Tyrell kept his office neat and neutral. He had the walls painted “passive green and warm brown undertones” to maximize peaceful contemplation and reflection. His desk faced a wall covered in art, some he bought from local artists and others created by his family. He faced the wall so that his visitors could enjoy the view out of his window, which featured the well-tended lawn and fountain of our office’s main façade. Tyrell did not keep his awards behind his desk. He kept them on a side shelf between photos of his family and vacation pictures – one of which showed my wife and me off to one side getting ready to board a fishing boat in Baltimore.
Facing southeast, the morning sun gave the office a certain surreal air, like if the Council of Elrond had a human resources shop in Rivendell.
Tyrell also kept a small round table between his desk and the wall for team meet-ups. That day it was covered in comb-bound reports that I assumed were the annual turnover and performance numbers for the company with each department submitting its 100-page highlight document of how awesome they believed themselves to be.
Tyrell was not in his office when his admin told me to go in and have a seat. So I spent ten minutes at the group table skimming the reports on top of the pile. Profits were up! Productivity was increasing! Our investors were pleased as punch over the projections posted for next year! And Paul Newsome was king of the sales prom for the year yet again.
“Hey, Winston. You don’t need to go through that.”
It was Tyrell. He was smiling, but it was that tone-setting smile without teeth that hides the true message of the meeting to come. I noticed a small line of perspiration across the top of his receding hairline. There were a few other “tells” that only our years working together could reveal. He was stressed.
Gesturing to the empty seat opposite his at the desk, he said. “Join me. How are you feeling? I haven’t seen you since you rang that bell at the hospital.”
That was a fond memory, specifically mentioned to put me at ease. Kind of cruel when I thought about it later.
“Yeah. I’m settling in fine. Doris has been great bringing me up to speed on the new projects and initiatives. Honestly, it’s nice to be back doing the work.”
We spoke the language of work. Pleasantries were kept to small talk and whatever elements of friendship that existed between us were kept neatly in a pocket. When Tyrell nodded and let his head drop, I realized that a new barrier had come between us. Alone in his office, not a single “F” bomb had been dropped. There was no casual bullshittery between us. This was not my friend “T”. It wasn’t even “Tyrell”. It was “Mr. Williamson” all the way.
He was all business.
“It’s about Paul.”
“Yeah,” I kinda crossed over into his world and…”
“So he went to Hamish,” who was the owner and CEO of the business. When someone says “he went to Hamish” it meant that things were not getting done and a hammer needed to fall somewhere to make it happen. Tyrell continued, “You know they’re tight. So long as Paul shovels cash into his mouth, he’s the star player on this entire team.” Before I could respond, Tyrell went on, determined to get through the whole matter as soon as possible. “Hamish has been sniffing around your position for a while. He has a nephew who graduated Penn State with a degree in human resources. He saw your extended absence and decided to bring him in to help.”
“Kenneth,” I said. “Yeah, I met him. Sharp kid. Lots of energy. Had no idea he was Hamish’s…”
“So just now, when Paul called Hamish in the middle of his breakfast executive meeting, things got a little heated. A few moments later, I’m on the phone with both of them and — it was not a pleasant conversation, I’m afraid.” He paused and looked around his desk. “Shoot, I think I left my water bottle up in the executive office.”
“You said ‘shoot’, Tyrell.
“That’s not a good thing.”
“No, Winston. It is not.” He focused on me again and folded his hands.
It was that moment, one I’ve seen many times before, that made me realize what was about to happen.
“I think this is an excellent time to exercise a change. For you, for Claire…for the company, I think.” He waited for me to speak. I passed on the opportunity, so he continued. “This morning was a disaster. You can’t just insult our top performer, insult his integrity and leadership skills. According to Doris, you didn’t even try to keep a professional face on things.”
Again, I said nothing. This was just the build-up to the big finish.
“What happened? From your perspective.”
From your perspective. That’s code for “we already decided what actually happened, but we need you to give your side so we can say we covered everything.” I took a breath and looked out over a beautiful late-morning sky. White clouds crossed the blue and drew my eyes to the green trees hiding the strip mall just beyond. So much was going on out there. I watched people in business attire come and go along the sidewalks linking the building to the parking lot and I pictured the HR staff and Paul Dirtdick Newsome staring down at myself carrying a cardboard box out to my car.
“I don’t like bullies, Tyrell. It all seemed so pointless to tell a narcissist to be nice because they think they are. They think their brand of ‘tough love’ works on everybody. Poor Janine, she has had it. No one was standing up for her. She had no voice. We were going to just ignore a negative competency from management and send her back to Cindy like she did something wrong. No one was going to say “Paul was a bad manager” — we were going to just imply – strongly – that there’s something wrong with Janine. I just…just couldn’t stand sitting there listening to the things coming out of his fat, stupid face.” The rest of it, the things I could have said, I left out because it was wasted breath.
