The Great Frustration
By Seth Fried
"Those of Us in Plaid"
Our job was simple: get the monkey in the capsule. Our superiors made sure to point out that it was one of the easiest and therefore least important tasks, a task that anyone could do, just as they always pointed out that our plaid coveralls were not as sharp looking as their coveralls. But we felt that every step of the sequence was equally important, that, coveralls aside, everyone involved shared an integral role in the project’s success. After all, if we didn’t get the monkey in the capsule, then the capsule couldn’t be sent to the first prep station. If the capsule never made it to the first prep station, then it’d never get to the Transport Operator, who would end up sitting there in his hydraulic lift, empty-handed, chewing on his moustache and writing swear words on his clipboard. If the capsule never made it to transport, it’d never get to the Project Elects in their snazzy red coveralls, whose job it was to slap the thermal readers on the capsule and signal the helicopter to come round and pick the damn thing up. Which would mean the pilot would just have to keep circling, wasting gas. He’d probably end up crashing before he realized he’d run out of time to fly the capsule over the volcano and drop it in. And if the capsule never made it up with the helicopter and down into the volcano, then the Advanced Project Elects, in their stunning blue coveralls with silver piping and decals in exquisite copper brown, wouldn’t have any occasion to flip the detonator on the incendiary bomb planted along the throat of the volcano. The whole experiment would be ruined.
And in fact that’s exactly what did happen. We never got that monkey in there.
It was embarrassing, watching all those Project Elects throw their headsets down onto the tarmac, their obscenities obscured by the sirens of all the fire engines racing toward the wrecked chopper. We knew we’d never hear the end of it.
As it was, we couldn’t get through a whole day without having to suffer some kind of abuse from the Project Elects. They were always calling us the most awful names or putting us into headlocks and making us smell their farts. Ned, our group leader, had to be hospitalized after some Project Elects put hornet pheromone in our hand sanitizer. Ned likes to eat his lunch outside and had hardly unwrapped his ham and cheese before they were on him. The poor guy had to get twenty-eight stingers removed from his hands and face. None of the Project Elects apologized when the people in Human Resources told Ned that our insurance policy didn’t cover insect attacks. And when he returned a week later, covered in gauze? They put Monistat in his coffee.
They made up songs about us constantly and drew penises on the pictures of our wives and children that they stole out of our lockers. Sometimes they took the apples out of our lunch boxes, dipping them in the toilet, drying them off, and replacing them without telling us. In any given year, it was impossible to say just how many toilet apples we might have eaten.
But worse than these simple degradations was that we would have given anything to be exactly like them: their back-slapping, their cocksure attitudes, their dashing good looks and idiotic jokes. We would imagine we were them, allowing our minds to drift for a moment toward thoughts of ourselves smoking with our feet up in the break room, discussing the finer points of the project with the other Elects. And then we would look down at our plaid coveralls and remember once again our own intractable lameness.
Still, regardless of everything experience had taught us, we hoped that one day we’d deliver the beaker filled with strange liquid to the testing facility so promptly and so without incident, or paint the numbers on the capsule so perfectly and so without dribbles, that we would somehow win them over. That we’d begin receiving invitations to their famed barbecues, or to a raucous birthday party at the nudie bar near the airport. We held on, each of us, to the distant possibility that we might perform well enough to become Project Elects ourselves, thus abandoning our hideous plaid coveralls, designed specifically to designate us as the grunts of the project. Maybe replacing them with yellow coveralls or red ones or, God help us, blue.
So it was with this total commitment and total willingness to please our betters that we took on the monkey as our charge.
As far as tasks went, it certainly wasn’t the worst. Almost immediately, we liked the monkey. In addition to it being our inevitable responsibility to load him into the capsule for his descent into the volcano, it was also our job to take care of him until all other preparations were complete. And in doing so we were struck right away by how prepossessing the monkey seemed. How patient with captivity. He sat in his cage and observed us soberly, with a subtle curiosity. When we presented him with food, he received it gratefully, with a chatter that seemed almost friendly.
Before long, the monkey warmed to us completely. His cage became little more than a pretense; he moved around our workstation freely. He sat on our shoulders, searching our scalps for jiggers with a visible show of concern. We bought a lounge chair with our own money, and he would sit in our laps while we read to him out of Reader’s Digest. Of course, he didn’t understand any of it, but he seemed to like the attention. He would stay perched on our laps, his eyes fixed on us as we read, his mouth hanging open slightly. Whenever we finished reading, he would take the magazine from our hands, put it on his head, and just screech and screech. We would laugh and he would screech. Laugh. Screech. Laugh. Screech.
The only problem was that as we grew closer to the monkey, the idea of dropping him into a volcano and then blowing him up seemed, more and more, to be unbearably cruel. It seemed like a waste, destroying a perfectly good monkey—not to mention one to whom we had become so recently attached. The Project Elects assured us that dropping the monkey into the volcano was important. They scribbled impatiently on the blackboard in the demonstration room. They drew a picture of the monkey peeking out of the capsule’s small window and smiling. They drew themselves standing on the tarmac and smiling. They drew a picture of us having wild sex with each other in the locker room and smiling. Look, they said, everybody’s happy. And if our own happiness wasn’t enough to make us put the monkey in the capsule, they reminded us that we were replaceable, that we were, in fact, desirable only in the sense that we were so totally capable of being replaced, that we were all a bunch of yo-yos, that we were lucky to know there even was a monkey.
