OBS Back Forward Contents Index Align Page
"Gwen, I have to talk to you." Norman addressed her without facing her. He didn't want to chance she could smell the awful taste from his mouth.
"Can it wait, dear? I'm late again."
"It's pretty important," said Norman.
Gwen stopped her bustling and looked at him. "Norman, I'm sorry, but I was passed over yesterday. If I get to work late today, it will look like I'm letting it get to me."
"But---" Norman didn't finish, because she'd already left.
He heard her saying good-bye to Justin and Lisa. Then he heard the front door close. His head was an anvil---a working anvil, not a decorative one. He dragged himself out of bed. He was surprised that his situation didn't look any more promising by sunlight than it had looked last night in the darkness.
He felt a little better after a shower, a shave, and a mouthwash, and when he got into the kitchen, he was pleased to see Gwen had done pretty well with the kids' breakfasts. They were eating cereal, toast, and fruit juice. His scotch bottle, with two or three drinks left in it, was still sitting on the counter.
The kids seemed a little wary of him. Norman was ashamed, but he tried to act cheerful.
"Watch out for squids at school today." He started to tousle Justin's hair, but the boy moved his head out of reach.
The kids left shortly after that. Norman didn't bother to make himself any breakfast before going to work.
At his office, he found Cheryl at her desk in the reception area.
"There's a PI waiting in your office for you," she said.
Norman wondered why a private detective would be calling on him. Someone investigating Pierce? Norman felt a surge of enthusiasm at the prospect of an ally.
In the chair across from his desk was a severe-looking woman with a heavy demeanor who did not look up from reading what appeared to be an issue of some sort of academic journal as he entered. She was wearing a multicolored shawl over a heavy yellow tee shirt and a dark, loose skirt that resembled the peasant garb of some central European country. If she was a private detective, she was a very eccentric one. She looked, in fact, like a Biomethods scientist. Then he remembered that PI was Biomethods lingo for principal investigator. The company employed a large number of scientists, and although they filled the roles that would be filled in any other company by managers, they refused to be called managers. The name principal investigator was an academic borrowing that originated in the Byzantine culture of government research grants.
"Hello." Norman trudged to his desk and sat down.
The woman looked up. She crossed her legs under the voluminous skirt, and Norman noticed she was wearing Doc Martens.
Occasionally, the infomercials that Norman's son loved so much featured people posing as scientists, and they always wore white lab coats over what appeared to be business clothes. But the only people at Biomethods who wore lab coats habitually were the janitors. The PIs seemed to go any length to avoid looking either like scientists or business people. They all dressed themselves up as caricatures of graduate students, even the Nobel laureate who sat on Biomethods' board of directors (whom Norman had once met but whose name he could never remember). Norman supposed this was some small effort on their part to convince the outside world, or at least themselves, that they had not sold out to commerce by going to work for a private company.
The message indicator was blinking on Norman's telephone, and the PI did not introduce herself.
"I'm having trouble with one of my lab technicians," said the PI.
Norman wondered what this woman's troubles with her subordinates had to do with him, but experience had taught him that PIs often worked themselves around to what they wanted over the course of a few minutes, so he waited.
"It's his attitude," she said.
Attitude. It was never an easy discussion when managers started talking about their subordinates' attitudes.
"What's the matter with his attitude?" said Norman.
"He spills xylene."
Norman wondered if this was an elaboration on the attitude problem or another of the technician's deficiencies.
"Xylene all over the bench. Little pools of it on the floor. Do you know how dangerous xylene is?" The PI looked at Norman as if she didn't expect him to know what xylene was.
Norman, in fact, didn't know what xylene was, but it came under his general hazards rule: anything ending in "ene" is a dangerous substance---too dangerous to be left in little pools on the floor.
"Is it part of his job description to handle xylene?"
"Of course," said the PI. "He has to use it to prepare the slides."
"Does he know he shouldn't spill it?"
"Of course. Everybody knows that."
"Did you ever say to him, Don't spill xylene.'?"
"Of course not. He should know."
