Fred wanted to be more likeable in the office. That was something they never told you growing up. That being likeable was a hell of a lot more valuable for your future than math or history. Maybe it couldn't be learned in school. Oh, that would be a shame, thought Fred. Maybe humans were born likeable or not. Maybe at Pear Tree Industries and corporations all around the world, employees were naturally divided into haves and have nots. Have likeability. Have not.
Take Glen. Damn, that guy was likeable. Confident, warm, full of compliments, full head of hair. When you talked to that man, you felt better about yourself. Fred sometimes wondered how people felt when they talked to him. Uncomfortable? Depressed?
People liked Glen and it showed. Last month on Glen's Facebook page, seventy people wished him a happy birthday. Seventy! Fred didn't know seventy people. Fred and Glen weren't friends on Facebook but Glen kept his profile public. What a guy. Glen even got birthday wishes on his LinkedIn page. Offline, he also got balloons, cake from the VP, and of course, a happy hour. Fred didn't go, but he heard things.
It was only 11:30. Still early, thought Fred. Plenty of time for his own surprise birthday lunch to transpire. He brought leftover pasta anyway, something he could eat today or tomorrow in case something came up.
After lunch, Fred worked on old reports. He was pretty full from his pasta. Food coma is what Glen had called the feeling once in the elevator after a client meeting. Fred often ate too much leftover pasta for lunch. It didn't make sense to cook one serving, you had to make the whole pot.
At 3:15, Fred got the call from Zoe in Human Resources. It was about time, thought Fred. Of course. HR was probably the birthday celebration task force and Zoe the team lead. Which made sense. People respected Zoe. She came from a bigger company, one that really had their stuff together, and everyone kept mind of that. She dressed professional but fashionable, sometimes even wearing skirts above the knees on Fridays.
"Have a seat, Fred," said Zoe as Fred entered her compact office. There was a miniature Zen garden on her desk next to a photo of her husband and adorable baby boy. The closet door was closed. Fred imagined four or five coworkers could fit in there. "Surprise!" they would all shout, leaping out when he least expected, holding a cake, carrot, his favorite. Amir from Accounts Payable would be in there, Laney from Legal, perhaps those fun and crazy IT guys—
"Fred? Are you even listening?" asked Zoe.
"Sorry. Food coma," said Fred with a soft smile.
"This should come as little shock, Fred, but we have to let you go. Since your review in June, we haven't seen any improvement in the areas we very specifically addressed. In fact, your performance has declined. We'll take this time to reconsider the position and see whether Tuan can handle the full workload in Finance. In this folder you'll find everything you need. Marley will escort you out of the building in thirty minutes. Are there any questions from your side?" The way Zoe stared at Fred, he thought asking a question seemed inappropriate.
Waiting for the elevator, Fred looked at the folder. On the cover, an ethnically ambiguous woman gazed out courageously at sailboats on a horizon. It wasn't Zoe's fault. She was just doing her job. She had a family, after all. A baby. Fred could actually admire how Zoe handled the situation. Direct. Professional. It would be unfair to call her a cold-hearted cyborg or spineless corporate pawn. Could she have been kinder? Sure. Could she have displayed more compassion? You bet your ass. But that's business these days, thought Fred.
Someone like Glen? He might have done things differently. He might have cursed senior management for their shortsightedness, recommended an old recruiter friend, applauded all the years of dignified and respectable work—
"Hey there, Fred. How are you holding up? Doing a little better this week?"
Fred looked up. Had he and Glen talked last week?
"Hi, Glen," said Fred as he got inside the elevator. "Two, please."
"Today has been one of those days," said Glen. "I'm sure I don't have to tell you. All ready for the weekend?"
"Today's my last day."
"Brother." Glen stopped and looked Fred in the eyes. "Congratulations. Going to greener pastures I'm sure, smart guy like you. This place can never retain good talent for very long."
"Well, nine years," said Fred.
"Celebrating big tonight, I bet," said Glen.
"I should get home and start updating my resume."
"Why put off until tomorrow..."
"Your work ethic is inspiring. But come on, your last day?"
"It's my birthday, too."
