Everything that I’ve told you so far is just another jeremiad of life inside the cubicle farm, I know.
That’s what I had thought, too. I knew that Donnie and Bethany were oddballs—the archetypical coworkers from hell. I’d heard about the risks of working long-term in toxic, snake pit environments. I wouldn’t have disputed that working alongside Donnie and Bethany, within the dog-eat-dog, everyone-for-themselves setting of Thomas-Smithfield was bad for my health. My job might be a contributing factor to a heart attack I’d have at the age of forty-five or fifty.
But acutely dangerous? No, I wouldn’t have believed that.
The revelation that changed everything took place after lunch that day.
I was doing my best to concentrate on work, to ignore Donnie and Bethany. I was wondering if Donnie was going come over to my desk for a rematch. Perhaps this time, he wouldn’t be content to conclude the matter with mere words.
But Donnie ignored me that afternoon. He and Bethany were whispering among themselves. Several times they stepped away to talk privately. They didn’t look or gesture in my direction. I might have been invisible.
That was just fine with me.
They must have been making their third trip of the afternoon away from their desks when a strange thing happened. Sid Harper met them in the middle of the floor, as if by prearrangement. The three of them turned in the direction from which Sid had come, and walked away together, toward the third floor meeting rooms.
That was unusual. Most unusual.
For Sid to have a private conversation with Donnie or Bethany wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary, of course. In fact, it was somewhat commonplace. Just as Sid had discussed the McDonnell quote with me earlier in the day, he discussed supplier issues with both Donnie and Bethany, too, as business circumstances required.
What was unusual was for him to talk to the two of them at once. Although the three of us were grouped together for administrative purposes, there was no collaboration between us. Each of us worked in a silo. That might change, with my grade promotion; but at present, each of us was an island.
So why would Sid be talking to Donnie and Bethany together?
Did it have something to do with me? Donnie and Bethany had made no secret of their disdain for me, their resentment at my being promoted ahead of them. Had they found something to use against me with Sid? Or—more likely—had they fabricated something?
The textbook answer to this conundrum was: Mind your own business, Frank. I knew that I hadn’t done anything remotely unethical. I was easily the most conscientious of our little trio. So I shouldn’t worry about it, right?
But the textbook answer failed me. I couldn’t remain impassive. As discreetly as I could, I stood up from my desk and walked after them, following at a discreet pace and distance, of course.
I watched them go into the nearest private meeting room, the one nearest the pop machine alcove.
Just let it go, a little voice told me. They might be meeting about anything. Perhaps the constant workday trysts of Donnie and Bethany had become an HR matter, and Sid had summoned them for a reprimand. If that was the case, then I couldn’t have cared less.
But then I recalled how bitterly the two of them disliked me—and how openly they had expressed that dislike of late. If Donnie was willing to risk a fisticuffs in the middle of the office, would it be so much of a stretch for him to pour poison in Sid’s ears in an attempt to discredit me? And if Bethany was backing him up, it would be two against one.
Results are by no means irrelevant in the corporate workplace. But so is perception. If they were talking about me, I had to know it. I had to know what they were telling Sid. But the three of them were now inside a closed meeting room.
Then it occurred to me that I was in luck—sort of.
I was aware of a little space behind that nearest meeting room, between the concrete wall and the drywall. The space could be accessed by stepping behind the vending machines, and then into the gap between the two walls. I had discovered it one day by accident, when I had dropped a quarter at the Coke machine and the coin had gone rolling.
I had never actually entered the space, mind you: It would be a tight fit. I would ordinarily have had little interest in eavesdropping on random meetings, anyway. Nor would I want to risk being caught snooping for a mere lark.
But right now Donnie, Bethany, and Sid were sitting down inside that meeting room, and my intuition told me that my two coworkers might be speaking against me. I couldn’t intervene, of course; but I would at least know what they were saying.
Then another internal voice spoke up—that one from before—and told me that my best course of action would be to simply forget about it. I could return to my desk, and get back to work.
I reminded myself of my own conduct: There was nothing that Donnie and Bethany could possibly tell Sid about me that would have a negative impact on my career.
They could, of course, tell Sid that they thought it was unfair for me to be promoted ahead of them. But so what?
Then I wavered yet again: I could not ignore the possibility of a fabrication, an outright lie that would be difficult for me to categorically disprove. There is no “benefit of a reasonable doubt” in the corporate workplace. There is only the career-crushing stigma of a lingering accusation.
Bethany might claim, for example, that I had sexually harassed her. (And although that would be a big, big stretch, wasn’t I guilty of the occasional lingering glance in her direction?)
Donnie might claim that I’d been trying to pick a fight with him. That would be even more ridiculous, given our comparative sizes and personalities. But I had answered him back, gone tit-for-tat, when he had taunted me. There had been verbal exchanges between us that could be twisted around, quoted out of context.
Moreover, they would corroborate each other to the end. And what if the two of them had cajoled or intimidated a third party (such as Ellen Watson) into joining the chorus against me? A wider conspiracy was not impossible.
The bottom line was: With those two, almost anything was possible. Their scheme might not hold up over the long haul, but they could cause me no end of problems in the short run if they caught me unawares.
On the other hand, if I knew what they were saying…
Hoping that no one was watching me too closely, I made a beeline for the vending machine alcove.