Norman had doubts about the efficacy of "he should know" as a management principle, but years of dealing with Biomethods' PIs had taught him it was well accepted among them. He had never successfully argued any of them out of it.
"What do you want me to do about it?" said Norman.
"I want you to fire him."
"I thought you just said he was one of your lab technicians." Norman could not keep the irritation out of his voice. "He doesn't work for me. I don't even have a lab." He gestured around at his pedestrian-looking office to emphasize the absence of lab benches and research paraphernalia.
The PI didn't seem to notice Norman's irritation. "You're the personnel manager."
"Human Resources," said Norman.
"Human Resources. I'm not a personnel manager. I'm the manager of Human Resources."
"Fine." The PI stood from the chair and leaned over Norman. "Just get him out by Friday, or I'll go over your head."
Norman started to reply, but she was already headed out the door.
He watched the multicolored shawl that covered her back recede through the Human Resources reception area. He hoped she slipped on a pool of xylene when she returned to the lab. What did she mean by going over his head? Would she actually take a problem like this to Pierce? If she did, it wouldn't look very good for Norman.
The message light was still blinking on the telephone. He picked up the receiver and tapped the RETRIEVE button.
"Norman, I hope it's not inconvenient, but I'll need you to stay a little late tomorrow evening."
The sound of Pierce's voice made Norman's heart sag. He pressed the button to stop the message and sat holding the receiver while he stared at the telephone console, breathing deeply and trying to collect himself.
He thought he'd rather go fire that woman's technician than listen to the rest of the phone message. But he realized Pierce had more control over his well being than all the PIs at Biomethods put together.
Slowly, like a man calling the IRS about his audit, he entered the code to get into the voice mail system again.
"Please meet me in my office at your earliest convenience after dark," concluded Pierce with the generous politeness the powerful can always afford to show toward the powerless.
Norman had no idea what Pierce wanted, but he knew it wouldn't make his job either easier or more pleasant.
He sighed and started to call Gwen. He disliked having to ask her to go home early again, but he felt trapped. He was a little disappointed to get her on the first call. He would have preferred to make his request by voice mail.
"What's the thing you wanted to talk about this morning?"
"I didn't call about that." Norman was not about to use the telephone to tell her about his problems with Pierce. Then a kind of despair rose in him as he realized he was becoming paranoid. Was he worried that somebody might be listening? "I just wanted to ask if you could leave early to be with the kids tomorrow night. I have to stay late."
"Don't worry about it. I'm leaving at five from now on." Gwen's voice sounded its usual competent timbre, but it lacked the edge Norman knew she cultivated for the telephone. He wondered if being passed over had somehow wounded her spirit.
He was worried about her, but he didn't see what he could do, so with helplessness settling over his shoulders like a collapsing tent, he thanked her and hung up the phone. It was strange how they'd become so distant from each other in such a short time. Maybe it wasn't such a short time. Maybe they'd been distant from the beginning but had simply shared an illusion of closeness. What did he really know about Gwen?
Norman felt that his life had become so bleak so quickly that he must have some kind of hormone imbalance. Surely, things weren't as bad as he felt they were. He looked at the pile of papers Cheryl had left in his in-tray. Then he reached over and gathered up the entire stack and put it in the center of his desk blotter and started to go through it.
Norman could not say that any of the paperwork interested him, but it managed to take his mind off his troubles. Human Resources thrives on detail, and he allowed the details to wash over him and crowd out all other considerations. He gave himself over to a kind of trance induced by an endless succession of memos, requisitions, transmittal forms, and updates. He read them, highlighted them, signed them, sorted them. He crumpled some of them and threw them away, punched holes in some and put them in three-ring binders, filed some in the hanging folders of his lower right-hand desk drawer, stapled some of them to others, attached yellow sticky papers to some with cryptic notes on them. He was barely aware of Cheryl and Louise entering and leaving the office at irregular intervals to drop more papers in the in-tray or scoop the processed ones from the out-tray.
