Bill Todd -- Melissa and Jethro: A Quirky Little Novel
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 Chapter 10

Jimmy Pickersgill

Melissa, only slightly out of breath after ascending the three flights of stairs, opened the door and clicked authoritatively across the bare floor of the living room to the kitchen. She there found Jethro, whose turn it was to make dinner, in the act of doing so. Seeing that they were to have boiled kale and pinto beans, she retreated quickly. Having seated herself carefully in a straight chair, she called out,

"I think I've got a new corporate client, the company that makes Dawn Strike."

Jethro, from the kitchen, could be heard to make appreciative noises. Dawn Strike was the local favorite whose empty bottles could be found every morning on the sidewalks surrounding their building. It appealed only to alcoholics who had given up all other hobbies and interests, not to say work.

It was a Scottish entrepreneur and immigrant to Cincinnati who had found a way of giving his customers a little more alcohol for the penny. Instead of operating a winery or distillery, he bought any liquid containing ethyl alcohol which happened to be selling cheaply and made it the basis for a batch of Dawn Strike. The addition of grape juice and a medley of vitamins caused his customers to live a little longer, and thus consume more Dawn Strike, than they might otherwise have done. Finally, in order to give his product a certain continuity, he added ground red pepper and horseradish. It was then possible to say on the bottle, without fear of contradiction, that it "had a kick like a mule." Converting necessity into a virtue, it was also possible to say, in somewhat smaller letters, "No two batches the same."

The customers, who had remarkable sensitivity to the precise percentage of alcohol in any beverage, had multiplied at an extraordinary rate. From Boston to San Diego, the man who had a bottle of it was likely to regard it as his most prized possession. The founding Scotsman's personal fortune was said to have reached the hundred million neighborhood, and no contact with his company was to be taken lightly.

When they sat down to dinner, Jethro said,

"I don't know how you're going to reduce the fantasies of a company or make it more impulsive. You might just work on individual employees, but, even there, most companies don't want their employees to act on their impulses."

"I'll start with an extension of my regular practice. A great many employees fantasize about being their immediate boss, or perhaps his boss. That may be productive for the ones who really have a chance to rise, but it's frustrating for the majority who'll always be stuck pretty much where they are. So we need to help people assess their fantasies and reduce the unrealistic ones."

"What about the impulses, then? Suppose a guy has an impulse to punch the boss in the nose? Are you going to encourage him to do it?"

"Even that's not as bad as it seems. If he does punch the boss, he gets fired. That's better than having him around for years, always simmering, working badly, and encouraging others to work badly."

"Are you going to use that argument at Dawn Strike headquarters?"

Melissa laughed happily.

"Not if I can help it. I'd rather talk about the ideas workers might be encouraged to produce for improving their performance and immediate environment. A lot of people walk around with stones in their shoes just because it never occurs to them to stop and take them out."

"How many employees are there?"

"Over eighteen hundred in Cincinnati alone. I'll be organizing therapy groups."

"Will they be voluntary?"

"Involuntary ones don't work."

Melissa always tried to avoid driving up to the front door of any business or residence because of the appearance of her car. Jethro kept a fleet of old and broken cars in a vacant lot, and, by interchanging parts, he kept at least one running at any given time. Melissa was thus driving a very tired Studebaker with a heavily rusted black body and one newish, bright blue, door. It had a so-called "Hollywood muffler" which made an undignified sound at the best of times. At other times, particularly during the frequent bouts of backfiring, the noises produced were very nearly obscene.

The Southern Beverage Company was almost as ugly as Melissa's car, but, she reflected, industries were held to a much lower aesthetic standard. At the right side of the four- storey rectangular building, a doorway had been tarted up with a pink awning, presumably to indicate the location of the company offices. Melissa, taking cover behind the many vehicles in the parking lot, steered for the left side. There was a road which went behind the building, presumably leading to more parking. Melissa hoped for a chance to hide the Studebaker, and her emergence from it, from any prying eyes.

As it turned out, there were railway tracks behind the building which were filled with tank cars. Just as Melissa was wondering whether they were filled with alcohol or grape juice, she saw an unobtrusive place to park. Locking the car, she went quickly around the building and into the main entrance.

The receptionist seemed confused, and called to another one. The second consulted a sheet, and then looked confused herself. A third woman was then summoned. She came out briskly, gave Melissa a queer look, and said,

"Mr. Pichersgill has someone with him, but he'll see you in a few minutes."

