The chairs were too close together but all were full and his shirt sleeve brushed against me any time he shifted in his seat. He smelled of tobacco, somewhere under faint soap and fading cologne. He was wearing a tie, but it was fraying a bit at the knot; I wondered how many he owns, and if he ever wears them when he’s not here.
He waited, tense, for the meeting to start, hands folded and resting on a thick binder. Layoffs on the agenda, and he was dreading walking into work tomorrow, handing out letters, telling them they were on their own.
“I’ve been on the other side of it,” he told me. He remembers losing jobs, when contracts ran out and someone else underbid his company. He tells me everywhere he’s worked, big and small, and how he was glad to work here, it seemed stabler, calmer.
But now, as majorities swing and directions change, he’s not sure what he’s supposed to do. They slashed his budget, and started projects he’s not sure will ever actually happen, he doesn’t know what to prepare for.
And tomorrow, he’s telling his people to go home.
Some have families, he tells me. Children. Others are older, in their 50s, and what will they find to do when they leave? Some just made it off the sub list onto the payroll, waiting years for this break, and now they go back again.
The veins stand out from his hand, thick and knotted. Hair-thin pale scars are etched into the backs of his hands, and the hair on his wrists is starting to turn white. His thumbs rub against each other.
He doesn’t move when the vote is taken, but when one breaks from the block, says no, I feel his breathing stop. The vote goes on. I feel the air exhale next to me.
He hasn’t made the decisions that brought him here. He can’t influence the vote, look for places to cut outside of jobs. But he’s the one who has to face them, watch the fear and shock and uncertainty and pain form in their eyes, try to answer the “why me” that has no answer.
They’re the ones who’ll go home heavy tonight.
They approve the resolutions, move on to the next item on the agenda.
And he doesn’t say anything but what is there to say? He already said it.
“I feel too much, I guess,” he’d said. And I know he sees their faces, each one, as the roll call vote goes on about something else. I wish the ones who said “yes” would be the ones to tell them, to know their stories, to watch their confusion.
And maybe it was the right decision, as purse strings tighten to make it through the year. But they should have to share that burden.
I don’t think he’ll sleep tonight.