When I received the phone message that Alan Carney, the director of Human
Resources, wished to see me in his office “nine a.m. sharp” the next day
(why is it always “sharp,” when meetings are invariably dull?), I was
curious. I had met Carney, now some four years ago, when I accepted the
position as senior auditor for the company, but our relationship had never
progressed beyond a keep-walking “Hey, how are ya?” when we passed in the
halls. Because I was on six and he was on eight, we enacted this ritual
approximately once every two weeks, which was sufficient for him to
recognize my name and face when I needed something from him every year or
so. I assumed—and sincerely hoped—that our relationship would never
Next morning, I pulled my BMW Z3 into my usual space, E17, which I prefer in
the late fall and winter. At seventy-five yards from Entrance 4, it provides
moderate exercise, and it’s far enough away to carry a low ding risk. Plus,
its southeast orientation warms the car without overheating the leather
seat. I had not as yet determined why Carney wanted to see me, although I
admit to having given the question little sustained thought. My department
wasn’t involved in any hiring, and I couldn’t recall any recent government
compliance regs that we needed to discuss. Somewhat put off by the curt tone
of his uninformative summons, which did not even inquire whether this would
be a good time for me, I took the garage elevator to eight. I opened the big
glass doors and presented myself to the receptionist. “Robert McKendrie to
see Alan Carney.”
I noticed with chagrin, as I had in my several other visits, that his
environment was considerably tonier than mine: carpet with a nap, sleek
leather couches and chairs, real oak furniture, lamps that don’t clamp to
the desk. I understood why his office had to look high end—every would-be
executive the company was trying to impress was trotted through this
office—still, sometimes I wished my own surroundings were not an unrelieved
landscape of tan steel from the late twentieth century Hon dynasty. Alas,
auditors—dour corporate monks as we are—need to appear ascetic.
“You may go in,” the receptionist said, affixing her official smile and
gesturing to the closed door that bore Alan Carney’s nameplate. Carney was
sitting behind his luxurious mahogany desk on which perched a giant
telephone with dozens of buttons and a flat-panel computer monitor as big as
my TV. My attention was drawn to his desktop, where a manila folder with my
name on the tab sat next to the keyboard. I jumped slightly when I heard the
rustle of fabric and the jangle of costume jewelry from off to the side. I
turned and saw my boss, Sylvia Lockwood, rising from a couch.
“Sylvia, I didn’t see you.” I paused, waiting for her or Alan Carney to say
something. I raised my eyebrows and fanned out my palms, the universal
gesture that asks, Why are we here?
“Sit down, please, Robert,” Alan Carney said. As I sat, I stole a glance at
Sylvia, who was now flicking a speck of dust off her tweed skirt. “A very
grave matter has come to our attention,” Carney said, frowning, as if even
speaking about it was distasteful. “As you know, Robert, last month the
company instituted a zero-tolerance policy on using the Internet for
non-company business. Management was particularly clear on the issue of
Carney held his gaze steady on me, long enough for me to notice that his
eyes were unusually close set. He had apparently summoned me to his office
to hear allegations of misconduct about someone in my department. His
reference to the new company policy was intended to solidify his reputation
as loyal company enforcer. I felt I had enough clout to interrupt. “Alan,
which employee are you—?”
Carney held up his palm, like a school crossing guard. “Please, Robert, let
me finish what I have to say.” His manner was verging on offensive.
“According to IT, over the last three weeks you have shown a persistent
pattern of downloading pornography to your office computer. It is,
therefore, my sad duty to inform you that you are hereby terminated,
effective immediately. A representative from my staff will escort you to
your office and let you gather your personal belongings. Then you will leave
Two years later, I can still see the images of Alan Carney and Sylvia
Lockwood. Alan is standing, leaning forward, his knuckles, simian-like, on
the edge of his desk. The point of his silk tie (he is wearing no clip or
tack) swings back and forth like a pendulum threatening to gouge the sleek
surface of his desk. Sylvia, too, is standing, concentrating on the thick
forest-green textured carpet, smoothing the nap of the scallop-shell
patterns with her foot. A thumb is working a cuticle vigorously.
