Friday, February 20, 2015

Chapter 13: Stay

a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
                                            and the woman important to each


          Helen had felt cold. “Stay,” she said to his back. Atom twisted around to train his soft brown eyes on her. He smiled and fell back into bed where she wrapped arms around him, pressing against his heat.
           She had made the condo her home, though much was in storage, and squirreled personal items into drawers and closets. Maid service helped maintain a tidy, unlived-in look. On her increased salary, she could afford her own place but hated the idea of paying rent when the condo was free. Atom was unaware because he never saw her “at home”. Usually, they made love at his place, but that Sunday night the condo was closer, so he parked his Mercedes coupe in the SOQ spot in the underground garage. The absence of the limousine signaled it was clear.
          Another thing Atom didn’t know of was her intimate relationship with the CEO. Their liaisons often took place after investor parties. Then, Stephen always had someplace to be and left first, which suited her. Even before moving in, she made it clear she’d rather leave in her own car than be dropped off. Now he never offered and she’d sit on the settee in the expansive bathroom, wearing a green silk robe and brushing her auburn hair until sure of his departure. Only then did she prepare for the next day, and sleep.
          But that next morning with Atom beside her, she panicked. Monday meant Bill coming over with investor checks. She shook him by the shoulder. He wouldn’t rouse so bringing knees to her chest, she pressed the soles of her feet against his back and thrust. He tumbled onto the floor. His head popped up with a look of sleepy astonishment. “You’ve got to go. Hurry!”
          He grabbed his briefs and t-shirt on the way to the bathroom, where he splashed water on his face then returned to the bedroom to finish dressing. Helen was smoothing the zebra-motif bedspread. He tucked a white cotton shirt into pre-faded designer jeans then approached from behind to buss her neck. She pulled away. “Go!”
          Departing with an amused smile and body aglow from the passionate night, he thought it just as well: he had calls to make if he were to repeat as Salesman of the Quarter. He ran a hand over his dark hair with the part in the middle. His clean-cut good looks were such that he could have stepped into a business meeting right then but for the clothes. In the garage, he passed the limousine on the way to his car. He noticed a thin thread of smoke coming from its window and the smell of tobacco.
          Bill waited for him to drive away before exiting the limo. His eyes winced, not from the smoke but from the unfamiliar sight of Atom Green leaving early on a workday morning. “From where?” He had an idea and dropped the butt to the ground and snuffed it out with his shoe. After adjusting his black suit coat, he reached inside the cab for the manila envelope.
          He had gotten used to Helen being in the condo on Mondays, so instead of going in and putting the envelope in the safe, he simply handed it over. The difference was less effort on his part and of no consequence. He pressed the buzzer. When she opened the door, he scrutinized her less-than-neat hair, bulging eyes and sweatshirt and jeans.  She took the envelope and shut the door. He thought of the salesman and made the connection. How would Slade take that news, when pilfering of a valuable statue couldn’t faze him?
          Stephen Slade, seated in a high-backed leather chair, displayed a sneer on his pale angular face. Others did not intrude on his routine. He didn’t offer a chair and gestured with his right hand: get on with it. Bill didn’t like what he was feeling so served it raw: “That salesman, Atom Green, is screwing Helen in the condo.”
          “How do you know?”     
           Bill’s black-and-white worldview and the desire to make him squirm erased any doubts he had in the telling. Slade leveled dark opaque eyes on the chauffeur. His sneer arched, growing sinister. “What else?” Bill shook his head and left.
          The chief executive officer in the expensive gray suit and highly polished burgundy loafers went to the back wall and ran his finger along the wainscoting, as if checking for dust. A button triggered the release that revealed the hidden door. He passed through into the corridor leading to the skywalk and the Wayfare Hotel.
           Bearing the confidence that came with ownership, he punched in the code and entered the condo. The panoramic window admitted a city view into a front room ready for the next investor party. His nose twitched at vapor in the air, which he followed unannounced into the bedroom and then into the bathroom. Steam still coated the shower walls, but she wasn’t there. He returned to the bedroom to stare at the bed. His mind sketched in the pair of them, Helen and him. Then he reached across to strip away the bedspread. Wrinkled sheets and the thought of someone else infected his thoughts. He exploded. “Not on my dime!”
          Then in a frenzy, he searched for proof of what he didn’t want to believe. Instead, he found more proof of Helen: silky panties, assorted socks and neatly folded jeans. In the closet hung the dresses she’d worn to the parties. Though logical her things would be there, the quantity surprised. To his way of thinking the condo was a workplace but these indicated a private dwelling space --where unwanted people might visit. He had to set her straight.

