“There's nothing like eavesdropping to show you that the world outside your head is different from the world inside your head.”
My name is Frank Joseph. What follows is the story of what happened when I eavesdropped on a conversation at work one day.
I was a purchasing agent at a company called Thomas-Smithfield Electronics.
Yes, a humble purchasing agent. I spent most of my day in a cubicle, hunched over a computer, often with a phone in my ear. I attended meetings. I did my best to finesse the intricacies of corporate politics.
A typical boring desk job, you might say.
Well, that typical boring job almost got me killed. Or to be more precise, what I overheard one day at work almost got me killed.
Before I tell you what happened, let’s talk a little bit about eavesdroppers and eavesdropping, shall we? We all claim to look down on those who eavesdrop.
And yet, we all do it. Be honest—if not with me, at least with yourself.
This is especially true in office settings. The cubicle farm that has become the fixture of modern corporate life encourages eavesdropping.
Sometimes you simply can’t help but listen in on a discussion that doesn't concern you. (This is largely because, corporate politics being what they are, any given discussion very well might concern you—or it might even be someone talking explicitly about you.)
Of course, many of the conversations we overhear in passing, both intentionally and unintentionally, are indeed inconsequential: People talk about their weekend plans, their preferences in food and entertainment, a fight with a spouse or a significant other. People talk to pass the time, especially at work.
Most of this stuff simply floats in one ear and out the other, forming the white noise of the modern workplace.
But every once in a great while, you overhear something that really does change your life. Sometimes people reveal the darkest of intentions when they think no one is listening.
And that’s what happened to me.
Donnie Brady and I were both standing before the mirror in the men’s room on the third floor of the Thomas-Smithfield Electronics headquarters building. I was doing my best to ignore his presence, but I knew that he wasn't going to let me off that easy.
“So,” he began, “All that sucking up you’ve been doing has finally paid off.”
Donnie was about my age, give or take a year or two. We were both in our early thirties. The main difference between us was our relative sizes. I was five-ten and weighed maybe a hundred and sixty pounds soaking wet. Donnie was six feet, three inches tall. His frequent gym workouts were apparent even beneath the white fabric of his button-down oxford shirt. He usually left the top button of his shirt unbuttoned and worse his tie loose. His neck was that thick.
“I’ll take that as a congratulations on my promotion,” I replied. Truth be told, Donnie Brady made me more than a little uneasy—even before everything happened. He had always given off the aura of a hoodlum in business attire. But I wasn't going to back down; I was determined not to let him rattle my cage.
Donnie noisily expelled a puff of air out through his lips, a universal expression of sarcasm.
“More like you’re just a big suck-up,” he said. He stopped checking his hair (although he was often disheveled, he was simultaneously vain about his appearance), and took a step closer to me.
Donnie now towered over me, and I couldn't ignore the disparities in our heights, sizes, and physical strengths. I had thought that concerns about bullies were twenty years behind me, in the distant memories of junior high. Well, you just never know what aspects of childhood are going to come back to bite you in early middle age, do you?
I was still determined to hold my ground. “If you’ve got a problem with it, Donnie, talk to Sid Harper. Or talk to HR if you want to. Hell, I don’t care. You’d think I’d been promoted to president of the company. It’s a grade promotion. That’s all.”
Donnie was miffed because I had recently been promoted to senior buyer. This was, as I’d reminded him, a very low-key grade promotion. But it came with a modest bump in pay, and eventually it might mean a marginal level of authority. The promotion had been decided immediately prior to the company’s Christmas/year-end break; and it had gone into effect a week ago, the first week of the new year.
I won't lie: I was more than a little happy to get the promotion. It was a small bright spot in what had otherwise been a depressing phase of my life. I had been downsized (or “right-sized”, or whatever they call it) out of my last job two years ago, about the time that my marriage had imploded. I was now living in Cincinnati, Ohio, and my ex-wife and daughter were living an hour away, in Dayton.
Thomas-Smithfield was a snake pit of a company in many ways. There had been a series of upper-management shakeups; and the average employee didn't seem to be particularly happy. Well, I guess they call it “work” for a reason, right? Since joining the company barely a year ago, I had done my best to buckle down and work hard. Sid Harper, the manager over our purchasing group, had recognized and acknowledged my efforts. The grade promotion had been his idea.
“You haven't been here as long as either Bethany or me,” Donnie said. “And you’re the one that gets the grade promotion. Explain to me how that happens.”
