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Human Resources

A Novel by
Floyd Kemske

Human Resources dust jacketChapter One

Every couple has a standard argument, that single dispute that inexorably draws to itself, like some kind of interpersonal black hole, all other discussions and differences. For Norman and his wife, it was Norman’s attitude toward his job.

On Wednesday night, as the two of them were getting ready for bed, Norman remembered that his boss had scheduled him for an early meeting the next day.

“Would you please fix the children’s breakfasts in the morning?” Norman folded the coverlet down on his side of the bed, pulled on the sheet, and doubled it over. He couldn’t stand coverlet against his face while he slept. “I have an early appointment with Pressman.”

“Again?” Gwen slipped out of her nightgown and climbed into her side of the bed without folding the sheet over.

Norman had early morning appointments with Pressman once a quarter, and it annoyed him that Gwen was surprised every time it happened.

“Yes.” Norman suppressed his irritation. “He wants me there at five-thirty.” He took off his underwear and laid it on the chair, then switched off the lamp and climbed into bed. Norman and Gwen had been sleeping naked for twelve years, although they no longer took advantage of it every night.

“Five-thirty? And you told him you would be there?”

“Of course.” Norman rolled on his side to face her, and even in the dark he could see she was giving him that look.

“They’ll never consider you for leadership in that company if you take orders from a jerk like Pressman.” Her voice was quiet in the darkness.

“I don’t take orders from Pressman.” Norman sometimes felt he would never be able to get her to understand the situation. “It’s the only time we both have open. We’re on the same team, Gwen.”

“That’s insane,” she said. “You’re the Manager of Human Resources.”

In one of life’s little ironies, Norman and Gwen had almost exactly the same position in their respective companies. For Gwen, however, it was a leadership position. The company CEO sought her advice. Many of the line managers asked her input in their planning. She was a star at her company, and the word “team” did not seem to be in her vocabulary.

“Let’s not start this again.” Norman rolled on to his back and looked at the ceiling.

“I’m not starting anything.” Gwen sat up in the bed, and let the covers fall from her breasts, pale in the moonlight from the bedroom window. “Just let me ask you this, Norman. Don’t you see what Pressman is doing with this five-thirty-meeting crap?”

“I thought he was just trying to keep tabs on departmental budgets,” said Norman.

“Oh, Norman. You are so naive.”

Norman hardly heard her. He was thinking about Blankenship. Blankenship had been an assistant manager at Norman’s company. He had been one of eight people laid off by Pressman two days before, and he’d gone out to his car in the parking lot and shot himself through the roof of his mouth. Norman was the first person there after it happened, and it was an event that had a special meaning for him.

By tacit agreement, Norman and Gwen had never said a word to each other about the incident. Norman had not been able to talk about it because of his experience. Gwen, he supposed, had her own reasons for avoiding the subject.

Norman came out of his musing. He decided to settle the discussion before it blossomed into an argument. “I’ve told you before: I have a commitment to what this company is doing. If it means going to a few early meetings, I don’t mind.”

“Don’t talk like that.” Gwen hugged herself, as if Norman’s attitude had given her a shiver.

“Can you fix the kids’ breakfasts or not?” said Norman.

“I have to be in early myself tomorrow.” Gwen slid herself back down under the covers. “I have to prepare for my weekend meeting.”

“What’s the difference between a weekend meeting and a meeting at five-thirty?” said Norman.

“The difference is I choose to go to the weekend meeting. I haven’t been ordered to be there by some troglodyte in Finance. I have important ideas to present there.”

There it was again. Ideas. Gwen was apparently a fountain of ideas at work. Norman wasn’t exactly sure what these ideas were, but he knew from her conversation that Gwen had lots of them and that the people in her company prized her for it. Ideas seemed to be a fundamental part of the leadership she was so anxious he be considered for.

But Norman was more interested in successful teamwork than he was in leadership. He’d never had an idea in his life, but neither had he felt the lack.

“Do you have to be at the office before five-thirty tomorrow?” he said.


“I do,” said Norman. “I win. Please make the kids’ breakfasts.”

“All right.” Gwen rolled over and faced away from him.

Norman worried that he’d won too easily, but he couldn’t keep from gloating a little. “Make sure they get some fruit. Cut up a cantaloupe for them or slice a banana for their cereal.”

“Norman, I know how to feed the kids.” Gwen’s voice came to him muffled.

“Look,” said Norman. “I don’t want to fight with you.”

Gwen didn’t answer, and Norman realized he hadn’t won after all.

He reached over and grabbed his clock radio, then propped himself up on an elbow so he could reset it to five minutes earlier. That way, he could cut up a cantaloupe before he left to meet Pressman in the morning. If he didn’t, the kids were likely to have marshmallows and graham crackers for breakfast. Gwen loved the kids, but she never really believed the stuff about food groups.

