Imperial Cola’s vaguely bottle-shaped headquarters towered above every other building in the mid-sized city’s downtown, and he rode the crowded express elevator all the way up to the penultimate stop, just beneath the top floor that contained the offices of the I.C. VPs and VIPs. His acrophobia coupled with new job nerves made him feel as if he might vomit lepidoptera at any moment. Finally, the elevator ceased its ascent and the doors opened. The young man exited the car with most of the other passengers, though they departed with purpose while he apprehensively approached the reception desk with what little confidence he could muster. He felt like a fraud—an overprivileged white boy who hadn’t done anything to merit such a prestigious position beyond having the good fortune to be born into a society that sustained entitlement. The well-dressed, older woman at reception raised her head from the computer on her desk.
“Good morning. It’s my first day. I’m here for the junior executive training program.”
“Lucky you. Your fellow junior executive in training is sitting over there near the coffee station. Help yourself and have a seat. Your senior executive mentor will be with you soon.”
He walked past the four club chairs that constituted the waiting area, furtively glancing at the attractive black woman who looked to be about his age and seemed just as nervous. He poured himself a cup of coffee that he had no intention of drinking and then returned to the waiting area, taking a seat in the chair next to the woman rather than across from her so that he didn’t have to make awkward, line-of-sight eye contact but also so he didn’t appear as if he was keeping his distance.
“Are you here for the executive training program too?” she asked.
“What’s your background?”
“My dad’s side of the family is from—”
“No, I meant do you have a background in, you know, being an executive or...cola or something?”
“Not at all...I was a poli-sci major at the university—played lacrosse—graduated last month.”
“Me too. I mean I graduated from there last month also—comp-lit major—ran track.”
“Did you go to the big graduation ceremony at the basketball arena or your college’s ceremony?” he asked.
“Small one. It was in the volleyball gym. I’m the first in my family to graduate from college, so of course everybody wanted to come, and we could get more tickets for there, since most people wanted to see Diane Sawyer give the commencement address at the school-wide ceremony. How about you?”
“Big one...she gave a good speech.”
An overweight, balding man in a nice suit approached the pair. “Don’t you both look as pretty as a picture. It seems I’m to be your mentor, so please come with me to my office.”
The two stood and followed the senior executive down a long hallway. They passed a maze of cubicles. “Your desks are in there somewhere. The gal at reception can tell you which and get you squared away with supplies. Don’t worry, you’ll each get your own private office once you’re permanently assigned to a department.”
The three entered the corner office at the end of the hall. “Have a seat.” The senior executive sat down behind his large desk. The two trainees sat in the pair of wingback chairs facing him. “Lesson one: our open-door policy is in metaphor only.”
The young man opened the leather portfolio he’d been carrying and wrote down his first lesson on the legal pad within. The young woman got up and closed the office door.
“I guess we just figured out which of you is smarter.” The executive rummaged through a desk drawer and produced two manila folders. “I’ve got your files right here, so the first thing we need to do is figure out which department is the best fit for each of you.” The swivel chair keened a complaint as the executive leaned back to peruse the young man’s file. “Family name...check; family connections...check; conventionally handsome...check. Okay, Trust Fund, I’m assigning you to client services.”
“I don’t really know much about...,” the young man said. “What does that mean?”
“It means you’ll spend the next forty years playing golf with assholes like me and then retire a multi-millionaire—also like me...well, in a few more months unless my bum ticker gives out first.”
“But I’m terrible at golf.”
“Perfect, the objective is to let the client win.” The executive set the young man’s folder down on his desk and then picked up the other one. “Minority...check; underprivileged upbringing...check; cute as a button...double check. All right, Affirmative Action, I’m assigning you to public relations.”
“Affirmative Action?” the young woman protested. “I went to the university on a full academic and athletic scholarship.”
