By Jim Cole
Featured Art: Chameleon by Scott Brooks and Mallory Valentour
The New Girl’s boss was fired. Then, her boss’s boss was fired.
People said her boss’s boss had, like, this vein of ore trapped deep down in his large body – imbedded, inscrutable. When he said Good morning that wasn’t usually what he meant. When he laughed it was not at what you supposed. Inside, he longed to fire you.
Everyone said it. Her boss said it. Then he was fired. Her boss’s boss fired an old woman with a limp and a new pair of high heels, he fired a guy who went to his college, he fired a husband and wife who said they loved the company because they got to work together. Then, they got fired together. Everyone knew it: her boss’s boss yearned to fire; avoid him if you could. How many he’d fired, nobody could say. A dozen? Maybe twice that. His hit list was long – everyone. From a distance, and around corners, in the elevator and hallways and restroom stalls, outside on cigarette breaks, they talked about him, they joked nervous, and they called him something: the Reptile. When you talked to the Reptile, the air you breathed grew clammy. He smiled and was polite, he asked about your family’s well-being and your home appliances, and if your weekend was satisfactory and busy, and he looked at your surroundings, and said you had a nice workspace and to have a nice day, then you were fired. It was what he wanted, what satisfied the Reptile. It showed in his eyes and his stiff hair and his gait, in the way he exhaled or didn’t, the way he wore a pearl tie clasp on a pearl-colored tie, and how he pronounced the word bagel.
He had one purple fingernail from a hammer mishap, and no eyebrows, and no pictures. In his office, just an electric fan. It blew streamers made of orange crepe paper. You could not look into the Reptile’s green eyes and still feel safe. He smelled like leather and raisins. They claimed his fan spun the wrong direction.
And yet, he liked her – the New Girl.
The New Girl busted her tail, he told someone. “She has a good head on her good shoulders,” he said. He liked the way she worked. She told people she was no kiss ass, but she wasn’t stupid, either. She told people she knew what was what. People said they would see about that. Her boss had told her, “Your job is to make me look good.” She had. She had made her boss look good. She thought she had. Then he was fired.
She’d been there a week, when her boss’s boss buzzed her. He said he wanted the New Girl in his office.
“And I mean ASAP.”
She tidied her desk, straightening the papers and the pencils. She combed her fingers through her hair. Her boss’s boss kept his door shut. She knocked. She waited in silence, counted to seven, and knocked again. She waited some more. When her boss’s boss opened the door, he told her a knock was not a call for help. A knock heralds one’s arrival, asserts one’s right to enter.
“Next time, do it right,” he said. “Or else, you know what.”
“I will,” she said. “Good morning.”
His office smelled alien. It smelled like the morning sun was sautéing the synthetic green carpet. She thought she heard the crackling of fire-retardant fibers. She started to sweat. He sat at a giant desk and drank a glass of ice water.
“Take off that jacket, it’s navy blue,” he said.
She hung it on the back of his door, next to his sport coat. He laughed. He tapped his pen on the desk, drew tic-tac-toe boards on the blotter. He played against himself and grimaced and huffed. He took a deep breath and looked up at her. He scratched his neck and ear and held his breath. His left eye twitched. The New Girl sat still and picked her cuticles.
“What do you think of your boss?”
She rubbed her forehead and looked at the fan. Everyone liked her boss. She liked her boss. She told him that everyone liked her boss.
“No,” he said staring at the game on his blotter. “Not everyone.”
“What do you mean?” she said.
“He doesn’t overdo it?”
She laughed. A stress laugh. Like a punctured bicycle tire. It escaped through her nose. Her shoulders shimmied. “Yeah. Well.”
“What is he doing with Project Iguana?”
Her boss had explained Project Iguana on her first day. She had sat in his office and stared at a world map on the wall. She counted the red dots – the company’s twenty-eight offices. The Middle East, Latin America, Southeast Asia, Korea. South Korea, she corrected herself. Worldwide reach. She thought, Iguana.
“Sounds exotic,” she said.
Her boss said no, not really.
“Corporate lingo, project code,” he said. “When the second letter is ‘g’ we’ve got a growth project. If it’s an ‘e’ we’re talking efficiency.”
