Mike Harrison’s shoes were on fire. He stomped and stomped, but each smack against the pavement made the flames spread to the cuffs of his pants.
“Someone fucking help me!” Mike shouted.
The employees at his backyard picnic were a healthy mix of frozen with fear and secretly delighted. The annual cookout at Mike’s house was supposed to build strong friendships with his employees, but the stray piece of charcoal from the grill killed the mood faster than usual.
Mike stomped his left foot on his right. Then his right foot on his left. Finally, he gave up with stomping and ran over to the pool. He fell flat on his ass, dropping his legs over the side and into the cold water.
“Yahhhhhh,” Mike wailed.
He lifted his singed shoes up from the pool water. His pants and shoes were so badly burned that he couldn’t even see the original spot where the flaming charcoal hit his loafers.
“Don’t suppose you want to order a pizza instead?” Bill asked him.
Bill was a short man with the patience to match. He once shaved his head during a lunch break because his barber was too busy for a last minute appointment. Mike had never liked Bill, and if it wasn’t for his hustle and attention to detail, he would have held him under the water just like his smoldering shoes. Even so, Bill was the kind of guy you wanted to be your friend. The kind of person so picky that Mike couldn’t help but want his approval, even if he was Bill’s boss.
Despite how Mike felt about Bill, the bastard was right. The burgers were ruined. Mike’s grill was blowing more smoke than he did after a few glasses of whiskey.
The employees of the Raymond Soap Company sat nervously around Mike’s backyard. Only the squeak of patio furniture came from the restless and the hungry. Mike figured they must have realized how bad this was going to reflect on all of them, not helping their boss while he was on fire. He had to save the evening before it drowned and died like his burnt and soggy loafers.
Mike tossed the cover back on the grill, decided he wasn’t going to let it beat him, and turned back to face his employees with a plan.
The grill decided it didn’t like that plan. It fell over, spilling hot coals and burnt meat all over the pavement around Mike’s pool.
“We’re going for pizza,” Mike said. And with great dignity, Mike kicked the grill into the pool.
Driving his employees to the pizza joint across town was nothing short of miserable. Mike imagined that herding a horde of bloodthirsty ghouls or demons would be easier than getting the Raymond Soap staff from one point to the other for two distinct reasons. One, the ghouls or demons could simply be lured by human flesh. Two, they wouldn’t be dicking around on their cell phones while Mike tried to organize nine of them into two cars.
“Who’s riding with Emily?” Mike asked.
The crowd remained silent. A few taps on cell phone screens, but for the most part, everyone stared at Mike as if he was invisible, or mute, or both.
Mike gestured to Emily’s van with both of his hands. He felt like the world’s worst air traffic controller.
“I’ve got plenty of room,” Emily said. She opened the door of her van and started the engine. The van’s engine hummed under the conservative platinum hood, a color and design that fit Emily perfectly. “I can take half of us and Mike can take the others.”
The employees stirred, but no one made any attempt to climb into Emily’s van. Mike figured that they were weighing the corporate move of whether they should ride with their recently embarrassed boss or ride in their friend’s car.
Mike let out a sigh that made him feel like a leaking helium balloon.
“Okay,” Mike said, “Zack, Bill, Kim, and Tom get in the van with Emily. The rest of you are with me. Alright?”
A few seconds of shuffling later and they were on their way.
Mike’s Cadillac Escalade was a cacophony of squeaking leather and uncomfortable silence.
“Anyone want to listen to the radio?” Mike asked.
Kurt, Lisa, and Sara smiled politely and nodded their heads. They nodded and looked so eerily similar that Mike could’ve sworn they were bobble head figurines in his backseat. Like they were swapped out in some sick Twilight Zone kind of joke.
The generic head nod was the same response they gave Mike to all of his questions at the office. Questions like:
Do you understand?
Does anyone need to use the bathroom?
And who wrote “Mike sucks big floppy wieners” on the breakroom wall?
When no one answered the radio question, Mike turned it on anyway. The music from the sound system drowned the squeaky leather to a dull roar. The uncomfortable silence became an awkward car ride to David Bowie’s “Changes.”
Mike let his mind wander as he drove through the urban sprawl around his neighborhood. No one had forced him to spend his weekend trying to win the hearts of his employees. He just wanted to be that guy. The guy you can be proud to say is your boss. Every ounce of Mike went into the Raymond Soap Company, like every ounce of detergent in their deluxe “Dish Buster” bottles.
Mike pulled his Escalade into the parking lot, put the car in park, and gestured out the window at their destination.
Taldori’s Pizzeria and Sports Bar stuck out of the side of the shopping mall as gracefully as a tumor on the back of a dog’s head. Tiled ceilings, a huge archway, and big statues of chefs with dough or rolling pins in their hands decorated the outside of the restaurant. The rest of the strip mall had a flat roof and plain glass doors, making every inch of the pizzeria scream “look at me” like a desperate step-child.