The next chapter will be posted by March 22. 
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Chapter 12: Compassion

a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
 and the woman important to each 


           Bill drove the limo up the curving drive to the mansion with the pale rose-tinted facade. Two columns framed heavy double doors of the front entrance. They did not appear to get much use, and that put him in an even fouler mood.  Already he was pissed that Stephen Slade had interrupted him to demand a pick-up, making a ragged edge of a week off. Now the mansion reminded him of those above ground shrines in New Orleans cemeteries, and death. His brother recently passed and the family was caught short of money to bury him. That pissed him off too.
          Aching bones laid into a tub, and he never came out. Police and EMT arrived and then the coroner who hauled the dead weight to the mortuary. That ringing in the ears was the register scoring another profit. Bill lived on a cash basis without much of value to pawn, so he fell back on what he knew. Calling in a favor, he took possession of a brick, cut it then dealt it. He was in and out before anyone could respond, which was a good thing: the streets were more vicious now.
          Switching off the engine, he stepped outside where the King County heat swamped him. The sun reflected off his shaved head and his dark suit clung like a winding cloth. At the door, he leaned on the bell but the oversized tomb did not respond at once. About to blast the bell again, he heard soles slapping hard surfaces and then the door swung open to reveal a small gray-haired woman in floor-length white robe. He knew her as Slade’s mother, Rhea. “Can I help you?” He explained and she invited him in. On entering, two adolescent boys peeked around a corner to scrutinize him before disappearing. “Have a seat in the library. I’ll tell him you’re here.”
            Shelves of books filled the walls around leather armchairs beneath a high ceiling. He felt out of place, and then he spotted a small statue on a round table. About six inches tall, it was jade green and female, apparently though not certainly. Two hands held an upturned vessel. The sharp edges of its gown conveyed motion.
          “That’s Kuan Jin,” said Rhea, returning with a glass of lemonade. “The Bodhisattva of Compassion. Bodhisattvas vow not to enter nirvana until all the other beings of the world do before them.” She gave him a what-do-you-think-of-that look.
          “I don’t know nothing about bootyfatwas or nervyana.” He sipped the cool beverage as an indulgent smile crossed her face. “Being compassionate is the point. I’ll see what’s keeping Stephen.”
          Alone again, Bill stared at the statue and thought of his other job as bouncer: “Crowds behind the rope line don’t wait to be last. ‘Me first. Damn the rest.’” His stubby finger tapped its head. “Toys for rich people.”
          Heavier footsteps approached and he slipped it into his pocket before turning to see Stephen Slade. He was dressed in tan slacks and an open collared striped shirt. With blue blazer draped over one arm, he held a briefcase and Blackberry in his opposite hand. “Let’s get going.”
          Down the long drive and through the gate that closed remotely behind them, Slade focused his attention on his mobile device until a pothole rocked the limo. He shot a look at Bill who was unapologetic and thinking, “Go to the sticks and this is what you get.” Thirty minutes later they reached the highway leading to the interstate and Bill held up the statue. “Look familiar?”
          Annoyance then mocking scorn flashed on Slade’s face. “Don’t tell me you want to stick it to the dash.”
          “You don’t know everything you own. This was in the library.”
          “What’s it doing here?”
          “Mrs. Slade was telling me about compassion.”
          “Keep it.”
           “What’s it worth?”
           Slade was dismissive. “Ten.”
           Bill slid its base across the dash until the head bumped the windshield. “I don’t want it.” Slade’s eyes narrowed.
           At Slade Insurance, the CEO entered the lobby holding the figurine like a soda bottle. “Worth enough,” Bill thought, “to bury someone but they wouldn’t suffer if it broke.”  Thinking how Mrs. Slade would alert her son to the theft, a laugh rumbled inside him. “Been blamed for worse.”      


