Episode 15 – Standard Ink

NOTE: This is the final episode in this series. Thank you for reading.

“Hey Potter, you want to grab some coffee?” Alex asked. He had walked up behind me without me noticing it. His scratchy voice startled me. I wheeled around at my workstation and looked at him. He was dressed in a nice suit with crisp cuffs and platinum cuff links. His wavy hair was slicked back. He looked like a mafioso. His shoes were impossibly shiny, so much so that the overhead lights gleamed in them. His smile belied an undercurrent of neediness.

“Sure.”

“Okay, let’s walk down the street. I don’t any of that crap they’re serving downstairs.”

I locked my computer and followed him to the elevators. The tenth floor was quiet. I glanced at Julie’s dark office and wondered if I’d see her before she left for good. Chad’s office sat completely empty. He had wasted no time moving upstairs. I imagined him and his bare desk sitting in the middle of a giant office surrounded by fawning executives and an eager assistant.

Alex and I stood on opposite ends of the empty elevator. I didn’t really feel comfortable standing too close to him. He didn’t say a word. He just stared straight ahead like we were at the urinals in the men’s room. The elevator came to a stop at the fifth floor.

An older gentleman stepped onto the elevator with a familiar box suspended between his arms. I recognized him because he had been featured in the company newsletter not long after I had started at the company. His name was Ronnie Gilmore. He was the longest serving Standard employee. He had been with the company for his entire career, more than 40 years.

Ronnie looked defeated and worried. The bags under his eyes were pronounced, and his jowls sagged as if he had weights hanging from them, but he was dressed nicely in a classic suit that fit him well, and he stood up straight like a Marine. He wore the same close-cropped gray hair that he had sported in the newsletter photo. He gave us a wan smile as he stepped into the elevator. Alex looked askew at him as if he were disgusted. I wanted to say something, ask him how he was doing, but I didn’t know him other than what I had learned in the newsletter. It didn’t feel right to pry, but it was clear what was happening.

Alex and I followed him out the door, and I watched him put his box in the backseat of a old, compact car parked in front of the building. We continued down the street into the bright sunlight.

“Do you know who that was?” I asked. I pointed my thumb behind us.

“Who? The old man?”

I nodded. “That was Ronnie Gilmore.”

“Who’s that?”

“You didn’t see him in the company newsletter a while back?”

Alex shook his head no. I knew the moment I asked that he’d be unlikely to take any interest in anyone other than himself.

“He is or was Standard’s longest serving employee.”

“Guess that’s no longer the case.” Alex smiled as if he made a joke.

“You think he got fired?”

“Probably. Good riddance. We need to get rid of all of the dead weight at Standard. It’s a new company now. How do you think these tech companies are so successful?” He paused a moment as if he wanted an answer, but then he continued. “They don’t hire old people and when their employees get old, they give them the boot. Just walk down the street to the MainTech building. I guarantee you won’t find a person over 40 there except for maybe the security guards. Standard needs youth. That’s why you and I are here.”

Alex smirked at me as he opened the door to The Cup and I coffee shop. It felt wrong, cutting someone like Ronnie loose just because he was old. He’d spent his entire career at Standard and had remained loyal to the end. Where did that get him? Maybe he had a nice pension check coming, but his career ended in a whimper. He didn’t deserve that. Surely, we could have used his experience even if the company was headed into the future. We’d never know because Ronnie was now part of its sordid history.

Alex ordered an incredibly complicated and customized cup of coffee. He talked to the cashier as if she were an idiot. By the time he was finished tallying his demands, I think she wanted to spit in his cup. He paid with his app and walked away without saying thank you. I was extra nice to the young woman as I ordered. I thanked her profusely, attempting to compensate for Alex’s asinine behavior. She smiled as if she were relieved.

When I walked up to Alex at the end of the coffee bar, he said, “I hope these idiots get my order right. They can’t seem to follow simple instructions.” A look of disdain befell his face. I wondered if Alex had any friends or a girlfriend. No one at work liked him as far as I knew. He was always complaining and criticizing. I wondered why I had agreed to have coffee with him.

We stood silently, waiting for our coffees. After the barista put our drinks on the bar, we left the coffee shop and headed back to Standard Tower.

“Just look at Chad’s Exec team. Not a single one of our leaders is over 40 now,” he said, continuing our conversation as if there hadn’t been a large gaping silence since he last spoke. “I think Sabrina is the oldest executive, and she’s 38.”

I looked at him as I took a sip. I had thought that conversation was over.

“Look at you. A young guy in his twenties who’s already a manager of a big group.”

“That’s not official yet.”

“It will be. You won’t pass up the opportunity.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“The money is too good. You’re trapped.”

“I’m not trapped.”

“Once you start making good money, you can’t say no. You become stuck. You can’t walk away from it. Do you think I really like working at Standard?” He paused again.

“You’ve been here four years, right?”

He gave me a pained expression. “I have but it’s not because I like it. It’s because the money’s too good. I’d go work for MainTech if I had my druthers.”

“Don’t they pay well?”

“They do, but not as much as I make as a director at Standard. They don’t value my Standard experience as much as Standard does. They’re arrogant. They want people with tech experience, like it’s all that different from any other business.”

I found it ironic that Alex would call someone else arrogant.

“Before you know it, you’ll be here 40 years and they’ll be showing you the door.” I chuckled at my comment, but Alex just smirked.

“Doubtful. I’m not spending 40 years anywhere. Besides, by then, I will be retired to a beach somewhere.”

We were back at Standard Tower. The elevator dinged, and we stepped on without another word between us. I thought about the offer to manage the online team. I hadn’t signed any of the paperwork yet, but Alex was right. The pay was good. I would get almost a 50 percent raise. The bonus was potentially 20 percent of my salary, and the stock awards were icing on the cake. Standard’s stock had soared since the reorganization was announced. I hadn’t heard back from the tech company yet despite the fact that the recruiter had promised a quick response. I was torn. Did I want to stay at Standard? Without Julie? I longed to talk to her. I had sent her an email, but she just replied that we’d talk soon. That was a week ago.

When the elevator opened onto the tenth floor, Alex walked away without even acknowledging that I’d joined him for coffee. He was awkward like that.

The morning passed in a blur with all of the issues I had to address. It seemed we let too many people go as there weren’t enough to get the work done. The vendors on my team struggled to keep up. A text message interrupted my exasperation.

I have the offer in hand. Can we talk?

I looked around the tenth floor like everyone could see the text from the recruiter. A few people sat at their workstations, but no one looked at me. I replied.

I’ll call you in a few. 

I found one of the tiny private rooms with the glass doors and stepped inside. The door clicked shut giving the illusion of total privacy. I dialed the recruiter.

