Conventional Wisdom

by Zeke Jarvis

By the time I started my job as a rental scapegoat, the firm I went through was surprisingly well developed. The guys who were already there acted as though it was a totally established industry, and one of them even had business cards, though he got made fun of by most of the others for that. The guys gave me a lot of advice, but most of it was either common sense or stuff that you couldn't really get until you were in the moment. Some of it was good, I guess. They told me that you go right in and don't ask what to do, you just start doing it. That turned out to be true. If you start out being polite, you can't do what you need to do.

For my first assignment, I listened to their advice. I went out to the guy's house and went right in when he opened the door. It caught him off guard, which was good for me. He seemed like an okay guy, late thirties, I'd guess, slim and bearded. I tried not to look at him too much at first. They told me that I definitely shouldn't make eye contact, and that made sense, though you get over that as you go on. Some douche has enough money to pay you to get yelled at, and you don't care about them one way or the other whether you make eye contact or not. But you can't get that perspective on your first go. You're still thinking about what you're doing is the problem, I think.

The guy's house was all right. I couldn't tell if it was one or two bedrooms. Maybe the kind of house that would be listed as two bedrooms, but where he'd use one as an office area. When I stepped in, I looked around and nodded. He had different movie posters in decent but not really nice frames. They were good movies but not anything all that impressive. I spit on the floor. "Nice," I said, "you decorated an entire house without using your imagination."

He looked at me, his hands on his hips. "So we're starting?"

I could tell it was a question, so I made a point to not answer. That wasn't something they'd told me, but it wasn't hard to figure out. I looked at my options. There was a hall with three doors on it, and then a door to a kitchen. I wasn't sure that I was up to doing things in somebody's bedroom quite yet, so I went into the kitchen. The countertops had slight stains, but nothing out of the ordinary for a bachelor. We had to know the status of our clients so that, when we went, we didn't run into trouble, and, if there was a child or spouse with an issue or disability, we knew whether that was within the bounds or not. One of the guys said that he once pissed in some kid's wheelchair, but nobody would say that that was true, though they didn't say it wasn't either.

I went to one of the cupboards and opened it up. There were four boxes of cereal and a lot of cans. I listened carefully for a second, to make sure that I heard the guy's footsteps, but I didn't look back. That was another good piece of advice that the other guys gave: the less you pay attention to the client, the angrier they'll get as you screw with them. So, when I was sure that he was there, I started tossing the cans from the cabinet onto the floor. I figured that I was leaving dents in the floor, though I wasn't sure, because I didn't want to look. It would've been unprofessional, I guess. I looked at one of the cans. "Beans. No shit." I turned towards him and held the can up. "Bachelor, I'm guessing?"

He shrugged. I felt a little bad, but for some reason, my own struggles with women made it that much easier for me to go after other guys for their struggles. When he didn't actually answer, I held the can up higher, then dropped it on the floor. "You can't get a date."

He shook his head and laughed. "You think you can read me. You think you're smart."

I shut the cabinet that I'd been pulling cans out of. "I don't have to be smart to read you."

I walked over to his kitchen sink, tossed a towel into the drain, and turned the water on as fast as it would go. I turned towards him and leaned back on the counter, watching his reaction. He stared for a second, not registering what I had done. When he did, he took a couple of steps towards me and then stopped. "Hey, come on," he said.

I smiled at him. "You suck, dickhead," I said.

He leaned his head to one side, maybe trying to see how fast the sink was filling. I tried not to move, not even blinking. He frowned a little, then tried to come in on the side. He managed to turn one of the sink's knobs most of the way off, but I flicked his nose and he pulled back. He reached to try for the other knob, and I squatted quickly. Even though I didn't really move towards him, he still stepped back. I pointed at him and laughed. Another thing that the other guys had told me was that the more simple the antagonism, the more safe the client feels in getting angry. After I laughed, he said, "Come on," again. I made the jerk-off motion to him and leaned back against the counter. I could tell by the sound of the water that it was almost about to spill over. "Motherfucker," he said.

I held up my hands. "Okay, okay," I said. I turned off the water, reached into the sink and pulled the towel out. "Here," I said. He relaxed a bit, and I threw it at him. It left a small spray of water on the kitchen floor and a big, dark splotch on his shirt. He stomped. "Motherfucker," he said.

I looked at my hands, then picked at my fingernails a little. "You have a pretty limited vocabulary," I said.

"You're not so great," he said. His hands were fisted, but I couldn't tell if he was really pissed off or if he was just playing the game. I shrugged. I went back to the cabinets. This time, I went through a few of them until I found the glasses. I took a bunch of them out, spitting in each one and then setting them down on the counter.

"God damn it," he said.

"Nice," I said. "You're bringing in a little variety." I then sighed and went to the refrigerator. "Your life sucks," I said. "Why don't you fix it?"

He started picking up the cans. "Why don't you fuck your mother?"

I looked back from the fridge. "Hey, a fourteen-year-old called. He wants his insult back."

He crossed his arms and nodded. It made him look effeminate. I decided not to call him on it, though. The point wasn't to hurt people, but you had to not hurt them in a way where they didn't get it. Like playing a board game with a kid. "So," I said, "Are you always this witty, or you had to save that shit up?"

He put his arms down by his side, then crossed them again. "You're not very good at this," he said.

I laughed. It made me wonder if he could tell that it was my first time. I supposed that he wouldn't have anything to compare it against. I laughed for real, because I wondered if I actually looked professional. "Tell me," I said.

He looked me up and down, like how you might a girl that you were trying to check out without her noticing. "What?" he asked.