Once before in my life, emerging from anesthesia after some minor surgery, I
experienced something like this. Sensory impulses arose from nowhere and
formed into a scene, complete with human players and all the normal
furniture of consciousness. Then, this scene played out and was replaced by
a new one. There was no time, only a succession of discrete tableaux. Now,
there was a man in a blue blazer standing next to me, holding an empty
cardboard box. The man touched my elbow gently, leading me out of Alan
Carney’s office. The man and I were in an elevator. I took the keys out of
my pocket to open my office door. “They won’t work,” he said as he retrieved
his own keys. I placed my few personal items into the cardboard box: a
calculator, some pens and pencils, a coffee mug, that stupid metal frame
with the steel balls hanging from strings. I had no photographs. The box
seemed too large. I was in my Z3, the box on the passenger seat. I was
sitting at the dining-room table in my condo, the box on the floor next to
The next day, I was relieved to learn that sights and sounds were once again
securely attached to the flow of time. When I phoned Human Resources, the
receptionist told me no, I could not speak to Alan Carney but that I should
expect a detailed letter to arrive within several days, a letter that would
explain the legal rationale for the termination and the terms I would be
offered. Although she explained that she was very busy, she did kindly
consent to respond tersely to several quick questions. No, there would be no
severance package because I was terminated for cause. No, the company was
under no obligation to permit me to purchase health benefits. No, I could
not withdraw my pension because those funds were not yet vested. Yes, of
course, I could apply for unemployment benefits.
Seated at the desk in a spare bedroom in which I maintain my home office, I
decided to write down a list of tasks. Task 1 was to determine whether I had
any right to appeal the termination. The receptionist’s comments suggested
that the answer would be no, but I would need to study the letter when it
arrived and, if appropriate, consult an attorney. Task 2 was to secure
another job. My expenses were routine: a modest mortgage on the condo,
monthly fees, manageable payments on the Z3. No wife or family, no
dependents. It was not an emergency. Task 3 was to try to figure out why I
had been accused of downloading pornography.
While I waited for the letter from my company—my former company—I would
begin Task 2. That effort lasted ten minutes. I realized I would never be
able to concentrate on the tedious details of looking for work: making up a
resume and a letter, running down leads, phoning contacts. I needed to begin
Task 3, understanding why I was fired.
I resolved to check the facts. Perhaps the information that I was surfing
for pornography was inaccurate. It could be someone else. I knew a guy in
IT—Barry Something—who would look it up for me. I phoned him and, although he was initially reluctant to discuss the matter with me (someone from Human
Resources must have told him not to talk) he eventually answered my
questions. No, the computer logs did not lie: I had downloaded porn—a lot
of it. There was no mistaking which computer had linked to the porn sites,
and no, nobody else at the company could have fooled the server into
thinking it was my computer. (I needed only yes/no answers, but he seemed
most comfortable when providing lengthy, complex technical explanations that
he surely must have known I would not understand.) It was my computer, he
assured me. I protested that I had never surfed for porn at the office.
Barry responded, Hey, I’m just a network guy, and I’m telling you what I’m
seeing in my log. I went back to questions. Was there any pattern to when
the surfing occurred? Barry paused a moment, then said yes. It happened only
during the noon hour. I never ate lunch in the office.
My next call went to Sue, the administrative assistant in Accounting. When
she recognized my voice, she sounded considerably busier than I ever
remembered her. She and I had never hit it off—her taste running to Mall
Contemporary, with multiple earrings, rings on all her fingers and several
of her toes, and a platinum helmet that said, “You and I are never gonna have
anything to talk about, so don’t even try”—but she softened a little when Iassured her that I didn’t want to make any trouble. I just needed to
determine whether anyone had been hanging around my office during lunch
hours. A little too quickly, she said that she went to lunch at noon outside
the office and therefore wouldn’t know. I stayed on the line but remained
silent. Three seconds, five seconds went by, perhaps ten. Then, she said,
“You didn’t hear this from me.”
“Absolutely,” I said. “This conversation never occurred.”
I said, “Steve Kidwell? Did he offer an explanation?”
