The analysis was perfectly clear. The data was sound and the methods beyond refutation, all pointing in the same direction toward the same inescapable conclusion. The Argyle model had been tried and tested, and after twenty-nine years at Argyle Consulting, the last nine in the senior analyst position he now held, he was as familiar with its nuances and aware of its robust capabilities as anyone in the organization. The results confirmed his intuition absolutely, as his intuition too had pointed in the same direction long before the analysis itself had been conducted. And after all, to paraphrase the former chairman of the company, William R. Argyle, whom he had had the good fortune to know as Bill, at the end of the day it was not data or even the impeccable Argyle model but intangibles like intuition and leadership and vision that produced real, viable business solutions.
He believed in the Argyle model because it was flawlessly rational, and he believed unwaveringly and unquestioningly in what was rational. It strove for efficiency, as he strove for efficiency, and he applied it rationally of course, but nonetheless with a tremendous zeal. He enjoyed the puzzle it presented, the puzzle of dissecting the process, of sifting through the corporate culture that had accreted over years of circumstance and superstition and tradition and cutting away those parts of it that were frivolous and wasteful, replacing outdated practices with new and innovative ones that had been proven, at least in theory, to be effective. Sometimes it might involve something as sweeping and bold as the complete restructuring of an entire division: dismantling departments, reassigning responsibilities, and removing those employees who would no longer be needed in the new, more practical arrangement. Other times a day’s work might be something as fundamentally simple as moving a manager from one office to another, or putting a shared printer in a more convenient location, some minor task that nonetheless gave him the satisfaction that comes with seeing everything put in its proper place. It held such appeal to him, to make things run more simply and more smoothly. He looked upon it not merely as a job, but as a duty, as his contribution to society and a better, more streamlined and efficient world which he, through his own expertise, helped build.
It had taken him all twenty-nine of his years at Argyle to run this particular case. Of course that was atypical, as the case was atypical, and the unusual nature of this specific case forced him into accordingly unusual procedure. A standard analysis might yield tangible results in a matter of months, and although it went without saying that ideally a given case would remain an ongoing account requiring certain periodic follow-up, it would become a matter, not of less importance, but of considerably diminished effort and intensity once the original study had been carried out.
In this case, however, there were fundamental differences from the standard scenario which had required considerable deviation from the usual timeframe. The matter was not an assigned case to be pursued during regular working hours, not for a client, not billable. It was in fact a personal matter, a pet project, if you will, which meant that he could only truly devote himself to it in increments when he could spare the time. And seeing as it was a personal matter, he of course had no choice but to conduct the entire project on his own, where on an ordinary project the work would have been delegated and divided among a larger, more specialized team. There was no one he could even mention it to. Countless times he had abandoned the project, put it off, tried desperately to ignore the conclusion it had foreordained. But every time, he had come back to it, unable to escape it, driven by something deep in his psyche, some doubt that gnawed at him, some truth that compelled him beyond all else to pursue its end and see it through.
And now the model had come to the conclusion that the company no longer needed him. From the beginning he had always known it would, but now, today, the completed and indisputable proof of it was finally in front of him in black and white, with the occasional red and yellow thrown in for visual clarity in certain key charts. He himself was redundant, unnecessary, unprofitable. According to even the most conservative simulations he had run, the most likely scenario was that his associates and the members of his team would be able to split up his responsibilities amongst them and carry on just as well without him. After all, they were as disciplined and as clever and as insightful as he was, and although he felt that he deserved some credit through his influence and his instruction for their being so, at this point they would accomplish roughly equivalent successes on their own. To add insult to injury, however, a considerable number of trials, enough that they could not merely be regarded as outliers, suggested that he had never been needed and that the company would have come to equivalent or even more effective solutions if his position had never been filled. Or, to put it another way, the data now showed that a monkey could do his job.
That was difficult enough for him to take, but then even these more conservative results were only the beginning. The truly revolutionary accomplishment of this particular study, the juncture at which he as an analyst had now gone truly above and beyond, lay in a somewhat radical and experimental variation he had developed, beyond anything that any efficiency study ever conducted had even attempted to approach. In a way he had been only vaguely aware of in his previous analyses, he had come to recognize gradually as the mirror turned inward that the conservative and standard analysis was insufficient for the broader scenario he now sought to explain, resting on too many parameters that were inappropriate and assumptions that were circular and specious. The reasoning beyond the model was impeccable, yes, but reason itself was inherently groundless, truth circumspect and unattainable, and value merely an arbitrary matter of preference and taste. And when the scope of the analysis was made broader to reflect these realities, adjusted to account for these modern advances, the study concluded with near complete certainty that even the company itself was no longer needed, and had never been needed. Yes, it was profitable, but as the upgraded model now discarded profit and every other possible measure of importance or meaning to existence, the possibility of being useful disappeared from the range of potential outcomes. Even his greatest professional achievements were unambiguously proven to pale in comparison with things like the budding of a single flower or the falling of a drop of rain. What's more, the model itself collapsed under the weight of its own scrutiny, and in its collapse proved the entire notion of modeling and understanding to be fatally self-contradicting, trivial, floundering. This was his masterpiece, his most ambitious work, his great contribution, as far as there was room for such lofty phrases and terms in such a career and such a field. And beyond any statistically significant measure of doubt the procedure concluded that under no imaginable circumstances did he add value, and there was no point in his carrying on.
