Another New Story
I woke up this morning with the last line of a story. All I had to do was write the rest…
Someday this might appear in another story collection.
Joseph was excited to be starting work at COPHKA headquarters. The company was famous for its forward-thinking products and processes. He put on the suit and tie he’d worn to the interview. He worried, briefly, that someone might notice the repetition—but put it out of his head. After all, it was his only suit so there was nothing he could do about it. After a few paychecks, he’d be able to buy another suit.
He showed up at the gate of the COPHKA campus, where a pleasant guard was expecting him. Together, they walked through gardened paths to the Human Resources department, chatting about what it was like, working at COPHKA. As the guard left, at the HR door, he turned and said, “make the most of your time here!”
Inside, he was greeted by another pleasant COPHKA employee. Joseph could see her name on the plastic card, suspended by a lanyard, that dangled pleasantly from her pretty neck.
“Good morning, Ruth!”
“Miss Moscowitz,” was her frosty answer.
“Oh, sorry,” he replied, somewhat chastened—‘though he wasn’t quite sure why.
Miss Moscowitz handed him a similar lanyard and card—this one bearing his name and likeness. “Please wear this at all times.”
“OK...” he answered, “...I was only trying to be pleasant, you know. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“If you do it again, I am required to send you to harassment training. It’s because people don’t know that they’re being offensive that we have harassment training.”
“Oh, I am sorry...”
“And don’t apologize so often, it makes you look uncertain—and COPHKA employees are supposed to radiate confidence.”
“You said I must wear this card at all times...”
“Yes. It works like an E-Z Pass. It will clock you in at the beginning of the day, and clock you out at the end.”
“I don’t understand. I’m a salaried employee, so why do my hours make any difference to the company?”
“It’s not what you think. Your personal card is a perk.”
“Let’s say you come into work a little early each day and leave a little later than five o’clock. That extra time will be calculated and added to your records. When you have accumulated enough hours, you’re entitled to take them as comp time.”
“That’s great. What else does this magic piece of plastic do?”
“Again, like E-Z Pass, it automatically opens any locked door that is connected with your job description. You don’t have to wave it, or touch to a sign-pad, you just walk through the door.”
“That’s cool. Anything else?”
“There’s lots more to it. Let me explain some of the other company perks. You’re entitled to an hour for lunch at our free cafeteria on the fourth floor. Your card pays for your meal. If you finish eating in only half an hour, the other half hour goes to your accumulated hours. If you’re a smoker, you’re entitled to two fifteen-minute smoking breaks. There’s a smoking lounge on each floor (they’re carefully vented to the outside, so non-smokers are never subjected to second-hand smoke).”
“What if I don’t smoke?”
“You’re still entitled to those fifteen-minute breaks. There’re coffee machines everywhere in the building, and the coffee is free. Again, if you don’t take the breaks, your comp time accumulates.”
“What about sick time, holidays, and vacations?”
“As a new employee. You may take up to five sick and/or personal days per year. If you wear your personal card—even when you’re not on campus—it can tell if you’re at home or at a doctor’s office and will calculate accordingly. After your first year, the number of sick and/or personal days per year increases to ten. Vacation time—other than comp time—is two weeks in your first year, gradually increasing to a full month at the end of your tenth year.”
“The card can do all that?”
“That and more. It’s a very smart little card.”
“Amazing.” He slips the lanyard over his head.
They fill out a few forms—emergency phone numbers, withholding, listing beneficiaries of their retirement plan, signing up for the company’s medical plan, etc. When they finish, Miss Moscowitz walks him up to his new office.
The office is small, as befits a new employee, but it has a window that overlooks the gardened campus, far below. The building is shaped like a star, so all the offices have windows. No COPHKA employees are forced to work in mind-deadening cubicles. Before Miss Moscowitz leaves him to settle in, she has one more piece of introductory material to share. “You know, you are not required to wear a suit to work. You can dress up—if that’s what you prefer—but business casual is the rule around here. We want you to be productive, not uncomfortable!”
“Thank you Ruth... Miss Moscowitz... You’ve been very helpful.”
“We try...” she turned and walked down the carpeted path to the elevators.
Joseph took a seat behind his new desk and scanned the room. It was barren of any personal items, but he’d soon take care of that. He turned on the screen of his computer and punched in his login information. The screen blinked once, then flashed the words, “Good morning, Joseph. Welcome to the COPHKA family!”
