Literary Criticism & Political Commentary

The Cusp of Dreams/Chapter 10: Legal Tenders

Copyright©2000 by Diana E. Sheets

On the road with Laurie. Always jarring. Like jackhammers blasting through bedrock. Not only is the sound unbearable, but debris flies everywhere, and there’s always the potential for metal getting bent. Consequently, you’re well advised to wear protective gear.

That’s what I’m thinking as we sit in a customer’s office. It seems Laurie’s implementation of H & P Rigging’s facility upgrade failed to account for delays in construction. We’re meeting with Warren Ravin, the plant manager. If his flushed face and flailing hands indicate anything, the guy’s enraged. Laurie pays no heed.

“O.K., so you’ve had labor problems,” says she, “but the contract clearly stipulates . . .”

“I’m not interested in your legal mumbo jumbo,” says he. “The union’s walkout clearly meant we could not keep the original timetable. My staff informed you of the problem. You promised to accommodate us.”

“I never said that,” says she. “You’re imagining things. Look at the contract. There’s no provision for walkouts, and there’s a ten percent penalty if your company fails to adhere to the schedule.”

“You know we discussed this. You promised to accommodate us. I expect promises to be kept.”

Despite Warren’s level voice, he’s emphatic. He’s ready to wage war with us. Technically, he may be liable—though that’s dubious given Laurie’s mishandling of this account—but his is a righteous battle from which we could never hope to emerge victorious. Fighting a customer under these circumstances is always a losing proposition. And it’s not as if we can afford to write off Warren’s business. If only Laurie had stayed on top of this account and alerted me to difficulties, we wouldn’t be in this jam.

“I never said anything of the sort,” Laurie insists.

Warren,” I say, as I give Laurie a hard kick to her right shin, “we realize . . . ”

“Ow.”

“We realize,” I continue, ignoring Laurie’s cry of pain, “the difficulty of your situation. Forgive me if there was any misunderstanding. Amtech will accommodate your new schedule, provided you can meet the revised timetable we’ve agreed upon today.”

“That won’t be a problem.”

“Good. I’ll have corporate fax you the revised scheduling agreement. Just sign it where indicated and fax it back to me, and we’ll be all set.”

“I’ll do that. Thank you, Sue, for providing a solution to our difficulties. We’ve been doing business together for a long time. I’d like to continue our relationship.”

Warren, Amtech is in the business of building and nurturing relationships with our customers. That’s what we’re all about. I’ve enjoyed getting together with you today. I’m glad we could work this out.”

Stroke and soothe, soothe and stroke. I matte down Warren’s ruffled fathers. We shake hands, parting with ease.

“How could you?” Laurie hisses, as we head for her car.

How could I? Why didn’t you keep me informed, Laurie? If only you had told me that the union’s walkout would result in contractual delays at H & P. We could easily have accommodated Warren’s request had I been notified a few weeks ago. I could have made arrangements for the engineering crews to do another job and rework H & P into the schedule at a later date. But they can’t totally modify their timetable at the last minute. As a result of your negligence, we’re going to be penalized fifteen hundred dollars for the cost overruns associated with this job.”

“I’m not taking the hit.”

“Laurie, you’ll be responsible for paying one third of the penalty. You can expect that amount deducted from your next paycheck. I’ll have to find a way for my budget to absorb the rest. Laurie, your poor judgment and lax handling of this account were inexcusable. It was your responsibility to inform me immediately of any difficulties. Your reckless behavior with regard to H & P will be noted in your file. You’ll receive by certified mail a copy of my assessment next week. And Laurie . . .”

“What?”

“Don’t ever bring me into another mess like this.”

“Fuck you!”

We sit silently as Laurie heads back to Passaic where my car’s parked. During that wordless drive, I think of Laurie’s performance at Amtech. Her personnel file bulges with reprimands. Take the Akers contract. Laurie neglected to have our engineers perform a structural site check that would have specified critical plant upgrades. Her sloppy handling of that job necessitated several design changes that, in effect, tripled our internal labor costs.

