What Was the Shape of Mr. Pivner’s Soul?
Out far beneath the copse-engulfed, white-stenciled pine sign off Route 22 that reads, “Free Lots, We Want YOUR Development!” there sat the brain-damaged, cherry-eyed pit bull named Rico, taught to fight as a whelp, who salivated at the stucco yellow, red, and white fast food restaurant advertising chicken in a box and fried okra, in whose parking lot the infant Esmeralda did pull out all her hair before expiring as she sat roasting inside her family’s tinted-window Impala one August afternoon while the mother went to her job at the register inside, never to be seen again. From here exit through the parking lot’s twin mounted yellow poles, taking the second exit into the roundabout, then a dogleg and a turn onto the macadam road where a dyad of gutted and rusted Ford chassis remain, one lurched over the other, ringing and creaking twangs when young people in liturgy take the same position deep inside the pickups’ bowels. Down farther and then away from the oncoming copse, you would agnize the rotting brown fallow lot where Julie lived with her daddy for all of her eighteen years.
Here sat square the peeling repossessed trailer in which Julie never had a man and hardly did discover herself for having to share the only room with her father. Also a bunk bed, with her on top. The trailer was so small that Julie found it not at all a chore to spend nights splayed on the granuly back seats of the maroon Astro EXT parked in rear, or in the kitchen, itself made of gray-stained planks and put up ten yards from the home in the style of a dogtrot house, while her father would have, yes, a lady friend over or simply wanted to be alone or got so tanked that he passed out with the door to the trailer locked, forethinking that he didn’t want his daughter to see him that way. Nothing to rouse him, no child’s screaming or glass rapping or fishwife to howl his name.
Julie sometimes left at dawn to stare at him through the trailer’s soil-stained window as he lay. When the light showed specks and motes spinning in an oblique shaft, all that would be left in the glass were her very own two eyes staring back at her. Sometimes, peering at the reflection, she would be so dopey that she could only look at it and let out, What the hell you lookin at?
Her only company in those hours were the crickets and tachinids and blue dashers and darners and occasionally some small deer. At a young age, she had just one friend, a boy who lived only with his mother, a hospice worker. The only memory she still had of the boy was him asking her what a cunny smelled like. She’d narrowed her eyes and replied, Like a dog’s cunny. He and the mother had left soon after.
Inside the trailer was one rickety fat-bladed fan mounted within a steel cage, for safety, on the roof. The fan’s black jewel center eyed peered directly down and also omni-directionally. The heat sprawled so that you swore you could feel it twisting and buckling the tin floor through the soles of your shoes. Outside, the sun punished. Julie would have dreams of jumping into a clear freezing pool of water, but the only thing around was where they had graded a low spot into a pond and put in a septic tank, now defunct. It was fenced off and filled with shit and they called it Spirit Lake.
For food, it was lots of watermelon because it was cheap and plentiful and clear and tasted good, anyway, and could be picked up for one dollar each, local. And fried chicken, too, especially, and she couldn’t ever understand why there were people in this world who would think that was funny because, as said before, the watermelon was cheap and practical and it kept you cool and the chicken could be bought for not very much or raised oneself, as it was the least expensive meat, and lean, and was quick and easy to fry on the sooty grill outside or on the fire pit, and so easy that Julie had started doing it when she was only four years old, and it made you full.
Her daddy was a boozer who tried not to spend the Social Security benefits on cheap wine and beer but would end up a wreck without. A drinker of whiskey and vodka from plastic bottles. A perennial misser of workforce appointments. The slim white envelope arrived every two weeks in the mail and her daddy and the mailman would converse until the daddy could take it no longer and would ask for a ride in to town to cash the check right away, saying he had to go get his lemonade.
Sometimes gone for days, Julie in his absence was left to what she’d done for years. Hands sticky with birdlime, whittling logs with a paring blade into pieces of furniture, mainly for show, or firing earthenware and terracotta into plates or pots, or smoking marijuana and checking on the small grow boxes set about in the damp chicken coop far out back, half a mile, on land unclaimed.
