Conference Room

Saturday, July 23, 2011

One of the overhead fluorescent lights alternately blinks and buzzes.

“As far as the chart shows we’re on target for the next fiscal year. But if we look deeper into those numbers we’ll see there’s a more important story here. Take a look at the third column. I circled a few rows in red. Understanding how these numbers interrelate will explain the discrepancy with the fiscal target.”

Ronald stares at the powerpoint slide. He does not look at the numbers but concentrates on its brightness. His eyeballs are dry and he fears that if he blinks too slowly his eyelids will get stuck. He didn’t sleep much the previous night or the night before that or, now that he thinks about it, the entire week, or is it a month already? He realizes it has been three months since his wife walked out on him. She needed to find herself, she told him. If ever there was a cliché that was it: to find oneself. She wasn’t lost. Ronald is lost.

The green wallpaper peels off the wall at the rate trees grow.

Ronald wonders what his wife is doing right at this moment. Whether she knows that he is thinking about what she’s doing. Ronald hopes that she is. That would show that she cared about him and was still considering returning after she finds whatever it is she is looking for. The thought cheers him for a moment before he realizes that he can’t know for sure whether she is thinking about him thinking about her at that very moment. But he does have a good feeling that she is. They were together a long time and he feels that time together brought some synchronicity to their thoughts. They are still in tune.

Ronald thinks of how she always liked music and could never understand why he didn’t. It wasn’t that he disliked music; it was that music wasn’t a centrally important part of his life. It provided good background and emotional landmarks for movies but as a standalone activity it didn’t do enough for him. When he listened he always found himself wanting to fast forward to the next song as if to say, sure, I got the point of this song, I feel the emotional impact they’re trying to create, let’s see what the next song has to offer. When he would tell her this, she would scoff and tell him he didn’t understand himself.

In the corner sits a plant with plastic leaves clacking in time to the blowing vent.

Esther scribbles notes from the presentation on her printout. She presses hard when she writes and barely avoids digging holes in the paper. She is a born scribe. She finds the essence of what presenters say and records it in meaningful fragments that interconnect—through the use of heavily pressed and labeled lines, stars filled with the emotional import of the words, and relationship bubbles, which she shades to provide a modest three-dimensional look—with the presenters’ themes and conclusions.

“So taking that into account we can see why the numbers at first blush look very bullish and positive, but when peeled beneath the surface, give off the stench of putrefying toes. Next slide. Let’s take a look at the graph of these same numbers compared to the last five fiscal years to provide context for those last rows.”

Esther thinks back to when she developed this skill at college during her introduction to economics class. Drawing ornate and beautifully illustrated notes made the class exciting in ways she never experienced during her unfocused career in school. Studying her notes brought a deep-seated clarity of thought that rose to the height of a true Platonic form.

“You’ll see that while the line for GM—that’s the dark green line on top—matches the historical trends; the line for CM does not. This is the problem I was talking about in the last slide. My projection—which I pulled together by working with the teams and burning the midnight oil reading through old financial statements—shows that the CM line falls precipitously. The dashed line provides my projected plotting of the next fiscal quarter. You’ll see by the end of the quarter, the GM begins to dip as well, two quarters below where we saw the first response to the new market dynamics.”

Cindy spins the pencil across her fingers and then back again: back and forth, faster and faster. She tries to keep it accelerating across her finger until she misses and the pencil slams on the table with a clatter. Nobody seems to notice. Cindy picks up the pencil and starts again, keeping track of the number of circuits the pencil makes across her fingers.

Red lights flash on the speakerphone.

“Let’s break down what’s happening during that quarter. Slide, please. The current revenues are still strong and the OPEX stays low. Under a normal quarter these numbers would mean a strong profit scenario and continued growth. Footnotes [a] and [b] touch on this. But I want to focus on footnote [c]. You can read it yourself. I’ll give you a moment.”

Ronald now hopes his wife was right about him. He has this fantasy where she returns to save him from his stark inner life. She is a fixer, a therapist by training, and always wants to put people back together. Looking back, Ronald should have appeared more broken. Just a little bit. He didn’t want to end up like her patients. He smiles as he remembers sitting in bed with her and discussing her patients. Ronald and his wife would laugh and laugh about the strange things her patients said. He did not want to become just another pillow story in her repertoire.

