Colin sat in the waiting room, sweating through his suit. He gripped his briefcase tightly. In his mind, he was reviewing his presentation. He had slides. He also had the statistics on how quickly men over forty could learn new things. Did it take longer? Absolutely. Colin wasn’t going to shy away from the truth. It just meant he’d have to work harder.
“Mr. Werner will see you now,” the receptionist said as Colin jumped back in his seat on the couch.
“Thank you Grace,” he replied nervously. He stood up and walked to Mr. Werner’s office door. He put a hand on the knob, but before he turned it he felt a rumble in his gut. This wasn’t going to be a hard meeting. Mr. Werner was a brilliant man, always open to new ideas so long as they were presented well. Colin had prepared. All the same…
“Grace?” Colin turned back to the receptionist.
“Yes Mr. Collins?”
“Wish me luck?” Colin asked gravely.
Grace didn’t say anything. She just smiled and nodded. What did that mean? Colin didn’t have time to think about it. Mr. Werner was waiting for him on the other side of the door. Waiting to make him either the happiest man in the world….or something else. He turned back and opened the door.
Inside the palatial office, the door closed behind Colin on its own. There must have been a door closer installed on the top jamb, Colin thought. Still, it was a spooky thing to hear a door close behind him when he wasn’t expecting it. He pushed it from his mind.
The office itself was a beautiful place. Colin had been to it four times before today, and he was always surprised that he still found it awe inspiring. Large, brown book cases covered both walls on either side of the door. A plush, dark blue couch sat adjacent to the book shelf to Colin’s right while to the left a huge, flat screen monitor hung on the wall.
In the center of the room, pushed all the way back to the windows, sat an ornate wooden desk. Behind the desk was a blood red, high-backed leather chair turned with its front facing the windows. And the windows themselves, they were what made the office so spectacular. A floor-to-ceiling view of the bustling city of Manhattan greeted anyone who walked in.
Colin took a step forward. He was suddenly struck by the distance between the entrance and Werner’s desk. Was it always that far? It had been five years since he was in this office last, so maybe Werner had rearranged things.
“Have a seat Mr. Collins,” Mr. Werner’s voice boomed.
“Thank you sir,” Colin said as he practically sprinted the rest of the way to the two chairs situated for guests in front of Werner’s desk.
The high-backed leather chair turned and Colin took a sharp, short breath in surprise. Mr. Werner looked different. Very different.
The first time Colin had met the business tycoon was twenty years ago. Colin was fresh out of college, competing against millions of other graduates for that elusive first job. Colin applied over and over for a job in publishing. He wanted to put more stories into the world; adventure stories being his personal favorites.
But a year went by and none of the publishing companies wanted him. He became desperate, and cast a wider net in search of a stable way to make a living. That’s where Mr. Werner came in. Colin applied for a job as a cog maker in one of Mr. Werner’s factories, and the last step was an interview with the owner himself.
Back then the tycoon was in his early fifties.
At every fifth year milestone since the start of Colin’s employment, when he would visit the office to discuss his expiring contract, Werner had visibly aged. The old man’s hair got whiter, the skin wrinklier and a candy dish had suddenly appeared on the desk indicating that the inevitable taste for butterscotch had developed.
The one thing that had not changed, though, was Werner’s smile. Mr.
Werner always gave the warmest smile. He always reminded Colin of a kindly grandfather from old children’s stories. Like Santa Clause or the Ghost of Christmas Present.
But the man who sat in the chair opposite Colin did not look grandfatherly at all. He still looked like Mr. Werner, but also not like him at the same time. His hair was black, his skin pulled tight and in his hand was a can of Red Bull that he sipped through a straw. And his smile…was unsettling. When this Werner smiled, it was as though a curtain had been pulled back revealing a hundred secret scars on the stage of the not-so-old man’s face.
“Mr. Werner?” Colin finally had to ask.
“Yes Collins?” Werner replied, staring hungrily into his employee’s searching gaze.
“Um, thank you sir…for making the time,” Colin sputtered.
“No need to thank me. I’ve been expecting this meeting for some time. It’s been five years, hasn’t it?” Werner mused.
“Yes sir. Another five year term. That makes twenty years total in cog production,” Colin said, mustering a smile.
“Yes, and you’ve made some wonderful cogs Collins,” Werner smiled back in that eerie way.
“Thank you sir,” Colin replied. He was sweating. The nerves were getting to be too much. He realized he had to give his presentation before he lost his nerve.
“What’s in the briefcase?” Werner asked.
“Excellent question sir!” Colin secretly thanked the tycoon for providing the perfect segue. “After working for so long in cog production…”
“And doing exceptional work,” Werner added.
“I wanted to take you up on the generous offer you made me when you first hired me,” Colin said as he took out a copy of his presentation and placed it haphazardly on Mr. Werner’s desk. Then he stood up and looked first at the huge monitor in the corner of the room. Not finding what he was looking for, he began scanning the rest of the office.
“What offer was that?” Werner asked.
“There’s no projector,” Colin said as his eyes raced from one side of the room to the other. “I told Grace I had slides.”
