“They’re going to fire you,” says the last bathroom stall on the left.
We’ve been communicating for a few days, built up a kind of rapport and I don’t appreciate the dismissive tone.
“You don’t know that for sure,” is what I go with as a retort. It’s the best I can do, really. I’ve never been great at confrontation. I once saw a cyclist ignore a red light and come inches from turning a small child into paste. It was horrifying, but all I could yell out was, “Hey there, dude!” I put a lot of emphasis on the “dude,” too. I was just as confused as the cyclist.
“Oh, I know it.” Lucky—that the stall’s name—lets out a thin chuckle that’s wispy and super judgy.
Lucky lives in the men’s bathroom on the 9th floor of Byzantine INC. I work here in the creative department, but lately, I spend most of my time hiding in a floor-level cubby hole near the copy machine where they keep office supplies. There’s a small gap in the countertop above that lets in just enough light for me to read.
“Well, I think I nailed that performance review.” Lucky doesn’t respond.
“They really heard me out.“ More silence.
“Squeaky wheel and all that.” I hear the whooshing sound of the a/c unit kicking on.
I try my best at a genuine-sounding scoff and let Lucky know that, “I don’t have to explain myself to whatever you are.”
Lucky’s right, though: I am getting fired. I just got a calendar invite from the director of HR: “Quick Meeting at 4.” With all the budget cuts, there’ve been a lot of “Quick Meetings” this month. It’s now 3:45 and the organs in my stomach have been replaced with shards of glass and some kind of corrosive agent. Sodium hydroxide, maybe? We’ll just have to wait for the autopsy report. An alert from my phone trills against my thigh.
“Here we go,” Lucky says.
How does it know things? When Lucky first started talking to me, I thought it was some kind of shitty prank. I searched everywhere for speakers and cameras. I even stayed late one night and snooped around people’s desks once they’d gone home. I looked for extra equipment, a microphone, something, but there was nothing.
The worst part is that Lucky clams up whenever anybody else comes into the bathroom. Usually, I just keep on talking, pretend I’m constipated and coaching my anus through this.
“Listen, I can help you out,” says Lucky. “I can get you a new job, a real job.”
“Thanks, but I’m not that desperate.” Not yet, at least. What does it mean by a real job?
I leave to find my designated meeting room on the revolving digital kiosk in the center of the office. I have to circle with it, like a corralled farm animal, until I find my name blinking in orange dots along with a room number. Down a long, blank hallway, I pass other meetings in progress and catch a few sets of eyes following me from the other side of soundproof glass.
There’s no sense in delaying the inevitable, is something my high school football coach used to say before making us run sprints until our lungs burned. I hated the running, but appreciated the statement. It had such finality while doubling as the start of something new.
“Hey, Rick. Take a seat,” says the head of HR and my ass barely touches the cold plastic before he starts.
“Listen, this obviously isn’t going to be a fun conversation. We’re letting you go.”
The meeting’s over before it starts. I promised myself I would stay calm. That I wasn’t going to cry or scream or argue, so I’m left with sitting quietly and staring at him like soon-to-be roadkill.
“We’re just not getting the type of work out of you that we need.” He pauses to adjust his glasses and take a deep sigh. It’s great acting. Thirty seconds have passed since he started talking, so he’s probably forgotten my name by now.
“It’s more so our problem than yours.” How kind of him to shoulder the blame.
“Sir…” I know this is my last chance. I tell him that I haven’t gotten a brief in months. If he just gives me a shot I know I can —
“Listen, Rick…” and the rest of the conversation is a blur.
I see him get up from his chair, I do the same and we shake hands, while I stare at the gold watch on his wrist and wonder how many “Quick Meetings” that took to get. He leaves, but I sit for a moment and stare at nothing. I can feel more eyes of my now ex-coworkers this time as they pass by. It’s a sad sight, me staring wide eyed at a stark white wall, but that’s not what I see. I see my cold, drab apartment. I see the kiss-assy emails I’ll have to send out to new heads of HR. I see me here, but at another version of here, doing this whole stupid thing over again. I wonder who knew today was my last day.
