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HUGEPOP!!!Bedtime StoriesOne Man's WorldThe Mispronouncer

Safety Seminar Session One

             There had been safety issues. Violations of company safety policies. Perpetrated by Jerome, yes, but he had perpetrated these violations on purpose because he disagreed with the policies. He had not thought he would be caught. Or, if caught, he had not thought he would be punished. He certainly didn’t think that the special safety seminar night classes on the company campus were a real thing. Surely they were myths concocted to frighten resistant employees into ceasing to do things the way they preferred to do things in favor of doing things the way the company preferred them to do things.

               But the classes were real, as it turned out, and Jerome was going to be fired if he didn’t attend them. Tonight was the first class. He was required to attend all week, Monday through Friday. They were long! Two hours a piece according to the schedule. His impulse was to doubt that the classes would actually be that long, but considering how everything else had turned out, what he most doubted now was his own ability to assess the doubtworthiness of things.

               The classroom was in a building attached to the back of the warehouse where Jerome worked. It clung to the warehouse like an external vestigial organ. The cars in the parking lot were spaced out as if to emphasize the lack of camaraderie felt by the company’s most unsafe employees. Or maybe, in consideration of who was required to attend, everyone was rightly afraid of door dings. Jerome parked far away from everyone, too, and walked inside by himself, the spring breeze uncombing his hair. The building had a sign over its entrance which read “Personal Development & Growth + Safety” where the first “and” was an ampersand and the second “and” was a plus sign. The doors were stiff, hard to open. The lights in the small foyer were harsh. Straight ahead, Jerome saw double doors with a printed sign taped to them reading “SAFETY SEMINAR CLASS – SESSION 1: THROUGH THESE DOORS,” and beneath it in faint handwriting was an addendum that read “inside this room.”

               There were more people inside than Jerome had expected based on the number of cars in the parking lot. At least 30. Perhaps some of them had carpooled. He dimly recognized a few of the others, but knew none of their names. The seats were affixed to long tables which curved inward, arranged in two columns steeply rising six rows deep to the back of the room and separated by a central aisle. The instructor, a chubby pale man in slacks and a sweater sat in a red plastic chair at the front of the room checking the time on his phone.

               “I’m not late,” said Jerome.

               The instructor chuckled. “No, but you aren’t very early, either! And while not being very early isn’t a safety issue in itself, it certainly doesn’t indicate much enthusiasm for safety, now does it? Why don’t you sit in one of these front rows? There’s lots of space.”

               Jerome hated the instructor instantly. He surveyed the room for a seat. The back rows were filled. The middle rows had a few seats available, but he would have to sit in buffer seats between people now avoiding his eyes. He was not a front-row guy, never had been, but it would make his eventual exit faster. He’d be the first one out the door. He sat in the seat closest to the central aisle in the second row up from the floor.

               “And now it’s time to start,” said the instructor. He stood and stepped forward, looking up at his reluctant pupils. “I’m Kerry Dollen, and tonight is the first of five nights of specific, detailed instruction pertaining to your safety and the safety of your co-workers while you’re on the job. I know that most of you, if not all of you, would rather be anywhere else, but my hope is not only that you’ll find what I have to say interesting, but more importantly, that you’ll feel compelled to apply these principles and think about changing the way you work. However, it’s important to note that no matter what you think of what I have to say, you must attend every night of class, and you must stay for each session in its entirety with no exceptions. The one exception would be a serious family emergency. But even then, you would have to make up the class that you missed in order to retain your job. Is that understood?”

               Jerome didn’t know if anyone behind him nodded or indicated understanding in any other way, but he certainly didn’t. He wasn’t going to give Kerry Dollen anything.

               But Kerry Dollen seemed satisfied with whatever response he may have gotten, and proceeded to launch into one of the most tedious lectures Jerome had ever endured. There were no visual aids, no jokes, no attempts at humorous anecdotes or other asides. It was an excruciating stream of pure information delivered in a condescending tone. And it was repetitive. Constant review, summaries of summaries. And it was all stuff Jerome already knew, but didn’t agree with. It was exactly what you’d expect a company like the one he worked for to believe.

               Time crept by. Jerome had his cell phone silenced, but he pulled it halfway out of his jacket pocket every so often to check the time and he was always disappointed. He would have checked even more often, but he had to be surreptitious about it because Kerry Dollen was insistent that no one be on their phones, and he said that he would mark anyone using their phone as absent so their attendance for the session wouldn’t count. Boring, condescending, and strict, Jerome’s initial hatred of Kerry Dollen only seemed more justified with each passing minute. He was not Jerome’s type of guy. They could never be friends, not even in a different context, Jerome was sure of that.

               The class had just passed the hour mark and Jerome was beginning to wonder if there might be some kind of intermission. When Kerry Dollen turned to direct his lecture at the other side of the room, Jerome checked his phone again and saw that he had two missed calls and a text message. Double checking to make sure that Kerry Dollen was still focused on the poor souls across the aisle, Jerome opened his notifications hoping that the text was a joke or comment or picture or meme from one of his friends, anything that might inject a little dose of levity into this torture.