He emerged from his trance when he was aware of his stomach growling. He looked at his watch and saw it was quarter after twelve. He stood up, stretched, and wandered into the reception area, where he found two empty desks. Cheryl and Louise had apparently gone to lunch without even telling him. Why should they tell him? He didn't seem to count for much around here.
He went down to the company cafeteria and got himself a grilled cheese sandwich and a cup of tea at the counter, then wandered out into the dining room to find a place to sit down.
Cheryl and Louise had a table together, and Norman walked over to it. Their near-empty paper plates had bits of bread crust and catsup-covered plastic knives lying on them. One plate had a gum wrapper on it, and he judged Louise was having her after-lunch chewing gum. They were both working on half-filled paper cups of coffee.
Norman disliked fraternizing with nonexempts, but he felt he needed company, and he still hoped he might get the name of that novel from Louise. When he asked to sit down, and they both nodded, he set his plastic tray down on the table and allowed himself to fall heavily into a chair next to Louise.
Nobody said anything, and Norman wondered what kind of conversation he might have interrupted. He bit off a piece of his sandwich and tried to decide whether he should simply ask Louise for the name of the book. He spoke around the melted cheese and bread. "Louise, what's the name of that book you liked so much?"
"Don't get her started, Norman," said Cheryl.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Louise began looking through her purse, and Norman was afraid she was trying to find her hair spray.
"You're going to start talking about vampires again," said Cheryl.
Louise left off her search to look seriously first at Cheryl, then at Norman. "There has to be a reason why every country in the world has stories about revenants."
Norman swallowed the bit of sandwich he was chewing. "What are revenants?"
Cheryl answered before Louise could. "It's vampire jargon. A revenant is a person that comes back from the dead. Revenant folklore is universal to human culture. Why not? There's a natural tendency for bodies to return from the grave."
"That's what I was talking about." Louise closed her purse, apparently deciding she had a chance at winning the conversation without hair spray.
"But it's not the way Louise means." Cheryl addressed her remarks to Norman, as if she wanted to win him over. "What do you think started us using coffins to bury our dead? It's because if you bury them without coffins, they tend to work their way to the surface. When they decompose, they bloat. Scavenging animals try to dig them out. There are a lot of natural forces that push corpses back to the surface after they're buried."
"You always do this," said Louise. "You turn a perfectly normal conversation into a lecture."
"Before the days of coffins," lectured Cheryl, "corpses resurfaced pretty often. People would then try to stake them in their graves to hold them down. That's where all that staking business comes from in the vampire legends."
Louise touched Norman's sleeve. "In one book I read, they opened this grave months and months after the funeral, and they found the body had smooth skin and a mouth full of blood."
Norman stopped eating and pushed aside his plate. He wasn't hungry. He wondered why he had become the center of this conversation.
"It's all part of the decomposition process," said Cheryl. "Look. Go ahead and believe in this stuff if you want, but you would do better to recognize that the stories had their start in some fairly simple physical phenomena. And it wasn't until the nineteenth century, when some people saw a way to cash in on the stories, that the vampire acquired the image it has today."
"You think everybody is just out to make a buck," said Louise.
"Aren't they?" Cheryl was looking at Norman.
"Norman, have you heard any of the rumors?" said Cheryl.
Norman shrugged again.
"They say the company is closing the AIDS project. Is that true?"
In the society of a corporation, knowing something is roughly equivalent to being responsible for it, and Norman felt ashamed for his complicity in closing down the project. "I don't know anything about it," he said.
He got up from the table and took his tray over to the return window. As he was tossing his crumpled napkin into the trash container, it occurred to him that he still hadn't gotten the name of that novel from Louise.
He trudged back to the office.
The afternoon's paperwork was a fog. Norman couldn't concentrate long enough to read any of it. His hands would pick up a paper, and his eyes would stare at it and go over the words on it, but nothing would come into his head as a result. His mind continually wandered back to the same question. Should he continue working here? The company was abandoning its only important work. Norman did not seem to face any threat to his job, but he faced a threat to that small, secret pride he took in working here. Why is everything a decision? Why couldn't a person just live his life and do his work and get on with things?