She had an audio tape of Imitation of Life and the first Harry Potter book and knew the Harry Potter by heart. She read a coffee-stained copy of the I-Ching, got most of it, and had considerations about studying ontology, while not knowing exactly what it was. Her first crush was Dizzy Gillespie, a peeling poster of him tacked on the inside of the front door with duct tape, covered by a TV cartoon character design which Julie had not encountered in her life. Some tapes mixed with Dizzy and Fannie Hurst and Mary Stallings and a song by Tool, the medleys of albums picked up at a garage sale.
Occasionally, afternoons were spent in bed, with her eyes closed, doing what she referred to as Watching the Show. She’d discovered at an early age that whatever went on in her head was largely out of her control, and so found interest in simply sitting, anticipating, waiting for whatever would bloom next into her mind.
Julie all her life was unaware that the family couldn’t receive food stamps not because Georgian lawmakers were discriminatory but due to multiple convictions of fraud from when her father would trade his one hundred and eighty-nine dollars a month in benefits for ten or fifteen dollars in cash to a friend to buy booze. Thus unable to feed himself and his daughter properly.
She’d come to him when she was eleven with brick-colored stains on her cotton underwear and confided that she was afraid she’d become incontinent and he hollered Oh my oh God Lord where and how did that mother of hers get away to.
The father was entering the preliminary stages of colorectal cancer with bleeding and anemia. He’d lost his trade as an aluminum welder and fabricator due to the boozing which one day left him dehydrated and drying out so bad that, gone two days without a drink, he had a seizure at work, causing him to black out. He came out of it licking his teeth and lips, wet and runny and tasting of blood for having clamped down on the chewy thing on the floor of his mouth. He’d hit his head so that he had to quit and couldn’t go on disability since it was his fault, anyway. For a month he hauled brine in a watertruck before he was asked about a suspension on his license and he at least went down brawling with the men in charge.
Now prone to fits, Julie had spent more times than she could remember with her arm cradled around his neck, scraping vomit out of his mouth as he writhed there on the ground, trembling uncontrollably as if dancing the jitter.
Later, once enough years had passed, he became old enough to collect the Social Security. He’d sit and crisp with Julie in the front lawn, both bodies damp and a little bit slimy, and she’d think about how she knew good things awaited her at some point in her life and her good luck was bound to show itself sooner or later.
In truth, Julie had wanted to work in music all of her life and dreamed of being a singer. A melodist and lyricist both. Her daddy knew how to play guitar and could drum a bit and would add in his low sad melodies to Julie’s songs. At a time of obsession with Mary Stallings, she learned every note and word of “A Sunday Kind of Love.” Julie’s first cover.
Her daddy knew this and knew also, after speaking to his few friends around town, that the Georgian economy had been, in most parts of the state, literally decimated over the last year. Despite this, the amounts of cash and investment coming in to the state had sprouted and exploded after legislation was passed to offer incentives to companies in the entertainment industry in order for them to leave Hollywood or New York City and bring their limitless supplies of work to the indigent cities of Georgia, like Atlanta, or Savannah, or Athens. Nowadays, more television and music was being put together in Georgia than in Hollywood itself. Rumors of pay abounded.
From these acquaintances of her father came word that, just like the old days in Detroit or Los Angeles, someone could show up in town and get a job quick doing something with someone somewhere. Her daddy mulled this over. Julie had told him again and again that she’d wait until work became available in town or nearby and that she didn’t care if she filled gas or sold French fries. Never considering to say it aloud, she’d considered that perhaps she could just sell herself. Her daddy would say no way in hell no way was that ever gonna happen and you get but one life to live and, while people like her mother or the fetal sister were lucky and had already gone on to the better world, the less fortunate like them, left behind, had to do in this life what they most wanted to do or at least try, because otherwise what’s the point of living and being here instead of just moving on to the better thing. He said it wouldn’t even be that bad, that when he’d had his fits it was probably like dying. One moment you’re there and then out of absolutely nowhere, before you know what’s hit you, you’re not. Then waking up was a nice surprise, but he wouldn’t have been particularly bothered if he hadn’t come back, since, truly, he never knew he’d gone anywhere in the first place.