“Travis. I have great news!” she said after I said hello. I had never met the recruiter because she lived in another city, but I imagined a tiny, excitable woman hopped up on coffee or energy drinks. She was a lot to take in a phone conversation because she talked so fast. I wondered if she breathed during conversations.

The company wanted to hire me. The recruiter went through the details. The salary was less than what I’d make if I took the manager role at Standard, but the benefits were better including the stock options, which offered the promise of immense growth if the company continued to do well. I wanted to say yes right there, but I hesitated. I told the recruiter I wanted to think about it. She seemed disappointed. She went into full sales mode telling me all of the great benefits and opportunities I’d have, but I still resisted the urge to say yes immediately. She told me that they’d only wait a couple of days at most, and I promised to give her an answer before then.

I could barely squeeze my ego out of the door of the tiny room. I felt unusually good about myself, better than I had felt when I beat that snotty teenager in that online game a few weeks back. That had felt good. This felt better in an adult sort of way. I thought my dad would be proud. Maybe.

I floated through the rest of the day. I had a hard time focusing on my work. I kept running through the scenarios in my head. I tried to predict my future with each of the options I had before me. I kept coming back to the money. The only reason I’d stay at Standard was because of the salary. Everything else pointed to the tech company. I couldn’t decide if the salary was worth it.

As the office emptied, I sat at my workstation, pretending to work, but I really was just moving things around on a spreadsheet while I thought about my next step.

“I hear congratulations are in order.”

I wheeled around toward her voice and smiled before I could see her face. Julie stood a few feet behind me. She was dressed in her usual impeccable business suit. She exuded confidence and authority despite the fact that her time at Standard was coming to an end.

“Julie, how are you?” I know I sounded fan-boyish, but I didn’t care. I was just so glad to see her.

“I’m fantastic. How’s the new online manager?”

“I haven’t officially taken the role yet, but I’m fine. I haven’t seen you in a while.”

She stepped closer and took a seat in the chair at the workstation next to mine. “It’s been crazy since the announcement. Mr. Rich and I have been working to put all of the pieces in place before we leave.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“That you don’t have a job here.”

“Don’t be. It was my decision. Mr. Rich is joining a VC firm downtown, and he asked me if I wanted to stay here or join him, and I opted to join him.”

“Why?”

“I like the excitement of building or changing a company. I’m not cut out for running one long-term. This VC thing is something I’ve always wanted to do, and Mr. Rich and I have worked together for a while. I like working with him. I’ve learned a lot from him.”

She smiled at me and I wanted to lean in and kiss her.

“Look at you, though. You have a great opportunity here. I can’t think of a better person to lead this group.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“You don’t like it?”

“I do. I just thought…”

“What?”

“I thought I’d get the chance to work with you.”

She smiled again. “We’ve had a good run here. You’ve learned a lot, and that’s all that matters.”

That wasn’t all that mattered. I looked away, trying to hide my disappointment.

She stood up from the chair and stretched. “I have to get going. I’m meeting Mr. Rich and some of the VC partners for a dinner tonight. I need to grab a few remaining things from my office.”

When I stood up to say goodbye, she stepped toward me and hugged me. I inhaled her, the familiar perfume settling on me like a warm blanket. I wanted to pull back and look into her eyes and kiss her like some scene from a movie, but I knew that wouldn’t be appropriate. We separated like two good friends instead.

“Tomorrow is my last day here. I’m taking a week off before I join the new firm. Maybe we could meet for dinner again this weekend. Nothing fancy like last time.” She smiled at me.

“I’d like that.”

“Good. I’ll text you once I know my plans.”

I nodded and she gave me another quick hug before she walked away to her office. I didn’t say anything as she walked out toward the elevators a short time later, but I watched her until she disappeared behind the door to the lobby. My heart sank in the quiet, solitude of the empty office.

I sat there for a moment before I pulled up my email and clicked on the official offer letter for the manager role. I read it a couple of times. The “click here to accept” link glared at the bottom of the email. I clicked it and followed the steps to officially accept the role. Alex was right. I was trapped.

I texted the recruiter. I’m going to stay put for now. Please tell them thank you for the offer. I waited a few minutes for a reply, but nothing came.

On my way out to the elevators, I could still smell Julie’s perfume as if she had left a trail for me to follow. The scent thrilled me, left me wanting more. I didn’t think about my future at Standard or the one I passed up on the way down to the lobby. I just thought of her. I didn’t know where we’d end up, but I had to find out. I hoped I had made the right decision. I hoped for a lot of things.

Episode 14 – Standard Ink

NOTE: Only one more episode left after this one. I hope you have enjoyed reading the series.

When I came back to my workstation after lunch, I had an invite to meet with Chad sitting in my inbox. I clicked accept. Meeting with Chad had become a regular occurrence after I successfully guided the software vendor for the order management system across the finish line. Chad had been so pleased that he made a rare acknowledgment during the weekly team meeting calling me out for helping the project meet a major milestone. I could see why Chad rarely did such things. He wasn’t good at it.

The truth of it all was that I had done very little to help the software vendor. He had hated working for Alex so much that when I took over he was just happy that he didn’t have to deal with Alex anymore. He promptly did more work and did it more quickly than he had ever done it for Alex. Of course, Alex was too self-absorbed to see this. He just assumed that I had had more time to dedicate to the vendor, which helped the project along. Alex really was an ass.

Many of the workstations on the tenth floor sat empty. After the layoffs ended and the company began to settle into its new routines, members of the project team began to move on. Some moved onto other roles at Standard, while others simply left the company. The Path Forward project had been anointed as a roaring success by Mr. Rich. He had proclaimed as much in a video released within the company a few weeks ago. The video had even made it to YouTube where it spawned several parody versions, likely the product of disgruntled former employees.

My phone beeped. A text from a recruiter appeared on my screen: They want you in for a final interview.

I felt a surge of adrenaline course through my veins. I had interviewed for another job at a large tech company across town, and I had made it to the final round. I was so close to landing that job that I could taste it, and I was thrilled at the prospect of walking into Chad’s office and telling him that I was leaving, that I was finished with Standard and its fruitless attempts to join the future. Only the thought of leaving Julie behind dampened my enthusiasm.

I texted back: Thank you! When?

I had connected with the recruiter purely by coincidence. She had accidentally dialed my workstation phone and I had answered. Once she realized I wasn’t who she wanted to talk to, she tried to hang up, but I kept talking, intrigued by her clandestine tone. She asked a few questions, and then, she offered to help me find another job. I didn’t imagine it would turn into anything, but it did, and I had an interview within a few weeks at a forward-thinking company that knew how to treat its employees well. The company had a sterling reputation and its employees were highly sought after by other companies in the city. If I got the job, it would certainly launch my career in the right direction, whatever that was.

