The young man in the starched white shirt and beige slacks raps lightly on the office cubicle wall with one hand. In his other hand he grips a clump of five-dollar bills. "Hey, Warren," he says. "Got a second?"
The slightly older, slightly stouter, slightly balder man sitting at his computer turns and smiles. "Ah," he says. "I see you've come to offer a contribution."
"Surely you know I've been trying to collect money toward furthering the work of an amateur archeologist who is hoping to undertake an expedition to the ancient city of Petra." Warren reaches into his bottom desk drawer and takes out an empty mayonnaise jar. "Just stick the money in here for now. I'll see it gets where it belongs."
The young man in the white starched shirt stiffens. "You don't get it, Warren. I'm not here to give. I'm here to get. A bunch of us are pitching in to aluminum foil Ferguson's office while he's on vacation. We figure we need twenty rolls. So how's about five bucks toward supplies?"
For a moment Warren only stares. "And this, you think, will be amusing?"
"Oh, yeah. I saw it done to a guy on TV. They wrapped up everything in foil -- his computer, his chair, his phone, even his calendar. It was hysterical."
"Since by 'hysterical' you surely are referring to Webster's definition of 'excessive or uncontrollable emotion such as panic and fear,' I would caution that this is a dangerous undertaking."
"Oh, get off it, Warren. It's just a harmless office prank."
"Harmless? That is precisely the trouble with the world in which we live. People never consider the consequences of their actions. Here, sit down and let me tell you a story about so-called harmless office pranks. When I'm finished you can decide whether you want to do something irresponsible with that money or devote it to furthering the interests of amateur scientific research."
"You're missing the point."
"The point, young man, is exactly what I'm coming to.
I was at the time (says Warren) in the employment of the E-Z Fit Solenoid Switch Company. The company was struggling against a fierce competitor, Absolutely Superior Solenoids, and the employees were under severe pressure. Antacids were routinely offered in the cafeteria lunch line, and hair loss was becoming commonplace even among female employees.
It was during such a dire period that Lawanda Purvis was hired as Assistant Manager of Packaging and Shipping. Although she flatly refused to attempt this, I was certain that Lawanda could trace her ancestry back to the giant Watusi tribe of Rwanda-Urundi. She was a woman of impressive proportions. When front to front -- I in my sensible Rockports and she in her six inch yellow platforms -- my eyes were perfectly level with the mid point of her prodigious breasts. I once overheard Rogers from Engineering, in an uncharacteristic moment of poetic imagery, compare Lawanda's figure to an over-built masonry latrine.
From the first moment I laid eyes on Lawanda I was affected by a powerful emotion. For days I was unable to eat or sleep. My every thought was of her. It was a strange, indefinable emotion, not precisely romantic love. It more closely resembled abject fear.
Our first meeting occurred in the company cafeteria. An immense shadow fell across the remains of my Garlic Cajun Prawn Paté on Foccacio. "Hey," she said, settling in beside me. "You're Warren Borman, aren't you?"
I confessed that indeed I was me.
"I've been asking around and everybody says that you're a fun guy."
"Oh, yeah. When I said, 'Who's the most fun guy at this place?' everybody said, 'Warren Borman.' All at once. It was anonymous."
"Warren, I got to be honest with you. This place is a drag. Nobody has any fun. It's like working in a freakin' morgue. How about you and me livening things up a little?"
"Actually I tend to prefer ... "
"Sure you do. Everybody likes a laugh now and then. It boosts morale, and you know what happens when morale gets boosted. Productivity goes up. And when productivity goes up, the company makes more money. Then salaries go up, and we all get to spend more money which helps the world economy. Office pranks are one of the most selfless, autistic things you can do."
Despite the confidence her face displayed in the infallibility of her logic, there were two words -- other than 'autistic' -- about which I was especially confused. "Office pranks?"
"You know that guy in charge of Product Development?"
"Yeah. A real piece of gum if there ever was one. I'm not impressed with those big shoulders. He lifts weights. So what? I've never seen him smile."
I admitted that Brewster was a person of serious demeanor.
"Gimme the name of some important paperwork he might have."
"Y'know, paperwork. Important. Name of."
I'm not at my best when put on the spot. "Perhaps a ISO 2001 Requisition for Product Component Vendor Manufacturer Recognition?"
