Plus-One With A Vengeance : 1 / 29

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Plus-One With A Vengeance : 1 / 29

[ An Altered Fates Story ]
by Iolanthe Portmanteaux

 


"Oh, you hate your job? Why didn't you say so?
There's a support group for that.
It's called everybody, and they meet at the bar."
— Drew Carey


 

This is about me, Max, and Amber. Mostly me and Max, with Amber agitating in the background, on the margins, and in every place we couldn't see.

I'm Elliot Beekman, and I'm a guy. Or I was a guy. It's something I'll have to figure out, and by the end of this story, you'll understand my perplexity.

Max and I are friends since kindergarten. Best friends. I'd like to say that we've been through a lot together, but honestly, we haven't. We've been lucky. Although Max's family has money and mine not so much, we both have parents who cared and did their best for us. Our lives followed the plain vanilla suburban template until we hit our late twenties, when our lives took different directions. We lost touch for about three years. On my side it was because of my job: I was working as a programmer for a tech startup. When you work for a startup, that's all you do. It's not a normal job. You don't simply put in your eight hours and go home. In a startup, the work never stops. When duty calls, you're already there. It doesn't matter if it's Saturday, Sunday, holiday. All-nighters are routine. Every employee has a toothbrush and change of clothes in their desk. The work/life balance isn't a question. There is no balance. Work gets 100% of you. Life is deferred.

Knowing that, why on earth would anyone sign onto a startup? Is it the pay? No -- the pay isn't any better than a normal 9-to-5 job. Is it the overtime? Ha! There is no overtime! I mean, you work plenty of overtime hours, but there's no overtime pay.

The appeal of working for a startup is the idea that you could strike it rich. That one day, after you've worked like a dog for a couple of years, the startup will take off, with piles of money spilling everywhere in its wake. Once the startup becomes fabulously, outrageously successful, you get the reward, the big payoff. By "payoff" I mean literal money: bonuses, lump-sum payments, or stock options that turn to gold. That's the model: if you work like a dog, you'll get a big bag of money. The startup I joined definitely lived up to the first part of the promise: they made me and my colleagues work like dogs. Twelve-hour days were a minimum. No one worked less than seventy hours a week. And it was mad. I mean crazy. Abrupt changes of direction, poor planning, poor direction. Me and most of my colleagues spent nights and weekends in the office just so we could get some silence, so we could get things done. The "normal" workday, the eight-to-seven, was a basket of nested interruptions, one interruption on top of another. You'd start off the day on one task, get interrupted and switch to a second, get interrupted and switch to a third... when you'd finish interruption number 5, you'd go back to interruption number 4, and so on.

It wasn't overtime. It was an attempt at keeping a semblance of sanity. I've already said there no such thing as overtime pay: we were all salaried. We got the same size check whether we worked 60 hours or 90. Bonuses? Don't make me laugh. There were no bonuses.

The insane hours completely erased my social life, but like my co-workers, I didn't complain. I stepped into this servitude with my eyes open. It's only temporary — that was the idea. That was our mantra.

Max, for his part, met Amber just as I joined the startup, and they began dating right away. I didn't know Amber exactly; she and I had some friends in common. I had heard stories about her. I'd seen her at parties, or out at clubs and bars. It's probably unfair to judge someone at a distance, but Amber wasn't like her friends. She was attractive, physically, but psychologically, she was an odd duck. I never mentioned it to anyone, and back then I never heard anyone say it, but at some point I got the definite feeling that Amber had a screw loose. It's hard to say why. Maybe it was her hairstyle? She had it pulled up high, straight up from her forehead, then back. Kitty told me that Amber was trying to "correct" for her low forehead. The effect resembled nothing so much as a nun's veil.

There is one thing I probably ought to keep to my self, and maybe it's totally unwarranted, but after all the lies that Amber told about me, I'll just put it out there: Max comes from a well-to-do family. I often found myself wondering whether Amber was more interested in my friend's money than his heart. It's not that she seemed particularly greedy — it's that she didn't seem at all affectionate — or even kind. She didn't treat him as though he was special to her. She treated him as though he belonged to her.

Apart from her looks, it's hard to know what Max saw in her!

