Catbird Press - Floyd Kemske -- D1/C1

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Catbird Press -- Draft 1
Ongoing Fiction Editing Project -- Floyd Kemske

First Draft - Chapter One

Every couple has a standard argument, that single dispute that inexorably draws to itself, as if it were some kind of interpersonal black hole, all other discussions and differences. For Norman and his wife, it was Norman's attitude toward his job. It's not that his attitude toward the job was particularly bad; he just didn't like it interfering with his life. He gave it no more attention than was required for him to hold onto it. If there had been a way to get the same benefits and paycheck without the job, he would have signed up.

Norman was a man who would rather spend his time making breakfast for his kids than attending a staff meeting. Unfortunately, he didn't always have a choice. And on Wednesday night, as he and Gwen were getting ready for bed, he remembered he had an early meeting the next day.

"Would you please fix the children's breakfasts in the morning?" Norman folded the coverlet down on his side of the bed, pulled on the sheet, and doubled it over. He couldn't stand coverlet against his face while he slept. "I have an early appointment with Pressman."

'I don't have much time tomorrow morning." Gwen slipped out of her nightgown and climbed into her side of the bed without folding the sheet over. "I have to get to the office and prepare for my Saturday meeting."

Wasn't it just like Gwen to be going to a meeting on a Saturday? And to prepare for it? Norman never would have agreed to a Saturday meeting, and if forced to attend one, he certainly wouldn't prepare for it.

"Well, I don't have any time." Norman took off his underwear and laid it on the chair, then climbed into the bed. He and Gwen had been sleeping naked for twelve years, although they no longer took advantage of it every night. "Pressman insists on seeing me at five-thirty."

"What's going on?" Gwen slid close to him and put her arm around him. "Does it have to do with the acquisition?"

"I thought it was just my quarterly fiscal punishment," said Norman. "But maybe it does have something to do with the acquisition. I don't know."

Gwen withdrew her arm, sat up in the bed, and let the covers fall from her round breasts. "Norman, why don't you know? You're the Manager of Human Resources, for goodness' sake. Can't you be more tuned into things than that?"

Norman shrugged his shoulders against the mattress. "I don't know because I don't care."

"How can you not care that your company's been acquired?" Gwen slid back down in bed and pulled the covers up over her. "I just don't understand you. If I were you, I'd know by now who's in charge, what the plan is, who's staying, who's leaving."

In one of life's little ironies, Norman and Gwen had almost exactly the same position in their respective companies. For Gwen, it was a powerful job with important connections throughout the company. The company CEO sought her advice. Many of the line managers asked her input in their planning.

"I know you would," said Norman. "Are you going to get the children's breakfasts in the morning or not?"

"Of course." Gwen rolled over and faced away from him.

"Make sure they get some fruit," said Norman. "Cut up a cantaloupe for them or slice a banana for their cereal."

"Norman, I know how to feed the kids." Gwen's voice came to him muffled.

Norman recognized her disappointment with him. He reached over and grabbed his clock radio, so he could reset it to a half hour earlier. That way, he could cut up a cantaloupe before he left to meet Pressman in the morning. If he didn't, the kids were likely to have marshmallows and graham crackers for breakfast. Gwen was a caring and concerned mother, but she didn't know her way around the kitchen, and she felt about food pretty much the way Norman felt about his job.

He wished they didn't have these arguments about his work. As Manager of Human Resources, Norman knew as much as he needed to know about Biomethods, Inc.: that it had 300 employees, about half of whom were scientists, and that it made most of its money licensing its genetic discoveries to pharmaceutical companies. Well, he did know a little more about the company than that, but he wished he didn't.

The company's most promising work was the Genographics Project, an effort to map consumer psychographic profiles to the human genome-the first step to the development of a simple blood test that would predict buying behavior. Norman did not think this project entirely honorable, and he would have felt better about himself if he worked for a publisher of pornography or a distributor of illegal drugs. But pornographers and drug operations rarely had the kind of benefits and retirement plan you could get at Biomethods, Inc., so Norman got himself to go to work each day by refusing to think about what his company did.

He lay down and rolled on to his side, facing away from Gwen, and tried to get to sleep. He wished they'd made love, but he didn't want to ask her when her back was toward him like that. In twelve years, he had learned to read the road signs on the highway to unsatisfactory sex.

The next thing he knew, his radio was whispering soft rock music at him. He switched it off and pushed himself out of bed before he could think about it.

He got himself ready for work while everybody else in the house slept. Fortunately, he was too hurried to think much about how lonely he felt wandering around the house in the dark, trying not to make any noise. Just before it was time to leave, he cut up a cantaloupe and scraped the seeds from the slices, then put the slices in dishes and covered each one with plastic wrap. He left them out on the counter, where Gwen was sure to see them. She wouldn't resent his making all these preparations after she had agreed to do it. She would, in fact, be happy for the convenience.

