Temp is a humorous novel populated with the kinds of people with whom we’ve all worked at one time or another. They are not the quiet, conscientious workers that we never talk about at parties. They are the loud, obnoxious, arrogant ones who become the legends of our workplace memories. They deflect blame, usurp power, delegate the difficult tasks, and in so many other ways make us love to hate them. They all did their part in making work more odious than it should have been. Afterward, we never truly put them behind us because they provide the vibrant color in our most entertaining workplace stories.
“Local Boy Makes Good, Dies of Trying Soon After.” Fearful of this epitaph, Gary Gray seeks to avoid career pressures by working as a temp. Unfortunately, Gary repeatedly gets into trouble by being too conscientious and outperforming the permanent employees. No matter how hard Gary tries to be a meek office worker, he can’t seem to stop himself from becoming a competitive threat to his co-workers and superiors. Meanwhile, Gary’s girlfriend is smart and beautiful, and he just might be able to hold on to her if he can stay employed and quit accidentally mooning her mom. Gary runs afoul of a host of difficult characters in the workplace. Marge Meko is thoroughly incompetent, but she has “the goods” on the boss, so she easily gets away with blaming her errors on Gary. Marge’s boss, Steve, wants all problems swept under the rug before they become an inconvenience to his cushy position. Rae is a secretary with an overblown ego, intent on consolidating power by crushing all her perceived competitors. Gary is convinced that College President Burton is a mere figurehead, pulled from the ranks of the indigent and propped up by Rae, the power behind the throne. Through his trials Gary comes to the amazing revelation that it may actually be less painful to die trying than to live the “easy” life of the temp.
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Marge Meko: Temp Killer
The most important thing to know about being a temp at Downslope College is: keep your mouth shut. There’s not as much accountability at Downslope as there could be. If you come from a culture where there is more accountability—where, for example, wasting thousands of dollars is frowned upon—you might be tempted to point out something that you ought not point out. You have to learn not to notice too many errors, because fixing errors is oftentimes more difficult than sweeping them under the rug. Nobody wants their job to be more difficult than it needs to be, especially when they consider how easy it would be just to get rid of a meddlesome temp.
During my second week on the job, I was assigned the task of filing some paid invoices. Within a few minutes, it became clear that many of the invoices were duplicates. Marge Meko, the payables clerk, had paid them twice. What puzzled me was that the accounting program we use won’t let you pay an invoice number to the same vendor more than once. Later, I discovered that Marge makes up random invoice numbers when she’s inputting the billing information. It’s too much trouble to lean forward and read the real number off the invoice.
I stewed over my discovery. I didn’t want to get Marge Meko in trouble. I was a temp, two weeks at the assignment. On the other hand, the mistakes I had seen amounted to more than $8,000. Who knew how long Marge had been overpaying? I figured people would want to know if the college were bleeding money. I decided I had to say something. This is when I learned the first real accounting rule: shut up!
I took a couple of examples to show Steve, the accounting manager. Steve was not happy to hear what I had to say. He seemed to be taking it in stride that money was being wasted. What really had him upset was that somebody was pointing out the details of the wastage to him. It soon became clear that bringing this sort of thing to him was a big mistake.
Here’s what I learned from my big mistake. Steve has always assumed that money is being wasted. I think he believes that college money was born to be wasted. Further, I’m pretty sure he’s been aware that the accounting department is bleeding as much or more than anybody else. He was fine with that. His boss hasn’t made an issue of it. The auditors haven’t seemed to notice. Everything was fine. Everybody happily looked the other way and went on living a worry-free life. Then, one day, some punk-ass kid strolls into his office with a handful of mistakes that should have been filed away and forgotten. That punk-ass kid was me, and walking into his office was my mistake.
Steve was not pleased to learn that I had fingered Marge Meko as the source of the errors. The look on his face said that Marge Meko had the goods on him. Her boat was not to be rocked. The fear in his eyes turned to anger. He was not angry with Marge Meko; he was angry with me. He was going to teach me a lesson. “Here’s what I want you to do,” he said. “I want you to get all that money back. Figure out where it went and get it back, every penny. Understand?”
“Wouldn’t it be better if Marge did that?” It wasn’t that it would be such a hard job. It would take some time, some phone calls and emails I could live without, but it wouldn’t be difficult. I just didn’t like being punished for somebody else’s mistakes. Besides, maybe it would teach Marge Meko to take the extra second and look for the real invoice number.
“No,” he said with satisfaction in his voice. “It would be better if you did it. You’re new. It will help you understand how the process works around here.” He didn’t mean the process of getting back extra money paid to vendors. There was no process for getting overpayments back from vendors. The process he was speaking of was the one where you stayed away from the boss’s office and kept your concerns under your desk.
“What about Marge Meko?” I asked, pushing my luck.
I expected him to be short with me; instead he was pensive. “Good point. What about Marge Meko?” He scratched his face. “Have you spoken to her about this?”