Melissa had hardly expected to meet Mr. James Pickersgill himself on her first visit, but was pleased. When she was shown into his office, he looked much more like a Presbyterian clergyman than any sort of businessman, particularly one who made Dawn Strike. Even when he spoke, his Scots accent still quite noticeable, he seemed more like a minister in his study than anyone with pressing practical concerns. He had seen one of her brochures and said,

"The success of any company depends very largely on the attitude of its workers. I'm anxious to look into anything that might improve that attitude."

Melissa laid out in some detail what she had described to Jethro as the first phase of her operation. Pickersgill several times nodded his dark narrow head with its angular features. At the end, he said,

"If we give people time off from work to attend these groups, there'll be many volunteers. If not, there'll be very few."

"We could try it first on an after-hours basis to see how well it works."

She privately believed that the sorts of people who would stay after work would show progress in any desired direction, and that, to the extent results could be measured, she would show results. Pickersgill said very much what she was thinking, and then added,

"The trouble with most of our people is simply a low level of morality. Most are lazy, and many are willing to lie to cover up their laziness. A surprising number steal."

Melissa supposed that they must steal bottles of Dawn Strike, which said more about their taste than their morals, but Pickersgill went on,

"Nothing would please me more than to see a higher level of church attendance among my employees."

Surprised in one way, but not in another, Melissa responded quickly,

"We could bring in clergymen, or at least divinity students, to run some groups."

Pickersgill looked at her more closely than before and commented,

"So there wouldn't be any inconsistency between your approach and that of most ministers."

"Of course, I'd have to choose the ministers. It would take a very low-toned approach not to offend people of denominations other than their own, but they could be expected to win some new parishioners."

Pickersgill smiled. He then said, seemingly offhandedly,

"Of course, I shouldn't leave myself out. I wouldn't feel comfortable in a group with my own employees, but I might need your help in the reduction of my own fantasies."

It seemed to be intended as a bit of a joke, but Melissa wondered if it were not the most serious part of his proposal.

It was when the interview seemed to be over, and she had gotten up to leave, that there was another surprise. Pickersgill went over to a little refrigerator, and, removing a bottle of Dawn Strike, he said,

"Before you go, you must try a little of our latest batch. I think it's one of the best we've had."

He then poured two little glasses full, and, rather ceremoniously, handed one to Melissa.

She first wondered if it were a sort of test of sincerity, one that was passed only by those who said the stuff was awful. But her intuition told her otherwise, and she prepared herself to be properly appreciative. That was no easy matter. Melissa had given and gone to parties where Dawn Strike was provided as a sort of perverse joke. One normally chugged it to avoid the taste as it went down, but that seemed hardly appropriate to the occasion. Thus, when Pickersgill began to sip it as if it were Chateau Rothschild, she did the same. Glad that she managed it without choking, she judged it sufficient to smile and nod as her companion detailed the ingredients of this new triumph.

With the Dawn Strike gurgling inside her, Melissa made her way, a little unsteadily, around the building. What she saw made her stop abruptly, and actually wonder if impurities in the Dawn Strike were causing her to have a hallucination. It appeared that six men had picked up her car, and were carrying it off. Then, she began to work things out. She had inadvertantly parked across a railway track that was mostly recessed into the ground, and there was, not far from her, a switching engine waiting to push a car down the track.

Melissa quickly stepped back behind the corner of the building. Once the men had gotten her car out of the way, they would disperse. She could then go to it quietly and drive away. But it was too late. The engineer in the switcher yelled to the others,

"Hey, guys, here's the lady with the car. She's hiding behind the building."

To prove that she wasn't hiding, Melissa stepped out into full view. It was the old story. Men who were prepared to be angry saw how she looked. They then became humorous and teasing. The door was held for her, and, amid suggestions that a date with one of them would be even more exciting than parking across railway tracks, she was allowed to drive away. Embarrassing as this last little bit had been, she still felt quite good about the interview.

That evening, Melissa discovered that Jethro knew Mr. Pickersgill. He said,

"He's been working out at the Y for years. I've never talked with him to any extent, though."

"He reminds me of those nineteenth century industrial barons who cheated and stole six days a week and were pillars of the church on Sunday. But, somewhere or other, there'll be some tremendous secret quirk waiting to burst out."

"Will it be sexual?"

"Very possibly."

"Will you encounter it if you just work with his employees?"

