Literary Criticism & Political Commentary

The Cusp of Dreams/Chapter 11: Circling de Drain

Copyright © 2000 by Diana E. Sheets

Manager’s Meeting, Dayton, Ohio, January, 1993

Those of us remaining are gathered here in Dayton. That would be Candy Saychard, Roy Tiebold, Hugh Wesson, Chip Gaffordy, and I. That’s not including Jeff Carrie and Doug Jones. They don’t count, really. They’re part of the Cornbelt. Their territories fall under the Amtech Protectorate. Those guys are strictly heartland with strong ties to the honchos in the glass towers, whom they see weekly. Sure, Jeff and Doug’s numbers hum. For Christ’s sake, Amtech owns Middle America. So it’s not like their performance is stellar. How could they fail? It’s not as if they’re fighting on the Eastern or Western fronts. Then they’d understand the meaning of carnage since they’d be sweating bullets like the rest of us. Hell, they’d never make it. If those wusses had to respond to the Scuds pulverizing us daily here in the trenches, they’d be toast. Anyway, it’s proximity. No matter what happens to the rest of us, they’ll survive, the bastards.

In the last thirteen months, we have lost two colleagues. Skip Gibbins, who managed the territory south of me, and the bloke covering New England and upstate New York. Amtech abandoned that turf just five months ago. Not that it mattered. It had never accounted for much of our business. Who the hell still thinks of the Northeast these days as the thriving locus for manufacturing, anyhow?

Of the seven first‑line managers assembled in this room, five of us are fighting for survival. Chip and I have it the worst. He covers the Carolinas and portions of western Pennsylvania. I’m the Mid‑Atlantic Gal, traipsing between New York and Virginia. Our competition is hammering us. We’re hanging in, though barely. As for the rest of my buddies, give that guy Roy credit. He’s a gunslinger. But why shouldn’t he be? He has the premier growth market: Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, even a smattering of Florida. Who wouldn’t dodge Scuds for that?

Then there are Candy and Hugh. Fuck’em. I should have let the Bitch wash out to sea. What was I thinking when I pulled her back into the boat? It was not as if that she‑wolf had ever come to my defense. Not ever. Not that scheming, conniving, stacked den‑hussy‑with‑fangs. Even if her billings in California look great, I know they’re virtual. She’ll be lucky if she retains fifty percent of her contracts. But the honchos can’t stop touting her numbers. Fuck’em. And maybe Hugh’s figures are impressive, but then he’s got primo real estate: Texas, Colorado, and the Western hub. That territory would make anybody look good. That pussy/prick duo think they’re hot shit. They’re convinced they’re headed for the majors. As if.

Anyway, we’re assembled here as part of a fucking sing‑a‑long.


Amtech

The place to be in ’93


[To be sung with a sustained counter‑bass refrain that assumes a rap‑like cadence.]


Gotta make those friggin’ numbers

Or else, or else

We be circling de drain


The honchos don’t even bother to send us somewhere plush. Show’s how tight they are. Doesn’t say much for our future. There’s my boss, Tal Parsons, at the podium, trying to put a good spin on things. Eighteen months, that’s what he’s saying. We’ve got eighteen months to turn the business around.


Or else, or else

We be circling de drain


“Assholes,” whispers Roy, “they say eighteen; they mean nine. If we’re lucky. They’re already crunching the numbers for shutting us down, the motherfuckers.”

You gotta like that good ol’ Southern boy. He always calls it like it is.

As part of the rah‑rah, they’ve given us mugs; they’ve given us tee shirts; they’ve given us golf hats. Not to mention objectives. Out‑of‑the‑fucking‑question objectives. Who the hell do they think they’re kidding? I guess I better pay attention to Tal up there jabbering away.

TAL: So that’s the deal. Those are our objectives. In the newer markets, I know Hugh and Candy are well on their way to making their numbers. And Roy, you’re looking pretty good. Now Sue and Chip, I know you’re both struggling, but even your figures are obtainable.

CHIP: Based on what?

TAL: Well, let’s take your results from last year and compare them with our new objectives for this year. In ’92 your objective was 3.5 mil.

