It’s been a long week. My eyes are only half open right now. And I think I watch too much Twilight Zone (or again with the Stephen King; after I wrote this I found it had a “Quitters, Inc.” vibe).
The desk nearest the conference room was bare. Its top drawer protruded like a defiant jaw and—save for a single paper clip—was empty. A faint coffee-tinged ring the size of a “World’s Best Dad” mug stained the desktop like a tattoo, and a larger circle of calcified water heralded where a spider plant once lorded over the workday. An abandoned rubber mousepad emblazoned with the company’s logo wilted on the corner of the desk.
Simon stood at the end of the row, his own coffee cup in hand, surveying the desolation. On either side of the desk were two of his coworkers, mousing and typing as if there weren’t an empty desk between them. Their own workspaces were festooned with stuffed animals, photos of gap-toothed children, and colorful mugs stuffed with highlighter pens and sharpies. Their desks made the empty one even more depressing. It reminded Simon of the Victorian house that was torn down in his neighborhood; a gaping void flanked by two brightly colored gingerbread residences.
Simon walked up to the desk and set his coffee down. The woman to the left shot him a quick glance, but didn’t slow her work. If anything, her typing became more frantic.
Simon frowned. Did she look nervous? “Hey, Marcy. What’s going on here? What happened to Brent? Did he move to a different desk?”
Marcy, and the woman on the right, Gwen, stopped working long enough to give him incredulous and withering looks. Gwen bowed her head close to the keyboard, and began typing so quickly the force of it made her desk shake. Simon noticed her forehead was damp and her lips were white.
Marcy’s eyes darted around the room. She hushed Simon with a short hiss through her clamped teeth.
“Did he get fired?” Simon asked, lowering his voice. “That doesn’t make sense. He was great at his job. Laid off?”
Marcy made the hissing sound again and turned back to her work. Simon could feel other eyes on him. He remembered reading a book when he was in middle school—Watership Down—in which questions about the whereabouts of warren members were ignored or discouraged because a missing rabbit was a dead rabbit.
Simon stood over Marcy’s shoulder. “Look, Marcy. I’m not trying to be nosy or spread gossip, here. Brent was working on a couple of things for me, and if he doesn’t work here anymore, I need to know. So what’s going on?”
Marcy’s eyes widened and her lips stretched into a grimace, exposing her teeth. Simon recognized it as a “shut up for your own good” expression; his wife gives him the same look when he’s stepped over the line or inadvertently brought up a sensitive topic. Before he could say anything else, Marcy stood up and pushed her chair back in one swift motion. She marched into the conference room and when Simon didn’t follow, stuck her head out of the door, rolled her eyes, and made a quick circular motion with her hand. When Simon was in the room, she shut the door behind her, drew the Venetian blinds, and double-checked the speakerphone wasn’t connected.
“Brent’s gone,” she said.
“Okay,” Simon said. “Was he fired?”
“I guess that’s one way of looking at it,” Marcy said.
“What’s another way of looking at it?” Simon asked. He could see his colleagues stealing glances at them through the gaps in the blinds. Was there a larger layoff coming? Why hadn’t he heard about this? Was he next?
Marcy picked at her nails. She looked as if she was considering her words carefully.
“Just tell me what’s going on,” he said. “If it’s a layoff, or if you know something about my position that I don’t know yet, that’s fine. I’ve been through this before. I’ll be—”
“He was eliminated,” Marcy interrupted.
“I know. I got that,” Simon said.
“You’re not getting this. He was eliminated.” She slowed the pronunciation of the last word. When it was clear Simon wasn’t understanding, she sighed. “Reply all,” she said.
“Reply all,” she said again. “Three times and you’re out. Carter hates when his employees accidentally hit ‘reply all,’ so he started a rule. You do it once, warning. Second time, probation. Third time, you’re out.”
“Are you serious? You hit ‘reply all’ three times and you’re fired?”
“Not fired,” Marcy said. “Eliminated.”
Simon threw up his hands. “Fired. Sacked. Made redundant. Eliminated. What’s the difference?”
“Well for starters, when you’re fired, you’re still breathing.”