O’Reilly and O’Reilly and O’Reilly and Sons
O’REILLY LOOMED OVER his two brothers and two sons. He was the only O’Reilly with hair on his head, tousled white like a snowcapped mountain veiled in clouds, and he had a tanned, crevassed face; commands and reprimands tumbled off him like avalanches. He was long past his prime and now trooped around the office, turning up the thermostat and tapping his watch at people, monitoring the office supply closet as if we were a citadel under siege, blockaded, subject to rationing. O’Reilly always thought someone was trying to put one over on him, and he just had to figure out who. Up and down the corridor he marched in his daily uniform, a red polo shirt with white stripes, pivoting his head as he passed every cubicle, shooting a glare at its occupant, always on the lookout for intruders and imposters.
O’Reilly, O’Reilly’s brother, wore owlish horn-rimmed spectacles with thick lenses. He sat behind his desk vibrating like a raw nerve, holding papers against his large glasses and squinting at them. He almost never spoke, but when he did, he stuttered, though his stuttering was almost inaudible because of his sotto voce. He pored over insubstantial documents, mesmerized, painstakingly underlining and highlighting in three different colors, none of them yellow.
O’Reilly’s other brother lacked the febrile intensity of O’Reilly. He flew his own Cessna, and with the savoir faire of a test pilot he worried about nothing, ever. He sat all day with his feet on his desk. O’Reilly was from New York, unlike his brothers and nephews, who were from Maryland. He walked with a limp precipitated, legend had it, by a crash in a Long Island forest. His hands were large and his finger bones ended in fat racket-shaped pads. His eyes were almost entirely black and showed no whites; his large nose was pinker than the rest of his face and hovered over his pinched mouth and thin lips. Rob once told us how he’d walked past O’Reilly’s glass-walled office and saw him squatting on the floor, gnawing open a Splenda packet with his exposed incisors.
Unlike his father, O’Reilly was bald like his uncles. It was his job to track down actual money. He was rabid with persistence and determination, yet these attributes had yielded him more contempt than any other O’Reilly, which was really saying something. O’Reilly made inappropriate comments and did inappropriate things. He couldn’t help himself. He startled women at their desks, appearing from nowhere and massaging their shoulders. He lobbed office supplies like grenades into cubicles and laughed. He punched men too hard in the biceps or, sometimes, in the back. Hugo once collapsed to the carpeted floor and had to summon his wife to take him to the emergency room. O’Reilly constantly berated O’Reilly for this oddball behavior. It didn’t matter. No one could keep O’Reilly from barging into anyone’s office with his odd physicality and impertinent questions.
O’Reilly was bald too, but in every other respect he was his father’s molehill. He was the youngest O’Reilly and he was the boss. He ruled the firm with a blend of smarmy machismo and abject paranoia. He had a bulbous, Romulan forehead, the back of his neck was constantly moist, and sweat beaded around the fine zigzagging veins at his temples. O’Reilly was always announcing his presence and puffing his chest. He shouted random things from his office, which was three times the size of his uncles’, trying to snap us out of concentration. “Put an ass on it, and you’d have a donkey,” he once yelled on the phone, though we all suspected he wasn’t really talking to anyone.
For many of us, the O’Reillys were the perfect standard bearers for our absurd profession. We played at sleight-of-hand for a living. Speculation was expertise, relics were traditions, bluster was discourse, money-lust was ambition. Nothing we touched, nothing we did really existed. We could vanish—maybe we already had vanished—and the world would go right on spinning on its axis.
OLD JOE HAD come to work for O’Reilly and O’Reilly and O’Reilly and Sons in the autumn of the year, which also happened to be the autumn of his career. Recessionary layoffs had caught up with him, and despite being retirement age he still needed to work. It was a shame to see him sunk so low.
Joe was lanky and stoop-shouldered and was the first partner we’d ever seen who was taller than O’Reilly. This, we felt, made him a marked man. He hefted an enormous briefcase with him everywhere, including out on his mysterious, solitary lunch breaks. In hushed tones the associates wondered what he carried in the mystery attaché. Jim said it was his “accumulated grief.” Melinda joked that perhaps it was the head of his former boss. Rick suggested it was a collection of the severed fingers of his many ex-wives, which he was planning to send to their families for ransom.
