Firing and being Loved
On the next Friday, I went straight from work to the train station to meed Brad. As befits Stockport, there's a pricey cafe adjoining the station. Since everything in the town must have some special motif, the cafe is a copy of a country railway station in southern Germany or Austria, complete with tables on a terrace and flower boxes in profusion. There's a kitchen where the ticket office would otherwise be, and indoor tables in the waiting room.
There's also a small platform, crowned with a canopy, high above the station. It's reached by a steep spiral staircase, and those with energy can climb there with their drinks. From that vantage point they can look far down the line in both directions and dream of travel as they become increasingly intoxicated. A young woman in flamboyant costume is stationed there when the trains are due, and it's her mission to call out their approach. The patrons below then have a chance to finish their drinks and quiches before boarding their train.
I settled down in this atmosphere with a diet Pepsi when I spotted Wallace Stimson and waved him to my table. He explained,
"I'm on my way to Rhode Island with my family for the weekend, but Larsen wanted me to meet a man named Maxwell from the home office who's coming on this train. Larsen was supposed to meet him himself, but got tied up. I don't know what Maxwell looks like, but I've got a sign with his name on it."
I had heard nothing about it from David, and, in fact, hadn't seen much of David in the last few days. Now, alone with Stimson for almost the first time, I began to satisfy my curiosity about him.
Wallace was the man whose sales method consisted in making blind calls from lists of subscribers to the financial papers. I had started out by making such calls, and had quickly found what it's like to get a hundred negative responses in a row. In addition, one encounters a good deal of hostility, particularly when one calls people at their homes. Some make unpleasant noises, others give one little lectures, and some are obscene and abusive. One woman gave the phone to her two-year old son, evidently telling him that Peter Rabbit was calling. It at least broke the monotony.
Stimson had been making these calls every day, year after year. He made some of them during business hours, whenever he had a chance. He made them for a couple of hours every evening. Week-ends and holidays didn't stop him. It's impossible to guess how many thousand blind calls he may have made in the course of a dozen years.
I had always wondered how he could go on like that, and I asked him how he did it, I hope with reasonable tact. He explained,
"There's security in the probabilities when the numbers are large enough. If you make enough calls, you can pretty much count on a certain amount of business. When you have as many children as I do, that's important."
It transpired that Stimson would sit in his easy chair at home with a glass of iced tea and talk with his wife while he made his calls. As he said,
"I've got my computer programmed to call the numbers, one after another. Most of the time is actually taken up by waiting for people to answer. When they do, the name of the prospect is on my screen, and I do my spiel."
He then added, laughingly,
"My family and I've developed a style of conversation where we go on hold while I recite my message, and then pick up where we left off. The fact that the responses are so overwhelmingly negative allows us to do that. I know immediately by the tone of the prospect's voice if he's not interested, and I can intersperse a, "Thank you, goodbye," into what I'm saying to my wife."
It sounded like a bizarre home life, but the Stimsons all appeared to be happy with it. I replied,
"I guess people can adapt to almost anything."
"I've got some improvements in the works. If I don't address the prospect by name, I can have the computer deliver my recorded message, just hitting a key for 'sir' or 'madam.' If they respond at all positively, the name will still be on the screen, and I can use it when I cut in. Otherwise, I just hit another key to say goodbye."
"So, most of the time, you won't have to say anything at all. That doesn't sound so bad."
"I'll give you a copy of the program and show you how to use it. You have a nice voice, and you might get a good response."
"I couldn't do that, Wallace. I'd be cutting into your territory."
"The lists are practically infinite. I offered the system to Bret Halvorson, but he didn't seem interested."
"You shouldn't be so quick to give things away, Wallace. You might wind up with someone else from the office calling your prospects before you do. Besides, if the others had something that worked, I doubt that they'd offer it to you. I probably wouldn't be that altruistic myself."
