The Company Man (Day Four of Story A Day)

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.

 

                       

 

           

 

           

 

           

 

Mother’s Helpers (Day Three of Story A Challenge)

Mother’s Helpers

 

 

            Anne fumbles for the front door keys, juggling Matthew to the left and struggling to keep the gaping baby bag from dropping its contents all over the front porch. His head rests on her shoulder, heavy as a bowling ball, his blond hair, slightly damp, smelling faintly of shampoo. He must have gained five pounds and grown three inches today.

 

            Katherine shifts from one foot to the other, and Anne can hear the impatience in her movements. She finally gets the door unlocked and pushes it open. She tells Katherine to go ahead and watches her daughter march through the door. Her long, brown hair, pulled up in an overlarge yellow hair bow, bounces with each step; her neat blue school bag is clasped at her side. Katherine walks with precision, every move economical. She places her sweater neatly on its wall peg and takes her bag into the kitchen where she’ll reveal her work from the day and begin her homework after she’s retrieved her snack. Katherine is like a clock, a smaller version of her father.

 

            Matthew is a mischievous ball of clutter. Anne lays him on the family room sofa and straightens her back, hands on hips. She feels like an old woman in the worn stretch pants and oversized tunic. The tunic is a relic from her pregnant days, but she hasn’t gotten around to buying new clothes. She mostly fits into her pre-child things except for her jeans. Her stomach will never lie flat again. Covered with a web of stretch marks, it has a small C-Section kangaroo pouch that won’t go away without surgery. It’s a gift from her two children, whose heads wouldn’t fit through her pelvic canal.  Anne can’t bring herself to buy jeans in the next size up. Jeff winces at her stretch pants and leggings.

 

            “Jesus, Anne,” he says, “Nobody is going to check what size you wear.”

 

            “I’ll know,” she says, but she knows he’s right. Sometime on the weekend, maybe, she’ll try to sneak out, if Jeff feels up to watching the kids for a few hours. 

 

            The family room is a mess. Matt’s trains lie scattered throughout the room, along with his many puzzles and picture books. Anne tries not to rely on the television for entertainment, and it’s easy enough. Matt knows his letters and tries to sound out words, and he will play with puzzles and trains for hours. He likes to build and destroy what he’s built. The trouble is she can’t take her eyes off him. She never knows when a lamp will crash down or a train will smash into the television. It’s already happened. Sometimes he’ll hide out in the cabinets in the kitchen and bang pot lids together or take wooden spoons and bang pots as if they were drums. It’s noisy, but at least she knows where he is. He hasn’t tried to scale the kitchen counters yet. 

 

            Still, she knows Jeff hates the clutter, so she needs to get it tidied up and dinner on the stove before he gets home.  Next year, when Matt starts preschool, maybe she’ll go back to work, but for now, she’s a full-time mom. Anne’s afraid she’s beginning to forget how to have adult conversation, but Jeff thinks its cheaper for her to stay home than try to find a full time nanny.

 

            “You taught elementary school, honey,” he says. “You’re great for the kids. Besides, it wasn’t like you were raking in the big bucks. That’s why you have me.”

 

            Anne sometimes wishes she had gotten a law degree, but she doesn’t know if she’d be any better off than she is now. Lawyers are getting laid off too.

 

            She goes to the kitchen where Katherine is busy preparing her snack. Katherine is seven going on twenty.

 

            “Can you manage the milk?” Anne asks. “It’s a fresh gallon, so it’s heavy.”

 

            “Yes, Meme. It’s not that heavy.” Katherine never calls her “Mom”.  Since she was a baby, she’s called her “Meme”. It sounds like the name Mimi. Anne isn’t sure whether Katherine saw her as an extension of herself and was saying, “me me,” or perhaps thought of her as a large plaything and meant, “mine mine.” Katherine calls her father, “Dad”, but she’s always been “Meme”. Anne gets tired of explaining it to people.

 

            Katherine has placed three Oreos on a plate and carries them to the table; she goes back to pour her milk.

 

            “Did you have a good day?”

 

            “I made this.” Katherine pulls out a drawing. It’s not perfect, but it is striking: a black dragon spewing its yellow and orange fire against a purple sky. “Mrs. Blackstone, the art teacher, says I have amazing talent. What do you think?”

 

            “I think it’s very fierce looking.”

 

            Satisfied, Katherine lays the dragon on the counter. “I love dragons. I’m writing a story about one, but I didn’t finish because we’re doing co-operative writing, and I had to work with Virginia today. She wanted to write a dumb story about Victorian girls. Like Little Women.” Katherine wrinkles her nose. “I didn’t like Little Women. And Virginia’s a pain.”

 

            “What’s wrong with Virginia?”

 

            “Nothing really, except she thinks she’s smarter than every one, which she isn’t. Lydia is better at math, and I’m better at history and English and writing. She’s just a year older than the rest of the class. I saw on the Science Channel that you might start out smarter when you’re little because of something about your brain, but that by middle school other kids catch up to you so you really aren’t so smart unless you’re really a genius or prodigy. I think they called it neuronplastic.”

 

            “Neuroplasticity,” Anne says. Katherine has scored in the genius range on the IQ chart. The psychologist said to have her retested in two years. Katherine can read at the high school level though she’s only in second grade. It amazes Anne how the brain is formed. What genetic strands wove together to form this child who on the surface seems so much like her father with her need to collect data and facts, yet who has such a love for drawing and stories. “And don’t be mean. Maybe in a few years, they’ll catch up to you.”

