Martin walks two hours everyday. An hour to work, then an hour back home. He often says he is a lucky man because he lives close to the city gardens. While walking, his time is his own and his thoughts are his own. He is not responsible for anyone but himself.
The sound of the trees rustling in the wind, watching the seasons change and seeing the ducklings turn into adults, these experiences have become necessary to him. Medicinal.
Monday morning he is called into a meeting with James, his boss and the HR manager, Maria. James is a serious guy, a fair boss, but nobody’s friend. He rarely makes jokes. Martin knows James appreciates ingenuity and extra hard work, but not laughter.
Last week, Martin was watching a video clip at a coworker’s cubicle. It was a funny clip, and he was aware that his laughter was audible. Soon, James came over and stood next to Martin and stared at the computer monitor. Martin held in his laughter, self conscious because James was standing so close and wasn’t laughing. Later, Martin watched the same video clip at home where he could laugh freely. He laughed so hard that tears ran down his face. Why anyone would deny themselves that kind of happiness Martin did not understand.
In the meeting room there are a set of items that Martin notices right away, his contract and a box of tissues.
“Hi Martin,” Maria says. She sits still and shifts her gaze toward James, who is shutting the door.
“Martin, please sit down,” James says.
Martin sits down in one of the comfortable chairs he has always loved sitting in during his 12 years at the company. Every other time he sat in this room in these plush chairs on wheels, he felt important.
He folds his hands on the table. Then flattens them on the table. Then folds them again and rests them in his lap. They leave a condensation mark on the table and he watches it quickly disappear.
“Martin, good weekend?” James asks.
“Great. I’ll get straight to it. As you know, we are working in a dying industry and our department has been running at a loss for over a year. OK?” James says.
Martin notices that Maria shifts in her chair. He doesn’t look at her, but he can tell that she is uncrossing her legs and recrossing them.
Martin has always wondered what Maria thinks of him. He saw her outside of work once at the pool where he takes his kids on the weekends. They saw each other near a stack of kickboards. She had been swimming laps and her face was flushed. She had a large black towel wrapped around her like a blanket, covering everything except her shoulders and arms.
Martin wasn't wearing a shirt when they exchanged pleasantries. He was self conscious about his bare chest even though he knows he is in good shape for his age. It’s not something he works hard at, it’s his diet. He and Marybeth are strict. No sugar. The kids hate them for it, but that’s the way it has always been. No sugar, no alcohol or wheat. Except on their birthdays, then it’s whatever you want.
Martin’s birthday is in a week. He hasn’t chosen his menu yet, but the kids have said repeatedly over the past few weeks that they are looking forward to his birthday. Martin goes overboard with his requests and there are always leftovers.
Not long after he saw Maria at the pool, Martin was at work making himself an espresso. The machine was extracting loudly, when Martin sensed someone standing close to him. He turned and saw Maria.
“Oh,” he said and stopped the machine.
“Martin,” Maria said. “Do you work out?”
“Um, no, not really.”
“But you’re so fit and, and lean, aren’t you?” Maria said.
Martin could feel his face flush and noticed Maria’s face and neck were red and blotchy as well.
“I walk a lot. Two hours a day to work and back home,” Martin said.
“Oh. My husband is trying to get healthy,” Maria said as she folded the papers she was holding in half. Then in half again until it looked like she was holding a little white box. “Since his heart attack, you know.”
Martin turned his body away from the coffee machine towards Maria.
“No, I didn’t know. That’s so scary,” he said.
“Yeah, tell me about it. We were on vacation in Spain. I don’t speak Spanish, he does. But he was out cold. It was unbelievable.”
“Well I could talk to him, or he’s welcome to walk with me,” Martin said.
“Oh no. Thanks. Me and his parents and the doctors, we’re all telling him what to do all of the time. I don’t want to bring someone new in,” Maria said. She sighed, looked past Martin, unfolded the papers and walked away.
And now here they all are, his joyless boss and the sad HR woman, together in this doom room.
“So, what we've decided, I mean what management is going to do is disestablish this team. OK?” James says.
OK? Martin thinks. Of course it’s not OK. Sell more, try harder. The team is six people. That’s six people who are going to lose their jobs.
“...And there are opportunities for you and the others, but you as the senior member, you know, you’re the first one we’re talking to. You have the opportunity to apply for a role somewhere else within the company. OK?” James says.
“Roles to be determined by the end of this week,” Maria interrupts, tapping her fingers on the table near James.
“Right, we're putting job descriptions together at the moment,” James says.
Martin looks at the box of tissues. It is mocking him. Aren't you afraid of losing your health insurance, the house? Cry, you child.
He grabs the tissue box. It is one of those small, tall square types. He stares at the box as it twirls under the pressure of his fingertips, creating a distraction for everyone in the room. He looks at James and then Maria and smiles. He flicks the tissue box with both hands and it lands in the center of the table. He rolls the plush chair backwards and stands up.
“Ah, I guess that’s all we have at the moment,” James says as he quickly stands up. “Do you have any questions?”
“Nope,” Martin says with a strong popping sound on the P. “Email me the details.”
He walks out of the room.
At his desk Martin picks up his backpack from out of his chair and holds it against his chest. He stands there for a good minute. Even though there had been talk that layoffs might happen, it’s always been just talk.
What should he do right now? Should he go online and start looking for another job? Are his skills transferable? Taking pay cut is not at option.
He looks around the office at his colleagues. No matter how much he has complained about them over the years, he genuinely likes these people, most of the time. He feels a heavy sense of dread as he thinks about each of them listening to the news that their future is insecure future about their reactions to the news that awaits them in that doom room.
