Episode 7 – Standard Ink

I looked up from my bloated computer screen and saw Swanson standing at the entrance to my cube.

“Good morning,” he sniffed.

It shocked me to see him up close. Up until that point, he could have simply been an apparition that floated within Inside Sales. His office door was always closed and I had never seen him arrive or leave. Other than that one time when I glanced through his office window when I was looking for the printer, I’d never really seen him.

“Good morning,” I replied. He seemed agitated that I had responded. His eyes narrowed, and he sniffed again. Swanson was rail thin, especially thin for a man his age. He stood a head shorter than me, but his own head seemed too big for his body. He still had all of his hair, but it was gray and greasy-looking. He had dark eyes that were set back in his tired, wrinkled face. The most prominent thing about him was his turkey neck. It flung loose from his chin like he was storing stuff for the winter. When he turned his head, his neck shook like a sail flailing in the wind. I couldn’t help but stare at it because it bunched up above his neck tie and, quite frankly, it looked obscene.

“I got a request from Norton in the CEO’s office to add you to the Path Forward project.”

“The Path what?”

“Path Forward. It’s the project the CEO started to determine what Standard will do for the next 100 years.” He seemed aggravated that he had to explain it to me. I knew it was Julie’s project, but she hadn’t mentioned its name to me.

“Oh, okay. What do I need to do?”

“There’s a meeting on the tenth floor today at 1 PM. You need to be there. I let Richard know you are on the project and that you’ll be going to meetings.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t forget that Inside Sales is your primary job. You still have to meet our productivity metrics here. Whether you stay on the project or not depends on your performance here. Is that clear?” He raised his bushy eyebrows at me revealing the barely-visible whites of his eyes. He looked like a turkey just before Thanksgiving.

“Yes.”

He stared at me for a moment, his eyes returned to narrow slits, and then, he turned and walked away with his turkey neck in his wake.

I looked at the next entry in my customer list and started to pick up the phone for a sales call, when I sensed someone else blocking the entrance to my cube. I turned to see George with a big, goofy smile on his face. Before I could point to my lunch bag, he said, “I heard you got assigned to that big Corporate project.”

“What? How could you have heard that when I just found out myself?”

“News travels fast on the Inside.” George had a silly habit of referring to Inside Sales as “The Inside” like it was some secretive agency or something. The more I got to know him, the more I realized he needed a life outside of “The Inside”.

“I guess so.”

“Do you know what you’re doing on the project?”

“No, my first meeting is today after lunch.” I saw his eyes wander to the lunch bag on my desk. He looked mildly deflated.

“Let me know what you find out.”

“Why do you care?”

“This project is a big deal. Ever since the new CEO joined the company, he’s talked about the future of the company. That only means one thing.” He stopped talking like I knew what that one thing was. I waited a few moments for him to fill in the blank.

“Which is?”

“Layoffs.” His smile disappeared and a look of displeasure washed over his face. He folded his arms across his chest and rested them on his belly as he looked at me. His mustache hovered above his frown.

Even my inexperienced eyes could see that Standard was a bloated company with a lot of lifers just floating toward a pensioned retirement. Every day I stepped into the lobby felt like I was stepping back in time. I imagined that this was what it was like when my grandfather worked his Corporate job.

“I’m sure it’s not that bad.” It was all I could think to say.

“Do me a favor. Keep me informed about what’s going on. You’re the only person from the Inside that’s on this project.”

He stared at me waiting for a response. “Sure,” I said. He nodded and left my cube as if we had reached some detente after a long disagreement. I watched him amble down the corridor more determined than I had ever seen him.

I emailed Julie while I ate my lunch at my desk, but she didn’t reply before I had to leave for the meeting. I had hoped that she’d give me some insight into what the meeting was about. Instead, I was left wondering as I took the elevator down to the tenth floor.

The receptionist on the tenth floor sucked the air out of the waiting area. Large and loud with a permanent stern look etched on her pale, stone face, she stared at me like I had invaded her floor when I arrived at her desk.

“Do you know why you’re here?” she asked, glancing at my name badge dangling from the lanyard around my neck. She gave me a sour, sardonic look.

“I’m here for the Path Forward project meeting.” I gave her my best smile.

She screwed her face like she had swallowed something that tasted terrible as she flipped through a notebook in front of her. “Go through the door and it’s the conference room on the right,” she said nodding to the door behind her.

“Thank you.” She didn’t respond, and I didn’t pay her any attention as I walked past her and badged into the door.

Walking through that door felt like entering a new dimension. The tenth floor did not resemble a single floor that I had been on within Standard Tower. It had a modern, sleek look like I had seen in online articles about cutting-edge tech companies. Glass adorned the conference rooms and offices along the walls and the cubes weren’t cubes at all. They were desks splayed out in semi-circular patterns with glistening, white tops. Flat-screen panels hovered above the desks like giraffes fawning above minimalist keyboards. Even the people working on this floor were different. They wore jeans and un-tucked shirts and had well-groomed beards slung beneath hip glasses. For a moment I thought I had gone to the wrong place, but I didn’t want to leave.

“You made it,” Julie said behind me. I turned to see her smiling face at the door of one of the glass conference rooms I had skated past as I swooned over the fancy office.

“What is this place?” I said turning away from her and sweeping the office with a glance.

“This is the new Standard.”

“I like it.” I must have sounded like a kid who received an amazing gift at Christmas because she almost giggled at my response. “When does the rest of the company get this makeover?”

“I don’t know. This is a prototype that was developed for the project team. Everyone here works on the project, and all of our meetings are here. We wanted a space that spoke to the future of the company.”

“Wow. Do you have an office here?”

“I do, but my main one is on the 26th floor.” The 26th floor was the top floor of Standard Tower where the CEO had his office. I imagined Mr. Rich up there in his wood-paneled office smoking a cigar, but I couldn’t imagine Julie there. She seemed otherworldly and above the fray among the master-of-the-universe types.