The next chapter will be posted by February 8. 
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Chapter 11: Pools

a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
 and the woman important to each 


             Rhea Slade lay on turquoise water and gazed into the deep azure sky. In the surrounding distance, the sun burned summer grasses brown and scattered groves of trees offered sacred shade. The sandstone mansion that was the Slade vacation estate blended columned porticos into the austere landscape, and poolside luxury put her on top of the world, far from working-class Kansas whose memories lingered despite living three-quarters of a life as corporate spouse. Petite and pewter-haired in a modest one-piece bathing suit, she splashed the water about.
“What you doing, Grandma?” shouted Gerald.
“Cooling off,” answered his matter-of-fact brother, Malcolm.
            Paddling the air mattress around, she brought them into view.  The thirteen-year-old hung onto the rim, blond hair flat across his head, looking down after his older sibling who sank to the bottom then propelled himself upwards to breach the surface. Hovering nearby, Delfina sighed, grateful for another tragedy-averting experience. Graham sheltered under an umbrella reading his paper. The monotonous disembodied voice coming from the terrace belonged to Stephen, whose telecom link encroached on the family retreat.
            Drifting to the rim, she splashed a volley that splattered against Graham’s paper. “Ha, ha,” he deadpanned. “Ever a girl at heart.”
“A girl!” mocked Gerald.
                 “Your grandfather’s silly.”
“She called you silly!”
Malcolm pounced on his brother and pushed him under. Delfina cried his name. When they resurfaced, she cried again on her own behalf. They blitzed her and dragged her in. Rhea paddled to center pool but to no avail: the underwater boys pursued. Water sloshed, the air mattress slipped away and they held her down. Delfina shouted without effect. Graham’s stern “Stop it now!” rescued her. Reaching for his hand, she forgave the boys for not knowing how fragile a grandmother could be, and Delfina for being ineffectual, but not Stephen, who should have been there.
Inside, the boys donned t-shirts and flip-flops while the women changed into white robes that skirted marble floors, transforming them into temple priestesses. All bore traces of the water, except the men: Graham’s gray crew cut was spiky sharp and the imprint of a fine comb lined Stephen’s dark hair; they wore khaki shorts, collared shirts and loafers without socks.
Around the table they helped themselves to sandwiches, cold pasta and lemonade. Delfina and the boys sat at one end, Rhea at the other with Graham to her right. When Stephen entered, he paused a moment before sliding into the vacant seat beside his father.
            “Stephen, I wish you’d get into the vacation spirit.”
            “You shoulda seen, Dad. We dunked mom, then grandma!”
            “THAT was not a highlight, Gerald,” said his mother. “You should know better. Both of you.”
            “You’re still breathing,” retorted Malcolm. “What’s the problem?”
            “Your attitude, young man,” said Graham. “You don’t roughhouse with them like you do your friends.”
            “Different pools,” said Stephen, surprising them, “would keep the sharks apart.”
            “I’m a shark!” gloated Gerald.
            Rhea shook her head. “Separation?”
            “If you can take it, get in, then everyone knows what to expect.”
            The boys raised hands like dorsal fins, then clashed. “Not at the table, “ Delfina pleaded.
Graham whispered into his son’s ear. “You don’t hide it well, you know. Your game of ‘Keep away, it’s mine’. Quite a performance before the board. They might be intimidated, but I’m not. Devour everything in your pool, then you’ll want to jump into another. Beware bigger and meaner sharks!”
            Stephen’s eyes glazed over. Aware that the table had gone quiet, he pointed at his sons. “Respect your elders. Someday you’ll demand the same.” He grabbed a sandwich and spooned some pasta onto his plate.
                 “I think,” said Rhea, “we should be happy together in one pool.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“A wedding’s a celebration of coming together for two people and, in the larger sense, everybody. All of us, together, at Dave Forester’s.”
            “Were you counting on going?”
            “If it concerns Slade Insurance, we are,” Graham said.
            “It’ll be sales and the management team.”
            “And other interests?”
            Delfina cleared her throat. “I hear the Palisades mansion is beautiful.”
            “I bet there’s a pool!”
            “For sharks!”
            Stephen set down his fork. “It’s primarily business, but as long as everyone knows what to expect.”
            Back outside, the boys splashed as their mother watched. Grandparents sat beneath the umbrella, and their son was back on the telephone. “Childhood was so simple,” Rhea thought, not having to navigate between father and son, husband and wife, chairman and CEO. She gazed into the gem-like water and into the infinite sky, searching for elusive calm, then closed her eyes.

