I immediately set the flute of champagne my boss handed me on the top shelf of the computer station. “I don’t drink,” I said, completing the sentence in my mind, especially on the job.
“That’s okay.” Archway swished the liquid in her own glass, a mere swallow away from being empty. If mine continued to sit abandoned, she promised, it would meet the same fate. It was New Year’s Eve, she said. Nothing wrong with having a little toast to commemorate the completion of another successful year of business and anticipate the one to come. This sentiment seemed to contradict the locked office door we were sequestered behind and the tiny declarations of oh shit every time someone dared to knock. In such events, both glasses would be tucked away behind the monitor, out of view until the visitor left his expense report, or was satisfied with the answer to his conundrum, or was taking the long way to the bathroom. In between swigs of champagne and shots of Crown Royal, Marketing Manager Camella was labeled a brainless ditz, Promotions Manager Traci was deemed an amoral slut, Director of Sales Freddy was written off as an incompetent fat piglet, and our VIP Host Shane was knighted Sir Dumb Ass. Once drained, the flutes, shot glasses and several dirty tapas plates would declare that space behind the monitor their semi-permanent home until I cleared them away before tomorrow’s shift. By the time we had ushered in 2009, Archway Dunson would be holed up alone in her office vomiting in the trash can, an event I would have been oblivious to had she not bragged to me about it.
“Girl, I don’t remember a thing,” she croaked the following afternoon through cracked lips, bulging out her bloodshot eyes for emphasis as if I were the one who needed the reminder of how out of control she’d been. It was a place she’d take me back to time and again, a place my alcoholic parents had trained me well to keep quiet and cozy and running smoothly.
I needn’t have been so diligent in my almost daily sweeping of her space; in a few months, she’d be sharing shots of tequila with General Manager Lois Brackenridge in what people laughably referred to as an executive office. But on this particular December 31, Archway had been with the Las Vegas Supper Club Elite a mere five months and was still in the probationary stages of management. If she could have seen the future, she surely wouldn’t have felt the need to feign such propriety. She’d still be employed the following December when Lois Brackenridge would be asked to resign. Still be stealing into the kitchen for free on-the-clock meals (as well as a few pounds of bacon and sausage to take home and stuff into her freezer for her family’s Sunday morning breakfast) while her entire accounting staff—eight in all, including me—paid out ten dollars for chicken drumettes and tater tots unless we chose to brown bag it. Each of whom she had threatened with termination at least once in her short time with the company. Eventually, she’d made good on two of them; a third, Manuel Torres, was on his final warning despite a stellar record and an employee file containing three years’ worth of reviews scoring over ninety percent productivity. But Manny had made the egregious error of questioning Archway on what he felt was an unethical cash handling request and was issued a final warning, skipping right past the requisite verbal and written. Insubordination was the reason given on the papers he refused to sign.
Often she’d call me at home after hours or on my days off, or call me from her home on her days off while I was in the office working, slurring her words and claiming to be laid up with one malady or another. Her ailment of choice was pink eye and it usually waited for Monday mornings to show itself. On those top of the workweek mornings she didn’t call out, I was treated to stories of how she’d spent her weekend babysitting a slot machine at the M and beating her sixteen-year-old with a hairbrush because she dared to sass her. I had met Archway’s daughter around Christmastime. She was an introverted kid about a hundred pounds overweight with straggly hair that hung over her face while she stared down at her shoes. Maybe it served as a shield to protect her from those backhands sixteen-year-olds who are skilled at mixing martinis for their parents are accustomed to taking.
By the spring, after less than a year as acting CFO, Archway was so backed up and lost at her job Lois gave her the go-ahead to hire an assistant. Dayna Charters started with an hourly rate just fifty cents shy of mine despite my college degree and four years spent climbing up through the ranks. Archway needed someone to fetch and would pay any amount for her comfort. What she found in Dayna was a victim of domestic violence. I learned of her circumstance from Archway one day when she called me into her office with ASAP urgency, instructing that I close the door behind me. I sat in the seat beside her desk as she proceeded to give me the intimate details of Dayna’s relationship with her live-in boyfriend, taking particular glee in revealing to me how he occasionally “beat her ass.”
