Episode 8 – Standard Ink

“That took some balls, dude,” Benji said to me when he sat down at the conference table in our tiny, glass meeting room on the tenth floor. “I mean, no one else had said a thing about Chad’s ideas, and you popped his bubble in your first meeting.”

“My idea wasn’t that outlandish,” I replied. I looked at my phone, which flashed a time of three minutes past three in the afternoon. Sabrina was late and she hadn’t emailed or texted or anything. I could criticize Standard and its employees all I wanted, but they were never late for meetings. Most showed up five minutes early to meetings, so Sabrina’s absence surprised and annoyed me. Now, I was stuck talking to Benji, who wasn’t as bright as he first appeared when I met him a week ago at my first project meeting.

“No, but Chad didn’t think of it. He was pissed. I could tell. He grinds his teeth when he’s angry and it makes his cheeks swell up.”

“So no one had brought up online sales before I joined the project?”

“Nope.”

“I don’t believe it.”

“Well, I take that back. Bob did.”

“Bob?”

“My colleague, Bob.”

“Why didn’t you guys present the idea.”

“Chad dismissed it. He said Standard’s DNA was face-to-face sales.”

I couldn’t help but smirk. “The entire 15th floor is dedicated to phone sales.”

Before Benji could respond, Sabrina pounded through the glass door out of breath. “Sorry, I’m late. I had another meeting run over.”

She took a seat across from me, cast a smile at Benji, and gave me her business face. I wasn’t sure about the vibe she was sending me. I’d only met her once and other than the introduction, I’d had no other interaction with her.

“So what are we doing?” she asked. She cocked her head to the side like a pug that heard a noise, and I wanted to laugh. Actually, I wanted to come clean and say that I had no idea what we were doing, that I had just blurted out an idea because I hadn’t been paying attention to Chad’s droning summary, but instead, I opened up my notebook and made a big show of clicking my Standard Ink ballpoint pen like I was about to write a novel or something.

My mind scrambled around my idea. Benji and Sabrina kept their eyes on me, and once again, I could feel the pressure building with each ticking second. The clock in the small conference room was suddenly very loud.

“What would we need to do to move Standard’s entire business online?”

They took their eyes off me and I almost sighed in relief.

“Standard doesn’t have any online sales presence right now, so that’s a big ask. Shouldn’t we start smaller?” Benji asked. Sabrina shook her head in agreement.

“I don’t think so,” I replied.

“Chad doesn’t think the company has the capacity to do online,” Benji said.

“How hard is it? Every company does it, even small ones,” I replied.

“You don’t know the company very well. How long have you been here?” Sabrina asked.

“A few months.”

“I’ve been here two years, and I just don’t think it’s ready,” she stated with a tone of authority that wasn’t warranted.

Sabrina didn’t look much older than me, so I wondered how much wisdom she could have garnered in having a year and a half on me. Nevertheless, this volley continued for the whole meeting with me serving up balls that both Benji and Sabrina thwacked back at me. We didn’t accomplish much of anything other than establish that I didn’t know the company very well. By the end of the meeting, I felt discouraged and deflated. I sat back in my chair and stared out onto the open office through the shiny glass after they left to go to their next meetings.

This work thing had me down. I thought about quitting, but the rent was coming due, which reminded me I’d have to move back home if  I quit. I couldn’t give my dad the satisfaction of crawling back home like that, but the urge to walk out the door was overwhelming. I wasn’t enjoying work, and this project didn’t get me closer to Julie as I had hoped. I’d barely seen her in the week since my first project meeting.

I closed my notebook on an almost blank page when the glass door clinked open.

“Are you free?” Julie asked, smiling like she was happy to see me.

“Yep,” I said enthusiastically. I hoped she wanted to grab some coffee in the lobby or something. In the briefest of moments, I imagined us taking the rest of the afternoon to sip our coffees and talk about anything other than this project.

“Great! Let’s go to another meeting.”

“Another meeting? I don’t have another meeting on my calendar.”

“You weren’t invited to this one until just now.” She chuckled as if she told a funny joke. “We’re meeting with some investment bankers who want to talk about strategic options.”

“Oh.” I followed her out of the conference room and toward the other side of the building. A meeting sounded about as exciting as helping my grandfather pull on his sweaty compression socks.

I could see in the conference room before we entered. On one side sat three men in suits and on the other side sat Mr. Rich, our CEO. They all had muted smiles on their faces similar to the smiles my fraternity brothers and I wore when we met professors at school parties.

I could feel the sweat pooling in my armpits as Julie opened the door and confidently introduced me to the men in the room. She was impressive. She glided effortlessly from me to the CEO as if we were just a couple of guys on the subway. She showed no outer fear or timidity. I, on the other hand, struggled to keep a good grip as I shook Mr. Rich’s hand.

Mr. Rich was every bit as glamorous as he was on the company promotional videos. He was shorter than I thought he’d be, but he had a big, firm handshake that would have toppled me over had he not braced his other hand against my forearm. His graying hair was slicked back and impeccably cut. He was tanned and solid for an older gentleman, nothing like George or Swanson in my department. He had an affable, credible demeanor that assured me he was in charge.

The bankers were a different story. The older man in the middle clearly outranked the two younger guys on either flank. He had a fake smile that barely covered his impossibly white teeth, and his suit had all of the little accouterments that my dad had said were not worth paying for when he taught me how to buy a good suit. He had fat rings on one finger on each hand, one of which pinched my finger when he squished my hand in his. I’d seen a few mob movies, and he looked like he could have been an extra in one of them.

The two guys on either side of him looked almost identical, mere decorations in this power show. They mostly kept their eyes on the iPads in front of them, but when they shook my hand, their hands felt limp and insubstantial as if they didn’t want to show up their boss.

The mobster was named Steve, and his associates were Eric and Marvin. After introductions were over, Mr. Rich and Steve chattered about golf, a terribly boring game, for a brief moment before Julie saved us all and started the meeting.

“We’ve been doing our research,” Steve started as he pushed bound booklets across the table at us, and we think you have some excellent strategic options for your company.”

I took the booklet from him and pulled it closer to me. The cover felt like leather with raised borders and the logo of the investment bank embossed in the center. I rubbed my fingers across it like one would rub a nice piece of leather. It seemed wasteful to use such a material on a report.

“We’ve identified three options for Standard that we’re prepared to advise you on should you choose to bring us on, and I’d like to take you through them,” Steve continued. His confidence bubbled over. He seemed like a boastful uncle who was doing us a favor by sharing his thoughts. I thought of my crazy uncle Charlie who never met a situation that didn’t require his ill-informed opinions.

I flipped open the report to the first page after I finally unglued myself from the supple cover. Once I paged past the table of contents, an endless biography for Steve, and a smattering of overly-indulgent quotes about the investment bank, I landed on the first page of any substance. The color graphs and diagrams were beautiful, an artful mix of colors and perfect text that almost seemed too well-designed to be true.  I couldn’t understand whatever it was the graphs were communicating, but maybe that was the point.

Steve tugged at his tie at one point as if he were loosening it to let out more hot air. The more he talked the less I believed what he said. He seemed smug and condescending without even trying. Meanwhile, his minions fingered their iPads occasionally flipping to another screen that I couldn’t read from where I sat. Neither of them looked at us.

“Where did you get these numbers?” Julie asked.

I looked over her shoulder and spied the page number she was on. I flipped to the same page, which was nothing more than a table with comparative financial numbers for Standard and several other companies.

“From our models,” Steve replied.

“They don’t make sense,” Julie said.

Mr. Rich leaned forward as if he had just found the error himself. “She’s right, Steve. Our profit margins are better than that.”

