“Guidelines” by Dinah Cox

“You can change the guidelines to suit your imagination,” he said to his favored children. They were not actually his children, though he treated them as if they were. In actual fact, they were his employees at BeTrue International, hired for their good sense and overall obedience, the hand-picked recent college graduates he always described as perfectly poised to take over performing his good works well after he was gone. For a long time, I’d known I was not among them.

            We worked in an office adjacent to a pizza parlor, and always everything smelled of old mozzarella. Like tennis shoes long past their age of usefulness, the pizza ingredients seemed to fester and rot: never did the ovens warm to more inviting aromas. Perhaps it was not a pizza parlor at all, but only a refrigerated warehouse. We never saw a single customer. Every day through the thin walls of the office complex, we heard the sound of the phone ringing off the proverbial hook.

            Usually it would ring ten or twenty times before a male voice—Sal’s—answered and said, “No meats” over and over again, as if vegetarianism suddenly had become fashionable in our sad Oklahoma town, and indeed healthy habits had become (sort of) popular, or, at the very least, more popular than they had been in years’ past. BeTrue International was neither truthful nor international, unless you counted a trip we’d once taken to Toronto, ostensibly for “kindness training,” but really for a conference on consumer trends in monthly subscriptions and individual sales. The favored employees had enjoyed all the perks and none of the lecturing on that trip, and those of us who found ourselves forever on “the bad list” had not been able to transcend our resentment.

That day, we naughty children had been sent to the back to stuff envelopes. Why he still wanted to use direct mail in the age of social media was a mystery to us all, even his favored ass-kissers and sycophants-in-training. His name was Sam. Samuel Becker Trueblood. And he was bloody truthful. And he was truly generous. All you had to do was ask him; he’d tell you all about it.

“You can change the guidelines to suit your imagination,” he said again. We naughty children turned to one another in disgust. Why was he always changing the guidelines? And worse, why was he always invoking the imagination? The life of the mind, along with truth, beauty, charity, and—strangely—allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, all had become common in the corporate lexicon, so common, in fact, that the mere sight of one of the infamous words or phrases projected onto the wall of break room meant all the cool employees—the naughty ones—were free to replace their usual surreptitious gestures of pantomimed choking and vomiting with public displays of exhaustion.

Stuffing envelopes on the floor of the break room—he’d recently had the furniture removed—we watched as the word, Caring appeared on the white wall next to the fire exit door. Simultaneously, we halted our envelope-stuffing, sighed, and shook our heads.

“Caring,” I said. “As if he cared about anything but the bottom line.”

“Truth,” said Linda Ward.

“You know it,” said Jean Key.

“He cares about his belt buckle,” said Judy Davis. “I saw him polishing it in his office.”

“Belt buckles don’t count,” I said. “They’re inanimate objects.”

“Truth,” said Linda Ward.

“Don’t I know it,” said Jean Key.

Linda Ward, Jean Key, Judy Davis, and I all had worked at BeTrue for the better part of our adult lives. The favored employees called us The Ladies, obviously meant as an insult, but they covered it up with cooing and unwanted gifts. One of them had given me an ice scraper for my car. She’d wrapped it up and everything; it wasn’t even my birthday. One problem was that it was in the middle of summer, and even in the colder months we rarely had ice or snow. Another problem was that I didn’t have a car. I took the ice scraper and put it in the middle drawer of my desk. I did not say thank you, nor did I write her a note. I found out later she’d been my Secret Santa the year before, but had failed at the office Christmas party to give me anything at all. The ice scraper, inspired by her lingering guilt, had been meant to bridge the gulf between us. It didn’t work.

The break room was suddenly very hot, and the old cheese odor from the pizza warehouse was wafting through the air conditioning vents. Sam Trueblood, his belt buckle shining like a golden mirror from Mar-a-Lago itself, entered from the hall.

“Your colleagues are changing the guidelines,” he said. “From now on, you must stuff the envelopes while standing up.”

“That’s not very caring,” I said, pointing to the wall. “I don’t think they care about us.”

“That’s exactly the point,” Trueblood said. “They care about your health and well-being. It’s not healthy to spend so much time sitting on the floor.”

“I object,” said Jean Key.

“We should talk,” said Linda Ward.

