Phase A – B (3)

“Why are you looking at me like that, Mister?” I said. “You know you’re not getting anything.”

He didn’t say anything.

We both just stood there for a moment: him in the lounge, me in the kitchen. Technically in two different rooms – the lounge was carpeted, the kitchen had tiles – but really the same room; the only physical delineation between the segments was the breakfast bar.

“You’re not getting anything,” I said levelly. It was hard not to smile. “You’ve already had breakfast.” He cocked his head quizzically but didn’t say anything. He wasn’t in the mood to talk today. That was fine.

After my own breakfast I checked the morning’s schedule. Today was a Phase A day. 0920: Sonic Burger in Chino. 1140: a new taco place in Diamond Bar. 1500: a warehousing facility in Oxnard. Not bad for a Tuesday – if traffic wasn’t too bad I should be able to make them all. Diamond Bar to Oxnard was nearly a two-hour drive but once I made it out of the city I should be okay. I was on the road to Chino at 0700.

0900. Sonic Burger. I went up to the front. There were three people working in the kitchen – no-one at the register.

“Good morning, miss,” I said to the nearest employee, a plain girl in her late teens who was doing something to one of the fryers. It looked deeply tedious. “I’m here for an interview. Antonio Borbon. I’m a little early,” I said. The girl gave me a pleasant smile; she was much prettier when smiled.

“Oh, great,” she said. She sounded San-Bernardino-county-raised. “I’ll just tell Meegan. Take a seat!” She said this like it was the most fun and original idea anyone had ever had: take a seat! And actually, I realised, we often didn’t appreciate enough the simple joy of sitting down. It’s like a mini-vacation you can take almost anywhere. Well, a nano-vacation. I smiled in return and sat down near the counter, facing sideways. It was very pleasant to sit down. It really was. I made sure not to catch the girl’s eye again. I didn’t want her to feel any kind of obligation to continue beaming at me.

Meegan came out after seven minutes. If you’ve seen women who manage fast food restaurants you can imagine what she looked like.

“You’re very early, Antonio,” she said by way of greeting. “I like that a lot.”

“I try my best,” I said demurely.

“Just give me five minutes and I’ll be right with you,” she said. She went back behind the counter and pottered about. Two customers came in and stood vaguely in front of the counter, standing back just far enough to make it clear they weren’t the pompous type of patron who insists on instant service. They were quite an odd pairing. Who goes to Sonic Burger for breakfast? I decided to challenge myself. I wouldn’t do anything but stare directly into space until I had counted to sixty, five times in total. It would be a discipline exercise. Just after I started the second minute the plain girl took the suspicious customers’ order. When I was on the third instance of “47” Meegan returned. We went and sat at a booth in the back. She looked briskly through my application.

“You have some great experience,” she said. “I’ll have to call your references, but this all looks in good shape,” Meegan said. “Would you like the job?” I was briefly disappointed that I wouldn’t get to test-drive a few new responses I’d been working on, but that was ridiculous; I was running a business and didn’t need to start becoming sentimental.

“Absolutely,” I said, taking her proferred hand. “When can I start?”

I was back on the road before 1000 and made it Diamond Bar in plenty of time. I think that interview went well, too.

The next morning I again woke early. By 0700 I was washed, dressed and ready to leave: I had to be at the Best Buy in Bakersfield at 0800. Mister and I chatted personably over breakfast, but he could tell I was slightly nervous. Even after all of these years. Today was a Phase B day.

“Let’s go, my friend,” I said. “Time to earn some money.”

I parked in the back, the employee lot. I was in two minds about employee parking lots. I opened the passenger door and ushered Mister out onto the tarmac before picking him up. I could feel his little heart beating against his ribs. He was nervous too. I collared a man walking past me into the building.

“Good morning!” I said. “I’m Antonio. I’m starting here today. Do you know if Clive is around at all?” I stuck out my free hand. The man belatedly grabbed it, eyes on Mister the whole time.

“Uhh… yeah. I’ll go and get him. Just stand here for a minute, okay?” He walked off briskly, turning back once to look at us. All around us employees were busily unloading goods. Years ago when I started doing this I used to feel awkward at new workplaces.

Now I couldn’t give a shit.

I felt occasional curious glances from my putative co-workers behind me. After a few more minutes waiting (I spend a lot of my time waiting for people) Clive strode across the warehouse backlot. I vaguely remembered him from my interview a few weeks previously, but I had (of course) filled in his name on my spreadsheet straight after the interview. Clive looked busy; Clive looked like he didn’t really need to be dealing with a new starter. He looked like he definitely didn’t need to be dealing with a new starter like me. And Mister.

“Good morning, Antonio,” Clive said, reaching for my hand. I awkwardly freed my own right hand from under Mister’s belly and clasped Clive’s.