CHIP: That wasn’t my target. That was yours, Tal. Or Dayton’s.

TAL: Irritated at being cut off, but continuing. Nevertheless, you posted 2.8 mil. That put you at 80 percent of objective. This year we have you forecast at 3.6, that’s less than 3 percent growth over last year’s figures.

CHIP: But Tal, I didn’t make 3.5 last year. I barely made 2.8. And with this new forecast I’m gonna end up 22 percent below projections. I’m screwed.

TAL: Tal’s frustration mounts, his voice becomes insistent. The fact is, Chip, if you make 3.1 mil this year, your team will come in at 86 percent of their objective. And I can sell that to senior management.

        Now as for you, Sue, we’ve got you forecast for 3.8 mil. This year you’ve retained most of your reps. Your experienced sales force should enable you to achieve your best year ever.

SUE: Are you crazy? My numbers last year were barely better than Chip’s. And for that you’ve saddled me with 200K more than him? Insane. I’ll never make it. You know TechAm’s killing me. They’re dropping huge margins in hopes of stealing my customer base. I’m getting squeezed. I’m fucked!

ROY: Sue, why didn’t you tell us you were getting a little on the side these days.

Laughter from the rest of the team.

TAL: Getting angry. I’m telling you, these numbers are doable. These are not pie‑in‑the‑sky. For once, I’d like you all to think positive, instead of whining. Stop complaining. Get out there and bring in the business.

JEFF: Yeah, we can do this.

DOUG: Piece of cake.

ROY: Fucking brownnosers. Zip it. Like you’re up against it. You guys couldn’t swat your way out of a paper bag, let alone fight out there in the real trenches.

JEFF: What the hell are you talking about?

DOUG: Why last year . . .

HUGH: Stop giving us your bullshit.

CANDY: Give us a break.

CHIP: You guys are always sucking cock.

JEFF: Why you . . .

DOUG: Shitheads!

TAL: Alright, that’s enough! Let’s keep the focus on meeting your objectives. They are not negotiable. Got it? Figure out how you’re going to make your numbers. And while we’re on the subject, I want reports on how you’ll meet these forecasts by 0800 tomorrow. Focus on the first 90 days. Give me details, meat.

What follows is the sound of cattle herded in for slaughter.

TEAM: Moooooo.

Anyway, that’s our day. Grueling.

That evening all of us—minus Tal—head out for drinks at Pistons & Brew. It’s a joint littered with automotive wreckage. Nothing like toasting our fate amid the rusted fenders, bumpers, and taillights that pass for décor. Yeah, we’re aware that our own obsolesce might very well lie on the bumpy road ahead. As we down our fourth round, Dan Oldrich, one of the seasoned sales vets from one of the local Ohio territories, drops by. The guy’s caustic, witty, harder than concrete. He surveys us all, sees our grim hilarity, hears our tales of woe. Then he toasts us. Tells us our fortunes, really, as we clank our Amtech mugs.

Amtech

The place to be in ’93

Out the door by ’94

We laugh. We joke. We make light of it. But the words are said. They can’t be taken back. What we have now is fear, palpable fear, terror—really.

.     .     .     .

I’m back, back in metro. Calling a meeting of my own. Who’s left, you ask? Well, there are the Guidos—Chuck and Jimmy. The others include Michael, Joe, Harold, Peter, Izzi, and Caroline. Mostly they’re the old poker gang, both players and hangers‑on.

I’ve also inherited Kevin and George from Skip’s old team. They’re not exactly burning lights, but I like them. They’re dependable, hard working. George did a stint in the military. The guy’s approaching fifty and working toward retirement. He’s married, has a heart condition. I told him not to give me his med stats. But he does, anyway. Now I feel responsible. As for Kevin, he’s in his thirties and has a wife and two children. His son, Kevin, Jr., has Down syndrome. Makes me shiver just thinking about his boy. Kevin doesn’t say much about the situation, although I know his son attends a school for children with special needs. Still, every once in a while, he lets down his guard, telling me about his boy, now a preschooler. And then, like that, Kevin shuts down. Hides a tear or two. So do I. Kevin’s courageous, real fucking brave.

