I ate lunch early out of sheer boredom again, so now, two hours later, only caffeine and the Clash are gonna get me through the afternoon doldrums. The jangling siren howl of “Police on my Back” blocks out any other sound, but I see him out of the corner of my eye at the entrance of my cubicle. I pull off my headphones.
“Hi Paul, can I talk to you for a second?
He is smallish, with glasses and sandy hair, a button down shirt and smart casual slacks. I have never seen him before in my life.
This is it. Is this it?
“I’m sorry. Have we met?”
“Nice to meet you, Stephen. Can you just give me a second? I just need to finish up this email.”
“No, that’s all right. It’s fine. The email isn’t important. Just come on along with me and we’ll move forward from there.”
I’ve heard of this. They come and tell you to just stand up and step back from your computer. Afraid you’re going to send off some email blast of vital corporate secrets or something. I stand up and step back. Stephen leads me down the long corridor of D-Building.
My brother tells a story about one time he got fired from a software company. The HR rep called him into a conference room and asked Ed to sit.
My brother said, “Am I being fired?”
“Well, not ‘fired.’ That’s what we want to talk to you about.”
“Am I still employed here?”
“No. But we have some questions we’d like to ask you.”
“But I’m not employed here?”
“No, you’re being let go, but—“
“Well, then fuck you.” And he left.
I smile thinking of it. But I don’t imagine I’ll be staging any such theatrics today. First, I need to find out whether I’m getting a severance package, and if so, how big? Then there’s my vacation time. Last time I checked I had accrued over four weeks. If answering a few banal questions means bagging those payouts, then fire away.
We walk down the water side corridor with its long windows looking out to the snow-frosted Olympics beyond Elliot Bay, dark blue and choppy. I can’t quite see it but I know Rainier glows in the South-southeast, while a nearly full moon is still lolling in the late morning western sky. I think about how Keelan showed me one of his third grade books just the other night that said that life is only possible on Earth because of the unique rotation it has in tandem with the moon, but that the moon is moving away from the earth at a rate of about four centimeters per year. Sure, not much, but in 2 billion years the moon’ll be so far away as to make little gravitational difference. And the point is, she’s already leaving us, already on her way out, and it makes a difference knowing that. “We’re twin planets.” That’s what Keelan’s book said. “Not many of us think of the Moon that way, but it’s true. Without it we would wobble like a dying top.” Is that what it said exactly? Why would I remember that?
Stephen turns back to me. “We doing okay?” he asks kindly.
“We’re doing just fine.” Why does his gentleness please me? Shouldn’t I be pissed at him? “We?”
“I’ve never seen you before at the Seattle site,” I say, casual walking conversation.
“I’m up from San Francisco.”
“Ah. How do you like it up here?” How quickly the small talk goes stale.
It sure the fuck is. The mountain glows. The moon lolls.
“I could never afford to live in San Francisco.” Why do I say this? Who cares?
He turns and looks at me for a moment, then, like a kindly museum docent, he directs his hand toward the door of conference room 4090. It’s the one we call the fish tank. It’s not ideal. Everyone passing can see me in here with the hatchet man. Ah, but that’s the point, isn’t it? He’s counting on me keeping it civil and measured as I process the news. And why wouldn’t I? What is he expecting? Outrage? Tears? For this gig? Please.
I should do what my brother did, but better. Without saying a word I should just keep walking to the end of the building and down the stair well and then walk out the south doors next to the cafeteria. From there I’d turn right, walk the length of A-wing. Or… is it C-Wing? Obviously B-wing’s the one in the middle, but that doesn’t help. I’ve been working here almost seven years and I don’t know which wing is which?
Seven years. What did I do? Break a mirror?
I could keep walking all the way to the gate that opens on to Myrtle Edwards Park. I could go to the bench where I have meditated nearly every day it wasn’t raining, facing the bay water whether it was calm as a pond, or churning to white caps in the wind. The wooden bench with the letters “PAUL” carved into it, just like I found it seven years ago, and thought “Cool. This is the place for me.”
And when was I done meditating, I would bow, stand up, turn and bow again to the “PAUL”. Then I’d turn and bow again to the water, to the world, to the universe. Then I bow one last time as I back away, a “thank you” to the temple created by merely my bowing.
Then I could start walking south again, towards the downtown skyline ahead on the left, Rainer looming huge just to the right of it in the haze. I’d come to the pedestrian bridge and I’d walk up its long sloping ramp, and cross above the railroad tracks and Elliot Avenue. And then I’ll walk down the far side ramp and cross through the cedar panel gate decorated with the exploits of Sno-qual/Moon the Transformer, the creator god of the Salish Tribes. I will remember the stories I looked up on the internet about the sisters that married the stars that they had wished upon. And how Sno-qual came and changed everything. Once I’ve stepped through the gate, I’ll turn and bow like I always do, to the invisible threshold it creates, silly superstitious altar boy at heart.
