The company announced a re-org. This was taken as bad news, though I’d never encountered the term before. My boss sat us down in a conference room to deliver her lines. The room had the exact dimensions of a tissue box and we all folded in silently. Running along the center of the ceiling were two tracks of fluorescents through which, if we were lucky, we’d be yanked for a brief, euphoric flight and then splattered with mucus and discarded.
Her voice wavered, not due to compassion, just poor nerves. Speaking coherently in front of ten employees was not a requirement of a departmental director. She read from a printed sheet of paper the four sentences prepared by the human resources director; she too had shaky qualities. The four sentences didn’t clarify the meaning of the term re-org, nor the cause for the presumably poor state of the company, nor the persons responsible, nor the anticipated changes, nor a timeframe. There was so much spin on the message it emitted its own gravity.
As soon as she read the prepared words, she placed the printed sheet on the table and laid her palms upon it. There. Then her eyebrows shot all the way up to her hairline and she guffawed. “That’s not easy,” she said with an embarrassed smile. “Okay?”
I don’t know if the ‘Okay’ was asking for confirmation that we understood how hard it was to deliver bad news—was it bad news?—or soliciting questions about the content of the statement, such as, ‘What the fuck is happening?’. The assistant director, Julie, said, “You did good.” Five of the women nodded and smiled. I was the only male in the department. “I hate those big announcements,” my boss said. She blushed.
“So we’re not getting our bonus?” said Charissa.
My boss glared at her. A few other women who’d been smiling plaintively now frowned at Charissa. Apparently, she’d interrupted what was supposed to be a comforting session for my boss who bravely read four sentences of oblique rhetoric.
I never knew what to make of Charissa. I hated her guts, which were enormous, and everybody bitched about her behind her back, which was expansive, and I assumed that her behavior, which was as grotesque as her wardrobe, offended all of my co-workers equally. For instance, she is the reason I know what the term ‘crowning’ refers to. When she returned after maternity leave, I simply asked, “How’s the new kid?” and she stood by my cubicle for forty-five minutes detailing the complications of her labor. What I asked, I thought, was something along the lines of: “Is the kid cute? Does the kid have a funny laugh? Has the kid somehow survived what I can only imagine is a perilous environment for an immobile, nonverbal, fragile creature who relies on an alcoholic’s breastmilk for sustenance?” I didn’t intend to ask: “After how many hours of braying did the physician take a scalpel to your vulva?” This is the same woman who told me that she and her best friend stayed up all night one night drinking vodka and then drove her youngest-at-the-time to school while completely slobbered. The punchline of the story that I was meant to laugh with her about was when her friend had to shout at her at every green light to wake up and continue on to the next intersection. With her child in the backseat.
She had four children from four different fathers. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. She never married any of them and from what I can tell she never dated any of them for very long. The latest father was just a friend of a friend who got frisky with her in the bathroom of a suburban family restaurant chain on Halloween. She was forty-one years old at the time. Heart disease or a rational god would strike her down before this new baby would be in high school. And to make it all worse, she was a vocal racist. Another one of the women in the department was going through a nasty divorce because her husband caught her having an affair. Text messages, using real names, real numbers, from the same phone she used to call her husband and children. She just left it lying on the kitchen counter and the dude texted her. The husband saw her phone screen light up, saw the word ‘pussy’, and thought, ‘Hey, I wonder.’ But she was black. So when Charissa told me the news—obviously I was just dying to know—about Diana, she said to me, with no perceivable compunction, “But that’s just how they are.”
To play devil’s advocate, Charissa had never cheated on anybody she was with because she hadn’t been with anybody long enough to unwrap a condom.
Need it be mentioned: I cheer her promiscuity. I, too, sleep around wantonly. And sometimes, too, perversely; in toilet stalls and alleys. Dirty sex should be praised. But in my dozen or so tilts, I’ve never sired an accident. I just don’t want anybody to think I’m a moralist. I draw the line at endangering children and drunk driving, and obviously a combination of the two, but anything else the beast wanted to do with her life didn’t bother me, unless she stood at my cubicle literally bothering me.
And it was obvious to everyone that the reason Charissa hated Diana was that they worked together on a team and Charissa couldn’t hide her total lack of productivity from Diana.