Then there are those who have split. “Cusp of Dreams” Bill—dead. And the quitters: “I Can Gettcha Close” Tina; “Three‑Card Stud” Richard; “As Luck Would Have It” Rita; as well as “Embers” Mer, the rep that spent my passion. And those I fired like “Legal Tender” Laurie. Lots of others, actually. Though they hardly mattered in the scheme of things.

So here I am standing in front of everybody trying to be positive about the Dayton meeting. I can’t show my dread of things to come. What would be the point? It wouldn’t help. “Don’t let them see the fear,” I keep telling myself. Besides, knowing the score won’t motivate them to reach their numbers. It might even cause some to go AWOL, which I can’t afford right now. So my demeanor is strictly upbeat, though challenged by adversity. Wanna hear my spiel?

SUE: As I indicated to all of you over the phone, we had a productive meeting in Dayton. I’d like to go over with you our corporate goals for this fiscal year and show how these figures break out with respect to your personal objectives.

GUIDO 1: Did they lower our fucking objective?

SUE: We’re at 3.8 million.

GUIDO 2: No fucking way!

SUE: It’s a stretch.

GUIDO 1: Stretch? It’s the fucking rack.

SUE: Look, I’m not going to lie to you. We’re under the gun. The entire division is being monitored by Amtech to gage our fiscal performance over the next eighteen months, especially those first three months. The objectives for all the regions are tough, maybe even unobtainable. But last year we made nearly 3 mil. We closed at 79 percent of objective. At 3.3 mil this year, we’ll exceed 86 percent of our objective. At 3.5, we’ll be at 92 percent. We’ve got a stable team this year. I’m not looking to hire any new reps. My focus will be on increasing your revenue, and, more importantly, your earnings.

TEAM: Got that right.
            About time!
            Let them dollars roll!

SUE: We’ve got to meet that 3.3 figure. Corporate is watching all the regions very closely. And how we perform in the first ninety days is crucial. So I’m going to do things differently this year. All your objectives will be posted publicly on the board at our meetings. My goal is achieving the big number. As long as you’re over 80 percent of your objective, your job’s solid, at least as far as I’m concerned. But you’re all going to have to pitch in to help one another. As a team, we’ve got to make 3.3 mil or our entire territory could be shut down. We’ve got to focus on the big picture here. In order to get things rolling for the new fiscal year, we’re going to concentrate in this meeting on developing team strategies for achieving our objective.

That’s what I tell them. A spin on truth. As close as I dare. Still, they’re not stupid. They must have some idea what we’re up against.

.     .     .     .

So I push. Every fucking day. I’m in the field four days a week, every week, no matter what. Even if it means I do paperwork until midnight, seven nights a week. Every cancelled appointment, every delayed order, every hiccup has me ready to scream, “Don’t you know what we’re up against? For God’s sake, you’re going to kill us all.” But I don’t say it. Why bother? They’ll get pissed. They’ll quit. Then where would I be? So I apply constant, steady pressure.

“Gotta, make those numbers, Izzi.”

“Michael, don’t let the customer push you around, go for the big bucks.”

Or “Chuck, don’t blow it! Pump those figures higher; have the engineering stats available to justify the big bucks.”

“Fuck you, Sue!”

Well, some things never change.

If a rep, say Peter, cancels our travel day, I expect him to double the appointments scheduled for our next trip. And his numbers for the month better be at objective, eighty percent anyway. Or I’ll let him have it. I’ll be all over him like toxic sludge from the Meadowlands—smelly, filthy, strictly heavy metal crap that never, ever, leaves you.

I come home at night tense, exhausted, but at the same time irritable, ready to swat at any moving object that approaches. These days that’s Tom. Tom, who shops, cooks, does the dishes, and even tries to give me back rubs. We barely talk. As for sex, fuggedaboudit! I’m in the trenches and home isn’t home any more. It’s an opportunity to rework the numbers, do the paperwork, and drop from exhaustion, nothing more.

Still, Tom tries to reason with me as if logic influences actions in the war room or on the battlefield.