Steve garbled his response with some nonsense about risk-adjusted returns, but Julie wasn’t convinced, and I secretly cheered her on. I wanted to see Steve squirm. I had just met the guy, and I already didn’t like him. He wasn’t a likable character. He seemed too full of himself to be likable.

Steve shot a glance at one of his minions who frantically tapped on his iPad like the answer was hidden somewhere beneath the glossy screen.

While Steve and his colleague searched for answers, I turned to the other pages in the report, which read like a marketing pamphlet that hoped to convince you to buy something that you didn’t need. I thought about those slick brochures my dad brought home one day before he moved my grandfather into an assisted living home. The brochures made the places seem like resorts, but when I helped my dad move my grandfather into one of them, it looked nothing like the convincing brochure.

Somehow, Steve got past the bump in the road and resumed his pitch. Julie kept a skeptical eye on him, peppering him with questions and disrupting his flow. Mr. Rich seemed to be encouraging him, and I thought maybe he and Julie had some good cop-bad cop routine going on, but they didn’t seem that coordinated.

Mercifully, the meeting sputtered to an end. Mr. Rich had a flight to catch, and Steve, not to be outdone, had to be back in New York to meet with some big-name clients. I didn’t recognize the names of the clients, but he sure seemed proud to be associated with them.

After Steve had prattled his way out the door and followed Mr. Rich to the elevators with his minions in tow, Julie sat back in her chair and smiled as she turned to me.

“What’d you think?” she asked.

“I’m not sure. Their presentation seemed all form and no substance.”

She laughed. “They think our business can be reduced to a spreadsheet. Reality is not that simple.”

I nodded as if I shared her perspective, but the truth was that I hated spreadsheets.

“They just want to convince us to do something so they can collect fees, but we don’t need them. I believe in our project team.”

I loved her optimism, even if it felt a little mislaid. After my meeting earlier, I certainly didn’t share her confidence in our project team. I decided not to share my earlier experience with her. Hopefully, the other members of the project team were experiencing better success.

She stood up and paused for a moment. “Do you want to go out for a drink after work?”

I hesitated only because it caught me by surprise. “Sure.”

She smiled again. “Great. I’ll meet you in the lobby in at 5:30.”

She left the room, but I stayed behind enjoying the moment. I didn’t care about anything else because whatever discomfort or annoyance I felt dissipated along with my thoughts of quitting. I lingered only a bit longer before I rushed upstairs to finish my work before it was time to meet Julie.

Episode 7 – Standard Ink

I looked up from my bloated computer screen and saw Swanson standing at the entrance to my cube.

“Good morning,” he sniffed.

It shocked me to see him up close. Up until that point, he could have simply been an apparition that floated within Inside Sales. His office door was always closed and I had never seen him arrive or leave. Other than that one time when I glanced through his office window when I was looking for the printer, I’d never really seen him.

“Good morning,” I replied. He seemed agitated that I had responded. His eyes narrowed, and he sniffed again. Swanson was rail thin, especially thin for a man his age. He stood a head shorter than me, but his own head seemed too big for his body. He still had all of his hair, but it was gray and greasy-looking. He had dark eyes that were set back in his tired, wrinkled face. The most prominent thing about him was his turkey neck. It flung loose from his chin like he was storing stuff for the winter. When he turned his head, his neck shook like a sail flailing in the wind. I couldn’t help but stare at it because it bunched up above his neck tie and, quite frankly, it looked obscene.

“I got a request from Norton in the CEO’s office to add you to the Path Forward project.”

“The Path what?”

“Path Forward. It’s the project the CEO started to determine what Standard will do for the next 100 years.” He seemed aggravated that he had to explain it to me. I knew it was Julie’s project, but she hadn’t mentioned its name to me.

“Oh, okay. What do I need to do?”

“There’s a meeting on the tenth floor today at 1 PM. You need to be there. I let Richard know you are on the project and that you’ll be going to meetings.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t forget that Inside Sales is your primary job. You still have to meet our productivity metrics here. Whether you stay on the project or not depends on your performance here. Is that clear?” He raised his bushy eyebrows at me revealing the barely-visible whites of his eyes. He looked like a turkey just before Thanksgiving.

“Yes.”

He stared at me for a moment, his eyes returned to narrow slits, and then, he turned and walked away with his turkey neck in his wake.

I looked at the next entry in my customer list and started to pick up the phone for a sales call, when I sensed someone else blocking the entrance to my cube. I turned to see George with a big, goofy smile on his face. Before I could point to my lunch bag, he said, “I heard you got assigned to that big Corporate project.”

“What? How could you have heard that when I just found out myself?”

“News travels fast on the Inside.” George had a silly habit of referring to Inside Sales as “The Inside” like it was some secretive agency or something. The more I got to know him, the more I realized he needed a life outside of “The Inside”.

“I guess so.”

“Do you know what you’re doing on the project?”

“No, my first meeting is today after lunch.” I saw his eyes wander to the lunch bag on my desk. He looked mildly deflated.

“Let me know what you find out.”

“Why do you care?”

“This project is a big deal. Ever since the new CEO joined the company, he’s talked about the future of the company. That only means one thing.” He stopped talking like I knew what that one thing was. I waited a few moments for him to fill in the blank.

“Which is?”

“Layoffs.” His smile disappeared and a look of displeasure washed over his face. He folded his arms across his chest and rested them on his belly as he looked at me. His mustache hovered above his frown.

Even my inexperienced eyes could see that Standard was a bloated company with a lot of lifers just floating toward a pensioned retirement. Every day I stepped into the lobby felt like I was stepping back in time. I imagined that this was what it was like when my grandfather worked his Corporate job.

“I’m sure it’s not that bad.” It was all I could think to say.

“Do me a favor. Keep me informed about what’s going on. You’re the only person from the Inside that’s on this project.”

He stared at me waiting for a response. “Sure,” I said. He nodded and left my cube as if we had reached some detente after a long disagreement. I watched him amble down the corridor more determined than I had ever seen him.

I emailed Julie while I ate my lunch at my desk, but she didn’t reply before I had to leave for the meeting. I had hoped that she’d give me some insight into what the meeting was about. Instead, I was left wondering as I took the elevator down to the tenth floor.

The receptionist on the tenth floor sucked the air out of the waiting area. Large and loud with a permanent stern look etched on her pale, stone face, she stared at me like I had invaded her floor when I arrived at her desk.

“Do you know why you’re here?” she asked, glancing at my name badge dangling from the lanyard around my neck. She gave me a sour, sardonic look.

“I’m here for the Path Forward project meeting.” I gave her my best smile.

She screwed her face like she had swallowed something that tasted terrible as she flipped through a notebook in front of her. “Go through the door and it’s the conference room on the right,” she said nodding to the door behind her.

“Thank you.” She didn’t respond, and I didn’t pay her any attention as I walked past her and badged into the door.

Walking through that door felt like entering a new dimension. The tenth floor did not resemble a single floor that I had been on within Standard Tower. It had a modern, sleek look like I had seen in online articles about cutting-edge tech companies. Glass adorned the conference rooms and offices along the walls and the cubes weren’t cubes at all. They were desks splayed out in semi-circular patterns with glistening, white tops. Flat-screen panels hovered above the desks like giraffes fawning above minimalist keyboards. Even the people working on this floor were different. They wore jeans and un-tucked shirts and had well-groomed beards slung beneath hip glasses. For a moment I thought I had gone to the wrong place, but I didn’t want to leave.

“You made it,” Julie said behind me. I turned to see her smiling face at the door of one of the glass conference rooms I had skated past as I swooned over the fancy office.

“What is this place?” I said turning away from her and sweeping the office with a glance.

“This is the new Standard.”

“I like it.” I must have sounded like a kid who received an amazing gift at Christmas because she almost giggled at my response. “When does the rest of the company get this makeover?”

