by Tara Steckler
On the Friday morning that Hank Nichols’ adult life ended, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 300 points and the sky was blue. His alarm jolted him awake at six o’clock, and he felt the heaviness of an entire day hanging before him. He quickly shoved the feeling away, allowed himself to lay in the warm cocoon of his bed for exactly one minute, then pulled on his neon running garb and dashed out of his apartment toward the water’s edge. He began his daily mantra of positive affirmations: It is a new day for Hank Nichols in the San Francisco Bay! Hank is the man. Hank is rich. Hank is attractive. Hank is happy. Monica will notice Hank today. Monica will notice Hank today. Monica will noti–“Hey! Watch where you’re going!” barked a young mother pushing a stroller. She swerved out of Hank’s hasty path, horrified by the near collision.
“Sorry,” Hank muttered, not slowing down. “Didn’t see you there.” And he was off. The mother shook her head and soothed her crying daughter with a pacifier.
Hank sped through his daily six-mile loop, working to trim down the fat that had unacceptably accumulated on his midsection in recent months. He didn’t notice the rising October sun exhaling its diluted warmth across the Bay, or the two seals waking up at the end of a pier. Even if he had noticed, he wouldn’t have cared. Hank was focused on the presentation he was going to give at work later that day that was going to change everything. The presentation that would make Monica notice him.
Manson & Young Inc. was the largest bank in the Western United States, and Hank was the CEO. In recent months, the company’s poor financial performance had haunted him. Hank spent endless days in the office scouring over internal budgets and reports, looking for possible interventions to fix the intolerable and apocalyptic problem of Manson & Young Inc.’s decreasing profit margins. He had concluded that the only possible solution was downsizing at least a fifth of the workforce. Sure, his hard-working employees would be financially distraught and personally offended. But money was money, Manson & Young Inc. needed more of it, and Hank was the man to make that happen. Plus, he’d never lay off Monica. He’d prefer to lay next to her.
Back at his apartment after his run, Hank shaved and showered, then preened in the mirror. The sticky note his mother had left him when she visited a few months ago remained: “You got this, Big Guy!” Hank would have taken it down, but it’s not like he was having many houseguests those days, and there was nothing like a mother’s comfort. He scrutinized his chiseled face in the mirror: smooth as a baby’s bottom. He shuffled his Spotify and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” came on. Hank is happy. He sighed and switched it to an intelligent Mozart sonata. Hank dressed in his favorite navy blue Brooks Brothers suit, ate seven almonds, and downed a glass of milk. He was ready to go.
Hank walked downtown to the bank. Before entering the building, he gazed up at his gorgeous, strong, steel tower penetrating the low blanket of fog. It was almost like an extension of himself. Mantra number two: If the bank thrives, Hank thrives. If the bank thrives, Hank thrives. If the bank thrives, Hank thrives.
Monica was clacking away at the front desk when he entered. Her blonde curls were pinned back today, a few tasteful strands left framing her high cheekbones. His heart thumped as he walked toward her, but her gaze never left her computer screen. I will try again on Monday, he assured himself as he boarded the elevator. Heading to his corner office on the top floor, Hank passed rows of becubicled suits arguing on the phone, scanning data tables, or closing online poker tabs. No one acknowledged him as he strutted through the room. What babies, he thought, they’re so intimidated by me.
Hank reviewed his notes for the meeting, validating his own decision to downsize yet again: extraneous workers were decreasing Manson & Young’s efficiency and increasing their overhead costs. Luckily, Hank would not have to endure the grueling task of deciding who exactly was to be deemed extraneous himself–he’d let his faithful subordinates handle the actual trimming of the company’s fat. Satisfied, he got to work, fiddling around with the colors of his PowerPoint and emailing his mother.
Subject: Daily Update
TGIF! Everything is great at work. Yes, I called Grandma on her birthday. Unfortunately Monica has to go to her parents’ house for Thanksgiving, otherwise, she’d love to come to our dinner. She says sorry. The rash is better, but still itchy 😦 Tell Dad I say hi. Miss u.
CEO, Manson & Young Inc.
100 Mission St.
San Francisco, CA 94105
At 11:50, in the conference room, Hank stood in a power pose for 60 seconds before waiting patiently at the head of the table, like a child awaiting dessert in his father’s chair. Just before noon, in filed a crisp sea of navy, gray, and black suits. When everyone had found their seats, Hank rose, smiling a hollow smile. “Thanks for coming guys. Hope everyone had a great week. Well, I’ll just cut to the chase. Last quarter’s returns were, well… to put it bluntly, they sucked.”
