“With that being said,” Reynolds bellowed, his face far closer to the conference phone than was necessary, “I think we should pick this conversation up again on Tuesday, give us the rest of the week to think through some of the decision points that need to be made. That way, we’ll be better prepared to have a pre-planning meeting ahead of our actual meeting.”
“I’m sorry,” Cooper said, “but Tuesday’s just not going to work for me. I’ll be dead.”
There was silence for a bit, then Reynolds spoke up.
“You’re saying you’re not available at all on Tuesday, then? You’re certain there’s no wiggle room there?”
“No, I’ll be unavailable that whole day, and every day after that.”
Reynolds frowned, knitting his eyebrows together. It was important, he thought, to occasionally appear thoughtful and reflective.
“Excuse us for just one second,” he said into the phone, “we need to have a logistical conversation on this side.” He pressed the Mute button.
“So Cooper, where’s this coming from?” Reynolds said as he arched his left eyebrow and nodded slightly, letting Cooper know it was his turn to speak.
“Last weekend I was seeking alternative treatment for persistent dyspepsia,” Cooper said, “because absolutely nothing has worked so far, and the healer my internist recommended let me know I had just north of a week to live.”
“And that’s certain, is it?”
“Yes. No doubt I’ll be dead before the day ends on Monday.”
“Was this a licensed oraculator you saw, Cooper?”
Cooper’s face reddened, and he looked away from Reynolds.
“Not strictly licensed in that particular field, sir, no. This was a general practice soothsayer. But, she’s well known for the accuracy of her divinations. Davis recommended her, before he died, of course. Funnily enough, the healer predicted Davis’s death, too, which is why she demands upfront payment.”
Reynolds made a hmm sound, deeply reflective.
“So that’s not the best of news, then. Did she clear up that dyspepsia, though?” Reynolds asked.
“Oh, yes. I would write a strong recommendation if I had the time to dedicate to a proper Yelp review before I die.”
“Hold on,” Garrison, a middle management toady with all the charm and grace of a used car salesman, said, “You mean to say you’ve known since last week you were going to die, and we’re just now hearing about it? Surely we would’ve seen some tears or hysterics that would have let us know we needed to make plans to fill your position.”
“Well, sir, I’m stridently unemotional, as a general rule. I was raised in a Skinner box. My only human contact was from a woman I never saw but who sang snatches of obscene drinking songs in a Teutonic accent during feeding time. I spent the first few days after the healer revealed my fate reciting all the verses I knew of “The Good Ship Venus” until HR told me I needed to stop. Beyond that, I didn’t wish to burden anyone with mourning me.”
Reynolds slammed his hand on the table, his face an unhealthy shade of red.
“But you were fine burdening us with trying to backfill your position on short notice?” Reynolds said. He pressed the Mute button again, bringing those on the other end of the call back into the conversation.
“Minor shakeup on this end,” he said. “Tuesday is a non-starter, as we just won’t have a knowledgeable quorum to continue the conversation. I think it’s best, at this point, to eschew any further meetings until we work through a few things.”
There came a general, sexless murmur from the other end of the phone, as of a machine trying to imitate what it assumed a gaggle of humans sounded like during conversation.
“So Cooper is going to die? Do we know how?” the other end of the phone said, all in one voice but carrying with it the echoes of many others, all asking how Cooper was going to die.
“At this point,” Reynolds said, “we don’t have that information. There could be any number of things that will lead to Cooper’s death.”
The susurrus of intermingled sounds from the other end of the phone coalesced into a single voice that said “Well, Cooper, we wish you the best of luck on your journey into the nightlands. Please enjoy what little time you have remaining, and hail the Gatekeeper when you meet him.”
“Will do,” Cooper said as Reynolds pressed the End Call button.
“Cooper, how soon can you begin knowledge transfer?”
“I suppose whenever you have a resource identified to take on my responsibilities.”
Reynolds nodded to one of the division managers who oversaw day-to-day operations. Reynolds nodded because he could not remember the person’s name.
“Do you have anyone to shadow Cooper until he dies?”
“I think I have someone. He’s young and eager to progress.”
“Also,” a man whom Reynolds was 80% sure was named Clayton said, “from a financial standpoint, we have the opportunity to save quite a bit on this thing. Cooper currently receives a middling salary, but as a longtime employee, he is entitled to profit sharing and 401K matching. It therefore costs a significant amount just to have him here. We can give this new person all of Cooper’s work and responsibility without giving him any of Cooper’s compensations.”
“I like that,” Reynolds said. “We can couch it like we’re doing him a favor, trusting him with all this great responsibility because we ‘see potential in him’ or something similar. I’ll let, uh, you,” Reynolds said as he pointed at the manager whose name he couldn’t remember, “do the wordsmithing on that.”
Reynolds then turned his attention to the man of the hour. “Cooper,” he said, “how long have you been with us?”
“Oh, jeez. You know, sometimes it feels like I started about a hundred years ago.”
Cooper laughed softly, producing a single but sustained ha to let everyone know he was kidding. Everyone in the conference room chuckled slightly to show they appreciated the idea of humor.
“It would be fifteen years on Tuesday,” Cooper said, getting back to business.
