of my co-workers had trickled in by now and were wandering about, sniffling and nodding good morning to one another. At the sink was a shrunken woman with a muffler wrapped around her neck. Next to her stood a bald man with a lantern jaw and a neatly-trimmed van dyke. His arms were folded across his chest as he stared at the coffee maker.

‘Morning,’ I said.

‘Hello.’

‘Are we still on Saint Xavier?’ the shrunken woman asked without turning around.

‘No,’ the man said. ‘I handed that in before I left on Friday. Now we’re on to the Mosaic of Prosperity.’

I wanted to hear a hint of sarcasm in his voice, but there was none.

‘Is the coffee ready?’ I asked.

‘Takes an eternity,’ he muttered as if sharing a trade secret.

Back at my desk, someone tapped my shoulder. I looked up to see Mindy towering over me. ‘How are things working out?’

‘Just fine,’ I said. ‘So will I be copy-editing web content?’

‘Kim will get you up to speed on HatInHand and Smartt Web. You should have that down as soon as possible. And you’ll need this.’ She handed me an astrological wall calendar. ‘It has all the moon phases, and they have to be correct in what we send out. Our credibility’s on the line when it comes to the moon.’

I was about to ask why when she clapped her hands, looked about the loft, and announced, ‘Ten minutes to Mollyglow, people!’

‘Jesus Christ,’ someone said.

‘Well, what’s the surprise?’ Mindy asked in the direction of the voice. ‘If you don’t like it, you can get here on time tomorrow and be ready, for a change.’

She walked off.

Kim blew her nose.

‘So you’re training me?’

‘I guess,’ she said. ‘I mean, your job is mine, basically. That’s how Debbie and I had it.’

And exactly what the fuck goes on here? I wanted to ask. Instead, I asked, ‘What’s Mollyglow?’

‘One of our websites. It gets updated every twenty-four hours.’

Had my computer been working, I might have gone to the site for some answers. I was mashing the reboot button when a woman across the way stood up from her desk, crossed over to mine, and held out a Jolly Rancher.

I took it and thanked her.

‘I heard about you. You’re a writer,’ she said in a voice just above a whisper. Her accent was German, I thought.

I hadn’t told my friend’s cousin I was a writer. ‘When I’m not here,’ I said.

‘I dance.’ She pointed at Kim. ‘She’s a writer. And Zach used to be a writer. And Sally’s a sculptor who says she’s can’t sculpt anymore. This place is fucked up, yeah?’

‘Well, I just started.’

‘You think it’s you for a while. But then you realize, wow, it’s this place. It’s a nuthouse and you have to accept that or go out of your mind.’

I sensed a comrade. Darting my eyes left and right, I unwrapped the Jolly Rancher and slipped it into my mouth. ‘What’s with the coffee?’ I asked.

‘It’s like piss. That’s this place: piss and shit.’

‘I’m Patrick.’

‘Inga.’ We shook hands.

Mindy’s voice launched like a cool dart through the air. ‘Two minutes, people! Mollyglow!’

‘Piss and shit,’ Inga muttered, and then wandered back to her desk.

For the next hour, I watched everyone – save for the bald man and the shrunken woman – scamper about in a panic, trying to fix several icons and something called a drop page. They tested and retested it. They got on the phone with a person named Louise, and Louise’s people ran some sort of diagnostic; each time, the results were unsatisfactory.

 

I went to lunch. When I came back, the crisis had been resolved; everyone was back in his or her cubicle and the only sound was the steady clicking of keys. I looked around for Inga, then asked Kim if there was any copy-editing to be done.

She looked embarrassed. She rubbed her chin for a moment, then took a folder from the metal rack next to her monitor and pulled out a few stapled pages. ‘I guess you could look at these if you want to.’

Dear X1, the first document began, On X2, as X3 moves into X4, I want you to turn X5 years into golden wealth.

I felt like I was looking at an SAT problem. But then Kim said, ‘Oh – not that one. Read one with the fields filled in; it’ll make more sense.’ She took the top document back and replaced it with another.

Dear Betty, this new document read, On December 17th, as Pluto moves into Capricorn, I want you to turn 53 years into golden wealth.

I’ve been studying your horoscope, Betty, and when I trace back from 1956 to 53 years later, I see a person whose too timid to make their dreams come true. But as a child, I know you created SPECIAL dreams that you still carry with you.