“I don’t know. This is a prototype that was developed for the project team. Everyone here works on the project, and all of our meetings are here. We wanted a space that spoke to the future of the company.”

“Wow. Do you have an office here?”

“I do, but my main one is on the 26th floor.” The 26th floor was the top floor of Standard Tower where the CEO had his office. I imagined Mr. Rich up there in his wood-paneled office smoking a cigar, but I couldn’t imagine Julie there. She seemed otherworldly and above the fray among the master-of-the-universe types.

“We’re meeting in here,” she said as she stepped into the glass bowl of a conference room. I followed her to the other side of the long table and took a seat next to her. A group of four men in crisp suits sat at the end of the table conferring quietly. The one in the middle looked up at me as I sat down.

“Chad, this is Travis Potter. He’s new at Standard, but he’s joining the project team,” Julie introduced me to the man in the middle. All of the men stood up in unison like they were part of a synchronized dance team. The older man advanced toward me and shook my hand.

“I’m Chad Connor. I’m Executive VP of Strategic Analysis at Moore Harme. These are my associates Bob, Brad, and Benji.” He swept his hand back toward that end of the table, and the three men stood and greeted me with a hand shake. All three of them looked about my age. They smiled faintly and nodded as they greeted me. Each of them handed me a business card. Chad handed me his business card last. It felt supple and gilded like he had found the most expensive paper on the planet to imprint with his name and title.

Julie explained. “Moore Harme is our consultant on this project. Their specialty is helping mature companies reinvent themselves.” Chad nodded and smiled as if a student of his had regurgitated everything she’d learned in his class. As she talked the conference room started to fill up, and Chad and his team returned to the end of the conference table. A timid looking man slipped into the conference room and gently shut the glass door before he slid into a seat at the front of the room next to an easel with a blank flip chart pad on it.

Julie spoke to the room and all of the other conversations stopped. She introduced me, and had the people in the room introduce themselves so that I knew who they were. I nodded to the consultants like we were old friends when they did their introductions. The team was a true cross section of the company. Some people came from areas that I didn’t even know existed at Standard. She said Cody would take notes and pointed toward the mousy man sitting next to the easel. Cody looked at his feet and fidgeted the marker in his hand as all eyes turned to him.

Julie handed the meeting over to Chad, and he began to talk about what they did in the last meeting. When I was in college, I hated it when professors forced us to do presentations, not because I was afraid to speak in public, but because I dreaded listening to my classmates’ presentations. That was how I felt a few sentences into Chad’s summary. I looked at his associates. Each of them preoccupied themselves with whatever they had in front of them. I had already confused the three Bs, so I couldn’t remember which one was Bob, Brad, or Benji.

“So now, we need to decide what strategic direction we think makes the most sense for Standard,” Chad said as he finished his spiel. Since I had tuned him out, I didn’t know what our choices were. Julie swept her eyes around the table and landed on me. I froze in an instant hoping that she wouldn’t call on me in my first meeting.

“What are your thoughts, Travis? Since you’re new to the group, it’d be good to hear your impressions,” she asked. She spoke more to the group than me directly. I froze in my seat, and for a moment, I thought my heart had stopped and my lungs had halted. I gulped as my mind ran circles in the blank space reserved for Chad’s little summary. I could feel the heat of all eyes trained on me. I shifted in my seat and cleared my throat to buy time. I kneaded my hands in front of me on the table. Oddly, I thought about the game pack I had bought on Xbox Live two days ago. I really wished I was in my apartment playing that game rather than sitting in that conference room.

“I think we need to move our business entirely online,” I said, blurting out the first thing that coalesced in my panicking brain. The silence reverberated along the glass wall rippling among the attendees. I looked to Chad, whose cheesy grin had dripped from his face like melting wax, and then, I looked at Julie. Her eyes sparkled as she read the room.

“I think that is a really good idea,” she said. “This is what we need. We need a totally fresh perspective. That’s why I asked Travis to join this team. We need to think beyond the way that Standard does business today if we’re going to keep this company alive for the next century.”

Heads bobbed along the table in agreement. Blank stares segued into thoughtful expressions, and a chatter rose in the room as the attendees began to assess my idea. I felt some sense of relief, but I also felt smaller because I had not put much thought into my idea and now it ignited the group like I had poured gasoline on a tiny flame. I tried to follow the chatter, but there were too many conversations going on at once.

Julie hushed the room. “I know you all have your own thoughts about this idea, but I’d like to push this to an exploratory sub-committee,” she said. Then, she looked at me. “Travis, if you could take the lead on this and work with Benji and Sabrina to flesh out this idea before our next meeting, I’d appreciate it.” She nodded at me and scanned the room as if she were looking for reassurances. Her focused returned to me. “Okay?”

“Okay.” I replied. There was nothing else I could think to say. She moved onto the next topic of the meeting, and Chad once again started droning about some other aspect of the project, and all I could think about was the fact that I didn’t know which of the Bs was Benji.

Episode 6 – Standard Ink

I had mostly shrugged off George’s suggestions for lunch at our “favorite place” in the weeks that followed. I dutifully brought my lunch each day and put my lunch bag in a prominent spot on my desk so that he could see it when he came by. He’d act so disappointed when I tapped the bag and told him I had brought my lunch, but he didn’t attempt to convince me to skip the bagged lunch for another trip to Fanny’s. Eventually, he stopped asking when he saw my lunch bag sitting there.

Julie would wander by my cube every once in a while and see how I was doing. Her visits changed my entire day for the better. Sometimes, I’d stare down the corridor hoping to see her coming my way with her big smile and her hair pulled up into the familiar ponytail, but on most days I was disappointed. She was off recruiting or training someone somewhere, and I found myself envious of whoever it was that had her attention. When she did come by to say hello, we’d often walk down to the break room and get some coffee. I hated coffee, especially the muddy water that passed for coffee at Standard Ink, but for Julie I’d pretend I liked anything to spend more time with her.

On an unpromising Tuesday, I had spent the greater part of the morning calling customers trying to push more ink. I had been hung up on, yelled at, and accused of being a scammer, but I did manage to score one big order from a woman with a gravelly voice who asked for my direct number in case she had a problem with the order. I didn’t think she was really concerned about her order because she peppered me with personal questions as I took her order. Before I said goodbye, she told me that her last boyfriend was twenty-something.

“Good morning, Travis.”

I spun around in my chair to see Julie’s beautiful face smiling at me. I forgot all about the rough morning I had been having. I greeted her enthusiastically.

“I’m training a new salesperson here.”

“Really? Where?”

“Two  rows over.” Julie nodded toward the other side of me. I looked over that way but no one was visible above the cube walls.

“A new graduate?”

“No, she’s been in Sales for a while.”

“What’s she doing here?”

“Her last company laid her off.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, she has over 30 years of experience in sales.”

“Wow.” The image of this new hire in my head changed dramatically. In the back of my mind, a sense of dread emerged at the thought of doing this job for 30 years. I shook away such awful thoughts.

“Do you want to go to lunch?”

I tried not to look too excited, but in my mind, I was racing in circles like a dog about to go to the park. “Sure,” I said in my best nonchalant voice.

Julie smiled. “Excellent. Are you okay if we go now? Susan had to take an early lunch to see her grandkids.”

“Susan?”

“The lady I’m training.”

I nodded and grabbed my jacket from the back of my chair. “Where do you want to go?”

“Top Bread okay?”

I nodded again. I didn’t care where we went as long as I was with her. Even stale bread saddled with sweaty meat couldn’t squelch the excitement I felt around Julie. I could always come back and eat the lunch I had packed.

