Current Occupation: Writer
Former Occupation: Electrical Engineer
Contact Information: Mary Rodriguez lives in McFarland, Wisconsin. Her fiction has been published in WISCONSIN PEOPLE & IDEAS, COUNTRY WOMAN, WISCONSIN REVIEW, and on MADISON Magazine's website. Her poems appeared in MUSED and VERSE WISCONSIN.
When things were still manufactured in the United States, and layoffs were what happened during the winter months to roofers and construction workers, Charlie Reardon received more job offers than any other engineering student and opted to go with the company employing the most creative minds in the industry.
Ten years later, all his mentors were gone. The ones still willing to spend the majority of their waking hours perfecting designs became disgusted with the company’s changing environment and left. Others retired to enjoy their prosperity. The rest were laid off.
Charlie might have been considered the lucky one for a month after his layoff, he was called back to work as a consultant. Arriving the requisite fifteen minutes early, he registered with the surly receptionist, the latest in a steady stream supplied by a temporary agency to replace Betty Donahue who’d been hit in the first round of layoffs. Everyone had liked Betty, even the pesky vendors who got no further than her front desk.
Jill, a top manager, led Charlie to her office, and informed him the processor he’d masterminded hadn’t been abandonned the minute they’d booted him out the door. Charlie liked Jill because she was straightforward and her guarded manner had him asking the question he was pretty sure he already knew the answer to.
"Who's in charge of the project?"
"It’s on Aaron's plate," she said and he stood up. "Sit down, Charlie. Please. As long as you’re here, you may as well listen to what I have to say. I know you have a hard time working with Aaron.”
“Let me finish. The pay’s extraordinary and Aaron’s keen to have you back working with him."
"I think you mean doing his work for him, don’t you Jill?”
He settled back in his chair. “He’ll claim nights full of work and worry and at the end of the project, he’ll receive a huge raise and bonus, and I’ll get, uh, what do I get, Jill? You tell me."
“You’ll be paid hourly. Four times your old salary.” She looked up and seemed surprised by his reaction. “We had to reduce head count, Charlie. It’s the stockholders."
"So they say."
"Charlie, really, the reason you . . ."
"Don’t start, Jill. We both know who’s to blame.”
Leaning back in her chair, she tapped her pencil against a thumbnail. “And who might that be?”
“Okay, I admit I happen to be the only one around here who has the balls to fight impossible deadlines, but that’s not my worst sin. You know the straw that broke the camel’s back? It’s when I stopped sharing my work with Airhead."
"Aaron gets things done. His bosses like him. Listen, Charlie, this is your chance to get back in. Unfortunately, upper management . . .”
"You don’t have to tell me, I know."
"If you play your cards right, who knows? Things could open up."
“Sounds good, but I can't work for Aaron again."
"You should have heard him at the meeting, Charlie. He stuck his neck out. No one wanted you back. They say you're a troublemaker."
"Because of information fed to them by Aaron."
"Listen, Charlie, I'm asking a personal favor here. The fact is the project’s in trouble."
"And you know what?” he said, standing up. “I don't get paid to care."
The receptionist was waiting for him when he got off the elevator, and had him sign out and hand over his visitor’s pass.
By the time he got home, Jill had left a message on his answering machine. The company was willing to pay a handsome bonus. Charlie rang back and got her answering machine. He dictated his terms and was more than a little surprised and flattered when she called back to agree to them.
Setting the alarm that night, Charlie Reardon felt like a little kid getting ready for the first day of school.
The next morning Aaron, Charlie’s nemesis, was sitting on a couch in the lobby reading the Wall Street Journal. He’d already signed Charlie in, and as they walked to the consultant’s cubicle, instead of filling him in on the project, told a long and winding joke in a faultless Irish brogue.
Jill once described Aaron as dazzling, but added, “On the outside, Charlie. To make up for what’s missing here.” And she pointed to her heart.
“You have everything, I think,” Aaron said, back to his normal voice. “The weekly meeting’s in the conference room at ten. We’ll be discussing schedules.”
Charlie logged on and started sifting through the work that had been done in his absence. When he clicked on one of the references, a message popped up denying him access. He got lost in his reading until Jill stopped by his cubicle.
