Out of respect to the departed, we refrained from cheering when the quarterly results arrived, yet waves of pride rippled throughout our division’s hundred-something staffers that May. Outside our corporate HQ, the honey sweetness of spring permeated the air. It followed each of us each morning as we exited our parked Ford Escapes and Nissan Pathfinders, then marched across the parking lot and through the front doors, past the security protocols to our offices each morning.
That Friday, the VP of Internal Communications sent the following email:
From: [email protected]
As many of you are aware, our past two quarterlies each outperformed the previous two combined. However, the Spring quarterly has, in short, crushed the past three. Please know that leadership appreciates each of your contributions and expects the next quarterly to perform even better!
Morale soared. You could see it in the jaunty step Glenn Fine, Strategic Accounting Lead II, who used to offer a pleasant yet tepid Hi, how are you when passing in the central corridor, but now offered both up high and down low high fives followed by blazing finger guns; Chhavi Lal procured Krispy Kremes and an obelisk of coffee each morning that week, which she not only left in the breakroom, but walked around advertising to all of us. Even more profound, a sense of renewal blossomed within us: take the following Monday, when Jasmine Kirby finally got the damn bangs she’d debated for months, or when Liam Blanks upgraded from the Audi Q7 to the Land Rover Range Rover.
The whole world appeared to be correct and profitable and safe, and each of us basked in the glow of our own exponential growth.
All of us except Luiz.
No, Luiz did not bother me. But I certainly noticed him. While the rest of us smiled throughout our days, he glowered at his computer screen. While we interspersed our requests for touch-bases and follow-ups with sanitized quips, he deflected, uttering automatic, pedestrian phrases like You got it, or, worse: okay cool whenever I or another requested the latest HRT report.
I mean, I get it: he’s new. Well, new-ish, but in either case, our office culture is unique. But he for some reason remained aloof, peripheral, unglad even about our success. You’d see him at the edge of interoffice mixers sipping from his lemonade with a tight, dour smile, never engaging with the collective.
His eyes were the worst. When decorum or procedure pulled them away from his monitor, they carried the intensity of a wounded, abandoned mammal but with the flair of a goth rock musician. At night, when I mentally reviewed my daily life for improvement opportunities, the memory of his eyes sent shivers throughout my well-adjusted nervous system. Something had to be done about Luiz.
I had an idea to melt through his off-putting autonomy, and I set my mind to it the next Wednesday. It would begin quite simply by inviting him to lunch with the rest of us. By getting to know him, I could prove that he could be his true, authentic self around us becauase we are a team. That’s important. That if he had some opinion to share, he could. This was critical, as Luiz did great work but adhered to his job description with no drive to excel. For us to outdo the last quarterly, we’d need everyone performing with a growth mindset.
“Hey-y-y man,” I said, leaning without resting any weight on the frosted, clear plastic of his cubicle and enunciating each “y.” I didn’t look at him, per se, for the intensity of his eyes might throw me off balance.
He swiveled an inch my direction. “What Kevin?”
“You know, I was thinking…” An ideal opening, but did I feel nervous all the sudden—and if so, why? Luiz occupied a space so much lower than I in the hierarchy. I should be glowing with confidence, but my eyes remained glued to the wall for a span of agonizingly long milliseconds.
“About today,” I proceeded. “Why don’t you come out to lunch with Tanesha, Yu-Ling, Prescott and me?”
My query hung in the office air for a moment while he continued his forceful keystrokes. This is how he eventually answered me:
“Brought,” was all he said.
His monosyllabic response stopped me and I trembled in the secret place within where my sense of self resides. He ignored my effort, my seniority.
(And listen: I get how that makes me sound like a royal d-bag, okay? Guilty as charged. I’m a textbook type A but I’m not tone-deaf. It’s just that I’ve survived this company five years and learned a thing or two or three, and if you, dear reader, are still new to how we do things, you’ll come to interpret my persistence with Luiz and lunch as an act of charity.)
“My treat,” I told him, voice one octave lower.
“I’m good, Kev. Thanks.”