“Is that so? I’m looking at your high school records here...your respectable, though unspectacular, GPA was nearly identical to his—and he went to an elite boarding school. I don’t mean to suggest that your inner-city educational experience wasn’t rigorous, but I suspect those rigors weren’t scholastic in nature—though who the hell cares whether you can do calculus or not? How about it Trust Fund, did your boarding school GPA and playing on the field hockey team get you a full ride to the university?”
“Lacrosse, sir...but no, I can’t say as it did.”
“Of course not,” the executive continued. “He got in because his great grandad doubled the university’s endowment decades before he was born...you got in because his great grandad was a segregationist and the university feels just awful about having taken the money. Not awful enough to give it back, mind you, but still...really bad.”
“Be that as it may,” she said, “I don’t care to be called Affirmative Action.”
“I don’t care what you care for, Double A,” the executive replied without raising his voice. “You two, with your good looks and your useful backgrounds, have scored first-class tickets to ride the executive gravy train, but you’d better stand in that line if you want to get that paycheck. You think you’re the only one desperate to make some money, being your family’s sole college graduate? You could go work the lot at a car rental agency, and your folks would still be impressed that you landed a salaried job with benefits. TF here comes from a long line of money makers. Think how embarrassing it’d be for him and his family if he didn’t get a high-paying job after graduation. How many other recent college graduates do you know who pull down the salaries you two were offered?”
“Not many,” TF answered.
“Not many indeed,” the executive said.
“I know of a couple,” Double A demurred.
“Yeah, and what do they do?” the executive asked.
“One plays professional football...and, well, the other is in public relations.”
“But I know nothing about PR,” said Double A.
“I was on the debate team for a semester, so I could do public relations and she could take client services,” TF offered.
“This isn’t a democracy, and who gives a shit about the debate team...as if there’ll ever be a cola crisis during which you’ll be called upon to make a convincing argument. We’re in the business of selling sugar water, which practically sells itself. PR is responsible for making it sound like adding artificial cherry flavoring to our cola is a revolutionary idea and then apologizing later if it’s discovered that said artificial flavoring causes cancer or something. No, she’s PR, you’re client services, and that’s final. Now let’s go get a bagel.”
* * *
“This is our floor’s breakroom,” the executive said as the three entered a large room with vending machines on one side and a kitchenette on the other. “We bring our own lunches here. We don’t just eat whatever’s in the fridge whenever we feel like it. I hope you two aren’t those types.”
“I intend to brownbag it every day,” said TF.
“That’s good—shows character. Tom from accounting brings in bagels every Monday. You two could learn a lot from him. Go introduce yourselves and grab a bite to eat. In twenty minutes, we’ve got our Monday morning meeting upstairs in the boardroom.”
“What’s on the agenda?” Double A asked.
“I’m starting to get the sense that you like to ask a lot of questions.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“See, that’s another question. You’ll find out what the meeting’s about in twenty minutes. Now I’m going to get a cola—sodas in all the breakroom vending machines are free, by the way...just don’t go looking for a Pepsi.”
Double A and TF moved toward the counter with the bagels where several people stood nearby, noshing and chatting.
“Which one do you think is Tom?” TF asked as he took a bagel.
“I’m not sure, but if he’s an accountant I’d guess the guy with glasses over by the sink.”
“What makes you say that?”
Double A smeared a bagel with cream cheese as she studied the man. “He kind of has a numbers look about him.”
“Then let’s go introduce ourselves.”
The two sidled up to the man as they pretended to read with interest a small recycling sign posted above the faucet.
“Pardon me,” TF said, “are you Tom by chance?”
The bespectacled man turned toward TF and Double A. “No, Tom’s the egghead sitting by himself at that table next to the window.”
The two moved to the long window and looked intently at the parking garage below.
“Tom?” Double A asked as they approached the table with a lone occupant.
Tom looked up from his newspaper. “Yes?”
“We’re new here,” said Double A, “and we just wanted to say thanks for the bagels.”
“You’re welcome,” Tom replied, seeming anxious to return to his paper.
“You’re not having a bagel yourself,” TF observed.
“I don’t like bagels.”