He still felt hurried--hurried and tired--when he found himself alone in the elevator at the office building. He had to admit it was kind of nice being here alone. The elevator didn't make a single stop on its way to the fifth floor. Norman yawned as the chime sounded to signal arrival at the Finance Department.

The elevator door slid open into a corridor as dark as the heart of a Chief Financial Officer. Norman stepped out of the elevator and into a slot of light on the floor, which then vanished when the elevator door shut behind him. The luminous face of his wristwatch said it was five-thirty. Outside, the sun wouldn't even come up for another hour or so. He'd had early meetings with Pressman three or four times before, but they were so far outside his routine that he'd never learned where to find the light switch.

He knew he should wait until his eyes adjusted to the darkness, but the CFO expected him at half past five. Like so many people around him, the man was apparently eager to impress on Norman his commitment.

Norman didn't care about Pressman's commitment. But he reported to a man who reported to Pressman. So an invitation to a meeting, at any time, had the same force as a summons from his boss, maybe more.

All the directors of staff functions reported to Pressman. It was part of the company's philosophy that staff functions contributed nothing to the company but overhead, and they were best overseen by the man responsible for the company's financial performance. So once each financial quarter, Norman came into the office before the sun was up to endure this budget ritual.

Norman had hoped Pressman would call this one oft, since the company had been sold two days before, but the CFO was insisting on business as usual, and usual for Pressman meant predawn meetings.

Norman stood, disoriented by the darkness. He edged sideways until he could touch the wall, then proceeded slowly with his hand along it, holding his annotated quarterly budget report out in front of him with the other. He adopted a shuffling step so as not to trip on anything. He might not get to his meeting on time, but it was hardly worth risking his neck in a dark hallway for.

He knew he would go into Pressman's office and sit down across the desk from him. Neither of them would say a word about the company's new ownership. They would act as if there were no new owners, as if the entire management and executive staff were not panic-stricken about what might happen to their jobs, as if it were a perfectly normal business day. Each of them would look at his copy of the computer-generated budget report, and Pressman would berate him line by line for failing to contain costs in the Human Resources Department.

As he approached the Finance Department, an uncovered window in the reception area provided some modest illumination from the arc lights over the parking lot outside, and he was able to pick his way among the shadowed desks and cubicles.

The desk in front of Pressman's office was empty, and the secretary wasn't there. It was one thing to demand that managers show up for work before the rest of the world was awake, but you couldn't ask such things of support staff. Norman skirted the desk and tapped on the office door, then stood there feeling the knot of his necktie with his fingertips to see if he could tell whether it was straight. He really couldn't tell by feel.

The door opened slowly into darkness, and a soft voice came from the office beyond it.

"Come in, Norman"

Norman stepped hesitantly into the gloom. He expected to find someone pulling on the other side of the door, but when he stepped inside, there was no one there. The room was dark except for a pool of white light on Pressman's desk provided by a halogen desk lamp. Norman wondered what effect Pressman was trying for.

He could make out a figure sitting on the other side of Pressman's desk, just outside the pool of light. The figure reached across the desk to take a pen from the holder. It was a man. His head and shoulders passed briefly into the pool of light, and Norman hardly had time to form any impression, but he could see the man was not Pressman. He was not anyone he had ever seen before, and Norman knew instinctively the presence of the stranger was connected with the acquisition. He could feel the adrenaline of a fight-or-flight reaction coursing into his system. He took deep breaths and tried to keep himself calm. No sense detonating here in someone else's office until he knew the full situation.

"Come in, Norman," the man repeated. He marked something in red on a memo, set it in the out-tray, and stood up. "I know people hate seeing their memos corrected in red. It's a habit I just can't seem to break. I once had a boss who used red pens all the time." The man walked from behind the desk.

Norman's heart sank when he saw he was short. He didn't know who this man was, but experience had taught Norman to fear managers under five feet.

Norman could make out the man gesturing toward the sitting area at the other side of the enormous office. He was acutely aware he'd neither received an introduction nor been approached for a handshake.

Norman walked to the sofa, set his budget report carefully on the coffee table, and sat down.

The man picked up a sheet of paper from the desk and carried it with him when he came over. He switched on the lamp that rested on the end table next to the sofa, and its soft yellowish light allowed Norman to get his first good look at the stranger.

This one obviously cared about his appearance. He had the even apricot coloring of someone who owns a tanning booth but is intelligent enough to use it sparingly. He was of indeterminate age, although his skin appeared unlined. A full head of white hair was slicked into place like a close-fitting crash helmet. He wore a pale pink shirt and a deep scarlet necktie. His suit was a rich black with a subtle gray stripe and had the Italianate drapery of Louis, Boston. Norman himself was trained to the boxy look of Brooks Brothers, and he realized simultaneously that this man was part of the new management team and that the company was about to undergo some cultural changes.

