Literary Criticism & Political Commentary

The Cusp of Dreams/Chapter 8: Three-Card Stud

Copyright © 2000 by Diana E. Sheets

We’re on the Queensboro Bridge headed back to Manhattan after having spent a good part of the day in Long Island City.  Richard’s driving.  His vehicle of choice is a black Thunderbird that is twelve years old and has bangs and dents all over it.  It’s been through several altercations.  What’s left of the vinyl upholstery is tattered and worn, faded to a rust-brown hue.  Its shards are tacked down with packaging adhesive.  I only hope the stuff doesn’t tear my nylons.  It’s the perfect car for driving around New York.  So old and ugly no one wants it, even for body parts, which is great since that means our transport won’t be stolen when we’re on sales calls in Queens, and that the police won’t tow it if we’re double-parked in the city.  Who would pay the fine to reclaim it?  As I said, the perfect car.

Richard’s waxing philosophical on life, and its relationship to poker.

“The point is, Sue, you never reveal your cards.  It’s all bluff, lots of bluster, not much more.”

“So how often does your poker group get together?”

“Once a week.”

“Do the games last long?”

There’s a blast of car horns coming from behind us.  I turn around and see a driver tailgating us.  He leans out of his seat, sticks his head out of the window, followed by his fist, which he shakes emphatically before shouting at Richard, “Schmuckhead, move your fucking ass!”    Then he seats himself back in his car before planting one hand firmly on the horn.  It blows loud and shrill, as if we didn’t catch his drift.

Richard never raises an eyebrow, never turns around, never swears, and certainly never puts his foot on the accelerator.  He behaves as if he’s heard nothing.  He’s cool, way cool.  Continuing where he left off, Richard says, “As long as it takes.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean we play till someone breaks.”

“Excuse me?”

There’s another blare of horns followed by a couple of irate voices.

“Asshole, move it!”

“Ram his damn car.”

If Richard hears these obscenities, I can’t tell.  He continues driving at the same measured pace, and in a calm voice that belies the surging tempers of motorists around us says, “Bury him; wipe out his entire month’s earnings; set him back at least twenty-five hundred.”

“By month’s end, you must be short a few players.”

He laughs, replying, “Why, yes, we are.  Would you care to join us?”

“Wish I had that kind of dough to burn,” I say with a smile.

As we exit off the bridge onto the ramp, several cars speed up with their windows rolled down.  Insults are hurled at us like rocks jettisoned from a catapult.

“Fucking A.”

“About time.”

“Shithead.”

Richard, the undaunted.  Maybe he’s pleased that he has provoked so many drivers, though his face reveals nothing.  He glances my way, and in a silky smooth voice that is barely audible mutters, “Too bad.  Love to have you at the table.”

At the table?  Or on the table?  You never really know with Richard.

Yeah, it’s “Armani” Richard, my handsome, tall, dark, New York rep.  It’s Friday, and it’s been a good day.  We closed a couple of great deals before making our way back into the city.  So we’re celebrating by lunching at Arquà in TriBeCa.  It’s an oasis amid the grim rows of warehouses, some now serving as lofts for the rich and famous.  By daylight the area seems innocuous enough, though by night these dark and desolate corridors provide suitable cover for men stalking young females.  And while I’m neither young nor a babe, nevertheless, the danger, even to me, is palpable.  Consequently, I’m relieved that Richard and I are dining before nightfall.

What a restaurant it is.  The dinning room glows in amber hues.  From the ceiling are suspended several paper lanterns that infuse a spirit of playful romance into even the most professional of circumstances.  Then there’s the food.  We begin our meal with sgombretti followed by gnocchi and polenta pasticciata.  The latter, I discover, is a grainy cornmeal toped with chunks of sausage dripping in red sauce and sprinkled with aged Parmesan.  Though masquerading as peasants’ fare, I’m sure these succulent dishes would tempt the palettes of kings and queens.

Richard is discussing philosophy: specifically, Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.  The words “metaphysics,” “idealism,” “objective core of the subject’s knowing,” and “theoretical reason” drift in and out of my thoughts.  It seems I’m in the company of a thinker.  This discourse is way over my head; still, I try to feign a modicum of interest and comprehension.

“You read this stuff for fun?”

“Yes, I enjoy getting together weekly with other like-minded philosophers.  Right now, we’re focusing on philosophical themes related to war and politics.  We’re beginning our thematic focus on Kant, Clausewitz, Marx, and Engels.”

“Quite a lot of Germans,” I say.

“Yes,” he replies, with a grin pasted to his face, “quite a lot of Germans.”

What’s he smirking about?  Where’s the humor in philosophy, war, and Germans?   I try once more, “Claus von Clausewitz?  Wasn’t he a German general?  The proponent of Total War?”

“That’s right.  He was a brilliant military strategist who objectified the analysis of war, giving it philosophic grounding.  For Clausewitz, war was ‘a political act continued by other means.’  His work, On War, influenced both the Axis and the Allied generals during the Second World War, men like the elder von Moltke and De Gaulle.”

Richard went on to explain how these philosophical tenets enhanced his understanding of the world.

And so we dinned amidst the fading embers of a sunny, winter afternoon.  We feasted on sumptuous food despoiled by war.  What might have been an intimate and charming occasion touched by a hint of romance, in the end, was little more than a monologue on Richard’s dark, blood-soaked credo.  

.     .     .     .

As usual, I’m on the phone on Monday morning, obtaining my reps numbers and projections.

Then Skip calls.  "Hello, hello,” he says with that booming voice of his.

“Hello, yourself.  So what’s happening?” I ask.  I admit it.  Just hearing Skip’s voice lifts my spirits.

“Your team’s all the rage.”

“Really?”  What the hell is he talking about?

“Seems your rep, Richard, has organized quite the poker game.  Even Kevin and George from my crew are driving up for it.  Of course, your two Guidos will be there.”

“When’s it scheduled?”

Eight p.m. on Friday.”

“What the hell is a Guido?”

Skip laughs.  “Not one, darling, but two.  Due Guidos.”

“And just who might they be?”

“Your M.O.M.—men of Massapequa—Chuck Barzone and Jimmy Francione.”

“What makes them Guidos?”

“Darling, didn’t you ever watch Saturday Night Live and see the great Guido Sarducci?  That little, Italian priest, a guy so greasy you’d swear he’d been rolled in Bertolli olive oil.  Man, he was stellar!

“Sue,” Skip continues, “Barzone and Francione are a comedy shtick.  Don’t you think?  Siamese Guidos separated at birth.  Just look at them.  They came from the same kind of families, grew up in the same neighborhood, and attended the same schools.  And they haven’t changed!  They drive the same cars; they smoke the same cigarettes.  They’re convinced those Marlboros will add inches to their members and get them laid at the clubs!  They’re wannabe studs always on the prowl.  Still, their batting average has got to be lousy.  After all, they’re still at home with mamma and papà.”

“Skip, don’t you think you’re a little harsh?”

“Am I?  What about their cars?  Did you ever have a good look at their twin red ’88 Camaros?  Seems like one’s always stolen or sitting in the shop.  Come to think of it, have you ever seen them come to any of your meetings in separate cars?  Think there’s only one set of wheels?  Now, that would be something!  For God’s sake, Sue, even you have got to admit they’re ridiculous.”

But all I’m thinking is I’ve got Guidos, goddamn Guidos!  Sure, my team’s a bit strange; I’ll admit that.  But now, on top of everything else, I’ve got fucking Guidos.  I won’t have my sales people become the butt of all Amtech’s jokes.  Change the subject, dammit!

“So what are you proposing, Skip?”

“To attend, of course.”

“Why you’re a fucking genius!  Sounds like a plan.  I’ll call you back later to finalize arrangements.”