“Then why not bring in something that you do like?” TF asked.
“I eat breakfast at home.”
“Well,” Double A said, “it’s really nice that you bring in bagels for everyone else.”
“I don’t do it to be nice. I do it because Monday has an O in it—like the O in the middle of my name, just like the hole in the middle of a bagel. If I bring in bagels every Monday, then people come to think of me as that bagel guy, which becomes my office identity...Tom from accounting: the bagel guy—and for most people that seems to be enough to slake their curiosity about me.”
“That’s very interesting,” said TF.
“Is it really?”
“Our executive mentor mentioned that we could learn a lot from you,” Double A said. “What do you do in accounting?”
“Does it involve a lot of complex calculations?” TF asked.
“Any moron who knows how to use Excel could do my job.”
Double A took a step backwards. “Thanks again for the bagel.”
“We should get going now,” said TF. “We’ve got a meeting upstairs soon.”
* * *
Double A and TF arrived right on time for the boardroom meeting, which meant they were the first ones there. They took seats next to each other at the big table and smiled at the well-dressed middle-aged men and women as they entered. Some smiled back, others rolled their eyes—no one introduced themselves. Their mentor was one of the last to arrive. “There you two are...I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“Oh,” said TF, “you left the breakroom, and you weren’t in your office, so we figured you wanted us to meet you here.”
“Sorry,” added Double A.
“It’s fine, but in the future don’t come up here without me.”
“Sure thing,” Double A said.
“This is an all-hands-on-deck executive meeting,” said their mentor, “so we might be short of chairs.”
“Do you want me to go get some more?” TF asked.
“No, I want you two to go over there and stand in the corner,” answered their mentor. “Keep your ears open and your mouths shut.”
“That’s not very nice,” said the woman sitting across from them. “How will they breathe?”
Several executives chuckled. An elderly man entered the boardroom, and everyone instantly went silent. The old man surveyed the room as he slowly walked to the open seat at the head of the table. TF and Double A stood to go stand in the corner.
“Why are you two standing?” the old man asked.
“We were, uh, going—” TF stammered.
“Going?” the old man said. “The meeting just started. Sit down.”
The two sat back down, and Double A offered a, “Sorry.”
The man studied them for a moment. “You two are either very young, or I have suddenly gotten very old?”
Their mentor spoke up on their behalf. “These two constitute this year’s batch of junior executive trainees—this is their first day.”
“Ah, I see,” said the old man, “so one day you two will be running this company—of course, I’ll be dead by then.”
“I hope not sir,” replied TF.
“Hope not what, son?” the old man asked.
“I...hope you don’t die.”
“Ever?” asked the old man.
“Well...I mean everybody dies...you know, eventually.”
“That’s very enlightening.” The old man looked at their mentor. “Is this the one who was on the debate team?”
“My apologies,” their mentor said. “I think these two have a slight case of the first-day jitters.”
“Then I suggest they abstain from our caffeinated offerings until they get their nerves under control. Now let’s turn our attention to the matter at hand, or else soon there may not be a company for these two to one day run.”
“Right you are.” A tall executive stood and aimed a remote control at the ceiling mounted projector. Several graphs appeared on the screen at the front of the boardroom. “I trust you all saw my email.”
“I got your damn email,” the old man harrumphed. “I even had my secretary print it out, and I still couldn’t make heads or tails of it, which makes me think that either I’ve gone senile or you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
The tall executive opened his mouth, then without making any utterance shut it again and sat down.
The old man cleared his throat. “Okay you two youngsters, you’re about to get an object lesson on executive decision making. We’ve been getting word since last year that the line workers at our Dearborn plant are restive and have been discussing the possibility of unionizing. Apparently, they’re disgruntled—of course they’re disgruntled, they work on a damn factory line. Anyway, last week some jackass brought a pistol into work and shot up the place.”
“Such an unfortunate incident,” the tall executive said.
“Most unfortunate,” someone else agreed.