I work myself out of the chair. It takes effort, like I’ve been stuck here for years. On the way to my desk, keyboards clack and I can hear the office-appropriate laughs of a team meeting. Part of me thinks they’re laughing at me. Dead man walking and all that fun stuff. I clean out drawers, throw away stacks of papers I legally cannot take with me. The laptop goes to IT along with the ID card and my cell phone. Work phone doubling as my personal phone seemed like a great, stick-it-to-the-man kind of idea. It was not.
I keep my eyes trained on the floor on the way out. Almost in the clear, the secretary stops me as I pass the welcome desk.
“Don’t forget tomorrow’s taco day,” she says. She has the kind of smile only interns and animated Disney characters can produce.
“Yum.” My eyes well up and I speed out the door. I love tacos.
In a melancholic haze, I push open the bathroom door and am about to yell for Lucky when I notice we’re not alone. Standing at the middle sink is an impossibly tall man in a long gray coat. I’ve never seen him before and he definitely doesn’t look like a client.
I’m about to pass when he turns towards me, his long frame covers me in shadow. It takes effort for him to look down this far. His eyes are the color of dirty snow. His bald head almost touches the long beams of flourescent light in the ceiling.
He gives a quick, fake smile and says, “Mr. Castigan, right?”
A giant in a suit and tie referring to me by my last name jolts me and I forget what I’m called for a second.
“Yes, hi.” That was overly friendly. “I’m sorry, but are you part of the company?”
“In a way,” he says while turning back to the sink.
He pulls an expensive zippered case from his coat. I can smell the fresh leather. He lays it down in a spot he’s cleaned on the counter. I’m wrapped up in the size of his heavily scarred hands, so it takes me a second to notice the way he’s staring at me through the mirror. The open case displays syringes and small vials filled with some kind of blue liquid. My first though is that it all looks very expensive.
“Okay,” I bleat out for reasons beyond my grasp.
He gracefully plucks one of the vials from the case and a syringe with a novelty-sized needle on the end. The giant examines the vial at stomach level, which is eye level for me and I can see it’s filled with more than blue liquid. Tiny bodies like translucent tadpoles stretch and flutter inside the glass.
“I can use a different bathroom,” I say and try backing away as one of his enormous paws lands on my shoulder.
“How long has it been talking to you?” His firm grip tells me where this is headed. He half smirks and says, “Just pretend I already know everything.”
So there it is: I’ve actually been talking to a bathroom stall. Whatever happens next, at least I’m not crazy. I hear someone whistling as the door swings open and the head of HR comes in to join us. The distraction gives me enough to drop my shoulders, break his grip and leave him with Mr. Quick Meeting.
Taking the stairs, I clear all nine floors in a flash and don’t stop running until I’m underground on the train.
The train goes, time passes and my mind calms. I keep replaying things over in my head. It’s too much. Too many things to feel at once. I take the train one stop past mine, just in case I’m being followed.
I get off and check for trench coats, any man in a suit, really. A man in a suit this far from city center would stand out for sure. I need a place to hide and to maybe eat something. The adrenaline rush has left me starving.
I find a Chinese food counter where I know I can eat well for under $10—this isn’t the first time I’ve been unemployed. Inside, I order and sit at a booth along the back wall with a good view of anyone passing by. The slight woman behind the counter takes phone orders, screaming into the receiver in a mix of Spanish and English with a Chinese accent. My food comes quickly in a styrofoam container. I’m two bites in when the woman starts yelling at me.
“Hey,” I hear. Then after a few seconds, “Hey, you, General Tso! You get phone call.”
I lean over the table and see she’s looking at me. She knocks on her side of the plexi-glass and points at the phone in her other hand. Why would I get a phone call? Oh, shit.
It’s the tall guy and his back up. They’ve probably got me surrounded. My head’s getting fuzzy. I feel like I’m floating. I walk over and she hands me the receiver through the food slot.
“Hey, idiot.” This can’t be happening.
“Yep, this is happening.” Lucky says, followed by a wispy chuckle.
“Ready for that job now?”