“Let’s step away from the numbers for a bit and really talk. What the footnote—no, what I’ve been trying to say, what it is I need to tell you and then maybe we’ll need to tell the board, well, what it is is that—”

Something catches on the projector’s fan and the fan lets out a low whirling cry before returning to its comforting rumble.

Thinking about her notes summons Esther’s embarrassing memory of not sharing the notes with her classmates even after they provided her with high-quality cassette recordings. It wasn’t until years later she found out that they did so in the hope of seeing her notes. Esther had never thought that anything she did was worth very much. She even had trouble handing in assignments because she did not want to waste her professor’s time with reading them. Her memories troubled her and she found herself repeating her therapist’s mantra: “I am a valuable person and what I do interests other people.” This mantra had served her well in her career. It turned out that her work colleagues wanted more than just her notes: they appreciated her ability to organize disparate thoughts and ideas into corporate tactics and strategies. This organization still started with perfectly shaded stars and bubbles.

“Before I get there, maybe I should try again. If we go back two slides you’ll understand how I’m getting to the conclusion which I hope is becoming evident even as I skirt around it—and I know I’m skirting now. This is not the easiest presentation I’ve ever given. I’ve only been working here three and a half weeks but I’ve double and triple checked my math and conclusions. Don’t think I just came in here and started to warn about the falling sky and didn’t check whether it was bolted in place. I’ve run the numbers until my pencils turned into nubs. I really have. Look here, this is the nub of my pencil.”

Chris looks around the table and tells himself to calm down. He was about to clap his hands in a childish, giddy display of delight. He settles for a small smile. He’s going to fire them. He’s going to fire each and every one of them. He tries to decide the ordering of the firings. He feels his smile grow wider and leans over the pile of papers on the conference table to hide it. He realizes his printout is upside down and turns it right side up. He circles a blank area of the title page. He needs to look busy, he tells himself. The rest of the zombies need to think he’s interested in what’s being said.

“I’m not shitting you.”

Not that his wife is perfect. Ronald knows she’s far from that. She is as fucked up as the rest of them. Ronald has this theory that mental health professionals go into their field because they are profoundly broken themselves. He would go to her parties and meet professionals who had a tendency to research mental illness that it was apparent to even Ronald—who was trained as an engineer and had never even taken an introductory course in psychology—that they shared the same symptoms as their research subjects.

Esther has six cats that don’t get along. She worries what becomes of them when she leaves her apartment. She maps her cats’ relationships in a social graph and rearranges it during the day to better explain the dynamics. She’s sketched it so many times that she doesn’t need to write it down. Just thinking about it brings up images of the graph. She moves the conflict line from Fred and Jill to Fred and Whiskers. Those two seem to be at it constantly every night. Esther represents the cats with outlines differentiated by size and coloring. Whiskers has a lot of lines coming from his circle to the other cats. Esther thinks Whiskers may need more attention. She jots that in her mental to do list, and then curses silently as she realizes that she missed what was just said at the meeting. She leaves a large space in her notes to fill in the details later.

“So getting back to the OPEX: the GM dips right here, and this is where our competitor—he who is not named in these walls, which I learned the hard way (although I still think that if you get over that fear and really focus on the nameless one, we wouldn’t be in this situation). This is where our OPEX growth begins to greatly impact our reduced revenues. This is not an imaginary point or one that’s many years off. This is a very conservative projection on both sides of growth. This directly impacts the bottom line. Things will go from bad to worse after that next quarter.”

Ronald’s chair squeaks each time he shifts weight.

The pencil continues to fly across the back of Cindy’s hand. She finds herself in a groove and decides to go for the record. She watches the clock and waits until the second hand hits the twelve before beginning her count. One . . . two . . . three . . . . She is at a count of twenty five when the second hand crosses the three. She runs the math in her head: twenty five revolutions in fifteen seconds, or one quarter of sixty seconds. If she multiples twenty five by four she ends up at an even one hundred revolutions per minute. Good but not record setting. She puts the pencil down and cracks her fingers. She checks the pencil for splinters or bumps that may slow her down during her next attempt at her record.

