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The International Writers Magazine: Life at Work

Fat Nasty Bitch
Jessica Schneider

People, when they thought of torture, only thought in the extreme. They thought of having to endure the lack of food over several months, like the survivors of the Fairchild, who had to resort to cannibalism to save themselves amid the brutal Andes Mountains.

They thought of Joe Simpson, after having broken his leg on the Siula Grande and falling into a crevasse, then climbing downwards as a means for escape, while traversing the sharp and slanted peaks despite hobbling pangs and dehydration. Or they thought of Prisoners of War, be it in German Concentration Camps or those designed by the Vietcong. They thought of days, or extended weeks at a time, where pain is intense and unrelenting, and where every small movement matters. They thought of death, of suffering, as being something ready, and waiting for them, and sometimes death as the reward for having endured such pain. But they never spoke of the everyday, the everyweek and the everymonth that many had to endure below a brutal boss, an unforgiving job, miserable salaries, miserable treatment, anxieties brought on by those around, and the utter lack of reward because of it.

Noelle Gomez was not the kind of woman anyone noticed. She was someone who, had you seen her in a bookstore, or a supermarket, you would just look on and past her, just as one of the many unattractive women who exist once they reach their fifties. Her frame was fat and unformed, and her clothes from twenty years ago no longer fit, but that didn’t deter her from still wearing them. Her skin was fair, almost translucent even, and around the corners of her cheeks and jaws wore her skin colored moles that in certain slants of rare sunlight, could appear as bumps. She never wore makeup, and the black rings below her eyes sank deep into her cheeks and extended downwards towards the deadness of her face. They appeared concave, as hollow pits that could allow tears to pool, if only she had the emotion to cry. Luckily she didn’t. Her hair was short and gray-- almost white, and the top half remained pulled and sprayed over into place. People who had worked with her for the past two decades said that not once had she ever changed her hair. It remained pressed into place, and only grew grayer, as did the pits below her eyes. Her clothes, loose and frumpy, were out of style and never looked nice. On winter days where she decided to ‘dress up’, she would wear a loosely fitted denim skirt, blue tights, and a sweater that had ginger bread men sewn into the knitting. Her hair and unmakeuped face remained the same--they never changed. Her employees even wondered if her hair got mussed while having sex, assuming her husband could still get an erection upon sight of her grotesquely formed ass.

No one liked Noelle, not even her favorites. They merely tolerated her. Often to be considered one of her favorites, one would need to snitch on another co-worker and make it appear as though you were looking out for ‘the good of the company’. And Noelle knew that the only way she could have influence upon the world was by making her employees miserable. She loved that people were nervous and said little in her presence, or that they told small jokes in the hopes she would smile. Later, whoever made her smile, or even rarer, laugh, could boast introspectively for a while. She loved all that. Ultimately they all wanted to be on her ‘good side’, for such was regarded as ‘immunity’ if you had her approval and she liked you. And those who had ‘immunity’ could literally get away with everything. But those she did not like had another standard to uphold. Nothing they could ever do was right. She would pick and pick and pick as much she could as a means for making one miserable, or insane, or both, or just wanting to quit all together. By creating misery, she gained some strange satisfaction out of it. She could not get anyone on work performance, for she was a manager who lacked the expertise of those departments that were under her. She instead thrived on administrative minutia and paperwork, and time and attendance was about the only thing she could have her say. She never smiled, not even at family functions. She cooked a lot--that’s the one thing she liked to do when stressed, and once when there had been a particular employee she had wanted to get fired, she began baking every night, bringing in cookies and brownies and cakes for her employees, as a means of extending false generosity.

"Uh oh, someone’s getting canned," they would all joke whenever Noelle began to bring treats in for the group. Not only that, but some of the other sure signs would involve her asking her favorites, or her ‘pets’ or ‘babies’ as people called them, to spy on the certain employee at hand, documenting details of when this person arrived and left each day, what time he or she departed and returned for breaks, and how long lunches were. Once a long tally of events could be handed over, Noelle began her task of termination, and that particular employee would be out of a job by the end of the next week, usually.