“Luckily nobody got seriously hurt,” continued the old man. “That is, except the gunman himself—but the...uh, incident sure as hell agitated the situation, so now we’re sitting atop a huge can of cola that’s been shook up by a pneumatic paint shaker, and we’d damn sure better figure out a way to keep those Dearborn boys...and uh, gals from popping the top as it were. If they unionize there, the union will spread like a plague to our other plants across the country. This company has been my family’s life work for four generations. We’ve always paid our workers a fair wage, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to start letting demands be dictated to us by a grubby union. I’ll sell the whole kit and caboodle to those idiots over at Coca-Cola before I allow some commie labor organization a foothold, because when it comes to unions—a foothold leads to a stranglehold every damn time.”
“That’s darn right,” someone said from the other end of the table. No heads turned to see who—all eyes stayed transfixed on the old man.
“We need to placate the line workers at our Dearborn plant...while not coming across as craven,” the old man said. “We want to show them largesse in these difficult times—not weakness. So, of course, the question is how much?”
“Sir,” began the tall executive without standing, “as I proposed in my report, I believe we can mollify the line workers and neutralize the threat of unionization by giving the employees at the Dearborn plant a ten percent raise across the board.”
“Is that what you believe, with all your pie charts and bar graphs?” asked the old man, not waiting for an answer. “Because I believe that knowing how to make numbers look colorful isn’t the same as understanding what they mean. We could afford to double the pay of all the line workers at the Dearborn plant, but when all the other plants catch wind of it then we’re sunk, and whoever heard of workers keeping news of a raise under their hats. They’ll be crowing about it on Twister before they even cash their checks.”
“I think you mean Twitter, sir,” said the tall executive who then seemed to shrink into his chair.
“You strike me as the sort of person who puts the twit in Twitter,” the old man replied. “Okay, I need a different perspective on these numbers. Somebody go fetch me Oblong.”
The executive mentor turned to TF and whispered, “Go find Tom from accounting and bring him here.”
“The bagel guy?”
“Posthaste son,” the old man said, “if you please.”
* * *
Tom stood staring out the boardroom window as the tall executive explained the charts and graphs on the screen. He concluded his proposal with, “...and that’s why I think a ten percent raise is in order.”
“What do you think, Tom?” the old man asked.
“You give the line workers in Dearborn a ten percent raise, and the other plants will bleed you dry.”
The old man nodded. “That’s what I thought too...so how much of a raise do you think we ought to give them?”
“None?” exclaimed a short executive. “That’s outrageous...everyone knows you have to spend money to make money.”
Tom turned to face the executive. “Then according to the last expense report of yours that I processed, the company will soon be making money hand over fist, considering all the money you spent to charter that private plane to Pebble Beach.”
The face of the short executive reddened. “I took three of the boys from Burger King on a little golf outing.”
“Three Kings and an Imperial executive—how could such a royal foursome be expected to fly commercial?” Tom asked rhetorically. “You know, there was a time when having a better product or offering lower prices was enough to keep our cola flowing through the soda dispensers of fast food restaurants.”
“Tom,” began the old man, “I agree with you, but right now I’d like to hear more of your thoughts about quelling this...uh, discontent at the Dearborn plant.”
“The discontent isn’t about money—not really...it’s about opportunity, or at least the perceived lack of it. So what you need to do is change that perception. Don’t give out raises, instead offer scholarships to the local junior college. You’ll engender goodwill among the workers and the community alike.”
“Wouldn’t that cost more than the raises themselves?” asked the tall executive.
“Most likely not,” Tom answered. “It probably won’t even come close, if the studies I’ve read are any indication.”
“But then won’t we lose our line workers to better jobs?” asked the short executive.
“Maybe some,” answered Tom, “though I doubt very many. In this economy, an associate degree isn’t really all that valuable. If some of the workers take advantage of the scholarships, but then continue to work on the line after they’ve earned their degrees, the others will understand the true value of an associate’s and be disinclined to pursue degrees for themselves...and in all likelihood they’ll stop pestering you for anything more than cost of living raises when they see that even workers with college degrees can’t reasonably hope to do better than the jobs they already have. I imagine the same would hold true for workers at the other plants as well.”