“It just wasn’t like you. I had to take a moment and consider- ‘is that really the Winston Casey I know?’”
All I could do in the moment was shrug, like an old drunk caught behind the bar by the saloon keep.
“I see.” Tyrell nodded and folded his hands under his bottom lip, signaling the pronouncement of judgement. “I think it is time for you to consider embracing this opportunity gifted you by this…trauma you’ve suffered.”
“Maybe that’s the wrong word. You’ve been back a couple of weeks now and even Doris noticed that your attention span has shortened, your patience is limited…you’re issuing several microaggressions at meetings that suggest you’re not interested in your meetings… I think this isn’t necessarily bad for you but potentially bad for the company.”
Tyrell’s admin, Bonnie, entered the office silently like she didn’t want to disrupt a funeral, handed Tyrell a green folder, and slipped out again. There was no friendly “hello” or even eye contact. The green folder was the final confirmation about how my day was about to go. Green folders go in the Inactive Employee file.
“Your performance since returning to the office has been underwhelming and, while I would normally assume this was just the normal pattern of getting back into the swing — this business with Paul just took it right out of my hands. Nobody likes a bully, I’m sure. But he’s not just a bully. He’s 40.3 percent of our business. And you directly devalued his contribution to this company.”
“Oh, please. I hurt his feelings. He’s a big boy…”
“With the support of the owner and Board. All of them think he’s what this company needs to survive the next downturn. We, however, in the HR shop, are just drones facilitating their greatness. Replaceable. Even me.”
“So I’m done. What do I sign?”
The folder contained my reputation moving forward along with whatever terms and conditions were tied to my termination. I’d put many of these together, sometimes with non-compete clauses preventing sales agents or other employees from going right to the competition. If I were terminated “for cause” it would look bad on a reference check, which would complicate the job search for a 40-something white male in a culture looking for diversity in the workplace. I support this, but it didn’t make my personal prospects any brighter. What I read was a release citing “mutual understanding of diverging interests.”
“I saw this on the horizon, Winston. And I’m sorry I didn’t warn you. Hamish wants that position for his sister’s kid and this was the perfect excuse to had it to him. That said, knowing it was coming, I made sure to get approval for a comfortable landing.”
“You knew they were gunning for me and said nothing.”
“If not this, then something else. They were ready for the long game.”
“That’s called ‘constructive discharge’ and I understand is still illegal.”
“If you can prove it in court. Which is tough. And expensive. Look at the terms. Please.” He handed me the folder.
I read the terms of discontinued service and the generosity of it was obvious. But it did not overwhelm my sense of betrayal. “Well, that’s a nice buy-out.”
Tyrell let his guard down a little once the formal shit-canning was over. He didn’t bring himself to say the words, but we both heard them in context. He pinched the bridge of his nose and suppressed a hiccup. “I’m sorry, Winston. I know this probably fucks with our friendship and that’s….regrettable.”
He knew that didn’t pass the bullshit test and tried a less formal “T” approach. “Buddy, you need to get out of this business. I saw it coming before you got hit with cancer. I knew you were heading for a burnout but I thought you might turn it around when you got back. You’ve changed. Maybe for the better, but not in a way that works for this company. You just Don Quixote’d he wrong employee.”
“I know that complicates things, politically. But it was the right thing to do.”
“And I agree with you that Paul is a walking civil suit. He’s also…what do you call them? A clownshoe. But you know — money makes the rules and feeds the lawyers. Again, man: I am sorry.”
I signed what I needed to sign, accepted Tyrell’s handshake, and turned to leave. Standing in the door was Earl Talbot, our full-time security guard. He had a cardboard box containing the few personal items I brought back into work. He had a slight smirk on his face which was the probably the result of a counseling session I had to have with him about commenting on the skirts worn by women in the office. I suspended him for three days without pay.
He walked me through the office, past the people I’d worked with for a decade as well as strangers, and none of them said a word. I shared an elevator with the managers I served as a business partner, and they pretended I didn’t exist. At the front doors, Earl tossed me the half-empty box and said, “See ya” before walking back to his station at the reception desk.
As the doors parted, I caught sight of Janine through the open door to our – the – cafeteria. She saw me, noticed the box, and turned away.
I strolled along the winding walk toward the parking lot, resisting the urge to look back, threw the box into the trunk of my Volvo, and got inside.
I turned the key and the radio station played Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” which perked me up a little before I realized it was the last fifteen seconds of the song. Following right after, Iheard the familiar, melancholic chords of Keith Richards on guitar introducing the somber Rolling Stones classic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” which carried me up Barnard Circle to the highway onramp and about halfway home when someone at the radio station decided to follow it up with that god-awful Eddie Money song, “Be My Little Baby”. I shut it all off and started thinking about what I would tell Claire and how to respond to her inevitable passive-aggressive response.
I decided I wasn’t ready and turned right on Beaver Road toward Mechanicsburg where my friend Diane worked. If I ever needed life advice, she was the one to have it.