Free Coffee

Fiction
Joey Dickerson


Photo Credit: Andrew Huff/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Greg took another sip of his coffee in a futile attempt to add interest to another Monday morning. He had sweetened his daily breakfast with six packets of sugar to make it bearable, and though the powdered non-dairy creamer only served to make the drink taste more like printer paper, the now-ancient ritual of dumping in a heap of the stuff seemed unavoidable. Greg was a man of routine, and this one he had enjoyed for over eighteen years at Barney Light Corporation, or “BLC.” There were several others: waking up slightly late after snoozing the alarm a few times, the mindless forty-five minute commute, slowly eating a turkey sandwich and bag of chips while listening to a podcast in his Toyota Corolla during his exactly-one-hour lunch break from 11:30am to 12:30pm, going to the restroom around 3:00pm, and leaving the office a few minutes early, because who would notice (and if someone did, Greg would say he was trying to beat the traffic—he never thought he had to beat the traffic, but he had heard someone say it once when he was new and thought it sounded smart). But Greg liked the coffee ritual. He felt it was distinguished. Tomorrow, Greg would be fired from his job at BLC, ending his eighteen-year career in corporate marketing, and he never would have guessed the coffee ritual would be the only bit of it he missed.

Greg had never been a coffee drinker. He had started as a Marketing Coordinator at BLC right out of college, and on his first day the girl from Human Resources had given him a tour of the office. When they reached the break room she asked him if he drank coffee. He said he did, because it seemed like the right answer from someone who wanted to work in an office. She said it was the last stop of the tour, so he was welcome to make himself a cup and head back to his cubicle to complete the onboarding training they had set up for him. So he did. He grabbed a thick paper cup, pumped in some coffee, and added a packet of sugar and some powdered non-dairy creamer. He took a sip, tried not to make a face, added another packet, and took another sip. He repeated until he was six packets in and began to wonder if the other three people in the break room were starting to get suspicious.

After arriving at the office on day two, Greg got to his cubicle, docked his laptop, powered it up, and when he realized he had no idea what to do, he figured he might as well go make himself a cup of coffee. Six sugars and a heap of powdered stuff. Stir, take a sip. Back to the cube. Greg liked it. He didn’t really care for the coffee, but he had something to do. So, each day Greg would start with his coffee. After several days, the real work began to pick up. He would get tasked by his boss or coworkers to do this or that, and being an excited new employee navigating the mysteries of corporate life, it felt good to be productive.

Those first six months flew by. Oddly enough, the transition from excited productivity to numb tedium wasn’t gradual. It was at just about that six-month mark when Greg first hit the snooze button in the morning. He hadn’t reacted negatively to the shrill buzz of his alarm. He was simply uninterested. He wasn’t upset or frustrated or demotivated. It wasn’t even a front-of-mind, conscious experience. The excitement generated by a new chapter of life had simply vanished without him noticing. He had experienced this before, but there had always been the thrill of the next chapter sitting on the horizon. No such view pervaded Greg’s day-to-day, and it wasn’t until a few years later when that fact punched him in the gut. He carried on, of course. A job was a job, and this job was even a good job.

“I have it good,” Greg would remind himself after leaving an exceptionally long day at work. Barney Light Corporation was one of the top exit and emergency light distributors in the country. It was a good company, and he brought home a good salary. The people he worked with were good people. And after a few years Greg was promoted to Marketing Manager and later Sr. Marketing Manager. He never felt like he was managing anything or anybody, but he was doing well for himself. He had it good. And there was free coffee.

On this Monday, there was a familiar thickness to the air of the office that usually came with the invasion of some foreign entity: a highly-paid consultant brought in by the executive team, or perhaps a visit from members of the board. The normal office conversations were punctuated with aggressive whispers. People walked with long strides and stiff motions to show a greater sense of purpose. Greg didn’t pay it much mind. He had seen it all over his long eighteen years at BLC.

