Patrick was dimly aware that the conversation was about him. He had been summoned to the office of a guy who he knew, in a vague way, was above him at Hartford Indemnity and Life. The ability to remain vague about such things was Patrick’s greatest institutional strength. Other mid-management, ~$250k guys were keenly aware of where everyone fell on the hierarchy—it was not uncommon for those on the executive ladder to offer a little bribe to underlings in HR, hoping to find out which of their equals really were and which were merely ostensible. Patrick never did, never gossiped about salary, never betrayed an ounce of concern or even interest when some jerk on his floor became one of the assholes on the floor above. More importantly: he was never seen to worry about it. He had become known for not caring, and that was a scarce and valuable institutional currency.
Lately, however, it had led to situations like this meeting. His showy disinterest had bled into his basic ability to follow a conversation or even to feign concern for the basic responsibilities of the job. At that very moment, he was admiring the view the senior executive enjoyed. He permitted himself a moment of self-congratulation that he was merely enjoying, not envying; how many people had sat in this chair, he wondered, and compared that view to their own? He had an office on the same side of the building, same size window, but several floors down. It was remarkable to him how the dirt brown water of the Connecticut became a kind of honeyed mocha from this elevation. Then again, looking across the river meant that you were looking away from Hartford, and to his mind that helped no matter what your altitude. Not that he didn’t care for the city; just the prior year, he had written a thick check to some group or another. But the real players had offices that looked the other direction. That’s how it worked; he didn’t make those rules.
It was the words “your replacement” that prodded him. The many layers of lacquer that he had allowed to spread over his workplace consciousness — had done more than allowed, if he was going to be honest — prevented his mind from really grabbing at and holding those words, but some part of his lizard brain flooded out its chemicals, and he snapped back, away from the window and the distant birds.
“So if you could train your replacement over the next two weeks, the company would appreciate it, and it would reflect well on the recommendation letters I would be happy to write, although legally I must inform you that your decision to participate in such training will have no bearing on our negotiations of severance.”
This was not an opportune sentence to come back to. Patrick tried to pull its various pieces apart and assess them — the workshopped, matter-of-fact quality with which it discussed his termination, the implied threat, the chipper sincerity of its promise to aid him in his next job search — but really, he mostly felt admiration. The sentence had been the kind of linguistic, legalistic, and psychological marvel that only a life spent in insurance could prepare a man for. It was a piece of art, really, in its brute efficiency, its ability to satisfy every dictate of the literal paper checklist that, no doubt, lay hidden under his black, embossed file folder. This was another of Patrick’s institutional strengths: he felt genuine admiration for peers and superiors. He was constitutionally inclined to recognize talent and effort. The man speaking to him was a professional.
Patrick became aware that his counterpart knew he hadn’t been paying attention, and that indeed this preoccupation had pleased him. He tried to remember what had been said previously, knowing that he had nodded along reflexively at the bad news he had been hearing. What had he agreed to, silently, with his body language, the half-nods and uh-huhs that had carried him through a career of inattentive discussions? How little people realized the talent it took, the craft, to be in a conversation but not of it. Anyone could sleep through a humanities seminar. Few could dominate one while barely bothering to think about it. Patrick always had, and it had gotten him perfect grades, letters of recommendation, status with professors. He had gained this key insight early on: for someone like him, studied disinterest was a powerful tool, a gift to others around him. Patrick knew that people felt terror in the face of full, human attention. And so he spent a lifetime of not giving it to them. How many policies had he sold, back when he was still selling policies, by virtue of not having put the buyers in the terrible light of his full attention? How many of his girlfriends had valued most his tacit offer to be loved by being left alone?
But now his abilities had failed him. He was sitting across the desk from a man who saw not emotional comfort, in Patrick’s distant gaze, but the promise of ease, the certainty of a defenseless victim. It seemed he was, without intending to, doing one last workplace favor through distraction, making himself easy to fire. Was there still time? He pursed his lips and struggled for a way to fish out the reason for his termination without making the tacit shared understanding that he hadn’t been listening into an explicit fact. It had to be confident but probing, direct but appropriately deferential. It had to acknowledge everything but concede nothing.
“I’m being let go?”
The other man blew air out of his mouth. He looked at Patrick with something approaching sympathy, if sympathy came in a coldly analytical flavor. He dropped the papers he had been holding onto his desk, in a way calculated to indicate that he was getting real. Patrick appreciated the sentiment, but the room was beginning to spin.
“You’re very expensive, Patrick, for what you’re giving us. You’re not moving much, anymore. Vertically or horizontally. And frankly, you seem distracted.”
His counterpart was older, but not quite older enough to make the corporate distance between them comfortable. It was then Patrick began to feel real panic: he had just noticed something he had spent a career not noticing.
“Are you distracted, Patrick?”
“I don’t understand the question.”
“Do you want to work here?”
That was the knife, steel in his ribs. Of course he wanted to work there. Why else would he have spent so much time and effort conveying his lack of caring? How desperately he had worked to love his job by stumbling through it; how richly he had been rewarded by showing all of those around him how little he needed them. Only then, too late, did he realize that his lack of interest was a younger man’s move, an attribute only appropriate for those assumed to be hungry. Young distracted men seemed on their way to someplace more important; old distracted men just looked soft. When had he gotten old? He realized he hadn’t checked his retirement account in years, a casualty of his obsession with not obsessing. He looked over his adversary again, and could find nothing to blame in the other man’s crisp attention, his ruthless, ruthless fairness. Patrick knew he would have seen what the other man saw, if he had this office, if this was his desk, if another Patrick had been sitting across from him. What had been in his youth a symbol of his edge had become, just a few years older, the symbol of his soft decline.
“We’re bringing in the kid because he’s cheap, Patrick. And because he’ll start out worse than you but he’ll end up better, and then he’ll move up or he’ll move out. You know how it goes.”
Patrick was disappointed to find that the river still looked better from up there. He was disappointed, too, to see the face of his young replacement as he headed out of the office, past the receptionist’s desk where the young kid sat awkwardly waiting. He had wanted the kid to look hungry, mean. But he just looked frightened.
Patrick found, in his office, a short stack of packing boxes and a weeping secretary. He managed a rueful, sympathetic smile, though he felt nauseous. As she cried, he extended his arm around her in the human resources-approved half-hug that was somehow more distancing than no contact at all. It felt wrong, after 7 years together, but after his firing he was suddenly feeling very conscious about his job. Then a dark thought occurred to him and his expression changed to real concern.
“Caroline — you’re not getting let go too, are you?”
“No,” she said, pausing. “I’m getting a raise!” And with this she broke down into open, loud sobs, and he drew her in to a real, human embrace.
He needed only one of the boxes. It surprised him, how little of what was in his office belonged to him. But then, there was no wife and no kids and so there were no photos of wives and kids. Nor were there bowling league trophies or beloved pieces of corporate bric-a-brac, no softball league t-shirt, no plaques for service. The box was heavy, but it was only one box.
He rode the elevator to the garage floor, stone faced, his name plate and bonsai tree extending past the lip of the box, as young men and women rode to their floors unthinking. The leather seat of his BMW was freezing. He threw it in reverse and spun backwards quickly, the only indication of his seething anger, but drove slowly out of the garage, into a grey world under a cloudless winter sky. As he passed the river, he gave it another look, with new eyes.
“Just like coffee,” he said out loud, and drove home.