“Perfetto!”

“Skip?”

“Sì?”

“Thanks.”

“Niente affatto.”

So I get on the horn to check out the situazione.  I parlay Richard’s poker game into an informal team meeting, offering to spring for drinks and takeout.  Skip, Mer, and I agree to meet in Hoboken that Friday evening in January.  From there, we’ll take the PATH together to Richard’s fifth floor walkup at Tenth Avenue and Twenty-second Street in Chelsea.

The three of us arrive at half past eight.  Richard’s apartment is jamming.  By city standards, his place is huge.  It egests a distinctly male aroma—sweat and testosterone mixed with the pungent stench of cigar smoke.  Mer and I stop just inside the hall entryway: we’re checking things out.  Skip strides ahead, walking briskly through the archway across the open expanse of room toward a large, oval table where he greets Richard and the gang.

“How are you?” he asks Richard, as they exchange firm handshakes.

“Not bad and you?”

“Can’t complain,” Skip replies.  Then, turning to Chuck, he smiles and says, “Hey, man, it’s been ages.”

“Like ever since you got your stinkin’ promotion, you bastard!”  They embrace.

“Yeah, bastard!” echoes Jimmy, as he and Skip exchange nods.  Jimmy’s welcome is pasty thin, a mere nudge compared with Chuck’s head-butt.  But there you have it, my Guido consortium.

Skip steps over to greet the rest of my team: Laurie, Rita, Joe, Harold, Michael, Peter, and even my new hires, Caroline and Izzi.  He makes his rounds before heading over to chat with his reps, Kevin and George.  From a distance, this interchange of grunts and nods—man to men—appears to constitute some kind of coded expression of male archetypal behavior that I classify as “Primordial Rites of Men.”  Nevertheless, despite the label, what I would give for Skip’s liquid ease.

Reluctantly, I announce my presence.

“Hi, gang!”

It’s almost a shout, given the distance Mer and I are from the rest of the crew.

“Well, if it isn’t Sue, herself.  And Mer!”

“Hey, boss.  Hi, Mer.”

“Whatcha doing?”

“How’s everything?”

“Long time, no see.”

The greetings blend to puree.  For Mer, for me, tossed across a spacious room.

“Richard, mind if Mer and I check out your place?”  My request is bellowed out, a bit of a question, a statement of intent.

“Not at all.”

So, permission granted, Mer and I take our time looking around.  We’re standing in his foyer.  To our left is a functional toilet and shower crammed inside a closet-sized space.  Directly opposite is Richard’s makeshift office.  Above his desk is a window that looks out on Twenty-second Street.  The worn and battered table is cluttered with a PC, printer, and stacks of papers and files, along with scraps of scrawled notes.  A copier and fax machine rest on an adjacent crate next to his desk.  Electrical sockets sprout wires that tumble down to the small, white, hexagonal floor tiles.

“Well, there’s not much else here worth looking at,” says Mer, as she walks with me into Richard’s spacious living quarters.

The room is oblong, distinguished from above by high plaster ceilings, cracked and worn, and from below by an expanse of hardwood, dulled and scraped, shouting years of neglect.   At the far end of the apartment, a couch presses against the wall, its shiny surface refracting the flickering lights of Tenth Avenue.

There’s the poker table, of course.  It’s the centerpiece to Richard’s grand, but austere setting.  It’s a large, round, oak table.  Beside it are clustered assorted wooden chairs, each with its metal folding mate.  Every seat is taken.  The room appears to be part bowling ally, part lecture hall.  It’s largely devoid of character.  Even the furnishings seem an afterthought or an artifice.

Still, nothing like a good mystery: one worth fleshing out.  I’m ready to discover more.  Fortunately, Mer’s curiosity has not abated.  So we continue our leisurely probe.

“Some kitchen!” she says, pointing to our right.

We laugh.  Kitchen indeed.  A distressed oak counter curves round, nestled by a pair of cozy barstools.  Against the exterior wall stands a stainless-steel sink flanked by red linoleum-covered shelves.  On them rests a microwave, toaster, and a hot plate.  There’s no oven or stove in sight, though I spot a mini refrigerator tucked underneath the expanse of ruby-red.  Cabinetry, dark and boxy, extends above the counters, rising into air.

“I guess it was designed for takeout,”  I reply.

“Check this out,” Mer says, nudging me toward a large, partitioned area approximately fifteen by twenty feet square.

It must be Richard’s bedroom.  What else could it possibly be? Naturally, we’re intrigued.  The southern and western sides are formed by plaster walls.  The other two partitions comprise makeshift bookcases that rise well over six feet.  Mer and I take our time, letting our fingers glide along the hardbound spines of the volumes that fill the shelves.  The leather editions are mostly philosophic, mathematical, and financial treatises juxtaposed with paperback fiction—thrillers, mostly.

“Come on, come on,” Mer says as she pulls me through a small entryway separating both bookcases.  Sure enough, it’s Richard’s bedroom.  Like the rest of his flat, it’s furnished in what appears to be heirloom discards.  Both frame and mattress press flush against a plaster wall.  A slate blue comforter and a couple of pillows covered in gray flannel cotton lie on top of his bed.  Two wooden end tables and solid brass lamps flank either side.  A pair of battered armoires lean against the back walls of bookcases that are positioned opposite a window that looks out on Twenty-second Street.

 But why look at furnishings when Richard’s secrets lie within?  Mer and I step toward the armoires.  Each of us pulls open a pair of doors.  Mine holds nothing, but a few designer suits and a handful of custom-made shirts brushed flat against a dozen silk ties.  What about Mer’s?  I take a glance inside.  What a disappointment.  Just a pair of jeans, some shirts, a silk tee or two, a pair of sweaters, and some shoes and sneakers jumbled on the floor.  Then Mer pulls out the bottom drawer at the base of the armoire to reveal the stashed trove: cotton briefs, silk boxers, and a couple of packs of ribbed, lubricated condoms.  She walks over to open the drawer to the other armoire: just socks.  O.K., so he has sex; he wears  socks—so fucking what.

We close the doors, desperate for any final clues to our mystery man.  That’s when we notice the three dry-mounted print reproductions tacked to the backs of bookcases opposite the bed.  The first is Raphael’s Philosophy.  I’m familiar with it because of my discussions with Richard.  Sure enough, the setting resembles an imperial Roman bath.  Some of the greatest philosophers of ancient Greece are assembled in this picture with Plato and Aristotle, naturally, assuming center stage.

“I didn’t know Richard was an aficionado of art,” Mer whispers, “just look at these!”

She points to Raphael’s painting.

“That fresco was originally entitled Philosophy and later renamed the School of Athens.  It’s in the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican.”

Damn, she knows that painting.

Mer points again.  “That’s one of Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts.”

Fuck.  She knows that one, too.

Mer walks over to peak at the title inscribed at the bottom of the print.  “It’s The Battle of the Angels from the Apocalypse,” she says.  “Gruesome, isn’t it?  Who hangs that kind of print in his bedroom?  Richard is one sick stud.”

But when she sees the third reproduction, she blows a kiss, as if it could fly through the book-shelved walls.

“Richard, darling, all is forgiven, even the Dürer.  Sue, he’s got a reproduction of my favorite painting, Vermeer’s Woman Estimating the Value of Pearls.  Notice how exquisitely the artist composes his setting.  Look at the careful placement of the gold and pearls to be weighed.  Vermeer uses such a subtle interplay of colors.  See how he bathes her in the delicate light filtering through the background window.  How serene she looks.  Wouldn’t we all like her piece of mind?  Magnificent, isn’t it?”

“It certainly is,” I say.

Why display my ignorance?  Still, Mer’s analysis makes me wonder.  Could these masterpieces represent some kind of coded expression of Richard’s moral ethos?