It wasn’t long before Old Joe was introduced to the office shuffle, one of O’Reilly’s favorite management routines. It was simple: Out of nowhere, and for no apparent reason, a seasoned employee with a large office would be forced to trade spaces with his or her secretary. O’Reilly ordered his big brother to move Joe’s computer and belongings into Cindy’s cubicle. O’Reilly was only too happy to comply; he relished any opportunity to be an agent of comeuppance.
Joe arrived that morning and passed O’Reilly in the narrow corridor, carrying a bankers box from which a few of Joe’s framed family photos protruded.
“What the hell’s going on?”
“Boss says you’re moving,” O’Reilly said without breaking stride.
“You’ll have to ask him.”
By this point, O’Reilly was already standing at the threshold of his capacious control room, watching Joe with a defiant vacancy in his eyes. “We’re doing a bit of re-org,” he said coolly before turning and closing his door.
Joe continued to his former office and found Cindy there, gazing out the window. She spun around in the chair when she heard Joe walk in.
“Nice to have a window,” Cindy said.
Joe chortled ruefully. “Yeah,” he said, “it was nice.”
At the end of the workday a week before Christmas, Old Joe was fired. “It isn’t working out,” O’Reilly told him. Joe had been tasked with the impossible: becoming a non-O’Reilly member of a club that didn’t admit non-O’Reillys.
“He wasn’t one of us,” O’Reilly was heard to say.
CHRISTMAS WAS THE same every year. The offices were lined with five-inch-tall plastic poinsettias and strings of hand-me-down lights that had been retired from O’Reilly’s home, many of them cracked or broken.
The other portent of this awful holiday came when the annual Secret Santa email went out. The associates would immediately begin whispering about which O’Reilly they’d be stuck buying some crummy, pointless present for—a tie, a set of espresso cups. The associates were paired with the O’Reillys in a sadistic tradition designed to highlight the gaping divide between us and them, and the O’Reillys invariably greeted our gifts with a collective shrug.
Two weeks after the cursed Santas were paired with their O’Reillys, O’Reilly convened the Christmas Lunch, O’Reilly and O’Reilly and O’Reilly and Sons’ annual celebration of itself, from which the O’Reillys could never wait to escape. It was O’Reilly weirdness distilled to its essence. Those of us who’d already been through the annual ceremony shared knowing glances in the seconds before O’Reilly ordered everyone to clasp hands around the conference table and intoned his prayer to “Father God.” O’Reilly, the only O’Reilly with a sense of humor, would chime in that he was Jewish, or an atheist, or a Buddhist, and the other O’Reillys would laugh a little too loudly, in the manner of people who didn’t really know how to laugh.
After a hurried meal of takeout deli sandwiches held together by toothpicks, the Secret Santa sweepstakes commenced. We expressed gratitude for our O’Reilly and O’Reilly and O’Reilly and Sons sweatshirts and dreamed about the cash bonuses being pocketed by employees of other firms. The O’Reillys opened their presents and appraised them without a word. Then, one by one, they took their leave, and the room sighed.
EARLY ONE EVENING between Christmas and New Year’s, Wendy took us out after work and we all got drunk. As she absently caressed the cold condensation on the glass of her fourth martini, she began spilling about the O’Reillys.
We learned that O’Reilly’s debilitating stutter made him an outcast from a young age, but his total reclusion had been precipitated by a gory accident. A decade or two earlier—as in a black hole, time slowed to the point of nonexistence at O’Reilly and O’Reilly and O’Reilly and Sons, making it difficult to track—O’Reilly was reading aloud from his favorite book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, working to overcome his stutter, when he became so agitated with anxious stammering that, in a paroxysm of choked words and chopped syllables, he bit off half his tongue. The night security guard heard his screams and found O’Reilly on the floor next to a small pool of blood. The guard beheld the Vienna sausage curled nearby and thought it was food that O’Reilly had been choking on.
