Authors: Catherine McKenzie
In memory of Rodrigo Contreras,
who always told me to write what was true,
rather than what was easy
Suppose I say
write the word “hummingbird,”
put it in an envelope,
take it down the hill
to the box. When you open
my letter you will recall
those days and how much,
just how much, I love you.
—“Hummingbird,” Raymond Carver
The last thing I had to do that day was fire Art Davies
I hate firing people. Truly. Of all the things I hate about my job — and their number are legion—having to tell someone they can’t come to work anymore is the worst.
But the consultants had been called in (again), and the recommendation was right there on page 94 of their 217-page PowerPoint presentation:
The accounting department is overstaffed by 1.2 people
Who talks like that?
When I got the summary of the consultants’ report—there’s a guy in Reports whose entire job is, you guessed it, summarizing reports — I flipped to the page he’d so helpfully marked with one of those yellow stickies with a red pointing finger on it and my heart sank. Next to the recommendation that I reduce my department by 1.2 people were the words:
I read again, and my heart fell a little further. Because those question marks might’ve seemed innocent, but they were as uncertain as a bullet to the chest.
Report Summarizing Guy is the direct liaison between management and the consultants. His job is to implement enough of their suggestions to justify the consultants’ ridiculous fees, and enable management to make their own Power-Point presentation for the board claiming that 74 per cent of the recommendations had been implemented.
So job well done.
. Art Davies is the guy who hired me six years ago, back when the department was a third the size and there weren’t any consultants around to notice that he wasn’t really the guy you wanted to entrust hiring and firing to. Truth be told, Art wasn’t the guy you wanted to entrust a lot of things to, but he was a great guy. Always in a good mood, quick to forgive your failings, always sending around some hilarious YouTube video right when your day was at the nadir of sucking.
I’d worked hard to help him escape the last two rounds of consultants. But he’d Peter-Principled himself to the head of the department, as guys like Art are wont to do, and when I’d been at the company enough years to satisfy the brass, we switched jobs. A couple years ago, I went up and he went down, and Art, good ole Art, took it so well you almost could’ve believed he didn’t give a shit.
“Couldn’t have happened to a better person,” he said, slapping me on the back like we were in some sitcom. “Look forward to working for you.”
I’d gone home in a deep funk and told my wife I wanted to quit. It took her hours to talk me out of it. Phrases like
think what we can do with the extra money
bounced off me, my resolve untouchable.
Until she said, “Art will probably be happier this way, you know. He never struck me as someone who wanted responsibility.”
I didn’t want to admit it, but she was right. Art probably would be happier if he didn’t have to hire and fire people, or report to the board, or implement Report Summarizing Guy’s suggestions.
I didn’t quit. Instead, I traded desks with Art, putting the silver-framed picture of my family in the faint dust outline the picture of his family had left, and went back to work. And now it had come to this.
And I couldn’t help wondering, if rising to the level of your own incompetence has a name, does having to fire the guy who hired you have one too?
When I’d phoned Tish to tell her about it, she’d made a small noise of sympathy. She knew how much I hated firing people.
“Why don’t you let HR do it?” she asked.
“No, I can’t do that.”
“Why not? Management does it all the time. Trust me.”
“Aren’t you always calling them pussies when they do?”
She laughed, a melodious thing. “Yeah, yeah. I wouldn’t call
“You know I wouldn’t.”
I sighed. “Okay, maybe not. But still.”
“You have to do it.”
“I have to do it.”
“Let me know if you want some tips.”
“You mean if I want your five-point plan for firing people effectively?”
“How the—” She clucked her tongue. “You little bastard. You read the whole report, didn’t you? Unbelievable.”
I smiled, even though she couldn’t see it. “I like having all the information.”
“I have to keep ahead of those guys. You never know when they’re going to train their high beams on you.”
“You are so
“I should get back to work.”
“Have fun with your numbers!”
“You know I will!”