Then her boss rocked back in his leather chair, and clasped his hands behind his head like a boss, and stared for a long time at the world map.
“Iguana. ‘G’ – get it?”
Her boss leaned forward. The New Girl listened. This was her first corporate job, and so she wanted to keep up.
“Don’t tell anyone I told you,” her boss whispered. “Projects? They are usually a waste of time.”
Now, her boss’s boss stared at her. What was her boss up to with Project Iguana? The New Girl did not answer the question. He looked down at the blotter and slashed another big ‘C’. He put down his pen.
“I want you to do a project for me,” he said.
She nodded. Doing a project for her boss’s boss surprised her. Her nod felt like obeisance. Worse than acquiescence, worse than gratitude.
“Project Beaver,” he said. “Keep it a secret.”
She busted her ass. She gave her boss’s boss two reports a day, sometimes four. She made color copies when black and white would do. She got him coffee when he said he wanted coffee. She didn’t complain when she wanted to complain. She sealed her thoughts inside her head. People reminded her the Reptile’s heart was a frigid, unknowable piece of meat. He was painful to be close to. She knew what they meant. But he was drawing the New Girl in – close, or at least closer. He showed appreciation in winks, texts and exclamation marks in her margins. He didn’t ask her to make him look good.
One night she was at the copier. She was studying the diagram to find step 5 where the paper had jammed. Her boss’s boss put his hand on her shoulder. Like he wanted to help or something.
“Project Beaver will change things. This place has too much dead wood,” he said. “There’s no room for dead wood in a forest, is there?”
He left his hand there – too long to be unintended or helpful. She leaned away and pulled step 5’s yellow lever. He smiled. She didn’t try to guess at what. She pictured the vein of ore inside this man — red iron that dripped from his thyroid. Deposited between his meat-heart and soupy liver. Lodged against his gallbladder and gut. Inscrutable.
The next morning, her boss’s boss buzzed her again. Again, he wanted her in his office. No knock. She gave a light drumming with her fingernails and walked in. Her boss’s boss told her he had a very good idea.
“A good idea – very high-quality, very satisfying,” he said.
“OK,” she said. She was listening. She felt she was becoming a very good listener.
“Take your boss’s office.”
She coughed. The office was her boss’s office. His desk had his name on it, his office had his things, his photos. The map and with those twenty-eight dots. Her boss’s boss laughed. She cleared her throat, again.
What could she do? What couldn’t she do?
Her boss’s office was not large. It was a good size. The right size. In the middle of it, she stood in her socks. It smelled like ginseng and almond biscotti. She looked at her boss’s desk, she looked at the map, she counted the dots. Still twenty-eight. Turning in circles, she whispered, “What Can’t I Do!” The natural idea began to grow in her head. It was like the grain of sand in an oyster. Possibility. In her head, it rolled up its sleeves and started to plan and chip away. Her head became a crazy, wide open space with streamers and a strobe light. Possibility danced and danced and danced. It grew giant. It grew like a vine. Bigger than she knew what to do with. She told herself she was not a boss, and she told herself she should stop it, and she told herself she could do boss-like things – hang a jacket or two on the back of the door, put her degree in a frame on the wall, take long runs in a park on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She looked out the window at the city street below. She ran her fingers over her boss’s fat books – books on the inner game of tennis never opened, books on motivation never opened, books on global mega-trends never opened, books on success never opened – and she thought, These could be my fat books that I never open.
It felt infinite to think like a boss.
What couldn’t she do? What couldn’t she do! A question was a call for help. The New Girl was calling no one. What couldn’t she do! From where she stood, repetition felt good, assertive, reassuring. Reassuring. Was she taking her boss’s office? That was the wrong question. The Reptile liked her. She looked at that map on the wall. The company’s locations spread across the globe like a forest – twenty-eight red dots. Dead wood. She whispered: “What can’t I do!” It was a thought that satisfied, a secret thought she could share with no one. Just with herself. Such a finite audience. An expansive concept needed more forms of expression. Her whisper felt subversive, and insufficient. On her boss’s blotter she scrawled in pencil, “What Can’t I Do!”
Back at her own desk, she created a screensaver: “What Can’t I Do!”
