Working Down to His Bones
The ceaseless droning of the office was torturous to Richard. There was always typing, sporadic as the different speeds of his coworkers combined to form a ceaseless din of clacking plastic with no concept of rhythm. There was the printer always running this time of year, producing enough noise to blend in with the typists, but the consistent assembly line of paper feeding in, scanning, inking, and sliding out into the tray contrasted with the discord of the keyboards. There were the telephones that would always interrupt the drone of the office. They were loud enough to stand above every other sound and broke what little rhythm that was already happening inside the office. The same scripted lines would answer the rings, “Thank you for calling our office! My name is so-and-so, how can I help you? I’ll redirect your call to the proper department.” Richard hated it, but this job was the only thing he could do. Besides, he really needed to pay the bills.
His own phone rang. Richard’s main job was organizing files; he managed the physical copies, scanned those copies into digital ones, organized those into a central database, cleaned out the old files every year, and did just about anything that had to do with the company’s bookkeeping. There were only a few reasons to call him; he either misplaced a file (a rare occurrence), someone was having problems with the digital file room (the most common), or his boss had a complaint (the worst case scenario).
He picked up the phone, “Hello, this is Richard speaking.”
“Richard! Do you have a minute? I’m gonna need to see you in my office for just a second,” said a cheery voice on the other end. It was the possibility that Richard dreaded the most.
Richard stood up and straightened his suit jacket as he walked around the rows of cubicles. Some of his coworkers gave him passing glances while the rest dutifully continued their work, dealing with clients, typing emails, and filling out forms. Only Barbara at the end of the row seemed to have an inkling of what was really happening, and gave Richard a worried look. She seemed sorry. Her desk was the last one before the secretary’s. She knew that someone like Richard coming this way was never a good thing.
Richard approached the secretary who didn’t seem to acknowledge his presence.
“What do you want,” she said without looking up from the computer screen at her desk.
“Mr. Howard called me. He said he wanted to see me now.”
The secretary shot Richard a glance and told him, “Go on in, and don’t waste his time. Mr. Howard has an important meeting in ten minutes.”
Richard knocked on the door to Mr. Howard’s office. There was his name, Robert Howard, on a golden plate in the middle of the door and the entire wall that faced out into the reception area was a translucent glass.
“Come on in, Richard,” came Mr. Howard’s voice from the other side.
Richard entered the office to find Mr. Howard with his feet on his desk and his hands folded across his stomach. “Close the door behind you, please, and take a seat.”
Richard did as he was told.
“How’ve you been Richard? Everyone being nice to you? Adjusting alright?”
“Yes, sir. Everyone’s been quite nice actually. The work has been a little overwhelming, but what else do you expect from a company with as many clients as yours?”
“With more success comes more work,” responded Mr. Howard as he extended his arms out, gesturing towards the rest of his shelves full of books and private folders, “but that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. How long have you been here again?”
“About two and a half weeks, sir,” Richard began to tense up.
Mr. Howard sat up and leaned forward, propping his elbows on his desk. “You’ve been with us for less than a month, but I remember from your resume that you’re experienced in your field of work. Is that correct?”
“Y-yes sir. I’ve been doing book keeping for a little over five years now. As you’re probably aware I worked for-“
“I know who you’ve worked for. They were arrested for fraud, so the company collapsed and the employees found themselves without their jobs. Thankfully, Richard, you got lucky and we were looking for someone with your kind of experience.”
“Yes sir, I’m fully aware, sir, and I’m more than grateful for this opportunity.”
“I’m going to cut to the point, Richard. Did you ever meet Joel, your predecessor?”
Richard never met him; he was sure of it. The day he walked in, he was led around the office and put right to work. They told him that since he was experienced he shouldn’t have a problem navigating the system and the file rooms. Richard remembered the massive stack of portfolios of all the current clients with a synopsis of what they do, their relationship and partnership with the company, and what types of files should be in their folders. But he did remember a conversation he had with a coworker in the break room that day. He was supposed to be Joel’s permanent replacement. There were rumors of Joel having a mental and emotional breakdown, too much work.
“I never met him, but I’ve heard of him,” answered Richard.
“Oh good! What can you tell me about him?”
“Well, I’ve only heard rumors, so I don’t think I can really say anything.”