Her text pinged on my phone. Can you make it Thursday at 9 AM? Two hours.

I looked at my schedule. I could tell Chad that I had to come in late because of a doctor’s appointment. He’d think nothing of it. I hated lying, but I didn’t know what else to say. I felt awkward, but I confirmed my availability to the recruiter.

I stared at Julie’s empty office. She had made a brief appearance earlier in the morning, but she had left almost as soon as she arrived. Her office sat dark and lonely like it did most of the time. I wondered what she’d say if I got the job at the tech company. Would she try to persuade me to stay? Would I stay for her? I couldn’t answer that question with any confidence.

With all of the things going through my head, the meeting with Chad crept up on me quickly. The notification interrupted my train of thought as I worked on the new procedures for the order management system. I dismissed it three times before I saved my work and trudged to Chad’s office.

He sat ramrod straight at his desk typing on his laptop, which was the only item on his minimalist desk. He glanced up at me. “Travis, have a seat.” His eyes darted to the chairs in front of his desk. He kept typing after I sat down. “Let me finish this thought.” I waited.

“How’s it going?” he asked after he finished typing.

“Good.” I wasn’t in the mood for a conversation. My thoughts wandered back to my work and to the interview coming up in two days. He seemed disappointed in my answer as if he wanted me to say more. He stood up and shut the door to his office. I could feel his eyes on me as he returned to his chair.

“I’ll cut right to the chase. Mr. Rich will be making some announcements today. There will be a big reorganization – lots of changes coming. The project team is being disbanded and absorbed back into the company.”

“What? But we’re not finished.” I felt like the floor to the office had been pulled away from me. Somehow, I hadn’t seen this coming. I knew the project team was only temporary, but I had thought it’d stay in place a while longer.

“We’re mostly there. He wants the new organization to take ownership of the pertinent areas and drive them to completion. He thinks it’s important for the company to congeal around the future rather than have one central team driving it.”

As usual, Chad’s gobbledygook speak made little sense. I brushed his explanation away. “What am I going to do now?”

“That’s the good news.”

“Really? How?”

“I want you to lead our new online group.”

I tried to understand what he was saying, but for some reason my mind drew a blank. I must have given him a confused look because he let out a little laugh and explained it further.

“I need someone who can manage the website and the order management system. You’ve done a great job in both of those areas, and Benji and I agree that you’d be the best person to take on this role.”

I absorbed what he said still trying to overcome my surprise. I wondered why he said he needed someone. He and Benji were consultants. I wondered how much longer they would be around now that the project was being disbanded.

“What exactly does this mean?”

“Well, it means you’d work with the product leads across the company to help them with online sales and inventory management. It’d be a big promotion for you. You’d get a chance to manage people. They’d be vendors, but still it’s management. It’d look good on your resume.”

“Like the software vendor?”

He nodded. “What do you think?”

I thought about the interview I had coming up. “It’s interesting.” I tried to sound upbeat, but my words came out flat.

“You’re a young guy, but you are a digital native, and I think Standard needs someone like you to lead this. It would be a substantial pay increase plus you’d be eligible for a bonus.”

“How much?”

“We can discuss the details after the announcement this afternoon. Is this something you want to do?”

I thought for a moment, wondering if I should wait to agree to this after my interview, but I didn’t want to raise any suspicions. “Sure.”

Chad slumped back in his chair. His enthusiasm escaped him like a balloon losing air. “I was hoping for a little more excitement.” He smiled wanly.

“Sorry, I just have a lot on my mind.”

“I understand. It’s been crazy around here. We’ll talk more tomorrow.” That was his way of dismissing me. I sat in the comfy chair for a bit longer.

“I have a doctor’s appointment on Thursday morning, so I will be coming in a bit late.”

“No problem. Thanks for letting me know.” His eyes lingered on me for a moment just enough to make me begin to perspire. He returned his focus to the laptop on his desk and began typing. I stood up and left his office, relieved that I had put my excuse in place for Thursday.

Almost an hour later, an email from Mr. Rich popped into my inbox with a little exclamation point next to it declaring its importance as if Mr. Rich needed to highlight the importance of his emails. He rarely sent company-wide emails. The subject read, “The Path Forward Continues”. I rolled my eyes as I clicked it open.

I had expected more trite rah-rah encouragement from Mr. Rich before he got to the meat of the message that Chad mentioned in our meeting, but Mr. Rich uncharacteristically opened with a bang announcing that he was leaving the company because he had accomplished what he had come to do. He said that the Path Forward team had been a huge success and he thanked all of us for leading the company forward.

I stopped reading for a moment to absorb what he said. The company suddenly felt rudderless with Mr. Rich leaving. I had no personal connection with him; I’d only met him once, and I certainly didn’t feel any sadness about his impending absence, but it felt like the floor beneath me had suddenly become very shaky. Who would fill the void left by Mr. Rich and hold this organization together? Julie?

I continued reading. I tried to skim ahead to get the answer, but the jumble of words made no sense, so I paused to gather myself and start again, reading slowly to absorb the message. I think I audibly gasped as I read it. Chad would become the new CEO of Standard, the Executive team would be reorganized around products, and many of the existing executives were leaving the company, including Julie.

I sat back in my chair, stunned. I glanced at Julie’s dark office. I wanted to talk to her, understand why this was happening. She’d given me no warning this was coming. I couldn’t separate her from Standard, yet she was leaving the company, leaving me.

I finished the email where Mr. Rich mostly thanked a bunch of people I didn’t know. He didn’t say where he was going, and most importantly, he didn’t give any clues about what Julie was going to do now that she was leaving Standard. I deleted the email.

I had some more work to do for the software vendor, but I didn’t want to do it. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t think. I looked at the last email I received from Julie. Her signature line included her cell phone number. I considered calling her cell phone. I even picked up the phone at my workstation and dialed the first three numbers of her line, but I changed my mind and hung up the phone. She didn’t owe me anything, not even an explanation. I desperately wanted one, but she didn’t owe it to me.

I thought about Chad’s offer to lead the online group. I wondered how much the pay increase would be, but I also wondered if it’d be worth it to work here without Julie. She was the only reason I came here and the only reason I stayed. The interview on Thursday represented a fork in the road for me. That would help me decide. Part of me wanted to leave now and put all of it behind me, but I thought of that night at Stratosphere, and I couldn’t let it go. I logged out of my computer and gathered my things to leave. I had to get out of the office. Maybe a few hours of Xbox would clear my mind.

Episode 13 – Standard Ink

Something wasn’t quite right when I entered the lobby of Standard Tower. The usual murmur of voices and clicks of shoes on the gilded marble floor had been replaced with relative silence, or at least a hushed version of the usual morning rush. Fewer people waited at the elevator banks, and conversations on the elevator were punctuated with expressions of surprise that another person had been let go that seemed too valuable for Standard to lose.

