The atmosphere at work was thick and humming. The phone just hadn't been ringing as much lately, and this morning Manuela had been in a steady string of closed door meetings in her office.
“Danny, you know what's going on? It's like someone died.”
Danny just shrugged, his answer was subdued. “I dunno, Lane. Manuela's probably going to call a meeting, though. Guess we'll find out then.”
“Damn meetings. They never fix anything. No surprise this place is in the crapper. She'll probably have some team building exercise planned that amounts to our doing unpaid overtime.”
“Yeah, probably something like that. I'm going to go have a little team building exercise of my own on the toilet.”
Danny got up and walked away, but came right back to his desk. “Speak of the devil.”
Manuela rounded the corner.
“Going somewhere, Danny?”
“Just the restroom. What's up?”
“Well, if you can hold it, we need you in the conference room. We're having a meeting.” She paused a little when she looked at Jared. Her eyes had one of her funny, implacable expressions. Jared had sometimes wondered if his inability to read her expressions properly was because she was making them wrong, or if there was something wrong in his head. “I need you in there too, Jared.”
“We'll be there.” Danny answered for them both when Jared just nodded.
“Quelle surprise,” Jared heard himself quip once she had moved on to the next clump of desks.
If things had been uncomfortable out on the floor, they were downright unbearable in the conference room. A few people from the accounting department were already there and one of the managers, Jared could never remember their names and they hardly seemed distinct enough to warrant their own, sat at the front of the room with a briefcase on his lap. Sales staff were slowly filtering in. Nobody spoke; people meekly took their seats and waited until Manuela came in. Jared noted dreamily that some of the sales staff were missing.
“Alright, everybody. I'm sure some of you know what's happening, you've heard rumors, seen the signs. For the rest of you, times are hard. To stay competitive the company is making some deep cuts, just so we can keep the doors open and ride this out.
“Management has done a significant amount of streamlining and restructuring. I am deeply sorry to have to say it, but this means that all of your positions have been cut. You are all being laid off, effective immediately.”
Everything seemed to be moving slowly to Jared as the manager opened his briefcase and handed Manuela a stack of manila envelopes with painstaking care. People, former coworkers, stuttered out bizarre exclamations of shock and comically elongated blurts of horror, paeans of anguish and all Jared could do was blink stupidly. Each time his eyelids fell he felt it shake the earth and it was an age before they opened again, but time remained where it was, frozen in the sterile boardroom, until his eyes crashed closed again.
Details were explained about severance, and unemployment benefits, and one of the envelopes was shoved into his hands. The group was invited to retrieve their personal effects from their workspaces before they left.
Jared stood to go back to his desk but stopped himself. He couldn't think of a single thing in this office, a place he'd worked for years now, that he gave a fuck about taking with him. He searched the room for Danny, whose face bore a singular mix of amusement, shock and anger, nodded and walked out the door.
After he was out the front door he bumped into Manuela, who was trying to light a cigarette in the wind.
“Jesus, Jared. I'm sorry. This whole thing is so fucked up. I hate that I had to do this; they made me.”
“It's fine, Manuela. I mean, it's terrible, but times are hard, like you said.” He reached out woodenly to touch her shoulder. It didn't feel comforting to him, and probably didn't to her either. “I'm sure everyone knows you fought for their jobs. We'll bounce back, it's not your job to hold our hands.”
Manuela wiped a mascara smeared cheek and stopped him before he could turn away. “You could have been one of the ones who stayed, you know. I specifically tried to save your job, but your numbers have been low for months now. I don't know what happened to you, but you've checked out, Jared. You come in every day, but you're late, you're not working as hard, and you're not making sales. You're here, but you're not at the same time.” Her eyes strayed down to his rolled up sleeve and the smooth screen on his forearm and she recoiled a little.
“I know we were never that close, but I worry about you, man. You're leaving now and I don't know if you're going to be okay. I don't even know if you were okay to begin with.” She was standing very close to him, her eyes closed, tears running down, as she her lips reached for his.
“I can't do that, Manuela. I'm sorry.” He pulled away from her as gently as he could. “I am fine. I'll see you around, okay?”
“Wow. That's big news. Have you got a plan or anything?”
“No. I mean, it's just come out of nowhere, you know.”
“Well, crap. Do you know anywhere that's hiring?”
“No. I haven't even looked around yet. I'm not too worried about it, though. All in due time, you know?”
“Alright, well. I hate to be a hard-on about this, but, are you going to be okay for rent this month? I can't afford to pay your way, but I can get another room mate if you need to move out. I totally understand, man.”
“I don't know. I'll be getting unemployment, so I'm not too worried about it, but it's something to think about. I'll let you know as soon as I can.”
“Thanks, man. I'd appreciate that. I mean, I don't want you to go or anything, you're a good room mate, and you've hardly been around for months. It's been like I've got the place to myself. Anyway, I'd better get moving. Take it easy, dude.”
Jared sat alone on the couch, James' smoke settling around him. He laid down, clinging to the couch on either side. It didn't feel real. Nothing did. He closed his eyes and felt like he was floating, anchored to phantom cushions in a world of no consequence taking itself too seriously.
Jared looked at the last of the things on the table, an assortment of etched and painted shot-glasses he’d gathered while traveling a few years ago. “Atlantic City is Aces!” one proclaimed, while its cousin made the same assertion about Reno. He hadn’t even seen anyone looking at this crap. He carefully packed the last of it into a box and put them with the rest.
“How did you do?” Cecilia was carrying half of a funnel cake and a bag of flea market treasures.
“I made a little bit. Still have some stuff, though.”
“You want to come back tomorrow? You don’t have to get rid of everything, you know. My place is small, but I haven’t got much stuff.”
“Nah. I’m donating it. I’ve already made some calls, I’ll just leave it with James until they come pick it up.”
“Alright. Do you want to do anything for dinner?”
“Well, I need to drop this stuff off. Why don’t you go get something,” he fished some crumpled swap meet bills out of his pocket, “whatever you want, my treat, and I’ll meet you back at your place with the last of my stuff.”
She took the money and kissed him on the cheek. “Our place.” He watched her go, the marks from the implants visible on her thin, bird bone arms and all over her back through the thin fabric of her shirt. He wondered what she’d look like without them. Over time the strange becomes familiar, odd becomes normal. What happens to normal, though? What does it become? He couldn’t imagine her without the copper swirls, her back and chest smooth and naked.
“So you’re all packed up, huh?” James leaned his guitar against the wall and held the door open while Jared maneuvered his hand truck into the living room. “Wow, you really got rid of a lot of stuff. Anything good left?”
“Not really. They’re coming to pick this stuff up tomorrow. You can poke around in there and take anything you want.”
“Cool. Man, you’re really taking the whole moving thing seriously. Most people take a few things with them when they move.”
“Yeah. It feels like it’s time for a fresh start, though. Things change, people change, and when I look at this stuff, I just don’t feel like the guy who bought it anymore. Don’t see any reason to carry around someone else’s stuff.”
“That’s wild, man. I don’t know if that’s totally zen or totally depressing.”
“Why can’t it be both? I’m an enigma.”
“Sounds like. You just want to make sure, when you’re changing and becoming someone new, that you’re not leaving behind something you’ll need later, and that you like the way you’re going. Hey, I’m going to go get something to eat, do you and Cecilia want to come? I’m thinking Mexican.”
“Nah. We’ve already got plans. Thanks, though.”
“I figured. Have a good one, dude. Good luck and I’ll see you around.”
“Later.” After the door closed Jared stacked his boxes neatly in the corner and left behind the last of what he used to be.