And such

Prometheus Downsized

By Michael Jesse

Every morning at about 10:30 I take my first break. I don't get coffee anymore, because it irritates my stomach. I just get water, or a can of juice from the machines, and I stand here in the window near my desk and look at the world.

This is the 19th of 20 floors and there aren't many other tall buildings around here in this desolate "commercial park" so from my window I can see quite far. I look past the interstate loop in front of me and the airport on my right and I concentrate way off toward the left where the city ends. Noise from the airport has inhibited housing development in that area and there are just a few dilapidated houses among the trees.

I like to picture myself out there, fixing up one of those little houses or chopping wood for an iron stove or maybe working in the garden. It's funny because I do have a house, in Oakwood, and I suppose if I really wanted a garden I'd put one in. I just like the image I guess.

Behind me I can hear Ida and the others returning from their breaks. Ida talks pretty much constantly but the three other women in her department hardly speak. I guess she doesn't give them much opportunity. The four of them are the clerical support staff for the offices on this floor and their desks are clustered about 10 yards from mine. Often I cannot help but hear Ida going on and on about her life, which according to her has been apportioned far more misfortune than could possibly be her share.

According to her she was quite attractive as a young girl, though now she is heavy and plain and she has some kind of chronic skin condition that occasionally causes her to break out in little red welts like insect bites. I have heard long accounts of her medical treatments and her car problems and the frequent trouble her kids cause at school. Her children sound like delinquents to me but Ida is convinced they represent the nation's best and brightest future and talks as if she lives only for their sake.

I walk past their desks to the water fountain to fill up my cup again and head back to my cubicle. Ida intercepts me. "Mark," she says pleadingly, almost tugging at my sleeve. "Have they said anything about more layoffs?" She is worried about her job. Everyone is. I know I should not discuss it and glance toward Ziegler's office before I speak. "The only layoffs I know about are the ones that happened Friday, and they're all over there." I gesture with my head in the general direction of the airport, where most of the work for NexDay Shipping goes on. "All the part-timers and the new hires since last May. But there may be more if things don't pick up."

Her large brown eyes, bloodshot and yellow in the best of times, now fill up with tears as well, and a tissue appears from somewhere up her sleeve. She anticipates a new trial.

"I don't think you should worry, Ida," I say, trying to close the conversation. "Your department is probably safe, and you've got a lot of seniority." I go back to my cubicle, stopping for just a few seconds to glance out my window, trying to regain that hint of peacefulness I had a moment ago. I sit down at my PC and call up the file I was working on, a news release on the layoffs.

My department — which is just me nowadays — is Publications and Public Information. I write customer information pamphlets, advertising copy, various in-house reports, and periodic news releases which are rarely published. Of course, most of them say nothing at all. Things like:"NexDay Shipping Handles 40,000 Packages This Month, Ziegler Says."

When we do have something to say — like now — we say nothing until someone asks. We're not a particularly big company so the local business writers rarely notice us, and when they do I usually take the calls. But the pink slips went out Friday and Ziegler got called at home by the Business Journal on Saturday.

Apparently it didn't occur to him that this might happen and he had no idea what to say. All he really had to do was confirm the number of layoffs and say something about weathering the recession and bouncing back when it's over. But the experience spooked him and he ended up sounding goofy in the paper, so we are issuing a belated release. Too late to matter of course.

I type: "The continuing nationwide recession is making itself felt in the package shipping industry, according to NexDay Shipping Co. President Prescott T. Ziegler." When I was in newspapers that would have been considered a bad lead, but here it's correct. Get the boss' name in the first sentence and delay any bad news to the second graph.

"Ziegler said the state of the economy leaves NexDay no choice but to reduce personnel costs in order to maintain low shipping prices for its customers. Therefore, Ziegler said, NexDay will temporarily furlough 33 part-time and 16 full-time employees, effective this week."

As if he heard me writing his name so many times, Scott Ziegler emerges from his office and comes my way. Conversations quiet and the sounds of industrious activity increase, but the display is an unnecessary reflex. All offices react this way to all bosses. It is not as if little Scotty Ziegler were capable of striking fear into the souls of his employees.

Apparently his father was that way, or so legend has it. I never met the original Prescott Ziegler, now deceased, but the current version is a nice enough guy. Not likable perhaps, but nice. He says hello to his employees and treats them respectfully. He stands in front of me now but I keep typing and only look up when he clears his throat. We seem nearly eye-to-eye, though he is standing.

"How's it going, Mark?" he asks.

I shrug. "Have a look."

He stoops behind me, reading it over my shoulder and blocking the light from the window. I roll my chair aside to give him more room and I can see the sunlight shining through his thin hair so that his pale scalp shows. He is only around 40 and I know he works out regularly — and goes on frequent ski trips and scuba diving expeditions and so on — but he looks sallow and washed out. The sons of powerful fathers often seem this way, as if there was not enough material left over to make them well.

