Ryan Everett Felton
Martin Fletcher’s wife Eloise placed a sacked lunch in his hands and kissed him goodbye.
“Don’t be nervous,” she said, but they both knew he was.
“I hate these damn performance reviews,” he said, moving in for a return smooch. “Makes me feel like cattle.”
“You’ll be fine,” said Eloise, though he saw her frowning as he backed out of the driveway.
Martin parked in an out-of-the-way lot in town, smoothed out his hair and checked his teeth in the visor mirror, and walked with trepidation to a stairwell beyond a rusted back-alley door on the corner of 18th and Washington. Then he climbed. After two-dozen flights, he stopped counting, pausing now and then to sip from his water bottle or daub his dripping forehead.
Should have left earlier, he thought, glancing at his wristwatch. When he reached the top at last, on the cusp of a heart attack, he changed his soaking shirt (having been prepared enough to pack an extra) and opened the gilded, ornate door at the top of the stairs. Stepping through, he found himself in a pristine white office, empty save for two chairs, a desk, and the muscular blond man in a white tuxedo awaiting him.
“Mr. Fletcher,” said the man, extending a hand. “Right on time. Please, have a seat.”
“Good morning,” said Martin, his bottom finding the cushion of the leather seat. “You’re Peter?”
“Heavens, no,” said the man, grinning at his choice of words. “Peter’s an awfully busy fellow, awfully busy. I’m his stand-in. Call me Gabe.” The pair shook hands, and Gabe said, “Let’s get started, shall we? I’ve got quite a few of these to get through today.”
“Sure,” said Martin, “but I should warn you, these reviews get me all twisted up. I hope I don’t say the wrong thing.”
“Don’t worry,” said Gabe. “Think of this more as a progress report than a judgment call.” He leaned in and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial mumble. “Between you and me, Mr. Fletcher, I’m no fan of these things either. In fact, this new performance review policy’s got the guys upstairs in something of an uproar. But what the Boss says goes, you understand?”
“All right,” said Gabe. He produced a pair of reading glasses from his breast pocket and put them on. A manila folder brimming with multi-colored papers appeared in his hands, and he tapped it against the desk to straighten its contents before opening it.
As he rifled through the file, Gabe said, “Good” and then, “Very good!” He removed the spectacles and waited for Martin to look him in the eye. “Mr. Fletcher,” he said, “I’m not often impressed when I conduct these interviews.” He tapped the open folder with a leg of his glasses. “But this,” he said, “is very impressive work. Well done.”
Martin saw Gabe open an Excel spreadsheet on his PC. He typed as he spoke; Martin noted that his reviewer was a hunt-and-peck typist. The blond man orated his entries as he went along.
“On Thanksgiving you volunteered at a soup kitchen,” he said, “even though your wife and son didn’t. For Christmas you donated six pre-wrapped gifts to your local Toys for Tots chapter.” Gabe’s eyes lit up at the next one: “Oh, and you attend your church’s Sunday service as well as the Wednesday evening one? Bravo, bravo.” Manicured fingers pursued their desired keys, filling the sparse office with the sound of deliberate typing.
Martin felt his chest swell. His hands steadied a bit; his nerves cooled.
Then Gabe hesitated, holding up the topmost sheet to his weak eyes. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, dear. It says here you ate red meat on the third Friday of last April?” It was a question, though not one laced with any doubt of its answer.
“Um,” Martin said, his extremities resuming their tremors, “yes, sir. I guess. I probably ate a T-bone or something on Eloise’s birthday. We always hit the Outback on our birthdays, sir.”
Gabe’s curly locks swished as he shook his head. “Oh, dear. You know that technically qualifies as a sin, don’t you, Mr. Fletcher?”
“I—” Martin swallowed. “I didn’t think that one really counted anymore, sir.” The sound of his stomach turning reverberated off of the close walls.
Gabe went tsk, tsk, tsk. “Can’t lie, Mr. Fletcher,” he said. “That’ll count against you. You ought to know that, assuming you’re reading your Bible every day. And I know you are.”