I was going to tell Donnie that it might have something to do with all the time he spent checking ESPN and NFL.com on the Internet. Or maybe it was all the time that he and Bethany spent sneaking around, making out and fooling around in one of their cars during work hours.
But mentioning those things might be going a bridge too far. I didn't want to escalate matters. I wasn't actively afraid of Donnie. But I avoided being alone with him when I could. I didn't know if he was capable of real violence. But I knew, even then, that he wouldn't be above keying the side of my vehicle in the company parking lot.
“Like I said,” I told him, “I don’t decide who gets promoted. You got a problem with it, talk to HR or Sid.”
I turned to leave the men’s room. Donnie turned around, too. He stepped ahead of me, and cut me off, blocking my path to the exit.
“Maybe I’ve got a problem with you,” he said, throwing down the gauntlet.
“I’ve got work to do,” I muttered. I brushed by him. It was then that I got a full sense of his height and strength. He didn't yield at all, and I had to squeeze myself between him and the wall.
But at least I didn't back down. I passed through the swinging restroom door and stepped out into the main office area, relieved to find that Donnie hadn't followed me, at least.
I know what you’re thinking: Why didn't I go to HR about Donnie? Thomas-Smithfield, like every company in the litigious twenty-first century, had a lengthy and explicit set of policies that forbade all forms of bullying and harassment, or “hostile work environment”, in human resources parlance.
The simple truth was that I didn't want to be wuss. My manhood had already been challenged by my unwanted divorce, and I wasn't going to let Donnie Brady humiliate me further—even if it meant getting my ass kicked one day in the parking lot after work.
How far was Donnie Brady prepared to go? I had no idea then. But I would soon find out.
I started back toward my desk. (As I had told Donnie, I really did have work to do.) The third floor of the building—like the rest of the Thomas-Smithfield headquarters building—was arranged in an “open office” configuration, which, I believe, had been originally popularized by Japanese companies. Or maybe it was based on the older American concept of the “bullpen”; I’m not too sure. In any case, the office was set up so that the average employee had minimal privacy.
Each person had a desk, surrounded by low cubicle walls, which never blocked either the view or the sounds of one’s colleagues. The managers had offices, of course, but they were in a different league.
The entire third floor was allocated to the company’s purchasing department, and we were subdivided into groups and sub-groups, based on the suppliers we handled. Donnie Brady, Bethany Cox, and I formed a sub-group. Needless to say, I was the odd man out.
We also had an administrative person, or admin, assigned to our subgroup. Our admin’s name was Ellen Watson. She was about ten years older than Donnie, Bethany, and me. So far as I knew, she had never been married.
Ellen was something of an island to herself; but I sensed that in the ongoing cold war between the Donnie/Bethany alliance and me, Ellen marginally sided with the other two. I was the newcomer, after all; and besides, Donnie and Bethany formed a slim majority.
When I returned to my desk, Ellen was the only person present. Donnie still hadn't returned from the men’s room. I suspected that he was outside the building, smoking a cigarette—a bad habit that he somehow reconciled with his weightlifting. Or maybe he was off somewhere again with Bethany.
“Hello, Ellen,” I said, as sunnily as possible. She looked up briefly and nodded at me without speaking or smiling. The bare minimum, just short of outright rudeness. Oh, well, I thought. It can’t hurt to try.
I knew all too well how I felt about Donnie and Bethany; but I wasn't quite sure how to assess Ellen. Maybe she actively disliked me, and maybe her manner could be attributed to middle-age weariness and apathy. Her life probably wasn't very exciting. She was by no means a wholly unattractive woman. But like many middle-age people—both men and women—she had allowed herself to put on excess weight, and she had acquired the blank, slouching appearance of the permanently disappointed and defeated. I realized that such a fate might await me, too, if I wasn't careful.
I was seated and just getting back to work, examining a recent supplier quote on my computer screen, when Bethany Cox returned, sans Donnie.
Bethany was a year or two younger than Donnie and me, perhaps twenty-nine or thirty. She had dark red hair, a good figure, and an expression that seemed to shout “take me now and use me hard”—if you were a guy like Donnie Brady, that is. For me she had nothing but disdain. She wore a form-fitting black sweater, the sleeves rolled up, and a black leather skirt. The outfit was impossible not to notice, if you were a heterosexual man, that is. At the very least, her attire was a marginal violation of the company’s dress code—not that I was going to say anything, mind you.
