Excerpt: 'Then We Came to the End'

Cover Image: 'Then We Came to the End'

Then We Came to the End

by Joshua Ferris

Hardcover, 400 pages

List Price: $23.99

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Note: There is language in this excerpt some readers may find offensive.

LAYOFFS — TOM'S FINAL HOUR — JANINE GORJANC'S TRAGEDY — THE DOWNTURN — DRASTIC MEASURES — THE DEBATE OVER TOM — CREEPY PICTURES — THE STORY OF TOM MOTA'S CHAIR — WALKING SPANISH DOWN THE HALL — SANDERSON — TWO E-MAILS — THE STORY OF TOM MOTA'S CHAIR, PART II — THE PRO BONO FUND-RAISER ADS — LASTIVE ACID — LYNN MASON

Layoffs were upon us. They had been rumored for months, but now it was official. If you were lucky, you could sue. If you were black, aged, female, Catholic, Jewish, gay, obese, or physically handicapped, at least you had grounds. At one point or another we have all been deposed. We plan on being deposed for Tom's suit — we have no doubt there will be one. Though he has no grounds unless asshole has been added to the list. And that's not just us talking. His ex-wife hates the guy. Restraining order. He can't see his two young kids without supervision. She moved to Phoenix just to get away from him. We wouldn't call him an asshole without having reached a very high consensus. Amber Ludwig objects to the specific designation because she has objected to profanity since becoming pregnant, but really there is no other word, and her objection is really just an abstention.

When Tom found out he was being let go, he wanted to throw his computer against his office window. Benny Shassburger was in there with him. Benny wasn't like a great friend of Tom's or anything but he was the guy who on occasion would have lunch with Tom and then report back to the rest of us. Word spread fast that Tom had been laid off and naturally Benny was the guy to go down there. He said Tom was pacing in his office like a man recently jailed. He said he could picture what Tom had looked like the night he went to the Naperville house with the aluminum bat and the authorities were called to restrain him. We had never heard that story before. Right there and then we had to stop Benny from telling us the story of Tom's final hour so he could first tell us the story of the aluminum bat. Benny was shocked we had never heard that story; he was sure we had. No, we never had. "Get out of here," he said. "You've heard that story." No, we hadn't. This was always how these conversations went. So Benny told us the story of Tom and the bat and then he told us the story of Tom's final hour. Both were good stories and together they killed a good hour. Some of us loved killing an hour of the company's time and others felt guilty for it afterward. But whatever your personal feelings on the matter, you still had to account for the hour, so you billed it to a client. By the end of the fiscal year, our clients had paid us a substantial amount of money to sit around and bullshit, expenses they then passed on to you, the consumer. It was the cost of doing business, but some of us feared it was an indication that the end was near, like the profligacy that preceded the downfall of the Roman Empire. There was so much money involved, and some of it even trickled down to us, a small amount that allowed us to live among the top one-percent of the wealthiest in the world. It was lasting fun, until layoffs came.

Tom wanted to throw his computer against the window, but only if he could guarantee it would break the glass and land on the street below. He was under his desk removing cords. "That's sixty-two stories, Tom," Benny said. And Tom agreed it was a bad idea if he couldn't break the glass. If glass didn't break they would say Tom Mota couldn't even fuck up right — he didn't want to give them the satisfaction of that, the bastards. We were the bastards he was referring to, in part. "But I don't think it'll break the glass," said Benny. Tom stopped tooling around with his computer. "But I gotta do something," he said, sitting back on his heels.