As Archway had proven herself to be a counter-promoter of productivity and harmony, I held the constant impression that she would have been quite satisfied if Dayna and I had hated each other. Refusing to follow the path our divisive leader had paved for us, Dayna and I instead formed a quiet allegiance, as subordinates under a whiskey-fueled leader tended to do. We began to eat lunch together, something that was clearly irritating to our boss. She would take her Big Brother stroll about twenty minutes into our break, a purposeless crossing of the floor from the threshold to the trashcan in the corner to throw out a tissue or piece of paper, an action performed simply to remind us she knew where we were at all times. Sometimes she would stop at the table to tell me she left something for me on my desk to complete after lunch or gossip on a co-worker’s need to touch up her roots. Then she’d pluck one of my potato chips out of the bag or dip one of the cucumbers I’d packed for myself in my side of dressing, just to let me know who the boss was here, that what was mine was also hers, she could do anything she wanted, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
To curb mine and Dayna’s time together, Archway began asking Dayna to lunch so that I’d either be forced to join them or eat by myself in my office. When she grew tired of rearranging her schedule to fit our lunch time, Archway informed us a decision had come down from Lois that we were no longer permitted to eat in the lunchroom because the staff couldn’t clean up after themselves.
Archway may have been able to dictate how I would spend my time on the clock, delegate to me the tasks she deemed took precedence over others, but there was no way I would permit her to wield that very same power over my lunch break. Archway was a control freak, a micro manager who needed to know what her staff was doing and where they were doing it every moment of the day, down to every cup of water taken in trips to the cooler, every piss or dump deposited into the ladies’ room toilets. It was this neurosis I fed on along with my packed sandwiches and microwave meals as Dayna and I jumped from office to office, taking our full lunch hour without interruption. Sometimes we went out to the casino and sat around a closed roulette table. Sometimes we went up to the top level of the employee garage and ate in our air-conditioned cars, giggling like teenagers who had climbed out the bedroom window, imagining various scenarios of Archway running through the building looking for us, wondering where we were. She didn’t even make it a full month before announcing to us that we were once again permitted to eat in the lunchroom.
It was a battle won, even if the spoils of war were little more than once again being under Archway’s watchful eye. But for Dayna and me, it proved we could more than survive in this environment; sometimes, we could even outmaneuver our tyrannical boss.
In less back-patting times, over the course of each and every minute spent at our computers, the copy machine, verifying cash, the specter of what we’d actually accomplished peered over our shoulders: we were back to being watched and interrupted and manipulated. But there was a comfort in knowing the predictable, in knowing what was coming next, even if it wasn’t something anticipated with relish. As long as Archway knew where we were, it eliminated her need for a surprise attack; we knew when she would bother us. Like abused children, we knew the level of pain her punishment would yield. We knew the duration of the welt, the excuses we’d give concerned people who inquired about what had happened to us. There was no need to give our abuser time to get creative about how they were going to abuse us. We led her back to the same recourse time and again.
In June, two more of our accounting staff dropped off under Archway’s reign, one of them being Dayna. Her baby’s father wanted to go back to California to be with his family and take advantage of a job opportunity. Two months after settling in San Jose, she filed for out-of-state unemployment. Archway called me into her office to gloat over how she was fighting the claim.
Lead Auditor Brian Rogers left less than two weeks after we lost Dayna. He walked into Archway’s office, took off his lanyard dripping with keys and badges touting his many years of service, and announced, “I’ve had it, I’m done.” He was probably still fuming his way down the hall when Archway picked up her cell phone and called her good friend Francie—currently unemployed—and offered her my job. That’s how confident she was that I would accept the position now vacated by Brian, which is ultimately what I did. I had practically been doing his job anyway while he was busy behind his closed office door tending to his Facebook farm, checking out the scores on various sports websites and his fantasy football team. After officially assuming the title of Lead Auditor, I was given a small raise, Brian’s old office and no training. Anything I hadn’t learned from Brian I was left to figure out for myself. Of course, no matter what position I held within the company, my main responsibility was still cleaning up after Archway. Whether it was chasing down missing checks or trying to justify misappropriated funds, most of my workday was spent correcting her mistakes while upper management overlooked them.
