Creating a pleasant, welcoming office environment always made sense to me—similar to how a foreign secretary might say, “That isn’t helpful,” rather than “Bite my country’s ass,” when addressing a frustrating adversary. But I’ve always been baffled by the desire of many of my office mates to turn working relationships into personal ones.
I rarely allowed personal ones to be, well, personal.
Alas, a willow must bend with the wind.
I only hesitated a second before opening the kitchen door, desperate for my second cup of morning salvation, to find Dennis and Marjorie huddled about the coffeemaker, their voices low and conspiratorial.
“. . . got a rose. I bet they did it. You could see it in her eyes when he stepped up,” Marge said.
“Come on, do you really think—” Dennis’s head snapped up faster than a zombie hearing a human in The Walking Dead, and with a frightening similarity in facial expression. “Oh, hey, Cooper.”
I gave him a coffee mug salute. “Good morning.”
The coffeemaker’s offensive line was well positioned, and I paused, my gaze darting between them.
Dennis squared his Sketchers and glared. Marge pretended to take a sip, but was only smothering a giggle. Her eyes clearly giggled. I wondered if that hurt.
“Need something?” asked Dennis, now a fourteen-year-old bully on our office playground.
Dennis was junior to me in every conceivable way. We started working for our monster hospital chain’s headquarters on the same day, and, after only three years, I already outranked him by several levels. I was two years older and a solid thirty pounds thicker. He was basically a walking toothpick with patchy, carroty facial hair and the complexion of a thirteen-year-old. Mind you, my hair’s waves flowed blond-brown with a dayglow of rouge. I hand no qualms with gingers in general, only this one in particular.
More important than any coiffure, he was mediocre at his job—on his best day. And not just a little mediocre. He excelled at his mediocrity in ways that made me wonder if he could actually be decent if he put as much effort into working rather than fiddling off all day. He was a professional-level fiddler. Charlie Daniels would be proud.
The whole whatever-it-was between us confounded me. I had only ever tried to help the man, but he continued to repay my assistance with folded arms and pursed lips.
Why was I so intimidated by him?
Yet there I stood, clutching a frustratingly empty mug like it was the bloody holy grail, my eyes flirting with his feet, then drifting up to his strumming fingers.
“I’d like some coffee. I’m thirsty and it’s really early and I need to wake up or I won’t perform well and we have a meeting with Raj and I’ve been working on these spreadsheets and reports for days but they all blend together in the mornings until I’ve had a second cup and coffee would really make me feel better, perhaps with some cream, and possibly Splenda, definitely Splenda. I need a lot of cream and more Splenda. All of that. I need it, really. Please step aside?”
I didn’t know why he made me so nervous, but I had the sudden urge I was about to pee. I really didn’t need to, but it felt that way, and I could almost do a pee-pee dance right there, but we were in the break room and that would’ve looked silly.
Then, I remembered to breathe.
Marge choked out a snicker that sounded like a cat coughing up a fur ball.
Dennis grinned, crossed his spindly arms, and raised one rusty brow. “Well, go ahead, Rain Man. We’re just chatting.”
Intellectually, I knew he meant the moniker as an insult, but I couldn’t help taking pride in the comparison to a character with such amazing recall, even if he may have had a shrimp problem. I mean, the shrimp thing was more endearing than troublesome. I could’ve lived with that. Then it hit me that that was the wrong movie and I was suddenly very uncomfortable with his name calling.
I glanced at Marge, who gave me her best he’s right, you know shrug without removing her mug from her upturned lips.
“Dennis, entering your personal space would be inappropriate. At the very least, it would be uncomfortable.”
“I hereby waive any HR action to which I might be entitled. Invade away.”
An awkward moment passed before Marge’s mug finally clanked against the countertop behind me.
“Come on, Coop. Get your coffee.” She stepped aside and tapped her single bedazzled fingernail against the machine. Dennis, never one for détente, remained a statue, forcing me to push my glasses back up my nose with my forefinger, as it was the only correct finger with which to upright one’s lenses, then reach around him with my mug and fiddle the buttons by memory.
The whole encounter forced me perilously deep into enemy territory.
I ducked my head to avoid getting near his face, but when he blew out a breath, humid air laden with Columbian Supreme and vanilla syrup battered my senses. We were so close I could even smell a hint of pot he’d likely smoked in the parking lot before clocking in, clinging to his shirt with its tiny five-fingered hands. That tangy, pungent scent made me think of a skunk, which made cartoon reruns of Pepé Le Pew race through my head, except it was Dennis’s head on the skunk’s body as it darted about, shooting pot poop out of its white-striped ass.
A giggle slipped out of my mouth and tumbled onto his shoulder.
“Hey—” He hopped away, banging his head into the fridge.
My giggle grew.
Pepé’s face morphed into Yosemite Sam as his fists balled and slammed into his hips in the universal teapot pose—or is that a sugar bowl, since both fists were planted?—eliciting another round of merriment from the peanut gallery, but thankfully not requiring additional conversation.
Before he could gather his wits, the machine huffed; I snatched my mug and fled to the relative safety of my cubicle.
“See you in the staff meeting in five. Hope you’re ready,” Dennis called out as the door swung shut behind me.
Great. Dennis was likely planning some sort of sneak attack in front of our team. I doubt they would take him seriously, but the back-and-forth rivalry between us that had somehow grown horns and teeth was wearing thin on our boss. The last thing I wanted was for a jealous child like Dennis to hold me back. I liked my job.
Every day reminded me of going to the dentist. No, not the icky stick of the needle or scraping of the teeth; the comfy, clean feeling you get as your tongue teases across freshly polished enamel that still tastes of bubblegum-flavored paste. God, what could be better? Perfectly clean, orderly teeth, everything as it should be and tasting . . . happy. Yeah, that’s the taste of bubblegum paste. Happy.
