§1. Tiny Cities Made of Ashes:

        Zoe and Angie were kicked up on the couch. It had taken Zoe all of five minutes after they returned to the apartment to find the little drool-stain on the pillow, from where Angie had napped, and she proceeded to make a pretend big deal about it. Zoe had grown up practically under the tracks, in a peripheral town, in an abject province, nestled at the edge of a backwards region, at a decidedly down-turned time of economic history- so she'd seen and gotten quite used to her share of decrepit. She even, Angie thought, maybe harbored a bit of nostalgia for the insect life, which was not-so-subtly apparent in her after-hours dress sense, where bugs, bones and other layers of nominally repellant symbolism made frequent splashes across her accessories and general sense of couture. Drooling upon the upholstery, however, was uncool.
        "I don't see it, this conversation you're talking about, I just don't see it happening."
        "The 'my breakdown was bigger than yours' discussion? It's stupid, it's pointless, and it's just lame."
        "Zoe, that's not what I'm talking about."
        "What? I just want to know what's happened, the reason for all these changes. You’re unemployed, wealthy and on the wrong side of the country - none of which you were last week."
        Zoe was, like Angie, from out-east, really East, and hence of some fairly stout Irish Catholic ancestry and upbringing, where believe it or not the portrait of the Queen Mother went in one corner of the kitchen and the Blessed Mary went in the other. There was a great deal of baggage, as there always is for those who are aware of it- along with multi- generational alcohol abuse passed down through both families, within a larger culture of acceptance of such behavior, well-insulated for hundreds of years from the successive Puritan , Evangelical and Victorian pushes of moderation and/or abstinence which had taken place throughout much of the rest of the Continent, while also suffering, on a more localized level, from very long, bleak winters crammed into small, sea-swept houses with disproportionately large families, and resources-based seasonal economies. Y’know, not to make excuses or anything…
        That said though, they were also two women who really liked to go on a tear, often breezily putting away every muddling frat boy three times their combined body mass in the bar. So-called hard men were knocked well out of their socks whilst being drunk over, then under, then round the table. It approached midnight, still hovering close to 30 C in the basement apartment, with the air thickening. Angie was still complaining of residual train-lag, and it had been an excruciatingly long day at the office for Zoe, so they opted, as they often did when they were together, for the non-social option.
        This didn't mean of course, they weren't still tipping the bottle like someone was going to take it away from them. On the contrary, with just each other, they found themselves all the more intent,applying an almost meditative fixation to the bottom of their glasses.
        "Zoe, god, what are we going to tell each other that we don't know?"
        "Well I guess that's a fair point..."
        "Besides, I'm not talking ancient history, I just want a re-cap."
        "You mean just-happened stuff?"
        "Since I've been away basically."
        "Christ Angie, that's a lot you know."
        "Well if it's a lot you best get started then..."
        "Me? Why am I first on the wheel here?"
        Their bare feet were up on the coffee table, having resisted a early-evening primal compulsion to paint toenails. Zoe had arrived home just past five, after Angie's post-nap shower, and after a relatively brief exchange ("...wanna go out? hell no. right, drinks then. ah, hmm, let me think- oh, alright..."), which then transformed itself shortly into a $102.48 receipt at the unusually-exotically stocked and suspiciously close-by LC. The return trip to Zoe’s couch had just been a matter of the grocery store, and the smoke shop, and the pizza place.

        A sixer of Guiness had been emptied just prior to, during and after the ill-advised 'Dozen Cheeses' pizza had been reduced to little more than its folded, flattened cardboard container. Two ample joints were then meticulously rolled to the accompaniment of a Shiraz, and not long after the first was smoked, just as the next bottle was beginning its first plaintive cries to be opened. Finally, in just the last half- hour, the Bombay Sapphire was called into service along with generous lime and ice, indicating all intentions of some truly profound inter-personal spillage.

