It turned out 30 employees were let go that day. Back in March, 30 others were let go. And before that, 25 were laid off. “All difficult but necessary actions” we were told in a group staff meeting following the first cuts. Then the company stopped convening staff meetings to talk about its problems. With its fate so intertwined with that of an automotive industry in utter turmoil, everyone feared their jobs would be next. And as the company thinned out, clusters of workers were seen crying or whispering to one another about all the changes. I would hear about certain people who were let go, people I knew. But I never recognized all the names. After awhile though, I stopped seeing certain familiar faces in the halls and realized there were many people I would not see again. And now I was one of them, reduced to another name whispered among co-workers.
When I woke that morning, it felt like I never slept. The alarm clock on my nightstand began chirping at 6 a.m. I silenced it with a smack from my hand before slowly getting out of bed. Dull gray Pittsburgh sunlight broke through the wooden shutters in my bedroom. Exhausted from the nonstop rush of adrenaline the last day, my bones and muscles ached. My spine and shoulders were tight again. All the good of my family’s mountain escape erased with a single phone call.
The woman from Human Resources met me at 7 a.m. as promised. Before she motioned me inside, I watched the organization’s CEO park his Cadillac then silently walk past me — like he was ignoring a panhandler. The sight of him made me want to swing the edge of my laptop into his face, send an explosion of broken teeth to the sidewalk. But instead I just stared at him as he averted his gaze.
Within minutes, the boxes laid out on my desk were nearly full. On the drive in, speeding across the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I had mapped out just how I would empty my office. What would be thrown away and what would be saved. I would gather my things, I decided, then say my goodbyes and vanish. I wanted to be a ghost in that building. Seep in like smoke then disappear forever. As I was cleaning out my office, there was a knock at the door. When I looked up from my desk, Pat, one of my co-workers, was standing there, shaking his head.
“Maaaatt…” he said, the lonely vowel in my name hanging in the air for an eternity. “I don’t know what to say.”
I smiled at him, kept my comments to myself.
“There’s really nothing to say,” I replied. He told me it had been a pleasure working together. I said the same. We shook hands and said goodbye.
Little from my cubicle was worth saving it turned out. The tangle of lanyards from press trips and trade shows were first to hit the trash. Then came an avalanche of papers — old press releases, notes from staff meetings, and time sheets collected for the last five years. All meaningless. I filled the large trashcan in my office, then another outside my door next to the copier. My only hesitation came when I caught sight of the Peace Lily next to my window.
The lily had been a gift from my parents, who surprised me with a visit during my first week on the job. Proud of my new position they walked in with the plant, smiling the way parents do when they are innately happy about the success of their child. The wicker planter had a blue celebratory ribbon woven around its midsection. For five years I kept that plant alive. Even as pressing deadlines and a daunting workload kept me busy. For weeks on end I would forget to give it water, then its brown curling leaves reminded me of my neglect. Then I would make up for it, trimming the browned leaves, watering it regularly, twisting it daily so all its leaves could warm in the sun. Then I would forget again. It’s as if the plant were a biological monitor of my indifference toward my job. I would try hard to care, pretend I was a career man who didn’t dread staff meetings, corporate Christmas parties, or all-day training sessions. But no matter how hard I tried to convince myself that things weren’t all that bad, the space between the start and end of each work day always felt like a waste of time.
The Peace Lily ended up surviving a few days longer than I did. On my way out, I dropped it in the overflowing trashcan next to the copier, loose dirt and leaves falling to the industrial-grade carpet.