It didn’t help that as soon as we expressed an interest in the monkey’s well-being, the Project Elects started demanding time alone with him. They would kick us out of our workstation, insisting they had tests to conduct. We would come back later to find them drinking Pabst and trying to peg the monkey with empties. One afternoon, we found them in there with a keg and the small defibrillator that had been used for the dachshund experiment four months earlier. After they left, punching shoulders and grab-assing with one another on their way out the door, the monkey seemed deeply shaken. It took thirty minutes and seven Baby Ruth’s just to get him out of his cage. We tried to read to him, but he only clung to our chests in the lounge chair, eventually letting out one long, exhausted breath and falling uncertainly to sleep.
But when we grew quiet, and regretful, the Project Elects would catch us staring doubtfully at the monkey and clap us on the back of the head. They would tell us that there was no plausible reason to be nervous. They would remind us that our job was in no way even close to brain surgery. Put the monkey in the capsule. That was it.
We imagined barbecue sauce on our fingers in beautiful backyards. We imagined the strange camaraderie brought on by booze and naked women, a dark room filled with smoke. Put the monkey in the capsule. A no-brainer.
The day we finally received orders to proceed, we let the monkey sit in the lounge chair by himself and eat as many candy bars as he could. Meanwhile we all stood in a circle and took turns reading to him. For the occasion, we picked his favorite article out of Reader’s Digest. It was the one written by an explorer who had gotten lost in Antarctica and suffered unthinkable hardships until falling in with a friendly group of penguins who had helped him to survive. We liked to think that he saw something of himself in the explorer, lost in a barren, inhospitable landscape with no real means of returning home. We also liked to think maybe he saw a little bit of us in the penguins that regurgitated fish into the explorer’s mouth. Typically when we read it to him, he seemed to screech a little louder than usual, in a happy way, or hop up on to our shoulders and pull tenderly at our ears. On that day, though, with the capsule prepped and glittering in the corner, he seemed to ignore the story altogether. Instead, he watched our faces, perhaps attempting to discern in them the reason behind the extra candy bars, the certain heaviness in our voices as we read.
Of course, we wished there could have been some kind of alternative. But what could we do? Not put the monkey in the capsule? Not let him spend his last moments on earth terrified and alone? Not let him get liquefied and blown up? When the article was finished, we closed the magazine and placed him in the capsule without much ceremony. We did pause briefly before securing the hatch. It felt important to give him one last remorseful look, to let him know that, while we understood that this was necessary, it also brought us no joy.
It was at that point, by all accounts, that we lost the monkey.
Maybe it was the force of that remorseful look. Maybe it was our tone of voice. Maybe it was the bottle of Pabst that one of the Project Elects had put in the capsule as a joke. Whatever the case, one second he was our special little friend, calmly sitting in the fore of the capsule—the next he was biting Ned’s neck. Poor Ned, he always seems to get the worst of it.
Cleared of all sentiment, we attempted to regain control of the monkey—but he was everywhere. He was around our ankles, his feral teeth tearing through the gabardine of our coveralls. He was on top of shelves, whipping down bookends. He was darting toward us, pummeling us with his date-like fists. He jumped from one place to the next with an unfathomable quickness, pulling our hair out at the roots, throwing feces, and urinating on us from across the room with an accuracy that we would all admit to later as being completely disturbing.
Eventually, he found a toolbox that someone from maintenance must have left unattended and armed himself with a Phillips head. Sensing his advantage, he grabbed two more candy bars before backing slowly out of the room.
Once he made it to the tarmac, he used the screwdriver to stab out the eye of an Advanced Project Elect who had tried to stop him.
When they pulled the pilot out of the wrecked chopper with a gigantic piece of tail boom in his abdomen, we were mortified. The murky room filled with naked women disappeared in its own smoke. The barbecue sauce that had haunted our fingers revealed itself for what it really was: flecks of monkey crap thrown in anger. Our hopes were dashed, most likely forever. Though, in the disciplinary meeting much later, when they showed us the security tape of the monkey outrunning several more Elects and making it all the way to the tree line, where he stopped for a moment in order to turn toward his captors and wave his screwdriver in a mad show of freedom, we had to admit that we were glad to see him go. In the meeting room, the Elects were all disheveled and ridiculous-looking: frayed piping dragging behind them as they walked, decals dangling from their chests. We didn’t look any better, of course. And with the Elects already razzing us, already gearing up for a whole new level of torment, we knew that regarding the monkey’s escape as something that was somehow good was a thought that was, if not our stupidest, then at least one that served to show why we were so worthy of our superiors’ contempt, why we were the ones stuck in plaid. We probably always would be.
"Those of Us in Plaid" from The Great Frustration by Seth Fried, published by Softskull Press, an imprint of Counterpoint. Copyright © 2011 by Seth Fried. All rights reserved.