I know the days to approach my boss and the days to leave her alone based solely on how well, or how poorly, she's drawn her eyebrows on that day. Some days she comes to work with perfectly etched brows, thicker toward her eyes with a delicate symmetrical arch, before tapering into a lovely natural wisp of auburn. These are the days to ask for a promotion or a new office chair. These are the days to take longer lunches. These are the days I pounce. Then there are the days she comes to work with her eyebrows askew, haphazardly smudged, crooked, and looking mean. These are the days I shut my office door and hunker down like a wounded animal. I've been on eyebrow alert for weeks now.
Usually, like the weather, there's some variance. There will be a couple days of sunbeam eyebrows, following a day or two of overcast imperfect eyebrows. Whatever the condition, it doesn't last long. There is always an eventual break in the wax streak. Like hair days, Monday is typically a good eyebrow day. Then toward the end of the week they get sloppier. Although, occasionally, on a Friday, she'll bounce in with perfect brows. Maybe it's the joy of a coming weekend or a hot date. I don't ask. My philosophy is: the less I know about the people I work with, the better off I am.
Today is Monday. So, I'm expecting it to be an optimal eyebrow outlook day. It's not that I care about my boss's well being; I want to take a vacation. And I know that just as an astrologist plans life events based on the alignment of the planets and stars, I must time my vacation request with the alignment of those eyebrows.
I shut my office door and walk down the hall toward her office. When walking the halls I always carry a piece of paper and a pen. This serves several purposes. First, if a fellow coworker approaches from the opposite end of the hall, it helps bridge the long uncomfortable distance, as I'm able to look at the paper and not at the people I work with. Also, it indicates that I am busy, I'm working, and must not be bothered with idle chit chat. Plus, I find that when there is a possibility that "notes" may be taken, people tend not to speak to me, and I like that. Sometimes I just walk around with a blank piece of paper I've grabbed off the copy machine. If a fellow employee gets within speaking range I'll look down, squint my eyes in concentration, pen pressed to lips, like I'm deep in thought. This ensures I'm able to move about to all the important places at my job––bathroom, cafeteria, vending machine––without being bothered.
As with my notebook sham, I incorporate the same philosophy with my office. My desk is cluttered with stacks of folders, papers, books, binders, spread sheets, and to-do lists. I strategically place mysterious post-it-notes with vague urgent scratchings that say things like, "transcribe this," or "synthesis text." I have no idea what that means, but I like the way it sounds. Most of the post-it-notes I've gathered from empty conference rooms. I'll rewrite what they say on a fresh post-it-note in my own handwriting, and then slap them on every visible surface in my office. The idea is to make it look like I'm "knee deep" in work every day.
As I come around the corner a coworker, Bill, approaches from the opposite end of the hall. When he sees me his eyes widen. This indicates his intention is to initiate a conversation. In a preliminary defense move, I start to scribble on my notepad. I am not merely writing gibberish. No, quite the contrary. I am making a list, a grocery list to be more precise. I write "milk, eggs, dog leash, generator."
"Hey, can I talk to you?" Bill asks.
I sigh heavy and say, "Oh well, I'm knee deep Bill, really just knee deep in it."
Bill holds his hands up, palms facing me. "I totally understand," he says backing away. "I know you're busy."
"Yes, yes," I say, "I am very busy. Come find me later. I might be able to maybe spare a few minutes."
The key is to never conclusively say no, leave the door open a crack. Give your subordinates a glimmer of hope. They need this. But it's also important that you make anyone who asks for your time feel guilty about it.
When I get to my boss's office the door is shut and the light is off. I can only hope she's running late because she's home perfecting those eyebrows. My whole vacation hinges on those eyebrows. I try to remember if there is a manager's meeting or some other meeting my boss may be at, and more importantly, that I should be at.