The soles of his shoes twisted on the floor and Martin cleared his throat. “Uhh,” he said with a quavering breath, “that’s not exactly true. More like, um, once a week.”
Gabe looked up from the monitor to squint at Martin Fletcher. “Is that right?” he said. He gaze drifted back to the keyboard, his fingers stabbing at it like a game of Whack-A-Mole. “Well, well, well!”
“Is that bad?” asked Martin.
“If you were up on your Scripture, Mr. Fletcher,” said Gabe, “you would know the answer to that already.”
“Oh. So, yes.”
The evaluation went on for several more minutes, though if Martin had been asked he would have sworn it went on for an Eternity. When his judge, the sharp-dressed computer illiterate, poked the Print Screen key at last – and a perforated page began to crawl out of the dot matrix printer to his left – Martin twirled his tie around his shaking hands.
“So how’d I do?” he asked. “What’s the damage?”
“Well,” said Gabe, raising his voice to combat the wailing screeches of the printer, “it’s no sense beating around the bush. The T-bone hurt you. And the Bible neglect, that’s a demerit forsooth – I mean, for sure.” The room fell silent again, and he ripped the page off the printer, creasing it as he handed it to Martin.
“That’s for your records,” he said.
Martin thanked him and folded it up without even glancing at it.
“But all in all,” said Gabe, “I’d say you’re on the right track. There’s room for improvement, to be sure, but I can certainly see you advancing to a position upstairs when you’re tenure down here’s over.” He held up his palms. “Not that we’re in any rush, mind you,” he said.
“Of course not,” said Martin. “No rush.”
“Just watch your diet on holy days,” said Gabe. “And I shouldn’t be telling you this, but you might watch your inner monologue. I know you’re not precisely saying the Lord’s name in vain, but I show you thinking it on occasion. As far as the Boss is concerned, those are the same thing.”
“Oh, no,” said Martin.
“Yeah, He’s a stickler,” said Gabe. He stood up, invited Martin to do the same, and they shook hands again. “Now, I’ve got a full plate with all this today, but before you go, do you have any questions for me?” he said.
“Sure,” said Martin. “Um. My wife. Eloise? Her review’s tomorrow. She’s pretty edgy about it. Between us, what’s the word on her?” He tried to smile, but his mouth stuck like he’d just taken a gulp of peanut butter.
Gabe looked at his sandals. “Oh,” he said. “Oh. Well. Listen, Mr. Fletcher. I wouldn’t normally divulge this, but I like you. Can I call you Martin?”
“Martin,” said Gabe. He put his arm around the other man’s shoulder and looked past his face. “In all honesty, the Eloise situation’s not good. Not good at all. Slipshod work all around. Cursing. White lies. I hate to say it.”
Martin tucked in his upper lip and exhaled. “No,” he said. “You’re just the messenger. I appreciate it. Thanks for your time today, sir.”
“It’s Gabe,” said the blond man. “Just Gabe.” He gave Martin a hug and waved him on his way, back down the incomprehensibly long stairwell.
When Martin got back in that night, Eloise was waiting for him at the door, hands folded at her chest, a weak smirk on her face.
“Well?” she said, taking his jacket. “How’d it go?”
Martin shrugged. “Great,” he said. “High marks all ’round, mostly. Ready for the weekend, though. Thank goodness it’s Friday, right?”
Eloise kissed his chin. “Told you,” she said. “Now, what do you want to do about dinner?”
A ticking clock filled the ensuing silence until Martin finally answered. “Here’s an idea,” he said. “A little unorthodox, seeing as it’s nobody’s birthday, but how about we hit the Outback tonight?”
There was a second or two in which Eloise frowned with doubt, but she was quick to recoup that winning smile and answer: “Well, okay!” she said. “But are you sure it’s in our budget?”
Martin took up her hand, kissed it at the wrist.
“My God,” he said. “Yes, yes, yes.”