Friday, September 11, 2009

The Redundancy

One day Tom, a frustrated writer, a dutiful yet bored and restless data analyst for the Midtown consulting firm Kincaid & Presley, finally tried the knob on that gray door in the corner, behind his desk. Near the glass-encased fire extinguisher and the conference room that no one ever used. It opened. And it led him through an unlit hallway. Halfway down there were two lounge chairs with a little round table between them, as though people were expected to sit there and converse. When he reached the end he emerged into a parallel realm, at once alien and familiar. The door was like the one he'd entered. He saw before him a desk much like his own, in a similar vast sea of cubicles arrayed in a maze, punctuated by square supporting columns. Except these cubicles were upholstered in light green fabric; his were gray. He realized this was the other company on the floor, the one that lay beyond the doors to the right of the elevator when he got off each morning and, without a thought, turned left. He didn't even know its name.

No one saw Tom, though when he peered down the nearest row he saw coats draped on the tops of cubicle walls, the backs of heads, restless feet fidgeting on the bases of rolling chairs. The corporate organism in the doldrums of midafternoon. There was no one at the desk that corresponded to his, however; it held only a phone, a keyboard, a monitor and a Kleenex box. He approached and sat down in the chair. The patchy pattern of dust on the desk indicated that it had recently been cluttered with the artifacts of office life: a framed picture of a wife and children, perhaps, or of a husband; a tape dispenser, pen cup, novelty mug or bobblehead doll.

A man strode towards him and stopped a few paces away.

"Excuse me, can I help you? Who are you?"

Tom was momentarily seized with panic, with shame. What the hell could he say? He fell upon a desperate idea.

"I... I'm Tom. I'm the new guy," Tom said, nodding into the mouth of his cubicle.

The man tilted back his head and frowned.

"I didn't know that hire was complete."

"Yeah!" said Tom.

"Well I'll be."


"Data analyst?"

"That would be me."

"Not used to things moving fast around here!"

"Here I am. At your service."

"Hey, all right, Tom. Welcome to Taylor & Crowell! I'm Mike. I'll be your supervisor." Mike stepped forward and they shook hands. "Let's get you an I-9 form and an account on this computer."

Minutes later Tom had two jobs: data analyst for Kincaid & Presley and data analyst for Taylor & Crowell, the company down the hall. He spent the rest of the afternoon at his new one, only occasionally darting back through the dark hallway to show his face and check his e-mail at K & P. There really wasn't much going on, so no one noticed his absence. At around five-thirty, he thanked Mike and said goodbye. Then he escaped to the other office one last time to get his coat and bag and bid a round of goodbyes to his other colleagues.

Over the next few days, Tom perfected his surreptitious two-job routine: arrive early at Kincaid & Presley, look busy at his desk for twenty minutes, then slip through the passageway to Taylor & Crowell to start the day there. Over the course of the day he would pass back and forth a few times, calibrating the length of his visits according to workload and their timing according to meetings and other obligations. Fact is, there was hardly anything to do at K & P. They'd lost a few accounts in the past few months and people were talking doom.

Taylor & Crowell, on the other hand, kept Tom busy. Mike had started him off on a research project involving the analysis of another company in their market. The name of the company was obscured to him for reasons of corporate confidentiality, Mike explained. But he let on that it was a company that T & C was interested in acquiring.

One day Mike called Tom into his office.

"Where you been for the past half hour?"

"I, I... had a situation. To deal with. A family situation."

"Say no more. No worries," Mike said, holding up his hand for Tom to stop. "I didn't mean to pry."

"That's alright."

"You've been doing really good work, by the way, Tom. I've been reading your reports so far on the prospective acquisition. Nifty work."

"Thanks! That's great to hear."

"Looks like your conclusions are pointing in the right direction."

Tom was used to playing the analysis game. Shake the numbers around a bit until they all seem to fall into the right place. Until they tell a story your bosses want to hear.

"That's what I've been seeing, yeah."

"OK, so listen. Now I can tell you because the cat's going to be out of the bag this afternoon. Our CEO is flying in to make the announcement. We're going to take over this company."