“We’re meeting in here,” she said as she stepped into the glass bowl of a conference room. I followed her to the other side of the long table and took a seat next to her. A group of four men in crisp suits sat at the end of the table conferring quietly. The one in the middle looked up at me as I sat down.

“Chad, this is Travis Potter. He’s new at Standard, but he’s joining the project team,” Julie introduced me to the man in the middle. All of the men stood up in unison like they were part of a synchronized dance team. The older man advanced toward me and shook my hand.

“I’m Chad Connor. I’m Executive VP of Strategic Analysis at Moore Harme. These are my associates Bob, Brad, and Benji.” He swept his hand back toward that end of the table, and the three men stood and greeted me with a hand shake. All three of them looked about my age. They smiled faintly and nodded as they greeted me. Each of them handed me a business card. Chad handed me his business card last. It felt supple and gilded like he had found the most expensive paper on the planet to imprint with his name and title.

Julie explained. “Moore Harme is our consultant on this project. Their specialty is helping mature companies reinvent themselves.” Chad nodded and smiled as if a student of his had regurgitated everything she’d learned in his class. As she talked the conference room started to fill up, and Chad and his team returned to the end of the conference table. A timid looking man slipped into the conference room and gently shut the glass door before he slid into a seat at the front of the room next to an easel with a blank flip chart pad on it.

Julie spoke to the room and all of the other conversations stopped. She introduced me, and had the people in the room introduce themselves so that I knew who they were. I nodded to the consultants like we were old friends when they did their introductions. The team was a true cross section of the company. Some people came from areas that I didn’t even know existed at Standard. She said Cody would take notes and pointed toward the mousy man sitting next to the easel. Cody looked at his feet and fidgeted the marker in his hand as all eyes turned to him.

Julie handed the meeting over to Chad, and he began to talk about what they did in the last meeting. When I was in college, I hated it when professors forced us to do presentations, not because I was afraid to speak in public, but because I dreaded listening to my classmates’ presentations. That was how I felt a few sentences into Chad’s summary. I looked at his associates. Each of them preoccupied themselves with whatever they had in front of them. I had already confused the three Bs, so I couldn’t remember which one was Bob, Brad, or Benji.

“So now, we need to decide what strategic direction we think makes the most sense for Standard,” Chad said as he finished his spiel. Since I had tuned him out, I didn’t know what our choices were. Julie swept her eyes around the table and landed on me. I froze in an instant hoping that she wouldn’t call on me in my first meeting.

“What are your thoughts, Travis? Since you’re new to the group, it’d be good to hear your impressions,” she asked. She spoke more to the group than me directly. I froze in my seat, and for a moment, I thought my heart had stopped and my lungs had halted. I gulped as my mind ran circles in the blank space reserved for Chad’s little summary. I could feel the heat of all eyes trained on me. I shifted in my seat and cleared my throat to buy time. I kneaded my hands in front of me on the table. Oddly, I thought about the game pack I had bought on Xbox Live two days ago. I really wished I was in my apartment playing that game rather than sitting in that conference room.

“I think we need to move our business entirely online,” I said, blurting out the first thing that coalesced in my panicking brain. The silence reverberated along the glass wall rippling among the attendees. I looked to Chad, whose cheesy grin had dripped from his face like melting wax, and then, I looked at Julie. Her eyes sparkled as she read the room.

“I think that is a really good idea,” she said. “This is what we need. We need a totally fresh perspective. That’s why I asked Travis to join this team. We need to think beyond the way that Standard does business today if we’re going to keep this company alive for the next century.”

Heads bobbed along the table in agreement. Blank stares segued into thoughtful expressions, and a chatter rose in the room as the attendees began to assess my idea. I felt some sense of relief, but I also felt smaller because I had not put much thought into my idea and now it ignited the group like I had poured gasoline on a tiny flame. I tried to follow the chatter, but there were too many conversations going on at once.

Julie hushed the room. “I know you all have your own thoughts about this idea, but I’d like to push this to an exploratory sub-committee,” she said. Then, she looked at me. “Travis, if you could take the lead on this and work with Benji and Sabrina to flesh out this idea before our next meeting, I’d appreciate it.” She nodded at me and scanned the room as if she were looking for reassurances. Her focused returned to me. “Okay?”

“Okay.” I replied. There was nothing else I could think to say. She moved onto the next topic of the meeting, and Chad once again started droning about some other aspect of the project, and all I could think about was the fact that I didn’t know which of the Bs was Benji.

Episode 6 – Standard Ink

I had mostly shrugged off George’s suggestions for lunch at our “favorite place” in the weeks that followed. I dutifully brought my lunch each day and put my lunch bag in a prominent spot on my desk so that he could see it when he came by. He’d act so disappointed when I tapped the bag and told him I had brought my lunch, but he didn’t attempt to convince me to skip the bagged lunch for another trip to Fanny’s. Eventually, he stopped asking when he saw my lunch bag sitting there.

Julie would wander by my cube every once in a while and see how I was doing. Her visits changed my entire day for the better. Sometimes, I’d stare down the corridor hoping to see her coming my way with her big smile and her hair pulled up into the familiar ponytail, but on most days I was disappointed. She was off recruiting or training someone somewhere, and I found myself envious of whoever it was that had her attention. When she did come by to say hello, we’d often walk down to the break room and get some coffee. I hated coffee, especially the muddy water that passed for coffee at Standard Ink, but for Julie I’d pretend I liked anything to spend more time with her.

On an unpromising Tuesday, I had spent the greater part of the morning calling customers trying to push more ink. I had been hung up on, yelled at, and accused of being a scammer, but I did manage to score one big order from a woman with a gravelly voice who asked for my direct number in case she had a problem with the order. I didn’t think she was really concerned about her order because she peppered me with personal questions as I took her order. Before I said goodbye, she told me that her last boyfriend was twenty-something.

“Good morning, Travis.”

I spun around in my chair to see Julie’s beautiful face smiling at me. I forgot all about the rough morning I had been having. I greeted her enthusiastically.

“I’m training a new salesperson here.”