"Looks fine," he says as he straightens up. "I really wish we could have avoided this, Mark. There was really nothing else I could do." He looks at me and seems to want some kind of affirmation, but I just shrug again. No doubt he's right, but I'm not going to tell him so. As he leaves I notice the extra-thick heels on his shoes and I laugh silently at this small rich man as he walks among the desks of his subjects, smiling and nodding and nearly groveling for respect.

By lunchtime the release is finished and sent to Ziegler for his okay, and I've gotten a little done on the new employee manual. That's mostly Personnel's project, but they send it to me for copy editing and layout. At noon I get some juice from the machine and open my brown bag lunch. Most people go out, but it's kind of pointless. There's nothing around here but fast food places and it takes too much driving to go anywhere else.

Actually I prefer it when everyone else leaves the office and I'm here alone. I just roll my chair over to my window and put my feet up on the second drawer of the filing cabinet and watch the world while I eat. I wish these windows opened so we could feel some breeze on days like this. It's windy and raining a little and there are raindrops sprinkled on the other side of the glass.

I glance at the note on my desk — a phone message saying: "Mr. Porter: Your sister called. Remember Friday." I should call her and say I can't make it, but I keep putting it off. Shelly is having a "Spring Equinox" party and wants me to be there so I can be uncomfortable with her trendy young friends. My sister and I are very close, but sometimes I think eight years is too much time between siblings.

Shelly is 24 and going back to school for her masters degree in English Literature — like that's going to do her any practical good — after spending an "unendurable" two years working in the real world. A lot of things are unendurable for Shelly, or so she says. She just can't tolerate it when the demands of ordinary life interfere with her splendid cosmos. I love my sister, I really do. I would give my life in a second for her. But she just has no concept of what you have to do just to survive in this world.

For the past few minutes, as I've been eating my tuna sandwiches, I've been watching three planes circling over the airport. They're in a holding pattern and there must be some backup on the runways because they keep circling like birds of prey as they wait for some overworked controller to find them a place to land. Let's hope they're all carrying important packages for NexDay Shipping. If Shelly were here she'd put her hands on her hips and say it is simply "obscene" how much pollution is being created in the pointless activity of commerce. And I would say something about creating jobs and we would fight again.

We always start out talking about world events, but that usually leads to politics and from there it gets personal. I say, or imply, that she doesn't know what it's like to have obligations. And she says, not bothering to merely imply, that I don't know how to live. That I have built up a mountain of imaginary responsibility and chained myself to it so I don't have to really Experience Life, whatever the hell that means.

And we fight about our father. "Call Dad," she says at the close of nearly every conversation — the way other people say "so long" or "see you later" Shelly says "call Dad."

We aren't exactly estranged, he and I. We just haven't said much to each other in the past decade or so. He wasn't around much when we were growing up. He was a mid-level manager at a factory that has long since closed down. He worked late every night and often on weekends so he wasn't home much — and when he was he spent most of his time lecturing us on how hard he worked and how much he'd sacrificed so we could have a better life. He always helped us with our homework, and he could have been a good teacher except he'd lose his patience if we weren't getting all the answers right.

He was forced into early retirement when I was a junior in high school and that just made everything worse — because he was home all the time and I was at the age where I wasn't going to even pretend to care what he thought anymore.

It is 1:00 and my watch makes its familiar little electronic beep. Below me I can see Ida returning from one of her many lunchtime journeys. She goes to the principal's office or she stops at the drug store for her prescriptions. I recognize her stumpy walk even from up here. I look up and find the little house that belongs to my imagined self and quickly put myself in it. Only now it is raining so instead of working in the garden I would be on the porch, maybe with a portable typewriter — writing something worthwhile for a change. Satisfied with that image I toss out the remains of my lunch, switch on the PC and am back at work when the others begin to trickle in.

I skim over the chapter on employee hours and dress code requirements. The writing is poor, but they don't want me to make major changes. I just fix bad grammar and misspellings.

Employees are expected to be at their stations by 8:00 a.m. Excessive tardiness will not be tolerated.

Shelly is wrong. She seems to think people can change their whole worlds just by some kind of spiritual attitude adjustment. Shelly is very spiritual, though not what you'd call conventionally religious. She's not into church or Jesus or anything like that, but she talks a lot about forgiveness and love and faith and even sin. To her it is a sin not to jump up and down Appreciating Life every minute, and I suppose that's the sin she usually sees in me. But Shelly is naive.

A fifteen minute break will be provided for each four hours of work. Lunch breaks shall not exceed one hour.

Shelly is naive because she's young, and because there's something about her that will always be innocent. For years I've been afraid that she'll die very young. She's not reckless or self-destructive, but there is something about her that is too good for what this world does to people if they live long enough. When you're 23 you still think you will do all that cool shit you picture yourself doing any time now. When I was 23 I was convinced that what happened to everyone else in life would somehow not happen to me because I was Different. There is an incredible megalomania in youth. Young people imagine they are in a movie or that each episode in their lives is so worth writing down. I always pictured myself in the future — at maybe 25 or so — traveling the country in a VW van and writing Great Things in my journal by campfire light. And I figured I'd find some cheap wooded land somewhere and live in my van while I built a solar house with my own hands. I'd grow my own food and erect a windmill for power and do all that Walden shit.

