Companyby Max Barry
Stephen Jones is a shiny new hire at Zephyr Holdings. From the outside, Zephyr is just another bland corporate monolith, but behind its glass doors business is far from usual: the beautiful receptionist is paid twice as much as anybody else to do nothing, the sales reps use self help books as manuals, no one has seen the CEO, no one knows exactly what they are… See more details below
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Stephen Jones is a shiny new hire at Zephyr Holdings. From the outside, Zephyr is just another bland corporate monolith, but behind its glass doors business is far from usual: the beautiful receptionist is paid twice as much as anybody else to do nothing, the sales reps use self help books as manuals, no one has seen the CEO, no one knows exactly what they are selling, and missing donuts are the cause of office intrigue. While Jones originally wanted to climb the corporate ladder, he now finds himself descending deeper into the irrational rationality of company policy. What he finds is hilarious, shocking, and utterly telling.
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Monday morning and there's one less donut than there should be.
Keen observers note the reduced mass straightaway but stay silent, because saying, "Hey, is that only seven donuts?" would betray their donut experience. It's not great for your career to be known as the person who can spot the difference between seven and eight donuts at a glance. Everyone studiously avoids mentioning the missing donut until Roger turns up and sees the empty plate.
Roger says, "Where's my donut?"
Elizabeth dabs at her mouth with a piece of paper towel. "I only took one." Roger looks at her. "What?"
"That's a defensive response. I asked where my donut was. You tell me how many you took. What does that say?"
"It says I took one donut," Elizabeth says, rattled.
"But I didn't ask how many donuts you took. Naturally I would assume you took one. But by taking the trouble to articulate that assumption, you imply, deliberately or otherwise, that it's debatable."
Elizabeth puts her hands on her hips. Elizabeth has shoulder-length brown hair that looks as if it has been cut with a straight razor and a mouth that could have done the cutting. Elizabeth is smart, ruthless, and emotionally damaged; that is, she is a sales representative. If Elizabeth's brain was a person, it would have scars, tattoos, and be missing one eye. If you saw it coming, you would cross the street. "Do you want to ask me a question, Roger? Do you want to ask if I took your donut?"
Roger shrugs and begins filling his coffee cup. "I don't care about a missing donut. I just wonder why someone felt the need to take two."
"I don't think anyone took two. Catering must have shorted us."
"That's right," Holly says.
Roger looks at her. Holly is a sales assistant, so has no right to speak up at this point. Freddy, also a sales assistant, is wisely keeping his mouth shut. But then, Freddy is halfway through his own donut and has a mouthful. He is postponing swallowing because he's afraid he'll make an embarrassing gulping noise.
Holly wilts under Roger's stare. Elizabeth says, "Roger, we saw Catering put them out. We were standing right here."
"Oh," Roger says. "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't realize you were staking out the donuts."
"We weren't staking them out. We just happened to be here."
"Look, it doesn't bother me one way or the other." Roger picks up a sachet of sugar and shakes it as if it's in need of discipline: wap-wap-wap-wap. "I just find it interesting that donuts are so important to some people that they stand around waiting for them. I didn't know donuts were the reason we show up here every day. I'm sorry, I thought the idea was to improve shareholder value."
Elizabeth says, "Roger, how about you talk to Catering before you start making accusations. All right?" She walks off. Holly trails her like a remora.
Roger watches her go, amused. "Trust Elizabeth to get upset over a donut."
Freddy swallows. "Yeah," he says.
The Zephyr Holdings building sits nestled among the skyscrapers of Seattle's Madison Street like a big, gray brick. It is bereft of distinguishing features. You could argue that it has a certain neutral, understated charm, but only if you are willing to apply the same logic to prisons and 1970s Volvos. It is a building designed by committee: all they have been able to agree on is that it should be rectangular, have windows, and not fall over.
Perched at the top is the word ZEPHYR and the corporate logo, which is an orange-and-black polygon of foggy intent. Orange and black crops up a lot at Zephyr Holdings; you can't walk down a corridor, visit the bathroom, or catch an elevator without being reminded whose turf you're on. There's a logo on each panel of the lobby's sliding glass doors, and when you're through them, logos adorn the walls at intervals of three feet. A water feature of dark stones and well-tended ferns is a small, logo-free oasis, but to make up for this, the reception desk is practically a logo with a sign-in sheet on top. Even under soft, recessed lighting, the reception desk delivers such a blast of orange to your retinas that long after you've left it behind, you can still see it when you blink.
On one side of the lobby is an arrangement of comfortable chairs and low-slung tables, where visitors browse Zephyr's marketing literature while waiting for whomever they're meeting. Sitting there with his hands in his lap is young, fresh-faced Stephen Jones. His eyes are bright. His suit glows. His sandy-brown hair contains so much styling mousse it's a fire risk, and his shoes are black mirrors. This is his first day. So far he's been shown a series of corporate induction videos, one of which contained glowing buzzwords like teamwork and best practice rocketing at the screen, and another of which featured actors from the late 1980s talking about customer service. Now he is waiting for someone from the Training Sales department to come and collect him.
