It is Mr. Harrelson's last day and as a matter of course, an exit interview is conducted. As with most of my writing, things are not as they seem.
Mr. Harrelson stood in the narrow doorway for several awkward seconds before tapping lightly on the doorframe with his large hand. Those taps, from those oversized knuckles, were as gentle as a mouse’s footsteps against a linoleum floor scurrying in the middle of the night. It was barely enough to get the attention of the older woman behind the desk. That and his presence, a large mass nearly out of range of vision, a blurred object hovering in the periphery, a stature that filled the entire doorway.
She looked up and over in the direction of Mr. Harrelson, and extended a smile, Sisyphean, eyeglasses hanging on the tip of her pointed nose. It was a signal to enter, a subtle gesture of welcome.
Mr. Harrelson entered the cramped office through the narrow doorway, sideways, to maneuver his sturdy, robust frame. He adjusted his tie and took a seat across from the woman. The space from the back of the chair to the wall, and from the front of the chair to where the desk began, left little room for comfort. His big knees leaned against the wood frame of the desk.
The office was cluttered, exaggeratedly so. Folders and papers were piled high behind the woman, and on the file cabinet, and even the floor. Most of the space was taken up by a plain, wooden desk, a cushioned chair on wheels on one side, two wooden chairs on the other side. The furniture looked more fitting for a post World War II era office than that of present conveniences and it was possible, looking at the wear of the furniture, that it had been there since then.
Mr. Harrelson thought it strange, the small office and dated furniture, for someone of her position. And how surprising it was that she was taking the time to personally do his exit interview.
She sensed the awkwardness, discomfort and apprehension in Mr. Harrelson’s demeanor. She could see it in his eyes, and of course the nervous giveaways of his body language.
“I try to do as many of these as I can, Mr. Harrelson. It helps me to keep attuned to how things are running. It’s easy to end up in an ivory tower and lose perspective. Can’t lose perspective. Can’t forget that it is about what happens here, on the ground floor.”
She let the reading glasses slip off her pointed nose and fall, caught by the metal chain they were attached to before landing against her chest.
“Do you know how long I have been at it, Mr. Harrelson?”
He was going to try to answer, with no idea what he would end up saying until it was said, but she immediately answered her own question.
“Too long. Way too long. And at the same time, not long enough.”
She leaned into her desk and looked straight into his eyes.
“I love what I do. Truly love what I do. But it takes a lot out of me. You can imagine.”
Mr. Harrelson nodded in agreement, real agreement. He couldn’t imagine having her job, that level of responsibility, so many dependent on her performance.
“But less about all of that, and more about you,” the woman stated, leaning even further forward in her chair. “I won’t ask your reason for leaving. I know that one already. What I want to know is about your experience here. How was it? Did you achieve what you wanted?”
Mr. Harrelson cleared his throat before saying the first thing he had said since entering the office.
“Well, it has always been more about the journey for me. I suppose that sounds like a cliché.”
She smiled. It was a much bigger, warmer smile this time. Teeth showing, stained with coffee. She leaned back in her chair, placed the glasses on her pointed nose and grabbed a folder from the pile and began to sort through the pages, intently reading what seemed like every single word, quickly but with such intensity.
“You have had quite an experience here. Not as long as some, but I would say you have gotten out of it a lot more than many.”
Mr. Harrelson nodded, again with sincere acknowledgement. He did, he believed, take advantage of every opportunity afforded him in however short the tenure was.
“Is there anything we could have done better,” the woman asked.
Mr. Harrelson considered the question. He contemplated the various changes he would make if he was in charge. ‘What a daunting task that would be, to be in charge,’ he thought.
“I guess I would have preferred more guidance.”
The woman’s face changed to one of more seriousness. It was one of contemplation, like his words went to the core of some profound thought that she had visited many times before and he had, miraculously found that thought and tuned into it like dialing a station on the radio.
“I hear that a lot. Not said, so few say it. But I can feel it.”
The glasses again fell free from her nose, caught by the chain, and she leaned into the old desk again to look Mr. Harrelson in the eye.
“That was never my intent, to be the big guide. I believe in empowering, infusing the entrepreneurial spirit. The trouble is, out of nowhere we get too much middle management. You are probably thinking that I am responsible for the Org Chart. Middle management felt empowered, but they created their own rule books. And man did we get some crazy rule books.”