But I don’t do any of that. Curiosity about the severance package has the best of me and I follow Stephen into the fish tank. Again, with gentle hand, he directs me to a chair. I sit. Once I do, he sits as well. He looks directly at me, but his glasses baffle my sense of his blue eyes. Are they blue? In any case, they’re pale.
“So, as you can imagine,” begins Stephen, “We’re letting you go.”
“It’s no reflection on you or what you’ve accomplished here. It’s just that under current circumstances, a parting of ways presents itself as inevitable.”
Neither of us speaks for a moment. I’m savoring the possibility of making it as uncomfortable as I can for Stephen. I realize quickly, however, that this practiced pause is really his perpetration. Any control I might imagine I have of the situation is essentially illusory.
“I have some questions,” he says finally. “But first, I’d like to encourage you to ask any questions you might have.”
“Right.” I make quote fingers, “’The exit interview.’”
“That’s right.” He’s unflapped.
“What if I’m not interested?”
“That’s understandable. But it is a process that I think ultimately benefits everyone.”
Strange. He has that effect on me certain people have, maybe one in a thousand. With his soft voice and demeanor he’s making my shoulders go slack and my entire body relax. How did they find a guy who could do that?
“Go ahead,” I say, and lean back in my chair.
“Well, do you have any questions for me?”
“Are you kidding?”
“Yes, that’s usually the first one I get.”
I can’t tell if he’s kidding. His face hasn’t changed. I give him a rueful smile, acknowledging my grudging respect.
“What about my stuff?”
He nods. “All the material items you were issued when you started or subsequently obtained during your tenure here will need to be left behind.”
“Okay. I don’t have a list. Do you?”
“It’s not necessary. Just leave everything behind.”
“But what about--”
“Are there items you think you are entitled to take with you?”
“Just what’s mine. What was never this place’s.”
I can’t think of anything off the top of my head, but I also can’t help feeling that I’m being cheated somehow.
“Paul. Relax. It’s not really an issue. Think about it.“
I think about it. What’s back there in that 30 cubic feet of space I occupied for longer than I attended grade school? Copies of family photos I printed and thumb-tacked up, and haven’t looked at in years; knick-knacks brought back from vacations of co-workers I don’t even see anymore.
“Fine,” I finally say.
“Good. Any other questions for me?”
My shoulders practically glow. He’s still working his magic. I want to ask about my severance compensation, but I am starting to suspect I won’t like the answer. So I throw my best attempt at a curve ball.
“Yeah, why Stephen from San Francisco with the soothing deportment? They obviously sent a master of his craft, and I’m flattered, sort of, but why someone I’ve never met? And why you?”
“Well, Paul, you have to remember, the reasons for my coming to a particular person are almost always as obscure to me as they are to the person being let go. I get a file. I do my best to familiarize with it, in as much as it makes a difference, which to be perfectly frank, though I hope not insulting, it doesn’t.”
“You understand, I don’t mean that harshly.” He seems genuinely concerned.
“I’m here to help you through this transition as smoothly and clearly and amicably as possible.”
“But I bet it doesn’t always go that way, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“Don’t worry.” I say, “I’m not going to put you through any ugliness.”
“I appreciate that.” He hasn’t looked away from me. I’m warm and soft from my scalp to my toes. “So I’m going to go ahead with my questions for you, okay?
I say nothing. Instead I savor the growing sensation of benevolent strangeness. No one has walked past the fish tank in a long while. For all I know the whole building could be empty, along with its three wings.
“So ...” he goes on. “Where do you see yourself after this?”
“I hadn’t really given it much thought.”
“No plans then?”
Stephen stays on the question: “No hopes for next steps?”
“But you knew this was coming?”
“Yeah, well, I guess I couldn’t help knowing this was coming, right? I mean, everyone knows this is coming.”
“True, but a lot of people don’t like to think about it.”
“I think about it. Thought about it. Whatever.”
“And what are your emotions in this moment?”
“I’m calm,” I say. Then add on an impulse, “I have to confess you’re mostly responsible for me feeling that way. You have a knack.”
“Oh good, I’m glad.” And he does seem genuinely gratified. He shifts back to the task. “What was most satisfying about your time here?”
“Satisfying? I don’t remember being ‘satisfied’, per se, all that often.”
“Ever?” Stephen asks.
“Sure. Once in a while.”
“I dunno, when I was really connected with someone here? Or when I felt like I was doing what I was supposed to be doing in the moment and doing it well? Lost in the work, but in a good way, you know?
“I think so. That does seem like it would be satisfying.”
“Yeah. Oh, sex. Yeah. Sex was mostly wonderful. I had good luck with that. If you don’t mind me saying.”
