My Condolence


by Jon Fried

I was cranking out the pitch to GorpCorp, the trail snack giant, when Dody Sullivan pinged me on the company IM. GTG. When Dody calls... I was also IMing my friend Berner on my phone. I never text or IM at work but it had been such an awful week. Berner takes nothing seriously and I needed that. I typed three words to Dody: on my way. Berner wrote back: K, Mr. BS.

Hurrying up the spiral stairs to the Executive Rotunda, I checked my shirt, straightened my tie and brushed the dandruff off the shoulders of my dark blue shirt, grumbling at myself for not wearing white every day like Chairman Jim. Not that he could possibly have dandruff to worry about. And if he did, Dody would take care of it. I'd joined the Communications team just six weeks before, but I knew how it was.

"Your tie is crooked," she said, a phone pinned between ear and shoulder, tapping on her computer keyboard with both hands. "Jim, it's me. The 10 o'clock moved to 10:30 but you HAVE to talk to Carla RIGHT NOW, she's been waiting an hour... The plane will wait... The Board will wait. They'll have to... NO, Rudy said the frames still aren't ready, but not to worry, the pictures are safe. Here's Carla, I'm putting her through. Jim, NOW." She nodded, glared and started to laugh. As she put down the phone, the laugh turned into a growl, and as she turned toward me doing my best to look sympathetic--and I was, as I'd seen some big egos in dark suits cowering before Chairman Jim and had some of idea of what Dody dealt with every day--she shuddered and grimaced. "You have no idea. How are you? Don't answer, tell me later. I need your help."

"Anything," I said. I meant it. I'd been looking for a job for almost two years. And I liked her. When she gave me 60 seconds of chat on my first day, we discovered that she'd grown up in the town next to mine, another sleepy, nothing suburb in New Jersey. I still had a plenty of sleepy nothing in my system. It was all gone from her.

"I need you to write a condolence letter. Somebody's brother died and Jim wants the letter out today. Michael is out. I'm going crazy and this HAS to get done. Do you have time?"

That was a rhetorical question. But that's not why I couldn't speak. Good thing Dody didn't wait for a reply. "I really appreciate it. You know how it works. You have to send it to me and Jim can't know that you're writing it. It's not you. Listen, he doesn't even know that Michael is my usual backup. Jim would kill me. I don't know what he expects. OK? Can you call HR and get the details?"

I nodded, gave a thumbs up, and hurried away. I still couldn't speak. She probably wasn't surprised. A lot of people were as scared of Dody as they were of Chairman Jim. Some more so. I wasn't so scared. I know how to play the beta dog to anybody's alpha, whether that might be the chairman of a Fortune 500 company, the chairman's Chief Assistant, or the cool dude in the message center. The reason I couldn't speak was that the somebody whose brother died was me.

Justin, two years younger and 20 light years more brilliant and talented than I'll ever be, inherited the dysfunctional heart valves and flair for genius on our dad's side. I got the strong pump and the tendency toward the bland on our mom's side. He survived a couple of operations and was inching up the transplant list when an infection burned through him in two days and that was it. We'd been preparing for years and of course were totally unprepared.

Vacation and bereavement days don't kick in for three months, so I took one sick day for the funeral and didn't tell anyone. People get fired for being downers. Not right away, but eventually. "Always up," that was my mantra during the hideous job hunt grind. I know some people--Berner is one--who clawed at it for years and then just gave up. That's when Berner started calling me Mr. Bullshit.

I wrote a condolence note in the crisp, WASPy, quasi-folksy diction that Chairman Jim seemed to use. I gave Dody my snail-mail address and a fake name. She'd never check up on it. She didn't have the time.

Great, Dody emailed back. Now make sure the guy writes back. Even if you have to call him and coax him. Jim wants to know there is real two-way communication.

So I wrote back from my fake self. When I told Berner, he shook his head and said, "I warned you."

A couple of days later, Dody called me into her office.