Even the tenth floor, which had seemed like another planet compared to the rest of the company, felt subdued despite the urgency of our work, which had reached a frenetic pace after the launch of the new website. Our punch list grew out of control until the site almost crashed, but we managed to keep it running until we could move it to Amazon’s cloud. Our own server infrastructure was too outdated to keep up with the surprising traffic we saw. Apparently, most of our customers wanted to help themselves online.

I looked around the office. Only a few people sat at their desks. Chad’s office sat dark except for the meager light provided by a partially-opened blinds at one end of his bank of windows. I didn’t understand why he kept his blinds shut. His office faced west giving him a great view of the sunset, but he rarely saw it thanks to the tightly-closed blinds. It fit his character, I guess.

Julie’s office sat empty as well. She hadn’t been there in the weeks since Mr. Rich’s announcement. I had heard she’d been traveling with Mr. Rich as he consoled workers affected by the layoffs across Standard’s sprawling operations, but there was something else going on. Rumors had surfaced that she was in line to get a top job at another company and that only after Mr. Rich’s promise of greater opportunities was she convinced to stay. Of course, I heard none of this directly from her because I hadn’t seen her. I felt like our night at the Stratosphere had been a dream or some sort of mirage.

I jumped right into my work, and by the time I looked at the clock on my computer again, it was lunchtime. The office had barely filled up. There were more empty desks than occupied ones, and I had yet to see Benji or Sabrina. I felt like I was at the funeral of someone I didn’t know too well rather than at work. I decided I needed to leave the building for lunch even if I just walked down to the food truck alley a couple of streets over and grabbed some street tacos. I had to get out of Standard Tower and escape the lingering doom and gloom.

The elevator took longer than usual to reach the tenth floor. I paced a little in the lobby as I waited alone. The lobby receptionists had all been some of the first employees laid off, replaced by a small display that allowed visitors to find and summon the person they were visiting. Finally, one of the elevator doors dinged and slid open.

I stepped into the elevator amidst a crowd of people. I felt some relief at seeing so many people once again. I kept my eyes forward as the elevator descended. A few hushed comments filled the space behind me, but the demeanor of the crowd remained subdued. When the doors opened, I stepped out, but as I turned toward the exit in the lobby, something caught my eye. I came to a stop.

“Richard?” My old boss had been behind me in the elevator apparently hidden in the back of the crowd.

“Travis, it’s good to see you again,” he said, nodding solemnly. He held a box in his arms with awards and picture frames piled into it. He noticed my eyes on the box. “Today’s my last day.”

“Really? I’m sorry.”

He nodded. I could tell he was uncomfortable. “No need to feel sorry. I knew it would happen. I’ve been in Inside Sales for 15 years. It was only a matter of time. Most companies had either outsourced their telephone sales group or eliminated them altogether years ago. I’m surprised it took so long for Standard.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. I’ve spent my entire career here. All 37 years.”

“Wow, 37 years?”

“Yep. I can’t believe it’s over.”

“I’m sure you’ll find something.”

“I don’t know. There’s not much demand for an old guy like me.” He shook his head in disbelief. The shock still hung on him. The confidence that he had shown as my boss had given away to a visible uncertainty and stress that completely changed how I looked at him. The moment grew awkward.

“I better get going. My wife is waiting for me out front.” He put the box down on the floor and reached out to shake my hand. He smiled at me as he did this, and then he picked up the box. “Good luck, Travis. I wish you the best. You have your whole career in front of you. Don’t take it for granted.” He nodded before he walked away into the thinning crowd of the lobby. I watched him for a bit before I headed to one of the side exits in the direction of the food truck alley.

When I returned from lunch, full but not really satisfied, I didn’t go directly to the tenth floor. Instead, I took the elevator up to the 15th floor. I hadn’t been up to my old office since I had left Inside Sales, determined to leave that part of my career behind me. I hadn’t even talked to anyone from my old group until I had seen Richard before lunch. I wondered who was left up there, and I even wondered what had become of George. If he was still there, Richard’s dismissal had certainly lit a fire under his conspiracy theories. I suddenly felt eager to talk to George to get his perspective on what was going on at the company even if it was for pure entertainment value.

The elevator cracked open on the 15th floor. I expected the missing receptionist replaced with a small display, but the display on 15 was dark. I punched the screen with my index finger, but it retained its gray expression. When I buzzed into the door leading to the office, I was greeted with complete silence.

The lights were still on in the office, but many of the ceiling tiles had been removed. Wires dangled from the ceiling, and some of the floor compartments were open with more wires snaking from the floor. None of the cubes appeared to be occupied, and the offices along the wall sat dark.

I walked down the aisle toward my old cube. The vacant cubes had been stripped of all of their equipment. The old monitors and computers were gone. Only scraps of paper littered the desks and floors of the office. One cube had been converted to some type of workstation. Large floor plans covered the desk and a couple of hard hats sat in one corner. My old cube didn’t even have a desk anymore.

The dramatic change completely mesmerized me. I felt like I was walking through some sort of post-apocalyptic world. George’s cube had been completely disassembled as if his entire existence had been eradicated from the world. Nothing remained in Swanson’s office. The door stood ajar leading into an empty room with only outlines in the carpet to indicate where furniture had once stood. I could still hear the din of conversation that had once permeated this floor in spite of the dismal scene that unfolded before me.

A wave of nostalgia hit me as I walked the floor. Despite how I had felt about my first job here, I missed it now. I missed the buzz of activity among the sellers, and I even missed George’s inane comments and theories. The certainty of that brief part of my career felt more concrete than the cloudy future that lay ahead. An emptiness weighed on me as I walked back out to the lobby. The ding of the elevator seemed unnecessarily loud.

A sense of loneliness still clung to me when I stepped off the elevator on the tenth floor, so I was happy to see Benji and Sabrina sitting at their desks when I returned to mine.

“Where have you two been?”

A subtle look passed between them. “We had a late night last night,” Sabrina replied. Her eyes didn’t leave her monitor. Benji nodded in agreement. Neither of them elaborated and I let it drop.

“Travis!” Chad said behind me.

“Yes?” I turned toward him. He leaned out his door looking at me expectantly.

“Can you come to my office?”

I hadn’t noticed that Chad was here because I was so fixated on Benji and Sabrina. As I walked toward his office, I watched him return to his desk through the glass wall that looked out onto the open floor. He seemed agitated and serious, not abnormal for Chad.

“Have a seat,” he said pointing to one of the plush chairs in front of the big glass and metal table that served as his desk.

“Is there a problem?”

“Actually, there is…” He tapped the keyboard and stared at the monitor that hung above his desk. “…sorry, Mr. Rich just sent me an email…Anyway, the order management system is a mess, and I think we could use your help. Since the website is up and working relatively well, I’d like you to join Alex on that project until further notice.”