Glen let out a good laugh. "You certainly know how to plan an exit, I'll give you that. Hey Fred, I've got an idea. How about you let me buy you a drink?"
Did Glen say a drink?
"I need to leave the building," said Fred.
"The Lemon Leaf. One hour. I'll wrangle up some of the guys, we can throw you a proper going-away happy hour."
Some of the guys? Going-away happy hour? That was almost better than a birthday happy hour. No, it was definitely better. People had fewer going-aways in life than birthdays.
"Could you invite Amir from Accounts Payable, Laney from Legal, maybe even those fun and crazy IT guys?"
"It's your special day, Fred."
"Yes," said Fred. "I suppose you're right."
"See you at the bar, buddy," said Glen.
Glen shook Fred's hand before getting out of the elevator. The handshake was firm but friendly, warm but definitely not sweaty. What a guy. Fred was already starting to feel better.
By the time Fred cleared his desk and loaded up his plastic milk crate, it was time to leave the building. There wasn't much chance to say goodbye to anyone. It was okay. Fred would see everyone at the happy hour.
Marley waited patiently while Fred packed.
Marley was built like the old HP printer scanner down in the mailroom, heavy and indestructible. He used to work in Shipping until six months ago when he was promoted to Building Management.
Marley escorted Fred down to the parking lot and helped Fred load the box into the trunk of his Kia, even though that wasn't his job and the crate wasn't very heavy.
"Hey Fred, do me a favor," said Marley as he rested his heavy hand on Fred's shoulder. "Keep your head up, okay man?"
Fred chirped his alarm and started walking down the street. The Lemon Leaf was just a few blocks away.
Lately, Fred had been thinking a lot about how he ended up here, at this point, in the universe. What were the events in life that led him to become a Finance Manager at Pear Tree Industries and remain so for a decade? Fred was a people person deep down. Always had been. He liked people. He loved people. He just didn't really interact with them that much, and that's why most people probably didn't know this about him.
Fred kicked a rock as he turned the corner. It bounced off the curb and hit a car.
Where had things gone wrong? When Fred was a kid, he had a Care Bears calculator. That must have started it all. In the third grade, he scored high on a standardized test. That put him in the "Gifted and Talented" program. That made his father proud. His son, the chubby kid with few friends and poor hand-eye coordination, was finally good at something. AP Calculus came senior year. Then acceptance into the top finance program in the state. After graduation, what was Fred to do? Start a job in finance naturally.
It was 5:30. Happy hour had already started when Fred walked into the Lemon Leaf and went to the bar. The place was plain and bare, the cactus in the corner and bandannas on the chairs suggested a Tex-Mex theme. It reminded him of the office a few years ago when they had their Cinco de Mayo celebration.
"Be right with you, tweed," said a passing bartender.
It was tragic, thought Fred as he took off his jacket. A born people person like him stuck crunching numbers in a cubicle all day. Whose performance wouldn't decline under the weight of such a realization?
The bartender returned. "This is the Lemon Leaf and they call me Gertrude. What are you having?"
Gertrude the bartender was not very charming, Fred was afraid to admit. She was sort of pretty, when you got past the fact that she had no color or expression in her face, her voice seemed unnecessarily loud, and she dressed rather frumpy for someone in the service industry, in Fred's humble opinion. But of course, nobody asked for his humble opinion. In fact, why was Fred criticizing this complete stranger? Would Glen do that? Come to think of it, what was this woman Gertrude thinking about Fred at the moment?
Fred sucked in his gut and moved a few strands of hair. Did his breath still smell from lunch?
"One beer, please. Wait." Fred picked up the happy hour card. "One Zombie Punch."
"You have exquisite taste," said Gertrude.
"Oh, and I'm hosting a happy hour," said Fred. "Actually, I'm being thrown a happy hour, by my colleagues. Today was my last day at work. And it's my birthday, too. I'm just the first one here."
"I'm extremely happy for you," said Gertrude.
"Do I need to reserve a table?" asked Fred.
"Are you sure?"
Gertrude looked around the empty bar. "Not usually in life but today, yes."
"What if twenty people come?"
"One can only imagine."