"Jim was really touched by the guy's reply. He'd like to meet him in person. Do you have time to arrange it? I'm just SO crazy. He LOVED your letter, by the way." She was looking at me and she hung her head as the phone rang, and then snarled when a second line lit up a moment later.

"It should be pretty easy to arrange," I said.

"I like your attitude," she said and then turned to her blinking, beeping phone.

I staggered back to my cubicle, stared at the screen for five minutes, and then walked back into Dody's office. I waited til she was free and told her everything.

"Shit. He can't know. We'll both get fired. I've seen this. He wants you to keep a secret from everyone else, but if you keep a secret from him, he thinks he can't trust you. I am SO sorry. I lost a brother. In Afghanistan. It sucks. But don't worry. No one knows but you and me and you won't be with him more than ten minutes. To tell you the truth, it's more of a photo op."

"I met him when I started just a few weeks ago. Will he remember me?"

"He will, trust me, he never forgets a face, but he's not good with names and he'll never put two and two together."

Not without your help, I wanted to say.

A couple of days before the photo op, Dody pinged me. "Can you come over? NOW?"

We had another problem: The staff photographer and the backup were both out, and Chairman Jim happened to walk by when Dody was learning all of this and said, "Why don't you get that new guy, the new writer. I specifically remember him saying he could take photos, do videos, anything we want. Get him in here." Dody said she thought I might be busy. "Well he just got a little busier," said Chairman Jim.

"Now what," I said. I could write my own condolence letter, but I couldn't take my own photograph.

"He will FREAK if he finds out everything. Because then he'll start asking questions and I won't want to answer them. Look, you're going to have to find a stand-in. Can you do that?"

I called Berner. He was the only one I could call. He laughed in my face and said that nothing would make him happier than rolling out some BS for Mr. BS. "Always wanted to be an actor," he said. In college he'd done performance art--mimicking traffic cops in downtown traffic, brushing his teeth every day for a month on the main quad in his underwear--though never under the auspices of the drama department.

I went over to Berner's place the night before but he wouldn't let me get in a word. "Don't worry, I know what to do. Dress the part, act the part: I work in IT and my brother died. How does a guy in IT dress? Wait, don't tell me. Anybody dresses up for the chairman. You're wondering if I even own a tie. Come on, don't worry. Let's have another beer."

Berner was late. I couldn't believe it, and I knew that Chairman Jim was usually late for everything so I was hoping it wouldn't matter, but Dody called me--not IM, this merited a phone call--and asked me where my guy was. "He's here, or any second." I texted, IM'd, called; nothing. I prayed; that worked. Reception called, your guest is here. I ran. Berner was flirting with the young receptionist, and I had to pull his arm with both hands, and I was so infuriated I didn't notice right away what he was wearing. A plaid sport coat, a Hawaiian shirt and a Justin Bieber tie. Over blue jeans.

"What, you don't like it? I'm an IT guy, what the fuck."

Those last three were Dody's very words when we appeared at her desk. Glaring, she ushered us in to the Sailing Room, the little conference room off of the board room with all of Chairman Jim's sailing trophies. She shook her head at me, a look of pity on her face, and said, as if Berner wasn't even there, "Too late now. Jim's coming in two minutes."

She closed the door behind us. "Well, she's cute," he said. "No seriously, have you hit on her?"

"She's got two kids."

"So?"

"She's married."

"So?" Berner was the kind of guy who always talked about cheating on his girlfriend but never did. It probably helped that he lived with her and she was paying all the bills.

I walked around the room snapping pictures, trying to figure out how the camera worked.

Forty minutes later, the door popped open and first came Dody and then came Chairman Jim. He was taller than I'd remembered, at least six two, and had a better tan. "Chris?" he held out his hand to Berner.

"Conveniently enough, yes," Berner said.

Only then did Chairman Jim notice what Berner was wearing. He opened his mouth and I'm not sure what he was going to say, but I'm guessing he recalled the occasion for the meeting, because he just said, "I'm sorry about your brother. Have a seat and tell me what happened."

