The boss sat at his desk drinking tepid instant coffee. He wasn’t self-aware when he could avoid it, but he was a having a moment and not enjoying it. His intercom buzzed. The boss groaned and pushed the intercom button.
“Alex is here to see you.”
The boss removed his finger from the intercom button.
“For the love of god.”
He pushed the button again.
“Send her in.”
Alex entered and the boss gestured for her to sit down. She smiled awkwardly and took a seat. The boss knew he had to be very careful not to speak or behave naturally.
“I know you’re busy, and I’m sorry to bother you.”
Does she really know that, and is she really sorry? He wondered.
“It’s just that, well . . .”
The boss felt something inside of himself break and begin to dissolve.
“Alex, I hope you know that you are always free to come to me with any problems, er, issues you may be having.”
He fought to control his face and keep it expressionless. He fought not to grab her by the shoulders and shake her, maybe people did that to try to return a person’s chemical balance, and with it the person, back to human.
“Well, I don’t want to cause any trouble for anyone . . . “
“I understand. Please go on.”
Alex took a long, slow, deep breath and exhaled sadly.
“It’s Andy.” she said, and then looked down at her lap. He waited for her to continue. She didn’t.
“Please, go on.”
Alex looked up at him a bit quickly. Had he waited too long to prompt her, or not long enough? Did he seem impatient with her? Was he not being supportive enough?
“I know this is difficult for you, Alex. Please take all the time you need.”
What was he doing with the day, anyway? Wasting it, probably, just like he had already wasted most of the rest of his life. But there was a difference between wasting your own life and having other people waste it for you. Both were inevitable. It seemed like the latter should be easier to avoid, but it wasn’t. Life is a trap. Groups of atoms and molecules are stuck together and forced to cope with sentience, for what sometimes seems like a very long time. He had almost forgotten about Alex. When he looked back at her she was looking at him with just a hint of impatience. He’d blown it again.
“I just wanted to give you some space to reflect. Are you ready to continue?”
He was full of shit and she knew it.
“Well, okay. The thing is, and I really like Andy, I really do. He’s a good person, and he’s busy, I get that, it probably just slipped it his mind, it’s probably nothing. I am so sorry, I should probably just go.”
She looked at him, waiting for his reply. Was there a right reply? There was none.
“Tell me, Alex.”
She paused, as if she hadn’t already been planning to torture him and complain about Andy since the dawn of time.
“Well, he borrowed five dollars from me last week.”
“And? Please remember, you can tell me, whatever it is.”
“So, he hasn’t paid me back yet.”
For the love of god.
“Have you reminded him?”
“Well, I’m not sure I feel comfortable doing that, and I don’t think that that’s something I should have to do. He should, like, remember to do it, as a basic common courtesy, right?”
She looked at him like this was a natural law that should be obvious to everyone. Why did she have to be so put upon, to explain and correct everything?
“Of course he should.” He knew he would regret his next sentence. “Would you like me to call him in and have a chat with him?”
“Well, it would be great if you could talk with him. I don’t want to get him into any trouble. Just talk with him, okay?”
As if he had the power to do anything else. He pushed the intercom button and asked Mable to call Andy into his office. When he looked back at Alex she wore an expression of dismay.
“What is it, Alex?”
“I didn’t mean right now, with me here!”
She had him. There was some rule about confidentiality that had been drummed into his head but Alex had a way of wearing him down, of moving in slow motion until he couldn’t keep up anymore. He reached for the intercom button to rescind his request but it was too late, Andy was at the door.
“What’s up, boss?”
“My mistake, Andy. I had you penciled in for a brief chat, nothing important, and my meeting here with Alex has taken a bit longer than I expected. Is it alright if I meet with you tomorrow? You can schedule it with Mable.”
Andy lingered in the doorway.
“Well, I guess it’s alright, but . . . “
“Whatever it is, could we discuss it tomorrow?”
“Well, that’s part of the problem right there. I would appreciate you telling me in advance if you’re planning to speak with me. It’s a bit disconcerting to be called away from my desk, and now, well, I feel like you’ve also put me and Alex into kind of an awkward situation. We’re supposed to be able to address these issues confidentially.”
“I know, right?” said Alex.
“And I also can’t help feeling, well, a bit paranoid. This is going to bother me for the rest of the day, wondering what it is you wanted to talk with me about. Is it alright if you just tell me now, if Alex doesn’t mind?”
Alex started whimpering.
“As you can see, Andy, Alex and I are still in the middle of something. I can speak with you once we’re through if that works better for you?”
Andy lingered in the doorway.
“Are you alright, Alex?” he asked. Alex shook her head “no.”
“Is it okay if I leave? Do you feel safe?” Alex started to cry and shook her head “no.”
“Andy, please come in and close the door, have a seat.”
Andy closed the door and sat down next to Alex, who continued to cry. The boss didn’t know what he could possibly say or do that wouldn’t make the situation worse, so he did nothing.
“What’s the matter?” Andy asked Alex.
Alex looked up at the boss and gestured toward him, tears in her eyes, as she spoke.
“I’m sorry, but I really just don’t like how you’ve handled this at all.”
“Alex, you don’t have to apologize to him because he upset you,” said Andy, “I feel uncomfortable, too.”
They both looked at the boss and waited. He had been daydreaming about deep space exploration, a solo mission deep into the heart of nowhere.
“I apologize to both of you for upsetting you. Let me reassure you that there are no problems, er, issues or concerns regarding either of you.”
Alex shot him an outraged glance, what about her five dollars, and this debacle on top of that?
“And that any issues either of you may have will be resolved, but for the sake of safety and confidentiality, at a later time in private. Please feel free to schedule a time with Mabel or just come see me later today and I’ll do my best to work around your schedules.”
If he asked if that was okay, something wouldn’t be, and they’d be here, in his office, until the end of time. Alex and Andy exchanged a meaningful look. There was so much wrong here, too much to even begin to address, so they would just have to throw their hands up and try again with upper management. They got up and left and the boss considered it if not a win, at least a brief reprieve.
Mabel buzzed him on the intercom.
“It’s a Mr. Joe Barney, from Barney, Matland, and Smith, on line two.”
“Put him through. Hello, Mr. Barney?”
“It’s actually just Joe, from ___ Account Services, but it’ll be a lawyer next time if you keep this up.”
“It’s illegal for you assholes to call me here.”
“Don’t you insult me you fuck, you’re the one who got 50 grand into hock, not me. I’m the one who set you up with a payment plan – “
“That plan is a load of horseshit!”
“You planning to make a payment sometime this decade?”
“No. So you can stop calling me and you can go to hell.”
The boss slammed down his phone. That debt was the only reason he had to keep waking up and going to work. That debt was a part of the trap, but not the only part. That debt might have just saved his life.