Stephen looks at me. If that’s his smile, it’s subtle, but no less affecting. A wave of glowing tingles across my upper back, left to right, then right to left. Now he really does seem to be smiling, like I imagine that monk must’ve—the one who smiled when the Buddha for a sermon held up a flower and everyone else was like, “What the hell is that supposed to mean? Why isn’t he saying anything?”
“What was least satisfying about being here?” Stephen ultimately asks.
“Not knowing what?”
“Whether anything I did or said mattered.”
“I understand. But you were compensated, regardless, weren’t you?”
“Yes,” I admit. “But it would’ve been nice to know.”
“Sure. I understand,” He says. And I believe him for some reason.
“Based on your experience, what do you think it takes to succeed here?”
“Fuck if I know,” I blurt. Maybe I’ll bait him finally.
But Stephen is unfazed. “Fair enough,” he says. Then asks, “Would you consider taking another position here again in the future?”
“Is that an offer?”
“No, it’s a hypothetical.”
He observes me, gently expectant. If he’s got appointments after me, you wouldn’t know it by his open ended patience.
“I don’t do hypotheticals anymore,” I say finally.
“Are you sure? Your response could be very helpful.”
Again he just watches me, pale eyes.
Again, I break the silence. “Okay. I’d say, yeah, I’d give it another whirl… Hypothetically, that is.”
“Would you recommend it to your family and friends?” He asks.
I look away, a sudden lump in my chest.
“Yes,” I say softly.
“Did you receive sufficient feedback in your position?”
“Nope,” I insist. “Not really ever. And when I did it was all sort of rote, prosaic stuff. Hallmark card crap, you know? ‘I love you….’ ‘You’re a great dad….’ ‘Yours was the best play I ever saw.’ I know it must sound ungrateful, but… but I just never really believed any of it.”
“Not often. Hardly ever. Maybe never.”
“That’s too bad,” he says. “Can I ask why you never believed the good things people told you?”
“I guess, none of it ever struck me as... really all that profound, you know?”
“But how could you know for sure?”
“I couldn’t… I didn’t…. But…
“But what, Paul?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what would’ve been more profound?”
“Some…. Some sense of how I was affecting people here. What sort of difference I made? Something like that. And no one ever gets to know the difference, do they?”
“Not as far as I know,” he answers. “Are all differences good?”
“But yours would’ve been?”
“I don’t know about ‘would’ve been’ but ‘should’ve been’. Sure.” He just looks at me, waiting for me to go on. So of course, like a fool, I do. “You know what would be funny? If at the end they gave you a chart, or graph, or some sort of power point spread sheet whatever and it mapped how everything you did affected every other thing, and showed you how it all mattered? Wouldn’t that be awesome and absurd?”
“Mattering is important to you.”
“Oh god,” I say, exasperated. “Now you just sound like some two-bit psych intern. Look, I get it. I was always only just about my own ego, right?”
“I really don’t have a point, Paul. I’m just trying to understand it from your perspective.”
“Well, if you did, that would make one of us. That’s what I’m trying to tell you.”
Again he says nothing. Just watches me. Then slowly, he turns and looks through the glass of the fish tank to the window, where the sky has changed. I have never seen it look like that.
“Okay,” says Stephen. “Okay. We’re almost done here.”
I say “I’m relieved to hear it.” And Stephen smiles. He knows I’m largely lying.
“Can I tell you something I don’t tell everyone?” He asks, his eyes now slightly kinder but also harder somehow, like he really doesn’t tell everyone what he’s about to tell me, and I’d do well to pay some respectful attention.
“You’re lucky. This is for the best.”
“You know how so,” he says. “You read it in Kiwi’s book. The Moon will wobble away some day and our seasons will betray us. Nothing can stay.”
“But that doesn’t happen for millions or billions of years.”
“No. It’s happening” Stephen insists. “Now. All the time. Five blinks ago, you were racing your brother in a wood-chopping contest. Now you can’t even safely shovel snow.”
“It’s not my job to shovel snow anymore.”
“Nothing’s your job anymore.” And with that he stands. “I’m going to get some tea.”
“How ‘bout you?”
And then he’s gone. And I sit here, in the fish tank. Thinking about what we talked about.
Things are changing. He’s got me there. I am the mountains, I get that. And I am Sno-qual transforming, the earth-wobbling moon.
Everything fails. The fish tank, along with all of D-Building now and its wings A B C. So gone it’s hard to believe they ever were.
Flying apart. Falling together. That’s me. I get it. It’s all of us, sunup, sundown, moonup moondown, …“and at last earthdown too.” That’s Thoreau, I know. It’s happening to him, too. Nothing new… under the goddamned …
Don’t know. Lost the thread.
So why am I smiling?