He could hear Gwen breathing, and he wondered if she was asleep yet. He wondered if he and Gwen would ever talk about Blankenship. He supposed if they did, it would dredge up much deeper issues about who they were and what they wanted from life, issues they probably weren’t ready to discuss yet. Eventually, though, maybe they would be ready. Norman felt more ready all the time. Finding Blankenship with a hole in his head had changed his life.

The day it happened, Norman was on his way to run an errand at lunchtime. At noon, he went out in the company parking lot, but before he got to his car he heard a loud cracking sound. He looked around to see where it had come from, and he saw Blankenship’s car, a boxy sedan of economical design like so many of the scientists drove. The driver’s window was covered with red paint, and he wondered why Blankenship, who was ordinarily a pretty conventional person, would have painted his windows red.

Norman went to see, and as he got closer to the car he realized the red on the window wasn’t paint. It was fresh blood. Very fresh. He ran the last few steps to the car and yanked open the driver’s-side door. Blankenship was sitting straight up in the seat. His right hand lay beside him on the seat, with a pistol in it. His left hand grasped a chain, of the type used for Army identification tags. He looked like he was wearing a red skull cap of some sort. But when Norman looked closer, he realized it wasn’t a skull cap; it was, in fact, a place where there was neither cap nor skull, but a large opening. There was blood on the headliner of the car, as well as some messy substance Norman did not want to investigate.

Poor Blankenship apparently hadn’t taken the time to study brain anatomy and had missed the important parts of his brain when he took his shot. He was still breathing. It was a bubbling wheeze, but it was breathing. Norman wished he’d not come out into the parking lot when he did. Blankenship’s eyes rolled toward him. Perhaps he’d managed to destroy his speech center because, although he looked straight at Norman, he didn’t say anything. Norman had never seen a human body so damaged before, and it scared him to his core. He looked into Blankenship’s eyes and began to shake. Blankenship’s eyes rolled downward to the left hand holding the chain that hung around his neck. Norman braced himself against the car door to try to subdue his shaking. Blankenship looked back up at him.

Norman knew something was expected of him. He wanted to comfort Blankenship, but he didn’t know what to say or how to touch him. He supposed he should tell him he was going to be all right, but the man had a smoking pistol in his hand and demonstrably preferred not to be all right.

As Norman stood there shaking and trying to decide what to do, Blankenship looked down at his chain again, then back at Norman.

Norman understood then that Blankenship was telling him to look at the chain. The man was plainly dying, and Norman did not want to touch him, even though he was still lucid enough to know that Blankenship’s problem could hardly be contagious. He forced himself to reach toward Blankenship’s left hand, and as he did so the hand dropped away, revealing a trinket on the chain. It was a dull metal cross about an inch by an inch-and-a-half — a cheap bit of cast pewter.

Norman touched it. He looked back at Blankenship’s face, but the man’s eyes were no longer focusing. He had stopped breathing. Norman put his hand full on Blankenship’s chest, and he felt a delicate fluttering there, then nothing.

He gently took the little cross and raised it until he could pull the chain, which was fairly long, up over Blankenship’s head. He knew Blankenship had meant for him to have the cross. Norman was neither a religious nor a spiritual person, but he felt he had shared a major life moment with Blankenship. It was a profound experience, and he needed to commemorate it somehow. He put the cross and chain into his pocket, then went back into the building to ask the guard in the lobby to call an ambulance.

He never told anyone about the experience, not least because he had been unable to decide if he’d stolen Blankenship’s cross. He knew Blankenship had meant for him to have it, but he didn’t think he’d ever be able to explain that. Norman had taken to wearing the cross around his neck, under his shirt.

Norman went over every moment of the Blankenship matter as he lay in bed, and it seemed to him that he was awake all night with it, but when he heard his radio whispering soft rock music at him he realized he had been asleep. He wondered when it had happened. He felt tired, but he switched the radio off and pushed himself out of bed before he could think about it.

He got himself ready for work while everybody else in the house slept. Just before it was time to leave, he cut up a cantaloupe and scraped the seeds from the slices, then put the slices in dishes and covered each one with plastic wrap. He left them out on the counter, where Gwen was sure to see them. She wouldn’t resent his making all these preparations after she had agreed to do it. She would, in fact, be happy for the convenience.

He still felt hurried — hurried and tired — when he found himself alone in the elevator at the office building.

Biomethods, Inc. had 1,000 employees, about a quarter of whom were scientists, and it made its money licensing its genetic discoveries to pharmaceutical companies. Norman understood nothing of these discoveries, but he took pride in the knowledge that his company was working on a cure for AIDS.

It was Norman’s job to reconcile the company’s Human Resources policies with Federal employment guidelines and to manage the people who administered benefits, orientation, and nontechnical training.

