Catbird Press - Floyd Kemske -- D3/C1

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


Third 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 obviously sent in a hatchet man, but he wasn't your ordinary hatchet man. He acted like a decent human being, and he had the most realistic view of organizations Norman had ever known in a manager. Nevertheless, Norman had his doubts about this stuff with the blank sheet of paper and the night shift. 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. Louise's elaborate hair was very large this morning. She was rummaging in her purse while Cheryl spoke to her, and Norman could tell the conversation was not amicable.

"It's called metonymy, Louise," said Cheryl, "and it's critical to understanding that book, and just about every other book you read, for that matter."

Louise took a can of hair spray from her purse, shook it, and then aimed a noisy contrail of lacquer vapor toward her hair. "I can't hear you," she said. "I'm spraying my hair."

"Good morning," said Norman. He could taste the hair spray in the air, and he did not find it pleasant, but he tried to keep his expression neutral.

"Good morning, Norman." Louise clicked the cap back into place on her hair spray can.

"Hi." Cheryl looked dismissively at Norman, then resumed her harrying of Louise. "You should care about this, Louise," she said. "It's an important concept."

Louise uncapped the hair spray can and aimed another blast at herself.

Norman wondered if it wouldn't do her more good to aim the hair spray at Cheryl. From the day Cheryl had first arrived at Biomethods, Louise showed signs of insecurity and resentment, apparently because Cheryl had a master's degree in English literature when Louise had been no higher than junior college. To match Cheryl's educational attainments, Louise had developed larger and larger hair. Cheryl, in turn, countered Louise's hair by giving her lectures on concepts such as synecdoche and dieresis. Cheryl's lectures would drive Louise into a frenzy of hair-teasing and spraying, which Cheryl countered with more lectures, and so on in a vicious cycle Norman saw no hope of interrupting.

As he sought the protection of his office, Norman wondered if breathing hair spray wasn't damaging his lungs.



***


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. I mean, does that break frame, or what?"

"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 original idea was 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 new product."

Even coming from Jacqueline, it surprised him.

"Jacqueline," he said. "What are you talking about? You're a Human Resources manager, you're not concerned with products."

"But it's a fantastic concept," said Jacqueline.

"I'm sure it is," said Norman. "But we are the Human Resources department. You should be working on Human Resources problems."

"We don't have any problems, Norman. This department's mission is to fill out forms."

"So?" said Norman. "Why aren't you figuring out better ways to fill out forms?"

"This is the nineties, Norman." Jacqueline aimed her eyes at him steadily. "Ideas can come from anywhere. Have you ever heard of re-engineering?"

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. This is not the time to be talking about a reorganization." 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. "Or a new product," he added lamely.

"Norman, I wouldn't be using up your time on this if it wasn't important."

Norman shifted himself in his chair, not knowing if he should feel flattered, manipulated, or both. "Why are you bringing this idea to me, anyway?"

"I tried to talk with those dolts in Marketing about it, and they laughed at me. I think I should bring this idea to the new guy at the top. I have to see him right away, before the Marketing morons wake up and see how good the idea is. If I ask him for a meeting, he'll put me off, but you've already met with him. If you ask for a meeting, he'll see you right away."

Her reasoning seemed convoluted to Norman. But he knew her to have a much more sophisticated understanding of organizations than he did, and it occurred to him that maybe Jacqueline was one of the people Pierce was talking about. One of the people with ideas. "What is this product idea?"


Jacqueline stared at him some moments, as if she were weighing whether it was safe to tell him. Finally, she seemed to decide she could trust him. "We do genetic mapping here, right?"

"I think so," said Norman.

"My idea is that we map psychographic profiles to the human genome."

"I don't understand," said Norman.

Jacqueline looked at him as if she didn't really expect him to understand, and he wondered if he should be offended.

"I think we can find the human genes responsible for consumer buying behavior."

"Why would we even want to?" said Norman.

"To develop a simple blood test that will predict what kinds of products and services people are likely to buy. It would be a new frontier in direct marketing."

A laugh began to work its way into the back of Norman's throat, but as soon as he was aware of it, he suppressed it. Jacqueline was staring at him quite earnestly, and he did not want to show himself to share any attitudes with the dolts in Marketing.

"How about it, Norman? Will you take me to see the new guy? He would want you to, you know."

"It's crazy." Norman tried to sound sympathetic.

"There was a time flying was crazy," said Jacqueline.

Norman didn't know what to say. He hated to travel, and he thought flying was crazy. But Pierce did say he wanted Norman to help him find the people with ideas.

"All right," he said.

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



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