Of course I never did any of that. Nobody really does. When you're 23 you don't realize what's realistic and what's not. And you can't foresee the great settling weight that forms around you so soon thereafter. You have no idea what energy it will take just to move yourself out of bed in the morning and to the shower and to work.

Proper attire is important to the company's image. Male employees will wear ties at all times. Female employees will be appropriately conservative in their dress.

I am so tired. I have been weary for so long I don't know when it began. I want to give it up, but I don't know what that means. It is like I am carrying a forgotten weight around and if I could just remember where it is I could be rid of it. I close my eyes and picture myself strapped to a huge boulder. I imagine wriggling free of it and walking away, and I know how it should feel to do so. It should be like when I've had the flu for a week and can finally go outside again, grateful just to walk down the street. Or when I've just visited my father in the Soldier's Home and I've been surrounded for an hour by resentful old men in wheelchairs who are spending their last days hacking and gasping and searching for meaning in life; and when I leave the hospital I feel so light, walking through the air on this incredible planet. It should be like that feeling, but it would last more than just those few minutes walking to my car from the nursing home. I open my eyes.

Personal telephone calls and excessive restroom breaks will not be tolerated. Employees are reminded that their time on the job is not their own. Proper attitudes are necessary for the success of the organization.

It seems dark and I look at the window and see the rain has picked up. I stand up and look at it. The trees around "my" house are leaning with the wind. It is quite a storm, and I would have had to take my typewriter inside by now. But I would probably be standing on the porch or in the doorway watching the rain come down and letting some of it land on me. If Shelly were there she would probably run out in it and frolic in it. And if my dad were there he'd know the percentage probability of getting struck by lightning while dancing in the rain.

I pick up the phone and punch in the numbers. It rings four times then his answering machine picks up and I wait through his long-winded greeting. When the beep finally comes I say, "Hi Dad. I just called to say happy birthday. . . I hope you're doing well . . . and . . . uh, I'd like to come ‘round to see you sometime. . . . Bye Dad."

I hang up, feeling goofy but somewhat relieved. My watch sounds the hour again and I look at it astonished that the time has gone by. At the same time I hear the elevator open and see Ziegler getting off with Dennis Gordon and they both head straight for Ziegler's office. Ziegler is drenched. His remaining hair is plastered to his scalp and he looks ill and smaller than usual.

No doubt Gordon unnerves him. He's just a cocky little junior v.p. at Destination Services, but they're our parent company now. It's been almost a year since the merger and so far they've left us alone. But we all know that could change any time, especially if we have another bad quarter.

Outside the storm has blown over — just a cloudburst with no real power. I settle back to work on the employee manual but before I do much Ziegler's secretary comes out of his office and comes straight over to me.

"What's going on in there, Annie," I ask as she approaches. She looks almost as bad as Ziegler.

"I don't know, Mark," she whispers, "but that little shit wants to talk to you.

"Which little shit?"

"You know I don't talk that way about Scott. It's Gordon. Mr. gold chains and Italian suits. That little shit's taking over." She turns and stalks off. I slip on my jacket and straighten my tie a little and follow her in.

"Mark, how are you?" Dennis Gordon rises from Ziegler's desk and shakes my hand firmly. He's maybe 27, with some kind of goop in his hair to make it stand up in spikes. He would have come of age in the soulless Reagan 80's and now he's on top, or close enough to be dangerous. Behind him I can see the sky is kind of orange like it sometimes is after a rain. Good conditions for a rainbow my father would say, but we're on the wrong side of the building to see it. He rarely came outside to see it himself, but he'd send us kids out and tell us which direction to look.

Ziegler is sitting off to one side, looking beaten up, and pretending to be studying some financial reports. He won't look at me, even when I am sitting next to him. Gordon sits down and clasps his hands on Ziegler's desk. I notice he wears several rings and his cuticles are well tended.

"Mark, as you know the NexDay division has had some pretty poor numbers lately. Scott, give me that report."

Ziegler looks up dumbly and hands over the paper. Gordon skims over it shaking his head. "The home office has decided to make some changes and I'm going to take over operations here for a while. We're making a place for Scott down in the home office." He pauses, maybe to let Scott put whatever face he wants on the situation, but Ziegler says nothing so he goes on.

"Mark, some of these changes are going to involve personnel, combining departments and so on. We're going to lose some people, but it just can't be helped. Mark, I'm sorry to tell you this, but you're position is being eliminated."

For a few seconds I can't comprehend what he's saying. Something about severance pay and a recommendation, but I can't take in more than a few words at a time. Suddenly we are standing again and Gordon is shaking my hand.

"This has nothing to do with anything you've done or not done," he is saying. "It's just what had to happen at this time."

The outer office is as quiet as a funeral and everyone is looking at me. Ida is dabbing her eyes with a Kleenex. She starts toward me but I don't want to endure any consoling talks from her — and I sure as hell don't have to. One of the elevators is standing open and I walk straight to it. I don't clean out my desk or even take my coat. I just get in the elevator and push the lobby button.

And as I drop downwards I watch the lighted numbers and feel . . . free.