I almost talked. I almost reported it. But then I’d walk by Lois’ office, hear Archway’s cackling laughter, and realize I was on the wrong side of the girls’ club: the sober side.
Then Archway got sick. I initially suspected another twenty-four-hour ailment designed to extend her Thanksgiving vacation turned into something unidentifiable that would have her work status officially described as an indefinite leave of absence. At one point, she phoned me from the hospital, speech slurred and halted as she claimed at that very moment to being wheeled down the corridor on her way to having an MRI. Over the next few weeks, I would hear varying versions of what could be wrong: stress, a tissue mass on her heart, a dark patch on her liver, a rupture in her spleen. The doctors seemed unable to diagnose an actual condition even though she was on no less than five different medications. It was eventually suggested she consult a psychologist.
“It’s all in my head, right?” she asked rhetorically during one of her many phone check-ins. I wanted to ask her if they looked in the back of the top left drawer of her desk. Any kitchen cabinet in her house, the glove compartment of her car, the bottom of any given glass she may drink from. I was sure they’d find her illness there. But whatever her mystery condition, it was serious enough to keep her away from the office until at least Christmas.
Although my workload was about to get a lot heavier, my soul and spirit suddenly felt as if it had undergone a series of rigorous fat-dropping workouts with Jillian Michaels. This was the reprieve I had hoped for, and I felt not one ounce of guilt that it seemed to come at Archway’s expense.
Christmas arrived and was ushered out with the New Year’s advent, just as was GM Lois Brackenridge. Her replacement was Sam Scanlon, originally from my own hometown of Philadelphia and an avid Flyers fan who would have fit right in with the rowdy bunch that was my family during hockey season. One of his first matters of business upon being instated was to have Archway commit to a return date or entertain the necessity for hiring her replacement. I wasn’t alone in my investment in the latter situation. During her absence, we had restructured the entire accounting department and felt Archway no longer held a position in the new regime. I was widely considered the manager among my co-workers, and together we had developed a smooth, harmonious, efficient environment that simply would not tolerate digressing to her brand of haphazard leadership. With the support of my team, I became the voice of the financial sect and held consult in Sam’s office, speaking the words I’d been tamping down for over a year, declaring what I’d felt should have been—and was—obvious to all regardless of department or close working proximity to Archway, shouted out that the emperor was indeed naked.
I avoided discussing her off-the-clock shenanigans, such as her frequent visits to the Supper Club Elite’s dining room, where along with an entourage of five would proceed to get the smashed courtesy of the house and loot the buffet table’s carving stations, sometimes packing an entire ham into a flowered tote to present at the family dinner table. Instead I focused on her job performance: her mismanagement of finances, botched inventory, missed payments on alcohol invoices that had drawn the scrutiny of the Liquor Control Board. I urged him to look at the department as a whole, confident that he would easily detect she was in over her head, that her incompetence could no longer be given free rein to navigate the financial arteries of our company which, in our current economy, was in danger of becoming more vulnerable than our competition.
A week later, Sam called me into his office to inform me Archway was returning the following Monday. Although his position precluded him from spelling out the details, Sam assured me he had taken everything I said into consideration and was working on a solution. Sensing my apprehension, he did intimate that accounting was not the only department frustrated with her work ethic; home office was extremely dissatisfied with her performance and was sending someone from corporate headquarters for a reevaluation. I thanked him for this update and respected his responsibility to upper management that prevented him from disclosing much more. It remained unspoken between us that we were gunning for a common goal, and I had faith he would lead us there.
Archway returned as head of the accounting department on the third Monday in January. Rather than falling into step with the systems we had implemented, Archway proceeded to lead us once again into her realm of disorganization. As the next few weeks played out, we watched helplessly as everything we had built up was dismantled piece by piece, policy by policy. Weekly meetings held between Archway, Sam and Human Resources Director Cissy Barnes seemed not to affect her haphazard management style. I began to grow nervous that my name had come up during the course of their conversations. Thus far, I had been the only one to speak up about Archway’s antics; I knew she wouldn’t take kindly to what she would consider my betrayal.
