They Don't Even Write Sitcoms This Bad

by Dani Neiley

I was bored and most of us were boring. Our personal space was limited to a five by five foot cube, walled in by paisley partitions—habitats for monkeys in a sideshow. We were allowed to ask questions, but most of us never did. What was the point? Our job was exceptionally pointless. A bunch of down-on-your-luck travel agents working at an agency in Seattle called Sunny Skies? Come on. They don't even make sitcoms this bad.

"Cohen?" my boss, Brad, interrupted my train of thought. "My office. Thirty seconds."

"Of course," I said, trying to hide my makeshift comic panel made out of sticky notes. It was a slow day, but then again it was always a slow day at Sunny Skies. Whenever I played the "what do you do" card at a party, everyone always laughed when I told them I worked at a travel agency in the year 2012.

"Another masterpiece?" Brad asked, motioning to the multicolored squares.

"My exhibit in the Louvre opens next week."

Brad drummed his fingers on the edge of my cube before walking away, leaving a powdery residue on the fabric. He had unfortunate addictions to two things: powdered donuts and cocaine, and considering the rate at which he speed-walked away from my cube, I came to the conclusion that it was the latter. I counted as I walked. It took 12 seconds to get to Brad's office.

"Take a seat, kiddo. I've got bad news," Brad said, licking the tips of his fingers.

"Are there donuts in the break room?"

"What? No."

"Continue," I said.

Brad attempted to maintain an expression of seriousness. "The ship's going down, pal, and we're going with it."

"What do you mean?" I asked. Brad's metaphors never made any sense.

"I mean, it's like we're the Titanic and the fucking iceberg has just hit."

"I think it was the ship's fault for hitting the iceberg, not the other way around," I said. Still, I pictured the scene from The Titanic, the bodies falling into the roiling sea. It always struck me as comedic, maybe because of the CGI, but maybe I was just an asshole. Later that night, I would draw a comic with me falling from the ship into red, frothy, shark-infested waters. But for now, I was stupid, clueless, and anxious to get this impromptu meeting over with, so I could eat the last maple bar in the break room.

"Cohen," Brad said, reeling me back in. "Do you remember the vending machine incident last month?"

How could I not? The vending machine incident would become the stuff of legends. Jemaine, the token weird guy of the office, had an obsession with sour gummy worms, not to mention bad hygiene, spearmint gum, and music by Tom Waits, which he constantly played without headphones. Every day, around afternoon snack time, he would go to the vending machine and get a bag of Trolli Brite Crawlers. Cross my heart, it was worse than Brad's cocaine addiction. Our horrendous vending machine never dispensed a snack on the first go around, but if you gave it a good kick or two, your Payday or Pop-Tarts would fall down soon enough.

On the fateful day of July 8th, Jemaine's gummy worms got totally stuck, but no way was he going to cough up another dollar-fifty. Jemaine rocked the machine back and forth for so long that it fell sideways at a 45-degree angle, pinning (and breaking, with a fantastic crack), his left arm. Yet if the vending machine had not been shoved up against a wall, it would have fallen forward and crushed him to death—a modern, office equivalent of a public stoning.

"Of course," I said. "Of course I remember."

"We're getting some serious heat for that."

"You are," I corrected. "Naturally."

"And, there's quite a bit of discrepancy with our accounts."

"Yeah, Max told me there were some issues."

"It's bad. Very bad. End of the world, company going under bad."

I looked at Brad's bloodshot eyes nervously scanning my face for a reaction.

"You don't mean—"

"I do," Brad said. He made explosion noises and a mushroom cloud with his hands.

* * *

Sunny Skies was going up in smoke, and at the end of July, we'd all be out a job: me, a starving, wannabe artist with zero prospects and no hope for a good recommendation letter. Max, our eager and willing intern who hadn't been paid for the last three months. Jemaine, who had worse prospects than me, and Ellen, a grad school dropout who would probably find a new job in no time, because she was cute and young and hip. But what about me? I'd have to call Mom. I'd spent most of the buffer money in my savings on high quality ink pens last month, not that that even made any difference. My drawings were still shitty doodles that never amounted to anything; now, they were just drawn in expensive, shiny ink.

I should have been depressed leaving Brad's office, but it was hard to feel sad about no longer experiencing Brad's erratic mood swings. You had to really watch your tie patterns. One time, he nearly punched Jemaine in the face because his paisley print tie was too distracting, and I almost got a salary reduction because my double Windsor was too thick. I'd no longer have to deal with Jemaine and Ellen smoking weed in the staircase, or worrying about Max bringing random girls in after hours and "making the beast with two backs," his favorite euphemism, on all our desks.