“Never mind that,” Werner said. “What offer did I make you twenty years ago?”
Colin slowly sat back down. “Well, you said that if I started in cogs, put my time in, then you’d let me try working in another division. And I know what I’d like to do sir, publishing! I know you’re opening a publishing company, and I want to be a part of it. I want to help you tell stories.”
“Is that right?” Werner asked bemusedly.
“Yes! I’m ready sir. More ready than I’ve ever been. Back after my first five years, when I wanted to make the move and you counseled me to stay with cogs, well…” Colin paused as he thought hard about how to say what he wanted in the most positive way. “It was a hard decision to make, but ultimately I agreed with you that it wasn’t the right time. Then after my next five year term when I asked again, you promoted me.”
“Naturally I did,” Werner said as he clapped his hands together. “You’re so gifted with cogs.”
“That’s what you said then,” Colin brightened in his chair. This was going well. “You wanted me to stick with it. ‘Really explore the limits of your talent,’ was what you said.”
“And you did,” Werner agreed. “Our cog revenue soared that second term.”
“Then, the last time I came in here I truly believed I was prepared to move on. From cogs, I mean. To what, I didn’t know. You didn’t publish anything back then. But before I could say anything, you promoted me again,” Colin reflected.
“To vice president of cog production, I remember. I reward a man’s talents here Mr. Collins,” Werner said.
“I know that first hand sir,” Colin blushed. “The new salary proved that.”
“It’s good to be rich, wouldn’t you say?”
“Yes sir. It is,” Colin squirmed in his seat. He suddenly felt they were getting off the original topic he’d begun and he had to get them back. “But now, after twenty years, I am ready to try something new.”
“I don’t know Collins,” Werner said as he sat back in his chair. “Something new at your age?”
“I thought you might say that sir,” Colin said, excitedly standing and gesturing to the first pages of his presentation. “I’ve done my homework. Men in their forties are perfectly capable of career changes. There are some great success stories to prove it. Walt Disney, for example, worked at a newspaper…”
“This is all very impressive Collins,” Werner said, waving away the conversation with his hand. He hadn’t even opened the presentation to look at the pages Colin was referring to. “But you realize that starting a new career also means starting over. You’d make a fraction of what you make now. What about your family?”
“They understand sir,” Colin spit out, having prepared for this question. “I told my wife over the years that this change was coming. We’ve made some sacrifices to prepare for it. Having only one child, for instance. But that’s how important it is to me.”
“But…” Werner’s smile vanished. He pinched the bridge of his nose, as though he was getting frustrated. “But you are a genius with cogs. In your hands, Collins, cogs are an art form. You want to give that up for the chance of publishing stories about a girl falling in love with, I don’t know, a unicorn?”
“I swear to you sir, I would never publish a story like that,” Colin said with all seriousness. Surely, this was a test. Werner wanted to see if Colin had any taste for quality fiction.
“But why stop doing something you are so good at?” Werner asked, his voice more forceful than it ever had been before.
“I hate cogs,” Colin let slip. Werner said nothing. Colin couldn’t believe he had just said that, but there was something very freeing about it. He felt another rumble in his gut, but not the cluster of nerves from before. Instead, it was as if a damn had just burst – and truth came gushing out.
“What’s that?” Werner asked quietly.
“I hate cogs sir. I’ve always hated them. I took the job here because I desperately needed to work. In the first five years, there was some satisfaction at being very good at my job. You were so complimentary and enthusiastic. When you told me that you would move me to any department in your company so long as I proved myself with cogs first, that kept me going. Over the following fifteen years, other reasons for staying put kept popping up: promotions, a family, more money. But always the promise of getting moved was the light at the end of the tunnel. Well, I’ve come to the end of a twenty year tunnel, and sir, I swear to you that I am ready!”
Werner just sat there, silent. He stared at Colin with an intense scrutiny and Colin looked back with an equal fervor.
“You stupid fool,” Werner said as the scar revealing grin returned to his face.
“As you should be,” Werner said as he leaned back in his chair. “As you always have been.”
“Mr. Werner, with all due respect…”
“Piss on your respect,” Werner upbraided. “I have indulged you for twenty years. Every five, you come in here with the same proposals and presentations. Every five I turn you down. I would have thought you’d have taken the hint by now.”
“But, you said…” Colin felt warm all over. HIs face was getting flush. “You promised…”
“Promises are for children,” Werner cut him off. “You admit to knowing nothing of publishing. Why should I give you a job, pay you, to do something you don’t know how to do?”
“Because I’ve worked hard for you for twenty years. Because it’s only fair,” Colin slumped in his chair, sinking as low as he could while still sitting. “Because it’s my dream.”
“Ha!” this was no laugh from Werner. It was an insult, hurled with all the animosity and vitriol the not-so-old man could muster. “Do you know how I achieved my dream Collins? Do you know how I built this empire? By knowing what I have to offer; what my value is. And what I offer is the ability to deduce, very quickly, what others have to offer. Not only that, I can take that information and persuade those others to keep doing what they do best. Do you understand?”