Periodically we have management meetings I must attend. Lovely gourmet catered meetings with rich, imported coffees and decadent handmade chocolates, where we managers sit in our fine leather chairs and discuss ways to cut the budget. There is also a great deal of time spent on the ever-elusive problem of how to unify our division. As upper management likes to say, "there is no 'I' in team," but as "I" always like to say, there is no "we" in team either.
I consider going back to my office to check my voicemail messages. Every morning, after checking my messages, I make a list of all the calls I must return. Then I organize these calls numerically by how many hours, and or days, I can put off returning them. It's a lot of work.
Instead, I decide to wander around for a bit. I usually like to carve out at least four hours a day walking around the office, hall to hall with notebook in hand. It's important that my fellow colleagues see me working. Any good manager knows how crucial it is to establish a "professional presence" in the work place.
There are a few people in the break room. They stop talking when I enter. I walk to the refrigerator to make sure my sandwich is still there. You wouldn't believe the small wars that go on in this place over people's lunches disappearing. I once heard someone got their tires slashed, all four of them, over a stolen Ruben sandwich on rye. Yes, my sandwich is there. Today, the eyebrow gods are working in my favor. I have a good feeling I will get my vacation.
Mark, an older thin man with delicate features, leans against the counter next to the sink. Mark's the office comedian. His office is filled with Dilbert cartoon clippings and little gag items like fake, yet very realistic looking, turds. He's a funny guy. He'll probably end up killing himself. I find, in general, funny people are actually very tortured souls. I heard he once got written up for sexual harassment after strategically placing a little beanie weenie frank, left over from a company luncheon, in a suggestive area on a naked Bart Simpson doll.
"Did you see the e-mail about Betty?" he asks me.
"No," I say lightly patting my hand on the plastic wrap top of my sandwich, pleased with the full plump way it feels under my fingertips. "What did it say?"
Mark gives a side way glance to the other people in the break room. "It said effective immediately Betsy Mallard is no longer with the agency and any job-related questions or concerns need to be addressed to her direct superior."
Once in a while we get these cryptic e-mails. And just like that someone is gone, no goodbye, no pot-luck lunch, no indication of why. We all know what that means. The person got fired. The next day, after the mysterious e-mail, the person's office will be emptied, as if human resources brings them in the shame of a night to retrieve their items.
"Interesting," I say looking around the room. I drag my vowels out when I say the word "interesting" and nod my head slowly. I remember my boss saying once in a management training that the sign of an effective communicator is the ability of others to imitate them. Furthermore, if people are not imitating you behind your back, then you're not spending enough time communicating with your staff. Therefore, I try to speak and behave in a way that is easy to mimic. I hear several of my subordinates do hilarious impressions of me during after-work happy hours, which pleases me very much.
"Wasn't she in your department?" Another manager named Kimberly says to me. Everyone hates Kimberly. The stories of her gross bullying are legendary. I once heard she keeps one of those diabetic meters in her desk drawer, the kind with the tiny needle that pricks the skin in one sharp eye blink second, and that she sticks the fingers of all her subordinates to test their blood sugar as a method of determining who gets to go to lunch first. A new girl, a hypoglycemic as luck would have it, didn't last even one day in Kimberly's department.
"Name doesn't ring a bell," I say starring at Mark's coffee mug where a dark obscene smudge of red lines the rim. I'm not sure if the smudge was already there from the mug not being washed properly, or if Mark has some off-hour secret. I don't ask. I don't want to know.
"You know her," Kimberly says picking orange nail polish off her thumb. "She headed your leadership project." Several people snicker quietly.
"Oh that Betsy Mallard," I say starring off into the distance, as if lost in memory. "I'm sorry to hear that."
I was once appointed to head a project in which the qualities of world leaders, such as Stalin, Hitler, and Bush, were isolated and studied. The idea was that if we could determine what qualities made a leader then we could look for these qualities when hiring managers. The genesis of the project came when my boss read a research study from one of those fancy Ivy League schools where participants were isolated in a room, virtually deprived of food for days until they were weak with exhaustion. Then they were given highly complicated tasks to complete which required tremendous amounts of concentration. What my boss found interesting about the study wasn't the participants who had the sheer mental strength to complete a given task, but rather the participants who were able to convince others to complete the task for them. These participants, as we all know, were the real leaders.
