The Employee

by Hunter Cross

May 4, 2002

The computers are whirring and spitting out the usual amount of typed pages. Just enough, London thought, to keep their job, just enough to keep the business moving along smoothly. The lights are a terrible shade of bright, always on and humming like some large group of electronic insects filling the space with their electromagnetic mating calls. Occasionally one fizzles out and the light team, with their white jackets and blue hats, brings their ladder and replaces it, just as the office begins to realize they like it better with less light. London knew the lights were the cheapest on the market. Everyone in the office knew, and knew just as well that if they complained they would be fired.

He showed up to work today not because he was awfully excited about his job, but rather because he was being honored as employee of the month. He didn’t feel honored; the task of being honored was just another set of events and tasks he had to finish to make the company move along. It made the company look good that they had employees of the month. It showed other companies that Alwaystech cared about its employees. If they care about their employees, London thought, how about some nice light bulbs? Maybe I’ll bring up with Mr. Locks today, maybe he would listen to an Employee of The Month. London added it as a box in a checklist he stored in his brain that organized his thoughts into “yes I canâ” and “no I can’t.”

“I know it’s a minor thing Mr. Locks,” he heard himself saying, “but me and the guys were wondering, well, I was thinking, what about…” His brain stuttered at the thought of confrontation and decision.

“Maybe I should just leave it alone,” he thought.

At Alwaystech, all of the jobs are like London’s. The computer does all the work, while he supervises, in case it freezes and inputs numbers from forms that appear on his desk everyday. The cubicle he sits in says:

London Atkins

Informational Manager and Computational

Everyone has their little name demarcating their spaces at Alwaystech, that way no one has to remember names, or even faces. Just department and box number like a large factory farm of chickens laying eggs by the hour, collected from the grid as anonymously as possible.

Mr. Locks, his boss, had taken him into his office an hour ago, taken a picture of him with a cheap Polaroid camera, and shook his hand. London thought it all very strange, since Mr. Locks certainly did not know his first name or even where he worked within the company. In fact, it was the first time they had ever met.

Mr. Locks walked out of his office and London followed trying to guess the next step of the honoring. A gilded frame with large serif type exclaimed

Employee of the Month

and held a faded Polaroid picture of last month’s winner. Her smile was tense and agitated as if the photo was taken right before she would be told of a chronic medical condition. It was a pre-cancer photo for sure, nothing short of a bunny caught in a corner, without the ability to speak, she smiled like fear. Indeed, her teeth seemed to squeal, freshly washed and her face so nicely painted, the Polaroid made her face ghostly, no doubt from the stark office lighting and the bright instant camera’s flash. London’s picture looked like he had just gotten beaten up. His face looked as if it were moving left and right at the same time, and his poor eyes were small slits, barely open, barely seeing anything.

Mr. Locks tore the old photo down crumpled it in his hand and threw it in his secretary’s pink trashcan. With a smile, now, he placed London’s daysleeping face on the small square of gold and extended his hand. The secretary gave Mr. Locks a typed card. He moaned skillfully, “Congratulations London Watkins, you are our highly esteemed Employee of the month. Thank you for being such a great team player.” He then threw this in the trash and stared at London with small impatient eyes.

London glanced down, mentally fumbled for a second as to which of his hands to extend, and reaching out with his right, said “Thank you so much for this. It means a lot to me. My parents will be so proud.”

“Well you’ve earned it son,” Mr. Locks said and reached into his pocket to pull out two cigars.

Clenching one in his baleen, Mr. Locks tossed the other to London, turned around and walked back into his office. London stood motionless for a while listening to the secretary type and pop her Trident gum, twisting the cigar in his hand. He didn’t feel any of this; He didn’t even know why he had thanked Mr. Locks. He searched his mental checklist but found nothing to explain his behavior. This wasn’t what he wanted to do; it was just what he was doing.

. . .

London woke with a start because the lightchangers had fumbled a ladder and it crashed down on some poor person’s computing station. Her pink slip would simply read Improper management led to overruns in operational costs which required the termination of said management.

London looked up out of his cube, like a prairie dog expecting sharpshooters, to see that the ladder had unfairly chosen Rebecca Muñoz. She had had her picture taken by Mr. Locks two months ago. London
watched as she stood up and walked straight out of the office, no scene, no complaining, no mess. The inter-office email servers exploded without discussion.

“Did you see that”

“Those lighting guys are so stupid”

Re: Poor Rebecca (She was such a good supervisor)

“Wasn’t her birthday tomorrow”

Re: She is so fired

London knew that none of these things were to ever be said in person, they were just part of the company’s electronic collective consciousness. A perfectly integrated place to say what everyone was thinking but not allowed to say. Alwaystech even backed up their email every week onto large removable disks. In fact, that was Rebecca Mu&ntidle;oz’s job. She had been a memory manager, and now herself a memory.

London stared at the clock on his churning and whirring computer; four hours until five, four hours until home. It prompted him for the names of two site supervisors on job#E569321. Searching through his deskpapers he comes up with a sheet, all computer printed, about job #E569321. Type the names Mark Shriver and Oliver Netannigan.

Push Return.

Whirring whirring whirring.

Beep, another question. Scan paper. Type 212-597-8730. Push Return.

Whirring whirring whirring.

London dozed off again as the computer whispered “Don’t worry I’ve got everything under control….”

When London woke up it was 2:40 and his computer was still gently processing. Good, he thought, I didn’t miss anything. He grabbed his lunch sack and his sweater and rose out of his small honeycomb. Walking out of his office floor and into the central elevator waiting area, he saw Mr. Locks talking to Rebecca, both awaiting the next elevator.

She kept shaking her head and her long black hair shook with each word. Before London could reach them, she ran into the woman’s restroom, kicking a custodian’s cart out of the way, and letting out a small whimper. “Beautiful weather we’ve been having lately, such a nice day today,” the piggish Mr. Locks said to the approaching London.

“The best weather I’ve seen in a while,” London dutifully replied.

Both stepped in to the elevator and London awkwardly pressed the circular light-up button of his parking permit floor. London was a green level, basement 10, and Mr. Locks was floor one, street level. The elevator jerked to a start and creaked slowly down.

“So what’s your name young man,” Mr. Locks said with an effervescent superiority. The elevator shook with a strange passion. A grinding sound began softly and gradually increased. The bright lights dimmed, and a faint smoky odor entered the elevator. Mr. Locks looked at London with new eyes, as if he had seen his childhood again. The elevator cables snapped.

“London Atkins, sir,” he said calmly, “We met earlier today when you took my picture.”