"Cohen," Jemaine said, stopping me on my way to the break room. His computer showed a game of minesweeper—he'd flagged 80 of 100 bombs. A new record, probably.

"Is it true? Ellen told Max who told me—"

"Sorry to say," I said.

"Wow. I can't believe it," Jemaine said, as Tom Waits howled out of the computer speakers. For once, I appreciated his earsplitting racket—the comedic timing, at least.

"Fuck," Jemaine said, and his mouth turned down at the corners. "This is the best job I've ever had."

I made a beeline for the break room without even bothering to answer. The best job I've ever had was certainly not a desk job at a lackluster travel agency. I think I had had a better time flipping burgers in high school, though maybe that was because we always got higher than the kites at the end of Mary Poppins before our shifts.

Naturally, someone had taken my maple bar from the pink cardboard box, leaving only half of a stale cruller. I licked my finger and dabbed at the icing crumbs, fantasizing about the fact that come July 31st, I could buy a dozen donuts and not have to worry about anyone eating the maple bars. There would be no office, no strange, haggard looking coworkers, no uneven desk, no break room microwave that had stains in it dating back to the Jurassic period, and no pee stains on the carpet from Brad's Pomeranian, Butch. These thoughts made me smile. As I fixed myself a mug of coffee, I thought about how I was going to celebrate. Delivery pizza, maybe, with a bottle of wine from the grocery store and one of those frozen cream pies.

That night, the wine at the store wasn't on sale, but I didn't expect it to be. I picked the cheapest bottle of discount vodka and at the last minute, decided against a cherry pie. In a few short weeks I'd need to start budgeting again, and there would be no more sugary, late night impulse buys, however enticing (and delicious). I suddenly got an idea for a superhero. Realistic-man: dealing with life's disappointments, one flattened expectation at a time.

* * *

"Hi, Mom," was all I managed before being bombarded with screechy concerns.

"You haven't called in a month, honey. Are you eating healthy meals? Do you need more quarters for laundry? Is something wrong?"

So I told her. I was almost excited to receive her pity, but she completely steamrolled me.

"You need to find something to do, Cohen," Mom said. "Something real. I know I shouldn't have let you go to art school."

On that point, I agreed with her. All I got from art school was a useless degree and a shitty attitude of superiority. Of course, I didn't say that; I let Mom exhaust her seemingly endless bank of complaints before speaking again. My stomach growled. My instant noodles had been ready six minutes ago.

"You better find something," she said, sounding breathless from all the talking. "You can't move back in, honey. Not again."

"I have a place to live, Mom," I said.

"A terrible place."

"It's not bad," I said, trying to assuage the unfortunate reality of having a 40-year-old Russian named Oleg, whose sole diet consisted of sardines and linguine, as a roommate.

"Well, you can do better."

"I know, Mom."

"I want you to do better."

"I know, Mom."

"You know, if you just tried a little harder—"

"I know, Mom!"

The majority of our conversations had ended in similar ways over the last few months. After a hasty goodbye, I tried to read a book to calm down but I couldn't sit still. Roiled up, I decided to walk the few blocks to my favorite Chinese place and ordered my favorite food, sesame chicken. I thought it would make me feel better, but it didn't. After eating I felt like a greasy slug and could barely make eye contact with the waiter dropping off the check.

I cracked open my fortune cookie with an embarrassing amount of hope. I always put too much stock into those kinds of things.

"Your life will be prosperous," I read out loud. Then I looked at my glass of ice water, sweating in the sticky heat of the restaurant, ruining the paper tablecloth. I realized that so far, life hadn't been. It wasn't showing signs of turning prosperous, either.

And then I cried by myself for a while, until one of the old ladies brought me a plate of oranges. She sat down with me and patted my hand until the tears stopped.

* * *

We were all waiting for our lives to really start. We thought a job at a travel agency would just be a six-month stint, a time for us to figure our shit out and get back on our feet, back to the real world. We couldn't afford to just up and leave, so we helped others get on planes and trains and boats, set to go three thousand miles away from this rainy, cold place, all the way to paradise. I thought it would make me feel better, doing something nice for other people. I soon came to learn that it was a thankless occupation. I kept telling myself that the company going under was a good thing; I'd no longer be cursed at on a daily basis, Expedia could now take everyone else's shit, and I'd find a newer, better job.

I never thought that I'd miss these people, these four other people that mostly made my life hell, who didn't even exist to me when 5 o'clock rolled around. But here I was, sitting around a table in the bar next to Sunny Skies a week before The End, and maybe it was because I'd had a few too many, or maybe it was because I actually cared, but my eyes started to prickle and my throat became hot. Brad made a toast.