We lacked that kind of urgency. Our building was on the Magnificent Mile, in downtown Chicago, on a corner a few blocks from Lake Michigan. It had tones of art deco and two gilded revolving doors. We shuffled up the stairs toward the revolving doors slowly, afraid of what awaited us inside. In the beginning, we were let go in large numbers. Then, as the practice was refined, one by one, as they saw fit. We feared ending up on Lower Wacker Drive. Unemployed, we would be unpaid; unpaid, we'd be evicted from our homes; evicted, we would end up on Lower Wacker, sharing space with shopping carts and developing our own winterized and blackened feet. Instead of scrabbling for the addition of "Senior" to our current titles, we would search the alleyways for smokable butts. It was fun, imagining our eventual despair. It was also despairing. We didn't really believe we would be honked at from the Lexuses of our former colleagues as they drove down Lower Wacker on their way home to the suburbs. We didn't think we would be forced to wave at them from our lit oil drums. But that we might have to fill out an unemployment form over the Internet was not out of the question. That we might struggle to make rent or a mortgage payment was a real and frightening prospect.

Yet we were still alive, we had to remember that. The sun still shone in as we sat at our desks. Certain days it was enough just to look out at the clouds and at the tops of buildings. We were buoyed by it, momentarily. It made us "happy." We could even turn uncommonly kind. Take, for instance, the time we smuggled Old Golds into Frank Brizzolera's hospital room. Or when we attended the funeral of Janine Gorjanc's little girl, found strangled in an empty lot. It was hard for us to believe something like that could happen to someone we knew. You have never seen someone weep until you have witnessed a mother at the funeral of her murdered child. The girl was nine years old. She was removed at night from an open window. It was all over the papers. First she was missing. Then her body was found. To watch Janine at the funeral, surrounded by pictures of Jessica, her family trying to hold her up — even Tom Mota's heart broke. We were outside the funeral home afterward, in the parking lot speaking somberly to one another, when Tom began to beat on his '94 Miata. It didn't take long before everyone noticed him. He hit the windows with his fists and let out terrible cries of "Fuck!" He kicked the doors and the tires. Finally he collapsed near the trunk, wracked with sobs. It was not unreasonable behavior given the circumstances, but we were a little surprised that Tom appeared the most affected. He was sprawled out on the funeral home parking lot in his suit and tie, sobbing like a child. A few people went over to comfort him. We assumed in part his behavior had something to do with his ex-wife taking his kids to Phoenix. One thing we knew for certain — despite all our certainties, it was very difficult to guess what one individual was thinking at any given moment.

We believed that downturns had been rendered obsolete by the ingenious technology of the new economy. We thought ourselves immune from things like plant closings in Iowa and Nebraska, where remote Americans struggled against falling-in roofs and credit card debt. We watched these blue-collar workers being interviewed on TV. For the length of the segment, it was impossible not to feel the sadness and anxiety they must have felt for themselves and their families. But soon we moved on to weather and sports and by the time we thought about them again, it was a different plant in a different city, and the state was offering dislocated worker programs, readjustment and retraining services, and skills workshops. They'd be fine. Thank god we didn't have to worry about a misfortune like that. We were corporate citizens, buttressed by advanced degrees and padded by corporate fat. We were above the fickle market forces of overproduction and mismanaged inventory.

What we didn't consider was that in a downturn, we were the mismanaged inventory, and we were about to be dumped like a glut of imported circuit boards. On the drive home we puzzled over who was next. Scott McMichaels was next. His wife had just had a baby. Sharon Turner was next. She and her husband had just purchased a house. Names — just names to anyone else, but to us they were the individuals who generated our greatest sympathy. The ones who put their things in a box, shook a few hands, and left without complaint. They had no choice in the matter, and they possessed a quiet resignation to their ill-timed fates. As they departed, it almost felt to us like self-sacrifice. They left, so that we might stay. And stay we did, though our hearts went out to them. Then there was Tom Mota, who wanted to throw his computer against the window.