Then there was the Rawlings & Company contract. Laurie overcharged the customer by twelve percent. That amounted to over thirty thousand dollars in superfluous billings. Naturally, I forced her to rewrite the order with the appropriate adjustments in the customer’s favor.

And, of course, I could hardly forget the Plumpton and Ridgefield contract. Another fucking disaster. Laurie failed to submit some crucial financial documents that were pertinent to Plumpton’s capital equipment leasing agreement. Consequently, the company’s poor earnings‑to‑debt‑ratio over the past three years was never factored into the calculations made concerning the firm’s interest rate. When our finance group later turned up some troubling Dun and Bradstreet reports on Plumpton, the contract had to be adjusted. Given this new financial data, the interest rate for the account had to be increased by nearly two percent. Since Plumpton would not accept this steep rise, I had to lobby in Dayton to reduce several of our standard fees in order that Plumpton would incur only a one‑percent increase in its finance rate. Nevertheless, even with these herculean measures on my part, the additional monthly charges so angered the general manager at Plumpton that he nearly rescinded our agreement.

Because of Laurie’s mismanagement of several key accounts, she was placed on RIFT (Remedial Intervention Forestalling Termination) at the end of April. She was given three months to bolster her performance. We’re fourteen days into her countdown with still no measurable sign of improvement. Under the circumstances, I am meticulously documenting Laurie’s shortcomings. She knows she’s sliding down to the terminus. Still, I don’t expect her to go without a fight.

Over the past year, Laurie’s fought with nearly everyone except Rita. Many of her colleagues would probably celebrate her mittimus. Nor is management more kindly disposed toward Laurie. They view every prospective contract of hers as revenue shackled to a hand grenade. Her failure to write new business this past month only seems to ensure the inevitability of “The Grand Bounce.”

And while, professionally speaking, I’ll be relieved to see her go, on a personal level I dread putting any rep on RIFT. Dismissal becomes almost a foregone conclusion. And as tough as I am—as anyone must be in this business—there’s always a knot in my stomach.

Take this morning, for instance. I met with Laurie at a hotel near Paterson before we headed over to H & P Rigging. Because she’s on probation, I’m required to meet with her weekly. During today’s session, I reviewed the causes underlying her unsatisfactory performance and suggested methods to avoid these problems in the future. I also outlined a plan for developing new business.

Despite these constructive suggestions, our meeting was tense. When it was over I presented Laurie with a written performance evaluation and the corrective measures needed to be taken. I asked her to sign at the bottom of the page where indicated. While she did scrawl her signature, she also wrote in bold letters

LIES, ALL LIES!

“You can’t do this to me,” she hissed. 

“Laurie, you’ve done it to yourself. I’ve been telling you for months now that your performance is unacceptable. Every single one of your contracts has had major problems. You know you’ve got only two months to turn things around.”

“You’ve always been out to get me.”

“Laurie, I’m concerned with one thing only—your performance. If you’re selling, assuming your contracts are legit and you’re making your numbers, then I’m satisfied. If you are not meeting expectations, then I’ll have to let you go. It’s that simple. If you think that I’m engaged in some sort of personal vendetta against you, then I invite you to speak to my boss, Tal Parsons, or Connie Chu in personnel. But I think you’ll find both of them in agreement with my assessment of your performance.

“Anyway, what’s important here, Laurie, is that it’s still possible for you to turn your situation around. You’re more than capable of doing your job when you apply yourself.”

“I’ll fight you on this. And I’ll win.”

That was the beginning of our day. From there things only got worse. Of course, our meeting with H & P didn’t help. And by the time Laurie drove me back to my car, it was clear that she had had enough.

“Don’t come out with me any more.”

“Laurie,” I say, “this has been a bad day. Let’s start fresh next week. By then, you’ll have a new perspective on things.”

“You heard me; I’m through with this crap.”

