Saturday, August 16, 2014

Chapter 10: Hands Up


MORE OF SOMETHING MORE,
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 
                                                        
                                                          10


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


       
MORE OF SOMETHING MORE,
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 
                                                        

                                                          9

          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.”
          “Slade?”
          “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


                                   
MORE OF SOMETHING MORE,
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
                                                               

                                                           8

           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.”

                                                                 -ii-

          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

MORE OF SOMETHING MORE,
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 


                                                            7

                    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.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Chapter Six: Morning Break

MORE OF SOMETHING MORE,
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 
 6

          Nine-fifteen meant morning break. Lola McIntyre pushed through the doors of the lunchroom to take her place at the table near the wall and watch everyone coming in. Wearing snug brown skirt and carmine red blouse, her sandy blonde hair was clipped short over yearning brown eyes. A charm bracelet jangled on her right wrist.
          Employed at Slade for ten years, the staff was the subject of her gossip, which ranged over absences and work habits, marriages and affairs, waistlines and diets, conflicts and complaints. New people added to her amusement but also contributed to anxiety.
           She was invested in routine. Her job as billing consultant engaged the mind just enough without hurting, and lent self-esteem when explaining ins-and-outs of premium billing to baffled clients. Difficult calls could be passed on to a supervisor, thereby sustaining her good spirits. But someone new might be her replacement, so she listened for the slightest sound of ground giving way; easy in the lunchroom’s bright lights where conversations bounced off the yellow walls of the L-shaped room with twenty tables and a bank of vending machines.
            Shy when by herself, she counted on a coalition of willing tablemates. Stockroom Bob arrived next. In his thirties with muscular arms covered in tight blond curls and hair cropped close to the ears, he wore cotton trousers, steel-toed shoes and red-and-blue checkered shirt. As he sat, he scraped a crumb from the table. “Morning, Lola.”
           Next came lanky Mailroom Joe, whose ubiquitous earphones were like life support. Wearing jeans, black t-shirt and backwards cap trapping stringy hair, he stepped just inside the swinging door, then stopped to gaze into his handheld. When the door tapped his bottom, he expressed surprise – then moved the rest of the way inside. He sat wordlessly, as if greetings were assumed. Lola by then was squirming like a schoolgirl in anticipation.
          Instead, Betsy Murray came in. The petite executive secretary, who was about Bob’s age, fed quarters that ka-plunked into the coffee machine’s empty register. Lola called, “Come sit,” and she was going over when Bill kicked through the door.  Tossing his cap on the table, he turned a chair backwards to sit then craned his shaved head, looking each of them in the eye. Betsy inched her chair away. Lola tried to calm herself.
          Before her was a measure of the company, top to bottom. Stockroom Bob, for one, had a part in uncovering the department supply cabinet overstocked with Wite-Out. Rank and file of nail-polish-sized bottles in colors of pink, blue, yellow and white were on hand despite the advent of the digital age. The Underwriting secretary, who derived comfort from placing orders, wouldn’t acknowledge their inutility. Bob brought it to management’s attention: the secretary departed not long afterward. And Mailroom Joe, who could match mail to people sending or receiving non-work-related items, provided material for endless speculation: credit card bills, scented purple envelopes with no return address and magazines in brown wrappers. Did the routing conceal something, and from whom? She had always to coax him for information, but thought the effort worthwhile. That morning she started with Betsy. “So what’s going on upstairs?”
          The secretary cupped hands around her coffee and cast eyes to the ceiling. “The execs are always coming and going. I see Stephen the least, in the mornings usually. Sometimes I don’t see him the rest of the day. The others think I’m busy with him and don’t ask. I feel useless.”
            “Trade you,” Lola quipped, eliciting laughter. She turned to the chauffeur. “Is he on his Blackberry when you’re driving him in?” He shrugged. “I keep my eyes on the road.”
           “What else, Betsy?”
           “We hired some mucky-muck consultants who are planning to upgrade our systems. ‘For the new century’, they say. Their presentation’s like geometry.”
           “Was Stephen there?”
           “Oh, yes. They make nice in front of Stephen, but think he’s hiding something. They’re afraid of being left out.” She stood. “My relief’s probably pulling out her hair.” She stepped away through the room now busy with people and conversation.
            A goofy grin spread across Bill’s face. “You’re all going to be replaced ---with robots. Nobody’s going to have a job. Then you can stay home and watch soap operas. The plans were in the back seat. Circles and lines and dollar signs. No people.”
           Lola gave him a sour look. “No drivers, either.”
           “Good! Then I can get out of this monkey suit.” He beamed like a precocious child, causing her to laugh, and blush. Though married with a teenage son in the suburbs, she nurtured a crush for the big man, who seemed like the spicy reward for long commutes. The thought of the flirtation upending her life was part of the thrill, with every gesture fraught with the question --How far will I go?
           They would meet in the limousine parked in the underground garage, which occupied an outlined spot near the elevator. Foot traffic was minimal after early arrivers filled the first level, but every car had to pass going to the lower ones. Roaring engines in the low-ceiled chamber made her skittish, as did the windows lowered a crack to let the heat escape, though tinted. In the semi-privacy, she explored a fantasy: gazing into his eyes, she saw reflections of the young offenders on the TV news, something wild though cleaned up and in uniform.
           The first time she felt like a teenager gone to a forbidden liaison, with the sound of echoing heels her trailing conscience. Seeing cigarette smoke escaping the window, she nearly turned back, but he flung open the door. Inside, her brassy persona vanished and she sat tongue-tied with knees pressed together.  He laughed, reaching a meaty paw to pull her over, and she turned to jelly. They pressed close, but a passing car made her pull away. “Too hot,” she said. “Somewhere else maybe; not here.” He grunted and lit another cigarette, as possibility hung in the air without anyplace to land. They continued to meet without advancing the relationship, but on learning about the condo, she grafted onto that. Now face-to-face in the lunchroom, she asked again, “When?” 
            “What?”
            “You know.”
            “Then you know the answer.”
            She squalled at his putting her off, while the others watched, thinking they knew what was at stake but not sure. “She’s there all the time, almost like she lives there. Sometimes when Mr. Slade goes up, he doesn’t ask me to wait.”
           “Well, I’ll tell you something for free. He’s not the only one she spends time with.”
            “Who?”
             “Take me and I’ll tell.”
             “Unless,” he slapped the table, “I figure it out myself.” Bob jumped up, saying he had to get back, and Joe slinked off behind him. The consultant and the chauffeur rose, her face angling toward his. But as her eyes closed, she became aware of a gathering stillness: the chatter had stopped. With eyes closed, no one could see, but that was fantasy. Instead, she patted his chest and made for the door, propelled by a press of eyeballs. Break time was over.