"Oh, yeah. I can tell you're going to be good at this, Warren. Okay, so here's what you're going to do. Write Brewster a note on company letterhead telling him to send a pack of those 2001 Conglomerations to a Helen Back. Don't give him an address where to send it."
I felt a pang of sympathy for the poor woman, physically blessed though she may have been. That sort of prank might send an office of Watusis into fits of laughter, but wasn't likely to play well at the E-Z Fit Solenoid Switch Company. "I'm afraid all Brewster would have to do is call the Mail Department to get her address."
Lawanda slapped her lengthy thigh and shook with laughter. "Damn right, he will. Just think of it, Warren. He calls up and says, 'I've got a package I need to send to Helen Back.'"
"Ah," I said, beginning to wonder if personnel had acted wisely in hiring this woman.
"Get it, Warren? Helen Back? Hell and back?"
Fortunately, my quick wit rescued me. "I see. It's a play on words."
"What an idiot he'll look like! Once it gets around, this whole place will be rolling in the aisles and you'll be a hero, Warren."
"One small step for Warren. giant leap for the company. So how about it?" And with that she leaned so close I had to jerk my head to avoid receiving a blow from her hoop earrings. "Don't let Lawanda down," she whispered.
I couldn't tell if that was a plea or a threat.
Despite Lawanda's invulnerable confidence, office morale was unchanged the day following our prank. I noticed no one in the aisles, rolling or otherwise. In fact, the only thing different was a pink memo note on my desk when I returned from lunch. It said I missed a call from a Mr. Baer and should return it call immediately. So I did.
"I wish to speak to Mr. Baer," I said when the line was answered.
"I'm sorry, he's asleep."
"Asleep?" I was astonished. It was 1:15 p.m. "When do you expect him to be available?"
"Spring," said the young woman. "He's hibernating. So is Mr. Beaver, but I could let you speak to Mr. Buck. He's a real deer."
"Who is this?" I demanded.
"This is the Director of the Mammal House at the City Zoo. Who do you think it is?"
I was unable to answer her question as there arose a cacophony of laughter from the office next to mine. There were about twenty assorted co-workers crowded around a speakerphone. In the center of the group was Brewster -- the only person not laughing.
"Hey, there's Warren. Whatd'ya know?"
I took this as a rhetorical question, as it required far too much time to answer fully, especially in the break room.
Lawanda dropped several coins into a vending machine and pulled the lever with enough force to dislodge each of the thousands of empty calories within. "I heard everybody got a kick out of your call to Mr. Bear yesterday."
I straightened myself up in the chair. "The name was spelled ... "
"Yeah, sure it was. Anyway, you're doing a great job, Warren. This company is going to owe you big. I wouldn't be surprised if Management isn't already taking notice of what you're doing for them."
"Yes, but ... "
"I got something even better. If you thought Helen Back was funny ... "
"Well, actually, I ... "
" ... this is going to be damn hilarious. You know how Brewster always wears white pants?"
"I believe the Testing Lab requires ... "
"Ask him to come to your office after lunch. Tell him you want to apologize for the Helen Back stunt. Meanwhile you borrow one of those black chairs from the conference room. Before he gets there you lace the back and seat of the chair with this."
She took a fast glance around the room and extracted from her purse a rectangular plastic bottle. "Toner from the copier," she whispered. "It'll be totally invisible on the chair. Get him to sit down, and when he gets up he'll have black all over his pants and shirt."
I waited patiently for her to continue.
"Don't you get it?" she said finally.
I admitted she had me at a disadvantage.
"He'll get a big laugh out of it."
"But won't that be expensive for him to have cleaned?"
"That's the humor in it, Warren. See? He's got white pants. He sits down, gets up, and suddenly they're black. He might not even know it for a while until somebody says, 'Brewster, your pants and shirt are all black on the back.' Then everybody will laugh."
"Sure. I guarantee it. Laugh their heads off. I just hope somebody from Management is there when it happens so they can see how morale has gone up."
"Won't Brewster be angry?"
"Nah. He'll be glad to find out it won't crack his face if he smiles. I guarantee that he'll be a better, happier Brewster because of it. Trust me, Warren."
And such was the power she held over me that I did. I sent Brewster a message saying I wished to see him immediately. He wasn't particularly pleased I interrupted his preparations for Quality Assurance testing and made him walk across the plant merely to accept an apology I could have given him over the phone. When he rose from the chair, abrupt and annoyed, his backside was covered in black toner.