Charissa wanted to know about the bonuses. I noticed the language. ‘Are we getting our bonus’; not, ‘Are we getting bonuses?’ In the question, she’d already taken possession of the thing which by its very definition was never owed. I played a game with her, in my mind. When she spoke, I counted the offenses. I awarded exponential points for instances of manifold offense. For instance: Asking about bonuses is selfish, idiotic, crass. Working backwards: crass because people are about to lose their jobs; idiotic because of course they’ve run out of discretionary funds; selfish because, as I mentioned, that money’s not hers to begin with. This was a three point offense that I awarded exponential points to for the cribbing rhetoric of that ‘our’. So, a total of nine points. To date, Charissa accounted for one hundred and forty-six points of incivility in my life that I would never be able to erase from my memory; and that number is low due to the Tobbs Doctrine of Non-Intervention—named after myself, Edmund Tobbs.
My boss said, “Well, I don’t know.” And the quiver returned to her voice. I was taken aback by this response. In the realm of corporate cowardice—of which I’d become a scholar—this surpassed all.
Charissa said, with a whine, “Well I heard from Shauna already,”—Shauna was the vice president of the department, my boss’s boss—“that nobody’s getting their bonus this year.”
This was a new layer to the original offense; selfish, idiotic, crass, and insubordinate. She already knew the answer to the question. She was just asking to make a point and as the opening salvo of what was going to be her whining. So while she whined about how she needed that bonus, I recalculated in my head. Selfish, idiotic, crass, insubordinate, and manipulative. Should that be five points, exponentiated to twenty-five, or do I take the original nine points as the base for this new figure and twirl that into eighty-one points? Eighty-one seemed high, and my system now seemed too severe. Couldn’t she just be an awful person and every awful thing she says, regardless of its layer, count as one? Perhaps. But the occasion called for additional penalty. It didn’t matter. There was going to be a re-org, which, by my boss’s sheer lack of composure, I presumed meant layoffs, and as Charissa was not only the most ghastly human allowed inside the building but also the slowest and least reliable worker, I’d soon be free of her.
“Of course there won’t be bonuses,” I said. Sometimes the Tobbs Doctrine of Non-Intervention contradicted the Expediency Clause in the Tobbs Initiative of Corporate Survival which states that, in cases of corporate time dilation, observable most potently in meetings, one should maneuver always forward. Usually, Non-Intervention and Expediency wed harmoniously in the tactic known colloquially as “nobody ask any fucking questions in there.”
My mind dried up a little bit the first time I had to explain this to a co-worker. “But what if I have questions?” said Paula.
“Meetings are not for questions,” I said.
“The bosses can’t release information beyond what’s been approved. At best, you’re just cornering them.”
“At the end of every meeting, they say, ‘Any questions.’”
“If they wanted you to know, it would have already been stated.”
“So Muriel’s just lying to us?” Muriel was my boss’s name.
“No, she just doesn’t fucking know anything. They don’t tell her anything because they don’t fucking know either.”
“So Shauna doesn’t know anything?”
“Shauna’s a v.p.. She only knows what the president tells her and he only knows what the board agrees to and they don’t agree on anything because nobody knows how to actually make money other than repeating what we’ve already been doing and also doing what we’ve already been doing is exactly why we’re losing money.”
“And you know all of this? Nobody knows anything but you know everything about everything, Edmund?” Paula was the only person who called me Edmund. Paula, who was younger than me by a few years, told me I’d turned out wrong because I wasn’t nice to my mother. She thought I wasn’t nice to my mother because I didn’t call my mother on Mother’s Day, so I explained to her bluntly that my mother was dead and I didn’t want to talk about it at work. And I refused to apologize to her and the other women in the department when my sister came to visit me at work and mentioned that our mother was meeting us for dinner.
“It’s not that I’m some genius diviner of corporate intelligence.” I shouldn’t have said ‘diviner’. She rolled her eyes, which she did whenever I said a word she didn’t know. She thought I was just showing off. Which in that interpretation of the universe, even if you own a car with power locks, you’re supposed to still walk around locking each door manually. “I’m listening to what they are actually saying. They say, ‘do you have any questions,’ then somebody asks a question, and invariably they say, ‘well, I don’t know exactly,’ or ‘we’re still strategizing,’ or ‘that’s being taken into consideration.’”
