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We pick one from among us. Her name is Karen. Karen can’t believe it. Or at least she acts like she can’t.
“Me?” Karen’s eyes, unremarkable only moments ago, become lost in the middle-distance, shimmering with light from a fixture mounted in the office’s drop ceiling.
Yes, Karen, you. You have that special something. That je ne sais quoi.
“Moi?” Karen says.
Well, actually, nous savons quoi – we’ve made a list:
- Karen smiles a lot.
- Karen smells good.
- Karen consistently demonstrates above-average capability in almost every enterprise.
(With the exception of Monday Movie Trivia Night, which leans heavily on John Hughes, for which Karen is too young anyway.)
- Karen reads a lot of non-fiction.
- Karen supplies healthy snacks (typically, a vegetable platter w/ hummus) at office functions, e.g. birthdays, co-ed baby showers, the Holiday Party, etc.
- Karen knows her way around the gym.
(Which is to say, Karen’s butt won’t quit.)
- Karen is objectively attractive.
(Propriety dictates we ignore this fact until about halfway down the list.)
- She has that dark eyebrows / light hair thing, genetically-disheveled, like a stray puppy.
- When she smiles, her upper lip warps into this tantalizing rim under her nose.
- Karen is too humble to use the word “matriculate”.
(But we’ve definitely heard of both her alma maters.)
- [lagniappe] Karen affords us the benefit of the doubt.
(Like, for example, this one time someone ate Karen’s lunch out of the fridge, and Karen sighed and wondered aloud if someone did it by mistake, which was awfully kind of her, and totally ridiculous – Karen always labels her containers.)
We don’t tell Karen about the list. Instead, we say je ne sais quoi.
If it had to be one of us, it was always Karen. Like a colorful beach ball at a music festival, Karen has an inexplicable momentum: no one knows where she came from, but here she is, making her way over outstretched arms, initiating among strangers some spontaneous contract to keep her aloft – a matter of etiquette, of mob, of trance, of course to nudge her along.
But let’s not get carried away. We’re not sending Karen to the Senate or anything. She gets an office and a desk and a computer and a raise. (It’s not customary to acknowledge the raise, except with flashes of our eyebrows, little nods, little bemused smirks, like, Hey, did you hear? Not too shabby… Actually, we don’t know the exact figure.)
She’s given forward-facing responsibilities – business-to-business communication, contract overtures, that sort of thing. The bosses kind of show her off. Who can blame them? If you have a Ferrari, park it in the driveway.
However, the suggestion that we recommended Karen solely on her curb appeal offends our sense of decency – Karen just happens to be very, very pretty. Furthermore, let it be stated that we have never propositioned her, sexually. No. Not overtly. Not at the Holiday Party.
Not that we can recall.
We lament that, heretofore, the incidence of her sexuality will be inextricable from the trajectory of her career. We comment to each other on how hard she worked to get where she is, loudly, as if paying deference to a superstition, or a capricious ghost. We’re relieved that she gets the hang of the new position pretty quick. But of course we knew she would.
In her office, Karen espouses an open-door policy. “Door’s always open,” she says, and she actually leaves it open. She even takes calls like this, even on speakerphone – totally inconsiderate of content or sensitivity, that easy, incandescent laugh flitting out like a lightning bug loose from its jar.
That laugh attracts some attention. One day, as Karen is on the phone, a passerby from upstairs slows outside her door. A pause becomes a linger. After a moment, the passerby (now officially a bystander) seems to have heard what he was listening for. He leans back against the wall and waits, stroking the coarse black hair around his gold wristwatch, a reflex that makes him look like a housefly.
When Karen hangs up the call, the man from upstairs gives a little rap on the door frame and peeks inside the office. He says he couldn’t help but overhear: Karen has a lovely voice.
“Moi?” – Karen playing coy again.
The man extols to Karen the quality of her own voice, as though describing a fine brandy: confident balance; authoritative, though softened by fleecy fry; spicy finish; a steady brook carving through a verdant glen. It’s a bit much. We’re thinking of coming to her rescue, maybe calling into her office, providing some excuse with which she can eject, some emergency – Hey, Karen, sorry to bother, but someone threw a lit cigarette into the bathroom trashcan and we need you to run out and get an extinguisher, or a mop bucket, or something – but, finally, the man cuts to the chase. He asks Karen for a favor, presented like an exciting opportunity: how would she like to record the automated directory options? Could be great for her personal brand. Maybe record the incoming voice mailbox message and outgoing courtesy reminders, too? Awesome exposure. Ya know, if she’s interested…
“Yes, and!” Karen says.
They both laugh. Of course, she’s happy to help. Karen and the man schedule a time to meet with IT and “lay down some tracks” – his words – then off he goes, back upstairs, or wherever, with this big dumb grin on his face, molesting his own furry little paws.
Perhaps he doesn’t know that she’s way out of his league.