He wore a goatee and was built like a bulldog, stocky, with foreshortened limbs and a rippling succession of necks. He didn't belong where we were. That's not condescension so much as an attempt at a charitable truth. He would have been happier elsewhere — felling trees in a forest, or throwing nets for an Alaskan fishery. Instead, he was dressed in khakis, drinking a latte on a sectional sofa, discussing the best way to make our diaper client's brand synonymous with "more absorbent." That is, when we still had our diaper client. After deciding not to throw his computer against the window, Tom fixated on his magazines. He said to Benny, "Benny, man, you gotta get my magazines from Jim. That fuck's had them two months. I'm not leaving here without them — but I can't go out there. I don't want to have to see anybody." When Benny told us that, we felt pity for Tom. Of course Tom would not have wanted that. He would have spit our pity back in our faces. Nobody wants pity. They just want to get the hell out of there, out of sight, to alleviate the sting of ridicule, and then they want to forget about the entire miserable experience. They can't do that walking the halls to retrieve magazines. Benny returned to Tom's office ten minutes later with back copies of Car and Driver, Rolling Stone, Guns and Ammo. Tom was sitting on the floor of his office, winding his watch. Benny said, "Tom." Tom didn't answer. "Tom?" said Benny. Tom continued to wind his watch. Then he stood, opened a desk drawer, and pulled out one of the corporate polos he used to wear many days in a row. The blue one (Benny's) and the green one (Jim's) were also in the desk drawer. Tom took off his button-down and put the red polo on. "They think I'm a clown," he said to Benny. Benny replied, "No. Nobody thinks you're a clown, Tom. They got you by the balls, man — everybody knows that." "Hand me those scissors," said Tom. Benny said he looked behind him and saw a pair of scissors on Tom's bookshelf. Benny told us he didn't want to hand scissors to Tom. "They think I'm a clown," Tom repeated as he walked over to his bookshelf and grabbed the scissors himself and began to cut into his nice pleated slacks at the knee. "What are you doing, Tom?" asked Benny, with an uneasy chuckle. He was still holding Tom's old magazines. He watched as Tom cut all the way around with the scissors until the trouser leg fell to his ankle. Then he started working on one sleeve of the polo, on the opposite side to the cut-off trouser leg. "Tom," said Benny. Tom's tan-lined arm was soon visible all the way to the shoulder. A tattoo of barbed wire snaked around his biceps. "Tom, seriously — what are you doing?"

"Will you do me a favor," asked Tom, "and cut a hole from the backside of my shirt?"

"Tom, why are you doing this?"

Sometimes drastic measures were called for. There were occasions when someone needed to get into a car with a package and drive all the way out to Palatine to the FedEx station that had the latest drop-off time in the state just to guarantee the arrival of an overnight delivery. A new client pitch due Monday meant a full week of one o'clock nights and a few hours of sleep on random sofas on Sunday. It was called a fire alarm, and when one came along you had to drop everything. There was no going to the gym. Theater tickets were canceled. You saw no one, not your five-year-old, not your marriage counselor, not your sponsor, not even your dog. We feared the fire alarm. At the same time, we were all in it together, and we could be taken by surprise, after five days of grind, by the transformation of the team. Eating takeout, laughing around a cubicle, putting our minds together to solve something hard — five or six days of that and there was no immunization against the camaraderie. The people we worked with, with all their tics and pieties and limitations — we had to admit it to ourselves, they weren't all that bad. Where did that come from? Whence this friendliness? "'The love flooding you for your brother,'" said Hank Neary, quoting something or other. He was always quoting something or other and we hated him for it, unless we were in the middle of a fire alarm, in which case we loved him like a brother. That love would dissipate in a week. But while it lasted, work was a wellspring, a real source of light, the nurture of a beloved community.

Then the downturn came and there were no more fire alarms. No speeding out to Palatine, no one o'clock nights, no love flooding us for our brother.

Benny went down the elevator with Tom. With his clothes cut to shreds, Tom looked like someone washed up on shore after a shipwreck, tattered and clinging to a single plank. His shoes and socks were off, left inside the office with the abandoned magazines, the Kmart portraits of his kids, and the discarded swatches from his trousers and polo.

"What are you going to do?" asked Benny.

"What do you think I'm gonna do?" Tom asked rhetorically, just as they had reached the lobby. "I'm gonna find a new job."

"No," said Benny. "I mean right now. What are you doing right now?"