“Laurie, if you refuse to go out with me, I’ll have to note that in your file. We’re traveling together so I can try to help you turn your performance around. If you don’t go out with me, you’ll only worsen your situation.”

“Get the fuck out of my car.”

So I do. And quickly, too. Frankly, I’m relieved when I’m back in my Mercedes headed for home. Another day with Laurie and, as always, it has been a goddamn nightmare.

As a manager, I like to think I know all the games reps play. But just when I’m confident that I’ve seen it all before, I’m thrown a new curve. Take Laurie, for instance. As things stand now, she’s destined for “The Chuck.” Her refusal to go out on calls with me virtually guarantees her ouster.

Sure, I try to reach her by telephone twice a week. But these days, I get a recorded message telling me that the number I have dialed has been disconnected. When I call the operator, she says Laurie’s new telephone number is unlisted. So I send her weekly correspondence by mail, only to have it returned. Then, after three weeks of silence, what do I get? A ring from Laurie.

“Sue, I’d like to speak with you. Can we meet for breakfast?”

“Sure, Laurie, that would be nice. By the way, I’ve tried calling you and contacting you by mail. The operator says you have a new telephone number and that it’s unlisted. According to the post office, you no longer have a P.O. box in Clifton. What’s the deal?”

“I’ll explain all that tomorrow when I meet with you.”

What’s she up to? A big order? (It may be radioactive, so bring the Geiger counter for this one.) Her resignation? (Dream on, baby!) She’s got new karma? (Pretty please.)

On June 5th, Laurie and I get together at Stefenapoulis diner in Passaic, New Jersey. It’s her eatery of choice. She’s sitting across from me scarfing down a Western omelet, a stack of pancakes, and gallons of coffee. Where does all that food go? There she is sliver‑thin and eating for two while my diet has me rationed to dry toast and tea. What is she? A human tapeworm? Ah, what do I care. A couple more weeks and she’ll get “The Order of the Boot.”

With thoughts of no more Laurie, I enjoy another sip of my coffee. “So what’s with the telephone and mail?” I ask.

“Things have been tough for me lately.”

“Tough? Laurie, you’ve got only a little more than a month to turn your performance around, and I haven’t even been able to reach you.”

“Well, I’ve been trying, really. It’s just that this thing with Skip has made me a wreck.”

“Skip? Skip who?”

“Skip Gibbons, of course.”

“What about Skip?”

“He keeps calling. He drops by my place unannounced. He’s always peeking in my windows. I’ve just changed my phone number and gotten a security system. I’m looking into getting a new postal address.”

“Skip? Are we talking about our Skip?”

“Stop pretending here, Sue. You know perfectly well.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I knew I couldn’t count on you. You’ve always had it in for me. But I’m not taking any more crap. I’ve met with an attorney from the EEOC.”

“WHAT???”

“You heard me, EEOC. I should have known not to expect any support from you.”

“Laurie, what the hell are you talking about?”

“Sue, you and I have gone through this again and again. I begged you to do something. I asked you to get him to stop. I told you to file disciplinary action against him.”

“What are you talking about? We’ve never, ever, discussed anything even remotely connected to Skip.”

“It’s just like you to deny everything! First, you say you’ll speak to Skip. Then, you tell me everything’s under control. But nothing changes. Skip keeps harassing me. I told you several times he was stalking me. You agreed to meet with Connie Chu and put a stop to things.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“You informed me that Skip had been placed under disciplinary action.”

“WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?”

“Stop pretending, Sue. I brought this matter up with you months ago. Since then, my life has been pure misery. I don’t sleep. I can’t work. Don’t you see what this has been doing to me?”

“It doesn’t seem to have affected your appetite.”

“Of course, I’m eating, but I can’t keep it down.”

“Laurie, you know perfectly well we’ve never discussed any of this before. I have no idea what you’re talking about. Is this some harebrained scheme to save your job? It won’t work, you know. And just when did you plan on giving me your new phone number and mailing address?”

