He lurched into the room, purple-faced and crazed as I clicked through the file on my screen, not particularly focused on anything but just trying to look industrious and intent on my work. I certainly was not intrigued by the recent crash and commotion on the other side of the wall. And I was most certainly not the sort of employee who would waste time getting up to look. Such efficiency. I was minding my own business.
“Did you hear anything from the conference room?” he asked, marching over to me in his pink polo shirt, wrinkled around the waistline from where it had been recently tucked into his trousers. He was referring to Dave’s office, the room from which he had just emerged. Dave’s office was the only room large enough for a conference room table, not that we were the sort of company that conducted meetings. It’s where we piled things.
I could barely eek out a “No” as I awkwardly shook my head, fixated on the blue pulsating bulge along his temple. His face was blotchy and moist.
Hank and me. He was my boss, but our relationship was mostly an aphonic coexistence. I worked the night shift and spent long hours in solitude. He’d leave at 5:00 PM with the rest of the gang. I always felt sad when everyone would leave. I’d have to readjust to the sudden quiet, with just the persistent low-level din of the fluorescing lights and printing machines around me.
Some nights Hank would reemerge around 7:30 or so. Long enough for a cocktail and a steak, yet still early enough for his wife to believe he was working late. He’d briefly come over and say hello, invade my personal space, then disappear into his office with the door closed. Hank owned the company. It was entirely plausible he still had work to do, but I thought he might be coming around to check up on me as I was still relatively new.
Eventually, I caught on that he was deliberately blocking my view when he’d approach me, so I wouldn’t see the receptionist from the upstairs mortgage company go darting past. She’d be hunched down like a commando or an escaping hostage, betrayed only by her busheled poof of bleached hair travelling along the galley windows in the walls that surrounded my work area. Such was the layout – a large U of adjacent rooms encircling a common area with Hank’s office the furthest from the entrance. Besides the main glass entranceway, there was only one other direct access point to the common hallways of the wider office complex, and that was a more discrete door through Dave’s office.
I shrugged, doing my best to assure Hank that I heard nothing, and that life couldn’t be more blasé. It was most uncomfortable, him standing there for longer than the usual fleeting moment. “Do you think it was something with one of the machines?” I offered. See? See how innocent and not involved I am?
“All right,” he grumbled. The scurvy-plagued pirate he was placated. He started to walk away but abruptly turned back. “Don’t go into the conference room tonight.”
“Stay out of Dave’s office.”
“I won’t go in there,” I vowed.
He disappeared for the night and for a long time, I was afraid to leave my seat. The truth is, instinctively, I found him revolting to my core. He had regular halitosis, likely caused by acid reflux or some medically explainable condition. But to me it seemed like years of selfish corruption was causing his body to rot from deep within him. There was a phone in the hallway he would frequently use, as it was right next to the fax machine. I too would have to use this phone, and although hours could pass, I would still gasp from the rancid smell of the receiver.
I should explain the setting. This was in the early nineties and one of my first jobs in the couple of years following college. It was during a recession, so I was desperately taking any work I could get. Desktop computers were just starting to appear on office desks, but there were plenty of people who were still doing spreadsheets on hand-written graphing paper. Companies would outsource their slide presentations to boutique graphics companies like this one. It would be quite some time before laptops hit the scene. Microsoft was in the process of acquiring PowerPoint, which would soon annihilate both Aldus (Adobe) Persuasion and the third-party slide production industry as we knew it. It was evident to me what was happening, but that didn’t stop Hank and his entitled son from trying to spin their business into at best a franchise, and at worst a pyramid scheme.
I graduated without any computer training. Those classes were just for math nerds. Later I managed to pick up some technical graphics skills, thanks in no small part to my brother. Highend graphic equipment was an astonishing cost. We’d produce a company’s presentation slides on a system called the Dicomed. The monitor alone was about three-feet deep and cost $80k. There was no hard drive. We’d work off DOS-based 5” floppies and it wasn’t uncommon to lose hours-worth of work with a stupid deletion error. “Ctrl-Z” was invented for a reason. If only it could work in life.
