Volume 22, Number 1

The Jungle

Megan Edwards

You stand inside of a newly remodeled coffee shop near where you work, and you’re glad that Starbucks bought out the local joint. You think there is a lot of business to be had here. After all, you’ve come here almost every day for the past few months. You like the uniform green aprons and the occasional times they play Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which reminds you of your mild stint in college activism. It makes you want to go to South Africa. It reminds you of when your kids were young enough to watch The Lion King. You think that it is all a great way to sell coffee.

The old place, the Coffee Crew, had motivational posters with quips about leadership and success and clarity and team work in cheap black metal frames, the kind of posters connecting images of people standing on mountain tops to the success people are supposed to feel sitting on their ass in a cubicle all day. It was the kind of place that catered towards your employees. Now it’s a Starbucks, and the multicolored glass tiles and mocha painted walls are more to your liking. You especially like the music. It makes you feel cosmopolitan. You always buy Starbucks coffee, because they buy from Kenya. The bags are slick and shiny, colored red, black, and green, Kenyan colors, with small Fair Trade labels in the bottom front corners. You think it is great product design. That’s why you buy Starbucks coffee. The old place didn’t sell its coffee. When the Starbucks opened you purchased your own motivational poster for the occasion: a picture of an elephant walking down a wide yellow dirt trail cut through the dense dark green leaves of the jungle; the only part of the elephant you see is its large gray rump. The caption says, “Success: Find the Biggest Ass and Kiss It.” You have this in your study at home. You wouldn’t want to live in the jungle, either.

The barista behind the counter slides the Caffé Americano toward you and shouts your name. She turns away to tend to other orders right as you slide a dollar her way. You keep your finger on the bill, making sure she sees it’s from you. She turns around and shouts another name; it’s for the man standing behind you. She sees you and smiles. She thanks you, taking the bill and folding it into the community tip jar.

* * *

Stepping onto the elevator, you press the number 29 button and it glows. Your assistant jumps in after you just as the doors were about to close. He is wearing faded black trousers and a blue oxford. You notice that the armpits of his shirt are bleached and also faded. His left shoe has a large scuff across the toe. You wonder what his entire ensemble cost. He is fidgety. You suspect he wants to talk to you. Rub elbows. Get insider information. You have nothing to say to him as the elevator takes you up and up and up. You can’t remember his name and you don’t care to. You sip your coffee and avoid the awkward silence.

* * *

Once entering your office you look down at the comparative list between this year’s and last year’s salary budget cuts. The company has made nearly two million in profit. You know this is good for the upcoming meeting. Sometimes you hate what you do but think, “Hey, c’est la vie, right?” You played drinking games in college, for fuck’s sake, and it was just for that, for fuck’s sake. Who doesn’t fake taking a drink or two when the girls you play against will surely fuck your brains out if you get them drunk enough? They might wake up in love, you never know, it's happened before. You joined the Pikes because they said that being Greek meant that someday you’d run the country, you’d be well-rounded, you’d know a thing or two. They got it all right, just not in the way you thought they would. You don’t complain, not to anyone.

Looking at the fiscal year charts in front of you, you remember years ago when your father-in-law set up an interview for you with the company, the largest in the city … to your amazement, the company that coined the term “soap opera” because of all the mid-era housewives who decided they wanted to do laundry and be entertained. You knew you were on your way up in a company as multi-faceted as an engagement ring. Five years later your intracompany resume has grown exponentially larger—like the fat cells in your body, granted, but your wife gets as many free products as a woman could ever want. She gets her hair done and her nails done in a bi-weekly rotation—to go with the company cosmetic lines that you bring home for her among other things. You like that she looks good. Your ability to manage the company’s private expenses is irreplaceable; there is security in knowing the numbers making sure that you, and the rest of the upper echelon, receive bonus checks every year. You are thankful that what you do now is better than your previous position in the company: getting half of the bonus check and firing people before the holidays. Now you have an assistant to do that.

Still, sometimes you hate yourself.

The large black phone rings on your desk. Your eldest daughter is calling from the same college you went to, only an hour away from home. You like that she’s close. She calls to say she’s thinking of going Greek, like you. She tells you of her classes that teach her about stuff like ethnographies and she wants to send some money to the kids in Columbia who pick the coffee she likes to get in the local coffee shop. You think of the Coffee Crew; it was subpar and a place you never went to. Still, you tell her donating is very admirable and that her mother will be proud, that she can write it off on tax day.

You ask her if there is a Starbucks around.

The campus is getting one, she says.

She reminds you of the girls you went to college with, and you pray she really isn’t, although you know she probably is. She wears tight black leggings and knee high boots like all the other girls, and you know that she fits in. You know that she is happy fitting in, which makes you happy, even if she plays beer pong a lot. Even if you wake up at night and imagine her lying in bed, freshly clothed or probably still naked with her body against the still-warm imprint left by her absent companion’s body. The body that won’t speak to her the next day. You remember being those boys. Don’t ask her about it no matter how much you want to, not unless she tells you first.

She doesn’t tell you. You hang up with your daughter, only then wondering why she’s not in class.

