Fiction

Henry’s End

By Bernie Silver

Henry Parsons had never read Norman Vincent Peale or any of his countless successors, yet he believed in the power of positive thinking, having concluded on his own that attitude spelled the difference between winners and losers. Winners thought positively, even when facing long odds, while losers thought negatively, even when the odds favored them.

Henry realized that, to hairsplitters, his own life might not seem a testament to positivity, lacking as it did any lofty achievements. But he paid little attention to these quibblers. His life was just fine. After all, at a relatively youthful thirty-five he’d acquired everything he’d ever wanted in life. His wife Beth was as even-tempered and affectionate a woman as any man could hope for. His offspring, Ross and Francine, ages 5 and 6, respectively, were bright—maybe even precocious—children whose grades and behavior did their parents proud. His three-bedroom home in Manhattan Beach, California, was mere blocks from the deep-blue Pacific and several first-class restaurants. And not least of all, the corporation for which he served as internal communications manager, TechSavvy Inc. in El Segundo, not only paid well but assured employees almost daily that they were fully as important to the company as its bottom line.

In fact, it was the promise of job security, even should a perfect economic storm occur, that prompted Henry to join TechSavvy thirteen years ago after departing UCLA with a communications degree in hand and hope for the future in his heart. During Henrys initial interview, Alan Fitzsimmons, vice president and director of the company’s Corporate Information Office, of which its internal and external communications departments were a part, had touted TechSavvy’s dedication to its employees. And at Henry’s orientation session, CEO Tad Rosser had reinforced this aspect of the company’s values by informing new hires that TechSavvy believed loyalty was a two-way street. Certainly it expected allegiance from its workers—that went without saying, though (broad smile) Rosser wished to state this expectation for the record. But in exchange, the company would return the favor by not only rewarding employees monetarily (another broad smile) but by retaining them in perpetuity. God willing and the creek don’t rise. Henry recalled the chief executive’s twinkling eyes and flashing incisors as he guaranteed the two-dozen fresh faces that, in addition to producing high-quality, state-of-the-art products, such as its mainstay, the revolutionary One-for-All, the finest, most versatile electronic device on the market, TechSavvy believed in treating its employees fairly and justly. This meant, among other things, the company wouldn’t think of cutting anyone loose even if its fortunes took a turn for the worse, a highly unlikely prospect since its sales were expanding faster than a glutton’s waistline. But if by some chance adverse business conditions, such as another Great Recession, should arise, and the company were forced to explore its cost-cutting options, payroll would certainly remain off limits.

The CEO’s third smile was by far his broadest.

#

Sherman Oakley, Henry Parsons’ external communications counterpart in the Corporate Information Office, wore a combination frown and grimace as he peered over the partition separating his cubicle from Henry’s. “Well, whatduhyuh think of the rumor?”

Henry reluctantly looked up from editing an internal announcement describing the latest in One-for-All’s impressive array of functions: an electronic backscratcher. “What rumor?”

“Company’s gonna lay people off.”

Henry disliked Sherman Oakley. Too cynical, too negative, too quick to think the worst of everyone and everything.

“I haven’t heard that rumor, so naturally I haven’t thought about it.” Henry resumed editing, hoping Sherman would take the hint, which he seldom did.

“Well, I heard it. And word’s spreading fast.”

Henry raised his head again. “Nonsense. If there were a rumor like that going around, I’d have heard it.”

“Yeah, right, you with your fingers in your ears and hands over your eyes half the time.” Sherman laughed, causing his second chin to jiggle.

That was another thing about Sherman Oakley that Henry found distasteful: his extra chin that bobbed and weaved whenever he bitched about someone or something, which he did almost daily.

At the moment his unfounded hear-no-evil, see-no-evil accusation rankled Henry even more than the redundant chin. “The trouble with you is, you believe everything you hear. Especially if it’s bad news.”

“Okay, you’re right, everything’s hunky-dory,” Sherman said. “But if it turns out it isn’t, you can’t say I didn’t warn you.” With that, he disappeared into his cubicle.

Sarcasm was normally not Henry’s style, but for Sherman Oakley he’d make an exception. “Thanks for brightening my day,” he called out.