Paula thought I was crazy. We had this conversation while walking into some meeting about a change to the benefits package. At the end of the meeting, Paula asked an absurdly obvious question: “Will there be any changes to the p.t.o. that we’ve already accrued?” But she didn’t say ‘accrued’, she said some other word that I can’t even think of. The right word is accrue, that’s exactly what it means. But she doesn’t know that word so she said ‘got’ or something else that I can’t even remember because it’s wrong. Anyway, my boss, Muriel, said, “Not at this time,” with a little nod where the period would be if she were die-casting braille into the air in front of her face. And then Paula turned to me with the world’s smarmiest pout—like if a harbor seal had just evaded capture from a pod of orcas and concurrently was filming a close-up for a mid-nineties soda pop commercial. In astonishment, I turned up my palms and shrugged my shoulders and mouthed the words, ‘not at this time’ with a silent intonation of mockery. If Paula accepted that as a conclusive answer, she would be another charred skeleton embracing her desk chair in the corporate Pompeii to be pondered by anthropologists two thousand years from now.
And then, and this is deserving of its obituary, when Muriel noticed Paula’s Las Vegas-neon subtlety, she guffawed and said, “What?”
Paula said, “Edmund doesn’t think anybody should ask questions because nobody knows anything.”
Muriel blushed but her smile vanished. She stared at me like I was the seagull who stole her sunglasses.
“That’s not…” I began. But I had to be careful, because—to prove that she’s right—Paula would reveal everything I said. So I couldn’t say, ‘That’s not what I meant,’ or ‘That’s not what I said.’ So instead I said, “the sort of question I was talking about.”
“Uh-huh,” said Paula. “What sort of question were you talking about?” There were nine women in the department plus my boss. Ten pairs of eyes stared into mine. I wish I had the time to study them all and take note of their expressions. The full spectrum of sass, disdain, compassion, and injury was lain before me. Ellen, my closest ally in the department, had wide eyes like a younger sister about to watch her older brother eat a live worm on a dare. Her friend Jasmine, who was all right, stared at me as if to magically transpose her good will into my brain. Diana, who I loved despite the messy divorce and foolish habits that led to it, because it didn’t impact our ability to make fun of the company together, recognized all too well the signs of betrayal and narrowed her eyes at Paula.
I looked directly at my boss and made no gesture towards anyone else. “I told Paula we couldn’t ask you anything about the direction of the company because those details are confidential and decided by the board.” Muriel seemed less hurt, which was good. But she wasn’t thoroughly mollified and the Tobbs Doctrine called for leadership mollification at all times. “I told her, as much as we’d like to know, it’s above our pay-grade. And I’m sure they don’t even tell you everything.”
“They don’t!” said Muriel. I’d thrown a bone and she she was now burying it in the couch cushion. “I would love to tell you guys exactly what to expect but we’re just chugging along quarter after quarter. I mean, it’s good that you guys don’t have to worry about it! Right?”
And some of the women nodded but I vocally supported her. “You’re right,” I said. “I don’t want that stress.”
“Right?!” Muriel said again, smiling. “Guys, there’s a lot that goes on,” a guffaw, “and I’m like, ‘Just tell me what you need my department to do,’” a guffaw, “and like, just let’s not worry about all that.”
And then I said, “Well, Paula wants to know everything,” but I made it clear I was just being a clown; big smile, sit-com intonation. Paula flashed me her matronly smirk. I don’t know how the hell I survived that one. But I added a new clause to the Initiative—the Paula Clause: no one is to be trusted.
When I told Charissa that of course there would not be bonuses, Muriel looked at my with the craziest expression of half-concern/half-gratitude I’d ever seen. She didn’t know if I, the iconoclast, would be taking her side or not. I still didn’t know what “re-org” meant and I didn’t appreciate this looming epoch being given a pet name. I’d been told by an older colleague that re-org was short for re-organization and it usually meant disposing of middle management and combining somewhat similar departments under fewer, lesser informed directors.
“Bonuses are surplus,” I said. “We don’t have a surplus at the moment.”
“Right,” said Muriel. And she nodded at me not in gratitude but because I’d just done her job for her and she wanted to indicate that I was right even though she still couldn’t verbalize the bad news. It’d be like calling the fire department and instead of saying anything, just holding the phone up to the raging flames.
This stopped Charissa from whining and essentially ended the meeting. Muriel, to my amazement, said, “Any other questions?” I had about seven distinct questions, so I smiled and said, “No.” The others either shook their heads or remained quiet. Paula looked at me, then looked at Muriel and said, “Well, I have a bunch of questions but I’m sure we’ll hear more soon.”