She sat down in the desk across from me. As always, I resisted the urge to check her out. But I did look up at her and nod. She gave me a supercilious smirk in return. Oh well. I noticed the tattoos on her forearms and sternum, as I often did.
In case it isn't clear yet, I was conflicted about Bethany Cox. She captured my imagination, even as she was an opposing factor in the little war within our purchasing subgroup. And as I’ve mentioned, Bethany was very “noticeable”, from a male point-of-view.
I was also in starvation mode. Since my separation and divorce, I had had little in the way of either dating or sex. (The two do not always go together, I’d discovered long ago.)
Six years ago, I’d thought that “dating” was something that I’d never have to worry about again. I’d believed that my ex-wife, Claire, was my exact fit, and vice versa. Then Olivia was born, and things had been even better. I’d had a happy home life and a great job in Dayton with a company that I’d liked a whole lot better than Thomas-Smithfield. I’d believed that my entire happy state of affairs was going to endure forever, more or less. What the hell had I known?
So mostly I had been focused, of late, on getting my life back together. But I supposed, even then, that “getting my life back together” ought to include something in the relationship department. My ex-wife, Claire, had certainly been moving on.
“So,” Bethany said, abruptly. “I heard you’ve been sucking up.”
There had been no formal announcement of my grade promotion, but the word had trickled out, in dribs and drabs. Donnie and Bethany weren't the only coworkers who had heard; but most were a bit more supportive—or at the very least, neutral.
Bethany was waiting for me to respond. Once again, I wanted to say something like, No, I’ve just been working while you’ve been sneaking off with Donnie. But I held my tongue.
Well, I didn't completely hold my tongue. “I’ll take that as a congratulations,” I said, “Thank you.”
She had no comeback for that. She had been hoping to get a rise out of me, and her efforts had fallen flat. Maybe I was learning how to deal with Donnie and Bethany, after all.
I was finally getting back to work when I felt a hand clap my shoulder. My first thought was Donnie. (He had still not returned from whatever excursion he had gone on after our sort-of confrontation in the men's room.)
I turned around, looked up, and saw Sid Harper instead.
As I've said, Sid was the manager over our group. (Sid, in fact, was one of the senior managers in the entire purchasing department.)
Somewhere back in the last century, there developed a stereotype of what the corporate senior manager should be. I can say without exaggerating too much that Sid Harper fit this description.
In his late forties or early fifties, Sid Harper was tall and broad shouldered, with the trim build of an ex-athlete. Most women, including women decades younger than him, would have described him as handsome. He had that perfect square chin of the classical heroic figure. There were small traces of gray around the sideburns of his black hair, which had not yet begun to thin.
Now, if you think that I was jealous of Sid Harper, you'd be wrong. Yes, I was indeed in awe of him, to a certain degree. But more than that, I was immensely grateful for what he had done for me. Sid had taken an interest in me early on, perhaps recognizing that I was determined to make the most of my job at Thomas-Smithfield. He had encouraged me and helped me along where he could.
And, of course, Sid had been responsible for my recent grade promotion—the promotion that had driven Donnie and Bethany so batty with jealousy.
“Got a few minutes to talk?” he asked me. “I’d like to go over the McDonnell bid. If you can spare the time, that is.”
If I could spare the time. Sid wasn't being disingenuous in his solicitousness. He really was the sort of manager who liked to show due respect toward his subordinates, within reason. There was no question about who was boss; but Sid wasn't the kind of manager who threw his weight around gratuitously. Or so I thought at the time.
“Sure thing,” I said. I had already begun to gather the materials related to the McDonnell bid from the surface of my desk.
I should probably take a moment now to tell you a bit more about Thomas-Smithfield Electronics. The company made electronic subassemblies for the automotive, factory automation, aviation, and consumer electronics sectors. Our customers and suppliers were located all over the world, and big money was involved in practically everything the company did. I regularly issued purchase orders for hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars.
“Tell you what,” Sid said as I was standing, “Let’s go over to the tables. This might take a few minutes.”
“The tables” were a set of small, round tables in a common meeting area in the middle of the third floor. If you said “the tables” everyone knew what you meant.
There were lots of meetings at Thomas-Smithfield, as I suppose there are at every large company. For confidential matters, there were meeting rooms. But this was a relatively bread-and-butter conversation about a supplier quote. We could talk in the open area.
I walked away with Sid, Bethany’s eyes boring into my back, no doubt. Donnie had still not returned.
