Madison Jozefiak studied English and creative writing at Colgate University in Upstate New York. She currently works and lives in Boston with some roommates who are good at baking. Her work also appears in Inscape Literary Magazine.
It was difficult to pay attention to the CEO and not the fangs of the screaming baboon behind him. In fact, all of the animal photography was distracting.
“Where do you see yourself in five years?” he asked as the phone rang, and he snatched it off the handset.
“Yes? Christ, what is it now?”
I breathed an internal sigh of relief at the interruption. My first job interview was not going well. Photography aside, the office ceiling was too high. I could hear the tick-tick-tick of a clock but couldn’t tell where it was coming from. My two-inch heels were two sizes too big. My feet slid down the slopes of the arches and my toes were squeezed into the point at the end.
“The third-floor printer is broken,” the CEO said into the phone. “It can’t be fixed. Get used to it.”
Just a week ago, I had earned my degree in compliance engineering with a federal policy focus. I received my diploma in a musty auditorium full of artificial calla lilies. There was a perfunctory burst of applause, followed by a drawn-out slow handclap from my cousin Ross. I had been thrilled to receive an interview offer just one day after my graduation.
But not anymore. Now, I was too intimidated. My armpits were drenched. My lower back ached for some reason. I wanted to go home, take a bath, and eat at least one bag of cheesy popcorn. I didn’t want the job anymore, and that was fine. I had plenty of time. This interview would be practice for all the others.
The CEO was still speaking into the phone.
“We’ve got more important things to worry about!” he said. “Escalator regulations, for one. And the new trends in bear-proof trash cans! You’re hired by the way.”
He was covering the phone speaker with his palm as he looked at me.
“I said you’re hired. Amanda will show you the ropes.”
I wanted to ask who Amanda was, but already I was being led away by a woman in sugar-pink glasses with a big poof of auburn hair. She brought me to an empty desk, dumped a stack of documents into my arms, and gave me a pat on the back.
“We’re counting on you,” she said.
In a daze, I sat down and began flipping through the papers before me. Minutes ticked by. The stack was reduced to a disheveled layer across the desktop, and all I knew was that I had no idea what I was doing. I left the papers and sprinted in my terrible shoes in the direction of the CEO’s office. There must have been some kind of mistake. I wasn’t fit for the job.
I stumbled to a halt, and a man carrying a tray of mocha lattes steadied me with his free hand. Before I could apologize for nearly spilling the hot beverages on his very nice champagne-colored sweater, he passed me a drink and smiled.
“You’re new here, aren’t you? Let’s hurry, or we’ll be late for the meeting.”
We rushed into a fully packed conference room. Seeing all heads turn towards us as we entered set my stomach churning.
“Thank you both for joining,” said the Meeting Moderator dryly, because of course we were late even though we had hurried. “Felix, start the presentation.”
The man in the champagne sweater went to the front of the room, and I sat down in the closest chair. I’m allergic to chocolate, but the warmth of the mocha latte was comforting, and I pressed the paper cup to my chest.
I don’t know if it was the pleasant distraction of Felix or my general anxiety about the whole situation, but when I finally got around to paying attention to the presentation it was already over.
I was desperate to speak with the CEO, but I needed coffee. I left the mocha latte on my desk (the documents I’d given up on before had been replaced with three new piles, a problem for when I returned) and dashed across the street.
“You work for the industrial design firm, don’t you?” said the barista who handed me a 20-ounce cup of dark roast. “I’ve seen you around.”
I wanted to tell him that I hadn’t been around for long, but I sipped too soon and accidentally burned my tongue.
“What do you do, over there?” He asked. He was a college-age boy with radioactive blue-green hair.
Just then, my work phone pinged and vibrated and glowed in my coat pocket. There was another meeting, and according to the email I would be giving a presentation this time.
On my way to the conference room, I decided on the best way to pull the CEO aside and explain why I shouldn’t have been hired that morning. I would do it after. After I stood in front of a room of about fifty-two strangers and attempted to explain a stack of documents I only half-understood. But just as I arrived at the front of the room with my papers prepared, someone from Business Development burst through the door.
“WC signed the contract! We have the WC account!”
And the celebration was underway. Silver streamers left over from New Year's were threaded through the overhead lights, from one end of the room to the other. Someone gave me a pile of gold and white balloons to inflate, and someone else started pouring champagne into every drinking vessel available. Members of different departments teamed up and took turns singing karaoke projected onto the presentation screen.
I got ahold of the CEO as he was drinking champagne from a pencil holder. But I was too out of breath from blowing up the balloons, and though I tried to speak I could only wheeze and double over in exhaustion.
“If you have something to say, save it for lunch,” he said. “I have a disaster at another branch to deal with.”