“Really? Where?”

“Two  rows over.” Julie nodded toward the other side of me. I looked over that way but no one was visible above the cube walls.

“A new graduate?”

“No, she’s been in Sales for a while.”

“What’s she doing here?”

“Her last company laid her off.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, she has over 30 years of experience in sales.”

“Wow.” The image of this new hire in my head changed dramatically. In the back of my mind, a sense of dread emerged at the thought of doing this job for 30 years. I shook away such awful thoughts.

“Do you want to go to lunch?”

I tried not to look too excited, but in my mind, I was racing in circles like a dog about to go to the park. “Sure,” I said in my best nonchalant voice.

Julie smiled. “Excellent. Are you okay if we go now? Susan had to take an early lunch to see her grandkids.”

“Susan?”

“The lady I’m training.”

I nodded and grabbed my jacket from the back of my chair. “Where do you want to go?”

“Top Bread okay?”

I nodded again. I didn’t care where we went as long as I was with her. Even stale bread saddled with sweaty meat couldn’t squelch the excitement I felt around Julie. I could always come back and eat the lunch I had packed.

Julie did most of the talking as we took the elevator down to the lobby. In between training stints, she was working on a project reporting directly to the CEO of Standard Ink. I’d never seen anyone so animated and excited about working at the company. Even George in his perennial upbeat demeanor seemed beaten down by life at Standard.

Only a couple of people stood in front of us in the line at Top Bread since we were about 15 minutes ahead of the usual lunch rush. The guy making the sandwiches looked about my age, and he nodded when I approached the counter as if we had some unspoken greeting between us. He mostly looked at Julie who continued to talk to me as I told him what I wanted on my sandwich. He watched as we moved on down the line. I wanted to tell him to not be so obvious in his staring, but I let it go. After all, I was the one having lunch with her.

After we sat down and unwrapped our sandwiches, Julie finished telling me about the project she was working on with the CEO while I took a solemn bite of my turkey on wheat. The meat tasted like it had been out of the refrigerator for too long, but I ate it anyway.

“Mr. Rich really listens to me. He’s giving me a lot of latitude.”

“That’s cool.”

Julie looked up at me as she took a bite of her sandwich as if she were expecting more from me. I scrambled in my head to think of something to say. To be honest, the project sounded boring, and I hadn’t entirely been paying attention to what she said about it.

“What’s it like working for the CEO?” I said after I swallowed a bite of slimy turkey. I exhaled as if I had just beat a buzzer of some kind.

“It’s great. I mean, I work with the entire Executive team, and they’re all so nice. It’s very different than what I expected.”

I had only seen Mr. Rich, the CEO, in company videos. He looked tired, old, and stern like a school principal or something.

“What’s the purpose of this project?”

“We’re deciding the future of the company.”

I sat up straight. “That’s a big project.”

“Yes, it is, and I’m a part of it. You should be a part of it.”

“I’m just a peon in Inside Sales. I’m not sure they want my opinion.”

“You’re exactly who they need to hear from. This company has been mired in its past for so long that no one notices. We need fresh voices to help determine how we survive another hundred years.”

I loved her enthusiasm, but the truth was that I didn’t care if Standard Ink survived or not. I didn’t like my job, and if I could ever muster the enthusiasm, I’d look for another one. I did like the regular paycheck though.

“You should join the team.”

“What about my job?”

“You’d still do your regular job. This would be in addition to your current job.”

“So I’d do more work and still get paid the same?”

“When you say it like that it sounds unflattering.”

“Maybe because it is unflattering.”

Julie seemed hurt by my cynicism. “We’re deciding the future of the company. There will be many opportunities in that future, and if we’re leading it, then some of those opportunities will open for us.”

I sort of understood what she was saying, but it seemed like too much work for a payoff that was so uncertain, but I nodded my understanding anyway, and she seemed to take this as some acknowledgement on my part. We ate in silence for a few minutes before she spoke again.

“What do you do for fun?”

Finally, a subject that I wanted to discuss. “I play video games.” I smiled at her.

“That’s it?”

I wiped the smile off my face. “Pretty much.”

“Okay,” she said diverting her eyes to her sandwich as she took another bite. I had a sense that she was not impressed, and for a moment I felt a flush of embarrassment wash across my face. I had played video games since I was a little kid. It had been the one thing I enjoyed no matter what, but somewhere along the way it became the only thing I did, and in that moment with Julie, I realized that it didn’t impress her in the least. I wanted to impress her.

“How do I get on this project?”

“What?”

“The project you’re on, how do I join it?”

She put her half-eaten sandwich back down on its wrapper and gave me a studious look. I caught a whiff of the roast beef and wanted to gag, but I kept that to myself.

“You need to let your manager know you’re interested, and I will talk to the project leader about adding you. I’ll put in a good word for you.”

“You will?”

“Yeah. It’ll be great to have you on the team.” She smiled at me as if I had paid her a big compliment or something. I reflexively smiled back despite my reservations about doing more work for the same paycheck. Then, I thought the project would get me off the phone for a few hours a week, and that made me unusually happy.

Julie finished her sandwich before I could choke down the remains of mine, so I listened while she talked about an art exhibit she had seen the previous weekend. She only mentioned a girlfriend of hers, so I remained hopeful that she was unattached. She had not referred to a boyfriend in any of our interactions. As she spoke, I wondered what she would look like with her hair down. Every single time I had seen her, she had it pulled back in a tight ponytail.

“What?” she asked, looking at me quizzically. I must have been giving her a strange look or something. I shrugged and shook my head. “You look like you have a question on your lips.”

“No. I’m just listening.” She smiled at me again and we looked at each other until it became uncomfortable after a second or two.

“You ready to get back to work?” She gathered up her trash and put it on her tray.

“Not really.”

She laughed as she stood up and I followed her to the trashcan near the door. The sandwich shop had grown crowded around us. The line to order snaked out the door. I scanned the anonymous faces that faded to beige in the line. No one looked particularly happy to be at lunch. The din of conversations seemed muted and depressed. Julie and I weaved among the people near the door to leave. It felt like we were swimming upstream in the rush of the lunch crowd.

