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.