Catbird Press - Floyd Kemske -- D3/C2

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


Third Draft - Chapter Two


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."


***
Norman was able to top off his charge when his ten-year-old daughter came downstairs and gave him a hug. He never tired of the routine. She called him "Daddy" and hugged him as if he'd been gone a week. 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. "Rod 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.

"Gee, that's great. 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 daughter 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.

Norman wondered how Gwen would have liked working for Pierce---whether she would be able to tolerate his extraordinarily intelligent perspective, his refusal to get hysterical about his work.

Half an hour later, Gwen had extracted a promise from the kids to put on clean pajamas after their baths were finished, and she came into the dining room to sit down at the table Norman had laid.

"Anything new on the acquisition today?"

"I met the new owners' hatchet man today," said Norman.

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."

It's funny she would describe him that way. Norman felt rather like that about him, too, and he and Gwen didn't often like the same people. 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 told him about Jacqueline and that she had an idea for a product he would prefer she explained to him herself. He reminded his boss at several points in the explanation that Pierce had asked him to help find employees like Jacqueline.

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."


***


The next day, Jacqueline seemed pleased at the idea of meeting with Norman and Pierce, and it occurred to Norman that she felt it as important to get close to power as to have her ideas heard. In fact, it was probably even more important. Maybe she would grow out of that some day.

It was Friday, and everybody else cleared out of the department by five. Norman sat at his desk, doing nothing as the darkness crept over the parking lot outside. It was said Ackerman's car had been in the nearest row of the far lot when he got in it and blew his brains out. Norman hadn't seen it happen, of course, except in his mind's eye, which replayed its own version of the event for him at times he least expected it.

He saw the Ackerman leaving Pressman's office with a stony face. Pressman might even have been a little concerned that he looked like he was taking the news of his layoff too calmly. The man didn't go back to his own desk, but after giving Pressman his i.d. card, walked out to his car. He climbed in the car, opened the glove compartment, and took out a pistol he kept there. It was a .38 probably, or maybe a nine millimeter. Norman imagined Ackerman then turning the gun upside down and putting the muzzle into his mouth. It clicked against his teeth, and its metal taste was strange but not really unpleasant. He moved the muzzle around a little until he was sure it was pointing directly at the roof of his mouth, then he pulled the trigger.

Norman wondered if he had closed his eyes before he pulled the trigger. He wondered what went through the man's mind. How could he possibly think a job was important enough to kill himself over? He and Gwen had argued about Ackerman several times. Norman was of the opinion that Ackerman's suicide was the inevitable consequence of losing one's perspective on his job. Gwen tried to insist that he was obviously unbalanced to begin with.

Of course Gwen felt that way. She'd long ago lost any perspective on her job, and she didn't want to believe she was at risk. He wondered what would happen if Gwen were laid off and committed suicide. He wondered what he would tell the kids if that happened. Norman sighed. At least she didn't own a gun.

"Norman?"

He looked up, and Jacqueline was standing in the doorway, staring at him with eyes the color and intensity of the flames on a gas range. He glanced at his watch and saw it was a few minutes to six.

"Time to go, huh?" He got up and looked around his office. He decided he'd just leave his coat and briefcase here and stop back to get them after the meeting. "I imagine an evening meeting spoils your weekend, Jacqueline." He hoped Gwen got home early to be with the kids, as they'd agreed. The nanny didn't like to have to stay late, and they couldn't afford to lose this one.

"You don't have to worry about that, Norman."

He looked at Jacqueline, and she looked as serious as ever. She was wearing another power suit. He wasn't sure, but he thought the stripe was even more pronounced this time. Norman supposed that was the essence of power dressing: some small bizarre flaw, like a bright yellow necktie or an excessive stripe, that allowed the wearer the illusion of having personal taste in clothing.

Norman wondered if Pierce would be equal to dealing with Jacqueline. For that matter, he wondered if anything would come of her product idea.

"Shall we go then?"

Jacqueline stepped out of the doorway to let him pass and lead the way to Pierce's office on the fifth floor.

They walked in silence to the elevator. Norman knew he should probably make small talk with her, but he also knew she wasn't much better at small talk than he was. So they rode without speaking.

The fifth floor was as deserted as the Human Resources Department on the third floor, and most of the lights were off. Norman and Jacqueline walked through the gloom to Pierce's office.

They stepped around the secretary's empty desk, and Norman tapped on the door. It was almost thirty-six hours since he had last done this.

"Come in," said Pierce's voice, and the door opened into the same inky shadows Norman had seen in here before. Jacqueline seemed taken aback a little, but Norman walked into the darkness toward the halogen desk lamp as naturally as if he'd taken a B-school course on meeting your boss in the dark.

Pierce was standing in the shadows behind the desk.

"Pierce," said Norman, "this is Jacqueline. She's the Assistant Manager of Human Resources."

"Please sit down," said Pierce.