Then one Friday, she emerged from one of these meetings visibly affected. Her eyes were red, and her cheeks streaked with dried-up tears. She was cackling that familiar, spine-chill-inducing laughter, though, as if to say to the curious and those of us who already suspected her job was in jeopardy, Nothing bad happened to me in there. I’m still going strong. I was at the copy machine, and our eyes met for a moment. In them, I saw what she knew about me just as surely as she saw in mine what I knew about her.
“Lee,” she called loudly even though I was right there in front of her, albeit with several people clustered between us. “Next Friday me, you and Cissy are going to a lunch meeting at twelve. Mark it on your calendar. We have a few things to discuss about the department.”
Later that day, Cissy approached me to assuage any anxiety I may be experiencing as a result of the upcoming meeting.
“The way Archway phrased it; I was hoping it didn’t make you apprehensive about what was going to be discussed.”
I assured her there was no apprehension on my part, confident that Archway was the one who needed to be concerned about departmental restructuring that involved the head of Human Resources. Had I known what was actually going to take place at that lunch table, I would not only have been apprehensive, but I would have tendered my resignation without attending this sham of a meeting. We hadn’t even ordered a glass of water before Archway handed Cissy and me each a piece of paper, detailing who had called the meeting (Archway), the moderator of the meeting (Archway) and the purpose of the meeting (to restructure our already restructured department). It contained five bulleted points, all of which had to do with me. My hours were going to change. I was no longer in charge of creating the weekly schedule for the department. I was no longer considered management. I had to copy Archway on every email I sent out. Co-workers could no longer go to me to solve their problems; they must now report directly to Archway. I glanced over at Cissy, watching her peruse the very same words I had just read.
“Do you have any comments, questions? Anything you don’t understand?”
I almost didn’t hear the question, and it seemed to be coming from another table, directed at someone else. I shook my head, looking at Archway, the person who’d asked.
She seemed surprised that I would have nothing to say, but no more surprised than I was at having read her ludicrous notes. Lending further lunacy to the situation was the shift in the conversation from business to the latest happenings on The Bachelor and the rolling out of the new menu at Supper Club Elite. Halfway through the meal, Cissy commented on my untouched pasta.
“I’m suddenly not very hungry,” I replied, to which she said, “Oh, come on, this meeting wasn’t supposed to be like that.”
But it was like that. I excused myself and went back to my office. When the two of them arrived back from lunch almost an hour later, my resignation letter was waiting for Cissy on her desk. In it, I detailed all of Archway’s behavior, from the hidden money to the shots of tequila slammed down at nine a.m. with a bite of a drive-thru McDonald’s.
Cissy expressed her disappointment with me during my exit interview. Why hadn’t I opened my mouth? I was asked. Didn’t I feel a responsibility for reporting such egregious behavior? As I sat there listening to her, I thought back to the night when silence had been presented as my only option, the night I began my complicity in Archway’s campaign of destruction.
She had come into the cash office to authorize entertainment payments before going home for the day. Since early that morning, she’d been working interspersing time spent at her desk with trips to the then-GM Lois Brackenridge’s office. She was stumbling and slurring her words, repeatedly forgetting her purpose for being there. I must have shaken the checks at her several times as a reminder, here, sign these right here, and she would remain focused long enough to endorse one and then go off on some tangent and forget to sign the rest. At some point during the relating of one story, she needed Lois’ input to fill in the blanks. Reluctantly Lois came into the cash office, surprisingly sure-footed. I caught her eyes over Archway’s shoulder. They stared back at me, blank. I widened mine, channeling clearly, Are you really witnessing this behavior and remaining inactive? She looked away from me, told Archway to finish up. They’d complete what they needed to do Monday morning. At that point, my discussing Archway’s behavior with anyone became a moot issue. And because of it, I knew this was a point Cissy would also fail to see, even if it had to be a deliberate oversight.
I realized Cissy was blaming me for Archway’s behavior, and I kept silent, allowing her to do it. It’s what we enablers do. We are predisposed to believe everything is our fault. It was my fault Archway was terrorizing the department because I did nothing to stop her. I sat in the chair, assuming the burden of Cissy’s words, not only for myself but for the accounting team she wanted me to feel I had failed to protect.
