The crayfish were fried to shiny red perfection, arranged in a mandala on different shades of green. It was like digging into a painting.
Luckily Sanft showed his food the same reverence that Joachim did, so he didn’t feel like a complete dork, staring at his plate like dumbfounded idiot.
The crayfish smelled amazing. They crunched softly as Joachim’s knife dug through their shell. He tasted their meat. It was like trying a butter-soft, salty, fatty designer drug.
“There are some fuzzy edges all around, as there always are inside a small interdisciplinary team,” said Sanft absent-mindedly.
Sanft was obviously bound by a confidentiality clause. Joachim’s brain tried to fill in the blanks, but he needed to wait for additional information. Also, his fingers kept exploring the table. It was a smooth, metallic moonscape. He couldn’t have stopped touching it if he had wanted to.
“It’s a small department inside a larger company. I am not at liberty to disclose which one, but yes, you would know its name.”
Somewhere behind the fuzzy curtain of his shellfish meat high Joachim raised his defenses. He was a college dropout. Even though he was lucky to be in IT where people didn’t much care where you came from as long as he could get the work done, big companies usually had strict hierarchies based on academic qualifications.
But why was he being headhunted just so he could do the IT equivalent of scrubbing toilets? It didn’t add up.
“The headline here is business intelligence. You supply vital information on the basis of which important decisions will be made,” Sanft continued. “There is a certain degree of confidentiality involved in this. My apologies in advance if I have to be a little bit vague in sections.”
Joachim nodded as his mouth became an avocado-flavored water amusement park. It took willpower to eat this slowly. To savor it.
“Your work is strictly speaking IT, some software development, some good old-fashioned cable plugging, much like your current position isn’t it?”
It was Joachim’s turn to feel the weight of an NDA on his shoulders. He was still unsure how much he could reveal about his company and his work and his projects. The usual key to this was: Tell them what Google could tell them and be vague in other places.
“That’s right,” said Joachim, not seeing the harm in answering that one.
Between microscopic fork-tips full of crayfish, Sanft started to feed him bits and pieces of information. The more Joachim heard, the less interested he became.
“We are really using a wide range of technologies,” said Sanft, piercing a leaf of spinach with the refined elegance of a violinist heart surgeon. “You will find anything from COBOL to MeteorJS.”
That was his first stumbling block. Was he serious? He made sure he had heard that correctly.
COBOL was an attempt to make programming more readable to outsiders back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. It was ugly, unwieldy and had been obsolete shortly before mammals came onto the scene. Programmers whispered campfire stories about the odd bank software that still ran on it and scared each other half to death.
Edge on the other hand was a hip new technology on the block that programmers raved about. Many hip new technologies had been around in recent times that would quickly get swallowed by an even newer and even hipper technology, an extensive collection of which fitting quite comfortably between COBOL and Meteor.
Leave it to a headhunter to take a mess of epic proportions and make it sound like a selling point.
Joachim just smiled and nodded at this. He took a careful sip of the wine, pretending to appreciate it, even though it just tasted sort of sour and wine-ish.
It was a tiny little clue, but it spoke volumes. What Sanft was saying was: We don’t really have the budget for IT. We don’t have a budget for IT, because we don’t value it. We haven’t valued it for a long time. That’s why we have so many different technologies floating around. Creative, capable people got lost and ended up with us, worked on whatever unicorn project they wanted to – because, hey, we don’t care about quality as long as we see results – and then left for greener pastures. We prefer to see their work as half-completed, rather than half-unusable-mess and half-non-existent.
Ten minutes down the road, Sanft waved the next red flag: “You will be participating in numerous projects, with a wide range of tasks. There is a great deal of variety in your work. It rarely gets boring.”
Translation: What is this ITIL you speak of? What do you mean IT work is different from standing in the field plucking coffee beans? We can just assign you to everything and have you working on something else on a minute’s notice right? Don’t focus on the migraines and mental exhaustion from absorbing half a book worth of information every time you do that. Focus on the fun and excitement. Oh and I hope you are better at prioritizing your tasks than I am. Because I’m going to be shouting at you for every project that didn’t meet its deadlines, that you had no say in.
Anyway, IT really confuses us. Instead of doing it properly we use the Chinese Wall Construction method of throwing everyone at it who can carry a keyboard. Except we don’t want to hire additional people, so enjoy the overtime, dork.
The ravioli had arrived. Gold-colored, with molten Parmesan on top. Their smell was divine.
For a moment Joachim asked himself if he was an ungrateful prick. Shouldn’t he try to adjust his attitude a little bit? Then again, listening to a sales pitch meant having your bullshit detector on. The more a salesperson was trying to cajole him into a product’s merits, the more attention he needed to pay to the product’s flaws. If only to balance out his emotions to something resembling neutrality.