I had brunch with Amber and Max three times in those three years, and I learned three things: the first was that Amber didn't like me. She really didn't like me. If that fact wasn't clear from the way she talked down to me, or the way she spoke of me as if I wasn't there, she left no doubt about her negative judgment with by saying, more or less explicitly — and more than once! — that any time Max spent with me was time he'd thrown away. She actually told me, in so many words, that I was holding Max back — whatever that meant!

The second thing I learned about Amber is that she could not abide being contradicted. Anyone who differed from her was mistaken, even in the smallest things. According to her, she "didn't have opinions; only facts."

The third thing is that Amber is intensely jealous. For example, I asked Max how his parents were doing.

"Do we have to have this meaningless chit-chat?" Amber complained.

"I want to know how his parents are," I pointed out. "We spent a lot of time at each other's house growing up, and I have a lot of affection for his parents. His mother, especially. I'd like to know how they are."

Max replied, a little sheepishly, "I haven't spent much time with them lately, but I'm sure they're fine."

Amber, with an air of triumph told me, as if she was instructing a child, "It's strange the way that parents feel they're part of our lives, even when we've outgrown them by far."

I was so taken aback, I could hardly find words. At the time all I could say was, "You find it strange that parents care about their children?"

"Yes, of course I do," she said, as if to say It's obvious! How can you even ask me that? "Do you consider yourself a child? I'm not a child, and neither is Max."

It wasn't evident to me at the time, but both our lives — Max's and mine — were being consumed. We each had a parasite stuck on us, sucking the life out of us. Mine was the startup. Max's was Amber. It was a strange symmetry.

When I hit my one-year work anniversary, I'd just spent three nights in a row at the office. The HR lady searched me out to congratulate me. It was 7:30 in the morning. I was slouching, barefoot, in a beanbag chair, eating a bowl of Wheaties and milk. "There he is!" she exclaimed in a hearty voice. "Employee number eleven! Happy one-year anniversary!" She shot off a confetti gun, said "Yay!" She tossed me a t-shirt with the company logo and left me there, still trying to wake up. As I picked the confetti flecks out of my cereal, it hit me: I was living at the office. I was here pretty much all the time! I realized in that moment that my apartment had become superfluous. It was a huge, unnecessary expense. I was never there to clean it, maintain it, improve it, or enjoy it. It wasn't even fully furnished.

Taking stock of the situation: I was eating Wheaties. The Wheaties came from the company kitchen, where the cabinets were full of cold cereals, packets of instant oatmeal and instant grits. We also had five kinds of bread, English muffins, regular muffins, and fresh egg sandwiches (delivered every morning). There was fresh fruit and plenty of coffee. There was always plenty of food: healthy food and junk food, as well as well as soft drinks and beer. If we wanted any sort of snack or drink, like a particular brand of beer or a certain type of snack, we could make a request online and it would show up the next day. The company provided lunch and dinner, and we had an unlimited tab at a nearby pizzeria. It was all on the house. That is to say, the company was happy to feed us.

They also provided scrubs (the kind that doctors and nurses wear in hospitals), along with socks and slippers. Underwear was never mentioned, but there was a little washer and dryer for small personal loads. The scrubs and socks went to a commercial laundry; we could always pick a clean set out of the stacks. Some of my associates stopped leaving the building, even if they weren't working.

"It's like being a monk!" one of my co-workers enthusiastically observed.

"Or a prisoner," another offered, less enthusiastically.

"Or a slave," a third muttered, looking around him as he spoke.

"At least they don't beat us," the guy next to me quipped.

As far as I was concerned, it wasn't as bad as that. At least *I* still left the office sometimes. And I didn't stoop so low as to rotate my wardrobe from the common pile. Early on, I picked out a couple sets of scrubs and washed them myself at home. Home? I mean, at my Dad's place. Soon after my realization that I was living at my job, I let my apartment go and moved back in with Dad. Rents were creeping up, and my landlord was VERY happy to let me break my lease. It gave him the opportunity to charge the next guy more. Dad didn't charge me anything. I offered, but he wouldn't hear it.

Dad liked having the company, and I liked seeing him. I needed a normal home. Dad was my touchstone, my link with reality, with normal life. God knows I couldn't stay at work all the time. I craved other influences.