I leaned back, head rolling, entreated any watching Gods with the universal what’s with this guy expression, then high fived Scott Branch, who passed on his way toward marketing. I’d follow him. But not yet.
Back to Luiz: “As we all know, Karen’s position is open after her departure, and this is an opportunity for you to learn more about…”
Luiz barely looked up. “Not interested.”
“Why not?” I wracked my brain, trying to comprehend. “Is it…is it because of the quar—?”
“I understand how we do the quarterly,” he said. “But I’m fine where I am.”
“Ha, yeah, I get it bro,” I said, not getting it, woozy, sensing our tenuous connection faltering and that I’d be slingshotted away like a puny comet by his gravitic field. My grip on his cubicle wall threatened to crack it.
“No, no. No. You’re coming.” I said. Or did I shout? Did I break into a sweat, and did the whole office go silent?
His intense gaze lasered into mine. I saw pain and poetry in those eyes and, if not bothered by him, I feared him then.
“Fine,” he said like I was the asshole. I wiped my forehead, then instructed him of the time and our meeting place. I offered my most confident and reassuring, Great, see you then before speeding off to the Marketing Weekly, eyes fixed to my brown oxfords as they carried me through hallways of uniform, gray carpet.
Luiz said nothing as we carpooled in Yu-Ling’s Lexus RX to Panera, where Prescott and I both ordered the honey mustard turkey BLT. Tanesha and Yu-Ling ordered the grilled chicken Caesars, Tanesha with dressing on the side. We all ordered iced tea besides Luiz, who ordered iceless water and—get this—a single, untoasted bagel that he picked away at in silence as the others speculated about the next quarterly.
Interjecting, I steadied my voice.
“Luiz, any ideas of who it will be?”
The others seized the opportunity to focus on their lunches.
He shook his head, not participating, not joining in our speculation.
The lunch proved something unique in my life: a failure. Though most of us felt unphased by his presence, we learned nothing of why Luiz never shared in our collective revelry. I was last in line as the four of us walked back through the automatic doors that led back into HQ, and the spring air stayed right outside.
(And listen, I most definitely lead a fulfilling life. I’m married and have three kids: Stephanie, the oldest, then Michelle and Kevin Jr. I grill. I hire contractors and meditate. I read extensively on the subject of World War II. Did you know, for example, that Germany’s current environmental and animal rights laws originated under the Nazis? Point being: I have bigger, better things to occupy my attention than Luiz.)
Spring’s overlong introduction gave way to Summer, which dazzled us until it bothered us, then conceded to Fall. Fall no longer met our expectations and aged out of relevance, which brought us to a regularly scheduled Winter. And while our next two quarterlies outperformed the previous three, they did so by margins that piqued concern among the higher powers. For the possibility followed us that the year-end quarterly might only beat the previous two, and invisible daggers of dread hung over us throughout our monthly Projection Review.
By that time, I’d been upserted into the forefront of a parallel department. The modest respect of the new role pleased me, but the pressures added a dimension of stress to my routine.
At the Projection Review there was Lucy Friedman and the top sellers, as well as the directors of Implementation, Fulfillment and Law. Luiz attended, but I barely noticed him, besides when I leaned back in my seat to attempt a peek at his note taking.
By that point in my career, I did not yearn to understand the inside of his justifiably remote skull, no. I merely required a break from our current meeting’s escalating tension. I could almost make out one of Luiz’s words—wrone, wronk? Is wrang a word?
Lucy invoked my name like a conundrum.
I snapped back into the circle of grave-faced colleagues. Our growth’s cooldown rate disturbed them, as it disturbed me, and my time to share theories, speculations, and potential paths forward had arrived. Yet I’d prepared no notes. No initiatives, no workflow strategies. I stammered enough to contribute the bare minimum of words into the ether, but it felt like the walls closed in around me, around all of us.
Would it be accurate to say I ran after Luiz, chased him, when the meeting ended? Impossible to know. When he could no longer ignore me he sighed and turned in the slowest slow motion, like tai chi. I have this effect on people, I’ve been told.
I convinced him to follow me to the breakroom, which was usually unoccupied, and we sat at a lunch table beside the window through which we could watch the empty back parking lot.