“How are you, Clive?” I asked. “I’m excited to start my career here at Best Buy.”

“That’s wonderful,” he said tightly. “We’re going to get you started off straight away.” He paused for a second. “Are you… are you going to put your dog in your car?” Here we go.

“Absolutely not,” I said with a large smile. “Mister is my professionally-approved service animal. Under state and federal law I am entitled to have him with me at my place of work.” Our eyes met and after a moment his hardened; he saw what was happening. Phase B (2): deployment.

“I see,” he said, snapping into the end of my last sentence. “Antonio, you can’t bring a dog with you to work here.”

“Clive, I hate to get off to a bad start here. Mister won’t be any trouble; and legally you’re unable to discriminate against me.” Clive stood there for a second, baffled.

“Antonio, can I ask you to wait here for a moment, please?” He had retreated into a shell of formality.

“Certainly, Clive,” I said. He strode off again into the depths of the warehouse. I sat down on the low brick wall of a ramp and watched some more different groups of people going about whatever Best Buy employees do. It didn’t look like much fun.

After about ten minutes Clive came back. This was a relatively long period of time to wait for Phase B (3): kickback to begin. He was accompanied by a large, solidly built woman with colorless hair. She was clearly superior to Clive and didn’t give him a chance to introduce us. I felt somewhat hurt that the embryonic relationship between Clive and myself apparently mattered little to this woman.

“Mr Borbon,” she said. “I’m Clare Fongel, assistant manager here. Clive tells me you’re insisting on having your comfort animal with you while you work.” Her nostrils flared slightly.

“No,” I said neutrally. “That’s not correct.” Clare – or Ms Fongel, probably – looked at Clive. Her look was 70% what is this guy’s fucking deal? and 30% did you misrepresent the situation, Clive, you shithead?

“So you’re not taking the dog into work with you? Good,” she said, showily perfunctory, and began to turn away.

“Oh, I am,” I said. “Mister is my service animal. He is not a comfort animal,” I said confidently. Clare/Ms Fongel shocked me by stepping forward and shoving her face into my own. Mister cringed away from her. Less than 10% of lower-level management respond to my endeavors with physical intimidation.

“Is this some kind of fucking shakedown?” she asked quietly. She was no dummy. Profanity is observed in 46% of Phase B (3) interactions. Her tone was less aggressive than her behavior.

“Not at all,” I said gravely. “I want to work with Best Buy.” She stepped back.

“Mr Borbon, unless you’re willing to make arrangements for your dog to be elsewhere while you work, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“Under state and federal law, I have the right to work with my doctor-prescribed service animal,” I protested. This is America, Clare. I’m gonna stand up for my rights.

“Please leave,” she said, pointing redundantly towards the open warehouse door.

“My employment has been terminated?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Wonderful,” I said.

I went home and went back to bed for a few hours.

When I woke up around noon there was a voicemail for me from Hakobyan.

“Yarn Barn, nine thousand,” it said. I rang him back.

“Take it,” I said. He had known that would be what I would say; but he had to wait, legally, for my say-so to accept their offer. He would get half of the nine thousand. That was a good sum; typically most places offered around three or four thousand. The lowest ever had been fifteen hundred, but that had been back when I hadn’t known what I was doing.

I sat down and made a few calculations. I had spent eighteen minutes doing the application, and just over two hours total travelling to the location to pick up and drop off the application, attend the interview and turn up for the first day. The interview had taken twenty-two minutes and I had been there for seven minutes before being terminated. I had spent nearly thirty dollars on gasoline, too.

Just over sixteen hundred dollars an hour. Not bad at all. I had banked nearly forty thousand dollars in the last three months. It wasn’t Warren Buffett money, but it wasn’t retail associate at Best Buy money either.

Hakobyan barely bothered to take on other clients these days. I had so many pending suits, complaints and appeals that he didn’t have time. It was a lot easier, too, shaking down these businesses than preparing depositions and statements and going to court. Hakobyan wasn’t even sure that we would win any of the cases, but these huge companies were absolutely ruthless with their money: it was much, much cheaper for them to fob me off with a couple of thousand than to take on a lawsuit. We all had a mutual interest in keeping it out of the press too.

The key to it all is: Mister is a service animal. He is not a comfort animal. Legally employers cannot ask exactly what function he fulfils, which is lucky, because I’m not sure what I’d tell them. His function is mainly extorting money from big companies. I have a few rules. I don’t target mom & pop businesses. I’m obviously a shitty person, but I’m not shitty enough to prey on people who would incur direct personal losses as a result of me gaming the system. I give ten percent of everything I make – or extort – to charity. And I never place Mister in physical peril.

Almost never. Clare Fongel could have ripped his little head off if she’d wanted to. I wondered if it was time to think of another career path.

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