At first, there was only one. His name was Alan Waite. That Monday morning, Alan drove his immaculate Honda Accord into the parking lot at five minutes before eight o’clock.
As he had done for the past fifteen years, he pulled into an empty spot two hundred yards from the agency’s back door. After stepping out of the car, he lifted a black leather briefcase from the open trunk. Then he took an extra moment to study his reflection in the back window on the driver’s side. He walked across the parking lot next and around to the building’s front door.
As usual, he arrived while the receptionist was still getting settled. Anna noticed Alan heading toward the elevator. She didn’t think anything might be wrong. Anna had worked for the agency going on six and a half years now. Besides herself, she knew that Alan Waite was the earliest employee to arrive.
Alan took the elevator to the third floor. The elevator made a light last lift and thumped ever so modestly down. Alan waited for the elevator doors to slide apart. When the doors opened, Alan found himself staring at the beige carpeting in the third-floor hall. He stepped out. Overhead fluorescent lights hummed, brightening the already bright white walls. Alan turned left, then a quick right, walked midway down and entered through a glass-topped door.
He looked at the empty desk up front. His assistant Joanna was probably going to show up late or call in sick, claiming a sore throat. He made his way past the reception area and a few feet before his door. Then he realized Joanna would not be coming in at all. Joanna had been laid off.
With a quiet sigh, he stepped into his office and looked around. The desk was bare. So were the walls. Other than some scattered pieces of furniture, a computer and phone, the office had been relieved of its contents.
Alan set his briefcase down on the floor. It was too early to know if anyone else would show.
Like his assistant, Alan, had been laid off. After fifteen years that capped an unblemished career, Alan’s boss had given him the news and two weeks’ notice. Those last ten days, Alan waited. Every day, he expected his boss, in a slightly apologetic tone but without taking an ounce of blame, to explain that she had found funds to keep Alan at his job. This was what Alan assumed because there had been financial crises before. He’d always managed to stay on.
But no one called Alan in and instructed him not to go. One by one, he took his framed photographs of snow-covered mountains and lakes and palm trees in Hawaii off the walls. He thought as he did, I’ll show them. The city manager, the mayor and the director of HR didn’t believe he’d leave, is what Alan thought.
All weekend, Alan waited for the call. On Sunday night, the phone rang.
“Some of us met this afternoon.” It was Ray Starr.
Like Alan, Ray had gotten his notice and was not expected to return to the agency on Monday morning.
“Alan,” Ray said, almost in a whisper. “Are you there?”
“Yes. I’m here.”
“We’ve decided,” Ray said.
Alan began to fidget with a piece of fringe on the sofa.
“What is it that you’ve decided, Ray?”
“We’re going in.”
There was silence on the other end. Alan grabbed hold of the pause to try and make sense out of what Ray had said.
“Going in, Ray? I’m not sure I get what it is you’re telling me.”
“We’re going in to work. Tomorrow morning.”
“Who’s we, Ray?”
“All of us. All of us who’ve been given the ax. We want you to come in with us too.”
It was starting to make sense, what Ray had been trying to say.
“Why?” Alan asked. “Why would we do that?”
“Don’t you see, Alan? We make the point. We’re willing to work without pay, a certain number of days anyway, to keep our jobs. They never gave us the chance. They never even asked. We’re going to have all the local TV stations there. Hey, we might even make it to the national news.”
“So, it’s all a gimmick. To get on TV,” Alan concluded.
“This is no gimmick, Alan,” Ray answered back.
Alan could hear Ray breathing hard now.
“Alan, this is the only way we can think of to try and get our jobs back. Have you seen what it’s like out there? I don’t know about you but I haven’t looked for a job for twenty years. Hell, I started workin’ at that agency when Reagan was president. If I don’t get this job back, I’m probably never gonna work again. Who wants to hire some old man like me? I walk in for the interview and first thing the kid interviewin’ me thinks is how much I remind him of his grandfather.”