The other word was that, well, if you had any hopes or thoughts or dreams which most people did about how much folks in the business were making well there’s no way in hell you’ve guessed even near enough. The little workers at the bottom, who had the jobs Julie could conceivably get, were all expendable and left behind in Los Angeles to fend for themselves, and only the big people were the ones who up and moved their whole lives to Georgia in search of glorious tax compensations. The little people in Georgia would be local hires, like Julie.
Following these developments for several months, her daddy finally told Julie about her prospects and what could be done. He said she wouldn’t be all that far and he was sure he had his seizures under control. He reassured her as always how seizures aren’t so bad usually in themselves unless you have one in the wrong place at the wrong time and hit your head or neck so you break something or die.
There were others, in lots nearby, who could look in on him and who he thought he could depend on for food and water and getting checked up on until Julie started making all that money. Then she could mail him a check each week that he’d, scout’s honor, promised to spend only on food and necessities.
As a precaution, a doctor Ho came from an hour away, pro bono, to examine the father. He said that, while he couldn’t look at the father’s delta or theta waves, or examine a scan of his brain in a magnetic machine built for that purpose, he could recommend some healthy habits. He laughed to himself, saying that everyone in this part of the state other than Julie and her daddy looked like they had some kind of syndrome. He’d later be caught unaware by the cancer become malignant in the daddy’s colon, but for now he said that all seemed fine, that he couldn’t see the daddy again until he got himself on Medi-Care and visited him at the hospital near two hours away. Julie walked out with him to his car and they crossed the berm next to the shit pond and, looking at it, he said that all would be well, and left.
Julie packed up near everything she’d accumulated all her life, and a small backpack of emergency things, and put all into the Astro and kissed her daddy goodbye. On her own volition, she took the car to a mechanic, paying him ten dollars to check it and make sure it was road ready and wouldn’t break down on her soon. He topped off the oil and coolant for free and asked when’s the last time the serpentine belt got changed and she said she didn’t know, and he told her good enough.
For three dollars he sold her a small canister of aluminum wheel cleaner to get the car looking fetching. He began to explain the dangers of such chemicals but she waved him off, saying that she was aware, and placed the container in the holder of her backpack reserved for a canteen or bottle. He wished her good luck and fortune and Savannah and ached but for that he could go with her.
She drove past the trailer a last time and parked in an ingress to a road leading nowhere. She looked at fir, cedar, alder, ash, cottonwood, and hemlock. Never again would she have to squat over a square hole twelve inches by twelve, arranged by planks of soft moist cedar and surrounded by tin walls with no roof, all turned mossy and brown with lichen by human waste and weather. To have to hold a plastic grocery bag underneath her as she shat into the hole and then dump the contents of said bag into Spirit Lake. She looked forward to the cool fluorescent and porcelain retreat of a clean office bathroom marked for her sex. A limitless supply of both toilet paper and water and she spun the wheel a hard left, cutting off an oncoming truck towing broilers as she made for the freeway.
No place in mind to go when she arrived, nor anywhere to stay. She felt good about finding a job and being able to rent herself a place to live close to where she’d find work and near a supermarket where she could walk to buy comestibles. She didn’t mind if she’d have to sleep in the car and knew that you could shower at the YMCA for free. All her life told how industrious she was, now bolstered by that and determined to prove it.
Deep in the hills of Encino, California, Mr. Pivner relaxes in a Jacuzzi behind his two-story raised ranch home, overlooking the vast and abundant San Fernando Valley. He turns the bubbles up to high as he leafs through an edition of the national music trades, searching for a mention of his own name. A gardener behind him sprays a shower-setting hose over the east-corner Foxglove Tree in the parterre-garden. The yard is sweet-scented and lush. The gardener considers the gazebo to his left, up a small slope. How well a line of Canterbury Spar would accentuate, elevate the path thereto. The Spar would take several weeks to import, but Mr. Pivner has expressed that he has both the time and patience for such things.
