Contest #139 shortlist ⭐️

17 comments

Contemporary Drama

“This company could save a fortune on air conditioning.”

A shiver ran through me as I sat looking around the HR manager’s small office, wearing only a t-shirt and my boxer briefs. The cooling unit under the window rattled. It was on high and the adrenaline was wearing off.

I was alone, sitting on a lime green plastic office chair facing a desk carefully arranged with standard office equipment, file folders, and sticky notes. People usually waited in the reception area, but given the circumstances the secretary had made an exception, ushered me quickly into the inner sanctum, and closed the door behind me.

My stomach knotted itself into a pretzel as I considered my recent life choices. I suddenly had a headache. My leg bounced nervously as I crossed my arms tightly across my chest.

“I want to go home.”

If I was home I’d be sitting in my own office, in my ergonomically-friendly chair, comfortably clothed and warm. I’d be planning a project or discussing something important with a co-worker on Zoom. I’d be doing actual work instead of sitting in my underwear in a middle-manager’s run-down step up from a cubicle.

For two years the pandemic had kept us away from the office. It was strange at first. We had to get used to working online. People’s daily routines were upended. But I was lucky. I had a spare room I could work in. The house was quiet during the day. The job didn’t require my physical presence, just a laptop and a decent internet connection. I had more flexibility and I didn’t have to worry about long commutes or ironing shirts in the morning.

Then the email came. It informed everyone in my department that we were expected to be back in the office full-time, starting the following Monday. It felt like our lives were getting upended again, but this time to return to a status quo we’d outgrown. I sat staring at the message for a while until a line near the bottom gnawed itself into my consciousness.

“We’d like to remind everyone that the office has a strict business dress code. No casual clothing permitted.”

Sitting there in my jeans and hoodie, reading that passive-aggressive footnote made me irrationally angry. “No casual clothing permitted.” As if we’d all been playing hooky for two years and were suddenly caught in the act. As if real work could only be done from behind a jacket and tie, or wrapped in a business formal pantsuit.

* * *

I listened to one of the interns talking with the secretary out in the hall. They laughed about something he said and I suddenly felt disconnected, left out. It felt like I’d been sent to my room, or deposited on another planet. Them out there, in their suits and snappy business attire. Me in here, sitting alone in my briefs.

“I don’t have to stay.”

I could stand up, open the door, walk past them, and drive home. I don’t need to stay here like a kid waiting in the principal’s office. I’m not a child. 

I heard my dad’s voice in my head saying, “Grown-ups don’t come to work in their underwear.” 

The truth was, I didn’t have any “proper business” clothes anymore. Like a lot of people, I’d put on a little weight during the pandemic. A year ago I realized that my previously well-tailored pants and shirts were comically snug. But a button-down shirt was all you really needed to look “respectable” in a Zoom call, and on lighter days you could even get away with a hoodie. I did some of my best work in jeans and a t-shirt.

The more I thought about it, the more worked up I got. I was pissed off about my life being turned upside down again. I was angry about having to spend a fortune buying new clothes that obviously weren’t necessary to do my job.

That’s what I was thinking about as I stood in my driveway on Monday morning, wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. The plan was to show up at the office in the same clothes I’d worked in for the past two years. But suddenly being underdressed didn’t seem like enough. So I stood by my car and took off every piece of casual clothing that wasn’t “permitted.” Hoodie, jeans, white socks, sneakers. I left them there in a pile on the asphalt, got in the car, and started driving.

* * *

The secretary poked her head into the office to let me know my executioner was just finishing up an interview and would be back shortly. I smiled awkwardly, shivered involuntarily, and said thanks. She paused for a second, not quite knowing how to interact with me. With a hint of exasperation in her voice she asked if I wanted some coffee. I said no and she escaped.

“Coffee. That’s why I have a headache. I haven’t had any coffee today.”

Caffeination hadn’t been the first thing on my mind when I arrived this morning. The drive had given me time to calm down and think. I sat in the parking lot and considered my options. I could go back. I could drive home to my clothes waiting in the driveway. Dazed, I stared blankly into the distance at the bins behind the building.

Months ago, in a moment of combined pessimism about ever losing the extra weight and optimism about ever needing to dress up for work again, I donated my suits to one of the second hand shops in town. As I stood in front of the donation bin I remember thinking they might help some young kid who needed clothes for an interview or a new job. They might help someone start their career. Someone like Thomas.