While Mer takes her time looking at the prints, I try to concoct a theory as to Richard’s worldview.  His underlying premise appears to be that the struggle for power depicted in The Battle of the Angels from the Apocalypse lies at the heart of man’s existenceOf course, in that woodcut the violence and debauchery of war and apocalypse assume center stage.  Could Richard be suggesting that only through war are wealth, knowledge, and serenity are achieved?  This perspective might explain his selection of Vermeer’s Woman Estimating the Value of Pearls.  And with the attainment of earthly pleasures, does one then glean the wisdom of the ages as exemplified in Raphael’s Philosophy?

I must be crazy.  No one, not even Richard, puts his fucking Weltanschauung on a wall opposite his bed.  Life isn’t some bloody German fortune cookie.  Richard works for me.  He’s always supported me.  He’s no demonic villain.  This job must be getting to me.  I’m too fucking cynical.  I’m always expecting friendly fire.  Work isn’t war; it’s a job, plain and simple.  Expect the best; strive toward the good; stop imagining imminent disaster from incoming Scuds.  Enough already.

“Aghhhhhhh,” Mer says, as she falls back on the bed, pulling me down with her.  She hushes my cry of surprise by placing a hand over my lips.  We land together before bouncing apart.  Her fingers across my mouth are warm and sensuous to the touch.  Naturally, I’m disappointed when she lets go.

“Our stud gets a lot of action here,” Mer pats the bed in emphasis.  “Oh, for a video camera!  There’s something about Richard.  The guy’s got danger written all over him.”  Then in a whisper, as if the walls had ears, she adds, “Makes you want to bed him, doesn’t it?  There’s no safety net with Richard.  Not like my Edward,” she says with a laugh, then adds, “maybe we should blow this joint before I get ideas!”  Mer places both hands on the bed, pushing herself up.  As she rises her left hand grazes my body, sweeping in one swift motion from my breast down past my hips.

A touch that is barely there.  Still, it sears through me like a lit match striking kerosene.  What am I to think?  Bedding whom?  Richard or me?  And while Mer’s feelings toward Richard come as no great surprise, it’s her frank admission of lust that shocks.  Sure, Richard’s primal attractions spark the interest of any breathing female drawn to the opposite sex, and Mer’s no exception.  Nevertheless, she’s so proper.  Coming from her lips the taste is raw, carnal.  And is she only interested in Richard?

“Come on, Sue; let’s check out the game.”

Mer’s tugging fingers pull me up from the bed and out of the boudoir through its narrow passageway into the gambling salon, the vortex of action.

“Deal, Damn it!”

Chuck’s talking—Guido Numero Uno is dressed for action.  He’s a GIT—gangster in training.  Just look at his double-breasted jacket woven from a cheap blend of polyester-wool fabric.  Or those suspenders of his.  Then there’s his look.  Chuck’s barely thirty, and already his gut is forming.  He’s got his hair slicked back and is puffing on that seven-inch stogie of his.  It’s sticking way out there as if to say, “Look at my DICK!”  He grunts and nods toward me, the barest acknowledgment of my presence, except to blow smoke in my direction.

Unfortunately, Chuck, even today, is Charlie’s man.  He blames me for Charlie’s departure.  Having a woman as his manager is pure torture for him.  And not much better for me.  What can I say, Chuck’s strictly blue collar.  His parents came from Queens and migrated as far east as Nassau.  There’s no love lost between us.  We coexist, kind of.

“How’s the Camaro, Chuck?”  You can’t say I don’t try.

“Mine’s in the shop; Jimmy drove me over.”

“That’s too bad.  When can you pick it up?”

“Monday, if I’m lucky.”

I glance over at Skip, who flashes me an “I told you so!” smile.

“Rich, like DEAL already.”

That’s Jimmy, Guido Numero Due.  He nods in my direction and says, “Nice taseeya.”

Like Chuck, his jacket is double breasted, though if it’s possible, his is the more flimsy.  Due’s slimmer than Uno.  He, too, wears suspenders and has his hair greased back.  And yes, he’s also smoking a stogie.  Jimmy’s five o’clock shadow has bristled into coarse stubble.  And while Guido Due looks his part, he’s softer than Chuck.  He lack’s Chuck’s meanness.   I hired him shortly after becoming manager hoping a buddy for Chuck might smooth things over where we’re concerned.  And what did I get for my troubles?  Niente.  So now I’ve got two Guidos resisting my direction.  And costing me money.

“Sue, great to see you.”

That’s my Richard.  He puts down his cards, reaching out to grasp both my hands.  His touch is sensual, his voice silky smooth.

“Great place you got here, Richard,” I reply.

“Love those furnishings,” says Mer.

“Thanks.”  Richard replies, never rising to Mer’s bait.  He’s no longer paying attention to us.  He’s back in the game, all testo machismo.

RICHARD: Ladies and Gents, this is dealer’s choice. Let the play resume with a man’s game—five-card stud.

Just look at him!  The guy thinks he’s a matador waving a red cape.

GUIDO 2: Ladies?  There ain’t no ladies playing, only bitchin’ Laurie.

LAURIE: Fuck you, Jimmy.

RICHARD: Counting you, Jimmy, that makes two.

GUIDO 2: Fuck you, Richard.

SPECTATORS:  Why don’t you deck him, Jimmy?

                              Tell him to fuck himself.

                              Laurie, don’t take that crap from Richard!

Hard to believe these words are coming from Rita’s sweet mouth.

RICHARD: A slight smile curls at his lips as he turns to his right. Chuck, cut the cards. You know how to cut, don’t you?

CHUCK: Cutting the cards. Fuck you, Richard.

RICHARD: O.K., here we go. Wait. Who’s the stiff who failed to ante?

TABLE: I anteed.

              Mine’s in.

              I’m in.

              Me, too.

RICHARD: Somebody didn’t ante, KEVIN?

KEVIN: Fuck you, Richard.

RICHARD: KEVIN, how many people are sitting round the table?

KEVIN: Nine. Answered like a man trapped in ambush.

RICHARD: Very good, Kevin. Now, how many dollars do you see in the pot?

KEVIN: Eight.

RICHARD: Very good, Kevin. Now put your ante in.

KEVIN: Fuck you in spades, Richard. I anted. I fucking well anteed.

But Kevin tosses in a dollar, anyway.

RICHARD: Finally, N O W we can play.

Richard deals nine cards round the table, placing them face down, cleanly and precisely.

                   O.K., let’s go.

He takes the top card and snaps it face up, tossing it by the corner, so it lands squarely atop Jimmy’s hole card.

                   Jimmy gets a four of hearts.

Again, Richard snaps the top card causing it to land squarely on Harold’s hole card.

                   Queen of Diamonds, good card.

HAROLD: Will you look at this shit? See how Richard throws the cards. It’s a fucking set up!

GUIDO 1: Shut the fuck up, Harold. Deal, Richard.

RICHARD: Richard snaps and tosses, dealing the cards, one after the other.  Harold, your Queen of Diamonds is high: you bid.

HAROLD: Well, she’s worth two bucks. He flings a pair of dollars toward the pot.

JOE: Groaning. I’m out.

Kevin tosses two toward the center of the table.

LAURIE: I’m in. She says, as she throws her bills.

GEORGE: Me, too.

SKIP: I’ll spring two bucks for another card.

GUIDO 1: I’ll play.

RICHARD: Dealer calls. Richard tosses in two dollars.

                    O.K., ladies, are we ready?

TABLE: Fuck you.

              Dickhead.

              You ain’t long for this world, Richard.

              Die, Richard.

SPECTATORS: A chorus of high-pitched squeals erupt from among the female viewers—Sue, Mer, Rita, Izzi, and Caroline—buttressed by the hearty roars of Michael and Peter.