It was something of a big deal to be seen walking with Sid Harper. As we proceeded toward the tables, I noticed more than one purchasing agent look up from his or her desk, do a double take, and look down again.
To begin with, Sid attracted a lot of attention. Everyone wanted to be his protege, or to be noticed by him. I suppose some of the managers were envious of Sid. I knew that there were managerial factions throughout the company; and I figured that Sid would have had rivals and enemies, no different from the rest of them. But those conflicts were above my concern and beyond my pay grade. The peons all competed for his attention.
And he had taken a special interest in me—in my career at Thomas-Smithfield. Or at least it seemed that way.
When we arrived at the tables, we sat down at one of them and went to work. Sid was a busy man, and so I took pains—as I always did—to be thorough yet concise in my explanation. I recapped the basics of the McDonnell bid for him, and answered the two or three questions that he had.
“Good work here,” Sid said when we were done. I resisted the urge to smile. But I had done a good job, and I was grateful that once again, Sid was taking notice.
It wouldn't be too far-fetched to say that I regarded Sid Harper as something of a surrogate father, though I was too hard-boiled to admit that to anyone, perhaps even to myself. My parents had divorced when I was very young. It was all quite civilized, and I didn't have a traumatic childhood; but I was constantly shuffled about as my parents remarried and created new, blended families. I had half-siblings from both of them. I still saw either Mom or Dad most Christmases and Thanksgivings, but we weren't close.
“All right,” Sid said. He reached toward his pocket, where I could hear his cell phone chiming. “I think we’re done. Thank you.”
I was walking back to my desk when I felt my own cell phone vibrating in my pocket. It was the distinctive vibration pattern that I had set for the number of my ex-wife, Claire.
I didn't answer Claire’s call in the middle of the purchasing office space, where I couldn't talk freely. The call went to voicemail. But as was typical of my ex-wife, Claire didn't leave a message.
I could have—maybe I should have—waited until later to return the call. But Claire had called me less and less since our divorce, to the point where a call from her was now a minor event.
As a father, of course, my first thought was: an emergency related to our daughter. But if there had been something wrong with Olivia, I felt sure that Clair would have left a message.
It was something else.
Why didn't I wait to call her back? Maybe because there was some part of me that was still holding out hope of an eventual reconciliation. It wasn't impossible, right?
Wrong, I was kidding myself. It was impossible.
Nevertheless, I knew that I wouldn't be able to concentrate on work-related matters until I called her back.
I didn't want to have a potentially sensitive conversation with my ex-wife back at my desk. Bethany, Donnie, and Ellen might overhear me. Anything they overheard, they readily would use against me. I hated the thought of making myself even more vulnerable to my dysfunctional, scheming coworkers.
I therefore made a U-turn, and headed for the elevators instead.
I pushed the button for the fifth floor. This was the top level of the headquarters building. It wasn't exactly deserted; but the fifth floor was the least populated of all.
Once on the fifth floor, I walked to an area near the restrooms, by the window. This was probably the most private location inside the entire building.
I faced a window that looked out on the adjacent interstate highway, the I-275 loop that encircled the entire Cincinnati metro area. There were low gray clouds and snow on the ground from a recent accumulation of three inches. A typical Ohio landscape in January.
I pulled my cell phone from my pocket and pushed the button for Claire’s number. Claire answered on the second ring.
“Hey, Frank,” Claire said.
“Hey, Claire,” I said. “You called.”
I had lived with Claire for three years. Now, however, I often myself standoffish and tongue-tied when I communicated with her. Weird.
She proceeded to run through some routine talk about our four-year-old daughter. Olivia was enrolled in a Montessori program in Dayton. Olivia was doing great, she told me. Her teachers said that she was already reading at a first grade level.
I was happy to hear that, needless to say. But my suspicions were aroused. Claire hadn't called me to give me an update on our daughter’s education. She had another purpose in mind.
Finally she came to the crux of the matter. Ryan—the man whom Claire had been dating for the better part of a year—was talking about moving in.
With my ex-wife. And with my daughter.
I had been aware of Ryan. Claire had met Ryan through work. When pictures of her and Ryan started to appear with increasing frequency on Claire’s Facebook profile, I should have known that things were getting serious. Instead, I had chosen to believe that Ryan was just a fling, a phase that she would grow out of.
I had been in denial, obviously.
"Well," I interjected, "if you're looking for me to give my approval, you don't have it."
"Frank," Claire said icily, "I don't need your approval. "We're not married anymore."