You begin preparing the report for the meeting, and even now you still think about your life, the empty and hollow ennui hounding the heart your doctor is worried will give out on you. Cut the coffee, he says, drink green tea if you have to—yet every day enters and exits and the one thing you can always manage is a walk to Starbucks from work, even if work doesn’t manage itself for you. No one could accuse you of exercising: you don’t get a body like that by exercising, right? But leaving your desk to walk outside in the brisk city wind as it tears around the buildings makes you inhale so deeply that your lungs hurt, no matter the season. It feels as good as your morning cup, or the afternoon walk, or evenings going home. It’s what you go to bed with and then wake up for.

You know you hate yourself in the mornings mostly. Those flickering moments knowing you have to go to work and tell the company that yes, the money is still pouring in and yes, they can book their flights to exotic places like Bhutan where they measure gross national happiness. Yes, there is enough to take the personal secretary.

You report this annually—you who still wakes up in the same bed as your wife, your backs to each other when the alarm goes off on the chest of drawers across the room. You moved it there so you would have to get up in the mornings instead of repeatedly hitting the snooze button. Sometimes the motivation is needed. Every morning you crawl out of your king-size bed and shuffle sleepily across the cold hardwood floor.

You take the last drink of your coffee, now lukewarm, when your assistant softly taps on your office door. The yellow light from the hallway filters in through the office’s frosted and rippled glass, like snow-laden furrows in a field. Your assistant stands just beyond, casting his jittery shadow, and it makes you nervous. You call out for him to come in after you drain your cup, putting it down so the siren faces you, her black eyes half closed, green hair folding into the curve of her body. You like to look at her. You wish she’d pull herself from the paper and sit on your desk.

“Mr. Anderson wants the net numbers for the dog food in the meeting,” he says, looking down at a yellow legal pad. You know he keeps furious notes. Sometimes you want to snatch the notepad out of his hand and see what he’s actually writing—if he’s taking notes on the job for one day filling your shoes, shoes he hopes you might get pushed out of. “He says he wants the numbers for prebiotics and probiotics,” your assistant says.

You tell your assistant, okay. You don’t know the difference between prebiotics and probiotics. Crunching the expense-account numbers doesn’t require that sort of knowledge. You ask your assistant.

He doesn’t know either.

This is good.

“Well, guess it doesn’t matter as long as the numbers roll in, right, Steven?” you say, promising yourself you’ll look up the information later.

“Right, sir, and it’s Stefan, sir,” he tries to correct you, his voice soft and barely audible, probably because you’ve forgotten his name before.

You dismiss him and he closes your office door. You think of the dog food. Sometimes you wish someone would start to slip substances in your food. Valium or Vicodin or Abilify. Or all of it at once. You look at the reports and know you are doing well. Your desk is ebony stained to match the other furniture, and your office chair is real black leather. You have a window in your office, something you’ve worked to have for a very long time. You are living the American dream. You are the American dream. Your children are the products of hard work. You have been a good provider. You are the product of success. You embody the free market. You are free to do more, and you feel that what you do is never enough. You want to do more and think everyone else should, too, because you did more.

Think of your childhood.

Never forget what it’s like to have nothing.

You glance at the computer screen and remember working in a credit card company call center during semesters at college. They told you that the numbers don’t lie, and you believed them. Your manager said you had seven fewer sales than the day before. You tried to tell the team manager that people just can’t afford to buy travel perks for their credit card. You went to work the next day and reminded yourself that the company says it doesn’t matter. Don’t sell from your wallet. Don’t assume they can’t afford it.

Do your job.

You did your job, raking in several extra grand that month with a promotion to team manager. That was when you asked Kelly to marry you. The ring was emerald cut and big. She still has a hard time keeping gravity from pulling the weight of the stone around her fingers to hang downwards, palm side, like she’s trying to hide it. Sometimes you think maybe she should, but you know there is no point in thinking about that before the meeting.

* * *

You like to go home after meetings. You drive through a Starbucks drive-thru that’s three blocks from your house. You take the coffee into your study where you check the Internet for the daily ticker and your company e-mail account. You already have a dozen e-mails about today’s meeting, with things for tomorrow about Aussie hair products. You send an e-mail to your assistant about taking Kelly and the girls to Australia this December as their Christmas presents. You open a final e-mail; the company has been tipped off about PETA wanting to protest the company’s alleged animal testing, dogs strapped to rubber tubes on tables with their bellies cut open, or a line of white rabbits whose mouths are smeared with red lipstick. Posters held high on pine wood stakes. You think of Kelly. This makes you laugh, but it makes you nervous. Bad press equals bad numbers, which equals a loss in jobs. A loss in your job, even. They could pay your assistant less and let you go—cut the fat.

Your eyes move from the e-mail to the buxom siren on your Starbucks cup to the wall in front of your desk. Your own poster stares at you from in between two sconces and packed bookcases of yellow-spine volumes of Personal Finances for your 40’s and 50’s; The Motley Fool; Chicken Soup for the Corporate Soul; Eat This Not That—which you’ve never opened. You put the poster in an expensive gilt frame. You know you are like that elephant. Thick-skinned. Tough. Smart. The dusty dirt road makes you wonder where the elephant is going and if something in his small brain willed him down that path. This is an elephant with someplace to go. It reminds you of something your boss once said, that the business of life is just that—business, don’t get too emotional about it. The elephant must know this too, or you all would have stayed in the jungle.