Norman liked his job and he was good at it, and he liked doing it in a company whose mission let him believe he was making a contribution to civilization. Two months before, he’d attended an empowerment seminar where the instructor had the participants — as part of an exercise to build self-esteem — write their own epitaphs. Norman struggled over the assignment for some time and finally came up with “Here lies the man who supervised the person who processed the salary increase requested by the manager of the person who discovered a cure for AIDS.” He had been pleased with it, and when he got home from the seminar he’d told Gwen about it.

She had laughed. “That should be worth a directorship, shouldn’t it?”

With Gwen, everything seemed to get back to advancement.

Norman yawned as the elevator chime sounded to signal arrival at the Finance Department. Some things were more important than advancement.

The elevator door slid open into a corridor as dark as the heart of a Chief Financial Officer. Norman stepped out of the elevator and into a slot of light on the floor, which vanished when the elevator door shut behind him. The luminous face of his wristwatch said it was five-thirty. Outside, the sun wouldn’t even come up for another hour or so. He’d had predawn meetings with Pressman more often than he cared to remember, but he had never learned where to find the light switch. He certainly couldn’t rely on Pressman to turn on the lights. Pressman was in Finance and would rather risk his neck wandering in the dark than spend the company’s money on lighting the hallway.

He knew he should wait until his eyes adjusted to the darkness, but the CFO expected him at half past five. Norman wasn’t the only person who had early morning meetings with Pressman. As far as he knew, Pressman was at work by five every day.

Pressman had forty of these predawn budget meetings a year: one a quarter for each of the ten staff department managers. Norman didn’t particularly like Pressman, but he respected that kind of commitment.

Biomethods, Inc. was divided into line functions and staff functions. There were five line departments: Finance, Marketing & Licensing, Cancer, AIDS, and Arthritis. (The latter three were named after the diseases most likely to generate profits from the company’s biotechnology research.) And there were ten staff departments: Corporate Communications, Human Resources, Maintenance, Shipping & Receiving, Security, Administration, Safety, Information Systems, Community Relations, and Strategic Planning. Norman knew the names of the fifteen departments by heart. They were printed on boxes in the organization chart he kept tacked up on the wall beside his desk. He took a certain amount of pride in his understanding of the intricacies of the Biomethods organizational structure. It had been no small feat to master it.

The desk in front of Pressman’s office was empty. It was one thing to demand that managers show up for work before the rest of the world was awake, but you couldn’t ask such things of support staff. Norman skirted the desk and tapped on the office door, then stood there feeling the knot of his necktie with his fingertips to see if he could tell whether it was straight. He really couldn’t tell by feel.

The door opened slowly into darkness, and a soft voice came from the office beyond it.

“Come in, Norman.”

Norman stepped hesitantly into the gloom. He expected to find someone pulling on the other side of the door but, when he stepped inside, there was no one there. The room was dark except for a pool of white light on Pressman’s desk provided by a halogen desk lamp.

He could make out a figure sitting on the other side of Pressman’s desk, just outside the pool of light. The figure reached across the desk to pick up a wooden pencil. It was a man. His head and shoulders passed briefly into the pool of light, and Norman hardly had time to form any impression, but he could see the man was not Pressman. He was not anyone he had ever seen before.

“Come in, Norman,” the man repeated. He appeared to be writing a memo with a pencil, which Norman thought a little strange. But when Norman looked closer, he saw the man was not writing but drawing, making a hasty sketch of what appeared to be a human face.

From Norman’s perspective, the man’s paper was upside-down and across the desk. Norman began to tilt his head to try to see what the face was supposed to look like, but the man opened his desk drawer and slid the paper into it. He then stood up from the desk lamp’s circle of light into the darkness. “It’s nothing,” he said. “A habit I picked up from a boss I had long ago.”

Norman did not understand. A habit of drawing pictures?

The man walked from behind the desk.

Norman’s palms began to sweat when he saw that he was short. He didn’t know who this man was, but experience had taught him to fear managers under five-six, and he estimated this one at five-five.

He could barely make out the man gesturing toward the sitting area at the other side of the enormous office. Norman was acutely aware he’d neither received an introduction nor been approached for a handshake. He walked to the sofa, set his budget report carefully on the coffee table, and sat down.

The man picked up another sheet of paper from the desk and carried it with him when he came over.

Norman wondered if he was going to sketch again.

The man switched on the lamp that rested on the end table next to the sofa, and its soft, yellowish light allowed Norman to get his first good look at the stranger.

This one obviously cared about his appearance. He had the even apricot coloring of someone who owns a tanning booth but is intelligent enough to use it sparingly. He was of indeterminate age, although his skin appeared unlined. A full head of white hair was slicked into place like a close-fitting crash helmet. He wore a pale pink shirt and a deep scarlet necktie. There was something very foreign about the man. His suit was a rich black with a subtle gray stripe and had the Italianate drapery of Louis, Boston. Norman and the other managers were trained to the boxy American look of Brooks Brothers.