“Good. Don’t.” The way he said it made me sure that he wasn’t planning on speaking to her either.
“She’ll go on making the same mistakes,” I told him.
“Okay?” he said, waiting for me to say something with a point to it. Then his face changed. “You’re right. We probably can’t have her making more of these mistakes . . . now that we know about them.” He spit the last part out at me as an accusation.
He wrenched his face to indicate that he was thinking hard about the matter of Marge Meko. I started to get up from the chair I was sitting in.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“I was leaving,” I answered. “I thought you were thinking about what you were going to say to Marge Meko, and I didn’t want to have my nose in things that are none of my business.”
“None of your business? Like hell, it’s none of your business. It’s all of your business.” He straightened himself up, like a man who had just made a decision. “I want you to confront her on it,” he said.
“I want you to tell Marge Meko that you’ve discovered her mistakes, and I want you to make her stop making them.”
“Me? I’m a temp. Marge Meko isn’t going to listen to me. You’re the only one . . .”
He cut me off. “Oh no! I’m not getting dragged into this. You hear me? I forbid you to even mention my name to Marge Meko. This is just between you and her. As far as she’s concerned, I don’t know anything about it.”
“How can I make her change?” I protested. “I’m not her boss. I’m not even her peer.”
“I don’t know. And I don’t care. Just fix the problem you’ve made, and then forget it ever happened. I don’t want to hear another word about it. Now go.” He pointed toward the door with such violence that I expected to hear a shoulder tendon pop.
I got up. “Gray,” he called after me. “I mean it. I don’t want to hear another word about this—from anybody.”
I didn’t approach Marge Meko that day. I needed a night to lie in bed and contemplate how I would manage the confrontation. When I finally got to sleep, I was assailed by nightmares in which I was assaulted by Marge Meko, in the guises of: a professional wrestler, the shadowy proprietress of the house of wax, and, I think, Hitler. In the morning, Gwen wanted to know who Marge Meko was, because I had shouted out her name in my sleep. Gwen probably would have been more upset about it, except that I didn’t seem to be enjoying whatever it was that this mysterious Marge Meko was doing to me. Gwen was right; my neck was still sore from the headlock.
I resolved to get the monkey off my back first thing in the morning. I determined that I would be as diplomatic with Marge Meko as I could possibly manage. Since I had no power to compel her to change her work practices, there was no point in antagonizing her.
At quarter after eight I pulled a chair to the side of her desk and sat down. “Can I talk to you for a minute, Marge?” I said softly.
“Who are you?” she asked. “And how do you know my name?”
If I may give a few words of description, Marge Meko is a stout, fifty-something woman. She has curly, brown hair that sits atop her head in resemblance to a Chia Pet. She has frighteningly thick arms with pudgy little hands, which she balls up into compact fists when she is agitated. She is not an exceptionally bright person, but she is just smart enough to be dangerous. She knows what she needs to know to keep her job, and how to keep it cushy. She knows little about how to do her job properly, and she doesn’t care to know. She has learned that doing her job properly is not necessary, and may even be harmful, when it comes to maintaining the good life. She’s been around for a long time because she has sharp animal instincts, and leaves no doubt that if she’s ever made to go, she’s taking a few people with her. She gets good merit raises every year, and takes time off when she wants it. Her superiors have decided that those concessions are a small price to pay to stay on her good side. She can’t multiply six times three without using a calculator, but in the world of college politics, she’s a very smart employee.
“I’m Gary Gray.” I swallowed hard. “I’ve been temping here for almost two weeks.”
She scrutinized my face. “Yeah, I’ve seen you around. I thought you were the kid who delivered the bottles for the water cooler.”
“Actually, I’ve been filing your paid invoices.”
“Oh, have you now?” She was very quiet and calm, yet there was something ominous behind the tranquility.
“Yeah, and Marge, I’ve found something that I thought you would want to know about.”
Her eyebrows arched. She’d been playing the game too long to miss the alert, despite my lame diplomacy. Her little hands began forming into fists. “Oh indeed, Mr. Gray. I’m very curious to know what it is you think you’ve found among my invoices after nearly two whole weeks mastering the ropes of this department. By all means, do tell.”
“Well, Ms. Meko,” I didn’t feel confident calling her Marge anymore. “It looks like some of the invoices might have been paid more than once.”
“And how, after two weeks, excuse me, nearly two weeks, of temporary filing duty, did you come to that conclusion?”
Fortunately, I had thought to bring an example with me. I showed her two copies, each with a payment stub stapled to the front. The stubs indicated that a check for $403.38 had been issued for each copy. Marge Meko examined the evidence long enough to see that it proved my assertion before tossing the papers back at me. “Did Steve put you up to this?” she demanded, squinting daggers toward the accounting manager’s office.
“No, absolutely not,” I lied. “He doesn’t know anything about it. I didn’t see any need to get him involved. I just thought you would want to know about this. I mean, if the roles were reversed, I absolutely would want you to tell me.”