“Sue, you’re killing yourself. And for what? If you don’t take time off soon, it’ll show. Your team will see you’re tense. They’ll get nervous. They’ll stop performing. Then watch your numbers plummet. Don’t you see what your job is doing to us? I never see you. We hardly ever sleep together anymore. You’re always in your goddamn study, away at meetings, or on the road. The job’s not worth it. Sue, talk to me.”

He pleads. I say nothing. Making no headway, Tom walks angrily away. He stomps through the front hallway and out the door, slamming it shut. It’s his way of registering disgust.

He’s right, of course. That fucking engineer is always right. Not that I listen. How can I when there are ten other lives hanging in the balance, twenty‑five if I count spouses, significant partners, and their assorted children. What if our operation closes down? Who will be able to pay their bills? Who won’t? Who will land a job quickly? Maybe the Guidos; they’re young, hustlers. What about George? With his heart condition, this might bury him. What about Kevin and his family? What about Izzi, Caroline, Joe, Harold, Peter, and Michael? The fear and responsibility keep me up nights. I can’t sit by and let it happen. I just can’t.

January figures stink, $130,000. We book just one order from Izzi. That places us at barely 1.5 mil by year’s end. Death. But then, January’s figures are always bad. Management knows that. For God’s sake, it’s only the beginning of the year. But that doesn’t prevent Tal from calling.

“Sue, your numbers are lousy.”

“Tal, it’s January. Postings are always terrible this time of year. February’s will be much better.”

“They’d better be.”

So naturally, I place even more pressure on my team. I beat them up and hound them in the field. I push, really push.

Fortunately, February’s numbers are a big improvement over January’s. Three large contracts close on refurbishing warehouse facilities in Philadelphia and Baltimore. If I multiply our revenue times six, that will have us grossing over 3 million by year’s end. Not fucking bad for two months work. Based on my calculations, that will have us at over 80 percent of quota by the end of December. Even Tal can’t go ballistic. Nevertheless, three days later he’s on the phone growling, “Next month, I want your team at 100 percent.” Curt. Like that. The guy’s obviously under stress. We all are. Nevertheless, the stats suggest that all the managers are exceeding 50 percent of their objectives and three of us might even exceed quota. So there’s hope, real hope.

By way of thanks for February’s performance, I take my team to dinner in Newark at one of the Portuguese restaurants. Great food. Too bad downtown Newark shuts down at night, except for ethnic dining. Too bad the car thefts here rival those of the most dangerous cities throughout the world. Too bad there’s fucking dioxin laced throughout the industrial sector of town. Perhaps my drink is tainted. Whatever. That night, we party until the restaurant closes, crashing at the Holiday Inn North, courtesy of Amtech. These days there’s real camaraderie between my reps, and their enthusiasm is infectious. However, nothing eases the pressure on me. Consequently, I’m biting my nails, my eyes are bloodshot, and I have a constant migraine. Next month’s numbers are going to be crucial.

March comes and goes. I tally the orders. Every single rep brings in business. We have our best month, ever, at 460K. That puts us at 970K for the first quarter. Multiply that baby times four and we’re sitting at over 3.8 mil. Above objective. A major fucking miracle. Damn, I’m good!

Tal is ecstatic. “Sue, I knew you could do it; you’re the best!”

Damn straight! Even the other managers come through. Sure, Chip has problems; Candy’s numbers aren’t to be trusted; Roy has some fall out. But overall, we come in at eighty‑five percent of objective, which is great since that’s the figure Tal said he could sell.

Well, if the pencilnecks in Dayton don’t like the numbers, they can shove it. We’re fucking hot. We’re gonna make objective. They’ll see.

Then I get a call from Tal. “Sue, I need you to fly out for a management meeting in Dayton next week.”

“Sure, Tal. What’s up?”

Tal’s noncommittal, never a good sign. Naturally, I get to thinking. They have a celebration planned. We’ll get bonuses. Having made quota for the first quarter, I’m certain to receive something. Cash, big bucks! All that money, how shall I spend it? Can’t wait to celebrate in New York with Tom. I’ll make it up to him! Of course, I’ll have to buy a sexy dress, maybe even some jewelry. It’ll be a night to remember.