They exited the elevator. Tom had emptied out the pens and pencils from a mug he kept on his desk and that empty mug was now his only possession. Tom stopped in the marble elevator bank and watched for the descent of the other elevators. "You ever read Ralph Waldo Emerson?" Tom asked Benny. Benny didn't know where to stand. He told us he didn't know why they had just stopped in the elevator bank. "What are you planning to do, Tom?" "Listen to what Emerson said," said Tom. Tom began to quote. "'For all our penny-wisdom,'" he said, "'for all our soul-destroying slavery to habit, it is not to be doubted that all men have sublime thoughts.' Did you hear that, Benny? Did you hear it, or you need me to repeat it to you?" "I heard it," Benny replied. "They never knew me," Tom said, shaking his head and pointing up at those bastards. "They never did."

The first elevator arrived, and lunchgoers from the law firm emerged. Tom held his empty mug before them. "Help out the unemployed?" he asked them, shaking the cup. "Hey, help out the jobless?"

"Tom," said Benny.

"Benny, get the fuck off me! — Help me out, guy, please? I just lost my job today."

And that was Tom's final hour.

We heard it from Benny just after he told us the story of how Tom arrived at the Naperville house with an aluminum bat when he knew the children were at the grandmother's and everything deemed legally "Tom's" in the divorce settlement, everything that was "Tom's" and could be smashed or shattered with an aluminum bat, suffered Tom's swing until the authorities arrived to subdue him.

Amber Ludwig, who had the compact, athletic body of a seal, with very small hands and dark, closely set eyes, said she feared Tom was going to return like you hear on the news and open fire. "No, seriously," she said. "I think he's come undone. I don't think he was ever done to begin with."

Amber wasn't showing yet but everyone already knew. She was debating an abortion but, to Larry Novotny's great disappointment, looked to be leaning against it. Larry would have to decide what to do about his wife, who had just had a child herself not that long ago. We felt sorry for Larry, who worried the curved, finger-smudged bill of his Cubs cap endlessly that spring, but we also thought it was pretty obvious that he should have kept his pecker in his pants. We felt sorry for Amber, too, but as everyone knows, it takes two to tango. We just hoped they weren't doing it on our desks.

We asked Amber if she really, honestly thought Tom capable of a bloodbath.

"Yes," she said. "I wouldn't put anything past him. He's a madman."

We tried to convince her that that sort of thing happened only in factories and warehouses, and then only on the South Side. A debate ensued. Was Tom certifiable? Or was he just a clown? What was that at Janine's little girl's funeral, when he wept and continued weeping even after we got to the bar? Wasn't that proof the guy had a heart?

"Okay," said Amber, "okay, but what do you call standing on the heating vent and mooning the swimmers from his office window? What was that?" she asked.

She was referring to the Holiday Inn rooftop pool Tom's office looked down on, and Tom's tendency to get right up to the glass with his butt cheeks. Hijinks! we cried. Fun! That's not insanity. Amber was outvoted. We knew Tom. We knew Alan Glew, Linda Blanton, Paul Saunier. We knew Neil Hotchkiss and Cora Lee Brower and Harold Oak. They weren't any of them coming back here with a nightmare in a backpack. They had been let go. They packed their things. They left us for good, never to return.

———

It was a surprise to everyone when Janine came back. Of course it was understood she could come back whenever she wanted. We just didn't think, given all she had gone through, that coming back here, resuming the old routine — how could that ease her suffering? But maybe it was exactly what she needed, something to take her mind off it. She looked older, especially in the eyes. Her blouses were all wrinkled. Her brown hair was flat and dry where before she had styled it every day, and some days she smelled bad. Her first day back, she thanked us for the flyers. Lynn Mason had had the idea of printing up flyers when we heard that the girl had gone missing. Genevieve Latko-Devine, arguably the kindest and sweetest among us, drove out to North Aurora, where the Gorjancs lived, to get a photograph of Jessica. She returned to the office by noon with a fourth-grade school portrait. We scanned it, loaded it onto the server, and began to build the ad.

