by Ted Lietz
It was well after 5:00 when I rapped my knuckles on Darwin’s metal doorframe. The tinny sound bounced off empty cubicle walls, vacant conference rooms, deserted coffee stations.
Usually by this time, Darwin and I had the place to ourselves. But on that day, a security guard stood near as Darwin dropped personal belongings into a cardboard box.
Looking up, Darwin ran his fingers through his hair—surprisingly thick and black for a man in his mid-fifties. He smiled, making that absurdly oversized mustache skitter across his upper lip like a cockroach. I’m tempted to say that he looked like an organ-grinder in an Armani suit. But the man had been my boss for a dozen years, so what would that have made me but Darwin’s monkey?
On the desk, a baseball cap with the corporate logo on its front lay beside a stack of framed company awards. Darwin was damned good at his job and had earned every one of those awards. But he also was a condescending and overconfident SOB, a man whose ethical sensibility was, at best...unevolved.
In a tone cheerful out of all proportion to the circumstances, he said, “I assume you know I’m leaving the firm.”
“Yeah. I came to say goodbye. Sorry.”
Not sorry that I was getting his job, a promotion long overdue. And certainly not sorry to see him go. But sorry he’d ignored my advice. Sorry that, as a result, he’d been culled from the herd the way he was.
It started with an oddball set of circumstances, something neither he nor I could control or reasonably predict. As a result, both our bonuses would be far less than we deserved. To “rectify the injustice”—those were Darwin’s exact words—he manipulated data in a way he must have imagined to be clever.
I warned him. Told him that he’d underestimated the skill of the bean-counters, that eventually he’d be found out. But he didn’t listen. I had to countersign the report based on that data. If he were discovered, I’d be out of job, too.
So I blew the whistle. Ethically and legally it was the right thing to do. And the survival of my own career depended upon it.
As I stood in Darwin’s doorway, there was nothing in his manner to suggest he knew what I’d done. He said, “If I have to go, I’m glad you’re the one stepping into my spikes. Knock it out of the park.”
“Thanks. I’ll do my best.”
“I’ll be done here in a couple of minutes,” Darwin said. “I don’t think I should drink tonight, but let’s go to that coffee shop you like. Or maybe the ballgame?” He put on the baseball cap.
“Sorry, I can’t. Lots to get ready before tomorrow.”
Darwin nodded. “Sure, your first day on the new job.” We shook hands, and I went to my own office.
Late as it was by the time I left, the night air was hot and unbearably humid. On the way to my car, I stopped at my favorite coffee shop for an iced tea. The only sounds inside were the low hum of air conditioning and the quiet click of my own heels on the tile floor. After paying, I turned from the counter to find a place to sit.
Darwin, still wearing that baseball cap with the company logo, was at a table in a far corner. He’d spotted me, and was waving. I thought about pretending not to see him, ducking out. But if I left then I’d have felt like a shit, and probably would have been one.
I sat opposite Darwin. His upper lip twitched and he said, “So.”
“He raised his mug in a toast and said, “In espresso veritas.” I lifted my iced tea in return, calculating how quickly I could gulp it down and leave.
Darwin had spilled a bit of coffee on the table. With a stirring-straw, he drew disappearing circles in the liquid. Looking up again, he said, “About my situation...”
I held up my hand. “The lawyers warned me not to talk about it.”
His eyes narrowed. “Of course. I’m not going to say anything that would compromise either of us. Do you think I have shit for brains?”
In the past, that metaphor had occurred to me. But never having had the guts to say so when he was my boss, I kept it to myself.
After a long silence Darwin pushed up the bill of the baseball cap and said, “Anyway, it’s a hell of a thing, you know?”
“A hell of thing.”
“Have you ever done something that seemed okay at the time, even right, but turned out not to be? Something that eventually screwed up your life?”
“All of us have done things we later wish we hadn’t, whose consequences we didn’t foresee.”
That sounded more patronizing than I’d intended, but Darwin didn’t seem annoyed.
The barista was getting ready to close. Darwin noticed too, and we left together.
We stopped to listen as a loud cheer went up from the baseball stadium nearby. Then a brief fireworks display, the kind they set off for a homerun. A better job—I had something to celebrate, too.
Darwin said, “You know, I made a lot of money for myself. But I made tons more for the firm. Then one misstep and...”
“It’s a hell of thing,” I said.
We wished each other luck, and began walking in opposite directions. I’d taken only a few paces when Darwin shouted my name.
I turned, and he motioned me over. When I was beside him, he took the baseball cap from his head and placed it on mine. With an odd grin and a hoarse whisper that made me shiver despite the warm evening, he said, “A hell of a thing.”
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
© Ted Lietz 2021. All rights reserved.