Mike gave the hostess who sat them a tip. The hostess was a high school girl with blond hair, heavy eye shadow, and a tight white top that begged middle-aged men to give her a tip. Mike felt guilty for sneaking a peek, and he could feel his employees behind him judging him for doing it.
The hostess pocketed the money without looking at it and led them to a huge booth with a painting of Michigan sports stars above the seats.
Mike clapped his hands together excitedly and looked over his employees. They stared back, politely holding their hands in their laps.
“So what’s everyone got planned for the weekend?” Mike asked.
Zack opened his mouth to speak, but when Mike turned his attention, he saw Zack close it again and sink back into the cracked red cushions of the restaurant booth.
Mike found himself dangling between complete surrender and outright madness. Any attempt that he made in the past four hours to win the friendship of his co-workers was either viewed as annoying or completely pointless. With all the silence he experienced that day he felt more like a librarian than a branch manager.
“What can I start you folks off with to drink?” the hostess asked. Mike hadn’t realized that virtually no one else was there. The young girl was running the place by herself. “We’ve got fifty-two beers on tap, Pepsi products, and a hell of a strawberry lemonade.”
“I’ll have a whiskey, neat,” Mike said. “And we’ll have four pizzas – one pepperoni, one cheese, one veggie, and one deluxe. And bring as many breadsticks as it takes to stuff our mouths until we hate ourselves.”
The hostess scribbled on her note pad, nodded, and slipped away from the table.
“Uh, Mike,” Bill said. “You could’ve let us order for ourselves.”
“I’m buying, aren’t I? I figured I got something everyone would like. Zack doesn’t like meat, Nancy doesn’t like vegetables, and Emily only eats pepperoni. I can’t stand pizza without a heap of toppings, so I ordered a deluxe for – “
“I just think we should’ve gotten a say in it,” Emily said.
“Typical management,” Zack said. Mike saw him pull at the collar of his Hawaiian shirt when he realized he had finally spoken and that the words were as soft as a bayonet.
Mike’s employees all shared a laugh.
An atomic warhead went off in the frontal lobe of Mike’s brain. Every fiber of his being holding him together was suddenly ripped out like a torn suture.
“Fuck this,” Mike said under his breath.
“What did you say?” Bill asked.
Mike realized what he had said and looked up like a confused puppy.
“I’m sorry,” Mike said. He then realized that he had meant what he said and that he wasn’t sorry. “I said ‘fuck this.’”
Mike pushed his chair away from the table, the metal leg squealing against the floor like a stuck pig. He stood up, slapped his hands against his face, and rubbed his cheeks as he left his employees dumbfounded at the table.
The hostess passed him with a tray brimming with cheese bread and dipping sauce.
“You think this is enough for your table?”
“I don’t know. Try shoving it down their throats to see if it’ll shut them the hell up. I’ll take my whiskey at the bar by the way.”
The hostess, rolling with the punches, nodded and continued to the table.
Mike took a seat on the swiveling stool at the bar. He tapped his shoe on the floor until the smell of burnt leather wafted up and met his nose. He had completely forgotten that he was still wearing his burnt shoes and seared pants.
The hostess walked behind the bar. She poured and slid over Mike’s drink.
Mike picked it up, took a deep whiff from the glass, wondered if it was legal for a girl that age to serve him alcohol, and then drank half of it down in a single gulp.
“Why aren’t you sitting with your friends?” she asked.
“They’re not my friends. They’re my employees.”
At that precise moment, Mike knew it was true. They weren’t his friends. No matter how hard he tried, no matter how much he wanted to change it, they were his employees. Nothing else.
“Can you do me a favor?” Mike asked the hostess.
“You want a drink for free, right? Sorry, but no. And I’m not giving you credit either.”
Mike pulled out his wallet. He set two hundred dollars on the bar and tapped it with his finger.
“Make sure the table back there gets paid for. If they want to have drinks, call them a cab and make sure they get home safely.”
The bartender took the money with a confused expression.
“You’re not staying?”
An uproar of laughter came from the table. Mike looked back at Bill telling everyone a series of jokes with huge, sweeping hand gestures. Mike could tell it had something to do with him and big floppy wieners.
“I think they’re just fine without me.”
Mike drank down the rest of his whiskey in a single gulp. He let out a satisfied sigh, slipped his wallet in his back pocket, and walked past the table.
His employees stopped laughing, expecting him to sit down with them.
Mike waved his hand as he passed the table.
“See you Monday,” he said.
They said nothing back.
Mike got in his Escalade, drove to the nearest department store, and bought himself a new grill and a pair of shoes.