Memories of Termination

by Robert Laughlin

They, fellow retirees of generous means, have done their best to draw me out. Every new addition to this lakeside development is noted, and so I have played polite host to a train of retired realtors, forgotten screen idols, former captains of industry and trophy wives. Their surprise at seeing me answer the door alone is surpassed by the intelligence that I never married, and then they change the subject. The conversation always turns to their relief at completing their life's work, their peace of mind now that they have no further responsibilities in this world. When they ask what I did, I answer in generalities, as though I have no intention of sharing this part of myself with them.

And I don't. I have no empathy for these weaklings so seemingly eager to leap into the grave, preferring that to the joyous scuffle of life. They cannot begin to understand the excruciation I feel for no longer being Mr. Pink, Fortune 500 veep with a unique talent honed in my leisure hours and exercised every minute of my fleeting work days.

Any personnel officer will tell you that your career for life is likely to bear a relation to your first part-time job. I can vouch for that—as a teenager, I spent several weeks each summer culling nectarines for a local grower. Each day's harvest was brought to me for inspection, fresh from the tree. Good nectarines, flawless as a country girl's bare bottom, I approved for sale; those that were bruised or pest-bitten, I tossed into the reject bin. I remember how contemptuous I was of the reject nectarines, hating them for their pretending to be saleable and smiling every time I threw one of them away. As the nectarine sapling is bent…

Sitting in college classrooms bored me, and I took as many credits for internship as possible, preferring the cut-and-thrust of the real world. By the time I started work on my MBA, I was actually a supervisor, riding herd over the staff of a local title company. It's not hard to understand why I rose so suddenly. In addition to being tireless and quick to learn, I was the visual archetype of the demanding boss: tall in the extreme, with a military crew cut and deep-set black eyes fixed in a permanent glower. The manager liked the high work standard I enforced, and when, at various times, I recommended the firing of four employees for inefficiency, he agreed every time. Just think: four careers ended by my decision while I was still a frat boy.

I had hardly put away my olive tam and gown when I got a juicy work offer. The company that employed me the rest of my working life needed a new branch manager, and I got my presumptive initial step up to the executive suite. My third week on the job wasn't over when a mysterious pain woke me at dawn, prompting a fast trip to the hospital. I had appendicitis, and left a message with my office before going under the knife. The combined euphoric effects of the cheery post-op prognosis and lingering general anesthetic did not deaden my sense of responsibility; I called the office, a little after four, to talk with second-in-command Harwood. His extension, and every other I tried, was hooked into the weekend answering service.

Against doctor's orders, I was on the job Monday morning to get an explanation from Harwood. "Friday was my birthday," he said. "The other employees threw me a surprise party. Of course, I had to close the office early." The company pays by the day, not the hour, so there wasn't any way it could be reimbursed for this forfeiture of an hour's productivity.

"You're fired, every one of you."

"You're overreacting." I said nothing, and his look of incredulity hardened. "You won't get away with this." Even with fifty fresh sutures in my gut, I could barely keep myself from throwing him out the nearest window.

"They were thieves. I couldn't let it pass; I had to make an example of them." Hiring all new staff had resulted in a loss of three weeks' productivity at my branch, and now I was explaining myself to the Prez, at company HQ. He showed no anger, just a perpetual look of thoughtful concern. He asked me to wait a minute, went into a conference room adjoining his office and shut the door. I never found out if he conferred with other people or simply wanted privacy while mulling his decision; he came back out and said:

"I think we have a special place for you. It takes a man who acts from his own convictions."

As soon as an office could be procured, I was the newly created Internal Consultant on Personnel Efficiency. The Prez told me he had long wanted someone within the company whose only duty was to ferret out undesirable employees, and hoped that his search was over. He gave me a probationary period to prove my usefulness; I didn't let him down. Every day I went through stacks of performance evaluations, fired off emails requesting further data and usually put at least one termination order in my 'Out' box by closing time. When too many terminations occurred in any one branch, I assumed the worst and made a surprise inspection tour. I didn't return from such inspections until everyone had been looked over like a show dog forced to lift one leg at a time by a judge checking against the breed standard. And when someone in authority at HQ or a nearby branch office made their own decision to fire, I was always on hand to implement it. The soon-to-be-ex-employee was called into my office when I had a heavy workload; otherwise, I sought my targets out at their work, at home, at the mall, in the bleachers while they watched their sons play football. In one case, I learned—irony of all ironies—that the employee was having a surprise birthday party at the moment I wanted him, so I crashed the party to pile on my own kind of surprise. On the day set for the probationary year to end, the Prez sent me a note telling me I had done good and my position was permanent.

About this time it occurred to me that my function within the company should be symbolized in my attire. Executioner's black was my first thought, maybe even a black hood when I deigned to fire someone in person. Before I could act on that, I tuned in Reservoir Dogs while channel surfing at home, and a better idea presented itself. The following Monday I arrived at my office in a magenta suit and shoes, burgundy necktie, rose quartz cufflinks and tie clasp, and a shirt the exact color of Valentine's Day mints. I ordered my inner office to be painted and decorated in a corresponding color scheme, and in no time I was known by a name I rejoiced in for the rest of my career: Mr. Pink.