               Both missed calls and the text message were from Jerome’s sister. The text read, Tried calling but couldn’t reach you. Mom died tonight. Choked on food. Call me as soon as you can.

               Jerome did not allow himself a single thought. He had to leave, he had to get out of this room, and only then would he absorb, then think, and then, finally, feel. He rose from his seat and descended the few aisle steps to the floor, angling for the doors.

               “Hold on,” said Kerry Dollen, somewhere in Jerome’s periphery. “Hold on, sir, what are you doing? Where are you going?”

               Jerome stopped, turning to face the loathsome safety instructor. “I’m leaving,” he said. “I have to go.”

               “You can’t go,” said Kerry Dollen. “You think you can just get up and leave? We’re barely half done for the night. If you go now, I’ll change your status to ‘absent.’ Which will almost certainly mean your dismissal from the company. Return to your seat, please, so we can continue. As is, we’ll now have to stay a few minutes late to make up for this interruption. Which I’m sure will make you very popular with your classmates.” He turned to look at the class as if expecting murmurs of hostile agreement, but received none.

               “I have to go,” said Jerome. “It’s an emergency. A family emergency. You said there were exceptions for family emergencies.”

               “Ha!” said Kerry Dollen. “Now isn’t that just the most likely story I’ve ever heard? And how would you know there was a family emergency, hmm? Wouldn’t you need to check your phone, which you were instructed not to do? Weren’t you told that if you looked at your phone, your attendance for this session would no longer count in your favor?”

               “My mom died,” said Jerome, voice flat as an iced-over pond. “She choked on food.”

               “Ha!” Kerry Dollen scoffed again. He was relishing the conflict. “It just keeps getting better. ‘Choked on food,’ you say? And this is the woman who taught you to chew, theoretically? I don’t supposed you have any proof of these flagrantly false claims you insist on making?”

               Jerome pulled his phone out of his pocket. The text message from his sister was still on the screen. He felt another rumble deep inside of himself when he saw it again, something was giving way, cracking open. He handed the phone to Kerry Dollen.

               The instructor peered at the text message and mouthed the words that Jerome had memorized instantly and against his will: Tried calling but couldn’t reach you. Mom died tonight. Choked on food. Call me as soon as you can.

               Jerome expected more pushback, more argument from Kerry Dollen. He expected him to protest that he couldn’t be sure the number from which the text message had come really belonged to Jerome’s sister, that he couldn’t even be sure Jerome had a sister. He expected accusations about planning this all out with a friend beforehand, talking someone he knew into texting him about a fraudulent “emergency” during class so he could leave early without consequence.

But Kerry Dollen did none of these things. Instead, his pale face reached for and achieved new levels of paleness. He handed the phone back to Jerome with an expression of terror twisting his features. “Please,” he said. “I’m sorry…I wasn’t…I…” He turned to face the class. “You all have to understand,” he said, trying to project his voice as he had before, but he couldn’t, now. “You have to understand me. I have a job to do. The company is very, very strict about how I conduct these classes.” The hostile murmurs he’d sought in support now came, but against him. The class was not on his side. He turned back to Jerome. “You can go, sir. Obviously, you can go. Please, call your sister, go be with your family. I’m so sorry.”

               Jerome looked at the doors and imagined walking through them into the swirling void that awaited him on the other side. Then he looked back at Kerry Dollen, who was writhing like a grub on fish hook. “I’m staying,” said Jerome.

               “But your mother…” said Kerry Dollen.

               “I’m staying,” said Jerome.

               “All right,” said Kerry Dollen, holding up his hands as if to ward off a blow. “Whatever you want.”

               “And I’m in charge now,” said Jerome. “I’m leading this class now.”

               Kerry Dollen swallowed, cowered.

               “And you’re ordering pizza,” said Jerome, pointing at Kerry Dollen. “Pizza for all of us. Out of your own pocket.”

               Kerry Dollen nodded eagerly, grateful for this opportunity for absolution. He fumbled his phone out of his back pocket. “What toppings does everyone want?”

               “And I’m gonna see if I can figure out how to turn that on,” said Jerome, pointing to a projector affixed to the ceiling. “And I’m gonna try to connect my phone and we’re gonna watch a movie. An action movie. While we eat our pizza. And you’re gonna give all of us credit for being here.”

               “Of course,” said Kerry Dollen. “Of course, of course. But again, before I call for the pizza, what about the toppings?”

               “And any of us can come and go as we please,” said Jerome. “We can leave right now, if we want, or we can stay. We can stay all night, if we want, watching more movies, ordering more pizza, and we’ll need drinks, too. But the main thing is that no one has to stay, but no one has to go, either, and as long as we’re here, we’re just hanging out, having a good time, relaxing, and no one’s talking about company safety policies. Especially not you.” And he pointed at Kerry Dollen as he said this, but everyone would have known exactly who he meant.

Discussion Questions

  • Would you rather deal with the emotional weight and logistical headaches of your mother’s death or spend an evening eating pizza and watching movies with a bunch of your unsafe coworkers?

  • In a classroom, in which row do you truly belong?

  • In what ways could you benefit from a five-night mandatory safety seminar?