They all hate me.
The results of HR’s 360 feedback report weighed heavily on William. The twelve marketing professionals he managed considered him a domineering, soulless grouch. He made them uncomfortable. They were afraid of him. He closed the email.
William sat in his office with the door shut for the rest of the afternoon watching emails appear that he did not open. Layoffs loomed. The 360 review was part of upper management’s decision making process. That morning, William had been certain he’d survive the cuts. He’d thought he was in line for a promotion. He was a decent man and good at his job. But now he felt himself trudging towards the firing squad. Since Sarah left him, he could barely afford the house and the alimony. If he lost his job, his Senior VP life would erode into that of a destitute beggar in a matter of days.
He opened the HR report again, scrolled to the anonymous quotes. “During meetings he isn’t fun. It would be nice if he showed a sense of humor.”
Since when do you have to be a comedian to manage email marketing campaigns?
He shut his computer down and packed his briefcase, stepped out of his office, and watched his team working silently in their cubicles. Before, he’d seen them as dedicated employees focused on their assignments. But now they looked like prisoners. Frozen, tense, captive. He waited for someone to ask why he was leaving at 3 o’clock, but no one dared.
William’s sighs echoed off the tall ceilings of his hollow living room. He sat in his recliner, the only piece of furniture Sarah hadn’t taken, haunted by a quote: “I think we’d all be better at our jobs if the work environment was a little looser. More like Jimmy Fallon.”
The team posted good numbers and the higher-ups seemed happy with them. But could they be performing even better? Was William’s stern personality holding the team back? The kickoff meeting with Nakahata International was on Friday. A major new account. William’s final test.
He turned on his television and watched Jimmy Fallon clips on YouTube. Jimmy was charming, engaged, enthusiastic. He slung jokes casually, always with himself as the butt. The guest was showcased and celebrated and if a gag was on anyone, it was on Jimmy.
William paused the clip and stood to look at himself in the one mirror Sarah had let him keep. “Your hair looks great, Becca,” he said in a gooey voice he’d never heard before. “What wig shop did you buy it at?” He frowned and sighed. Why did his attempt at humor come out so cruel? He rubbed his face, tried on a Jimmy smile reaching for mischief and glee. “That’s a great question you ask, John. Might I suggest you Google it before wasting our time?” He shook his head. “Google it,” he tried again, but it was still off. It had the rhythm of a joke, but William wasn’t sure what was supposed to be funny about it. Again he seemed vicious. His smile looked perverse.
He sat in his chair and stared at the paused Jimmy, accepting that he could not be the humorous host his team wanted. But a recommended clip caught his eye: 48 MINUTES OF LOCAL NEWS BLOOPERS. He pressed play, and his spirits rose. He forgot his troubles and laughed at the flubs, pratfalls, and accidental sexual innuendos. These anchors were just like him: they weren’t there to be funny. They weren’t trying to be. They were doing a serious job, and through honest mistakes they managed to cut tension and unite their crews with infectious laughter. And the moments that elicited the biggest response and the most cohesive bonding were when a news anchor passed gas.
He considered the tactic.
William had never found flatulence funny, even as a child. It was nothing but a byproduct of common digestion. But now, when observing the act from this desperate angle, he saw that the humor lay in the sudden appearance of something grotesque and primal in a buttoned-up situation. It was the contrast, the reminder that underneath our slacks and ties, we are animals. William calculated that an unexpected fart had the maximum laugh potential, and it would not require his ability to sell a joke. The stunt would be humiliating and disgusting, but his career and his livelihood were on the line. He assessed the risks, and he decided to pursue it.
William lay on his side on the hardwood kitchen floor, surrounded by drained chickpea cans and jugs of milk. He pulled his knees to his chest, huffed in gulps of air. He’d been straining for hours without success.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d passed gas. His seventh-grade efforts to stifle the urge had been too effective. He’d lost his ability. Mechanical aid was necessary.
Early Friday morning, William drove deep downtown, to a neighborhood of gun stores, and knocked on the ancient glass door of Bindlebink’s Magic and Joke Shop.
“You don’t want nothing in there,” said a derelict man laying face-down on the sidewalk.
“You ain’t that desperate. He brung me here in a truck.”
The man didn’t reply, and after a minute without a response to his knocks, William turned away.
But the door squealed opened and a white-haired man who seemed to have been electrocuted many times looked at William and said, “I know what you need.”
William followed Mr. Bindlebink, tip-toeing around mountains of dusty boxes, then into the dark and dirty basement, where Mr. Bindlebink reached into an old oak barrel and withdrew a tangled mass of cackling wires running out of a football-sized battery caked in chalky corrosion. To William it looked, and sounded, like a buzzing hornet’s nest.
“Pull your pants down,” Mr. Bindlebink said.
“For the audience to feel, it must seem real.”
“Our ears are fine-tuned instruments. We know where flatulence originates. The placement must be accurate for the gag to sell. And when you sell the gag, your audience will smell and gag.”
William untied his shoes and slid them off, unbuckled his belt, and pulled off his slacks. He folded them and set them on a crate of rubber chickens.