Greg took his coffee back to his desk and checked his calendar. It was relatively open for a Monday. He began responding to emails, and at 9:09am, exactly one hour after Greg had arrived at the office, his desk phone rang. It was his cousin Denise who worked in accounting. She was the one who got him his good job over eighteen years ago. She only ever called if there was some office gossip that she assumed concerned him, though it never did.

He picked up the phone the same way he picked up every call: “This is Greg,” he said, solemnly.

Denise responded the same way she always did: “I know, I called you,” she said, sarcastically.

“So, what do you think is going on?” she continued, sounding like she definitely had her own thoughts about what was going on, and also had no interest in hearing any of Greg’s.

“With what?” he asked calmly.

The fact that Denise hadn’t immediately launched into her own musings indicated she was legitimately surprised by his response.

“I assumed you had already heard about the layoffs,” she whispered, and uncharacteristically paused for his response.

“No,” he replied.

“Seven already this morning,” she whispered again. “On a Monday. In August, Greg. What the hell?” she said with her volume back up to its normal level requiring an inch between Greg’s ear and the receiver. If BLC had a bad year, layoffs would normally take place between Thanksgiving and Christmas, after the following year’s budgets had been set. There were quarterly all-hands meetings that gave everyone plenty of heads up as to what sort of year it was shaking up to be. This year had been going extraordinarily well for BLC, making the idea of layoffs more out of place, however Greg wouldn’t have known that. He would usually doodle during the all-hands meetings, or let his mind wander to what he hoped to have for dinner, or something he had heard in a podcast or seen on TV. Greg didn’t trouble himself with what he figured was out of his hands. He did the work he was tasked with, minded his own business, and enjoyed the free coffee.

“Yeah, weird.” Greg tried to think back to the previous layoffs he had seen over the years. He thought there may have been five or six. He couldn’t recall when they happened or which positions were axed.

Denise went on, “And we’re having a really good year! It doesn’t make any sense, Greg.” She sighed deeply. “No one from accounting so far, thank God, but Sheila has been completely on top of everyone all morning. She is freaked, out! I can’t even imagine. I mean, I know I’m safe, I’ve been here twenty years, like they would let me go. Oh my God, Sara though. If they’re cutting anyone, it’s going to be her. Poor thing. I say that but honestly wouldn’t miss her. Well, I would miss her, just not her freakin’ broccoli crap she microwaves every other day for lunch…”

At some point Greg stopped listening and went back to his email. If he could get through them before ten o’clock that gave him an hour and a half of pretend-to-work podcast time before his lunch break. Denise finished whatever she was still freaking out about, told Greg she’d let him get back to work, but made him promise he’d call her if he heard anything more before hanging up.

“Of course,” he said.

Greg made it through the day without the thought of layoffs returning to his head.

Greg arrived at the office on Tuesday and went to get his coffee. He lifted a thick paper cup off the top of the stack, held it under the big thermos, and pumped. It gave a sputtery exhale, but no coffee. He must have been later than usual today. He looked at his watch: 8:11am. Huh. No, not that late. He put the cup under the second thermos (what he had called “backup coffee” in these rare occasions) and pumped. The same sputter, no coffee. His cup looked wounded, spattered with Monday’s cold remains. In eighteen years, there had never not been coffee.

A man was learning on the nearby counter and had noticed Greg’s pumping efforts. Greg turned to him and gestured toward the man’s steaming cup.

“Eh, tea…” the man said, lifting his cup with a slight shrug. Greg recognized his face but couldn’t name him.

“No coffee?”

“Guess not.”

“There’s always coffee,” Greg said, mourning his empty cup.

“You might check the other break room.”

There was another break room? Greg nodded to the man and went back to his desk. He couldn’t concentrate. This made no sense. Who would he even ask about this? It all seemed very wrong. He booted up his docked laptop and tried to focus on getting through his email. How was he supposed to work like this? he thought. Maybe there was someone he could talk to. He looked at his calendar. Empty. Well, that’s good. He couldn’t imagine sitting through a meeting at a time like this.