The man pushed Norman’s budget report aside and sat down on the coffee table facing him, still holding his piece of paper. Norman had never seen anyone sit on this coffee table before, and he was a little surprised at the ease with which the man carried it off. The two men were about eighteen inches apart, and Norman felt uncomfortable.

The man had still not offered to shake hands, and Norman wondered if this was some sort of intimidation strategy. If so, it was working. The man’s eyes were impenetrable, but his face appeared relaxed and an engaging smile revealed teeth as even and white as if he’d bought them with an American Express Platinum Card.

“My name is Pierce,” said the man. “Your meeting with Pressman has been called off — permanently.”

Norman detected a faint soapy smell and concluded it was this man’s breath. He didn’t know what to say about Pressman’s absence. He shifted himself on the sofa, uneasy at the man’s proximity.

But the man seemed relaxed, and he spoke softly and evenly. “I don’t think it’s necessary to bring you in here every quarter and hector you about your budget performance.”

“Are you the new CFO, Mr. Pierce?” Norman managed.

“Just call me Pierce, Norman.” He leaned forward another few inches and studied Norman.

Norman remembered a high school biology class in which he’d been required to study a frog with similar intensity — after he’d eviscerated it. He smiled sheepishly, but he didn’t move. He didn’t want to offend Pierce by moving away while the man examined him. Norman was wary of offending short people, and frankly, remembering the frog, he thought this examination wasn’t too bad. Time moved as slowly as afternoon traffic.

The telephone chirped, and Pierce’s eyes flickered toward his desk. When he looked away, Norman found himself breathing for what seemed to be the first time since he’d entered the office. He reached up and felt the knot of his necktie. The telephone chirped again, then stopped.

“No.” Pierce looked down at the paper he was holding. “I’m the new everything.”

The two of them were so close that, even after leaning back away from him, Norman could see that the paper he was looking at was blank. Norman smiled and tried to laugh at Pierce’s joke, but succeeded in producing only a nervous hiss. He wasn’t used to people above him making jokes, and he was not a little worried for having found himself at the mercy of a man who drew sketches, sat on coffee tables, and studied blank papers.

“You’ll be reporting to me from now on.” Pierce continued to study his paper for a moment, then finally looked up. He didn’t say anything else, and after an awkward moment Norman understood it was all right for him to ask questions.

“What—” Norman’s voice came out dry and rasping. He interrupted himself, cleared his throat quietly, and started again. “What happened to Mr. Pressman?”

“Pressman’s gone. So is the rest of the executive staff. They don’t fit in with our plans.”

An image flashed through Norman’s mind. He saw Pressman and the rest of the directors and vice presidents, all dressed in dark Brooks Brothers suits, being marched out the front door.

“Ah.” Norman wished he had something more profound to say than “ah,” but there was nothing else to say. He couldn’t risk revealing himself by asking the only question that mattered.

The man made a slightly sour face. “They hadn’t an idea among them.”

Norman was surprised. He’d always thought the executive team must have a lot of ideas.

“Have you ever heard the term ‘re-engineering,’ Norman?” Pierce gestured with his paper.

Of course Norman had heard the term. He might not have any of his own, but that didn’t mean he was oblivious to the ideas that occasionally gripped the business world with the intensity of a religious revival.

“No,” said Norman.

Pierce turned the paper up and held its blank surface in plain view before him. “This is the company’s new organization chart.”

Norman thought it must be another joke. “Where’s Human Resources?”

“There is no more Human Resources.” Pierce’s soft voice had the edge of a machete clearing away organizational underbrush. “There is no more anything. We’re starting over from scratch with this company.”

Norman wondered what was supposed to happen to the employees in a case like this. “There are some pretty good people here,” he said cautiously.

“There may be.” Pierce seemed unperturbed by Norman’s caution. “But they are working in a dysfunctional organization. Let me ask you something, Norman.”

Norman shifted himself on the sofa.

“What’s the best thing about working for this company?”

Norman thought for a moment. He wondered what answer Pierce considered the right one. “The AIDS project,” he said at last.

Pierce studied him. “AIDS is a pretty big problem, isn’t it?”

Norman nodded, pleased he’d gotten the right answer.

“Is it a big enough problem to keep this company in business?”

Norman wondered what he meant by that.

“Tell me, Norman,” Pierce said softly. “Do you know how many chickens there are in this country?”

Norman was uncomfortable. He wondered what chickens had to do with anything.

“Something over six point four billion,” said Pierce.

“I don’t understand,” said Norman.

“Chickens have as many health problems as human beings,” said Pierce.

Norman wasn’t certain, but he thought Pierce’s tone when he said the phrase “human beings” was a little disparaging.

“If a company is marketing a product of interest to a few million individuals when there is a market of six point four billion going unserved, don’t you think that company might want to rethink its customer base?”

