By Jason Ropp
This short story is one of a series set in the fictional town of Damnatus.
Melanie spun her leather Business Elite 3500 Cadillac of a chair 180 degrees until it faced the eastern window and a blazing Damnatus sunrise. She soaked up the aroma of coffee, mingling scent with the sight of purples, oranges, and reds, topped with a dollop of blue. This was a bit of the life she hunted for so long in the ivory and glass towers of New York, Boston, D.C., Chicago, and Atlanta. What she first saw as exile, the business world’s idea of a sick joke played on an aspirational woman, she now called home. She closed her eyes and pulled the mug to her lips, feeling the warmth of the coffee and sunrise warming her mind and soul. She would have stayed in that trance much longer if it weren’t for a slight rapping on her half open door. “Melanie, I have those numbers you were looking for.”
She turned the chair back to the desk, still sipping coffee, nodding, lips sealed, holding in the liquid sunrise. She extended a hand, relieved the man of the dossier, then shooed him away, but more like a mother freeing her children to play than a CEO ridding herself of a nuisance. She was too optimistic about the day to notice that he rolled his right shoulder four separate times in the mere 45 seconds spent in the room, as he had done the entirety of his first day on the job, or for the week after he had spilled coffee all over her favorite blouse.
She dropped the oversized folder from six inches, letting it feel its own many-paged power as it slammed into the writing pad protecting the century old behemoth of a desk she had purchased at an estate sale two towns over. She much preferred the thud of a ream’s worth of 20 lb. paper over the click of a mouse. It was an extra step to print and arrange the information that Corporate sent her, but if this ship was under her watch she needed to feel the grain of the mast and the hemp rope that held taught the canvas, dancing in the financial wind, pulling the company forward. She wasn’t sure whether it was Damnatus or the thoughtfulness of age, but she found a nostalgia for the slow and carefully-crafted growing in her heart.
She unwound the elastic cord that bound the folder and opened the cover. “Telco Products: Damnatus Branch Manufacturing and Assembly 3rd Quarter Business Report.” She carefully placed the first page face down to the left of the rest of the file and began reading her secretary’s report, which was normally a few organizational notes along with any anomalies he may have noticed as he compiled the dossier. But this time there was only a single sentence:
“Mel, I’m a bit confused by a few items on the following pages. You might want to check them out straightaway.”
The rest of the page was filled with lines of numbers and letters that marked pages, sections, and subsections, some highlighted or underlined in red—the first being “3.A.b” Still maintaining her sense of calm, she carefully turned the pages one by one face down on top of the cover sheet that sat left of the folder, until she reached the appropriate location. Her finger followed the left margin, stopping on subsection b, titled “Gross Income.” She gasped, nearly knocking over her coffee as she reached again for the index.
The sun was now well above the horizon, shedding its blistering Midwest rays on the back of her neck. The dust particles from farms that so splendidly aided the sun’s dispersal of color at sunrise now morphed the hot sky into a muddied blue.
The next item of concern, titled “Loss/Profit,” was bright red. Melanie didn’t need to check the next subsection listed. She knew the company was bleeding like a stuck pig, and in this industry that could only mean one thing.
* * *
A few weeks later, the snack machine on the north end of the warehouse was a breeding ground for rumors, with embezzlement, accountants cooking books, and tax evasion being the most widely circulated. It’s not that Melanie had been secretive with the employees, it was simply that they couldn’t believe such a simple thing could so rapidly halt the vitality of such a booming industry. The competition had patented a new gear tooth that was stronger, more efficient, cheaper to make, and most importantly had a better marketing team behind it. In three months time, Telco’s competitor in the gear market had silently and successfully carried out a blitzkrieg marketing campaign that ate up 35% of Telco’s gear market share. Telco’s gear production was run almost entirely by the Damnatus plant.
The most likely scenario was that it would only get worse. The coup d’etat came just prior to what was projected to be the largest order in Damnatus Manufacturing and Assembly’s history. While DMA hadn’t yet begun production on the projected order, they had been aggressive in preemptive expansion, as nothing but a revolution in gear technology would have prevented their most successful quarter to date. But now, with a recently expanded system set up for a soon to be obsolete gear, instead of year end bonuses many of the factory’s 3,500 workers might not be getting a paycheck at all. It was this possibility that brought Steven into Melanie’s office.
