Catbird Press - Floyd Kemske -- D3/C7

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

Third Draft - Chapter Seven

Norman drove home slowly. He thought about Pierce. He couldn't decide if the man was intelligent or stupid, civilized or brutal. To abandon AIDS research for direct marketing? Perhaps it made business sense, but it was as ugly a decision as Norman had ever witnessed.

In his driveway, he switched off the car's ignition and sat for a long time in the darkness, thinking. Even apart from his regrets about the AIDS project, he was beginning to feel simultaneously excluded and trapped. His subordinate and his boss were reorganizing the company without him. He had no idea how he might make himself a part of the effort or even influence it. He was going to have to get Gwen to help him on this. She understood organizations and management better than anyone he knew. She would have some insights.

He could see the lights of the kitchen and the living room were on, and Gwen had left the outside light over the kitchen door burning for him. The bedrooms were dark.

In the kitchen, the air was redolent of cheese, onions, and oregano, and he found a large pizza box on the table. Scrawled across the top of the box in black marker was Norman's home address and beneath that a table of check-boxes with check-marks next to Pepperoni, Extra Cheese, and Onions.

Norman's first thought was that Gwen had trouble at the office. It didn't happen often, but whenever she had trouble at the office, she seemed to find the answer in the bottom of a large pizza box.

He lifted the lid of the box. There was nothing in it but a pizza-shaped cardboard and a sheet of greasy, translucent paper. Norman sighed. He wasn't hungry anyway.

He found Justin and Lisa in the living room watching television, an infomercial about a patented job-hunting system. There were three plates on the coffee table in front of them. Justin's plate and one of the others were bare. Lisa's had a little pile of pizza crusts and limp onions on it.

"Where's your mother?"

"She's in bed," said Lisa.

"Did you have anything besides pizza for dinner?"

"What else is there?" Justin wiped a gout of tomato sauce from his lip with his thumb.

Norman wondered if maybe he wasn't right. But he was sorry to see no evidence of Gwen having gotten some salad into the kids before she let them fill themselves with pizza.

"I have to go see Mommy," he said.

The bedroom door was closed, and when Norman opened it, he saw it was dark inside. The odor of pizza was strong.

He heard sobbing from the vicinity of the bed. He walked in and switched on the lamp at Gwen's side of the bed. She was lying on the bed, still fully dressed in her work clothes. Her eyes were rimmed red, and her face was streaked with tears. There was a pinhead-sized spot of orange grease just outside the corner of her mouth.

Norman sat down on the bed beside her. "What's the matter, sweetheart?"

Gwen pulled herself up enough to push her face into his chest. She smelled like cheese and pepperoni. "Oh, Norman. I've been waiting for you to get home. My lunch at the Sky Room, it was---" She was overcome with her weeping, and Norman couldn't understand what she said after that.

"What is it?" he said.

"He told me he's giving Human Resources to that doofus Stevenson." Gwen wailed out the last three words, but Norman understood them well enough.

"The vice presidency?"

"Yes, the vice presidency," she sobbed indignantly. "I didn't get it---" Gwen's breath caught, and she began to stutter with her crying. "---and I've b-b-b-been passed over. After lunch, I had to spend the rest of the day acting like everything was all right." The last part seemed to break her down completely. She fell out of his arms and buried her face in the pillow.

Norman sat with Gwen and comforted her for what seemed like days. Her despair reminded him of what he went through when he dropped out of his doctoral program in psychology. It had seemed like the end of the world. But he discovered that after you'd been through the end of the world the first time, it wasn't as hard the next time. Eventually, he had discovered, it got pretty easy. He sat beside Gwen and rubbed her back and made sympathetic noises while she cried. He felt sorry for her; she'd never had her world end before, and she was rather brittle.

He would have preferred being comforted himself, but it obviously wasn't his turn. You can't interrupt somebody else's end of the world with your own, even if that somebody else is your wife---especially if that somebody else is your wife. Besides, what was he going to say? Wait a minute, Gwen. Stop crying for a minute. If you think you've got problems, my boss and my assistant manager are developing a blood test for consumer buying behavior.

It just didn't sound like a real problem.

When she had exhausted herself from sobbing, he made her take off her clothes and climb into bed. He wiped the grease spot from her mouth with his pocket handkerchief. He tucked her in and then left to go see to the children.

They looked up from the screen, where a blow-dried type was explaining the importance of self-confidence.

"Is Mommy all right?" said Lisa.

"She's had a serious disappointment at work." Norman remembered the bottle of scotch he kept in the uppermost cabinet above the kitchen sink, stored there against occasional moments of suffocation and despair. "You two get ready for bed."

"But it's only eight o'clock," said Justin.

"Yeah, eight o'clock and time for bed."

"But this show isn't over yet."

Norman was going to sit in the kitchen and drink himself into a stupor, and he didn't want his children watching. "You can set the VCR and watch the rest tomorrow. I'm not arguing with you." He started toward the kitchen.

"But, Dad---"

Norman stopped and turned around quickly. "Get ready for bed, do you hear me?" He surprised himself with the intensity of his command. He rarely yelled at the kids.

The two of them looked a little scared and then went quietly off to their rooms.

"Don't forget to brush your teeth." Norman called after them. He went into the kitchen. "Not side to side, either," he called into the hallway. "Up on the lowers and down on the uppers." He grabbed the pizza box and tried to fold it over so he could fit it in the trash can. It wouldn't bend properly, and he began to whack it on the floor to soften it up. After half a dozen whacks, he realized he might not be entirely in control of himself. He stood on two corners of the pizza box, reached down and grabbed the opposite two corners, and pulled upward until it gave in the center. He got it folded over and then stood on the fold, bouncing up and down until he had broken the box's spirit. Without being jumped on, the box was probably capable of surviving hundreds of years. It was at least as good a monument to human achievement as the industrial revolution.

He threw the box in the trash, retrieved his scotch bottle from the cabinet, and poured three fingers of scotch. He sat down at the kitchen table and began drinking it entirely too quickly.

He wondered if he should go after the kids and supervise them brushing their teeth. He thought about brushing his own teeth. Then he thought about Pierce brushing his teeth. Pierce's teeth. Did he even need to brush them? They looked so expensive they ought to be self-cleaning.

He took a swallow of the scotch and its warmth made him realize how chilled he'd felt. How are you supposed to deal with it when your boss is insane, when he forms an alliance with your subordinate?

Norman sipped again and remembered that Jacqueline had moaned in Pierce's office, and that he had walked away from the sound and felt embarrassed. He took another long sip of the scotch, but it did nothing to loosen the tightening feeling in his throat. So he took another.

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