She paused. “If you mean, did he say why he did it, it’s probably ’cause he
thinks you’re...you know, a fag.”
It took me a few seconds to respond. “I owe you, Sue.”
“Yeah, I’ll be waiting right here for you to pay me back,” she said sourly,
apparently deriving no pleasure or relief from helping me understand the
truth. It wasn’t till a few minutes later that I realized she had been
silent during the weeks that Kidwell had been playing the prank on me. She
hadn’t even spoken up when she heard I had been fired. But there was no use
pursuing that point. She had furnished the name I needed. I’d let her deal
with her conscience, if she had one. I had my own decisions to make.
Are you wondering whether Steve Kidwell was right, that I am, as he or
perhaps Sue put it, a fag? If so, it is you—not I—who should be ashamed.
What relevance could this question possibly have to the story I am telling?
If I vamped around the office every day in a strapless Dior, would that have
made Steve Kidwell’s actions any less reprehensible? Please, don't say to
yourself, “Well, what Steve did was wrong, but Robert certainly should
have—” No. No. The sentence must end after “What Steve did was wrong.”
Nothing that I said or did or was is relevant. There is nothing I “should
have . . .” Nothing I should have expected, nothing I should have
understood, nothing I should have forgiven. Especially nothing I should have
In the interest of full disclosure, so that you are certain that I am being
honest with you, I will admit that I do enjoy looking at pictures and videos
of naked people, on their own or coupling. I enjoy all the permutations.
There is, however, one thing I don’t care for: child pornography. Whether I
think it’s wrong and therefore don’t like it or don’t like it and therefore
can afford to think it’s wrong, I’m not sure. But I’ve never had anything to
do with it. I’m not bragging or trying to make you like me. Frankly, I don’t
care if you like me. I will not lose any sleep worrying about what you
think. Nothing cleanses the moral palate like honesty, no? Back to the
My next phone call went to Steve Kidwell. Over the course of five days I
left ten messages, one each morning and afternoon. He was there. Where else
would he be? He knew it was I; all the phones in Accounting have caller ID.
But he refused to pick up or call back. I left the same message: “Steve,
this is Robert. Please get back to me at home. I need to talk to you.”
Eventually, he must have realized that I am persistent. On the sixth
morning, he picked up.
From my perspective, talking to Steve was now superfluous. I had already
discovered what I needed to discover: that he had downloaded the pornography
to my computer, and that he had done so because he thought I was a fag. I
remember hiring Steve two years earlier. He came with a bachelor’s degree
from an unexceptional state college and a couple of years’ experience doing
the kinds of tasks I needed him to do. Because it was an unimportant
position, I had spent little time on the search.
The only outstanding thing about Steve was his physical self-confidence. His
face looked like the template I imagine a sketch artist starts with before
he makes any adjustments to the nose, the eyes, the lips. He was a generic
Caucasian, blessed with no distinguishing features. Women with conventional
tastes found him very attractive.
He was tall and muscular, a weightlifter. He wore tapered shirts and took
off his sportcoat in front of the secretaries as soon as he arrived each
morning. Then he made an elaborate show of rolling up his sleeves to just
below the elbows to be sure everyone saw his hairy, muscled forearms. His
obsessive narcissism gave me occasion to wonder about his sexual
orientation. I cannot know whether he experienced any deep-seated sexual
conflicts. Nor can I address questions related to sexual roads he might have
traveled in the past or might have been exploring even in the present. When
I knew him, he was married, the father of two young girls. That, dear
reader, is how to address relevant questions of sexual orientation.
What did I need from him? The answer is obvious: I needed him to apologize.
There would be no accusations, no recriminations, no confrontations. No
consequences. A simple apology would have concluded the matter. A simple
“Hey, Steve, glad I could get hold of you.” Would Steve understand irony?
Probably not, but sometimes I do things just for myself. Selfish, perhaps,
but not a sin. I prefer to think of it as a quirk.
“Yeah, Robert, I was really sorry to hear about what happened.” What
happened? You mean that I was unjustly fired or that your cretinous actions
caused my unjust firing?