Still. We have to admit, a little curd of jealousy rises up in our usually milky-smooth disposition when we call in and hear Karen’s voice tick off the automated directory options.
“For English, press one.”
Karen on demand—
“Para Español, oprima dos.”
—a little bit of Karen for every fingertip on the touch-tone.
Karen’s performance exceeds expectations. She is creative and savvy and well-dressed. It isn’t long before her name achieves unanimous cynosure among her supervisors. The word “wunderkind” peppers their inter-office memorandums (info made privy to us by Fat Jenny, who traffics in top-floor gossip). The marketing department finally puts a face to the name and, in no time, some bespoke PR troupe swishes through our floor and greets Karen outside her office. She shows them in, upper-lip curling like a thirsty petal, and closes the door behind her.
There’s talk over the next few days, and then we see it: Karen’s face splashed across the “30 Under 30” feature running in the city’s pop-culture weekly. (In this picture, she looks older than thirty: some clueless stylist has done her hair and make-up like any generic news anchor, totally sabotaging Karen’s hipness, her God-given vim.) The company coordinates an industry event to run concurrently with the feature, with Karen slated for the keynote presentation. They rent out a flexible function space on the ground floor of the Ritz Carlton and set up a massive projector screen behind a stage dressed with geometric, post-contemporary nonsense. The seating is just folding chairs. Attendance isn’t mandatory, merely suggested.
Karen wears all black. She never turns her back to us, or lets us see where her hands-free microphone is attached to her pants. “Cultural institutions are re-calibrating for the 21st century,” Karen says. Behind her, the massive projector screen plays a video of some futuristic-looking, industrial-scale hydroponic farm, replete with conveyor belts trucking microgreen pods – little cradles of tender arugula sprigs – through a bright and sterile void. “We’re re-evaluating how we perform our core activities, co-opting cross-disciplinary rigor to effectively hack traditional business practice in this integrative digital age.”
Wow! That sounds competent!
After about a half-hour of this, Karen bids everyone thank you and goodnight. The applause persists slightly beyond what feels natural. The lights come up and the audience adjourns to the lobby. We want to congratulate her on the presentation, but Karen is nowhere in sight.
“My question is,” Fat Jenny says, “what does lettuce have to do with anything?”
Karen’s laugh announces her entrance to the lobby. We’re milling around when we hear it, finally spotting her by the open stage door. Before we can approach, our path is blocked and she is swallowed by a group of upper-management-types – immaculate suits, gray temples, tooth enamel too perfect for their age, suspiciously clean. They shake hands and exchange business cards (even though they must all know each other). One of the VIPs places his fingertips on the small of Karen’s back – she seems not to notice – and maneuvers her easily, as if she’s on wheels, towards the entrance. Outside, a convoy of executive luxury sedans has been prioritized at the curb by a small army of valets. Karen falls neatly into the backseat of one of the cars, which then all roll away in a sleek line.
Guess we’ll catch her on Monday.
Karen won’t always be so pretty. There is this little thing called gravity. However, we simply can’t imagine Karen’s fat / wrinkly / old future. (Did we mention Karen’s Bikram yoga routine?)
But Karen is changing. She wears unfamiliar clothing – expensive-looking couture prospective, maybe, of next year’s trend. She wears a new pair of thick-rimmed glasses that occupy a lot of reality on her face. Below the glasses, her mouth has developed concerning folds at the corners, like a starched napkin. She looks older than thirty.
Sometimes she’s critical of us. Sometimes she’s impatient. Sometimes she admonishes us for our inability to rationalize holistically (a phrase she’s coined and slid into circulation). Sometimes she practices her managerial eye-contact on us like we’re a bunch of business-casual sparring dummies. Sometimes she speaks at length about creative visualization, during which we observe, through her telescopic prescription lenses, eyes like impact craters rayed with fine lines. Is she forgetting to drink enough water? Oh, Karen.
…All of which gives us pause, makes us second-guess, once in a while, this whole Karen thing. (Who were you before us, Karen? Who are you now, Karen? Who are you to stand there, Karen, all crater-faced, in judgment of us?)
We do most of our second-guessing over drinks after work.
“Vivian in HR, she told me how much,” Fat Jenny says. She holds up fingers on both hands. “That many. That’s how much. It’s unprecedented.”
The figure is a tad higher than we expected.
“And you don’t want to talk about it?”
Of course we don’t. We hide our salary from our own children. We shred our ATM receipts into confetti while they’re still in our pockets. We spirit our bank statements from the mail box like love letters from an affair. If our children ask about money, we offer them inscrutable explanations, either round the figure up to Enough, or down to It’s going to be a small Christmas this year. (We work in mysterious ways, as far as our children are concerned.)
“It’s not even about the money,” Fat Jenny says. “I just wish she’d get out of my face. She keeps telling me to leverage best-practice, and I don’t know what the fuck that is. And what’s with all the eye-contact? That’s some Jack Welch, power-tie bullshit. I mean, who the hell does she think she is?”