Muriel said, “Right.”
What Paula meant was, ‘I want to know if I’m going to get fired but even I’m not stupid enough to ask that now.’
Muriel thanked us all, which I always found strange. She was our boss and she put the meeting on our calendars. Did we have a choice to not come to these meetings? Do you thank the ham when you pull it out of the oven?
Four weeks passed. Not one month. A month is a singular unit of time and we didn’t suffer through a single unit of time; we wallowed five days in a row, four times over.
After the initial announcement meeting—in that room that was a perfect drywall rectangle excavated from the undeveloped architecture beside the elevators, adorned with a single pastel painting of the pink clouds of a New England dusk, or, if you had my art history teacher, waves of labia piling up on a beach, and furnished with a rectangular table so coated in what appeared to be epoxy that not even the tree’s mother would recognize it as wood—we didn’t hear a thing. There were whispers every day. We didn’t know what to expect, thus everybody was on high alert. Even the directors rolled back their meetings and acquiesced project deadlines. A schism appeared between leadership and the drones. Managers were told nothing by directors and in turn reassured the drones of their ignorance. The directors and v.p.’s emerged from their offices only to orbit the cubicle floor to each other’s offices with a fleeting smile to the stargazers without slowing their transit.
Every Friday the winds of gossip would pick up. “It’s going to be today. Layoffs are always on Fridays.” We would sit at our desks, staring at our computers, pretending to work while we listened intently to any spoken word or creaking hinge. Leadership seemed to feel it as well. Only a handful had been selected for the so-called steering committee, the group tasked with tightening the corset. Those trusted few were the only people in the organization who could be certain of job security. Muriel and Shauna were not part of the steering committee. I’m embarrassed how long it took me to realize that. But then again, I’d never been party to a re-org.
First thing in the morning, you’d hang your coat on the back of your chair and turn your computer on and check to see if any emails came through over night. You’d sit for about fifteen minutes, signing into all of the software and your own private networks. While the company’s order tracking software loaded on the screen, you’d check to see if any of your friends posted anything to the internet. Then you’d check the day’s news, because that was an easy way to burn about ten minutes, and everybody was expected to be at least a little curious about the world around them. Then you’d ping a message to those co-workers you liked asking about their night and if they heard anything. Then after forty-five minutes or an hour of doing absolutely no work, you’d stand up and announce that you were getting a coffee. No, not the free coffee in the break room. The expensive stuff downstairs, outside, and around the corner. It would be a ten minute walk, plus standing in line, plus the walk back. You might be gone thirty minutes, and of course your friends Kim and Ellen would join. On the walk you’d conspire, share intelligences, speculate. The cold air of early spring released the grip of tension that had so hurriedly clamped into your skin. You’d come back to your desk and by the time the cup of coffee was empty, you still hadn’t really started anything. Responding to emails was the easiest. Low effort, high visibility. “I’m here, at work, paying attention to things.” This was the unspoken message of every sent email.
Everyone polished their résumés. At lunch, we discussed the job opportunities we’d been researching at our desks all morning instead of filing orders and compiling reports. For my part, I anticipated the termination. I was the worst member of the team. Maybe not as bad as Charissa, but really nobody knew how little I did. I once explained to Ellen how I was able to edit orders without completing them so that my digital signature would be spread all across our efficiency reports. I’d search a common surname, like Evans, and open up every single order that had come in from anybody named Evans in the last year. I would review the order, the customer profile, and the notes section. I told Ellen this was something of an audit, and I was doing real work, just the easiest possible real work.
“So you’re not fulfilling any new orders at all?”
I shrugged. “There are six of us pulling orders from the same inbox. If one of five is doing nothing, the others won’t really be able to spot the lack. The orders are still being processed and at the end of the week all of us have good numbers.”
Ellen laughed. “What do you do all day?”
Again, I shrugged, but this was a call for help. “I have no idea.”
“It doesn’t matter. The less you do, the busier the rest of us are. That’s good for me and Jasmine.”
Jasmine was Ellen’s friend from college. I liked her but I told Ellen not to tell Jasmine what I was doing because Jasmine had begun to get friendly with Paula and I had a Paula Clause to maintain.