Things at the State Health Department moved slowly, unless it involved wanton termination.
But people couldn’t figure out how she chose her favorites. It certainly wasn’t work ethic--for some of her most prized losers never did any work at all, and would often joke about it with her in meetings, about how certain reports she had requested weren’t finished on time or how those contacts were never made, and she wouldn’t care. She’d have their approval, and that, to her, was all that mattered. Also, some of her other employees, the ones in particular who did their work well, Noelle had come to despise the most. Over time, her employees tried to deduce what characteristics one would need to become one of her favorites, and they could only conclude a few things. The women could not be young and attractive. They could be young, but not too thin and not too pretty. Most of the guys she liked, save for those who were the real ass-kissers, especially when she knew they were kissing her ass for their own personal gain. One of her male employees, Kiss-Ass Andy, as he was known, had snitched on a couple of his female co-workers in the hopes that by doing so he’d gain favors in the eyes of Noelle. But ultimately he didn’t gain anything, for she viewed him only as a puppet, and allowed him to keep his job because he never questioned her authority. That’s why it was so funny when the time came for Kiss-Ass Andy’s team to attend a Headquarters Meeting, and Noelle didn’t choose for him to go, but one of her ‘pets’ instead, despite the ‘favor’ Kiss-Ass Andy felt he did for her.

She was a terrible manager, and those that brought attention to it, either directly or indirectly, were ultimately fired for pretend reasons. An example of indirectly bringing her poor management to her attention was when the two women that Kiss-Ass Andy snitched on (who were eventually terminated), those women, within their department, had had problems with the new team lead that Noelle hired. The new team lead was requiring the women to perform all these extra tasks that were not approved by the EPA, and not really necessary for the procedures at hand. And when one of the women tried bringing this to Noelle’s attention, Noelle regarded this as a personal strike, for she herself had been the one who hired the new team lead, and so any complaints about the new team lead’s incompetence ultimately reflected poorly upon Noelle. In state employment, issues were only issues when one made them such, and so one could see why with certain individuals, specifically those who never questioned her authority, why they could get away with whatever they pleased. This attitude only brought on more misery, backstabbing, and resentment among the employees, and Noelle liked that because it gave her something to do. People who are mediocre and lack the means for contributing any real insight had to create problems so they could feel like they were doing something. If everything ran smoothly, then there would be nothing for Noelle to manage, and part of her job description was maintaining administrative policy, and making sure that her employees were doing the same.

Ultimately demands as these only led to the production of zombies, people who were no longer people, but worms who could no longer think or feel for themselves. Even her favorites, who really didn’t like her all that much, pretended not to notice whenever Noelle was picking on someone unfairly. They had just learned to shrug their shoulders, turn the other cheek, and ignore all signs of personal malice Noelle had for a person. It wasn’t fair. In history books, historians only ever focused on the Hitlers and the Stalins as being the bad people, but the many individuals who allowed them to gain that power were viewed only as victims, and as those without choice—merely having to do as they were told. History never focused on the sycophants and the apparatchiks as being the source of the problem, only the result of it, for were it not for their willingness to concede in the first place, cruel dictators would never have come into play.

History, for most people, did not enter one’s life. Everyday workers did not think about oppression in Vietnam or the starvation in India, or even the war in Iraq. These were abstract thoughts, and individuals whose names would go unknown under that of the collective whole, the tragedy itself, were more and more with each passing, growing ever more abstract. It was much more common for people to worry about not getting into traffic or finding a close parking space in the hopes that they would not be late for work, and have to suffer the wrath of bosses like Noelle on account of it.

For most, history could be regarded as nothing more than a metaphor, these suffering cases of the extreme, where when placed into a personal context, these same human patterns could be found in most work environments. No one cared for anyone but themselves and their own jobs, and any concern one might exude was done under pretense, all were fearful of disruption and bringing real problems to the fore. They brought real meaning to the axiom ‘to suffer in silence’, because really the only voice anyone had while working below Noelle was by talking about her behind her back.

