Jeff’s phone rings on his desk and the name “Stacey” appears in the little LED window. His boss is brief. “Can you come to my office please?” All his mistakes, shortcomings and Stacey’s warnings swirl in his head. “This is it,” Jeff thinks. His heart lunges, his jaw tightens and the objects in his office that once gave him a sense of purpose and comfort are now surreal and insignificant.
With his index finger knuckle, Jeff gives three soft courtesy taps on Stacey’s door frame as if gentleness can buy a second chance. “Good morning,” Stacey says, without using his name. “Close the door please.” Her voice is curiously polite, but businesslike in a rehearsed way. “Have a seat.” Jeff’s scalp tingles and his arms hang numb, as if they belong to somebody else. “Jeff, we’re letting you go.” It is cold, quick and hard. A snowball with a rock in it.
The walk down the hallway with Stacey to the HR office is dreamlike, confusing, out-of-body. In his mind are questions racing too fast for the answers: “What do I do?” “How do I tell Liz?” “What will she say, think, scream?” “Is this really happening?”
Stacey returns to her office, exhausted. It was her second firing, but not any easier. On her wall is a framed picture of Jim, her husband, with a Hollywood smile, thick hair and eyes that lock with yours no matter who you are or where you stand in the room. He’s hugging Trevor, their black lab.
Jeff gathers his belongings from his office; the HR director watches. Most of the stuff either doesn’t belong to him or he has no use for it now. On his corkboard is a glossy photo of Liz with a pushpin hole in it. He takes it down. She, too, has a Hollywood smile. He took the picture of her when they went to St. Louis seven summers ago. The Arch rises above her and the sky is blue.
Stacey types up an all-staff memo, as per company policy: “Jeff is no longer working for us. We wish him well in his endeavors.” She taps Send.
Jeff leaves the building and the sun makes him squint. It’s a long walk to his car, a late model Subaru with high mileage, the color of an overcast sky. He and Liz bought it just four months ago and still owe a lot of money on it. They owe money on a lot of things.
Co-workers gather in the breakroom discussing the absurdity of the email … “we wish him well?” Who’s going to pick up Jeff’s work? … Not me. And is the company in a firing mode? … Who’s next? One person says Jeff had it coming and another cracks a joke about it. In a few weeks, he’ll fade. Workplaces are like that.
Jeff takes the long way home, wondering how he’s going to tell Liz. She’s at work. At the next red light he’ll call and just blurt it out. He fiddles with the radio and lands on the Seals and Crofts classic, “Summer Breeze.” “… And I come home from a hard day’s work, and you’re waiting there, not a care in the world,” one of them sings. He lowers the volume and calls Liz. “Honey, they’re letting me go.” He doesn’t know why he said it that way. “Letting you go where?” she asks. Jeff inhales deeply and looks down at a plastic cup lid with a straw lanced through it on the passenger-side floor. Looking up, he sees just how filthy the car windows are.
Cal Butera is the editor of Business Management Daily’s Office Manager Today, Manager’s Legal Bulletin, Managing People at Work and Communication Briefings newsletters. He has been with Business Management Daily since 2007 and worked 22 years for midsize daily newspapers as sports writer, news reporter, layout and design editor, copy editor and city editor.