Every so often Dad would gently chide me about working too hard. Each time I'd tell him it was only temporary, just until the company took off.

My life settled into a predictable grind until two winters ago, when Dad started talking about moving to Florida. "I don't want to go through another New England winter," he said, and started shopping online for a house down there. Several of his friends had already made the jump, and he visited them on his exploratory trips down South.

In June he began feeling his way toward selling his house. He found a real-estate agent who pointed out with great frankness that the house would sell for quite a bit more if he put a little work into it. "Honestly," she told him, "your house has good bones, but it's very dated. When potential buyers walk in, they're going to see projects, projects, projects. They'll cringe at the cost of re-doing the kitchen and the bathrooms. Generally the house needs a good refresh."

"Face it," she said, "If you'll spend a *little* money, you'll make a lot more money." To prove it, she brought me and Dad to a couple of open houses at places similar to our own. The kitchens and bathrooms were updated, there wasn't any clutter, they were freshly painted, and there were no obvious repairs needed. It made a world of difference.

"If you want to ask the same price that these people are asking, you'll need to do the work that they've done. It'll kick up your profit margin, and your house will sell a whole lot faster."

Those updated, more desirable homes provided a strong contrast. Those houses were clean, bright, and move-in ready. Our house, on the other hand, had a dead tree in the backyard, a rusted-out swing set (left over from my childhood), a garage that looked like it might collapse from fatigue, a LOT of clutter throughout the house. Mainly, our house had a lot of old. The furniture was probably as old as I am, but it hadn't aged as well; it seemed neglected and heavily used. I'm sure the house hadn't been painted in twenty years. There were little repairs to do everywhere: peeling wallpaper, ripped linoleum, dusty light fixtures, and on and on.

A contractor did a thorough walk-through, and gave us an itemized estimate. He said, "I can get this done in three weeks, if you let me start on Monday. If you make me wait, I'll have to make you wait as well." He was more than a little pushy and fairly obnoxious. He didn't radiate trust.

"We need a second opinion," I told Dad.

He held the estimate in his hand like it was the Magna Carta, fresh off the press. "This is a pretty good list," he observed. "I wouldn't have known what we needed, but it's all written down, right here."

"Dad? A second opinion? Come on. We need another estimate. Maybe two?"

He smiled and waved me off, his eyes glued to the paper. "Give me a little time... I need to... investigate a little."

I didn't know what that meant, but he deflected my follow-up questions. "I'm not ready to talk about this yet," he insisted. "Give me a few days to noodle over this. Or maybe a week."

Around the same time, things began to lighten up a bit at my job, which meant that I was home before nine most nights. When I'd come in, Dad would be at his computer looking at YouTube videos, the contractor's estimate close at hand. It had become his Bible.

"Hey," he called to me when I got home on Thursday night. "Do you think you can get off early enough tomorrow to have dinner with me? I'll take you to Hoof and How! We can get T-bones with all the fixings."

"Uh," I temporized, taken utterly by surprise.

"Come on!" he cajoled. "When was the last time you had a drink with your old man? We'll make a time of it! We'll take one of those Ubers there and back, so we can drink like we mean it. Friday night! Come on!"

"Okay," I said. "Sounds good."

"You won't get in trouble at work?" he teased. "They'll let you slip off the ball and chain for just one night?"

"Sure," I said. "Things have actually quieted down a bit."

"Yeah? Even so, they still work you too hard."

"Dad—" I began, but he waved his hand. "I know, I know — it's temporary."

 


 

We don't have set hours at work, but in spite of that, it's unusual to see someone to leave before seven. I didn't bother to tell anyone I was leaving early, and didn't see the need to ask for permission. My colleagues were lolling around, playing video games or ping pong, or reading. Clearly, nothing was happening that couldn't wait until Monday, so I didn't anticipate an issue when I packed up my things at five. To my surprise, my boss actually gave me some attitude, and wanted me to stay at least until seven, but not for any good reason. I pointed out that I'd never arrived late, never left early (aside from today), and have never taken a single day off. "I think I'm due," I told him, and after fifteen minutes of pointless discussion, I left. I left angry. I'd never been so angry.

