Catbird Press - Floyd Kemske -- D2/C1

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Catbird Press -- Draft 2
Ongoing Fiction Editing Project -- Floyd Kemske

Second 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. Norman recognized two supervisors from the Production Department, young men in white shirts with neckties and no jackets, who were chatting about their department.

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

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

"No kidding?"

"Blood all over the inside of the car."

"Do you think he was trying to be messy about it?"

"I know I would. Me, I probably would have done it in Pressman's office, just to see if I could mess up his suit."

"Hell, I would have done it on his desk-- no, in his lap."

"Do you think he would have sat still for it?"

They both laughed at that. Then one of them spoke more seriously to the other.

"Do you know if they'll get down as far as us?"

"What I heard was that all management staff at every level would get the axe and then about half would be invited back."

"Oh, God. Half. I wonder if I have any bullets at home."

The two of them laughed again.

"Maybe we'll get the notices tomorrow," said the serious one. "They like to do those things on Friday."

"What caliber do you think it was to make a hole like that?"

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 tried to go in, but the cafeteria manager grabbed his jacket sleeve as he walked past. The man looked around to make sure everyone else was out of earshot.

"Have you heard anything, Norman?"

"All the vice presidents and directors got it," said Norman. "Last night or early this morning, I think."

"Oh, God." The man went pale. "I've got a mortgage. I've got a kid in college."

"I just met the new guy, and he said they're not going to do anybody else," said Norman.

"No?" The panic in the man's face turned to hope. He grabbed Norman's other jacket sleeve. "Let me get you some coffee and a bagel--on the house."

Norman let himself be led by the sleeve over to the counter, where he accepted the warm bagel on a paper plate and coffee in a paper cup. The cafeteria manager got him a little package of cream cheese from the refrigerated case.

"Here, take this, Norman."

"Thanks," said Norman. "Do you have a doughnut?"

"You're sure they're not going to do anybody else?" whispered the man.

"They're even bringing back the people who got laid off," said Norman. "That's what he told me. Do you have a doughnut?"

"Really?" The cafeteria manager looked like a man who'd been told his terminal disease was a misdiagnosis.

"Except Ackerman." Norman looked at the floor.

"Yeah, I guess it's a little late for him," said the cafeteria manager. "Hey, enjoy your bagel. I'm going into my office to call my wife."

Norman looked down at his bagel. But when he looked up, the man was already half-way across the room on his way to his office. Norman decided the cafeteria manager was not one of the employees Pierce wanted to be told about. No ideas there. Norman went to find a seat by himself at an empty formica-topped table. It occurred to him that Pierce was right. The company was on the verge of hysteria. He chewed his bagel and mulled over his meeting with Pierce.

The new owners had sent in a kind of reverse 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. He acted like a decent human being, but Norman had his doubts about this stuff with the blank sheet of paper and the night shift for managers. Norman wondered if Pierce had been kidding about that part. The man talked a good game about caring for the employees, but he did after all, fire a dozen vice presidents and directors. Norman knew from long experience that your chances of surviving a new manager were better if you watched what he did than if you listened to what he said. The bagel was dry in Norman's mouth, and he took a sip of coffee to soften it.

Norman's 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.

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. Norman 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 disliked 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?"

"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. Weren't they supposed to be nobility or something?

"It's told from the point of view of the vampire," said Louise.

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.

"The idea is inspired," said Cheryl. "Telling the story from the vampire's point of view was innovative. But why did the author just do the same thing 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 books 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 adornment 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. And she was far too passionate about her job to be really happy in it.

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 was careful not to share with them anything about Pierce beyond his name. Any expectations they developed now could make Pierce's re-engineering campaign much more difficult. So he kept his remarks at the level of generalities. He saw their eyes glazing over as he talked about the need to understand company objectives and not just work for the department. He wondered why they weren't more interested in this stuff.

"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 have an idea for reorganizing the department."

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

"This is probably not the time to be implementing a reorganization," he said.

"Have you ever heard of re-engineering, Norman?" Jacqueline aimed her eyes at him steadily.

Why did everybody want to browbeat him with re-engineering? "I've heard a little about it here and there."

"It's a way of re-evaluating everything an organization does," said Jacqueline.

"Jacqueline," he said, "the company has just been acquired. We don't know what's going to happen." A part of Norman noted the reflexive idea-damping in his voice, and he regretted saying it as soon as it was out of his mouth.

"You're in charge of this department. This is an opportunity to exercise your leadership." Her voice was strained with tension.

Norman shifted himself in his chair, not knowing if he should feel flattered, manipulated, or both. "Do you think we're in trouble here?"

"The structure has been in place for three years now, Norman. Structures wear out."

"What did you have in mind?"

"I think we should reorganize ourselves as a team--the Personnel Administration Work Team. We can cross-train everybody in the department to do everybody else's job."

It occurred to Norman that Jacqueline wanted to be cross-trained to do his job, then he dismissed the thought as unworthy. Sitting there, trying to avoid looking at her blue contact lenses, he realized that regardless of what he thought of her idea, Pierce would want to know about it. Jacqueline was a valuable employee, and this was just the kind of situation the new boss had discussed with him this morning.

"We've just been acquired," he said. "I'll have to ask Pierce."

Jacqueline rose to leave. "May I talk with him about it?"

"I think he might want you to," said Norman.

It was the first time that day Jacqueline smiled at him.


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. Then he tapped in a pause command while he tried to decide how it would look if he asked Pierce to call him at home. Would it look like he was so lacking in perspective that he took the job home with him, or would it look like he had enough perspective on the job that he thought it important to leave at quitting time? Then he thought about the kids and the macaroni and cheese, and decided it didn't matter. He punched in the resume command and recited his home telephone number.

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. Norman had studied biology in college, and he knew it was sometimes difficult to tell a primate from a mollusk. Since becoming a Human Resources manager, he had learned that a lot of people are squids.

"No," said Norman. "You're a lot more mobile than that." 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 believe in yourself and 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."

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