I need to tell someone about what happened. I've never seen anything like it, and I mean never. People just don't fight back like this anymore--we've been taught to take shit from our employers and nowadays they make us do it with a Positive Attitude. Pay cuts? Smile! Less benefits? Smile! Layoffs? Smile! It's like a formula now, and you don't even notice it unless someone goes against the grain. And no one ever went against the grain, not with an unemployment rate so high. Not without some other option.
But this guy I knew, Mike Zawikowski, he went down like a prize fighter. I have to talk about him because I can't stop thinking about it all. I feel like maybe there's something to this and I want to know what you think.
Mike sat next to me at work. He didn't start that way, though. He had an office for a long time, a corner office on the third floor. We work for a major Telecom--worked, I should say. When I started ten years ago, Mike was in his forties and he was a robust forty-year-old: balding but sans any major wrinkles, tall, fit, thin wire-frame glasses, a good old Wisconsin accent. I imagined when he had sex, he closed his eyes and moved around a lot, the romantic type who used his hands to get the job done and I should probably explain myself here because this might sound strange.
I enjoy picturing people in the throes of sex. I'm not a pervert, though, I swear it. It's not some sexual thing--I just happen to believe that you can tell a lot about someone depending on how they act in the sack, when they're at their most personal, when they're sure they're alone (usually!) with the person they love in the most intimate moment. Not only that, it's disarming, too. It's like reminding yourself that everyone cries, even that bastard who works in sales and tells you he could probably shoot an illegal immigrant. He cries.
I can't even imagine how someone would picture me in bed. I was a scrub. I managed the east-coast advertising bloc and sat at a big desk on the third floor that I shared with four other people. The desk was divided into four, with small felt partitions running across the table. They were like half-cubicles, their bases drilled into the table so half-assed that some of the screws entered at an angle. The cubicles served no purpose whatsoever except that we had to stand if we wanted to make eye contact with someone else at the table. Everyone at the table ran ad campaigns for a specific region so sometimes we had to talk and if we didn't want to shout, we all had to stand up.
Clinton Shields was VP of Marketing, and it was probably his idea to partition the massive table instead of installing individual cubes. He had an office next to Mike's that overlooked Lake Michigan. Framed motivational posters hung from the cream-colored wall and his narrow oak bookshelf--what he called "the library" because everyone was encouraged to grab a book--was full of Positive Thought books that encouraged readers to envision success in order to avoid downsizing.
Shields was a big fan of Positive Thought. He didn't approve of the news in general because he thought it was all bad. If he caught us reading a newspaper or even a news magazine on break, he'd launch into a tirade about how it was poisoning us.
"Constant exposure to bad news can't possibly be good for you," he told me once.
To which I replied, "But I want to know what's happening in Darfur."
To which he replied, "Why? What good will it do?"
He liked to exercise us, too. He once had us jump around our massive table, telling us to come up with new creative ways to perform said activity. Jennifer Richards hopped with her arms in the air, letting her middle-aged breasts bounce freely underneath her blouse. Crystal Blanc bounced her hand against her mouth like a stereotypical Indian. Blake Rivera hopped on one foot. I flapped my arms like a fucking bird and if my feelings were any barometer, we all felt pretty foolish.
"That's it," Shields said, smiling and clapping us along. "You see? You see how creative you're being right now? Bring that creativity into your next ad sale!"
When I pictured Shields having sex, I imagined him with a lot of energy, but there was something else, too, like maybe after the from-behind pounding ended he laid in the bed staring at the ceiling, questioning himself and his wife and wondering what they were doing wrong.
I don't blame Mike for keeping the door to his office closed for as long as possible. Technically, he answered to Shields even back then. I wouldn't say Mike had a bad attitude, though--he was just a calm, collected sort of guy. He'd reached a point in his life where he had saved away a little dignity and wasn't interested in giving it all up. I envied that. I came into this job from college and from the get-go, I found myself attending seminars on how to use my mind to alter reality, how to cure my illness with the power of positive thoughts, how to force God Almighty to honor my demands. None of my college classes had ever talked about these types of motivational seminars, definitely nothing about how to fight them, and so I simply assumed this was how the modern business world worked, and it must work because otherwise why would a company force its employees to go to these courses?