“We’re way past that now. I have no further need to communicate with you. The matter is in the hands of government lawyers now.”

Tears roll down Laurie’s cheeks. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear they were real. She’s probably a sociopath. She’s about to cause Skip a world of hurt. All for a job that she’d never be able to keep.

“It’s not like you haven’t heard all of this before,” Laurie says as she walks out.

.     .     .     .

Two days later, I receive a letter from the Division of Civil Rights in Newark. I open it and begin reading.

“Lauren A. Bruskin has filed charges of sexual harassment against Amtech Sales Manager, Skip Gibbons. The first of eight incidents of sexual misconduct occurred during an Amtech sales function held on the 18th and 19th of January, 1991 at the New York City apartment of Richard Shaw, located at 503 Twenty‑second Street, unit 17, in Chelsea.”

Shit. My pulse starts racing. My heart begins pounding. What’s she up to? Is this just a desperate maneuver to save her job? Is she out to get Skip? Me? Amtech? Will she get the federal and state authorities to close down our entire northeast operations because we violated gambling laws? I can almost hear them knocking down my door. And see my ass sitting on a hard bench in some cold jail cell. My Tom? Divorced and living with another woman—younger, prettier, with earnings in the high six figures. I read on.

“Mr. Gibbons plied Ms. Bruskin with several glasses of bourbon before escorting her to Shaw’s bedroom when she complained of nausea. There, he took off her clothing. Despite Ms. Bruskin’s wishes, Mr. Gibbons penetrated her on three separate occasions during the early morning hours on the 19th of January.”

Sex, it’s only sex we’re talking here, despite Laurie’s assertion of rape. My pulse slows. My heart stops pounding. But then I think of poor Skip. He’s been set up. He didn’t; he wouldn’t; he couldn’t! I continue reading.

Following that incident, Mr. Gibbons approached Ms. Bruskin’s at her condominium in Clifton on January Twenty‑fourth and Thirtieth of that same month. Both times he insisted that that Ms. Bruskin continue providing him with sexual favors. She refused, demanding that Mr. Gibbons cease all contact with her, or she would call the police. Mr. Gibbons continued harassing Ms. Bruskin by telephone. Her diary indicates that he contacted her on four separate occasions: February 8th, March 14th, April 10th, and May 1st. These calls occurred at irregular hours. Mr. Gibbon’s demeanor over the phone was both threatening and obscene. By the middle of May, Ms. Bruskin tried, once again, to end all contact with Mr. Gibbons by obtaining an unlisted telephone number. But despite her efforts, Mr. Gibbons approached Ms. Bruskin at her condominium on the 17th of May.”

just don’t believe it! Skip loves Helen. He’d never get involved with Laurie. He doesn’t even like her. Laurie’s lying. Skip can fight this. Her claims will never hold up in court. He’ll get her dead to rights. I read on.

“Because of the increasingly ominous nature of these encounters, Ms Bruskin met with her sales manager, Sue Maitland, on three separate occasions: January 31st, March 12th, and May 14th. Ms. Bruskin was repeatedly assured by Ms. Maitland that Amtech was looking into the matter and that Mr. Gibbons had been placed under “disciplinary watch” pending the outcome of the internal findings. Yet by May 20th, Mr. Gibbons had neither stopped harassing Ms. Bruskin nor had a formal investigation of his behavior been authorized at Amtech.”

Now, I’m furious. How dare Laurie think she could get away with this. The first time we had ever discussed her allegations regarding Skip was just two days ago.

Therefore, pursuant to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, an investigation is being conducted regarding the sexual harassment charge filed by Ms. Bruskin at the Newark office of the EEOC. This letter notifies Amtech that the investigation is currently underway.”

.     .     .     .

On Monday, I ring Connie in personnel.

“Yes,” she says, “we just received a letter today. Call Tal. He’s been trying to reach you all morning.”

