Catbird Press - Floyd Kemske -- D3/C1

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Catbird Press -- Draft 3
Ongoing Fiction Editing Project -- Floyd Kemske

Third Draft - Chapter One

Every couple has a standard argument, that single dispute that inexorably draws to itself, like some kind of interpersonal black hole, all other discussion and differences. For Norman and his wife, it was Norman's attitude toward his job.

On Wednesday night, as the two of them were getting ready for bed, Norman remembered his boss had scheduled him for 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."

"What's going on?" Gwen slipped out of her nightgown and climbed into her side of the bed without folding the sheet over. "Anything about the acquisition?"

Norman's company had been acquired by another company two days before, and Gwen was intensely curious---much more curious than Norman, in fact---about the details of the transaction.

"I don't think so," said Norman. "He just said he wants me there at five-thirty." He took off his underwear and laid it on the chair, then switched off the lamp and climbed into bed. Norman and Gwen had been sleeping naked for twelve years, although they no longer took advantage of it every night.

"Five-thirty? And you told him you would be there?"

"Of course." Norman rolled on his side to face her, and even in the dark he could see she was giving him that look.

"They'll never consider you for leadership in that company if you take orders from a jerk like Pressman." Her voice was quiet in the darkness.

"He's the CFO, Gwen. Everybody takes orders from him."

"That's insane," she said. "You're the Manager of Human Resources."

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 leadership position. The company CEO sought her advice. Many of the line managers asked her input in their planning.

"Let's not start this again." Norman rolled on to his back and looked at the ceiling.

"I'm not starting anything." Gwen sat up in the bed, and let the covers fall from her round breasts, pale in the moonlight from the bedroom window. "Just let me ask you this, Norman. Don't you see what Pressman is doing with this five-thirty meeting crap?"

Norman shrugged his shoulders against the mattress. "I don't want to be considered for leadership."

"You can't mean that."

"Ackerman was considered for leadership," said Norman. Ackerman was Norman's new tactic in their standard argument. The man had been laid off by Pressman two days before, and he'd gone out to his car in the parking lot and shot himself through the roof of his mouth.

"We're not talking about Ackerman," said Gwen.

Norman had only used the Ackerman tactic twice, but it looked like it was already losing its punch. He tried a different approach. "I've told you before. I look around me, and I see the world has as many leaders as it needs. There's a crying need for followers, and I'm glad to help fill that need and get a paycheck at the same time."

"Don't talk like that." Gwen hugged herself, as if Norman's attitude had given her a shiver.

"Can you fix the kids' breakfasts, or not?" said Norman.

"I have to be in early myself tomorrow." Gwen slid herself back down under the covers. "I have to 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?

"What's the difference between a Saturday meeting and a meeting at five-thirty?" said Norman.

"The difference is I choose to go to the Saturday meeting. I haven't been ordered to be there by some troglodyte in Finance. I have important ideas to present on Saturday."

There it was again. Ideas. Gwen was apparently a fountain of ideas at work. Norman wasn't exactly sure what these ideas were, but he knew from her conversation that Gwen had lots of them, and that the people in her company prized her for it. Ideas seemed to be a fundamental part of the leadership she was so anxious he be considered for.

Norman felt it was a good thing he wasn't interested in leadership, because he had never had an idea in his life.

"Do you have to be at the office before five-thirty tomorrow?" he said.


"I do," said Norman. "I win. Please make the kids' breakfasts."

"All right." Gwen rolled over and faced away from him.

Norman worried that he'd won too easily, but he couldn't keep from gloating a little. "Make sure they get some fruit. 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.

"Look," said Norman. "I don't want to fight with you."

Gwen didn't answer, and Norman realized he hadn't won after all.

He reached over and grabbed his clock radio, then propped himself up on an elbow so he could reset it to five minutes 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 loved the kids, but she never really believed the stuff about food groups.

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. He understood nothing of these discoveries, but he took a small, secret pride in the knowledge that his company was working on a cure for AIDS.

But that small pride was not enough to make Norman want to start conceiving ideas and be considered for leadership. Norman was not a fast tracker. He was a realist, and he felt he had a sensible perspective on himself and the world. It was his job to reconcile the company's Human Resources policies with Federal employment guidelines and to manage the people who administered benefits, orientation, and nontechnical training.

The simple truth was that Norman liked his job, and he was good at it, but he wasn't exactly making a meaningful contribution to human civilization. He'd recently attended an empowerment seminar where the instructor had the participants---as part of an exercise to build self-esteem---write their own epitaphs. Norman struggled over the assignment for some time and finally came up with "Here lies the man who supervised the person who processed the salary increase requested by the manager of the person who discovered a cure for AIDS." Fortunately, the instructor hadn't called on him to read it aloud.

He lay back 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 understood what it meant 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 realized he had been asleep and now he was awake. He felt tired, but he switched the radio 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. But he was struck by the difference between being alone here at the company and being alone at home. Here at the company, it was kind of pleasant. Maybe because of the people he was alone from when he was here. 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 predawn meetings with Pressman more often than he cared to remember, but he had never learned where to find the light switch. He certainly couldn't rely on Pressman to turn on the lights. Pressman was in Finance and would rather risk his neck wandering in the dark than spend the company's money on lighting the hallway.