“What does that have to do with AIDS?” Norman tried to make his voice sound respectful.

“It has nothing to do with AIDS,” said Pierce. “I’m just trying to give you some insight into why the venture group hired me to turn this company around.”

Norman wasn’t aware the company needed turning around.

“Never mind,” said Pierce. “We’ll go over these issues as time goes by.”

Norman hoped the conversation would shift to something he could understand.

“I feel terrible about this man Blankenship,” said Pierce. “I don’t think the termination was justified, either. The other seven people will be brought back to resume work today. I want to start over on a new footing with the employees here.”

Norman was surprised at how quickly Pierce shifted his conversation around. He tried to concentrate on everything the man said. He knew he must keep his wits about him if he was to hold on to his job.

“Norman,” said Pierce gently, “the employees of this company are on the verge of hysteria. That a man would commit suicide because he got laid off shows a distorted set of priorities, don’t you think?”

Norman was taken aback. What an ugly way to discuss poor Blankenship. He didn’t know what to say.

Pierce seemed to take his silence for agreement.

“Good. I’m glad we agree. I’m going to need people like you to get this place turned around. I know the previous management wanted people to marry their jobs. This strikes me as some kind of primitive desire for mastery over others. I am not that primitive. We don’t need devotion, just effective job performance.”

Norman tried to figure out if anyone would think he had married his job. Did coming to five-thirty meetings constitute marriage to your job?

“What do you want me to do?” Norman’s stomach growled from his lack of breakfast, and he shifted uncomfortably.

Pierce didn’t seem to notice his stomach growling. “I want you to help me find the people that are at risk,” he said. “People like Blankenship. The ones with leadership potential. The ones with all the ideas.”

Norman was impressed with the man’s concern.

“You and I, Norman, aren’t the kind of people with ideas,” said Pierce.

It sounded vaguely insulting, but Pierce had fixed Norman with the most charming smile he’d ever seen. “You and I are the kind who just get the job done.”

Norman felt he was in the presence of a man of limitless understanding and wisdom.

“Norman, don’t you think a company with twice as many staff departments as line departments is a little out of control?”

“What do you mean?” said Norman.

“I mean that only a third of this company is working on its business. Two thirds is just overhead.”

Norman ran a staff department, and he disliked being classified as overhead. “Biotechnology is a complex business.”

“So is paper manufacture,” said Pierce. “But I have experience doing that with almost no staff effort.”

Norman didn’t understand what paper manufacture had to do with anything, but he thought it better to say nothing while Pierce unburdened himself, which he seemed to need to do.

“This company is organized as a classic industrial hierarchy,” said Pierce. “I will change that. I am going to tear down walls, and we’re all going to reinvent the way we do business.”

Norman nodded.

“We are going to make change here,” said Pierce. “It will not happen easily.”

Norman nodded.

“Have you ever seen a man go to the scaffold, Norman?”

“Do you mean like a construction worker?” Norman had the feeling he might be in the presence of a madman.

Pierce apparently thought Norman was being facetious, because he ignored the question. “I saw one go to the scaffold once,” he said. “The man was an obstacle to change, and I believe he knew it. Nevertheless, I think he faced his destiny with great courage. And why not? There was no way on Earth he could change it, so why not accept it with grace, dignity, and courage?”

Norman wished the meeting was over. Company hysteria, paper manufacture, the scaffold — it was hard to keep one’s balance listening to this man.

“Until we get through this difficult transition,” said Pierce, “I’m going to be involved personally in every aspect of the company’s affairs. On matters of any significance I want you to call me, any hour of the day or night. I’m still wrapping up another turnaround, so I’m not usually available during the day, but you can leave a detailed message on the voice mail. At night, you can usually get me directly. It doesn’t matter what time it is. Do you understand?”

Norman wondered when Pierce ever slept.

“Do you have any questions about anything?”

Of course he did.

“No,” said Norman.

Pierce stood up from the coffee table and started to walk back toward his desk, still holding his organization chart. “I’m glad we understand each other.”

Norman stood up and wondered if he was supposed to follow him back to the other side of the room.

But Pierce dropped the paper on his blotter, turned around, folded his arms in front of him, and leaned up against the desk. He unfolded his arms and opened them in a gesture that was simultaneously dismissive and supplicating.

It was a courtly gesture, so much more civilized than Pressman’s method of closing a meeting, which was to simply say, “Get back to work.”

“If you’ll excuse me,” said Pierce, “I have to check the voice mail now.”

Norman bent to pick up his budget report from the coffee table and started toward the door.

“Remember, Norman,” said Pierce. “The people with the ideas.”

Norman nodded and pulled the door open. He stepped through and pulled it closed behind him. Through the window in the reception area he could see a pinkness spreading across the sky. He looked at his watch. It was already ten minutes to seven.

Norman headed for the elevator. He wanted to get a snack in the company cafeteria to silence the grumbling of his empty stomach.