The document was a train wreck. I set to work fixing all the mistakes I found. Not far along was a picture of something called a ‘Golden Galaxy’ – a cheap-looking medallion on a chain. The medallion, glittery and stamped with a central white dot, was described as 14k Gold Plate Over Sterling Silver with a Mother of Pearl Eye and Enamored with Diamond-Glow Cubic Zirconia.

This brilliant treasure is designed after the shape of the galaxy – our Source of Life! – and not only that. It is a sincere reminder that the RICHES and GOOD FORTUNE you deserve are coming your way! Imagine, Betty, 53 years of fortune being spun with galaxial force into PURE FINANCIAL REALIZATION!

I didn’t have a dictionary but was pretty certain ‘galaxial’ wasn’t a word; I circled it and wrote ‘sp?’ in the margin. Gold had obvious value, the document reminded Betty; silver was the protective healing choice of the Ancients. And then, following a JPEG of Athena’s signature, Betty herself was speaking.

Yes, Athena! I understand that the Golden Galaxy is sacred to my birthday, December 17th.

Yes! I realize that this amazing piece will enrich my life, and I am looking forward to my RISK-FREE guarantee, and also THREE GIFTS – mine to keep if I return the pendant. (The gifts, I noticed – an authenticity certificate, a black velvet case and a laminated card detailing the activation ceremony that would unlock the pendant’s powers – were useless without the pendant.)

I’m so happy you’re making this choice, the text read, apparently slipping back into Athena’s voice. CLICK HERE!

Poor Betty.

The second document detailed three specific dates that would bring Betty wealth throughout the year, activated only by a pearl-studded pendant bearing the face of the Archangel Michael, known to lift the poor from suffering and shower them with riches. The third described a scarab bracelet that would heal all of Betty’s financial sorrows.

‘Do you want to take a look at these?’ I asked, re-stacking the documents and holding them out for Kim.

She took them from me, blinking with confusion. ‘You marked them?’

‘I copy-edited them,’ I said.

She was shaking her head and showing as much interest in my edits as Mindy had in my résumé. ‘We’ve been sending these out like they are for a year or so,’ she said as she tucked them back into the metal rack.

‘Between us,’ I said, lowering my voice, ‘is Athena real?’

‘Um,’ she said, and cleared her throat.

Mindy’s clapping broke the air. ‘Upsales, people! Ten minutes!’

Someone announced that the drop page on the Miracle of St. Bernadette Broche wasn’t working properly.

‘Well, fix it,’ Mindy said. ‘And fast.’

‘Upsales?’ I asked Kim.

‘Everything’s first in a series. Like a series of pendants or medallions or whatever. Upsales are when we write back and tell them the first one can’t really work without the second one. Which won’t work without the third.’

The next day, I arrived once again before everyone but Mindy, and I tried to take advantage of my time alone with her. ‘Kim’s great,’ I said. ‘She really knows her stuff.’

‘It’s a team effort,’ Mindy said, frowning at a small beige table that had probably come from Ikea. It sat flush against the outer wall of a cubicle and had nothing on it but dust. ‘I hate this table,’ she said.

I took a sip from the coffee I’d bought downstairs. ‘So my job is Kim’s job, right? Everything she’s doing I should know how to do?’

‘That’s right.’ She nudged the table with her hip. Bending over a few inches, she spoke to it: ‘Why are you here?’

‘I’m not getting much sense of how this all works,’ I confessed. ‘I know this is only my second day, but I’m trying to get a handle on the job, and I—’

‘Did I give you the calendar with the moon phases?’

‘Yes.’

‘Good,’ she said. ‘I can take that off my list.’

‘Where does the information come from? About our customers, I mean. Their ages and birthdays.’

‘They give it to us when they apply for a free horoscope reading online.’

‘So that’s where we get all the email addresses?’

‘Ryan,’ she said, mistaking my last name for my first and evoking my high school gym coach, ‘I have a philosophy: Leave the nitty-gritty to the team. That’s why you have a team.’

 

Later that morning, a tech person tried to fix my computer by fiddling with the cables. I walked around the loft and found lying on shelf tops many of the items we were selling. They reminded me of the kind of trinkets that came encased in plastic bubbles and rolled out of dime machines. In the kitchen over the sink was a sign that read, Rinse your dishes and put them in the dishwasher. (If Lucien can do it, you can do it). In the men’s room, taped onto the door of the stall, another sign read, If you smell something, say something.