I spent the rest of the day examining the incident from every angle, trying to discern the humorous element. I gave up in failure.
When I arrived at work the next morning I found my keyboard, mouse, and phone encased in molded strawberry Jello.
"That's pretty careless of you, Warren, " said Francis in Supply and Purchasing when I submitted my requisition. "You know you're not supposed to have food in your office. We'll have to dock your pay for the replacements."
"Somebody was playing a joke on me," I explained.
"Oh, yeah? Well, I hope whoever did it gets $187.25 worth of laughs out of it because that's what it's going to cost you."
"I didn't think Brewster had it in him," Lawanda said when she finished laughing. "This is turning out great. Better than I even expected. This isn't such a cesspool of a place to work after all. Wait 'til you hear what we're going to do next.
"You know Bobby Pruett?"
Of course everyone knew Bobby Pruett -- perhaps not in person, but certainly by reputation. He was at the time the second most popular driver in the FASTCAR racing circuit. Management had signed a contract to sponsor his racecar in exchange for Pruett's endorsement of their products. It was E-Z Fit Solenoid Switches' only hope of competing with Absolutely Superior Solenoids. Their competitor already had the endorsement of the reigning FASTCAR champion.
"You know the company's putting on a big hoo-ha for him at lunch tomorrow," she said. "The press and everything. But guess who's going to be sitting at Pruett's table? That gumdrop Brewster. So here's what we're going to do." Her voice took on that now-familiar conspiratorial tone. "Every hear of something called a Bag-o-Fart?"
I was forced to admit that my life experience, however varied and deep, did not include knowledge of such an item.
"It's just a little thingamabob you stick under somebody's chair and when they sit down, you punch a button on a remote and it blasts this pppf-f-f-f-f sound and shoots out a smell like whodunit and died. It's funny beyond anything you ever thought was funny. I just happen to have one in my car.
Settling into a seat that would afford me the fastest exit from the company lunchroom, I watched Bobby Pruett take questions from the few members of the media desperate enough to become pawns of such a painfully obvious marketing ploy. Bobby struck me as the type of young man who, lacking any useful skills, settled for driving a car in circles very quickly. I'm sure that if World Peace depended on someone moving a car a mile in 30 seconds, Bobby Pruett would have been a genuine hero. As it was, he was simply a youngster with a low-grade education, a colorful jacket, and an unintelligible accent.
From context alone I was able to surmise that he was proud to drive a car equipped with E-Z Fit Solenoid Switches -- a fact not surprising since the company was paying him a great deal of money to say so. When asked exactly why E-Z Fit Solenoid Switches were better than, say, their competitor's, Bobby shifted his tobacco from cheek to cheek, spat indiscreetly into a glass, and indicated that the question would be answered by someone who actually knew why. That someone was Brewster.
One might expect a fellow with a chest as broad as Brewster's to speak with a commanding voice, but likely years of working in close laboratory quarters had turned him into a mumbler of the highest order. He cleared his throat about two dozen times, and the lady from Transmission Times had to ask him to repeat himself at regular fifteen second intervals.
Brewster was apparently proud of something he liked to call the EZSS-2100-M, a product I knew had accrued hundreds of dollars in development cost overruns. He went on about its reliability and so forth and so on and how it could beat the pants off Absolutely Superior Solenoid's ASS-2000-P, the leading product of our competitor.
When the sporadic applause roused me from my near-stupor, I slipped my hand into the pocket where resided the Bag o' Fart Remote Control. As Brewster made contact with his chair, I pressed the switch.
I have to admit that if there was one flaw with this product, it was that it produced a sound slightly too loud to be plausible. And, with everyone's hearing strained to hear Brewster mumble, the noise was almost deafening. First there was a painfully awkward silence, followed by a small ripple of laughter as Brewster's face reddened, then a collective guffaw as Bobby Pruett waved his napkin in front of his face and raced from the room. The young man couldn't have moved faster had he been in his car.
Two days later I received a memo demanding my presence before Mr. Farquar, the senior vice president. I had never met him but had been extremely curious ever since hearing from a co-worker that the gentleman had a wooden object lodged in his rectum. However, he betrayed no sign of this disability when I entered his office.
"So, you're a funny guy, Borman."