Three days on the road. At a distance not far from Savannah, Julie stopped at a Shell to fill the tank, and then waited her turn for a shower stall to open up, thankful that a previous inhabitant had left behind a bar of Irish Spring Soap. Half a mile back on the freeway, the sulfurous odor that her father did warn her about issued forth into the cabin like tear gas. Her memory racked, she could only come up with some remembrance of a feline and a converter somewhere unreachable in the vehicle’s undercarriage. It was something expensive to fix, to which no spark would ignite and no cylinders would fire and so no engine would rev. The catalytic converter. She could not afford to have this fixed nor could she return home.
She, with the emergency backpack, left the van on the road’s shoulder and hitched the rest of the way. She knew that fewer good things now awaited her but that she must go on. Doing as she’d always seen, she walked backwards, parallel to traffic, her face somewhere between cheerful and embarrassed. The thumb of her right hand pointed out just so, taking her chances here, she knew. She watched the people powered by carburetor engines, vehicles materializing at the horizon line, then bottoming out of a long, steep downhill trace. Faces scrutinizing her before passing on. She imagined that the instant after was one in which they gripped the steering wheel harder, grateful at not being her, and perhaps wondering what dysfunction or misguided decision had led her so astray.
Almost two more miles when a car finally passed her and then slowed down and parked. She had been trudging absently and had not waved it down but when she saw it stop she began to run forward. A red Jeep. The car’s plates foreign to her.
Then inside, and an immediate sense of having done something wrong. An initial shock, almost an audible pop, of the stench of ketchup and used paper packets and testicular sweat filling the car.
What sat next to her was a human expectorant. Stringy-haired, sebaceous, with drapes of pock-marked skin that hung down like folded sheets where the jaw should have been. He leaned forward and let her in, then immediately took off. A wet purple and red towel draped itself over the back of his seat, reeking of mildew and making her nostrils feel heavy. He said he could ask her where she was going but I-64 only goes one place in this part of the state so why bother. He hoped she didn’t mind but the car had no AC, hence the towel.
He said he picked her up because he liked black girls and planned on six hours at most before stopping for the night, so she could rest and then drive in the dark if she chose. Hitchhiking can take a lot out of a person, he knew that well, he said.
She dozed on and off, wavy lines of orange spilling over the sky like ink trails, the sun not so much yellow as turning light brown. It baked the right side of her face. As the afternoon passed, the back-lit clouds looked like gore. Nighttime came within the hour.
Mr. Pivner eases his body out of the water. He is on the shorter side, with noticeable love handles, his chest hair a nearly perfect upside down pyramid. He grips the P-shaped swim handles on the Jacuzzi’s edge, ready to heave, and a one, and a two, and a –
Julie woke in the parked car to a moonless night sky. Pressed up against her cheek was a tire beater belonging to the stranger, who said that he was going over in that building there to see some girls. She’d better not go anywhere since there was no town any which way for thirty miles and she probably didn’t know this but most of the people all around here were just like him. If she tried to leave, they’d either laugh at her or kick her back to the car. He left her and walked through the open door of the red and pink neon-lit building, The Pink Slip.
He’d lied and returned promptly with a bag of Cheetos and a can of Dr. Pepper and something tucked into an armpit as he fiddled with keys. Once inside, he pulled the object out and showed it to be a flask. He said he’d asked himself why he’d want those dancers in there when he had a nice girl all to himself right here. He asked if Julie would like a sip of the flask. When she hesitated for a moment, he pulled out the tire billy and pushed the black rubber end into her temple.
She took a sip, nearly vomiting the contents right back up. He told her to hold it down. The taste foul and unknown to her. He said to keep drinking and offered soda as respite.
