The Company Man
“I hate Bob Hagenbacher,” Isabelle said. She slammed her binder on her desk and dropped into her chair. “I’d like to jam my pencil in his eye. I’d like to run him over then back up to make sure he was dead. Mangy old bastard!”
I leaned back in my chair and regarded Isabelle. Her face was practically as red as her shirt and I could have sworn for a second that her eyes were filled with tears, but Isabelle never cried. I liked her; she was five feet six inches of energy and brains with one of those exotic high-cheek-boned faces and large dark eyes. But she was hard, like marble, and when you got on her bad side, there was no coming back.
Bob Hagenbacher had gotten on her bad side early. He’d been with Mitchell Construction for forty years, and I guess he was an okay guy. His biggest problem was he didn’t think girls—not women, girls—belonged in management. It was okay if they typed or answered phones or made coffee, but ran things? Bob Hagenbacher drew the line at that.
Isabelle was the company’s youngest female administrator. She was the company’s only female administrator. Bob didn’t like that. He thought she was one of those “pushy feminist types”. Isabelle thought he was a moron.
Bob called himself an engineer, and he’d studied it in college; Isabelle pointed out that he didn’t have “PE” after his name, so he wasn’t technically an engineer. Isabelle was studying law at night and coordinated between the lawyers and outside engineers the company needed. She said they all looked at Bob Hagenbacher like he was a joke.
She was probably right. Bob was a strange old dude. He looked like a short, beady-eyed, hairy-eared gnome. He liked to hoard office supplies in his office. If he liked you, he’d pull you aside and say, “Hey, I noticed you’re running low on Post-It Notes.” The next day you’d find a whole case on your desk. Once he gave me a little point and shoot camera because he heard I had to go out to one of our building sites to take pictures.
“Here, you just plug this thing into you computer and you can put the pictures in,” he said. “We’ll keep it on the QT. I don’t know where the damn invoice is for it. Take it home and use it for yourself when you’re done.”
I found out he’d lost the connector cord, and he didn’t understand how to install the software that went with the camera, but I thought it was kind of nice that he gave it to me. I put it in my desk drawer.
“Bob likes you, Mike,” Isabelle said. “You’ve made a friend for life. Soon he’ll be asking you out to lunch.”
“He’s not so bad,” I said.
“That’s because he doesn’t question everything you do, or ignore everything you say, or blame you for everything.” She glared at me, and I squirmed a little. “Now when I deal with him, I put everything in writing and copy it to everyone.” She gave me a rare smile. “Besides, everyone likes you.”
The door opened, and Bob Hagenbacher stuck his head in, “Hey, Mike. You free for lunch?”
I exchanged a quick look with Isabelle, who sat back and grinned.
“Gee, I’m sorry, Bob, I’ve got this report to finish up, and I—“
“Mike and I were just going to grab some carryout and work on his report,” Isabelle said sweetly. “Do you want anything, Bob?”
He frowned at her as if she were some kind of interloper. “No. No. Forget it.” He backed out and shut the door.
“Come on, lover, let’s go before he changes his mind,” Isabelle said. “You can buy me a sandwich at the deli.”
“Why am I buying?”
She gave me that deceptively sweet look. “Because I just saved you from lunch with Bob.”
I didn’t argue. I wasn’t unhappy to buy Isabella lunch and dinner too.
Eventually we moved in together, though I officially kept my old address at my parents’ home. We were very careful not to be affectionate at the office once we started to date. It wasn’t that it was verboten, but it just seemed smarter. Isabelle hated her job; once she graduated from law school in December, she was going to take the law boards and get out. I was still working on my MBA, but I figured my career was not destined to for Mitchell Construction. In the meantime, we both worked on paying off our college loans and made our plans.
Isabelle continued to clash with Bob Hagenbacher.
“Stupid jackass,” she said one day. “He completely screwed up the measurements on this drawing.” She dropped the roll containing blueprints on her desk. “He told them to start pouring cement, now the base is completely off. When the architect and the real engineers came in this morning, they had to close down the site!”
“Oh shit.” This plan had gone through countless delays and the costs had ballooned out of all reasonable proportion. I was going to have to sit with financial higher ups and do a real dance.