It made me feel that all my hard work counted for nothing.

I tried pretty hard to cool off before I got home. I didn't want to spoil Dad's evening. At one point, while stopped at a red light, I silenced the ringer on my phone: one step toward being unreachable. That helped improve my mood. At another red light I turned the damn thing off entirely, and that made me feel massively better.

Dad was pretty happy when I got home. He was as excited as a little kid on his birthday. He was particularly pleased when I set my phone down on the front-door table and left it there. He patted me on the back and put his arm around my shoulders as we walked to the Uber.

Hoof and How! is a pretty hokey, old-timey steakhouse. The walls are red. The trim, posts, and rafters are mahogany-colored. There are no windows. Every space on every wall has a large black-and-white photo, each one a view of Town Center a hundred years ago. The restaurant has that particular old-steakhouse smell: decades of grilled beef and other food aromas that permeate the carpet, walls, and ceiling. I doubt that they've ever opened the doors and given the place a good airing.

Still, Dad was as happy as a child at Chuck E. Cheese's, so I smiled and went along. It was nice to see him so cheery and animated.

Dad ordered a T-bone for each of us, along with a small mountain of thick, hand-cut fries, onion rings, and other sides. We drank a nice Cabernet, and everything was good. It was the first time in ages that I'd been without my phone, and I didn't miss it at all. And after my second glass of wine, I actually relaxed. It felt like I hadn't exhaled in three years.

We ate until we'd gone past eating too much. Still, after the dinner plates were taken away, we shared a slice of New York cheesecake, accompanied by by coffee and shots of bourbon.

Then Dad said, "Now, here's what it's all about. Humor me, okay?" He pulled out his new-found Bible: the contractor's estimate. "Now look at this, Elliot: I want you to look at each item on here. I agree that this work will help me sell that house, and I think this fellow's asking a fair price. But I don't like the guy, and I don't want to get a second estimate. Let me show you." He turned the pages to face me, flattening out the sheets so I could see the list of work. "See — all of this stuff — every one of these things — are jobs that you and I can do. None of it requires the trades, and none of it requires an inspection."

"What do you mean trades?"

"Plumbing and electrical."

"Oh. Uh, okay, but, Dad!" I protested. "I'm working! and more than full time! You know that. I would love to do this work with you — honestly, I would. I think it would be a blast. But I don't have the time."

He scoffed. "You should quit that job. Elliot, believe me. There's never going to be a big payoff. They're just stringing you along. It's pie in the sky, by and by."

To my own surprise, I didn't contradict him.

"Now, listen — I was talking to your Aunt Betsy—" I groaned aloud. Dad waved my protest off. "Your Aunt Betsy is nobody's fool, and she thinks you're suffering from burnout." He said the word carefully, as if it were a strange, foreign, technical term. "Do you know what burnout is?"

"Yes, I know what burnout is—" (in fact, I'd been looking up burnout on the internet earlier that week: what is burnout? and how to deal with burnout) "—but come on — I haven't seen Aunt Betty in years!"

"Yes, but *I* have seen you," Dad said. "I see you now. I'm no expert, but I worry about you, son. Working on the house is healthy, decent work, with a worthwhile result." He bent closer, put his hand on mine, and in a confidential tone added, "If you come work with me, I'll pay you."

"You don't have to pay me," I told him, getting a little choked up. "I haven't been spending money on anything, so I've got a fair amount in the bank."

"Okay," he said. "I'm not going to push it. I don't want to ruin the evening. Drink up your bourbon, and unless you want something else, we can head for home."

 


 

I slept like a log that night, and uncharacteristically didn't wake up until ten o'clock. The day was overcast, but Dad was sunny and bright. He talked me into walking to the Train Stop Diner, and the two of us had the Full Lumberjack breakfast, which is two of everything: two pancakes, two pieces of french toast, two eggs, two strips of bacon, two sausages, along with toast and coffee. Somehow, even after the previous night's excesses, we managed to do the breakfast justice.

All weekend Dad hummed and sang to himself, doing silly little busywork around the house. He never mentioned the work on the house or my job. It was an incredibly restful weekend. All we did was eat and sleep and hang out.