At that moment, the young lady from on high sang out the approach of the train in an operatic voice. I said,
"I can wait for Brad right here. Will your man be familiar with the amenities in Stockport?"
"I don't know. I'd better try to hunt him down on the platform. What will Brad want to drink when he gets here?"
I told him without thinking. Then, before I could stop him, Stimson had the bill and took it to the waitress.
A few minutes later, Stimson came back with a man who seemed to have no remarkable features whatever. I was introduced, but Stimson explained to his visitor that I was waiting for a friend, whereupon they went inside the building. Brad appeared suddenly and dropped with a jerk into the chair opposite me with a smile and one hand on his glasses. Sipping at the drink Stimson had sent him, he gave an account of his training course which was both funny and satirical. There was special emphasis on a powerfully built middle-aged woman who kept saying of a different stock that it was 'her favorite in all the world.'
Best of all, Brad seemed to have saved his remarks for me. He had apparently antagonized neither the powerfully built woman nor any other reigning power. I told him that he was too thin, angular, and jerky to have the smooth sleek look of a stockbroker. It might, I suggested, be necessary for him to wear heavy sweat clothes under his suit to add bulk. He replied,
"You're just as thin as I am. You may be smoother, but you're not sleek."
Wallace Stimson then came out on to the terrace. He was alone. His face was entirely different, though I couldn't have said exactly how it had changed. He seemed to be intent on walking straight ahead, but he staggered off to the side, almost bumping a waiter with a tray. I knew immediately that he was either having a heart attack or had just been fired. Brad and I jumped up immediately and steered him to our table. I was about to call for a doctor, but Stimson stopped me. In the circumstances, it was a relief to find that he had only been fired. As he gulped from the water glass I had given him, he explained,
"I wasn't at all prepared for it, you see. I supposed, if any firing were to be done, Larsen would do it. It turns out, though, that the company now employs a special man. He does nothing but go from one place to another firing people. Nice enough chap. I don't imagine he likes it."
At that moment, the company's special agent passed discreetly on his way out. Catching my eye, he nodded politely and touched his hat. He then looked straight ahead, his little moustache and slightly receding chin forming part of a profile which was, above all, apologetic.
I was immediately reminded of the firing of Sandy Meadowes. In both cases, the blow was very nearly a physical one. Indeed, it was like a hard punch to the stomach, the sort which causes the recipient to bend forward, stagger, and clutch the mid-section. Stimson, however, didn't cry. Nor was there any need for Brad to escort him to the men's room. The three of us talked for some time, Brad remarking on the irony of just entering a line of work where good service might be rewarded so poorly.
Stimson recovered steadily and said,
"I've been in this town long enough to get to know most of the people at the other brokerage offices. They like people who bring in new customers. I'm just about certain that I can hook on with one or another of them. In fact, I might even be able to get something started tonight. We'll have to cancel our trip."
After Stimson left, Brad asked me if I had known anything. I replied,
"No. I knew people were to be fired, but I never dreamed he'd be one of them. I can't imagine what happened."
Things went rather well with Brad that night. I was in a good mood despite Stimson's misadventure, and I was pleased that Brad was being a good boy. He was, in fact, at the head of his class. We had a festive dinner to celebrate his progress and forthcoming employment in Stockport. Later that evening, in my apartment, I ended up partially unclothed. Brad was moved, I thought and hoped, in a way that wasn't merely sexual. But, still, I resisted.
I stopped by David Larsen's apartment on Sunday, and asked him directly why Stimson had been fired. David replied, rather uncomfortably,
"Bret and I finally got together. He suggested that we each, separately, draw up a list of those we wanted to keep and another of those we wanted to fire. There didn't seem any harm in that."
"So you did. Who was on your keep list?"
"Only you and Halvorson."
"Who was on your fire list?"
"Maloney and McCarthy."
"So, then, you compared lists?"
"Yeah, but, before we did, Bret suggested that we only fire people if neither of us wanted to keep them and at least one wanted to get rid of them."