“And your underwear,” Mr. Bindlebink said.
William slid down his briefs, hiding his penis and testicles in his hands. Mr. Bindlebink shouted, “Bee!” and smacked William’s hands with a long flyswatter, causing him to reveal his genitals. Bindlebink hooted laughter while William turned red. “Up you go,” Bindlebink said, ushering William into stirrups on top of a crate of rubber dog turds.
William lay back and spread his legs in the stirrups, exposing his private parts. Mr. Bindlebink slid on a welder’s mask. William was unsure if it was one of his jokes or if it served a legitimate function. Bindlebink delicately threaded wires up and down William’s ass crack, taping them in place, securing the round speaker module over William’s anus hole, and cinching the battery around his waist. The wires buzzed and sparks crackled into William’s skin. Bindlebink finished his work and William noticed the man was ungloved.
“To mask the sound, your clothing must compound. Yes?”
Bindlebink led William to fitting room where he layered him in suit after suit at progressively larger sizes until he had seven on, the fart machine’s buzzing was silenced, and William felt like he was bound in a body cast, roasting in a rotisserie.
Mr. Bindlebink handed William the ignition switch. “Careful,” he told him. “The surprise works but once. If you get greedy with the switch, you’ll be weedy in the ditch.”
William realized it was nearly 9 o’clock and he didn’t have time to clarify what the hell Bindlebink was talking about. Late for the kickoff meeting with Nakahata International, he tried to pay, but Mr. Bindlebink insisted no payment was necessary.
William stepped over the man on the sidewalk, now dead, returned to his car, and sped towards work, his sweat soaking through his many suits. He sniffed and choked, the suit smell reminding him of a gas station.
“Pardon me,” William said as he entered the Nakahata meeting. “I was taking care of some important business.”
He was panting, hot pink, and dripping blobs of sweat onto the conference table. Under all the suits, his movements were short and stiff. He felt the six men from Nakahata and twelve members of his team glare at him while he shuffled into his chair.
The group wondered why William was so wet and so red and so bulky, like a water balloon ready to pop. No one said a word. The room was tense, severe. Ripe for comic relief.
William gripped the ignition switch. He leaned back in his chair, propped his shoes on the edge of the conference table, and angled his anus and its speaker towards the group.
“As I was saying,” Charlene said.
William clicked the ignition.
“My husband passed away last night,” Charlene finished.
A patently false fart — tinny and digital, a recording of a recording of a recording — wheezed onto the table.
William’s froze. The Nakahata men looked repulsed. “I’m sorry,” one of them said to Charlene. “But would you mind saying again? We couldn’t hear over whatever it is your boss is trying to do.”
Charlene choked back tears. “My husband passed away last night.”
William sat stiff, mouth gaping, face red, his legs and ass spread. He felt the implosion of his career and life roaring over him.
“We are so sorry,” Carol said, hugging Charlene and shooting William a furious glare over her shoulder.
Desperate, William pressed the ignition again and the same low-resolution fart played. Peter rolled his eyes. No one laughed. No one’s spirits were lifted.
William cursed Mr. Bindlebink and his bad machine. He lowered himself down from the table and dropped his head into his hands, crying. As he wept, one tear dropped onto the red nub of the ignitor, seeping down through a crack.
A third fart.
“I swear to god I didn’t do that,” William said.
But the team didn’t hear him over the whoosh of the blaze firing out of William’s ass, lighting his pants and pants and pants and pants on fire. In an instant he was an inferno, each of Bindlebink’s kerosene-soaked suits multiplying the flames.
“Jesus Christ,” he wailed, stumbling circles around the conference room failing to put himself out. “Help!”
The fire set off the fart machine, and as he screamed and writhed on the floor, more farts cackled out of his ass. Bigger ones. Wet and hefty, dynamic and real.
A Nakahata man smiled. Then another.
Greg from William’s team laughed.
And from there, the laughter spread to each team member surrounding William, until even Charlene was doubled-over gasping between exalted chortles while William convulsed on the floor, screaming as his skin and bones charred.
My team loves me, William thought as his own smoke filled his lungs and his vision faded.
The fire department scooped up William’s comatose body, and his team secured the Nakahata account.
No one was laid off.
“Hey, hey, did someone bring a duck to work?” William said, stepping into the office for the first time in nine months. The staff looked up from their computers as he lifted one leg. He pressed the ignition switch. A reedy fart crackled.
Carol gasped. Charlene vomited in her mouth. The others shielded their eyes from the gruesome sight of William’s head-to-toe blood-purple scars. He looked like a molten creature, undercooked and overcooked all at once. A fugitive from Hell.
“Come on,” William said, tap-dancing while clicking off more farts. “I’ve tangoed with death and now I know life’s all about being a goofball, cutting it up, joking–“
Greg, the digital assets coordinator and a former college linebacker and a deeply religious man, charged at William, screaming that he was a demon, and tackled him through the 11th-floor window. His body sank as the staff howled laughter.
William crashed into the bed of a pickup truck that roared to life and drove downtown.
Greg squinted at the logo on the side — Bindlebink’s Magic and Joke Shop — and thought it sounded familiar.