On the ground floor, he walked to the back of the building and joined a small group of secretaries and clerks who were waiting at the door of the cafeteria, which was to open at seven. Norman recognized two supervisors from the Strategic Planning Department, young men in white shirts with neckties and no jackets, who were chatting.

Norman tried not to listen, but couldn’t avoid it.

“They say the hole in his head was as big around as your fist.”

“No kidding?”

“Blood all over the inside of the car.”

“Do you think he was trying to be messy about it?”

“I know I would. Me, I probably would have done it in Pressman’s office, just to see if I could mess up his suit.”

“Hell, I would have done it on his desk — no, in his lap.”

“Do you think he would have sat still for it?”

They both laughed at that. Then one of them spoke more seriously to the other.

“Do you know if they’ll get down as far as us?”

“What I heard was that all management staff at every level would get the axe and then about half would be invited back.”

“Oh, God. Half. I wonder if I have any bullets at home.”

The two of them laughed again.

“Maybe we’ll get the notices tomorrow,” said the serious one. “They like to do those things on Friday.”

“What caliber do you think it was to make a hole like that?”

The door to the cafeteria opened to reveal its manager, He recognized Norman and nodded. Then he fastened the door against the fixture on the wall behind and stepped aside to let them enter. The dining area was redolent of coffee, bacon, and hash browns. Light poured in through the windows of the opposite wall as the sun rose over the parking lot outside. Utensils clattered behind the counter, somebody laughed near the cash register.

Norman tried to go in, but the cafeteria manager grabbed his jacket sleeve as he walked past. The man looked around to make sure everyone else was out of earshot.

“Have you heard anything, Norman?”

“All the vice presidents and directors got it,” said Norman. “Last night or early this morning, I think.”

“Oh, God.” The man went pale. “I’ve got a mortgage. I’ve got a kid in college.”

“I just met the new guy, and he said he’s not going to do anybody else,” said Norman.

“No?” The panic in the man’s face turned to hope. He grabbed Norman’s other jacket sleeve. “Let me get you some coffee and a bagel — on the house.”

Norman let himself be led by the sleeve over to the counter. Managers were not ordinarily so demonstrative, and he was wary. But he stuck his budget report up under his arm and accepted the warm bagel on a paper plate, and coffee in a paper cup. The cafeteria manager got him a little package of cream cheese from the refrigerated case.

“Here, take this, Norman.”

“Thanks,” said Norman. “Do you have a doughnut?”

“You’re sure they’re not going to do anybody else?” whispered the man.

“He’s even bringing back the people who got laid off,” said Norman. “That’s what he told me. Do you have a doughnut?”

“Really?” The cafeteria manager looked like a man who’d been told his terminal disease was a misdiagnosis.

“Except Blankenship.” Norman looked at the floor. He didn’t like people to forget about Blankenship.

“Yeah, I guess it’s a little late for him,” said the cafeteria manager. “Hey, enjoy your bagel. I’m going into my office to call my wife.”

Norman looked down at his bagel. But when he looked up, the man was already halfway across the room on his way to his office. Norman decided the cafeteria manager was not one of the employees Pierce wanted to be told about. No ideas there. Norman went to find a seat by himself at an empty formica-topped table. It occurred to him that Pierce was right. The company was on the verge of hysteria. He chewed his bagel and mulled over his meeting with Pierce.

The venture group had obviously sent in a hatchet man, but he wasn’t your ordinary hatchet man. He had fired a dozen vice presidents and directors, but he talked like he cared about the company’s employees. Norman knew from long experience that your chances of surviving a new manager were better if you watched what he did than if you listened to what he said. This one seemed to know a great deal about market strategies, but he obviously knew very little about Human Resources. And Norman did not think it was a particularly effective approach to begin a meeting with a manager by telling him you’re abolishing his department, even if Pierce was only kidding.

The bagel was dry in his mouth, and he took a sip of coffee to moisten it.

Norman’s first order of business was to schedule a meeting of the Human Resources Department to tell his staff about the new turnaround specialist. He thought about the department. It consisted of three exempt staff, including himself, and two nonexempts. The two nonexempts, Cheryl and Louise, were admins. He wasn’t sure what they did, since he left the supervision of them to the Assistant Manager, Jacqueline. Jacqueline was probably his biggest problem. She was extremely ambitious, and she was likely to make herself conspicuous in the misguided belief that the turnaround was an opportunity to increase her power and status.

Norman looked down at the paper plate in front of him. The bagel was gone, and he wondered what happened to it. He looked in his coffee cup, and it was empty. He looked at his watch and saw it was eight o’clock already. The cafeteria was filled with people, and the noise level had risen considerably. Norman shrugged, took the cup and plate to the trash can, and started toward his office.