“The whole thing is nothing more than a pack of lies,” I tell Tal. “Laurie knows she’s about to get fired. She’ll do anything to keep her job.”

“I know she’s angry,” replies Tal, “maybe even crazy, but I need to know the facts. How late were you at Richard’s?”

“I don’t know. Maybe midnight?”

“Had Laurie or Skip left by then?”

“I think they were both still there.”

“Then you don’t really know what happened between them, do you?”

“Well no, I suppose I don’t.”

“Touch base with Skip. See if there’s any foundation to this.”

Reluctantly, I agree. I call Skip. He agrees to meet me at one of these truck stops along the Jersey turnpike later that afternoon. Amid the fleet of eighteen wheelers sweating diesel, I park my car and walk inside. I spot Skip waiting for me in the McDonalds fast‑food section, seated at a table off to one side. He doesn’t know why we’re meeting. Thankfully, he hasn’t asked. Skip assumes that if I need to see him it’s important. Consequently, even though it’s clear he’s exhausted and wants nothing more than to be home with his family, he’s here with me. That’s Skip, so gracious, so understanding. But his civility only heightens my dread. I feel like some kind of sleazy informant. If there’s a seamy underside to Skip’s personal life, what business is it of mine, anyway? And yet, here I am charged with this dreadful mission of discovery.

Truth today is to be discovered while chewing Big Macs, noshing fries, and slurping sodas. After ordering and paying for our food, we sit down at our appointed table. I take a few of Skip’s fries and wait for my heartburn to kick in. We chat about this and that before I begin my heinous interrogation.

“Skip, I’m having problems with Laurie. Maybe you can help me out.”

I dredge up all the details—RIFT, poor customer relations, faulty contracts, and no recent orders. Then I say the dreaded words “sexual harassment.” I tell him about the charges. I ask him about the night he played poker at Richard’s place. Then silence. With every passing moment, Skip’s culpability appears to grow. Finally, he speaks.

“I can’t recall,” he replies, his voice barely a whisper.

“What do you mean?”

“After you left the party, I began to lose. I left three bills . . .”

“Three hundred dollars?”

“Yeah, three bills at the table. By then I was smashed, and so was Laurie. She started getting belligerent at the table. Everybody had had their fill of her. It was getting nasty. But she was in no condition to leave, so I walked her over to Richard’s bedroom. Believe me, I had no ulterior motive. I was intending to leave. How was I to know what would happen next? I set her down on the bed. She pulled me down on top of her. She tugged at my trousers.”

“Did you have sex?”

“I don’t remember!”

“What do you remember?”

Perspiration slides down Skip’s smooth forehead. He fidgets, his hands twist, his elbows move on and off the table, as if he’s trying to maneuver past the walking dead. Why should Laurie’s accusations matter, anyhow? She’s a lying bitch. But here I sit, fingertips rapping a kind of taps melody that I pray won’t be for Skip.

“Then I woke up.”

“Woke up?”

“By then it was dawn. I lay naked next to Laurie.”

“Jesus, did you have sex with Laurie?”

“I keep telling you: I don’t remember! Believe me, I’d love to erase that night. But I can’t. It’s been a perpetual nightmare for me ever since. That morning, I tried to sneak out unnoticed, but Richard and your Guidos spotted me.

“‘Skip, you world class stud,’ Chuck said.

“‘Man,’ added Jimmy, ‘why didn’t you tell us you were such a party animal? You can carouse with us any time!’

“What could I do? I laughed and made some small talk before making my exit.

“Look,” Skip continued, “I did a terrible thing. I’ve been trying to make amends where Helen’s concerned. I can’t lose her. She and my children mean everything to me.”

“Skip, I had to ask. Frankly, this EEOC investigation has both Tal and me worried. But based on what you’ve told me, it’s hard to imagine the case ever going to trial. I don’t even see how Laurie’s claim can even be construed as sexual harassment. You’re not her boss. Even if she had some way of proving you both had sex, based on what you told me, it was consensual.”