Fred thought about this as Gertrude put away her pen.
"I'll make you a deal," said Gertrude. "What's your name?"
"When your party arrives, Fred, I'll upgrade you to our special corporate events table by the clean window. Until then, sit tight. I was up late watching a Happy Days marathon and I don't want to run around any more than I have to today."
Gertrude came back with one Zombie Punch.
Fred drank. He was thirsty from the walk.
So what would Fred talk about when the guys got there? Should he prepare some sort of farewell speech? Acknowledge the strong relationships he'd formed over the years, celebrate the friendships that would last well into the future? Fred always hated public speaking. Opening up in front of others, sharing what was on his mind.
His sister Lisa was the outgoing one. But now that Fred was an uncle, he figured he should get better at public speaking. Kids tended to like adults who were confident and comfortable speaking in front of others. Women seemed to like that kind of thing, too. Maybe that's why he'd been single since Genie, and perhaps why he and Genie hadn't worked out in the first place, and possibly why he didn't have any children of his own when some men his age had one or two.
Fred finished his drink and waved to Gertrude for a second.
There were books on how to be better with people. Fred could learn it. His roommate from college was into that type of stuff. Tony Robbins, Rich Dad Poor Dad, The Pickup Artist, how to make a girl go home with you in 20 minutes. Wouldn't that be quite a skill. Wait. That was creepy. Pathetic. Guys like Glen were naturally likeable, and that was the difference. That made all the difference in the world. Did that mean Fred had no chance? No, thought Fred. He just had to work a little harder at it. And he would.
He looked at his watch. 6:15. It was always hard to wrap up loose ends on a Friday.
Gertrude arrived with another glass. "Zombie for the suit."
"What's in these?" asked Fred.
"Can I ask you something?" asked Gertrude.
"I guess so, sure."
"I made a bet with my coworker about you."
"A bet about me?"
"Did you quit or get fired?"
"You said it was your last day today."
"Oh, it's not important."
"Where did you work?"
"Just an office somewhere."
"Somewhere where?" asked Gertrude.
"Somewhere nearby," said Fred.
Gertrude leaned in and studied Fred's face. "You got fired." She began restacking the coasters. "On your birthday too, wow. I worked at an office once. Marketing coordinator at a carpet company. The worst years of my life. Crap boss, uneasy vibe all the time. But now I tolerate my job. The money's decent and I get to meet interesting human beings, talk to them even, every single day. Not a bad deal, right?"
Fred nodded, thinking. "Not bad at all."
"Please use a coaster," said Gertrude, looking at the puddle of condensation in front of Fred.
Fred watched Gertrude go into the kitchen. The more Fred thought about it, losing his job was probably a good thing. After all, who knew what opportunities were in store for him? Maybe corporate America wasn't right for him. Vincent Van Gogh didn't start painting until his late twenties. Yes, Fred could be anything he wanted to be in life. A taxidermist, a street performer, a soup kitchen chef, a Hollywood casting agent, a comedian! Imagine that, making people laugh for a living. That would be a rewarding profession.
Fred looked at his watch again. Did he ever stay past seven on a Friday? He couldn't remember. He waved to Gertrude for another.
Anyway, Fred had to be realistic. He had a niece to think about, he shouldn't forget. Little Baylee couldn't grow up with nice toys and cool clothes and go to college with an uncle who performed street magic on the promenade for spare change. Not to mention the single-parent household Baylee was going to grow up in. Oh, how dare he say that. Lisa was terrific. Strong. Admirable. But it was his responsibility, his duty, as a good uncle, to provide some kind of financial support. Not to mention one day Fred wanted a family of his own. Sure, why not? And he certainly wouldn't be able to find a wife or finance a home or buy the good baby food with crumpled-up bills in a dusty top hat. Where the hell was everyone anyway?
Gertrude came with another Zombie Punch.
"Gertrude, when does happy hour end?" asked Fred.
Gertrude looked at her watch then walked over to the bar. She rang a small brass bell. "One minute ago!"
It was 8:01.
Happy hour was over.
Who was Fred kidding.
Fred lowered his head and focused on his drink.