“You don’t bother me,” I began reasonably. “Not in the slightest. So it’s not that. I just need to ask you a question”
“Would it be alright, Luiz, if I asked you something critical? Something I am deeply curious about?”
“I said okay, Kevin.”
“It’s a question, one that I think you are perhaps uniquely qualified to answer for me.”
“Kevin, I have a busy day. If you’re going to ask me a question, do it now.”
My gaze shot up to the drop ceiling, then back to him, then to my drumming fingers. I crossed and uncrossed my legs. My mouth opened and shut like a nutcracker.
“It’s just that, well, you seem so, ah…how should I say it? Detached? No…removed from what we do. As if, as if, you, you know, don’t want to give your all to our work. Just, like, the minimum. Which is fine, I get it, I get it. But additionally, you seem, um, upset? No, no…concerned! Overly concerned, though? So I just wanted to ask, if you didn’t mind, could you please tell me, what is your issue with our company?”
He stood up, seat shrieking along the floor. “My issue?”
Here I astounded even myself by reaching out and taking him by the arm. “Problem? Challenge-point?”
Luiz wriggled his shirt sleeve out of my grip and proceeded away. “There’s nothing wrong with me,” he stated. “It’s all of you who are wrong.”
A-ha! I had cut through, had forced him into admitting he had some negative opinion us, disapproved of some aspect of our work. But he said nothing else to me, never elaborated, which led my imagination to stretch, to stray. Dear God, dear Jesus, Allah, Divine Milky Mother of the Moon, please grant me some clue: why in the living fuck did Luiz believe us wrong?
My duties came to overwhelm me. As a process supervisor, I reviewed report-tallies, imported initiatives. I aligned hierarchies. I curated a fragile ecosystem of apps with names like Blong and Bloodle. An array of consultants billed me for their conflicting stances, models, workarounds to structural indifferences. It is true that that the imbalance between what could and could not be reconciled turned my heart into a jazz drummer, but I have never understood stress as one of life’s negative forces. Do you? Without it, why would we ever embark from our apartments?
On the day in question, I sat in my office, minding my own business (as well as the business of my subordinates), when the resolved figure of ____ materialized just beyond the doorway. What can you do in the presence of high authority but inhabit the most upbeat iteration of yourself? What can you do besides spring from your seat, raise your voice and laughter volumes like alarms? The arrival of any figurehead of ____’s stature signals a change of your career trajectory.
And like I said, I live for stress. But there’s a difference between stress and fear. Stress is useful in the way that it forces you to struggle. But is there utility in fear? Fear—real fear—kept our ancestors alive as they listened to wolves circling their hovel. It kept populations productive and orderly with the threat of damnation.
But what use did it serve me as a child, wide awake at that time of night when the rest of the world slumbered, imagining a faceless man watching me from the crack of the closet door? This man controlled his breath, kept it even and low, because he believed erroneously that I didn’t know he was there, waiting for me to let down my guard down and fall into the clutches of slumber. This man, this very imaginary man, carried a dirty knapsack full of teeth. He wanted to add to his collection.
Real fear descends upon us rarely in modern life, and truth be told: its novelty thrilled me as ____ announced It is time and indicated with a single inward curl of their pointer finger that I was to follow.
“The quarterly…it’s me this time,” I said, inflection between statement and inquiry and tone, despite conditioning, between stressed and fearful. In the boardroom, they stripped me, tied me down. The binding, as I understand it, is to restrain the body. For when confronted with so many scalpels and so little medication, the body acts of its own accord, fights, flees, flails. Eliminating this ensures a cleaner experience for the record keepers.
They descended upon me.
I am certain that I screamed throughout that final half hour of what you the living refer to as life. And as they carved the tallies, the figures, the charts and percentages into my flesh, I saw through their mass of industrious arms. I still registered my surroundings. In the corner sat Luiz, dutifully taking notes, present but not participating. Eyes heavy, huge, threatening to burst like overripe plums. Through the mist of my own blood those eyes were all I saw in the void of my collapsing consciousness. Luiz was necessary, though he did nothing. Did nothing but disapprove. Did nothing but watch me serve.