In the Company of the Company
June 27, 2023
Story by Robert Fromberg
Photograph by Maya Heins
The first problem with the company holiday party, which I noticed when the invitation arrived in my in-box, was spatial. About 150 people worked for the company, and all were invited. Spouses and significant others also were invited. The party was being held at the home of one of the founders. I tried to imagine the sort of house that could accommodate potentially 300 people, plus enough surfaces for the requisite food and beverages.
The second problem I noted in the email about the company holiday party was also spatial: the description of where to park. One option, we were told, was to park in the co-founder’s driveway, but we were cautioned that this was option only for the earliest of early arrivers. Beyond that, we were told, parking options were limited. The road leading to the house was narrow, said the email message, so narrow that to park alongside it would require that we pull our cars over onto the grass, and that was fine, as long as there was no snow. However, the road was not long enough to allow all of us to park along it.
We could, the email went on, park in the driveways of her neighbors, as long as we didn’t block anyone in. The email message explained that if we were not able to park in her driveway or along the road or in the neighbors’ driveways, no ready parking options were available.
I rewrote the invitation in biblical style: “Many are called, but few can park.”
Two days before the party, we had a significant snowfall, the result of which lay sparkling white under streetlights on top of previous significant snowfalls along a rather busy road I had never previously traveled bisecting a suburb north of the office that looked menacingly clean.
Turning onto the narrow road promised in the invitation, I directed my car through the interstices formed not so much by the snow as by cars hanging onto the snowbanks all along both sides. As I tried not to scrape cars while scanning for a parking space that I knew would require not so much spotting as creating, I noticed, barely illuminated by a few streetlights and yard lights, driveways leading to houses that even at a distance astonished me with their presence, resembling as they did giant square-shouldered robots breaking through the earth. I wondered where these giant robots posted their house numbers.
As I walked toward the front door, I saw hope: Two young men, much younger than I, also new to the company, seeming a tad overwhelmed as they looked for a doorbell or a knocker on all the ornateness that was the door and its frame. I would be their calm and mature guide from outside to in. We would chat. And I would have a smooth onramp to merge into the party.
“Hey, guys,” I said, or words to that effect. They glanced my way. One of them mumbled something. The other opened the door and entered. I looked down, conscious of being about to set my snow-soaked left shoe—I had stepped out of my car into an ankle-high pile of snow—onto the floor of the co-founder’s house. When I looked up, the young men were gone.
I entered the kitchen and took carrot sticks and a cup of club soda. I coasted solo around the perimeter of one large room. I watched many Black women in uniforms rotating through the crowd, holding trays and offering inscrutable items to the White people, who more often didn’t than did take the offerings, communicating with the Black women in uniforms with head shakes or nods, eyes on the trays but never on the eyes of the Black women in uniforms.
I finished my carrot sticks, swished club soda around my teeth, and made another lap around the perimeter.
To be clear, I was not exactly a stranger to the company. My position was high-ranking enough that I had been interviewed by both of the still-working founders and one of the longest-tenured partners. In my first few weeks, I had met with most of the managing partners. In previous positions in other companies, I had published articles and books by a handful of the executives over the course of almost twenty years.
Nor was I inept at socializing. In my previous job, I was the main attraction at meet-the-editor parties for advertisers, at which I chatted with one small group until an advertising rep would guide me toward another group until another advertising reps would guide me to another group and so on like a slow-motion pinball until after two hours my boss would grasp my shoulders from behind. She would whisper, “I’ve come to rescue you,” and propel me toward the exit.
I had reconnoitered the kitchen, the main room with a piano, and another main room without a piano. I had detached most of the carrot shards from my teeth. I decided it was time to take what was left of my club soda and move in, with purpose.
I saw two managing partners talking in the main room without the piano. One had interviewed me, and I had worked with him on articles two or three times over the years. The other I had met with the previous week. This time I was able to form an image in my mind: the three of us chatting, easy equals. I approached and stood close enough to form a recognizable equilateral triangle.
I didn’t say hello because the taller of the two—hair combed back and firmly in place, gray at the temples, skin stretched tight over a Madison Avenue jaw—was in the middle of a comment to the shorter of the two—shorter even than me, plump, round faced, hair thick and whitish grey.
I thought the tall partner might pause to greet me, but he did not. So I waited for a natural pause into which to insert a hello and maybe welcome-to-the-company handshakes.