Julie did most of the talking as we took the elevator down to the lobby. In between training stints, she was working on a project reporting directly to the CEO of Standard Ink. I’d never seen anyone so animated and excited about working at the company. Even George in his perennial upbeat demeanor seemed beaten down by life at Standard.

Only a couple of people stood in front of us in the line at Top Bread since we were about 15 minutes ahead of the usual lunch rush. The guy making the sandwiches looked about my age, and he nodded when I approached the counter as if we had some unspoken greeting between us. He mostly looked at Julie who continued to talk to me as I told him what I wanted on my sandwich. He watched as we moved on down the line. I wanted to tell him to not be so obvious in his staring, but I let it go. After all, I was the one having lunch with her.

After we sat down and unwrapped our sandwiches, Julie finished telling me about the project she was working on with the CEO while I took a solemn bite of my turkey on wheat. The meat tasted like it had been out of the refrigerator for too long, but I ate it anyway.

“Mr. Rich really listens to me. He’s giving me a lot of latitude.”

“That’s cool.”

Julie looked up at me as she took a bite of her sandwich as if she were expecting more from me. I scrambled in my head to think of something to say. To be honest, the project sounded boring, and I hadn’t entirely been paying attention to what she said about it.

“What’s it like working for the CEO?” I said after I swallowed a bite of slimy turkey. I exhaled as if I had just beat a buzzer of some kind.

“It’s great. I mean, I work with the entire Executive team, and they’re all so nice. It’s very different than what I expected.”

I had only seen Mr. Rich, the CEO, in company videos. He looked tired, old, and stern like a school principal or something.

“What’s the purpose of this project?”

“We’re deciding the future of the company.”

I sat up straight. “That’s a big project.”

“Yes, it is, and I’m a part of it. You should be a part of it.”

“I’m just a peon in Inside Sales. I’m not sure they want my opinion.”

“You’re exactly who they need to hear from. This company has been mired in its past for so long that no one notices. We need fresh voices to help determine how we survive another hundred years.”

I loved her enthusiasm, but the truth was that I didn’t care if Standard Ink survived or not. I didn’t like my job, and if I could ever muster the enthusiasm, I’d look for another one. I did like the regular paycheck though.

“You should join the team.”

“What about my job?”

“You’d still do your regular job. This would be in addition to your current job.”

“So I’d do more work and still get paid the same?”

“When you say it like that it sounds unflattering.”

“Maybe because it is unflattering.”

Julie seemed hurt by my cynicism. “We’re deciding the future of the company. There will be many opportunities in that future, and if we’re leading it, then some of those opportunities will open for us.”

I sort of understood what she was saying, but it seemed like too much work for a payoff that was so uncertain, but I nodded my understanding anyway, and she seemed to take this as some acknowledgement on my part. We ate in silence for a few minutes before she spoke again.

“What do you do for fun?”

Finally, a subject that I wanted to discuss. “I play video games.” I smiled at her.

“That’s it?”

I wiped the smile off my face. “Pretty much.”

“Okay,” she said diverting her eyes to her sandwich as she took another bite. I had a sense that she was not impressed, and for a moment I felt a flush of embarrassment wash across my face. I had played video games since I was a little kid. It had been the one thing I enjoyed no matter what, but somewhere along the way it became the only thing I did, and in that moment with Julie, I realized that it didn’t impress her in the least. I wanted to impress her.

“How do I get on this project?”

“What?”

“The project you’re on, how do I join it?”

She put her half-eaten sandwich back down on its wrapper and gave me a studious look. I caught a whiff of the roast beef and wanted to gag, but I kept that to myself.

“You need to let your manager know you’re interested, and I will talk to the project leader about adding you. I’ll put in a good word for you.”

“You will?”

“Yeah. It’ll be great to have you on the team.” She smiled at me as if I had paid her a big compliment or something. I reflexively smiled back despite my reservations about doing more work for the same paycheck. Then, I thought the project would get me off the phone for a few hours a week, and that made me unusually happy.

Julie finished her sandwich before I could choke down the remains of mine, so I listened while she talked about an art exhibit she had seen the previous weekend. She only mentioned a girlfriend of hers, so I remained hopeful that she was unattached. She had not referred to a boyfriend in any of our interactions. As she spoke, I wondered what she would look like with her hair down. Every single time I had seen her, she had it pulled back in a tight ponytail.

“What?” she asked, looking at me quizzically. I must have been giving her a strange look or something. I shrugged and shook my head. “You look like you have a question on your lips.”

“No. I’m just listening.” She smiled at me again and we looked at each other until it became uncomfortable after a second or two.

“You ready to get back to work?” She gathered up her trash and put it on her tray.

“Not really.”

She laughed as she stood up and I followed her to the trashcan near the door. The sandwich shop had grown crowded around us. The line to order snaked out the door. I scanned the anonymous faces that faded to beige in the line. No one looked particularly happy to be at lunch. The din of conversations seemed muted and depressed. Julie and I weaved among the people near the door to leave. It felt like we were swimming upstream in the rush of the lunch crowd.

We took the elevator up to my floor. When the doors slid shut, Julie turned to me. “I’ll talk to Mr. Rich about adding you. He’s looking for young talent to join the team. If he says yes, then the project leader will reach out to Mr. Swanson.”

“Okay. I doubt Swanson knows who I am.”

“Of course he does.”

“I’ve never even met him.” Swanson was the Inside Sales manager. He was four levels above me. I’d only seen a glimpse of him when I walked by his corner office once in my first week when I got lost trying to find the one printer the whole floor shared.

“He knows who works for him. Besides, he’ll tell your manager, and we’ll go from there.”

By the time we reached the corridor that led back to my cube, Julie turned to me. “It’ll be great to work together. I’m looking forward to it.” Her enthusiasm was almost as impressive as her smile. A sense of gloom descended on me as I bid her farewell. I’d rather spend the day working with Julie on some boring project than spend another minute at my desk on the phone, but I managed to say goodbye to her and trudge back to my desk. Another day. Another week.

Episode 5: Standard Ink

“Potter!” George called out to me across the aisle of cubes. He was walking my way, and he had a big smile on his face. I leaned on the edge of my cube wall as I waited for him to get to me. He ambled along the opposite corridor and turned the corner down from my cube.

He had an uneven and frenetic gait that seemed like he would fall down at any moment. He also sported a slight hunch forward, likely because of his huge gut, and his arms flung by his side as if he were attempting to take flight but couldn’t get his weight off the ground. His chubby face, adorned with a full, thick mustache, looked swollen and ruddy. His bushy, unkempt eyebrows danced above his bulbous eyes.

Today, he wore a light blue, short-sleeve dress shirt with a turd-brown tie that had diagonal, faded gold stripes on it. His shirt had a faded stain on the front of his belly that he likely couldn’t see given the curvature of his gut. He stopped short of me and levered his arm against my cube wall to steady himself as if the walk across the floor had exhausted him.

“You ready for lunch?” he asked. He seemed positively giddy, which perplexed me since our lunch would likely involve yet another lame sandwich from the shop in the lobby. No one at Standard Ink ventured far from the building it seemed. Most of the good restaurants and shops were down the street quite a ways where many of the new, modern office towers stood.

“Yep. Where do you want to go? Top Bread?” I asked, suggesting the sandwich shop in the lobby. I wanted to get this over with as quickly and painlessly as possible. Given the age gap, George and I had nothing in common, but somehow we’d developed a connection sort of like two people who are thrown into the same cell in prison.

“Nope. I’ve got just the place for you. Let’s go.” He walked past me and motioned for me to follow him. I fell into his wake and followed him to the elevators.

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.” He continued to wear that big, goofy smile. His eyebrows perched above his eyes like birds of prey. I felt mildly uncomfortable, but that feeling was fleeting compared to what was to come.