Genevieve was at the computer doing the work. Jessica was a plain girl with fair hair and pale skin and an unfortunately crooked smile. We told Genevieve that Jessica was getting washed out.

"What do you want me to do about that?" she asked.

"Let's work on her," said Joe Pope. "Drop her into Photoshop."

We worked on Macs. Some of us had new Macs, some had high-powered notebooks, and some unfortunate souls had to pedal furiously under their desks to keep a spark running through their extinct models. We made layouts in QuarkXPress; all our image manipulation we did in Photoshop. Genevieve dropped the image of the girl into Photoshop and started playing up the girl's hair and freckles. We took a look and everyone agreed she was still getting washed out.

"Try making this area here darker," said Joe, circumscribing the girl's face with a finger. "God, your screen is filthy," he added. He removed a tissue from her box and dusted it. He took a new look. "Now she's more washed out than ever."

Genevieve tried a few things. We looked at the girl. Joe shook his head. "Now she looks sunburned," he said. "Bring it back some."

"I think we're losing sight of what our ultimate goal is here," said Genevieve.

But we feared that if she was washed out, people would look right past the flyer.

Genevieve didn't lack for more suggestions. "Pump 'MISSING' up a little," said Jim Jackers.

"And play up the $10,000 reward," suggested Tom. "I don't know how, just . . . use a different font or something."

"And you have some kerning issues," Benny reminded her from the sidelines.

We all wanted to help. Genevieve worked on it another hour, tweaking this and that, until someone recommended that she fix the little girl's smile to be less crooked. Jessica would look prettier that way.

"All right," she concluded, "we're officially through here."

That afternoon we ripped color print after color print and scored them in the mount room. Several of us drove out to North Aurora and spent the evening posting them — in the public library, the YMCA, the entrance aisles of the grocery stores, in the Starbucks and movie theaters and in the Toys"R"Us, and on all the neighborhood telephone poles. Three days later she was found in an empty lot wrapped in plastic sheeting.

We put up bunting and had cake for Janine's return. Next day Joe Pope found her crying in front of the mirror in the men's room. She had gotten confused and gone through the wrong door. It was rare to get news by way of Joe Pope, since he didn't talk to many people, so we probably shouldn't have known that he found Janine in the men's room. But he did talk to Genevieve Latko-Devine, and Genevieve talked to Marcia Dwyer, and Marcia talked to Benny Shassburger, and Shassburger talked to Jim and Amber, who talked to Larry and Dan Wisdom and Karen Woo, and Karen never met anybody she didn't talk to. Sooner or later everyone found out everything, which is how we came to know that Janine was not over her grief, not by a long shot, because she had gotten confused and wandered into the men's room. We pictured her at the sinks, holding on to the marble ledge for support, her head downcast and her tired eyes shedding momentous tears, oblivious to the urinals in the mirror. After her return, she almost never spoke at lunch.

We talked about Janine wandering into the men's room. No one thought it should be kept a secret, but we were careful not to ridicule the event or turn it into a joke. A few of us did, but not many. It was obviously a tragic thing. We knew about it, but how could we possibly know the first thing about it? Some of us discussed the matter to break up the routine, but most of us used the information to explain why she was quiet at lunch. Then we filed the incident away. That is, until Janine started bringing pictures of Jessica into the office and placing them on the credenza and the bookshelves and hanging them from the walls. The pictures crowded in, elbowing each other for room. A hundred pictures of her dead daughter in the seventy-five square feet of her office. The three on the wall facing her were the most mournful things we'd ever seen. It was also downright creepy. It got to the point where we tried to avoid entering her office. When we were forced to, for some pressing item of business, we never knew where to rest our eyes.

