Robert of Arabia

By. Rob Garza

I knew there was something wrong with my new job when Jeff, my boss, asked me if I was Arab. It happened very simply. Jeff pulled me from my cubicle, marched me to his office, sat me down, and then asked me the question.
“Are you Arab?”
“No,” I said, “I’m Mexican.”
Jeff leaned back in his leather seat.
“That’s great,” he said, slowly.
I waited for him to continue, but he just sat there, silent, starting at me.
“Why do you want to know this?” I asked.
“Well, it's like this,” Jeff said, whispering through a smile.
“It's just that Oren, the company owner, he thought you were some kind of...never mind, it’s just something about your eyes and your skin. He mentioned this after the interview. I don’t know. But don't worry about him, Rob. Everything is going to be fine.”

When I returned to my cubicle, I thought about several things. First, wasn't there a law about bringing up ones race like that? It seemed there had to be something wrong with it, if not legally than at least ethically. Second, what if I had been Arab, would I still have a job, or could it have even been worse. I suddenly imagined Jeff pulling a gun on me as I answered yes, I'm Arab, and the whole incident turning into a bad movie, filled with cheap whiskey, a mud-stained Chevy, and someone getting shot clean in the forehead, over and over again.

Most days at Omnistar were pretty normal though. I walked into my cubicle turned my computer on, checked my email, then spent the next seven hours writing technical manuals. But slow and sure, things began to get weird, really weird. On a lunch trip to Marie Callenders two weeks later, Jeff explained to me and Tim, the other new hire, how one of the perks about working in Irvine was” all the bitches.”
“Look at that,” he said, pointing to the servers darting in an out of the kitchen.
“Which one,” Tim asked. “The Asian or the Mexican?”
“The Asian,” Jeff responded. “The Mexican's too fat. Look at her arms. You can always tell by the arms. But the Asian, she's smooth, that's what her people have going for them, smoothness, in their bodies, you know, not in their faces. Most of their faces aren't worth a crap.”
Jeff lowered his voice and grinned.
“You know, me and my wife enjoyed watching this Vietnamese porn last night, it's a kind of marital aid. If you guys ever want the name of the video series, I'll give it to you. Smoothness is great.”
Neither Tim nor I said a word. I couldn't believe what Jeff had just said. I mean, who tells their fellow workers about the porn his wife and he watch during sex. I didn't want to here about this, especially not at Marie Callenders, with a steaming plate of beef burgundy and scallop potatoes sitting in front of me. Jeff stuck his fork into a slab of country-fried chicken. He continued watching the Asian girl as he chewed slowly.

Unlike Jeff, Oren, the owner, never came out to lunch with any of his employees. Nevertheless, his own views were just as readily available. Oren was known to prowl the halls, ducking into cubes, ostensibly to check on your work. But his real motive was to frighten you by making some kind of an offensive comment, usually centered around your race, gender, or
in one instance, a software engineers sexuality. Oren ducked into my cube one morning and asked what I was doing.
“I'm finishing the Mi Conveter Gx data sheet,” I said.
Oren eyed me.
“Are you on drugs?” he asked.
“Drugs. You look funny.”
“No, no I'm not on drugs,” I said
“Isn't that what you bohemians do?”
“Look, you don't shave everyday, you hair is messy. I know what bohemians are. They're no better than gypsies.”
“I'm not a bohemian. "
“You look like one.”
I laughed, hoping this was some sort of joke. But it wasn't. Oren didn't laugh. In fact, he frowned, crossed his arms, then walked away.

Staring at my monitor, I asked myself the question everyone—from my girlfriend, to my parents—had already asked me: Why would you work for a fucking company like this? For me, Omnistar was a necessary evil, I needed the money, and I also needed the writing credit. If could hold out there for at least a year I could parlay that job into another writing gig, one where racial profiling wasn't part of the first week agenda.

As I planned my exit strategy over the weeks and months that followed, I couldn't help but think of my co-workers. There were many people at Omnistar who'd worked there for years, mostly male and white, but also a few Mexicans, Asians, and even a couple women (in clerical positions, of course). All them had the same beaten, somber look of a child who has grown up in an abusive family. These people I later realized, had endured years of Oren and Jeff, not the relatively lenient six months I'd been agonizing over. I wondered if they too were planning to leave, and if so, why had it taken so long to do so.

Jeff stepped into my cubicle one afternoon, holding a car magazine, one of those low-rider publications, with a skinny girl pressed against the grill of an Impala.
“Hey, Rob, I'm looking at getting some new rims for my car. Do you think you can help me with that?”
“I would I if I could,” I said, “but I don't know much about rims.”
Jeff smiled.
“But you're Mexican. Come on, man, you all know about rims.”
I suddenly heard a low chuckle. Oren stood next to the printer, listening to our conversation. He had a smile on his face. I turned away from Jeff and focused on my computer screen. A part of me wanted to call his bluff, to tell him in front of Oren that he was piece of shit, a racist, sexist, sycophant whose sole reason for being a marketing director was his ability to take shit from someone else.
“So,” Jeff, repeated, “what about it? Can you help me out?”
I turned and smiled.
“Sure," I said sarcastically, “I'll come by your office in an hour.”
Jeff, having exhausted his joke, nodded slowly, winked at Oren, then walked away. For the next three hours, I typed so hard my fingers felt like they were bleeding.

On my drive home that night, I decided it was over. I'd rather be out of work than put up with all that. So I hit, Craigslist, Yahoo Hotjobs, and within a month, I'd found a new writing job. When I finally told Jeff I was leaving, he made me three offers.
“10,000,” he said, “consider it an instant raise.”
“No,” I replied.
“15 000.”
Jeff rubbed his chin.
“I might be able to get 25,000.”
I paused, rubbed my own chin, then repeated my answer. The reason I declined the money—all that money—was simple. My co-workers, especially the long-timers, always answered the“Why do you work here question”the same way: “Rob, it could be worse.”
And that was the problem. As bad as Omnistar was, my co-workers were
right. It could be worse. One could work retail, or fast food, or you could have no job at all, and that made staying a tempting offer. This was the ace in
Oren and Jeff’s hand, the knowledge that yes, employees could quit whenever they wanted, but if paid enough, and left just enough slack on their leash,
they'd keep coming back, morning after morning. And once you decided to stay, you became whatever they wanted you to be: an Arab, druggie, gypsy, or bohemian, a black, Mexican, or worst of all, in their eyes, some malignant combination of all the above. Even with an extra 25,000 you belonged to them, and if that's wasn't a horrible situation, I didn't know what was.

That night, I told my girlfriend that I'd quit. We drank two-dollar wine, watched a movie, and I asked her, right before dinner, if I looked Arab. She took a
long time before answering.

Rob Garza's work has appeared in Tell It Again Stories, Aphelion, RipRap, Likewaterburning, Dig Magazine, and the Long Beach Press-Telegram. In 2005,
he graduated from California State University, Long Beach with an M.F.A. in creative writing, fiction. Rob recently finished his first novel.