Of course I felt ashamed of it. I was depressed as all hell. When I first started, I brought to Muriel’s attention a few orders that seemed to my amateur eyes cases of potential credit card fraud—billing addresses in Iowa City and shipping addresses in Jakarta, bulk quantities, priority shipping, declining every refundable option for the faster more expensive services. Muriel said something like ‘Great catch,’ and that she would take them to Shauna. Each week, I forwarded those orders to Muriel. One day she called me into her office and told me that the “phone sales guys” as she called them told her that they “didn’t have the bandwidth” to individually verify every customer profile. Also, they told her obtusely, that once a sale is made, you don’t give the sucker the opportunity to reconsider. That’s now what they said to her, I’m sure, and not what she said to me, but it was the message swaddled within the language. I went back to my desk and searched all of the orders that I had flagged as potential fraud. Each of them had been processed by Paula.
The truth is I lied to Ellen. I didn’t even audit the orders. What I would do is, at about fifteen after five p.m. when everyone else was packing up and leaving, I would search for a name like Evans and pull up about thirty of the historical records. I’d click into the Notes section, click the button to Add New Note, wait a second for the computer icon to swirl around and load a fresh, blank note, and then I would hit Cancel. The new note created a path to a blank file and by canceling, the path would be erased. But the file would display: Last edited by E. Tobbs.
When Muriel ran her Monday morning report, she’d be shown figures that lied to her. She would email us the report, with a ‘Good job, Team!’ attached. One week I noticed that I had 160-something orders to my name and Paula only had 140-something. My heart raced, I popped up from my chair and walked over to Paula’s cubicle. “You’re working on that project for Muriel, right?” And she said, with glowering raccoon eyes and a mallard’s blare: “Ya.” I nodded and mugged a look of relief. “Okay,” I said. “Because my numbers are higher than yours this week and I thought, ‘There is no way I did more work than Paula,’ and then I remembered the project!”
“Ya, it’s taking up a lot of my time,” she said like a barrel of pistachio shells thrown down the stairs. “You definitely didn’t do more work than me last week, dumby.” She was satisfied. I dodged another bullet. From there on out, I counted my counterfeits.
So certain were we of the Friday lay-offs that nobody had prepared themselves for that Thursday morning massacre. In fact, Thursdays were the least expected. After the announcement, which came on a Friday afternoon, we all trundled into work the following Monday deliberately, like dogs to the vet. Surely there would be empty seats, we thought. But nope. We pinged each other, ‘Have you heard anything? Did anybody get fired?’ Monday afternoon we girded ourselves. Again, nothing. Silence. Tuesday and Wednesday repeated Monday. Thursdays were a bit easier, because if they hadn’t fired anybody at this point, clearly they were waiting for Friday afternoon. And then of course all day Friday we were traumatized by what was to come. At five p.m., when it was clear that nothing would occur, we felt no relief. Only a necrosis of the spirit.
Stress is like a tempest. At first, it’s just heavy rain you think you can outlast. You tense up, hunch your shoulders, squint your eyes, and encourage yourself to persevere. You still do the thing you set out to do, expecting the downpour to diminish. But the rain doesn’t let up, and your eyes get tired of squinting and you can no longer hold yourself in that cower. So you relax your shoulders, a small concession. I’m already wet, you think. You no longer avoid puddles. My shoes are already ruined, you think. You acclimate to the cold. I’m getting used to it, you think. Which is not a good thing. When the rainclouds exhaust their stores at long last, you do not celebrate because this was no victory. Your basement is flooded, half of the city has lost its power, and you’ve picked up a cough. The rain, as severe as it was, was merely the overture. You’ll be dealing with the damage of the flood for months.
Nearly four full weeks of stress had passed and the next day was Friday. We came into work anticipating a little relief. But no. I stepped off the elevator on that Thursday morning and saw the face of Diana as she walked to the bathroom. “Has it started?” I still remember saying that. What an odd phrase. I didn’t ask, ‘What happened’ or ‘Are you okay’ because both answers were apparent.
“They let Julie go this morning.”
“Julie!? Everybody loves Julie.” That was another odd thing to say.
Diana shrugged at me. “She was an assistant director. They removed the position.”
“She did Muriel’s job.”
Diana shrugged. “She said she’ll be fine. Her husband still has a job.”
“Her husband drives a cab,” I said. “They have a house and three kids.”
Diana’s eyes welled. She delicately touched a tear that escaped her eyelash and had begun streaking down her cheek. Just like that, the tear vanished. “Are you okay?” I asked now, not because I was ignorant of the facts but because I wanted to console her.
