Old School

Warfield is old school. He had figured out his methods early, found that they worked well for him, and has stuck with them without deviation ever since.

Therefore, he must go.

Warfield is the head of our department. He is not an unkind man, nor is he severe. He wears starched white cotton shirts – with buttoned-down collars – and he always wears a tie, held in place with a simple gold clip just below the third button. His hair is perfectly parted, a half inch off center, brushed back on his head, and also held in place, in this case with oil. In fact, everything about Warfield is held in place.

He is not a martinet; he is simply unshakably certain of his conclusions and relentlessly genial in his insistence. For him, this results in a system that works efficiently, with a minimum of waste and a maximum of productivity. Our duties are clear and consistent and our processes straightforward, which makes satisfying Warfield easy to do. And we can marvel at this rarest of things: a man of certainty. Yet it is evident to those who look that he balances on the pinnacle of this certainty. There is a tension about it that is sometimes perceptible in his face. And we wait, always wait, for the day his system fails, when Warfield is confronted with an insurmountable contradiction, a challenge, or some outcome that he could not predict. It will be both terrifying and satisfying, earth shaking and inconsequential, when his system fails.

My assigned task is to ensure that this happens. For Warfield must be induced to move on, to quit, to resign, to vacate, to leave, to skedaddle, to make way. Simply to go. Warfield, you see, stands in the way of innovation, and the young minds who now run our organization, while respecting the faultless output of our department, have new ideas for how things should be done. Warfield runs counter to their plans. Warfield resists. Warfield is insubordinate, but in an untouchable way, for he can point to our consistent productivity, pull back the curtain on our efficiency, tally the savings we have provided, and explain all of this with a gentle, patient smile that is as winning as it is irrefutable.

Thus he cannot be attacked on those fronts. Yet I have been tasked, by strictly unofficial though transparently certain directive from the young minds, to find a way to get Warfield removed. To ease him out, painlessly and even willingly if possible, but in the end to see him out the door. He will not be begrudged his severance pay, his retirement, or even every benefit or bonus that he has thoroughly earned and that would be generously bestowed. The sooner, the better, is all.

And I have struck upon my means for doing this.

Because of his need for consistency in our methods, he has always taken a personal interest in the screening and hiring of new staff for our department. His standards are vague, at least to all of us. A candidate need not have a degree in a particular field. He or she must merely show the ability to sit still for four years and achieve a goal. Warfield will teach the new employee everything they need to know. And the fact is, as Warfield correctly points out, most of the jobs in the world don’t really require any specialized knowledge. Most of the jobs in the world are clerical or administrative. Anyone who can dress themselves in the morning can learn to do them.

Over the years, many people have come and gone in our department. Some have graduated to work higher in the organization’s food chain. Others have made lateral transfers where the atmosphere is not so pleasantly oppressive. Too many good people, however, have left our company altogether, frustrated by the rigidity of Warfield’s methods, by his honey-coated denial of every new idea or fresh perspective. This has caught the eye of the young minds and is, in part, why they have determined that Warfield must go.

If our turnover is worrisome to Warfield, he has not let that show. It seems likely to me that he does understand that we lose more staff in a year than comparable departments in our organization, for how could that be an encouraging display of efficiency? And it further seems likely that he understands why. Yet he is devoted to his consistency with an unshakable, overriding certainty, and I suspect he believes that he is weeding out those who would disappoint him in the end, thus providing a service to the organization.

Because of our turnover, we are regularly interviewing potential new staff. Warfield has designated Tuesdays to be our days for meeting and screening these unfortunates. Any candidate who requests a different interview day does not receive a call back. Tuesday it is and Tuesday it must be. This is his first level of review. I am invited to these sessions, I believe, because Warfield wants me to learn from him. Not as his eventual replacement, of course – for who could replace Warfield? – but purely for the transmission of what he sees as valuable knowledge, which he is happy to share.

I have said his standards are vague, but there is one tool in his box that he unwaveringly relies on. I’ve come to see that it is, in fact, the only tool in his box, the only question among the fluff and piffle that actually matters when interviewing candidates. He very simply asks the prospect for the time.

He and I leave our wristwatches behind before we meet with these applicants in the conference room. Warfield chats up the individual, affable and warm. We talk a few specifics about the duties involved, the hours, the benefits. We let the applicant talk, though unless something truly egregious is said, nothing the applicant has to say actually matters to Warfield. It all comes down to his judgment of their character through their response to one question.

These interviews often ramble, and I’ve come to see that Warfield wants them to seem this way. For this is how he can ask a stranger for the time.

“Oh, my,” he will say, looking suddenly toward the door and then to his naked wrist. “The minutes do get away. Can you tell me what time it is?”

And here the real drama unfolds, the make-or-break scrutiny that his certain mind has both set up and waited for.

Warfield is old school. He explained to me once – and only once since to him the insight was so clear and correct that why would it need to be said again? – that the surest test of someone’s respect for time is to know how they keep aware of its passage. Someone who wears a wristwatch has the passage of time ever before their face. A quick glance and this person knows where they are in the day, how much time they have used, and how much they have left. They know how to budget their time because they actually see it pass before their eyes. Furthermore, the display of the twelve hours on the face of the watch give the user a tangible sense of the fullness of this resource in a way that a digital display does not. Such a person, one who properly respects time, will be prompt to arrive each morning and will work diligently until the last minute of the last hour of each day.

