Close to Home
Nathan’s email contained an all hands notice to attend a town hall in the cafeteria at 0800. He, along with 300 or so co-workers, filed like drones into the big, funky dining hall on the first deck and sat at long, penitentiary-style tables, chatting as they waited for Bobby to start the show and tell.
The division chiefs were seated on folding chairs atop a raised dais. They were mostly pale, middle-aged, somber-faced, gray-haired, casually attired, and slightly overweight. Top dog Bobby Bendix, a lunchtime jogger, was tall, lean, and fit, with the handsome, haughty face of a Ted Bundy.
Nathan wondered what this so-called town hall was all about. The agency had never had one before. The recently elected president may have started the town hall craze during the election, going from town to town to commune with average citizens and convince them he was the most caring candidate. Other candidates followed his example, and pretty soon Nathan was unable to turn on his TV without encountering one.
Now that the empathetic dude had been elected, his minions were imitating him, It seemed like they were using town halls to feign interest in workers but didn’t honestly give a shit; it was all public relations and keeping up appearances.
Nathan hated the agency, composed of paper pushers, bureaucrats, and managers for life, but at least he couldn’t get fired, as in private industry, where he had worked before. In that former life, he had grown weary of the recurrent layoffs. He had joined this den of mediocrity for job security.
“What the fuck’s this all about?” Doug said to Carl, who was seated beside him. Carl was Doug’s best and only friend in Human Resources. A former Marine, Carl always said what was on his mind.
“Bobby wants to impress everyone what a sweet dude he is,” Carl said.
“You don’t like him, Carl?”
Carl snorted. “Fuck, man. Do you?”
“I’m working in the shithole because of him.”
“It’s town hall, you can complain.”
“Maybe I will.”
“Don’t, man. You’ll piss him off. You can’t go no lower than the bottom deck on this ship of fools.”
Doug did not want to be there. It would be boring and painful having to listen to that asshole talk gibberish into the microphone for however long it took to exert his death grip on the workers. He would rather be roaming the Internet, doing social media, pornography, computer games, and whatnot.
He detested Bobby. Once, on an elevator, he had overheard him say to a division director, “Have you ever noticed how human resources departments are filled with losers?”
The memory stung, for two years ago, after losing his temper and spouting off to a manager, the manager complained to Bobby, who demoted Doug from programmer to trainer, and reassigned him to HR, where he worked in a cubicle in the basement, the refuse bin of the agency. It was filled with filing cabinets, outdated computers, a supply room, and cast off employees in cold storage because they didn’t fit in or were fuckups, insubordinate, lazy, or too stupid or smart for their own good. His new job was to man the computer help line and train computer incompetents how to use their computers.
“Oh-oh,” Carl said. “Bobby’s on his feet. . . now he’s walking to the mike . . . he’s about to tap on it. Shit, cover your ears, Yogi Bear.”
A tapping sound like an over amped snare drum at a deafening rock concert filled the hall, then silence, then the nasally voice of the supreme leader said, “Hello, guys. How is everyone?”
Mutterings from the audience followed by a few claps.
“You all look fine,” Bobby went on.
“I bet you’re all wondering why we’re having this town hall.” A long pause.
“Well, I’ll tell you why. It’s because it gives us a chance to bring you up to date on agency developments and allow you, our talented workforce, to share your thoughts on how to improve our workplace.”
A long pause.
“I’ll start by saying that the downsizing rumors are just that, rumors, so your jobs are safe, at least for the time being.”
“How long is that?” someone shouted.
“Who asked the question.” A pause.
“Please stand up.”
No one stood.
“Well, if whoever asked the question won’t identify themselves, I won’t respond.”
Someone whistled. Scattered clapping echoed throughout the hall.
Bobby turned to the seated division directors and they carried on a brief dialogue.
When the audience quieted, Bobby turned back to the mike. “Ahem. Moving on, in the next three months, contractors will be removing walls on floors six and seven to convert the private offices to open space with cubicles.”
“Cubicles suck,” someone shouted.
“Studies have shown that cubicles increase interactions among employees and enhance teamwork.”
“Distractions, not interactions,” someone yelled.
“The decision has been made,” Bobby said forcefully. He cleared his throat, and continued, “Moving on, Ryan Fox is a former FBI agent. He will be coming aboard next week as Security Officer. His office is located on the first floor, opposite mine. I encourage you to drop by, introduce yourself, and make him feel at home.”
Doug stood up and shouted, “Hey, Bobby. I got a question for you.”
Bobby looked at Doug. “What’s on your mind, Douglas?”
“When are you going to fix the climate control system in the HR spaces?”
“Is there a problem?”
“Yeah. It’s freezing down there in winter, and sweltry in summer.”
Bobby turned to Ellen Sparks, Doug’s supervisor. “Is there a problem with the climate down in your neck of the woods, Ellie?”
Bobby looked straight at Doug. “Sorry, Doug. Ellie doesn’t share your opinion.”
Doug said, “You should come on down there sometime, Bobby, find out for yourself.”
“Moving on . . .”
Doug remained standing.
“Was there something else, Douglas?”
“Yes, sir. We already got the federal cops. Why a security officer?”
“Ryan’s a special investigator, on temporary assignment. When he finishes it, he’ll leave.”
Doug flushed, feeling a sudden sense of panic, and sat down.
“Nice work, Dilbert” Carl said. “Now you’re in for it.”
Sitting there in the cafeteria, Doug felt an amalgam of emotions. Anger at Bobby’s dismissive response and his supervisor’s lie. Anxiety about that FBI guy Ryan. Fear because he and Carl had a money-making scam going. Carl ran the supply room. The scam was, instead of shipping all surplus property to a federal warehouse, he took the good stuff to Doug’s garage and they sold it on eBay and Craigslist.
Doug wondered if someone had caught on to their scam and the FBI was coming to investigate.
He felt like mentioning his theory to Carl, but had second thoughts.
Carl had said the scam was undetectable, but he was not the brightest guy.
The FBI always got the bad guys, and if they busted Carl, he would incriminate Doug as his accomplice. Stealing from the government was a federal crime. If convicted, Doug and Carl would spend hard time in Leavenworth.
“Get up, man,” Carl said.
“Huh?” Doug said.
“The revival’s over, man. Time to get back to the shithole.”
Doug got up, and looked around. The cafeteria was almost empty. They walked together toward the stairwell.
“What’s wrong with you?” Carl said.
“You were sitting there, like in a trance.”
“Got a lot on my mind these days, bro.”
Carl checked his watch. “Shit! It’s only eight forty-seven. It’s gonna be a long fuckin’ day.”