"He croaked. I don't mean to be crude, but I'm still upset." Berner didn't sound upset. Chairman Jim stared at him. Berner went on. "Chris--I mean, Tim--Tom--Tim--had a bad heart. Rather he had a good heart, a huge heart, the biggest heart, but a crappy valve."

"I'm sorry to hear it." Chairman Jim tossed me a glance as I snapped away, circling the two of them on either side of the round table. "Tell me what you do at the company here," he said to Berner.

"I'm in IT. I do what I'm told." I tried to catch his eye and shake my head at him.

"You don't sound so happy about it."

"When my brother died I realized that it was time to stop the bullshit and just lay it on the line."

Jim stared again and after a moment said, "There sure is a lot of bullshit everywhere."

"Tell me what you do at the company here." No, Berner, no.

Jim gave a half wince, half smile. "I try to do what needs to be done."

"And how do you decide what that is?"

"I decide what makes sense to me. Do you dress like that every day?"

"No. It's not every day I get to meet the chairman."

"Were you close to your brother?"

"Chronologically? Or emotionally?"

"Emotionally."

"Both actually. But come to think of it, it's not really any of your business. Or rather I can't imagine you really care."

"Look, I don't know you, it's true. But I care about every single person who works for me."

"And you expect me to believe that?"

"I do. Because it's true. My job is dependent on you no less than your job is dependent on me."

"Is that so," Berner said, crossing one leg over the other and tilting his head as if he were a talk show host.

Chairman Jim stood up, glaring, and glanced at me. Speaking more to himself than either of us, he said, "I'm done with this." And with that he walked out of the room.

"I think he liked me," Berner said.

"Stay here," I growled at Berner. I chased after the Chairman, for what reason I don't know, and stopped in the hall when I heard his voice coming from Dody's office.

"And I want to sign the dismissal form myself. I don't want to see that guy's face in here on Monday morning, understand?"

"Yes, Jim."

Berner was still in his chair drumming on the table when I returned to the Sailing Room. "You don't understand. I just made his day. Guys like that LOVE to fire people."

"Berner, I appreciate the help. Will you get the hell out of here? I have to go back to my desk."

Berner sprang to his feet, burst out the door and sprinted down the hall, shouting, "Not a moment to lose, not a moment to lose! Drinks at my place at 6!"

Ten new emails in the inbox. I read them and marked them unread and then Dody appeared at my cubicle. Dody never appeared at anyone's cubicle. She never spoke in a whisper. She spoke in a whisper now. "I told him everything. I had to. Let him fire me. Let him fire both of us." Her pocket buzzed. "That's him. I'm sorry." She hurried away.

I began packing up my things. I didn't have much. A photo of Justin and me in the treehouse. A plastic 8-ball with a glass window that would show your fortune when you shook it. My thesaurus, the last print book on the planet. I sat staring at the screen.

Ping from Dody. Come now. When Dody calls, one last time.

She was on the phone. She put up her index finger. She made a face into the phone and hung up. "One second," she said, rushing out of her office, leaving me to wonder what I'd say to the security guard sent to escort me out of the building. Maybe they wouldn't bother. Maybe they'd trust me to disappear on my own.

"Sorry, sorry, sorry!" Dody hurried back to her desk about 10 minutes later. "I can't believe this. I CANNOT talk right now and I didn't want to tell you this way, but Jim wants you to be his number one staff writer effective immediately. He wants you in the Sailing Room at 11:20 to talk over his testimony to Congress next month. There'll be a promotion, and maybe a raise, hopefully a good one. But I'm sorry, I CANNOT talk now." The phone rang. She stared at the number. "Here we go again. Be here by 11:10, OK?"

I nodded and trudged back to my desk.

Berner loved it.


BIO: Jon Fried has published short fiction in Third Bed, Eclectica, Beehive, Pierogi Press, Pindeledyboz, Lamination Colony, New Works Review and other literary journals and e-zines, as well as feature stories on New Jersey culture and nightlife for The New York Times and songs he has written for a rock band he co-founded called the Cucumbers, which has released several recordings. He is working on a series of novels based on some colorful characters in his family tree.