One by one the other cars forsook her as the Jeep sat on a patch of gravel and dirt, underneath a large oak tree, as the early morning hours approached. The sign for the Pink Slip had gone dim, leaving them in umbra. Julie felt sick to her stomach and told the stranger so.
A push on the handle and a few steps out of the car and her legs swiveled beneath her entirely of their own accord. Her feet slinked and swerved about uncontrollably in oblong circles like a novice ice skater. She reached for something, got nothing, and fell face first into a bramble. The headlights came on. The soil beneath her was mostly top and jet black. The car’s lights illuminated the tree branches overhead, turning their edges into an orange zigzag and looking like lightning bolts.
She found herself shortly thereafter with the stranger’s arms upon her, his hands clasped behind her and his chest to hers. She was tossed in to the back seat. She vomited, and momentarily a joyous sense passed over her and she felt devoid of any responsibility in this world. She closed her eyes and welcomed whatever thoughts or images came, these being particularly interesting now, as she was drunk for the first time. Enjoying the show.
She thwarted his attempts to mount her. She knew where to hit a man. Then, in the morning, she would understand the extent of what he’d done to her as she slept.
One dry and chilly Sunday in November, Mr. Pivner rouses his two adolescent boys at their early morning hour of eleven a.m. He takes them to an Ethiopian restaurant, located several towns over from him, but close to his work. Once seated, he wastes no time in requesting to speak to the owner. Introductions made, Mr. Pivner makes an effortful joke about his company’s employees getting physically ill due to an inability to control themselves when faced with the restaurant’s offerings.
A monkey’s wedding outside in the morning. The car smelled of sick. Wipers made a tempo march towards Savannah. The contents of Julie’s backpack were strewn about the car and the stranger, sucking on the flask, told her that he guessed she really doesn’t own anything worth anything and that she’d better clean up the mess as they’re an hour from outside Savannah.
Two fluid ounces of your run-of-the-mill aluminum wheel cleaner, containing two percent gamma butyrolactone, the main ingredient in the solution, when applied to human skin are asymptomatic for anywhere from three to six hours, whereupon the exposed areas will experience not at all accidental cell death leading to severe necrosis. Similar to a host-pathogen infection. The “body-dissolving chemical.”
The stranger called Julie a vixen, and said that’s what she is and she ought to know it. He stopped at the final rest station, took his towel into the bathroom, soaked it in the sullied sink, then returned and draped it over the seat. Then went back in the station for Cheetos.
By the time he was back in the car, Julie had already emptied out half of the odorless, colorless Mag-Lite Aluminum Wheel Cleaner over his towel. He settled back in to the seat.
A red brick elementary school, just opening for the day, passed on their left. She was dropped off there. Going into the school to ask for directions downtown, she was unable to even make it past the first security guard due to the state she was in. He wanted her to shoo, quickly, and said go east.
With the small amount of money in her pocket, she bought an orange from a sidewalk stand and found a public library in a Colonial Revival building backed by a fine sylvan view. She searched for hostels and then job listings on the internet. Apartments were out of the question. She found that hostels were, too. She didn’t know what a credit check was and even if she’d had enough cash for a month’s rent, she’d still have to put up the security deposit while paying her first and last. Paying three months at a time instead of the promised one.
In the end, the only thing cheap enough was a recovery house, opening in a few days, women only, and offering a decent enough weekly rate.
Mr. Pivner drives to work. Under his Chinese-imported suit, he wears a pair of chamois Calvin Klein briefs. The underwear allows his penis to breathe, in the heat of the Georgian summer, and keeps it elongated, to one side, rather than curled. He maneuvers his dazzling yellow Aston Martin down Highway 95, himself a regular sight for the fellow commuters, listening to Howard Stern on Satellite Radio and laughing hoarsely.
Outside the library, a mirage had appeared where the tarmac parking lot’s edge and the road concurred. Julie went to a nearby park and laid down, in the shade, on a green steel bench. Other than sleep, she knew she must eat and find a job.