A person who takes the time from a cell phone, however, is, well, just not respectful of this resource in Warfield’s mind. A phone stowed in a pocket or a purse does not keep the time before the individual. Time is kept in a dark place. Time is easily ignored. Easily forgotten. Such a person, whatever their other qualities may be, is blithely glib about time, wastes time, fritters time. And therefore can’t make the best kind of employee in Warfield’s mind.

Thus the seemingly innocuous question late in the interview. “Can you tell me what time it is?” A candidate who looks to their wrist passes the test. One who fishes a cell phone from a pocket or purse fails. It’s as simple as that.

Never mind that, in my observation, cell phones spend far more time before most people’s faces than wristwatches ever did. To Warfield, the candidate’s fatal character flaw is revealed, and the rigidity and reliability of his judgment make the decision easy for him. One will pass. One will be rejected.

Knowing this, and knowing my directive, I scripted my own little drama to play out in the conference room.

Among our regular Tuesday interview candidates, I had recruited a ringer. Let us call him Horace. Horace was prompt to arrive and waited patiently in the conference room for us to appear. He wore an old-fashioned, tweedy suit, punctuated by a light-colored vest, and appeared on first impression as meticulous, in his own way, as Warfield was in his. His hair was neatly trimmed and his folio of resumes and other documents lay squarely before him on the table. Most importantly, however, his shirtsleeves were perhaps a half-inch too long for his arms, crowding his hands and hiding his wrists.

He was polishing his glasses with a handkerchief when we entered the conference room. Replacing his glasses, he folded the handkerchief carefully then slipped it into his jacket pocket. Only after this unhurried performance did he rise and extend his hand, giving each of us a firm, warm shake. A good start.

“Please, sit down,” said Warfield. And so our drama ensued.

On paper, Horace presented an enviable work and education history, one that he and I had contrived weeks before. In fact, we had dumbed down his actual accomplishments in this faux resume. His voice was measured and mellifluous. He spoke in complete sentences, with the affectation of taking the slightest moment of hesitation before responding to Warfield’s questions, as though desiring to say the right thing rather than the first thing. Having sat through innumerable interviews with Warfield, I knew the usual questions that would be asked, and so Horace and I had rehearsed how they might be answered to create the impression of a thoroughly responsible and dependable employee. In all, he was a jewel of a candidate. And, in the end, all of this meant nothing to Warfield.

We chatted. We rambled. We even laughed at times. A congenial interview with a suitable candidate. Only once did I see Warfield raise an eyebrow, ever so slightly, in response to something Horace had said, for Horace had spoken of a change he had instituted.

“In my last company, I had made the suggestion that our receptionist, who was also responsible for paging any of us on the overhead speakers, make an announcement each morning and evening. ‘Good morning,’ she would say. ‘It’s eight o’clock.’ And ‘Good evening,’ she would say. ‘It’s five o’clock.’ The value of this is, I’m sure, obvious to you. It alerted my colleagues to the beginning of their workday, ending many water cooler conversations so that the tasks they were being paid to do would begin. Similarly, knowing that they would be alerted to the end of their day, we found that most people kept on task until that moment, rather than ending ten or twenty minutes before then and just clocking time.” He paused for a moment of reflection, which Warfield uncharacteristically allowed because, I suspect, he intended to soon make a similar suggestion in our organization.

Horace went on. “I knew, of course, that the receptionist would resist this new task. And I could hear the resentment in her voice the first few days when she was obliged to make her new announcements. But, as these things tend to go with creatures of habit, it quickly became her habit. She soon religiously announced the times twice a day, and I’m sure if you asked her, she would honestly believe that it was both her idea to begin with and that we had always done it this way.”

Warfield was so enamored with this idea that I am sure he never realized that Horace was sending a subtle barb his way. Further, I worried he would not come around to his most important interview question. The one all of this elaborate performance was intended to lead to.

I needn’t have worried. Reliable Warfield took his turn. It really could not have been any other way.

“Oh, my,” he said, looking to the door and then to his naked wrist. “Time does get away. Can you tell me what time it is, Horace?”

“Certainly.” In his measured way, Horace replaced the cap of the fountain pen he had been using to take his notes, set the pen down squarely beside his notepad, and made his deliberate, fatal mistake.

He slipped several fingers into the pocket of his vest.

Because I have been in scores of these interviews with Warfield, and because I had been waiting for this moment, I could see the faintest flicker of his eyelid as he began to suspect Horace was going to fail. Horace had presented as a candidate, and possibly already an employee, ideal to Warfield’s needs and views. Such a mistake was a tragic disappointment.

And yet, Horace did not pull a cell phone from his pocket. Instead, he produced something Warfield had never anticipated. He held in his hand an old school pocket watch. He pressed the button at its top and the front popped open. The timepiece sat gold and gleaming in his hand. Horace then politely gave us the time.

He had out old-schooled Warfield. He had beaten the man at his own game.

I could almost feel pity for Warfield then. He mumbled some words. His face was ashen and he rose quickly from the table, hurrying out of the room.

“Did I say something wrong?” Horace asked, still in character.

Horace begins next week as the new head of our department.

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author bio:

Paul Lamb lives near Kansas City, but he escapes to the Missouri Ozarks every chance he gets. His stories have appeared in or been accepted by THEMA Literary Journal, Aethlon, Bartleby Snopes, Penduline Press, The Fictioneer, Little Patuxant Review, Nassau Review, and others. He keeps a blog about his writing and other oddments at Lucky Rabbit’s Foot. He rarely strays far from his laptop.

This story’s featured image is by Mitch Lensink, and can be found on Unsplash.