The next chapter will be posted by December 28. 
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Chapter 10: Hands Up

a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
 and the woman important to each 

At just past the hour, the board of directors sat around the oblong table waiting for the chairman to call the meeting to order. The CEO was not present despite their invitation, and his absence made them uneasy.
Graham Slade, chairman, company founder and former CEO, had dominated for nearly thirty years when no differences separated guiding and operating principles. The board rubber-stamped his wishes and the company prospered. But when son Stephen became CEO, it faced a new reality –conflict-- and found trying to satisfy both was like bending backwards till shoulders touched the ground then springing into somersaults.
Jeff Simmons, managing partner of a law firm, had boyish charm which had encouraged strangers to ruffle his hair and, later, colleagues to beam favorably. Now his hair was lacquered black but that charm still showed through. He avoided declaring the absence a slight without further evidence and tried to mollify the chairman with conversation about his grandkids.
Peter Morgan, owner of a string of banks, was the oldest member and started life with a different name. His manner suggested an Old World background, often alluded to but without details. “Past is past,” he liked to say, which was a nod to the prosperous present that afforded rich suits to clothe his expansive figure. His mane of silvery hair and self-satisfied demeanor suggested everything would work out.     
Life insurance was Joseph Parker’s business and his faith in actuarial tables the foundation of a backslapping nature: the tables delivered the hard news, allowing him to focus on the sunny side. Height and weight corresponding to recommended guidelines, he believed he’d age the prescribed 82.57 years. Only infrequently did worry fret a chevron between his brows.
Mark Storts, the newest member, was Stephen Slade’s college buddy and an ally in wanting to take the company public, which he sought to underwrite. Stephen’s failure at communication concerned him, as he believed perfect information best served the marketplace.  He checked his watch and at fifteen after punched a number on his cell --voice mail. Then he stood, his dark, curly hair a statement in that room. “I’ll see what’s keeping him.”
He made his way through the C-suite hallway to executive reception, where Betsy Murray greeted him professionally then frowned at his request. “He went up this morning and hasn’t been down since.”  She pantomimed summoning the elevator: the button refused to light. She pushed the intercom button on the phone, which did light and flash until pushed again. He returned to the meeting. They listened to his report, to which Simmons said, “I don’t like the idea of locking it from upstairs. What if he’s injured?”
“The code requires another exit.” piped up Parker who, on considering the CEO’s age and good health, reasoned it wasn’t time. “He must have gone another way.”
“Of course, he’s okay,” said Morgan, waving a sagacious hand.
Irritation tweaked the chairman’s granite face. “Let’s get started. Mark Pointer is the company’s long-time claims manager, and I’m advised that his impending retirement is not entirely voluntary. Assertions have been made of unsatisfactory performance, and the inability of adjusters to handle the volume of claims. At the same time, his requests to expand staffing have been denied. I’ve known Mark a long time. He gets the job done, if allowed to. Slade Insurance will suffer for losing him.”
The room lapsed into silence, until Storts spoke up. “According to the numbers, Slade would be better off.”
“Numbers?” The chairman glared.
“Mister chairman, certainly the claims manager is worthy of your support, and I don’t argue against him as a person but as a kind: a high-salaried manager. Through retirement and other means we can reduce expenses and increase our profit margin.”
“Have you talked to him about Mark Pointer?”
                 “Not in particular, but he endorses the strategy.”         
 “Strategy requires vision, and I don’t see it. Mark is a leader who has nurtured many fine claims adjusters who interface with our customers and contribute to a robust company. Financial statements don’t capture the whole picture.”