In the night she sought out a shelter, was told it was full. She saw people in military-style cots, lined up in rows along the walls and looking like saddlebag refugees, some newcomers, and then others with the visage and rags of someone just stepped out of the mire or some other heathered, marshy wasteland. Julie spoke to a worker who, in his personally-instituted twenty minutes a day of being free from the usual judgment and cynicism of the job, told Julie of a nearby high school with a gymnasium unlocked most nights. There were blankets and mats to be found. Julie asked if other people knew about the gym, like men, and the worker said that Julie would be better off taking her chances there than in the street, is all he said.
The next day she was up and over to the YMCA. She nodded and smiled to the front desk receptionist there as if she, Julie, belonged, and then showered.
The public library yielded Yellow Pages and a phone to call the welfare office. She asked about food stamps and said she was homeless. Over the phone, she said it was an emergency. The person on the line told her to wait one week for fifty dollars in emergency cash and to come in the next day to fill out an application and pick up her food stamps benefit card. One hundred and eleven dollars a month for food, until she started earning.
More money than she had ever held in her life. Her eyes watered.
Elated, grateful, Julie was a piccolo flute. A website had advertised opportunities at one Blast-O-World Productions, and she took down the address. The office, located in a suite downtown on a state street, was a few miles from her, meaning walking distance, but it was hot out and she neither had nor could afford deodorant. She managed a bus.
A bathroom in the McDonald’s next to Blast-O-World offered Julie an opportunity to change clothes. She entered a stall and removed from her backpack a pair of black leggings, one pair each of clean white underwear and socks, and a peach-colored button-up shirt smooth and delicate in appearance and feel. This last she’d been given as a present several years prior but had never found a reason to wear, though a job interview now seemed like a good enough time and place.
She thought of her father and of staying up late with him. The map used in their travels years ago, sitting on the floor of the trailer, from the father’s short-lived sober interim, with red-penned traces of routes all across the South that looked like the thin intersecting lines on money. Him telling her that the more you explored the world, the smaller everything becomes, and then you become smaller, too. The realization that money isn’t everything, but it certainly helps.
A staff assistant at the front desk told Julie to take a seat. The office was on a hiring spree, as advertised, and a gentleman had canceled his afternoon interview, meaning that Julie could see the production manager on the new show that day. “The Show.” Simply the term bestowed upon any and all musical projects to indicate that all are equal in importance and, above all, just jobs. A multi-million dollar recording session considered, in theory, to be no more important than the cheapest cut of meat that Julie would be working on. “Show business.”
The production manager was named Jen and wasted no time in telling Julie that she, Jen, actually had a law degree. Jen was morbidly obese, afflicted with rosacea and suffering from daily migraines brought on by fluctuating blood pressure, a dividend of the obesity. She asked Julie some questions, and said how very impressed she was with Julie’s ambition and knowhow in getting herself settled in a new city. It was unlike anything she’d ever seen in her green old age and so she would love to bring Julie on the team.
Julie felt faint. She was told that she would start as a production assistant on an album being recorded for a rising young star. Minimum wage and twelve-hour workdays. She took herself out for a Coke as reward.
Each morning, upon arriving at work, Mr. Pivner observes the planed fineness of the dark oak wood desk in front of him, contemplating the thoughtfully rounded corners. Looking at the wall clock, his eyes settle slowly. Lids droop down and obscure sclera. He inhales deeply, and silently begins to recite his mantra.
The week since Julie arrived having passed, she was allocated her emergency funds from the state. Fifty dollars in cash. She put it in an envelope and wrote home to her father with the news and the money. It registered with her that giving it away felt better than receiving it.
The production office’s teal walls were further green-hued by the overhead fluorescent lights, themselves erratic and prone to blackout. People were pale from eighty hour weeks, looking sickly in the light’s virescence. The office, recently acquired, had been ill-treated by the previous tenants. Julie’s first task was to spackle holes in the walls left by said tenants. Not the most glamorous job, she was told, but someone had to do it, and now, who knows, maybe she could put “spackling” on her resume.