           
The next chapter will be posted by June 1st April 13th.. 
The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Chapter Five: Snake

MORE OF SOMETHING MORE,
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 
5

 “Snake,” hissed Helen, pausing at the condo window to look westward to the proximate location of the apartment she shared until that very morning with her boyfriend.
They made the trip to Los Angeles on a vision Kelly had painted: “Your face could be famous, and I could broker some deals and make loads of money”. Though she would have been content in the Midwest, he was thinking on a larger canvas, with fame the tempting apple. She bit freely, and they set out; he to land a job at a bank, and she at Slade Insurance. While she settled into a routine, he wouldn’t, his entrepreneurial sense excited by lines of people leading, he was convinced, to pots of gold. He struck out to sample each one; their schedules drifted apart.
His manner and appearance changed from clean-cut business student to long-haired hipster contemptuous of her successes. He abetted her distrust of Stephen, but when she grew to admire him, the while broadcasting a litany of perks, he needled her. “You’ll pay in the end.” He persisted in cutting remarks until she had enough. She was stuffing her carry on when he walked in. “Laundry? Now? We’re going to brunch.”
“Do what you want. I’m leaving.”
He grabbed the handle and flung it crashing into the wall.  “We have a lease.” Without missing a beat, she retrieved the carry on and continued to pack. He pushed her clothes onto the floor. “Did you hear me?”
“Leave me alone!” she screamed, rocking him back on his heels. He stared sullenly until she finished then said, “So the bill’s come due.” She wheeled the bag through the door. “I’ll come for the rest later.”
She planned to stay at the condo. Stephen had never said one way or the other, but she felt she could burrow neatly within the condo’s clean lines without attracting attention. Moving from the window, she went into the bedroom to unpack and afterwards called the cleaning service to schedule three days instead of one.
Next morning, she heard the knob rattle and the sound of a fist slamming the front door. Serenely, she rose from the bedroom computer to disengage the bolt and find Bill the chauffeur.
He was a large man, over six feet, whose bulk was barely contained within the black outfit with flying Gothic shoulders and button-up tunic. A black cap was pushed back on his shaved head where bushy eyebrows sheltered lethal narrow set eyes. Frustration contorted his face.  “What are you doing here so early?”
“Computer work. Do you have something for me?” Reminded of the manila envelope he carried, he gave it up reluctantly. “I usually put it in the safe.” She deadpanned, “And I usually take it out.” 
Her humor seemed to take the edge off, though his eyes still flitted suspiciously at and beyond her. She pushed open the door. “Want to come in?”  He peered inside. “No. That’s alright.”
Back in the bedroom she knelt beside the floor safe, twirling the dial then swinging open its door. She extracted the passbook and the tally and then unfastened the clip on the envelope. Fanning five checks like a poker hand, she calculated their worth: short of a million. A shadow of disappointment crossed her brow, which vanished with a giggle. Once, they totaled over a million, and ever since she played the expectations game. It thrilled her to be so close to streaming capital –Stephen’s phrase. Surely, this was where she should be; every addition told her so, bringing his dream closer to realization. Her role was to aid his effort. Proof of success would tell in his attitude and the deposit slips she carried to the bank.