Most of the company's officers cooperated to the full. They understood the reason for my appointment, and often told me privately that they liked having an in-house bogeyman they could use to prod their less productive employees. I treated the various managers, directors and vice-presidents in a manner befitting their status, and we all got along. All of us but one, that is. Gaffney, the Publicity and Public Relations veep, was jealous of his territory. He refused to issue performance evaluations of his employees, and gave me no economic data for his department beyond the figures he presented at each monthly meeting. He also sent me a memo saying I couldn't personally fire any of his employees; I would have to send him recommendations to terminate, which he would act on only if he agreed.

The day after I received the memo, I went to Gaffney's office with a short list of recommendations. He was calm in aye-ing and nay-ing them until we got to the last, a secretary with no business skills whatsoever. Gaffney raged at her presence on the list and ordered me out of his office. I was about to kick the whole matter upstairs when it occurred to me that the secretary, whose personnel photo I had seen, was nowhere in Gaffney's office during my visit. She might have gone to lunch early, but I was suspicious enough to take a closer look at her personnel record. She turned out to be a fitfully employed former model who had acted in a commercial produced by Gaffney's department—it was too good to be true! I contacted a private detective, one with no connection to the company in case he got caught rendering his services. He didn't, and within forty-eight hours, two sets of photographs taken in a local motel bedroom were in the respective hands of the Prez and Mrs. Gaffney's lawyers. I sat in Gaffney's chair at the next meeting, a splash of vibrant color amid the gray and brown suits. The Prez opened the new business by telling everyone what my promotion signified. I was now a peer of everyone but himself, and could unilaterally fire anyone but himself. The other executives present were scared; I was just satisfied. I could, at last, do my job well.

The many years that followed were one long moment of delirious happiness, remembered in von Sternberg soft focus. No aspect of my work was unappealing, and there weren't enough waking hours to do it all. Except for my frequent junkets out of town, I practically lived in my office. I can't say which I enjoyed most: the detective work of sniffing out unworthy employees, the varied reactions of those who got the ax, or the constant satisfaction of just being myself, the dreaded yet indispensible Mr. Pink. I know only that it ended too soon. Lord, how I wish I had kept a diary. I told myself that I was too busy and that important people didn't do such things, but it was a mistake. No matter how well we think we remember past events, a written chronicle always helps to jog submerged memories, and there are so many I must have lost and would love to visit again.

The day that led to the end of my career was bad to start with. I had a backache and had gotten no sleep the night before. I decided to cure my mood the way I usually did, by firing somebody at once. The problem was that there was nobody to fire. No termination requests were in my 'In' box, and I had just finished my weekly purge of unreported deadwood. I had no choice but to pull up personnel histories completely at random, hoping to find somebody the company would be better off without. And just before noon, I found a promising candidate. She was the new manager of our Denver office. She was very young indeed, and seemed underqualified given her academic record and virtual lack of prior work experience. I looked a little deeper and, lo, her office had recently lost a large sales contract due to bungled communications with the client. That sort of thing happens occasionally at any large office, but at the moment it was all the reason I needed for termination. I processed her pink slip, and sent the Western States district office a memo recommending that her solidly qualified assistant be promoted to fill her place. Then I went to my chiropractor, whistling as I left the office. The hubris of the mighty had just kicked in. It was company policy that employees of managerial level required an exhaustive performance review before termination, and had I undertaken such a review, I would have found that the maiden name of the fired manager was also that of the Prez.

Yes, the Prez was still alive then, past seventy but very much alive and still in control of the company. He wasn't petty about my firing his granddaughter; he just decided, based on the facts, that my office had too much discretion and therefore needed to be eliminated. There really wasn't anyplace else for me in the company, my talents being entirely specialized, but he magnanimously let me stay on for the remaining two months needed to qualify for a full executive pension. Then, as per our agreement, I pulled the pin to avoid getting a pink slip of my own.

I don't resent the Prez at all. I misused my position and got what I deserved. But the inactivity, the lack of purpose to my present life, is so hard to deal with. Every day I think back on my career and relive the memories of what was. And there is one thing about my otherwise perfect career that forces itself upon me again and again. During the last fourteen years, I had just one secretary—Ruta Eberhart. Ruta was unmarried the whole time she worked for me. She was a wispy little thing with a gentle smile, and I'm sure she gave a deceptive first impression to people entering my office for the first and usually only time. I can't remember Ruta ever complaining about her working conditions or the long hours she had to put in. I let her arrange the outer office to her taste—she had a thing for ferns in hanging baskets—and changed my method of appointment tracking to conform to her own worked-out system. She gave me hand-sewn articles of clothing for my birthday, some of which I still have; in a company of thirty thousand people, there was no one else who cared about Mr. Pink's birthday. And when I got forced out of the company, Ruta was truly upset. "I don't want you to go," she said, adding the Christian name that she alone spoke in my presence.

I had the full powers of my office, right up to the last minute of the day I clocked out. Why o why, when I saw the end coming, didn't I fire her? No amount of gilding on my executive parachute can make me forget the fact that, deep down, I'm really a coward.

BIO: Robert Laughlin lives in Chico, California. He is the founder of the Micro Award for flash fiction, and two of his short stories are storySouth Million Writers Award Notable stories. His website is at www.pw.org/contact/robert_laughlin