Catbird Press - Floyd Kemske -- D3/C10

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


Third Draft - Chapter Ten


Norman pulled his car into the driveway and switched off the ignition. The outside light by the kitchen door was on, and it comforted him that his family was expecting him home. Should he be afraid of what was happening at the company? Should he be worried that Jacqueline was walking around like she owned the place? He was too tired to know if he was scared or disgusted. He leaned his head against the steering wheel and tried to remember what fear felt like. But all he could remember was fatigue, which is what he felt now.

He got out of the car and dragged himself into the house.

The remnants of a take-out dinner were piled up on the counter in the kitchen. His scotch bottle was still there, and it still had two or three drinks in the bottom. He inspected the take-out containers. There wasn't anything left, just spots of some indeterminate sauce in one of them. He wasn't hungry anyway.

He poured the remains from the scotch bottle into a glass and walked out into the living room. The sight of his family all sitting together on the sofa restored him somewhat.

Gwen was between Justin and Lisa. She had an arm around each of them, and the three of them were watching television. It looked like the same infomercial Justin and Lisa had been watching last night. The same blow-dried personal growth enthusiast was explaining the importance of self-confidence to a studio audience of people who looked like they needed it.

Norman's family hadn't heard him enter, but Justin looked up and saw him when he came up beside the sofa.

"Hi, Dad."

Then Gwen and Lisa looked up and greeted him as well. Gwen looked at the glass of scotch in his hand, and her expression became overcast for a moment, but then he could almost see the effort behind her eyes as she brightened and smiled at him.

"Hi, Sweetheart," he said.

Gwen pointed the remote at the television, paused the tape, and set the control on the coffee table. She held her arms out toward him.

Norman sidled in front of the coffee table and bent over to kiss her. He hugged her one-handed, holding his scotch in the other. Then he gave Lisa a one-handed hug, then tousled Justin's hair.

"What have you squids been up to?"

The kids summarized their days at school much more briefly than he would have liked, then Justin picked up the remote and started the tape again.

Norman wanted to sit down on the sofa with them, but he needed to finish his scotch, and he felt a little ashamed of the way he probably smelled as a result of the liquor. So he sat down in his reclining chair. It creaked as he pushed up and back to stretch himself out. Then he watched the tape with them while he sipped at his drink.

The infomercial seemed particularly stupid. They were pushing some kind of kit with forms and notebooks and software. It was designed to help you prepare a resume, write a cover letter, and prepare for a job interview. It didn't seem to provide anything that wasn't readily available to a person born with the rudiments of human intelligence.

"Hey, Justin," said Norman, "isn't anybody doing spray-on hair or steak knives this evening?"

"Norman," said Gwen. "I thought it would be useful for the children to see this. It's never too soon to learn how to prepare a good resume."

It occurred to Norman that maybe he should pay attention.


When the tape was over, Norman's glass was empty, and he had managed to retain nothing about how to prepare a good resume. It was time for the kids to go to bed. Norman and Gwen went from room to room and tucked them in the way they had a few nights ago, but Norman felt like he was sharing tucking-in responsibilities with a stranger. It's surprising how you can live with someone for so long and then suddenly realize she is just as lonely inside her own skin as you are inside yours.

Norman wanted to tell Gwen what was going on at his office, but he thought she might be a little unreceptive because of his drinking. He decided he'd better ask her about her day first, which he did.

"It was just fine," she said. "You finished that whole bottle of scotch, didn't you?"

Norman shrugged. "I've got problems at work. Bad problems."

It did not seem to surprise her. "Does it have to do with the acquisition?"

"Yeah, but probably not the way you think."

"You aren't being laid off, are you?"

"I don't think so. But I'm getting spooked by this re-engineering thing."

"Re-engineering?" It was the kind of talk Gwen loved most in the world.


"I want to get your insight on this guy Pierce," said Norman.

"Is he really re-engineering the company?"

"I don't know. I guess so."

"Tell me, Norman." Gwen was excited now. "Did he start with a blank sheet of paper like the consultants say you're supposed to do?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact," said Norman. "But that's not what I need to tell you about."

"Is he eliminating all the departments? What's he going to do about compliance if he eliminates Human Resources?"

"I don't know," said Norman. "I'm mostly concerned about what he's doing to our product line."

"Product line? What do you care about the product line? You're the Human Resources manager."

It sounded very similar to something Norman had said to Jacqueline a few days before.

"I don't know." Nothing seemed to make any sense to Norman, and he felt like he was under incredible pressure.

"Take off your clothes and get in bed." Gwen began taking her own clothes off. "You're as tense as a knot. You have to get relaxed."

