The Man in the Box: Chapter Two

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Vol 1, No 2: Work’s a Game, and Life’s the Prize

Robby pulled into CipherMill Publishing House on Commerce Crossings. As far as he knew, in just two days he’d be sitting in coach, strapping himself in and watching Louisville vanish beneath the clouds with a Bloody Mary in one hand and a bag of pretzels in the other. But for now, between him and that plane seat sat just one more day of work, a day of packing, and a drive to the airport. And perhaps a few fights between the kids.

He nodded to the security guard behind the desk as he walked through the lobby. As soon as he summoned the elevator, Don Nealy swaggered up behind him and stood uncomfortably close, breathing hard. The jaunt from the car to the elevator was clearly too long a walk for the three hundred-pound man.

“They’re talking again,” said Don, watching the down arrow light up.

“About what?” Robby asked. He noticed Don wasn’t even carrying his regular greasy bag of McDonald’s, which Robby often referred to as McDon’s, a running joke he had started around the office.

“I overheard Kurt talking on the phone yesterday. I wish I hadn’t listened, but it sounded like they’re going to be letting more people go soon.”

The prospect of layoffs weighed heavily on the few survivors of the first wave of terminations that occurred seven months ago, and Robby was no exception. The menacing thought always reared its ugly head: Would this be his last year at CipherMill? Self-publishing and electronic books had become such a huge sensation that book editors, like Robby, suffered greatly for it.

Seven months ago the company was cut almost in half. The only reason Robby didn’t get the boot then was because of his tenure. This time around, though, he wouldn’t have that protection; anyone still working had been there as long as he had, if not longer.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Robby. “You probably just misunderstood.” The elevator doors slid open and they both stepped in.

“What part of ‘I’ll start calling people in tomorrow’ would I not understand?” Don asked, spit spraying out of his mouth. “I saw him holding a list of names.”

“Was your name on it?”

“I don’t know, I couldn’t see.”

“Then how do you know it was a list of names?”

“He said, ‘I’ve got the list of names right here.’ I almost put in my two weeks’ notice right then and there, but then I wouldn’t get any severance.”

“I’m sure you’ll be okay,” assured Robby as the elevator doors opened again to let them out. Truthfully though, thanks to Don of the Dead End Job, Robby’s nerves were starting to get tight. But there was no way he was going to let it get to his head today; not hours before the start of his hard-earned vacation.

“No one’s getting fired today,” he said, more to himself than to Don. But as they stepped out of the lift, they saw Bill Donahue walking down the hallway carrying a box full of things. Robby froze.

“Morning guys,” said Bill as he walked past.

Neither Robby nor Don knew what to say. And yet, Bill wasn’t acting as depressed as he should have been following a dismissal.

“By the way,” Bill said, “there are donuts in the break room. You mind saving me a strawberry one? I’m just dropping this stationery down in the warehouse.”

“Yeah, sure,” said Don. Then he turned to Robby and whispered, “Pity food.”

“It’s probably for Carol’s anniversary,” Robby suggested as they kept walking down the hall to their suite.

“Yeah, right. Kurt refuses to even get a wreath for Christmas.”

When they reached the suite, they each headed to their own offices. Don, of course, grabbed a plate full of donuts on his way.

As he walked past Kurt’s office, Robby stole a glance through the window. Darrin Mackey was seated across from Kurt. Darrin, usually loose and comfortable, sat up straight with his hands on his knees like he was on edge about something.

Maybe Don was right. It was only nine o’clock and Kurt always had his office door open in the mornings. Was he getting the firing out of the way? That’s what he had done seven months ago.

Robby quickened his pace to the office, shut the door behind him, threw his briefcase on the chair in the corner, and flipped on his computer. The screen opened up to the last page he had been on, the homepage to the Grand Wailea Resort, where they’d be staying. He marveled at the pools the kids would play in and the room balconies he and Rosalynn would stretch out on as they watched the ocean tide. They’d stroll down the empty beach and witness the blue-orange sunsets each night as the waves caressed the golden sand with a gentle whoosh of foam. The palm trees would lean in toward the water, yearning to kiss the surface with a gentle plop of a branch. Yes, this was heaven, maybe even better. He felt the breeze whispering on his cheek and the sound of distant voices a quarter of a mile away. They were not the voices of water-cooler conversations or office presentations; they were the voices of happiness and playing and total and complete contentment. Now he was sprawled out on a beach towel, Rosalynn beside him, topless, reading a book on her e-reader.