        She flicked her beetle-shaped lighter with a loud click, re-crossed her legs, took a long drag and arranged the folds of her dress. Zoe looked, half-through nature, half-through contrivance, more like Louise Brooks than a thousand of her similarly fixated young women here in town. Brooks seemed to have been for local girls what Betty Page still seemed to be for West Coasters, though both strains of idolatry seemed to be currently on the wane, these being images from increasingly distant and unconnected era which required some degree of cultural memory to really get an aesthetic fix on. That was Zoe though, a cultural memory to kill for, Angie felt, along with hair so perfectly, naturally jettest-of-jet black, cut into a bob that sloped down into her eyes, and then if that wasn't enough she'd skin so white and blemish free it had made her want to strangle and flay the girl quite frequently through high school.
        "Because I'm the one who wants to hear you talk for an hour? What you're going to give that up, in this city, someone actually listening to you with even a smatter of sincere interest? Gawd…"
        "Again, good point."
        They poured a couple of serious four finger gins, lit some candles despite the heat, ‘just to clear the smoke’. While Zoe was in the bathroom Angie ran to the closet, removed a broom and dustpan and frantically swept as much of the living room floor as seemed to be skittering away from her. She dumped the dustpan out the window, then did it again, then again. As she was carefully replacing the broom, she recalled vaguely her grandmother saying something about paprika and ants once, in a similarly hot room with the smell of gin in the air, which was not unusual given the wood-stove in the kitchen roared year-round and Pop was fairly heavy into the juniper and camphor. Interesting as far as natural, country-style remedies went, but before Angie really thought to actually dig through Zoe's spice rack she was back, nodding her head and making little 'okay, okay' gestures. They positioned themselves at opposite ends of the couch, Angie casting about for rolling papers as Zoe tied her bangs back out for her face, twisting them into little pigtails, just she started in on it.


        "So I'd been working at this PR firm for a few weeks doing market surveys. There were probably about a hundred of us, rotating shifts, starting ten in the morning and going sometimes until ten at night, depending on the time zone we were calling, since we seemed to call all over the place. Some of the surveys were super- short, maybe about political parties, or the funding for public transit, or how you might go about quitting smoking, but other ones were unbelievably long. There was one, about grocery stores, that you could never get through in less than an half- hour, and if you happen to get some old lonely lady, or someone who didn't speak terribly good English, it could drag out like a Kubrick movie: which store is the cleanest? The best-lit? The freshest, best quality baked goods? Best assortment of household supplies? I remember getting one kid in Regina, a music student, who somehow got me sidetracked onto computer games, and we must have talked for close to two hours about Gran Turismo. It was completely twisted, having these intricately detailed conversations with completely disembodied strangers. One of my supervisors, the nice guy, said I had the Voice, that if I really wanted to make some serious money, just between me and him, that I ought to give the triple-x a whirl, but it was between jobs, and I was really just praying desperately that something would fall into my lap. Anything really, so long as it did not involve strapping a phone to my head for eight hours a day. That's apparently all that's involved with phone sex. I guess it's all scripted for you, right there on the computer screen like a survey questionnaire.
        Anyway, like I said it had been about three weeks, and it was getting really tired, and a bit stressful too. The management was in negotiation with some computer company to replace all the existing phone and terminal systems with something called 'predictive dialing' which somehow meant the program did all the initial phoning, and re-dialing, and logging of numbers with a busy signal, or no answer, or voice-mail, all by itself. What this meant for the humans sitting in the little cubicles was that the second you picked up the headset, there would always be someone answering on the other end. Just non-stop rejection or unsolicited questioning, for eight hours straight. So needless to say people who'd been there doing this for a while were pretty uptight about it, and had actually gotten into negotiations with a telecom outfit to unionize. There was a lot of hush hush back room talk, which can be really aggravating if you really just want not to work at a place at all.
        But just as all this was getting really intolerable I get this call at my friend's where I'm staying from a personnel place I'd applied to a month before, and that I'd pretty much written off. Seems a big company head office needs an administrator to work in their legal department, someone who doesn't mind 'hard work' and who can adjust to a 'sensitive field'. The lady who called me didn't want to say too much, or said that the contact at the company itself could explain the position much better, but if I was interested they'd seen my resume and were interested in meeting me that week. So I finished my shift and told the nastiest supervisor on duty at the moment thanks, but I was getting pretty close to snapping. I think I even twitched a bit while I was talking but it was easily the most satisfying exchange I'd ever had in the place."