 

            “Mrs. Miller says I’m unique. I’m going to be important, and I’m never going to have children. No offense, but I’m not going to be like you. I’m going to be a professional. Maybe I’ll be a doctor like Dad.”

 

            Anne says nothing. She simply holds her arms around her chest, as if that would protect her heart. “I’m not going to be like you” is something she’s heard many times before.

 

            Katherine takes her milk and walks to the table where her empty plate awaits.

 

            “Wait, Meme. Didn’t I put out my cookies?”

 

            Katherine looks around. The bag of Oreos sags open on the counter behind her.

 

            “I thought so.”

 

            “Well, they aren’t here, and I didn’t eat them.”

 

            Katherine stalks over to the bag and pulls out three more then places them on her plate.  She stands with her hands on hips staring at the table in annoyance. “Now my milk isn’t cold enough. She turns to face Anne who wishes Katherine would just eat the damn snack and get down to the business of doing whatever homework assignment she has to do.

 

            “I’m putting ice in my milk,” Katherine says. “I hate warm milk.”

 

            Anne wonders if all children are this picky. She watches Katherine carefully place a few ice cubes into the milk cup and return to the table where once again the plate is empty.

 

            “Meme!”

 

            “Oh, for goodness sakes,” Anne says, exasperated. She walks into the family room to look for Matt but he’s gone. “Matthew? Where are you?”

 

            Katherine marches up behind her. “Come out this minute.”

 

            Anne hears a sound behind the couch, “We hear you Matt.” Nothing. At last she starts to push the sofa aside, but before she can move it more than an inch Matt scrambles out. His big blue eyes stare up at her innocently; his mouth, rimmed in chocolate crumbs opens in an O.

 

            “You little thief!” Katherine’s voice rises, and Matt shakes his head. His cheeks are stuffed with cookies.

 

            “Oh, Matt, how many cookies did you take?” Anne says. She kneels down in front of him, trying to look stern. It’s hard to do. Matt looks exactly like a cherub. It drives his sister crazy.

 

            Matt holds up one finger then thinks better of it and adds a second finger.

 

            “You’re such a little liar. You took all my cookies,” Katherine says, outraged. “You shouldn’t get any more cookies for at least a week. I’m telling Dad.”

 

            Matt’s eyes fill with tears. He gulps a little, and Anne watches him swallow. “I sorry, Katty. Here.” He offers her two damp, half squashed cookies.

 

            Katherine just snorts in annoyance. “Just keep them. I don’t want them now. Don’t steal my cookies. You aren’t supposed to steal. Don’t you know that? And you aren’t supposed to eat so many sweets. You’ll get diabetes.”

 

            “Katherine,” Anne says, “don’t tell him that. I’ll deal with him.”

 

            He comes over and hugs his sister. “I love you, Katty.”

 

            Katherine doesn’t hug him back, but she does give him an awkward pat on the head. “All right. Go away now. I’ve got to do my homework.”

 

            She stalks out to the kitchen, and Anne sits down on the floor with Matt. He gives her a chocolate kiss and holds out the cookies to her. “I love you, Mommy.” He plops down in her lap, and when she shakes her head at his offering, starts to eat.

 

            “Katherine’s right. You shouldn’t steal cookies, Matt,” Anne says. “Too many will make you sick.”

 

            “I know, Mommy.” He gives her a weary sigh that implies he’s learned his lesson. Or maybe it implies that he just wants her to stop talking. “Will you tell me a story?” He wiggles closer, and Anne wonders at his ability to get himself out of trouble. If Katherine is all sharp edges and precision, Matt is soft and sweet and cunning. People tell her all the time he’ll grow up to be a heartbreaker, but for now she is content to sit and bask in the glow of her son’s love.

 

            She hears an ominous rumble then smells something akin to rotting garbage. Matt looks up at her and frames her face with his grubby hands. “I made a dodo.”

 

            “Yes, you did,” Anne says. The steps look awfully long this afternoon. She stands and reaches out her hand. “Shall we walk upstairs together? You’re getting to be a big boy.”

 

            “I am a big boy,” Matt says. “Okay, Mommy.”

 

            They walk up the stairs, and he lies still while she gets him cleaned. Anne has a horrible vision of Matt lying on the changing table as a teenager while she cleans him up and sends him on his way. He’s almost three and isn’t the least bit interested in using the toilet. Anne is about to slap on a fresh pair of disposable underwear when he lets go with a stream of urine that hits the wall. He laughs while she takes a breath, wipes him down again and puts on fresh underwear.  She pulls up his overalls and snaps them shut.

 

            “You’ve got to start using the potty,” she says, and he hugs her.

 

            “I love you, Mommy.”

 

            “I love you too.”

 

            “Can we have pancakes for dinner?”

 

            “No, Matt. Daddy doesn’t like pancakes.”

 

            Matt sighs and hugs her again. “I like pancakes.”

 

            “Maybe tomorrow for breakfast. Okay?”

 

            “Okay. You smell like dodo.” He kisses her and wanders off. She doesn’t have to worry about Matt on the stairs. He’s as dexterous as a monkey.

 

            She cleans up and drops the dirty underwear into the old diaper pail. She stands in the middle of the bathroom. Her hair is in need of washing; she has circles under her eyes; and she looks like a bag lady. She smells like dodo.

 

            Anne wonders if she has time for a shower before she tidies up the family room and makes dinner. She figures she has just about six minutes to shower and dress before Matt annoys Katherine, and they begin to fight. She turns on the shower then reaches into the medicine cabinet for two Valium before she begins the second part of her day.