He accidentally catches the eye of the receptionist for about the fourteenth time and they both smile and look away. The receptionist is gretel monadnock, according to her nameplate; she's quite young, has long lustrous brown hair, and sits on the right side of the desk. On the left a nameplate says eve jantiss, but Eve herself is absent. Stephen Jones is a little disappointed about this, because while Gretel is nice, when he was here for his job interview and first saw Eve, he almost dropped his brand new briefcase. It would be an exaggeration to say he took a job at Zephyr because of the beauty of its receptionist, but during his interview he was very enthusiastic.
He looks at his watch. It is eleven o'clock. His videos finished twenty minutes ago. He folds his hands back in his lap.
"I'll try them again," Gretel says. She smiles sympathetically. "Ah . . . sorry, it's going to voice mail again."
"Oh. Maybe something urgent came up."
"Ye-e-e-s." She seems unsure if he is joking. "Probably."
"The thing you have to remember," Roger says, "is that it's all about respect." Roger has one elbow on Freddy's cubicle partition wall, his lean frame blocking the entrance. "The donut itself is irrelevant. It's the lack of respect the theft implies."
Freddy's phone trills. He looks at the caller-ID screen: reception. "Roger, please, I have to pick up the new grad. They keep calling."
"Just a moment. This is important." Roger knows Freddy will wait. Freddy has been a sales assistant for five years. He is quick-witted, inventive, and full of ideas, so long as that's okay with everybody else. Freddy is a participant. A member. He is happiest when he's blending in with a crowd. In any group of people, the one you can't remember is Freddy. He has wriggled so far inside Zephyr Holdings that Roger sometimes has difficulty telling where the company ends and Freddy begins. "I'm explaining why I want you to go to Catering and find out exactly how many donuts they gave us."
Desperation enters Freddy's eyes. "If I get this new grad, he can do it. He's your assistant."
Roger ponders this for a moment. "He may not appreciate the need to treat a situation like this delicately." This means: Keep it from Elizabeth and Holly.
"I'll tell him. Please, Roger, you're getting me in trouble with reception."
"All right. All right." Roger holds up his palms in surrender. "Go get your graduate, then."
Roger looks at him sharply. But Freddy is not being disrespectful, Roger realizes; Freddy is just being accurate. "Yes, yes. That's what I meant."
Stephen Jones ignores the ding of the elevator, because it has dinged plenty of times over the last twenty-five minutes, and none of those ended with him meeting new co-workers. To stretch his legs, he has taken to wandering around the lobby and reading the plaques and framed photos. The biggest of the lot is a huge, gleaming thing complete with its own light and glass case.
Zephyr Holdings aims to build and consolidate leadership positions in its chosen markets, forging profitable growth opportunities by developing strong relationships between internal and external business units and coordinating a strategic, consolidated approach to achieve maximum returns for its stakeholders.
This isn't the dullest thing Stephen Jones has ever read, but it's close. Oddly, it makes no mention of training packages, the selling of which is, as he understands it, Zephyr's main purpose. Then he realizes that a short man with dark hair and glasses is standing a few feet away, staring at him. "Jones?"
The man's eyes flick over Jones's new suit. One of his hands wanders down to where his own shirt is stuffed awkwardly into his pants and tries to fix it. "I'm Freddy. Nice to meet you." He extends his free hand, and they shake. Freddy's watery blue eyes look huge behind his glasses. "You're younger than I thought you'd be."
"Okay," Jones says.
Freddy looks at his shoes. Then he glances at the reception desk, at--if Jones is not mistaken--the empty chair behind the Eve Jantiss nameplate. "Do you smoke?"
"I do." He says it apologetically. "This way."
"It's a good department." Freddy sucks at his cigarette. It is a fine day: the clouds are high, there is a light breeze, and the gray Zephyr tower even seems to be emitting reflected warmth from the grid of tinted windows. Freddy's eyes follow a blue convertible inching toward them through traffic, then jump to Jones. "I mean, once you get used to things."
"I'm ready for a steep learning curve," Jones says, employing a phrase that came in handy during his job interviews.
"You're Roger's sales assistant. You have to process his orders, type up his quotes, file his expense forms, that kind of thing."
"What's he like?"
"Roger? Oh . . . nice." Freddy's eyes shift.
"Ah," Jones says. "So . . . he's not?"
Freddy glances around. "No. Sorry."
Jones snickers. "Well, I don't plan on being a sales assistant forever."