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 Norman with his commitment. Norman didn't care about Pressman's commitment. But it was his misfortune to be in a position that reported to him.

All the managers 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 whenever Pressman told him to, which was about once every financial quarter, Norman came into the office before the sun was up.

Norman had hoped Pressman would call this one off when the company was sold, but the CFO was insisting on business as usual, and usual for Pressman meant predawn meetings.

Norman walked carefully through the darkness in the direction of Pressman's office.

The desk in front of Pressman's office was empty. 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. The atmosphere reminded Norman of a college fraternity initiation, and he 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. Norman knew instinctively the presence of this stranger was connected with the acquisition.

"Come in, Norman," the man repeated. He appeared to be writing a memo with a pencil, which Norman thought a little strange. But when Norman looked closer, he saw the man was not writing, but drawing, making a hasty sketch of what appeared to be a human face.

The man's paper was upside-down and across the desk from Norman's perspective. Norman began to tilt his head to try to see what the face was supposed to look like, but the man opened his desk drawer and slid the paper into it. He then stood up from the desk lamp's circle of light into the darkness. "It's nothing," he said. "A habit I picked up from a boss I had long ago."

Norman did not understand. A habit of drawing pictures?

The man walked from behind the desk.

Norman's palms began to sweat when he saw he was short. He didn't know who this man was, but experience had taught him to fear managers under five-six, and he estimated this one at five-five.

He could make out the man gesturing toward the sitting area at the other side of the enormous office. Norman was acutely aware he'd neither received an introduction nor been approached for a handshake. He walked to the sofa, set his budget report carefully on the coffee table, and sat down.

The man picked up another sheet of paper from the desk and carried it with him when he came over.

Norman wondered if he was going to sketch something on this side of the room now.

The man 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 and the other managers were trained to the boxy American look of Brooks Brothers; he realized 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. 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, but 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.

"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, uneasy 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 another few inches and studied Norman.

Norman remembered a high school biology class in which he'd been required to study a frog with similar intensity---after he'd eviscerated it. He smiled sheepishly, but he didn't move. He didn't want to offend Pierce by moving away while the man examined him. Norman was wary of offending short people, and frankly, remembering the frog, he felt fortunate to be examined with his guts intact. Time moved as slowly as if he were at a meeting of the company's department heads.

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 since he'd entered the office. He reached up and felt the knot of his necktie. The telephone chirped again, then stopped.

"No." Pierce looked down at the paper he was holding. "I'm the new everything."

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 drew sketches, 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.

"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 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.

The man made a slightly sour face. "They hadn't an idea among them."

Norman was surprised. He'd always thought the executive team must have a lot of ideas.

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

Of course Norman had heard the term. He might not have any of his own, but that didn't mean he was oblivious to the ideas that occasionally gripped the business world with the intensity of a religious revival.

"No," said Norman.

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 starting over from scratch with this company."

Norman wondered what was supposed to happen to the employees in a case like this. "There are some pretty good people here," he said cautiously.

"There may be." Pierce seemed unperturbed by Norman's caution. "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 Ackerman."

Norman thought about Ackerman and the bullet he'd put through the roof of his mouth. Ackerman had been the most highly regarded of the eight people who were laid off three days before. He was the only one who committed suicide over it.

"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, "the employees of this company are on the verge of hysteria. That a man would commit suicide because he got laid off shows a distorted set of priorities, don't you think?"

Norman was taken aback. He thought he was the only one in the entire insane company who thought that way. "Well, yes, that is what I think."

"Good," said Pierce. "I'm going to need people like you to get this place turned around. I know the previous management wanted people to marry their jobs. This strikes me as some kind of primitive desire for mastery over others. I am not that primitive. We don't need devotion, just effective job performance."

Norman had never heard an executive discuss the concept of work intelligently before, and it disarmed him.

"What do you want me to do?" Norman's stomach growled from his lack of breakfast, and he shifted uncomfortably.

Pierce didn't seem to notice his stomach growling. "I want you to help me find the people that are at risk," he said. "People like Ackerman. The ones with leadership potential. The ones with all the ideas."

Norman was impressed with the man's concern.

"You and I, Norman, aren't the kind of people with ideas," said Pierce.

It sounded vaguely insulting, but Pierce had fixed Norman with the most charming smile he'd ever seen. "You and I are the kind who just get the job done."

Norman felt he was in the presence of man of limitless understanding and wisdom.

"I know this company has been proud of a sort of macho, hands-off management style," said Pierce. "I want to try to change that. I want to find the people with the ideas and help them."

Norman nodded.

"We cannot afford morale problems," said Pierce. "We cannot afford the loss of productivity, and we must help the employees get ready to accept significant changes in their lives."

Norman had assumed that re-engineering meant changes, but he wanted to probe for more specific information. "What kind of changes are they going to have to accept?"

"Some of them will be changing every aspect of the way they think about and do their work. Anything could happen. New products, a night shift, anything."

Norman imagined himself having to come to the office at night and squirmed on the sofa.

"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?"

Norman realized he might be serious about the night shift. He wondered when Pierce ever slept.

"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. 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 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. Just leave it."

Norman had no choice but to drop his budget report in the chair by the door and leave. He pulled 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. It was already ten minutes to seven. He had never known time to pass so quickly in a business meeting.

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