Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Press 5 For Excellent - Flash Fiction

Marta pushed open the heavy door with breathless anticipation. It was the first day of the month; another opportunity to enter the pantheon of greasy spoons. She looked back at the sham marble floors, the counterfeit jukebox who's coin mouth was sealed, anywhere but at the names and portraits lining the hallway to the restrooms. Nevertheless, she had to raise her eyes at some point; had to know if she would be allowed to display the demure smile cultivated for months in front of the cracked and spotted mirror. Had to see if her name, for all to see and think to themselves yes, she deserves to be here, wonderful woman was there. 

But it was Logan's name emblazoned in gold letters and who's grinning countenance would eventually occupy the slot marked EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH.  Logan with the movie star name and varsity jacket who would spend his $50 reward on iTune downloads and carelessly hand his paper certificate to his mother. He would take his place next to January's Mitzi the blond goddess of the senior class. They would look wonderful together. Marta made wet kissing noises in her head. 

She pushed open the restroom door and looked around, out of habit. There was someone assigned to check it and clean it hourly, but Marta was the type of employee who did what needed to be done without having to be mercilessly prodded. Part of it was simply the way she had been raised; the other part, which she hated to admit, was wanting others to see her as responsible, dutiful, helpful, pleasant. These were the categories on the little surveys printed on the back of customer receipts. She smiled, chatted and flattered her customers, raced to provide what they asked for, humbly apologized for wrong orders, too much gravy, a draft from the window and the national debt. But Marta was no match for her coworkers, the young, the beautiful with their careless grace and straight white teeth. A dumpy middle-aged woman, alone and friendless in a town at the backside of nowhere does not have the security of a pack. The clientele were either regulars who had watched those kids trade their full and hanging diapers for nearly empty hanging jeans, or the kids themselves with handfuls of money and enough wires and gadgets to make them look they were on permanent life support. They took their grease smeared receipts home, called the number, pressed endless buttons, recorded the name of the server who had provided excellent service. It seemed that no one cared to include Marta in their liturgy.

March rolled around, marked by a new Blue Plate Special and Featured Sundae. The first of the month again, and Marta warmed herself with the quilted knowledge that this time she would be The One.  Walking in from the pouring rain, her heart skipped a beat as she saw the two men by the kitchen door.
Bill, the general manager, in his earnest apron, and a stranger crisply dressed and dangling a briefcase both turned to look at her. They gestured as one;  Marta followed, faint with both dread and anticipation.

The office was really just a closet, permeated with the same fried meat and onion smell as the rest of the place, unrelieved by natural light and furnished with third hand office goods. Bill leaned up against a tower of filing cabinets; the stranger, whom Marta could now identify by his name badge George Scott, District Manager sat down on the single chair and unbuttoned his cuffs.

And then Marta knew.

Because men do not roll up their sleeves to bestow gifts and honor.

The terms "disloyalty" and "trust issues" were bandied about. There was buzz of policy, presumption, perversion. Violations. Attempted theft by deception.

George assumed a stern, yet pained expression as he laid forth the simple details of the case. The customer survey logs were maintained at the head office. Phone call origins were available in case a rapid response was called for in the case of a customer complaint. Computer analysis had alerted the internal security division that an anomoly had been red flagged. Further situational forensics had determined that in all probability an ethical violation had occurred.

Marta would be given an opportunity to explain, of course, but under the doctrine of at-will employment it was perfectly permissible for the company to ask Marta to clear out her things and turn in her time card without another word. She did not have to admit that she was phoning in other people's receipt surveys from her home and giving herself rave reviews in order to snatch award money and recognition from truly hard working, deserving employees. In fact, it would be better if she left without saying anything at all. He and Bill were simply too disappointed and heart sick to continue the conversation.

As she closed the office door behind her, the conversation segued into a discussion of last night's Mets game.

The other employees watched, some with hooded eyes and vague smirks, a few with faces partly averted, as she gathered her things. There wasn't much; a jacket, a denim purse made out of a pair of cut-offs, a half-melted tube of lip balm. She had a vague wish for vengeance, for the place to burn down, for food poisoning to lay out the whole damned town and leave them puking their self-righteousness into the dust. But then, any good priest would tell her that it was her own fault. She was a little foggy on the commandments, but she was sure that pride goeth before a fall was in there and thou shalt have a bonfire of thy vanity as well as thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's...what was it...spouse? property? ass? customer service award?

She would pack up her belongings in the dusty Plymouth with more metal showing than paint and move on. There would no longer be a place for her in this town, not that there ever was one. She would go elsewhere and work harder, longer, with a bigger smile and humbler spirit.  That was the great thing about America; one could wander forever, town to town, making mistakes, and seeking redemption.  Waiting for that moment of recognition.  To be, even for a short time, a little above average.

A name, and a place, on a wall.


  1. Wow, that's a very good character study. I really relate to Marta. It makes me want to be sure to compliment my waitress the next time I go out.

  2. Great story! And I loved the little twist. I love how you can say so much with so few words. Nicely done Li.

  3. Great story! I think we all can relate to Marta and her want to be recognized. Great ending too! I think your imagination is truly remarkable and never ending. You keep coming up with the best short stories!

  4. Wonderful story which was excellently written.


  5. I wonder... You've created this great character, but since it's all through her eyes it almost seems like she's an unreliable narrator. I beleive that she'd do this. So what else would she do? Is she protesting too much? Hmm!

    I love an unreliable narrator. :) Great work.

  6. Hi all! thanks for the comments. Angela and Jen, I'll address yours because there's room for discussion.

    Thanks Angela, I tried, although it's too short to be a full character study, since we really don't know all of the details of Marta's life.You bring up a good point, Jen, about reliability/motives. It's a bit of a gray area. When do you stick to company policy, how do you balance fairness with legality, how does a feeling of alienation and/or unfairness contribute to immoral behavior.

    I guess the germ of the idea was simply the fact that customer service used to mean just that: taking care of the customer. Nowadays, some companies seem to tie employee recognition to such things as how many customers they badgered into giving up their email at the register, signed up for the ubiquitous loyalty cards, or begged to fill out those damned receipt surveys - which often have 20 questions and take forever. I try and make a personal remark to the manager or supervisor if I get great service. Sometimes they look me in the eye and thank me. Sometimes they look like zombies and just want me to go away, and I figure they won't do anything about it.
    The second point was that management just shoved her out the door without even exploring the situation. You screw up, you're out the door, goodbye. You're not a dedicated employee, maybe with issues, but a worthless automaton who can be replaced by someone off the street in an hour. Maybe a customer or two will ask after her, but probably not. She's a nobody.

    I could, of course, continue in the opposite direction and make Marta a manipulator with an agenda. That isn't what this character is telling me. (Although I do tend to pursue dark themes on occasion.)

    And now you know where I stand on some common labor practices - including "at-will" employment. ;-)

    Feel free to chime in, anyone.

  7. Hi Li! Great to see your #fridayflash. I posted my story as both #ff and #rfwer this week. Yours is a bit long for #rfwer, ha ha. Love Marta. There are a lot of Martas in the world and great to see her as a MC.


  8. It's a sad story. I really liked this line: . . . and enough wires and gadgets to make them look they were on permanent life support.

  9. The last few lines broke my heart.