Freddy says nothing. Jones realizes that Freddy has probably been a sales assistant forever. "Roger's got a job for you, actually. He wants you to ask Catering how many donuts they gave our department this morning." In response to Jones's expression, he hurries on: "See, we get morning snacks; some days it's fruit, some days cookies, and occasionally, rarely, donuts. This morning there was an incident."
"Okay. Sure thing." Jones nods. This may not be a glamorous assignment, or make much sense, but it is his first task in the real business world, and by God, he's going to perform it well. "So where's Catering?"
Freddy doesn't answer. Jones follows his gaze until it intersects a midnight blue Audi sports car entering the Zephyr lot. The bulk of Zephyr's parking is subterranean, but there are a few valuable ground-level spaces, and the Audi slides confidently into one of these. The driver's door pops open and a pair of legs climb out. After a moment, Jones registers that the legs are attached to something. The something is Eve Jantiss.
She looks as if she is just stopping off at Zephyr on the way to an exclusive nightclub opening. Her hair, long, tousled, and honey-brown, bounces off exposed tan shoulders. Two delicate straps appear to play no functional role in suspending a thin, shimmering plum-colored dress; more mysterious forces are at work. She has lips like big sofa cushions, the kind of ancestry that probably includes nationalities Jones has never heard of, and liquid brown eyes that say: Sex?
Why, what an intriguing idea. In the nights between his job interview and now, Jones has occasionally wondered if he wasn't building Eve Jantiss up in his head, remembering her as more attractive than she really is. Now he realizes: no.
"Morning," she says, clacking past on high heels. "Hi," Jones says, and Freddy says something like, "Muh." Jones turns and sees Freddy practically dribbling love. Freddy's gaze is fixed on the back of Eve's head, not flicking up and down her body. Jones feels suddenly sordid. He was checking her out: Freddy's infatuation is pure.
When the sliding doors block their vision of Eve, or at least tint it, Jones says, "The receptionist has a sports car?"
"What?" Freddy says. "You think she doesn't deserve it?"
Jones's business shoes squeak as he and Freddy cross the lobby. It sounds as if he is conducting a mouse orchestra, and he feels the eyes of the two receptionists, Eve and Gretel, swing onto him. "That's him," Gretel says to Eve. "His name is Jones."
"Ah." Eve smiles. "Welcome to the Titanic, Jones."
Corporate humor! Jones has heard about this. He would like to respond in kind, but is too self-conscious about his shoes. He settles for: "Thanks."
They reach the bank of elevators at the lobby's rear and Freddy pushes for up. "People say she's Daniel Klausman's mistress." Klausman is the Zephyr CEO. "But that's just because she's hardly ever in reception."
Jones blinks. "Where does she go?"
"I don't know. But she's not his mistress. She's not like that." The elevator doors slide closed. "So anyway, Catering's on level 17. When you're done, come on up to 14."
"You mean come down to 14," Jones says, but even as the words come out, he sees the button panel. The floors are numbered top down: level 1 is at the panel's apex, marked ceo, while level 20, lobby, is at the bottom.
Freddy snickers. "Reverse numbering. It throws everyone at first. But you get used to it."
"Okay." Jones watches the numbers click over--20 . . . 19 . . . 18--while his body tells him he's rising. It feels unnatural.
"They say it's motivational," Freddy says. "As you move into more important departments, you rise up the rankings."
Jones looks at the button panel. "What's so bad about IT?"
"Please," Freddy says. "Some of them don't even wear suits."
On level 14, Elizabeth is falling in love. This is what makes her such a good sales rep, and an emotional basket case: she falls in love with her customers. It is hard to convey just how wretchedly, boot-lickingly draining it is to be a salesperson. Sales is a business of relationships, and you must cultivate customers with tenderness and love, like cabbages in winter, even if the customer is an egomaniacal asshole you want to hit with a shovel. There is something wrong with the kind of person who becomes a sales rep, or if not, there is something wrong after six months.
Elizabeth doesn't rely on the usual facades of friendship and illusions of intimacy: she forms actual attachments. For Elizabeth, each new lead is a handsome stranger in a nightclub. When they dance, she grows giddy with the rush of possibilities. If he doesn't like her product offering, she dies. If he talks about sizable orders, she feels the urge to move in with him.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Meet the Author
Max Barry is Australian, for which he apologizes. He is the author of Company, Jennifer Government, and the cult hit Syrup, although he spelled his name 'Maxx' for that novel because it seemed like a funny joke about marketing, without realizing everyone would assume he was a pretentious twit. He was born on March 18, 1973, and lives in Melbourne, Australia, where he writes full-time, the advantage being that he can do it while wearing boxer shorts. Max has a fantastic website and blog, www.maxbarry.com; nearly 1,000 Facebook fans; 1,100 followers on Twitter; and a sterling reputation on reddit.com.
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