The first round of layoffs was quick and severe, followed by a mandatory Pep Rally downtown inside the UW-Milwaukee basketball arena. I sat on the fifth-row bleacher seats conveniently between Mike and Shields. On the small stage where the half-court usually was, a lean man with greasy blond hair spun wildly in every direction and encouraged us to jump out of our seats and clap our hands without explaining why. Shields stood. Mike didn't. Shields clapped his hands. Mike didn't. I stood up and feigned interest, something I'd gotten used to. For some people, being in that type of environment was infectious: I could see it plastered on their faces as they clapped along and chanted "We can do it," their forced smiles slowly melting away and revealing real ones they normally reserved for enjoyable moments in life.
"Ugh," Mike said at one point. I remember it because everyone was quiet except the loudmouth speaker. "How much did they pay for this idiot?"
From the corner of my eye, I saw Shields turn his head. Onstage, the Inspirational Speaker told everyone to envision money and lots of it and they would attract the money through the power of Quantum Physics.
"That's not how Quantum Physics works," Mike said. He didn't even whisper it. Shields looked again.
The next week, Mike was sitting at our table, which had been re-partitioned into six sections instead of four, the old screw holes clearly visible next to my black stapler. There was another new guy named French from another floor. He didn't talk a lot except to tell Mike that he used to have an office, too.
Every morning, a few more of Mike's personal items ended up on his cramped 3'x3' desk space. They weren't letting him into his office. Shields or someone else kept it locked at all times and Mike, still with some dignity remaining, refused to ask to go in. Every morning, he walked through the elevator doors on the opposite side of the office space, his leather shoes squeaking on the hard blue carpeting. He tried his office door, then walked back to his new desk next to mine.
None of us really spoke to each other much. That was what the half-partitions were for, after all. Didn't do a thing for the noise, though--we could all hear each other's calls. When everyone was trying to sell ad space at the same time, it was like conducting a phone call in a crowded restaurant. You get used to it, but then again you don't. Sometimes there's a quiet moment and you're the only one talking, and suddenly you feel like you're on display for everyone to evaluate. I'd be awful in bed if we decided to videotape it. Crystal wouldn't have minded--she could make calls anytime, no matter how quiet it was, and she had no problem getting personal with her clients.
I don't think Mike ever got used to it. Or maybe he was just conducting a lot of sales work via email. Regardless, he didn't use his phone very much. He brought up the issue at a Positivity meeting Shields held in the little boardroom next to the elevators.
"We could use the office next to yours to field calls," Mike said. He was referring to his old office.
"We need to feed off each other's energy," Shields said. He made a fist, holding it in front of us. He was sitting at the head of the table. There hadn't been a chair there but he'd grabbed one and rolled it to the head of the table before the meeting started. He also took the only glazed doughnut from the plate in the center. The rest were filled with jelly and I hated jelly.
He never said no. What if his wife wanted him to look in her eyes? How would he answer?
"It's too noisy," Mike said. "It's distracting. Look," he held up his yellow notepad. "I tallied the number of times everyone said 'what?' during their morning sales calls today. The average is four per call. Four! It's rude. It's unnecessary."
"Mike, Mike." Shields shook his head. Oh, poor Mike the Simpleton, that look seemed to say. "We're trying to create a positive environment. We can't do that if we're isolated."
"We are isolated!" Mike said, laughing incredulously. I think he'd been saving up that laugh for ten solid years. "You're isolated from us in your office! We're isolated from each other in our cubicles! Our advertisers are isolated from our product!"
Shields listened intently, only he didn't really listen. His eyes glazed over, like he was stifling tears, and he nodded rhythmically. A million miles away, living inside his Dome of Positivity that he'd developed at the company-sponsored pep rallies. He was planning, you could just tell. That outburst was the beginning of the end.
The next Monday, we arrived and found a new sign on Mike's old office door. It was a red circle with the word "Whining" in bold, black letters and a red line struck through it.
"What's this for?" Crystal asked when she arrived.
"Obviously he wants us to speak our minds more often," I said.
She gave me a sharp, questioning look, one that made clear I'd overstepped my boundaries. Sarcasm was a big no-no. I knew that. So why did I say it? It was Mike, I told myself. His negative energy was leaching onto me. His negative waves were interacting with my waves, causing some sort of tsunami or psychic backlash or Quantum leap, I don't know, I never understood what any of those Motivational Speakers were talking about.