To be sure it was a lot to swallow, enough that the grave weight of it might very well have driven any lesser man over the edge right then and there. But great man that he was, in his small and humble way, he remained calm and carried on with his thoughts coolly, rationally. The results after all were to be expected, and this was something he had done a hundred times before, even if understandably it had a more personal effect now when it concerned himself directly. Just as in any other restructuring, what remained once the assessment was made clear was to consider the solutions, establish the most efficacious strategy for moving forward, and implement that strategy in a timely manner. He would have to be terminated. He was superfluous. In any other case, he would have done the same.
Yet even as he maintained his cool, the finality and clarity of this proclamation affected him more deeply than he would have thought possible, and inspired reactions that surprised him. In a moment of weakness he even contemplated simply throwing out the results, of sweeping the whole thing under the proverbial rug in fear. He could get away with it of course. No one would be the wiser. Although he could only imagine that the overall outcome of his analysis, the dread and emptiness that he had now established mathematically as fact, must have occurred to most or all of his colleagues in some form or another, he felt safe in saying that none of them possessed the grit and rigor and outright gall to question the benchmarks and carry out the calculations as objectively as he had done. Besides, it incriminated them too, incriminated them all.
But he was repulsed with himself for even coming up with the idea. He couldn’t throw it out. He couldn’t live that lie, couldn’t even consider keeping himself on now that he knew in no uncertain terms what he now knew. The hypocrisy of it sickened him, of simply carrying on as if it accomplished a positive good when at best he was no more than a resource drain. He took some pleasure in thinking at least that he had honor, a sense of duty, and that he lived according to some code, although his subsequent attempts to expound to himself upon just what that might mean and put it into words invariably fell short.
In the lowness of his situation he even resorted to negotiation, as though there were some room for arbitration in the matter, as though there were some faculty to which he could appeal. After all, after twenty-nine years of loyal and fruitful service, didn’t the company owe him? He was trusted by management, respected by his subordinates and juniors, and his resume had some sparkle to it, as they say, if perhaps it did not shine like the very sun. His identification of a redundant segment in the distribution process at Consolidated Lever had saved them an estimated $18.2 million per year, out of which he earned an appreciable raise and bonus. He had led a restructuring of workforces that enabled a 7% cut in labor costs with only a 2% drop in total productivity at Williams and Snull, and laid out the basic operating principles of an integrated software solution which Dug Brands credited as a major contribution to a 12% cut in turnaround time and 4% growth over the following three quarters in adjusted RLP. No, he had been paid a fair value for what he had accomplished, and kept on as long as he was useful, and he certainly couldn’t expect anything more than that. Not that it mattered now, or that in the face of the final analysis anything had ever mattered or could ever have mattered at all.
As he stared out across his small office, his attention caught on the imitation stainless steel nameplate on his desk as if it were a fabric that had snagged. The nameplate faced the other way and he couldn’t read it from where he sat, but he knew well enough what it said. David Kingsley. David. People called him Dave sometimes, and although it wasn’t what he preferred or how he introduced himself, he wasn’t the type of guy to bother to correct them when, after all, it really wasn’t such a big deal. And it was then, looking there at the back of that simple nameplate that had announced him to the world for these past twenty-nine years and now no longer would, that it really hit him in full. After twenty-nine years at Argyle Consulting, well over half his life now, he was about to lose his job.
He didn’t know what to do. It was the first time in an awfully long time, or maybe ever really, that he could remember that kind of feeling of not knowing what to do. Tomorrow morning, or maybe not quite that soon, he would find himself in bed well after the alarm should have gone off, with no place to go. Sometime in the near future some new acquaintance would ask him in the course of casual conversation, “So, what do you do?” and after answering that question without a second thought all the thousands of times he had been asked it over twenty-nine long years, he wouldn’t know how to answer. He would miss those little interactions with the people he encountered in the office, miss hearing pleasant snippets about Annie’s kids and Colin’s parents and Jill’s weekends, and when he did meet up again with people there for golf or lunch or what have you, still there would open up a distance to the conversations that there hadn’t been before.
He could look for a new job, of course. Of course he could. As an analyst he was finished, but maybe something in accounting or in management, both fields toward which his experience could be construed as applicable. After all, aside from the utter and inescapable futility of everything he had ever done, he had been good at his job, and liked by management, at least some of whom would almost certainly be willing to write him glowing recommendations. He was fifty-one years old now, but still handsome and youthful-looking enough to pass for forty-eight and he still had what it took to reinvent himself and reestablish himself at another company, in another career.