Of all things, that thought shook him out of his reverie. It was as though she were stabbing him in the back by using the devise that was partly responsible for killing his career. Who would have had enough foresight twelve years ago to know that books would eventually go electronic, and then self-publishing be made so accessible? Facebook was still no more than a small community of networking nerds at the time; social media itself was such a long way off. So for tangible, physical books to be available in electronic form was unthinkable. For Robby, electronic books were as far off as flying cars.

There was a knock at the door and Robby stiffened. Was this it? Was this Kurt coming to call him into his office? Why didn’t he just buzz him in like he usually did? A knock was so much more ominous.

Before he could say anything, the door opened and Don barged in with his plate of donuts—likely his second batch. Don shut the door behind him and flopped down on one of the chairs, stretching its legs a little.

If it had been anyone else, this would have irritated Robby, but he and Don started at CipherMill within a month of each other, so they both went back a ways.

“Darrin’s gone,” said Don as he sank his teeth into a pink-frosted donut (which Robby assumed should have been the one Billy had asked them to save for him), spilling sprinkles all over his tie. “Kurt just fired him. I toldyou this was it!”

Before Robby could respond, Don’s phone buzzed. He looked at it and his drooping jowls fell even further. He cried, “It’s Kurt. He must have tried calling my office.” A peal of guttural sounds rumbled around in his fat stomach as he stared wide-eyed at his phone, and Robby was afraid he was going to break wind right there in his office.

“Answer,” Robby prodded.

Don nodded and brought the phone to his ear with a shaky hand. “Hello? Yes, sir. I’ll be right there.” He hung up and looked at Robby with big, brown, frightened eyes. “He wants to see me.”

Robby nodded his head knowingly. Don sat in the chair, stunned, looking off into space now. Kurt was waiting for him, and Robby was starting to feel uncomfortable. “You should probably just get it over with.”

Don dully nodded, then stood up. As he did, Robby suggested jokingly, “Maybe he wants to give you a raise.”

“Do you not see the condition I’m in?” Don asked, his eyes narrowed. “Do I look like someone who’s in the mood to joke around?”

“No. I don’t know why I said that. Sorry. Go get fired.”

Don nodded somberly and disappeared behind the door.

It took no effort for Robby to shift his concerns back to himself. He knew he needed a game plan, but he had nothing to fall back on if he was going to be canned. Working steadily at the same place for a decade didn’t exactly offer you any opportunities—or reasons—to network. Let’s face it; he had taken his posh job for granted. Unemployment had meant nothing to him until now. Now it was just a little too close to home. He would have to update his résumé and rehearse his interviewing skills like he was a fresh-faced wanderlust straight out of college—with a few extra pounds and less hair.

This did not fit into his life plan. Up until a few minutes ago, his life plan had been to take his family to Maui and escape the humdrum hell of everyday life for a week. Just a simple dream. He didn’t expect much more than that.

It didn’t take long before Robby saw, from out the window that overlooked the span of the suite, Don leave Kurt’s office. His head hung limp like a scarecrow.

Robby watched as his ex-colleague dragged himself over to his own office and, a few minutes later, emerged with a couple of full grocery bags. He left the building in a hurry, not even stopping to look back. Oh, brave, valiant Don.

If Kurt was firing half of the people in the office, he, Robby, would be among them for sure. At least the interns were safe—they were free labor. Unlike them, Robby knew it would be just a matter of hours before he would be cleaning out his own desk. He had been prepared to procrastinate his piles of manuscripts and deadlines to ease into vacation mode, but now his procrastination stemmed from that old workplace ailment, NAGAF: Not at All Giving a Fuck.

So Robby spent the rest of the day in a cold sweatas he watched two more people pack up their belongings.

At first he avoided Kurt at all cost; he steered clear of the break room when he knew Kurt would be there and he took the long way round to the bathroom so he wouldn’t pass Kurt’s window. Out of sight, out of mind—like Kurt would just conveniently forget to fire Robby as long as he didn’t see him.