“Let’s go next door for coffee,” she said. “They’re still serving sludge at meetings.”
Ten minutes later they entered the meeting room and Jill addressed the engineers and technicians seated around the table.
“Charlie’s here to help out. If you have any questions or need a decision made, ask Charlie. Now, let’s go around the table. Introduce yourselves and tell him what you’re working on.”
Aaron entered the room after all the engineers and technicians had filled Charlie in on their area of expertise. He walked around the table distributing the timeline and projected cost.
"Do I put in the hours the project needs or follow this schedule?" Charlie asked.
"Let’s remember our objective," Aaron said. “On time and on budget.”
Charlie turned the page over. A flowchart he’d created before he’d been laid off showed the tasks that still needed to be accomplished. Aaron’s initials identified it as his creation.
After the meeting, test writers stopped by his cubicle to fill him in on their progress. They seemed happy to be working with someone who could give them direction, especially the younger ones.
Charlie went back to eating healthy, exercising, and sleeping eight hours a night. He loved his work, especially following up on all the little details until everything locked into place.
Charlie wouldn’t let it bother him when Aaron's wife dropped off their new baby because her sitter failed to show, saw him spend an entire afternoon on hockey strategy for the team he coached, or watched him leave early to attend one of his kid’s events. Charlie reported to Jill and she’d given him free reign.
But one afternoon, he stormed into Jill’s office. “You’ll never guess.” She continued tapping on her keyboard. “I’m sorry, Jill, am I interrupting something?”
“Preparing a presentation for corporate.” She looked at him. “Okay, I could use a break. Go ahead, Charlie. Unload. Does it have anything to do with Aaron?”
“He came right out and asked me what I was earning.”
“You didn’t tell him.”
“I told him minimum wage.” Jill smiled. “Then we got to talking about our progress or lack thereof, but he was just biding his time. Finally he’d worked up enough courage to tell me he’s thinking about becoming a consultant so his wife could go back to work fulltime and asked me what consultants like us, that’s what he said, as if he and I were in the same line of work.”
“And what did you say?”
“Told him you have to negotiate for what you think you’re worth.”
“Charlie, I’ve told you before and I’ll tell you again, if anyone finds out about the bonus, especially Aaron, it’ll disappear. I don’t need that kind of aggravation.”
“Relax, Jill. Aaron’s just sniffing around. He’s got some balls though, asking me what I’m charging after laying me off.”
“Charlie, it’s the stockholders. Corporate . . .”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Listen, I have work to do. Thanks for letting me blow off steam.”
“That’s what I’m here for.”
The company’s first layoff made front-page news but by the time they got around to Charlie, layoffs didn’t even merit a paragraph in the business section. They had nothing to do with anything but showing a profit on the books, and occurred like clockwork days before the end of a fiscal quarter.
Back at the height of their success, company employees were getting stock options worth more than their annual salary. The downfall started when it went public and entrepreneurs entered the marketplace who knew nothing about technology but everything about turning a profit. Deadlines moved up and product was shipped out riddled with problems.
Then, after innumerable promises to the contrary, the first layoff occurred. And it was massive. Throughout the day, managers entered cubicles, interrupted meetings, and combed the cafeteria tracking down redundant employees.
They were the top story on the news that night. The segment concentrated on a frail middle-aged lady with a steady hand who peered through a microscope and soldered electrical connections. But interspersed with the main story were shots of workers, looking like convicts being walked to their cells, being escorted to their vehicles by either a Security Guard or a Human Resource representative.
Things had begun to stabilize the night Charlie fell into bed after working most of the weekend and woke up before the alarm with a possible solution to their most plaguing problem. Excited to implement it, he drove into work while it was still dark.
The fix improved performance but didn’t get rid of the problem. Before the weekly meeting, he was able to run enough tests to verify it wouldn’t negatively impact functionality, and his mind was busy dissecting other solutions as he entered the conference room.
At exactly ten, Aaron walked in, followed by Jill and BJ, the manager who’d laid Charlie off. Aaron told a joke and while most of the group were still puzzling out the punch line, he said, "When I was golfing with BJ this weekend, we decided on a Friday ship date. I promised him a final project report by the middle of the week.”