“What about the punch list?”

“Benji and Sabrina can handle that. I need you on the OMS.”

“Okay.”

“Talk to Alex. He’ll get you up to speed.”

I sat there for a moment. I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask, but I knew Chad only divulged what was necessary.

“Do you have a question?” Chad asked. He kept his eyes mostly on his monitor.

I paused a moment longer. “No, I’m fine. I’ll go talk to Alex.” I stood up and left his office taking a hard left toward Alex’s desk, which sat in another pod on the far end of the floor. I could see him sitting at his desk, his face partially obscured by his monitor. He eventually noticed me headed his way and turned his attention to me before I reached his desk.

“Chad wants me to help you with the OMS.”

“You’re the extra boots on the ground?” Alex seemed annoyed.

“I guess so.”

He sighed loudly as if he could communicate his displeasure all the way across the floor to Chad. He turned completely toward his computer and began typing furiously.

“I’m sending you some emails from our software vendor. There are a bunch of items that need to be addressed. If you could reach out to him and find answers to his questions. Just make the connections to the people who know what they’re doing. That’s all you have to do. This needs to be done by the end of the day tomorrow, or the project will be delayed, and you know Chad doesn’t like delays.”

He stopped typing and looked around the edge of his monitor at me. “Any questions?”

I shook my head.

“Thanks for your help.” His tone sounded doubtful, which aggravated me. Alex wasn’t one of the popular members of the Path Forward team. He had a reputation for being a hard ass. I’d heard that he made one of the vendors who was working on the project cry one time, but I hadn’t witnessed it myself. As I walked back to my desk on the other side of the floor, I thought those rumors were most likely true. He did seem like a hard ass.

I sat down at my desk and looked at my monitor. Alex had sent me five emails. I waited a moment before I clicked any of them. Benji and Sabrina had disappeared again. Chad’s office had gone dark as he had stepped out again. I wondered what Julie was doing at that very moment as my eyes landed on her vacant office. I leaned back into my chair and stretched. I thought about Richard, George, and all of my former coworkers on the Inside. Yes, I called it that in my head because I was feeling nostalgic again. Sometimes the past is better than the future because it’s so certain.

Episode 12 – Standard Ink

Stratosphere sat atop one of the tallest buildings in the city and offered some of the best views of the area. The mountains were visible on a clear day, and the southern side of the dining room offered a clean line of site of the airport, which was far south of the city but seemed closer from 40 stories up. I had been to the restaurant for lunch once with my dad many years ago when he met one of his college buddies to celebrate his friend’s upcoming second marriage. That marriage had since ended in divorce, and dad’s friend remained single as far as I know.

I hadn’t been to the restaurant at night, so when the elevator spat me out on the 40th floor at five minutes until eight, I stood in the lobby for a moment looking out over the streets below. The lights twinkled along the streets, and the surrounding office buildings looked liked gap-tooth jack-o-lanterns with some windows dark and some lit. I watched traffic snake around the bend on the freeway heading north, a trail of red taillights pointed the way.

“Hi Travis.”

I turned toward her voice and almost fell backward. I had gone home and freshened up, but I still wore the same suit that I had worn to work sans the tie. Julie had changed altogether. She wore a slim-fitting dress that looked like it had been airbrushed on. She always dressed nicely in her business suits, but this dress was a different level of nice. My voice hitched in my throat.

“Julie…you…you look great.”

“Thank you.” Her smile glowed in the dim lobby. She stepped up next to me and looked out the window at the world below. “It’s so beautiful from up here isn’t it?”

“Yes.” It was all I could say as I inhaled her perfume again. I struggled not to stare directly at her, so I watched her reflection in the window before us.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I made a reservation.”

“That’s good.”  I watched her in window as she turned to me.

“Are you hungry?”

“I can always eat.” She laughed as if had told a joke. She turned back toward the window and we stood there a moment longer watching the ant-sized world crawl around below us. The excitement of being next to her almost overwhelmed me.

“Let’s go to our table,” she said turning away from the window. I followed her to the maitre d’s podium. The maitre d snapped to attention as she approached and smiled when she gave her name. He summoned a hostess who stood behind him, and she led us to a table at the far end of the restaurant next to a window overlooking the east side of the city. I could see Standard Tower in the distance, the red letters of our company’s name glowing in the darkening night. I wished that she had put us somewhere that didn’t have a view of Standard Tower.

“Have you been here before?” Julie asked as we sat down. I placed the starched, cloth napkins in my lap.

“Not at night. It’s beautiful.”

“I love this place at night. The views are stunning. I love watching the city as it parties the night away.”

I’d never thought of it that way. Most nights I was holed up in my apartment or in one of my friend’s apartments playing Xbox. We ordered food for delivery or popped something in the microwave. None of my friends were really interested in going out. I became acutely aware of how odd we were, a group of man-children slavishly devoted to silly games when we, or I, could be hanging out with interesting women like Julie doing adult things. I felt like I was on the threshold of some sort of awareness, or it could have just been nerves. I struggled to find something to keep the conversation going.

“Do you come here often?” I almost wanted to face palm because that was what came out of my mouth, but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Julie smiled again as if she could read my thoughts. “We have a lot of business meetings here. Mr. Rich loves this place.”

I nodded as I cracked open the menu. When I had been here before, my dad had paid for my lunch. I didn’t remember much about the food, but the menu looked strange with its cutesy names and lengthy descriptions. The prices were a little eye-popping, and I quickly calculated whether or not I had enough on my credit card to cover our meal. I thought I did.

“Everything okay?”

I looked up at Julie’s concerned expression. “Yes, of course.”

“You just had this worried look on your face.”

“I can’t decide what I want.”

“The filet mignon is the best.”

I hummed to myself. “I may try that.” I quickly looked down the rest of the menu for a cheaper option and settled on a broiled chicken entree for half the price of the filet.

The waiter high-stepped over to our table and introduced himself in a pretentious English accent. As I listened to him talk about the menu, I wondered if his accent was real or just an act to fit the surroundings. I’d read on the internet that some actors who worked as waiters practiced by becoming a character when they worked. He sniffed after we ordered our drinks and pranced away toward the bar.

“He’s a little over the top,” I said after the waiter moved out of ear shot.

Julie giggled. “He is a little much.” She glanced toward the bar, but then, she turned her eyes on me. I almost melted in my chair. As I held her gaze for a brief moment, I felt like something passed between us, an unspoken message. I grew more nervous and returned my focus to the menu.

“Do you know what you want?” she asked.

I couldn’t lie, but I didn’t want to put the menu down. “Yes.”