“Consensual? If we had sex, it was all her idea!”

“Well, my guess is Laurie’s trying desperately to find some leverage to prevent Amtech from firing her. Who knows, maybe her ploy will buy her a little time, but I’m certain it won’t amount to much.

“Skip, one last thing. Laurie claims you kept calling and stopping by her condo. Is there any truth to this?”

“Get this: I never, ever, pursued Laurie.  Not ever. She’s got everything turned inside out. She came on to me. She put the moves on me. She kept ringing my home and leaving me voice mails. I’m still terrified she’ll speak to Helen. Sure, I called her. I told her to stop phoning me. Yeah, I visited her condo two or three times. I told her if she didn’t stop harassing me I’d get a restraining order against her.

“‘Not if you want to keep Helen,’ she said. Laurie had me by the balls, and she knew it.”

“That’s the whole story, Skip?”

“How much worse could it be?”

“Don’t blindside me, Skip. If there’s anything else, tell me.”

“Isn’t that enough? Don’t you see? Helen could leave me for this. Don’t you get it? All I care is about my Helen and Andy and Clara. Nothing else matters.”

“Skip, I know you’re worried, but it doesn’t seem as if there’s any real foundation to her complaint. Look, have you spoken to Richard?”

“Why the hell would I talk to Richard?”

“Maybe he can corroborate your story. Who knows? Even the Guidos might help you. They hate Laurie. Even if we can just get Richard’s support, that would greatly strengthen your position.”

“Look, I never discussed that night with Richard. And frankly, I’m not about to now, either. If you want to talk to him, that’s your business. But I want no part of it.”

“Sure, Skip, if you feel that strongly.”

“I can’t even think about that night without getting sick to my stomach.”

“Fine. I’ll meet with Richard. Sit tight, O.K.? Whatever you do, don’t talk to Laurie.”

We hug. I can feel that Skip’s whole body has gone limp. “Cheer up,” I say, squeezing his shoulder. “Go home. I’m sure Helen, Andy, and Clara will be thrilled to see you.”

If I have any doubts about Skip’s innocence—and, believe me, I don’t—but if I do, well, I put them out of my mind. Skip’s not that kind of man. He would never, ever. If anything happened at all, well, Laurie was responsible. She took advantage of him. That’s assuming anything happened at all.

That evening, I arrive home with my head pounding, my stomach churning, and storm clouds looming above me. To his credit, Tom gives me space. Wise man, he’s adding years to his life. So I head up to my office, dropping off papers, tying up loose ends, picking up my voice mail. Most of the messages aren’t urgent; they’ll have to wait until Tuesday. But then I hear Helen’s voice.

What does she want? Does she know Skip and I just met?

Helen’s message suggested we meet for coffee tomorrow at a place called Raymond’s, not too far from her house. Her words keep coming back to me.

“Say 10:00 a.m.? Call me back only if you can’t make it. Please don’t mention this message to Skip.”

So with my head still pounding, with my stomach still churning, with those storm clouds still looming, I leave my office to join Tom.

.     .     .     .

It’s Tuesday, 10:00 a.m., and I’m here at Raymond’s. Helen sits across the table from me. Both of us have our coffee cups in hand. After a few sips, she gets right to the point.

“It’s about Skip,” she says.

“What about Skip?”

“Something’s dreadfully wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been getting these terrible calls.”

Then she tells me. The phone rings at all hours. Helen picks up the receiver. The caller hangs up. The pattern is repeated, again and again. Finally, one day a woman speaks, asking for Skip. Helen pauses before continuing her story.

“‘He’s not here,’ I tell her. ‘Can I help you?’

“‘That’s O.K.; I’ll call him later.’

“That same woman keeps calling back. I know what calls like that generally mean. So the fifth time she refuses to leave a message, I retrieve her number from the caller I.D. box and ring her myself. ‘Who are you and what do you want?’ I ask.

“‘My name is Laurie,’ she replies. ‘Skip and I are lovers. He’s going to leave you for me.’