The man pushed Norman's budget report aside, and sat down on the coffee table facing him, still holding his piece of paper. Norman had never seen anyone sit on this coffee table before, and he was a little surprised at the ease with which the man carried it off. Then he thought it might be the only thing he could sit on from which his feet wouldn't dangle, and it was probably a good strategy for him. The two men were about eighteen inches apart, and Norman felt uncomfortable.

The man had still not offered to shake hands, and Norman wondered if this was some sort of intimidation strategy. If so, it was working. The man's eyes were impenetrable and colored a thin, flat brown like dried blood. Below the fearsome eyes, however, his face appeared relaxed, and an engaging smile revealed teeth as even and white as if he'd bought them with an American Express Platinum Card. Norman wondered if he had.

"My name is Pierce," said the man. "Your meeting with Pressman has been called off-permanently."

Norman detected a faint soapy smell and concluded it was this man's breath. He didn't know what to say about Pressman's absence. He shifted himself on the sofa, uncomfortable at the man's proximity.

"I don't think it's necessary to bring you in here every quarter and hector you about your budget performance."

"Are you the new CFO, Mr. Pierce?" Norman managed.

"Just call me Pierce, Norman." He leaned forward a little, fixing Norman with a gaze that gave him the fleeting feeling of a butterfly being mounted in a collection.

As Pierce stared at him, the feeling of being under examination changed into one of paralysis. Norman didn't actually try to move, but a quiet voice inside his brain told him he couldn't if he wanted to. The voice did not speak to him in words he could understand, but it calmed and reassured him like a veterinarian speaking to an animal. His stomach grumbled from his lack of breakfast, and he was embarrassed, but he found himself so completely immobilized that he could not even manage a sheepish smile.

Pierce, however, had not seemed to notice the sound of Norman's stomach and continued to stare at him as closely as if he'd been told to take a census of the pores on his face. Norman felt uncomfortable, but he could not find the will to move away. He could not find the will, in fact, to move at all. Time moved as slowly as if he were at a meeting of the company's department heads. Norman wondered if he was having a stroke or something. He imagined Pierce having to call the paramedics and how embarrassed he would be, paralyzed or not, as they took him away in a stretcher. He regretted all the salt he'd put on his dinner the night before. He wished he had lived better, and he wished he had done better by his kids.

The telephone chirped, and Pierce's eyes flickered toward his desk. when he looked away, Norman found himself breathing for what seemed to be the first time that morning.

Pierce didn't get up to answer the phone, but he leaned back and then directed his attention to the paper he was holding. Relief flooded Norman as he realized he could move again. He reached up and felt the knot of his necktie, grateful when his hand answered the signal from his brain. Had he just had a hallucination? Maybe he should see his doctor. He tried to remember when he was due for his physical exam.

The telephone chirped again, then stopped. Norman realized the man had programmed the voice mail to take his calls on the second ring.

"No." Pierce looked up from his paper and smiled. "I'm the new everything." He looked back at his paper.

The two of them were so close that, even after leaning back away from him, Norman could see the paper he was looking at was blank. Norman smiled and tried to laugh at Pierce's joke, but succeeded in producing only a nervous hiss. He wasn't used to people above him making jokes, and he was not a little worried for having found himself at the mercy of a man who sat on coffee tables and studied blank papers.

"You'll be reporting to me from now on." Pierce continued to study his paper for a moment, then finally looked up. He didn't say anything else, and after an awkward moment, Norman understood it was all right for him to ask questions. He tried to push the memory of the paralysis hallucination to the back of his mind, knowing he had to get through this meeting and keep a semblance of self- possession. No matter what else was happening, no matter the state of his health, this man was his boss, and the future of his paycheck could depend on his opinion.

"What--" Norman's voice came out dry and rasping. He interrupted himself, cleared his throat quietly, and started again. "What happened to Mr. Pressman?"

"Pressman's gone. So is the rest of the executive staff They don't fit in with our plans."

An image flashed through Norman's mind. He saw his boss, and Pressman, and the rest of the directors and vice presidents, all dressed in dark Brooks Brothers suits, being marched out the front door.

"Ah." Norman wished he had something more profound to say than "ah," but there was nothing else to say. He couldn't risk revealing himself by asking the only question that mattered.

"Have you ever heard the term 're-engineering,' Norman?" Pierce gestured with his paper.

Of course Norman had heard the term. He might not be the world's most enthusiastic employee, but that didn't mean he was oblivious to the fads and fashions of business.

"No," said Norman.

"Of course you have." Pierce stared into Norman's soul.