        Cut now to that Friday morning, and I'm walking up to the place. Set back from the street, away from any other businesses far from downtown, surrounded by trees on all sides. Its huge, five stories of solid red brick and glass, each floor in steps like a ziggurat, sprawling garden and grounds. There's even a wind sock fluttering on the roof, indicating, well you know, a place for helicopters to land, but even as I get up to the front door, which is set into a solid wall of plate glass, there's still no logo, no company name, nothing. Standing next to the elevator doors, glass on all sides of the lobby, to my right there's a ten foot high Inuit sculpture of the raven and coyote chasing one another around a rock, to my left behind glass I can see the foot of a wide, wood spiral staircase. I get in the elevator, its all wood, and press the button labeled 'reception'. Okay, so then things are really getting strange, because first one of the receptionists I immediately notice is from out East, her accent is so thick it sounds silly even to me, but she tells me to sit and wait and so I do. So I'm in this waiting area off to the side and I notice there are an awful lot of flowers for a corporate office, and the furniture, like the couch and chair set, is really traditional. Not functional like you see in most places, but all wood and patterns and more like someone's dining room or something. That's when I spot the wagon. Its next to two heavy-duty cedar double-doors next to the spiral staircase which seems to run through the axis of the building. It's a horse drawn wagon, like you'd see on any farm out home, except its got no side panels, so its flat, and again, its covered with flowers. I guess at that point, had I been really astute, I might have put it together, but I was too nervous about my hair, and if maybe my skirt was maybe a bit too high, and all those last-second things that you think once you've been plunked down into a situation that's completely out of your hands. I took a deep breath and just waited.