I forgot to turn my phone back on until Monday, just before I got out of my car at the office. My boss had called me more than a dozen times, and left four voicemails. The time was only ten minutes to seven, so I figured it would be more efficient to see him face to face and find out what was up. Inwardly, I felt convinced he had only called because I'd left "early" on Friday.

The moment I walked in, he said, "My office. Now."

He chewed me out. He kept using the word "unacceptable." My leaving at five was unacceptable. Turning off my phone was unacceptable. He went on for several minutes. It didn't make much sense, so I figured it was all pro forma: he felt he needed to do it, so I stood and listened, nodded where appropriate, and at the end told him it would "never happen again." He asked me sign a paper acknowledging that we'd spoken. I read it quickly. It was worded strangely and vaguely, but as it didn't say I'd done anything wrong, I signed it. He smiled, shook my hand, and I went to my desk and got to work.

It left a strange taste in my mouth. Even my mantra ("it's only temporary") didn't help.

Things only got stranger.

I went to get a coffee and a muffin. While I waited for the coffee to brew, it struck me that I hadn't seen Dave yet. Dave amd I joined the company on the same day. He was a great guy, and a person whose work I respected. Denise wandered into the kitchen area, so I asked her if she'd seen Dave. She glanced around to be sure no one was near, and told me sotto voce, "Dave's been let go."

"Really? Why?"

Again she leaned in and, barely audible, explained, "They're prepping for the buyout."

"So it's happening?"

She nodded. "A French company wants our intellectual property."

"How does letting people go make anything better for them or for us?"

She shrugged. "What I heard is that the buyers need to see certain numbers on the company's spreadsheet, and somehow, firing Dave helps them get to those numbers."

I returned to my desk. The admin/receptionist stood there, waiting for me. In a quiet, barely audible voice, she asked me to follow her to my boss' office. Once there, they sat me down and told me that I, like Dave, was being let go.

A little irritated, I asked, "Is this because of what we talked about before?"

My boss seemed to be thrown by the question. "No, of course not," he said. "Why on earth would it?" In retrospect, I see that I'd thrown him off his script. That was all. He explained that they were "lightening" the company, "adjusting the company's profile," and that this was "no reflection" on my work, on my performance, or anything else. The head of HR explained the "algorithm" that selected who should go.

They offered a surprisingly good severance plan. They spent a lot of time discussing my stock options and how they would be paid. It was pretty complicated.

In the end I signed a bunch of papers, they handed me my last paycheck, and someone walked me to my desk and watched me pack up my stuff.

It was weird. It was nothing but weird.

I mean, why did my boss need to go into his unacceptable tirade, knowing I was going to be let go less than an hour later? The HR lady seemed utterly unaware that I'd been chewed out and made to sign an acknowledgment of the fact. With the help of graphs and explanations, she went to great lengths to try to demonstrate that my being laid-off wasn't personal; for all intents and purposes it had nothing to do with me. The way she told it, nobody deserved to be let go, but after they fed some numbers into a program, the computer spit out a list of names. My name, for instance, and Dave's. I knew for sure there was nothing wrong with Dave, and yet he'd been let go. That was the lesson. At least I was in good company.

I unlocked my car, put my box of crap in the back seat, and sat down behind the wheel. From there, I could see the office windows. No one was looking out; they were all busy working. They were probably keeping their heads down, worried that they would be called next. From here, the office resembled an ant farm. Watching my ex-coworkers walk pointlessly back and forth made me feel a little better about getting fired, but I couldn't sit there. If anyone happened to look out and see me, I'd feel pathetic. I'd switch from being the guy watching the ant hill to someone on the outside looking in — the object of a worker-ant's pity. I had to get out of there. But where could I go? I drew a blank. It had been so long since I had free time, I hardly knew what to do with it. I started the car and pulled out the parking lot. Then I drove, choosing turns at random, until I found myself in front of my elementary school. I shook myself and drove on, and in a couple of minutes I skirted my old high school. I passed through Town Center, but didn't feel like stopping anywhere. I drove by Max's parents' house, which brought me close to Dad's house.