Seriously. Happy hour? The guys? Nobody was coming. Not Amir. Not Laney. Not those fun and crazy IT guys.
And certainly not Glen.
Glen. You know what? thought Fred. Glen was a fake. That's right. Fake as hell. It dawned on Fred. To be likeable you had to be fake. There were no two ways around it. How could you be appealing to so many different people? You had to act differently with each one of them. And that meant being fake. A phony. Not your true self. Fred couldn't believe that he had actually wanted to be like Glen just a few hours ago. No, Glen was the exact opposite of who Fred wanted to be. Glen was just a lying, gutless, Propecia-popping, Jeep-driving, conference-call-dialing-in, good-for-nothing piece of shit.
Yes, that's just what Glen was.
In fact, if Fred ever saw Glen again he would give him a piece of his mind. Fred would let it all out. He would explain to Glen that he saw right through his disgusting act. Glen might have had the office fooled, and those seventy people who wished him a happy birthday on Facebook fooled, but Fred was no fool. No way. Fred knew the ugly truth. Glen was just a bad person faking to be a good person so that people would like him more. Hell, maybe a lot of people in the world did this. Fred twisted his napkin until it turned into a little churro.
"Earth to Fred." Gertrude dropped two shots onto the table and stood beside them.
"Sorry?" said Fred.
"Happy birthday," said Gertrude.
"Those aren't mine."
"They're on the house."
"Who's that one for?"
"I can't let you drink alone on your birthday, it's company policy."
"Friday is the worst day for happy hours," said Gertrude, sitting down. "People tend to skip out on work obligations and start their weekends early. Anyway, you don't want to be hanging out with work people on a Friday. You're better than that, Fred."
"Maybe you're right," said Fred.
"Less talking and more drinking," said Gertrude.
They drank. It was rum.
"You know who liked rum?" asked Fred, grimacing. "George Washington."
Gertrude laughed. "You're alright, Fred. I hope you come back again one day. Maybe you can even tell me the story of how you got fired."
Gertrude put her hand on Fred's wrist and managed a version of a smile. Then she abruptly removed her hand, stood and took away the empty shot glasses before Fred could say anything.
Gertrude looked much better when she smiled. But was she smiling at Fred or was she smiling because of the rum? Oh, it didn't matter. At least Fred got to drink with someone on his birthday.
Fred took out his wallet to pay. When he opened it, a piece of plastic fell out. He picked it up and looked at it. It was his employee key card. The one that opened all the doors at Pear Tree Industries. The consummate professional Zoe, all stone-faced and noble, had forgotten to take his employee key card. Fred still had access to the building.
This was incredible.
It was dark when Fred began walking back to the office. He felt giddy, giddier than he'd felt in years. He was grinning. Fred had never been so eager to get inside the walls of Pear Tree Industries. As he walked along the side of the road, headlights floated past him in the night air as ideas began to take shape in his head. Having this key card was a unique opportunity few humans were given in life.
The possibilities were infinite. Fred could walk into Glen's office and rip down all of his stupid training certifications and regional sales awards. He could draw a Hitler mustache on that one photo of him and the VP fishing in Cancun, draw a penis on that photo of him and his fiancé posing by the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Then Fred could go into Zoe's office and take a big leak right in her miniature Zen garden. What a spiritual awakening that would be! Or Fred could keep it simple and toilet paper the place. He could even write his name in Sharpie on the brand new reception wall. "Sincerely yours, Fred from Finance." Why the hell not? Fred didn't give a damn what anybody there thought about him.
At the offices of Pear Tree Industries, only the entrance lights were still on. For some reason Fred felt lightheaded when he arrived. The walk back from the Lemon Leaf seemed to take longer than the walk there. Before going inside, Fred decided he should rest.
Fred opened the door to his Kia, parked in front, and sat inside. This would give him a chance to catch his breath and refine his strategy. Once Fred closed the door, he could hear himself breathe for the first time all day. The air was clean and sweet smelling. The plastic on the dash was cool to the touch. Fred had forgotten to close one of his windows.
Just then, the building's entrance doors made a bang and two people walked out. Fred panicked and dropped down. He tilted his seat back with the tiny lever.
