Short Fiction for Guests of the WordFeeder
Sunday, June 26, 2011
From their respective offices where they worked throughout the sprawling single story complex, the four interns – the only four the firm had hired that year from the best of the best universities in architecture and urban design – converged and now walked side by side down wide diagonal path that led to Craig’s corner offices.
Built on the farm his grandfather had left him, its pastoral rural location was in stark contrast to struggling urban centers in which the young firm had made its fortunes. With degrees in finance, urban economics and design, Craig – who insisted that everybody call everybody by their first names – had found a way to renovate the worst neighborhoods in our major cities, making them thriving communities, mostly for their original residents and businesses, and do it all at the expense of the private sector without a single dime of government funding. If that just sounded like a lot, it was. He was only in his early 30s, but this was already his time.
The four of them worked together, more or less, and were the closest to being friends any four 20 somethings as self-absorbed as they were could be.
“Why do you suppose he wants to see us?” Alice was uncharacteristically nervous. “Are we in trouble?”
“What,” Jason’s voice was lacking the usual brash confidence that was his trademark, “you think we’re on one of his lists?
“What lists?” Susanne was seldom aware of anything that didn’t involve her personally.
“Are you kidding?” Alice flashed her best “hard to believe” expression. “Word is he keeps lists of everyone who’s ever offended him, everyone who’s ever screwed up, …”
“Everyone he’s thinking about promoting?” Always the optimistic, Howard just had a gut feeling that something good was up.
“You know,” Jason was busy buttoning his shirt collar and pulling up the tie he and he alone wore in flagrant mockery of the firm’s unspoken casual dress code. “I have heard he’s looking for someone to help him with the Baltimore project.”
“Maybe help him open an office there to supervise…” Susanne pulled up her strapless top for the fourth time in the past two minutes while both Jason and Howard watched and Alice, less ample in that department, looked on disapprovingly.
“…Did you catch his presentation in front of the Mayor’s committee,” Alice interrupted to in a vain attempt to become the center of their conversation. “What a speaker.”
Howard was a natural suck-up. “The perfect pitch.”
But Alice was a close second. “The way he blended all that droll data with just the right measure of passion.” She was almost swooning.
Tied with Susanne. “The seriousness of how he talked about the impact on the community, without losing the excitement of his designs.”
“And have you seen the babe he lives with?” Jason’s comment was inspired by Susanne pulling up her top for the fifth time.
“It’s his wife, Bozo!” Alice corrected him. “And jeez, Susanne, just let ‘em fall out already.”
“Let what fall out?” Howard asked even though he knew the answer.
“He should be in the movies.” Susanne was serious.
“What?” Alice was clearly having problems with Susanne.
“Are you kidding? He’s handsome, without being pretty, ..without even being cute, come to think of it.”
Susanne countered with, “’Hot’ is more like it.”
“If you want a guy’s opinion,” Howard chimed in as if either of the women cared, “It’s the voice. It’s that voice. Perfect elocution. Just the right tone.”
“You know,” Alice was suddenly reflective as they approached the desk where Craig’s personal assistant, Marlene, was about to greet them. “it’s true. When he’s up there in front of all those big shots, when he’s really into one of his sales presentation, I get this tingling…”
“Tingling?” Howard wondered out loud.
“Buddy,” Jason laid his hand on Howard’s shoulder as if he, Jason, was any more successful with the girls, “you really need to get…”
“…whenever he talks,” Alice finished her sentence. “..What do you think that means?”
“It means you’re an easy tingler.” It was a cheap shot, but Susanne couldn’t help herself.
“We’re here to see Craig,” Jason announced to Marlene in his most professional voice.
“Of course. Craig is expecting you,” Mary explained, pushing back her chair and standing up to escort them the extra few yards to their destination. “You’ll meet in his conference room. ..I’ll tell Craig you’re here.”
They were quiet now. Splitting up, two on each side of the table, the four of them sat left and right of where Craig would be sitting at the end. A few seconds later, the silence was broken and their late morning meeting got underway.