“Yeah. I just needed to get out of there.”
I leered through the glass doors of the suite. Needed to get out of there? What was happening? That’s when it really struck me that we were allowing ourselves to live within a confined context and we could escape instantly if we just had somewhere to go. I could call my girlfriend right that moment and say, ‘I’m quitting my job, I need to move into your place, can you support me for a few months until I find something?’ That’s what separated this disaster from something like cancer. You can’t just quit cancer and move in with your girlfriend’s cancer-free body. Not yet at least.
But, we’d all been sending out résumés for three weeks with no response. That’s not long in terms of a job hunt. It would be a longer journey, an optimism-slurping, confidence-thrashing trek that is always easier to weather with a paycheck coming in every two weeks. And if our company was going through a re-org, which they said reflected the market’s downturn, what were the chances of other companies hiring at a time of austerity?
So, we could just leave. But we really couldn’t.
I stood beside my desk, still wearing my coat, when Muriel’s door opened up. She called out Jasmine’s name. At the other end of the floor, the director of human resources called out my friend Melody’s name. Both women stood up from their desks and walked to opposite ends of the suite. It was nine oh five a.m. Ellen and Paula stood up and we stared at each other. Paula asked me, “Edmund, what’s happening?” She knew, of course she knew. But she wanted some reassurance.
“Why are they doing it like this?” I said out loud, to nobody really. There was a panic in my voice. The cubicles were short, only tall enough to grant you privacy while seated. Even the shortest adult could see across the tops of the cubicles and into all of the executive offices surrounding us. The executive offices were just glass. Glass doors, glass walls. We watched Jasmine break down into tears. We turned around and saw Melody do the same. Next door to Melody’s crystal clear shame was another director, international sales was his gig, and he was leaning over, taking the pictures of his kids off the bookshelf in his office.
Nearer to me, a lesser director—he was only given one of the interior offices, next to the tissue box conference room, without the glass walls and stunning view of downtown and the river—stepped outside of his office and saw the lot of us drones standing besides our desk, and shouted, “Get back to work! You’re not doing anybody any good just standing there!”
I shouted, “Why are they doing it like this?”
He shouted, directly at me now, “You want to help your friends, write ‘em a letter of recommendation, help ‘em get jobs! Standing around’s not doing anything.”
And I said, as loudly as I could, “What the fuck is wrong you, Frank?” And we stared at each other and then he walked away out of the suite and into the elevators. I thought I would certainly get fired for that.
Jasmine and Melody stepped out of their respective abattoirs and shuddered back to their desks. Ellen, my best friend there, was sobbing and hiding in her cubicle. Paula, ever the therapist, began shouting at Jasmine, “What did she say? What did she tell you?” And poor Jasmine tried to shovel the saliva from her throat to muster a response but I cut her off and said, “Paula, shut the fuck up.” It turned out to be a Fuck Day. Certain days in the corporate world are so dreadful that you unhitch the Fuck Tank and crank the valve wide open. This of course flies in the face of the Tobbs Initiative, you might think. But you’d be wrong. Corporate Survival is a battle of attrition. You can only take so much. You’ll notice that so long as you keep your Fuck Days few and far between, your boss will appreciate the ceremony. A clever boss will know that this obscenity is a contained rebellion. A clever boss will recognize that you recognize their appreciation. Your Fuck Tank will burble out its last few Fucks a little after lunch and then the next day is back to normal. A non-clever boss will be terrified of the sudden breech of decorum and hide in their office, or at the very least tell you to knock it off. All are appropriate responses, so long as every day after that you keep your Fuck Tank hitched in your Business Casual Shed with the valve cranked all the way to Politically Correct. Which is, let’s face it, the way things need to be for everybody to get along.
I felt a smidgen guilty for telling Paula to shut the fuck up because about three seconds later Muriel called Paula’s name. She burst into tears and crumpled into her desk chair. I turned and stared at Muriel. The look on her face was not fear or admonishment but grief. She wasn’t on the steering committee. For as little as I respected her as a leader, I didn’t envy the role she was not thrust into. A few short years earlier I managed a game shop. Only seven people on the payroll. I had to lay-off three of them. I botched the first two, said the wrong things, released the weekly schedule without their names before I told them they’d been let go. So I’m far from perfect. I know that. Known it for a while. My only saving grace is that I was good to my girlfriend and, maybe depending on how you look at it, I was the guy at work that could shout Fuckwords at directors on behalf of my co-workers.