Did she have to remind me of that? Remind us both?
"Maybe so," I allowed. "You're forgetting something, though. I may not be your husband anymore, but I'm still Olivia's father. I don't want her living under the same roof with some fly-by-night character who could be capable of anything."
I could hear Claire suck in her breath on the other end of the call. My implied accusation, vague though it was, had certainly hit below the belt.
Well, that had been my intention. I was in no mood to be big about this.
"Frank, I've been dating Ryan for a year. He has a good job at my company. If you're really that concerned, you could do a background check on him. But I assure you, you won't come up with anything."
She had called my bluff, hadn't she?
"I still don't approve. Olivia is my daughter."
"Frank, divorced people with kids get remarried all the time. Their exes don't have veto power. That's not the way this works."
"You're not talking about getting married," I said. "You're talking about shacking up."
I realized that I was being petty and preachy now. Not to mention hypocritical. Claire and I had lived together the year before our wedding. Her parents, traditional Catholics, had objected. I had prevailed on them, citing the relaxed, more liberal mores of the twenty-first century.
"I'm letting you know in advance as a courtesy," Claire said. "But the bottom line is that you don't have any say in the matter."
"We'll see about that," I said. I was attempting to be cryptic, but I probably sounded desperate. She was right. Barring some glaring skeleton in Ryan's past, there was really nothing I could do.
And I wasn't going to hold out hope on that possibility. I knew my ex-wife, and she had probably run a background check on Ryan early in their courtship. She was the one who had just now thought of the background check, after all.
Following that unpleasant matter, we exchanged a few more details about my next court-scheduled visit with Olivia. The conversation returned to a less confrontational tone, but the chasm between us had been widened a bit more.
I was relieved to end the call, lest any more damage be done.
When I boarded the elevator to ride back down to the third floor, I happened to run into the only woman at Thomas-Smithfield Electronics who had seriously caught my notice. (Well, I guess you could say that Bethany Cox had caught my notice, too, though not in a particularly positive way.)
I thought of her as “the Brown-Eyed Girl”.
Why that? Perhaps you’ve heard that Van Morrison song from the late 1960s, in which the singer rhapsodizes about the eponymous girl with brown eyes.
This brown-eyed girl was a woman, of course, my age, more or less. She had shoulder-length chestnut hair. Even though she wore glasses, I could see that she had the most lovely brown eyes.
I had seen her throughout the building, usually carrying a stack of manila folders or a handful of papers. I didn't know how long she had been with the company, but I had first noticed her about a month ago.
Speaking of Bethany: the brown-eyed girl was the opposite of Bethany. Not only did she dress more conservatively than Bethany, but she was also far more demure. Almost timid, in fact.
I had nothing against the shy types, of course. The only problem was that I was rather on the shy side myself. And as I’ve said, I was out of practice at meeting women, let alone asking them out.
But I was determined to meet her.
When I stepped aboard the elevator on the fifth floor, the Brown-Eyed Girl had already beaten me there. She was clutching a small stack of folders to her chest, and she was staring down at the floor of the elevator. I knew a little about body language; and I could ascertain that this stance didn't exactly project openness.
“Good morning,” I said. That was the only thing I could think of to say that wasn't totally lame or cheesy.
She looked up.
“Which floor?” I asked her.
“The fourth.” I could see that the button for the fourth floor was already lit up, indicating that she’d already pressed it.
I pressed the button for the third floor.
Just my luck. She was only riding the elevator one level down. I had less than a minute to think of a conservational gambit.
Before I could think of anything to talk about, the elevator reached the fourth floor.
“Have a nice day,” I said as she exited. I could think of nothing else to say.
She turned on her way out of the elevator. I saw a hint of smile, a break in the ice.
The elevator closed behind her.
Or maybe it hadn't been a break in the ice. The Brown-Eyed Girl had been acting out of common courtesy, nothing more.
Our conversation (if you could call it that) hadn't amounted to much. But I supposed that it had been better than not talking to her at all. The Brown-Eyed Girl was going to take time—assuming, that is, that there was any hope at all.
The elevator landed on the third floor. Time to get back to work. I wondered if Donnie had returned from his smoke break yet, and if he would still be spoiling for a fight.
When I made it back to my desk, the first thing I noticed was that neither Donnie nor Bethany was present. Nothing unusual there. Probably Donnie had come back while I was away, and Bethany had gone away with him again.