We were the only two people on the elevator for the whole ride down to the lobby, and I heard him chuckle to himself, as the bewildering smile danced across his face. I began to think that maybe he was a psychopath who preyed on new college graduates. After all, there had to be an explanation as to why there were no other new graduates in Inside Sales.

I put my reservations aside as we walked into the dingy parking garage and took the rickety elevator up to the fourth floor. I thought I heard another chuckle from him, but it was hard to tell. I noticed George had these unusual ticks where he made seemingly unconscious noises. He’d breathe heavily, snort, or make a popping sound with his tongue. I made small talk to fill the uncomfortable void.

“What’s good at this place?”

“Oh, you’ll see. There’s a lot good there. I mean a lot.” His whole goofy demeanor spilled out as he said this as if he were in on some secret. I began to wonder if I were being hazed. I could tolerate hazing in the name of a good fraternity party, but being raked across the coals by some old dude violated even my fleeting youthful sensibilities. I heard him laugh out loud as we walked to his car, and I briefly considered excusing myself and returning to the office.

He walked in between a shiny, black Lexus and this cranberry-colored TransAm. I knew immediately which car was his. The TransAm hadn’t made it out of the 1970s. I’d seen two versions of this car in my lifetime – one that had been well-maintained and displayed in classic car shows and another that was one pothole away from being obliterated. George owned the latter. The car whined when he sat down in the driver’s seat and leaned over to unlock my door. I felt like I sat on the ground when I lowered myself into the seat. The vinyl seats had tears in them that pinched my legs. A stench similar to a microwaved Filet-o-Fish filled the air inside the car. Fast food wrappers littered the floor at my feet.

He looked at the wrappers as I kicked them out of the way. “Sorry about the mess. I haven’t had time to clean her lately.” It didn’t look like the car had been cleaned in a long time, and I wondered what George did with his time outside the office. Whatever he did, I was certain it didn’t involve any cleaning.

He cranked the car, and it’s engine roared to life. The whole car rattled and vibrated. The radio blared some indiscernible music from its tinny speakers before George flipped it off. He struggled to look back as he maneuvered out of the parking space. He gunned it forward once he backed out like he was trying to impress me with his muscle car. I felt more embarrassed than in awe.

Once we merged onto the street, his goofy smile returned. “Potter, I’m taking you to my all-time favorite lunch spot. You know what’s so great about it?”

“What?”

“Lunch is free.”

“Free? How’s that?”

He laughed as if he had told a joke. “You’ll see, my son. You’ll see.”

We rounded one corner and then another. I couldn’t help but think of a movie I had seen when I was younger where this child was abducted and taken to an abandoned warehouse by her captor. She was rescued eventually, but she was forced to stay with her creepy captor for a while until the cops found her. George could easily pass for that guy.

I saw the muted neon sign in the distance before we arrived, and as we puttered further along the street in the traffic and he started to slow down near the sign, a feeling of discomfort and awkwardness washed over me. I laughed nervously.

“Where are we going?” I asked. In my head I said “No. No. No.”

“Where do you think?” He turned to look me square in the eyes as he nosed the car into one of several open spots. He laughed out loud, and I thought I saw an evil gleam in his eyes.

“They serve lunch here?”

“Yep!” he said proudly. “Don’t worry, they keep the food separate from the dancers.” He laughed out loud, a big belly laugh that most people reserve for something so funny that they can’t control themselves.

I couldn’t believe that we were having lunch at a strip joint. I’d only been to a strip club once before when one of my older fraternity brothers had had a bachelor party, but that place had been somewhat posh, at least as much as these clubs could be. Fanny’s was the polar opposite of posh. It stood wedged into a semi-basement of a row of old buildings in the back alley of the city. The parking lot smelled of urine and vomit, much like the average city bus that trundled up and down the streets.

I wheeled around to observe my surroundings as I stood outside George’s car. This wasn’t a place I’d visit at night or any other time really.

Hesitantly, I asked. “What do they serve here?”

“Pizza.”

“That’s it?”

“They order it. There’s no restaurant here. It’s good stuff, and it’s free, but you have to pay for drinks.”

I followed George to the door where a gruff, large man sat on a stool. He nodded to us and we passed by him without a word. On the other side of the foyer, the room was dark and loud. I could barely hear a word George said as we followed a scantily clad hostess to a table. There was only one stage in the dank room, which smelled of cheap pizza and alcohol. A single dancer stalked the stage, topless. When we sat down she confidently strolled toward us and began dancing on the stage in front of us. She turned around and bent over shaking her ass above us. George cheered and groveled. He pulled out some money and stuck it in her garter belt, while I just sat and watched the horror unfold.

I could only think of one person I’d be more horrified to have at my side in the presence of unmitigated sexuality – my mother. I felt about as comfortable as if she were sitting right next to me. George stood by the stage and groveled some more as the lady shimmied just inches from his fat face. When she strutted away to some other customers on the other side of the stage, George looked forlorn, but he kept that goofy smile on his face. You’d think a man his age would be numb to such things, but he looked like he’d just discovered it.

As he moved away from the stage, he put his hand on my shoulder. “Wow, she must be new here.”

I laughed. “Do you come here a lot?”

“I’m usually here once a week.”

“Really?”

“Potter, my son, a man doesn’t pass up free food. Speaking of food, let’s get some lunch.”

He wobbled past me to a long table against the wall. Heat lamps glowed above the boxes of pizza stacked on the table. George grabbed a flimsy paper plate, and surveyed the options before he grabbed several slices of pizza. I followed his lead and did the same before we returned to our table and ordered drinks from our waitress. George kept his eyes on the dancer as he shoved a slice into his mouth. He chewed sloppily and made noises as the lady gyrated on stage, which made me even more uncomfortable, if that were possible. I stared at my food only stealing glances at the dancer when she walked by us on the stage.

The dimly lit room made it difficult to really see the woman. She looked young, at least judging by her body, but her face looked tired and worn, which padded a few more years on her. She moved suggestively occasionally grabbing the pole in the middle of the stage and rippling herself up and down it, but something about her demeanor made her look disinterested as if she were in a morbidly boring job and was just trying to make it to the end of her shift. I could relate.

“Georgie!” a disembodied, female voice squealed in the dark. I twisted around in my seat to see this older dancer emerge from the dark and plop herself down in George’s lap. She seemed excited to see him in that fake way that many sorority girls greeted one another in college.

“Delilah!” George exclaimed. “How have you been?”

“Great, now that you’re here.” She pecked him on the cheek.

“You dancing?”

“I’m up next.” She stood up and adjusted her top, which barely covered her large breasts.

The smile on George’s face grew tenfold. “I’ll be ready for you.” He patted his leg in what I assume was a gesture to his money, or at least that’s what I hoped. She gave him another hug and scampered off toward the back.

I took another bite of pizza, but my stomach roiled. George leaned in and said, “Wait until you see her dance. She’s amazing!” His breath smelled of mediocre pizza and fruit punch. I wanted to vomit.

The irritating thumping music on stage segued to a stop, and the dancer strutted back stage like she was a fashion model. I watched the last of her bare ass disappear behind the velvety curtain that draped across the length of the back wall. The DJ announced Delilah, and even before she appeared on the stage, George stood, clapping and whooping like a college kid at a home football game. He was the only one who cheered, or at least he was the only one I could hear. The music throttled up and Delilah burst onto the stage in full stripper regalia. George almost fell over moving to the edge of the stage to greet her.

I couldn’t watch, and I couldn’t eat. I sat back in my chair and tried to look around for something else to occupy my attention, but my eyes kept falling on George behaving like a lap dog in the presence of this older woman who teased him from the stage. The whole scene was embarrassing as if it were my dad standing at the stage while my mom stripped for him. I wanted to leave, and I considered doing so. I could easily make my way to the main street and find one of those Lime scooters to get back to the office, but before I could muster the courage to take off, George returned to his seat.