"I'm sure I'll also end up working with him. I'm like a private, and very discreet, executioner. People call for me when they want to kill a part of themselves. They may approach me indirectly in all sorts of ways, but I know better than they what they want."

"You kill the favorite fantasy, but they enjoy the process?"

"Not entirely. It's true that I encourage a client to act out his fantasies at great length, and he often enjoys that. But, then, when he trusts me completely, and is at his most vulnerable, I turn on him. I ridicule him and call him names and make him feel like a pervert, even if he really isn't one."

"I didn't know it all led up to that."

"That's what puts the fantasy away for good. Shame can be very powerful."

"Don't you also lose the client at that point?"

"When you cure someone, you do lose him as a patient. At least until he develops some other problem."

"How many times have you hit them with shame?"

"Never, actually."

"Is that because we need the money?"

"I keep thinking that they aren't quite ready. And, anyhow, I don't like humiliating people, particularly when they've trusted me not to."

In drawing up a detailed plan for Mr. Pickersgill, Melissa divided it into two parts. The first was to improve the functioning of existing and future employees, and the second was to get rid of the undesirables.

Under A, she included her standard techniques, those that she had already discussed with Pickersgill. The second part of the plan was, however, new ground for Melissa.

She began with a definition of unemployability. A person whose inclusion in an organization makes it less productive than it would otherwise be (even short-handed) is unemployable. A person who brings a gun to work and threatens others is extremely unemployable. On the white-collar level, there is the sort of person who falsely tells Smith that Jones is spreading lies about him, and invents a few examples. He or she then invents a nasty story about Jones and tells Jones that the story originated with Smith. That person may actually cause a greater loss in productivity than the one with a gun.

More common than these extreme cases are people suffering from various degrees of paranoia. They are insidious because they can be charming at times, perhaps even most of the time. But, once such persons imagine that some thing or person threatens them, they go to fantastic lengths to eliminate the threat, no matter how great the collateral damage. Melissa was sure that many such people are umemployable to one degree or another. When she mentioned the matter to Jethro, he replied,

"You could give everyone a paranoia test and get Pickersgill to fire the ones with bad scores."

Melissa knew that he was joking, but she replied seriously,

"There aren't any tests that are reliable. But, if you're in the same organization as a paranoic, you very seem come to know it."

"Are you going to go to work in the company so that you can spot these people?"

"I probably could spot some bad types, but Pickersgill would already know them. He wouldn't fire them just on my say so."

Jethro stretched himself expansively and said,

"There was an advisor to a Chinese emperor about a thousand years back who made a specialty of predicting which courtiers would betray their emperor. He was never proven wrong."

"Was that because they were executed before they could prove their loyalty?"

"Exactly. If Pickersgill does fire the people you finger, nothing is ever likely to show that you made a mistake."

"They might be successful elsewhere."

"But they're just businessmen. They won't become famous, and you'll never hear about them again."

"Your Chinese advisor's real accomplishment was to get the emperor to trust him that much in the first place."

"You could give tests all over the place, even bad ones, and blind Pickersgill with pseudo science."

There was, in fact, something about Pickersgill which suggested to Melissa that he could be manipulated to an uncommon degree. But she didn't tell Jethro that because he would want her to take advantage of the situation.

As it happened, a better test for paranoia than any Melissa could have invented presented itself naturally. The rumors, and then the news, that a psychologist was coming caused a good deal of anxiety. A few people even complained to Pickersgill himself. Then, when Melissa began interviewing managers, she suggested that they might form some groups for the purpose of evaluating one another's performance and suggesting improvements. Naturally, she would herself sit in on these sessions. One man became nearly purple in the face, and was actually quite rude.

All of this got to Pickersgill fairly quickly, and, at lunch, he said to Melissa,

"Some of the complainers have always complained about everything. But a few are pretty steady reliable people."

"There are lots of people who can do just fine as long as you don't change anything, but who go crazy in any kind of reorganization. Do you have anything like that in mind?"

"I hit on the basic formula for the business when I began it, just after the war. There have been very few changes since then, but there's more competition now. To keep market share, I've had to accept reduced profits. Since we're not public and there aren't any shareholders besides myself, that isn't too great a problem. But, sooner or later, I'll have to increase productivity."

"When you do, you don't want to have people who'll spread false rumors and upset other people who might otherwise be able to deal with change."

That seemed to make a great impression on Pickersgill. She continued,

"I probably don't have to name names. You know these people much better than I do, and you must already know who'll be a problem."

