Oblong

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Chapter 6

Not wanting to miss another story, Double A and TF each kept Oblong’s desktop open on their laptops, checking them periodically to see if any writing was underway as they continued to pack up the contents of their mentor’s office. Finally, the payoff came just before four o’clock.

“Oblong has written another one,” TF announced from behind the desk.

Double A closed the filing cabinet drawer she’d been going through and joined TF in front of his laptop. “His pattern seems to be that he writes one in the morning and one in the afternoon—two a day.”

“So far, but then this is only our second day—Tuesday...day number two.”

“Yes, I get it. Now stop talking and read.”

This time TF finished first, or at least he pretended that he did. He’d actually only read the first half of the very short story and then checked his phone to signal that he was done. When Double A began to talk, he surreptitiously read the remainder of the story a glance at a time.

“This one is completely different than the rest,” said Double A. “There weren’t even any animals in it.”

“It’s kind of like the one I read yesterday afternoon.”

“But you said that one had a pigeon.”

“Right, but it also had two guys in an empty room.”

“It couldn’t have been empty if there was also a pigeon in it.”

“Well, not completely empty, but it was the same type of strange space.”

“Strange how?” Double A asked.

“What do you mean...strange because it’s empty.”

“When we leave here, this room will be empty. Does that make it strange?”

“You wouldn’t ask me that if you’d spent the last half hour packing up our mentor’s collection of bobbleheads. Did you know they can make them to resemble actual people?”

“Aren’t most of them actual people—sports stars and the like?”

“No, I mean actual non-celebrity people. Like there was one of that short guy from the meeting yesterday who Oblong called out for taking a private plane to Pebble Beach. On the base of the bobblehead it said he broke some corporate sales record.”

“That’s creepy.”

TF nodded. “You’re telling me. It was like holding a Voodoo doll. I bet if I shook it hard enough that guy’s head would shake in his office.”

“Hang on...I think I’m having an epiphany.”

“Is that like a migraine?”

“Not even close—the story we just read mentioned ‘silent spectators’ at the end. The point I was attempting to make a moment ago is that the room was strange because the two men were being watched by people they couldn’t see.”

TF glanced at the screen to read the final sentence. “Oh yeah...so what’s your epiphany thing about then?”

“It’s still sort of inchoate, but stay with me...okay, we’ve got this story about a strange room that’s being observed, while we read Oblong’s stories on his computer—which he doesn’t know we’re doing—in someone else’s office that belonged to our mentor who was all but a stranger to us. And you told me that the story you read yesterday was similar—with the strange room and all.”

“That’s right...it was about assessments.”

“Assessments?” asked Double A.

“You know: why am I being assessed...what are these assessments about—stop assessing me, you invisible assessor holes.”

“Yeah...that sort of fits too.”

“Fits how?” asked TF. “Fits where?”

“Don’t you see...we’re the invisible assessors, snooping around on Oblong’s computer, but we’re also being assessed by the higherups. We were covertly assessed while applying for other jobs to get the positions we have now, which we didn’t even know existed.”

“I think maybe I get what you’re saying, but it seems a little thin.”

“But what about all the details in the story?”

“Such as?”

“You know, our mentor dies last night and the story we read this morning is about death—”

“Of a bat,” interrupted TF.

“Right, but the farmer is presumably killed too—by a bat. It’s self-referential...very meta.”

“That’s interesting, but I need more convincing.”

“Well, there was the screen that the bat got stuck on...just like we’ve been reading these stories on a screen.”

“Now you’re really reaching.”

“Maybe,” said Double A, “but how about the bobblehead? Shake it and that short executive shakes his head...just like the two men in the story shook their heads.”

“Are you sure you’re not having a migraine? What about the story you read yesterday...talking animals and all? I haven’t seen anything like that around—unless you count that really tall dude from yesterday’s meeting with all the charts, but I’m pretty sure he’s at most only half giraffe.”

“So now you’re just making fun of me.”

“A little, but I admit it’s an intriguing theory, though as you mentioned...it still needs some work.”

“But then what—”

This time Double A was interrupted by a knock at the door. The tall executive in question stuck his head and giraffish neck inside the office. “Quitting time you two. All the execs are headed to the bar across the street to toast your dearly departed mentor.”

* * *

TF and Double A sat at the bar, watching as the older executives milled about, moving from this cluster to that like goopy globs in a lava lamp. Some of the clusters would cry over the stories they shared while others laughed, and some seemed to do both simultaneously.

“They’re a lot more convivial now than they were yesterday during that meeting,” said Double A.

TF nodded. “Booze will do that.”

“Yeah, but even though it felt like a funeral, nobody actually died in the boardroom.”

“It’s hard to find a compelling reason to be upset right after you’ve been reminded that your ticket could get punched at any time.”

Double A took a long drink from her short glass. “I suppose a surprise like that can give anyone perspective...too bad it doesn’t last.”

“What doesn’t last?” The giraffish executive set three empty pint glasses on the bar. “The old man will keep the tab open even after he leaves, so drink up. We’re planning to order some food in a little bit.”