“We should get going,” he said, still smiling and reeling from his encounter with Delilah. I could smell her cheap perfume on him as he squeezed past me. She had moved down the stage to another fawning, sad man.

“Yeah, lunch is almost over,” I said trying to encourage him. My feet were already pointed to the door.

We put some cash on the table to cover the drinks and a tip. I stood up to leave, but George walked over to the stage and waved to Delilah. She smiled and waved back to him, but she didn’t leave the man in front of her who had cash in hand. I made a beeline for the door only looking back to confirm that George was still following me.

I’d never been so glad to smell the dank air of a surly backstreet as I was when we emerged from Fanny’s. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. George came up beside me as we walked to his car and put his arm across my shoulder.

“Well, what’d you think Potter. I bet you’re liking this working life a lot better now, huh?”

I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “It was interesting.” I struggled to hide my desire to get away from him as quickly as possible.

“We should do this again sometime.”

I looked askew at him trying to hide my incredulity. I noticed some pizza sauce had dripped onto his shirt, but I didn’t say anything. I just promised myself that I’d never go to lunch with him again.

Episode 4: Standard Ink

“That’s what I do?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s the gist of it.” Julie replied.

“It’s kind of boring.”

“Everyone has to start somewhere.”

I stood up and peered across the sea of cubes. Heads poked above the short walls in just about every cube. I was, by far, the youngest person in the department. I saw more gray hair and bald heads than anything else.

“What about everyone else here?” I looked down at Julie who sat in a ragged chair she had dragged into my cube from the conference room across the hall. It was the last day of my training. I had spent three days with her, and I didn’t want it to end.

“What do you mean?”

“It appears I’m the only new college graduate in this department.”

“Inside Sales is the backbone of the company. A lot of people make a career of it.”

I couldn’t believe it. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish the week doing this job, much less spend 30 years doing it, but some of the people I had met over the last three days had been at Standard Ink for their entire careers, and they were limping toward retirement spending their days calling prospective customers to sell them ink.

As Julie had explained to me, my job was fairly simple. I had a book, a literal notebook of printed pages, not a list on the computer, that contained the names of current, past, and potential customers. My job was to call on those customers and get them to buy more ink from us. Every day, I was expected to come in and spend the day on the phone trying to solicit orders for ink. That was basically it. Sadly.

The computer on my desk was used only to enter orders and respond to emails from my boss or customers. The order entry program looked like a throwback from the mainframe era I had read about in my history class, and that’s because it was. Standard still ran mainframes in a central room somewhere on the fifth floor of the building. The program ran in an emulator that produced a putrid monochrome green and black screen where I had to use the tab key to move among the fields to enter an order. The email client was also an anachronism from the days of desktop software. The only thing advanced about the computer was its security software, which prevented me from doing anything other than email and order entry. There was no browser installed, so I couldn’t waste time surfing the internet. I’m not even sure Standard had heard of the internet yet.  I felt like I was a little kid again when my parents used parental controls to limit my access on my computer.

I sat back down and looked at Julie. “So what’s next?”

“Well, it’s time to turn you loose.” She smiled at me and my heart melted a little. I didn’t want her to turn me loose. It felt like she was dropping me off at prison. I tried to remain hopeful in her presence.

“I can’t wait to get started.” I almost choked on these words.

“Good. You are going to do great. You’re just what this department needs.”

I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. This department, this company, needed a lot of things, and I wasn’t it. “Thank you.”

She stood up and I joined her. For a brief moment, we looked at each other in a semi-awkward silence.

“Will I see you around?” I asked, stalling the inevitable.

“I’ll come down and see how you’re doing, but if you need anything, just give me a call.” She handed me one of her business cards. I cradled it in my palm and examined the raised letters on its surface. Her name, bold with a serif font, gave me small comfort in the sea of misery of Inside Sales.

She extended her hand and I shook it. I inhaled her perfume one more time before she turned and walked down the hall. I watched her walk away, enchanted by the purposeful sway of her gait. She was like a bright star in a singularly dark sky, and I wondered why she worked here. She could do so much better. I never asked her that. I filed that question away for the next time I saw her.

With Julie out of sight, the dreadfulness of Standard Ink seeped into my bones and pulled me down into the creaky chair in my cube. I sat down so hard that I thought the chair would break, but it only whined and crackled like the popping of tiny firecrackers. I stared at the ominous green screen on my computer and then the old, bulky phone on my desk.

My first call on my own went about as well as expected. My opening spiel was met with a click. I stopped mid-sentence to confirm that I had been unceremoniously dumped by the potential customer. I marked through the name in the call book. Half of my next ten calls ended in the same way until I reached a pleasant lady who sounded lonely. Not to brag, but my call definitely brightened her day. We chatted for over ten minutes about everything from the weather to my college mascot (the dodo). By the time I got to the punchline of my sales pitch, she was ready to order. She also asked if I planned to do a sales visit. She was disappointed when I told her no.

An hour had gone by, but it felt like a whole day. I felt bored, despondent. When I was a young kid and was learning to swim, I had ventured out into the deep end of the neighborhood pool one day while my parents sat in lounge chairs at the shallow end. I had confidently swam out to the deep end on my own, but once I was there, I suddenly panicked and thought I was going to sink to the bottom and drown. I wanted to call out to my dad, but fear had sucked all of the air out of my lungs and I was left paddling in deep water trying to stay afloat. I eventually mustered the energy to swim over to the wall of the pool and climb out, but I never forgot that feeling of being trapped on the deep end fearing for my life. I felt the same way sitting there in my cube. I was in too deep.

“How’s it going, kid?” George, one of my coworkers, said. He leaned against the edge of my cube with a stained, ceramic coffee cup in his hand. He took a sip while he waited for my answer.

“Okay, I guess.”

“It’ll get better.”

“I hope so. I only landed one order in an hour.”

“Where’s your trainer?” He gave a Cheshire Cat grin and glanced sideways up and down the corridor. George was typical of the people in Inside Sales. He was in his fifties, or so I guessed, bald save for the ring of wispy, gray hair that circumscribed his oblong head, and overweight. His gut hung so far over his belt that I couldn’t see the belt I supposed he wore. He wore short-sleeved dress shirts that had ghosted stains and frittered edges on the sleeves, not torn, but just just enough unevenness to make it clear that the shirt was well past its prime. He wore an outdated tie whose pattern may have been hip back in the 1980s, and his dress pants were too long as if he bought them with the intention of growing into them, like my mom used to do for me when I hit my growth spurt in my early teenage years. He didn’t wear his jacket once he reached his cube, probably because it was too small to button over his prodigious gut.

“I’m done with training, so she’s moved onto the next one.”

“They didn’t have trainers who looked like that when I started. I had some old fart train me.” He grinned wider than I thought possible. His leering look gave me the creeps. The thought of some old man pawing Julie, even with his eyes, disgusted me. I didn’t know what to say, so we stood there in an awkward silence filled only with George’s unspoken lust. I felt like I had stepped in a pile of dog shit and couldn’t wait to scrape it off my shoe.

“Hey kid, now that you’re officially one of us, we should go to lunch tomorrow. I’ll give you the run down on the inside.” His looked shifted from lascivious to hopeful.

I couldn’t imagine a more boring lunch partner, but I needed to get to know my coworkers if I was ever going to survive this job. “Sure.”

He looked relieved as if the seconds that passed between his suggestion and my answer were unbearable. “Cool, I’ll swing by tomorrow. I’ll take you to my favorite lunch spot.” He gave another mischievous grin as he turned to walk away. I didn’t know what he had in store for me, but I imagined it couldn’t be worse than the hazing I endured when I joined my fraternity in college. This was the professional world after all.