Ellen Watson was at her desk, typing away on her keyboard. She gave me a sullen look as I walked by her. I merely nodded this time. I had tried to play friendly with her earlier in the morning and I had gotten nothing for my efforts.
On the rebound from my unpleasant conversation with Claire, I had grasped at straws with the Brown-Eyed Girl, over-interpreting simple workplace politeness as real interest on her side. This highlighted how barren my personal life had become. The day was still young and I was already in a bleak mood.
At least I still had my job, though, and that was going well, much to the chagrin of Donnie and Bethany.
I sat down and started to work. I first checked my email: My Lotus Notes inbox was full of new messages from my supplier contacts.
About fifteen minutes later I was absorbed in my tasks when I heard Donnie and Bethany return. I had no idea where they had been, and at that moment I could have cared less. The only reason I looked up at all was because they were talking louder than they should have. Not bothering to be discreet, they snuggled against each other as they walked. They were making no effort to be quiet as they exchanged their usual banter.
The office space of the Thomas-Smithfield Electronics headquarters building was almost never library-quiet. The open floor configuration meant that there was a constant background buzz of phones going off and people talking.
Nevertheless, it was consider impolite to carry on at a volume that would disturb others, especially if you weren't talking about a business-related matter, as Donnie and Bethany clearly weren’t.
They saw me looking at them and they both stopped short of their desks, looking at me now.
“What are you looking at?” Donnie challenged me. Clearly, he was still spoiling for a fight.
“Not much,” I said. I wondered if he would catch the double entendre there.
The subtle barb went over his head. “You were listening to our conversation,” he shot back. Bethany nodded in agreement with Donnie, and nudged herself even closer to him. Where had the company found these two? Why had they even been hired in the first place?
“No, I wasn’t,” I said. “And if I’d wanted to listen to the two of you, it wouldn't have taken much effort, would it? The two of you have been yammering like you’re on a stage.”
“You son-of-a—” Donnie said. He stepped around his desk and stood before me. Lunging distance. I was still seated, but I wondered if I should stand up, too. This sort of thing wasn't supposed to happen in a corporate workplace, of course. But what should you do when it actually did occur?
Plus, there was the not-insignificant fact that if it came to a physical confrontation, Donnie Brady would have easily pounded the crap out of me. But given my current mood, half of me was ready to go down fighting.
I resisted the urge to stand. I was not only concerned about Donnie pounding the tar out of me. I was also cognizant of the fact that if the two of us came to blows, there would be repercussions from the company. Both of us would be sitting in HR within the hour. I was therefore determined that there would be no ambiguity about which one of us had been the aggressor.
Perhaps sensing some of this, Bethany walked around my desk and joined Donnie, so I was now facing the two of them. But instead of piling it on, she attempted to talk him down.
“Come on, Donnie,” she whispered urgently. She had grasped him by one arm with both of her hands. “We’re at work, in the middle of the office. You’ll get fired. It isn't worth it. Think about it.”
Smart girl, I thought. But would Donnie be smart enough to listen to her?
Donnie paused. For a moment he seemed to waver between backing down and ripping me out of my chair—which he probably would have been capable of doing. I braced myself for whatever might come next.
Then finally Donnie shrugged off Bethany’s grip, and looked at me as if to say, This isn't over yet.
I wondered if any of my colleagues had seen the confrontation. I looked around to see if anyone was staring.
I saw a few faces turned in my direction. When I made eye contact with them, they became urgently summoned by their computers, their phones, the piles of papers atop their desks. The message was clear: Don’t ask any of us to get involved.
Donnie and I hadn't raised our voices that much, and we hadn't actually come to blows. The only real witnesses to the exchange had been Bethany and Ellen. Bethany was solidly in Donnie’s corner, and Ellen leaned that way. There was no way I could have made trouble for Donnie over this, even if I’d wanted to.
Everything that I’ve told you so far is just another jeremiad of life inside the cubicle farm, I know.
That’s what I had thought, too. I knew that Donnie and Bethany were oddballs—the archetypical coworkers from hell. I’d heard about the risks of working long-term in toxic, snake pit environments. I wouldn't have disputed that working alongside Donnie and Bethany, within the dog-eat-dog, everyone-for-themselves setting of Thomas-Smithfield was bad for my health. My job might be a contributing factor to a heart attack I’d have at the age of forty-five or fifty.
But acutely dangerous? No, I wouldn't have believed that.
The revelation that changed everything took place after lunch that day.