Just as he had collected his determination and stood up out of his chair to find someone who might help him, Lorraine from Human Resources was at his cubicle.

“Hey Greg, got a minute?” She was smiling but looked like someone was poking her with a needle.

“Yeah, hey, I was actually just coming to find you. There’s no coffee in the break room. Not sure who, uh…”

Lorraine was nodding furiously. “Okay, yeah… hey let’s head to my office if you have a minute.” She gestured out of his cube and down the hall. Greg walked with Lorraine trailing behind.

“Yeah, I don’t know who does the coffee… It was empty, though. Both of the things. I, uh… is there a person, or…” Greg looked back to ensure Lorraine was still close behind. She was. Can she hear me? he wondered. They were almost to her office when he stopped and turned around. “Hey, look… Who do we need to talk to about this?”

She looked startled but kept smiling. “Uh… let’s chat in my office, okay?”

“Huh, why? The break room’s over there. Or is there someone else we need to get?”

Lorraine’s smile faded and she squinted in visible confusion.

“Um, my office, okay?” She gestured behind Greg.

Greg turned and went into Lorraine’s office. Sitting in the two chairs facing Lorraine’s desk were Greg’s boss, Director of Marketing Joyce Ackerman, and the CEO of Barney Light Corporation, Ted Sillis.

Lorraine extended her hand toward the third, smaller metal chair to the side of her office while she took the seat behind her desk. “Why don’t you have a seat, Greg?”

Greg sat down. Thank God, he thought, these guys will want to hear this. “There’s no coffee in the break room. Both of the things are empty.”

The two boss’s brows furrowed simultaneously, and they looked at each other. Ted’s face quickly shifted to a soft smile as he looked back to Greg. Joyce mimicked him.

Ted cleared his throat and began to say something about Greg’s long tenure at Barney Light.

“I don’t know what they’re called. The pump things,” Greg interrupted.

Three faces twisted with shared confusion stared at Greg.

Greg continued, “Every day there’s coffee. I don’t know why there’s no coffee today. If you don’t believe me, I’ll show you.”

Joyce turned her head and said something under her breath. It was either something about Greg’s mental state, or she was agreeing with the urgent need to investigate the missing coffee.

Looking stern, Ted slapped Lorraine’s desk with enough force that the other three in the office bolted upright, startled, and looked at him. It caused the case of the missing coffee to vanish from Greg’s mind. He was here now, in this little office with his boss, the lady from Human Resources, and the guy at the head of the entire company. Greg wondered if he had ever been in this office before. It smelled as though someone was trying to cover up the stench of dirty gym clothes with patchouli. One of the long fluorescent bulbs was buzzing and flickering, and the one next to it was dead. The lights sat in a flimsy fixture recessed into the false ceiling that was hung an inch or two too low. The other set of lights were on steadily, but should have been brighter, Greg thought. The carpet was a soiled burgundy. It must have been in the office since before Greg started there. He looked to his right, through the thin yellowing blinds which hung over the one slender office window next to the closed door to confirm more of the same hideous carpeting. He had never before noticed how unpleasant it was. The walnut-veneered door was peeling around the edges, and Lorraine’s gunmetal steel desk was worn on every corner, like it had been retired from a downtown police interrogation room. Ted’s slap had rattled the entire thing like a gong and caused a dry echo through the air vent. Greg suspected it was heard some distance outside the office.

Was he losing his job today?

Ted tried again, his concern for Greg’s feelings were quickly replaced by his concern for his own time, “Greg, you’ve been with Barney Light for a long time, but regrettably today is your last day. Due to the company’s new direction your services will no longer be required. We wish you the best of luck.”

Not a full second after Ted finished speaking Lorraine shoved a manila envelope toward Greg. He slowly took it. She had opened her mouth to say something, but the words had halted in her throat.

“I’m being laid off?” he asked in disbelief.

“No, actually,” Ted responded, emotionless. “You’re being fired. We’ve increased our performance standards, and you’re a bottom-quartile employee.”