Thomas and Josh were interns with our department a few years ago. Same college, same age, started the same day. Josh showed up dressed to the nines. Smart cuffs, shined shoes, perfectly folded pocket square. He made the CEO look underdressed. People in the office noticed him. They gravitated to him, gave him access and opportunities. 

Thomas didn’t have the money or fashion sense to compete. He worked hard and contributed to the success of some important projects, but he didn’t look the part. I remembered a co-worker who’d made fun of his drab slacks and shirt, saying they’d thought he was a member of the custodial staff. Another said his work was good, but he was “no Josh.”

Back in the company parking lot, I realized I should have spoken up for Thomas. It was easy to ignore what he was going through when I’d been sitting in my office, wearing Giorgio Armani. Now I was sitting in my car, wearing nothing but my Haynes. I heard the car door clunk open beside me and felt the cool air from outside. I got out and started walking towards the office. 

* * *

I went in through the side door of the building without anyone noticing. As I moved quickly to the stairwell I thought a couple people saw me, but from where they were they probably assumed I was wearing bike shorts and had decided to take up healthy commuting. I sprinted up the stairs to the fourth floor, slipped down the hall to my old office and quickly closed the door behind me.

I sat down at my desk and waited. Nothing happened. I turned on my computer. There was no knock at the door. Worked on a report. No concerned voices in the hallway. For the rest of the morning I went through the motions, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It all seemed very anticlimactic. Around 1:00, I opened the door to my office and ran back to my desk. There wasn’t a lot of foot traffic in this part of the floor. A couple people walked by but no one seemed to realize I was answering emails in my underwear.

But 2:00 was coming. At 2:00 there was a team meeting on the other side of the building. Not only would my co-workers almost certainly be wearing pants, but to get there I’d have to walk straight through the main cubicle area on our floor. There’d be no chance people wouldn’t notice. I’d be exposed.

I thought about the people who would be at the meeting. People I worked with every day. Team members who relied on my expertise and valued my opinions. And our director: a precise, serious person who was a staunch believer in the power of the dress code.

Just before the pandemic began, we had all been in a meeting to get ready for a big presentation to a partner. At the end, the director stood at the head of the table and very pointedly reminded us of the importance of dressing appropriately and making a good impression on our client. At first I was confused. Why was this suddenly an issue? But then I noticed the look on Denver’s face across from me.

Denver was wearing a beautiful blouse and slacks. They looked professional, capable, and smart. They were those things. Denver was one of the most productive and effective members of our team. But now, Denver looked shattered. In the awkward pause that followed the message was clear. The director thought Denver should be wearing a suit and tie.

1:55. I got up from my desk and grabbed a notebook. I made myself leave the protection of my desk and walk to the door, heart racing. I froze there, like there was an invisible force field holding me back from leaving the room. And then one of my bare feet took a step forward and I was walking. Down the hall, towards the cubicle area and the meeting room on the other side.

Time slowed as I walked across the building in my briefs. I could see each person’s reaction as they noticed me. It was like watching a documentary about the range of human personalities. Some people saw me and quickly looked away. Others whispered and nudged the person beside them to take a look. One asked me if I was alright as I walked by. A few looked right through me, refusing to acknowledge I existed.

And then suddenly I was standing at the front of the meeting room, looking down the table at my surprised, fully-dressed coworkers. At the other end of the table was my director, staring at me with a stupid, involuntary look of disgust.

It was a very brief meeting.

* * *

There was a sharp knock on the door and the HR manager walked into his own office like a doctor entering to examine a patient. He stood in his well-tailored suit looking at me for a few seconds, then closed the door and walked over to his desk. He tossed a few folders on his keyboard and sat down. He looked tired.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

I heard myself tell him that I was demonstrating people didn’t need to be wearing their best clothes to do their best work. Like it was a case study of some kind. Sitting there in his expensive jacket and patent leather Oxfords, he didn’t seem to find that funny.

“Is this some kind of childish protest? You’re a grown man. What makes you think you can pull a stupid stunt like this?”

This may be stupid, but so was believing clothes make the man. What makes me special enough to disrupt his day like this? Maybe nothing, but it was a lot easier for me to sit here than Thomas or Denver, and I wanted to do something.

I stared back at him in cold silence. I noticed how tight his tie looked, the stiffness of his shirt, the fine pattern in his jacket. He could fire me. He probably should fire me. This expensive business suit was about to have me trying to figure out how I was going to pay my mortgage next month.