But my euphoria crashes. Why isn’t Tal talking? I check around. He’s equally tightlipped with the other managers. That’s scary. There has to be another reason for this unexpected meeting. Why pull us out of the field at such a critical juncture? Why the secrecy? It doesn’t make sense unless . . . there’s some new dictum coming down. Shit! Still, when I tell the reps I’m headed to Dayton, I’m upbeat.

“They’re probably giving an awards banquet for last quarter’s performance.”

In truth, I’m terrified. I’m certain the game plan has changed. Even so, the company wouldn’t dare pull the plug. Would they? By the time I reach HQ, I’m a wreck.

.     .     .     .

We’re sitting here in a big conference room at corporate in one of the glass towers. No one sent us an agenda; we still haven’t a clue. Tal’s not even in the room, and the meeting’s scheduled to begin. We’re getting restless cooling our heels. Makes us real nervous. We’re just three floors down and round a corridor from Rug Row, so how bad can the situation really be? Ah, here comes Tal. With his boss, Fred Pick. And Pick’s boss, Jack Driskill, the president of our division. We’ve met them before, but they don’t usually attend our meetings. Shit, their presence isn’t reassuring. What the fuck. We’re at eighty‑five percent of objective nationwide. What can they possibly do to us? Why anticipate the worst?

Then the Suits arrive. Lawyers or financial gurus. Why would they be here, except. . . . Shit! We’re road kill. What other reason could there possibly be for the Suits? They’ve never attended any of our previous meetings. I’m breaking into a sweat. I have to press my palms on the table to keep from shaking. But why the fuck fly us out for this? Why not send us a goddamn e‑mail?

You’re fired!

Bam! Just like that.

Now, I’m trying to listen. Driskill’s speaking. Softly. Something about litigation, our limited financial growth over the course of the past few years. What! The guy says our division is not part of Amtech’s long‑term, strategic vision. What the fuck is he talking about? Since when did Amtech have a fucking strategic vision, aside from those bullshit mission statements? The lunatic drones on. Then, with the tip of his tongue, Driskill slides it in, as if we’re talking breath mints.

“During this recent economic downturn, manufacturing has dramatically reduced production. Nowhere is this more evident than in our operations out on the east and west coasts. Unfortunately, we have no reason to believe that things will improve dramatically over the next eighteen months. Even the southern and western markets don’t appear strong enough to counter prevailing trends. Frankly, the future for industry in the U.S. doesn’t look promising. This is not to disparage your performance. I’m sure you’ve done your best. Nevertheless, Amtech must seek new opportunities. We must build a new portfolio.

“Because of our paradigm shift in strategic initiatives, Amtech will no longer offer consulting services to manufacturing outside the Midwest. Frankly, we don’t see that sector providing us with the double‑digit growth required to succeed in the new economy. As part of our New Ventures Initiative, Amtech will be developing its vital Futures market. We have targeted three of the hottest new industries for seismic growth: Biotech, HMO fiscal management, and geriatric containment.”

O.K., so Biotech is a hot, new technology. But HMO fiscal management? That’s just buzz talk for axing medical coverage. And what the fuck is geriatric containment? What sort of jive shit is Driskill spewing? Do they plan to shoot Geezers? Steal their assets?

Finally, I ingest Driskill’s toxic words.

Amtech will no longer offer consulting services to manufacturing outside the Midwest.”

Driskill just canned virtually our entire division, just like that.

We’re fired. Dead. Just like fucking that!!!!

We’re screwed. Plain and simple. Why bother to cloak it in fancy words—FUTURES. The bastard continues.

“Our new Futures sales and management team will be supplied by Technopower. We’ll contract out these services, rather than develop a new sales and marketing team. It gives us greater flexibility to respond immediately to the needs of our rapidly changing markets. As first‑line managers, you’ll, of course, be responsible for discharging your sales crew. Fred, Tal, and some of our financial team will go over the particulars with you. I’m sorry we’re parting ways. We’ve arranged for HR to meet with you today to help you develop promising career alternatives. With the talent assembled in this room, I’m sure you’ll all do well. Ladies, gentlemen.”