“Thanks, Steve. I'm just getting in touch with several people in the office
to see if I can figure out how this happened. I never looked at any porn,
you know.” Ten to one, he’d start asking around to see if anyone else had
gotten a call from me. When would he start to realize he was the only one I
called? Soon, I hoped. Soon.
Steve began to lose his verbal equilibrium. Whether or not I was porn
surfing at work appeared to be a topic that made him somewhat uncomfortable.
“Well, you know, I never, like . . .”
I let him twist in the rhetorical breeze for a lengthy moment. Sometimes,
silence is more eloquent than mere words. “It’s almost like someone was
trying to set me up,” I said.
“You don’t think that happened, do you?” His voice was a little shaky.
“Probably not. Youd have to be a really unethical person to do that to
someone, don’t you think?” I enjoyed using the peek-a-boo “you” at the start
of that sentence. Would he notice the care I was lavishing on this
conversation? Probably not.
“You bet,” he said. “A real shit.”
“You can’t think of anyone like that, can you?” Are we having fun yet,
“No, no way. I can’t. I really cant.” Stay calm, Steve. No need to say it
“Yes, you’re probably right. Just wanted to check with you.”
“Hey, sorry I can’t help. And listen, I’ll let you know if I learn anything, OK?”
“Thanks, Steve, I know you will. And if I find out who did this to me, I’m
going to take appropriate action.” As I read this sentence on the page now,
I realize that it appears to lack a certain rhetorical force. But what could
I have said? That he would wish he’d never heard my name? That I would fuck
him up good? That when I was done with him, there’d be nothing left but a
smudge? No, those are all wrong, by which I mean they are not me. My style
is more understated and, for that reason, more effective. An outright threat
has a more immediate theatrical effect, but the legalistic “appropriate
action” is more chilling, suggesting, as it does, a taste for calculation. I
would choose the action. I would carry it out when I wished, as I wished.
And if, afterward, Steve, you didn’t think my action was in fact
appropriate, well, that would be regrettable. Certainly, Steve, you could
not have expected me to discuss my plans with you. You did not accord me
that opportunity when you carried out your appropriate actions.
While planning my appropriate actions, I turned to the mundane task of
acquiring a new position. Within two weeks, I secured another job—with a
twenty percent pay bump. I’m quite a good auditor, and I knew enough people
at my old company who would vouch for me, so the circumstances of my leaving
never came up. (I suspect my old company wanted what I wanted: to pretend
that the whole incident had never occurred.) Consequently, I never missed a
mortgage payment or a car payment. In fact, my firing had no ill effect on
me at all. I will not speak of it again. It is uninteresting.
Six months passed. I settled in at my new company. Having changed jobs
several times in my career, I have concluded that the same characters
inhabit every workplace. They might as well wear Kabuki masks bearing
inscriptions. One might read “I Am So Utterly Hapless That You Would Regret
Asking Me To Carry Out Even the Simplest Task.” Another might read “I
Routinely Violate the Law But Assume You Are Too Stupid to Realize It.” “If
You Ever Disagree with Me, I Will Crush You.” “I Am So Starved for Attention
That I Would Have Sex with You Almost Immediately.” You know the characters.
Weeks went by. Still no apology from Steve Kidwell. According to the company
Web site, he was doing quite well. My old job and my old office were now
his. Once or twice I called him from a phone booth. I heard his confident,
too-loud voice. “Hello, hello, is anyone there?” I hung up. Yes, Steve,
someone was there.
I do think he should have gotten in touch with me. Certainly, I did not
expect him to go to management, admit what he had done, and demand that they
take me back. Falling on the sword, after all, would have ruined his
washboard abs. But would it have been asking too much to have expected him
to communicate anonymously with management, to at least try to clear my
name? To help them conclude that there was reasonable doubt about my guilt? I
don’t think so. Certainly, he could have phoned me at home to ask how I was
doing. An apology can take many forms, including a three-minute courtesy
call. It’s the thought that counts.
I had a thought. I went to a pay phone and dialed Steve’s house while he was
at work and his two young daughters were at school. His wife, Peggy, picked
“Is this Ms. Kidwell, Ms. Peggy Kidwell?”
