Dead End Job: A Louisa Hallstrom Novel(4)

By: Ingrid Reinke

My cube was situated right in the middle of the cluster. Elaine put me there so I could be far enough away from the front side of the office to help the principles in the back of the office, but close enough to her so that she could keep an eye on me and scream my name across the office when she needed my help. Because my cube was the farthest away from the windows, and inward facing, I had twice requested to move to another empty desk, and had that request twice rejected by Elaine. The central location of my cube meant that when I entered the building, I could choose whose offices I wanted to walk past without seeming too obvious. This could be dicey, because it seemed that whenever I passed someone’s office, that person suddenly realized that they desperately and immediately needed my help with whatever project they were working on. For this reason I usually opted to come in through the front entrance in the morning, since Elaine and Mark normally didn’t come in until after 9:00 AM. These days although I was expected at the office from seven-thirty until four, I usually showed up sometime right around 8:00 AM (OK, eight-thirty).

Even though Elaine’s schedule was pretty predictable, the lower level principles Ari, Michael and Jenny showed up any time between 7:00 AM and 10:00 AM, so the chances of running into someone when I arrived forty-five minutes late was much smaller when I came in through the front entrance. I could usually slip past Elaine’s corner office and also normally manage to dodge Sarah, the very dull supervising Principle who sat right next to her by the door.

Whereas the front of the office was normally empty, the daily chance that someone was lurking in the back of the office, giving me judgey looks and keeping tabs on my hours, was too much to risk.

My least favorite Principal Attorney in the back side of the office, Jenny, was working from home today, thank God. She was newly-promoted into her senior position in the firm and, in this new position of relative power, it seemed that she had decided to practice a passive-aggressive style of communication. For me, this meant that she did not acknowledge me nor did she speak to me until the exact moment that I was A) eating a meal, or B) walking out of the office for the day. At those exact instances, she liked to clear her throat and start the whine-talking: “Um, Louisa?” (Always with the ‘um’).

“Yes, Jenny,” I would reply with varying levels of patience, usually depending on how PMS-ed I was on that particular day.

“Um, do you think you could come into my office for a minute?”

“Oh my God, Jenny, I am pounding an effing burrito and I have sour cream on my face and a bean on my left boob. Do you think you could send me an email?” Ok, I would not say that. But, I would think it really hard and try to burn the message of hatred and bitterness through my eye sockets onto her face, hoping that she would one day get it. Yah, nope.

I would inevitably end up dropping the burrito (depending on how much I had eaten, it might even explode and become impossible to pick back up. I hate that), going into her office, listening to her whiny, ridiculous problem for twenty minutes, offering her the solution which was usually as simple as “click that yellow box,” and purposely wiping the bean off of my boob onto the ground by her chair and leaving it there in protest. I hated Jenny.

In addition to Jenny’s absence on this particular afternoon, Michael was out, and Sarah and Ari were both in meetings, or doing whatever it is that they do in their offices for half the day with the doors shut. Phew.

With Elaine now calmed down, the office was relatively quiet. Although they were busy, the Associates and Analysts were pretty self-contained and rarely needed administrative help, so they really didn’t notice or care that I left for an extra half-hour now and again. I ducked into the elevator and took the quick trip down from the twenty-ninth floor office to the ground level.

Our company, Merit, Inc., was a well-respected marketing and image consulting company which provided some of the region’s largest multi-national corporations with very expensive advice on sensitive public relations issues, like how to appeal to a "green" audience when your true business function is the mass clearing of forests—think glossy TV spots showing a diverse group of people planting saplings in a wildlife reserve, insert company logo. And the companies paid dearly for it: the average hourly price of services from Merit was over $400 per hour, a sizable chunk of which ended up in our consultants' paychecks. Unfortunately, my job was not so lucrative because I was just a lowly Administrative Assistant.

My current position in the legal department opened up because Merit was going through a massively important merger with our main local competitor out of Portland, Oregon: NorCom PR. The recent hit to the economy had devastated the consulting industry (along with most other industries), and regional firms like Merit found themselves getting knocked out of the market by price undercutting by the “big three” global powerhouse PR firms: Williams Ackerman Douglas, Freewood Consulting and Guy Farner. Our board of directors, desperate to remain employed, quickly realized that the only way to survive was a frantic strategy that involved joining forces with the competition and then “consolidating and downsizing” the two workforces (read: pay cuts and layoffs) to maintain competitiveness in the marketplace. So this was where I found myself, a minor player at the heart of the global struggle to ride out the recession and somehow make ends meet.