"What about Maloney?"
"Bret had him on his keep list. McCarthy was on both fire lists, so he goes. Stimson and Lentz were on Halvorson's fire list, so they go."
"Do they all know?"
"Yes. The company has a man who attends to that sort of thing. He got all three of them late on Friday."
"He fired Stimson at the railway station. I happened to be there."
"Oh. I'm sorry about that. I hope it wasn't unpleasant."
"Why didn't you fire him yourself?"
David spoke quickly.
"The company is quite definite about that. Only the special agent is empowered to negotiate severance pay and things like that."
"Why Friday night, of all times?"
"I believe the idea is that, over the weekend, the man has a chance to digest the thing a bit. Then, when he comes in Monday morning ...."
I broke in,
"There won't be any sordid scenes. No display of emotion, or anything like that."
"Well, no. There might be customers around and so on."
It was strange to see David, his square Yale face somewhat flushed, but still the representative of the right and the good. There was, he explained, no really satisfactory way of handling these things. The company policy might be designed to sweep some things under the rug a bit, but, he asked,
"Is there really any point in having a California-style session where everyone tells everyone else how they feel about each other?"
The more David talked, the more he recovered face. I was tempted to mention what Stimson had told me, that he had been sent out to meet a man who was meant to see David himself, one who thus had no particular business with Stimson. Could David reconcile his moral high ground with having tricked Stimson, and set him up for an extremely nasty surprise? I was well aware that, if I pushed David to the wall, he would never be comfortable with me again. On the other hand, I did want to find out if he were simply a fake. Applying a technique that I had seen described in a popular psychology column, I said,
"I know the whole business must be terribly difficult for you, David."
David's reaction gushed forth with a strength which surprised me. After it had run down a little, he said,
"You know, the thing I feel worst about is sending Stimson out to the station. I was originally supposed to meet Mr. Maxwell myself, but Stimson remarked that he was about to take his family to a beach in Rhode Island. I was afraid Maxwell would miss him, so I got Stimson to go out. I gave him a sealed envelope addressed to Maxwell with a note explaining the situation."
I hadn't known that Stimson had been entrusted with the seeds of his own destruction. I could imagine that David had felt clever when he conceived that little stratagem to keep Stimson from escaping to the beach with his family. Showing none of these thoughts, I took David's hand and held it while he looked at me with sheep's eyes. I said,
"Anyhow, it's all done now. We can settle down with our new lean team and make money."
"Yes, I suppose so. Maloney seems to be reforming. Hanks is no wizard, but he stumbles on. For Bret the only limitation is the number of hours in the day and the number of clients he can keep on the phone at once. For you, I would say, the future is very bright. You'll start getting the clients that would otherwise go to Bret if he had room for them."
On Monday morning I happened to meet Wallace Stimson in the parking lot as we arrived. I asked him immediately how things were going. He replied,
"I've got something just down the street at a better base salary. I've known the manager for years, and he liked my computerized system."
As we stood and talked, neither of us terribly anxious to go in, Stimson added,
"Walter Lentz called me Saturday morning. He's also been fired, and he's terribly upset and worried. I've been trying to arrange something for him, but haven't had any luck yet."
I suppose we both knew that Lentz would find nothing in Stockport, and might face a long hard search. As we went in, Stimson said quietly,
"There are some things I want to say to Larsen. I think he's treated us in a way that's unjust and cowardly."
It was obvious that David wasn't going to have a nice day. Indeed, an hour later, after his interview with Stimson, he looked definitely shaken. He caught my eye, probably with an idea of going out for a coffee break, but, before he could say anything, Lentz and Hanks appeared together. All three of them went into David's office.
I had seen from Lentz's posture and the set of his face that he would be much less confrontational than Stimson. He might even beg. The addition of Hanks could add an antidote of comedy to an otherwise maudlin scene, but David, even at the best of times, had a defective sense of humor.