With a curt nod, Driskill walks.

That leaves Fred Pick, Tal Parsons, and the Suits. Fred clears his throat and begins.

“I’ve brought in our financial gurus to discuss some of the repercussions of Amtech’s strategic vision. But perhaps it would help if I summarized some of the key factors as they pertain to you and your markets. The company will support you with full pay and benefits through August of this year. Depending on the number of years you have had with Amtech and the vacation days many of you have accrued, that may account for an additional thirty to sixty days coverage. Following this meeting, each of you will want to meet with members of HR to discuss the specifics of your package and how you might best maximize your career potential. Afterward, everyone will reconvene in this room, and Tal will answer any general questions you may have.”

Pick grasps his papers and prepares to leave.

“That’s it? That’s fucking it?” This from Tiebold, of course.

“Pardon me?”

“You fucking fire us and you leave. Just like that? Who the hell do you think you are? We were told if we made our numbers this first quarter we were golden.”

“I don’t know who told you that.” Pick glances at Parsons. Parsons looks away. “But in any case,” Pick continues, “you didn’t achieve your numbers. Nationwide, your division is sitting at only eighty‑five percent of objective. For those of you who can’t count, that’s fifteen percent less than forecast. Nevertheless, this decision is not about making your numbers; it’s about Amtech’s long‑term, strategic vision. As of today the industrial markets have relevance only to the Midwest. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have other business I must attend to.”

Pick walks, leaving Parsons and the Suits.

Ten seconds of stunned silence follows. I know; I count them. Then combustion. Managers are yelling all around me. Their voices detonate like a cluster of firebombs.

“Nobody fucking told us.”

“Bunch of goddamn liars.”

“We don’t have to take this.”

“Is this management’s idea of fun? Bring us in, and can us?”

“And I suppose our fucking coffins are waiting for us at the exit door.”

“Those come later, after we can our salespeople.”

There follows some soft‑shoe from the Suits.


SUIT 1: This contraction is not a reflection on any of you. We are simply taking steps toward the fulfillment of Amtech’s strategic vision. Consultants were brought in to analyze the business. It was their determination to de‑emphasize Amtech’s focus on manufacturing.


SUIT 2: Because of globalization and the increased competition for market share, as well as the heightened cost associated with doing business today, tough decisions had to be made as to which areas to retain and which to divest. These changes will impact not only your division but also Amtech’s core businesses. Amtech will be moving away from maintaining a direct sales force in favor of utilizing outsourcing firms like Technopower, which are better equipped to respond to our rapidly changing needs.


SUIT 3: Certainly, the mounting litigation costs played a role in our evaluations as did the flagging performance of your division. But the decisive factor was the decline of profitability in the manufacturing sector. That’s really all we’re at liberty to discuss at the present time. Now we’ve arranged for members of HR to meet with each of you to review your compensation plans. I’m sure you’ll want that information before you fly home this evening.


That’s it. The Suits walk. Now it’s just Tal and us. He tries to smooth over the situation by discussing the logistics of our meetings with HR. But when these details are supplied, anger ignites our tinderbox of rage.

“You knew, didn’t you, Tal? You fucking bastard. You had us busting our asses, beating up our reps, turning our lives upside down when all the time you knew.” This from Chip, Mr. Softy, the guy who rarely loses it.

“Of course, he fucking‑well knew,” says Roy. “He knew right from the get‑go. Only I just don’t fucking understand, Tal. Since corporate had already crunched the numbers and you knew we were goners, why didn’t you tell us? That would have given us some maneuvering room to look for other jobs and prepare the reps. Why put us through hell?”

“Tal, don’t tell me. . . .” Even with a fucking pink slip, here I am, such a Pollyanna. Betting my chips that Tal isn’t one of them. That he wouldn’t betray us.

“Look,” Tal replies, “none of you understands. Nothing was definite. There was always the possibility the consultants would conclude something different than their preliminary assessments. I thought the first quarter’s numbers would alter the outcome. I had to see this through. For all our sakes.”

