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June 20, 2022

Pipe Dreams

By Kellie Gillespie

This article was not published in the Piker Press.

It all starts the day Mario brings his radio to work. He sets it up in the little alcove under the window by his desk and turns it to an FM station that plays what he calls "New Orleans." He doesn't know why he calls it that, but the other artists start to kid him about it. They tell him it's called jazz, not just "New Orleans," but Mario pretends he can't hear them. "What's that?" he says real loud. "I can't hear you. My New Orleans is on." The guys just laugh because they don't know Mario too well. If they knew him better, they would know that he calls it "New Orleans" just to tease them. He has worked there for over ten years, but some of them have just started and don't know how much he would like to joke around with them.

Whenever Debra, the owner's wife, comes into the shop, all the artists begin humming so she can't hear Mario's radio. She has a passion regarding radios. It is rumored that if she hears one playing, she'll storm over to the offending radio player and demand that it be turned off. The rumor continues with Debra allegedly pulling out plugs and flinging radios all over the place, but no one has actually seen this occur. She did tell one worker, however, that if he continued to wear his headphones and could not hear her when she called him, he would be fired. Because of this, it is usually very quiet in the shop, including the artists' room. It is usually so quiet that the artists welcome Mario's radio, no matter what it plays, and each has decided, without discussing it with the others, that he will hide it from Debra's supposed hatred of music.

Mario has heard about Debra's animosity toward radios, but he doesn't really care. He usually cares about his job, but after a certain amount of time the injustice one has to endure to remain employed becomes overwhelming. After such a long time, Mario sometimes forgets the tins of cookies at Christmas and the paid vacation time. Sometimes all he remembers are the arguments over artistic quality, the mounting tension when deadlines are unreasonable, the snide comments when he comes in late on a rainy day.

Mario is getting older and wiser, though, and he knows that what he has to endure is not uncommon, and in fact, a lot easier than what other people have to go through to keep their jobs. So he usually swallows the words that are struggling to escape his mouth and nods. Mario nods a lot. The other artists respect Mario greatly, but they call him Noddy. They do this behind his back, of course. That's probably what makes them want to protect him and his radio. "He's old," they say to themselves. "His pride is almost gone. Let him keep this one thing." Mario doesn't even think they know what his name is. No one does much talking in the artists' room.

Debra is the bookkeeper for the company. She pays all the bills the company incurs and she also keeps the records on all the property she owns. All the houses around the plant are owned by the company, or by Debra, no one knows which. Some of the houses are okay, even if they are a little rundown. But the little apartments behind the plant are small and dirty with old furniture and beer cans scattered around them. A family with two children lives in one of the apartments. At Christmas time the woman tries to cheer it up by stringing a little strand of lights over some nails on the front door. She puts soap on the little panes of glass, too, so that it appears to be warm and cozy inside. Mario always wonders what she thinks about all the workers who pass by her house and stare in the windows. He thinks that if he were her, he would resent all of them. But if he were her, he thinks, he would hate Debra most of all.

Next to the woman and her children lives an old man from Russia. He lives with a woman that no one ever sees except Anna, office manager, and this is only because Anna comes to work very early in the mornings. She tells the rest of the office girls about her. "The morning she was wearing a royal blue miniskirt with a sequined turtleneck," Anna says. "And her boots were shiny black with heels like this." And her fingers measure for them.

They are all very curious about the woman who lives with that old man. They all wonder if she is the old man's daughter, or just some floozy he picked up. They suspect they know what she does for a living. The old Russian is an alcoholic and doesn't have a job. Once he came into Debra's office when he broke his key off in his door lock. It cost Debra eighty dollars to fix the doorjamb and put in a new lock. Everybody knew how much it cost, because she told the old man very loudly what she thought about that. She told him that next time something like that happened, he would be paying for it. The old man nodded slowly. "Yes, Debra," he said. When the news of that event reached Mario, he wasn't surprised. It had happened before, one way or another.

Mario thinks about those dirty, dark apartments every time he turns on his radio. He sits at his drawing table laying out ads for a car company or a clothing store, or a menu for a restaurant, and he doesn't care if Debra hears his radio or not. But it isn't the kind of not caring that is spread around defiantly, the way some people try to pick a fight. He's not on a crusade about workers' rights and radio playing. He's not even aware that the other artists begin humming whenever Debra comes into the room. The workers in the plant begin to talk about Mario and his radio, too, but he doesn't know that. He doesn't seem to care that the whole plant is interested in him and his radio. The artists make an attempt at explaining his behavior by spreading it around that he is getting hard of hearing. "From his years on the press," they say whenever anyone asks.