He stood up out of his chair. He really couldn’t afford to be going through this right now. Really couldn’t. He had been paid a very comfortable salary, it was true, but like most people he had put it toward leading a proportionally comfortable life. Yes, he had a bigger house and faster car than most people had, but without steady money coming in all he would have to show for it now would be a larger mortgage payment and a larger car payment to scramble somehow to pay. Under the circumstances he could be pretty sure that even when he did find work again, it wouldn’t pay him nearly what he made at Argyle now, and he could see already that he was going to be forced to make some unpleasant decisions. The loan on the house was almost halfway paid, and refinancing might help them hold on to it for a while, but still it was highly likely now or sometime soon that he would have to move his family into a smaller home, a more affordable neighborhood. He could sell the Porsche if he had to, or the boat, although he would hardly get enough for it to be worthwhile. He admitted to himself how funny it was that a man who made his living cutting unnecessary expenditures for others would have made so many of his own, but for the moment he found his sense of humor wanting.
Even if he wanted to, how could he ever go back now? In any career he might have chosen to go into and any position he might have found, still there was no going back and no escaping what he now knew. For now that he knew it, it was the pinnacle and the summit of his knowledge, and it towered over every other possibility and every other fact at a height that all the rest could not measure up to even if they were all stacked one on top of the other. That no matter what he did now, or had done then, none of it actually mattered, or could possibly accomplish anything that was worth accomplishing. The whole notion of work, the whole corporate structure, the whole of life and of being, they just didn’t do any good, or serve any end, and never had and never would. How could he ever balance another ledger or write another report or file another request now that he knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that that was true?
He picked up the picture of his family that he kept on his desk. He wished he were some heartless, unfeeling, rational machine and not a man, because he thought of them with love, such love. And it only made things harder now, because everything he did and everything he would do was for them. He wondered with such desperate hope if love could be enough, if it were enough to live only with love. For a moment he thought that maybe he could, that maybe love was what truly mattered. But it seemed so impossible, so distant from everything he had lived for up to now and everything he knew. How was he supposed to tell them that they had to leave their home? Kara loved it there so much, said it was everything she had ever dreamed of in a home, and it meant so much to him to make her happy. How was he supposed to tell Melissa that he couldn’t afford to send her back to Princeton when she had worked so hard, or Nick that he would have to take the bus to public school in the mornings now? He thought of all the things their futures held for them, graduations, weddings, jobs, children of their own. He had provided for his family, and he would provide for them now, as best he could.
He wouldn’t even have to leave the parking lot, which was for the best given the shape he was in. It was cold outside and icy, perfect conditions. When he thought of everything in terms of money, he could be cool and rational again. He was willing to consider the viewpoint that money wasn’t everything, but in a world where nothing meant anything, at least money was a clear benchmark for making decisions that were otherwise too complicated to even begin to undertake. At least money was a standard you could measure yourself against, and use to compare your successes and your worth with those of others without all the confusion and the subjectivity of things like emotions and ideals. He got into the car and started it, then let it warm up a little before he pulled out of his parking space. There was a sharp right turn to one of the on-ramps in the garage which, if over-run slightly, faced a two-story drop-off, a section that many of the employees agreed was terribly dangerous and very poorly designed. He was insured, well insured, for more than he had ever earned and more than he had ever been worth. Perhaps, he thought with a touch of levity, his survivors could even sue.
He wished he could tie himself up to a stake in battle to be killed by the enemy, the way he had once read of proud warriors from some Native American tribe or other doing when they had grown too old to fight and had come to their time to die. He took solace anyway in knowing that though it lacked the romantic valor of a death in battle, the symbolic weight of the gesture he now made was secretly the equivalent for a man in his place and of his position.
Death felt like a thousand needles stabbing him in the back.
Andrew Beckemeyer has no prior publications, literary prizes or literary degrees to speak of, but is confident that this will be the starting point to a storied and decorated career. He has a bachelor’s degree in Applied Mathematics from Northwestern University, and among other odd jobs has worked as a stock trader, groundskeeper, Japanese translator, accountant, concessionaire, software developer, education program manager, and riverboat deck hand. He has lived in San Francisco for the past five years, but by the time of this publication has left, probably for L.A. to start, maybe Mexico, possibly Europe, never to return.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I wrote this story while working in a position that was about to be eliminated in a cost-cutting move, in which my final duties were basically to help make my own job disappear. As I was writing it, I remembered a story my dad once told me when I was in high school about a friend of my uncle’s, and based David’s course of action here on that actual story and the actions that man actually took in his own similar situation. For the record, I am much, much happier being unemployed than David is.
Q: Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?
A: I read a story in Ploughshares once that I thought was very good.
Q: What would your ideal writing day be?
A: Quiet house in the morning, then out to a coffee shop in the afternoon, where I overhear some outrageous conversation that makes perfect material for my next story.
Q: What’s happening outside your window right now?
A: Leaves rustling. Unspeakable things in the darkness.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A novel about two young professional couples enjoying a twelve-course dinner at a very exclusive and expensive restaurant, making conversation, discussing the food, and revealing their personalities and values.