“‘I don’t know what your problem is,’ I tell her, ‘but my husband loves me. He would never leave me or our children. Stop calling.’

“But that woman, Laurie, keeps on dialing. When I threaten to contact the police and have her arrested, she laughs.

“‘Since when does the truth get you arrested?’

“Sue, I know my marriage is solid. And don’t get me wrong, I’m no fool. Anyone can make mistakes. Sure, Skip and I hit a rough spot here or there. And Lord knows any man after years on the road might do something foolish. But Skip loves me . . . I know he loves me.”

There are tears in Helen’s eyes; I hear the tightness in her voice. With great effort, she ties to wash down her anxiety with another sip of her coffee. It’s not pity that Helen’s after. She’s on a mission to save her marriage.

“Is that woman sleeping with my husband?”

Helen’s trembling. Her face is drawn. There are circles under her eyes. I place down my cup. I lean across the table, grasping both her hands. They’re chilled through.

“Have you spoken to Skip about any of this?”

“Should I? Dare I?” Helen asks, as she withdraws her hands from mine and glances away.

“Skip loves you very much. You know that. He would never do anything intentionally to hurt either you or your children.”

Maybe, it’s my poor word choice: intentionally. But her body stiffens, as if preparing for impact.

“Sue, level with me. Is Skip having an affair?”

So I tell her about Laurie, the Disney version, “G” rated. That I’m trying to fire this woman, that she’s mental, and that she put the moves on Skip. When Skip turned Laurie down—my story and I’m sticking to it—she grew angry. “She treacherous,” I say, adding, “she’s a viper capable of inflicting great harm.”

I tell Helen that Laurie has accused Skip of sexual harassment even though there’s no foundation to her story. That she’ll do anything to try to hold onto her job. I try to assure Helen that these lies will never hold up in court.

“Skip loves you,” I keep saying. “Laurie’s crazy,” I point out. “Give this a little time. You’ll see. Everything will work out.”

“Thank you, Sue. I knew I could count on you to tell me the truth.” Helen lets out a peal of nervous laughter. “You know, it’s a relief, actually, knowing the truth. All those worries!”

“Helen, those calls would terrify anyone. But talk with Skip, he’ll level with you.”

She smiles. A soft, sad twist to her lips, “Don’t you think he’s got enough on his mind right now? I’ve got to go. Thank you for seeing me, Sue.” We hug and head our separate ways.

So I told a little white lie, so what. Skip’s crazy about Helen. He loves his children. O.K., so maybe he made one terrible mistake. Why punish Helen and the kids for that? Still, my headache’s back with a vengeance today. All I want to do is sleep. But as soon as I return home, I page Skip. He immediately calls me back. I tell him about my breakfast meeting with Helen. I even suggest that he talk to her.

Another day, another dollar. That’s what Tom always says. It’s Thursday, nearly noon, and I’m having coffee with Richard in the Village. I inch our conversation toward Laurie. Oddly enough, it’s because of her that I hired Richard. She’s always been solicitous of him, though Richard couldn’t care less. I could never figure out the strange bond between them. So I ask.

“How’d you both meet?”

“She’s my sister.”

I drop my cup. It cracks, spilling coffee all over the table. With effort I manage to keep it off my suit. Richard’s smiling, just a little, at the corners of his mouth.

“Let’s see . . . Richard Shaw . . . Laurie Bruskin . . . what am I missing?”

“She’s my stepsister, actually. Mom married her dad, Kevin Bruskin, in 1970. Laurie and I were twelve, classmates at school, at the time. That was when her father was in the Navy—stationed in Philly. My mom taught elementary school in the suburbs. Three years later he split, but Laurie continued to live with mom and me. She cried for months after he left.

“‘What do you care?’ I asked her. ‘He drinks; he gambles; he’s violent; he can’t even pay the bills. Who need him?’”