“He tried to blame me!” Isabelle’s voice shook, and this time her eyes did fill with unshed tears. “But I finally got him. I had copies of every e-mail I sent. Every one. Including the one telling him not to pour until the outside engineers and the architect approved the plans. No one even signed off on them.”
For all the screaming and yelling about the “Big Pour” as it came to be known, not much happened because Bob Hagenbacher was pretty good at keeping e-mails too, including the one from the CEO telling him to “get the goddamn hole in the ground filled. Now.”
The storm passed, and Bob was back in his office hoarding office supplies. He was even given a new title, “Engineering Operations Manager.” It made Isabelle crazy. She’d walk past his office, and I could swear I saw steam coming out of her ears.
“He gets a promotion, and I get shit,” she fumed. “I hate this place, and most of all, I hate Bob Hagenbacher.” I think it made her even crazier that Bob was nicer than ever to me.
“Hey, Mike,” he said one day in late October. ”I noticed that your computer is one of the really old ones. I told Arthur over in IT to bring you a new one. Some of our equipment could really stand some upgrading. Now that I’m Operations Manager, I’m going to look into it.”
“Thanks, Bob,” I said. “I appreciate it.” I could almost hear Isabelle grinding her teeth.
“Stop down to my office if you need anything else,” he said.
“He’ll probably molest you,” Isabelle muttered. “Honest to God, Mike, could you be any more of a suck up.”
“I don’t know. I know he’s a screw up, but he seems like a lonely old guy.”
“A lonely old guy who hates women,” she said.
“Not everyone is enlightened,” I said. “I mean he grew up in a different time. I’m not saying it was better, just different. Some people can’t adjust.” I thought about my grandfather who was probably just a few years older than Bob Hagenbacher. He still called all women “girls” even if they were in their seventies; he called black people “coons” though he was good friends with Hank, who moved down the street and was teaching him to play some boogie woogie. Maybe Bob Hagenbacher a guy like that. It was a weak argument, especially with Isabelle.
“It doesn’t matter. Once I pass the bar, I’m out of here. I don’t care where I work.”
“I’ll miss you,” I said.
“You’ll see me every night.” In a rare display of affection she walked over to me and kissed me full on the lips before she headed out to a meeting.
I decided it was a good time to drop in on Bob Hagenbacher. I had a bag of pretzels and a bottle of water and headed down the hall to his office. I knocked on his door with the trepidation of one knocking on the door of the wizard’s cave.
“Come in, come in.”
Bob Hagenbacher’s office was like the cave of wonders so jammed was it with boxes of paper, crates of Post-It notes, pencils, pens, markers, DVD’s, staplers and staples, and a host of other unmarked boxes. I knew that a nice woman named Debbie took requisitions for office supplies and a day or two later the requested item appeared on your desk as if by magic. Here, however, was a whole treasure trove. I was astounded.
“Hey, Bob, I . . .” I couldn’t think what to say. I wanted to ask what the hell he was doing with all this crap stuffed into his office, but I was half-afraid he’d stab me with a letter opener and stick me in a box to be secreted out after hours.
Bob looked up at me expectantly.
“I just wanted to . . . thank you again about the computer.”
He smiled. “No problem, Mike.”
I noticed a brass helicopter on his desk, a Huey. “You like helicopters, Bob?”
Bob nodded. “Been crazy for them all my life, but my eyes.” He shrugged. “You gotta have twenty/twenty vision to fly ‘em for Uncle Sam. So I was a door gunner. You know what that is?”
“The guy who shoots out the door?”
“You got it.” Bob laughed a little. “No such thing as gals flying helicopters back then. It was a fraternity.” He rubbed his nose and sighed. “It was a long time ago. I’m still crazy for helicopters though. Got my license years ago, though I don’t fly now. Too old. Helicopters are tough. Can’t just jump in and take off. It’s stick and pedal working together. Plus you can glide a plane in to land if something goes wrong, but a helicopter, hell. It assumes the aerodynamic shape of a brick and boom.”
“What about autorotation?”
“One in a million, kid.”
“Well, I just wanted to say . . . thanks again.”