MICHAEL: You guys going to take this shit from Richard?

PETER: The guy’s a madman.

IZZI: Isn’t this supposed to be a party?

RICHARD: Relishing his role. No commentary from the cheap seats.  Put up or shut up!

SPECTATORS: Speaking in unison. FUCK YOU, RICHARD!

RICHARD: Resumes his deal, a smile on his lips. Once again, each card is precisely dealt. One after the other, they snap cleanly, arching through the air, landing precisely on the designated upturned card.

                    Jimmy gets an eight of clubs.  No help.

                    Seven of diamonds for Harold’s Queen, possible flush.

HAROLD: Ha, ha.  You’re a regular laugh riot. Possible flush, my ass.

RICHARD: Kevin, you get a five, possible straight.

                    Laurie gets nothing.

                  George gets a three of diamonds, possible straight flush.

GEORGE: Yeah, right.

RICHARD: Skip gets George’s deuce.

                  Chuck gets an eight of diamonds, possible straight flush.

                   And the dealer gets a king of clubs.

                  The dealer has the high hand, so the dealer checks to the mouth. How’s your mouth, Harold?

HAROLD: Piece of shit, Richard.  Check.

OTHERS: Check.

                  Check.

                  Check.

Checks are given all around.

LAURIE: Deal, Richard.

RICHARD: I’m dealing.

                   Jimmy, ace of clubs.

                   Harold, deuce of clubs, off the flush.

                   Kevin, ten of hearts off the straight.

                   Laurie, ten of clubs, still nothing.

                   George, king of spades off the straight flush.

                   Skip, queen of spades off the straight.

                   Chuck, jack of hearts, possible straight.

                  And I get a ten of diamonds, which gives me a pair of tens. Well, well, well.  Pair of tens bets five bucks.

TABLE:  Fold.

               Fold.

               Fold.

               Fold.

LAURIE: I’ll play. Flings in five.

GEORGE: Fold.

SKIP: I’m in. He tosses five in the pot.

GUIDO 1: I need a ten for an inside straight.  They’re all gone.  I fucking fold.

RICHARD: That’s nice, Chuck. Why don’t you tell us what you have?  Three’s company.  Down and dirty.

Once again, Richard deals the cards cleanly, deliberately.

                     Pair of ten’s still high.  I bet two bucks.

LAURIE: I’m out.

SKIP: Me, too.

RICHARD: Throws in his cards.

KEVIN: Richard, what did you have?

RICHARD: You’re gonna have to pay to see my cards. Another round is played. Several hands latter, a buzzer sounds. It’s the deli delivery bringing trays of sandwiches, calzones, and pizzas. Dinner is gulped down with beer and whisky, followed by cigars.  Scarcely fifteen minutes ensues before the playing resumes.

GUIDO 1: Hey, is this a party or a fucking poker game?

GUIDO 2: O.K., O.K., O.K. Deal the fucking cards!

KEVIN: Whose deal is this, anyway?

HAROLD: It’s Laurie’s.

Laurie leans across the table as she deals her hand, exposing her cleavage.

GUIDO 1: Great knockers. Are they for real or just silicone?

LAURIE: Wouldn’t you like to come in for a taste?

GUIDO 1: Don’t mind if I do.

LAURIE: Oh, fuck you, Chuck.

GUIDO 2: What the hell do you expect, Laurie. You’ve got everything out on display. Maybe, we all want a taste!

LAURIE: Go to hell, you BASTARDS!

Laughter ripples round the table.

RITA: You tell them, Laurie.

KEVIN: Cut the crap!  Let’s play.

LAURIE: That’s as close as any of you will ever get!

GUIDO 1: Laurie, you’re so full of shit. Admit it, you want me. Hell, you want all of us!

GUIDO 2: Just say the word, Laurie.

LAURIE: Ignoring the Guidos. Richard’s ace is high.

RICHARD: That’s good for a fiver.

GUIDO 2: Fuck, I’m gone.

HAROLD: I’m in.

JOE: Too rich for my blood.

KEVIN: I’m out.

The remaining players: Harold, Laurie, George, Skip, Guido 1, and Richard call the bet. Laurie leans over to deal six more cards. The men seated at the table get another good look down her dress. All but Skip shout out.

             Aaaahoooooooooo.

             Woof, woof.

             Ahoof, aaaahoofff.

             Smoooooooooch.

             Oooonahhhhhh. Oooonahhhhhh.

             Give us some of those titties.

LAURIE: FUCK YOU ALL, BASTARDS!

Still, Laurie can’t quite hide the fact that she’s enjoying the attention, however raunchy.

               Ace of hearts, holy shit, AN ACE OF HEARTS, is dealt to Richard!

RICHARD: Pair of aces bets TWENTY-FIVE BUCKS.

TABLE: Groans all around.

               Motherfucker.

               Screw you, Richard.

               The bastard.

HAROLD: I’m out.

LAURIE: I’ll see you, Richard.

GEORGE: I’m out.

SKIP: Matching.

GUIDO1: I’m in.

LAURIE: That leaves Richard, Skip, Chuck, and yours truly. More cards are dealt.  More cleavage is shown. More howls are brayed by the wolf pack. Again, Richard is dealt an ace; this one is an ace of clubs.

GUIDO 1: Jesus Fucking Christ!

RICHARD: Another Twenty-five.

LAURIE: Shit.  I’m down.

SKIP: I want to call, but I’m low on cash.  Can I go light?

RICHARD: What do you have, Skip? You’re not really trying to fill your inside straight are you?

SKIP: Are you going to let me go light or not?

RICHARD: Sure, it’s your funeral.

SKIP: He puts fifteen in, takes ten out of the pot, placing it off to the side.

           There, I’m light ten. Laurie, give me a sweet card!

LAURIE: She deals a card face down to Skip. Everyone’s silent, waiting.

GUIDO 1: I’m down.

LAURIE: Here’s a card for Richard.

RICHARD: Glancing over at Skip’s hand. Trip aces check.

SKIP: Ah hah!  I’m betting twenty-five bucks.

RICHARD: You mean you’re going to go light for twenty-five.

There’s an edge to Richard’s voice that is razor sharp.

SKIP: Whatever. He takes twenty-five out of the pot, placing it on top of the ten.

RICHARD: Well, Skip.  This is going to cost you. Here’s your twenty-five bucks and a hundred more.

Whistles and gasps all around.

SUE: Hey, I though this was going to be a friendly game. A friendly game, Richard!

TABLE: You know, I bet that son-of-a-bitch has the fourth ace in the hole.

               Sure he does.

               You’re toast, Skip!

Laughter.

SKIP: Pausing for dramatic effect. You know what? I don’t think so! Richard, I’m calling your bluff.

As Skip says this he takes another hundred from the pot, transferring it to his light pile.

RICHARD: There’s no such thing as friendly poker. Just as there’s never friendly fire if it hits you. Poker’s just another name for war, and I’m coming in for the kill.

Without emotion, Richard turns over his cards. To the astonishment of those watching, his hand reveals only triple aces.

                    Let’s see you beat that Skip!

SKIP: Where’s that fourth ace of yours, Richard? Read ‘em and weep.

Skip turns over his hole card, revealing a seven high straight.

           Richard, you’re down. You’ve dropped your trousers on this one. And to think there’s so little there.

TABLE: Laughter.

              Richard, you’re nothing but bluff.

              Way to go Skip!

RICHARD: His face is crimson. He’s not accustomed to losing. Defeat has robbed him of his calculated cool. He percolates rage, nothing but. YOU’RE ALL A BUNCH OF LOOsers! FUCKERS. I could flatten you all with both my hands tied.  Just watch me!

SKIP: Reaches across the table to rake in the pot. He tosses Laurie two twenties. That’s for filling my straight!

