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?”
“Wow, that’s fast.”
Sabrina shook her head in agreement. “Welcome to the future.”
“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.
“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?”
“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.