Feminist, Fictionista, Foodie, Francophile

Monday, September 5, 2011

A story for Labor Day

I don't write a lot of stories about work. I love what I do for a living and rarely fantasize about killing co-workers or wreaking havoc on my workplace.  I am fascinated by office politics though, and had a good time with this story based on the corporate culture of a now-defunct magazine I used to work for.


ZERO-SUM GAME

When she saw the binders piled on the conference room table Erin’s heart sank.  She could always predict the length of a meeting from the heft of the reference material compiled for everyone’s use.  Binders were not a good sign.
If there were just legal pads and cheap pens lined up at each seat, that meant only one person would be talking and the rest of them could zone out as long as they occasionally scribbled something on the legal pad. 
            Legal pads and manila folders weren’t so bad either.  The folders usually just held an agenda or a list of talking points and that usually meant there’d be some form of interaction, like brainstorming or maybe a Q and A.  Erin didn’t mind question-and- answer sessions. You could learn a lot about your colleagues from the questions they asked.  She usually just sat quietly and listened.  Her s.o.p. was to jot down random words and then underline them with a thoughtful nod in case someone above her pay grade was watching.  Sometimes she would draw a rectangle around a word.  Occasionally she would add an exclamation point to the mix and very occasionally, she would sketch a star in there somewhere. 
            Todd from marketing, who’d replaced Dave from marketing, usually sat next to her and copied her notes right down to the exclamation points and rectangles.  He drew the line at stars though.  He thought they were gay. 

            Todd had perfected the art of faking intense concentration during staff meetings and she’d once asked him his secret.  He’d told her he was usually thinking about the lineup of his fantasy baseball team. 
She missed Dave.
Dave from marketing had been a wild man.  He’d convinced management he suffered from Tourette Syndrome and used to yell out “cocksucker” and “fuckwad” at random intervals during any sort of official gathering—staff meetings, Christmas parties, awards banquets.  The execs were all terrified of him, worried he might bring a lawsuit against them if they tried to fire him.  When the merger happened, he’d surprised Erin by taking his payoff and leaving quietly.  Two months later he was dead of pancreatic cancer.  She was the only one from the company who’d attended his funeral.  They hadn’t even sent flowers.  They really were a bunch of cocksuckers and fuckwads.

            Erin always got to meetings early, a habit leftover from the time when she was so broke the cornucopia of carbohydrates laid out in the conference room meant “free breakfast” and not “heart attack waiting to happen.”  Nowadays she found it easy to pass up the bland sweet rolls, the bulk bagels and the supermarket bran muffins so processed they had the fiber content of a marshmallow.
            Erin also found it easy to bypass the carafe of coffee and pitchers of juice and ice water.  The last thing she wanted to do was add the torment of a full bladder to the brain-melting torture of laboriously going over information that could have been imparted in a three-sentence email.
            The girl hovering over the credenza noticed that Erin hadn’t taken anything and asked if there was something more appetizing she could fetch for her.  A yogurt perhaps or a piece of fruit? 
Erin was impressed by the girl’s proactive attitude and made a mental note to find out her name.  She wondered where the girl had gone to B-School—Harvard?  Fuqua?  Thunderbird School of Global Management?  Erin’s own M.B.A. came from Pepperdine, a good school that didn’t get the respect it deserved because everyone knew the campus was in Malibu, a location that conjured up images of tanned students taking courses like “The Culture of Surfing.”  Erin was a native Californian and the reflexive East Coast snobbery toward anything West Coast annoyed her.  When the hottest tickets on Broadway were adaptations of Disney movies, she thought it was time for New Yorkers to get over themselves.
            Erin took it as a good sign the interns and the new hires had started sucking up to her and not just to the white male baby boomers that ran the company. 
And those who had nearly run it into the ground. 
The company had been a family-owned business for four generations but the last heir to sit in the big chair had been living proof that even the best gene pools get stagnant.  Three years after taking over the company, he’d been more than happy to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage.  A year after that, the merger had eliminated the family name from the company logo and erased an 80-year-old legacy.   
Things were still in a state of flux, but Erin liked her chances for advancement.  It counted for something that she’d survived two corporate shakeups.  And she ran the most profitable division in the company, one they were thinking of spinning off.
She’d come a long way from Malibu and she’d worked her ass off along the way, putting in hundred-hour weeks and paying her dues.
She still worked insane hours but then, so did everyone.  The difference between Erin and everyone else was that she didn’t collapse in front of her television when she finally went home at night.  She’d sold her TV years ago and relied on others to keep her updated on pop culture.  So far, she’d never missed a beat.  All anyone talked about at the office was celebrity gossip and what they’d watched on television the night before.  She’d once eavesdropped on her assistant recounting the plot of a half-hour sitcom to a friend, a phone conversation that lasted well over an hour.  If the girl had been working for the woman Erin had worked for when she was an assistant, not only would she not have had an hour free to chat, she would have been fired for making a personal phone call.
Erin’s boss had been a caricature of a queen bee, a woman who stole ideas and grabbed credit and generally made everyone’s lives miserable.  One morning, Erin had arrived to find cops in the office and her boss in handcuffs as people swarmed through her files.  It turned out the arrest had nothing to do with company matters but Erin had been given her job and never looked back.