Who the hell indeed. Karen has a reserved parking spot because of us. We know right where it is, that kind of awkward, dim corner in the executive section of the garage. Very poorly lit.
Fat Jenny says, “You know, I turned down that job?”
(We doubt this very, very much.)
“Because I have integrity. I’m not gonna let that place change me.”
We feel the need to remind Fat Jenny that integrity is only a virtue for exceptional people who risk change for the worse. In her case, a little change might not be so bad. To put a point on it, we sink our finger about two inches into the roll of her love-handle, to which she says Jesus Christ – she’s this close to filing a complaint about our pattern of sexual harassment – to which we say, Pfft, you wish.
We wake up next to Fat Jenny thinking Karen probably owes us. After all, we’ve been in her corner from the beginning. She won her promotion on our recommendation, our professional courtesy. We picked Karen. We could have just as easily picked someone else. The smart thing would have been to pick ourselves! We start to feel as if we’ve loaned her a dollar bill for a scratch-off, and she just won the jackpot.
What, exactly, does she owe us? A little fucking gratitude, probably. We begin to wonder about the decorum in redeeming said professional courtesy. Maybe she could take us out to dinner or something – something low-stakes, comfortable, civil. How might we casually steer her onto the subject; how might we compel her, graciously, towards the proper conclusion?
(Hey Karen. Nice parking spot. Us? Oh, nothing. Car trouble, huh? Weird. Need a ride? No problem at all, your place is on the way. Of course we know where you live – the co-ed baby shower, remember? Can you believe Jenny’s still carrying around all that weight? Car’s in steerage, just a few levels down. Whoa! Steady there. Feeling a little light-headed? Low blood-sugar? That someone eat your salad out of the fridge again? Say, we were gonna stop for a bite – would you like to go to dinner? Yes, with us. Ha ha! Karen! You must be really dizzy…)
Then one thing leads to another and—
Fat Jenny calls shotgun on our way out the door.
Still here? We spot her a ten for a cab.
“Are you serious?” she says.
Okay, we say. Now it’s five for the bus.
Karen could do worse. We’re looking at ourselves in the golden reflection of the elevator doors and we’re thinking, hey, we have qualities too. Not the sort of latent qualities on which Karen has levitated probably her whole life, but, you know, we’re not so bad.
- We dress well.
- We know some French.
- We part our hair on the left, like Superman or Han Solo.
(v. hair parted on right, e.g. Clark Kent, or Hitler.)
She could do worse. The elevator dings and the doors pull our reflection apart.
In the office, something is amiss. A hollow presence looms around our desk all morning, a negative space we can only perceive in our sinus cavities. Is someone fucking with the thermostat? We lick our finger and test the air, but can’t gauge exactly what’s up. It takes until a little after lunch to finally put our finger on it: the door to Karen’s office is closed.
Karen’s office is Karenless.
We spot someone from HR come trundling down the aisle and yank her down by the sleeve of her blouse.
“She’s gone,” HR says.
What do you mean, “gone”? We don’t understand; there’s a brief and tumultuous interregnum in our trail of comprehension, like a pebble dropped on a procession of ants. Please clarify, we say.
“Poached,” HR says, crestfallen, as if delivering more bad news about the Black Rhino. “The grass is greener over at Deloitte, apparently.”
Goddamn Consulting. That figures: a nebulous title for someone as lofty.
We express our condolences to HR – It wasn’t your fault, HR; you can’t blame yourself each and every time a good one slips through your fingers – then say a few words in loving memory of the dearly departed:
She was a pleasure to work with, we say. A competent person.
“Is a competent person,” HR says. “Being competent somewhere else. It’s not like she’s dead.”
But she is kind of dead. Moved on, dis-incorporated – she’s followed the light. Anyway, she’ll be hard to replace.
The elevator doors open and out spills a colorful gaggle of new hires. They come bouncing along the rows of desks, swinging backpacks off their shoulders and unfolding laptops. They chide one another for too-tight collars and sloppily-knotted ties, parrot rote sarcasm – “‘Fake it till you make it!’; ‘Greed is good!’” – all the conventional deflections for selling out, pledging to the frat of Capitalism. It’s a time-honored tradition, like being beat into a gang.
HR sighs. “Top picks. Who knows, maybe they’ll live up to it.” She looks down at her sleeve. “Uhm, you can let go now.”
Of course. C’est la vie. Thanks, HR.
Right, we say. Let’s not get carried away.
A young man pulls out a chair for a pretty, young girl, some bright, promising so-and-so. She smiles and accepts the gesture, for which he beams at her with something like reverence. Greener pastures. Big break. Avancez toujours. Best of luck on your future endeavors. Au revoir, Karen.
 It was Fat Jenny.