by Ted Lietz
My boss's eyes were red as the seasonal wrapping paper in which she’d swaddled her office door. Maybe not the best time for a meeting.
"Hope," I said. "Maybe I should come back later?
Hope dabbed her cheeks with a tissue and shook her head. She removed a large stuffed elf from the side chair and held it close as a lover. I’d only begun my weekly report when she said, “I overheard some of the staff making fun of me. Don’t they like me?”
The old saw—If you want a friend, get a dog—should be tattooed on every executive’s backside. But common sense dictated giving Hope the answer she seemed to crave: “They love you.”
While no one can buy love, Hope managed to rent her share with pizza parties to celebrate the smallest accomplishment and happy-talk emails drenched in emojis.
Lack of respect, the probable root of whatever Hope overheard, stemmed from her failure to hold people accountable. Hope never fired recidivist screw-ups. Instead, she used each transgression as a teachable moment, affirming belief in the individual and ending the putative counseling session with a sisterly hug.
Small wonder that, except for my unit, the department was circling the drain. Worse for Hope, Art McCullough had come aboard as CEO a few months earlier. As Hope’s unofficial Number Two, I’d accompany her to meetings with the boss of bosses. Last time, McCullough looked at my numbers, nodded and said, “Stellar. As always.”
Pushing the other spreadsheets toward Hope as if fearful of contagion, he said, “What the fuck’s wrong with you and everybody else?”
As Hope offered lame excuses and spoke of self-actualization, the CEO’s scowl morphed from ugly to dangerous. Hope endured a long, profanity-lace warning. When the meeting ended, she headed for the restroom at flank speed and vomited loudly enough I could hear through the door.
Setting the elf aside, Hope said, “Let’s not let work issues ruin the holiday season.” She handed me an autographed photo of Yogi Berra. “I remembered you quoted him saying, When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
I do like baseball and, while I didn’t remember quoting Yogi, I might have. “How thoughtful,” I said. “I have a gift for you, too, but I forgot it in the car.”
I sent my assistant out to shop. She came back with a framed sampler: Hope is that thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops —Emily Dickinson.
Reading that, Hope shed a little tear, squeezed my arm and hung the sampler prominently outside her office.
Later that afternoon, Hope showed me a sheet of paper she’d found near the printer—words set in a typeface resembling cross-stitch: Hope is the worst of all evils, because it prolongs man's torments—Nietsche.
Hope sniffled for a moment, then said she was on her way to a meeting with Art McCullough.
“Should I come?”
“No. His assistant said this is a one-on-one.”
This morning, the sampler I’d given Hope was gone; wrapping removed from the door, the office bare.
It feels a little like abandoning Hope, but I want her job. Why not? Like McCullough, I understand the importance of performance, measurement, accountability. We have a common side interest, too: baseball. During TV games last season, I often saw him seated behind home plate.
I call for an appointment, expecting to wait a day or two. But McCullough’s assistant gets me in at noon, just ten minutes from now. I wolf a tuna salad sandwich and head upstairs.
After some small-talk McCullough says, “Any thoughts on Hope’s—departure?”
Did I get some bad tuna? My stomach gurgles a little, but the big boss doesn’t seem to notice.
“The department was failing on Hope’s watch. We both know I’m here to ask for her job. May I tell you what I’ll do if I get it?”
“Right to the point, huh?” He smiles, leans back. “I’m listening.”
I make my case. Art asks hard questions and seems satisfied with my answers. Hoping to seal the deal, I say, “I expect to perform and be held accountable.”
“Well, yeah,” Art says, as if I’d just declared the sky is blue. “I don’t make decisions like this on the spot, but I’m favorably impressed. Let me show you something.”
My stomach rumbles again. A slight grin suggests Art may have heard.
On one wall of a room-size vault is a jersey framed in glass. It’s yellow with age, an Old English “D” on its front. “This belonged to Ty Cobb,” Art says. “He was a son of a bitch on and off the diamond. But the Detroit Tigers did not retain Mr. Cobb for his people skills.”
He reverently removes the jersey from the frame and shows me the back. “No number. Players didn’t wear numbers, then. But Ty Cobb was all about numbers. Career batting average of .366. Stole ninety-six bases in one season, a record that lasted for forty-seven years. That’s why the Tigers employed him. And that’s why Cobb’s jersey is on my Wall of Fame.”
A little reflux. I taste tuna.
Gesturing toward the opposite wall, Art says, “This jersey, on my Wall of Shame, belonged to Gil McDougald. He hit a line drive into Herb Score’s face. An accident. But the story is that McDougald said he’d retire if Score failed to recover.”
Art shakes his head. “Score recovered, but McDougald was never the same player. He let personal feelings get in the way of performance.”
Art’s assistant reminds him of a conference call, and I excuse myself.
Shutting the door behind us, the assistant whispers, “Congratulations. Mr. McCullough only shows that collection to people he’s about to promote.”
I make a bee-line for the rest room and spend a long time contemplating bits of tuna, floating in a commode.
Read more stories.
Read blog posts
Question or comment?
Get email notifications when new content is posted
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.