The short partner’s response overlapped the end of the tall one’s sentence, so I didn’t say hello. Perhaps, I thought, a nod would do as well.
The short one spoke in a soft, almost inflectionless Irish brogue. His voice was lovely. Like mist: light, seductive, and impossible to ignore. He could not be expected both to answer the tall partner and send his eyes to me, so I looked up at the face of the tall partner, waiting for a meeting of our eyes that would ensure my nod would be seen. He was absorbed in the words of the short partner, however, and any nod would have died in the air between us.
The time for a nod had passed, I gauged. That was fine. I was there to chat, and so I would chat. My arsenal of quips and anecdotes was broad and deep, as was my ability to improvise.
The short partner was still talking. I forced myself to attend to his words rather than his seductive voice, to listen for the word or phrase that would be my cue.
After a few minutes, I realized that I did not understand what he was saying. Oh, I heard familiar words here and there—an occasional verb, a random preposition—but the rest seemed to slide by me. Perhaps, I thought, it was the short partner’s accent. Or perhaps my attention wasn’t sufficiently riveted to his comments. In either case, if I were here to make conversation, I needed to focus more raptly on what was being said.
By this point, the tall partner was speaking. No unfamiliar accent. Volume more than adequate. Excellent enunciation. Many of the words were familiar. But many were not. The two partners seemed to be talking about a daughter going away to college, or Catholic universities overseas, or vacation homes. Those were just guesses.
Still, they had not looked at me. I checked the dimensions of the triangle my presence created. I saw that it was now more of an isosceles or scalene triangle than an equilateral triangle. I was beginning to float away from them. In a moment, they would think, if they saw me or thought about me, that I was just pausing while passing.
I stepped in closer.
I knew, however, that physical proximity would not be sufficient. To establish the three of us as a veracious trio, I would have to speak.
Years ago, I wrote a story called “The Art of Talking.” It was about a character who taught himself how to converse by studying Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” After this study, in preparation for a social outing, he wrote a list of questions to ask his companion, who, after an hour, turned to the character and said, “You sure ask a lot of questions.”
Since then, I learned the power of the almighty transition. I learned the various forms a transition can take. I learned that the most powerful conversational transition was the repetition of a word or phrase that another person spoke, the repetition an entree to an anecdote or opinion: “I had fun at Disneyworld.” “When I went to Disneyworld, I enjoyed the food.” Simple.
Except that, even as topics of conversation between the tall partner and the short partner unwound, and as I listened intently, I heard no word that triggered even the most tenuously connected experience or opinion.
In absence of any word toward which to throw a line with my transitional hook, or any pause within which I could insert a new line of conversation, I allowed their tones of voice to indicate to me where I should “mmm” in agreement, surprise, or thoughtful understanding.
I stepped closer: six inches from the tall partner, six inches from the short partner. My “mmm’s” grew louder. My nods became more exaggerated, almost violent.
Here. Now. I was taking my stand.
Theirs was not a private conversation. I may not have known anything about their topics, but I knew small talk when I heard it. In any case, no one can expect to have a private conversation at a company party. Need I explain the denotations and connotations of “company” to two men of such wide experience and fine grooming?
Lacking any commonality for a conversational transition, lacking any pause for a new topic, I would stand here until one of these two men turned to me, looked me in the eye, and asked me a question.
Had neither of them ever watched Johnny Carson on television?
These days, people talk about “exit strategies.” From jobs, marriages, wars. Ideally, says the conventional wisdom, you know the exit strategy before entering the fray. Next best, you figure your exit strategy before your opponent creates it for you.
When I formed a social triangle with the tall partner and the short partner, I had only the intent of having a conversation, be it pleasant or awkward, short or long. Ignored, I now celebrated my lack of a route for egress. Exit strategies were for those who lacked beliefs, for those who lacked mettle.
Having only eaten three carrot sticks, I was hungry.
My knees hurt from standing in one place.
I didn’t know what to do with my empty plastic cup.
My shoe and sock had dried, but I knew they would get wet again when I returned to my car.
But all of that only fortified me.
Fuck these two.
Let them suffer with my presence. Let them have nightmares about me. Let them see images of me in their peripheral vision at their children’s weddings, at their retirement parties, at their parents’ deathbeds, from their own deathbeds.
I would stand here as long as it took.