 

 

Episode 1: Standard Ink

My dad always told me that I had to make good grades if I wanted to get into a good college and that gaining admission to a good college was half the battle in landing a good job, but I didn’t listen. He’d lecture me so frequently about this that his delivery is forever etched in my mind. He’d get this serious look on his face, arching his eyebrows inward as if he were concentrating on something productive. He’d spread his arms out wide and say “All of this…,” meaning the house in which we lived, “…is the result of your mother and me going to college.”

He had been reduced to appealing to my tangible and superficial side after his noble appeals to my intellect and logic failed miserably. I don’t remember the first version of this lecture too much, but the one where he talked about all the things I could have if I went to a good college stuck with me for some reason even though I didn’t take to the inherent message. At the time I didn’t think I needed to get into a good college to get these things. I had them already. It was only years later that I discovered the flaw in my logic.

For what it’s worth, Dad’s life didn’t seem too enviable. Sure, we had these things he liked to point out, but he worked long hours, traveled endlessly, and rarely spent any time in the house he was so proud of. What was the point of working so hard for stuff he didn’t enjoy? That’s what I wanted to ask him, but I never had the gall to ask him that. Instead, I just stared intently at a spot on the wall above his shoulder until the lecture was finished, and then, I’d mope off to my room to play video games.

My grades weren’t failing, but they weren’t the stuff of legend either, not by a long shot. My biggest claim to fame in my entire school career involved a hook shot of a wad of paper from the back of my eighth-grade classroom that threaded through my exasperated homeroom teacher’s hands and landed squarely in the waste basket to the stunned amazement of my thirty or so peers. I earned detention for that careless shot, but my place in the annals of school legend was assured because of my brash stupidity.

By the time my senior year in high school rolled around and my peers were making big college decisions, I was relegated to the community college route, hoping to get my grades up so that I could sneak into a big-time college. After spending a couple of years at a community college not far from my parent’s house, I managed to squeak into one of the lesser state colleges to finish my four-year degree. It was there that I realized how true my dad’s words were.

The state college was nothing more than a degree mill for the less-capable among us, which I had become by default. Everyone graduated as long as they gave a minimum of effort, and if I’d proven anything in my life, it’s that I was good at giving the minimum. I was just a few weeks from graduation with a major in business, not marketing, finance, or accounting, just business, which as far as degrees are concerned might as well have been basket weaving because nothing says “aimless” like a broad, nondescript degree.

The state college had a rudimentary career placement office, mostly because no one of substance recruited from the school. The state itself practically owned the meager career fair held late in the fall semester hiring wannabe bureaucrats for its endless array of departments and agencies. Nothing depressed me more than the thought of rotting in some mindless state bureaucracy for the rest of my life. The few companies that did show up for the career fair were mostly has-beens in their industries, old or failing companies that were one innovation away from death or were in industries that had been completely disrupted by the future but had failed to recognize it.

With nothing better to do, I walked the languid, makeshift aisles among the tables at the career fair eyeing the men and women in cheap suits suspiciously. My dad had warned me that I would have to start paying him rent once I graduated, and I had no intention of doing that, so I decided I had to get a job so that I could move out on my own. I stopped at a few tables and talked to rotund, middle-aged, balding men about their boring state jobs. After each conversation I felt a sense of gloom so great that I wanted to run screaming from the conference center until I noticed a gleaming jewel in the gray sea of the career fair.

At the far end of one haphazard row of tables, I noticed a beautiful, blonde woman standing behind a table smiling and greeting passersby. I quickened my pace to get to her table, almost running past tables for the State Treasury, the Office of Corrections, and some state agency responsible penalizing people for no apparent reason. A small crowd of mostly male students had gathered around her table. I listened as she talked to one particularly listless student who hadn’t even bothered to dress appropriately for the event. Even I had replaced my usual t-shirt, board shorts, and flip-flops with a reasonably appointed suit my dad had bought me for graduation.

I waited eagerly for the student to finish his conversation with the woman. He gave her a gummy smile as she talked and sort of snort-laughed after he said something. I could tell she was a little disgusted, but she kept flashing that big smile. Finally, the student moved on realizing either he had no interest in whatever agency she was pedaling or that he had no chance of asking her out.

The woman didn’t even watch the student leave. She simply turned in my direction, and I stepped forward and introduced myself, cutting off another male student who had probably been standing there longer than I had, but he was too feckless to protest.

“Hi, I’m Travis Potter.”

Her smile broadened and her eyes brightened as she took my hand, “I’m Julie White. I’m here for Standard Ink.” Her handshake was warm and comfortable but firm. I liked her immediately.

“Standard Ink? What does that agency do?”

“It’s not an agency. It’s a company.”

“Oh. What does it sell?”

She looked at me like I had missed the joke. “We sell ink, as in ink pens.”

“That’s it?”

“Yes.” A worried look flashed across her face as if she thought the conversation had taken a turn for the worse. For my part, I couldn’t believe there was a company dedicated to selling ink in a world that had mostly converted to digital. I barely used a pen in class, and my school wasn’t known for being a trend-setting educational institution.

“Do you sell ink for printers?”

“What kind of printers?”

“Like the ones attached to computers.”

She shook her head as if I had just asked her to have my child. “No. We’re a very focused company. We do one thing, and we do it very well.”

I must have had this incredulous look on my face because she immediately followed that up with “We’re the best in the industry. We’re a leading producer of ink. Our ink is in all of the leading pens around the world.” She seemed confident and self-assured by this. “Would you like to learn more about the positions we’re hiring for?”

I shook my head mainly because I didn’t want to leave her just yet. Her radiating beauty held me into an orbit around her, and I found myself willing to endure anything, even the inane idea of an ink-focused company in 2018, just to hold her attention. She leaned down across the table and opened a glossy brochure with lots of pictures of people doing serious stuff in offices. All of them were focused on writing something on paper with an ink pen. There was even a photo of a classroom of students, all with ink pens, writing notes in notebooks at their desks. Even in my community college, all of the students had laptops in class. I don’t remember a single Luddite taking notes with a notebook and pen.

She flipped to the last page of the brilliant brochure. Some high-quality ink had been used to produce it for sure. “Does your company produce the ink used to create these photos? I asked, hopeful that this company was at least trying to be part of the modern era.

She shook her head. “We believe focus is the key to success, so we only do one thing. We’re the best in the industry.” She smiled proudly. I must have stared at her dumbly because she kept going. “You’ll find we have that same focus in terms of career development. All of our new hires go through an extensive training program to teach them the Standard way. What’s your major?”

“Business.”

“Great! You’d be perfect for Sales.”

“Me?”

“Yes. You have that look of determination that we seek in our sales staff.”

I looked around us. The crowd of fawning young men had dispersed as if they had intruded upon two necking lovers in a public place. A large, lumpy student who wore jeans, sandals and an un-tucked white shirt with a red, paisley tie looked at me from across the aisle and then looked at Julie. He shot me a look of envy. I felt like a dull bulb in a box of burned out ones.

“What do you think? Julie asked. I felt despondent. Nothing looked good at this career fair. I was either destined to work a dreadful, boring job or live at home with my parents for the foreseeable future. Most of my friends had jobs at exciting companies, startups, or consulting firms. Many had already moved to bigger and better places. I was stuck and in decline already at the ripe old age of 21.

“When do I start?” I said jokingly, smiling back at Julie.

Her eyes brightened and, if it was even possible, her smile grew bigger. She pulled a business card from her suit pocket and handed it to me. “You are going to love working at Standard Ink. Here is the business card for our sales trainer, Bert Mullens. I just need to get some information from you.”

