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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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…”
“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.