AntipodeanSF Issue 309

By J.S. O'Keefe

window to the soul image“And now, Newel, let me describe in a few words what’s expected of you in general,” said Ms. Kader. “That is, if we offer you the job and you accept the offer.”

Ms. Kader was the Human Resources manager assigned to interview prospective employees for the Marketing Department. She was a firm believer in reading the applicants. First and foremost, the person should make good eye contact. Second, there are telltale signs of evasiveness and concealment, for example when the interviewee looks away or rolls his eyes or... well, it’s all written down in a book.

Ms. Kader followed her routine; she looked deep into Newel Ortlip’s eyes. To her satisfaction, the young man reciprocated. Actually Newel did more than reciprocate. He stared back at Ms. Kader without blinking once. As she continued talking, she got exposed to the most frightening phenomenon we later coined the dead-fish gaze of Newel Ortlip. It was a zombie-like stare that could scare even the bravest to the bone. What she didn’t know then, and took us some time to learn, was that Newel was daydreaming during these periods. He had the ability to mentally crash from one moment to another, with both eyes wide open. And it happened every time like clockwork when he had to listen to something unpleasant or boring.

What a nut, thought Ms. Kader. She winced, marking the first instance in her career she’d lost out in eye contact. Newel, sleeping the sleep of the just, didn’t take his eyes off her, not for a second. When Ms. Kader was done with the part about Newel’s future duties, of which he’d heard nothing, she warily looked up into those immobile open eyes. “And now, Newel, let’s talk about paid vacation and holidays,” she said and quickly looked away again.

In a fraction of a second Newel snapped to, his eyes began vibrating, and his persona transformed into animate attention. What he needed was a buzzword, an enticing slogan, the right sound. Anybody can agree that “holiday” has a nice ring to it and so does “paid vacation.” As it turned out, Newel recognized only the carrot from the proverbial carrot-or-stick, and only the good news from the good news/bad news combo. He never responded to reason or warning; he’d stay completely numb with his eyes fixed on the person trying to lecture or threaten him. If you wanted to capture Newel’s attention, you had to talk positive.

“We have eleven holidays and two weeks paid vacation to start with,” said Ms. Kader, looking down the desk in front of her, not realising that Newel’s facial expression was back to normal.

“To start with?” asked Newel, who often needed clarification on matters of importance to him. On all other matters, his mind began roaming about in an instant.

“After an employee has completed two full years of work with the company, he gets an additional week off,” Ms. Kader explained to Newel’s shirt where a button seemed to be missing.

“Sounds good, ma’am,” said Newel. “Thank you, ma’am.” He had no further questions.

When it was all over Ms. Kader sighed and rolled her eyes. They don’t pay me enough, she thought.

***

A week later, Newel Ortlip got the offer (he was the only applicant), and accepted it (there were not too many marketing jobs in the area to go around).

He quickly picked up the ropes and became a reliable coordinator. He was also a good team player, and an overall nice quiet guy who kept mainly to himself outside of work assignments. But his dead-fish gaze, not surprisingly, quickly earned him fame over the entire organisation.

Initially he would freak out his managers who hadn’t yet learned that his act was an innocent case of daydreaming. They would only see a pair of bright azure eyes, large as saucers, staring at them without a blink. Spooky! Our director admitted he had four sleepless nights after he’d presented the company’s new mission statement to us and touched on the still-useful principles of Kaizen Quality Circles.

In mid-year an executive vice-president came down from headquarters to give his usual address on the state of the corporation. The conference room was air-conditioned and quite cool but the VP’s face turned dark purple soon and he began sweating like a horse. His breathing got so heavy that it seemed even money at best he would finish his presentation on his feet. “Who is that gawker?!” he panted afterwards. Most of the managers liked Newel and professed they didn’t know what the VP was talking about.

Outside experts were not spared either. Once a world-renowned professor from a leading university was invited to give a seminar on a microeconomic model he’d developed and named after himself. A dynamic guy, he was running up and down on the podium and occasionally into the audience, talking softly other times loudly about his very good stuff. Soon we noticed that no matter where he popped up in the room, the professor kept staring toward Newel. It got worse when a few minutes later he completely lost his train of thought. He sounded like a rambling idiot, and when people asked him a question, he always gave his incoherent answer in Newel’s direction. After the seminar, he walked straight to Newel and confessed that the famous microeconomic model still needed further work.

***

Then the inevitable happened. As we had a record year in sales and profits, the company was left with no alternative: hundreds of employees had to be laid off. They picked twenty-eight from our department, mainly old-timers but a few young guys too, including Newel.

At first, HR wanted to tell them individually, but that would’ve taken too long. They decided instead to call a “meeting” in the conference room with only the twenty-eight invited.

Ms. Kader couldn’t have handled it—she still hadn’t recovered from the Newel Ortlip interview. So her boss, Dan Shoemaker, took the task upon himself. He was a fast talker, a consummate corporate politician. He knew how to deal with people at all levels. “I can give bad news without anyone noticing it,” he boasted. “By the time the poor bastards realise they’re getting canned, they’re gonna be outside the company gate.”

The audience, slightly suspicious, listened as Shoemaker was shooting the bull about strategic planning and long-term projections. He went into sales numbers, employee policies, business cycles, challenges companies and individuals face every so often, and how we all share both success and sacrifice. People began nudging one another, trying to figure out if they had been called in to get profit sharing or laid off. In the meantime Shoemaker brought up as relevant examples that the Post Office had recently raised the price of the first-class stamp and new government regulations were going to suffocate the private sector. And the maximum corporate tax rate was still ridiculously too high!

The workers looked to Newel for guidance. Not only his blue eyes were glued upon the speaker, he was in a most comatose state nobody had ever witnessed before. They understood, got up without saying a word, and left the room.

Shoemaker was disappointed because he still wanted to talk about the unfavourable foreign-currency exchange rate and other pertinent issues.

Based on an article published in the Spring 1997 issue of Satire (C&K Publications).

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About the Author

john okeefe 300J. S. O’Keefe is a scientist, trilingual translator and writer.

His short stories and poems have been published in Roi Faineant, Scribes*MICRO, Every Day Fiction, AntipodeanSF, 101 Words, Microfiction Monday, 50WS, Friday Flash Fiction, Medium, Paragraph Planet, 6S, WENSUM, Spillwords, Satire, etc.

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