We took the elevator up to my floor. When the doors slid shut, Julie turned to me. “I’ll talk to Mr. Rich about adding you. He’s looking for young talent to join the team. If he says yes, then the project leader will reach out to Mr. Swanson.”

“Okay. I doubt Swanson knows who I am.”

“Of course he does.”

“I’ve never even met him.” Swanson was the Inside Sales manager. He was four levels above me. I’d only seen a glimpse of him when I walked by his corner office once in my first week when I got lost trying to find the one printer the whole floor shared.

“He knows who works for him. Besides, he’ll tell your manager, and we’ll go from there.”

By the time we reached the corridor that led back to my cube, Julie turned to me. “It’ll be great to work together. I’m looking forward to it.” Her enthusiasm was almost as impressive as her smile. A sense of gloom descended on me as I bid her farewell. I’d rather spend the day working with Julie on some boring project than spend another minute at my desk on the phone, but I managed to say goodbye to her and trudge back to my desk. Another day. Another week.

Episode 5: Standard Ink

“Potter!” George called out to me across the aisle of cubes. He was walking my way, and he had a big smile on his face. I leaned on the edge of my cube wall as I waited for him to get to me. He ambled along the opposite corridor and turned the corner down from my cube.

He had an uneven and frenetic gait that seemed like he would fall down at any moment. He also sported a slight hunch forward, likely because of his huge gut, and his arms flung by his side as if he were attempting to take flight but couldn’t get his weight off the ground. His chubby face, adorned with a full, thick mustache, looked swollen and ruddy. His bushy, unkempt eyebrows danced above his bulbous eyes.

Today, he wore a light blue, short-sleeve dress shirt with a turd-brown tie that had diagonal, faded gold stripes on it. His shirt had a faded stain on the front of his belly that he likely couldn’t see given the curvature of his gut. He stopped short of me and levered his arm against my cube wall to steady himself as if the walk across the floor had exhausted him.

“You ready for lunch?” he asked. He seemed positively giddy, which perplexed me since our lunch would likely involve yet another lame sandwich from the shop in the lobby. No one at Standard Ink ventured far from the building it seemed. Most of the good restaurants and shops were down the street quite a ways where many of the new, modern office towers stood.

“Yep. Where do you want to go? Top Bread?” I asked, suggesting the sandwich shop in the lobby. I wanted to get this over with as quickly and painlessly as possible. Given the age gap, George and I had nothing in common, but somehow we’d developed a connection sort of like two people who are thrown into the same cell in prison.

“Nope. I’ve got just the place for you. Let’s go.” He walked past me and motioned for me to follow him. I fell into his wake and followed him to the elevators.

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” He continued to wear that big, goofy smile. His eyebrows perched above his eyes like birds of prey. I felt mildly uncomfortable, but that feeling was fleeting compared to what was to come.

We were the only two people on the elevator for the whole ride down to the lobby, and I heard him chuckle to himself, as the bewildering smile danced across his face. I began to think that maybe he was a psychopath who preyed on new college graduates. After all, there had to be an explanation as to why there were no other new graduates in Inside Sales.

I put my reservations aside as we walked into the dingy parking garage and took the rickety elevator up to the fourth floor. I thought I heard another chuckle from him, but it was hard to tell. I noticed George had these unusual ticks where he made seemingly unconscious noises. He’d breathe heavily, snort, or make a popping sound with his tongue. I made small talk to fill the uncomfortable void.

“What’s good at this place?”

“Oh, you’ll see. There’s a lot good there. I mean a lot.” His whole goofy demeanor spilled out as he said this as if he were in on some secret. I began to wonder if I were being hazed. I could tolerate hazing in the name of a good fraternity party, but being raked across the coals by some old dude violated even my fleeting youthful sensibilities. I heard him laugh out loud as we walked to his car, and I briefly considered excusing myself and returning to the office.

He walked in between a shiny, black Lexus and this cranberry-colored TransAm. I knew immediately which car was his. The TransAm hadn’t made it out of the 1970s. I’d seen two versions of this car in my lifetime – one that had been well-maintained and displayed in classic car shows and another that was one pothole away from being obliterated. George owned the latter. The car whined when he sat down in the driver’s seat and leaned over to unlock my door. I felt like I sat on the ground when I lowered myself into the seat. The vinyl seats had tears in them that pinched my legs. A stench similar to a microwaved Filet-o-Fish filled the air inside the car. Fast food wrappers littered the floor at my feet.

He looked at the wrappers as I kicked them out of the way. “Sorry about the mess. I haven’t had time to clean her lately.” It didn’t look like the car had been cleaned in a long time, and I wondered what George did with his time outside the office. Whatever he did, I was certain it didn’t involve any cleaning.

He cranked the car, and it’s engine roared to life. The whole car rattled and vibrated. The radio blared some indiscernible music from its tinny speakers before George flipped it off. He struggled to look back as he maneuvered out of the parking space. He gunned it forward once he backed out like he was trying to impress me with his muscle car. I felt more embarrassed than in awe.

Once we merged onto the street, his goofy smile returned. “Potter, I’m taking you to my all-time favorite lunch spot. You know what’s so great about it?”

“What?”

“Lunch is free.”

“Free? How’s that?”

He laughed as if he had told a joke. “You’ll see, my son. You’ll see.”

We rounded one corner and then another. I couldn’t help but think of a movie I had seen when I was younger where this child was abducted and taken to an abandoned warehouse by her captor. She was rescued eventually, but she was forced to stay with her creepy captor for a while until the cops found her. George could easily pass for that guy.

I saw the muted neon sign in the distance before we arrived, and as we puttered further along the street in the traffic and he started to slow down near the sign, a feeling of discomfort and awkwardness washed over me. I laughed nervously.

“Where are we going?” I asked. In my head I said “No. No. No.”