Before he knew what was happening, Norman was stripped and on the bed, and Gwen, naked, was astride him with her hips undulating as she worked herself down on to his erection. She put her hands on his shoulders, leaned forward, and began rocking rhythmically. It was not a position from which he could easily explain what was happening at the office. He found, in fact, that he couldn't think about anything except what was happening in his groin.

After they had both climaxed, he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.


***


In the morning, when Norman arrived (late again) at Human Resources, Louise was sitting at her desk, staring at a pile of memos.

"Good morning," said Norman. "Is anything going on this morning?"

"It's strange here today, Norman," said Louise. "No calls. Nobody coming in. And this morning, I found these on my desk." She scooped up the pile of memos and handed them to Norman.


Norman took them and looked through them. They were termination memos, dozens of them. They all appeared to be in Jacqueline's handwriting.

"What's going on, Norman?"

"I don't know anything about it," said Norman. The remark had become a kind of slogan to him.

"You're the department head, and they need your approval," said Louise.

It was a rather insubordinate remark for Louise, but Norman decided it was best to overlook it.

He went into his office and sat down at his desk to wonder why Pierce wanted to see him this evening. Jacqueline's remark about border collies seemed ominous.

He heard Cheryl come in and strike up a conversation with Louise.

"It's just the same old story," said Cheryl. "Only it seems a little different because it's set in a small town in Maine."

"That's why it works so well," said Louise. "You don't expect vampires in a small town. You don't expect a little town in Maine to have unspeakable evil."

Unspeakable evil. Norman had never really thought about the idea of evil before, much less unspeakable evil. The company had a chance to make some kind of progress on AIDS, and Pierce was throwing it away to do something with direct marketing. Was that evil? Was it unspeakable evil? Norman got up from his desk and walked over and stood beside his doorway so he could hear better.

"Oh, come on, Louise," said Cheryl. "Don't you think it's just a little bit simple-minded? They screw around sharpening baseball bats until dusk before they go looking for the vampire, and then they're surprised when he catches them in the dark. Why is it that the only character with any sense is the vampire?"

"Excuse me." Norman stepped through the doorway to the outer office.

They both turned to look at him.

"Have either of you seen Jacqueline today?"

"Not yet," said Cheryl.

"Why did they sharpen baseball bats?" said Norman.

"They make good stakes," said Louise. "A nice handle, and the end is flattened, so it's easier to hit with the hammer."

"Did they get him?" said Norman. "Did they stake him? In the book, I mean."

Cheryl rolled her eyes, as if she'd been trapped in a roomful of fools.

"Yeah, they got the big one," said Louise. "But then it was too dark, and they had to let the rest go."

"What happened then?"

"Everybody in the whole town became vampires, except for a man and a boy, who got away."

"The whole town?"

"Yeah," said Louise. "The man came back later and burned it down."

"Oh, God," said Cheryl in disgust.

"In the daytime," added Louise.

Norman went into his office and sat down behind his desk to think about all this. Sharpened baseball bats. A whole town becoming vampires. Norman sided with Cheryl on the question of vampires. He thought the very idea was absurd. He decided he wasn't interested in the novel about the vampire rock star in New Orleans any more.

Norman had never had problems at work before, and he didn't quite know how to deal with this. Like most of the other employees at Biomethods, Inc., he'd spent his career perfecting the skills of corporate invisibility, knowing that invisible people never advance spectacularly, but they always advance steadily. And, if you can't become CEO by being invisible, well, you can make a perfectly reasonable living and then you can retire well.

The visible people didn't seem to care about retirement. Look at Jacqueline. Thinking about Jacqueline made Norman wonder about the state of her health. Every time he saw her she looked worse. And her behavior was strange---contentious, even for Jacqueline.

When night finally fell, Norman went up to Pierce's office.

The fifth floor was, of course, deserted when he got there. He went to Pierce's office and tapped on the door. The door opened.

"Come in, Norman."

Jacqueline was sitting on the corner of Pierce's desk. Norman wasn't surprised. He was beyond being surprised by anything. He wasn't sure how safe it was to be around her, but he wasn't surprised.

She was wearing one of her power suits, but it looked like it badly needed cleaning and pressing, and he wondered if it wasn't the same one he'd seen her wearing yesterday. She was holding a stack of memos and reading them very quickly, although Norman thought the light too dim for comfortable reading.

"Pierce is running a little late." Jacqueline looked up from her memos.

Norman had no idea what to say to her.

"How are you, Jacqueline?"

A cold fire burned in Jacqueline's dark eyes so that when she looked at him, it hardly mattered how dim the light was. "How do you think?"

"I didn't mean to anger you," said Norman. "I was just making conversation."