"To ush," he slurred. It had to have been his fifth Appletini, God bless him.

"To us!" everyone cried. Ellen sloshed some of her vodka cranberry onto my arm, but I didn't care. I drained the rest of my beer and slammed it on the table.

"Do you remember the angry Russian who kidnapped Butch when we couldn't get him a first class ticket to Amsterdam?" Max asked.

"No, but I remember our Christmas party, when you brought brownies," I said.

"I don't remember that," Max said.

"Of course you don't," Brad said. "They were pot brownies and you damn near ate them all."

"That's definitely not as bad as the time you invited the hooker you just picked up off the street into our office and had sex with her in the supply closet," Max said. He was the only one laughing. Brad's ears started to turn red.

"Don't you remember our little talk about privacy, Max?"

"Wow, look at the time," Ellen said, looking at her wrist, even though she wasn't wearing a watch. Jemaine and I took her cue and followed her out onto the sidewalk in the neon-lit night, doubled over with laughter. More often than not, I was miserable, but there were these small moments, however insignificant, where I felt part of something—where I belonged somewhere. It wasn't a feeling that came easily to me. I nearly cried saying goodbye to them. Why had I suddenly gone soft for this dull office job? What I needed was a good slap in the face. Oleg could probably sort me out.

At home, I checked my voicemail: no new messages. Realistic-man, aka me, flopped onto the couch and watched bad TV until the home shopping network reared its ugly head, commandeering the airwaves. I drew a hasty caricature of the blonde presenter, thin as a twist tie. I got black ink all over my hands and the couch. By the time I was finished, I was convinced I had a masterpiece. A small one, anyway. Staring down at the rough sketch, I hadn't felt this happy in weeks—no, months. And then I realized—I was free.

* * *

We played a game called "the things I'll miss" as we packed up our desks on the last day at Sunny Skies. No one did any work, but it's not like there was any work to do. Brad had to take the Sunny Skies logo down from the building the week before, and we hadn't heard the silver bell on top of the door jingle since that day.

"I'll miss throwing a tennis ball against the dumpster out back when I kept Ellen company on her smoke breaks," Jemaine said.

"I'll miss the free bagels and donuts in the break room," Max said.

"You do realize those weren't free," I said. "I was usually the one buying them."



Max couldn't believe it. "But you hate us," he said.

That wasn't true. They couldn't possibly think that. Sure, I wasn't singing their praises all the time, but even Brad, with his cocaine-addled brain, had his moments of being a tolerable human being. I was just...less committed than they were. That had to be it.

"I don't hate you," I said. "I hate this job."

"Me too," Jemaine said. "It zapped all my creative energy. I haven't played the piano in months."

A true shame, I thought, considering the last time Jemaine had played one of his songs for me, he sounded like Yoko Ono's higher-pitched twin brother.

"You were drawing all day, though," Max said, pointing at my ink-stained hands.

"I have an idea for a comic," I said. "I'm actually going to finish it this time."

"That's what you always say," Ellen said, winking at me.

"This time I will," I said, and for the first time in my life, I believed it. It didn't matter what the future held—the future was going to come anyway. If I had to sell my TV and Nintendo 64, so be it. If I had to take a loan from Oleg and be in his debt forever, I wouldn't care. I'd started to draw again, the crazy, obsessive kind of drawing where I couldn't put the pen down for five hours straight. I'd found my spark again. I knew I was going to be okay.

There was a lull in conversation as everyone worked on packing papers, stuffed animals, the odd snack or knick-knack into boxes, and soon enough, it was time to go.

"I'm just going to miss this place, plain and simple," Ellen sighed. I didn't think she was entirely wrong. Someday, I'd look back on my time at Sunny Skies as meaningful. I just couldn't right now. But as we all heaved our boxes into our arms, walking out into the cloudy, sunless world, I felt a twinge of sadness. I finally understood how Wile E. Coyote must have felt as he fell over the edge of that giant cliff—free falling, no end in sight. To where, I didn't know. But soon enough, I'd come up with a design for that green flying suit and finally get the Roadrunner. Or maybe I wouldn't; maybe I'd smack my teeth on the face of the rocky cliff. It didn't matter, because at least I'd have tried something.

Out on the sidewalk, our shoes slapped the concrete in tandem. I never understood why, but that first inhale of outside air always made me go weak in the knees.

BIO: Dani Neiley is a senior majoring in english and screenwriting at Chapman University. Her work has been published in Calliope, Polaris, and Green Blotter. She likes candy corn, Chuck Klosterman, and the oxford comma. Contact her at: danineiley@gmail.com