"That's very exciting."

"And I can tell you who they are. It's Kincaid & Presley. It's the company on the other side of this very floor."

Tom tried not to reveal his shock.


"You bet it's interesting. We're gonna be Taylor, Crowell, Kincaid & Presley now. They have to have their names in there to save face. Lots of egos involved. You know how these things are. But make no mistake: we're acquiring them, not the other way around."

"I see."

"I can't make any promises right now, but based on the work you've been doing, I believe your job should be safe."

Tom wandered back to his desk in a daze. He was pondering how this all might play out when he realized it was about time for him to check in at K & P. Soon after he sat back down at his old desk his boss there, Steve, walked up.

"Hey Tom, got a minute?"

"Sure." Tom got up and followed Steve into his office.

"I've been telling everyone who's been here for a while – Debbie, Joe, Tibor. Eric. There's some interesting news. It's going to be announced later this afternoon."


"We're acquiring Taylor & Crowell. Do you realize who they are?"

Tom slowly shook his head. Steve pointed in the vague direction of the other side.

"Floormates. Down the hall. Can you believe it?"

"Wow!" said Tom, this time making an effort to seem surprised.

"They're going to make it look like they're acquiring us, but it's really the other way around. Technically, it's a stock swap. I think we're going to be called Kincaid, Presley, Taylor & Crowell. We're still working out all that stuff. They've been on our radar for a while."

"That's uh, exciting."

"Yup. Now there's some good news and there's some bad news. Bad news is, there are going to be some redundancies. Good news is, we've shared preliminary org charts and theirs actually had you in your position."


"Yeah. I think they actually listened when I told them what kind of value you bring."

"I, uh, I really appreciate that, Steve."

Later in the afternoon, Tom gathered with his colleagues at Taylor & Crowell in a large seminar room to listen to their silver-haired CEO, Freeman Hatfield, proclaim the tremendous significance and auspiciousness of the impending merger.

"I cannot emphasize this enough," Hatfield stated, both hands pointing at his audience from above the lectern, "our acquisition of one of the most important competitors in our market is thanks to you people!"

Hooting and applause.

"You are the reason I get up in the morning. You are the reason I get into my car." He paused dramatically, then pointed again in a wide arcing motion, hand high over his head. "It's all you people in this room who deserve credit for building this company, for satisfying our clients, for bringing us to this milestone. Day after day after day, you people are the people who reach benchmarks." He looked around and nodded emphatically, as though to deter any falsely modest protests. "You people are the people who act on action items. You people are the people who go and do go-dos! You people are the fulfillers of commitments!"

Sensing the impending climax, some in the crowd began to clap and cheer.

"Hold it!" Hatfield said, hands held up. "I'm not done. I want you all to give yourselves a big round of applause!"

The room erupted in a gleeful ovation in which Tom participated gamely. He eyed the exit. This would be a good time to sneak away and make himself visible at K & C, he thought. He was beginning to wind his way there among his elated colleagues when he heard his name called.

"Tom! Tom Olson! Is that Tom Olson?"

Tom turned around to find Mike and Freeman Hatfield approaching, both smiling widely.

"I just told Mike here that I had to meet the new guy who made the magic happen!" Freeman exclaimed, thrusting out an impeccably manicured hand.

"Thank you, sir!"

"Call me Freeman! Mike's been telling me what an important role you played in this."

"I'm sure I'm not the only one!"

Freeman leaned in, still clutching Tom's hand in his powerful, steady grip. He emanated a suffocating fog of cologne.

"These fucking people? They don't do shit. Half of them are getting fired."

Freeman jerked his head back and laughed uproariously. Mike joined in.

"Seriously," said Freeman. "You've got a bright future with us, Tom. You wanna know the funny thing?"

Freeman still held Tom's hand and began to shake it again gently.


"Those cocksuckers over at K & C already have your name down for your job!"

Freeman and Mike laughed again and Tom was seized by a tremulous chill. He tried to release Freeman's hand but the old man wouldn't let him.