"Conversation means nothing to me," said Jacqueline. "And I'm not angry. I don't get angry any more."

"Why did you come into my office and fire that man yesterday?"

Jacqueline shrugged the way she had the day before. Norman had never seen her make that gesture before she got sick, and he didn't know she was capable of it. But when she did it, she gave it a fluid grace that he rather admired. All of her movements, in fact, had become much more graceful than the deliberate, impatient Jacqueline he'd known before her illness. "He needed firing."

"Are you all right, Jacqueline?"

"Of course I'm all right. Why do you ask?"

"To be perfectly frank," said Norman, "you haven't looked well. And your behavior has changed. You used to be the best manager I'd ever worked with, but lately your behavior seems to have gotten a little impulsive."

Norman thought he detected a softening of the cold fire in her eyes for a moment, as if she were somehow pleased about something. But then the hardness returned, and she looked a little like an ice sculpture in a badly pressed business suit.

"I'm a much better manager now, Norman." Jacqueline dropped the memos on to Pierce's desk with a flopping noise. "We have a great deal of work to do here. Some of it will have to be done impulsively, just so we can get it done." She stopped talking and looked toward the doorway. "Hello, Pierce."

Norman was startled. Pierce stood in the doorway with someone who looked like the manager of the sales department, except his eyes were vacant and he wasn't trying to shake anybody's hand.

"Jacqueline." Pierce left the man in the doorway and stepped into the office beside Norman. "Why don't you take Kevin into the other room and help him fill out the forms for his promotion?"

Jacqueline glided off the desk, walked over to Kevin, turned him around, and marched him out the door. He seemed to move wherever she pointed him, taking direction without a word.

Norman watched Jacqueline and Kevin until they vanished into the shadows, and when he turned back around, Pierce was seating himself at his desk.

"Norman, I'm glad to see you."

"Pierce, do you think Jacqueline is all right? She doesn't seem well to me."

"I'm sure she's fine." Pierce looked at him. He must have smiled, because his white teeth glinted out of the shadows. "I've been doing this for a long time, Norman. I know how to deal with these things."

"Doing what?" said Norman.

"Never mind," said Pierce. "We have work to take care of."


"Wait a minute, Pierce." Norman was surprised at his own assertiveness. "Jacqueline has been acting strange ever since that meeting here in your office last week. What's going on?"

"We are re-engineering, Norman. It's not an easy process. You don't win a battle without killing people."

"Who said anything about battles?" said Norman.

"It was just a metaphor," said Pierce airily. "Like you."

Norman recognized that Pierce was sharing something with him, but he didn't know what. He strained to extract some meaning from the comment.

Pierce seemed to interpret the puzzlement on Norman's face. "You're a metaphor for a border collie."

The room was silent, and Norman wondered if he was expected to reply. But he couldn't. Somewhere along the way, his relationship with Pierce had changed to where there was no real communication between them. Norman couldn't understand at least half of his boss's conversation. He'd never really grasped the idea of the metaphor anyway. He was absent the day they discussed it in high school.

Pierce spoke softly.

"I'm sorry, Norman. I didn't mean to trouble you with an idea. I had forgotten what a problem those are for you." His voice was warm and sympathetic, like the way Norman might talk to Justin, or to a puppy.

"Pierce," said Norman, "I need to know what's going on. I need to know what you want from me and what kind of work you need from my department."

"Do you know how rare ideas are in the modern corporation, Norman?"

"What do you want me to be doing?" said Norman.


"The limited-liability corporation itself was once an idea. But ideas are like living creatures. They walk the Earth for a time with vigor and vitality and purpose, but eventually they die. When an idea dies, it hardens into an assumption. That's what's happened to the corporation. Originally, it was an idea for pooling risk. Now its purpose is to pool responsibility. Do you know how difficult it is to assign responsibility to anyone for the actions of a corporation?"


Norman didn't know, and he didn't want to. Frustration corroded his restraint. "You shouldn't be closing the AIDS project, Pierce. It was the best thing about this company."

Pierce did not reply for a moment. When he spoke again, his tone seemed more businesslike, less expansive. "There's no cure for AIDS, Norman. There never will be."

He said it with such authority that Norman was gripped by the feeling that it must be true. "How do you know that?" he said at last.

Pierce ignored the question. "I've sent some termination memos to your office," he said. "I need you to implement them."

"You want me to fire people?"

"Yes."

"That's not part of my job, Pierce. I'm a Human Resources manager. I don't fire people."

"You do now," said Pierce. "I've considered the matter, and I think you can handle nine terminations a day. You could probably do more if you handled them as a group situation, but we don't want to be inhuman about this, do we?"

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