Why didn’t you report this sooner? Had you reported it sooner, I could have done something. Now my hands are tied. How convenient for you to speak now when you are leaving when you are not affected by the outcome of such accusations.
Of course, she was wrong. I would forever live with what had happened because of my silence. I would forever live with the false belief that my silence was the travesty, not the injustice that had caused it. She was also wrong to lay the blame at my feet for her hands being tied: why would she be bound now yet not several months ago? Was my late confession the equivalent of cancer, with early detection being the key? Had cancer that was Archway grown so powerful now, spread so thoroughly throughout the company that there was nothing that could be done except to sit back and wait for it to ravage the body? What in my behavior rendered Archway more or less potent?
As for Archway’s reaction to my resignation, she stayed true to her script up to the very end. Not once did she ask why I was leaving; we never even talked about it. She didn’t get back to me to let me know if she was accepting my final schedule, which conflicted with the one she wanted me to work. She notified me on the following Monday that Tuesday would be my last day employed by the Las Vegas Supper Club Elite. I’d anticipated such a dismissal: the very day after I’d handed in my notice, I’d begun stripping my office, deleting notes and systems from the computer that I’d put in place; I could not in good conscience allow Archway to benefit in any way from my hard work.
The month following my departure was nothing short of bliss. I took a two-week trip back to Philadelphia to visit family, drinking loads of Wawa coffee and gaining five pounds by sustaining on soft pretzels, cheesesteaks, and Tastykakes. Returning to Las Vegas, I held off re-entering the corporate world or any other world that didn’t involve replenishing all that the past year and a half had stripped from me.
The first time I returned to the Supper Club Elite, it was at the invitation of Marketing Manager Camella. An exclusive breakfast sponsored by a radio station was being held in appreciation of fan support of a popular rock band playing later that night in the main dining hall. Although I hadn’t seen Camella since quitting and was eager to catch up with her as well as grateful for the invitation, I hadn’t stepped foot on property since my last day of work. The time I’d spent in the interim had been one of introspection and renewal, but I still didn’t know the emotions that would crop up when I crossed the threshold. When I finally did, it wasn’t the dramatic homecoming I’d expected. I felt detached; I was truly done with that time in my life and held no emotional baggage. I enjoyed the breakfast and the band along with all the other fans, unaffected by any history I had with the place.
Someone tipped off Archway. I was in attendance, and before I knew it, I was embraced from behind, a pair of arms wrapping themselves around me in an affectionate hug. I turned to look into the smiling face of my former boss. Was she really going to pretend our last moments working together hadn’t been thick with hostility? Surely she knew that I was the impetus behind all her recent trips to Human Resources. Who else would have had the courage to tell them of her booze-fueled crying jags and illnesses?
“You still here?” I asked her, and she seemed surprised I would inquire such a thing. For a moment, she looked worried until I reminded her she’d often spoken of her plans to leave and go back to her hometown of Houston. She asked what I was doing and looked shocked when I said I was taking off some time to travel and finish a novel.
“You’re writing a book?”
It was to be my third attempt at a major publication, a fact we’d discussed many times. I didn’t take it personally or even care that she seemed not to remember.
The following day I got a text from Camella asking me if I’d heard the news. I hadn’t but instinctively knew what she was about to tell me: Archway had been fired mere hours after our encounter at the fan appreciation breakfast. I had been there for her last day.
Since then, she’s texted me several times to ask how I’m doing, wishing me happy holidays. I never answer her, hoping someday she’ll get the message I’m physically not sending and leave me alone.
Although I’m hoping never to find occasion to use it, I won’t ever delete her number from my directory: whenever a message appears or a call comes in, I want to know upfront whether or not it’s from Archway Dunson. Although seeing her name flash across my phone would be akin to feeling that momentary shudder from witnessing a shadow flash across my bedroom wall at midnight, it would also serve as a reminder that sometimes the most important messages we receive are brought by the most unlikely of messengers. Sometimes it’s the only way we will listen. Each time I see her name, I will know something out there is trying to reach me, to tell me I made the right decision. That Archway’s terroristic hold over my spirit is temporary. That something other than my need to get away from it is guiding me.