There were two chairs facing his desk, so Norman sat in one. He noticed as he sat that the desk lamp was arranged to shine directly into his eyes. He looked away and saw Jacqueline fumbling a little to seat herself in the other chair. She was not unattractive in this light. From the side, Norman couldn't see her contact lenses. Her black hair gleamed where the light caught it, and when she turned her head to look away from the desk lamp, she showed an expanse of creamy white neck.

Norman thought he discerned movement on the other side of the desk, and he wondered if Pierce might shake hands this time. But the movement stopped.

"I'm glad to meet you, Mr. Pierce," said Jacqueline.


"Please, Jacqueline," said the dark shape behind the desk lamp, "just call me Pierce. Norman tells me you have a product idea."

"That's right," said Jacqueline.

"There's been an acquisition." Pierce did not step into the light, and he looked as featureless as a shadow---a short one---behind the desk.


"And a new leadership more open to new ideas, I hope," said Jacqueline.

Norman, first squinting into the desk lamp, then looking back at Jacqueline, felt more like he was watching television than participating in a business meeting. He wondered if he should try to contribute anything.

"It's not very common for product development ideas to come out of Human Resources," said the shadow.

"No company can prosper if it evaluates ideas by their source rather than their merit," said Jacqueline. "In the nineties, new ideas can come from anywhere. Have you ever heard of re-engineering?"

Norman expected Pierce to whip out his blank paper, but his boss just sounded cagey.

"Fads and fashion," said the shadow.

"Not at all," said Jacqueline. "It's an idea whose time has come. At least for this company."

Nobody spoke for what seemed a minute or more. Norman looked at Jacqueline, who shaded her eyes as she stared defiantly toward the desk lamp. It's not a well-accepted management technique, but he wanted to get up and shake her. Just shake her until she began to get some perspective and behave like a more responsible person. What was so important about her idea that she could risk addressing the head of the company as an equal? Jacqueline continued to stare into the shadows where Pierce was standing. Norman concluded that she knew just how risky this behavior was; she just didn't care. He looked back toward the desk lamp and the dark shape behind it, but he couldn't see anything back there now.

Then things happened too quickly for him to comprehend. He thought he heard a rustling off toward his side, but before he could look over, something passed in front of the halogen desk lamp, and he realized it was Pierce's head. The man's face, completely enshrouded in darkness, was suddenly directly in front of his own, about six inches from it, blocking out the desk lamp and filling his field of vision, such as it was.

"I must tell you," said Pierce in a soft, relaxed monotone, "how gratifying it is to see such self-assertion in the junior management staff. Where have you been hiding this young woman, Norman?"

Norman smelled the soapy odor of his breath again. He started to say something, but his tongue and lips were too dry. A kind of grunt issued from his throat.

"Oh, I wasn't asking for an answer, Norman." Pierce spoke in the soft tones of a veterinarian calming a nervous animal. "I just meant this is an unexpected level of management talent. Ackerman's treachery led me to believe this organization had no ideas and no spine."

Norman wanted to ask Pierce what he meant by treachery, but he didn't feel it was polite to cough or clear his throat when Pierce's face was so close to his.


"You're excused, Norman," said Pierce. "Jacqueline and I are going to talk about her product idea in more depth."

Norman was incredulous. He started to speak, but nothing came out. Then he finally cleared his throat. "You want me to leave?"

"Yes," said Pierce. "I think Jacqueline should have the opportunity to present her ideas without the intimidation of her supervisor's presence."

Norman almost laughed at that. Jacqueline had never shown any sign of being intimidated by him or anyone else at Biomethods.

"Won't you need my input?"

"I don't think so," said Pierce. He let a moment pass. "Please don't feel you're being excluded. I'll fill you in later."

Then, without making a sound, Pierce moved off toward Jacqueline's chair.

Norman felt there was nothing he could do but stand up and feel his way through the darkness to the doorway. When he safely got hold of the door handle, he turned to look at Jacqueline's chair. She was staring at Pierce, who had approached her just as closely as he had approached Norman. Pierce's white hair gleamed in the light of the desk lamp.

Pierce bent low over her, then moved around so his back hid her from Norman's view. He appeared to be whispering to her.


Instinctively, Norman shifted his gaze downward. He didn't know why Pierce might think it necessary to whisper to Jacqueline, but a tiny voice told him he should be embarrassed to watch it. He turned back, opened the door, and stepped through as quickly as he could.

As he pulled the door closed behind him, he thought he heard a soft moan. It was not a sound of pain, but more like a deep and heartfelt sigh. At first he thought it might have come from Pierce, because it was not a sound he ever would have expected to hear from Jacqueline. But it was a feminine sound, and he knew with certainty that the moan had been Jacqueline's.

He thought about going back into the office and demanding to know what was going on, but Pierce had dismissed him with perfect confidence, not the way a good manager would have done if he intended some misconduct. He walked toward the elevator with a strange feeling that he could only liken to embarrassment.


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