And that’s how my work made me feel, all bubblegummy.
Okay, maybe days in the office weren’t quite that Disneyesque, but I enjoyed the work.
“Cooper, are you ready? You’re up first.”
My boss’s face peered down from above the muddy fabric wall. Well, his nose and everything above it did. He wasn’t tall enough for anything else. The nostril cam was zoomed in tight, revealing nearly as many hairs as the bushy things crawling above his eyes.
“Uh, hi, Raj. Yes, I am pressing print—”
He’d vanished before I could finish my sentence.
I fast-walked to the printer. There were no pages in the bin, and an angry red light was blinking. I opened and closed every drawer and door I could find, but nothing appeared stuck, so I double-checked the paper feeder, then shut its drawer, stepped back and stared, as if assessing a stubborn rhinoceros at the zoo. I have no idea why the copier made me think it was a horny beast, but in that moment, it did.
I was officially late.
Raj would thank me for “joining the afternoon meeting” as I entered, then remind everyone about the importance of punctuality by regaling us with an ancient Indian legend about a beetle that couldn’t fly, or something equally obscure. It never made sense, but we all nodded like he was Yoda. Or a wise man who lived in a cave. Or a crazy one.
“Here, let me help you, hon.”
I turned from the beast to find Marge approaching. Without her wonder twin, she was actually a very nice lady, something of the office mom. She even had the mom bun, sort of like Princess Leia, except gray, and only the one positioned on top. Maybe it was more like a powdered-sugar-coated dough crown than a bun.
The dance with Dennis had ruined my chance to eat. I was hungry.
Three beeps, two opens and closes, and one hip slam later, the copier was purring like a rhino-sized kitten that’d eaten a tree and was now spewing legal-length sheets. Thankfully, those sheets contained my report rather than oversized cat puke, so rhino-kitty was alright by me.
“Thank you, Marjorie,” I said.
She smiled and patted my arm. “Anytime, sugar. You’re late, you know.”
I nodded and snatched my copies, then Usain Bolted my way down the cube aisle toward the conference room.
“Ah, good afternoon, Mr. Hawk.” Raj tapped his watch and frowned like a disappointed father who’d caught his son stealing Goobers at the drug store. “Don’t sit. We were about to skip you on the agenda, but since you decided to join us after all, you may as well give your report.”
My collar itched and my glasses slipped down my nose but my hands were full and there was nowhere to sit and Raj was staring at me while everyone else in the room stared and Dennis was grinning and all I wanted was to crawl under the mahogany slab and hide.
On the outside, I said, “Everyone, please take a copy and pass the rest. As you see in the executive summary at the top of page one, this month was strong. Gross revenues for our division rose by one point three percent, outpacing the zero point four percent growth in the same month, prior year. We were, however, three-tenths of a point below our all-time monthly record, so there is room for improvement . . .”
My portion of the meeting normally lasted twenty minutes. Dennis decided that wasn’t nearly enough stage time and peppered me with queries challenging my assumptions or questioning my math.
Thou shalt not question my math. Ever.
I hadn’t been named valedictorian of my graduating class at Gonzaga while double-majoring in statistical analysis and business management for nothing. Dennis was wading in a pool far too deep for his bony little arms to dog paddle out of.
I heard a metaphorical bell ring when Raj stepped in and called the bout. It hadn’t been close. Dennis’s scant reputation lay on the shining surface of the conference table, bloodied and barely breathing. I smothered a smile, not wanting to appear too much like a vanquishing hero, you know, with a sword held high and cape snapping in the breeze. Raj must’ve sensed my burgeoning pride, because his next words yanked the superhero cape right off my shoulders. “Thank you, Cooper. Excellent report, as usual, even if you wasted the team’s time with your tardiness.”
“Uh, thank you, sir, and sorry, again, sir,” I mumbled as I finally sat and stacked my remaining copies, straightening them with my fingertips before aligning my pen and pencil in the precise center of the page.
Raj timed the remaining reports and slammed his leather folio shut at precisely eleven o’clock. He nodded crisply to no one in particular, then rose and strode out of the room without so much as a, “You’re dismissed,” or “Good meeting, everyone,” or “I can’t take you people anymore. I’m leaving.”
I might’ve been projecting on that last one. The subconscious mind is a funny thing.
When I returned to my desk, the message light was blinking on my telephone. That was odd. No one ever called me at work—not even Raj. I was the guy everyone depended on for accurate reports, analysis, and recommendations based on statistical modeling and unbiased testing and assessment. I would like to think they respected the mental challenge and immense weight of my responsibility, but the truth was likely closer to something Dennis had once said:
“Everyone hates statistics, even nerds. You’re beyond weird.”
I might be fastidious, but I certainly was not weird.
One of my pens had rolled out of alignment with its brothers, and my fingers couldn’t fly fast enough to save it from embarrassment, nestling it back into blessed harmony while pressing the play button on my phone with my other hand.
“Hello,” the voice of a scrupulously professional-sounding woman drifted through the speaker. “I’m calling for Cooper Hawk. This is Bethany Sands at Whisker and Riley, attorneys at law.”
I snatched up the receiver and banged it painfully against my ear, then glanced around to see if anyone was near enough to have heard me receive a message from a law firm. I was a lone island in a sea of cubes, so I rewound and pressed play again.
“There is an important matter we need to discuss. I’ll be in the office all day, likely working late. Please call as soon as you get this message.”
Unexpected calls from lawyers were never good, right? They’re like going to the dentist, but without the bubblegum paste.
I scribbled the number she left, then stared at my realigned pens a moment before reluctantly dialing the woman’s number.