Catbird Press - Floyd Kemske -- D1/C1

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

First Draft - Chapter One

Norman headed for the elevator. He wanted to get a snack in the company cafeteria to silence the grumbling of his empty stomach.

On the ground floor, he walked to the back of the building and joined a small group of secretaries and clerks who were waiting at the door of the cafeteria, which was to open at seven. Two admins, young men in white shirts with neckties and no jackets, were chatting.

Norman tried not to listen, but couldn't avoid it.

"They say the hole in his head was as big around as your fist."

"Wow, that's cool. What was he using?"

"It sure wasn't a .22."

"Nah. Wasn't a .22."

"Unless maybe he was using hollow points or something. Hollow points could do that, couldn't they?"

"Could have been a nine millimeter."

"Yeah, or maybe a .45."

"I don't know. A .45 probably would have blown his head off"

The door to the cafeteria opened to reveal its manager. He recognized Norman and nodded. Then he fastened the door against the fixture on the wall behind and stepped aside to let them enter. The dining area was redolent of coffee, bacon, and fried potatoes. Light poured in through the windows of the opposite wall as the sun rose over the parking lot outside, utensils clattered behind the counter, somebody laughed near the cash register. Norman felt comforted by the activity, even the activity of secretaries and cafeteria staff he didn't know. In rank, he was a lot closer to Pierce than he was to anyone in the cafeteria, but he always felt more at ease down here with conversations that didn't interest him and food that wasn't really good for him than he did up in the executive suite.

He got himself a toasted bagel on a paper plate and cup of coffee, and he went and found a seat at an empty formica-topped table. He chewed his bagel and mulled over his meeting with Pierce.

The new owners had sent in a hatchet man. He seemed to revile the previous executive staff (it was wonderful to think of them as "previous") as much as Norman did himself. But Norman had serious doubts about re-engineering. Was the man setting the stage for major changes, or was he just setting the tone for his regime with a little intimidation? His remark about Norman wanting to make breakfast for his kids was scary-as if he understood Norman's deepest motivators. Pierce had said he wasn't in any trouble, but you cannot believe anything a new boss tells you. It was one of the rules of business. If Pierce cared more about performance than attitude, he was one manager in a million.

Then Norman realized his analysis and speculations were pointless. He had no control over Pierce's assessment of him. He had no choice but to take Pierce at his word and continue doing the best job he could even while his mind whispered to him incessantly that there were better things to do with his time. The first order of business was to schedule a meeting of the Human Resources Department to tell his staff about the new management.

He thought about the department. It consisted of three exempt staff, including himself, and two nonexempts. The two nonexempts, Cheryl and Louise, were admins. He wasn't sure what they did, since he left the supervision of them to the Assistant Manager, Jacqueline. Jacqueline, in fact, was probably his biggest problem. She was extremely ambitious, and she was likely to make herself conspicuous in the misguided belief that the acquisition was an opportunity to increase her power and status. The bagel was dry in Norman's mouth, and he took a sip of coffee to soften it. Jacqueline still had much to learn about getting along in an organization.

Norman looked down at the paper plate in front of him. The bagel was gone, and he wondered what happened to it. He looked in his coffee cup, and it was empty. He looked at his watch and saw it was eight o'clock already. The cafeteria was filled with people, and the noise level had risen considerably. This was the second hour he'd lost today. He knew it was simple stress, but still he thought he'd better call his doctor's office. He shrugged, took the cup and plate to the trash can, and started toward his office.

When he arrived on the third floor, Cheryl and Louise were at their desks in the Human Resources Department reception area. Their desks were within eight feet of each other, and despite the proximity, or perhaps because of it, they got along like Siamese fighting fish.

Louise's elaborate hair was very large this morning, larger, in fact, than Cheryl's, which was something Norman never would have thought possible.

"Good morning," he said.

"Good morning, Norman." Louise's greeting was musical and Norman was pleased to see she'd come out of the dark mood she'd been in all week.

Cheryl said nothing, and Norman wondered if her silence had anything to do with Louise's hair being larger than hers.