Mr. Harrelson smirked, the first gesture that strayed from the very formal and respectful demeanor he had managed since entering the woman’s office. The change was spurred by the idea of a rulebook. There were so many of them from what she called middle management. And they fed into the chaos. Which rulebook were we supposed to follow?
“There was never any rulebook,” she followed.
Mr. Harrelson, who was looking down at his lap for answers, something he had always done, look at his lap when lost, as if there was a basket full of solutions for him to finger through. Then he looked up with enthusiasm at the idea of choice, personal experience, something he had always believed in, an individual manifesto of such.
“Don’t believe what you have read,” she said, almost flippant, as if to say, duh.
She was old, although it was hard to tell her age. There were wrinkles upon wrinkles, and her small frame seemed brittle and feeble. Yet, she maneuvered the chair on wheels from computer to paperwork, to Mr. Harrelson with the strength and vitality of a woman half the perceived age.
“We just have a few more questions before we close the file,” she stated.
Mr. Harrelson appreciated the attention, not that he needed it. He was never one to look for qualifiers, not even as a kid. He preferred to be in the background, accepted his lot in life, made the most of every single moment. Still, for someone as important as the woman behind the desk to ask for his perspective was not taken lightly. Not expected. Not needed. And appreciated.
“I want to know about your experience here. We try to better understand that as people leave. So, Mr. Harrelson, what was missing?”
What a simple question, yet so complex at the same time. Mr. Harrelson considered it. Never in his life had anyone asked him something so encompassing, so profound, so honest. He was almost afraid to answer the question, a mere worker bee asked to evaluate the hive. And what that meant to everything that made him who he was. He was a simple man. He worked, he spent time with his family. He slept and he woke.
“Purpose,” he answered the best he could. “Purpose, I guess.”
“I guess that gets lost sometimes,” she replied. “When we are all working so hard. It gets lost for me sometimes too.”
They looked at each other, in the eyes, deep, like people struggling to find a connection. He wanted desperately to find that connection. She knew it was there and he only needed to find it. The path. The purpose. Free will.
It was a strange sight, in the small office with one desk, one chair on one side, two chairs on the other. Mr. Harrelson felt the feeling of being, the feeling of being there, wholly, of being there completely. There were a few more questions with the same simplicity and yet obvious importance. And then the exit interview was over.
“I really enjoyed our conversation Mr. Harrelson. You are a smart man. I can call for another escort if you prefer, but I would be honored if you would allow me to escort you out.”
Mr. Harrelson breathed in, deep, and held it. He closed his eyes and thought about the time and how quickly it passes. He remembered trying to explain that concept not a year ago to a kid right out of high school he was asked to train for a week at the job. Over a cup of coffee, he listened to the kid talk about plans for the summer. Rushed activities. Impatient decisions. Absolutely no time to breath and take the world in. Mr. Harrelson suggested, a gesture very out of character for him to pry and not let people be what they will be, that the kid enjoy the moment because those moments will be gone and when they go you can’t get them back. The kid, barely old enough to drive, believed like every other kid that age, that he would be in control forever.
The woman navigated around the desk and met Mr. Harrelson at the door. They walked together out of the small office and down a long hallway to a set of doors.
“So this is it,” she said to him, “through these doors.”
It didn’t seem particularly dark inside, in her office, in the hallway. But when Mr. Harrelson opened the door, the contrast between where he was and the bright day outside was like walking out of a bar to meet the sunlight. He squinted, eyelids open barely the width of a thread, until he adjusted to the brightness and before him was a beach that led to a vast ocean. Water as far as the eye could see.
Rolling on the waves, rising and falling with the tide, were thousands upon thousands of rowboats. From fifty yards away, he could see the backs of the people with oars in hand rowing. The boats were smaller the further away, undefinable, the furthest mere specs on the frame.
“Where are they going?” Mr. Harrelson asked. “Where am I going?”
The older woman took hold of his large hand and squeezed tight.
“What was it you said to me, Mr. Harrelson? It has always been more about the journey?”
He held her hand, his large fingers nearly swallowing her to the wrist, and they walked together toward the water.
© 2018 by Thomas R. Reilly
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.