She picked up terminology. A&R, petty cash, lacquer master, craft services. VLF, larghissimo, sample rate converter and Midi Manufacturers Association. Faulkner array, KSHRFOO, pan pot, c clef, violet noise, acoustic lens, gobo acoustic treatment, autopunch, DAW, daisy chain, destructive editing. She learned quickly.
One day, about a month in, she was introduced to a girl named Thumper. Named so for her two unfortunately and improbably-formed large top teeth. Though it was what she was known as, Julie still considered it name-calling, and preferred not to participate. She simply called her, Hey.
Julie was then introduced to the unit production manager on the show, Mr. Pivner. The top dog. Julie spoke, but couldn’t shake the sense that she meant literally nothing to him. She was infrared. Infrasonic. She vowed never to speak to him except for when she took his order for lunch, which had to be done every day.
Thumper explained that she knew how Julie must feel about the job. That she held the very same job that Julie now occupied before recently receiving a promotion to associate producer. Perpetually hip-shot, Thumper relished in her explanations of the work. One hand affixed to her waist, and the other brandished outwards, she spoke and pointed around at the imaginary places where the topics she broached must have hovered, her hand moving back and forth, as if on a metronome.
It was unfortunate but not at all uncommon for assistants on staff to order and pick up breakfast, lunch, and dinner for all members of an office. This one containing roughly thirty crew. This required the assistant to attend to each and every crew member, passing out menus, mentioning the daily specials, and collecting each person’s costs for the meal that he or she had chosen that particular day. This additionally required the assistant to, on occasion, strong-arm those who made up to one thousand percent more an hour than the assistant into providing whatever nickels and dimes were necessary in paying the full price of the order, so that these costs were not passed on down to Julie herself.
The whole ordeal made more stressful by the fact that the urban legend turns out to hold true, that one incorrectly placed or picked up lunch order for anyone above-the-line would make the person responsible, effectively, toast.
Everything paid for using petty cash, the production’s allocated funds for food, office supplies, and miscellany. At all times, Julie was responsible for one thousand dollars on her person, this known as her petty cash flow. She saved receipts, copied them on to the necessary forms, handed them in to accounting. All done fastidiously.
She did office work and cleaned and began to feel like little more than a glorified maid. Late nights when she got off a fourteen-hour shift, she wrote songs and sang as loud as she could into a pillow. Lyrics only now, no energy for melodies.
In the restaurant, Mr. Pivner makes a rather grotesque comment regarding how the burgeoning entertainment industry in Savannah has been doing its best to supply all local businesses with enough income to keep them afloat in these times of hardship. He notes that his office has always and will always pay in cash, no matter what, and will be as generous with their gratuities as the production’s budget will allow.
The other cuisine-related task assigned to Julie was the upkeep and stocking of the office kitchen’s many snacks. Two or three times a week, off she went to the supermarket, the petty cash tucked away in her purse, snug and pressed up against a pad of receipts, these her lifeline.
Still sending money to her father whenever she could, him telling her he didn’t need it, but her knowing better. This, along with her poor rate of pay, occasional denial of overtime wages, and costs for rent and utilities, kept Julie on welfare. She would arrive at the supermarket’s checkout counter, hundreds of dollars’ worth of cookies, chips, soda, and nuts in her possession, pay with cash, then ask for a receipt. Pulling a few microwave meals from underneath the cart, she would then fork over her food stamps card to the curious but not judgmental employee.
An unfortunate but almost inevitable incident occurred once when she accidentally placed one of her frozen meals in with the office’s groceries and was chewed out by one of the accountants for misappropriating funds.
The father, now in the late stages of cancer, was in and out of a hospital many miles from home, medical bills rising exponentially. He preferred to spend his time around the small community. Pleasure came from visitors received, growing and smoking marijuana, and finding solace in his prescribed pain medication.