“So fourteen, then. Well, I’m sure we can get the young guy spun up on your duties before Tuesday rolls around and we’re no longer able to leverage your human capital. Unless,” Reynolds said, “do you suppose there’s the possibility of continuing on—in an unpaid mentor capacity, obviously—after your death?”
Cooper wasn’t sure. It seemed possible. Surely, whatever forces governed the universe would require him to conduct knowledge transfer. This job simply couldn’t be done without him. At least, not until someone else was properly trained.
“I haven’t received any specific information on that,” Cooper said. “I think I’d be able to lend a hand for training, but I’m not sure what my future responsibilities will be when I’m dead, or how much of my time they’ll take up.”
“Regardless,” Reynolds said, “when you meet your new management team, ask them if there’s any flexibility for reachback. You might remind them you’re leaving us in a hell of a lurch, time-wise. A two week notice would have been preferential.”
“I’ll discuss it, sir, and I’ll let you know the results.”
“Just to reiterate,” maybe-Clayton said, “the time you spend in training after your departure will be entirely uncompensated.”
“I understand,” Cooper said. “I wouldn’t expect payment. Also, I’m not sure what currency is, well, if any currency is used where I’m going.”
“There’s bound to be something,” Reynolds said, “and whatever it is, we’re not paying it.”
“Do we know when you’re going to die, Cooper?” Garrison asked.
“You mean the specific time of day?”
“Yes. Knowing that would be helpful for planning purposes.”
“Well, Healer Grünwald said—”
“That’s the name of your prognosticator?” Reynolds said. “The one that predicted yours and Davis’s deaths?”
“Yes, that’s her.”
Reynolds turned to the bright, dedicated, and tremendously overqualified woman taking meeting minutes.
“Can we be sure to get that name down for future reference?” Reynolds asked.
Jillian Frank, who never missed anything, had already made a note of the name. That came easily to her, and in many ways it came automatically, like muscle memory. She had trained herself to take meeting minutes in such a way that it required the least amount of mental engagement. Jillian used the rest of her mind that was not involved in minute-taking to hate her job. She knew it was likely that the reason she had not been promoted, even though she demonstrably deserved to be, was because Reynolds didn’t want to lose her as a minute-taking resource.
“I’ve got it,” Jillian said, deciding to call her sister on her lunch break to see if Miller Reed was hiring.
“I was told my death would occur in the late afternoon or early evening,” Cooper said. “But an actual time was not given.”
“So you’ll die in rush hour?” Reynolds said.
“Yes, sir, it seems that way. Most likely somewhere around the toll plaza. Which reminds me, I was going to ask, would it be possible for me to leave early on Monday? I’d like to avoid snarling traffic, and I have some errands to run. Also, it would give me the opportunity to be with my family one last time.”
“I don’t see that happening,” Reynolds said. “We’re going to need every bit of your normal working time to train the new guy, and then we’re gonna need to do out-processing before you die. We definitely don’t want your benefits package to still be active when you shuffle loose that, you know, mortar coil or whatever.”
“Well, sir,” Cooper said, “I was under the impression that I’d still be employed at the time of my death, and my family would receive my life insurance benefits.”
“Oh no,” Reynolds said. “You’ve already communicated your intention to die. That’s as good, legally speaking—” Reynolds said, turning to maybe-Clayton, who nodded his assent, “—as a letter of resignation. Can you imagine what would’ve happened if you’d said nothing and died while still an employee? We would’ve been responsible for everything! We commend you, though, for doing the right thing and letting us know ahead of time.”
“So my family will be on their own?” Cooper said.
“Yes, but you need to look at the bigger picture,” Reynolds said. “Obviously, it’s difficult for you to think from an organizational perspective, but that’s where the benefit of my twenty years on the job pays off. I can think of the company’s best interests. Your family doesn’t work for us, so strictly speaking, we don’t owe them anything. We owe you everything you have coming to you as a soon-to-be-former employee, which you’ll receive, but nothing more. If you think outside yourself and try to look through the company’s eyes, you’ll see a much different world than the one you’re used to. The focus of this world is holistic, not individual. It’s, frankly, selfish to maintain a reductive viewpoint like yours. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. You can grasp that intellectually, if not emotionally, right, Cooper?”
Cooper thought about this. It seemed like there might be wisdom in Reynolds’s words. They were a bit confusing, but anything said to be wise had always been a little confusing to Cooper, and besides, the delivery was impeccable. Whether wise or not, Reynolds certainly seemed to believe what he said, which was enough for Cooper.
“Well, I don’t really have to think,” Cooper said. “That’s not my job.”
“Excellent!” Reynolds said. “I think we can call this meeting to a close, if no one has anything else.”
Cooper left the conference room and returned to his desk. On his day planner for Monday, which was organized in fifteen-minute increments, Cooper made an entry for 4:30 PM.
It said Say goodbye: coworkers, family, other interested parties.
Zachary Davis is a professional writer and editor. His work has appeared in print and online in The Fertile Source, Bartleby Snopes, Forty Ounce Bachelors, Drunk Monkeys, the Anthology of Appalachian Writers, The First Line, Five2One Magazine, Gravel, and Carve. He is the Fiction Editor of Fluent Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @ForTweetsNSuch.
Header Image: Creative Commons, Public Domain, modified.