“The point I’ve been trying to make,” started Mr. Howard, “is that Joel was an efficient worker. He got his work done at the pace that I liked. I never had to ask him for anything, do you know why, Richard?”
Richard meekly answered, “Is it because it was already done?”
“Precisely Richard! On several occasions these last two and a half weeks, I’ve had to look for specific files in our system. I couldn’t find them, not because I’m stupid, but because you haven’t scanned them into our digital system. I understand that my company may be bigger than the ones you used to used to work for, but I need shit done before I need to waste my time asking for it.”
“I understand, sir.”
Mr. Howard sighed and leaned back in his chair. He asked, “How are you going to make up for the time you’ve lost? Are you going to start staying late? Or are you going to start coming early?”
“Sir, I already do both. I get here an hour before we open, and I don’t leave till two hours after we close.” Richard wanted to continue; he wanted to mention how his pay was much less than his previous job and how the extra hours was him compensating for what he lost. The economy had taken a fall three years earlier. Everyone was being paid and making less. At this rate, he wouldn’t be able to support himself and his wife. He hoped that Mr. Howard would understand.
“Richard, I don’t care about what you already do, it’s not enough. I don’t even really care about how you’re going to do it. I just want you to get it done and to stop being an inconvenience to me. That’ll be all.”
Richard walked back toward the rows of cubicles with the droning noises of an office space. He pulled out his phone, thinking about the call he’d have to make to his wife. They had been planning on having a date night that evening. Richard knew that she has been upset with his work schedule over the last three years. The lifestyle they wanted was once manageable. When the economy was good, Richard could have standard work hours with his job and have a nice house with a large yard, afford nicer clothes and luxurious cars, and his wife could stay home, like he promised. When the economy went under, they were only able to hold on by Richard working longer days while his wife taking on a full time job for the first time in years.
Even though he wasn’t technically allowed to make personal phone calls during office hours, Richard believed that this was necessary. He dialed the number and waited for her to pick up. For a moment, Richard feared that she wouldn’t pick up. As soon as he thought it would go to voice mail, he heard her voice on the other end.
“Hey, Susan! It’s me!”
“You never call this early during work, is something wrong?”
“No, no, nothing is wrong, but we’re going to have to move back our dinner plans a little bit.”
There was silence. Then an exasperated sigh, followed by, “Richard, again?”
“I’m not canceling it, that’s not what I’m saying at all. I need to stay at the office a little longer than usual tonight. That’s all. We’ll just have to eat a late dinner.”
“When you say longer than usual, do you mean longer for a normal person or longer for you?”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
Susan sighed before she continued, “Don’t you get that normal people in your position come home at 5 o’clock, Richard, and when they say they’ll be late, that typically means they’ll be leaving at about six. You, on the other hand, won’t leave your office till about seven on a normal day, and late for you could mean two or three hours later than that.”
“I’m doing this so I can keep this job, Susan, just cooperate with me here, please. We can eat at the same restaurant; it’ll just be a little later and we’ll have to drive separately.”
After a moment of thinking, Richard heard a grunted, “fine,” and their call was finished.
Richard continued his work, reading and scanning files and client information, double checking files, making sure everything was in place and scanned into the system. Soon enough, everyone was packing up their briefcases and bags and ending their work day. Some were kind enough to tell him goodbye on their way out. There were a few left continuing their work, but by six o’clock, he was the only one left. Thanks to digital files, Richard’s job would be smooth and much easier than digging through a file room, but something was wrong. All the files should be in place, all the information should be readily available in either a digital or physical form, and everything should be properly filled out, but not in this company. Sure, an overwhelming majority of the clients had all of their files and information completely filled out and neatly organized, but there were enough with missing information for it to be disturbing to Richard. An odd file here or there wouldn’t be the end of the world, but this was different. Major files dealing with income, taxes, company property, company shipments, spending, and so on were completely missing. Usually a page or two of the form would be missing, but sometimes the entire file would be completely absent. These files and records couldn’t just go missing. Richard made note of everything missing and left it on his supervisors desk. He sent an email to his supervisor along with Mr. Howard. The time was a quarter till nine by the time he clocked out. As he left, he couldn’t help but think about one particular rumor he heard about his predecessor, Joel. He looked at his desk and thought about how the rumors said that Joel was sometimes found asleep at his desk in the morning, exhausted from the previous nights labors.