Pretty soon Mario's radio begins to get even louder. The artists have to hum and talk louder and louder when they hear Debra walking up the stairs. But they never actually see Mario turn it up even though they watch him all the time. They start to kid him more about it. They tell him that his New Orleans is starting to sound pretty good. "Hey, Mario," they say to him, louder than they used to. "Can you speak French? How about bringing in some of that gumbo one of these days?" Mario just smiles at them. He is glad they are joking with him now. For ten years, nobody said much to him at all, not even a "good morning." When all the artists are joking and laughing, he almost likes his job. It makes him feel good when that happens.

One day Debra hears some of the office girls talking about Mario and his radio. When they see that she's listening to them, they stop talking, and that makes Debra suspicious. She tells the shop foreman to come into her office. Jim hates it when she does that. He hates having to snitch on good employees, but what else can he do? He just started there about six months ago, and he knows that Debra will be around a lot longer than he will. But just the same, he hates Debra for making him do this. She asks about the radio. He tells her that he has seen a radio in Mario's window alcove, but that he has never heard it playing. He figures a little white lie is the least he can do. Then he gets up the nerve to do a dangerous thing. He asks her if radios are against company policy. This is dangerous because Debra has never publicly made a rule about radios playing in the plant.

Jim and Debra look at each other warily. If Debra says that no radios are allowed in the plant, then Jim will have to enforce the rule. However, if Debra refrains from making a rule, the plant workers will see that radios are allowed, and they all will want to bring radios to work. Debra hates to think about all that time wasted listening to music when her employees should be paying attention to their binding, or their proofreading, or their artwork. She can't stand to think of all that lost productivity, which means less profit for the business. She tells Jim that radios will not be permitted in the plant and that if anyone persists in playing one, she will be forced to terminate that employee. "Make sure you tell them that they are here to work, not to listen to music," she says. Jim has mixed feelings as he leaves her office. Hard and fast rules are easier to enforce, but he wishes he wasn't the one who had to do it.

Mario is working quietly when Jim walks over to his desk. By now the radio has become quite loud and Jim winces when he hears it. But he is sure that Mario will cause no problems when he realizes that radios are now against the rules. He is sure that Mario will turn his radio off. Mario is one worker who believes in following the rules, and, in fact, has always obeyed them perfectly. Mario smiles when he sees Jim walk in. He assumes Jim is going to give him some instructions about the job he is working on, and he always welcomes a technical discussion. When Jim tells him about Debra's new rule, however, Mario doesn't say a word. In fact, his face becomes quite blank. This might have worried someone else, but Jim is accustomed to Mario showing little emotion on his face. In the plant, blank expressions are a form of self-protection. So Jim thinks that Mario's lack of reaction is a good sign, and that he will comply with the new rule. He leaves the artist's workroom, confident that he has done his job about as well as anyone could expect. Better, even.

The other artists watch Mario to see if he will turn the radio off. They watch him closely, because they are quite unsure what he will do. But Mario goes back to work as if Jim had never talked to him. He is acting as if nothing happened, and this puzzles the other artists. Mario is a great one to follow the rules, probably the best employee around when it comes to not making telephone calls on company time or punching out for breaks. Mario is quite aware that the other artists are waiting to see what he is going to do. He wishes that he didn't have any audience, but in a way, it will make things easier. Because now he knows what he is going to do, what he really intended doing all along only he didn't know it until now. He turns the radio up.

When the news reaches Debra that Mario is not only still playing the radio, but he has turned the volume so loud that even her husband over in the main office can hear it, she also knows what she has to do. She leaves her office, slamming the door behind her so loud that the filing girls look at each other with foreboding. One of them calls over to Jan the receptionist to see if she knows what is going on. Jan says she doesn't, but she can report that a very angry Debra stomped past her desk on her way to the artists' room.

When Debra reaches the artists' room, however, she is surprised to find that Mario is not there. Nor is his radio. The other artists are bent over their desks, seemingly hard at work, but Mario's chair is empty. Debra stands in the middle of the floor, unsure of herself and extremely nervous for some reason. It is very quiet in the plant. Everyone is listening for something, although no one could say what exactly they are listening for. It is so quiet in the plant that when the first strains of music come floating ever so softly down from the roof of the plant, everyone hears it. And everyone smiles, on the inside, of course, because everyone knows that Mario is on the roof. He's up there playing his New Orleans.

Debra flies out of the artists' room and down the stairs, but she is thinking hard about what to do. Mario is a good employee. He always follows the rules. Something must be going on with his home life, she thinks. Or maybe he has started drinking again. She goes outside the plant and finds Jim there, looking up at the sky. He gives her a grim nod. He is wishing he had stood up to Debra and defended the right of employees to listen to music while at work, then maybe Mario would not be in this trouble. He decides to do something.

"Mario," he yells. There is no answer. Only the sweet sounds of Jelly Roll Morton can be heard. Jim looks at Debra. Her jaw is set and he can see by her face that Mario had better stop now or he'll get fired. He shouts for Mario again. When there is no response except for the music, Debra speaks up.

