I got to work at eight forty-five, a miracle given that I couldn’t find a single clean item of clothing to wear. Just as I was about to pluck something from the laundry basket and throw it into the dryer for ten minutes, I spotted an old suit still in the cleaner’s plastic hanging around the back of my closet. Sure, I bought it sometime during the Bush administration (the old guy, not his son), but it wasn’t wrinkled, and the gauzy pink scarf I threw around my neck looked nice with the light gray wool. A little heavy for mid-May, but the spring mornings still held a chill in Illinois. It would do.
My employer, Giacomo Advertising and Design, was the newest tenant of Gossamer Space, an old factory converted into open, airy lofts. Our previous address did not hold the same allure. Frank Giacomo hired me seventeen years ago, when I was both a recent grad with no experience and a new mom (also with no experience). He took me on anyway. Short and round, always chomping on a cigar and wearing more gold around his neck than a rap star, Frank was a secret feminist, and he filled his office with smart, talented women. The vast majority of our clients were local, as Frank wasn’t ambitious in the traditional sense. Frank appealed to me because he liked stability, and he appealed to his clients because he had an old-school method of holding their interest—he wined and dined them, asked about their spouses and kids and tennis games, sent them gift baskets at Christmas, and paid his respects when one of them passed on. Everybody liked Frank, because Frank had that one quality no one could resist—he knew who he was and still liked himself.
Our office used to sit above a dental office on Wright Street, beige and bland, nine cubicles in a row, and a cramped, windowless room for Frank. It didn’t matter. Every year I got a raise, and I never worried about losing my job. When I needed a vacation, I took one. When Trey got sick, I stayed home with him. Frank usually called midday to see how he was doing.
Last Christmas, at our annual company party in the back room of Marinetti’s Chop House, Frank excused himself and never came back. He was found slumped in a bathroom stall, cigar still lit. They had to unclench his jaw to get it out. Frank’s heart, as big as the rest of him, had simply worked too hard.
Jesse had only been gone a year, and I’d never had to grieve a father—my own was gone long before tangible memories—so Frank’s death sucker punched me. I felt Jesse’s absence more acutely. Most of Frank’s employees drifted as the company slid into uncertainty, but I stayed on. With both Jesse and Frank gone, even the spare remains of Frank’s company offered some bit of stability.
So Giacomo Advertising and Design survived, helmed by Frank’s only son, Frank, Jr., a graduate of a small, private university on the East Coast who’d worked a series of vague internships in New York. He carried the city in with him when he walked into the Giacomo offices two weeks after Big Frank’s death—skinny jeans and a black leather jacket, expensive sunglasses, and a disdainful expression. Big Frank’s genes came through in ways Frank, Jr. tried to hide, his hair carefully disheveled to disguise a premature bald spot, silver rings to dress up Sicilian workingman’s hands, a laugh that seemed too hearty for his body. These ghosts of Big Frank had me nodding my head in agreement when Frank, Jr. enthusiastically vowed to make the changes his father had only dreamed of. I never thought Big Frank was much of a dreamer; he was a doer. But if his son had both qualities, Giacomo might survive.
I’d met Frank, Jr. a few times over the years, and it was hard to see him as something other than a kid, until he held a staff meeting with his nervous employees: me; Jackie, the shy, acid-washed-jeans-wearing designer who had been at Giacomo even longer than I had, and a random collection of young designers Big Frank hired when he decided to expand the company after we had a good run—Rhiannon, Seth, Byron, and the timid, newest hire, Glynnis.
On Frank, Jr. ’s first day, we had assembled in Big Frank’s office, where the walls still exuded cigar smoke. Frank, Jr. held his hands in a namaste style and seemed at a loss for words. He motioned for us to come closer.
“You’ll do a good job, Frank,” I said, putting a hand on his shoulder.
He eyed my hand distastefully. “I prefer Lukas.”
“It’s my middle name,” he said quickly.
His middle name was George, same as his father’s, but I didn’t disagree. “Okay, Lukas. I think I speak for everyone when I say we want the best for Giacomo Advertising and Design, and we will work just as hard, even with Big Frank gone. Actually, even harder.”
Frank, Jr./Lukas drew us tighter, our spines awkwardly bending forward to form a group huddle. “You’re here because you believe in me. I’m grateful for your trust, and I promise you this,” he said, voice solemn and full of emotion. “I not only want to carry on my father’s legacy, I want to surpass it by doing right by our clients, new and old, just as he did.”
Jackie sniffled, and I admit my eyes stung with tears. We managed an awkward group hug, and then Lukas (after that speech, I figured he was now deserving of whatever name he wanted) sent us back to work, renewed and energized. But I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that somewhere out there, Big Frank was chomping on a cigar, growling, “Never shit a shitter.” My bullshit detector, honed to perfection by my former boss, quivered like a flagpole in the wind.
My reservations aside, Lukas jumped into action and, in a move of complete optimism, leased a new space with a conference room and parking lot, hoping to bring in some bigger clients. It worked. In addition to beefing up our local roster, we scored an Italian gelato company eager to break into the American market, a nationally distributed brand of caramel-cheese popcorn, a company dedicated to 100 percent eco-friendly paint, and an ancient cast-iron cookware company looking to ditch their stodgy image. I smiled to think of Big Frank’s reaction to our success. He would have been proud.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I was able to identify why my bullshit detector had gone off. Jackie and I sat on the fire escape silently sharing a sleeve of Girl Scout Thin Mints. Lost in thought, I remembered Lukas’s first afternoon. With all the talk of honoring Big Frank and his vision and keeping clients happy, Lukas hadn’t said a thing about doing right by us.
When I arrived at work, sweating through my gray suit, the first sign that something was awry was an actual sign. The scripted Giacomo Advertising and Design sign I’d personally supervised being hung above the door was gone, replaced by a slightly off-kilter neon-orange G.
“Did the sign break?” I asked the empty hallway, and then pushed open the door. The loft glittered with shards of light thrown by an actual chandelier. Our cubicles, lugged so carefully across town, had disappeared. Long tables lined the perimeter of the open space, white and glossy against the exposed brick, with sleek oversized computer monitors equally spaced, keyboards hidden beneath. Bright orange plastic exercise balls replaced our practical office chairs, six in total. It looked like a modern art installation, real furniture glossed and shellacked, Portrait of the Modern Office. I couldn’t spot a single personal item—where was my photo of Trey at eleven, all braces and rounded cheeks? The sand dollar found on a silvery Naples beach on our last trip as a family, a quickie jaunt to Florida? All personal items were gone. Only Jackie, in her sneakers and jean jacket, stood like a startled owl, staring at me with heavily made-up eyes wide and beseeching. “Where is everything? Where is everyone?”