“This place is going to kill me,” said Judy Davis.

On the wall next to the fire exit door, the slide changed from Caring to Compassion. “We do not speak of killing here,” Trueblood said. “Let us speak of the springtime.”

Springtime had been over for a while, and the lantana and marigolds in front of the BeTrue Headquarters had been replaced by the brittle blades of barely viable pampas grass. But talking about springtime was one of his favorite things to do; none of us knew why.

Just then, we heard Sal’s voice next door saying, “No meats” over and over again.

“I’m going to speak to the custodial staff,” Trueblood said. “There has to be a way to dampen the echoes around here.”

“They quit,” I said. The janitorial scandal had been a hot topic for days. I was surprised he hadn’t heard about it. “Jerry showed a dick pic to Michelle, and they arrested him for indecent exposure.”

“What happened to Michelle?” Jean Key said. “I always liked her.”

“New job at Food Barn,” I said. “She’s in management and everything.”

“Nonsense,” Trueblood said. “How could our custodians quit without my knowledge?”

“You were still in Belgium,” I said. “When the dick pic thing happened.”

“And should I not have received written notice of his termination?”

“We handled it without you,” I said. “The cops talked to Sal.”

“It seems we should have a guideline in place to deal with these kinds of events in the future,” he said. “What you’ve done—and what Sal did, and certainly what Jerry did—may be considered violations of our policies and procedures.”

I laughed; I couldn’t help it. “What would these new guidelines say?”

Compassion,” he said, pointing to the wall. “Before contacting law enforcement, we first invoke the rule of compassion.”

“Compassion for whom?” Linda Ward asked.

“That’s just the question our guidelines will address,” Trueblood said.

Just then, one of the favored (younger) employees, the same one who’d given me the ice scraper, entered from the fire exit door. The fire alarm sounded, and we all covered our ears. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the alarm stopped, and the room went silent.

“You’re not supposed to use that door,” I said. “I thought it was locked.”

“I have the key,” the favored employee said. “It’s a new rule.”

“Look,” I said to the favored employee. I knew her name, but always made a point to pretend I couldn’t remember what it was. “There are no particular rules about who can and who cannot enter from the fire exit door. No one is supposed to use that door. Unless there’s a fire.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Trueblood said. “Excuse me. That’s where you’re mistaken.” The slide on the wall changed from Compassion to Discretion. “While I was in Belgium, the Guidelines Committee rewrote the entire handbook. They did this at my instruction. To criticize the use of the fire exit door is an express violation as well as an insult to the hard work of The Committee. I shall not allow it.”

“Another handbook,” said Linda Ward.

“Just what the world needs,” said Jean Key.

“I’m not going to read it,” said Judy Davis.

“I want to know what it says,” I said. “Let’s see a copy of this handbook.”

“It’s electronic,” the favored employee said. “If you want a paper copy, you’ll have to copy it down by hand.”

“Can’t I just print it?” I said. “That’s what I did the last time there was a new handbook.”

“We’re no longer allowing printer use,” the favored employee said.

“Why do we still have all these printers? What are we going to do with them?”

“They’re being discontinued,” she said. “For now, they may be used as platforms for approved decorative objects.”

Once again, Sal’s voice echoed through the thin walls of the office complex. “No-meats-no-meats-no-meats.”

“It’s really very tragic,” the favored employee said. “My husband loves meat.”

We finished stuffing the envelopes, and everyone was getting ready to head home for the day. Trueblood was in his office with the door closed, and the favored employee had retreated to the conference room, where, I was sure, she once again was consulting the other favored employees so as to make a rule against my very existence. I considered how I might tamper with the break room’s hidden slide projector; what wonderful words and phrases I could project onto the wall! Jean Key would laugh and laugh. Judy Davis would bake me a pie. Linda Ward would take photos with her phone and post them on Instagram. We could start a movement, I thought, a workers’ revolt.

Linda, Jean, and Judy left together through the fire exit door; somehow, the alarm did not sound. I reached for my purse from the shelf above the microwave.

“Not so fast,” Trueblood said from the doorway. He had taken off his belt and was holding it as if he were some kind of snake-handler in a traveling circus. Slowly, he swung the buckle toward me, forward and back, forward and back.

