My name is Barry, although it might as well be Loser. I just lost my fourth job in the past year as a collections agent at a local cable company. The entire department was laid off. Our jobs were outsourced to India.
I’m actually a software tester, but I haven’t worked in my profession for a little over a year and a half. It’s not that I haven’t tried to find work, testing software. I’ve sure been on plenty of interviews. But when it comes time to select an applicant, they always choose someone else. Why? For some jobs, they said I'm over qualified. At other places, I knew I wouldn’t fit in when I showed up for the interview with messy, overgrown hair and wearing worn out khakis.
Now I’m driving south of Denver on Interstate 25, heading towards home with the fuel warning light on my ten year old sedan glaring at me. As I try to exit to find a gas station, there’s an empty-headed blond, in one of those new hybrid cars, jabbering on her cell phone beside me. The bitch remains parallel, forcing me to stay in my lane. I honk and stare in her direction, but she still doesn’t move or even acknowledge my existence. At times like this, I wish I had the guts to ram her car right off the highway.
A red van signals and merges into my lane. On the back door, in large white letters, I read, “Driver’s Wanted.” Hell, I can be a driver? I’m driving now. What more experience could I need? Figuring I have nothing to lose, I punch the listed telephone number into my mobile phone.
“OTG Courier Services,” answers a woman with a gruff New York accent. “How may I help you?”
“I’m inquiring about a job advertisement on the back of a van.”
A deep hacking from the woman drowns out my voice. “Sorry, honey. I got the emphysema. What’d ya say?”
She reminds me of my grandmother, who died of “The Emphysema.” Grandma chain-smoked hand-rolled cigarettes made of a homemade mix that smelled like the steam off a fresh pile of horseshit. Her breath smelled just as foul.
I yell into the phone, “I’m behind one of your vans. Says you need drivers.”
“I’m not deaf, honey”
I clear my throat. “Sorry, ma’am.”
“So, do you have a valid drivers license?”
“Have any aversions to heat?”
“Huh? I mean no.”
“Can you come on down to the warehouse to sign some paperwork? We can get you started tomorrow morning.”
Did I hear her right?
“I can start tomorrow?”
“Yeah, honey. Our office is in the Tech Center. How soon can you get here?”
I hesitate to answer, wondering if landing a job over the phone is too good to be true. Then I look down at my gas gauge, and too good to be true no longer matters. “I’m on I-25, approaching the Arapahoe exit. How do I get there?”
We’re off Arapahoe and Revere, in the red warehouse. Know where that is?”
“Yeah, but I’ll have to stop for gas.”
“I’m always here, in the front office.” She gets in one last coughing fit before hanging up.
I turn off my cell phone, throw it to the side and signal again to move right. The blonde remains beside me, but at a standstill, texting, so I take the opportunity to cut her off. This time, she blares her horn. I laugh and use my middle finger to show her how much I care.
Once I’m off the highway, I stop at the first gas station I find. While I pump gas, I have a moment to think how lucky I was to call about the job. Then I remind myself that getting hired over the phone is a little bizarre, which makes me reconsider whether this job really is too good to be true.
My phone rings and I notice the call is from the same number that was on the back of the van. I answer. It’s the woman with the gruff voice. “Honey,” she says. “Pick me up a coffee on your way.”
Who is this woman?
“Sure,” I reply, trying to seem compliant.
“There’s a coffee shop a block before Revere. Tell ‘em you’re picking up for Margery.”
I place the gas pump nozzle back into the pump and sigh. The meter stopped at five dollars, all the money I had in my pocket before I paid the attendant. Then I ask Margery, with forced sincerity, “Is there anything else I can pick up for you?”
She replies, “That’s all, honey. See ya soon.”
I get back in my car and start it. The gas gauge reads just under a quarter of a tank. I suppose it’s better than where it read when I pulled up to the pump. Still, this job better pay more than my last couple jobs. As I prepare to pull back out onto Arapahoe Road, the thought of making minimum wage makes me want to drive back toward the highway and home. But then I feel my stomach growl, and I turn toward the coffee shop to pick up Margery’s coffee.
The afternoon traffic is heavy with commuters, forcing their way east toward the suburbs at the end of the work day. As I approach each intersection, it’s nerve-racking to watch the intermittent blinking of brake lights. When I reach the top of a hill, I notice an accident further impeding traffic. Flashing red and blue lights mark the spot where three cars and a truck collided with a motorcycle. They are blocking the far right lane, where it looks like a guy lay waiting for an ambulance to arrive. Thankfully I notice the coffee shop is at the next intersection.
With the next green light I turn into the coffee shop parking lot, and am lucky to find a spot to park just outside the door. Inside the place I’m also lucky not to have to wait in line. I tell the guy behind the counter I’m picking up coffee for Margery. He hands me a large cup and says, “That’ll be $4.50.” I’m puzzled. Does she expect me to pay for her coffee?