I hung up and ran my hand over my face. As much as I liked talking to Tish, it didn’t change the fact that Art had to go, and I had to do it.
I spent Friday doing everything I could to put off the inevitable. But there wasn’t anything I could do about Art’s termination package, which was sitting on my desk. A blue folder full of helpful hints about what he might do with his future, and a single sheet of paper outlining his
severance package. Fifty-six years old, twenty-two years with the company, not in management—thanks to me—meant he was getting 28.4 weeks of severance pay.
What was it with this company?
Couldn’t they ever think in round numbers?
But no, they couldn’t, because that would affect the pie chart, and that might end up with an eventual recommendation that
At four forty-five I gave one last sigh, and checked my
email one last time. There was a message from Tish saying simply:
, I typed back,
I’ll give you the blow-by-blow later
I hit Send, turned off my computer, put my hands on my desk and pushed myself up.
Inertia’s a funny thing; even though it doesn’t make any sense scientifically speaking, I swear I had to push harder than usual. My steps down the hall also seemed heavier, thicker, like the feeling you get in a dream when you’re trying to run. Treacle air, molasses legs.
Art was sitting at his desk, an Excel spreadsheet open before him. He was squinting at the screen over the rim of his glasses. He never did get those bifocals his ophthalmologist had recommended a few months ago, and as per the package tucked under my arm, he had four weeks to do so or he was shit out of luck.
He glanced up at me. “Hey, Jeff, you think you could help me out on this one? I can’t seem to get the columns to balance.” He shook his head, half self-mocking, half puzzled.
“Why don’t you leave it, Art?”
“I have to get it done today. It’s on my goal sheet.”
“It’s okay. You don’t have to do it.”
“You’re a braver man than—” He stopped abruptly as he caught sight of the folder. “That’s not … I mean … they couldn’t … not after all this time …”
“Why don’t we go into the conference room?”
He rose to follow me, shocked into silence. If my footfalls seemed heavy before, my feet were cement blocks now. We made it into the conference room, and Art slumped into the nearest chair. I tried not to slump into the one across from him.
Project an air of confident compassion
, Tish had counselled me.
But what did that mean, really? I had compassion all right, but confidence?
There was no way I was ever going to be able to look Art in the eye again.
Concentrate on outlining the details of the package
. She’d said that too.
I opened the folder and read the text from the one sheet in a monotone.
“We’re sorry to inform you that your position has been eliminated. In appreciation for your years of faithful service to the company, we’re happy to offer you—”
I stopped reading because Art was crying. Not sobbing, just a stream of tears flowing from behind his glasses and collecting on his shirt in spreading pools of wet.
Christ. What was I supposed to do now?
Sometimes a reassuring hand on the shoulder is appropriate
. Tish’s words kept coming.
Sometimes I let them cry, just being there for them
I opted for the latter, partly because I couldn’t bring myself to move my hand, but also because it seemed like that kind of gesture should come with words, and I had no idea what to say. That it was all going to be okay? That he’d find something else, something better? That he wasn’t going to lose his house, or have to raid his kids’ college funds to avoid it? I couldn’t say any of those things. It wasn’t going to be okay, and he wasn’t going to find something else.
Guys like Art never do.
Not at fifty-six.
Not when the guy firing you is the guy you hired.
I have to hand it to Art, though. Sixty seconds of silence was all it took to pull himself together.
He lowered his glasses and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “I expect you have to finish reading that.”
“Yes. I’m sorry. It’s—”
“I’m sorry,” I said again.
“It’s okay, Jeff. Don’t give it another thought.”
I hung my head. Art was comforting me for firing him, and for a moment, it actually made me feel better. Was I the worst person ever?
“This will be over soon,” I managed to get out.
After I read through the rest of the miserly conditions of his package, Art had to suffer the final indignity of having me watch while he packed up his stuff. Back when I started here, a guy in Art’s situation would’ve been given a proper send-off. They’d have called it “early retirement,” and there would’ve been a nice lunch, maybe even a nice watch. Art would’ve gotten slightly drunk, and someone would’ve made a speech about how much Art had done for the company, told a funny story or two about his time here, and said he would be missed.