Mike showed up at 9:15 and never even looked at the sign. Maybe he noticed, maybe not. At that point, he was coasting, you know what I mean? Maybe not. Maybe you're too young to know how "coasting" even works. Here's a primer: you find a comfortable job that's mildly fun and pays well, and all you want to do is your job, who gives a shit about attitudes, who gives a shit about motivational speakers, who gives a shit about monitoring each other's smile frequency. The goal is to just make it through each day and save up enough of that paycheck so someday you can get out and enjoy the last years of your life.
But I guess that's just too much to ask now.
The next round of layoffs came four weeks later. There was another Inspirational Event the following Monday. This time it was a new speaker, a young woman who encouraged us to demand God help us on a variety of issues, especially money. We chanted "Give us wealth!" at the top of our lungs. We danced and clapped our hands while "Poker Face" by Lady Gaga played over the basketball arena's speakers.
On Tuesday, Shields called me into his office. The layoffs were still coming, slowly, bleeding the Telecom dry and I suddenly found myself in the unfortunate position of having to smile while stress consumed most of my inner organs.
"Did you see Mike at the Positivity Rally?" Shields asked. He was leaning back in his soft, sumptuous black leather chair, a chair I'd sat in once while he was on vacation and upon getting back up found my life to be somewhat lacking. It was designed for people with back problems and had a thick rubber insert at the base. I'd been wrong about him before: his wife probably had to assume to the top position when they had sex.
"No...there were a lot of people there, though," I said.
He tucked his hands behind his head, popping his tongue around in his mouth. "Has he made a Positivity Square?"
I very carefully moved my cough drop around in my mouth. I'm sorry I didn't mention this earlier--force of habit, I guess. Shields didn't like us chewing gum and Crystal found out the hard way that his peeve included cough drops, throat lozenges and nicotine candy.
"I think I saw him working on one," I said.
Positivity Squares, you've never heard of them? Well, a Positivity Square is a piece of paper, plain white copying paper, and in the center you draw pictures of what you want in life. You can also cut out pictures from magazines, too. That's what I did for mine. I put a picture of a mansion and a Playstation 3 and Meg White from the White Stripes. I really liked her and even though that sex tape turned out not to be her, it was pretty easy to pretend.
Then you cut up a dollar bill. That's right, you commit a crime. You cut the four corners of the bill and paste them in the corners of the Positivity Square. This enhances the power of the Square.
"I just can't picture him there," Shields said. "And you know what? When I pictured the rally before we met up downtown, everything ended up just like I envisioned it, right down to the little potted plant onstage. And I don't remember seeing Mike in my vision."
"OK." He stared at me. I stared back.
"OK," I said, getting up. Shields got up with me and followed me out of the office.
"Mike," he called out over my shoulder.
I flinched, staring at the dark blue carpeting as I made my way back to my half-cubicle. I knew what was going to happen. Executives like Shields did things quietly, out of view, in the shadows if necessary or, barring that, on a cloudy day.
"Mike," he said again. I could see to top of his head plain as day, a few short brown hairs poking up near the back. The entire table was quiet.
"Mike," Shields said more loudly. "Can I see you in my office?"
And from Mike's lips sprung forth a single word, one I'd not heard inside our concrete castle for quite some time: "No."
Shields cleared his throat. "Just a moment?" he asked. He cleared his throat again. "It won't take long."
"No," Mike said again.
The entire room felt suffocating. I wanted to turn back to my computer monitor but I couldn't look away. At that moment, I hoped--prayed--that all of the Positive Thought gurus weren't full of shit. I imagined Shields going back to his office and never coming out again, never bothering Mike except to commend him on his fantastic pay-per-view sales.
The first part came true. Shields, obviously unsure how to continue, simply returned to his office and closed the door. He stayed there for the rest of the day.
The next day, he came out of his office shortly before noon. "Mike," he said. "Could I have a word with you?"
Everyone stopped working. Blake scratched the dandruff between the thin black hairs on his crown. I couldn't see his face over the top of the cube but I knew his eyes were wide. They were always wide, taking everything in with a sense of wonderment. Very serious Missionary-style sort of guy, because when you have sex as rarely as him, the last thing you want to do is experiment.
"No," Mike said again.
"Your work can wait."
Mike didn't reply. And Shields, after waiting a patient moment, returned to his office, slamming the door just a little harder.