“Where do you think?” He turned to look me square in the eyes as he nosed the car into one of several open spots. He laughed out loud, and I thought I saw an evil gleam in his eyes.

“They serve lunch here?”

“Yep!” he said proudly. “Don’t worry, they keep the food separate from the dancers.” He laughed out loud, a big belly laugh that most people reserve for something so funny that they can’t control themselves.

I couldn’t believe that we were having lunch at a strip joint. I’d only been to a strip club once before when one of my older fraternity brothers had had a bachelor party, but that place had been somewhat posh, at least as much as these clubs could be. Fanny’s was the polar opposite of posh. It stood wedged into a semi-basement of a row of old buildings in the back alley of the city. The parking lot smelled of urine and vomit, much like the average city bus that trundled up and down the streets.

I wheeled around to observe my surroundings as I stood outside George’s car. This wasn’t a place I’d visit at night or any other time really.

Hesitantly, I asked. “What do they serve here?”

“Pizza.”

“That’s it?”

“They order it. There’s no restaurant here. It’s good stuff, and it’s free, but you have to pay for drinks.”

I followed George to the door where a gruff, large man sat on a stool. He nodded to us and we passed by him without a word. On the other side of the foyer, the room was dark and loud. I could barely hear a word George said as we followed a scantily clad hostess to a table. There was only one stage in the dank room, which smelled of cheap pizza and alcohol. A single dancer stalked the stage, topless. When we sat down she confidently strolled toward us and began dancing on the stage in front of us. She turned around and bent over shaking her ass above us. George cheered and groveled. He pulled out some money and stuck it in her garter belt, while I just sat and watched the horror unfold.

I could only think of one person I’d be more horrified to have at my side in the presence of unmitigated sexuality – my mother. I felt about as comfortable as if she were sitting right next to me. George stood by the stage and groveled some more as the lady shimmied just inches from his fat face. When she strutted away to some other customers on the other side of the stage, George looked forlorn, but he kept that goofy smile on his face. You’d think a man his age would be numb to such things, but he looked like he’d just discovered it.

As he moved away from the stage, he put his hand on my shoulder. “Wow, she must be new here.”

I laughed. “Do you come here a lot?”

“I’m usually here once a week.”

“Really?”

“Potter, my son, a man doesn’t pass up free food. Speaking of food, let’s get some lunch.”

He wobbled past me to a long table against the wall. Heat lamps glowed above the boxes of pizza stacked on the table. George grabbed a flimsy paper plate, and surveyed the options before he grabbed several slices of pizza. I followed his lead and did the same before we returned to our table and ordered drinks from our waitress. George kept his eyes on the dancer as he shoved a slice into his mouth. He chewed sloppily and made noises as the lady gyrated on stage, which made me even more uncomfortable, if that were possible. I stared at my food only stealing glances at the dancer when she walked by us on the stage.

The dimly lit room made it difficult to really see the woman. She looked young, at least judging by her body, but her face looked tired and worn, which padded a few more years on her. She moved suggestively occasionally grabbing the pole in the middle of the stage and rippling herself up and down it, but something about her demeanor made her look disinterested as if she were in a morbidly boring job and was just trying to make it to the end of her shift. I could relate.

“Georgie!” a disembodied, female voice squealed in the dark. I twisted around in my seat to see this older dancer emerge from the dark and plop herself down in George’s lap. She seemed excited to see him in that fake way that many sorority girls greeted one another in college.

“Delilah!” George exclaimed. “How have you been?”

“Great, now that you’re here.” She pecked him on the cheek.

“You dancing?”

“I’m up next.” She stood up and adjusted her top, which barely covered her large breasts.

The smile on George’s face grew tenfold. “I’ll be ready for you.” He patted his leg in what I assume was a gesture to his money, or at least that’s what I hoped. She gave him another hug and scampered off toward the back.

I took another bite of pizza, but my stomach roiled. George leaned in and said, “Wait until you see her dance. She’s amazing!” His breath smelled of mediocre pizza and fruit punch. I wanted to vomit.

The irritating thumping music on stage segued to a stop, and the dancer strutted back stage like she was a fashion model. I watched the last of her bare ass disappear behind the velvety curtain that draped across the length of the back wall. The DJ announced Delilah, and even before she appeared on the stage, George stood, clapping and whooping like a college kid at a home football game. He was the only one who cheered, or at least he was the only one I could hear. The music throttled up and Delilah burst onto the stage in full stripper regalia. George almost fell over moving to the edge of the stage to greet her.

I couldn’t watch, and I couldn’t eat. I sat back in my chair and tried to look around for something else to occupy my attention, but my eyes kept falling on George behaving like a lap dog in the presence of this older woman who teased him from the stage. The whole scene was embarrassing as if it were my dad standing at the stage while my mom stripped for him. I wanted to leave, and I considered doing so. I could easily make my way to the main street and find one of those Lime scooters to get back to the office, but before I could muster the courage to take off, George returned to his seat.

“We should get going,” he said, still smiling and reeling from his encounter with Delilah. I could smell her cheap perfume on him as he squeezed past me. She had moved down the stage to another fawning, sad man.

“Yeah, lunch is almost over,” I said trying to encourage him. My feet were already pointed to the door.

We put some cash on the table to cover the drinks and a tip. I stood up to leave, but George walked over to the stage and waved to Delilah. She smiled and waved back to him, but she didn’t leave the man in front of her who had cash in hand. I made a beeline for the door only looking back to confirm that George was still following me.

I’d never been so glad to smell the dank air of a surly backstreet as I was when we emerged from Fanny’s. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. George came up beside me as we walked to his car and put his arm across my shoulder.

“Well, what’d you think Potter. I bet you’re liking this working life a lot better now, huh?”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “It was interesting.” I struggled to hide my desire to get away from him as quickly as possible.

“We should do this again sometime.”

I looked askew at him trying to hide my incredulity. I noticed some pizza sauce had dripped onto his shirt, but I didn’t say anything. I just promised myself that I’d never go to lunch with him again.