His neighbor said nothing in return, for which Henry was grateful.

#

“Did you hear?” Loretta Thistle asked the next day at the water cooler.

“Hear what?” Henry sipped from his Styrofoam cup.

“They’re gonna lay people off.”

Loretta, who worked in the Accounting Department, stood there empty-handed, seemingly more interested in spreading this rumor than quenching her thirst. Still, Henry couldn’t very well dismiss her as he had Sherman Oakley, because Loretta Thistle seldom gossiped.

“Yes, I’ve heard something like that,” he replied. “But from a very unreliable source.”

“Well, I got word from Agnes Pesky over in Payroll, who’s a very reliable source.”

“But the company’s never laid anyone off, as a matter of policy.”

“Ha!”

This outburst was uncharacteristic of the normally sweet-natured accountant, who, in a further departure from her customary behavior, turned conspiratorial. “There’s always a first time,” she whispered.

“But—”

“Gotta go.” And with that Agnes Pesky scurried off, as if engaging in further conversation would itself endanger her job.

As for Henry, his positive outlook remained intact, because, after all, the company promised.

#

Three days later Henry’s resolute faith in a benevolent universe seemed about to be rewarded when he received a call from Alan Fitzsimmons, head of corporate information.

Please see me in my office at 4 p.m. today, Henry. It’s quite important. If you have another appointment at that time, I suggest you cancel it.

Click.

Hmmm. The veep usually called meetings via email; a phone call added weight to the invitation. Henry mentally scanned several possible reasons for the tête-à-tête until a leading candidate emerged, one that lifted his spirits and brightened his day. The company was about to grant him the well-deserved seven percent raise he’d requested over a month ago, after Beth informed him that—surprise!— they’d soon have another mouth to feed. Despite the passage of time since then, Henry hadn’t given up, trusting that justice would prevail and eventually compensate him for his continued fealty and oft-praised capabilities.

You see, he told himself, ability, fidelity and positivity pay off in the end. Always.

Henry glanced at his watch: 9:10 a.m. He busied himself working on the TechGazette, the company’s weekly newspaper of which he was editor. Then, at precisely 3:55 p.m., he donned his suit coat and left to receive the good news.

#

“Have a seat, Henry.”

Alan Fitzsimmons motioned toward the brown leather chair in front of his expansive oak desk, the surface of which was empty except for a lined notepad, a ballpoint pen and a bronze letter opener. Behind the vice president, a high window offered a picturesque view of the neatly trimmed TechSavvy campus.

Henry generally felt intimidated visiting this plush, wood-paneled corner office, but not today. Today his heart thumped in exquisite anticipation.

“As you know, Henry, I’ve always held you in high regard,” Alan Fitzsimmons began.

“And I’ve always appreciated that, sir,” Henry said.

This was true, but Henry wondered why the veep looked so glum while confirming his high regard. Maybe a health issue or trouble on the home front was dampening his mood.

The VP, impeccably attired in a navy-blue suit, crisp white shirt with French cuffs and fiery-red tie, cleared his throat and fiddled with the letter opener, whose function, Henry knew, was purely decorative, since his secretary, Denise Hoffelmayer, handled all his mail.

“Unfortunately,” Alan Fitzsimmons continued, “we have to let you go.”

Henry must have heard wrong. He made a mental note to get his ears checked for excess wax.

“I beg your pardon, sir.”

“We have to let you go,” his boss repeated.

This time the words were unmistakable. Still, Henry couldn’t believe he’d heard correctly.

“I . . . I don’t understand.”

“I’m sorry. Really, I am. But competition has become worse than fierce.”

“I . . . I mean—”

“And since going public two years ago, we’ve been under tremendous pressure to meet shareholders’ expectations. Regrettably, now that we’ve pared overhead to the bone, we must go even further and excise a portion of the company’s backbone—its employees.”

Henry scrambled for words, “But I’ve been here for . . . the CEO keeps saying . . .”

The vice president shrugged. “Believe me, we’ve cut everything we can. Now we’re left with no choice but to”—cough, cough—”lay people off, including managers.”