“I had scars on my back from where he hit me. He hit her, too, but she forgot all that. Just cried and cried. Two years later, mom remarried. Another loser. Maybe that jerk put the moves on Laurie. What do I know? I left five months after ‘Jerko’ moved in. That’s when I stopped thinking about family. Who needs them? Laurie thinks we’re kin, but she means nothing to me.”

“Wow. That’s a pretty close connection.”

“We’re not even blood relatives. We just occupied some space together for a little while. It happens. But it doesn’t mean anything.”

With that clarification, I gently broach the subject of Skip and Laurie.

“What do I know?” Richard replies. “Look, he took her to my bedroom. At the time, I thought that he was coming right back to play poker, but he only showed his face hours later when he was ready to leave.”

“Could you hear anything? Did they have sex? If so, was it consensual?”

“Who knows? And why should I care, except that they may have been doing it in my bed. If they did, I assure you Laurie was willing. God, she’s always willing. Once she’s had a few drinks, she’ll bonk anyone. I wouldn’t put it past her to have slipped something into Skip’s bourbon. That would be just like her.”

So, in a manner of speaking, Richard confirms Skip’s story. He agrees to meet with EEOC investigators and give a statement if it comes to that.

“A sanitized version,” he promises, “one that will hold up in court.”

He doesn’t seem the least concerned about Laurie’s future. Maybe he’s happy to give her a push out the door. Richard’s so cold sometimes it’s scary.

True to his word, Richard meets with an investigator from EEOC and tears Laurie’s statement to bits. The Guidos follow suit. The sexual harassment charge fizzles by the end of July. Around that time, Mer quits. Richard makes a play for my job at a team meeting attended by Tal during the first week of August. Laurie doesn’t bother to attend. Two weeks later, Rita resigns when an internal investigation reveals she’s engaged in fraud.

And Laurie? Even with the dismissal of sexual harassment charges, getting rid of her isn’t that easy. She still has an unlisted phone number. She never calls me. If she has a new mailing address, I don’t have it. All of which makes it hard to reach her.

But I know from the legal complaint that she’s still living in her condo in Clifton. So one day I drive to her apartment. I sit in my car across the street from her building, nursing some coffee like a two‑bit detective. The hours slog by 11:00 a.m., noon. I go for a pee and a bite to eat. I’m back on the job thirty minutes later. A couple more hours pass. I take another pee and grab some food before returning to my car. Finally, at 5:27 p.m., Laurie drives up. I catch up with her at her front door. She’s startled to see me.

“What do you want?”

“Here’s your notice, Laurie. I want to make sure you’re aware that you’re no longer working for Amtech,” I say as I give her the letter.

She tears it up, replying, “I know nothing of the sort.” Scraps of paper float down.

“I guess you have another job, Laurie. I hope this one works out better for you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m still working at Amtech. As if you didn’t know. Not that I need to tell you anything. You never supported me, never.”

“That’s not fair and you know it.”

“I don’t have to take your bull. Not any more.”

Laurie goes into her apartment. She slams the door shut and pulls down her shades. She could have fired a handgun at me or, at least, thrown a few punches my way. As it is, I walk away unscathed. Believe me, I count my blessings.

So in the end, despite Laurie’s machinations, she’s fired at the end of August, a little more than two weeks after Rita’s resignation. Laurie’s dismissal comes pretty much right on schedule, only thirty‑one days after the unsatisfactory completion of her last RIFT review. In December, Richard quits. Then Skip’s laid off. After his departure, I’m responsible for managing both the Mid‑Atlantic and metro New York regions for another eighteen months before most of the division shuts down.

But it’s Laurie’s story as it intersects with that of Rita, Richard, and Skip that serves as a reminder that you never, ever, have a clue as far as people are concerned. Even when you think you know their story, you seldom do. Life seems little more than legal tenders—offers made, offers withdrawn—with strife unraveling the multifarious terms of condition until, at last, the strands of those agreements tangle end to end, beginning to end, middle to beginning, middle to end.