“Good. Me too.” She signaled our waiter who seemed peeved that he had been summoned before he could bring the drinks, but he waltzed over to our table and made a big show of removing his pen and pad from his apron. Julie picked the filet, medium rare, and I had the broiled chicken. The waiter asked a bunch of questions, and we responded as if we were in some sort of speed round on a game show. Finally, he turned and rushed away with our menus tucked under his arm. My nervousness blared in the dim light without the menu to cover me. I looked out the window as the blinking lights of a distant airplane sailed across the horizon.

The waiter returned with our drinks and scampered away after a few witty comments. Julie sipped her wine, and I could feel her eyes on me as I glanced around the restaurant.

“Do you have any plans this weekend?” she asked.

I turned toward her as she took another sip of her wine. “Not really. Just hanging out with friends.”

“What do you do with your friends?”

I was too embarrassed to tell the truth, that we mostly played Xbox all day, did fast food runs, and avoided anything that interfered with our games including showers. “We play video games, go to movies, hang out at my apartment…”

She nodded as if it made sense to her.

“What about your plans?”

“I’m mostly working this weekend. There’s still a lot to do, especially after Mr. Rich’s announcement.”

“That sucks.”

“The announcement?”

“No, that you have to work.”

“Part of the job.”

I could barely stand working during the week. I couldn’t imagine if I had to work the weekend too. In that moment, I felt sorry for Julie, but she didn’t seem the least bit sad about it, nor did she seemed resigned to her fate. She looked as she always looked – determined and ambitious, and I wondered how anyone could get too excited about Standard.

“What did you think about Mr. Rich’s announcement?”

“It was ambiguous. He said something was going to happen, but he didn’t say exactly what.”

“It’d take longer to go through all the details. He just wanted to set the stage for what’s to come.”

“Do you know what’s coming?”

“I do.” I must have given her an expectant look because she continued, “I can’t tell you anything beyond that.”

“I guess I’ll have to wait and see.”

She nodded. “Mr. Rich wants to pull the Band Aid off quickly, so it will happen sooner rather than later.”

“What’s the rush?”

“Mr. Rich is ready to move on. He was brought in to transform the company. He’s close to doing that, and once he’s set the wheels in motion, he’s going to move on.”

“He’s leaving the company?”

“Yes.”

“Who’s taking over?”

“That’s still to be determined. I guess it depends on how the next few months go.”

“Wow. What are you going to do?”

“That’s still to be determined too.”

I sat back in my seat fingering the silverware still resting on the table beside my empty plate. I didn’t want to work at Standard if Julie wasn’t there. I had joined the company because of her, and I had stayed because of her. If she were gone, I’d have no reason to stay. I felt no loyalty or affinity for the company itself.

The waiter brought our appetizer and placed it on the table between us. The aroma of fried food and aioli sauce filled the air around our table. I didn’t realize how hungry I was until my mouth started watering. I waited for Julie to fork a few rings of calamari onto her plate before I did the same. I immediately shoveled a couple of rings into my mouth savoring the tender meat bathed in the spicy sauce.

In between bites our conversation shifted from work to life outside of work, mostly Julie’s life outside work. Despite the fact that she worked a lot, she still managed to do other things. She was an avid cyclist, but she hadn’t spent much time on the road lately. Instead, she had one of those Peloton bikes, and she woke up at 4 AM every morning to ride the bike for an hour. I’d seen the commercials for the bike on TV, and I imagined that Julie’s bike was set up in some airy apartment high above the city with splendid views of the mountains off in the distance. If anyone could live the aspirational lifestyle of those commercials, it was Julie.

I learned a lot about her in those two hours at Stratosphere. Her parents lived on the east coast, and she had a younger sister who was a doctor that lived in Oregon. She revealed this without much prompting, and thankfully, without expecting too much in return from me. I felt small compared to her, incomplete and uninteresting. She was definitely out of my league. I had graduated college, but I hadn’t fully graduated into adulthood. My biggest moments of late involved finishing a newly-released Xbox game on the weekend after it’s release. On the other hand, Julie had spent a week in Vienna a few months ago and had attended an opera there. I could barely say opera without laughing.

The time flew by too fast. I wanted to learn more about her, but after we waved off the prospect of dessert, the waiter dropped the check onto the table in a little leather portfolio. I reached for it.

“I got this,” Julie said. She reached for the check and her hand glanced mine. “I invited you here.”

“I can get it.”

“I know you can, but let this be my treat.” I acquiesced, and honestly, I felt relieved because I could imagine that the bill was pretty big.

“Thank you.”

“Thank you. I’ve really enjoyed your company.”

“I’ve enjoyed yours as well.”

She put her credit card into the portfolio and held it up for the waiter who swooped by to retrieve it.

After she paid, we stood up, almost in unison and made our way to the exit. We waited for the elevator quietly and remained quiet for the ride down to the lobby. We stepped out onto the marble floor in the lobby. Her heels clicked and echoed in the vast atrium as we walked toward the exit and stopped just outside the rotating doors.

“I’m parked in the deck,” she said nodding behind her.

“Oh, okay. I’m taking a Uber.”

“I’ve had a great time.”

“Me too. Thank you again for dinner.”

“You’re very welcome.”

We stood there staring at each other for a moment. I felt awkward and unsure of what to do. I didn’t know if this was a business dinner or a date. I didn’t know if I should shake her hand or simply wave goodbye to her.

She leaned in and I froze as she kissed me on the cheek. “Have a good weekend, Travis. I’ll see you Monday morning.” She smiled and lingered for just a few seconds before she turned and walked toward the parking deck.

“Have a good weekend,” I said to her back as she walked away. I watched her confidently stride to the parking deck as if she knew I was watching her. My heart pounded in my chest, and my knees felt weak. I could still smell her perfume in her wake. I had wanted to spend my Friday night playing a new Xbox game, but now, I didn’t care about that game. I watched her disappear into the elevator to the parking deck. I wanted to yell out for her to wait before the doors closed, but I just stood there staring at the space she had occupied in front of me until it became too awkward and I had no choice but to call an Uber and go home.

 

The Ups and Downs

Since I’m a runner, it probably comes as no surprise that I see running as analogous to life itself. I’ve been a runner for over 27 years, which is practically all of my adult life. I’ve seen some really good highs and disappointing lows in that time, much like I have in my life in general. The funny thing is that running has a symbiotic relationship to my broader life, an enhancer when things are going well and an antidote when they’re not.

When someone asks why I run, I tell them it’s like a habit similar to brushing your teeth. Once you get into the habit, it feels odd when you don’t do it. There have been a few extended periods in my running life when I couldn’t run as a result of injury, and not only did it feel weird to me, but I also felt like an animal in a cage, which made me irritable and semi-depressed. When I saw someone running during these interludes, I felt a strong surge of envy. Essentially, running is an addiction, a natural drug you’re not sure you should be on, and if you see someone else doing it, you want to do it too.