As Paula walked to Muriel’s office, Muriel said, “It’s okay Paula, you’re not getting fired.” She meant it well, but it just turned our emotions sideways. We all heard it and Jasmine suddenly stopped crying. I don’t know what went through her mind. It was a fascinating transformation. She just said, “I’ve got to get out of here,” calmly and grabbed her coat and purse and cell phone and walked out. Ellen walked out with her. Ellen came back ten minutes later and began packing up Jasmine’s desk for her. Ellen was crying again or still and said, “They won’t let her back in.”
“That’s fucking stupid,” I muttered, but that was business.
Kim’s boss called her, but she certainly didn’t say, ‘It’s okay, you’re not getting fired.’ Kim sat through the entire meeting with any manifestation of emotion. Her boss, Adele, started crying first. Adele was the first person at the company I became friends with. It was weeks before I realized she was a director. She always seemed to have new coats and we discussed outerwear fashion almost every day. Adele, of course, was also not on the steering committee. Kim was able to get back to her desk, stuff a few things in her purse, and get her coat on before she started crying. I was starting to realize that this should be an Olympic sport.
Paula came back from Muriel’s office and reported that she’d be taking on Julie’s responsibilities and we’d all have to absorb Jasmine’s share of the labor. I didn’t even bother asking if they were going to be paying Paula extra for this.
Shauna, the v.p., stepped out of her office and called Tony, one of the analysts. Everybody stopped talking, everybody stared at her. There’s no way he was getting laid off. How the hell, in a time of restructuring and refocusing, do you lay-off the sales analyst? Tony, for his part, just said, “No.” Shauna, said, “Tony, can you please come to my office?” He said, “No” again. He and Shauna stared at each other silently until he said, “Fine.”
He didn’t even sit down. He’d seen what we’d seen; the glass office walls betray all humiliation. We all heard him shout, “This is bullshit.” Shauna was a petite woman in her late forties. Tony was almost half her age. This was his first job out of college. He’d been with the company for a few years. I realized I was watching a young guy getting screwed by a company for the first time in his life. It’s a form of heartbreak. You work late nights, you skip dinner, you drop out of your basketball league, you stop going to the gym; when the company is going through a hard time financially you work even longer hours to help them out for no extra pay. Salaried life. Tony had recently confided to me that he and his girlfriend split up because she demanded too much of his time, which is Guy Speak for, ‘I never made her a priority.’ Now he’d have plenty of time to make her a priority but it was plainly too late.
Shauna was sitting calmly behind her desk with both of her hands on the desk top. She didn’t look like she was safe. Tony shouted, “Bullshit,” again and a few of moved to that end of the suite. Shauna saw us coming and Tony must have seen her eyes because he turned around and saw us watching him. I’m guessing he saw what we saw, which was that Shauna was intimidated and he was a threat. He immediately left her office and the veins in his neck popped and his face flared. He was fighting tears. He walked back to his desk and started kicking the balloons.
Balloons? Oh yeah, Tuesday was Tony’s birthday so we filled his cubicle with balloons and as a joke he worked all day Tuesday and all day Wednesday without removing them. Then he started stabbing them with a pen. POP! POP! POP! All of the directors emerged from their offices. Shauna said his name, but he ignored her. They had, from what I could tell, a great working relationship. Whenever I would make fun of leadership, he’d always defend Shauna. But he ignored her now and kept popping balloons. It was an awful noise. We all flinched with each POP! After about thirty balloons—no joke—Frank returned, the lesser director, and told him to knock it off. Tony said, “I’m popping all of these balloons. I was told to clean up my desk.” Frank tried to reason with him, the custodians could clean it up, or whatever. Tony repeated, “I’m cleaning out my cube!”
Tony only stopped because he crushed the pen in his hand and he was dripping with blue ink. So he started smearing the ink on his desktop, which I thought was a nice touch. It was rebellious, but it wasn’t destructive. He didn’t smear it on the chair or the computer screen or the carpet. There might be a little stain left over, at worst, and nobody would say a word.