                                                                          -ii-

            He couldn’t have known, though he acted as if he did. After the party, instead of going with the investors to the club, Stephen had Bill ferry them away, leaving them alone. Rustling in stiff silk and bare shoulders, Helen peered out the window at the twinkling lights. If he meant to stay, she had no choice but to nestle in the warmth of the successful night and out-wait him.
            “I’m calling for something to eat,” he said. “What do you want?”
            Awaiting the order, they sat on a banquette with the lights low and cool Brazilian playing on the sound system. Still corporate in suit jacket, he obsessed over plans. “At Forester’s wedding, I’ll hold the greatest-of-the-great investor parties, with the Palisades mansion as loan and leverage, in rooms away from the ceremonies where they won’t interfere. I’ll show the old man. I treat my people well, though he complains about his favorites. He can’t see reality: the capital flowing in to flush him out. He has no idea.”
            “Can you keep him from knowing?”
            “When it happens he’ll know.”
            “At the wedding, I mean.”
            ‘The fool’s so intent on harmony; he’ll lap it up. The mansion has two wings and a central area. The investors will be in the east wing. I’ll say a few words to get things started then come back. Funny really. He takes pride in overseeing things, but doesn’t see it’s passed him by.”
She leaned into him to puff a hot breath. “Will I meet Delfina?” He blinked and was about to answer when the doorbell rang.
Room service was a white-coated waiter, whom Helen directed in unloading a cart bearing plates beneath silver domes. When with servile bows the waiter retreated, Stephen took his place at the table while she went to freshen up. When she returned her auburn hair was fluffed and her eyes glistened. Strategic applications of perfume competed with aromas rising from the plates. They chewed with mouths but devoured with their eyes, until he breached the silence.
“I depend on your loyalty. Every man tries to corner and win you over. I see them talking, some of it I hear and the rest I can imagine. Don’t believe them. They want someone inside feeding them information. Don’t let them steer you wrong.”
Her words were lighter than air. “Rely on me ---for everything.” He tossed down his napkin and extended his hand. She rose to be led to where they became a tangle of arms and legs. Later, she begged modesty allow her leave last, and so he left her in place.


  The next chapter will be posted by March 9th.. 
The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Chapter Four: Pull the Cord