As he began to recite his prepared lines about the economic benefits of sweeping layoffs, Hank tried to exude an air of benevolent paternal stoicism. He was secretly excited to play the role of the apologetic superior to a disappointed crowd. But much to Hank’s dismay, Dave, among those who were certainly going to be let go, stared back at him, smiling faintly. Hank suddenly remembered last year’s Halloween party, when Dave drunkenly cried about his impossible desire to go back to school to study his true passion of French romantic poetry. But Dave had not quit–a slave to his salary like the rest of them–and they had never talked about the incident again. Dave’s present smile revealed his relief about getting laid off; his shackles to the bank had been broken for him. A strange feeling overtook Hank as he realized he was freeing his colleagues instead of crushing them.
Hank’s mind flashed back to his own unrealized dreams. He thought back to his college years, but the budding young leftist intellectual that came to mind was barely recognizable to Hank. Rebelling against his suburban upbringing, as was in fashion, Hank had grown his hair out long and had spent long hours in the library trying to decipher Das Kapital. Smoking cheap weed and drinking cheaper beer, he and his friends would sit around lamps with pink light bulbs and renounce their parents, who worked like mindless cogs in the capitalist machine (they all conveniently forgot to mention that it was their parents’ money that financed their tuition bills).
Then came the spring of his senior year, and his comrades began silently accepting offers at the banks and firms where their fathers worked. Beards were shaved and tie-dye was swapped for slacks. Hank felt betrayed. Eschewing corporate America was not a game to Hank. Or, rather, it was a game that he wasn’t ready to stop playing. But Hank, never an original thinker, was swayed by the masses and decided to bend to the will of capitalism, “just for a year or two,” and begrudgingly accepted the job that was handed to him at his father’s bank. A year or two turned into a few, and as his bank account grew, his passion for dismantling the capitalist machine shrunk. And now, all these years later? What was he if not the epitome of a corporate cog he vowed never to become? Hank is the man. True. Hank is rich. Very true. Hank is attractive. Obviously. Hank is happy… is Hank happy? Hank is not happy.
His mind flashed back further, to the first time he remembered being truly happy: Berkeley, 1988. Mr. Nichols at one end of the dinner table, Mrs. Nichols at the other. Young Hank in his highchair between them, giggling as milk dribbled down his chin. With the clarity of retrospective vision, Hank now remembered his father’s eyes, drained of joy after another fourteen-hour day at the bank. His mother’s blonde hair was prematurely streaked with gray, and his father barely looked at her as he mindlessly forked roast chicken into his mouth. Hank now remembered his own eyes in the mirror earlier that morning; did even a glint of happiness dwell behind the irises? He wished he could reenter his memory forever, blissfully ignorant, sipping milk without a responsibility in the world. Snap out of it. Hank is the man.
Now sweating in front of the shiny mahogany conference table with an entire room’s worth of eyes boring into his soul, Hank began to have the most awful tingling sensation in the back of his throat. It was a sensation he hadn’t felt in years. Was he about to…cry? It couldn’t be. His face vibrated, his heart fluttered, and his eyes watered. The room spun, and it seemed as though everyone was growing in size. But it was he who was getting smaller. The suits sat in silent horror. A guttural wail escaped from Hank’s mouth. He tried to clasp his hand over his mouth but found he had lost his motor control. He shut his eyes–HankisthemanHanksitheman–and when he blinked his eyes open, he was wriggling on his stomach, drowning in a sea of navy fabric.
Hank Nichols had turned into a sobbing, helpless infant.
Oh God, Hank thought, I hope Monica doesn’t walk in right now. From the ground, baby Hank gawked at his adult colleagues. From the table, his adult colleagues gawked at baby Hank. Hank couldn’t talk, but his eyes pleaded: Pick me up. Someone. Hold me. Please. Nobody held Hank. With mutters and smirks, everyone backed slowly out of the office and back to their cubicles. Hank squirmed next to his crumpled notes. Hank’s little heart felt cold, and he wept. He wept about his embarrassing predicament. He wept about the shattering of the illusion of happiness he had been spoon-fed. All of a sudden, he heard the sound of high heels click-clacking across the linoleum tiles. Monica.
“Oh, poor little baby,” she cooed, bending down to pick him up. “Shh, it’s alright. Come to Monnie.” She rocked him against her breast. Hank couldn’t help it–he sucked his thumb and babbled, staring up at her kind eyes. He had never seen them so close before. They were more beautiful than he had imagined. “What happened to you, poor Hanky? Whatever it is probably won’t last. But you’ll never be able to show your face here again, now will you? But you’ll be better off without the bank. I can tell you weren’t happy here.” Hank’s eyes welled up. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. She noticed him. She noticed him enough to see his sadness beneath the facade. He knew as she swaddled him in his own coat jacket that she didn’t love him as he loved her; she pitied him. But that was okay–Hank is in Monica’s arms. Monica noticed Hank. Hank is cute. Hank is warm. Hank is free.