“Steven, don’t put this back on me! How was I, here in the middle of damned nowhere Damnatus, supposed to see this coming!? I have the information that corporate gives me.”
Steven slouched, arms crossed, still in standard issue dark blue DMA coveralls. “I know. We all know you care. It’s just a bit of a ‘pocalyptic surprise, that’s all.”
Melanie stood up, walked past Steven, closed the door and walked to the small fridge against the opposite wall where she pulled out two beers, along with matching frosted glasses, and set one of them in front of the pleased but surprised employee.
“Not to be ungrateful, but isn’t this against company policy?” he asked.
Melanie poured out the bottle of suds. “What corporate doesn’t know, won’t hurt them.”
Steven smiled and put the foamy head to his lips, breathing in the hops as the bitterness hit his tongue and calmed his nerves. Melanie filled her own glass gently, holding her nose above the pour, letting the aroma engross her senses, allowing her mind to get lost in such a simple thing as beer. Barley malt, hops, and water. But as she had learned during her short time in Damnatus, the best things are often quite simple.
“Steven, how long have I known you?” said Melanie.
He set the beer on the desk that sat between them. “Well I’d guess it’s been about six years now,” he said.
“And have I ever lied to you?”
“Well,” he chuckled, “not that I know of anyway.”
“So at this point you either trust me or don’t. And seeing I told you about this the day after I knew, long before this became public information…”
“I suppose so,” he said.
“So which one is it? Because I don’t have the luxury of six more years to convince you that you should believe me. In fact I’d be surprised if I had the luxury of six weeks.”
Upon hearing “six weeks,” he swallowed a bit of the amber fluid down the wrong tube, “S–six weeks? As in six weeks till what?”
“I don’t know Steven.” She began to tear up. “I just don’t know. Corporate isn’t saying a word, and I know it’s because they want you all to keep up productivity until they absolutely have to let us know what’s going on. For all I know they might close up shop first thing tomorrow. I –I just don’t know. I thought you should know in case the worst happens. Which seems likely. I want you and Mandy to be OK, so I want you to know that I have some friends who might be able to get you a good paying position somewhere, something like what you already do. They trust me. If I tell them to hire you, they will.”
Steven twisted his glass by the top rim, staring at the bubbles, “Melanie. You know I don’t have anything more than my high school diploma, and even that was because Mandy did most my homework. You looked the other way, but…”
“Which is why I called up a friend at Braeburn Tech. I sent him a description of what you’ve been doing, the things you’ve learned to do, even the things you made up that you had to teach to the so- called educated. Let’s just say he owes me.” She slid open the drawer in front her, pulling out a manila envelope which she handed across the desk. “This is your honorary BS in industrial computer programming from Braeburn Tech. Congrats.”
“Mel, this—I’m not a college grad. I’m not—educated.”
“Steve, a little tip for you. You are more educated than 95% of the morons who applied to work under you, who went $75,000 in debt to get that piece of paper that you’ve earned with years of hard work. I don’t want to hear another word about it. You are a college grad who happens to have enough connections to get you a job in seven different states.” She polished off her bear and slammed the glass on top of the both new and well-worn dossier. “Have I made myself clear?”
Steven stared at the paper. His eyes turned red, puffing around the edges. He started a response then stopped several times before giving up and simply nodding, holding the diploma tightly as if it would turn to dust when he let go.
In what would be considered one of the best disaster recovery business moves of the year, DMA researchers found an entirely new market for their gears that, while not as abundant as the former market, assured Telco’s profitability. But for the workers of Damnatus it still meant 1,500 cut positions for the largest employer in town, and a pay cut for those who remained, including Melanie, though it was rumored that her own salary decrease was volunteered in an attempt to keep at least a couple more employees on the line.
Over the three weeks leading up to the sweeping layoffs, several of the longest standing employees were called into her office, all of them emerging a half hour later with a manila envelope and wet cheeks. The line workers assumed these men were simply the first round of cost saving layoffs, as they were soon replaced by less competent and lower- wage men.