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October 27, 2014 | Fiction

Vincent Peppers At The Podium

Shane Jones

Vincent Peppers At The Podium photo

Good morning. Vincent Peppers here and I just thought this day is a grave. Terrible words to have running through your head this early, but I can’t help it. I’m waiting for a scheduled 11 am conference call. I live alone and sit when I pee. I have problems with reality. As a child I’d stand in my family’s driveway and close my eyes and think so hard about being alive that I’d give myself a panic attack. I can’t do that anymore.

The reason my boss pushed me to apply for the work from home program, which I’ve been doing now for two weeks, is because of what happened at the podium. Very embarrassing. Let me tell you about it.

Every summer my boss gives a speech at the annual summer picnic, sponsored by the higher-ups who rarely attend. They print banners. They print directional signs on where to park. They have it catered with the finest deli meats and all the Michelle’s and Sarah’s and Steve’s of the world make colorless and unhealthy salads. Everyone pays five dollars. Doritos are poured into large plastic bowls. And every spring my boss picks one employee from a hundred and fifty to introduce him in what is supposed to be a light and funny roast with some brown nosing at the end. He chooses randomly, pulling the name from pieces of paper he swirls around inside an empty jumbo sized cheese puff bucket. It’s a real show. They applauded my name. Brian said, “Show the boss who’s boss!”  

It makes sense why everyone laughed on the conference call I explained earlier. They remembered what happened to me at the picnic. They remembered Chuck and Dan, two shipping clerks, walking me to my car before I even got the chance to eat a cheeseburger.

“Vincent, good luck today,” said my boss that morning. “Get me good!”

I walked to the podium and took out my speech. I wore my best suit, the one I got married in, the one I never wore to work because it was a summer suit, baggy clothes (fitting = too tight) are popular in my work place and this suit was tailored. Besides, our office was always cold. Do you know that the number one complaint in the American work place is that the temperature is too cold? And do you know what the second most common complaint is? That it’s too hot. How wonderful is that?

Everyone waited for me to speak at the podium. All those bodies in khaki shorts and short sleeve button ups held paper plates of meat. My boss stood off to the side, laughing and hitting elbows with Sarah. Were they fucking? Maybe they loved each other? A few guys, way in the back, played Cornhole on boards they had painted in the American flag with bordering yellow snakes. There was one cloud in the sky and it was shaped like a chicken. The chicken kind of fell apart as I stood there thinking about my life.

“Come on, Vincent!” someone yelled. “Blast him!”

Everyone’s face went blurry and I felt extremely hot. Things looked a little fuzzy. My head started to spin a little. I realized I hadn’t formed a human connection with one of the more than a hundred people in the audience. I realized none of us would remember this moment in a few years, and if they did, how scrambled it would be from reality. How great is that? How all our daily tasks, even something more heightened like a summer work picnic, will be twisted from what truly happened or forgotten completely? 

Steve started a chant. There are people in the world like Steve who do things like this and we follow. We never say no to Steve, although I imagine a small percentage just pretend to mouth the words, like I always did in school chorus, standing in the back and opening and closing my mouth with nothing coming out. I fainted once during school chorus. I left in the middle of Joshua Fit The Battle of Jericho and walked from the auditorium and into the school and right before the nurse’s office I collapsed. I was on the school floor in the hallway and no one was around and all I remember is seeing stars and how cold and alone and embarrassed I felt.

Someone like Steve, just imagine what he’ll see when he dies. He’ll be at the center of every experience because he was the beginning of every pool party applause, stadium booing, raised lighter, protest slogan, traffic jam car honk, and first name chant. The Steve’s of the world are the energy cores.

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

“Vincent! Vincent! Vincent!”

My boss was the first to realize something was wrong. He took a few steps toward the podium. People stopped chanting. Even Steve. People looked worried. My boss immediately regretted his decision to pick me for the big introduction. He should have known. I never really talked before so why would I now? Why would I do a good job?     

I stared at the speech because it was my wedding vows to Robin. The paper had been in the suit all this time. The speech was in the opposite side pocket, but I couldn’t stop re-reading the wedding vows. So sentimental! So sappy! Not that they were so heartbreaking and true, it was the opposite, the vows were clichéd and rushed and I couldn’t believe I confessed these soggy words to Robin. Did she think this when she heard them? I’ll have to watch the tape again. Did her father, who paid for the wedding, understand then that she was making a terrible mistake? Did everyone know we would end in divorce?

What I did at the podium was smile and put my professional voice on. It’s the same voice I use on conference calls. I made a joke about my boss drinking so much coffee that when he went into the hospital for a colonic they hooked him up to an IV drip of Dunkin Donuts dark roast and everyone laughed. I don’t think I had tears in my eyes when I made that joke. I don’t think I was still thinking about Robin. I made a joke that when my boss approved personal time requests he wrote our names in a little black book called the “Hit List” and not everyone laughed. I told the crowd how my boss is the most compassionate, fair, and hardest working boss I’ve ever had the pleasure to work for. I didn’t hear any applause. No Steve power slapping his hands together first in a booming echo because I looked up, laughed at the chicken in the sky, which was just a mess at that point, and fainted.

I sat in my car for a good twenty minutes supervised by Chuck and Dan, who didn’t say a word, before driving home and getting a phone call from my boss that everything was okay, that maybe the work from home program would be a good idea. He told me to think about it. Then when I returned to work the next day and everyone treated me differently he pushed hard for the work from home program. I knew what it meant.  

My phone is ringing now. Hey-oh here we go, conference call time!

I should have grabbed a snack because this could be a long one. The conference calls have been getting shorter and less frequent. I don’t have very much work to do. Maybe we’ll break the record for voices on a shared line this time around. A hundred? A thousand? A million? Could there be a conference call with all of America on it and what would that sound like? Would it be absolutely horrific or would it be strangely beautiful to know everyone was in one place? Could you pick out your mother or father and say that you missed them? Could you find your sister and ask her if she’s okay after the car accident? Could you ask a stranger what it’s like to live and get an honest answer? Could I find Robin through all the yelling and power-grabs to be the loudest person in America, and could I pull her through all those voices and tell her that I loved her and I was sorry for the wedding vows?  Would America be on my side in weepy silence or would America just laugh?

When I answer the phone it’s my boss and two men from HR I’ve never spoken to before. What they tell me isn’t a surprise, it’s amazing.

 

image: Aaron Burch


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