I was doing my best to concentrate on work, to ignore Donnie and Bethany. I was wondering if Donnie was going come over to my desk for a rematch. Perhaps this time, he wouldn't be content to conclude the matter with mere words.
But Donnie ignored me that afternoon. He and Bethany were whispering among themselves. Several times they stepped away to talk privately. They didn't look or gesture in my direction. I might have been invisible.
That was just fine with me.
They must have been making their third trip of the afternoon away from their desks when a strange thing happened. Sid Harper met them in the middle of the floor, as if by prearrangement. The three of them turned in the direction from which Sid had come, and walked away together, toward the third floor meeting rooms.
That was unusual. Most unusual.
For Sid to have a private conversation with Donnie or Bethany wasn't entirely out of the ordinary, of course. In fact, it was somewhat commonplace. Just as Sid had discussed the McDonnell quote with me earlier in the day, he discussed supplier issues with both Donnie and Bethany, too, as business circumstances required.
What was unusual was for him to talk to the two of them at once. Although the three of us were grouped together for administrative purposes, there was no collaboration between us. Each of us worked in a silo. That might change, with my grade promotion; but at present, each of us was an island.
So why would Sid be talking to Donnie and Bethany together?
Did it have something to do with me? Donnie and Bethany had made no secret of their disdain for me, their resentment at my being promoted ahead of them. Had they found something to use against me with Sid? Or—more likely—had they fabricated something?
The textbook answer to this conundrum was: Mind your own business, Frank. I knew that I hadn't done anything remotely unethical. I was easily the most conscientious of our little trio. So I shouldn't worry about it, right?
But the textbook answer failed me. I couldn't remain impassive. As discreetly as I could, I stood up from my desk and walked after them, following at a discreet pace and distance, of course.
I watched them go into the nearest private meeting room, the one nearest the pop machine alcove.
Just let it go, a little voice told me. They might be meeting about anything. Perhaps the constant workday trysts of Donnie and Bethany had become an HR matter, and Sid had summoned them for a reprimand. If that was the case, then I couldn't have cared less.
But then I recalled how bitterly the two of them disliked me—and how openly they had expressed that dislike of late. If Donnie was willing to risk a fisticuffs in the middle of the office, would it be so much of a stretch for him to pour poison in Sid’s ears in an attempt to discredit me? And if Bethany was backing him up, it would be two against one.
Results are by no means irrelevant in the corporate workplace. But so is perception. If they were talking about me, I had to know it. I had to know what they were telling Sid. But the three of them were now inside a closed meeting room.
Then it occurred to me that I was in luck—sort of.
I was aware of a little space behind that nearest meeting room, between the concrete wall and the drywall. The space could be accessed by stepping behind the vending machines, and then into the gap between the two walls. I had discovered it one day by accident, when I had dropped a quarter at the Coke machine and the coin had gone rolling.
I had never actually entered the space, mind you: It would be a tight fit. I would ordinarily have had little interest in eavesdropping on random meetings, anyway. Nor would I want to risk being caught snooping for a mere lark.
But right now Donnie, Bethany, and Sid were sitting down inside that meeting room, and my intuition told me that my two coworkers might be speaking against me. I couldn't intervene, of course; but I would at least know what they were saying.
Then another internal voice spoke up—that one from before—and told me that my best course of action would be to simply forget about it. I could return to my desk, and get back to work.
I reminded myself of my own conduct: There was nothing that Donnie and Bethany could possibly tell Sid about me that would have a negative impact on my career.
They could, of course, tell Sid that they thought it was unfair for me to be promoted ahead of them. But so what?
Then I wavered yet again: I could not ignore the possibility of a fabrication, an outright lie that would be difficult for me to categorically disprove. There is no “benefit of a reasonable doubt” in the corporate workplace. There is only the career-crushing stigma of a lingering accusation.
Bethany might claim, for example, that I had sexually harassed her. (And although that would be a big, big stretch, wasn't I guilty of the occasional lingering glance in her direction?)
Donnie might claim that I’d been trying to pick a fight with him. That would be even more ridiculous, given our comparative sizes and personalities. But I had answered him back, gone tit-for-tat, when he had taunted me. There had been verbal exchanges between us that could be twisted around, quoted out of context.
Moreover, they would corroborate each other to the end. And what if the two of them had cajoled or intimidated a third party (such as Ellen Watson) into joining the chorus against me? A wider conspiracy was not impossible.