Alan let Ray’s invitation start to slowly settle in his mind.
After Alan’s wife went upstairs to bed, he poured himself a glass of red wine. Normally, he never drank on what he and his wife Ellen referred to as “school nights.” But now that he’d been laid off, Alan figured he had the right.
He sat down in the wide comfortable olive green chair across from the television and took several sips. He cupped the goblet in his right hand and held it up to the light. All this time working at the agency, what he’d most enjoyed were the two weeks he and Ellen spent in Hawaii each year. At the end of the day before throwing some steaks or a couple fresh pieces of Mahi Mahi on the grill, Alan would sit with Ellen on the lanai and watch the sun set over the water. Alan liked to drink one glass of dry red wine, while Ellen sipped a slightly sweet white. The hours spent watching the clock at work and the humiliation Alan suffered from his boss, checking and re-checking his work, disappeared. All of what Alan knew now was a perfectly meaningless life felt worthwhile when Ellen reached for his hand and the last of the sun’s glow disappeared below the horizon.
Alan woke as usual the following morning at six o’clock. He touched Ellen’s shoulder and said, “Honey. It’s six o’clock.”
He walked downstairs to the half-bath he and Ellen thought of as his bathroom. As he’d done every Monday through Friday morning the past fifteen years, he washed his face, brushed his teeth, gargled and shaved, before combing his hair and giving himself a long hard stare in the mirror.
“Everyone’s decided to go in,” he said to Ellen.
She had just entered the kitchen, dressed in a navy blue knit pantsuit.
“What are you talking about?”
She pulled the refrigerator door open, leaned over and grabbed a carton of one percent milk.
“Ray Starr called last night,” Alan explained.
“Ray Starr? How did he get your number?”
“I don’t know. Probably from one of the agency lists.”
“What did Ray want?”
“To tell me that they were all going in.”
“Everybody,” Alan said.
He shoveled in a spoonful of raisin bran.
“Everybody that got laid off.”
He finished chewing the last bite.
Since he’d been laid off, Alan didn’t think it would be right to walk down to the break room and pour himself a cup of coffee. He recalled that during a previous budget shortfall, the boss had proposed that employees pay for coffee and tea. The staff figured they might as well walk across the parking lot to Starbuck’s if they had to pay. The pay-for-coffee-policy was soon abandoned.
Instead of walking down the hall, Alan dropped into his chair and turned to face the window. The sun had climbed and now cast a rosy glow on the snow blanketing the mountain. When Alan first started working here, he couldn’t believe that he had an office with such a view. He recalled his and Ellen’s first trip to the city. They had taken the early morning flight. Moving down the long corridor from the plane to the baggage claim area, Alan noticed a billboard of the mountain that was lit from behind. He’d said to Ellen that they should learn to cross-country ski, if he got the job and they relocated here. Every winter, Ellen brought it up. Looking at the mountain, Alan realized that they hadn’t taken a single lesson.
He knew it was his boss without having to turn around.
“Katherine,” Alan said, keeping his eye on the mountain and his back facing the door.
“What are you doing here?”
Alan heard the tremor in Katherine’s voice. He realized how this must look. A sudden crazy urge to slide the fingers of his right hand in between the buttons of his shirt, making her think he was carrying a pistol, slammed into his thoughts.
“Did you forget something?”
He dropped his right hand down to his side. Turning around, he buried the hand in his pants pocket.
Katherine stood with her arms wrapped around her chest, across the narrow expanse of the office. Yes, he had forgotten something. But at the moment he couldn’t remember what. He studied Katherine without emotion. Yes, he could admit it now. He was no longer cowering in her presence like a beaten dog. She was, he could see, exceptionally small. In the years he had worked for the agency, the petite woman had grown old. Her flat black hair lacked the brilliance of random highlights, indicating that her straight bobbed locks were dyed, probably at home. Katherine was neither pretty nor ugly, but – and this surprised Alan most of all – she had a completely forgettable look.