"What's his problem?" she asks Jim. Jim shrugs his shoulders. He thinks he knows but he's not going to be the one to explain to Debra that Mario is just burnt out. Or maybe he needs a vacation. But he decides to say nothing. Let her figure it out for herself. Debra cups her hands around her mouth and calls for Mario. "Mario, I need you," she shouts. "This is Debra. Come down now, please." Mario's answer is to turn up the volume of the radio. Several of the pressmen begin to wander out into the driveway. Debra sees them standing in the sunlight and stamps her foot at them. "Who are you looking at?" she says to them. "Get back to work." They don't move, looking at Jim for approval. He looks away instead of saying anything, and the men stay.

Noises from the roof distract those down below. When Mario's head appears, they all look up at him. The radio is in his arms. He is cradling it like a baby. Its volume is turned down now.

"Yes?" he says. He looks down at them and smiles. Debra and Jim exchange worried glances. Mario sits down carefully on the edge of the roof and makes himself comfortable. He notices they are still watching him. "Yes?" he asks again.

By this time the bindery girls and the other artists have joined the crowd watching Debra and Mario. Debra's silence is making them all uneasy. They shift on their feet and watch each other, not daring to make a noise. But they can't help noticing the flickers of smiles on each other's faces. Mario is really getting her goat, they think. They want to see that. They stay and watch, but they already know the outcome to this little scene: Mario will be fired. It's the only thing to do in a situation like this, they know, but they still hope they will see Debra lose control. Debra's temper is a famous thing.

Mario still cradles the radio in his arms. He is a little ashamed that he enjoys the look on Debra's face so much. He hopes she will ask him why he is behaving so erratically, or at least ask what he wants, but he knows that life is not made up of chances like that. And he doubts that she would understand anyway. He wants to stand up and tell her about the Russian man and his daughter and the woman with two little kids who puts soap on her windows at Christmas time. He wants to tell her about coming to work day after day and going home at night with only a paycheck to show for it. He wants to tell her about being glad for the money and then hating yourself for feeling glad. But the words won't come. So he reaches over and turns up the radio. Nothing can say what he wants to say like his New Orleans music can.

As Debra and Jim listen to the music, more workers wander out to see what is going on. Debra doesn't know what to do. She can hear the music and she can see Mario on the roof, but she thinks that this must be a dream. This cannot be happening to her. Mario is a good worker. He has always been dependable and trustworthy. She cannot figure out why he is doing this to her, why is he making her life so difficult. "Mario," she calls to him. "What is going on? Have you been drinking?" The employees get a good laugh out of that one. "Maybe it's LSD," one of them whispers, and they all try to stifle their giggles so Debra won't hear.

Debra feels helpless and unsure, feelings she is unaccustomed to having. She is afraid that all this noise and commotion will bring her husband outside to see what the problem is. Her husband has been talking about hiring someone else to keep the books, and this unpleasantness will only give him an excuse to make her stay home. She doesn't want to stay home. Not only will she be terribly bored staying home all day, but she doesn't really want anyone else dealing with her money. She just doesn't trust anyone else to do it right. She looks at Jim, who is busy studying the ground. What a useless man he turned out to be. Well, she would deal with Jim later. Right now she had to get Mario off that roof.

"Mario," she says in a loud but controlled voice. "Mario, why don't you come down and let's talk about whatever is bother you. If you have a problem or concern, we can do something about it, okay?" Mario is looking down at the radio and doesn't answer. "Is it your salary?" Debra asks. Mario raises his head and looks right at Debra, but says nothing.

"Is there a problem at home?"

Mario just stares at Debra. She thinks for a moment.

"Is it the radio?" she asks. "If it's the radio, we can talk about it. If you feel this strongly about it, then maybe we can set up some rules for your radio. Lower volume and certain stations, something along that line."

The employees are buzzing about this compromise, but Mario says nothing. Then he extends his arms straight out in front of him, radio held high. As the people below watch in disbelief, his hands fly apart and the radio falls down, far down, to smash into bits on the pavement. One of the artists tries to run over and catch it, stops and looks up at Mario with a question on his face. Finding no answer there, he turns away in disgust.

"Come on," he tells the other artists. "Noddy's just plain crazy. I hope he gets fired." The other artists follow him into the shop. One of them notices Mario watching them and shrugs his shoulders.

Mario shouts after them, "You didn't listen, did you?" He looks down at the group below. "None of you did." The workers start to walk back into the shop and Mario nods. He understands now. There will be no talking, no compromising, no agreements. For them, it was only about the radio. He looks down at Debra.

"I'm coming down now," he says to her. "I'm done."

Now it's Debra's turn to say nothing. She waits until Mario disappears from sight and then motions to Jim to come stand by her.

"Fire him," she tells Jim. "And then come to my office. We need to talk."

Jim nods and goes to find Mario.

Article © Kellie Gillespie. All rights reserved.
Published on 0000-00-00
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