I was in the elevator when I got a text from Terry, our receptionist, a fierce, snapping, vogueing take-no-prisoners queen. "Better hurry! The Devil and her evil imp are here." I wondered idly what Brett had done to earn Terry's ire already.
"Chirl!" The word sailed across the lobby and exploded in my ear as I exited the elevator. . As far as I could tell “chirl” was a word of Terry’s own invention, combining the words “child” and “girl.”
"Chirl! You're late. You better move it."
I waved behind my back without turning around.
It was mid-morning before we mushrooms were called into the conference room. The room was so violently hot that each of us staggered a bit on entering.
Capital B was presiding over the meeting from the middle of the conference table. Beneath a soot-colored suit, she wore a high-collared iridescent silk shirt. In the pale light it flashed red, blue, yellow as she moved; with each movement it looked like flames were licking at her throat.
TWO sat at one end of the conference table. Around her and slightly forward were the Cerberus, defying you to get too close. With Capital B in the middle of the table and a seat for Brett across from her, we were left to sit at the other end of the table. Capital B leaned forward to say something to TWO. TWO drew back and the Cerberus leaned forward, teeth bared.
Brett chose that moment to make his entrance. “Hell-lo all!” he boomed haughtily.
He was a small, pudgy man. His face was at once that of a woman and a pig with tiny bright blue eyes and a pug nose. His wide, thin-lipped mouth carried a smile as false as the joker's. His hair was less hair than a kind of living fudge—straightened, bleached, re-colored and layered just so then shellacked into perfect immobility. Despite his perkiness and bright hopeful words, desperation curled about him like cigar smoke, silent, choking.
Being in his presence, caused my skin to prickle and the hairs on the back of my head to stand on end, as happens when the dead walk among the living.
Barbara the second entered the room last. She paused, indiscreetly fanning herself with the sheaf of papers she carried, when she realized the only available seat was next to Capital B.
"Hi!" Capital B practically yelled when Barbara the second sat next down.
Barbara looked up startled while the rest of us leaned back involuntarily as if she was about to be struck.
"I'm Sandra Deane," Capital B continued.
Sandra? Her name is Sandra? I thought. Barbara the second and I exchanged glances. I had always thought Capital B’s name was something so terrible that to hear its syllables spoken would drive men mad and call forth the hounds of hell to feast upon the petrified remains of the insane.
Barbara the second recovered first. "Hi," she said, “I'm Barbara."
"Nice to meet you." Capital B said distractedly, her fingers flying over the tiny keypad of her ancient Blackberry.
"Actually we've met," Barbara the second said.
"We have?" Capital B squinted at her.
“Yes, of course,” Capital B concurred feigning remembrance that was not faintly convincing. Then suddenly she added,” I’m the executive sponsor on Acme Foods and I’ve heard wonderful things about your work on that account.”
“That’s the other Barbara,” Barbara the second said dryly.
Capital B looked up from her Blackberry, perplexed. “What? There’re two of you?”
TWO cleared her throat. “Perhaps we should go around the table and have everyone introduce themselves.”
“Yes. Can we do that?” Capital B agreed looking relieved, almost grateful.
As each person spoke, Brett silently calculated their worth, immediately discounting them in this, the new world order; most of us wouldn’t last a year. When Barbara the first spoke his calculation seemed to arrest itself as Harvard made its presence felt.
Once everyone had introduced themselves, Capital B introduced Brett. “And this is Brett Butler.” The adoration in her voice was genuine and slightly nauseating. “As Vice President, Key Creative Strategist and Chief Innovation Officer, Brett is the first in a series of strategic hires we’ll be making this year.”
“With Brett aboard, we’ll be doing a skills assessment of each practitioner. What we’re looking for here is natural synergies. From this assessment we’ll be building sub-teams within the national practice. Each sub-team will have its own Charter and Manifesto.”
“As a result we expect to change the reporting relationships for some people so some people will report directly to Brett, and others will report to their team leader who won’t necessarily be based in their geographic region.” This statement was met by perplexed looks all around.
Capital B suggested we take a brief break before resuming over lunch, which was being brought in. The suggestion had barely left her lips when everyone bolted for the door as if they’d been shot out of a canon or someone had just yelled “Fire,” in the crowded theater in which they were contentedly munching popcorn and watching the latest dramedy starring Jennifer Aniston.
"I seem to have heartburn but I don't know why," Barbara the second complained as we approached the front desk on our way to the bathrooms.
"It's that awful Miss Caswell!" Terry said without missing a beat.
Knowing that this was both a pointed dig at Brett and a reference to the Marilyn Monroe character in All About Eve, thinking of Capital B, I fed him his next line: "I don't know why she doesn't give Addison heartburn."
"That's easy," he said. We both chortled the next line: "No-heart-to-burn!"
Barbara the second looked at us with bemused puzzlement but took the Tums Terry offered her.
I could just see the thought flit across her mind: “Gays really do have a language of their own.” It was a language she did not understand but whose existence she accepted as she did the existence of Spanish and French and Latin—languages she knew to have truth and meaning, though she neither spoke nor understood them.
Terry and I had been friends from the first, having identified each other as kindred almost immediately, and drawn together as two strangers in a strange land.
What was often, crudely, referred to as “Gaydar” was perhaps nothing more than the recognition that we shared a common journey, a common language.
The discussion during lunch was disturbing but at least we’d avoided further awkwardness. We’d all struggled to speak and be heard above the rumbles of the shifting ground beneath our collective feet.
“Before we wrap up,” Capital B began, “I’d like to say that I know it’s been a difficult year. I get that. I know we all had to make some tough decisions. Many of us lost colleagues, friends, in the restructurings and the change has been almost constant. That I know is stressful—and scary.”
“So, I want you to know that Brett and I are always available if you—any of you—want to talk. Call us, email us, or have our secretary set something up. We can talk about what you’re feeling…Brett?”
“Okay it’s been great meeting everyone and I’ll be reaching out to set up one-on-ones with each of you but in the meantime I need all of you to stay in the game.”
We staggered from the room, disbelieving, glassy-eyed, stunned as if we’d just left a viewing where the corpse in the casket wasn’t the corpse we’d come to view.
“Oh! My! God!” Diana was the first to recover the power of speech.
“Look on the bright side,” Nigel murmured. “At least now we know what happened to Rosemary’sbaby!”
“And what about that ‘you can call us anytime’ speech at the end? Like I’m gonna do that!” Barbara the first railed uncharacteristically. “She can’t even tell me and Barbara apart! And Brett? I don’t know him from a can of paint! Why would I call him to talk to him about anything?”
I couldn’t pretend to know what would happen next but I knew we were headed into the fire.
Missed Episode 7, Out of the Frying Pan? Read it here.
Next Episode Wednesday, July 20.
Next Episode Wednesday, July 20.
Copyright © 2016 Larry Benjamin
D I S C L A I M E R
The characters and events described in this blog post exist only in its pages and the author's imagination.