I shook my head. "What?" I said. It was an old move, the kind of thing that I would've done even in grade school, but it was simple, like they'd said. His face did this kind of gymnastics where he kept making different expressions like he was showing poses to some judge. I tried to think "Russian".

It seemed to work, because he said, "You fucking asked." He stopped, then, probably figuring out that he'd left the door open for me. It was weird to watch him. Somehow, my success and his failure and his pleasure were all so intertwined that he had to perform hard and want me to win at the same time. It made me feel bad either way. But I'm not about to lie. I'm not going to say that my life was so hard. It beats Kmart, and it beats Burger King. I knew that I'd rather be in this guy's home, tossing cans onto the floor. That's what I kept thinking. And that seemed to work. "What?" I asked again, laughing just a little at him.

It looked like the guy was starting to tear up. His eyes were red and glossy. "Why is this happening?" he asked.

My first impulse was to tell him that it was because he'd paid me, but I recognized that that's not what he was asking about. When I figured that out, it seemed like the other guys might have given me some advice about something like this, but I couldn't remember it exactly. It had probably sounded stupid to me at the time. The only thing that I could think of was them saying something about how you'd know what to do when the time came or you wouldn't. I looked at him, and, for a few seconds, I froze. The thing about this job was that you could play just about anything off in just about any way. If I seemed like I didn't care, that was okay. If I seemed like I was angry, that was okay. If I seemed like I was having a good time, that was okay. But what that did was to put me in a position where I had too many possibilities. I knew I should do something, but I hadn't quite picked up on what yet. It reminded me of flirting.

So, I knelt down in front of him, I looked up on his eyes, and I asked, "Is it because you suck?"

He looked at me for a few seconds before slapping me. It actually felt all right. I knew I had it coming, even though he'd paid me for this, and it made me feel better about things. I'm not Catholic, and I've never even tried S&M, but with this kind of job, it was hard not to feel a real sense of self loathing. At least at Kmart, you could feel like the universe had crapped on you already and your worst days were here rather than wondering when your tempting fate was going to come back to bite you on the ass. So, oddly, when he slapped me, and when he made me feel comfortable, I really went after him. "Well," I said, "Now I'll have to report you to the police."

He stared at me for a few seconds, and then he shook his head. "I paid you for this."

I slid my hand across my cheek. "This is assault."

The guy took a step back and groaned. "You're in my house."

I went back to his freezer and took out the first thing I found. Root beer popsicles. I pressed it against my cheek. "You signed a contract, pal."

The guy held up a single finger. It reminded me of Harrison Ford, though I couldn't say from what movie. All of them, I guess. Then he walked out of the room. I waited for a count of ten, then I opened one of the root beer popsicles and started licking. I held onto the box. To be honest, it was getting too cold to keep pressing on my cheek. I usually like root beer, but I could barely taste it this time. I was just waiting for the guy to come back in. It was entirely possible that he would come in with a gun, though that never seemed all that real to me. And I was right to not expect it. He came back in with the contract, of course.

"Right here," he said, pointing to something. "Right here, it says that I am not responsible for 'clear provocations of the client." He raised the contract high in the air and smiled. I didn't have the heart to point out that, at that point, most of our contracts were not witnessed by anyone. Not that it would've helped me anyway.

Instead, I dropped the box of popsicles on the floor. Most of the popsicles spilled out on the floor, though they were all still wrapped. I thought about mashing them with my foot, but I decided to pull back, and I said, "It's your word against mine, and I'll tell people that you actually slapped me across the face with your cock, and that'll put you up for sexual assault, too."

Now, he finally really let loose, stomping around and cursing, spitting on his own floor. He even opened the kitchen window and started throwing all the cans from the floor out into his own yard. It was stupid, of course, but that's sort of what he was supposed to do, so I just kind of stood there. I think that he was afraid to hit me again, or even to come near me. So, he kept throwing cans out into the yard, and he was screaming at the top of his lungs. I tried to look out, to see if his neighbors were watching, but I couldn't tell. Eventually, I leaned back on one of the counters and relaxed. It struck me as weird that his peak was my time to relax. By the time he finished, sitting there and staring out into the yard, I had already sorted through how much this one job would have made me, and I calculated how much I should have for drinking after I took care of my basic bills. I was watching this guy and thinking through the nice bottle of Cuervo I would be sipping from after this exchange. He looked at me, and I could tell that he had forgotten about me.

"Well," he said, "how do we finish this?"

I was quiet for a few seconds. This was one moment that none of the other workers had really prepared me for. I was surprised to find that I hadn't really thought through what would happen at this point. But I thought back about all the freedom that I had in the situation. I could screw with him one last time, or I could let him in. It made me think of some of Andy Kauffman's old routines, and I thought of all the people in the audience members who sat there, puzzled, while the others laughed really hard at the fact that this weirdo had somehow ended up onstage. The problem is that those people who weren't laughing paid just as much for the tickets as the ones that did laugh. "Well," I said, "some guys head off to get a couple of hookers and a little blow."

The guy chuckled a little. He left the room again, and I could understand how he felt a little bit. I basically knew that he wouldn't do anything severe, if he did anything. The sort of people who really were dangerous wouldn't hire us anyway. When he came back, it was with a check, and I took it, and I shook his hand, and I did buy some booze, but it wasn't Cuervo. I drove straight from this guy's house to the liquor store, and I bought exactly what I thought I deserved. If I had been the kind of person to give advice, following that ritual would've been the one thing that I would've told the younger rental scapegoats to do.

BIO: Zeke Jarvis is an Associate Professor at Eureka College. His work has appeared in KNOCK, Moon City Review, and Print Oriented Bastards, among other places. His book, So Anyway... was published by Robocup Press, and his collection of short stories, In The Family Way is forthcoming from Fomite Press.