The bottom line was: With those two, almost anything was possible. Their scheme might not hold up over the long haul, but they could cause me no end of problems in the short run if they caught me unawares.
On the other hand, if I knew what they were saying…
Hoping that no one was watching me too closely, I made a beeline for the vending machine alcove.
There was nothing unusual about me going to the vending machines. I was an inveterate Coke Zero drinker, and I made a trip there at least once per day. But I had never made the walk to the vending machines with the intention of playing the snoop, of fitting myself in the little space behind the meeting room.
When I arrived at the vending machines, another Thomas-Smithfield employee—a middle-aged man named George Hurley—was purchasing a can of Coke. Just my luck, it took him a full minute to retrieve three quarters from his pocket.
At least he didn't strike up a conversation with me. Hurley didn't even acknowledge my presence. He was obviously preoccupied with something else.
As George walked away, I realized: I had one final chance. I could still walk back to my desk. I hadn't done anything underhanded yet. I could still call this off.
Instead I took a quick, furtive look around to make sure that no one was approaching, and no one was actively watching me. Then I sidestepped to the far side of the Coke machine, and slipped behind it.
The space between the concrete wall and the false wall of the meeting room was directly before me.
Go, I told myself.
I maneuvered myself into the space. It was a tight fit. A larger person—like Donnie, for instance—could never have wedged himself into the opening.
I had to take several steps forward before I would be directly behind the meeting room. This required no small amount of caution. I was in almost total darkness now. There was a rat’s nest of electrical wiring on the floor beneath my feet. My toe touched a large, boxlike electrical outlet that had been installed for the wiring.
I stepped over it slowly, exercising care not to tangle my feet in the unseen, rubber-coated wires.
I could hear the buzz of a voice now. Sid talking. I still couldn't make out any words, though. I took another step in the darkness. If I fell now, I would likely fall against the false wall of the meeting room, alerting Donnie, Bethany, and Sid to my presence.
I was finally in the right position. I leaned forward toward the false wall. I could hear them now.
“Keep your voices down. We shouldn't even be discussing this here in the office,” I heard Sid Harper say.
“Then why are we?” Bethany retorted.
“Because Ellen is on to us, like I’ve just explained to you. And we need to come up with a game plan immediately.”
“Dammit!” Bethany said, “Damn.”
“Saying ‘damn’ won’t fix it.”
“I never said that it would. I just said ‘damn’.”
“Neither will being a smart-ass.” Sid again. “And I need to make clear, right now—I hope you're hearing me, Donnie—if Ellen says anything to you, you’re to play dumb.”
Play dumb? I thought. That ought to be easy for Donnie. But behind that whimsical thought, something else: This was not the conversation I had anticipated—not even close.
If I hadn't known better, it would have sounded to me like Bethany, Donnie, and Sid were….
…Accomplices of some sort.
“I’m not going to say anything,” Donnie shot back at Sid. He spoke to Sid much like he would have spoken to me. That is: without much respect. “What makes you think I’m going to say anything?”
“Maybe because you’re you, hotshot.”
Donnie grunted out a terse, gruff reply that I could not make out.
“What the hell?” Bethany muttered. “What the freaking hell are we going to do?”
There was a pause. Then, finally, Sid spoke.
“I don’t think we have any choice: We have to eliminate Ellen.”
Bethany: “You mean…?”
Sid: “It isn't what I want. But we don't have any choice.”
Donnie: “This is getting out of hand.”
Sid: “Shut up.”
Donnie: “Don’t tell me to shut up. You’re supposed to be the smart guy here. You might have anticipated this.”
Then Bethany interjected: “Stop it, you two. Sid has a point. None of us wants to do that. But if she’s on to us, then Sid is right, we don’t have any choice.”
“That’s what I’m trying to get across to you,” Sid said. “Both of you.”
“When?” Donnie asked. “And how?”
“I think we’ve already discussed this enough in the office,” Sid said. “We’ll go over the details offsite. I just wanted to pull you both in, to let you know about the situation.”
Sighs from both Bethany and Donnie.
“Keep cool, both of you. We’ll get through this.”
With that they ended their conversation. I heard them stand up and exit the meeting room.
I stood there dumbfounded for a moment, trying to process what I had heard, and all its implications. I knew that I couldn't even begin to dig into it now, it was potentially that earth-shattering.
Had I really heard them correctly?
Yes, I told myself, I had heard what I had heard. My first thought at that moment was: I should have remained at my desk.