Who was leaving the office at this hour?
Fred lifted his head just above the wheel, squinting.
The lights by the entrance were bright.
The legs of the women were tanned and glowing. The shoulders of the man were broad and filled out his shirt.
The two figures shifted positions.
It was Glen and Zoe.
Glen and Zoe did not work together. In fact, Fred couldn't recall ever seeing them speak to each other in the office. So what were they doing leaving together so late? Perhaps it was a coincidence.
But it didn't seem like one. They were standing rather close. Actually, they were almost touching. As a matter of fact, they were definitely touching. They were kissing. Wait a minute. Yes, Glen and Zoe were kissing.
Fred fumbled for his phone. He got it out and sat all the way up. He began tapping. Chick. Chick. Chick. Chick. He looked at the photos. A photographer for National Geographic, perhaps that was another career he could pursue. Clear as day. Glen and Zoe were kissing. It was them, without a shadow of a doubt.
This was too good to be true. It was better than having a key card to the office. Holy crap.
Glen was engaged to be married! Zoe had a family, a new baby boy for Christ's sake. Fred started to despise Glen even more than before, and Zoe now, too. How could two adults, two professionals, act so recklessly and selfishly? How could they put their loved ones, everything they had going in their perfect lives, at risk? And for what? Some cheap and temporary office fling? What the hell were they thinking?
Fred slithered back down into position and reexamined the photos. His creative juices began to flow.
What could Fred do with these photos?
He could use them as blackmail, but for what purpose? Well, he could take them directly to HR, but then again Zoe worked in HR. He could post them somewhere. Like Facebook. Sure. That's exactly what social media was made for. "Happy belated birthday, Glen. Just wanted to share this nice picture of you and Zoe from the office to brighten up your day. LOL!" No, hold on. That was a little crazy. Evil even. That would make things a hell of a lot worse for Glen and Zoe. A thousand times worse.
But maybe they deserved it, thought Fred.
Glen and Zoe turned and walked right toward Fred's Kia. Fred dropped back down. He laid his body over the middle console and pressed his cheek against the cushion of his passenger seat, remaining still, sucking in his own hot Zombie breath.
His two former colleagues walked past. Fred could hear them talking and soon they sounded far enough away again. He sat back up. Glen and Zoe were now standing by Glen's red Cherokee at the end of the aisle.
Fred got in a comfortable position and resumed watching. But at a closer distance now, he was able to notice something. But what was it? It was Zoe.
Zoe wasn't smiling or laughing. No, she wasn't. Zoe was crying. And Glen didn't look happy or flirty. He looked sad. Sad as hell. Had Fred missed something?
Fred opened the pictures on his phone and zoomed in on their faces. Zoe was crying then, too. It was not a sexy face she had been making earlier as Fred assumed but a quite miserable-looking one. And Glen looked similarly in pain, eyes red, jaw clenched like he couldn't speak. Fred had never seen Glen look like that.
What was going on? Come to think of it, Zoe and Glen had seemed off the past few months. Zoe was a lot quieter since she came back from maternity leave. She rarely came out of her office these days. Was it just the newborn baby? Or was it possible? Was it Glen's baby? Stop it, thought Fred. Pure conjecture. Throw that out. Well actually, Glen had been engaged for over three years which is pretty long. And lately Janice never came by the office. She used to visit every Friday. Did anyone ever ask Glen why? Or how Glen was doing in general? Glen was always asking everyone else about their weekends and kids' soccer games and latest project wins, but did people return the favor?
Zoe, too. People came to her with their problems, but did anyone ever ask the Head of HR about her problems? How she was doing? Maybe that wasn't allowed in the employee handbook.
Fred continued watching as Zoe handed Glen a folded envelope placed on top of a grey gym t-shirt. Zoe looked at Glen, said something Fred couldn't hear, then wiped her cheek and went away toward her silver Audi. Glen stood watching, motionless like the cars around him.
Glen waited until Zoe got inside her Audi before he got into his Jeep. Zoe started her engine and reversed out of her parking spot. Soon Glen did the same. Zoe drove left out of the parking lot. Shortly after, Glen drove right out of the parking lot. They both disappeared into the night.
