The Strickland File

I never guessed buying an engagement ring would be so tough.
“Still trying to decide which one?” the saleswoman asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “I narrowed it down to these two.”
“I’m sure she’ll like whichever one you pick. I’ll give you some more time.”
I thought any ring would make a statement when I decided to propose to Angela, but now I realized the choice came with some serious thought. The couple next to me talked with another saleswoman, using the industry lingo as if it were part of their childhood vocabulary. I felt like the odd one out.
Two minutes later the saleswoman came back. “I’ll take the round one,” I said.
“I like that one, and your girlfriend will love it.” She took the box from the case.
“She’s worth it.” I paid for the ring, tucked it into my jacket and left the store.
I jogged down the subway stairs and caught the downtown Q train. The car was empty during the ride, so I had no audience if I felt like breaking into a song-and-dance number. I headed upstairs to the station exit on Broadway and waltzed up the block while people who didn’t care about my happiness flooded the sidewalk.
Our fourth-floor office had dark gray carpet, which needed a vacuuming. To my left were the bathrooms and two couches making up the waiting area. Ida sat at her desk with a mirror, putting on lipstick. “Did you get it?” she asked, looking up.
“You bet I did.” I showed her the ring.
Everyone gathered around Ida’s desk as if the ring magnetically drew them to itself. Jim Braverman, our boss, looked over the crowd and shot me such a dirty look that I almost didn’t recognize him. “So when will you ask her?” Donna asked.
“Uh–um, during tonight’s Mets game,” I stammered. “She’ll never expect it.” I put the ring away as everyone congratulated me.
At my desk, which was a foldaway table hidden from everyone else, I hung my jacket on the chair, turned on the radio and set up the firm’s June cash disbursement report on specially ruled paper. The music broke the thick silence, and five cabinets of accordion files kept me company. During tax season everyone ran back here to either get clients’ files or put them away, but now it was just me and whatever work Jim scraped up. For a change I could ignore the isolation with something to look forward to.
Suddenly Jim’s name popped up on the caller ID when he rang me–something else he never did before. “I need to speak to you,” he said, then hung up.
In his office he typed on his keyboard, eyes fixed on the monitor. “I’ll come back when you’re done,” I said.
“I’m just about done. Shut the door and sit down.”
I sat across from him, searching his face for a clue about what he wanted from me. Framed certificates and shelves holding textbooks and tax law books were perched on the walls around his desk. Although Jim and I were alone, I felt outnumbered.
He sat back in his chair and said, “I think it’s time you moved on.”
I flinched. “Moved on? You mean you’re firing me?”
He nodded slowly with his eyes closed.
I felt like I was hit by lightning. “Without warning or reason…?”
“Actually, I have plenty of reason.” Jim pulled out two highlighted work sheets dated “6/9/95” and showed me one with Donna’s name on it. “Donna finished a trial balance in a half hour and a bank reconciliation in forty-five minutes.” He showed me my sheet from the same week. “You took longer to do the same tasks for different clients, so I had to charge them more. You have serious and possibly costly limitations.”
“You only realized that after I got back from the Jewelry District?” I howled.
“I resent what you’re implying,” Jim said. “This decision was hard enough.”
“You dug up two month-old sheets to help you make ‘this decision’ in ten minutes.” I inflated my cheeks and exhaled loudly. “You could take a free moment–”
“I don’t have a free moment!” After a long pause he added, “I risk losing clients by giving you the attention I’m supposed to give them. They’re so sensitive to every aspect of our being, they’ll fire us if my shoelace is untied. You have more to learn than managers can teach, and I’m too busy to hold your hand.”
“Wait a minute. I never said–”
“Excuse me, please. Hiring even one new employee gives clients the impression we need more help keeping their books than before. We can’t appear incompetent after working hard for years to earn their trust and goodwill.”
“Now how do you suppose I missed that memo?”
“It never fails,” Jim groaned. “Graduates learn to do the job, but not how to adjust to corporate life. So they come in with unrealistic expectations, dodge responsibility for their mistakes, and blame their failures on stupid things like where they sit.”
“That’s a broad statement,” I said.
“Be glad I hired you at all,” Jim went on. “Graduates usually have longer job hunts, and the lucky ones start by doing what nobody else has time to do.”
“My professors would be proud to know I can use a copier,” I muttered.
“You should’ve known how your presence impacts where you work.”
“So should you!”
Jim sat back again, frowning. “The bottom line is I can’t keep you on my staff.”
“The bottom line…interesting way to put it.” I drifted out of his office.
My coworkers, who cheered for me minutes ago, were now so busy with their work they didn’t look up when I walked past them. At my desk I put on my jacket and left through the back exit, leaving the unfinished report behind. The next time Jim wanted to update his books, someone would waste even more time working on them.
Downstairs on Broadway, among well-groomed and neatly dressed pedestrians, I felt like a fake. The ring felt heavy in my jacket pocket, the subway station seemed twenty miles away, and everyone scowled at me like they heard Jim tell me off.

Gary Strickland is astonished to lose his job before proposing to his childhood sweetheart Angela and braces for a lengthy search through the maze of New York City companies. Three days later Alex Schneider, a successful trade paper’s CFO, hires the recent college graduate to collect unpaid amounts from advertisers. But no sooner is Gary wedged among stingy clients, selfish coworkers, and his frazzled manager, than he and Angela learn they’ll become parents before husband and wife. Three months later Gary’s company-wide invitation to his engagement party inadvertently enrages Alex, who then manipulates the young and unproven employee to protect his own fragile position. After Gary’s moral fiber takes a thorough beating, he finds Alex’s file suggesting he’s a hostage to upper management. Now Gary must abandon his livelihood before the office politics crush him, or remain for his family’s sake and risk a future defined by…THE STRICKLAND FILE.
I was born January 21, 1969 in Brooklyn, NY. My dad was stationed in Fort Huachuca, AZ after his return from Vietnam, so I was an army brat without knowing it.