“Cut the crap, Tal,” hisses Chip. “As usual, it’s all about you. Your job, your future. What did they promise you, Tal? Corporate Liaison to Technopower?”

“Why you little . . .”

“How many people,” continues Chip, “did you have to take out to secure that one, Tal? Let’s see, 5 managers, their spouses, kids, then the sales reps and their families. I’d put the body count at about 150. That’s a lot of carnage for one lousy, fucking job. Tell me, do you sleep nights or are you too busy whoring?”

“Shut up, Chip. You don’t know what you’re talking about. Your mad; you’re pissed; I can see that. But that doesn’t excuse your behavior. Don’t make me do something I’ll regret.”

“What’s that, Tal? Are you going to fire me?”

“One more fucking word out of you, Chip, and I’ll have you escorted out of the front door, and I’ll personally see to it that nobody ever hires you again.”

Chip opens his mouth. I pinch his arm. He winces, glares at me, and shakes free of my grip. But in the end, he remains silent.

And then the meeting’s over. Everyone rushes to leave, hoping to escape before more damage is done, as if that’s possible. Still, I can’t help noticing those managers who choose silence over accusation. That includes Jeff and Doug, of course. But they’re still employed, why would they risk anything? Then there’s Candy and Hugh. What do they hope to gain by saying nothing? Earlier in the meeting, I saw them talking to one of the Suits before touching base with Tal. There was a lot of whispering. And now they’re heading down the hallway away from HR. They must be angling for something, the fuckers.

I hurry over to Chip. He seems to be in the know; maybe he can shine a little Day‑Glo my way.

“What’s up with Hugh and Candy?”

“They’ve arranged a meeting with Driskill.”

“How the hell did they accomplish that?”

“Tal told them in advance of this meeting that the division was being shut down. They insisted on meeting with Driskill. He tried to prevent that, but agreed in the end. He was afraid that if he refused Candy and Hugh access to Driskill they’d have his head. But he’s squirming now. That’s for sure. He’s terrified they’re after his new job.”

“Corporate Liaison to Technopower? Doesn’t sound like much.”

“Well, maybe not in and of itself. But as a springboard to Futures, it would be worth something provided Tal can make that kind of jump.”

“How’d you learn all this?”

“Candy and Hugh were in the cafeteria this morning. I was in a corner having my morning sludge. My table was behind a pillar. They sat nearby, but never saw me.”

“Think they’ll get some special deal?”

“Well, they hope so. But their expertise is not in the Futures area, and Amtech’s entire sales operation is on the skids. And even if they did land something, they’d have to move, of course. Do you think they’re prime candidates for relocating to Dayton?”

We laugh. No one outside the Midwest ever likes the prospect of relocating to Dayton.

Still, a good management job in a high‑tech Fortune 500 company these days is hard to come by. It sounds appealing, even to me. I’m damning their good fortune, their ability to choose. And thinking of voodoo dolls, two, stuck full of pins. A tragic accident, how unfortunate.

After that Chip and I go our separate ways. He heads off to make some telephone calls while I make my way to HR. When I get there, I run into Jeff and Doug.

“Why are you both here?” I ask.

“Hell, my future at Amtech’s not secure,” said Jeff. “I’ve got to fucking interview for my position. Can you believe it? And in a year or two, I’ll probably be replaced by some Technorobot. It sucks; it really does.”

Doug gives me an angry shrug. “What the fuck do I know? Except that I got to talk to HR. No one tells me a goddamn thing.”

I enter Duane Robert’s office, the busy beaver of HR assigned to my case. One look at the guy and I’m ready to spring for the door. Oval face, brown, puffy eyes, a balding head accented by strands of hair darkened by Grecian formula. He’s heavy set and sports a wrinkled polyester suit. None of this looks good.

“Hi,” I say. It’s the best I can manage.

“You must be Sue,” he says standing up to shake my hand.

Duane’s got that Midwestern nasal twang; his outstretched right palm is sweaty. Not good. Not fucking good.

“What can you do for me?” I ask.