Laurie smiles a wide one.

    And so the game continues without providing even the slightest pretext of a team meeting.  Just poker, menacing poker.  When it becomes apparent that the betting will continue throughout the night, all but the hardcore players head for home.  By the time Mer and I say our good-byes, there are only two women remaining: Laurie and Izzi.  Izzi’s draped over Richard.  Laurie’s still gambling, but I can tell by her scowls she’s miffed at Izzi for homing in on Richard.  It’s nearly midnight when Mer and I walk down the steps into New York’s cold, dank air.  But by comparison to the stench of Richard’s apartment, it breathes crystal clear.  We take the train back to Hoboken.  From there, I drive home to Hastings on Hudson.

.     .     .     .

    On Sunday morning, I give Skip a call.

    “Owwwww,” he greets me.

    “You sound terrible.”

    “Aggghhhhhh...that poker game.”

    “Skip, that was Friday.”

    “Don’t remind me.”

    “And?”

    Muffled sounds flit over the receiver, then softly, “I’m still taking heat from Helen.”

    “For what?”

    “I never made it back on Friday night.”

    “What the hell happened?”

    “The playing went on all night.  I must have fallen asleep, and when I woke up, it was dawn.  Of course, it didn’t help that I was down a couple hundred after winning most of the night.  To top it off, I’ve got a hangover to end all hangovers.  Those lunatics were still at it when I left.”

    “Who?”

    “Oh, the Guidos...”

    “How’d they do?”

    “They lost some, though not much.”

    “Laurie?”

    “I don’t recall.  I think she was down some.  Ahhhhoooaannnn.  Kevin and George were in the red.”

    “What about Harold and Joe?”

    “They won a few bucks, but Richard ran off with most of the dough.”  Skip yawns over the phone, adding, “Hey, remind me not to play again with your crew.  They’re vicious.  Looks like this poker game is going to be real regular.”

    “What?”

    “Yeah, they’re talking about getting together on Friday’s.  I’m out of it; that’s for sure.  I’ll be up to my neck in honeydo.”

    “Honeydew?”

    “Honeydo this; honeydo that.  Got to make amends for Friday’s all nighter.”

.     .     .     .

Once again, Skip calls it right.  Friday night at Richard’s becomes a kind of team ritual.  Mostly the men show up, though women traipse through now and again with breezy familiarity.  Occasionally, I stop by to say hello.  If I’m uneasy about the crew congregating at Richard’s, I remind myself that this, too, is bonding.  What’s the downside anyway?  So far no one has sustained any real loses.  Hell, Richard’s one of the good guys.  Maybe he’ll even bring the Guidos around to my way of thinking.  Besides, look at Richard’s sales!  He’s now the top performer on the eastern seaboard.  Another year and I’ll be lobbying hard for his promotion.  Let him have his fun.

Together Richard and I continue to call on major accounts.  Thanks to his efforts, Amtech is developing a presence in New York City and Queens.  For the first time, all five boroughs are showing potential now that Chuck’s actually selling in Brooklyn and the Bronx.  Even Long Island looks brighter since Jimmy’s closed a few deals in Nassau.  And if the new rep, Frank Anthony, that I had hired in March can just bring in a few orders in Suffolk, we’ll be golden.

Anyway, that’s what I hope will happen.  But in sales, I have learned that nothing ever goes smoothly.  Once again, the shit starts flying.  Frank disappears.  I end up having to fire him by mail.  With Frank’s departure, all hell breaks loose.

Richard’s the first to call.

“I heard you fired Frank.”

“He wasn’t doing his job.  He was selling pharmaceuticals for Sancroft.”

“That’s not what he claims.”

“Richard, Frank never returned my messages; he provided no documentation of his activities; he was unavailable for sales calls.  Hell, he sold no business!  The guy was a disaster.”

“That’s not what I’ve been told.”

Then the Guidos ring me up.  Chuck, as usual, gets right to the point.

“I understand you hired Frank for seven-fucking-thousand more than us.  That’s an outrage.”

“A fucking outrage,” Jimmy chimes in.

“Look, you know how critical it is that we bring in new business this year.  Frank had the credentials.  He had the expertise to jumpstart a bare-bones territory.  Besides, the package Frank received was good for this year only.”

“Seven-fucking-thousand more,” growls Chuck.

“Yeah, seven thousand more,” echoes Jimmy.

“Not to mention those bitches of Westchester,” Chuck adds.  “What the hell did they do to deserve those kind of bucks!  What about me?  Why aren’t I paid that much?  I deserve it.  I’m better them all of them.”

“So am I,” insists Jimmy.

“Look,” I say, “you were both given a substantial account base.  You have some of the most lucrative territories in my region.  Work hard and nobody will approach your earnings.  It’s as simple as that.”

“You’ll pay for this!”  They slam down both their phones.

Then I get another call.  This one’s from Mer.

“Sue, how dare you do this to me.  After all I’ve done for you....”

Followed by one from Rita.

“You might at least have told me.  I didn’t have to hear it from the street.”

Laurie, like Chuck, says what’s on her mind.

“You’re scum, not to be trusted.”

Their outrage defies gravity.  It flows across telephone wires in the form of computer files over county and state lines, packet switching across networks in microseconds.  In another era, bad news of this sort might have taken days, weeks, even months to coalesce.  But on this occasion, my team’s anger becomes instantly toxic, attacking the moral of our team like the Internet Worm.  Everyone stops selling.  I step in to save their accounts.  I troubleshoot problems round-the-clock even as the orders run dry.

Weeks go by.  Mer hands me her letter of resignation.  She’s accepted a position as Assistant Program Director of Children’s Global Resources.  I’m devastated.  I hope I can change her mind, but that seems doubtful.  Another three days pass.  Then, Tal Parsons calls.  By now, I’m struggling frantically to hold the team together.

“Sue, do you know you’ve got an insurrection brewing?” he asks.

I tell him about Mer’s resignation and my efforts to try to keep her.  I discuss the damage caused by Frank Anthony when I fired him.  I talk of my efforts since then to try to reunite my team.  Tal doesn’t seem particularly surprised by anything that I say.  I’m hardly astonished to learn that several of my reps—Richard, Chuck, and Jimmy—called him to complain about the injustice of their compensation plans.

“Look, Sue,” Tal says, “this situation cannot continue.  It’s poisoning your team.  I want you to set up a meeting of your group.  How’s next Thursday around lunch?  I’ll fly in to talk to everyone.  Book a hotel near the Newark airport.  Try to see if you can get Mer to attend.”

I make the arrangements and then stew.  I barely sleep; I hardly eat.  Anything could happen.  I’m on the phone calling everyone, giving details for the meeting, putting out feelers, dousing fires, and promising the world in hopes of maintaining loyalty.  Stick with me; you won’t regret it.  I’ll make it up to you.  We’re all in this together.  We’ve got to make this work.  We’ll meet the year-end numbers.  I promise.  Work with me, and the money will come.  Trust me.  Every sentence rings hollow.  It seems my struggle to save my team and protect my job has me uttering nothing more than a string of “empowerment” clichés.

With Mer, I beg.  It’s that simple.

“I know you’re planning on leaving.  I’m asking only that you attend this one last meeting before you commit to a new job.... Sure, I’ll arrange for you to meet privately with Tal.... Whatever you want, Mer.  Anything.”

Despite my best efforts, Mer remains noncommittal.  “Maybe.  I’ll think about it.  But really, what’s the point?  It won’t change anything.”  She’s cool as ice, though at least we’re speaking.  At least there’s that.

Two days before Tal flies in, I get a call from Richard.

“I understand Mer’s resigning because of the discrepancies in pay.”