When he arrived on the third floor, Cheryl and Louise were at their desks in the Human Resources Department reception area. Louise’s elaborate hair was very large this morning. She was rummaging in her purse while Cheryl spoke to her, and Norman could tell the conversation was not amicable.

“It’s called metonymy, Louise,” said Cheryl, “and it’s critical to understanding that book, and just about every other book you read, for that matter.”

Louise took a can of hair spray from her purse, shook it, and then aimed a noisy contrail of lacquer vapor toward her hair. “I can’t hear you,” she said. “I’m spraying my hair.”

“Good morning,” said Norman. He could taste the hair spray in the air and he did not find it pleasant, but he tried to keep his expression neutral.

“Good morning, Norman.” Louise clicked the cap back into place on her hair spray can.

“Hi.” Cheryl looked dismissively at Norman, then resumed her harrying of Louise. “You should care about this, Louise,” she said. “It’s an important concept.”

Louise uncapped the hair spray can and aimed another blast at herself.

Norman wondered if it wouldn’t do her more good to aim the hair spray at Cheryl. From the day Cheryl had first arrived at Biomethods, Louise showed signs of insecurity and resentment, apparently because Cheryl had a master’s degree in English literature when Louise had been no higher than junior college. To match Cheryl’s educational attainments, Louise had developed larger and larger hair. Cheryl, in turn, countered Louise’s hair by giving her lectures on concepts such as synecdoche and didacticism. This was especially upsetting to Louise, who considered herself an avid reader. Cheryl’s lectures would drive her into a frenzy of hair-teasing and spraying, which Cheryl countered with more lectures, and so on in a vicious cycle Norman saw no hope of interrupting.

As he sought the protection of his office, Norman wondered if breathing hair spray wasn’t damaging his lungs.

Norman called his meeting for that afternoon.

He prepared notes on the newsprint flip chart in the department conference room: NEW MANAGEMENT, NEW GOALS, NEW POLICIES, NEW STRUCTURE. He was waiting for his staff beside his flipchart when they arrived for the meeting.

When the four of them filed in, Louise and Cheryl took chairs as far from each other as possible, at opposite corners of the conference table. Jacqueline, as Assistant Manager, sat at the end opposite Norman, and Tim sat next to Louise, where he was hidden from Norman’s view by her hair. But he was a benefits specialist and had never been particularly visible anyway.

They all stared at Norman’s flipchart, and the only sound was the soft report of Louise’s chewing gum, which crackled with the sound of someone crumpling sheets of old paperwork. Norman wondered if her hair was very heavy. He supposed that the exercise of the chewing somehow conditioned her neck muscles to help her keep her head upright.

Jacqueline, at the other end of the table, was wearing her power suit, the gray one with the chalk stripe, and Norman knew it could be a difficult meeting. He hated it when she wore her power suit.

He decided he should begin with an inclusion exercise.

“Before we begin,” said Norman, “I think we should go around the room and each of us will describe something good that’s happening in their personal life.”

He wasn’t looking at Jacqueline, but from the corner of his eye he saw her stiffen. It didn’t surprise him. Jacqueline disliked inclusion exercises.

He decided to start the exercise with Louise, hoping she might leave off chewing her gum while she told them about her good experience. “Louise, why don’t you start.”

“I read a good book,” said Louise.

“What’s it about?” said Norman.

“A vampire from New Orleans who’s a rock star.”

Norman wondered how a vampire could be a rock star. Weren’t they supposed to be nobility or something?

“He’s hundreds of years old,” said Louise, “but looks young enough to be in rock music.”

Cheryl coughed ostentatiously. Everybody turned to look at her.

“The book is egregiously self-referential.” Cheryl seemed to address her remarks to everyone in the room but Louise. “The narrator spends pages and pages discussing the author’s last book. I mean, does that break frame or what?”

“Have you read the book, too?” said Norman.

“Well, the reader needs to know where he came from.” Louise seemed offended, and Norman worried the conversation might get out of hand.

“The original book was inspired,” said Cheryl. “Telling the story from the vampire’s point of view was innovative. But why did the author just do the same thing again? Isn’t art about stretching aesthetic boundaries?”

“How would you know?” Louise’s tone implied that Cheryl’s hair was not big enough for artistic understanding.

Norman was worried that the meeting was slipping from his control. Cheryl started to answer Louise’s challenge, but Jacqueline cut her off.

“I don’t think we’re here to discuss books or vampires,” she said.

Everyone in the room turned toward her. She was as unlike either of her two subordinates as Norman could possibly imagine. She wore her black hair short and casual. She affected no makeup that he could discern. Her suit was fashionably severe. Her only concession to adornment was a pair of electric blue contact lenses that gave her an appearance simultaneously sinister and comical.

Jacqueline’s job was to manage employee orientation and training programs, to supervise the support staff in Human Resources, and to manage nonexempt compensation. She was an outstanding performer and one of the best supervisors Norman had ever seen. And she was far too passionate about her job to be really happy in it.