Thursday came and Shields tried again, this time at the end of the day as we were packing up our things. This time, Mike didn't even answer. And why should he have? It was 5:05, a handful of minutes past official working hours. Radical shit, I know--to think, in this day and age, someone actually stops working after punching out!
Friday. The reckoning. It couldn't last, of course. As chickenshit as Shields may be, he still had power. And in today's day and age, there are plenty of ways to passively terminate someone.
But it wasn't enough to fire Mike. Mike had power now. He had control. All of us sitting at the table were seeing things a little differently. Blake tore down the "No Whining" sign while Shields was at a lunch meeting downtown (the execs went to Carnivore--ninety-dollar steaks). Crystal sucked on throat lozenges and it smoothed out her voice. She got a new sale...coincidence? Maybe. That, or her Positivity Square was finally kicking in. Jennifer, so quiet, obviously the passive type in bed, told us a raunchy joke about a sexual position even I didn't know, and suddenly I found myself wondering about her potential. Was her boyfriend benefiting from this enhanced mood in the workplace? Was she spinning on him in bed for the first time, grabbing his arms and passionately running her tongue across his lips, taking complete control and contorting his body in a position he'd only seen at his favorite porn site?
Me, I'd just started idolizing Mike. I called him "Bartleby" in my head and imagined him going home and surprising his wife with a passionate--albeit conservative--loving session. He was burning through his sales targets even though he hadn't made a Positivity Square, even though he refused to accept the Theory of Enhanced Quantum Energy Waves. Thirty years ago, when sales mattered, he'd have been a rock star.
At 4:45 p.m., two security guards stepped through the elevator doors. They were wearing blue uniforms, walkie-talkies strapped to their black leather belts. They walked slowly. It was a small workspace and the table was only fifteen feet from the elevator but they seemed to take forever.
They stopped behind Mike. Shields was watching from just inside his office, safe, able to shut the door at a moment's notice to protect himself. I was the only one who saw this and that was why the show of force didn't demoralize me like it did my co-workers. I saw the frail Wizard behind the curtains.
"Time to go, Mike," said one of the guards. They were both in their thirties, tall, black, a little pudgy around the stomach. Mike was in his early fifties; he didn't stand a chance.
"I'll leave at five like I always do," Mike said.
The guards both shook their heads. "Gotta go now, Mike. Leave your things."
"I'll leave at five," Mike said again. I wish I could have seen over the partition just a little bit, just to see his hands. I bet one of them was gripping a Bic pen, real tight, the little reptilian part of his brain debating whether to fight this one out to the death.
One of the guards reached down and grabbed Mike by his elbow, tugging it into view. He pulled it away. And then they were both on him, grabbing him by his arms and he pulled them away again but one of the guards managed to get a firm grip on Mike's white collared shirt and twisted it hard before Mike could shrug it off. The other guard stepped closer to me to plant his feet and I rolled back in my chair and then I could see it all in its embarrassing glory. I understood now why Shields called in the security. This was the spell breaking.
They both grabbed Mike again and he reached out, sloughed his hands across the desk, sending his carefully stacked papers flying in every direction, his pens falling on the carpet. They pulled harder and he grunted, cried out "No" and then cried it out once again and each time I begged the Universe to give the office some kind of soundtrack to make it less awkward but they kept pulling and he kept pulling, his fingers slipping away from the table. He gathered whatever gas was left in the tank and lurched forward, reaching for his computer monitor, knocking it over, grabbing the sturdy wires behind it and crying out "No" once again and I realized then that he wasn't fighting to save his job, merely to save what little dignity he had left, staving off the inevitable until 5 p.m.
And he did it, by God he did it. And when the little clock on his computer read 5:00, he let go, stopped struggling, and then just to hammer home the point that he'd won, he slipped out of the guards' grips and grabbed his briefcase sitting on the floor. When he turned to the elevators, the guards didn't touch him. No one touched him. He walked out on his own terms, and as awkward as the struggle had been somehow he'd retained a little slice of dignity, something I hope to have when I'm that old, when I'm not longer useful to my company, when my numbers no longer make up for my grumpy demeanor or my empty personality or my humorless expression.
Because none of that shit really matters.
BIO: Ken Brosky has written two novels and graduated from the University of Nebraska-Omaha with an MFA in writing. Earlier this year, he had a short story published in Jersey Devil Press and has the noble goal of publishing two shorts stories per year