Now I’m terrified.  I’m losing Mer; I can’t lose Richard, too.  I’ve got to contain my losses.  One rep is bad enough.  So I try for some spin control.

“It’s not clear what Mer will do.  She’s thinking of attending Friday’s meeting with Tal.  I certainly hope she’ll come.  There’s a great deal of information he wishes to convey to all of you on matters relating to compensation—things I’m not in a position to disclose—that might sway Mer.  However, I recognize that she has an exciting new job offer.  Ultimately, she must decide for herself what’s best.  Frankly, Richard, I’m more concerned right now with your take on things.”

“I’m not happy that as the highest performing rep on the Eastern seaboard there are far less experienced members of the team that have compensation plans superior to mine.  But I realize that your decision to implement a two-tiered pay structure was motivated out of a desire to attract quality salespeople.  I might quibble with your tactics, but not your motives.  Your action was a calculated business decision, not a personal vendetta.  I’ll live.”

“Richard, I never advocated a two-tiered pay scale.  Believe me, I wanted all of you compensated at the highest level possible.  That was what I advocated; the two-tiered pay structure was what corporate gave me.  I explained this to Mer, but she refused to listen.  She’s rather naïve about business.  She doesn’t understand that my options were limited.  But I’m hoping that if she attends Friday’s meeting these things will become clear.  If there’s any way you could persuade her to come, I’d be so grateful.”

“I’ll give her a jingle.”

By the end of our conversation, Richard’s voice is so warm and consoling that for the first time in weeks I’m hopeful.

But things are never quite what they appear to be.  The next day I get a call from Mer.

“Sue, isn’t it enough that you pay me less.  Must you also insult me?

“What are you talking about?”

“You told Richard that I’m immature and naïve, not cut out for this job.  Weren’t those your exact words?  Is that one of your stock replies whenever you must explain why a rep quits?  Do you bash everyone who goes out the door?  Has our friendship meant so little to you?”

“Mer, I never said those words, never!  Why would I?  I was hoping Tal would be able to convince you to stay.  What could I possibly gain by trashing you?”

“You know I’m quitting.  I never agreed to attend the meeting.”

“I hoped and dreamed you would stay.  There seemed a chance.  Why would I close the door on that possibility?”

“You know I have one foot out the door; it’s Richard you’re wooing.”

“I told Richard you were naïve about some of the realities of business and didn’t understand that my hands were tied on the issue of compensation.  I’m not proud I said that.  I should never have mentioned you or discussed our differing views on the matter.  I’m sorry.

“The truth is,” I continued, “that I never meant to pay you less.  Why would I, except I had no other choice?  I had no intention of betraying our friendship.  I was just trying to salvage the business.”

“One of you is lying.”

“Why would I lie?”

“To save your skin, of course.  Don’t expect me to attend Friday’s meeting.  My formal letter of resignation is already in the mail.  Edward will drop my stuff off.  By the way, Richard wants your job.”

“What?”

“Watch your back, idiot!   Haven’t you figured out what the Stud’s up to?  He’s lining up a battalion to go to war with you: Chuck, Jimmy, Laurie, everyone he can!  Frank’s the catalyst for all of this.  Surely, you’ve seen it coming?  You’ve got war on your hands.  Haven’t you wondered why there were no great losses at poker?   The guy’s a pro; he could have wiped everyone out.  Poker was Richard’s way of building an army of insurgents.  Tomorrow’s your ultima ratio regum.

Then I hear that dull click of the receiver, followed by the drone of the dial tone.  

.     .     .     .

That afternoon, Edward drops Mer’s papers off.  Resting on the top of one box is a small tape.  Attached to it is a Post-it with my name on it.  Curious, I pop it into my recorder.  The quality of the tape is poor, as if the mike was hidden.  I guess the recording was made during one of Richard’s poker games.

GUIDO 1: For Christ’s sake—deal.  Fucking deal, Richard!

RICHARD: The point is Queen Bitch must go.

GUIDO 1: What makes you think you’re so fucking powerful? Don’t you think we would have sent her packing if we could have? It’s not like we haven’t tried.

RICHARD: Timing’s everything, Chuck.

GUIDO 1: And what makes you the expert? Sure, we’d all like her canned. It would serve her right.  She thinks she’s so fucking special with that big suburban house of hers in that ritzy neighborhood. And what about her friggin’ yacht and Mercedes? That bitch even thinks her shit doesn’t stink!

LAURIE: She thinks she’s so special. Like I couldn’t do her job with my eyes closed.

GUIDO 2: She probably invites all the managers out on that boat of hers, so she can get a fucking promotion. Any of you been on board?

GUIDO 1: No fucking way.

RICHARD: Why would I?

LAURIE: Who the hell wants to go sailing with her, anyway?

GUIDO 1: That cunt should be home where she belongs, making babies. Instead, she’s taken a man’s job. Who the fuck does she think she is?

GUIDO 2: Damn straight!

LAURIE: Bitterly. Some of us have to work to pay our bills.  There’s no prince fucking charming in our future!

GUIDO 1: I tell ya, that husband of hers should support her. Tie a fucking apron around her waist and strap on some leg irons. Then let’s see how far the bitch advances.

LAURIE: It would serve her right.  That’s for sure.

RICHARD: The point is, I think we have a real opportunity to use this Frank situation to get her butt tossed.

GUIDO 1: Cautiously. Think it will actually work?

RICHARD: Absolutely, if we’re united against her.  Hell, we’ll have Tal shitting in his pants if we threaten to quit over this.

GUIDO 1: No way I’m quitting over this. I need this fucking job!

RICHARD: Asshole, we don’t quit. We threaten to quit.  Big  difference!

GUIDO 2: I don’t know. We could end up being the ones that get shitcanned!

LAURIE: What about the rest of the team? You better get their fucking support if you want to win on this.

RICHARD: I’ve been making contacts. Harold and Joe are leaning our way. I think I can deliver them. Michael’s sitting on the fence right now and so is Mer, but I think I can make headway in bringing them over to our side. Anyhow, what do you say? Are we united?

LAURIE: What about Peter?

GUIDO 1: Why do we even want the support of that nigger fag?

GUIDO 2: Like he counts.

IZZI: Softly, but testily. Leave race out of this.

GUIDO 1: What are you Izzi, a goddamn nigger lover? Come to think of it, you’re pretty dark yourself. Are you one of them?

IZZI: I’m telling you to shut up.

RICHARD: That’s enough, Chuck. Are you out of your mind? Tal’s black. Or haven’t you noticed?

GUIDO 1: So? Does that mean we have to suck his dick? Anyway, you got my damn support.

GUIDO 2: Mine, too.

LAURIE: I couldn’t think of a better send off for that fucking broad.

GUIDO 1: What about you Izzi.  Are you in?

IZZI: Turning toward Richard. I don’t know Richard. Is this such a good idea?

RICHARD: He touches Izzi’s hand and says in a low rumble. Trust me, baby, I have everything under control. Then he turns to everyone at the table.   Izzi’s with us.

LAURIE: Jesus, Richard! Just because you have your dick up her skirt what makes you think she’ll go along with you? Don’t you get it? That bitch is getting paid more than any of us! I want to hear Izzi say she’s with us.

RICHARD: Shut the fuck up, Laurie.

LAURIE: And what the hell makes her one of us?  The fact that you’re bonking her? Shit, the bitch doesn’t even play poker!

RICHARD: Walks around the table. He slaps Laurie hard across the face. His blow knocks her to the floor, where she lies sobbing. As Richard approaches again, Laurie raises a hand to her face in hopes of fending off another blow. Richard stands over her shouting, I told you to shut the fuck up!

IZZI: Richard, don’t. Don’t hit her again for God’s sake.

JIMMY: Richard, there’s no need for that.

With effort, Richard regains his composure and walk back to his seat.