Mid-afternoon, while Kim sweated through phone calls and Skype messages and Mindy’s commands, I found that my computer was finally working and visited the Mollyglow site. I double-clicked on a cartoon bunny and a chipper, syrupy voice blurted out, ‘Well, okay, then! Let’s see what the future holds for you!’ I immediately closed the screen to silence the bunny.

Athena’s presence was everywhere, but she herself was nowhere to be seen. She was ubiquitous, elusive, and oddly menacing – like Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects. At the end of my second day, I sat at home eating a cheeseburger and surfing YouTube. On impulse I typed in ‘Athena’ and ‘psychic forecast’. She had nearly two-dozen videos posted. I played the first one.

Here was the woman from the poster – blond and matronly but bearing enough makeup to warrant an evening on the town. In a sleepy British accent, she told me she could help me. She knew of my struggles, my financial burdens, and my potential for true and lasting happiness. In fact, my happiness meant more to her than anything else in the world. Wasn’t it time I allowed the universe and all its powers to work in my favour?

I then Googled ‘Athena’, ‘credit card’ and ‘fraud’. Within seconds, I was scrolling through over 400 complaints on a consumer advocacy website.

Mid-morning of my third day, I ran into Kim in the kitchen. She was staring into the refrigerator, looking for space to fit her Tupperware.

‘Hi,’ I said.

‘Hi. Sorry about Friday.’

‘What happens Friday?’

‘Oh! I thought Mindy told you. I won’t be here. I have to take my mom to her doctor in Philadelphia.’

In a panic and with quickening steps, I made my way to Mindy’s desk. She was on the phone and held me at bay with a raised finger while she finished her call. As she hung up, she said, ‘What is it?’

The words poured out of me. I wasn’t being trained. Kim was too busy. And tomorrow was Thursday and the next day was Friday and I wasn’t going to be able to do all the things Kim did to keep the emails flowing and the drop pages dropping and the upsales selling. Friday, I told her, was going to be a disaster.

‘This is exactly the nitty-gritty I was talking about, Ryan. It’s Kim’s job to train you and it’s Kim you need to be talking to about this. I have enough on my plate as it is.’

‘But what happens when – ’

‘Do you really want to be helpful?’ She took a screwdriver from her desk drawer and handed it to me. ‘Dismantle that ugly table and put it away somewhere.’

I carried the table to a corner and flipped it over. On my knees, I worked at the embedded screws, each of which proved to be a challenge. The fourth leg wouldn’t budge, and I was all but yanking on it when Inga approached.

‘Ha ha,’ she whispered. ‘Look at you. You’re copy-editing!’

‘Can I ask you something?’

‘Of course.’

‘In all the time you’ve worked here, has anyone ever just come out and said…’ I found myself reluctant to be the first.

‘Said what? We’re a horrible company that sells worthless crap to innocent people? And sets up unauthorized recurring charges? And has a phoney customer service number? No, no one ever says that. Actually, it’s been calm here for the past few days. Wait till you see Lucien in action. Have you ever had a boss call you a ‘worthless piece of shit’? And when he yells at you, his spit lands on your face.’

I felt myself wince. ‘How can you stand it?’

‘A trick of the brain,’ she said. ‘You pretend none of it’s happening, and then – poof – three years have gone by.’

Despite the cold, I was sweating. I walked back over to Mindy’s desk and told her I was going to lunch.

‘Did you take care of that table?’

‘Just about,’ I said. ‘I’ll finish it when I get back.’

‘Thank you,’ she said with a smile. ‘It’s nice to see someone besides me doing work around here, for a change.’

I walked out of the building expecting to feel a sense of relief. But there was none – and no further panic, either. There was only the smooth, gray numbness that comes with being desperate and unemployed – again. Around the corner from the office, I sat down at a computer terminal in a Tasti-D-Lite, addressed an email to Mindy, and wrote, Thanks, anyway.

What else was there to say? Sincerely sounded insincere. Yours sounded absurd.

Best of luck! I wrote, and before sending I signed off with Ryan so she’d know who the email was from.

But the universe and all its powers were working in Mindy’s favour – or Athena’s. The next time I logged on, my usurped mailbox coughed up an offer for a rare, mystically-charged crystal ball – mine for five easy payments of $14.99.

 

Photograph by the Public Domain Review

Natalie Merchant | Interview
David Jégou | Working Lives