“Yes, who’s calling, please?”
“Ms. Kidwell, my name is Jonathan Chambers, with the Department of Justice
in Washington.” I was uncertain which department I should be working for,
but my considerable professional experience delivering unwelcome news has
taught me that the details are less important than the conviction with which
you convey them.
“What is this in regard to, Mr. Chambers?” Her voice carried an edge of
“Ms. Kidwell, I’m trying to reach Mr. Steve Kidwell. He is your husband?”
“Yes, he’s my husband. He’s at work now. Can you tell me what this is
“Actually, Ms. Kidwell, I think it would be better if I spoke directly to
“Mr. Chambers,” she said, her voice rising ever so slightly, “Steve and I
have been married over eleven years. I will tell you how to reach him when
you tell me what this is about. Is it about the girls?”
I paused. I have come to love pausing on the telephone. “Ms. Kidwell, were
following up some leads on a child-pornography ring that uses the Internet
to share materials.”
I hear her gasp, then it was her turn to pause. “Surely you dont think
Steve is mixed up in something like that?” she said, panic creeping into her
“Ms. Kidwell, this is an ongoing investigation, and by law I am not
permitted to provide any information beyond what I have already said. I need
to speak with Mr. Kidwell as soon as possible.”
Had Peggy been thinking clearly, she might have concluded that if I were in
fact a federal agent, I probably would have been able to figure out where
her husband worked and phone him directly or stop by for a chat at his
office. But Peggy was not thinking clearly. I could tell from the way she
stammered out her husband’s phone number (it was, after all, my old number)
and the way the receiver clattered as she placed it back in the cradle. She
was not thinking clearly at all.
I smiled as I imagined their after-dinner conversation that night. The girls
would have to be put to bed. Those comforting, repetitive domestic
tasks—the baths, the pajamas, the bedtime stories—how different they would
be that night as Peggy struggled to maintain her composure. Soon, she would
have a chance to talk to Steve, to find out what the man from the Justice
Department had said when he reached him. Why did this man want to talk to
you about a child-pornography case, of all things? But Steve would insist
there was no man from the Justice Department, that he didn’t know what she
was talking about. And he would be very convincing.
I made no plans to try to witness any marital problems that might arise at
the Kidwell residence. I didn’t need to do that. It was enough for me to
imagine what Steve must feel like, being falsely accused of something as
odious as child pornography. It’s disquieting. As for Peggy, well, I do
admit to some initial misgivings about what she must have been imagining.
And yet, the experience would help her see a side of her loving husband that
she perhaps had not had occasion to see. He was, of course, a crude, cruel
brute. She needed to know this. She would be better off knowing it.
I let another six months pass. During this time, I imagined that things at
the Kidwell residence probably had returned to normal. After all, there were
no more calls from the Justice Department, no actions of any sort that
would lead Peggy Kidwell to conclude that her husband was in fact a child
pornographer. And I am confidant that Steve was on his best behavior,
careful not to do anything that would reinforce Peggy’s apprehension about
him. Time must have healed almost all the wounds from that day six months
earlier. Almost all of them.
I concluded it would be fruitless to wait any longer for an apology. I wrote
a note to the principal of the girls’ elementary school. Signing the letter
“A concerned neighbor,” I felt it my obligation to report to the school that
Steve Kidwell sexually abused his younger daughter. I trusted that the
authorities would take appropriate action.
Did you know that schools are required to report to social service agencies
and the police any allegations about child abuse of any sort? I wasn’t sure
if this was the case, but apparently it is. The police consult with the
social service agency and determine how to proceed. It always involves
interviewing the suspect and the alleged victim, as well as other family
The newspaper article caught me by surprise two weeks later. Peggy Kidwell
was being held for questioning in the shooting death of her husband. The
girls were over at her mother’s house when the shooting occurred late one
evening in Steve and Peggy’s bedroom. Some broken furnishings in the bedroom
suggested there had been some sort of struggle. There were no signs of
forced entry to the house. Because Peggy is under medical supervision and
her counsel has made no public comments about the case, I will never know
what happened that night. I regret, however, that I will never receive that