GUIDO 1: Awwww, the bitch had it coming.

Laurie continues to sob until Jimmy helps her up from the floor.

RICHARD: Continuing as if nothing happened. So here’s the plan. We’ll Launch a campaign against Sue forcing Tal to fly in for a meeting. I’ll also discreetly call the other reps to line up more support, but first I need to know you’re all with me.

GUIDO 1: Sure, sure. But don’t go and blow the whole deal talking with the other reps. We don’t want Sue to find out. Let’s not get burned.

RICHARD: I’ll be discreet.

GUIDO 2: Yeah, I’m in. There’s hesitation in his voice.

RICHARD: Laurie? There’s only a slight edge to Richard’s voice, but it’s menacing.

LAURIE: Sure, Richard. Laurie’s reply is flat like the affirmation of a battered child.

RICHARD: Then it’s settled.

GUIDO 1: Izzi?

RICHARD: She’s with us. Let’s get on with the game.

There’s the snapping of cards; the play of poker resumes.

.     .     .     .

 I didn’t sleep last night.  I kept hearing Richard’s voice and those of the Guidos.  I couldn’t shake the image of Laurie knocked to the floor, whimpering while Richard stood over her.  And Izzi, of course.  Why was she there?  What were her motives?  If knowledge is power, why am I not confident?  Where’s my leverage?

Instead, I’m a mass of angry emotions.  They planned this insurrection weeks in advance.  This diabolical scheme was born, not out of impulse, but out of deep, brooding resentment.  And today’s the big day.  I should be confident and poised for victory.  Instead, I’m feeling betrayed and defenseless.  How could they do this to me?  After all I’ve done for them.

But now there’s nothing left to do but shower and get dressed, have a bite of carbo washed down with caffeine, and drive.  I get in my car; I arrive at the hotel; I find my way to Tal’s suite, dreading every step of the way.

My timing’s good.  Tal checked in just a few minutes ago.  He’s ready to go over the agenda for today’s meeting with me.  All I keep thinking is, how much does he know?  Not too much, I hope.

“Sue, there seems to be quite a bit of dissatisfaction in your team,” Tal says after a few minutes.

You don’t fucking say.  “What do you mean?”

“Your reps are furious about the two-tier wage system.”

“Is that a revelation to you, Tal?  We knew it was only a matter of time before the facts got out.”

“Sue, let’s not go over this again,” he replies with irritation in his voice. “Only some of the reps could qualify.  It was that or nothing.”

“You and I know that, but do they understand?”

“Well, that’s what we’re going to make clear today.”

“That would certainly help.”

“And God knows you could use some help.”

We laugh.  Life’s full of risks.  Why not take the plunge?

“So what sort of situation do we have here, Tal?  Who’s spoken to you?  Don’t send me into this meeting blind.”  Is he going to fucking support me or what?

“Sue, your biggest problems, as we discussed, are Richard and Chuck.  Of course, Jimmy’s a headache, but he can be managed.  And I wouldn’t worry about Laurie.  She’ll be gone by the end of the month.”  Tal drops his voice, adding, “Mer called yesterday.  She won’t be coming, I’m afraid.  I’m sorry that she’s leaving, but we’ll get through this.”

Relief flows through me as if I’m mainlining on Prozac.  Skip’s with me.  Oh God, he’s really going to support me!  Now that I’m sure I have his backing, I find myself thinking, you know I might actually make it through the day.

“Tal, I thought I had her.  She said she’d try to come.  Honestly, I expected her here today.  But she leaving, Tal, and there’s not a thing I can do.”

A tear rolls down my cheek.  Damn!  I wipe it away quickly, hoping Tal doesn’t see it.  Women don’t cry at business meetings.  Not ever.  I continue, my voice shaky, “I assume you’ve received Mer’s letter of resignation.”

“The job’s getting to you, isn’t it, Sue?  Hell, it gets to all of us.  There’s always someone in a team with whom you have strong ties.  And then when they turn against you or fail to live up to your expectations, it tears you apart.  That’s normal.  Still, it doesn’t make it easy.  Unfortunately, it’s one of the painful parts of the job.  And in this business, you have to take some lumps.”

“I’m O.K., really.”  Another tear runs down my check.  Angrily, I wipe it away.

“Sue, I know you.  You present a tough exterior.  And that’s fine.  Frankly, the business demands it.  But this is about Mer, isn’t it?  The two of you were real close.  I know you and Tom spent quite a bit of time with Mer and Edward.  It hurts; doesn’t it?”

I say nothing.  I can’t.  If I speak I’ll shed a flood of tears, a fucking dam burst.  So we sit silently for a moment.  Then with effort I say it, “Yeah, the job gets to me sometimes.”

“Perhaps, I should arrange a one-on-one meeting between Richard and myself.”

Out of nowhere there appears this incoming Scud.  Friendly fire, my ass.  Let down your guard just for a moment in this job and your dead, d e a d!!!  My tears are gone.  Now there’s only anger.

“What are you trying to do, Tal?  Richard’s trouble.  He’d have my job if he could.  What are you suggesting?  Are you asking for my resignation?”

“Of course not.”

“Then don’t meet privately with Richard.  Let him bring his issues up at the meeting.”

“You feel that strongly?”

“I do, Tal.  Since when are we in the practice of accommodating insurrectionists?  He’s a rep.  He’s earned no special privileges.  If this whole situation calms down and his numbers continue to improve then we can see about offering him a promotion in a year or two.”

Like hell we will.  Richard’s history.  I’m sitting with the tape in my hand and a tiny recorder in my briefcase.  That alone is enough to obliterate the bastard.  But I keep it in reserve in case Richard launches another Scud.  Let him try to take me out and make a play for my job.  All the better!  I’ll just watch him crash and burn by his own firepower.  I’ll have the supreme pleasure of seeing him incinerate right in front of his teammates.  I’ll have my pound of flesh. 

“Then it’s settled.”

“Thanks, Tal.  I owe you a big one.  You won’t regret this.”  Now I pray.  I pray for victory.  

.     .     .     .

It’s noon when the team assembles.  There’s Richard, of course, and Chuck, Jimmy, Rita, Joe, Harold, Michael, Peter, Izzi, and Caroline.  Laurie doesn’t show.  We’re in a conference room.  Tal’s at the podium.  I’m at his side.

TAL: The decision to have two different levels of compensation was a corporate decision. As you all know, Sue has fought for two years to boost your pay. She felt this was essential to retaining you. I understand how tough it is to live in metro New York. But frankly, we don’t have the budget to increase your compensation and bring on new people.  The simple fact is this: we need more revenue—lots of it—if we’re going to continue operating in this market. And the quickest way to achieve that is by hiring new reps and having you sell more. If the new sales people are assigned unworked territories, it’ll be at least a year or two before their income has any chance of approaching yours. And by next year, they’ll have the same base compensation plan as all of you. So no one is getting more; you’re all working with different handicaps. And, like it or not, we must all live within these parameters.

RICHARD: Well, that’s not what Frank said.

GUIDO 1: Yeah, Frank said...

TAL: Is Frank with us now? Did Frank sell anything? Did Frank ever do anything? Be reasonable. What’s it going to take to convince you?  Do I have to show you Frank’s double pay stubs from Amtech and Sancroft? Are you demanding to know the details of the legal case Amtech is bringing against Frank? Well, unfortunately, I’m not at liberty to discuss this matter, though I assure you Amtech’s suit against Frank is in the works. It is important for you to realize that Frank was nothing more than a petty thief.

GUIDO 2: But Mer...

TAL: Mer is relocating to England and therefore found it necessary to seek a new job. Her departure is a loss for Amtech, but it’s irrelevant to the issues at hand.

RICHARD: That’s not true.  Mer quit because...