“Thank you for coming,” Craig greeted them, turning to push the floor to ceiling glass door to it’s full open position. (Even the walls were glass almost everywhere throughout all their offices, adding to the feeling of one large open space.) Placing the yellow pad he was carrying square on the table in front of him, four names neatly printed in a list, each with a few hand-written words beneath them, Craig sat down, rolled his chair forward, pulled out the .7 mm gel pen – bold, but not too bold – he kept in his right pants pocket and began playing with it while he surveyed his employees.
“Did you have a question, Alice?”
“No. I just couldn’t help but notice how neatly, how artistically you write.”
“It’s my training as an architect. That, and I have minor..” The four of them glanced, eyes only, at each other. “OCD tendencies that I struggle with daily. ..Is that a problem for you?”
“Uh, no. Of course not.”
“But then the girth of Amy Collier’s thighs – the young woman who audits your division’s expenses, somehow they’re something you can email your friends about?”
“And how do you know that?” was what Alice wanted to say, but wisely chose not too, electing instead to be silent.
“And Susanne,” Craig shifted his glance to her side of the table.
“Yes?” She cleared her throat.
“Let me congratulate you on how effectively you recorded a colleague farting in the ladies room and then managed to publish the .wav file directly from your cell phone. ..Very impressive, if it weren’t unforgivably juvenile. ..Excellent fidelity, by the way.”
“Why am I on your list?” Jason asked, feigning innocence.
“You’re on my list, Jason,” because you have two things in common with your colleagues.” Craig started to explain but was distracted by that look on Howard’s face as if he wanted desperately to raise his hand. ..Howard, you look like you have something to say. What is it?”
“To be honest…”
“That would be nice.”
“I get the fact that you think we’re…”
“Jerks.” Alice finished his sentence for him.
“Actually, ‘insensitive’ was the word I was looking for, but, to be honest…”
“You said that,” Susanne sniped at her colleague.
“Could you give me a break here?” Howard snapped back. “You’re not without your own problems.”
“No one is, Howard.” Jason was worried about the hole Howard was in the process of digging for them.
“Like what, Howard,” Craig asked in a calm and sincere voice.
“Well,” Susanne, seeing that Craig didn’t seem offended, decided to pick up the stream. “That,” she said, pointing to yellow pad. “You make lists.”
“Doesn’t everybody?” Craig cocked his head ever so slightly.
“Are you kidding? A list now and then maybe, but you’re famous for them. They’re called ‘Craig’s Lists,’ you know, like the..”
“He gets it,” Alice thought Susanne had said enough.
“Word is..” It was Jason’s turn, “that you’ve been keeping them since you were a kid. Lists about everything. That you were so preoccupied with making lists you actually went to see a therapist about them.”
“I see.” Craig leans back in his chair. “Alice, you’ve been quiet. Is there nothing you have to say?”
“Only that I would be very pleased to work with you on the Baltimore project.”
Howard rolled his eyes while Susanne gave Alice a more severe look, wondering, almost out loud, how much ass Alice was willing to kiss to save her own.
“Alright. Enough.” Craig took back control over the meeting. “As I was saying, the four of you have two things in common. The first is a personality defect that I find objectionable.”
“Are we being fired?” Howard asked, but Craig ignored him.
“The second is that you are all exceptionally competent in your various specializations, all of which I’ll need if our new engagement is to be completed – to my standards, on time, and on budget. So here’s the deal. I’m going to overlook your shortcomings, for now. I’m going tolerate you, a simple courtesy you don’t seem able to show others, even yourselves around this table. You want to have fun? Who doesn’t?”
Craig paused, shaking his head slightly, seesawing his pen between the thumb and first two fingers of his right hand. “What the hell is wrong with you people? What you can’t do have it at somebody else’s expense. I’m paying you to work, to have a good time doing it, within reason, but not to take mean-spirited, cheap shots at your coworkers or, heaven forbid, our clients.”