That being said, being nastily sarcastic was fun.
“We are giving you a modern laptop with an operating system of your choice.”
Two possible translations for this one: Remember what we said about our IT budget? Wouldn’t it be great if we could sell some of your time to the customer? That way we practically don’t have to pay you at all! Besides at some point all your IT work will be done, right? Right? Right?
The other one: We basically need 24/7 tech support. You geeks don’t have a personal life anyway right? You do appreciate working here don’t you? Yes, I know that this is a service that big companies pay contractors a fortune for and we expect you to do it for the seven bucks an hour after taxes when you try to convert overtime into money. Have I told you about our IT budget today?
Amendment to both of those: We expect you to carry that laptop around at all times and never, ever use it for anything other than business. Same goes for the second cellphone you are going to be carrying that will keep ringing deep into the night because three employees before you have had that number and angered a lot of people before they sailed on to greener pastures.
Jaded? Who? Him?
Somehow he couldn’t enjoy the food though. It was like raiding the free buffet at a gallery opening without even the intention of buying a painting. A form of stealing. Like somehow he wasn’t paying the price he was emotionally obligated to pay. Why had he thought this was a good idea again?
He tried to compensate by asking detailed questions.
What are the colleagues like? How well connected to public transportation are the offices? Are there hobby groups?
Wasn’t that what he had agreed to do? Give this an honest chance? And they were both grown-ups. Sanft had invited him to this dinner. He had the right to say no at the end of the evening.
Joachim kept pondering this as he washed down the last piece of ravioli with palate cleansing water.
It was Sanft though who asked him about it though.
“You seem to be withdrawing more and more,” he said. His own plate of ravioli was only half-empty. On the one hand because he took his sweet time eating it, on the other hand because he did the majority of the talking. “Do you have reservations about this job?”
“I…,” Joachim began. Two grown-ups. Come on, do it. “Yes, I do.”
He looked Sanft straight in the eye. If he was displeased about it, there was no trace of it on his calm Hindu monk face.
“Please tell me,” said Sanft.
“I don’t know,” said Joachim. Somehow he was drawing a blank here. How could he say this constructively? And politely?
“Let us try an experiment,” said Sanft. “You can try being honest with me. Blunt, undiluted honesty. Most people hesitate to do it because they are afraid to offend. I however am selling you something and you being honest will save us both time.”
It felt like pushing against a wall inside his mind.
“Do I still get the meal?” said Joachim, testing the waters.
“You still get the meal,” said Sanft, mildly amused.
“Okay,” said Joachim. “Here we go.”
Joachim‘s childhood home had always had this sweet smell of mold. It was never visible. It was in the walls, hidden behind the plaster and flowery wallpaper, behind the rough brown tiles of the bathroom and the smooth white tiles of the kitchen. Sometimes his mother would open the balcony doors and send a wave of cold, chaotic air through the apartment, whirling up loose papers and sometimes tossing down plants in splatters of black dirt. She couldn‘t do it when Joachim‘s father was home, because he wouldn‘t have it. In the last days, that was pretty much every day.
It was okay with Joachim though. He liked the smell. It was how home ought to smell.
It was the four of them. His parents, his older brother Florian – Flo – and him. They both had their own rooms. Joachim‘s was an exhibit telling the story of his childhood in pieces of junk. There was the flaky cartoon wallpaper that his parents had put up back when they converted their old home office. Dancing elephants with balloons that Joachim had found patronizing since he first learned what the word patronizing meant at seven.
The broken pocket calculators Joachim had pretended were Star Trek tricorders when he had been four were still stacked on his stained, scratched, crumbling desk, right next to his first computer – a 486 – he had gotten for Christmas when he had been eight. The stacks of dusty programming books and computer game boxes formed two chest-high towers on the floor. They had grown into a sizable collection, now that he was eleven.
He loved his room. It was his world, removed from the outside world that sucked. If he closed the door, the troubles would mostly stay outside. The kids at school bullying him. His father who would ask him why he had only scored a 2+ on his last exam. (Because Joachim‘s father had told him that a straight-up perfect 1+ was barely acceptable for someone of his intelligence and Joachim had basically given up on working after that.) His mother who wanted him to be a genius that changed the world but never seemed to listen to him when he had a problem. Always offering the same terrible advice he had tried three times and hadn‘t had any success with. (If somebody say‘s freak to you, say Hi freak, I‘m Joachim.)