Norman called his meeting for that afternoon.

He prepared notes on the newsprint flip chart in the department conference room: NEW OWNERSHIP, NEW GOALS, NEW POLICIES, NEW STRUCTURE. He was waiting for his staff beside his flipchart when they arrived for the meeting.

When the four of them filed in, Louise and Cheryl took chairs as far from each other as possible, at opposite corners of the conference table. Jacqueline, as Assistant Manager, sat at the end opposite Norman, and Tim sat next to Cheryl, where he was hidden from Norman's view by her hair. But he was a benefits specialist and had never been particularly visible anyway.

They all stared at his flipcharts, and the only sound was the soft report of Louise's chewing gum, which crackled with the sound of someone crumpling sheets of old paperwork. Norman wondered if her hair was very heavy. He supposed that the exercise of the chewing somehow conditioned her neck muscles to help her keep her head upright.

Jacqueline, at the other end of the table, was wearing her power suit, the gray one with the chalk stripe, and Norman knew it could be a difficult meeting. He hated it when she wore her power suit.

He decided he should begin with an inclusion exercise.

"Before we begin," said Norman, "I think we should go around the room and each of us will describe something good that's happening in their personal life."

He wasn't looking at Jacqueline, but from the corner of his eye he saw her stiffen. It didn't surprise him. Jacqueline hated inclusion exercises.

He decided to start the exercise with Louise, hoping she might offer some explanation for increasing the size of her hair so precipitously. "Louise, why don't you start?"

[Link to same paragraph in Draft 2]
"I read a good book," said Louise.

"What's it about?" said Norman.

"A vampire from New Orleans who's a rock star."

Norman wondered how a vampire could be a rock star. Aren't they supposed to be nobility or something?

"It's particularly interesting for its point of view," said Louise. "It's first- person, and the narrator is the vampire."

Cheryl coughed ostentatiously. Everybody turned to look at her.

"And it's egregiously self-referential." Cheryl seemed to address her remarks to everyone in the room but Louise. "The narrator spends pages and pages discussing the author's last book."

"Have you read the book, too?" said Norman.

"Well, the reader needs to know where he came from." Louise seemed offended, and Norman worried the conversation might get out of hand.

"I think the author's first vampire book was inspired," said Cheryl. "It was a real innovation to tell a vampire story from the vampire's point of view. But what's the point of just doing it again? Isn't art about stretching aesthetic boundaries?"

"How would you know?" Louise's tone implied that Cheryl's hair was not big enough for artistic understanding.

Norman was worried that the meeting was slipping from his control. Cheryl started to answer Louise's challenge, but Jacqueline cut her off

"I don't think we're here to discuss literature or vampires," she said.

Everyone in the room turned toward her. She was as unlike either of her two subordinates as Norman could possibly imagine. She wore her black hair short and casual. She affected no makeup that he could discern. Her suit was fashionably severe. Her only concession to fashion was a pair of electric blue contact lenses that gave her an appearance simultaneously sinister and comical.

Jacqueline's job was to manage employee orientation and training programs, to supervise the support staff in Human Resources, and to manage nonexempt compensation. She was an outstanding performer and one of the best supervisors Norman had ever seen.

Jacqueline wasn't smiling, but she swelled visibly as she became the center of attention. Norman wondered how she always seemed to take control of his meetings with a single remark.

"Norman has something to tell us," said Jacqueline.

Everyone looked at Norman.

"Maybe we'll just skip the books and move on to our discussion," he said.

Then he made some long-winded remarks about change and the need to work together in uncertain times. He saw their eyes glazing over as he talked about the need to understand company objectives and not just work for the department. He couldn't blame them. He was boring himself to tears. He wished he were home with his kids.

"Until we get some direction from the new management," he said, "it's business as usual." He looked around the room and saw they were all having a tough time keeping their eyes open. He decided it might be a good time to drop a sort of post-hypnotic suggestion. "You are to work on your existing objectives. I don't want anyone developing any new projects or trying to work up high-profile activities. Top management has enough problems right now just assimilating the company. They will be happy with us if we just keep things moving steadily and quietly for the time being."