Norman was aware of someone in the doorway. He looked up, and there stood a middle-aged man he didn't really know but had seen around the company from time to time. The man was obviously nervous, and as soon as Norman looked him in the eye, he looked away. He was wearing a lab coat, so Norman assumed he was a member of the janitorial staff.
"My boss said to come here to see you." The man fiddled with the radiation badge on his lab jacket, as if he were afraid Norman was emitting gamma rays.
Norman gestured at the chair across from his desk. "Why?"
"I don't know." The man stepped gingerly through the minefield in front of Norman's desk and sat down in the chair Norman was pointing at. "She just said I had to come."
Norman realized he was the technician who spilled xylene. The PI he'd seen this morning had sent him here to be fired.
"She didn't give you any indication of what it was about?"
"No." The man stared at the floor.
Norman was not about to fire the man, at least not this way. He made a pretense of looking through the files in his lower right-hand drawer to get some time to figure out what he should do.
Norman looked up, and Jacqueline was standing over the man. She was wearing a power suit, but it looked in need of pressing, as if she'd been sleeping in it. Her hair was lank, and her cheeks were slightly depressed, as if she'd lost some weight. She wasn't wearing her blue contact lenses, and the irises of her eyes were large and dark, so dark they verged on black. The corners of her eyes were not white but shot with red so they looked pink. Her lips looked stiff and dry. Norman would not have thought it possible for her to look worse than she had the day before, but she did.
The technician was staring up at her as if at an apparition.
"What?" he said.
"I said you're fired," said Jacqueline. "You've got a bad attitude and you've been spilling xylene."
"But she told me my work was exemplary." The man looked stricken.
"I'll need your ID card." Jacqueline extended her pale hand.
The man looked at Norman. "Is this legal?"
Norman didn't know what to do. "I don't know anything about it," he said.
"And the radiation badge," said Jacqueline, still holding her hand out.
The man pulled the lap of his lab coat aside, and reached around to pull his wallet from his hip pocket. He took his ID card out of the wallet and then slid the wallet back into his pocket. "I don't think this is legal. I'm going to see a lawyer."
"There's a security man in the hallway who will walk you to the door." Jacqueline took the ID card. "If you have any personal possessions in the lab, they'll be sent to you."
The man unpinned his radiation badge, handed it to Jacqueline, and stood up.
"And the lab coat," said Jacqueline.
The man removed the lab coat. He was wearing a plaid flannel shirt and chinos under it. "This isn't even human, if you ask me."
Jacqueline draped the lab coat over her arm and stepped aside to let the man pass. "I doubt I need to point out that nobody asked you."
The man left the office, shaking his head.
Jacqueline watched him for a moment, then turned to Norman. "Hi, Norman."
"Hi," said Norman. It occurred to him that Jacqueline's sickness, whatever it was, may have infected her brain. "When did you get involved in this question, Jacqueline?"
"The termination of that technician."
Jacqueline shrugged, an ethereal, fluid motion that was not much like her normal movements. "It looked to me like you were having trouble with it."
"I wasn't having trouble with it," said Norman. "I don't feel it's right to handle terminations that way. In fact, I'm going to speak to that man's supervisor about it. Are you feeling okay? You look a little pale."
"I'm fine." Jacqueline made no move to sit down. "You'll be handling a lot of terminations that way. There will be quite a few people who don't fit into the reengineering plans. Pierce says it's best to deal with these things quickly. There's less pain that way." As she said the word "pain," Jacqueline smiled.
Norman thought there was something unwholesome about the smile. He was at a loss as to how to deal with her. Was there any danger of her becoming violent? He could hear Cheryl and Louise in the outer office, closing and locking drawers for quitting time. He felt like he could use a glass of scotch.
He looked out the window and saw it had gotten dark outside, and the arc lights had come on over the parking lot. "Jacqueline, do you know why Pierce wants to see me tomorrow?"
"Do you know anything about border collies, Norman?"
OBS Back Forward Contents Index Align Page