Julie, having been cripplingly apprehensive all this time, eventually decided to slash the Gordian knot. She approached Jen one day, when most of the department heads had left for an afternoon session, and asked if it would be appropriate to request some time with Mr. Pivner, or another executive, in order that someone might hear her sing or perhaps look at some of her writing. Jen reflexively raised hand to cover mouth, then pulled away to take a call.
It had been hinted at by Thumper, and Julie eventually caught on, that there was an industry-wide practice amongst assistants to falsify the gratuity on receipts obtained when purchasing work meals. If an order came in at three hundred dollars, Julie was to arrive at the restaurant, pay the full amount, and to later mark on the receipt that she had left a hefty fifteen percent tip, resulting in a tallied cost of three hundred and forty-five dollars. Julie then to pocket the forty-five.
Fifteen percent was the max, generally, permitted by producers and production managers so that goodwill could be generated between the company and those establishments in the greater Savannah area, establishments which the production hoped to foster a dependable and fruitful relationship with for, potentially, years to come.
Forty-five dollars was, for Julie, equivalent to six hours of on-the-clock work. Such a take-home would increase her pay by roughly thirty-three percent, after taxes. With that, not even a thought would be needed to paying for her father’s monthly medications. Everything to be set aside in her entertainment union’s savings account, the total sent home at the end of every month.
The restaurant owner smiles. He listens to Mr. Pivner a moment longer, then the owner’s involuntary eye twitch goes manic right there in the dining room.
Julie, in the midst of her regular stretches, stood stiffly one night to answer the phone. She heard from a hospital just outside of Sparta, Georgia that her father had died. Yes, I’m his kin, she said. Yes, I can come. No, he’s insolvent.
A beat. The restaurant owner’s face is momentarily flushed. He crosses his arms, one hand cupping an elbow, the other holding a bicep, and rocks back on his heels. He says that, while he doesn’t mean any disrespect, the thing is is that he isn’t some sort of jerk and, actually, the nice young black girl who was always in and out collecting meals had never left a tip, and was known for not doing so. She had told him, one year ago, that she was forbidden by her bosses who considered it an unnecessary expense.
Mr. Pivner’s neck, just below the line of his once-prominent jaw, begins to sprout red, splotchy, cumulus-like blots and traces. These steadily make their way down to his jugular notch. So, she’s never left a tip with you?, he asks. No, sir. She always said, sorry, wish I could, but it’s not my money, it belongs to the record company, he-he.
A sense in Mr. Pivner’s ears of being suddenly submerged in water. He says thank you to the owner, eats his meal with the boys, and leaves a generous tip.
In the morning, Julie, as always, sets up breakfast first thing. The platters of bagels, cream cheese, lox, oatmeal, walnuts, and fresh fruit. She has turned on all of the office’s lights and woken its three copy machines from their slumber. She sits at her desk, a simple plastic fold-out table tucked into a corner, and sips from a twelve-ounce paper cup, filled to the brim with caffeine-free green tea. She is writing the last verse of a song, one she’s proud of, one that she’s been working on for months, a song that she hopes to show to a co-worker, someone slightly higher above who’s expressed interest in the sweet way Julie jokingly self-proclaims her own talents. Mr. Pivner walks in swiftly through the front door, passing Julie. He does not look at her, but says, Come.
It takes him less than a minute to confront and fire her. She is told that she will not be punished as long as she keeps her mouth clammed shut and doesn’t ever, ever try to work in the industry again. Julie asks if she’ll be able to file a claim for unemployment insurance with the company, which Mr. Pivner owns, she knows. No Goddamn way, I’ll make sure of it, he says.
Rising from her seat, Julie leans forward. She is highshouldered, her eyes large. Her fingertips press against the desk’s corners, her hands making two small tents. From this angle, she towers above Mr. Pivner’s slight frame. He squints at her. She leans in, centimeters from his face, and says:
Look at me.
Look at me.
BIO: Benedict Noero lives in New England.