He noticed that the card dangling from his neck got in the way of his keyboard. He took it off and laid it on his desk. Lunchtime came around, without his noticing. When he did, he pulled the lanyard over his head and went downstairs. The room was practically empty. Everyone else had already eaten. He grabbed a tray and headed down the line to see what was on the day’s menu.
There wasn’t much.
He spotted a young man, dressed in kitchen whites, and asked him what food was still available. “Sorry, almost everything is 86, sold out. We do have a slice of ham and cheese quiche.”
“I’m Jewish,” Joseph answered—even though his plastic name tag made that obvious.
“The cost doesn’t matter, everything is free for you.”
Ignoring the implied ethnic slur, Joseph explained, “my religion forbids me from eating certain foods... and that quiche violates at least two of the biggest rules.”
“Oops...” the white-jacketed man answered, “sorry we’re out of everything else. Most people come in early when there are more choices available. Maybe tomorrow will be better...”
Joseph returned to his office, hungry. “At least,” he thought, “I’m already collecting comp time.” He walked over to the nearest coffee machine. Posted above it was a little sign, “if you take the last cup of coffee in the pot, make a new one for the next one of your colleagues.”
The pot held a quarter of an inch of stale coffee. Someone had left it to avoid having to make a new pot.
When he returned to his desk, there was a message on his screen. “Please see me at your earliest convenience.” It was from his new supervisor. “No doubt this is a little more introductory advice,” he thought.
He was right, but not in the way he thought.’
“Please sit down, Joseph.” The boss leaned forward, the tips of his fingers touching each other like the ribs of a little pink roof. “I’m wondering why you weren’t at work this morning.”
Confused Joseph stammers, “but I was; I was at my desk right up until I went down for lunch.”
“That’s not what our system says. According to our records, right after you signed on, you left, and didn’t come back until lunchtime.”
“That’s not true... I was in my office the whole time!”
“Wait a sec... were you wearing your name tag all morning?”
Joseph thought for a minute, before answering, “it was getting in the way of my typing, so I put it on my desk for a while.”
“That’s it! The card senses when you’re not wearing it... and reports you as absent. You have to wear it at all times.”
“But it’s so hard to work with it on...”
“I understand. Most people find other ways to wear them that make working easier. You can sling it around, so it hangs on your back. Or, you can slip the card into your shirt pocket, or under your jacket. The card uses RF... it can be read through cloth.”
“Sorry, I didn’t realize...”
“Don’t worry about it. There are probably lots of things, around here, that you’ll gradually learn. I called you in because I figured something like this might have happened. I didn't mean to frighten you.”
Joseph returned to his office, chastened for the second—or, perhaps, third time—on his first day on the job.
Over the next few days, just as his lunch was approaching, his boss walked into his office. Each time, he placed a thick packet of documents on Joseph’s desk. Each time, he apologized but explained that they needed to be dealt with, immediately. Each time, the extra work kept Joseph at his desk until mid-afternoon. Each time, the coffee pot—that he hoped would get him through his arduous duties—was mysteriously, but effectively, almost empty.
Joseph took to bringing snacks to work and ferreting them away in one of his desk drawers. It was not as good as a free lunch, downstairs, but at least he was building up a reserve of comp time. He remembered that Ruth Moscowitz had told him that all he had to do to take the time off was clear it with his manager. One afternoon—after completing the emergency task his boss had dropped on him, that day—Joseph mentioned that he would like to take the following Monday off.
The boss looked up from the departmental spreadsheet and said, “Of course, Joseph... you’ve earned it.” Joseph thanked him and headed for the door. “Oh crap... I just remembered that we have a big report that has to be done by Monday night, and we won’t have the data ‘til that morning. Sorry, Joseph, you’ll have to take that comp time another time.”
Without making eye contact with his employee, he returned to typing on his spreadsheet. He was pleased to see that all the meals that Joseph had not eaten meant significantly smaller charges to his departmental expenses. That neat little trick, of perfectly timing Joseph’s lunchtime duties, was going to make him look pretty damned good to his managers.
While a sullen Joseph plugged away at the meaningless report that made him come to work—when he should have been enjoying the end of a three-day weekend—a message flashed across his screen. Ruth Moscowitz needed to see him. “Jesus,” he thought, “what did I do now?”