That second siege had hardly ended when Mark McCarthy arrived, reeling drunk. It was then that David finally laughed. He steered McCarthy into Maloney's office with instructions to the latter to take care of his friend. David then turned to me and said,
"Come on, Adrienne, let's have an early lunch."
As we went out the door, David said,
"I'm sure Maloney and McCarthy will shortly go out drinking together. Let's go where they're least likely to turn up."
It was make or break time for me with respect to David. I had either to accept what he had done, and even help him laugh it off, or be disapproving and preserve a certain distance. What really decided me was the fact that Brad was now so much closer to me than David. The latter wouldn't act as a counter-weight unless I let him come closer. Then, too, I had been upset only about Wallace Stimson. He had obviously landed on his feet with something to spare. Lentz and McCarthy were hardly proper objects of grief.
David, usually so serious, was now almost slap-happy. He glossed quickly over his interview with Stimson, and was actually quite diverting in his account of the Lentz-Hanks interview. Lentz, even at the ultimate hour, had insisted that he had inside information, and was about to make a killing for his clients. Hanks kept saying that he didn't know how he would advise his clients if he couldn't consult with Lentz. David said,
"I felt like telling him he could go into the city and find a fortune-teller instead."
I laughed. It might not have been the most humorous remark of the century, but it was pretty good for David. By the time that the food arrived, the atmosphere was quite cozy. Afterwards, we had coffee with kahlua, and became yet cozier. Since neither of us were drinkers, it didn't take much to go to our heads. I felt a number of touches on my arm, and did nothing to discourage them. Outside the restaurant, an arm appeared around my shoulders. As it tightened, I said,
"David, just be careful not to disarrange me."
With that, he let me go and smoothed my jacket very carefully with mock solicitude. He then guided me so that I had my back to the building and faced out into the parking lot. As I stood stock still, he worked meticulously on my hair, putting each stray strand into place and patting it. It tickled a little, and made me want to laugh, but it was also exciting. David was still the compulsive enally fixated man who would spend hours getting every picture on the wall exactly straight, but he was now, in a sort of way, making fun of himself. He then lightly touched my neck with his hands and opened my unbuttoned jacket. I was instructed to suck in my breath, and I then felt a hand inside my waistband, moving from one hip around my back to the other side, smoothing and arranging. That done, David tipped my chin up and kissed me delicately. He finished by buttoning my jacket.
I couldn't have imagined that David would do anything to make me want to respond more enthusiastically than was wise, but I filed it away under the heading of valuable information.
That evening, I had a call from Jackie. She hadn't gone back to Max, and was sure that the separation, unlike the previous ones, would be permanent. I could tell that she was making a good recovery. She was, after all, a strong person. I asked if she were going out with anyone else.
"A couple of guys, neither particularly special or interesting. It's quite a come down after Max, but I'm not letting myself just sit at home."
That sounded healthy enough, and I hoped only that she wouldn't fall in love just yet. She then inquired about my situation. I described David,
"He's not a nerd, and he's also not the straight arrow that I first took him for. But he's pretty dull compared to Brad and hardly inspiring on any accounting. Still, without doing much, he really turned me on today."
Jackie wanted details, and I gave them, concluding,
"I don't suppose anyone can feel like a goddess these days, but he made me feel terribly elevated. It may take a rather dull sincere man to make you feel that way. If Brad did the same things, it'd just be a joke or a ploy. Even with David, it was a bit of a joke, but not enough to destroy the mood."
"You're much more romantic than I am. At the moment, I think you're more in danger of falling for the wrong man."
"Well, I am on the edge of going to bed with either Brad or David. Or both."
"I've been with all sorts of men without it's making much difference to me as a person. But you have to be careful, Adrienne."
In closing, I did promise to be careful. But, the moment I hung up, I was hit by a burst of objectivity. I didn't love Brad or David, or anyone else, but I wanted very much to be loved.