To maximize investment, artists were hired around the machine to work in shifts. As the lone artist of the night, it was not uncommon for me to receive faxed bar napkins with urgent revisions that would become increasingly abstract and unintelligible the later the time stamp on the boozy dispatch. I knew back then, that my preference was to be on the other side of that fax machine.
Once the images were ready, I’d then have to render the slides to 35mm film and develop that negatives myself before cutting and inserting them into the individual casings. A larger operation would have separate teams doing this. Once I almost choked to death on the chemicals. I came out of the darkroom gagging and close to passing out. My chest burned. It felt like I had smoked two packs of cigarettes at once. That was the one time I was genuinely frightened to be alone, aside from those brief awkward moments with Hank.
It was hard to understand how this business of Hank & Son’s made any profit. It was largely Dave who brought in the client accounts. Hank did to some extent, but the son was but a dullard. Dave ran the numbers of what his accounts were bringing in, compared to say, the costs of Hank’s country club membership. Some business models are so untenable that you sort of hope there is money laundering involved, especially if it is a place you relish, like a coffee shop, or a place you need, like your employer. Suffice to say, all of us grunts would head immediately to the bank to cash our paychecks, just in case. Note, there were those weird faxes we’d get from one “Mr. Knuckles” that always looked a little dubious. They were to be brought directly to Hank’s office.
They didn’t get many bites on their franchise proposition, but one gentleman in a cowboy hat did fly in from Kansas to view our facilities. He seemed amiable enough. That was the first time I ever saw a real cowboy hat. One evening as I was clamping down slides in the room adjacent to the son’s office, I could hear the chip-off-the-old-block advising this man over the phone. It was impossible not overhear, as the wall didn’t extend all the way up to the dropped ceiling. “And you definitely do not want to hire girls,” he said. I imagine he had his feet on his desk. “They get pregnant, they get all distracted thinking about their boyfriends or their kids. And they get all moody if you know what I mean. Am I right? Hegh hegh hegh. And the guys, they stay focused on their work, especially if they have a family to feed. You want someone who is serious. The best person to hire is a man with a kid. Not too many kids because you don’t want him looking for a raise. You know what I mean? We do have one girl here though, because, honestly, we couldn’t find anyone else. Yeah, that one. She’s ok. Kind of ugly in the face but her ass is tight, you know what I mean? Hagh hagh hagh. I haven’t tapped that yet.”
It’s true, when Hank was interviewing me, he asked if I had any family. I said, sure, my parents were still alive, siblings, etc. He said no-no, he meant did I had any kids or was I thinking about getting pregnant? I seethed listening to this chummy buffoon spew the tired advice of a greasy fat cat from his father’s well-tattered 1950’s porn novel, but I cravingly needed my measly paycheck. I promised myself that my next job would have an HR department.
So what was it that I actually heard that night? My memory was fleeting as I sat there for a couple of hours until my bladder could withstand it no more. I was certain it was a sharp crack then a thunderous rumble of sorts. And then something more lifelike. Guttural. Like someone had been punched in the gut. Of course I was going to look. But what if he left a trap? What if there was a crime? A body? Who knew with these mafia rejects?
I first checked the parking lot for his car, shaking with paranoia. In front of Dave’s door, I didn’t breathe. I stood perfectly still beneath the fluorescent hum. My hand trembled as I slowly pushed against the door and peeped inside. It was a mystery no more: they broke the legs off one side of the conference table in the heat of their love wrestling. All the reams of paper and boxes filled with junked equipment piled high down the other end, went sliding down the length of the table on top of them. It smelled like a gymnasium. And the only thought I could muster was poor Dave!
When I came back the next day, the table had been miraculously fixed. Hank, everyone, buzzed about as if nothing had happened. Was I hallucinating? No matter. Later that week, as soon as I got my paycheck, I cashed out and just drove myself home. Normally I would have a serious moral conflict about abruptly quitting like that, especially without saying anything, but that night I felt like a happy Buddha with the wind in my hair, and the courage to land on my feet. Respect goes both ways.
Laura Jean Carney is a former short filmmaker and cartoonist. She has also worked as a global operations coordinator in the consulting industry. She is currently working on a collection of essays.
This story engaged me from the title through the final period.
Where has this author been! Oddball Magazine – please do post more of Laura’s stories. I’ll wait eagerly for the next one.