Episode 4: Standard Ink

“That’s what I do?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s the gist of it.” Julie replied.

“It’s kind of boring.”

“Everyone has to start somewhere.”

I stood up and peered across the sea of cubes. Heads poked above the short walls in just about every cube. I was, by far, the youngest person in the department. I saw more gray hair and bald heads than anything else.

“What about everyone else here?” I looked down at Julie who sat in a ragged chair she had dragged into my cube from the conference room across the hall. It was the last day of my training. I had spent three days with her, and I didn’t want it to end.

“What do you mean?”

“It appears I’m the only new college graduate in this department.”

“Inside Sales is the backbone of the company. A lot of people make a career of it.”

I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish the week doing this job, much less spend 30 years doing it, but some of the people I had met over the last three days had been at Standard Ink for their entire careers, and they were limping toward retirement spending their days calling prospective customers to sell them ink.

As Julie had explained to me, my job was fairly simple. I had a book, a literal notebook of printed pages, not a list on the computer, that contained the names of current, past, and potential customers. My job was to call on those customers and get them to buy more ink from us. Every day, I was expected to come in and spend the day on the phone trying to solicit orders for ink. That was basically it. Sadly.

The computer on my desk was used only to enter orders and respond to emails from my boss or customers. The order entry program looked like a throwback from the mainframe era I had read about in my history class, and that’s because it was. Standard still ran mainframes in a central room somewhere on the fifth floor of the building. The program ran in an emulator that produced a putrid monochrome green and black screen where I had to use the tab key to move among the fields to enter an order. The email client was also an anachronism from the days of desktop software. The only thing advanced about the computer was its security software, which prevented me from doing anything other than email and order entry. There was no browser installed, so I couldn’t waste time surfing the internet. I’m not even sure Standard had heard of the internet yet.  I felt like I was a little kid again when my parents used parental controls to limit my access on my computer.

I sat back down and looked at Julie. “So what’s next?”

“Well, it’s time to turn you loose.” She smiled at me and my heart melted a little. I didn’t want her to turn me loose. It felt like she was dropping me off at prison. I tried to remain hopeful in her presence.

“I can’t wait to get started.” I almost choked on these words.

“Good. You are going to do great. You’re just what this department needs.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. This department, this company, needed a lot of things, and I wasn’t it. “Thank you.”

She stood up and I joined her. For a brief moment, we looked at each other in a semi-awkward silence.

“Will I see you around?” I asked, stalling the inevitable.

“I’ll come down and see how you’re doing, but if you need anything, just give me a call.” She handed me one of her business cards. I cradled it in my palm and examined the raised letters on its surface. Her name, bold with a serif font, gave me small comfort in the sea of misery of Inside Sales.

She extended her hand and I shook it. I inhaled her perfume one more time before she turned and walked down the hall. I watched her walk away, enchanted by the purposeful sway of her gait. She was like a bright star in a singularly dark sky, and I wondered why she worked here. She could do so much better. I never asked her that. I filed that question away for the next time I saw her.

With Julie out of sight, the dreadfulness of Standard Ink seeped into my bones and pulled me down into the creaky chair in my cube. I sat down so hard that I thought the chair would break, but it only whined and crackled like the popping of tiny firecrackers. I stared at the ominous green screen on my computer and then the old, bulky phone on my desk.

My first call on my own went about as well as expected. My opening spiel was met with a click. I stopped mid-sentence to confirm that I had been unceremoniously dumped by the potential customer. I marked through the name in the call book. Half of my next ten calls ended in the same way until I reached a pleasant lady who sounded lonely. Not to brag, but my call definitely brightened her day. We chatted for over ten minutes about everything from the weather to my college mascot (the dodo). By the time I got to the punchline of my sales pitch, she was ready to order. She also asked if I planned to do a sales visit. She was disappointed when I told her no.

An hour had gone by, but it felt like a whole day. I felt bored, despondent. When I was a young kid and was learning to swim, I had ventured out into the deep end of the neighborhood pool one day while my parents sat in lounge chairs at the shallow end. I had confidently swam out to the deep end on my own, but once I was there, I suddenly panicked and thought I was going to sink to the bottom and drown. I wanted to call out to my dad, but fear had sucked all of the air out of my lungs and I was left paddling in deep water trying to stay afloat. I eventually mustered the energy to swim over to the wall of the pool and climb out, but I never forgot that feeling of being trapped on the deep end fearing for my life. I felt the same way sitting there in my cube. I was in too deep.

“How’s it going, kid?” George, one of my coworkers, said. He leaned against the edge of my cube with a stained, ceramic coffee cup in his hand. He took a sip while he waited for my answer.

“Okay, I guess.”

“It’ll get better.”

“I hope so. I only landed one order in an hour.”

“Where’s your trainer?” He gave a Cheshire Cat grin and glanced sideways up and down the corridor. George was typical of the people in Inside Sales. He was in his fifties, or so I guessed, bald save for the ring of wispy, gray hair that circumscribed his oblong head, and overweight. His gut hung so far over his belt that I couldn’t see the belt I supposed he wore. He wore short-sleeved dress shirts that had ghosted stains and frittered edges on the sleeves, not torn, but just just enough unevenness to make it clear that the shirt was well past its prime. He wore an outdated tie whose pattern may have been hip back in the 1980s, and his dress pants were too long as if he bought them with the intention of growing into them, like my mom used to do for me when I hit my growth spurt in my early teenage years. He didn’t wear his jacket once he reached his cube, probably because it was too small to button over his prodigious gut.

“I’m done with training, so she’s moved onto the next one.”

“They didn’t have trainers who looked like that when I started. I had some old fart train me.” He grinned wider than I thought possible. His leering look gave me the creeps. The thought of some old man pawing Julie, even with his eyes, disgusted me. I didn’t know what to say, so we stood there in an awkward silence filled only with George’s unspoken lust. I felt like I had stepped in a pile of dog shit and couldn’t wait to scrape it off my shoe.