I tried to get him to wait, just for a few seconds, but he was running late and I was already being swept into a different meeting room, where I fell into an orange bean bag chair and a Project Manager pushed a pad of paper into my face.
“Write this down,” she said. “WC LLC brainstorm. Objective: human-centric plunger.”
I was offended, because writing things down wasn’t part of the job I was assigned, or at least I didn’t think it was. But then a hush rippled through the room, and my attention was drawn to Felix as he was about to speak.
“What,” he said, “is a plunger?”
It was a rhetorical question.
“It’s not a poem or a bird. It isn’t a thing of beauty. A plunger is just a tool. But why should that make it any less important for us?”
“As industrial designers, we create objects that are beautiful not merely for their outward appearance, but for the emotional responses they elicit for the user. What is the true value of a plunger for the human experience? That’s what we need to think about today.”
He was a brilliant orator. As a series of wild flurries seized my chest, applause erupted throughout the room, and ideas began to fly from every direction. I wrote down everything, even the suggestions that sounded stupid but might turn out to be uncut gems later, such as a plunger head that elicited a different musical note every time it was pushed down, or an automatic phone-syncing software that provided the contact information of local plumbers when a situation proved too much for the plunger to handle.
It did occur to me that I would no longer have this job after I cleared things up with the CEO, and that there was no sense getting involved in a project I would soon have nothing to do with. But the Project Manager, Olive, had already slung her arm around my shoulder and was dragging me off to lunch. Amanda passed me a pile of documents on our way out, and they made perfect sense unlike all the others she had given me before. I completed them as we crossed the street.
I don’t know why the project team was so excited to go to the same family-run eatery every day, but I was carried on a wave of enthusiasm across a white-and-blue tiled floor to a table that was already half-full and where someone had already ordered me a garden salad with chicken.
“My Tevas haven’t shipped yet,” said one of the design leads, flicking the screen of his phone with thick fingers.
“Good.” said another one. “They’re ugly.”
Olive confessed that she was thinking of starting a paleo diet. “It’s what the vet recommended for my goldfish, and I don’t want him to go through it alone.”
By this time, the food had arrived. I scanned the room from top to bottom.
“If you’re looking for Felix, he isn’t coming,” Olive said. “His girlfriend surprised him with a picnic by the harbor.”
I had, in fact, been looking for the CEO, but this news struck me like a heavy stone. To distract from the ache that spread outward from my chest, I focused on spearing a piece of chicken in my salad. My fork grated harshly against the plate, and the dressing tasted like straight vinegar, making me gag.
“It’s a good thing you were hired,” said the HR manager, trying to bring me into a different conversation across the table. “We could certainly use your skills around here.”
I began to sweat, because I didn’t know what skills he was referring to. Fortunately, it was a busy day; someone paid the bill and we set about crossing the street with maximum efficiency.
Perhaps it would have been better if we’d lingered longer—WC LLC had ended their contract during lunch, and the office had descended into chaos. The overhead lights flickered as people ran from desk to desk, picking up ringing telephones and yelling into them. Some were curled up in corners, pulling out their hair or rocking silently. One of the Account Managers in his distress broke the goldfish bowl on Olive’s desk, and poor Finn spilled to the floor like a detached egg yolk. He went sliding into the narrow gap beneath the filing cabinet, where he suffocated within two minutes.
I could find no trace of either the CEO or Felix. I hoped the latter was still blissfully unaware and picnicking by the water, though I would be lying if I said the thought didn’t bring some of the vinegar taste back to my mouth.
Fully succumbed to the atmosphere of despair in the office, I sat heavily at my desk with my head in my hands. I was just starting to wonder why the desktop was so clean when an intern tapped me on the shoulder and let me know that I had been promoted.
I relocated to the corner office where Amanda had already moved my things and resumed my misery at a much larger desk with a nice harbor view.
I didn’t lift my head from my hands until the noise in the office died down. By then, it was four o’clock. My first day of work was nearly over, or at least it should have been. There were still seven neat stacks of documents before me on the desk. I reached for the tallest pile with a sigh, thinking that I would need another cup of coffee to get me through. I had barely begun when the CEO appeared in the doorway.
“Before you say anything, I have a small announcement to make.”
He seemed a little nervous, glancing from side to side rather than meeting my eyes.
“I’ll just come out and say it. I’m moving to Florida,” he said. “Since my wife left, I’ve been thinking it’s time to start fresh and pursue what I’m truly interested in. I’m going to spend the rest of my life photographing the wildlife of the Everglades—my childhood dream.”
Naturally, I was happy for him, but I wondered what this announcement had to do with me, and when we would finally discuss my lack of qualification for my current—and, in fact, previous—position.
