- Michelle Sterling
Getting Frank with a Side of Cake
If you know me, you know that I'm wired to seek hope and optimism and that I strive to nourish that in myself and in others. Most of my writing is intended to encourage, understand, and appreciate. I say that because this piece is a bit different.
This piece was intended to stretch me a bit; to write of events and emotions I see and notice, but typically shy away from exploring any deeper. I have this underlying belief that I don't want to speak life into something, I can look the other way and perhaps it will cease to exist.
I think many of us share this coding, as well the knowing that we have matured beyond peekaboo games. We know that even though we cover our gaze, the object of our displeasure remains. At times we must explore the dark to see the light.
Now that I have perhaps scared you into turning away (LOL) I present to you a short story dripping with a bit of cynicism about life at work.
“For he’s a jolly good fellow! For he’s a jolly good fellow…”
Frank was six foot four, but it seemed like had grown even taller, the way he loomed over the circle of revelers gathered around him. Loomed, being the key word, she thought, as Frank was quietly known around the office as Frankenstein.
He was a relic, of sorts. A survivor of multiple mergers and acquisitions, downsizings and rightsizings, and three sexual harassment claims, including one from her best friend who was notably no longer with the company.
As is typically the case with top producers, leadership had explained the behavior away as a misunderstanding, a nonevent. Frank’s assistant had been promoted to a project manager role in another division and time did its thing where slowly there were very few people around with first-hand knowledge of what had actually happened; fewer people who cared about the past. It was neither here nor there.
So today, here everyone was, like dutiful servants, singing glory to his life. Raising their voices in cheer. Bright smiles on their faces and singing like they really meant it and Frank receiving it the same.
God, she hated these office rituals. These mandated celebrations of people who every other day of the year acted as if their sole purpose in life was to break you.
She appreciated the irony of the setting: the break room. A place to escape the cubicle for a moment, to whisper truths, to gather one’s wits before saying something that might lead to regret. Or a write-up. Or unemployment. The unspoken fear stick that kept things from falling apart, kept people moving along in spite of their souls asking them for better.
This might actually be the thing that does it someday, she thought. All this miserable singing.
There was a break room just like this on every single floor of this tower. A small sliver of fluorescent-lit space with a kitchenette lining one wall and a row of floor-to-ceiling windows on the opposite wall so even the commoners could take in the view. There were three laminated brown café tables each set with three plastic orange chairs that had been there since the tower first opened in the late-1980s. Back then, people would smoke in this room, and the acoustic ceiling tiles still carried the nicotine stains like a badge of honor to times long passed.
She could only stay in this room for so long before her stomach would start to flip with nausea from the smells and their memories. Layers of buttered microwave popcorn and frozen Italian entrees mingled with the scent of scorched coffee and dreams.
And yet, here they all are…gathered once again in the break room to joyfully commemorate the birth of this man. This monster.
They used to sing the traditional happy birthday song, but then someone complained to HR that they didn’t want to be recognized for something they played no role in, that being their existence, and so HR created a list of alternative tunes the celebrant could select from.
Like the worst karaoke playlist ever.
She looked around at her coworkers with their jolly smiles matching the jolly song, their bodies swaying along with the rhythm of the tune. All the clapping. Did they really mean it? she wondered. Was she the only one who wanted to slit her wrist with one of those white plastic knives set out on the laminate table next to the Walmart sheet cake customized with piped blue frosting spelling out his name?
She used to bake cakes, at home, from scratch back in the day when it was her turn to bring the cake. Back in the day when they would stand around and socialize after the cutting of the cake. There would be requests for the recipe, conversations about other celebrations, and laughter. Lots of laughter. They would stand about voluntarily until someone said “Alright, let’s get back to work!” Back then they gathered because they wanted to, not because they were expected to.
But slowly, over the years people who cared were replaced by more of those who didn’t. Those who would rather put two dollars in a white envelope than give their two cents in a moment of authenticity.
Suddenly, she noticed that the singing had stop and the attention in the room had shifted. The circle was repositioning itself, and all eyes were on, of all things, her! Had she accidentally muttered some of her inner thoughts out loud? Had her facial expression betrayed her in some horrendous away? Would this show up on her performance review?
Frank was stringing together a bunch of words that, if she didn’t consider the source, would sound an awful lot like recognition. “…and so we are glad to announce your new title …” was all she could gather. People were smiling at her. Raising their glasses to her. Had she just been promoted?
The HR lady was rushing towards her with a white envelope. One containing a generic note of congratulations from her peers. Another cake was revealed on the table with her name on it, written in bright pink frosting this time.
Was it possible that she had finally made it to a level where she could make a difference? Where her voice could be heard? She was filled with an emotion that had been absent for many years: hope. And yet it was all so foreign she wasn’t sure she could trust it. She had five more years in her before she could take retirement. Would these final five years be the years she had been waiting for?
She accepted the piece of cake offered to her on the small plastic plate with the small plastic fork and swallowed her pride. Her dreams of a new life outside of these walls would have to wait for another day.
“For she’s a jolly good fellow…which nobody can deny.”