A year before Chris’s father passed away quite suddenly in his sleep from overexertion. That’s at least what the doctors said. Chris knows better. His father liked alcohol and he liked pills. He was indiscriminate about the type of pills but particular about the quality of alcohol. Chris was surprised it had taken as long as it had for him to find a combination that turned out to be deadly. Things seem to have gone from bad to worse at the business since that time. Chris could blame himself but he quickly banishes that thought. The company still offers him some small joys, and that starts with offing the people around this table.

Everyone breathing in at the same instant produces a strange whooshing sound.

“I don’t know how else to say this. If this trend continues and we go without altering course now—and I know changing course in a large and successful company like this one is not an easy task. Trust me, I’m not saying this news or recommendation is easy to take. If we don’t do something the company will be bankrupt within the year.”

Ronald tries to focus on the presentation but he keeps seeing his wife’s face everywhere. He tells himself to hold it together. He can’t break down. There is plenty of time to cry later. He feels the familiar sharp buildup of mucus in his sinuses that warn that he’s about to have a huge cry. He closes his eyes and focuses on controlling his emotions. He refuses to break down for that bitch. She left him and he is in the right. He is the stronger person. He’s going to get out there and meet a more beautiful and intelligent woman with an incredible body (specifically one that lacks his wife’s huge and Jello-like thighs), and he’ll be on a date with this bombshell and run into his wife at the movie theater where she is dating the patient that she left him for (oh, she may think it is a secret, but Ronald knows too well that his wife has been seeing her borderline patient, Mr. Henry Chandler, a six foot five, mustached digital cowboy with arms of steal and a posture that lampposts find intimidating). And he will barely acknowledge her jealousy as they greet and Ronald introduces his bombshell to his wife and her then-boyfriend, who will begin to have second thoughts about dating Ronald’s wife since he’ll see that if even Ronald, an engineer with wrists too skinny to hold a watch, can date a bombshell like he wears on his arm, then why should Mr. Henry Chandler, a gift to all woman, settle for a woman with such large thighs? And then when his wife is at that dark, cold intersection of rejection and loneliness, when all hope in her life has receded, then, just maybe, Ronald will swoop in, leave his bombshell, and reclaim his wife, who will be eternally grateful to Ronald for saving her from despair, and promise over all things she holds holy (which, in her New-Age-fad-chasing ways, changes week over week), never, ever, ever again to even think of leaving Ronald, even if, they will both acknowledge, Ronald is far from the perfect man in any dictionary definition of that word.

Chris studies each person to jot down the ordering. If he took into account performance like his father he would start with Cindy. Lucky for Cindy, Chris’s father is dead, dead, dead. Chris imagines his management style as sophisticated narcissism. He spent too many years floating by university not to recognize what he truly is. The thing is, Chris once again tells himself, he does not care. Cindy has luscious breasts and strong teeth, and is a wizard with that spinning pencil game she plays across her perfectly manicured fingers. He puts her at the bottom of his mental list. Maybe she’ll help him with the firings. He can always find a place for a person like Cindy at his next venture after he closes shop.

The clock is stopped at 2:53.

“I’m not much of an inspirational speaker (I’m more of a numbers and potatoes guy), but I want you to know that I’m saying this from deep within my heart: In the few weeks since I joined, I realized just how amazing this place is to work. That’s why this presentation has been so difficult. I really do—deep, deep down—hope we turn this ship to avoid the rocky shoreline. These numbers are scary but together we can implement a strategy to avoid them and set a course for continued revenue growth and expansion. We can only do this together. Thank you.”

Ronald tells himself to breathe. His eyes are filled with tears and everything looks blurry. He can’t stop thinking about his wife. He looks around the table and sees only wavy colors.

Chris feels only contempt for the presenter. He tries to remember his name but it eludes him. His father hired him before he died. Chris adjusts his firing list to put him on top. Some people need to learn when not to talk so much.