“Wall Street doesn’t care about that.”
“Good reason, then, to avoid it.”
Around the table, small gasps and body language urged restraint.
“If you’re not in the market, you’re not anywhere. It’s just the way things are. Slade’s value will increase on the exchange, which we can maximize by getting our financials into shape.”
The chairman looked ahead at no one in particular.  “Thank you for your insight. I only wish Stephen had the grace to argue for himself. His absence, I think, supports my position that figures on a page are well and good, but don’t compel like a flesh-and-blood leader. I’m not convinced about ending Mark’s career.”
“That’s not on us. He can go someplace else!”
The chairman raised his hand. “Enough. I move that we re-issue our request to the CEO.”
“I second that,” said Simmons.
“In favor?” Hands shot up as the door opened. “The motion is carried--“
“Unanimously.” Stephen Slade stood within the doorframe and watched the raised hands fall. He took a seat at the farthest end from the chairman. His dark gray suit enveloped him neatly and the satin blue of his tie reflected off a pale neck. Smooth dark hair and narrow-set eyes contrasted with the chairman’s crew cut and visionary gaze. “Here I am.”
At one end, Simmons sat to the right of the chairman who had Morgan on his left, and then Parker. Storts was on the other side between Simmons and the CEO. Looking for someone to reset the meeting, the directors gazed from left to right and back. 
“Thank you for attending,” said Simmons. “We had just finished discussing Mark Pointer’s situation. The chairman expressed that he contributes necessary leadership, which would be missed and impact customer service. Director Storts pointed out that high-salaried managers inflate expenses and reduce profits. The board desires your input.”
“That’s a fair recap,” said the banker with a salute to the attorney.
“Thank you,” said the CEO.  “Mark Pointer has served Slade long and well, but salaries like his are a burden. Human Resources has identified areas of high cost where the company can seek advantage through attrition.”
“Mark Pointer doesn’t want to retire,” growled the chairman.
“At my direction, HR has presented available options to certain managers. Retirement would be their choice. If enough accept, we won’t have to take other measures.”
“If this is about expenses,” the chairman said, “I don’t see how it squares with those in other areas, such as the private elevator, the limousine and the chauffeur.” The chairman leaned forward; the CEO did not blink.
“I hope you will grant that the company is well run and profitable. Pay attention to the numbers that matter, and you will see the proof. It’s easy and tempting to grasp at the odd figure or expense and make of it something more than it is. Easy and hurtful. I am hurt at the lack of trust.
“True, I seek to make of Slade something more. The chairman founded and made a success of the company that provides for his retirement. If Slade is to grow and provide for others, changes must be made.
“Since the company’s founding, jet travel for business and pleasure became the norm, the Concorde came and went, and hijacked jets brought down the Twin Towers. Does it make sense that Slade should remain static while the world shifts? The future demands change.”
“If I aim higher and step quicker, it’s because I want Slade to succeed. Everything I do benefits the company. See it in the results.
“The board owes me the same trust and support it gave my predecessor. Don’t fracture or snipe. Stand united. If you do, the sky’s the limit.”
 Without awaiting a response, he stood and vanished as suddenly as he had appeared, having silenced them though the chairman still glowered and the directors still yearned for consensus. Once again, the meeting needed resetting.
“He did show up,” said Simmons. Parker added, “I knew he was okay.”
“A flesh-and-blood statement,” chuckled Morgan.
“Leading where?” asked the chairman.
Nothing remained but to schedule the next meeting and close. The board went through the motions, the while aware of the quirk in its DNA: impotence against an aggressive CEO. The directors sought to make the best of it, but verbal gymnastics failed to convince anyone they weren’t witness to power wielded by one man. 