Needless to say, those moments when I couldn’t run were definite downers, but there have been other moments where I felt like I was headed for a trough. Getting older hasn’t helped. I’ve had to retrain myself to be thankful that I’m still running and hope to be able to run until the final curtain call rather than focus on beating my last personal best. I likely won’t beat my best mile time ever again, and many of my other personal bests seem to be slipping further from possibility.

In the past few weeks, I’ve experienced something of a running roller coaster. I ran a decent 5K time on one weekend and promptly ran my worst marathon time in nine years the following weekend. A few days later I managed to run my second best time ever in the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta, a race I’ve run 16 times. Talk about ups and downs.

No matter how my running life proceeds it has often inoculated me from the other ups in downs in my life, and for that I’m eternally grateful. I’m not sure how I would weather those storms otherwise. As a case in point, my career has been on a sideways trajectory for several years now, which has been an irritating and major disappointment for me. I’m just not where I want to be at this stage in my life. That doesn’t mean I’m giving up. Every runner knows there’s always the next race, and as a marathoner, I know you can’t let the middle distract you from the finish. I’m glad I have running to keep me grounded.

It’s Been a While

I’m back in Seattle this week for the first time in over two years. The kids and I are rediscovering some of our favorite spots in the area and meeting up with some of the good friends we left behind two years ago. It’s been too long to be away from the place I consider home. My kids were born here, and my wife and I have some of our favorite memories here – more than half of our life together has been spent in Seattle.

There are many reasons that Seattle is my favorite place to be. The temperate climate and the unsurpassed natural beauty of the region are a couple of the my most cited reasons. I can’t say I’m missing the dreadful heat and humidity I left behind in Atlanta. I’ve run some of my favorite trails and taken some long evening walks without feeling like I have been dragged through a swamp.

It’s not just the natural beauty that makes me pine for Seattle. It gets a lot grief for the Seattle freeze from outsiders with misplaced opinions, but I find the area to be congenial and welcoming. I feel at home here. I’d much rather have that perceived coolness than fake friendliness and myopic judgment often found in far less appealing places. The zeitgeist here suits me just fine, too. I suffer less from cognitive dissonance in Seattle. I can’t say the same for many other places.

Seattle, it’s been a while. I’m going to enjoy my week here, and I promise not so much time will pass until the next time I come back to see you again.

Episode 11 – Standard Ink

After I moved down to the tenth floor, a world away from George and Inside Sales, I didn’t see Julie as much as I had hoped. I caught a glimpse of her on my first day, but after that, she disappeared for two weeks. She hit the road with Mr. Rich on some clandestine mission that no one knew anything about including Chad who seemed to know about everything that happened at the company.

The tenth floor was definitely different than the fifteenth floor. People lingered at their desks well past five o’clock. There were always people on the floor and in the conference rooms no matter if it was early morning or late evening. People smiled and laughed and the energy of the room felt like a different company than the one I had joined. Even the ever-pretentious Chad, who sat in a glass-walled office on the edge of the sea of desks, seemed warm and engaging as he worked with the project team members. The whole floor exuded a youthful, hopeful vibe. I liked it even though I longed to see Julie.

“The test site is up.”

I peeked around my monitor. Sabrina looked at me expectantly. “When?”

“Just now,” she replied. “I sent you the link in chat.”

I looked at my monitor. The chat app glowed at the bottom of my screen. I clicked on the app and then on the link. The new Standard Ink website appeared before my eyes. The old website was nothing more than a semi-glamorous, half-hearted marketing brochure with a link to contact an anonymous email at the company with any questions. The new website was a fully-functional, modern marketing and ordering system. Our customers could do everything online with us once this site launched. George was right. Inside Sales was doomed.

“This looks great!” I said, peering at Sabrina from the side of my monitor.

“I know. I can’t wait until it launches.”

“Did they say when?”

“Next week.”

“Wow, that’s fast.”

Sabrina shook her head in agreement. “Welcome to the future.”

“Finally.”

“Hmmm.” Benji made the sound as he stared at his monitor. Both Sabrina and I looked at him, his eyebrows arched as if he were surprised.

“Something wrong with the site?” Sabrina asked.

“No. Mr. Rich just sent out an email,” he replied. Both of us returned our attention to our monitors.

I had this thing about having no emails in my inbox. It was a ridiculous obsession that my dad passed onto me, so after I read any email, I either deleted it (most of the time) or filed it away for reference or action. Mr. Rich’s email sat alone in my inbox, taunting me with its presence. I clicked it open and read it.

“This sounds ominous,” Sabrina said from behind her monitor.

“Yep,” Benji replied.

“What do you think he’s going to announce?” Sabrina asked aloud.

Neither Benji nor I replied. I stared at my screen and read the last paragraph again.

“I guess we’ll find out Friday,” Benji said.

The three of us stayed glued to our monitors. The usual cacophony of noise that surrounded us had quieted a little. We all knew what was coming because we were part of it even if we didn’t know exactly what Mr. Rich planned to announce.

I glanced toward Chad’s office hoping for some clues in his reaction, but his office sat empty. Chad was Julie’s primary lieutenant. If anyone knew the plan for the announcement, he did.

I thought of George sitting in his cube on the fifteenth floor reading the exact same email as we had read. I wondered what he thought. I knew the email stoked his paranoia. It didn’t take much to alight his conspiracy theories, but we’d know nothing until we heard directly from Mr. Rich himself, and we had to wait two more days.

***

For me, Friday arrived quickly. I thought the time would slow to a crawl, but we had to work through a lengthy punch list to get the new website ready for launch on Monday morning. I pulled a couple of late nights with Benji and Sabrina, and by Friday morning, we were confident that we’d make the launch deadline despite the anxiety prompted by Mr. Rich’s abrupt email.

At ten minutes before 10 AM, it felt like the whole floor was participating in some synchronized dance. Everyone began to move toward the elevators. Some people even took the stairs down to the lobby conference area. I rode the elevator with Benji and Sabrina and what felt like fifty other employees. None of us said a word despite the discomfort of being jammed up against each other.

We filed into the giant theater-style conference center like soldiers getting into battle formation. I’d never been inside the conference center because Standard hadn’t had an all-hands meeting since I had joined. It had the look and feel of an old theater including the chintzy design I’d expect to find in some offbeat theater in a long-abandoned part of town.

I scanned the crowd looking for George, Richard, or Swanson – anyone from Inside Sales, but I didn’t see anyone. I managed to spot Chad bobbing down the steps toward the stage as we took our seats near the back. The theater filled quickly and as the ceiling lights blinked, the murmurs of conversation died down. The cavernous room darkened leaving a single spotlight on the podium in the center of the stage. At ten A.M. sharp, the room became eerily quiet as everyone watched the stage, their faces dim in the halo of light.