“Hey kid, now that you’re officially one of us, we should go to lunch tomorrow. I’ll give you the run down on the inside.” His looked shifted from lascivious to hopeful.

I couldn’t imagine a more boring lunch partner, but I needed to get to know my coworkers if I was ever going to survive this job. “Sure.”

He looked relieved as if the seconds that passed between his suggestion and my answer were unbearable. “Cool, I’ll swing by tomorrow. I’ll take you to my favorite lunch spot.” He gave another mischievous grin as he turned to walk away. I didn’t know what he had in store for me, but I imagined it couldn’t be worse than the hazing I endured when I joined my fraternity in college. This was the professional world after all.

 

 

Legacy

This past weekend I, along with my family and brother, moved my mom to a new place. It’s much smaller than the old place, but plenty big enough for one person. Most importantly, the place is on a single level, which removes the danger presented by the steep staircase in her old place. When my kids were babies, I worried about their ability to maneuver stairs safely, but I had thought little about stairs since. Now that my mom is old, I can see how they present a serious obstacle for her. You really do come full circle in life.

My mom, who has had little change in her life or little that she has acknowledged, does not deal with change well at all. Her life-long battle with anxiety has become more pronounced in her later years. The smallest disruption to her daily routine can cause a tsunami of anxiety, so moving from one place, even if it’s one she’s only lived in for five years, to another just a few miles down the road provokes all sorts of hand-wringing. In the weeks since I told her she was moving, I’ve worked to quell her anxiety and assure her that my brother and I would take care of everything. That didn’t stop the worrying or the countless phone calls fretting over the impending move.

By the time moving day arrived, the tension was as thick as the fog rolling off the Golden Gate bridge on a chilly morning except not as peaceful nor as pleasant. In the weeks prior to the move, my brother and I had worked with my mom to winnow down her belongings. She’s something of a pack rat. She rarely throws anything away or donates things she doesn’t use even if they haven’t been used in years. Surprisingly, she seemed willing to turn a new leaf and had committed to sorting through her stuff to relieve the load quite a bit. We threw stuff away and made multiple trips to Goodwill, but come moving day, the amount of stuff still seemed overwhelming.

We had packed up most of her things the night before, but even the few things that remained unpacked seemed endless. A closet that didn’t seem so big the night before became an endless pile of stuff that stretched over the decades. Cabinets and drawers that seemed fairly innocuous in their contents felt like one of those circus clown cars where clowns keep coming out one after another. What seemed liked one more load became two or three more loads. By the end of the day, we were all tired down to our bones.

The hardest part of the move wasn’t even the physical labor or the jockeying about what to do with yet another unused kitchen item among the endless sea of unused kitchen items. It was the small things that reminded me of Dad. His watch, the one he received for working 30 years at Ford, almost reduced me to tears. The jacket he wore forever, tucked away in a closet, no longer had that familiar aftershave smell that rekindled memories from my childhood. I couldn’t even bear to open the garment bag that held his National Guard uniform. His presence and his legacy had been reduced to these inanimate things. Moving them or considering what to do with them felt like desecrating his memory.

A day that was physically exhausting quickly became one that was emotionally exhausting as well. As I lay in bed that night, before I quickly succumbed to sleep, I thought about how we will all be reduced to the things we leave behind. Our legacy will persist in those few things that only matter to a very few, and those few will hold in their hearts the memories of us that matter most to them. My dad’s legacy lives on within us. Sometimes, I fear it has faded too much, but then, I’m reminded he’s still there.

Episode 3: Standard Ink

In the weeks since my orientation with the indomitable Mr. Mullens, I had graduated from college and moved out of my parents’ house to an apartment just a few miles from the Standard Ink office. I had spent most of the holidays sitting on the floor of my sparsely-furnished living room playing video games and eating whatever I wanted, which consisted mostly of Cheetohs and Mountain Dew. Mullens had given me a thick volume on company policies and procedures before I had left the orientation, but I barely picked it up during the intervening weeks because there was too much going on, namely playing Red Dead Redemption 2.

When my first day at Standard Ink arrived a day after I welcomed a new year by playing video games for 18 hours straight, I struggled to get up on time. During my five years of college, I had purposefully scheduled my classes for late morning or the afternoon to avoid getting up early. I’m not a morning person. Nevertheless, I staggered out of bed with just 45 minutes to get ready and make the ten-minute drive to the office. I downed a couple of cold slices of pizza left over from New Year’s Eve and some Mountain Dew before I showered and threw on my suit, which really needed a good press.

My drive to the office was only a few miles, and at any other time of the day would only take  ten minutes, but the moment I nudged my car onto the main street toward downtown I met a long line of commuters edging their way down the street one car length at a time. It took ten minutes for me to get to the pizza joint down the street from my apartment, the same one I had walked to on New Year’s Eve for a late-night snack. By the time I pulled into the long line to get into the parking garage it was already 9:30 AM. Surely Mullens would understand I had misjudged traffic on my first day and give me a reprieve for being over 30 minutes late on my first day. Or maybe not.

I wasn’t the only one who was late. I stepped onto an elevator filled with grim-faced people in the parking garage and followed the flow of unhappy people into the office building like a school of spawning fish swimming toward our imminent demise. No one talked in the elevator on the way up to the 15th floor. Everyone just stared straight ahead or looked at the tiny screen on one side of the elevator that evidently played Standard Ink’s greatest hits from the 1950s. I was sure nothing good had happened at the company since then, but hey, it was a paycheck, and I had proven my dad wrong about my being capable of making it on my own.

The elevator spat me out on the 15th floor with a slew of others who quickly disappeared behind the door next to the receptionist’s desk. I stopped before the desk and waited for the rotund woman with the headset to get off the phone.

“May I help you?” she barked once she ended her call.

“I’m Travis Potter. It’s my first day.”

She didn’t seem impressed or the least bit interested. “Please have a seat,” she said nodding to my left. I looked at the tired chairs next to her desk, which sagged under a faded floral print several decades past its prime. They felt about as comfortable as they looked when I sat down.