The next chapter will be posted by October 26. 
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Chapter Nine: Conquest

a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
 and the woman important to each 


          Basking in the glow of conquest, Atom walked arm in arm with Helen down the Manhattan Beach pier. The day was bright, and the air rich with the delighted cries of sun worshippers and volleyball players, which overlay their quiet satisfaction as between them smoldered still the passion of the night before. After much persistence she had yielded fully, so much so his intuition gave pause to consider who was the winner and whom the won over before sinking into lovemaking’s sensory overload. On waking they fell onto each other before dozing to wake again to growling stomachs. They dressed quickly: he in shorts, polo shirt and sneakers, while she was compelled to re-wear her sleeveless burgundy dress with sandals and his oversized windbreaker.
          Once hunger was satisfied, Atom played the guide, pointing out the stately pier with globe lights atop concrete stanchions every 12 paces, and the Spanish tile roof of the bulky Aquarium and Café near the end, and the hill that hunched like a wrong-way wave where the main street and overbuilt neighborhoods ran laterally. “The town’s a mix of older homeowners and younger condo-dwellers,” he said, “none of whom I have time to meet.”
          When he turned to kiss her a strand of hair flicked his eyelash. He drew back as she brushed it away then tried again, successfully, eliciting her deep-throated laugh. Believing she bore greater meaning than just the carnal, he had to possess her completely and had no doubts, since he was able to overcome her resistance to a date.
          With Lola’s help, he happened on her in break room, at lunch in nearby restaurants and in the underground garage, where always she declined his invitations, until the last one. Their date was Saturday, when at twilight they met at her apartment in Palms and then drove to a restaurant for dinner, and later dancing.
          Auburn hair fell onto the shoulders of the burgundy dress, which matched her high heels, and a delicate gold chain accentuated her thin wrists. Wearing ivory-colored slacks, azure blue shirt and tan sports coat, his gestures crackled with intensity of wooing. Throughout the evening, each echoed the other’s appreciation of venue, food and entertainment, as wariness gave way to heightened anticipation. A new gravity seemed to weigh on the youthful enthusiasm he had noted before, with pleasing effect.
          He did not know she’d broken up with her boyfriend, or that the investor parties had taken off, making her the center of attention in men’s eyes and exciting Slade’s possessive nature. She would have had difficulty describing the experience since her role seemed more to do with what she was instead of who, and was inherently personal.
          Rolling waves beneath the pier rocked the pilings, gusts delivered salty spray and the high sun whitewashed their features. Going round the Café, they were for the moment separate and alone, where westward was the open sea, and to the north and south the purple hills stretched out. A tanker crossed their view cruising to the refinery with the orange-striped smokestack. They leaned against the railing.
          “Slade’s lucky he’s got you.”
          “I wouldn’t put it like that.”
          “I’d hate to think he’s a barrier to keep us apart.”
          "Hoo, hoo! Ha, ha!” The girlish laughter pierced him and he twisted a painful smile when from out of nowhere a sense-defying fog blanked out the sun, the sea and every sound except that laughter. He snaked an arm around her waist, but she pulled away, and so he stood apart until compelled to speak and fill in the white nothingness.
          “You know, I envy Slade’s relationship with his father; things passing from father to son. It’s like someone watching your towel on the beach, saving your place in line, ensuring a foothold in life. Things are different then.”
          “What about yours?”
          “Divorced before I was five. I have some pictures, and don’t miss him. How can you miss what you never had? Only when I see others with theirs do I wonder about it.”
          “Mine is big on sports and fishing. When I think of him I think of fishing. Sorry.”
          “And sorry for laughing?”
          “Don’t take it personal, but men always make more of something than it is.”
          “I’m not talking about him--”
          “He’ll take advantage. I’ll protect you, if you let me.” He set a resolute face, which blurred in the mist.
          “I’m trying not to laugh. You just proved my point.”
          “I want us to be close.”
          “He doesn’t affect what I do, though I wouldn’t cross him. He likes fresh starts, clean sweeps and loyalty. He has a different take on the father thing and makes a point of withholding loyalty he demands from everyone else. The condo’s about sweeping him away.”
          He pulled at her again, and she relented. Nuzzling the cold marble of her cheek, he held her as if clutching a world that he would surely scale and occupy.

                                                                           * * *
           The idea of Helen and Slade festered in Atom's mind when she wouldn't admit him to the condo saying, "Stephen wouldn't like it"; first name familiarity salted his wound. Meanwhile, the CEO's arrangement had other repercussions within and without the company.

The next chapter will be posted by August 17. 
 The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Chapter Eight: Fear of Zero

a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
 and the woman important to each


           Atom Green won last quarter but the new one meant starting equal in the race for numbers sprinkled with enriching commas. He overcame a momentary catch in the throat on the first call --paralysis through fear of zero-- before charm and technique powered him to a close. A carryover though was the parking spot labeled  “Salesman of the Quarter” in the underground garage. He parked his leased champagne-colored Mercedes coupe near the CEO’s limousine, which sat like an unused accessory. Unavoidable on the way to the elevator, he gave the fender a kick.
          He’d gotten into the habit of stopping in before his first call so as to become acquainted with staff outside of sales and learn what they knew. The best place was where the smokers congregated, out of doors in the wind tunnel between tall buildings. After squinty-eyed assessment, a chatty someone typically came forth to reveal much about the company in bullet-points -- due either to standing, the wind or the smoker rhythm -- even before lighting up, which was fine since he didn’t smoke. He met Lola McIntyre there, but that morning found her in the break room.
          As he passed through the door, her eyes lit up beneath corkscrews twisted in her hair. She nudged a chair toward him and a playful tune jangled from the charms on her bracelet. “Sorry, no time.”
          “That’s not very friendly,” she teased, the words dripping like syrup from a greedy mouth as she ogled him in his sharp gray suit with royal blue tie. “I was going to tell you about the CEO’s condo and what he keeps there.”
          “Got a cigarette?”
          “A new hire in my department a month ago. The first day, he’s on her like that.” She snapped her fingers. “The company bought the condo. He transfers her there…working…for him…only…alone.”
          Regardless of snaps and pauses, he had an interest in the doings of Stephen Slade. Desire and dread jumbled his heart: if he were in that position, would he so casually alter people’s lives? “Pretty bold having the company pay.”
          “It’s for business, though I can’t say other things don’t go on.”
          “Monkey business. Tell me about her.”
          ”Young and pretty.”
          Women at work, women at home, women wherever the wealthy man goes, like flags staking out a territory. Whether fun and flighty, sexy seducer or old-fashioned gold digger, men put women in boxes then join them inside. He wanted to see and judge. Coming out of his thoughts, he noticed intensity in Lola’s eyes. “Helen Roy.”


