“Orientation” by Cosimo Giovine

Robert led me to meet the other new hires. We passed through a labyrinth of narrow cubicles, office chatter humming around us. From behind, the seat of his pants sagged like a diaper and and his toupee resembled wet hay.

Upon entering the conference room I took a seat next to a woman who picked vigorously at her cuticles, ignoring the tiny blood droplets that had formed. The other new hire was sitting up straight, his face pale and full of chin, dark hair slick with gel and combed precisely from left to right. The cuticle-picking woman looked up, made eye contact with me, and smiled. Her teeth were white, too white–no doubt from excessive treatments. She said, “Hi,” and the man simply nodded, keeping his head down, eyes fixed on a few employee forms staring up at him.

Robert hurried to the far end of the conference table to retrieve my new employee packet from a box labeled “New Employee’s Forms.” The dark wood tabletop of the conference table glistened and reflected the other two new hires’ faces. From where I sat, their reflections appeared to be grotesque, features twisted and hair hideously spiked, as if on fire. The room got cooler. In that room, quiet as it was, I wanted to speak, let the others know that I too was nervous and unsure of my future. I didn’t want to work as an “administrative assistant.” Like the other MBA graduates, I took what I could get. Like my classmates, my diploma was filed away in a box in a closet next to the loan consolidation forms.

As Robert set a packet before me, he whispered, “Read over these two forms and sign the bottom.” With the tip of a black pen, he pointed to the section of the form titled “Annual Compensation.” He said, “Initial next to the dollar figure.” From the corner of my eye, I saw the other two hires straining to decipher my annual salary and not look obvious about it. Perhaps, the knowledge that they made more or less than me would bring them some comfort—superiority or inferiority was the rule of the new world I was about to enter.

Robert stood across from me, gazed at his watch, and then yawned. On the tabletop, his reflection seemed to have more of a funhouse mirror look to it. The reflection made his eyes seem narrowly spaced, and his mouth stretched wide open, as if in a silent scream. “Just to let you know, this coming up Friday will be my last day. I know you three interviewed with me, and took the job based on the impression that you’ll be working for me. My replacement will be Janie Cortez, the HR Manager. She should be here any moment to introduce herself.”

He stood motionless and quiet, with his arms crossed in front of his chest. Robert started to fidget with the pen in his shirt pocket. My sigh was loud enough that the man and woman looked over at me. In those moments, I questioned my decision to take the job. I was going to be a member of a “support team,” responsible for answering phones, typing offer letters, taking minutes in meetings, and cover phones at breaks.

My thoughts were interrupted when Janie entered the room and said “Good morning” in a low toned yet jovial voice. When I glanced up at her, she immediately made eye contact with me and said, “You must be Frank?”

I said, “Yes, I am,” stuttering on the Y for a moment.

Janie perked up and said, “Don’t be nervous, we’ll get through this together. We’re a team, right? Let’s get to know one another.” She sat next to the man.

After a moment of Janie introducing herself to the two others, I learned their names: Michael and Bertha. They both had recently moved to L.A. from Des Moines and Kansas City, respectively. We all sat at the table quietly as Janie opened her planner. She removed a piece of paper from the front pocket, unfolded and then placed it on the table in front of her. Running her palm over the paper, she tried to iron out the creases. She read from the paper, “I’d like to take a moment and welcome you to the Ameritron Human Resources team. You are going to be part of a team whose goal is to provide excellent service to the company.” Her voice began to crack as she continued, “Although Robert will be leaving his position, I will do my utmost to provide you with premier leadership, resources to perform a stellar job, and a clear vision.” She looked up from the prepared statement and asked, “At this time, what questions do you have?”
I squirmed in my chair, as Robert paced in the small floor space he had staked out. Bertha asked, “Will our jobs be the same as Robert described?”

“Yes.” Janie answered as she unwrapped and placed a yellow throat lozenge on her tongue.

I struggled not to stare at Janie’s reflection on the tabletop. I didn’t want my first impression to be that I didn’t pay attention when she spoke. But I was dying to see how hideous her reflection looked. As she focused on Bertha for a moment, I quickly glanced at her reflection. Each glance allowed me to assemble the refracted images in my mind until what was formed resembled a pieced together face: hair line stitched to her forehead, eyes crudely set into her eye sockets, mouth stapled to her lower face, cheek bones arranged sloppily.

I sat quietly and observed. The Michael and Bertha were struggling to form an intelligent, business-like inquiry of our new boss. The reflections on the tabletop were motionless. Each face warped in the silence.

Janie broke the awkward moment by saying, “Don’t worry, we’ll have fun.” Robert sat down next to me and Janie smiled at him. She repeated, “We’ll have fun.” I wasn’t so sure.

*Original publication at Web Del Sol