“What are you talking about, Sam?” I said. “This is my purse.”

“You’re stealing,” he said. “You’re a thief.”

“Compassion,” I said. “Discretion.”

“It wasn’t Jerry who showed Michelle the dick pics at all,” he said. “It was you.”

He knew perfectly well I had neither dick pics nor a dick. I decided to be frank. “Why do you have it out for me, Sam? All these years, and all I ever do is pretty much all the work around here. What, exactly, is your beef?”

Again, Sal’s voice came through the walls: “No-meats-no-meats-no-meats.”

“My beef,” Trueblood said, “is your indiscretion. Your lack of compassion.”

“Do you have a guideline stipulating it’s somehow against the law for me to grab my own purse before going home for the day?”

“There will be,” he said. The belt buckle swung like a pendulum. “The Committee is working on it as we speak.”

The next day, the slide projected on the breakroom wall said the following:

Charity: it begins with silence.

All day I was silent. All day I stuffed envelopes while standing up. All day Judy Davis and Jean Key and Linda Ward sat at their respective desks and used dull pencil stubs to copy down the tenets of the handbook from the screens of their computers. They did not speak.

The favored employee entered from the fire exit door and saw me lick my final envelope. She laughed and laughed and laughed. The slide on the wall changed from the warning about silence to a single word: Joy.

Coincidentally, that was also the name of the favored employee: Joy. She’d had it legally changed from Annalise. I didn’t know why.

I broke my silence. “How come you’re allowed to laugh, but everyone else is supposed to stay silent?”

“I’m a Gemini,” she said.

“Right” I said. “Of course.”

“Violation,” she said. “Duly noted.”

My college degree had been in General Studies, and I was too old to get another job. I knew I’d spend the rest of my days learning and relearning BeTrue’s new guidelines. The whole thing was absurd, but something in me wanted to test the boundaries.

“Has Sam ever shown you a dick pic?” I said. “Or worse?”

“The guidelines forbid it,” she said. “There’s an embedded video that explains why.”

“I know, but Sam doesn’t always follow the guidelines.”

“The Committee is working to establish a protocol for his removal,” she said. This came as a surprise.

“But he’s the owner,” I said. “The founder. BeTrue is named after him.”

“Surely you’ve heard about what happened at Liberty University,” she said. Indeed I had.

I thought about asking her to consider joining us at The Ladies’ Table, the place where disgruntled employees made our various plans of attack. I knew Linda in particular would not welcome her, however, and I wasn’t especially pleased with the idea myself. Was she angling to take over? Did she have some heretofore unknown connection to BeTrue’s Board of Directors? Would we soon be calling ourselves BeJoyful International? I decided to play it safe.

“So your husband likes meat a lot?” I said. “What’s his favorite meat?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Steak, I guess. Why?”

“That’s so unimaginative,” I said. “Doesn’t he like chorizo or lamb or buffalo or something?”

“Yes,” she said. “He likes all those.”

“What are the guidelines?” I said. “I mean, how do you know which meat you’re going to cook and when?”

“No-meat-no-meat-no-meat,” said Sal’s voice from the other side of the wall.

“We don’t have guidelines for that,” she said. Her voice was full of something, not joy, but sorrow.

“No guidelines?” I said. “And yet your bodies remain fortified with plenty of lean protein?”

“That’s right,” she said. I thought she might cry, but she didn’t. “I suppose we could use a little more structure in our meal planning, but really it’s  none of your business.”

“Be true,” I said. “Be kind.”

“Always,” she said. “Forever,” I said. And these were our vows to remain forever yoked to the good deeds of the good company, the goodness in our every word forever etched upon the blank slate of the breakroom wall. Sam never resigned. Joy never took over. I never left, and neither did Jean, Linda, or Judy. To be truthful, I never really wanted to work there in the first place. But after a while, I knew I would never leave. The guidelines forbade it, for one thing, and I decided, at some point, it was better to keep my head down and obey.

Dinah Cox has two books of stories, the first, Remarkable, published as winner of BOA’s fourth annual short fiction prize from BOA Editions, and the second, The Canary Keeper from [PANK] Books. She teaches at Oklahoma State University where she’s also an associate editor at Cimarron Review.