Fred looked down at the pictures on his phone.
What was he doing. Fred didn't work at Pear Tree Industries anymore. He wasn't even supposed to be there. And he had nothing better to do, on his birthday, than this.
Fred took a deep breath.
He went through his camera gallery and looked at each picture of Zoe and Glen. There must have been more than twenty photos. He carefully deleted each one.
What about his key card? Well, he could leave that in the delivery drop box outside of the entrance doors. That should be fine. Hopefully Zoe wouldn't get in trouble or anything for forgetting about it. And he still had access to his email for a few more hours, he remembered. Maybe he should write a farewell email to everyone when he got home. That would be the right thing to do, thought Fred.
There was a loud knock on the glass. Fred dropped his phone. He looked up.
It was Marley.
Fred rolled down the window.
"Fred?" said Marley. "I thought that was you."
"Hi, Marley," said Fred. "It's me."
"Shoot, I was sure I'd be the last one here today. What the hell are you doing? You were supposed to leave hours ago."
"My key card. They forgot to take my key card, so I just wanted to return it."
"Well, that's no big deal. I can take that for you." Marley took the key card from Fred through the window.
"I guess I'll be heading home," said Fred. "Have a good night, Marley."
"Hold on just a minute, Fred. You know I've got to ask," said Marley. "Have you been drinking?"
"Today's my birthday."
"No kidding? Happy birthday, man. Damn Fred, what do you call a company that fires a fellow on his birthday then has him escorted out of the building like some criminal? Pear Tree Industries."
Fred smiled. "They're not so bad. I owe a lot to this place, I guess."
"Like hell you do," said Marley. "You're talented, Fred. A talented guy. Smart. Good with people. Don't worry, you'll be back on your feet in no time."
"I was thinking about taking a break from the corporate thing," said Fred.
"Why not," said Marley. "What are you going to do?"
"I don't really know yet," said Fred.
"I always wanted to be a marine biologist."
"That sounds interesting."
"But I can't swim."
"Do you need to know how to swim to be a marine biologist?"
"I don't know, actually."
"Marley, you think I'm good with people?"
"You said a second ago you thought I was good with people," said Fred.
"Oh, yeah. I do, Fred. Sure," said Marley. "I think you don't always show it, so it's not obvious. But I mean, I like you. You just got to open up more, man. Give a little to get a little. Know what I'm trying to say? Treat people how you wished they treated you, start with that and you'll get along with people fine. It's not rocket science."
"I suppose it's not," said Fred.
"But shit, that's just one man's opinion," said Marley. "Let me call you a taxi, I can't let you drive home like this."
"Marley, you want to hear a joke?"
"What do you mean?"
"A joke, something funny."
Marley stared at Fred, skeptical.
"Okay," said Fred. "Let's see. What did the baby computer say to his father?"
"I'm sure I have no idea," said Marley.
"Data," said Fred.
It was silent then Marley sighed.
"Fred," said Marley. "Now, I know you're drunk."
"I didn't tell it right," said Fred.
"Promise me, never tell that joke to anyone again."
Marley laughed and so did Fred.
The sound carried across the parking lot.
"It's getting late," said Fred. "I won't keep you much longer. I'm sure you have plans tonight with the family."
"Me? Not really," said Marley. "Tell you the truth, me and the wife have been fighting like cats and dogs lately, not to mention the in-laws are coming to visit and the water heater is broken, plus the kids still aren't talking to me because of the whole birthday party thing. On days like today, I try not to get home too early."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"What do I have to complain about?"
"It could be worse."
"You could lose your job," said Fred.
"There's that," said Marley. He laughed and took out his pack of Newports. He pulled out a cigarette and lit it with a small plastic lighter then put the pack and lighter back into his shirt pocket. "Say Fred, you want to have a beer?"
"With me, a beer."
Fred looked up at Marley.
"After all, it is still Friday night," said Marley, breathing in. "And I believe it is still your birthday."
Fred turned back toward the office.
"Come on," said Marley as he opened the driver's side door and extended Fred his hand. "Out of the car. I know a funny little place nearby we can walk to."