The boardroom remained silent as the executives around the table considered the idea. Finally, the old man spoke up. “Tom, that’s a very interesting suggestion. We appreciate your input, and we’ll take it under advisement. You may return to your desk now.”
Tom exited the boardroom, closing the door quietly as he left. All eyes returned to the old man. “Okay, let’s do exactly what Oblong told us.”
* * *
“Who is Tom from accounting?” asked Double A.
“Why is he called Oblong?” asked TF.
“How come he’s not an executive?” Double A asked.
“How come he’s not the CEO?” TF asked.
“Whoa, take a breath you two.” Their mentor leaned back in his desk chair. “Just about every company has someone like Tom—a big idea guy who you need now and again but that you can’t promote into a position of real authority because he’ll either run with one of his more unconventional ideas and wind up running the company into the ground, or he’ll figure out that he doesn’t need the rest of the executive team to run the company and we’ll all be out of a job.”
“You’re afraid of him,” Double A said, “but you’re also afraid to lose him.”
“That’s about the size of it. See, I knew you were smart.”
“So then why does somebody like that stay?” asked TF. “Surely he could get an executive position somewhere else or even start his own company.”
“There’re a lot of different reasons,” their mentor answered. “To be that sharp, it usually means you’re dull in another place...got something wrong with you—some piece that’s missing, which the rest of us take for granted.”
“What’s Tom missing?” Double A asked.
“In Tom’s case, I’d say he’s missing a firm grasp on reality. He fancies himself a writer—spends his days in his cubicle writing little stories...he hardly does any actual accounting anymore.”
“And everybody’s okay with that?” TF asked.
“I’m sure the other accountants in his department would prefer that he did more than just process the occasional expense report, but really he’s only a mediocre accountant, so everyone mostly looks the other way.”
“Has he ever had any of his stories published?” asked Double A.
“I don’t think so. He writes under the penname Oblong, and I doubt any publisher would think they’d sell many books by a guy who calls himself Oblong...besides his writing is pretty outré, like talking animals outré—probably has to do with that tenuous grasp on reality I mentioned.”
“He lets you read his stories?” asked TF.
“‘Lets’ isn’t exactly the right word, but he writes his stories on a company computer...on company time, which entitles any executive to see what he’s up to—though to be honest, his writing is beyond any of us.”
“How is it that you can read what’s on his computer?” Double A asked.
“As members of upper-level management, we can access any of our subordinates’ computers to ensure that they’re not doing anything...worrisome. You two have that same executive privilege.”
Monday Morning Story by Oblong
In a faraway land called India by the uprights, Tiger and Cobra argued over which of them was the fiercest.
“I am larger,” growled Tiger.
“But I am longer and can raise my head higher,” hissed Cobra.
Tiger glared. “My bite is more powerful.”
Cobra stared. “Is it? You may be able to crush bones in your mouth, but the venom in my fangs can kill with the slightest puncture of the skin.”
“The uprights have such fear of me that they build tall fences around their villages to keep me out.”
“The uprights build temples in the middle of their villages to revere me.”
“I am considered the ruler of this jungle.”
“Is that why they say ‘King’ in front of your name—wait, that’s me.”
Tiger bared its teeth, and Cobra opened its hood. In the air, they heard a shrill buzzing noise. Both looked around for the source of the sound and espied Mosquito. The insect alighted on a large stone between them.
“My kind has killed more uprights than old age,” Mosquito said, “and I’ve killed more uprights in my short lifetime than you two shall in all your days combined, but it was never my intent to harm anyone...only to take a little from everyone. I don’t need much to live, but my life has caused so much death.”
Then Mosquito collapsed and died upon the rock. Tiger and Cobra solemnly bowed before the fiercest of all jungle creatures.