But that was a long time ago. Now, I pulled white, flat-packed banker’s boxes from the supply closet, folding them together mechanically, wondering how many were required to pack away twenty-plus years.
It turned out to be two.
When it came right down to it, Art travelled light.
He finished packing. I pulled a dolly out of the same closet and stacked his boxes on it over his protests that he was perfectly capable of doing it himself.
“I know you are,” I said. “I want to do it, okay?”
“You’re the boss.”
He smiled sheepishly, a silent acknowledgment that none of this would be happening if I wasn’t the boss. Or maybe it would. If I’d quit when I wanted to, someone else would’ve been promoted, or brought in from the outside, and they might not have protected Art from this day as long as I did. Who knows?
Either way, I still felt like an asshole.
Art picked up his light tan coat and slipped his arms into it. By tacit agreement, we left the building by the fire exit, which kept us from having to do the I’m-being-escorted-from-the-building walk past the still half-full office.
I followed him, wheeling the squeaky dolly behind me, hoping his boxes didn’t tip over. I’d done my best to look away while he was hastily emptying his desk, remembering a story he was fond of telling about the first person he had to fire. Don Somebody, who was an old-school, three-martini-lunch guy whose lack of productivity in the afternoons had finally reached the notice of the higher-ups without any help from consultants. Art had tried to track the guy down before lunch, but he kept getting pulled into meetings.
He finally caught up with Don around three. He was standing next to a filing cabinet like the leaning tower of Pisa, and he didn’t take the news well. After his swearing had been reduced to short, sporadic bursts, he’d agreed to clear out his desk. Don reached for the top drawer, but it was stuck. Art wasn’t sure if Don was so drunk he forgot what was in the drawer or if he simply didn’t care, but he lifted his foot off the ground and placed it on the desk for leverage, tugging on the drawer’s handle for all it was worth. It came unstuck, and Don and the drawer tumbled backwards
as a stack of porno magazines fanned across the floor.
The way Art tells it, Don was completely unfazed. He collected his magazines and held them against his chest.
“Only thing I wanted to take with me, anyway,” he said as he lurched out the front door.
I took the wheelchair ramp down its long, gently slopped diversion from the front doors. Art waited for me at the bottom, his face now expressionless, his posture screaming
Let this be over
. I followed him through the parking lot, past rows of cars backed carefully into their spots. He stopped in front of a silver Pontiac Vibe. The left side mirror was cracked.
“Kids,” Art said. “You know how it is.”
“Sure,” I said, though, thankfully, Seth wasn’t old enough to drive yet.
He popped the hatchback and I stacked his boxes inside, closing the trunk lid with a
. We stood there awkwardly for a moment; was this a handshake occasion, or were we going to hug it out? Art solved my dilemma by reaching out his hand.
I took it. “You take care of yourself,” I said. “Sorry about all of this.”
“I’ll be all right. Who knows? I might take up golf.”
“Call me if you do.”
He folded himself into his car. The engine started neatly and Art was composed enough to look left, then right, then left again before exiting his spot. I watched him drive slowly through the lot, towards the sun’s setting orb, shielding my eyes against its glare. I’m not sure why, but I felt responsible for him while he was still on company property. Once he made it off the lot, I felt, he’d be all right.
After his car was absorbed into the end-of-day traffic, I turned back towards the building. The sun was glinting off the large windows, and I couldn’t face going back inside. I decided, instead, to walk home. The air was warm, my car would survive the weekend where it was, and I had my phone. I could file my report on Art’s firing on Monday.
I tucked my hands into my pockets and took a shortcut through the parking lot to the main road. Home was a mile away, and the sun felt warm on my face. I closed my eyes for a moment to concentrate on the feeling of it, and I guess that’s why I never saw it coming.