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With Loss of Hands

by Charles C. Cole

Our small, privately-owned software development company was struggling. Our largest, bread-and-butter client had been sold - and dismantled. There was cheaper competition overseas, increasingly convenient via new high-speed Internet connections. Readily available business-class coding tools were more drag-and-drop intuitive than ever. Aggressive start-up enterprises were popping up in multifunctioning garages. Layoffs were inevitable.

One Friday afternoon, we were unexpectedly herded together for an “all hands” companywide meeting, minus several hands. A dog-and-pony presentation team of five, cultivating new business opportunities out-of-state, was texted by the owner to conference in.

Garret Huntley, our employer, called in from the harbor where he was anchoring his luxury sailboat. Only bad weather or bad news could bring Huntley into shore. The sky was blue. The temperature was just over 80.

“Ahoy, mateys!” he began. “Traffic must be crazy. Don’t rush. There’s been a change of winds. I promise glowing letters of reference. Lots of thought went into this. Lots of sleep lost. Reluctantly, we’ve had to downsize to stay competitive. It’s nothing personal.” Our corporate knight errants were abruptly, unceremoniously released.

“Is this a joke?” asked my friend Rae Hoffmann, one of the travelers.

“No joke,” answered Huntley. “Would that it were. We’ll help your team through the rough transition.”

After disconnecting the call, without so much as a “thank you,” our real-estate millionaire continued briskly: “If anyone wants to stop by Parker’s after work and talk, drinks are on me. Or you can clock out early. The good news: we never had anyone sign non-compete clauses, so some very real opportunities are still open for our fallen comrades. For the rest of you, we’ll be socializing some contract amendments for your quick approval in the near future. Watch those emails.”

For me, at the time, my co-workers were also my closest friendships, forged by modern-day Herculean circumstances. I’d spent more waking hours with them than with my long-suffering girlfriend or my patient relatives, none of whom had ever been asked to work more than forty hours per week.

My office family endured long shifts, often including Saturdays and Sundays, to commit to nonnegotiable and often unreasonable targets. We always succeeded, with just enough time to catch our collective breath before starting over.

We shared the same priorities, finished each other’s sentences, ordered each other’s lunches, even adequately adulterated each other’s coffee. We understood each other and consistently had each other’s backs.

With two of my cube-brothers on the road, I sat at my conspicuously quiet desk and stared at my heavily-booked calendar. I was trying to make renewed sense of deadlines, looking for unlikely slack and impending impact. Upcoming weekends, now open, suddenly seemed, more realistically, like second or third Fridays. I wasn’t sure who to feel sorry for more.

Rae sent a message to my cell phone: “Saw this coming. Not the end of the world. Keep your cool. Maybe he’ll outsource assignments to us; same resources but without benefits. Cheaper and logical. Short-term win.”

I smiled while holding my upset stomach; an emotionally improbable outcome was good for the company’s bottom line. There was simply no time to get a new team aboard, familiarized with our clients and our needs, with the same skillset, not this time at least. Amicable divorce with shared custody of the kids, for now.

The ponderous ambience was considerable. I stepped away with an excuse for more coffee, taking a long walk about the office. Brad, engaged to Rae, shut himself in a small office and was busy texting. Lew and Sophie were smoking cigarettes by the dumpsters out back. Sissy was furiously clicking her keyboard: productive to distraction. I poked my head over her shoulder; she was tightening her résumé.

The difference between the bonds of blood relatives and those of work relatives wasn’t legal or genealogical. One group of people had a shared purpose, commitment, awareness, drive. The other, to some extent, were reluctantly together by decree and/or preordained circumstance. Siblings didn’t have to like each other or be productive. Parents could hate each other privately but remain united because it’s more effort to move on.

I never visited Brad or Rae socially, outside of the office. But I would have been first to volunteer to be on their teams when it came to trial-by-fire, against-all-odds business enterprises. We took pride in our efforts with a long track record of amazing jobs, even a few Hail Mary passes, where the “reward” was another job just as challenging.

The afternoon waned. I texted my girlfriend, explaining I’d be an hour late, again. Brad and Sissy left, stealthily and unobserved. Lew and Sophie were paper lions, ready to drink with Huntley if I went as well. We trudged over to Parker’s, arm in arm, aware the dark clouds overhead could make the walk back a wet one.

Huntley, co-owner, had a booth in the corner behind the bar. His VP of Sales and his VP of Marketing, graduates from the same prep school, sat across from him, nearly glowing from too much fun and sun. The savings made by cutting one loose easily exceeded the expense of all five friends who had been terminated.

Huntley raised a glass as we approached. “Brave souls! We’ll get through this. We have carafes of house white and red.” We were frozen. He poured a couple of glasses. I grabbed one.

Huntley looked at his glass. “I couldn’t go inside, you understand. It’s just business. If you want to vent, I’m pretty toasted; now’s the time to let me have it. I grant you full immunity.”

“Sir,” I said, “I’ve never been more proud of my co-workers. You’ve got the best. They’re like family.”

Huntley winked. “Except they’re not family. That would be way harder.”

“When a tree loses its roots, it doesn’t just die, it falls over. When do you plan to close up shop?”

“Good one, though I prefer sailing metaphors,” he said, smiling with his eyes closed. I knew the conversation would be mostly forgotten by morning.

Copyright © 2020 by Charles C. Cole

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