It was all okay though. He had his computer. Now, a computer was something beautiful. It never judged. When it didn‘t do what he wanted it to do, it wasn‘t because his head was too big or his movements uncoordinated and clumsy, it wasn‘t because he stuttered or didn‘t dress well enough, it was because he‘d screwed up. He would fix his mistake and then it would work. There was little he could compare to the pure joy of computer programming. Constructing something that then worked on its own. The same way somebody built a car. It was weeks upon weeks of bending metal bits and that glorious moment when the engine actually started roaring and the moment of ecstasy, that came from seeing every part of it simultaneously in his mind and knowing exactly how and why it worked. And would keep working. With no more work required in this area. Forever.
He had read about computer programs that had been written in the sixties and still ran today, performing their duties. Electrons didn‘t rust.
All in all, he had liked being at home. More than most of the things that had come after, for sure. Sometimes he blamed Flo for what happened. Yes, the yelling was bad. It was going on every night now for months, audible even through two closed doors. It wasn‘t so much the volume though, if he was honest. It was more that some part of him always wanted to make out the words.
He couldn‘t pinpoint the day he had first started hating his father. Maybe it was when he had demanded Joachim should excel at everything and never so much as lifted a finger to help him learn or open new opportunities. Instead he told him how he‘d been back from everywhere he wanted to go, a long time ago, leaving Joachim struggling to fulfill his standards while he felt big. Maybe it was when Joachim had come home crying after getting beat up by a mob in elementary school again, finding him sitting in a cloud of cigarettes, a glass of beer in his huge hairy hand a shot glass of Bommerlunder akvavit in front of him, telling him that it was Joachim‘s fault they came after him. He shouldn‘t have provoked them. Maybe it was when his mother had come into his room late at night for the tenth time and cried into his shoulder until there were two wet spots on his pajama shirt where her eyes had been.
Maybe, back then, he hadn‘t hated his father at all. He did fear him, especially when was drunk, but also, he was just sad and disappointed when he saw the other kids interact with their dads. Even jealous sometimes.
The alcohol turned his father into a monster. That was how he saw it. In the mornings, he was fine. He was genial, making jokes. He gave helpful advice. He meant well, just as his mum always kept telling him. It was when he got home from school, at the latest when they sat at the dinner table, that he started criticizing them.
Dinner was definitely the worst. His father would sit there, not even touch his food for ten minutes, watching everybody else eat.
Sit up straight, he‘d bark.
Lead your spoon to your mouth and not the other way around!
Look at the mess you‘ve made! Could have happened to anybody, but always to you first!
When he actually started eating, it was Joachim‘s mother who got the flak. No matter what food, it always tasted horrible to him. The meat was done wrong. The fries were soggy. What did she do to the salad?
In those moments, Joachim would glance over to the coffee table and see the beer and the shot glass standing there. It was quite helpful actually, like a signal post. It allowed Joachim not to let it get to him. This wasn‘t his father. It was his other father.
Joachim learned to eat quickly, bearing the criticism he‘d catch every evening and getting back to his room to lose himself inside his computer again. It became easier when his brother started talking back. He‘d get the worst of it after that.
In the last months, the nightly yelling got worse. His father had caught mum looking at other men one too many times. Before then he had kept ranting about other people as well. All those selfish and egoistical people that he had to suffer when they went out. He‘d tell Joachim‘s mother about all their flaws, loud and angrily, until he passed out. Now though it was pretty much all insults for his mother, all night long. He called her worthless. He told her that if she left him, she would die alone and penniless. He told her that she was lucky that she had found a man like him and maybe he should leave her. He called her a whore. He called her worse things.
Those days he started drinking earlier and earlier. It was around that time when Flo hit puberty as well. His father had never been violent before. Not really. He wrestled them sometimes. He would also shake their hands and just keep pressing them until they cried out in pain to show how strong he was. It had all been mostly in good fun though, but now, Flo really got under his skin.
It hadn‘t been every night either, the hand-crushing thing. And yes, Joachim had earned himself a slap to the face when he had all but asked for it back then. And even Flo only earned slaps and some arm twists and shoves every other week or so. At least as far as Joachim had noticed. As far as Joachim knew, it had been one bad day that had destroyed everything.
It was a Wednesday. He knew, because he had gotten home early that day. Grandma was already sick and would die in a couple of weeks and mum had driven over to take care of her. Father had started drinking early that day. Usually he didn‘t open the akvavit before dinner, let alone lunch.
Joachim had never seen him like this before. His father looked haunted. Possessed. His bloodshot eyes kept darting across the room as if the furniture was plotting against him. He kept staring at Joachim and him and Joachim was smart enough to get out of his way. He considered leaving for the day, but he didn‘t want to leave his brother and his father alone with each other. On some level he had known what was going to happen.
At about four pm, he heard them yelling at each other. They had sniped at each other all day, but now they were really going at it and he put Commander Keen on pause and went to check it out.