For some reason Henry, who’d long admired the VP’s perfectly coiffed, distinguished gray hair, wanted to reach over and muss it up.

“Look on the bright side,” Alan Fitzsimmons said, as if Henry hadn’t made a lifelong habit of it. “You’ve been here for. . . what? . . . a dozen years or so. It’s probably time to move on anyway. And certainly we’ll give you the highest recommendation should we receive a reference call.”

“Thank you, sir,” Henry said, his voice barely audible.

The vice president picked up the letter opener and skillfully rotated it between his fingers, thumb to pinky, and then back, pinky to thumb. Yesterday Henry might have admired this display of manual dexterity, but today he found it annoying.

The veep laid the opener down and stood. Henry, in a final gesture of deference, followed suit.

Alan Fitzsimmons thrust out a hand. “Again, I’m sorry, but I know you’ll do just fine wherever you go.”

Henry shook the hand with a singular lack of enthusiasm. “When . . . when’s my last day?”

“Why today, of course.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

The snarky question surprised even Henry.

“No, I’m afraid not,” Alan Fitzsimmons said. “Terminated employees must leave the premises by 5 o’clock. Company policy.”

Henry shifted from dumbfounded to infuriated. “Why, for chrissake?”

“Isn’t it obvious?”

“Not to me it isn’t.”

“Well, here’s the thing. While we haven’t had any direct experience with this type of situation, we’re given to understand that once notified they’re being terminated, employees become less productive, often disparage the company to coworkers, and sometimes even steal or damage its property.”

“No matter how long they’ve been with the company or how honest and loyal they’ve been?”

“Doesn’t seem to matter. And we can’t afford to take any chances.”

“I see.”

“Good.”

“Just one more question.”

Alan Fitzsimmons sighed, signaling his patience was running out. “Go ahead.”

“Who’ll handle internal communications?”

“Why Sherman Oakley, of course.”

Of course. Henry drew a higher salary than Oakley, thanks to his greater seniority, but even if the company boosted the moron’s pay for handling two departments instead of one, it would still come out ahead.

Henry gazed out the window behind the vice president’s desk. “I’m going to miss this place. The people, naturally, but also the beautiful grounds.”

The VP turned to look, which is when Henry grabbed the letter opener and transferred it to the inside pocket of his suit coat.

“Yes, they’re quite lovely, aren’t they?” Alan Fitzsimmons said.

After which Henry quietly departed.

#

Besides producing and marketing their products, corporations are renowned for generating myths. This certainly was true of TechSavvy Inc., whose employees conceived and distributed the myth of Henry Parsons, and events coincident with his departure from the company.

Exactly what occurred on that fateful day remains unsubstantiated, such being the nature of mythology, but based on the preponderance of accounts drawing the same conclusion, it’s fairly safe to say that Henry went nuts.

Otherwise, the myths vary wildly.

One has him brandishing a bronze letter opener while dashing up and down the halls of corporate headquarters yelling, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” But few people give this version credence, since Henry, being the creative sort, was unlikely to have pilfered his valedictory from a Hollywood movie.

Another fable alleges Henry sprinted through the headquarters lobby, plunging a bronze letter opener into each painting in a row of specially commissioned portraits of past CEOs. According to this account, the berserk former employee slashed the chief executives beyond recognition.

And yet a third variation of the saga posits that Henry took a former colleague—one Sherman Oakley—hostage, holding a bronze letter opener to his throat, just below the second of two chins, and threatening to remove at least one of them if his termination were not rescinded, which it was not, though thankfully Henry failed to follow through on his threat.

Which of these, and several other tales revolving around his exit, is true obviously will never be known, unless Henry himself should address the issue in an autobiography he’s rumored to be writing. Until then, it seems safe to say that since a bronze letter opener appears in almost all the narratives regarding Henry’s last day with the company, such an object played a part in his final actions.

Alan Fitzsimmons, current TechSavvy CEO and a vice president at the time Henry left, is known to have imparted the unhappy news to him, and further, is believed to have possessed a bronze letter opener.

The chief executive, however, refuses to discuss “these silly fabrications.”

Categories: Fiction

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