I heard George coming down the aisle before he arrived at the entrance to my cube. I could hear the raised floor squeaking under his weight as he turned the corner near my row. When I looked up, I saw his big head bobbing as he walked toward my office. He wore a concerned look with his thin lips stretched across his face in a pained expression. His double chin bounced as he walked. He cut right to the chase.
“I heard you got reassigned to the job reduction team full time,” he said.
I stared at him for a moment. He looked bad even for him. His eyes drooped as if he hadn’t had much sleep. His short and wispy hair hadn’t been combed. His attire screamed conflict with a yellow, button-up shirt choked by a crooked brown tie. It reminded me of an ensemble my grandfather may have worn to church.
“It’s called the ‘Path Forward’. It’s not the job reduction team, and besides, how did you hear that? I don’t even know if it’s final yet.”
“I heard Swanson telling Richard that you were leaving to join the project full time.”
I imagined George perched outside Swanson’s office eavesdropping like some not-so-svelte spy.
“Richard hasn’t said anything to me yet.” Julie and I had just talked about this last night when we went out for drinks, and I wasn’t sure how serious she was. Apparently, she was dead serious.
George smirked. “The grapevine is faster than official communication on The Inside.”
I cringed at George’s silly moniker for our department.
“Do me a favor, will ya?”
“Give me a heads up before I get laid off.”
“You’re not going to get laid off.”
“Just promise me you’ll give me a heads up.”
I rolled my eyes and sighed. He gave me a pleading look. “Okay.”
George seemed relieved, but he still looked sad.
“If you’re so worried, why don’t you start a job search now?” I asked.
He wore an expression like I had just insulted him. “I’ve spent my entire career here. No one else is going to hire me. I have no discernible skills that are marketable. I’ve done the same thing for over 30 years.”
“Sales skills transfer across any company.”
“I’ve called on the same customers for 30 years. Most of them just buy because they know me. These relationships won’t transfer to another company. Once I’m done here. I’m done.”
“Don’t you have any other skills?”
He laughed. “No. I was a Philosophy major in college. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I came here. It was easy. I got comfortable, and I just never did anything else.”
“I’m sure you’ll find something if you have to.”
He looked at me like I just told him that the earth was flat. “Thanks,” he said meekly before he turned and walked back to his cube. I listened as his footsteps faded down the aisle.
I made several sales calls and enjoyed some surprising success with some clients that hadn’t been called in a while when I felt the wind shift in my general direction. I looked up and Swanson stood at my cube entrance. His shadow loomed over my cube like he had just floated in front of the sun. I wasn’t sure how he managed to sneak up on me like that.
“Potter, Mr. Rich’s office has requested that you be assigned to the Path Forward project full time. You’ll move down to the 10th floor starting next week. Make sure you finish up your work here. You’ll be transitioning your accounts to Fineman.”
Before I could respond, he nodded and glided off down the aisle with his turkey neck trembling as he walked. I wouldn’t miss his gruff, impersonal manner, but I suddenly felt a little nostalgic for Inside Sales. I had spent my entire career, no matter how short it was, in this group, and it had, surprisingly, begun to feel like home. For a moment, I could understand how George got comfortable there. It was easy to fall into a routine and just become numb to it.
“Mr. Fineman,” I said as I stepped into George’s cube. His face was glued to his monitor. He sat so close that I wondered if he was nearly blind. He spun around in his chair.
“What’s up? Did Smith tell you about the project yet?”
“Not Richard. Mr. Swanson.”
“This must be a big deal if Swanson came out of his office to tell you. I wonder why Smith didn’t tell you.”
“I haven’t seen him since this morning. Maybe he’s in a meeting. Anyway, Swanson said I need to transition my accounts to you. When do you want to do that?”
George eyed me as if he was annoyed. “Can we go to lunch?”
I remembered our last lunch and quickly backpedaled in my mind. “I brought my lunch today.”
“How about we grab some coffee downstairs?”
I looked down the aisle to avoid George’s pleading expression. I couldn’t think of an excuse quick enough to avoid sounding like I didn’t want to go with him. “Sure.”
George locked his computer and grabbed a ridiculous overstuffed key chain from his desk and shoved it into his pocket.