“Ith my tongue!” O’Reilly shrieked. “Ith my tongue!”
We learned of the banal origin story of O’Reilly’s insatiable hunger for authority: He had been called “Meatball” as a kid, including by his own family, because of a weight problem. Also, he believed the Devil planted dinosaur bones in the ground eons ago to trick humanity into believing in evolution.
His powerless henchman brother turned out to be, of all things, a sympathetic character. He led a solitary existence. He drove a motorcycle. His home was a menagerie of rescue animals, including dogs and cats and iguanas, and he volunteered at soup kitchens on holidays.
We discovered that O’Reilly was raised near New York, away from his brothers, for reasons that also explained his limp. Contrary to legend, O’Reilly had not crash-landed his single engine; the truth was darker. One afternoon when the three O’Reillys were children, O’Reilly attacked O’Reilly in the woods, pushing him to the ground and striking him repeatedly in the ankle with a lead pipe. O’Reilly was given sanctuary up north and raised by a distant cousin.
We thanked Wendy for her revelations and paid for her drinks. She was fired three days later.
NEW YEAR’S EVE was not a day off in O’Reilly World. As quitting time neared, word circulated among the associates that a man had just leapt off the top of our twenty-story building. One by one, we began to list the reasons we were pretty sure it was Old Joe. We weren’t callous about it—in fact we understood on a gut level the despair someone like Old Joe must have felt even to have been under the thumbs of the O’Reillys, only to be fired by them.
Rick left briefly to investigate, and returned to describe what he had seen. He’d peered over a ledge in the parking garage that formed the base of our building. A yellow tarp was on the ground, three corners held down with random stones. The outline of a body was visible under the tarp, a loose corner of which flapped a little in the wind, revealing a brown-socked foot. At the adjacent highway, a police officer had pulled over, and he was walking down the escarpment, lugging the last rock. Rick watched as the officer secured the final corner over the protruding foot and returned to his car.
The next day, the newspaper reported that the dead man was not Old Joe, but someone from one of the building’s other firms. His name was Grant Zacharias. Like Joe and Wendy, Grant had also been fired between Christmas and New Year’s. He had returned to his office on New Year’s Eve in a suit and tie, ascended to the roof, and jumped.
None of us was more intrigued by the story than Rob. The next day, he surveyed the back of the building. There was nothing to indicate it had been the setting for such a grim ending. The yellow tarp was gone, as were the rocks that had held it. There was no blood. The grass was high on the escarpment and vibrated with the wind, but the valley of death was barren and patchy. Everything was ordinary and sterile.
Rob walked to the spot where the corpse had been, half expecting to see a chalk outline where Grant Zacharias’ soul was punched out of his body by the hard ground.
ONE BY ONE, we freed ourselves from the death grip of the O’Reillys, making room for a new class of anonymous employees to assume our office chairs before being shuffled to other office chairs, to sit around the conference table at Christmas Lunch and exchange uncomprehending looks, to experience for themselves the mystery of O’Reilly and O’Reilly and O’Reilly and Sons.
Before he left, Rob told us about his trip to the back of the building. He’d had no idea what he was expecting to find in the valley. It wasn’t an explanation. He didn’t need one. He pushed paper and moved imaginary money around the world all day every day, and he knew many fellow paper-pushers and money-movers who might have chosen to take the same plunge that Grant Zacharias took.
But for us, the reluctant disciples of O’Reilly and O’Reilly and O’Reilly and Sons, wherever we went our job was to navigate a field of space junk. Somewhere down below, the vibrant earth rotated on the poles of right and wrong, reality and fantasy, kindness and indifference, but it was all shrouded by obsolete garbage and impossible to know which way was up.
This wasn’t a big problem for us. We knew the drill, and we weren’t about to lose our heads over it.
Frank Houston is a fiction and nonfiction writer whose work has appeared in Vox, Salon, The New York Times, Narratively, and Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. He lives in Miami with his children and two dogs.