Keys to the Clearinghouse

Open genre / A trading floor / A scrapbook / 992w

“Wodehouse,” Clipperman says. It is 9:29am, and all hell is about to break loose on the floor, as all hell is accustomed to doing every morning (it is extremely punctual). Clipperman is halfway through a bacon-egg-and-cheese-on-a-roll, one elbow buried in old tickets and papers on his desk, regarding his intern almost belligerently.

“I need you to find me the keys to the clearinghouse. I don’t know where the hell they got to, but I’m expecting orders at 9:40 that mean I’ll need access.”

Wodehouse, whose surname is actually Woodhouse, wonders what and where the clearinghouse is. He has done a lot of wondering during his summer position, but in a setting where an enterprising cattle auctioneer or seasoned lunch-rush deli worker can out-compete him for a job, there is no time to stop for contemplation.

“Absolutely. Give me ten minutes,” he tells his mentor. As if hearing him, the starting bell rings, and­…chaos. Traders at stalls, leaping to their feet, begin to shout and gesticulate as waves of besuited figures wash across the floor, brandishing iPads.

Woodhouse knows there is order to the chaos, although the rules aren’t perceptible to the casual observer. He weaves between rows of computer monitors, dodges ankles and arms, flicks purses out of his way, executes a knee-thrust to open up a path to Anna’s desk. Time to call in favors, work his meager connections.

“Hi,” he says to the top of Anna’s coppery head. Although she is speaking into a headset in her native Russian, she glances up at him. Then she winks. He knows she likes him, the greenest intern.

“Do you know where I can find the keys to the clearinghouse?” he shouts over the din. Small talk is taboo on the floor; there aren’t even bushes to be beat around.

She smiles and shakes her head. After a moment she takes off her headset and says, “Cho might know. Southwest corner, the guy with the fake glasses, you know?”

Woodhouse does know. He thanks her and sets off. A glance at his watch tells him 9:31. Damn it.

Cho’s lenses don’t even attempt authenticity. “No idea, dude,” he says. He looks sympathetic as he points an ink-stained finger over Woodhouse’s shoulder. “Last I heard Barrel had them.”

Woodhouse finds himself at the stall of Jeffrey Barrel, a man whose chest, straining against his shirt buttons, suggests he predates his namesake. Woodhouse anxiously waits for Barrel to complete the complex gestured conversation he is having with another trader—subtle but meaningful swoops and twists of wrists, flurries of fingers that denote who is trading what and at what price, with what expectations.

“Hi, um, Jeffrey? Cho said you have the keys to the clearinghouse?” Barrel seems to need a moment before remembering how to speak with noises.

“Oh, no, no. I have no idea where they are. Sorry about that, champ.” Barrel pauses, ruffles his moustache. “I think I gave them to Viola last week.”

Woodhouse tracks down Viola, then Cleary, then Alvarez, who is carefully slurping the world’s thickest smoothie. No leads.

It is 9:35 and Woodhouse is sweating, reliving an old recurring nightmare from his undergrad days. He realizes he has to skip several levels of authority.

It costs him a precious minute and thirty seconds to locate Mason, but his relief is huge when he finds the chief custodian emptying the recycling bin of the on-floor Starbucks.

Mason doesn’t look surprised when Woodhouse asks about the keys. “Why can’t they keep track of those damn things? They were never on my ring. Sorry, Danny.”

“Could I borrow your master key? Clipperman – ”

“Do I look stupid to you? But look. I’ll let you into Carla’s office; they could be there. She’s on vacation this week but if you’re careful, she’ll never know.”

At 9:38, Mason opens the door to the floor manager’s office, and Woodhouse slips inside. He scans the desk, lifts what looks like a scrapbook of spaghetti recipes; no keys. Feeling a lump of panic rise in his throat, he throws open all the drawers, lifts the keyboard, checks behind pictures (of spaghetti?), rifles desperately through manila folders. Nothing.

“Where the fuck are these keys?” he snaps at no one in particular. Mason, silhouetted in the doorway, shrugs.

Woodhouse mutters a thanks as he rushes back out onto the floor, into the clattering of typists, the shrilling of phones, the tak-taking of oxfords, and the barking of traders’ cries. It’s dizzying. With the clock blazing 9:40 overhead, he makes his hopeless way back.

“I wasn’t able to find the keys. I’m very sorry,” he tells Clipperman. Short and sweet. Hopefully the retribution will match.

His boss leans away from his computer screen and folds his thick arms across his thicker stomach. An aroma of bacon lingers. “How many people did you ask?”

Woodhouse adds two imaginary colleagues before answering, “Nine.” Then he wonders why Clipperman isn’t on his phone taking his 9:40 orders. To his astonishment, Clipperman grins.

“Only nine? That’s weak, Wodehouse. The record is twenty-six.”

“Record?” Woodhouse repeats, feeling lost.

Mason and Anna appear on either side of Woodhouse. “Congrats. You did the clearinghouse 5k this morning,” says Anna, grinning almost as widely as Clipperman. “We like to give the interns a little exercise, especially you desk junkies.”


“There is no clearinghouse. No keys,” says Mason. Woodhouse, frowning, whips around to glare at Cho several meters away. Cho gives him the hand signal that means no luck, nice try.

“It’s just a little tradition we have here at NYMEX,” Clipperman says. “A harmless ten-minute dash.”

“We always say that one day, an intern is actually going to dig up some keys,” Mason continues.

“So eager to please,” Anna says. Another wink.

Woodhouse lets out a tight sigh and shakes off the old nightmare and a few droplets of sweat. Mason thumps his back.

Woodhouse hesitates, then says, “Which one of these crazy bastards asked twenty-six people?”

Writer’s Note 

Based on this apparently real-life prank that very serious businessy businesspeople pull.

This was the 4th and final prompt from the competition, a round I couldn’t submit for. Wrote it here anyway!

Realized I referred to Anna and Carla by their first names and all men by their last names and I’m disturbed by the intimacy that forces. Boo internalized sexism.

This was fun. I guess I went with comedy again. Main concern is that I didn’t convey enough of a sense of urgency (despite literally looping Flight of the Bumblebee for an hour and a half while I drafted it).




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