———

On a Tuesday in May at twelve-fifteen in the afternoon, Lynn Mason scheduled an input meeting. We gathered in her office to be a part of it. Input meetings made us happy because they meant we had work to do. We worked in the creative department developing ads and we considered our ad work creative, but it wasn't half as creative as the work we'd put in to pad our time sheets every Monday morning since layoffs began. An input meeting meant we'd have actual work that would make our time sheets less intimidating the following week. But some of us didn't like input meetings when they were scheduled for twelve-fifteen. "That's when most of us — hello? — go to lunch," said Karen Woo. Lunch for Karen was a sacrament. "Why not schedule it for eleven-fifteen?" she asked. "Or even one o'clock?" Most of the rest of us just thought, no big deal, so lunch comes an hour late. "But I'm hungry," said Karen. She didn't seem to have much sympathy for the fact that Lynn Mason had just found out she had cancer and might have other things on her mind. Besides, Lynn could schedule an input whenever she wanted — she was a partner. "Of course she can schedule an input whenever she wants," said Karen. "But ought she? That's the question. Ought she." Many of us thought Karen should consider herself lucky to still have a job.

While waiting for Lynn to arrive, we killed time listening to Chris Yop tell us the story of Tom Mota's chair. We loved killing time and had perfected several ways of doing so. We wandered the hallways carrying papers that indicated some mission of business when in reality we were in search of free candy. We refilled our coffee mugs on floors we didn't belong on. Hank Neary was an avid reader. He arrived early in his brown corduroy coat with a book taken from the library, copied all its pages on the Xerox machine, and sat at his desk reading what looked to passersby like the honest pages of business. He'd make it through a three-hundred-page novel every two or three days. Billy Reiser, who worked on another team and walked with a limp, was a huge Cubs fan. He had a friend who installed satellites. They gained illegal access to the roof, secured a remote satellite in an out-of-the-way place, and situated it so that the signal beamed off the next-door building into Billy's office. Then Billy's friend set up a television under his desk, mounted at an angle so if Billy was sitting just a foot back in his chair, he could look down and see the picture. When it was all through, he had two hundred stations and could watch the Cubs even on away games. We gathered down there in limited numbers when Sammy Sosa was going for the home run record. The problem was Billy was worried someone would find out about the satellite, so every time Sammy hit a homer and we cheered like mad, we got kicked out.

Tom Mota had been laid off the week before Chris Yop told us the story of his chair. Yop said he had been cleaning off his desk when he looked up and found the office coordinator standing in his doorway. Our office coordinator smelled of witch hazel and carpet fiber, had a considerable mole on her left cheek, and never said hello to anyone. It was rumored that, like an ant, her back could bear the burden of something several times her body weight. She stood in Yop's doorway with her arms crossed, leaning against the doorjamb and peering in at Yop's bookshelves. She asked if they were Tom Mota's. "So I say to her," Yop said to us, "'Tom Mota's? What, those?' 'The bookshelves,' she says. 'Are those Tom's?' 'The bookshelves? No,' I say, 'those aren't Tom's. Those are mine.' 'Well, someone took Tom's bookshelves out of his office,' she says to me, 'and I have to get them back.' At this point, Tom's been shitcanned, what? a day? This was last Tuesday — I mean, the body's not even cold yet, and she's standing in my doorway accusing me of stealing? So I repeat to her, I say, 'Those aren't his bookshelves, those are my bookshelves.' But then she walks into my office, right, get this. She walks into my office and she says, 'Is that his chair? Is that Tom's chair you're sitting on?' She's pointing at it, right. She thinks it's his chair. It's my chair. Those are his bookshelves, sure. I took them out of his office when he got shitcanned and brought them down to mine. But it's for damn sure not his chair. It's my chair! So I say, 'This? This is my chair. This chair is mine.' And she says, she walks into my office and stands very close to me, she says, she's about a foot, maybe two feet from me, she says, pointing at my chair, 'Do you mind if I look at the serial numbers?' Now, who knew about this?" he asked us. "Who knew about these serial numbers?" None of us had ever heard anything about serial numbers. "Yeah, serial numbers," Yop continued. "They keep serial numbers on the back of everything. That way they can track everything, who has what and what office it's in. Did you know about this?"