He called Susan. “I’m leaving the office now,” he told her, “I’ll go ahead and grab us a table. See you in a minute.” He didn’t get much of a response out of her.
Richard was easily able to grab a table. He waited patiently for his wife. He’d constantly stare outside the window hoping that the next passing person was her about to make a turn into the restaurant. It was only a matter of time before she did.
She looked a little tired, but Richard was sure that he looked worse.
“You look lovely this evening,” he said with a smile.
She smirked for just a second. “There’s no need for flattery, I know that the last few years haven’t been kind to me.”
“Is it really flattery though, when I mean it?”
Before Susan could get another word out of her mouth, Richard’s phone started ringing.
“Excuse me, for one moment,” he said immediately.
“Hello, this is Richard.”
“Richard, it’s Scott, your supervisor. I just got your email. What do you mean that those files are missing?”
“They’re no where to be found. I’ve checked different file and data rooms on our servers, I’ve scrolled through them and searched everywhere and nothing has come up. As for the physical copies, some are missing pages, some aren’t filled out completely, and some aren’t even in the folder. These aren’t newsletters, Scott, these are really important papers that we need to store.”
“I’m aware of the importance, Richard. You said you’ve emailed Mr. Howard?”
“Yes sir, but I haven’t heard anything from him yet. If I don’t hear anything from him tonight, I’ll go by his office tomorrow.”
“Okay, well thanks for the update. I’ll see if I can find anything tomorrow. Bye.”
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” Susan said.
Richard put his phone back in his suit’s inner pocket and replied, “Sorry about that, work’s been busy.”
Susan rolled her eyes and stared out the window into the streets. “You’re always busy.”
“Well, Susan, it’s to pay the bills.”
“But you’re not even at work.”
Richard folded his hands and stared at the table. When he looked up, he said, “Okay, no more work tonight.”
“Are you sure you can handle that?”
“That should’ve been the last call.”
The waiter brought their food, seafood pasta and another bottle of white wine.
“The garden has been looking nice,” Richard began with a smile.
“I’m surprised you’ve noticed,” Susan retorted, her eyes not leaving her plate.
“Of course I have, you love gardening.”
Susan showed a faint smile. “Remember when you tried to help me?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said chuckling, “you just ordered me around.”
Richard’s phone rang. Both of their smiles faded as he reached into his pocket. He looked at his phone and let it ring a few times. The number that appeared was Mr. Howard. Richard looked back at his wife, and said with regret, “I have to take this.”
“Sure you do,” sighed Susan as she poured herself another glass.
“Hello, this is Richard.”
“Richard! I got your email. Good to see that you took my advice earlier. Don’t worry about those papers, okay? I’ve got everything under control. I needed them for specific meetings with those clients. You’ll find them on your desk tomorrow and you can continue your job. I’ll also be contacting Scott to let him know not to worry about it either.”
“Okay, thank you for letting me know sir. You didn’t have to do it this evening.”
“Well then, I’ll see you tomorrow, Richard.”
It was still weird. He couldn’t help but wonder why Mr. Howard would only take individual forms and papers rather than the entire folder when dealing with the clients. Even if he did need to borrow them, it didn’t explain why they were absent from the digital file room.
Richard turned back to Susan who was finishing her meal. The waiter came by and asked if they’d like dessert.
“No thank you,” she replied, “I need to get up early.” She got out of her seat and placed her napkin on her plate. She turned to Richard and said, “I need to get home so I can get enough sleep before work tomorrow. You go ahead and finish your meal.”
He tried to finish his food after such a long day, but he had lost his appetite.
Later, as Richard walked through the door to his home, he immediately went to the kitchen fridge and pulled out a beer. It had been a ritual of his for a little over two years. He believed it helped him sleep better. He climbed the stairs past the old pictures of his and Susan’s families, then their wedding, and then those from a few years ago when they seemed to be happier people. He entered their bedroom where Susan was already sound asleep. Richard placed the nearly empty beer bottle on his night stand and stripped down to his underwear, tossing his suit across the room, telling himself it needed to be dry cleaned anyway. He collapsed and buried his head into his pillow and whispered, “Goodnight, Susan.” He was greeted with a familiar silence.