            A thin guy in a nice suit and a bad tie scurried into the conference room and self-importantly started sorting out the binders, a sign that Steve, the new boss, was on his way.  Steve had brought a small entourage of ass-kissers to the company with him and the thin guy was one of them, a millennial kid who had a sneery way of relating to people and a huge sense of entitlement.  Erin hated people who thought they deserved things.  They were usually troublemakers.
Erin accepted a binder and was surprised to see it had her name embossed on it.  Was it a way of telling employees they’d be recycling binders from meeting to meeting or was it a sign they were now expected to carry them around like Mao’s Red Book?  She felt the beginnings of a headache descend and closed her eyes for a moment, hoping to will it away. 
When she opened her eyes, she noticed the new guy from IT staring at her with a goofy grin.  He’d been brought in after the merger when it became obvious that the backups of some “mission critical” data had gone missing.  There wasn’t any real mystery about what had happened—the former guy from IT had been screwed over and had left a lot of little time bombs for the new owners to defuse.  He hadn’t bothered to cover his tracks.  He’d wanted them to know he was the culprit.  Management was looking at filing criminal charges.  As far as Erin was concerned the guy was guilty of criminal stupidity.  He probably fancied himself some kind of corporate kamikaze, going down in a blaze of glory as he stuck it to “the Man.”
Erin glanced back across the table.  The IT guy was still grinning at her.   To avoid his gaze, Erin bent her head over her legal pad, squaring it away and lining it up parallel with the two cheap ballpoint pens. 
She’d been introduced to the guy several times but could not remember his name.  Arjun? Nikhil?  Sajid?  Something with two syllables. 
God, the IT guys were as interchangeable as the girls on the pastry posse.  They were always East Indian or South Asian or whatever the PC term was for guys born on the subcontinent.  They were always scary smart and socially inept.  They always wore superhero cartoon tees under their unbuttoned dress shirts. 
“Good morning everyone,” Steve said as he floated into the conference room like a bad smell. 
“Good morning Steve” they chorused back like well-behaved first-graders. 
“Sorry to call you in on such short notice,” he said. 
Steve was so full of shit, Erin thought.  If the meeting had been spontaneous, there wouldn’t have been personalized binders.  And somebody’s assistant wouldn’t have been deputized to copy and collate them all, adding colored tabs to separate the sections and transparent sleeves to hold the pie charts.  Erin was sure there were pie charts.  Managers loved pie charts.  And bar graphs.  And Venn diagrams.
She hated copying and collating, and had done more than her share in her first few jobs.  There was always some executive who’d wait until five minutes before a meeting to tell her he needed some complicated report put together.  Reports nobody ever looked at.  Erin knew this because she’d also been the one who cleaned up the conference room after the staff meetings—picking up and recycling the complicated reports that had been left on the table along with the discarded coffee cups. 
We’ve got a lot of ground to cover,” Steve said, “so let’s get to it.”  He opened the binder in front of him.  “Please turn to section one and follow along with me.” 
Oh God.  He was going to read to them.  Erin hated being read to.  People always stumbled over words even when they read slowly, as Steve did. 
Erin opened her own binder and almost groaned in dismay.  There were twenty main sections.  Twenty.  Each had small colored tabs dividing the topics into sub-categories.  Jesus, she thought, we’re going to be here all day.  
            She discreetly slipped her phone out of her jacket pocket and sent a text to the man she’d planned on meeting for lunch.  It was mostly social, so she didn’t really mind blowing him off and she knew he wouldn’t give her grief about cancelling.  He was a nice enough man but his attempts at being a player were clumsy and possibly hopeless.  He was the kind of guy who fancied himself a foodie and then went to Nobu for the sushi.  If he’d had any sense at all, he would have stayed in whatever flyover state he was born in.  Indiana?  Iowa?  Michigan?  Someplace where you bought sushi from a grocery deli case and felt cosmopolitan.
            “As you can see from the chart here…” Steve said and Erin turned the first page and looked down at a pie chart.  The data was self-explanatory but Steve was going to explain it anyway.  She caught the IT guy looking at her again. Once again, Erin looked away. 
Ashok?  Sunjay?
Ignoring Steve’s drone—she knew he wouldn’t expect anyone to ask questions—Erin started speed-reading the material to see if there was something she could mention in the follow-up email she routinely sent after meetings to show she was a team player.
She was halfway through section 15, sub-section four when Steve called a 20-minute recess.
            Leo from business affairs said something about how he knew the ladies needed a chance to freshen their makeup (he was such an asshole) but Erin knew the old gasbag couldn’t wait to top off his nicotine levels so he wouldn’t start shaking like the addict he was.