Jacqueline wasn’t smiling, but she swelled visibly as she became the center of attention. Norman wondered how she always seemed to take control of his meetings with a single remark.

“Norman has something to tell us,” said Jacqueline.

Everyone looked at Norman.

“Maybe we’ll just skip the books and move on to our discussion,” he said.

Then he made some remarks about change and the need to work together in uncertain times. He was careful not to share with them anything about Pierce beyond his name. Any expectations they developed now could make Pierce’s re-engineering campaign much more difficult. So he kept his remarks at the level of generalities. He saw their eyes glazing over as he talked about the need to understand company objectives and not just work for the department. He wondered why they weren’t more interested in this stuff.

“Until we get some direction from the new management,” he said, “it’s business as usual.” He looked around the room and saw they were all having a tough time keeping their eyes open. “You are to work on your existing objectives. I don’t want anyone developing any new projects or trying to work up high-profile activities. The company is in the hands of a turnaround specialist. He will be happy with us if we just keep things moving steadily and quietly for the time being.”

Then he woke them up and sent them back to their desks. But Jacqueline asked if she could stay and talk with him privately.

Norman shrugged and sat down. Jacqueline walked over to the door and closed it, then came back and sat in a chair near him.

Norman didn’t know what she wanted, but he knew it would be difficult. She was not one to leave him in suspense. She got right to the point.

“Norman,” she said, “I have an idea for a new product.”

Even coming from Jacqueline it surprised him.

“Jacqueline,” he said, “what are you talking about? You’re a Human Resources manager, you’re not concerned with products.”

“But it’s a fantastic concept,” said Jacqueline.

“I’m sure it is,” said Norman. “But we are the Human Resources Department. You should be working on Human Resources problems.”

“We don’t have any problems, Norman. This department’s mission is to fill out forms.”

“So?” said Norman. “Why aren’t you figuring out better ways to fill out forms?”

“This is the nineties, Norman.” Jacqueline aimed her eyes at him steadily. “Ideas can come from anywhere. Have you ever heard of re-engineering?”

Why did everybody want to browbeat him with re-engineering? “I’ve heard a little about it here and there.”

“It’s a way of re-evaluating everything an organization does,” said Jacqueline.

“Jacqueline,” he said, “we’re in the hands of a turnaround specialist. We don’t know what’s going to happen. This is not the time to be talking about re-engineering.” A part of Norman noted the reflexive idea-damping in his voice, and he regretted saying it as soon as it was out of his mouth. “Or a new product,” he added lamely.

“Norman, I wouldn’t be using up your time on this if it wasn’t important.”

Norman shifted himself in his chair, not knowing if he should feel flattered, manipulated, or both. “Why are you bringing this idea to me, anyway?”

“I tried to talk with those dolts in Marketing & Licensing about it, and they laughed at me. I think I should bring this idea to the new guy. I have to see him right away, before the Marketing morons wake up and see how good an idea it is. If I ask him for a meeting he’ll put me off, but you’ve already met with him. If you ask for a meeting he’ll see you right away.”

Her reasoning seemed convoluted to Norman. But he knew her to have a much more sophisticated understanding of organizations than he did, and it occurred to him that maybe Jacqueline was one of the people Pierce was talking about. One of the people with ideas. “What is this product idea?”

Jacqueline stared at him as if she were weighing whether or not it was safe to tell him. Finally, she seemed to decide she could trust him. “We do genetic mapping here, right?”

“I think so,” said Norman.

“My idea is that we map psychographic profiles to the human genome.”

“I don’t understand,” said Norman.

Jacqueline looked at him as if she didn’t really expect him to understand, and he wondered if he should be offended.

“I think we can find the human genes responsible for consumer buying behavior.”

“Why would we even want to?” said Norman.

“To develop a simple blood test that would predict what kinds of products and services people are likely to buy. It would be a new frontier in direct marketing.”

A laugh began to work its way into the back of Norman’s throat, but as soon as he was aware of it he suppressed it. Jacqueline was staring at him quite earnestly, and he did not want to show himself to share any attitudes with the dolts in Marketing & Licensing. They were a line department and liked to lord it over the staff departments. They knew nothing of the intricacies involved in supporting an organization of this size.

“How about it, Norman? Will you take me to see the new guy? He would want you to, you know.”

“It’s crazy.” Norman tried to say it sympathetically.

“There was a time when flying was crazy,” said Jacqueline.

Norman didn’t know what to say. He hated to travel, and he thought flying was crazy. But Pierce did say he wanted Norman to help him find the people with ideas.

“All right,” he said.

It was the first time that day Jacqueline smiled at him.

-End Chapter One-

© Copyright 1995 Floyd Kemske

Published by Catbird Press. $12.95 paper, 224 pp., ISBN 0-945774-29-X

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