And there was a part of Noelle that knew this was the case, but her defense was always made by keeping people at a distance, by making them fearful, and creating in her mind a myth that her position and what she did at her job really mattered. She too, went to extremes to convince herself that she was a ‘good person’, mostly by the things she did—like bringing in baked treats for her employees, giving them cards on holidays, talking in meetings about how she regularly goes to church and about how much she cares for animals and for poor people. Once she’d even accused one of her departments of having belittled some deliverymen, when really this wasn’t the case. The deliverymen had stopped by, but no one was around to receive the delivery, and so someone had to call and request the items be delivered at another time. That was all that happened, but Noelle only saw what she wanted, and this gave her the chance to pick on the department she hated a little more. As punishment, she had sent them a nasty email, saying how even though they had college degrees, how they still needed to treat those without college degrees with respect, all the while treating her own employees like total shit.

She even in her spare time would read those vapid self-help books that held no intellectual heft. Books by Mitch Albom and Richard Bach and Deepak Chopra made her feel more secure, and reassured her that from having read them that she was somehow better for having done it. Noelle wanted all her kids to ‘succeed’ in this world, and to have ‘influence’ upon it, like the way thought she did. Her two sons she was proud of. One went to MIT and the other was enrolled in some honorary youth program--those groups that no one cares about once you arrive into the real world. But her daughter, Emily, played the flute, and she had just turned eighteen, and was excited for college. Noelle resented Emily, although this was something she would never say. Emily was prettier than Noelle had even been at that age, and she had more boys interested in her. She was also musically talented, and wanted to go to the university to pursue a music career, which made Noelle proud, because it made her look like a ‘good person’ from having raised such a ‘good daughter’. She was proud, as long as Emily knew her place, and didn’t get to be ‘too good’ at anything.

It is not uncommon to wonder why companies, when they hire managers, don’t try to pick competent individuals who might actually be fair minded and good at their jobs. The problem is that anyone with the above skills wouldn’t be wasting time in middle management. State jobs, specifically Health Departments, stab for the bottom, those dwellers that went without ambition, save the false. There was just nowhere upward to go when one’s job involved the passing of paper, the signing of this and that, the disposal of individual character as one became forced into burrowing like small worms. Within these people--there’d grown a vacancy, a hollowness to their appearance, to their mediocre formalities. Noelle wasn’t anybody who, for any good reason, would be remembered. She knew that when she retired, five minutes later, any policies and bureaucratic nonsense she might have instilled, would be rewritten and undergo evaluation, till her existence within the department would become even less than her physical presence had ever been.

But it would be a while before then. Things had to be done. Meetings had to be attended. On that morning, Noelle grabbed her appointment book, closed her office door, and left for the elevator to take it only one flight down. Getting in, a moment later the doors then opened to let her out. A few of her employees had been huddling, chatting, and laughing over something that did not concern her. But they were aware of her sounds: the pats her shoes made against the tired floor, her quick jingle of keys, the rubbing of her oversized clothes against her walk.

Hearing this, the crowd dispersed. A few wandered back to their stations, while others cleared their throats, tried to find something to occupy them, something to look at. None of them smiled. Then, as she turned and disappeared, she grinned, a little satisfied in knowing she’d soon be speaking to those employees’ managers about chatting during non-break time. Pushing past the double doors to where her meeting was, her keys jingled their familiar chime, this warning that would make her world watchful and aware amid these repetitious, dull-colored walls.
© Jessica Schneider Jan 2008

Jessica has been published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Moderate Voice, The New York Review, Eclectica, Cosmoetica, Retort, Stride, The Houston Literary Review, Tryst, Manifest, Unlikely 2.0, Ken Again, Stick Your Neck Out, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Hackwriters, storySouth, Avatar Review, Paumanok Review, Womb, Sidereality , The Poligazette among others as well as being the Book Editor for Monsters & Critics, She have also been a contributing book reviewer for The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Moderate Voice as well as hosting her own blog

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