We let him go on about the serial numbers because his outrage was typical of the time. Chris was a nervous man, and as he spoke, his whole face seemed to quiver. His animating hands shook a little, as if battling a caffeine dip. He had encouraged us to call him Yop because it made him feel younger, cooler, and more accepted. He kept his graying hair long, so it curled up near the ears, but age had thinned it on top. He was married to a woman named Terry and on weekends he played bad rock songs for a seventies cover band. He was always asking everyone what they were listening to these days. We considered it half-noble, half-pathetic when passing his office to hear some new rap album issuing from his CD player, when everyone knew what he really wanted to be listening to was Blood on the Tracks. We listened to his story about Tom Mota's chair from various locations in Lynn's cluttered office. She had a glass-top table and a white leather sofa and we hung in the doorway and leaned against the walls, killing time while waiting for her. Karen Woo kept looking at her watch and sighing because Lynn was running late to her own meeting.

"I was like, 'Serial numbers?'" Yop continued. "And she says, she's standing behind me, right, she says, 'Have a look.' So I get off my chair, I take a look — serial numbers! On the back of my chair! 'Where'd these come from?' I ask her. She doesn't answer me. Instead she says, 'Can I borrow a pen?' She wants to borrow a pen so she can take down the serial numbers! I'm thinking, what sort of fascist organization — 'Hello?' I say. 'This is my chair.' But she's not paying any attention to me — she's taking down the serial numbers! Then she goes over to the buckshelves, she starts taking down the serial numbers on them and she says, 'And what about these buckshelves?' Now I'm in a fix, because I lied about the buckshelves, sure, but I'm telling the truth about the chair. I could give a shit about the buckshelves. Take the buckshelves. Just leave me my chair."

We told Yop he meant to say bookshelves.

"What'd I say?" he asked us.

We told him he was saying buckshelves.

"Buckshelves?"

Right — at first it was bookshelves, but then he started saying buckshelves.

"Listen, don't pay any attention to me," he said. "That's just me getting my words wrong. The point is, take the bookshelves. Just leave me my chair. It's my chair. 'But are they yours?' she asks me. It's a moral question for this woman, whose they are. So I say, 'Yeah, they're mine, but you take them, okay. I don't want them anymore.' I don't want them anymore? Who wouldn't want those bookshelves? But I don't want to lose my chair — my legitimate chair, so I say, 'Go ahead, take 'em.'"

We didn't want to interrupt him again, but we felt the need to remind him that it was her job, as the office coordinator, to keep track of office furniture and the like.

Yop ignored us. "What is that she has on her wrist?" he asked.

Yop was asking about the office coordinator's tattoo. It was of a scorpion whose tail wrapped around her left wrist.

"Now why would a woman do that to herself?" he asked. "And why would we hire a woman who would do that to herself?"

It was a good question. We assumed he knew the joke.

"What's the joke?" he asked.

The scorpion was there to protect her ring finger.

"Let me tell you something," he said. "That's funny, but that ring finger doesn't need any protecting. But okay, whatever — she's just doing her job. How we ever hired a person with a scorpion on her wrist is far beyond me, but okay, she's doing her job. But that's my legitimate chair. It's my chair. She takes my chair, that's not her mandate. So she says to me, she says, 'Why would you offer me your buckshelves if, as you say, they're really your buckshelves? I don't want them if they're yours,' she says, 'I only want them if they're Tom's. All of Tom's stuff has disappeared and it's my job to get it back.' So I say, trying to act all innocent and unknowing, I say, 'What all did they take?' And she says, 'Well, let's see. His desk,' she says. 'His chair, his buckshelves, his —'"

We apologized for interrupting, but he was doing it again.

"What's that?" he asked.

Saying buckshelves.

Yop raised his arms in the air. He was wearing a ratty Hawaiian shirt — the hair on his arms was going gray. "Will you listen to me, please?" he cried. "Will you all just please hear what I'm trying to say? I'm trying to tell you something really important here. They know everything! They knew everything we'd taken! So what choice did I have? 'You can have the buckshelves, okay?' I say to her. Just don't take my chair. 'But are they Tom's?' she asks me. That's what's important to her. She wants to know, 'Did you take these buckshelves from Tom's office?' And that's when it hits me. I'm going to get shitcanned just because I took Tom's buckshelves."