          Soon after, Atom met Helen over lunch at Rico’s, with Lola making introductions. He pegged her age as half Slade’s and, dressed in designer jeans and sweater, more college student than executive assistant or seducer. Her voice conveyed youthful enthusiasm.
          “’Atom’, like in physics? That’s funny.”
          “There’s a story behind it, and one day I’ll tell you.”
          “Tell us now!” They demanded. He feigned reluctance then complied.
          “My mother’s from Columbia, and my father was a contractor who’s away a lot, all over the world. That’s how they met. Well, he’s in Africa when she’s ready to deliver. She’s alone, without any family nearby, and gets herself to the hospital. Everything works out. When they ask my name for the birth certificate, she says ‘Neil Adam Green’. But she speaks with an accent and they write A-T-O-M.”
          “They should have known,” protested Lola.
          “By herself? The poor woman,” said Helen. “I would have been terrified. Why didn’t your parents correct it?”
          “Never got around to it, and I suffered. At the start of a new year, the teachers read the rolls and did double takes to confirm I was a little boy and not some science experiment. The kids called me ‘Atom Bomb’.”
          “Poor thing. Why didn’t you change it later?”
          “I got used to it, and it’s unique. Have you ever met an Atom?”
          “None I wasn’t attracted to.”
          “Are you positive?”
          They giggled; Lola looked confused. He thought Helen was friendly and pretty and interesting, but as lunch went on he grew angry at Slade’s control over her. Without any telling scars, his imagination went wild over what might be going on. The thought of wielding such power made him lightheaded and nauseous.
          “Don’t you find it odd isolated in a condo working for an insurance company?”
          She shrugged. “It’s not what I expected, though I like being creative. Maybe that doesn’t go with insurance either. I really don’t know”
          “Must be nice at the top.”
          “There’s a great view of the city.”
          “I’d like to see,” interjected Lola.
          Helen hesitated. “Stephen wouldn’t care for that. He doesn’t say ‘Don’t bring anyone up’ but… I…it just wouldn’t feel right.”
          “Does he take you out?” said Lola.
          “I have a boyfriend.”
          “We’re out having lunch.” Atom said, and Lola added, “It doesn’t have to mean anything.”
          “He doesn’t.”
          “Yet,” said Lola under her breath.
          The tops of Helen’s ears turned red and she stared daggers at the older woman. “I have a boyfriend, still.”
          Atom felt bad and wanted to get past the sticky moment. He grandly slapped his credit card to the check and pushed it to the table’s edge. But Helen snatched up the ticket, calculated her share and added a twenty. Lola, after much fumbling in her purse, followed suit.
          Afterwards, Helen led the way to the lobby of the Wayfare Hotel. Atom caught up to her as she was pushing the button for the elevator.
          “Maybe we can do this again.”
          “I have a boyfriend. Still.”
            The bell sounded, the doors opened and she went inside. On turning around, despite pursed lips and knitted brows, she exuded a beautiful radiance and Atom thought he caught a glimpse of what Slade saw. The doors closed as Lola came up and said, “Too bad.” He wasn’t deterred and spoke as through doors, “Maybe not today; tomorrow then.”

The next chapter will be posted by June 29th.. 
The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Chapter Seven: Reward

a story about a salesman trying to establish himself,
 a CEO scheming to buy out his father's influence
 and the woman important to each 