I tell him I don’t have cash.
“We take debit and credit cards.” Then he turns his attention to the next person in line and asks for her order. While she orders some bizarre coffee drink that sounds foreign, I pull out my wallet and flip through my credit cards. I scramble, trying to remember which cards I’ve paid or haven’t been max’d out. None. So I hand him a random card and hold my breath while he swipes it for approval. I breathe a sigh-of-relief when the machine spits out a receipt. He hands it to me, and I rush out of the coffee shop.
Fifteen minutes later I make it down to the next stop light, which is Revere Street. I see the warehouse off to the right, just as Margery had provided in her directions. The building is painted a striking red, like the van I’d seen on the highway. There’s also a huge sign on the side with the OTG Courier Service’s logo covering half the building.
I park on the street because the warehouse entrance is blocked by trucks delivering a dozen or so new red vans marked with the company logo. I suppose I’ll be driving one of their vans tomorrow. I hope I get one of the new ones.
I enter the office door carrying Margery’s coffee. Funny, I expected the place to look similar to a post office or an overnight delivery drop-off, but it doesn’t even look like a business. I feel like I walked into someone’s apartment. I remember Margery saying she’s always at the office. She must have meant it literally. There’s a living room, decorated as such, and a kitchen with a table and chairs where an older thin and frail woman sits. Her hair’s dyed a hideous flaming red, and her face is overly made up, like she’s trying to look young, but the wrinkles on her face give away her age. The woman sits smoking a cigarette and shuffling some papers when she looks up and sees me. I instantly recognize Margery’s voice when the woman says, “Barry. You made it. Bring me my coffee, honey.”
Did I tell her my name?
I walk toward Margery, and I look into her eyes as I hand her the coffee. There’s something eerie about the woman, although I can’t put my finger on it.
“Have a seat.” She points at a chair in front of a pile of paperwork a couple inches thick. I do as she asks, then take the pen she holds out. “Before you start, you’ll have to sign some standard contracts and agreements. All our drivers sign ‘em.”
I knew this job is too good to be true. I’ve never signed so much paperwork just to start a job. I nervously ask, “Agreements? Contracts?”
“Yeah, honey. Standard stuff for salary, liability and such.” Then she says, “Top copy’s for salary. Fifty an hour; time and a half overtime.”
“Really? To drive a van?” I’ve never made over twenty-five an hour, and lately I’ve been lucky to get ten to twelve. I assumed pay for a driver would be much lower. Still I’m concerned about the contracts and what she means by “liability and such.” So I ask her, “What sort of liabilities?”
“Nothing to worry about, honey. We just want to make sure things are taken care of in case something happens.”
“Do you mean like an accident?”
“Driving for us can be dangerous, among other things.”
“So these are like insurance forms?”
She smiles out of one side of her mouth and replies, “Yeah, honey. Like insurance forms.”
“So if anything happens to me, I’ll be taken care of?”
“Oh yeah.” She takes one last drag of her cigarette, then put it out in the ashtray. “You’ll be taken care of.”
The smoke fades and Margery’s hacking and coughing recommences, giving me a minute to think. Do I walk away from this job because of the risks? Or do I accept the risks and no longer wonder where I’ll get my next five dollars for gas or a decent meal? Then I realize I didn’t ask these questions when I took that miserable job in the collections department at the cable company. Why now? Have I become comfortable this past year, putting up with miserable jobs that pay crappy salaries?
All these questions make my head spin until I look down at the pen in my hand and hear a strange deep voice in my head that sounds like a slowed recording. “What are you waiting for? Sign and your misery will end.” I jump in my seat.
“Honey, you okay?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m Fine.”
Margery doesn’t give me a another second to think. “Go to each page with a red tab and sign by the X.” But I’m frozen, staring at the pen. Margery opens the contract to the first red tab and takes a hold of my hand. She guides it down until the pen meets paper. There’s an echo in my head as she and the voice repeat, “Sign and your misery will end.”
The next thing I hear is Margery coughing. My eyes refocus as I watch her pull the contracts across the table and toward her. “See, that wasn’t so bad,” she says, and removes a cigarette from a gold case.
“I signed?” I ask.
“Yeah, honey. All done.”
As I become more coherent, I notice that the fingers on my right hand hurt. I hold them up and look at them. Why are they so pink? And why is there blood on my index finger?
“Be here tomorrow morning at six o’clock,” Margery says. Tobacco and paper crackle as she takes a match to the cigarette and inhales in a deep breath.
“Six o’clock?” I cringe and forget about the blood.
Margery raises an eyebrow and repeats, “Six o’clock.”
“Go home, honey, and get a good night’s rest. You’ll be on the Trinidad route tomorrow,” says Margery. “Come see me when you get here in the morning, and I’ll get you in a van and on the road.”
I ask, “Anything else I need to do?”