Today's post is a little bit late; sorry about that. It feels like I've been playing catch-up since the year started! I'll be working double-time for a little while to try and get ahead of things.
Anyway, in this installment of Br'er fiction, Gregg meets his boss for the first time in six months to have a conversation about returning to work. I'm still stumbling around a little bit with this setting, but I'm making slow but steady progress with getting the feel down.
"On behalf of everyone at GBI, I'd like to welcome you back to the fold." Horace Bolton smiled at Gregg across his shabby particle-board desk, leaning forward to indicate his sincerity. Underneath the smile, there was a distinct nervousness that Gregg had learned to detect by scent. His boss was doing a very good job of hiding it through body language, though.
The woman standing next to Horace was also nervous, but kept her emotions hidden under an impassive expression. Joyce was the office manager, and she kept the office managed to within an inch of its life. Once you understood her rules and followed them to the letter, you couldn't have a better friend at work. She was here to translate Gregg's sign language to the manager; he found it wholly unnecessary, but they had insisted on providing the accommodation for him to prove how dedicated they were to keeping him employed and comfortable.
Gregg signed at the expectant look Horace fixed him with, and Joyce turned to him with exacting precision. He found himself wondering if there was something about her Korean background that made her so detail-oriented, then banished the thought. "Thank you," she said.
"You've been a vital part of GBI's success, and I just want you to know that you have a place here as long as you want it. We're committed to providing a comfortable, friendly environment for everyone, no matter their race, religion or species. We're a family here." Horace slipped into his familiar pitch. Gregg had heard it countless times at meetings and functions. He was what you would call a "true believer".
And to be fair, Horace walked the walk. He worked hard (mostly through Joyce) to build a culture of informal, easy-going labor. GBI was a little internet service provider that gave dial-up and high-speed access to people who had never heard of cable -- or simply couldn't afford it. Despite the marketplace the company had done well enough to establish itself in the city. They didn't offer quite the same perks that a big corporation would, but the people were solid here. Gregg loved his job, and who he worked with.
He smiled, though he wasn't sure how that would translate. He signed, and Joyce said "Thank you."
"If there's anything I can do to help you transition back into your position after...well, considering your new situation, don't hesitate to come to me, OK? My door is always open."
Gregg signed. Joyce said, "Thank you."
Horace smiled, letting a silence creep into the conversation for just a beat. That was the end of the introduction, apparently. He put on his glasses; that was usually the sign that it was time to get down to business. "Now, as you're aware, I'm sure, there aren't any laws on the books offering legal protections against discrimination for you...uhm, what would you prefer to be called?"
Gregg detected a tightening in Joyce. He could hear the way her suit jacket shifted around heightened shoulders. He wasn't sure if she noticed his ear swiveling in her direction, but he signed. She relaxed when she spoke. "Br'ers is fine as a term."
Horace barked a surprised laugh. "Br'er? I hadn't heard that one, that's pretty cute."
Both of Gregg's ears swiveled forward as he signed. He wasn't sure if he was hoping to catch his boss in something inappropriate or if he was genuinely curious. Joyce hesitated before leaning in. "He wants to know what other terms you had heard."
Alarm flashed behind Horace's eyes. He shifted uncomfortably for just a second. "I...well, you know….never mind, it doesn't matter. What matters is what you prefer to call yourself. Br'ers it is."
Horace cleared his throat and began speaking immediately to bury the moment. "As I was saying, there aren't any laws protecting you, but I spoke with legal to make sure we added anti-discrimination clauses to the company conduct policy. I can guarantee you that you will not be paid less, looked over for a promotion or raise, or experience any hinderances to your career because of what you are. Anyone who uses slurs or engages in inappropriate behavior will be called in for a disciplinary review. If you hear or experience anything, I want you to come to me or Joyce first thing, OK?"
Gregg nodded. He wasn't sure what to say to that, but he was sure that Horace was serious about it. It warmed him to know that someone had his back, even after all this, and was dedicated to at least trying to make sure he could live a normal life. Or as normal as it could be, anyway.
"Good. Now...is there anything you need to do your job efficiently? Some accommodation that would make you more comfortable? I've given it some thought…"
Gregg's nose twitched a bit more rapidly now, and one of his ears flicked towards Joyce. Her nervousness was a lot more apparent now, the stone-faced mask slipping at last. He felt that sensation transfer to him, as if he should be readying himself for something bad. This was the other shoe, he realized, and his heart sank.
"...and maybe we can convert part of the storage room into a personal office. With those ears and that nose, I can only imagine how distracting sounds and smells must be for you." Horace leaned in, a look of grave concern on his face. "It's not too overwhelming in here, is it?"
Gregg looked bewildered. What did this dude think his senses were like? He simply shook his head.
Horace relaxed. "Ah, good. I can't imagine what it must be like, having those senses that you do. It must be kind of like being a superhero, right?" He chuckled.
Gregg looked at Joyce, who slumped. He signed to her, a longer response this time, and she repeated it back in halting and uncertain rhythm.
"He says that no, it's not like being a superhero. He has good hearing, and smell, but it's not like everything's louder or stinkier than before. It's just different."
"Oh really? That's interesting. Good to know!" Horace smiled with the pre-emptive satisfaction of being able to correct someone else later on down the line. "And, as far as...well...using the facilities…"
Here, Joyce's pale face drained of all color.
"...are you going to need space close to the bathroom? My niece has a rabbit, and that thing just goes wherever it wants. I remember hearing somewhere that rabbits can't hold it when they've got to go, so we want to make sure you can avoid any potential accidents."
Gregg was stunned. It took him a moment to understand what was being insinuated here, and when he did his ears swept back. He looked at Horace as if he was insane, but was pretty sure the man couldn't read his expression. Joyce frowned at him; he was sure it was a look of sympathy.
"I'm not a rabbit, though. I'm a man. Just different, like I said. I've never had an accident, and I don't plan to start now."
Horace laughed at that, long and loud. Gregg felt that initial flash of annoyance melting away, and allowed his ears to swing upright. Joyce even smiled, and just like that the moment passed.
"Well, good to know. Listen, Gregg, it's so good to have you back, I really mean that. If there's anything you need, just ask." Horace stood up and offered his hand. Reflexively, Gregg stood up and shook it. He allowed himself to relax. The meeting was over. It wasn't as bad as it could have been, and now he could go back to work.
He turned and walked out of the small office, flicking an ear back to hear Joyce hurrying after him. She reached up and touched his shoulder; when he stopped, she rose on her toes to whisper in his ear.
"I'm so sorry about that. Welcome back." She patted him once and rushed back into Horace's office.
Gregg grinned to himself. It took three steps for him to forget about the awkwardness of that exchange; he had to think about the mountains of email he would have to wade through in order to catch up.