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 Our own server infrastructure was too outdated to keep up with the surprising traffic we saw.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.”
“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.