“You’re a good kid. Wanted you to know, I’m retiring as of December 1st. After the Thanksgiving holidays. Easier that way. “
“I’m sorry to hear that, Bob. You’ve been a big part of this company. I . . . I’ll miss seeing you.”
He rubbed his nose again and reached out his hand. ‘You’re a good kid, Mike. I’ll miss you too. Just don’t tell anyone.”
Of course, I did tell Isabelle that night, and she rolled her eyes. “He’s been retiring for years, Mike. Watch, he’ll change his mind.”
But Bob Hagenbacher didn’t change his mind. The company held its standard retirement party for him. Isabelle refused to go; she had a final, she said. I went, and was a little surprised at the sparseness of the crowd. Surely after forty years, more people could have made time to put in an appearance.
They offered me Bob Hagenbacher’s office, but I turned it down. It had no windows and had a breathless feel to it. I almost expected him to pop out of the door every time I passed by. In any case, I knew Isabelle was looking furiously for a new job; she had passed the bar in the top one percent. She had passed law school in the top five percent. She had contacts.
She came home one night and announced she’d gotten an offer, a good one and she was taking it.
“Just think,” she said. “I outlasted Bob Hagenbacher by five months. We have to celebrate. At Price Farrady, no one will call me a girl.”
“You’ll be in a corner office in four years,” I said.
She kissed me. “We’ll be the best couple in the world.”
Isabelle was busy packing up her possessions and putting her files in order when one of the secretaries named Jenny stuck her head in the door. “Hey did you hear? Bob Hagenbacher’s dead. He had cancer and passed away last night. We’re collecting for a wreath if you want to pitch in. There’s a jar on Debbie’s desk.”
“Are you sure?” Isabelle said.
Jennifer looked puzzled. “Yeah, there’s a jar on the desk.”
“No, that he’s dead.”
Jennifer giggled then said, “Oh, you’re so bad, Isabelle. Yes, he’s really dead. His wife called this morning, and Mr. Mitchell said we should send a company arrangement, but then some of us felt bad because we didn’t go to his retirement party and thought maybe since he’d been here so long we could send flowers and a card.”
I slipped her a twenty. “From both Isabelle and me.”
“Wow, thanks, Mike. That’s so nice. He was kind of a strange old dude wasn’t he?” She gave me a vacant smile. “Well, this will really help.”
Isabelle was glaring when I shut the door. “Are you crazy? Why in Good Christ would you give money for that old coot?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. It felt right.”
“That’s so nice, Mike.” She fluttered her eyelashes then finished packing up her things. Sometimes Isabelle could be a real bitch.
I went to Bob Hagenbacher’s viewing. I didn’t tell Isabelle; I just said I had some research to finish. It thought it would be as miserable as the company party, but there were a lot of vets and members of his community civics group there. It seemed Bob volunteered his engineering talents to fight overbuilding in his area. No one in that group cared whether he was a PE or not. I talked to his wife Evie. When she found out who I was, she told me Bob talked very highly about me. I wondered why.
Once Isabelle departed, the company decided to give me the office to myself. They convinced themselves she had been too picky and bitchy, and wrote off half the suggestions she made to improve efficiency.
Isabelle said, “What do you expect?” She already had a mentor; she worked an eighty-hour week at one of the city’s top law firms and loved it. “They have actual working brain cells.”
I keep thinking someday Mitchell Construction will come up against Isabelle and live to regret it.
Mitchell Construction gave me a surprising raise, so when I finished my MBA in June I could take my time looking for a new position. The boss seemed to think I have potential, and Isabelle and I were slowly paying off our loans and making a life. Our road was getting easier.
A week after Bob Hagenbacher’s funeral a package arrived on my desk. It was the brass helicopter. A gift from the past from a man who never quite able to face the present. I sat it on top of my new computer.
It was cozy here, an easy job. The money was decent for the moment, and it would get better. I’d always been good at coasting; people liked me. Hell, I could stay here forty years.
I might be the next Bob Hagenbacher with better people skills. I could feel my hands growing clammy and the hair on my ears growing.
“Everything living has to change,” Isabelle always said. “You can’t remain static.”
I looked at Bob’s helicopter a little longer then picked up the phone. Time to start making some changes.