Bookshelves! we cried out.

"Right!" he cried back. "And for something as simple as that I'm going to get shitcanned! Hey, I have a mortgage. I have a wife. I'm a fucking professional. I get shitcanned this late in my career, that's it for me. It's a young man's game. I'm too old. Who's going to hire me if I get shitcanned? I see no alternative but to come clean, so I say to her, 'Okay, listen. These buckshelves, right? I'll get them back down to Tom's office. I promise. I'm sorry.' And she says, 'But you're not answering my question. Are they his? Did you take them?' So you know what I'm thinking at this point. I've tried to be somewhat honest with her. I've tried to tap into something human and feeling in her. But it's not working. She ain't nothin' but a bureaucrat. So what I say is, I say, 'All I know is, they were here when I came back from lunch.' And she says, she looks at her watch, she says, 'It's ten-fifteen.' And I say, 'Yeah?' 'Ten-fifteen in the morning,' she says. 'You took lunch at, what? Nine-thirty?' Then she points at the buckshelves and she says, 'And I guess all these bucks just appeared when you came back from lunch, too, huh? Your nine-thirty lunch?' And I don't say anything, and she says, 'And what about the nice chair you're sitting on? That suddenly appear out of nowhere, too?' And I don't say anything, and she says, 'I'll be back after I've had a chance to crosscheck your serial numbers. I would suggest that if those are Tom's buckshelves you have them back in his office pronto. And the same goes for anything else that belongs to Tom.' And that's when I say to her, 'Hey, hold the fuck up, missy. What do you mean, belongs to Tom? Nothing belongs to Tom. Tom just worked here. Nothing ever belonged to Tom. Nothing belongs to anyone here, because they can take it away from you like that.'" Yop snapped his fingers. "Listen to how she responds," he said. "'Uh, sorry, no,' she says. 'I'm afraid all of this belongs to me.'"

Yop threw out his hands in supplication and his eyes bulged out. He expected us to be outraged that the office coordinator would say a thing like that, but the truth was, it didn't surprise us at all. In a way, it did belong to her. She wasn't going to be laid off. Everyone needs an office coordinator.

"Oh, I was so fucking irate," he said. "Nothing gets me more than the petty-minded people around here who have just this much power, and then they wield it and they wield it until they have TOTAL control over you. And now she's going to check her serial numbers and find out that I have Ernie Kessler's old chair."

Wait a minute. It wasn't his chair?

"From when he retired," Yop said, in a calmer voice. "Last year."

We couldn't believe it wasn't his chair.

"It is now. It was Ernie's chair. From when he retired."

We felt deceived. He had given us the impression that at the very least it was his chair.

"It is my chair," he said. "He rolled it down to me. Ernie did. I asked him for it and he rolled it down to me and he rolled my chair away and put it in his office. When he retired. We just swapped chairs. We didn't know about the serial numbers. Now that I know about the serial numbers, I'm thinking, That's it for me. This office coordinator, she's going to tell Lynn I took Tom's buckshelves — and that I took Ernie Kessler's chair, too, even though he gave it to me. So what choice do I have? If I want to keep my job I have to pretend it is Tom's chair and roll it down to his office! It's not his chair — somebody else has Tom's chair — but last week, that's exactly what I did. I rolled Ernie Kessler's chair down to Tom Mota's office after everyone had gone home. I had to pretend it was Tom's chair, and for a week now I've gone on pretending, while I've had to sit on this other chair, this little piece-of-crap chair, just so I can avoid getting shitcanned. That was my legitimate chair," he said, his fists quivering in anguish before him.

We didn't blame him for being upset. His chair was a wonderful chair — adjustable, with webbed seating, giving just a little when you first sat down.

Copyright © 2007 by Joshua Ferris

Excerpt from THEN WE CAME TO THE END by Joshua Ferris, used with permission from Hachette Book Group USA

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