She didn’t believe me. “You sure you didn’t go running straight to him with these invoices to show off how clever a little temp you are? You sure he didn’t send you out here cause he’s too chickenshit to face me?”
My face must have been beet red. “No, no. This is just between you and me.” Sensing that I was too eager in my defense, I tried the casual tact. “You know, I just thought I’d give you the heads up, in case you wanted to know. But hey, just say the word, and I’ll keep these things to myself when they happen . . .” Marge Meko’s left eye began to twitch. “I mean, if they happen . . .” That didn’t ease the twitch. “I mean, you know, I’ll keep things to myself.”
“Oh, I’ve got a word for you: stop trying to blame your incompetence on me.”
“Don’t play dumb with me, temp. I see what’s going on here. You were supposed to file away these invoices, and you didn’t know how to do it. Or maybe you were just too lazy to do it. Was that it? Too lazy? Too lazy to find a real job? Too lazy to file a few invoices away? Huh? I bet they call you ‘Lazy Temp Gary Gray’, don’t they?” The name did have a certain ring to it, and she was on to something about me being lazy. I certainly am too lazy, for example, to process payment twice on the same invoice. So I let her go on without interrupting, to see if she had additional reasonable points to make. “Instead of filing those invoices, like you were told, you just threw the whole pile back in my basket. Figured nobody would notice, didn’t you? Well, I guess you ran up against somebody just a little bit smarter than you.”
“Who?” I asked.
“Don’t screw with me, temp boy. Your crap don’t fly here.” She pushed her chair back from her desk. I thought she was about to put me into a headlock and make me say “Uncle” like in my dream. Instead, she swiveled herself around so that we were eye to eye. “This is what’s going to happen now,” she commanded. “You are going to go back to whatever hole you crawled out of and keep quiet. I don’t care if you do your job or not; I’m not your babysitter. But, you are not ever going to blame your problems on me again. Next time you try something like that, we’ll see what Steve has to say about it. I should let him know what you’re up to right now, but I’m too soft-hearted. Now, get away from me, before I change my mind.”
I’d told Steve that there was no point in sending me to talk to Marge Meko, hadn’t I? Yes, I believe I had. But then, when you realize that Steve wasn’t looking for results, so much as he was looking for excuses, I guess it was as good a management decision as any he’s made.
For a couple days I actually worried that Marge Meko would go on making her mistakes, and Steve would hold me accountable for failing to change her ways. I needn’t have worried. It wasn’t that Marge Meko changed her ways; she went on double-paying invoices. She was a little more careful about it for a few days before she slipped right back into her old habits. Yet, Steve seemed to have forgotten about the issue altogether. I guess when he said he wanted to hear no more about it, that’s exactly what he meant. At least he’s a man of his word.
The only thing Steve mentioned that touched upon the matter came a couple of weeks later. I had collected refund checks from the overpaid vendors, in strict accordance with the punishment for my gratuitous whistle blowing. I’d gotten about $4,000 back, and was expecting more any day. When Steve called me into his office, I thought he was going to give me grief for not having gotten more of it back already. That just proves how slow on the up-take I am.
“I see you’ve turned in quite a few refund checks,” Steve said. It didn’t sound like he was displeased with only $4,000.
“Yeah, there should be more coming next week.”
His eyes fell down to the floor. “How many more?”
“Three or four checks, another grand maybe.”
He sighed. “You should be doing collections. Seems like you’re pretty good at this.” His tone was not complimentary.
“It’s not that hard,” I said. “Our vendors don’t want random payments sitting around on their books. Most are eager to give it back.”
“Listen Gary, maybe it’s time for you to take a break from pursuing this money. I mean, all these checks coming in, it’s out of the ordinary. People aren’t always comfortable with things that are out of the ordinary. Besides, I think you’ve learned your lesson.”
I’d learned a lot of lessons in those few weeks. One of them was that people aren’t always comfortable with things that are out of the ordinary because things that are out of the ordinary often cause outsiders to look more closely at the ordinary, and people who have been turning a blind eye toward the ordinary don’t often want outsiders to examine it closely. There’s nothing like things that are out of the ordinary to raise red flags; Steve was decidedly opposed to red flags being raised up over the accounting department.
“There’s still $3,000 out there that I could get back— and that’s just the money I know about,” I protested. I didn’t say it out of naiveté. I knew damned well that Steve didn’t care about that money. I guess I wanted to pretend to be naive, just to force Steve to admit that he didn’t care.
“Oh, well, let’s not be too greedy, okay?” That was a ridiculous thing to say. It was our money, after all. But, it was as close as I could bring him to confessing that responsibly stewarding the college’s assets was the least of his concerns.
After the next week, no more refund checks came. Steve was very pleased with my decreased productivity. Had I not been a temp, I’m sure I would have made Employee of the Month.