"I, uh-"

"Never mind." Pierce turned the paper up and held its blank surface in plain view before him. "This is the company's new organization chart."

Norman thought it must be another joke. "Where's Human Resources?"

"There is no more Human Resources." Pierce's soft voice had the edge of a machete clearing away organizational underbrush. "There is no more anything. We're staffing over from scratch with this company."

It sounded like he intended to clear away the employees as he cleared away the structure.

"'There are some pretty good people here," Norman managed.

"There may be." Pierce seemed unperturbed by this sign of Norman's resistance. "But they are working in a dysfunctional organization. I don't mind telling you that we were very disappointed with the way the acquisition announcement was handled. My superiors had specifically instructed the executive staff of this organization there were to be no layoffs. We feel terrible about the Assistant Manager of Production."

Everybody knew the story. The Assistant Manager of Production had been one of eight people laid off two days before. He'd gone straight from his manager's office to his car in the parking lot, where he'd taken a handgun from the glove compartment and shot himself through the roof of the mouth.

"The other seven people," continued Pierce, "will be brought back to resume work today. We want to start over on a new footing with the employees here. We don't even know what the executive team was trying to accomplish with the terminations. But if they wanted terminations, that's what they got."

Norman had a shamefully pleasant reaction at the thought of the former executive team being terminated. He suppressed the pleasantness as quickly as it arose. This was no occasion for celebration. This was a delicate situation, and he must keep his wits about him if he was to hold on to his job.

"Norman," said Pierce gently, "everybody is under a great deal of strain. The Production Department suicide has us all on edge. I'm going to need help from you and some of the other managers to get things calmed down."

Pierce's abrupt turnabout softened Norman's apprehensions a little.

"What do you want me to do?" Norman's stomach growled again, and he shifted uncomfortably.

"I want you to pass the word there are no more layoffs planned. I want you to keep an eye out for employees who are obviously upset. Let me know about them, and I'll look into it personally."

Norman was impressed with the man's concern.

"And I want you and the other managers to bring me your problems," said Pierce. "I know this company has been proud of a sort of macho, hands-off management style. I want to try to change that. If you have a problem with an employee or with your work, bring it to me. That's what I'm here for."

Norman nodded, wondering what he could do to make sure he held on to his job.

"Until we get through this difficult transition," said Pierce. "I'm going to be involved personally in every aspect of the company's affairs. On matters of any significance, I want you to call me, any hour of the day or night. I'm not usually available during the day, but you can leave a detailed message on the voice mail. At night, you can usually get me directly. It doesn't matter what time it is. Do you understand?"

"Yes." Norman wondered when Pierce ever slept.

As if he knew what Norman was thinking, Pierce explained. "I have other responsibilities. For the foreseeable future, I will be elsewhere during the daylight hours. I know it might be a rather difficult situation for you to have a supervisor who is not readily available during the day, so I must ask you to bear with me."

This request calmed Norman's fears that he might be expected to go without sleep himself He had never been asked for patience from a supervisor before.

"Do you have any questions about anything?"

Of course he did.

"No," said Norman.

Pierce stood up from the coffee table and started to walk back toward his desk, still holding his organization chart. "I'm glad we understand each other."

Norman stood up and wondered if he was supposed to follow him back to the other side of the room.

But Pierce dropped the paper on his blotter, turned around, folded his arms in front of him, and leaned up against the desk. His posture suggested strain, like someone who's already worked a full day, even though it was only quarter to six. "And I know we understand each other. From your record, I see that you're a good employee. But I also know you'd rather be making breakfast for your children than attending this meeting." He unfolded his arms and opened them in a gesture that was simultaneously dismissive and supplicating.

It was a courtly gesture, so much more civilized than Pressman's method of closing a meeting, which was to simply say, "Get back to work."

"If you'll excuse me," said Pierce, "I have to check the voice mail now."

Norman wondered if he was now supposed to go home and make breakfast.

And he wondered how Pierce had gained access to his innermost feelings. But, when he looked at the man, he realized he was waiting for Norman to leave. Norman bent to pick up his budget report from the coffee table and started toward the door.

"Norman," said Pierce, "you can throw that away. You won't be needing it, and I've instructed Accounting to stop sending them to you.

"Am I in some kind of trouble?"

"Far from it, Norman." Pierce walked back around his desk to sit down. "Now, if you'll excuse me."

Norman had no choice but to leave and push the heavy door closed behind him. Through the window in the reception area, he could see a pinkness spreading across the sky. He looked at his watch. He saw with a jolt it was ten minutes to seven. Had he been in Pierce's office over an hour? His sense of time was failing. First a hallucination of being paralyzed, now this. He wondered again if it was time to see a doctor. Then he headed for the elevator. He wanted to get a snack in the company cafeteria to silence the grumbling of his empty stomach.

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