“I want you to take over for me, here,” said the CEO.
I blinked several times as if he had sprayed me with lemon juice.
“You’re surprised,” he said. “But you shouldn’t be. I’ve paid attention. I know that you’re an employee who goes above and beyond from the sidelines, spurning all recognition. You fixed the printer on the third floor, after all. Don’t try to deny it!”
I felt very faint, lightheaded. I had no idea how to fix a printer. Was such a thing expected of me? Something wasn’t right. Perhaps the impossibility of putting my lack of qualification into words proved more than anything else my utter lack of qualification.
And yet there was no time to waste. The CEO took me to his office and gave me a brief overview of his position. I hardly had time to make a list of his computer passwords before he was striding out the door with a suitcase under each arm, already dreaming, I guess, of endangered panthers glimpsed through the swamp greenery.
I sat down at the CEO’s desk, rubbed my sore eyes, and abruptly stood again. It was past six, but I still had work to do. After a long day of running around, my ill-fitting interview pumps agonized me. As I limped across the street, I stayed focused on the cup of coffee I’d been looking forward to before the CEO so rudely interrupted me by giving me his job.
“Back for more?” the barista said.
He was the same college kid I had spoken to that morning, with the same blue-green hair. This time, he looked at least as weary as I felt, covered head-to-toe in splashes of coffee.
“Guess you noticed.” He tugged on his name tag in response to my questioning stare. To the right of the letters that spelled “NICK” there was now a gold star sticker, the kind that are awarded to kindergartners for a job well done.
“I’m Store Manager, now,” Nick said, “I’ve been promoted.”
I couldn’t help but laugh, because promotion was something unexpected that we had in common. But there was too much work to do to be standing around chatting with my regular barista—I wanted to finish before midnight.
When I returned to the office, I was met with darkness. Everyone else had gone home. The nighttime city was a galaxy of lights beyond the large windows.
I thought about all that still had to be done, despite the fact that I was really not the best person to be responsible for it, and I felt a little like plundering the former CEO’s gin stash. I would rather have spent the next several hours drinking and weeping under the gaze of the terrifying animals than going back to work. But it wasn’t the time to indulge such inclinations. I fumbled in the dark for the light switch and flipped it on.
I stumbled back from the force of the shout and grabbed the corner of Olive’s desk for support. A sliver of goldfish bowl that had yet to be cleaned up sliced the palm of my right hand.
I sucked air through my teeth and pressed my left palm against the wound. All around me, every single employee of the company was beaming and aggressively waving party streamers. Amanda hoisted a pink-frosted triple-layer cake.
“Congrats on the big promotion!”
“No one deserves it more than you,” said Felix.
The design leads all gave me approving looks, and Olive thumped me on the back. I felt my eyes welling up, only partially because of the pain. Keep it together, I thought. Smile, accept the first piece, take a bite. They worked hard to organize all of this.
Gratitude and misery thrashed within me as I chewed and swallowed the doughy pink cake. My face grew hot, a lump lifted into my throat. To think that all of these people could take me in so wholeheartedly, imposter that I was, was almost too much to bear. The more cake I shoveled into my mouth, the more the lump in my throat expanded, until my diaphragm tugged against my stopped-up airway and my helpless lungs cried out.
“Shit!” someone shouted. “She’s allergic to chocolate!”
Little sunbursts popped before my eyes, and I did register the taste of the chocolate chips melting deliciously in my mouth just before the faces of my coworkers slipped away from me and I lost consciousness.
I woke into a perfect dream. Felix’s face, lined with concern and softly illuminated by a diffuse backlighting, hovered inches from mine. His champagne-colored sweater was pulled askew, exposing the top of a collar bone. This must be what happens when people die, I thought; electrical impulses going off in the brain in one great final fireworks show, so that the image you most want to see appears as a vivid hallucination before your eyes.
“Her eyes are open!” Felix shouted. “Everyone, I think she’s okay! Thank god for Damien’s EpiPen.”
As I came to terms with the situation, I unclenched my fists from Felix’s sweater, feeling a rush of embarrassment at the blotchy, obscenely red shape my bleeding palm had pressed into the fabric.
“Are you okay, boss?”
Every single one of my employees was packed around me in a concerned, attentive semicircle. My throat was raw and my head was aching. I managed one deep breath, then another. When I spoke, my voice was hoarse and battered and loud enough for everyone to hear.
A beat of silence. All eyes were fixed on my face. A face which surely didn’t look the same as it had that morning, surely must have aged at least five years since then. I looked back at each and every one of them, and then the entire room erupted into laughter.
“Your sarcasm never lets us down,” said Felix. He helped me to my feet.