Then he woke them up and sent them back to their desks. But Jacqueline asked if she could stay and talk with him privately.

Norman shrugged and sat down. Jacqueline walked over to the door and closed it, then came back and sat in a chair near him.

Norman didn't know what she wanted, but he knew it would be difficult. She was not one to leave him in suspense. She got right to the point.

"Norman," she said, "I want a salary increase."

Even coming from Jacqueline, it surprised him. He thought he had just finished explaining how important it was to have a low profile.

"Things are a little uncertain right now to be considering salary increases," he said, hoping he might enlist her sympathy.

"It's time for my year-end review." Jacqueline stared at him seriously with her electric eyes.

"I don't know if the new management is even going to consider merit increases this year."

"You're a department head, Norman."

"Jacqueline," he said, "the company has just been acquired. Let me talk to you as a friend for a minute. This is no time to ask for a salary increase."

"You have your own budget for this department." Her voice was strained with tension, which was not surprising, since she was walking along the border of insubordination territory.

Norman shifted in his chair. "As a matter of fact, the new man, Pierce, seems to be completely reevaluating the budgets. He told me to throw away my last revenue and expense report."

"Norman, if I don't get an increase right now, I'll have to leave."

It was no idle threat. She had a reputation among Human Resource managers in the city. Norman's own wife had asked about Jacqueline's job satisfaction and advancement prospects more than once. Jacqueline could find a new job in Human Resources management in the time it took to place a phone call.

Norman did not want to talk with Pierce about this. But he could not afford to lose Jacqueline. Who could know what lay ahead? Assuming he survived Pierce's re- engineering program, he would need her desperately.

"I'll have to ask Pierce," he said.

Jacqueline rose to leave. "It's nothing personal, Norman. I'm not trying to put you in a difficult position."

"I know," said Norman.

As she left, it occurred to him that she was trying to put him in a difficult position and furthermore that she had.

Remembering his boss's advice about getting in touch with him, Norman waited until late in the day to call him. It was dark outside when he picked up the phone and punched in Pierce's number. As late as it was, he still got the voice mail, which told him, in Pierce's voice, that his boss was either away from his desk or on another line and to leave a message.

Norman looked at his watch. It was five-thirty. He hated being here past five, and the kids expected him home by six-fifteen with macaroni and cheese, since it was Thursday. He left a message that he needed to talk with Pierce and to please call him at home that evening. At least he could get a little personal mileage out of this and show his boss he was willing to invest his own time in company business.

On the way home, he stopped at the crowded take-out place with dozens of other managerial and professional suburbanites and bought chicken dinner for two with vegetables and two large orders of macaroni and cheese and fresh garden salad. The kids loved macaroni and cheese, even the drippy stuff they had at the take-out place. As long as they ate their salads first, he'd let them eat as much as he bought. He wished his kids could have the macaroni and cheese with the orange and brown crust on it like his mother used to make. But the only way they could have that was if he made it for them. He would have liked to, but who had time? Maybe this weekend.

He came in the house and said good-bye to the nanny, who, as usual, was waiting at the door when he walked in. He left the packages of dinner on the counter in the kitchen, and went into the family room. His eight-year old son was kneeling on the carpet in front of the big-screen television, watching an infomercial in which a man was exhorting a room full of people to believe in themselves.

"Did you get macaroni and cheese?" The boy spoke without looking up from the television.

"Did you do your homework?" Norman touched the boy's shoulder and felt relaxation suffuse his hand and then travel up his arm. Touching his son always felt like plugging himself into a recharging device: it relaxed him and energized his humanity.

"Homework's for squids." The boy looked up at Norman and smiled to emphasize his observation.

"Until you're out of school, consider yourself a mollusk," said Norman.

"You mean like a clam?"

Norman was pleased his son had his phyla straight. Much of success in life depends on knowing one phylum from another. Norman was a Human Resources manager, and he knew it was sometimes difficult to tell a primate from a mollusk. After all, a lot of people are squids..