“Great,” Double A replied, “but that’s not—”

“Another round,” the tall executive said to the bartender, who took the empty glasses. The executive turned his attention back to Double A and TF, though mostly Double A. “We really appreciate you—both of you—cleaning out your mentor’s office. It’s probably not how you thought you’d be spending your first week on the job, but then I can’t think of a better way to learn about being an executive than to go through all the mementos accumulated over the long career of such an excellent executive. Besides, I figure the one upside of his untimely demise is that he didn’t have to clean all that junk out for himself when he retired.”

TF stared up at the tall executive’s eyes. “Uh...we’re glad to pitch in.”

“Sorry if my last remark sounded a bit too blithe for such a somber occasion—but trust me, your mentor would’ve agreed.”

“He seemed like a real straight shooter,” said Double A. “Speaking of which, can you set us straight on that guy Tom from accounting? I mean that was a bizarre scene yesterday, no?”

“Not really...the old man likes to get a fresh take on things every once in a while.” The bartender returned with three full pint glasses. “I should get these back to my table, but you’re welcome to join us...both of you, of course.”

Double A picked up her glass. “Sure.”

“I’ll be along in a minute.” TF drank down the last of his pint. “I think I’ll get a refill first.”

TF signaled the bartender as Double A and the tall executive left. When the bartender returned with TF’s beer, the old man took a seat on the stool previously occupied by Double A. “Mind if I join you for a moment?”

“Not at all, sir...of course not.”

“The death of your mentor must’ve been quite a blow.”

“Yes, very shocking...quite surprising.”

“My advanced age notwithstanding, I don’t happen to be hard of hearing, so there’s no need for tautologies.”

“I understand,” TF said, even though he didn’t.

“Well, we all really appreciate you two packing up his belongings.”

“We’re happy to help...pleased to be of assistance.”

“Tell me, what do you think of the situation at our Dearborn plant that was discussed during yesterday’s meeting?”

“Sounds like a tricky situation indeed,” TF answered, “a complicated state of affairs.”

“And what did you think of the idea proposed by Tom from accounting?”

“Seemed like the right call...sounded like the correct course of action to me.”

“I’m glad you think so. I’d like you to go there to help facilitate things.”

“To Michigan, sir?”

“Yes, that’s where we keep our Dearborn plant.”

“I wasn’t aware that they had a client services department over there.”

“They don’t...or at least not yet. When you arrive, you’ll be a department of one—for now, but you’ll have a dual role as both Dearborn’s head of client services and the liaison between the local community college and the plant. Are you interested?”

“It’s very interesting...quite intriguing.”

“Splendid—then it’s settled...and decided.” The old man stood from his stool. “You’ll start there on Monday.”

TF watched as the old man crossed the bar to rejoin a group of other senior executives. He told them something as they opened their circle to make room for him, and then they all shared a hearty laugh.

Double A had observed the exchange as she perfunctorily participated in her table’s conversation.

“Who cares if our domestic sales continue to decline,” the tall executive said in response to a question Double A hadn’t actually heard anyone ask, “so long as the Third World markets continue to expand. Our soft drinks are like expensive champagne over there. I’ve heard that in some parts of Africa, fathers will spend a week’s wages just to buy a case of our soda for their daughters’ weddings. Isn’t that right?”

Double A vaguely noticed that the table went quiet; she turned her attention from TF to her tablemates and realized they were all looking at her expectantly. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”

“Isn’t that right?” repeated the tall executive. “In some African villages, a case of our cola is considered a better dowry than a cow.”

Double A stood to leave the table. “Pardon me, I think I ought to go check on my friend.”

The tall executive twisted his long neck to look at TF. “Yeah, maybe you should...he looks a little down. I saw the old man trying to comfort him a moment ago. He must really be broken up about your mentor.”

As Double A left the table to reclaim her seat at the bar, she could hear the tall executive continue with his disquisition. “The way I understand it, many of these foreign yokels think our carbonated beverages are tonics...like ginger ale is a cure for malaria and root beer a remedy for snake bites or something.”

“A hundred years ago, didn’t we think of sodas as tonics too?” asked another voice at the table.

“That’s exactly my point,” said the tall executive. “They’re about a century behind us, so we’ve got at least a hundred more years of those growing markets to continue buying our products before they start switching to bottled water and fortified fruit drinks the way our domestic consumers have.”

Double A sat down on the stool next to TF. “Hey, I thought you were going to come join us. I noticed you talking with the old man...everything okay?”

“It seems I’m being made the head of my own client services department.”

“That’s wonderful!”

“At the Dearborn plant where they don’t actually have a client services department—at least not until I arrive.”

“Oh.”

TF grinned. “That’s funny, I had almost the same reaction...well, really more like: oh shit.”

“At least you’ll be able to make it your own.”

“That’s true, though I get the sense that I’m being set up for failure—either I make my assignment into a surprising success and impress some people to earn my seat at the table, or it turns into a predictable disappointment and I only manage to confirm some prevailing opinions, in which case they’ll send me packing.”

She placed her hand on his shoulder. “You can’t put that kind of pressure on yourself. It’s only your second day.”

“I hear you, but you don’t understand corporate culture the way I do. I grew up around these people...they make decisions and pass judgement in an instant, and it takes forever—if ever—to convince them that they’re wrong, even when they absolutely are.”

“So, what will you do?”

“Go.” TF took a sip of beer. “I don’t think I have much of a choice. It was phrased like an offer but given more like an order.”

“That’s too bad...I was looking forward to working with you for the next three or four decades.”

“Yeah, me too.”

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