He attended the Christmas party every year. Outgoing and gregarious, no one would ever believe the fact that he hated the event. It was a waste of money. It was a stressful ordeal in a supposedly happy place. Worst of all, he was expected to attend and not paid to do so. It was work in a social setting and he hated every minute of it. He counted them down until he could escape.
Three months ago, the secretary was taking a poll. “What would you like to do for the Christmas party this year?” Everyone laughed when he said, “Not have one,” but no one took him seriously. He’s such a kidder, you know.
Three months later, he found himself held hostage for three hours at a casual restaurant in the ritzy part of town. The president of the company flew down on the company dime. He and his wife were staying at the hotel across the street, also on the company dime. The vice-president and a few select clients were also staying at the hotel at the company’s expense. “Fucking waste of money,” he thought to himself.
The bar was open. The Mormons avoided it and the non-Mormons imbibed enough for both. They were too involved in their own drinks (or lack thereof), to notice that he never went to the bar once. He feared that with even one drink in his system he would be unable to hold his tongue.
Unlike the other managers, he always sat with his team. There was a special table where the managers fought for a spot next to the president or one of the influential clients, but he avoided it every year. He thought it was the honorable thing to do to sit with his employees. He noticed, however, that they seemed to enjoy the party as much as he did. He wondered if it was because he liked to hire people who appreciated hard work as much as he did or if his hidden mood affected them in ways he couldn’t measure. Maybe it was merely his presence at the table which dampened their spirits, he brooded.
There was a squeaky little rented PA system. The secretarial staff sang odes to various employees and managers to the tunes of Christmas songs. He had the sneaking suspicion that they wouldn’t have been able to sing the real words to Good King Wenceslas if asked. He pretended to laugh jovially when they sang about how hard his team worked and how they were the only ones who were always on time and under budget. He patted his second in command on the shoulder and held up his glass of water to them.
The gag gifts were distributed and explained. The food was choked down and the alcohol made the president and the vice-president sway. The Christmas music was plugged into the PA system and the mingling began. It was his time to escape. He gathered his coat and made a happy show of putting it on. His team members took the cue as permission to leave and started to bundle up. He patted them on the back and shook spousal hands, all the while, heading for the door himself.
There was a young man leaning on his car. He only recognized him as someone who didn’t work for him. “I’m supposed to stop you from leaving.” Inside, his stomach churned. The fat-laden food mixed unhappily with the many glasses of water. Outside, he smiled and made a joke, “You are, are you? Who wants me to stay?” The young man headed toward the restaurant. “I’ll get him,” but then he stopped with a worried look on his face. “You’re not going to leave are you? I told him I’d stopped you.” The manager took out his keys and his eyes crinkled with mirth. “Oh, you stopped me, but now I’m going,” he said with a smile. The young man’s face filled with panic, but the manager put his keys away and leaned against the car. “I’ll stay. I promise.”
The young man returned with the president of the company. The president walked precariously through the snow until the young man ran back into the restaurant. The second the door swung closed, the president straightened up and walked assuredly. The manager was surprised, but he realized that he hadn’t noticed whether the president had visited the bar all night. He had only observed his behavior.
“Every year you leave early.” The voice felt like a reprimand. “Every year you avoid my table.” Another sting. He felt like he should justify himself. “I just think I should celebrate with my team. They’re the ones that get the work done.” The president leaned on his car and the two of them looked into glowing windows of the restaurant. The president continued, “The joke around is that when you were asked what we should do for the Christmas party, you said, ‘Not have one.'” The cold air felt good on the manager’s reddened face. “Yeah…”
Things were quiet for a moment and their breaths made small clouds of vapor. The manager pretended that they were just two guys outside on a smoke break. He breathed deeply, pretending to smoke and watched the vapor flow out of his mouth. The president finally spoke, “Fucking waste of money.” The manager breathed in deeply and replied, “The food was delicious.” It was the only truth he could grasp at. The food had been delicious and richer than anything he had eaten for months.
“Gives me indigestion,” The president blew out a large cloud of vapor and continued, “I know you hate these things as much as I do. You have to understand one thing, they expect it. Once a year, they want to see me drunk and silly. They want that one chance to tell me the truth, thinking that I won’t remember it in the morning.” The manager nodded and imagined himself taking a big draw of a cigarette with his buddy. It was the only thought that calmed him. The president continued, “He’s retiring in two months.” The manager nodded. The secretarial staff had taken a collection for the going away party for the vice-president.
The president raised his hand toward the restaurant. “They all are wondering who is going to take his place.” The manager nodded again, taking an imaginary draught of his imaginary cigarette. He stayed silent and blew out the imaginary smoke from his imaginary cigarette. “If I choose you, they’re going to expect you in there, tipsy and willing to listen to their confessions and they’ll expect you to forget ’em by the next morning.” The manager coughed on the imaginary smoke and the president continued, “And then, they’ll be no escape for you.”