I wasn't ready to go home and tell my Dad. I wanted to call Max, but what if Amber was there? She wouldn't want me "wasting" Max's time. So I didn't call.

Why didn't Amber like me, by the way?

I drove to McDonald's and almost went inside. But I wasn't hungry, and somehow I felt that going inside would make me feel depressed.

In the end I went to the Train Stop Diner and ate some hot apple pie and drank some coffee. I read the menu with great attention. I dawdled as long as I could, and drank coffee until I trembled. At last, and at a loss for any better destination — I went home.

Dad wasn't there.

I needed to DO something, and of course my mind went to the list Dad got from the contractor. I didn't know where the list was, but I knew that the first item was DECLUTTER, and there was one pile of clutter Dad would have a hard time approaching. Or at least, I assumed he would, since he'd never even mentioned the task.

I put one some old clothes, got a big black trash bag, and attacked the upstairs bathroom. Nothing in there was mine, and very little of it belonged to my Dad. It was all left over from my Mom. Clearly Dad never had the heart to go through it after she died. There were just over two dozen bottles of nail polish, some of them utterly dried out. One had broken and leaked all over the shelves. I tossed them out, along with all the other cosmetics, the nail-polish remover, the two broken hair driers, and countless samples: tiny one-by-three-inch packets of shampoo, conditioner, skin cream, eye cream, and God knows what else. There were all sorts of oils and bottles and brushes and contraptions. Anything with a date had long since expired. Buried in the back under the sink was an empty first-aid kit. There were three bottles of peroxide. I was able to combine them into one. I did the same with the two bottles of rubbing alcohol.

There were empty bottles whose contents must have evaporated. There were toothpaste tubes, hardened over time.

There was nothing embarrassing or revelatory in there.

After I'd finished with the medicine cabinet and the vanity, I went through the shower, getting rid of all the stuff that was too girly for me or Dad to use.

Tuesday morning is when the trash is collected, so I dropped my bag in the bin and rolled the bin to the curb.

At that point, I told myself, Now I'll do the same to the kitchen! but I didn't. Instead I opened a beer, went into the back yard and sat down on the rusty swing. I sat down carefully, looking up at the supporting bar — I didn't want it coming down to smack me in the head! The swing groaned like an old man under my weight — not that I'm heavy; not by a long shot. I took a few sips, then spotted my neighbor, Mrs. Irving, watching me from her window. I considered the beer in my hand. It was just past three in the afternoon. I sighed. I raised my beer to her in mock salute. She quickly retreated, but too late; she'd already spoiled the mood, so I went into the house, grabbed a second beer, and fiddled with the TV until Dad got home.

Good old Dad. When I told him what happened, his only visible concern was that I was alright. If he felt any glee, or relief, or hopes for the two of us working together on the house, he kept all that to himself.

"Are you hungry?" he asked. "I'm hungry."

"Dad, it's only quarter to four!"

He shrugged. "I have to train for Florida," he joked. "You know, the early-bird specials?"

"This is early even for them," I said. "But honestly, I could eat."

"We can always eat again later," he told me. "If we need to."

He took a pyrex container out of the freezer. It contained four generous servings of eggplant parm. There was also a frozen loaf of garlic bread. "I've finally mastered the DEFROST setting on the microwave," he boasted. "It takes a long time, but still not as long as just letting it thaw." He dumped a bag of prepared salad into a bowl and dressed it with oil, vinegar, and salt.

Dad looked at his dozen or so bottles of wine and scratched his chin. "Let's go for a Sangiovese," he said, and uncorked the bottle.

"When did you become a connoisseur?"

"Watch your language!" he joked, pretending I'd said a bad word. "I didn't. There's a guy at the grocery store who knows his stuff. I ask him questions and follow his recommendations. It's worked out pretty well for me."

"Nice."

Later, after we'd gotten some food and wine inside us, I said, "Dad, just so you don't have to tiptoe around the subject, I'm ready to start working on the house. Tomorrow, I mean. Might as well get right into it."

He sipped his wine thoughtfully. "You might want to take a little vacation first."

"No, I want to keep busy. After three years of sitting hunched over a desk, I need to use my muscles. If I need a break, I'll let you know."

"Fair enough," he replied, and clinked his glass against mine.



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