'THE FIRST TIME HE SAID THAT WORD' by ROBERT FROMBERG

Wait, what is that expression on his face as he settles into the highbacked seat at the head of the conference table? We struggle to define it. We settle on this: self-satisfied yet expectant, as though the first pitch of the season has not been thrown, but he already sees himself being carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates after winning the World Series, really singlehandedly, but good of his teammates to keep him company and offer their whoops, their hollers, their shoulders.

And what is he wearing? Around his neck and over his sports jacket, we see a scarf. A sharp one, we must admit, $340 worth of muted colors and wool as smooth as a puppy’s belly. But a scarf at a business meeting? Absolutely unheard of in the history of business meetings, at least any we have attended. But if anyone can pull it off, he can.

Do you want to know what mastery looks like? It looks like a short man relaxing in a highbacked conference room chair without his head being thrust awkwardly forward because it rests too low on a curved seatback designed for a taller person. We fellow smaller men around the table have tried and failed to accomplish this for years, while we women have never enjoyed the luxury of allowing ourselves to lean back in a conference room, and if any people of color or nonbinary sexual orientation were among us…well, none are. No wonder we attend to this man, no wonder we align (one of his favorite words) our followership with his leadership.

We all know something is coming. What? we ask ourselves, knowing it is beyond our station to answer such a question. When? we ask ourselves, knowing that our role is only to wait. We slide back from the edge of our seats. Such an act we are putting on in this conference room, pretending we are not as excited as a group of people in a conference room could be.

There! A pause between sentences. A slight lift of his eyebrows. A leaning forward from his relaxed position against the chairback. As if he is a general in an air-conditioned room far from the front line preparing to order an invasion, a director on a 1950s film set ready to shout “action,” a 21-year-old protester who later in life will become an ad man pulling back his arm before tossing a Molotov cocktail. We glance toward one another to see if we all have caught the signal. We have.

He begins a sentence. It is, we know, The Sentence. It begins as just an ordinary sentence, but that does not erode our confidence in its import. We understand the relationship between background and foreground; we are familiar with the calm before the storm.

What he says, the beginning of his sentence is this: “It’s a complicated situation, one that will take some time to…”

At this point in The Sentence he not so much pauses as draws back the rubber band of his slingshot. We see (did we all see it? yes, we did) a Humphrey Bogart twitch at the corner of his mouth.

“…some time to…”

(We are breathless.)

“…unpack.”

Unpack. The word hangs in the air, first at eye level, then rising, Roman candle-style, as we manage not to vocalize the “ooh” and “aah” coursing through our bodies.

Unpack. In all our days as an aural audience to corporate linguistic gymnastics, so much so that if it did not misalign our followership, we might feel a phantom limb where our jadedness used to be, we have never been at the unveiling of such a term. May it never become a cliché, the word evokes for each of us different but harmonious images—from opening non-disappointing presents on birthdays to removing sleek electronics from packaging that fits so snugly the effect is of sex better than we have ever actually experienced—thus investing its corporate connotation with a richness of purpose that will, we know, enhance the value of our lives.

He settles back, now just barely not grinning, taking a victory lap of glances around the table at our expressions of awe as we bask in this moment.

As a well-earned triumph leads to a worriless evening respite, we expect now to experience a collective sigh of satisfaction as we return to the here-and-now of the meeting, although at a higher level of engagement and commitment. But that is not the case. It is as though we have joined hands under the table as we brace against the pollutant we feel encroaching on our mood.

This man, we now acknowledge, is not a creator. We may never have heard this new corporate coinage, but he surely has, probably just yesterday. He is a repackager. A deft one, an expert one, the best one we have ever seen, making even the most conventional of wisdoms into something colorful and tasty. But a repackager nonetheless.

We see him, last night, his dogs asleep on the bedroom rug and his wife reading a bestselling novel beside him in bed, leaning against the headboard, his eyes open but unseeing, as he formulates his plan to use this term for maximum effect at this very meeting.

We also know that, even as he plots the climax we have just experienced, he is aware of something else: that this moment, no matter how well executed, is for him as unearned as his $340 scarf.

Under the table, we now actually touch. We squeeze each other’s hands, unsure what this new understanding means to our lives.

That night, as I am falling asleep, I see a Roman candle land in a group of children, setting several of them on fire.

 

Robert Fromberg is the author of How to Walk with Steve (Latah Books), a memoir of autism, art, and embarrassment. His prose has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Talk Vomit, Unfortunately, and many other journals. He used to teach writing at Northwestern University and proofread telephone books. @robfromberg.