Colin didn’t, and clearly it must have shown on his face.
“I’m an evaluator,” Werner explained. “And what I evaluate is value. So trust me when I say this Collins; you are only valuable to this company and to me if you’re making cogs. That is your purpose.”
“That can’t be it,” Colin said as his eyes began to sting. He grimaced, sat himself up straight and looked directly at Mr. Werner. “I can’t accept that!”
Mr. Werner grinned. He stood up slowly at his desk and turned around to face the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Manhattan.
Colin’s eyes too, were drawn to the expansive cityscape. In the distance, the Statue of Liberty stood proud and tall. Colin took it as a sign. Surely his eyes must have been drawn to that sight, in that moment, to remind him to stay strong. Everything could still turn out alright. It would. It had to.
Mr. Werner began walking then. Slowly, he made his way to the very edge of the windows. He put a hand up to the glass, blocking the Statue of Liberty’s torch from Colin’s view.
“Then I’m afraid you leave me no choice,” the not so old man said.
Werner pushed against the glass, and the window swung open like a door. The breeze from the top of the world came charging in. Outside, there was no guard rail or barrier; nothing between Werner and a steep fall, save for a few short steps.
“Do you know what’s down there Collins?” Werner asked.
“Broadway. Sir, perhaps you should take a few steps back,” Colin instinctively held out his hand.
“This is not the first time I’ve had to crush someone’s dreams,” Werner said as he turned around to face Colin. “And the proof of that is down there, on Broadway, being trampled underfoot of a million New Yorkers.”
Colin was confused again.
“It’s a metaphor, you twit. Employees come to me all the time looking to advance, or change gears. But if there is no value in it for me, as in this case, then I turn them down. However, I always propose a counteroffer,” Werner turned slightly then, facing the open window. He stretched out a hand, gesturing toward it.
“To jump?” Colin smirked. It was such a ludicrous idea, he thought he must have misread the situation again.
“Precisely,” Werner replied flatly.
“You can’t be serious!”
“Am I a comedian, Mr. Collins? Do you think I’m preparing a tight five? Of course I’m serious. I have the wealth and resources to cover up a man jumping out of my building,” Werner let his hand fall to his side and turned back fully to face Colin. “Or you can leave here and pretend this never happened. Tell tall tales of the crazy old man who tried to get you to kill yourself. But so long as you work here, you will make cogs. If that is not to your liking then you can quit, or you can jump.”
“I won’t jump,” Colin said quickly. Instinctively. “It’s not worth dying for.”
“It’s not?” Werner’s grin returned as he darted back to his desk and leaned over it, getting as close to Colin as he could. “Congratulations Collins. In addition to a living metaphor you’ve just now become a living cliche. That is precisely what those other employees who wanted a handout said to me. Something else momentous has happened just now. Can you guess what it was?”
“No sir,” Colin replied as his eyes fell to his lap.
“You walked in here with a plan, but you weren’t alone. Your dream came with you. Because you had never given up on it, it was always a part of you. Like an annoying little brother, dogging along at your side. But when I opened that window, well, you may not have approached it; but your dream did. Your dream stood on the precipice. And with the utterance of those words, ‘it’s not worth dying for,’ it fell to its death. Pushed. By you,” Werner concluded.
“Another metaphor,” was all that Colin could get out.
“YES!” an ebullient Mr. Werner replied. “They are so effective at explaining the gravity of certain situations with flair. Anyway, thank you for coming in Mr. Collins, but I have three thirty. Our time here is done.”
Colin was silent, his eyes downcast. He stood up automatically, shut his briefcase, and proceeded to walk toward the door.
“Grace has a new contract prepared for you. It’s for another five years at your current salary in the same position. If you sign it, congratulations. If not, then Werner Inc. thanks you for all your valued service.”
“Thank you,” Colin heard himself say.
As he approached the door, it opened automatically. It must have been that door closer on the top jamb. Colin was impressed that it could open doors too.
In the waiting room, a smiling Grace had his contract all prepared for him. Colin signed all the necessary lines and handed it back to her.
“Glad you’re staying aboard with us Mr. Collins,” the receptionist beamed.
“So am I Grace,” Colin heard himself say to her.
“Shall I pencil in an appointment for you with Mr. Werner in another five years?”
Colin suddenly felt himself return to his body. He was aware. And the truth lumped in his throat like a pill too large to swallow.
“No,” he said.
“I’m sorry?” Grace asked.
“So am I Grace,” Colin replied. “No need for an appointment. Just email me the new contract in five years. I’ll sign it and send it back.”
“Oh, how efficient,” Grace said with a smile and a small laugh. “I suppose that’s why you’re a vice president.”
“I suppose it is,” Colin said.
“You’re all set. Thank you Mr. Collins,” Grace said dismissively.
Colin didn’t bother replying. He turned from Grace’s desk and walked toward the elevator. He pressed the button and, immediately, a set of doors opened. Colin walked into the automated car with his head hung low.
“Going down?” the smooth, artificial voice of the elevator asked.
“Yes,” Colin whispered.