Naturally, like any progressive-thinking upper manager, my boss wanted to apply the results of this revolutionary study to our own company's hiring process. So, she assigned me to head the project. Naturally, I did what any mildly progressive-thinking middle manager would do: I assigned several subordinates to do the work. Betsy, who eagerly headed the project, held bi-weekly meetings to, as we like to say, "get the ball rolling." I never went to these meetings until the project was almost complete. Then, I went to all the meetings. We compiled our findings into beautiful, royal blue, spiral notebooks, laminated proudly with my name. And I swelled with pride as I handed these little masterpieces out to my fellow managers. Whenever the project was referred to in subsequent meetings I enjoyed reflecting on the physical beauty of those binders, along with the sheer, overwhelming joy that none of the work contained within them was my own.
Outside the break room is the sound of sensible shoes on tile. I recognize the hurried crazed rhythm immediately as that of my boss. This is my chance. I open the refrigerator again to give my sandwich one more affectionate pat on its plastic belly for luck.
When I get into the hall I see my boss standing with her head bowed in front of her office door, holding something in her hand. I get closer and see that she's not holding a key to the door knob. No, instead she holds a chewed up ball point pen. She jabs the pen at the door knob, as if trying to unlock it. She stands like this for nearly a full minute or so, before finally saying, "Oh this isn't the right key." She holds the pen up closer to her eyes, perplexed, which allows me an initial glimpse.
It is a beautiful sight, a perfectly sketched eyebrow, a masterpiece, nothing short of the intricate brush strokes on the roof of the Sistine chapel. A surge of pure excitement floods me. "Well good morning," I say smiling, hands clasped behind my back.
"Does this look like the right key to you?" My boss asks as she turns to face me.
That's when I get my first head-on view. I'm stunned. She only has one eyebrow, one perfectly formed eyebrow above her right eye. While above her left eye, there is nothing, nothing but naked skin, not even a smudge. Now this I have never seen. I'm not sure how to react.
"Well, does it," she asks again, "look like the right key to you?"
She looks so off balanced with just the one eyebrow I have trouble concentrating on anything else. I simply point to the lanyard around her neck where her office key hangs. "I believe your key is right there."
"Oh silly me," she laughs, unlocking her door.
I'm not sure what to do. The one good eyebrow might work in my favor, might be all I need to tip the scales, but then again, there is that one missing eyebrow, all that naked skin. What am I to make of this? I'm caught in an inexplicable dilemma. I take a chance and say in a very small voice, "If you have time, I need to talk to you."
My boss picks up a binder, from a stack of many binders, and says, "Oh wow, well, I'm really knee deep in it right now, just really knee deep." She pulls a piece of paper out of the binder and starts to write something down.
I hold my hands up, palms out. "I totally understand," I say. "I know you're very busy."
She raises her one eyebrow and says, "Maybe after lunch we can talk."
I back out into the hallway, quietly shutting her door. The air conditioning kicks on with a thudding swoosh. The company uses scented filters that emit a pleasant smell throughout the building. The idea is to trick workers into associating nostalgic scents with enjoyable memories. Therefore the worker, over time, will begin to think of work as a pleasant place to be. At first they were using Piña Colada scented filters, until people started drinking on their lunch breaks. Now, they typically stick with more outdoorsy scents, like flowers or fresh cut grass. This was an upper management idea. For the record, I was against it. A thin cruel wisp of something tropical breezes by, like an unreachable, distant land.
Kristene Brown is a psychiatric social worker for the state of Kansas. She has previously been published, or has work forthcoming, in anderbo.com, Birmingham Arts Journal, Blood Lotus, Fiddleback, Forge, The Midwest Quarterly, Swink, and many others. Kristene lives in Kansas City with her husband and dog.