“Okay,” Craig was obviously annoyed. “I’m done.” For a moment, the four of them thought he was talking about them. “I’m going to trust that you can overcome your own insecurities and disrespectful behavior to become the consummate professionals I need and you deserve to be – and the truly nice people I’m hopeful you have inside you.”
And then he took a break. It was only maybe 15 or 20 seconds, but it seemed longer. “..Do you have any idea,” Craig told them, “how much I can’t stand personnel issues?” and then he paused to take a breath while the four around the table remained silent. “And if you can’t… If you can’t get over yourselves, well then, I’ll be throwing your respective asses the hell out of here. ..Is that clear? The four of you either need to grow up or get out.”
“Yes,” one of them said, it wasn’t important who, while the others nodded.
“Let me make absolutely certain you get what I’m saying.” There was a sternness, just this side of anger, in Craig’s voice that surprised them. “This is me being tolerant of you. This is me setting an example I expect you to follow. ..When I get up…”
“Hey, Babe.” Standing there in the open doorway was Jennie, Craig’s wife, looking the way she always did, hot, but friendly, someone you could talk to without letting her beauty get in the way. She was, almost certainly and honestly, the only person on the planet that didn’t grasp how great she looked. No one walked away from that smile without feeling better. “Am I early?”
“Nah. I was just wrapping up. …I think you all know Jennie,” he asked, making it seem like they did.
“Hi, everybody. Sorry to interrupt.”
The four were looking at her, and smiled politely, but had nothing to say.
“Jennie and I are going out to lunch. When I walk out of here, I’m putting this meeting behind me, behind us, not to forget it, but to look forward to a very successful collaboration, with you and the others on our project team, in Baltimore. .. Have a good weekend. We’ll meet in the conference theater 9 AM Monday morning to go over everything.”
And without asking if they had any questions, Craig pushed back his chair stood up, put his pen back in his right pants pocket, picked up his yellow pad which he would drop on the corner of Marlene’s desk, walked up to Jennie who he kissed on her cheek. Craig held her hand loosely as they walked toward the side doors and the parking lot, the one he had covered with grass and trees, like the roof of his building, making them invisible from above.
Looking back over her shoulder to make sure they were out of ear shot, Jennie reached up to squeeze Craig’s arm. “They look scared.”
“They should be. There’s way too much crap going on. It ends now.”
“Did you bully them?”
“If by ‘bully’ you mean did I threaten to fire their asses..” but then he stopped and laughed because Jennie was smiling and she knew better. The automatic doors opened as the two of them neared the exit. “I love you.”
Jennie leaned her head against his shoulder to answer in kind.
Back in the conference room, the four of them – Alice, Susanne, Howard and Jason – sat motionless, until Craig’s assistant, who pretty much heard everything from her desk, walked in.
“You guys need to leave. We’ve got marketing using the room at noon.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Susanne grunted, pushing back, but not getting up.
“You know, guys..” Marlene was only a few years older than they were. “you really don’t want to blow this.”
“Oh, yeah.” It was Howard, feeling bolder now that Craig was no longer in the room. “What do you know?”
“I know you’re idiot. All four of you. ..You’re way wrong about Craig. His problem isn’t.. doesn’t have anything to do with lists or OCD. When he was a kid, he had a speech impediment, a bad one apparently that he fought, was picked on about and did his best to hide by not talking. In college, when he was an undergraduate he met a girl who was studying speech therapy on the way to getting her degree in Psychology. They starting going out, fell in love and she helped him get over it.”
“Let me guess. Jennie?” Alice smirked.
“Yeah. Now get out of here.” Marlene checked her watch. “Com’on. I mean it.”
Getting up and moving out, the four of them walked together, more slowly this time than they had on their way in.
Susanne broke the silence this time. “Hey, ‘Craig’s Lisp’,” she laughed. “That’s actually funny.”
Alice reached around Jason and smacked Susanne hard in the arm, a solid playground hit if there ever was one. Susanne looked over, but didn’t bother to grab her shoulder. The four of them stopped for a second, and then kept walking.
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