TAL: Cutting him off.  Richard, I spoke to Mer this morning. While she was disappointed in the way this whole business was handled, she’s leaving because that’s what’s best for her. Now the blame, if there’s any, rests with me.  I instructed Sue to implement these policies without familiarizing you with the details. Perhaps, that was a mistake; I don’t know. Maybe Frank’s dismissal could have been achieved more diplomatically, though our lawsuit suggests otherwise. Anyway, I’m asking you all to get past this. Izzi and Caroline will be compensated at higher levels than the rest of you throughout the remainder of the fiscal year. After that, you’re all on an equal footing.  Let’s try to give them your complete support. As for Sue, I’m sure you understand the difficulty of her situation and her unstinting loyalty toward all of you. Now, if we could get on to other business...

RICHARD: I thought we were going to have a full discussion of this matter?

TAL: We just did.

GUIDO 2: Well, well, what makes Sue so special?

TAL: What the hell are you talking about?

GUIDO 1: The fact is, she fucked up with this pay-shit stuff.  Then she goes and fires Frank by letter. Those are two major screw-ups.  Why is she still here, dammit?  Richard’s cool. Why isn’t he our manager?

GUIDO 2: Why does she always beat the rap?

TAL: I said this before. I’ll say it again. Sue’s hands were tied on this compensation issue. Frank’s a problem, but that’s not Sue’s doing. I called this meeting so that we could discuss performance and management related issues, not personal vendettas. Does Sue go out with you? Does she train you? Has she helped you close accounts?  Has she kept you abreast of company policies?  These are the kinds of questions that would be raised if we were evaluating someone’s performance.  But that’s not why we’re here today.

RICHARD: But...

GUIDO 1: I tell ya...

TAL: I want some input from the rest of you. Peter?

PETER: Sue’s great. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for her skills and effectiveness in training, closing, and addressing issues related to the competition. Peter nods slightly toward Sue then turns and flashes a smile at Richard, Chuck, and Jimmy. He’s had it with their gay bashing.  It’s time to settle a few scores.

TAL: Michael?

MICHAEL: Money, it’s the damn money!

TAL: Rita?

RITA: Sue’s effective. But the two-tiered pay structure...

TAL: We’ve addressed that, Rita. Joe?

JOE: Money, money, money.

TAL: Harold?

HAROLD: I got no problem wid huh.

TAL: Izzi?

IZZI: Eyes cast down. I’ve no complaints.

TAL: Caroline?

CAROLINE: Sue’s been very helpful.

TAL: Other comments?

Silence, blissful silence.

TAL: Obviously, what we have here is a personal matter. Richard, Chuck, Jimmy, and Sue meet me in my suite immediately after this session. Let’s not waste everyone else’s time.  Now as for the corporate strategy for developing market share, let’s look at some of those projections...

.     .     .     .

Afterwards, we gather in Tal’s suite.  No sooner are we seated, then Tal snaps at Richard. 

“What the hell’s going on?”

“You heard it.  The reps aren’t happy with the way the territory’s being managed.”

“I heard nothing of the sort.”

“Well, I’m sure if I were running the show there’d be a lot more revenue.”

“Like hell there would, Richard,” I hissed, “why you couldn’t even sell your way out of a paper bag until I trained you.  Why...”

“Richard, let’s get a few things clear, shall we?” shouts Tal. “Sue’s your manager.   She’s going to stay your manager.   If you have a problem with that, LEAVE!  And if I hear any more of crap from you the two of you,” he said gesturing to Chuck and Jimmy, “you’re fired.  Do I make myself clear?  Richard, you want Sue’s job?  Fine.  Earn it.  Sell the hell out of your territory.  Build your revenue base.  Prove your worth.  Then I’ll promote Sue and you can have her job.  Got it?

“Now the three of you, GET OUT!”

Three pairs of feet go shuffling out.  Then the door slams.  Tal walks over and touches my arm.  I want to respond; really I do.  Tal saved my ass.  I owe him big time.  But I feel as if I’m turned to stone with a cauldron of molten lava blazing inside of me.  I’m a bundle of emotions—anger, devastation, worry, fear, and exhaustion.  There seems no way to express all this.  Even if I could, would I want to?

“Sue?  You O.K.?”

Somehow, words come out.  “Tal, I’m so sorry I put you through this.  I didn’t think Richard would makes things so ugly.  I thought he would back down once he knew he’d have to say everything in a sales meeting.  Maybe you were right, maybe a one-on-one meeting would have been better.”

“You’re always second guessing yourself, Sue.  I’m glad everything’s out in the open.  We crushed him.  And Sue, your team supported you.”

“Is that what you call it?”

“Except for your bozos.  And now even they’re under wraps.  Let’s put this behind us.  It’s been a long day.”  By now even Tal’s shoulders sag and his voice begins to drag.

“Tal, I can’t thank you enough.  You won’t regret this.”

“I never thought I would.”  We embrace.  I leave Tal’s suite and head for home.

But then, irony of all fucking ironies, who should I run into the parking lot, but Richard.  I decide to grind my heel in a little, a lot actually.  Nothing like crushing a man when he’s down.

“Did you really think you’d steal my job, Richard?”

“What?”

“You heard what I said.  You thought you could buy your victory with all those months of lousy poker.  As if throwing some games would do the trick.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You think I didn’t know what you were doing?”  I’ve got the goods on you.  I reach into my briefcase, pulling out the tape.

“What?  Who the fuck double-crossed me?”  He tries to snatch it.

“Does it matter?  By the way,” I lied, “there’s more where this one came from.  And, of course, I have copies of everything.  But best of all, Richard, I don’t even have to use it.  The fact is, you’re dead meat.

“But what I really want to know,” I continue, “is this: how come all that German philosophizing left you high and dry?  You should switch to Italian, Richard.  Your pathetic schemes have more in common with Machiavelli than Clausewitz.  But even Machiavelli realized that when a man seeks princely status by the favor of his fellow citizens he must maintain this popular base of support or risk his downfall.  Apparently, that little detail escaped your notice.  So, Richard, where’s your fucking favor now?

“And while you’re dusting yourself off, you had better reread your frigging Clausewitz.  He argues that it’s important to understand what kind of war you’re engaged in and not to mistake it for something else.  Richard, that means you should have had all your howitzers lined up before you tried to take me out.  Your pathetic attack gave me both the means and opportunity to squash you.  Did you actually think that you could get management to support you?  On what basis?  You couldn’t even get the other reps behind you.  You handed me victory, asshole!  The fact is, Richard, you’re toast!  You’re nothing but a three-card stud trying to bluff your way through life with an open hand.”

“I don’t have to listen to your crap.”

Richard shoves me aside and heads for his Thunderbird.  He gets in, slamming the car door.  The ignition whines as he turns the key, and I hear the grinding of the transmission as he puts it into reverse.  The Thunderbird jumps back, nearly colliding with a new Buick Regal that’s leaving the parking lot.

“Asshole, watch what you’re doing!” yells the man in the Buick.

“Mind your own fucking business!” shouts Richard.

Richard backs his car further out, then shifts to forward, spinning the wheels on asphalt.  He speeds out, leaving a faint stench of burnt rubber.  A plume of exhaust rises into the air and gradually settles, barely leaving a trace.  

.     .     .     .

Richard lasted nearly another five months.  His sales leveled out.  He lost his groundswell of support.  Even his weekly poker games fizzled.  Throughout that period, we barely spoke.  I’d be lying if I said I was sorry to see him go, even though his departure was costly when measured by decreased revenue and the extra time required of me to hire and train a new salesman.  Nevertheless, his parting was a cause for celebration.  Let me tell you, there’s nothing better than the sound of a penny-ante hustler as he bites the dust, especially when it’s Richard, my three-card stud.