MORE OF SOMETHING MORE,
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 
4
 
Her heart in mouth, Rhea Slade tried spotting the plane at 10,000 feet. Grandsons, Malcolm and Gerald, shared the watch and directed barbs at their mother, Delfina, who was content watching only them.
The sky in high desert was windless and clear, and bright sun glinted off windows, mirrors and the outsized sunglasses dominating her face. On hearing the intermittent buzz of a single engine craft, she pointed to the pinprick holding her life and husband, Graham. “There they are.”
The sighting prompted another round of sulk. “Aw, I wanted to go,” moaned Malcolm. “Me, too,” said Gerald who, at thirteen, was two years the younger. His mother tugged at the collar of his jacket without fueling the moot argument. “Put on your jacket, Malcolm.”
“Aw, mom. It’s warm!”  They were an obvious family, wearing dark blue jeans and red jackets; Malcolm’s swaddled around his waist. The sons had already sprouted taller than their mother. The elder was dark and serious, the younger, blond and carefree.  A wave of hair crested each brow, which demanded regular flicks of the head to clear the eyes.
The family matriarch appeared elfish old beside them: petite with helmet of pewter-colored hair and dressed in stylish woolen slacks and puffy blue jacket.  Glancing at them, she bemoaned Stephen’s absence. Despite her pleas, her son wouldn’t budge. “I’ve got a company to run,” he told her. The attitude displeased her, diminished the family and supported Graham’s belief he was running things into the ground. Her impulse was to unite. “Have you decided what to wear to the wedding?”
The question surprised Delfina out of her thoughts. “Wedding? Oh, Dave Forester’s.” Then her mouth fell open in advance of a hesitant trickle of words.  “I’m not going. It’s just business; company people, investors, family.”
 “You are family! We’re going, and I’d like to see you there too. Tell him.” Her answer was an infuriating silence. When Graham was CEO, she’d stood beside him at routine and not so routine occasions at the company: birthdays, anniversaries, commemorations, promotions and deaths, which were milestones in her love and devotion. She feared for Stephen and Delfina. Sources had informed on his time spent at the condo, the parties and the young woman too. She had hoped her daughter-in-law would assert herself; instead she established a defensive barrier around her sons. She would have to intervene. “I’ll talk to him.”
Gerald screamed, “They’re falling!” She nearly fainted, but on observing an orderly extraction, corrected him. “Jumping, Gerald. They’re jumping.”
Mere dots to the eye but to imagination daredevils spilling from the platform plane, free fall was the most disturbing time. At that distance, she’d no way of knowing which was her husband; presumably, the first. He had always been first.
They’d met in New York City after the Second War. He went to Yale and she was working retail. The match was improbable but provident, and after getting past being “the poor girl from Kansas” she married into a family that had sired a line of corporate CEOs, who started in manufacturing then progressed into finance, changing as the country changed. Graham trained in family businesses before starting Slade Insurance in the 60's. Meanwhile, they had Stephen, Diana and Gerald, and lived a happy, prosperous life. In the past year, he retained the role of chairman of the board, while Stephen became the CEO. 
Today, she was angry-proud at his throwing seventy-year old bones from a plane on his birthday. Stuff happens, but daring it to was pure Graham. She clutched Malcolm and squeezed, expressing her fears till one…two…three…then four white parachutes blossomed in the sky.
“Hurray!” They shouted as they watched their languid descent, ending in landfall about a mile away. A pickup went to gather them for the reunion, sending up a dust trail. When it returned, Graham wheeled his legs over the truck bed and jumped out to stride toward them in green jump suit and boots. Lean and leathery, he had a gray crew cut over electric blue eyes. The boys surrounded and praised him as he continued his progress to Rhea who stood like an attractive magnet.
On contact they locked into an embrace. Then she hit him with the heel of her palm on his chest, on his hip and on his thigh, testing for fatigue and releasing her anxiety. Then she held him tightly.
"I had an insight," he said. "Up there so high, beyond the mountains are blue horizons, and farms are crazy geometric patterns, and the desert a moonscape of peaks and depressions. Spinning like a seed and carried by the wind, gravity pulls you down. Between life and being splat on the desert floor are the pull cord and the parachute. Fail to execute and you’re a goner. I can pull the company out of its free fall. I’m the parachute, the chairman of the board.”
The unexpected burble of words delivered from on high gave them pause, trying to comprehend. Rhea pulled him away. “He doesn’t see that private elevators, chauffeurs and parties are distractions. He’s forgetting about the cord. I’ve got to save him.”
She led him to their car for the drive to a restaurant for a celebratory meal. His words had impact. Though bothered by the extravagance, she understood that a new CEO had to create things anew and develop loyalty within subordinates. But clear-cutting old-line managers wasn’t going down well, and his apparent goal of disassociating Graham from the company was an affront to him, to her and to the family. Graham was right: someone had to pull the cord.


The next chapter will be posted by February 16. 
The characters and events in this story are fictitious and do not represent any living person or real event.