Charlie began mentally cataloging all the loose ends.
"Can you do it, Charlie?" Jill asked, and BJ nudged Aaron.
"Jill,” Aaron said. “Charlie's been working long hours for more than a month. He didn't have that much to do." He turned to Charlie. "I want your report on my desk by two o'clock tomorrow."
"Another early day?" Charlie snapped, and a few technicians snickered. Aaron knew enough to smile like he’d caught the joke, but an hour later he was in Charlie’s cubicle.
"You think you’re funny?” he asked. Charlie ignored him. “I want your report on my desk, complete, by noon tomorrow."
Charlie took a late lunch and skipped dinner. Working off a hard drive that attached to his workstation, he finished the report after ten and printed out two copies before erasing the working files. Charlie knew Aaron scanned his account on a daily basis, and he’d been leaving just enough to satisfy his limited curiosity.
Most of the lights had been turned out by the time Charlie was ready to leave. Gazing at the sea of empty cubicles, he remembered late nights when the office buzzed with engineers and technicians working feverishly to meet deadlines, and the subsequent celebrations when the project was complete. Arriving home after midnight, he fell asleep in his chair in the living room, waking up disoriented the next morning.
At work Charlie stopped by the bay where the prototype was being tested and talked with all the technicians and engineers. Back in his cubicle, he composed a list of concerns, suggesting follow-ups on inconsistencies no one could explain. If he’d still been working for the company, he would have fought Aaron on the deadline and gotten a time extension. At ten minutes to noon, Charlie put one report in Aaron's mailbox before walking to Jill’s corner office.
Aaron had told Charlie repeatedly that only he needed a copy of his report. Charlie suspected Aaron was planning to claim he wasn't satisfied with it, submitting a copy the next week with his name on top, claiming he’d added multiple changes, perhaps even apologizing for Charlie’s sloppiness, blaming it on his five-week vacation which is how he referred to Charlie’s layoff.
Jill waved him inside.
"So," he said. "Am I free to go?"
"You’re done?" Charlie put the other copy of the report on her desk. The folder stayed in his lap. "I guess you can go,” she said. “How about lunch? My treat."
Jill picked up the report. "I'm sure it's your usual good work?"
"I wish I would have had more time, Jill." He held the file containing his concerns.
"Ah, Charlie, you'll never change." She leaned back in her chair and opened her file drawer. "So, what are your plans? Anything exciting?"
"Nothing set in concrete." He waited for her to talk about extending his contract.
Aaron knocked and popped his head in. "Thanks, Charlie," he said. "I'll read it tonight." He seemed to lose his train of thought when he saw Jill putting a copy of the report into her file drawer.
Charlie stood up, still holding on to the file.
"Thanks for your help, Charlie," Jill said. “And keep in touch.”
"Will do." He tucked the file under his arm to take hold of her hands. "And you send me a check or three."
She laughed. “Being cut as we speak. I sent the paperwork through yesterday after the meeting.”
Aaron coughed into his hand. Charlie held up the file.
"I took the liberty of writing a conclusion, follow-ups really, the inconsistencies I’m not able to explain."
"That wasn’t necessary," Aaron said, the eagerness in his voice belying his words.
Aaron was no longer smiling. “Hand it over, Charlie.”
It was Aaron’s tone of voice that had Charlie walking toward Jill’s shredder.
“Charlie, what are you doing?” she asked.
“You heard Aaron. It’s unnecessary.”
He fed the contents of the file into the shredder. Aaron tried to wrench it free, but the pitch of the screaming motor scared him into letting go.
Jill took hold of his arm. “Okay, Charlie, come on. I’ll walk you out.”
At the elevator, she pressed the down button.
“Asshole,” Charlie muttered.
The elevator doors opened and Charlie followed Jill inside. She pressed the button for the lobby.
“You do have a copy of what you shredded, don’t you Charlie?”
“You heard him, Jill. Not necessary. Just like me.”
She turned to say something, studied his face, and changed her mind. They rode down to the lobby in silence.