Father was standing there, tall as a mountain. His stained t-shirt tight against his beer gut, his scraggly beard held foam. He was shouting at Flo at the top of his lungs, incoherently and loud enough so Joachim’s ears hurt. Then he turned towards Joachim. And Joachim saw the red steel wrench his father was holding in his hand.
Joachim stared. Somebody shook him. Flo.
„Leave,“ Flo shouted. His face was thin and pale just like Joachim‘s. Right now his eyes were wide with fear. „Just run!“
„You stay right where you are!“ his father rumbled. Even his words sounded zigzag with alcohol.
Joachim took a slow step back.
What was he going to do?
His father turned back towards Flo that was when Joachim sprinted to his room and closed the door so hard it produced a bang like a pistol.
He threw himself onto the ground and rolled under his bed.
He closed his eyes. Then opened them. Then closed them. He listened to the sound of his breathing. He tried to make out words but they were muffled.
He stared at the dusty slats down there for what seemed like forever. He studied the patterns in the wood, breathing in the bitter dust, feeling it scratch the inside of his lungs, while Flo and father shouted at each other.
Should he do something? Should he call the police? Or mum? Or somebody?
A loud bang made him jerk. It was louder than anything before accompanied by the crunching of wood, like somebody had taken a sledgehammer to the dining room table. His breathing sped up.
He rolled out and stood up, placing one hand on the door handle.
Was this smart? He had to go check this out. Maybe somebody was hurt.
He ripped the door open and moved along the wall to see what was up.
The first thing he saw was the gash in the door frame. The second was Flo, his face defiant, grinning pugnaciously. He was taller and more muscular than Joachim. He looked almost like a man now.
“Do it,“ he shouted at father, spitting the words. “Do it, you miserable drunk and they can finally lock you up.“
His father was breathing heavily.
„You don‘t respect me,“ he murmured. „None of you do.“
Joachim did. Didn‘t he? What had he done?
„Don‘t you just want to swing that again?“ said Flo. „Don‘t you want to feel big and strong, you pathetic excuse for a-“
„SHUT UP!“ his father roared.
Joachim had never heard him get this loud and it terrified him.
None of the two had seen him. What was he going to do? They were both stronger than him, so he couldn‘t just push them. And they wouldn‘t listen to him unless he chose his words really well.
God, what was he going to say?
Time was running out.
Joachim felt himself shivering. It was like watching a traffic accident. Like a car that had gone off the road and was now in mid-air, free fall. Something was going to happen. There was no way to prevent that. Somebody was going to walk away hurt. Something was going to break.
He was the only one who could step in. The only one who could still fix it.
“STOP!” he shrieked at the top of his lungs.
They didn’t react to him. His father was yelling something incomprehensible at Flo. Flo was yelling back simultaneously, each of them getting louder, their words trying to wrestle each other down.
Joachim charged in.
They both fell silent.
He just stood there, his arms spread to hold them apart. It was stupid. Simply symbolic. But it worked in this instance.
Flo’s face was a mask of hatred and anger. His father’s wasn’t much off.
For a brief moment they both took breath.
“You both need to calm down,” said Joachim. “This is pointless.”
Couldn’t they see that?
His father hesitated. He could see it in his eyes. He realized he had a chance here. All of them did.
His father’s expression hardened.
“Stay out of this, Joachim,” he said.
“You want to shout at him too?” said Flo. “Get your whole family into the loony bin, like you did mum?”
Father shoved Joachim aside to get to Flo.
It was just a simple shove. Not even as hard as usually when he got angry. This time though, Joachim stumbled over his own feet and lost his balance. His hands extended towards the floor, trying to break his fall. Unfortunately, this did nothing to prevent the right side of his face to connect with the corner of the table.
Things got hazy after that.
First he was just numb and not aware what happened around him. He was lying there and his face felt weird and wasn’t that the weirdest pattern in the styrofoam plates in the feeling. Looked sort of like two-headed dragon.
Then slowly, like somebody turning up a volume-knob, the pain emerged.
He had never been in that much pain before. It was difficult to compare it to something. He focused his attention on screaming his head off and twisting his body into new positions that lessened it, but always only for a while.
People were hurrying around him. Father. Flo. After a while, strangers. They put cold things on his face, but that made it worse. They tried to put a syringe into his face, but he was scared of needles ever since he had read that book about heroine junkies, so he wouldn’t let them. Finally, they put a breathing mask over his face and passed out.
He woke up in the hospital the next morning. Or noon. He could feel the bandages on his face. He felt numb. Hazy. Out of it.
They operated on him a week or so later. Time flowed differently there.
He had never told them that it had been an accident. Sort of.
After a month in the hospital he learned that mum and Flo had moved out and were going to take him with them. His childhood home had shattered the same moment his zygomatic bone had.