I had barely relaxed in the rigid chair when a terminally old man trudged through the door next to the receptionist’s desk. His head slowly swiveled across the room until his eyes met mine.

“Potter?” he asked in a gruff, abrupt voice.

“Yes.” I stood up and smiled at him, but he didn’t return the favor. I stepped toward him and extended my hand.

He looked at my hand and then back at me. “You’re late.”

“I’m sorry. I misjudged traffic.”

“We expect our employees to be at their desks at 9 AM every day. That’s stated very clearly in the policies and procedures manual. Did you get the manual at your orientation?”

I thought of the thick notebook sitting on the bar at my apartment where I had placed it the day I moved in. I hadn’t moved it since then. I had briefly looked at the first page of the manual in the elevator on the way out on the day of my orientation, but the densely worded pages had discouraged me from opening it again. It felt like that time my literature teacher had assigned Beowulf. I never read that either.

“I did, but I haven’t finished reading it.”

“Hmm, the attendance policy is in the first chapter.” His eyebrows arched and his eyes narrowed at me. He knew I was lying.

“I’m sorry, it’s been a busy few weeks. I graduated, moved into a new apartment, and then the holidays happened. I’ll read it this week.” I scrambled to regain his confidence, but his facial expression remained the same, gruff and uninterested.

He considered me for a moment before he stepped back and opened the door. He pointed his hand toward the opening. “After you.”

I walked through the door and stopped. He walked past me and I followed him like a student going to the principal’s office. “My name is Mr. Smith. I am your supervisor.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said to the back of his head as I walked behind him. We came to the end of the hallway and the floor opened up into a sea of cubes similar to the floor that I had been on for my orientation. The big difference was that this floor had people on it. As we walked down the corridor every cube had a person bent over an old monitor with a headset on talking quietly. The chatter rose and melded into a mere vibration across the low ceiling. I could only make out a few muttered words as we passed each inhabited cube.

Finally, Smith came to an abrupt stop at the end of one row of cubes and turned to face me. “This is your office.” He impatiently pointed me to the desk.

“You’re in luck today Potter. I’m in a generous mood, but going forward, you have to sign onto your computer by 9 AM every day. Today doesn’t count, but you get three late sign-ins and you’re fired.” He paused and looked at me, no through me. “Do you understand?”

“Yes. It won’t happen again.”

“It better not. This is the real world Potter. College is over. This is your life from now on.”

I smiled to try and lighten the mood, but Smith didn’t alter his mood in the least. “I understand.”

“I’ll let your trainer know that you finally obliged us with your presence.” He huffed as he walked away as if his annoyance wasn’t obvious enough. I put my bag on the floor next to my desk and sat down in the creaky, old chair, which tilted slightly to one side.

My cube looked like a yard sale from the late 1990s with a bulky monitor and an over-sized mouse and keyboard tethered to the boxy computer that sat under the monitor. It reminded me of some of the junk my dad kept in the basement, relics from the bygone days of his home office. I tapped the bulbous keys on the keyboard and they clicked loudly. I wanted to laugh because I felt like I was in a time warp, but mostly, I wanted to run from the building screaming because this nightmare was my reality now.

“Travis?” a feminine voice said behind me. I wheeled around in the chair to see Julie White standing at the entrance to my cube. All of my dread evaporated in her presence.

“Julie? I wondered if I’d see you here.”

She smiled, and appeared relieved that I remembered her. “Well, you’ll be seeing a lot of me this week. I’m here to get you trained.”

This excited me beyond any remorse I had about working in this dreadful, dying company. “Great! I can’t wait to get started.”

Her smile broadened revealing more of her perfect, white teeth. She had her long hair pulled back in a tight ponytail that really exposed her face. She had a soft, youthful face and piercing brown eyes that sparkled despite the dull fluorescent lights overhead. When I stood up from the chair, I was a good foot taller than she was. She looked up at me, and I felt my heart flutter. She was the only reason I was here. Why else would I subject myself to this misery.

“Do you want to grab some coffee before we get started?”

“Sure.”

“Okay, I’ll give you a tour as we go.” She looked up at me and smiled again. I wanted to say something smart, but my thoughts tripped over each other in my head. I just smiled back at her.

She stepped out into the corridor and I followed her. She wore a white blouse and form-fitting black skirt that highlighted her taut figure. Fireworks popped in my chest when I caught the scent of her perfume, which rippled in her wake like a soft, summer breeze. She pointed out things as we walked down the corridor. I couldn’t recall anything of import she called out, but by the time we reached the tiny break room at the end of the floor, I knew I was in love.

Back at It

The holidays were a little more than disruptive to my writing. While I continued to write as much as I could, there was just too much going on to be fully immersed as I had been for much of the year. Now that the new year has turned and we’re getting back to our regular routines, I’m hoping to return my focus to the stories that I’ve been working on for the past few months.

My writing goals this year are very simple in terms of concept. I want to finish The Things We Cannot Keep and I want to attend the Atlanta Writer’s Conference. Given everything else going on, I can’t imagine doing much more than that without spreading myself hopelessly thin. In between all of this, I’ll continue posting to this blog including the remaining episodes of the serials I started last year – Donna Quixote and Standard Ink.

Toward the end of last year, I reduced the noise and distractions that constantly begged for my attention by eliminating many of my social media accounts except Instagram and Twitter. I reduced the frequency of my posting and checking on these accounts. I did this to reclaim so much time I had lost to pointless frittering online. This has tightened up my routine and re-routed a lot more of my time in the morning to actually writing and/or reading, which are far more important than the latest viral videos.

Speaking of reading, I’ve done a lot more of that since I reduced my social media activities. I read 14 books last year including a new all-time favorite in Where the Crawdads Sing. I had a great reading year thanks to many wonderful authors who continue to release excellent work. I’m looking forward to releases from some of my favorite authors this year including Robert Dugoni’s latest in the Tracy Crosswhite series.

There’s a lot to look forward to, and I’m glad to be back at it. Here’s to a happy, healthy 2019! Let’s get this year started!