After lunch, in which all of the remaining drones went out for burgers and beers—not only was this a Fuck Day, this was a Beer Day—the c.e.o. of the company marched into the office suite—his office was down the hall in a separate suite—with a smile on his face. The man was half-skeleton; he was always smiling even when he wasn’t. Everybody gathered for what was called a town hall meeting. The chosen venue was the corner of the suite in front of Shauna’s office. We stood in a semi-huddle. I happened to be standing just beside the desk that was smeared with blue ink.
The c.e.o. briefly referred to what he called the “recent changes” and the company’s revised focus on a slender leadership structure. Without a pause, he beamed about the potential for growth, and the exciting opportunities that now faced us as a more agile organization.
“Can we take a fucking minute,” I said, “to at least acknowledge what happened here this morning?” I wanted to say more, but my throat seized up. He had a look of surprise, like a skeleton, and was still smiling even though he clearly wasn’t smiling, like a skeleton. I addressed him directly. “You weren’t here, Eric.” I did not call him Dr. Fielder, as was his stated preference. “This was awful.” And I put as much grit into the word as I could. He was looking at me but I couldn’t read his expression. I refused to look away. It was the only stand I could make, other than walking out of the job right there.
He looked down for just a second and then began, “Well, yeah. Let’s acknowledge it. I think that’s good. Thank you, Ed.” I glanced to Shauna who gave me a tiny salute with her eyebrows. Muriel gave me a similar expression. As traumatic as it was to be in the middle of the floor watching my friends called to slaughter, they were the laborers swinging the sledge.
The c.e.o. Doctor Skeleton offered his platitudes. To my surprise, it was Frank, the lesser director who criticized him. He said, “I think Ed’s right,” and he referred to the c.e.o.’s remarks as platitudes. I borrowed his word. Related or not, Frank was let go two months later. Why he survived the purge, I don’t know. Frank called the event “devastating.” I piped up—if this Fuck Day included the c.e.o, then why stop there? Before the c.e.o. could respond to Frank, I said, “It was a slaughterhouse. Why was it done like that? Out in the open? Calling names from the corners?”
The c.e.o. explained that everything that happened occurred exactly as he ordered it. He gave his reasons. That this would be the most efficient time of the day and method. All at once in a thirty minute period, strictly scheduled, to minimize confusion and worry. He was certain of his efficacy. I wanted to shout at him, ‘Well, yeah, but it didn’t fucking work.’ However, I’d pushed the limits of Fuck Day too far as it was.
The guy had an m.b.a, but his doctorate was in psychology. I shit you not.
That evening, after the town hall, I was at my desk staring at career boards skimming descriptions of jobs, weighing which I didn’t want least, when Charissa came over. “Can you believe it?” she said, presuming the entire world was on her packaged-meat wavelength. “They didn’t fire Diana? This was like,” she paused because her esophagus had about twenty-six pounds of neck fat to shuffle every time she swallowed or took a breath, “the perfect opportunity to get rid of her.”
I nodded slowly. “What a fucking day.”
“I know!” she said. “So stupid.”
When she packed into the elevator, I stood up and walked into Muriel’s office.
“Hey,” I said. “That must have been awful for you.”
“Right? Thank you. I appreciate you saying something to Dr. Fielder. Sometimes it’s like that guy doesn’t know what is happening on the ground floor.”
I nodded. “Why didn’t you fire Charissa? You must have had some choice.”
“Ed! She has four kids.”
“She calls off twice a week, doesn’t work when she is here, and constantly tries to get everybody else fired,” I said, violating the Tobbs Doctrine.
“She’s a lot to handle,” Muriel said.
I didn’t want to push it. I got my answer. “Lot easier for Jasmine to find a new job, too. That’s the smart play.”
“Right? I mean, that was the worst. I hated that. They told me I had to let go two people.”
I grinned mirthlessly, “Why didn’t you fire me?”
“You’re always here so late working. Every time I leave I see you furiously processing orders.”
“That’s a tough call, for sure,” I said, with a hole being burned into my stomach. Corporate Survival is a nasty business. “Tomorrow after work a few of us are going to the place on the roof for drinks. You should join.”
“Really? Oh my god, doesn’t everybody hate me?”
“It’s not your fault.” I shrugged. “Everybody hates Fielder. It was his bullshit strategy.”
“Okay,” she said. “Maybe.” And she did that head nod thing, to put a period on her statement and it made me smile. Her weirdness was endearing now. Nobody belonged there. None of this was appropriate human context. We were all weak, all vulnerable, and we were surviving together.