            Erin rarely left the conference room during breaks.  The temptation to bolt and never come back was just too strong.  Besides, she thought a cup of coffee might help with the headache.
            She wandered over to the credenza where the guy from IT (Vijay?  Ranjan?) was snarfing the last apricot danish, licking his fingers unselfconsciously.   As she poured her coffee, Erin looked closer at the T-shirt under his dress shirt.  The design wasn’t a comic book hero after all but a badly drawn creature of some kind.  “It’s a giant squid,” IT guy explained when he noticed her looking.  He didn’t have an accent at all, which surprised Erin.
            “My sister made it,” he added sheepishly.  “She silkscreens them  and sells them on Etsy.  My dad and I buy a couple dozen a month so she thinks she’s making a living.”
            “That’s pretty condescending” Erin replied although she actually thought it was kind of sweet.  Her brother was a cable repair guy for Time-Warner who made a fortune from people bribing him to install free HBO.  She’d asked him for a loan the last month she was in grad school so she wouldn’t have to work while finishing her thesis.  He’d said no.  She didn’t talk to her brother much these days.  He had an upside-down mortgage and two ex-wives.  She tried not to gloat.
The IT guy picked up a flat cinnamon bun and offered it to her.  “Sweet roll?” 
            “You licked your fingers,” she replied, appalled.
            He shrugged.  “There aren’t any napkins.” Erin shook her head and turned away with her coffee.  “You look really pretty today Erin,” he said. 
            Oh God.  It was the redhead thing.  What was it with the geeks and redheads?    She’d had a college boyfriend who’d begged her to dress up in a chain-mail bikini he’d found in some fetish shop.  She’d gotten her nipple snagged on a rough piece of metal and bled for an hour.  When she found out he’d filmed the festivities, she’d kicked his Red Sonja-loving ass to the curb.  For years she’d lived in fear that the footage was going to surface on the Internet.
            The last thing Erin needed was some guy crushing on her at work.  “Look,” she said to him, and took a wild stab at his name, “Naveen?”  A look of annoyance passed over his face.  Damn.  She’d gotten it wrong.  And she knew he knew they’d been introduced.  Twice.
            “Close,” he said.  “It’s Nathan. But I have an uncle named Naveen.  One named Gurupada too.  Indian names are so funny, don’t you think?”  He gave it a beat before he added, “But I was born in Pittsburgh.” 
He finished the pastry with another huge bite.  And just for the hell of it he licked his fingers again.  Before she could say anything else, he suddenly looked around the room as if spooked.
            “Do you think this room is bugged?”
            “No,” she replied cautiously, wondering if he needed an adjustment to his meds.
            “How much do you know about these new guys?” he asked, a little too urgently.  Erin’s whack-dar was starting to ping but she was curious to know where he was headed with his questions. 
            “They hired you,” she replied.
“But they could fire me at any time.”
            “They can’t do that,” she said soothingly.  “There are procedures.”
            He looked at her pityingly.  “Oh Erin,” he said, “they can do anything they want.  They can cancel Halloween.”
            He was standing close to her now, so close she could smell a faint, clean scent on his skin.  It seemed familiar and she realized it was Dial soap.  Her father had used hard, rectangular Dial soap while her mother had favored Dove’s gently curved soft white bars.   The two brands of soap had often melted together in the shower stall, with gelatinous slime cementing them together in an awkward yin-yang shape.
            Dove.  Bars.  Erin suddenly wanted a little something sweet.  Preferably chocolate.  She scanned the pillaged platter of pastry. Nothing remotely chocolate.  Nathan saw her looking.
            “Tasha grabbed the last chocolate croissant” he said.  “Les femmes aiment leur chocolat,” he added.
            He grinned at her, “It means ‘women love their …”
            “I know what it means,” she interrupted, “I speak French.”
            “I know,” he said smugly.  “I read it on your Facebook page.”
            “I only share my profile information with my friends,” she said.
             “Yeah,” he answered, “but you’re a friend whore and say ‘yes’ to anyone who asks you.  We’ve been friends for eight weeks.”