                    Neil Atom Green left the sales manager’s office reeling. The celebration for rising to the top of the sales chart should have been full-throated ecstasy but he was hollow. Jeremy Port had framed his top salesmen within his arms, presenting them for praise. Instead of congratulations, Slade snubbed him and told Dave Forester to get back to Number One. They laughed, although the CEO did not appear to be joking.
Fortunately, Port and Forester could insulate him with good will while he hid his anguish and tried to understand: was the slight unintended and forgettable; unintended though part of a pattern; or intended and therefore malign? Demanding recognition was a sign of weakness so he could only wait, like the doctor confronting an unknown disease looks toward the next death in order to comprehend.
Tall and swarthy, Atom had dark hair parted down the middle that quivered as with electricity, and a manufactured polish reflecting his best profile. His energy and talent demanded immediate release and on encountering obstacles skirted around, burrowed below or rose above to fill in the present.
The sales team trooped across the street to the bar at the Wayfare Inn. Rico’s was spacious and spare, with gray carpet and muted lighting that accentuated the stylish smear of orange pastel on the wall. A long liquid mirror behind the bar reflected passersby of the business class headed to the dining area.
“Tequila shots,” ordered Atom for the ritual taking place every quarter when resulted posted, and the bartender arrayed ten shot glasses filled with silver agave juice. The salesmen eyed their reward for being defeated, and his penalty for conquering. “To Number One,” they toasted then left, their ambition plus embarrassment kept them from sticking around: it wasn’t good form to be caught in the office when they should be out selling.
Port took the stool to his right and Forester stood on his other side. The white-haired sales manager had been his advocate, while Forester had been a friendly adversary, and he was closer to them than anyone else at Slade. He ordered more drinks.
Forester had sandy brown hair, high forehead, and perpetual tan from golf and tennis. His generous smile softened a cool manner. “Come over for barbecue Sunday. Mona would want you both,” he said referring to his fiancé. Though a likable fellow, Atom could dislike him if he dwelt on their differences. He was the son of a banking executive, whose background mirrored Slade’s of having started near the top.
By contrast, his career began in the kitchen of a chain restaurant. He had become the assistant manager before realizing he was settling for second or even third best in life. Determined to make the highest leap possible, he took business classes at the community college and studied corporate leaders. Afterwards, he took sales jobs at a string of companies that helped refine his perspective. Touchable products were inferior to the untouchable, so financial instruments were best where the sky was the limit in terms of value.  Small companies had a strong sense of mission but lacked diversity and scale, while large ones had plenty of both at the risk of bureaucratic mindset. He stayed long enough to learn what was worthwhile before moving on and landing at Slade Insurance.
Along the way, he discovered the past was a clingy thing. When asked where he came from and what he’d been doing, he noticed the cooling effect the words “kitchen” and “restaurant” had on his peers, so he began talking about the hospitality industry, marketing and client delivery until establishing a sales record.
But the past resided inside, too, and he always took notice of the help. At Rico’s the busboy darted between tables collecting used glasses and plates. Thin and dark, with a wave of black hair cresting over brow, his lowered eyes avoided the clientele. Atom knew he had an apology ready if he did encounter one, such deference aiding the objective of getting orders to the tables then clearing them. The bartender had a different attitude. Wearing white shirt and striped tie under green apron, he presented as if minding the bar was a lark between business meetings. He introduced himself as Ross, and was ready, it seemed, to bargain with the captains of industry on the other side.
Atom waited till Ross was at the other end of the bar then said “Maybe he’ll say something when I’m Number One again next quarter.”
“Don’t let him see you sweat,” said Forester, ignoring the embedded challenge. “You’ll be alright. He must have been thinking about the wedding, and how to introduce his ‘Number Two salesman’. Sounds odd. What do you think, Jeremy?”
“No thinking while drinking,” Port quipped and gulped his vodka rocks and the salesmen followed suit. Atom stirred his drink with a little black straw and listened to the clinking ice. The wedding added to his discontent, because no amount of sales could top having the CEO sponsor your union at a Palisades mansion. The inner circle was exclusive, tight and hard to penetrate.
“He’s got a lot on his mind, what with changes he’s pushing,” Port said.
“Like what?”
“Get used to sending your own follow-up letters when the administrative assistants go.”
Forester grimaced. “They’re overpaid for what they do, though I don’t like the idea of wasting time on minutiae. Focus on the bright and shiny, right Atom?”
“Don’t let it get you down,” counseled the sales manager.
Their concern tugged loose a smile.  Optimism, especially on a bad day, was the salesman’s utmost tool. He swallowed his drink and ordered another round and watched Ross work. He wouldn’t let it get to him, but he was impatient for signs of success.
Then, a brilliant gleam alerted his nervous system. Before the reasoning mind and her gelling image gave shape to the impulse, he was on his feet with extended hand for the universal pitch. Her hands were manicured, soft and receptive, and her perfume summoned ancient memories of hot nights, full moons and victory feasts. She would serve until the real thing.

 The next chapter will be posted by June 1st.. 
The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.