In fact, nothing about this woman would have encouraged Alan to stay if, as he crazily thought now, someone had set them up for a blind date. He would have lingered a polite time, over an hour but hardly a second beyond an hour and a half. Then he would have punched his right fist into the air, freed his watch from under his blue shirt sleeve, and said, “I’ve got to get going.”
Katherine continued waiting for a response. She’d clenched her jaw. The small muscles were causing tiny indentations on each side. He had never pondered a response to Katherine, in the ten years since the city manager appointed her to head the department, without offering Alan a chance to apply. Watching her, Alan knew now. If he’d hesitated just once, he would have shown her who really was boss.
“I think you’d better leave, Alan,” Katherine said. Her voice came out in a hoarse whisper. “I’m going to call Security.”
With that, Katherine wheeled around and out the door.
Alan didn’t move, relishing the rare sensation of having won a battle he’d been fighting most of his life. Ellen had scolded him for years. “Just speak up,” she’d chided.
Instead, Alan complained. Some nights, he made light of his work, laughing and saying how stupid his boss was. He stared at the empty hall now, wondering why he had waited so long.
The silence was broken by shouts coming from the parking lot. Alan stepped out the door and over to the window on the other side of the hall.
They were carrying signs. A cameraman appeared to be filming.
The man with the large black video camera followed the crowd moving toward the door. Ray Starr was marching at the head of the line.
Alan could hear chanting but was unable to make out the words. His heart started to rattle high in his chest, pulsing at the sides of his throat.
As he stood at the window, the crowd filed in the door, followed by two more cameramen. There had been a time when he would have been out there, shouting and waving a sign. The thought made him clench his fists, though he didn’t realize that’s what he’d done.
Alan turned just as Clarence Spencer arrived.
“Hello, Clarence,” he said.
Clarence was a large man with a round face and skin the shade of burnt toast. His ID badge hung at the end of chain. The badge stopped inches below his belt.
“Hello, sir,” Clarence said.
Alan looked at Clarence. He realized that he hadn’t actually hadn’t seen this man for years and in that time, Clarence’s neatly clipped hair had grown gray. Clarence had applied for the security job and interviewed initially with Alan. Alan thought back to that day. Had it been ten years?
“Katherine asked me to come up here, sir,” Clarence said, after clearing his throat. “I’m gonna have to escort you out.”
For some reason, Alan’s mind fixated on the word escort. That’s what they’d been taught to say, once an employee had been terminated. There was this notion that by saying the word escort, you were taking the heat off a potentially explosive situation. Alan had done his share of escorting the shamed and sorrowful to their cars. In most cases, the women cried. Men made abusive remarks, using foul language, or stewed in silence.
“There won’t be any need for that, Clarence.”
Alan started to walk toward the door.
“That’s my orders, sir,” Clarence answered. He stepped aside just a few feet or so from the door. “I can’t let you walk out alone.”
Alan nodded his assent but continued to walk across the hall, into his old office. The sun had climbed high enough so the snow on the mountain appeared clean and white.
After another thirty seconds or so, Alan swung back around. Clarence reached for his phone.
Yes, Alan agreed, as he scoured the room with his eyes. There was not a single shred of evidence that the office had ever been occupied. One day soon, in a month or a year’s time, another sap would walk in and tack his favorite photographs on the wall.
When he was done, Alan felt sure the new guy would step over to the window and gaze out. The sun would probably just be coming up.
He’d see the sun turn the snow a golden-edged shade of rose. At that instant, the entire universe would appear to be glowing.
Alan made eye contact with Clarence, as he pressed down the phone.
“Let’s go, Clarence,” Alan said, and he let Clarence escort him down.
Patty Somlo has had her articles, reviews, fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction published in numerous journals and newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, the Star Bulletin, the Baltimore Sun, the Santa Clara Review, and Fringe Fiction, among others. Her short story “Bird Women” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.