"Who knows, maybe their person is a non-starter over there. Dead weight."

"No-brainer," added Mike.

"Brain dead."

Tom shrugged, trying to seem nonchalant. Freeman Hatfield still clutched his hand.

"But you're a game-changer, Tom. Don't you let us forget it."

"I sure won't!"

Freeman shook one final time, patting the top of Tom's wrist with his other palm.

"I'm sure glad we met."

"So am I."

Over the CEO's shoulder, Tom saw Mike make wide eyes – wide, portentous eyes. This is big for you, he seemed to be saying. Tom felt sweat drip down his back. He smiled at the men as they finally strode away.

On the Tuesday of the following week, everyone at either company was called into their bosses' offices, one by one, and told the good news or the bad. In spite of whatever assurances had been insinuated in the days before, about three quarters would lose their jobs at Kincaid & Presley and half at Taylor & Crowell. Tom's meeting with Mike came before his meeting with Steve.

"I think you know what I'm about to tell you," Mike said, smiling.

"I don't ever want to assume."

"Stop being modest. You know we love you here. And apparently, they love you there too. We got absolutely no pushback on putting you in your job."


"We move over there officially on Thursday. You'll feel right at home. Your desk is pretty much in the same spot."

Tom thanked him and left. Then he snuck through the hallway again and sat back at his old desk. He killed a little time and then went to his meeting with Steve.

"Well Tom, you really lucked out."

"I'm grateful that you put in a good word for me, Steve."

Steve laughed darkly.

"Well, I did what I could. Unfortunately, the news is not as good for all of us. They're letting me go."


"Yeah. You know, they've got some guy over there. Mike, I think. He'll be your new boss."

"Wow. I'm really sorry to hear that."

"Thanks, thanks, thanks. I guess he's got seniority. And besides, the truth is, they are taking us over."

"Oh yeah?"

"Feels good to say that. No one here wants to admit it, but they are. That's how come they get to put in the people they want. Their people."

"Right, right. Of course."

"Except for this guy right here!" Steve said with strained enthusiasm, pointing at Tom.

Tom shrugged and put on a fatalistic smile.

"Funny thing is, they must really not have liked their guy. 'Cause you're our guy!"

"I guess!"

Tom felt obliged to indulge Steve's odd mood, to be present and vaguely supportive of his doomed boss, this figure of erstwhile authority now fallen and denuded. But he really just wanted to get out of there.

"You know what I was thinking, though?" said Steve.


"It's funny that they wanted to keep you."

"I guess it is," Tom said nervously.

"You know what would be funny?"


"It would be funny if there were actually two Tom Olsons."

"Ha!" Tom exclaimed sharply.

"One who works at your job here and one who works at your job there."

"That would be funny."

Steve chuckled wearily, shaking his head.

"Hey, go and write a story about it. You're an aspiring writer. That's my parting gift to you."

Now Tom got a perverse idea, just as he had when Steve first approached him on the other side. This one too he could not resist.

"I'm already working on one actually. It's kind of like that, but different."

"Oh yeah?"

Tom grinned. "In my story, there's just one Tom Olson but he works both jobs."

Steve burst out laughing and slapped three beats on his desk.

"Perfect! That's it!"

"Isn't that funny?"

"That's great, Tom. Write it! Write that story!"

"I sure am."

"That's my last request of you, I want you to write that goddamn story."

"I promise."



"What is it they say about truth?"


"About fiction and truth?"


"Fiction is stranger than truth?"

"Something like that," Tom said, and the two men said goodbye.

Soon Tom would find himself back at his old desk for good, a senior data analyst now for Taylor, Crowell, Kincaid & Presley. To those from T & C, he was Tom, the not-so-new guy; Tom, the go-getter, the golden boy. To those remaining from K & P he was Tom too, but he was good ol' Tom, the writer guy, always a bit distracted. Lucky Tom, to say the least. But it never occurred to anyone in either group that someone else might know another Tom. Why should it? Tom was Tom. He was two Toms to his colleagues but he was reconciled to himself, situated in a single space. Unredundant. He never opened the gray door again.