“Are you a high school janitor on the side?” I asked nodding to the hand he had pushed into his pocket.
“Why do you have so many keys?”
“These are just house and car keys.”
“How many houses and cars do you own?” George seemed annoyed at my attempt at a humorous conversation, which backfired.
“I don’t own a house at the moment, but I live with my mom, and she’s very nosy, so I have to lock everything up in my room, or she’ll rifle through it while I’m at work. She’s retired. She has nothing else to do.”
I quickly changed the subject as we walked into the elevator bank. “Do you have any plans this weekend?” Before George could respond, a door dinged open and we stepped silently into a crowded elevator.
Once we reached the lobby level, everyone filed out of the elevator. George and I were the last two people to step out. I followed George to Top Bread, which in addition to serving stale sandwiches sold coffee that was just one notch above muddy water. Anything beat the sewage that brewed in the stained coffee carafe on our floor.
George ordered a sad, small cup of simple black coffee, which I felt was certainly befitting of him. I went a little fancier and ordered an espresso. After we both had our cups in hand, we grabbed small table in the corner away from anyone else who milled around the shop. We sat in silence for a moment sipping our coffee.
“We can transition your accounts to me this afternoon,” George said conceding to the inevitable.
George scanned the seating area in the shop as if he were looking for anyone who might be eavesdropping. “I’ve heard that they are going to start selling our products online.”
“Where did you hear that?” I asked. I was almost amused by his confession.
“I can’t reveal my sources, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what that means for Inside Sales. Swanson has to be pissed.”
“Why? It’s good for the company.”
“It may be good for the company, but it’s not good for us. All of those people up on fifteen will be out of a job including Smith and Swanson. Maybe not Swanson. He’s one of the big guys, so I’m sure Rich will protect him.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you may think you got out, but what’s going to happen to you when the job reduction project–”
“It’s the Path Forward project, not job reduction project.”
“Whatever. I call it what it is.”
“I think you are making it sound worse than it is. Every company has to adapt.”
“Adapt to what?”
“I don’t know…the 21st century.”
George clapped his mouth shut as if I’d said something disgusting to him.
“This isn’t about adapting. It’s about making Rich wealthier. If he cuts costs and makes the company more profitable, he looks like a hero.”
“What happens if he does nothing?”
“Let’s not talk about the theoretical. Let’s focus on the issue at hand. When this project is over, what’s going to happen to you?”
“I don’t know. Julie and I haven’t discussed it.”
“I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. You’ll be let go. They won’t have anything for you. The Inside will be eliminated, so you can’t go back to your old job. They’ll have no choice but to fire you.”
“That doesn’t bother you?”
“Not really. Maybe at that point I’ll be ready to do something else.”
He seemed perplexed. “Like what?”
“I don’t know. I’ll figure it out.” I imagined taking a few weeks off to play Xbox, and I’m sure a smile crept across my face.
“You kids today have no plans. You don’t think beyond what’s in front of you.”
“I’ve only been here nine months.”
“That’s the problem. They put people like you on this project, and no offense, but you don’t know what it’s like to work at Standard.”
George put his coffee down on the table and crossed his arms. He pouted as he looked past me to the small crowd of employees who had just entered the shop.
“Look, I don’t mean to be hard on you. It’s not your fault. You’re just doing what you’re told. I’m trying to help you see what’s coming.”
I wanted this conversation to be over. I drank the last few drops of my espresso. The warm liquid settled into my stomach, and I could feel the exhilaration of the caffeine pulsing through my veins. “I appreciate it,” I said as I put my empty cup on the small table between us.
George didn’t seem convinced. He turned up his cup to finish his coffee. “I need to run an errand, so I’ll meet you upstairs after lunch to transition your accounts. It shouldn’t take long anyway.”
George stood up and dropped his empty cup to the garbage bin near the door and walked out into the lobby. I watched him amble through the lobby until he disappeared around a corner.
He was right. I wasn’t thinking about what happens next. I didn’t really care what happened next. All I cared about was the opportunity to work more closely with Julie, and if that meant I wouldn’t have a job in a few months, then so be it. It’d be worth it.