Walking through the door of HR, he saw Ruth at her desk. She didn’t look angry. Or disappointed. Or bracing herself before having to give him bad news. She looked up and smiled.
He liked her smile. There was much about her that he liked—but he’d learned his lesson and didn’t act on any of it. “Am I in some kind of trouble... Miss Moscowitz?”
“No, no... not at all. And, if you like, you can call me ‘Ruth’... that is if you don’t mind me calling you ‘Joseph’ ...or “Joe,” if you prefer.
Joseph liked what he heard but was confused. “I thought I wasn’t supposed to take such liberties in the workplace. Joseph, not Joe.”
“When it’s consensual, on both sides, there’s no need to alert the harassment police.”
They both laughed.
“So... Ruth... why am I here today... if I’m not in trouble?”
“I wanted to tell you about another of the perks of working at COPHKA.”
Joseph felt as if he just stepped back half a step, if only in his mind. He had worked at COPHKA long enough to be a little suspicious of the company’s perks.
“And...?” He let the question hang in wary incompleteness.
“Have you heard about the company’s retreat in the mountains?”
“No...” still wary, but curious.
“It’s this lovely place, with a lake and guest cabins, and a huge lodge with a stone fireplace almost two stories tall. Most of the time, the company uses it to entertain important clients... and sometimes politicians who might be useful to the company. However, once a year, they invite all of the new employees up for a weekend. It’s meant to provide a chance for employees—who might not have run into each other, at work—to get to know each other. It’s both a reward for your service and a team-building opportunity.”
“Do I have to go?”
“It’s completely voluntary... but, having been there myself... I think you would be a fool not to take advantage of the chance to spend time there.”
“Are you going... Ruth?”
Seeing the bigger question hidden inside his simple question, she smiled sadly. “Not this time. This weekend is just for new employees. But maybe we could go, together, some other time?”
“I like the sound of that. How do I sign up for this event?”
“You just did. I’ll e-mail you with all the particulars.”
“Thanks, Ruth.” He liked using her name, again and again. He started for the door, but added, “I’ll be looking for it.”
COPHKA’s retreat sits in a bowl of the Sierras, its lodge of huge pine logs overlooks a glacial lake that is surrounded by lodgepole pines, Douglas firs, and the occasional Engelmann spruce. Fragrantly resinous smoke drifts from the lodge’s stone chimney.
Joseph is a reluctant participant in the team-building activities the company arranged for him but is gradually drawn into them. The place is so beautiful, and the mountain air so bracing, that it’s almost impossible for him to remain aloof. Hours fly by between the time when their bus arrived, and the sun begins to set across the lake.
He hears his stomach growling and wonders if his newly-met colleagues can hear it as well.
Somewhere an iron triangle is being beaten—signaling the dinner hour—and he follows the crowd of co-workers into the lodge. Monumentally tall logs, stripped of their bark support a ceiling two stories above the flagstone floor. Chandeliers made of wagon wheels float fifteen feet above several long rough-hewn tables.
He watches as a horde of hungry co-workers descends on the tables where servers, dressed as lumberjacks (lumberjacks whose flannel shirts were designed by Yves Saint Laurent), heap their plates with all sorts of comestible delights. Roast meats, pies—at once delicate and hearty—vegetables, plain and fancy, a gigantic trout, fresh from the lake, game birds, salads, and—at the far end—a dozen different desserts, each one more deliciously decadent than the last.
The crowd is a swirling, gob-stuffing mob, and Joseph stands back, slightly horrified.
However, he is still starving, so he pushes past his colleagues, some of whom balance two or even three plates that overflow with COPHKA largess. When he reaches the table, he is thrilled to see that—this time, at least—he is not too late.
He surveys the tables, still heaped with food, and begins to form a plan of attack. “Don’t be a fool and fill your plate with bread and salads,” he reasons, “even if they’re at the beginning of the line. Concentrate on the carving stations, and that gorgeous lake trout.” As an afterthought, he reminds himself to “save room for dessert”—or, more likely, desserts. Having worked out his dining strategy, he reaches for a plate and utensils.
He can’t find them.
“That’s odd,” he thinks. He asks the nearest lumberjack waiter, “excuse me... where do I get a plate?”
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m told that the kitchen has run out of plates.”
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Good work Gary, didn't see it coming.