"Yes. Unfortunately I do. But, if I act on my intuitions, I'll be perceived as firing some of my most loyal people. That, in itself, will alarm the others."

"I may be able to help there. The message will be that people who are reasonably flexible have nothing to fear."

Melissa was quite aware that she had no expertise in industrial psychology, but that hardly seemed to bother Pickersgill. He replied,

"If I can get my nerve up, I'll do it."

"Any decent employer would have trouble firing people. We might have a few sessions devoted to that."

"Yes. Of course, a couple of these men I've never liked. I could tell them it was your idea to fire them."

As Melissa agreed, she wondered how Pickersgill had been as successful as he had. But, whatever his drawbacks, he was a nice change from being with Jethro.

Miller Muggins had worked out at the Central YMCA every week-day morning for a good many years. He often lifted weights with Jethro Turner, and they sometimes wrestled. It was also at the Y that he spent some time with a very different sort of man, James Pickersgill.

For Miller, Jimmy Pickersgill was something of a humorous figure. The weights he lifted were ludicrous. Where Miller or Jethro might have used a ninety pound dumbbell, Jimmy used one of five pounds. But he was totally serious about it, staring at himself in the large mirror on one wall of the weight room as he strained mightily with his little weight.

Having conquered the weights, Jimmy would then pedal a stationary bicycle (on the lowest setting) for fifteen minutes. The final part of his regimen was spent with the hip reducing machine. This apparatus consisted of a powerful electric motor driving a crank which made a wide rubber belt vibrate and pulsate. It was meant to go around a fat man's hips and belly, and it was alleged that it would, in time, wear away the fat. Pickersgill, on the other hand, was painfully thin. The sight of his skinny little ass being bounced around was an exceedingly odd one. When Miller had asked him what he thought he was doing, Jimmy replied, in his funny accent, that it helped his digestion. The boys had had some fun with that one. Jimmy Pickersgill vibrated because he was constipated, and, whenever he finished with the machine, someone was likely to ask him,

"Do you think you can do it now, Jimmy?"

It was thus a surprise to Miller when Jethro began to question him seriously about Jimmy Pickersgill. Miller could only say,

"He must be the weakest man in the Y, and kinda weird too. But totally harmless. Anyhow, you know him as well as I do."

"Not really. You talk to him. I always figured he wasn't worth talking to."

"Weren't you curious about the inventor of Dawn Strike?"

"I get pretty tired of seeing the bottles all over the neigborhood, and I've never felt real warm towards him on that account. Besides, I don't like the rich."

"A surprising number of the guys who come here are rich."

"Could be. But, with most of them, you'd never know it. Pickersgill has to be rich. He couldn't survive if he weren't."

"Why are you interested in him now?"

"He's hired Melissa to do a job. He doesn't know she's connected to me, and he might have something else in mind."

Jethro amused Miller even more than Pickersgill did. There was all that suppressed violence, and also a great deal of intelligence. But he was so easy to read. Miller replied,

"You know, it'd be real interesting if you went into the weight room and murdered Jimmy right on the mat. You could break his neck easily. I'd watch, but, later, I'd swear I was looking the other way."

Jethro laughed, but not as heartily as Miller would have liked. When Jethro seemed not to have anything more that he cared to confide, Miller said,

"Anyhow, Jimmy couldn't be much of a threat to you."

"He has all that money."

"I didn't think Melissa was much interested in money."

"That much might make a difference to just about anyone."

"I can tell you, man, she sure wouldn't be with you in the first place if she cared about money."

"Well, anyhow, I may need some services from you. How about trading for a painting?"

"Maybe. What services?"

"If things develop in a certain way, I may need to have him followed."

"But he knows me. That makes it hard."

"You can still do it, can't you?"


"I may also need to have Melissa followed. She knows you, but I don't think she'd recognize you at any distance."

"No, I'm just another medium-sized black guy."

"Okay. I'll let you know when I need you."

Miller thought quickly. He could imagine many ways that Jethro might use information that he brought, and he didn't like most of them. On the other hand, if it were he, and not someone else, who brought that information to Jethro, he could modify and temper it so as to minimize destructive consequences. With only a slight hesitation, he replied,

"I can follow one or the other of them on some particular day for a few hours, but the chances are very great that, even if they're up to something, they won't be doing it while I'm watching."

"I realize that. I'll have to pick the right time."

Bill Todd -- Melissa and Jethro: A Quirky Little Novel
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