"No," said Norman. "I didn't mean you were a clam." The man on the television had chosen someone from the studio audience and was challenging him to believe in himself. "You know, believing in yourself is nice, but it really doesn't matter how much you believe in yourself if you don't do your homework."

"This guy says if you order his cassette tape, you can be a millionaire."

Norman tousled the boy's hair. "You don't want to be a millionaire. The taxes are brutal."

The boy laughed, and Norman realized he liked to have his father tousle his hair.

"Come on," said Norman, "it's time to get ready for dinner."

Norman was able to top off his charge when his ten-year-old daughter came downstairs and gave him a hug. He thought it was wonderful the way she always called him "Daddy" and hugged him whenever he came home. He thought it was all the more wonderful because he knew it wouldn't last. It couldn't be but another three or four years before she started on the next stage of her life and became too self-conscious to hug him. He knew it would be another ten years after that before the two of them could get beyond the awkwardness of it to hug again.

Despite the recharging from his daughter, Norman was exhausted by the time he got the kids fed and put the dinner for Gwen and him in the microwave. He sent the kids to get ready for their baths and went to unload the dishwasher. He had a fistful of forks and spoons when Gwen came through the kitchen door.

Norman didn't drop his silverware or allow her to set her briefcase down before he grabbed her and kissed her deeply, seeking yet another charging for his dying battery. She responded warmly to the kiss. As soon as it was finished, she began talking about her day.

"It's finally happening," she said. "The CEO asked me to honcho the Human Resources accounting project. He said to me, and these are his exact words, he said to me, 'I want real accounts set up. I want something we can manage.'"

Norman liked to see his wife happy. And he was glad she was too excited to remember their argument from the night before. Maybe they would be able to bury it again.

"That's wonderful, dear. The kids are getting ready for their baths."

"I'll just say hello to them." She finally began unbuttoning her coat. "You finish making dinner." She hurried toward the doorway, shucking her coat as she walked, then stopped. She turned around, one arm still in a sleeve, and her eyes shone as brightly as they had the day their son was born.

"I'm supposed to give a presentation on it this weekend at the company-wide meeting. If I can make it work, it could mean a vice presidency."

"I know you can make it work." Norman had forgotten about her company- wide meeting. He had gotten Gwen to agree not to stay over Saturday night, but she was going to have to be there all day both days of the weekend.

She smiled broadly, then headed off toward the bathroom.

Half an hour later, the kids having promised to take their baths and put on clean pajamas before going to bed, Norman and Gwen sat down in the dining room to the chicken dinners.

"Anything new on the acquisition today?" said Gwen.

"I met the new owners' hatchet man today."

Gwen lit up at the prospect of new information, but before she could pump Norman for details, the telephone rang out in the kitchen. They looked at each other.

"You got dinner." Gwen stood up. "It's my turn for the telephone."

Norman shrugged and sagged back against his chair.

He could hear her talking in the kitchen, although he couldn't make out anything specific. But she was gone for more than a minute, so he assumed it was her call. Probably someone from her staff making more arrangements for the weekend meeting.

He was chewing his third or fourth bite when Gwen returned to the dining room.

"It's for you."

He looked with both annoyance and puzzlement at the remaining chicken. "Is it Pierce?"

Gwen nodded as she sat down. "What a charming man."

That wasn't exactly the way Norman would have described him. He tossed his napkin on the table without folding it and stood up. "Don't wait for me."

Norman wondered if Gwen had pumped Pierce for information about the acquisition. He wouldn't doubt it. Gwen was pretty good at getting information from people. It was one of the things that made her so effective in her job. He found himself struggling with irritability when he picked up the phone.

"Norman. You called today." Pierce's soothing voice made him forget about his annoyance and his unfinished chicken. "What can I do for you?"

Norman described to him Jacqueline's demand for a raise, reminding him at several points in the story that Pierce had taken his budget away and told him to call about any problems. He didn't want his boss to think he was incapable of making this decision--even if he was.

Pierce questioned him a little then made a decision. "Bring her to my office tomorrow at six p.m. The three of us will talk about this together."

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