            “We have not.”
            He pulled out his iPhone and called up Facebook, scrolling to her profile and angling the screen so she could see it.  “Were you unpopular in high school?” he asked.  “Or is having a zillion friends some sort of personal quest?”
            “It’s a social network,” she replied, annoyed.  “I’m networking.” 
            People were beginning to drift back into the room.  She took a step toward the conference table but Nathan moved with her, speaking quietly so no one would overhear.
            “I gotta say, you’re being really cool.  Have you got something planned?  Are you going to confront Steve?”
            Erin had no idea what he was talking about. 
“I’m sorry,” she said, putting a question mark into her inflection, a trick she’d learned from a Brit roommate to buy time when someone said something so outrageous it simply did not compute.
            “You’ve got to fight it,” he said.  “You can’t just let them force you out.”
            “What?”  she said, way too loudly. Tasha and Marie glanced over at her.  She lowered her voice.  “What are you talking about?”  Nathan looked at her big-eyed.
            “Oh shit,” he said.  “I thought you knew.  I saw you reading ahead in the binder. And I thought you’d ….”  He trailed off.  “I’m so sorry.”
            “What about the binder?”
            “It’s the last item on the agenda.  Section Twenty-Ten.  They’re eliminating your division.  Next month.  He saw the stunned look on her face, “I’m really sorry,” he repeated.
            Steve and his shadow ghosted into the room then and Erin had no choice but to return to her seat.  As casually as she could, she turned to the last section in the binder.  Section Twenty-Ten was missing.  She was confused for a minute and then she felt cold, dark panic.  Of course they hadn’t put that section in her binder.  They were going to blindside her.  Those cocksuckers. 
She leaned over to Todd.  “Let me see your binder.”
“What?”  He looked alarmed and scooted his binder closer to him.  “No.”
            What the hell?  Did Todd already know?  Was he trying to distance himself?
            “I’ll give it back,” she promised.  Todd shook his head violently.  The motion attracted Steve’s attention.  He looked over at them and raised one eyebrow as if to ask, “Is there a problem?”
            Oh God.  This was bad.  She looked across at Nathan, who had a sympathetic look on his face. 
            Shit.  Shit.  This was really, really bad.
Maybe Nathan was wrong.  Maybe they weren’t going to eliminate her division but spin it off earlier than planned. But no, then they would have told her.  And they hadn’t told her.  So this was not good.  Not good in a very bad way.
She began running scenarios in her head.  Thinking of the people she could call, the companies she could contact, the friends who might give her a referral.  She was so wrapped up in her own thoughts she almost missed Steve coming to the big finish.
“And now for the last item,” he said.  “Item Twenty…”
She jumped up.  “Steve!”  He looked up from his binder, surprised by the interruption.
“Yes Erin?”  And just as she’s about to launch into a passionate plea to save her job she noticed that Nathan was smirking.  And in that moment, she knew she’d been played.  Guess he really wasn’t happy about her not remembering his name.  Or maybe he was just bored. 
***
He looks at her and mouths “Psych!”   Erin gives him a nod to let him know he’s won this round then turns back to Steve, who is still looking at her expectantly.  She runs through her options at quantum speed and goes with obsequious.  “Before we finish, Steve, I just want to say these are great ideas.  Great.” Out of the corner of her eye she can see Todd write down the word “great” and underline it.  She gives Steve a winning smile and sits down. 
There are snickers around the table but not so many she won’t be able to live down the humiliation in a day or two.  “Thank you Erin.  I appreciate your enthusiasm.”  Steve’s response squelches the last of the laughs.  “Please turn to section Twenty-Nine.” 
            Erin writes Nathan’s name down on her legal pad, stares at it a moment before underlining it twice.
            She leans back in her chair and smiles at Nathan.  He smiles back, a puppyish smile that suggests he thinks all is forgiven.  He is so very wrong about that.
Erin has a feeling she’s not going to be bored at the next staff meeting.
           
           

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