Mr. Rich walked from the left side of the stage. As usual, he wore a crisp, nice suit and an impossibly bright smile. He looked like a man who just returned from a beach vacation with a fresh tan and the aura of relaxation. His cuff links sparkled when he stepped into the spotlight at the podium. He forced his electric smile upon all of us as he scanned the crowd. He nodded to the front row as if he were waiting for a cue to begin.

“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming here today and being on time,” he began. His booming voice filled the theater. He probably didn’t need the microphone because his voice was so deep and projected so well into the crowd. He made a joke, thanked a few people on the front row including Julie, and cleared his throat. He continued with some platitudes and reviewed the company’s recent performance. It felt like a book report I may have witnessed in the fifth grade, but he stood ramrod straight and flashed a confidence that I envied. At that moment I wanted to be Mr. Rich, the perfect center of attention, until the other shoe dropped.

“When I launched the Path Forward project not long after I joined the company, I told everyone that change is hard. Well, it’s been hard. We’ve made decisions about our future, and I’m proud of everyone here who has embraced this change as we prepare Standard for the next phase of its storied life.”

I wondered how many people actually embraced the change. I thought of George and his rampant paranoia. He didn’t want things to change. Most of the people within Inside Sales didn’t want anything to change. They showed up at 9 A.M. every day and left at 5 P.M. on the dot. They moved to and from the elevator like a herd of cattle and every two weeks they found more feed in their trough. It was a simple exchange – droning boredom for sustenance.

“Sometimes, it’s more painful than not, and today, we’re announcing some major changes that will happen over the next few weeks that will position the company for the future but will impact all of us.”

I doubted very seriously that anything that was to come would impact Mr. Rich much. He’d still get his multi-million dollar payday and he’d still vacation somewhere exquisite several times a year. His cuff links glinted in the spotlight as he moved his hands as he spoke, and I wondered if he had purchased new ones for this occasion.

“As we’ve rethought everything we do, we’ve realized that we don’t have to do some things anymore. We’ve either found more efficient ways to do them, or we’ve decided we’re no longer going to do them. As a result, some jobs are no longer needed.”

He paused to let the last words sink into the rapt audience. I looked around at the worried expressions that surrounded me. The dim light did nothing to quell the anxiety that permeated the room. Even though I was on the project team that would not likely see any immediate impact, I thought of what George said about there being no place to go when the project was finished. It didn’t really bother me. I was ready to let Standard go. In a sense, I felt relief. I had enjoyed my time on the project team, but I didn’t feel any loyalty to the company.

“Over the next few days, HR will be holding internal meetings with the departments and their managers to notify those who will be changing jobs or whose jobs are no longer needed. For those who will be without a job, a severance package will be offered. At Standard, we are like a family and we take care of our family.”

Mr. Rich looked at the crowd with a toothy smile as if he expected some praise from the audience. Instead, he was greeted with a palpable tension that hung over the crowd. He shifted behind the podium as he continued talking about duty and difficulty as if he were reading from some dramatic novel.

“This isn’t just about you. It’s about my Executive team as well. We’re making changes there, too. I’m reducing the size of the Executive team from 30 to 25 to align with our new organization. We’ll announce those changes when everything is finalized, but we’re in this with you. We’re taking our lumps too. It’s a tough transition to make as a company that’s been around for so long, but if we approach these changes in the same way that we’ve tackled the future with the Path Forward, we’ll make this company stronger and better.”

Mr. Rich droned on for another ten minutes or so expressing bland catchphrases meant to build our enthusiasm for what was to come, but the crowd met him with the demeanor of a man being led to his execution. His preternatural charisma couldn’t outflank the dour mood that had settled over the audience. When he had said his last words and waved goodbye as he exited the stage, we all stood up in the brightened lights of the theater and shuffled out into the lobby like an aging boxer who had barely survived a full twelve rounds in the ring.

I scanned the heads of my coworkers as we waited for the elevators, inching forward as another elevator car arrived and filled up. I hung in the back of the crowd hoping that I’d see Julie. Only a few people filed out of the theater as more elevator cars arrived and carried people to their floors. I saw Sabrina and Benji standing close together as they waited to get on an elevator. They didn’t see me. I caught a glimpse of Richard from Inside Sales as he stepped onto another elevator. He had his head down as if he were offering penance for his sins. I searched for George, but I didn’t see him in the thinning herd.

I felt a hand touch my back, and before I could wheel around to see who it was, I heard her voice.

“Hey Travis.”

“Julie, I haven’t seen you in a while. How have you been?”

“Busy. Very busy. I just got back into town last night.” She flashed that easy smile that made me forget whatever it was I wanted to say. Two elevator cars arrived and the last of the crowd disappeared from the lobby. Julie and I stood alone except for the security guard who stood anxiously near the entrance to the elevator bank.

Another elevator dinged. “I guess we should go up?” I said.

Julie smiled again and nodded. She put her hand against the door and motioned for me to step in. She put her other hand on my back again as I passed beside her as if she were patting my back for following her lead. I stood on one side of the elevator as the doors closed and she stood next to me, closer than I could handle. I caught a whiff of her perfume, and I wondered why I hadn’t noticed it before. The elevator jerked into motion.

“We should go out for drinks again,” she said as the elevator puttered past the first floor.

“Sure.” It was all I could think to say. The oxygen had apparently been choked off from my brain. I just inhaled her. I felt weak. I hadn’t seen her in over two weeks, and this was all I could say to her.

“What are you doing tonight?” she asked.

My brain did a cartwheel in my skull. I stuttered. “Not much.”

She laughed as if I had said something funny. “You don’t have any plans for a Friday night?”

I didn’t want to tell her that I had planned to play Xbox with my buddies, so I said what I thought most adults would say. “It’s been a long week.”

“Isn’t that the truth,” she replied. The elevator shuffled to a stop and the doors parted. We stepped off almost in unison into the empty, narrow lobby on the tenth floor. She turned to face me and put her hand on my arm. It felt electric.

“I feel like unwinding somewhere fun. Why don’t we grab some drinks tonight and catch up?” She smiled and her eyes narrowed as if she were trying to be coy.

“Okay. Where do you want to go?” I felt like all of the air had been sucked out of the lobby.

“Do you know where Stratosphere is?”

I nodded.

“Let’s meet there at eight. Does that work?”

“Yes.” The word squeaked out of my throat.

Her smile widened as if she were satisfied. She let go of my arm and walked ahead of me. I watched her for a moment before I followed her through the door into the open expanse of the tenth floor. When she walked away toward her office, I almost had to gulp some air to catch my breath.