Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Without a trace

Wednesday, July 5, 2006, 2:57 (continued)
Steve's office

I dial Bonnie's cell. Voice mail.

"Heidi, have you seen Bonnie?"

She looks suspiciously from side to side, like a spy giving out classified information.

"She ran out of here crying," she whispers. "I asked her what was wrong and she didn't answer. What do you think is going on?"

"That's what I want to know."

"She was due for a raise. I wonder if she didn't get it."

That's nonsense. I am Bonnie's supervisor, and her review isn't for another month. I open my mouth to tell Heidi when I think the better of it. This isn't Heidi's business, but she is damn good at prying information out of people.

"Trust me, it's not about a raise, Heidi."

"So she got one?"


"Okay, okay, I'll let you know if she calls in," she smiles.

I sit in Bonnie's chair and flip through her caller ID numbers. The last one is from a "Pine Brook Veterinary".

Bonnie's husband Mitch died four or five years ago, and her son lives out of state. The only company she has is her cat, Ralphie. She grew more attached to him after Mitch died; I remember one afternoon last December, when she burst grinningly into my office, showing me all the cat toys she had bought to put under the tree for him. That cat was her only link to Mitch; I hope nothing happened.

I dial the vet's number. "Oh. Ohhh, yeah, that was me who called her," says the woman on the other end. "Is she okay?"

"What happened to Ralphie?"

"Sometimes we sedate cats when we clean their teeth. Something went wrong and... he didn't wake up."

"He didn't wake up?"

"It happens."

A red light flashes on Bonnie's phone console. "Steve", the button label says. This is where most of my calls stop before being put through to me. Every time I lean to the left and look out my door, Bonnie's got the phone to her ear. She probably handles at least 30 calls a day for me, calls that I don't have to take because Bonnie knows the answers. I get tons of work done every day, and Bonnie is a huge reason I am able to do so. What would I ever do without her? In fact, what am I going to do today?

Another red light flashes, and the two orbs blink in perfect unison, like a well-rehearsed dance routine.

Screening my own calls defeats the purpose; the whole idea is that someone else speaks to the callers, so I don't have to stop what I am doing. I press the button marked "night", which will immediately route all calls to the automated attendant. The two lights go out.

I return to my desk. Da-dum! Da-dum! Da-dum! goes my inbox. I've been getting slammed with emails and phone calls all day about a contract I'm working on. We are hiring a firm to process our COBRA (insurance for terminated employees), and our HR director wanted the contracts signed today. We are on our 10th or 11th draft, and we aren't nearly done--

"Just say thank you," Peg shouts from outside my door. "Just say thank you!"

"I'll do no such thing," Jared shoots back, his words muffled slightly, as if passing through clenched teeth.

Why are they fighting outside my door? What are they doing there?

Da-dum! goes my appointment reminder. "3:00, Peg and Jared", it says. Bonnie always warns me 15 minutes in advance of my pending appointments, so I can prepare. Obviously, that didn't happen today.

"Steve, we need you! Peggy and Jared are screaming at each other in the hall!" Heidi says.

Da-dum! Goes my inbox, and I click on my inbox, expecting to see 30 or 40 new emails.

One hundred eighty-six.

It's going to take me hours to clear these emails. If I have my raggedy ass under the covers by midnight, it will be a huge victory.


The meeting goes poorly. Peg and Jared shout each other down repeatedly, and it's growing harder to calm them. I had hoped not to have to involve HR, but--

"Steve, if you can't resolve this properly, I'm gonna have to leave the firm," Jared says, his cheeks flushed, his eyebrows knit angrily.

"Good. Go," Peg shouts, and Jared raises his voice in reply.

Da-dum! goes message number 187.

My cell phone rings; it's the HR director, no doubt needing an update on the COBRA contract.

No matter how hard I work, the best I can manage is to tread water. It's demoralizing.

Two years ago, I was a leader. I improved processes, I helped people, and I woke up every morning eager to tackle whatever obstacles were in my way. Now, I referree arguments and make sure our corporate ass is covered. I have grown to hate my job.


I call Tim.

"What do you mean, you're thinking of quitting?" she asks.