Hearing this for the second time in a week, I was still surprised, even more so that my reputation had reached Upper Management. I assumed that Lawanda's prediction had come true, that Mr. Farquar wanted to commend me for boosting company morale. Perhaps, I thought, a raise might be in the offing.
"Thank you, sir," I said. "But in all modesty ... "
"Well, I fail to see the humor in this." He held up a piece of paper on which there was a photograph of two people in a pose primarily focused on their reproductive anatomy. One of the subject's faces had been crudely replaced with that of Mr. Farquar. Underneath the photo was written: IF YOU WANT TO SEE MORE OF THESE, COME TO WARREN BORMAN'S OFFICE AT 4:55 TODAY.
"What do you have to say, Borman?"
I studied the paper. "If I may say so, sir, I wouldn't show this to too many people. Even though the photo manipulation is rather primitive, it might cause embarrassment."
"Show it to too many people? Would you consider every employee in the cafeteria to be too many people?"
I was having trouble understanding why he would ask such a question. "It would depend on the time of day, I imagine," I said. "And, as flattered as I am, I would prefer not to use my office to display your pictures. The space is far too small."
Mr. Farquar's face flushed a color red I had never seen before in a Caucasian. "My pictures?" he sputtered. "This is not my picture. This is a despicable, filthy assault on the moral tone of our working environment, not to mention my personal decency. I intend not only to fire you, Borman, but prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law."
It began to dawn on me that a misunderstanding might have arisen. "I think I see what has happened, Mr. Farquar. Someone in a roguish mood has played a joke on the both of us."
"And why would someone want to do that?"
"Office pranks are one of the most selfless, autistic -- I mean altruistic -- things you can do, sir." I outlined a sequence of events beginning with an embarrassing photo of the company vice president and ending with unlimited economic growth for the entire human race.
"Hogwash," he said. "I'll buy your excuse for now, Borman, but only because I doubt you posses the imagination and gumption to pull off a stunt of this magnitude. But remember," and so saying he thrust a finger at my nose, "I won't forget this."
Neither did the sixty-seven employees who came to my office at 4:55 that afternoon.
"This joint is jumpin' now," Lawanda said, wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes with my cafeteria napkin. "Can't you just feel the ess-spirit de corpse this company's got?"
I was forced to confess in the negative.
"We got to do something big now, Warren. Something really hilarious. Some giant boot to morale. Hey, I got it." She wrapped her arm around me, dragging my chair toward hers until there was a collision of plastic. "What's the funniest thing you can think of happening to Brewster?"
I considered the matter briefly. "Perhaps we could compose a droll limerick? The possibility of rhyming 'Brewster' with 'rooster' presents several humorous possibilities."
"Hmmm. Good idea, Warren. Let's save it for when we really want to get crazy. For now, I was thinking more like replacing Brewster's prize prototype with a defective one. Think of how funny it will be when he sends it off for quality testing and it fails. Get it, Warren? It fails?" The fact that it was a full thirty seconds before I could interrupt her laughter bespoke how superlatively humorous she considered her idea.
"It seems to me," I finally said, "however comical the results, it would work against the best interests of the company. After all ... "
"Warren!" The woman's turquoise painted eyelids rose with incredulity. "You can't be serious? What do you think serves the interests of the company best? Us being stiff-faced sour-pushes or everybody getting down and working their damn hardest because they've just laughed their freakin' heads off? I guarantee you on this one, babe. When Brewster finds out we've replaced his latest model with one of the rejected ones, he'll think it's the cleverest thing we've done yet."
"Sure, we. We're in this together, you and me. Come to Momma, Baby." With that, she pulled my head between the Himalayas of her chest to the point my breathing apparatus was attenuated. My final thought, as I lost consciousness, was to beg Dr. Freud for forgiveness.
The plan, as Lawanda explained it, placed the bulk of the burden on her. As Assistant Manager of Packaging and Shipping, she would exchange Brewster's EZSS-2100-M solenoid prototype with one of the identical defective beta models and ship it to the Quality Testing lab. The only small, simple step I needed to take was wait until the night watchman had completed his rounds at 2:30 am, drive my car up to the plant with my headlights off, mount the fence, cut the barbed wire in a manner that would not be noticed the next morning, locate the correct dumpster and search through it for a disposed model using an infra-red flashlight and night-vision goggles. Nothing, she promised, could be simpler.