Later in the day, after successfully avoiding interacting with any of his coworkers face to face, Martin stands up and looks over his cubicle barrier at Stefani.
“Are you OK?” he asks her. She is four months pregnant with her first baby.
“I wasn’t going to come back anyway,” she says looking at him. Her bottom lips begins to quiver. He turns away from her and looks down the long hallway that leads to the bathrooms.
“Yeah. Well, I guess I can go on that yachting expedition I’ve been planning,” he says. When he hears Stefani laugh, he looks at her again. She is blowing her nose with a tissue.
“Is that a disestablishment tissue?” he asks.
“Uh huh. I was allowed to take the whole box.” Stefani offers the box to Martin. “Do you want one?”
Martin shakes his head and looks at the design on the box Stefani is offering him. It is a different design than the one he held during his meeting. He imagines a large supply of tissue boxes stacked in Maria’s office. She must run back to her office after each meeting to get a new box for the table.
“I grabbed some of these,” Martin says offering Stefani three empty name tag badges over the cubicle barrier. “Great for kids.”
“Oh, thank you. Got any sticky notes?”
“I’ll grab some tomorrow. I plan on draining the office supplies and starting my own paper pushing business,” he says and laughs for the first time today. “What’s for dinner?”
“Mac and cheese. Dean is cooking,” she says and rolls her eyes exaggeratedly in the way she does when she talks about her boyfriend’s domestic activities. “Have you decided on your birthday menu?”
“No. I was reading this article today about what to do if you get laid off. It says to cut back on expenses right away, so I’m thinking it’s gonna be low key this year.”
“Oh, well. Let me know if you need any help. I’ll do up a menu plan for you. I’m not doing any more work here,” Stefani says and sticks up both of her middle fingers and pumps her hands in the air.
Martin laughs and wonders if he and Stefani will stay in touch. They really only have work in common. She is kind of punk rock and he is not at all.
“I’m going pee, then I’m out of here,” she says as she turns off her monitor then grabs her bag. “Don’t worry too much Martin, you’re a great guy. Super talented. You’ll land a better gig.”
Martin's walk home is not relaxing. He is wound up and when he walks through the door Marybeth is waiting just inside the front door. He is late and now she is late to pick up her best friend from the airport. He forgot about this night out that Marybeth has been planning for weeks. He doesn't mention his disestablishment, it would ruin her night and she deserves to have a good time without worrying about this.
He makes a simple dinner for the kids and tries to help them with homework, but he is distracted and just sits back in the chair and stares out a dark window.
Tuesday morning he walks to work slowly. He didn't sleep well and now worst-case scenarios about the mortgage and family expenses are clogging his brain.
He sits on a bench at the duck pond. The ducks are hopping in and out of the water and walking around and sitting on the grass. He usually enjoys watching the ducks, but he feels so worried and unsure if he will be able to enjoy anything ever again, or at least for a while.
He stands up and walks on the path through the dense trees that leads to the main road. In front of him, in the middle of the path there is a big duck. It is walking in the same direction as Martin. He watches as it waddles and then stops.
He stops and stands next to the duck. He stomps his foot a few times and touches the duck with his shoe. It doesn't move. He bends down and puts both hands on the duck’s back and presses it into the ground so that it can’t move.
He wraps one hand around the duck’s neck, still pressing down on its back with his other hand. He looks ahead and behind him on the path. There is no one. There is never anyone at this time of day.
He closes his eyes, lifts the duck up by its neck and then slams it as hard as he can onto the ground. He shudders and does it twice more quickly without opening his eyes. He stands upright and duck hangs limp in his hand.
He moves off the path, into the dense trees and puts the duck on the ground. He opens his backpack, takes his lunch box out of the plastic shopping bag it was in. He puts the duck into the plastic shopping bag and releases his grip. The duck doesn’t move. Then he takes his wallet, phone and keys from the backpack.. He zips the backpack up, grabs its strap, raises it high above his head and slams the backpack on the ground. He does this five times.
When he gets to work, he takes the elevator up to the fifth floor. No one works on this floor, but there is a large bathroom, which is private and mostly unused.
He goes into the bathroom and hopes to lock himself in, but the door has no locks. So he finds the biggest stall and takes out his phone. He types in how to defeather a duck. He watches three videos and then removes the duck from his bag. The duck’s body is still warm. He lays it on the ground and stares at it.
“I hope you didn’t suffer,” he says quietly to the duck.
Then he goes to work on the feathers. They are sharp and soft and when they come away from the duck’s body they make a tearing sound that cause Martin to feel hints of nausea. After a minute, of repetitive movement, a small pile of feathers has formed under the duck. Martin turns the duck over and realizes he’s hardly removed anything. It is not as easy as the hunters in the videos made it look and he wants to wash his hands.
After a half an hour of pulling feathers, he is satisfied he has removed enough of the feathers. The floor of the bathroom stall is a mess. He goes to the sink and wets a giant wad of paper towels and cleans the feathers up and throws them in the trash can. Then he adds more paper towels on top of the pile to hide the mess.
As he washes his hands, he thinks about the one other time he has eaten duck. It was in college with a friend who had lived in China as an exchange student. It is one of his favorite memories because the meal was delicious and there was a strong sense of adventure in eating something he had never tried before. He will ask Stefani to plan a birthday meal based on the duck dish.
He washes his hands four times until the earthy duck smell is gone. He wipes his face with paper towels steaming with hot water and looks at his flushed and smiling face in the mirror.
He feels free. No longer afraid that he will not survive without this job.