The suit’s mouth opened, but nothing came out. Its posture deflated and it sat back. Sneering, it looked me in the eye and tapped the folders on the desk. 

“I just got out of a third round interview with a job candidate who politely declined the best offer we’ve ever made to a new hire. We’ve had two other candidates ghost us in the last week. The last thing I need is to have to replace your sophomoric ass right now.”

This wasn’t what I was expecting. Suddenly I got the distinct impression the suit and I were negotiating. After a few seconds it said that if it would get me back to actually doing my job I could wear dress pants and a button-down in the office.

“Nice jeans and a plain t-shirt.” 

I wasn’t quite sure where that came from, but I liked the sound of it afterward. The suit countered by pretending it didn’t care but insisting on dress shoes.

“Casual shoes. No sandals or sneakers.”

The suit was very annoyed. In a last ditch effort it demurred but tried to insist the full dress code be followed on days when clients were in the office.

“I’m done putting on costumes for other people.”

There was a long pause. The suit said it didn’t suppose I had any real clothes to put on in my office or back in my car. I shook my head. The suit suggested that perhaps I should take the rest of the afternoon as personal time then.

I got up, walked to the door, and opened it to leave. I could hear people working and talking down the hall and over in the cubicles. But the idea of walking back through the building didn’t bother me anymore. The suit shivered and grumpily mused that everyone was probably going to expect the same treatment now. 

“Exactly,” I thought, and closed the door behind me.

April 01, 2022 22:45

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17 comments

Melanie Hawkes
09:09 Apr 12, 2022

This is me, without the protest! I'm not brave enough. Well done on being shortlisted with this fun story. I'm dreading the day I have to go back to working in the office. Working from home means no shower, no shoes, no bra - it's the best!

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Jared Lenover
18:31 Apr 12, 2022

And as long as you get the work done... what's the problem! 😀 Thanks Melanie!

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Ron Smith
18:07 Sep 01, 2022

Interesting idea for a post-pandemic story.

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Jared Lenover
15:50 Sep 03, 2022

Thanks Ron!

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Felice Noelle
12:21 Jun 08, 2022

Jared: And loving the last two stories you wrote, I read your first. It was an expose on a cultural matter that should scare the BeJesus out of the writer of that cultural "bible" "How to Dress for Success." I'm sure many in the corporate world read it and took heed. I remember I bought and gifted copies to each of my kids when they g raduated college, two going on to law school. And then there's the outmoded admonition to up-dress to the upperly mobile position you aspire to. You poked fun and masterfully debunked the staid and stale...

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Jared Lenover
13:00 Jun 08, 2022

Thanks Maureen! I really appreciate you reading all three and leaving such thoughtful comments!

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Andrea Doig
18:20 Apr 10, 2022

Fab job on being shortlisted. Reiterates that we all have lived through the same deal in the pandemic - no matter where we are in the world. I loved your take on the HR "suit" - being in the corporate world myself I am no stranger to the arrogance of the HRM ;) I loved that he won in the end (your protagonist) and also that the HRM realised that this is a new world now and flexibility is the new order ;) A win-win really! Well done.

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Jared Lenover
14:55 Apr 11, 2022

Thanks! I'm glad you liked the "suit." Hopefully office life will keep evolving in a positive direction! 🙂

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J.C. Lovero
20:15 Apr 09, 2022

Hi Jared, What a fun story. Loved the narrator's bravery - not sure many people could have pulled that off! (pun intended) I like your story's double-entendre title. Cleverly done. Congrats on the shorlisted story, and welcome to Reedsy!

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Jared Lenover
23:14 Apr 09, 2022

Thanks J.C.! 😁

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Jay Mc Kenzie
09:34 Apr 09, 2022

Very funny story and one we can probably all relate to, post- pandemic. I taught an awful lot of online classes in pyjamas with a smart shirt over the top! Congrats on the shortlist!

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Jared Lenover
17:07 Apr 09, 2022

Amazing! And thank you! 😀

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Kate Winchester
03:27 Apr 09, 2022

Congrats on the shortlist! This was great. It was funny, and I really liked your take on the prompt!

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Jared Lenover
04:15 Apr 09, 2022

Thanks Kate! 🙂

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Kate Winchester
11:22 Apr 09, 2022

Welcome 😊

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Kelsey H
21:55 Apr 07, 2022

Very creative and entertaining take on this prompt. I loved the narrator's thoughts on his workplace!

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Jared Lenover
22:21 Apr 07, 2022

Thanks Kelsey! 😀

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