So it is no wonder I chafed considerably when, a few days after I had endured the most physically and emotionally challenging night spent by any mid-level account, a notice was placed on the company bulletin board congratulating Brewster for passing the EZSS-2100-M solenoid with flying colors. For this -- completely overlooking his exorbitant cost overruns -- Brewster was rewarded with a two-week vacation to Bermuda and the company medallion, an embossed tin item that, according to most safety standards, should have required a warning label against possible toddler swallowing.
"Lawanda," I said after corralling her for a discreet moment as she left the building that evening. "I thought ... "
She shrugged. "You got me by the sneakers, Warren. Guess I must have got the packages mixed up instead of the other way round. These things happen. Just forget it."
Her nonchalance was astounding. "But what about the joke? What about company morale?"
She stopped walking long enough to examine her ornate fingernails. "Well, to be honest with you, Warren, Brewster's already split the scene, and I think this company's morale is too far gone to be savaged. Well, I got to make tracks. See ya' round the water cooler."
For a moment I watched her sashay toward the parking lot. Then, gathering my wits I started after her, eager for an explanation. Unfortunately, a barbed wire scrape running from my left underarm to the inside of my right thigh prevented me from making any sudden moves. I remained still until she drove out of sight and then went to the drug store to buy more Bactine.
It wasn't Lawanda's error that kept my own morale so low. Even I -- should I have cared to examine my life -- could likely have discovered that I had made a mistake somewhere along the way. It was the fact that Lawanda seemed to have let her blunder derail her noble effort to save the human race. She seemed to have no more ideas for side-splitting practical jokes. A suggestion of crushed garlic inserted in the mouthpiece of Brewster's telephone was unable to even raise an edge of her heavily lipsticked mouth. The fire was gone.
I spent the most of the following weekend in bed, the shades drawn against the sun. I brooded on the pessimistic outlook for the nation's economy, but largely on Lawanda's transformation from a woman of invincible self-confidence and humor into a somber, hollow shell of her former self.
It was in such a despondent and distracted mood that I listlessly turned through the Sunday paper. My listlessness came to an abrupt end when a banner headline caught my eye:
PRUETT ELIMINATED FROM GROUNDHOG DAY 200 IN THIRD LAP
MECHANICS BLAME A DEFECTIVE SOLENIOD
The young man in the starched white shirt and beige slacks leans forward in his chair. "No! Don't tell me. That bitch sent the bad part to the FASTCAR guy instead of the testing lab!"
"Despite your request," says Warren, "that is indeed what I must tell you. Once the source of the trouble was determined to be the EZSS-2100 solenoid, the E-Z Fit Solenoid Switch company was finished. No one cared to notice that the part in question was the EZSS-2100-F, a discarded effort, and not the Quality Tested version EZSS-2100-M. Monday morning we were all handed pink slips."
"And the woman?"
"She came into my office accompanied by a diminutive man in a three-piece suit whom she introduced as her husband. Apparently her ring had been left for cleaning for an extended period of time."
"She was married the whole time?"
"Mr. Charles Purvis, the father of her six children, was an executive. A financial officer, in fact."
"No! Not with the ... "
"Once again I must tell the truth in spite of your plea. He was, indeed, the chief financial strategist for Absolutely Superior Solenoids, the firm that purchased the controlling interest in EZ-Fit Solenoid Switches when the failed company's stock reached five cents a share."
"Damn! What did the woman have to say for herself?"
A slight smile creeps over Warren's face. "Not one word regarding our escapades passed between us. It was only on receiving my severance pay that I felt a sense of, shall we say, closure."
"So she let them sack you anyway. The bitch!"
Warren once again picks up the empty mayonnaise jar. "I would hardly use such a pejorative term. Included with my severance was an extremely generous bonus from the newly acquired company. It was so generous, in fact, that I had the freedom to take several university classes in amateur archeology. Now, are your ready to abandon your dangerous schemes for playing pranks and instead donate that cash to a worthy cause?"
The young man in the starched white shirt and beige slacks stands suddenly. "Hell, no, Warren. That whole story was the biggest pile of bullshit this side of the Mississippi. They don't even use solenoids in cars for stock car racing. If you don't want to join in on the fun, too bad, but I'm not giving you one cent. We'll see who gets the last laugh."
With that the young man turns and storms out of Warren's cubicle, unaware of the large black toner stain on his backside.