There was a moment of silence. Not the awkward social silence each participant is praying to have broken, but instead a mournful silence, like those for the recently deceased. A respectful silence each person knew would end soon enough.

Ted stood up; Lorraine and Joyce followed suit. “Lorraine will need your badge and she’ll walk you out,” Ted said and then opened the door. “Take care,” he said finally.

Greg stood up, fished his badge from the left pocket of his baggy khaki slacks and placed it on Lorraine’s desk. He walked out of the office with Lorraine following close behind. The foul smell wasn’t unique to Lorraine’s office, Greg realized. There were no windows in this place. Bare tobacco-stained walls served as the only backdrop to the ash gray cubicle walls.

Greg picked up on several active conversations as they walked out, none of them carrying an ounce of joy. There were hushed whispers of fear or frustration, louder phone conversations of absolute disinterest, or coworkers forcing dull small talk to fill an uncomfortable air.

Lorraine said nothing as she closed the side exit door behind Greg. The harsh click of the automatic lock startled him. He took a few steps out toward the parking lot and turned around to take in the freshly-painted gray facade of his single-story home of the last nearly two decades. He had never noticed the rolling strip of well-manicured lawn that wrapped around the building, with evenly spaced young, full-leafed maple trees calmly swishing in the light summer breeze.

Bottom-quartile. Greg spent the forty-five-minute drive home in silence thinking of the work he could have done, or not done, that would have placed him in the “bottom-quartile.” Who was he even up against? The rest of the company? His boss assigned work, and he did it. His colleagues emailed, called, stopped by his desk, and he responded.

Greg pulled into the nearly empty single-car garage of his condominium. He needed a plan before he went inside. He grabbed his phone, hit a job website, and searched for marketing jobs in his area. After reading through several postings, one part of Greg’s plan became crystal clear: he would not be getting another marketing job. Whatever he had been doing the last eighteen years was certainly not what the rest of the world considered “marketing.”

Greg chuckled. He laughed out loud. Tears came to his eyes as he cackled to himself over the absurdity of the situation. The absurdity of the last eighteen years. He fell asleep at twenty-two and woke up at forty. Thank God, he thought, that he woke up at forty, and not at sixty, or eighty, or never at all.

The door leading to his home opened, and his wife’s smile filled the doorway. She was glad to see him but lifted her hands and shook her head in annoyed surprise.

“You came home early for your birthday!” she laughed. “Dammit, Greg, you ruined the surprise!”

Today is my birthday, thought Greg for the first time that day.

Her radiance had him speechless. She was gorgeous. And she knew him, he realized, likely far beyond how he knew himself. He had grown with her for the last twelve years. They shared a life. But where had he been? he wondered.

Greg got out of the car, and she hugged him with an authentic embrace that told him he was exactly where he needed to be.

He laughed.

“What?” she asked, suspicious.

“Do we have coffee?”

She had been busy. An over-the-hill party pack had exploded across his condo. She put on a pot of coffee and frantically attended to the other preparations while detailing out the elaborate scheme she and Greg’s friends and family had been plotting for the last four weeks. Greg listened intently, enthralled.

The coffee pot had not filled when Greg found two mugs (guessing wrong twice at their location) and poured in the steaming joe. The smell was new, and pleasant. He lifted the mug to his face, gave a short blow to cool his sip, and gave it a try. It tasted like life, not death. He smiled.

He put two teaspoons of sugar and a little bit of milk in each mug. He knew that’s how she liked it and was glad for that. He took another sip. Bliss.

She was stringing up a paper “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” sign across the door to the patio as he leaned over the kitchen counter and watched her. She really made this home, he thought. Their condo would be cramped if it wasn’t so cozy, entirely attributable to her presence, her design. He took a deep breath.

“I got fired today,” he said, beaming.

“What?” She looked at him to see if she had heard wrong, and his expression affirmed her assumption.

“I got fired today,” he said again. The paper birthday sign fell to the floor. Greg laughed.

“This is really good coffee,” he said.

pencil

Email: wjdickerson[at]gmail.com