Julie pulled a clipboard from beneath the table and handed me an ink pen (of course). “Please fill out this form and sign at the bottom.” She pointed to the lines and rested the tip of her well-manicured finger near the edge of the signature line. She had leaned closer to me to explain the form, and I could smell her intoxicating perfume. I didn’t care if this was the right choice for me. I just wanted to work with Julie everyday. I looked up from the form at Julie. She kept smiling for me.

“The training center’s address is on Bert’s card. Please be there at 9 AM on Monday. If you have any problems, just call the number on the card.”

“That’s it?”

“Uh-huh,” she said through her radiant smile.

I had been prepared for a much more grueling process or at least a few tough questions. I wasn’t prepared for this. I apparently had a job. I relaxed a little, probably a little too much.

“What do you do at Standard Ink?”

The smile on her face flipped off like a light in a dark room. “What?”

“What’s your job?”

She paused for a moment. “Oh, I’m the Senior VP of Outbound Communication, Inquiry, and Recruitment.”

“Wow, that’s a mouthful.” I chuckled at my joke. Julie did not.

“Hi!” she said as she ended our conversation abruptly and greeted another student who had survived the perilous sea of damnation and boredom to make it to Julie’s table. I watched for a moment as she interacted with the student. Her approach seemed like a recording of our conversation, and I realized I wasn’t so special after all. Deflated, I walked away from the table and directly toward the exit. Outside, the day had turned cloudy and drizzly, much like my future, but at least I had a job.

Episode 3: Donna Quixote

Before Donna opened her eyes, she could sense the unfamiliar around her. She’d had a dream of her mother and she hoped that by keeping her eyes closed she could linger in the dream just a little longer. She missed her mother dearly and thought of her every day. The day her mother died had been the second worst day of her life.

A low hum droned next to her head on her right, a faint chatter echoed somewhere away from her, and she could feel someone next to her. She slowly opened her eyes. A young Indian man stood next to her cloaked in light blue scrubs and a white coat. She took him in with half-closed eyes and blinked hoping that he’d go away, but he remained next to her making notes on a tablet.

“Good morning, Ms. Scott. I’m Dr. Kolachalam,” he said. Her name rolled off his tongue in a strange way, but she understood him. “How do you feel?”

Donna turned her head to the side and felt the stiffness from her shoulder roll up her neck. She felt pain in her expression. “Where am I?” she asked.

“Eastside Hospital. You had a fall and hurt your shoulder. The EMTs brought you here this morning.”

She thought about this for a moment. She remembered falling and pain radiating up her shoulder. She remembered the tinny voice on the end of the line when she dialed 9-1-1, and she remembered wondering if the dispatcher recognized her voice.

“You’re lucky it wasn’t worse, Ms. Scott. It appears you fainted from low blood sugar and fell against your kitchen counter. You’ve got a sizable bruise on your shoulder, but it should heal in time. Have you been taking your insulin as prescribed?”

She couldn’t remember when she last took her insulin, but she usually took it at night before she went to bed. “Last night,” she replied. Her voice croaked as if she hadn’t had anything to drink in a very long time. “Can I get some water?”

“Sure.” The doctor turned to the space behind him and poured some water into a plastic cup. He pushed the cup toward her lips, but she stuck up her hand and he put the cup in her hand instead. She swallowed large gulps of water as he watched.

“You should be fine, but you need to ensure you take your insulin. The bruise will hurt for a few days, but nothing is broken. The nurse will be in to discharge you. You can go home.”

“Is the ambulance going to take me home?” she asked.

“Do you have someone who can take you home?”

“No. I live alone.”

“Oh, let me tell the nurse. She can help you.” A look of sympathy washed over his otherwise stoic face. His eyes lingered on her a bit longer before he turned and disappeared behind the room’s swinging door.

Donna pushed herself into her pillow and looked away from the fluttering door. The machine next to her bed had been disconnected from her and turned off. She wondered what her blood pressure reading was. She wanted to compare it to what her own readings had been to see if she’d been getting incorrect numbers. These thoughts rippled through her mind as a wave of exhaustion washed over her. She closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep.

A murmur of hushed conversation woke her from her slumber. At first, she just heard the disembodied voices hovering over her, but as she slowly opened her eyes, she could see blurred faces. It took her a moment to realize her eyeglasses had slid down her nose. She pushed them up to her eyes and took in the two women staring at her.

“Ms. Scott,” the nurse said, “your daughter is here to take you home.”

Donna looked at the woman beside her. She had aged a good bit since the last time she had seen her, but she still had that dismissive look on her face, one that she had worn so well for so many years.

“Ms. Anderson called me and said that an ambulance had brought you here. I’m glad you’re okay.”

Donna blinked and looked away toward the skinny window in the room. The light outside had dimmed.

“Are you ready to go home?” her daughter asked.

She turned back toward her daughter. The nurse had left the room. “You didn’t have to come here.”

“I know, but I thought I should. Ms. Anderson was very worried about you.”

“She needs to mind her own business.”

“Donna, be glad you have a neighbor who cares.”

“She doesn’t care. She’s just nosy.”

“You haven’t changed a bit.” Her daughter shook her head with a look of disdain framing her face. Donna looked toward the window.

“Alright, at least let me take you home. Otherwise, it’s going to cost you. Can you get dressed, or do I need to call the nurse back?”

Donna shifted her gaze back to her daughter and then winced in pain as she tried to sit up.

“I’ll get the nurse.” Her daughter turned and left the room, and a few moments later, the nurse returned smiling a bright white smile that even made Donna want to smile in return.

After the nurse helped her get dressed, she sat in the lone chair next to the bed. Her shoulder throbbed, and her heart pounded in her chest. She grasped the bottle of pain medicine the nurse had given her. The door swung open and her daughter’s sour face hung above the bed in her line of sight.

“You ready to go?”

She nodded.

“Do you need help, or can you walk yourself?”

She nodded again and stood up as if to offer proof.

“Let’s go.”

Donna took a tentative first step and then shuffled toward her daughter. Silence engulfed them as they rode the elevator down to the main floor and walked out to the parking lot. Her daughter walked in front of her and she followed her broad back down the aisle of cars and through a line near the back of the lot until her daughter stopped at a small, red Kia.

“This is my car,” she said. Donna stopped and backtracked to the passenger side. She waited for her daughter to unlock the door, and then, she slid into the passenger seat, which felt like it was almost on the ground in the small car. When her daughter cranked the car, the radio came on louder than Donna cared for, but she didn’t complain. The piercing noise of the music drowned out the words left unsaid.

The drive to her house only took about ten minutes. Years ago, when she had her children, the nearest hospital had been almost an hour away, but in the intervening years as her neighborhood became something she didn’t recognize, the town around her grew in importance, enough so that it now had its own hospital. Donna watched the world go by outside the passenger window, a blur of buildings and houses, some new and some old blended into a smear of colors in the late afternoon.

The car came to a stop in front of her house. Donna almost didn’t recognize it from the outside since she rarely looked at it from this angle.

“Do you want me to help you?” her daughter asked.

Donna shook her head without looking at her daughter. She took a breath and opened the car door.

As she stood up and before she could shut the door, her daughter said, “Donna…”

Donna bent down and peered into the car at her daughter. Her daughter froze as if she had forgotten what she was going to say.

“Take care of yourself,” she said after an awkward pause.

“I will,” Donna replied. She shut the car door and turned toward her house without another word or glance at her daughter. She heard the engine hum and the crackle of tires on the asphalt as her daughter drove away. She felt a sense of relief mixed with exhaustion as she walked toward the planter on her porch that hid the key to her house. She couldn’t get back in her house soon enough to get away from the world that shunned her.