By one o’clock, Robby began to cultivate curiosity and even hope. He grew convinced that he wasn’t going to be fired after all. But after learning from a colleague that Kurt had stepped out of the office for a few hours, Robby sat at his desk and wallowed, and Hawaii was almost forgotten.

What if he did get fired? He dreaded the idea of going back to some soul-sucking retail gig that either ended in Mart or began with Dick’s.

Though he wasn’t wealthy by American standards, he didn’t want to have to sacrifice his comfortable lifestyle of being home by five every night, Monday through Friday. He also didn’t want to have to worry about making ends meet, putting every dollar on trial, or examining the necessity of every bill. He had been through all that in college and as a newlywed. He had already paid his dues! This was supposed to be histime to live the American dream. He had earned it, God damn it!

He glanced at a picture next to his phone of Rosalynn and him posing in front of the ocean. The picture was taken on a camping trip in San Clemente, California, and at the time, they were dating. They had met at a beach party, on that exact beach in Orange County while they were both attending USC.

She looked absolutely stunning in her floral summer dress as her strawberry-blonde hair fell down over her bare shoulders. He was much skinnier then and sported facial hair, which made him look the surfer type that he was.

Robby hadn’t planned on going out the night he had met Rosalynn, but his roommates had coerced him into joining them at the beach with the promise that there would be enough girls, beer, and weed to go around. Well, who the hell could turn down such an offer? Midterms were over and it was time to let loose.

Though the idea of partying sounded intriguing, he couldn’t bring himself to jump fully into the festivities because he was stressing out over a surfing contest he had coming up. At that point he was working toward becoming a professional surfer, but he didn’t know that in just less than a year, he would tear his ACL in a surfing accident, putting a stop to that dream altogether.

He had held back at the beach that night while the others smoked funny things and drank. He faced the rolling black water as it swelled onto the muddy sand and tried to be at one with it, feeling its rhythms and anticipating its every move.

He had just lit up a joint (the only one he planned to smoke that night) when a new voice beside him said, “You seem lost.”

Robby nodded as he looked to see who had spoken. His mouth dried up and his pulse quickened when he saw her for the first time. He did not feel comfortable around cute sober women.

He drilled himself, trying to figure out why he hadn’t seen her around campus before. “You from another group?” he asked.

“I’m wandering. My ex took all my friends with him, so I’m sort of group-hopping at the moment.”

“So how’s this one ranking?” Robby asked, inhaling the weed.

They turned to watch an interlocked couple fall in the sand laughing hysterically. “So far, it’s kind of a letdown.” They both fell into their own laughter when she said this, and the first connection was made.

He took another hit and handed her the joint.

“I don’t date potheads,” said Rosalynn, eyeing the lit joint in his hand. Robby barely had time to form a thought before she said, “Sorry. Was that too fast?”

Robby laughed. “No. I mean, it was, but that’s fine with me. I like fast.”

“You like fast … women?”

“No! Well, I mean, who doesn’t? But I’m not implying—” He stopped himself, knowing he had fallen into her trap. He eyed her sly gaze and said, “I’m onlyafter fast women.”

“And why’s that?” Rosalynn asked, cocking her eyebrows in surprise.

“Because I’m on the lookout for one who can actually keep up with me.”

Robby sweat through the eternity of Rosalynn eyeing him and biting her lower lip in thought. Then she said, “Want a beer?”

His reminiscing came to an end when Kurt phoned him and asked him to step into his office. Robby’s stomach tightened, and he chewed the inside of his mouth out of nerves.

Robby’s legs felt like jelly as he made his way through the suite toward his boss’ office. He felt every eye on him convey pity, the same way he had looked at the others who were called in earlier that day.

To distract himself, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and pretended to be looking at it. He wondered if this was what it was like to be led down death row one final time. He knew the comparison was farfetched, but at the moment, it seemed perfectly fitting. He was, after all, about to get the axe.

“Have a seat,” Kurt said with a sigh when Robby walked in.