Right to left and, then left to right, the screensaver unfurled like a banner. The words a clarion dream. She admired her thought, and how efficiently she had turned it into words, and could so easily turn the words to action, if she wanted. She was giddy. Another person in her shoes might have done differently, but the thought would have been the same, the seminal longing the same, the outcome the same. What couldn’t she do!
“Don’t bother to count them,” her boss had said that first day.
“Count what?” she asked.
Iguana was about to start, he said. “Just a few more days and we’ll start planning.”
He handed her a box of twenty red stickers. For the map, he said. “We’ll decide later where they could possibly go. But, it doesn’t matter too much.”
He told the New Girl he thought she was the one: the one the Reptile would like.
“He already likes you,” her boss said.
The New Girl stared at her boss. “What do you mean? I just started.”
“What do I mean? I mean don’t over do it,” he said.
She asked what. Over do what? She really was trying to keep up.
“Anything. You’ll live to regret it.”
Now, she watched the new screen saver. It was like a flag, but not a flag to bow to or salute. Certainly, not a flag of surrender; hers was a battle flag. She deleted the exclamation mark. That, she thought, was vanity.
The afternoon that she heard her boss was fired, the New Girl was outside, and this is what she thought: What the fuck?
Back inside, her boss’s boss saw her, and he said good afternoon, and he liked her yellow blouse. And where had she been?
“Outside for a minute.”
“What took you so long?”
He stared at her bare wrists. His tongue made a ticking noise behind his teeth, like it was trapped and chipping away at the gray enamel.
“You were gone a long time. That was more than a minute by my watch, which tells time the same as anybody else’s watch,” he said and glanced again at her naked wrists. “Definitely. More than a minute.”
She shifted her feather weight from one leg to the other. She crossed her arms and hid her fists. Her armpits made good pockets.
“I went down the elevator, and went outside, I was texting a friend, then I heard my boss was no longer with the company, and I thought what the hell for a minute and came back. That’s it.”
“Of course, you know best what you were doing all that time. It was a long time, more than a minute.”
When she got to her desk, it was burning. People mingled around and watched with that mid-afternoon lethargy. It was a small fire, the size of something managed, intentional. It smelled like someone had spritzed lighter fluid on her pencil holder, her box of paperclips, her two project folders and her computer keyboard. So, now all her things were burning. It was not a dangerous blaze, not enough to set off the smoke detectors. Just something to char the ceiling tiles.
Her boss’s boss asked what happened. People said they didn’t know. And he wrote down their names.
“It looks like your desk was set on fire,” her boss’s boss said.
“I don’t think so, but maybe.”
He chuckled through his nose, more a huff — a little, rotten-peach sort of laugh.
“If it was, I want to be told. This can’t happen,” he grumbled. He looked at the gray cloud above her workstation, and then he looked at the other people. “If this was someone’s idea of a joke, then whose laughing?”
The New Girl picked up the keyboard. With her pen, she tried to pry apart the keys. The heat fused the ‘y’ and the ‘h’ and the ‘u’. She knew words without them. She thought she would be all right.
People stuck their heads through the doorway of her boss’s office. They looked at the New Girl. They stared as if to say: So this is your office? I’m sitting here, aren’t I?
People looked at her in meetings. Sometimes she was first to arrive, sometimes last. They looked at her as if to say why were you first, or why are you last? Across long tables, they slid thick presentations at her. Their presentations always had bent corners, mangled staples, the wrong font. They were black and white. The pages were not numbered. She could look at them if she felt like it, they didn’t care. Her feedback was acknowledged, but it was not welcome.
“Who is your boss these days,” people asked. Then they walked away. She wanted to say she was the one her boss’s boss liked. But nobody stayed to learn who she thought liked her.
She wanted to say she was doing a project. With an ‘E’ – get it?
Instead, she kept her mouth shut. She was learning when to speak and when to listen. And, she was working her ass off. Then her boss’s boss was fired.
Jim Cole received the PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers in 2017 for his story “The Asphodel Meadow.” His work has appeared in numerous journals, including The Summerset Review, Crack the Spine, The Esthetic Apostle, Gold Man Review, and Salmon Creek Journal. He works as an editor and has an MFA from the University of San Francisco. He writes from his cabin on the Russian River in Duncans Mills, California.