        …okay, okay, I'll cut it with the back story and just skip to the end. You have to remember this is me were talking about here, favorite subject in grade school always art, wrote my honors thesis on the abject literature of Blanchot. Just about exactly 18 months to the day I set foot in the place I was driving to Portland, company car, to try and get some hard facts about a mistaken cat cremation, booting along the I-5, yelling at one of the Company's lawyers about the way a regional manager in Idaho had handled a sexual misconduct complaint, when I realized that the whole place was crumbling, that just the fact I'd been handed so much so soon did nothing to instill me with any kind of confidence, that I'd essentially been set-up as hole-plugger in a massive, multi-national corporation that was very quickly, and very aptly, hemorrhaging from a thousand places at once. As it had turned out, as you know, the place was the second largest 'death care' venture in the world and was mismanaged to the hilt. I started out as a file clerk, moved into legal damage control, started going out into the field, tracking down money and mistakes and monkey-business just about everywhere they sent me, and they sent me everywhere.
        They had funeral homes in Mexico, columbaria in Puerto Rico, cemeteries all over in practically every state and province on the continent. At least the ones where they were allowed in by regulators. They owned casket companies, and monument construction sites, and insurance sales, telemarketing interests and floral shops and limo outfits. Ambulance and Emergency response teams. If there was death or dying in it, they were there. They had side-deals with the Southern Afro-American Baptist League down in Dixieland, and the Crystal Evangelical Ministries in California, the Masons in the UK and the Buddhist Chinese and the Nation of Islam and practically anyone who could give them access to the grieving. The backers poured in from everywhere when the books looked good, stable industry after all, so the working capital came through big Manhattan outfits with menacing names. Osiris Corporation, Charon Holdings, Blackstone Capital: just some of the letterheads that crossed my desk from day-to-day. The investment flow was crazy-making to follow though, money went to and through so many shells all through the Bahamas and Bermuda and the Jerseys and the Netherlands, and there were so many deals and transactions going on all the time that even an army of accountants spread over three separate headquarters had no way to keep track of it all.
        And there was like a bunker mentality, this was life during wartime, because they'd been side-swiped by this wicked civil suit in Louisiana a few years before I arrived, that clipped them in the end for close to $200 million. Management decided the only way to bounce back from that was to go full steam ahead with new acquisitions because they were in this kind of arms race rivalry with another funeral conglomerate out of Houston that was bigger. All very childish, soon they were buying up pet cemeteries and making deals with the Catholic Diocese and getting onto the Internet and renovating and expanding wherever they could get a permit to operate.
        When I did get thrown into all this though the whole party had already started to wind down. The lawsuits piled up and management started to bleed away. The smell of their own demise, as opposed to someone else's was in the air. Soon the Board ousted the founder of the Company, and then all hell really broke loose. Share price went into free-fall, investment dried up, debt compounded, more legal action flooded in, rumors about kick-backs to the corporate development teams and consultants and acquisition lawyers, about wild, convention parties gone really ugly, about slush funds, and money off-shore, and blackmail and bizarre evangelical religious weirdness started to flare up everywhere.
        By the end of my first year I'd somehow been made privy to all this and more, having to sort the 'problem files', then try to find anyone left in the place who was willing to try to deal with them. They were horror stories, every last one, so of course no one was really eager to take them on, and maybe that's all the invitation I needed, because before not too long it was me who was flailing to defuse one insane situation after another, less amazed each time at how completely warped the things were that were happening out there at the ends of the Company tentacles. See I for one didn't have any formal position to worry about, had no family to fret over feeding, no career plans, no car payments, mortgage, kids with braces. To be honest I had zero interest in impressing any of my superiors, who didn't know me from the next Girl Friday in Legal anyway. I was just this sweet young thing, so it wasn't long before there was an implicit understanding throughout the whole office, among all the Departments in the Company, that I was sick enough to deal with any mangled scenario. Finance and Treasury, Acquisitions and Accounting, Risk Management and Internal Audit and Corporate Development and Due Diligence. They all started calling once the word got out. It was some profoundly abject craziness near the end.
        The reason though I stuck it out, even after the Company finally tanked and went into bankruptcy protection though was this one woman who was the only person I really trusted completely there to give me a straight answer, or to do anything, if only because she was swimming through even more fallout than me. She'd straightened out a bit after a rough spot in her life, like I was trying to, had started all over again in a new city, like I had, had been with the Company only a week longer than me. I was admittedly just as incompetent as anyone else at the beginning, but she helped me see how you could clear away the mess. Strip things down to their essentials. She had crisis management down like art. She'd been in film studies when she was my age. Would've been an incomparable director. She could just handle so many different elements orbiting around her at once it was incredible. She would've been like an Truffault or an Antonioni, juggling all these seemingly unrelated vignettes and motifs, until in the end it all unified. That's what she seemed to do anyway, albeit not with film, but with problems. Anyway, the point I guess I'm trying to make here is that for a movie buff and a philosophy major I think we did fairly well, which makes sense maybe.
        It was just the fun of seeing if you could unravel the ungodly messes which got plunked down in front of you everyday. And as I mentioned, we really did hear it all. Bodies that just disappeared down in at a Texas cemetery, mis-mailed cremains in Alberta, haunted storage closets at an old funeral home in deep in the Mississippi woodlands. We heard about casket-switching schemes to save money on the premium models, cremations done five at a time to save on fuel bills, double and triple stacking to save space in the cramped, older graveyards. We heard about theme funerals gone hopelessly awry, fist-fights breaking out among staff in the middle of memorial services, hearse drag racing in Company vehicles, spreading nasty rumors about the competitors 'treatment' of the departed. And again, the money skimmed off at every level was phenomenal. In the end we were talking largely about the foreign-owned management of burial sites and 90% of the business was done in the States.
        Americans, as a rule, take death dead serious. No wonder inevitably there was almost system-wide breakdown. I'm amazed the place stayed afloat as long as it did, that its even still hanging on, undead. After a few name changes, I’m sure it’ll still be there. How loyal would you be, how cozy with the idea that profits from your peoples' dead were going into the pockets of distant foreigners? Obviously its not quite as simplistic as all that, but that was one of the reasons the jury in the civil suit in Louisiana came down with a half-billion dollar figure for damages. $500 million. It was because they were outraged, scandalized and generally pissed right off. That this could ever been allowed to happen, in small towns, all across the heartland, without anyone ever being the wiser. When the company went in see, they made sure all the old owners stayed on, that the names never changed, that everyone had legally binding agreements, for which they were paid on an on-going basis, to essentially co-operate, comply and remain quiet. Actually its fairly common practice in most growth industries that do a lot of localized acquiring, but its that element of the sacred in the care of the dead. That's the nasty bit. The dead may make great customers, don't complain much, aren't terribly difficult to please. It's the people left behind, digging through the rubble, that you have to worry about…"

To be continued...