Robby sat down slowly, and as he did, he couldn’t help but notice the painting that hung directly behind Kurt that he’d stared at hundreds of times in the last decade. It was a large opulent picture of a panther crouching behind tall, dark grass with a dark-green jungle set as the backdrop. Robby felt like the panther was piercing him with its yellow-eyed Mona-Lisa stare, waiting for Kurt to wound him so it could jump out of the painting and finish him off.

“I’m sure you know by now that we’re letting people go,” Kurt said.

So much for loyalty and dedication. These were the first words that sprang into Robby’s head. When it was clear Kurt wasn’t going to elaborate, Robby begged, “Don’t do this to me, Kurt. I can work just as well in the digital department.” He felt petty, but what else could he do? It was the only way he knew to go down with a fight.

“I’m sorry, Robby. I know this hurts, and you’ve got your family to look after. I did all I could to avoid this, but there wasn’t anything more I could do. The whole industry’s dying.” With his red power tie and his salt and pepper hair, Kurt looked so posh and perfect sitting behind his giant oak desk. He looked so … corporate. So … goddamned evil.

The panther continued to gaze hungrily at Robby, and he could have sworn the predator was one step closer to him. “This is all I know, Kurt. Where am I going to look for work?”

“Go online, for starters. There’re all sorts of companies looking to hire experts like you. With your experience, you’ll find something in no time. I’ll give you a good reference. I’m sorry, Robby. We’re only keeping a small handful of people if it makes you feel better.”

Oh yes. Much, thought Robby. In a fraction of a second Robby thought about a deckhand telling some poor soul on the sinking RMS Titanic that just a few people would be surviving, so don’t feel bad about remaining onboard. And the deckhand smiled, much like Kurt was doing now.

How dare he fucking smile.

“After that, who knows?” said Kurt.

“What about my vacation?” asked Robby. It was the last shred of goodness he had to hold on to. A mere crumb.

Kurt shook his head. “The company can’t pay for time you won’t be at work.”

“That’s bullshit!” Robby said. “I’ve earned that. You’re breaking the law if you don’t pay.”

Kurt remained unmoved. “Technically the deadline for your vacation time was last week, and you opted out of it—”

“So that my daughter could play her volleyball tournaments this week!”

Kurt turned his palms toward Robby. “… so your vacation time technically expired. This one was going to borrow out of this new fiscal year. Company policy.”

“Kurt, I haven’t had a vacation in over four years. You know that! Every time I needed time off work, you made me dip into my vacation fund. I had my blood clot scare last year, so I was in the hospital for that; two years ago I took off because I had to fly out to California for a friend’s funeral; the year before that—”

“Where were you going this year?” Kurt asked, cutting Robby off. “Nashville?”

“You know full well where I was going, Kurt.” Robby stood up from the chair and walked toward the door. But before he exited he said, “You know what’s sad? You think you’re actually respected around here.” He gave off a little titter then added, “You may be valuable to the company, to a degree. But if this building were to burn, you’d be the last one anyone would think to save because you’ve allowed a lot of people to get hurt for your own benefit.”

“Robby, that’s out of—”

“Out of line, Kurt? You want to know what’s out of line?” But Robby didn’t know how to say it. Instead, he froze.

“Robby? You said you’re going to Nashville?” Kurt repeated, snapping Robby out of his dream.

God, if he could just tell him off, but the little coward inside him prohibited him from doing so. His eyes darted up to the panther above Kurt, and he could have sworn he saw its eyes actually move to look directly at him.

“Um, Hawaii,” Robby answered. “Maui.”

“Well, I’m sorry. But we were honored to have you work for us. Thank you for everything.”

Robby’s head spun as he cleared out his desk. Had he really just been fired? He had never been fired from a job in his life. He was always Employee of the Month, Employee of the Year, life of the office Christmas party, Robby-this, Robby-that, kiss, kiss, kiss.

And now this.

He packed a little box up with his stapler, a coffee cup, some pictures, and other office necessities. He never realized how many personal desk items he had until he saw how full his cardboard box was. What was he going to tell Rosalynn? How would she react? He flirted with the idea of not telling her until they got back from Hawaii. But no, Hawaii would have to be delayed indefinitely. They would need that money when the severance paid itself out.

The sweet smell of sunscreen had faded deep into a memory that never was.

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About Andrew Toy
Writer when I'm not being a husband or dad. So mostly just a husband and dad.

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