Apparently, not‑so‑very‑fucking much. Because I believe in taking vacations, I have only an additional week of comp time. The package is very basic. I’m entitled to a pension when I reach sixty‑five. Sixty‑fucking‑five, who’s going to live that long? When I see the amount, I start laughing. If I reach that age, I’m entitled to $134.56 a month. That’s my equity after seven years with Amtech? Fuck it. I’m cashing out. I’ll take the 25K settlement they’re offering and invest it in an IRA. I can’t believe that’s the sum of my pension. Seven years of misery. And for what? Nada. Duane blabs on and on about resumes, techniques for job interviews, and cover letters. About our Dayton resource center. Where the fuck does he think I’m from? It’s not like I’ll be traipsing into HQ daily.

“So are there outplacement facilities in metro New York I can take advantage of, Duane? Say a little closer to home?”

“Well, you could fax in your resume. You got a Camcorder?”

“No I don’t, Duane.”

“Well, a lot of our transition folks perform a simulated interview with a Camcorder and mail it in for review. Maybe you could borrow one.”

“As I said, Duane, I don’t own a Camcorder, and I’m not about to borrow one. Anyway, I don’t need your little role‑play on how to take interviews. I’ve got a good resume.”

“You have a copy here with you now? May I see it?”

“Well, Duane, it’s not as if I knew when I flew to Dayton this morning I was going to get fired. What you can do for me is locate a resource center in metro New York where I can obtain local job postings. That center should have a research facility that can provide me with background information on the companies I’m interviewing with, whether they be Fortune 500, listed on NYSE, or small startups. I expect Amtech to pay for my phone calls and faxes for up to six months while I look for my new job. I’m counting on you guys to pay for the office expenses associated with my job search. That’s what I’ve been told you do for managers here in the Midwest. And why should I settle for less just because I live in New York? Oh, one last thing. I want to keep my office PC, monitor, fax, and printer. They’re worth nothing to Amtech.”

“According to policy and regs . . .”

“Don’t talk regs to me. Talk to your management. All I’m asking for is what you give everyone else here that gets canned. That and some worthless equipment.”

Duane’s face is twitching. He looks tired. The whole time he’s been speaking to me with a flat nasal drone as if he’s been reading off a crib sheet. Bet he’s never lost his job. Fuck’im.

“Get back to me, Duane.” I say as I walk out the door.

It’s 3:30. I’m standing outside in the hall chatting with Hugh, Chip, and Roy. Talking about outplacement resources (“What?”), job postings (“Huh?”), and keeping our computer equipment (“They can’t take that stuff away from us; that’s criminal, man!”).

“Tal can get these things for us,” I tell them. “Let’s have him earn his pay for a change. We’ve got to have him make this an action item today or we’ll have nothing.”

They agree. In unison, we tromp into the room. We sit on hard chairs. Our fingertips tap nervously on tabletops. We wait.

Tal shows up thirty minutes later. By then, everyone’s assembled. “Hopefully, you all had productive meetings with your representatives in HR.”

We ambush him. Everyone outside the Midwest—even Candy—pushes for local outplacement. Jeff and Doug support our demands to keep our office equipment. Clearly, they’re scared about their futures. Reluctantly, Tal agrees to bring these matters up with HR’s senior management. Not that he’s particularly eager to help us. By now our concerns are nothing more than a glitch in the shutdown, a potentially hidden cost that may be noted in Tal’s personnel file. He wants to have a smooth transition to his next job. Anything less could be fatal to his career. He probably agrees to our demands just to move things along.

The rest of the hour is spent setting timetables for Tal to join us in regional meetings that we are to set up with our reps all along the Eastern and Western fronts at which we will dismiss our salespeople. We’re told not to say anything to members of our team. Just get them together over the next two weeks and fire them. Just like that. It has been a long day. I’ve stopped listening. At 4:30 p.m., I leave Dayton exhausted with my head throbbing and my heart filled with hate.

.     .     .     .

Monday morning. I’m now at my desk. Wearing my bathrobe. Never did that before. I always dressed as if I were going into the city. Strictly suits or Friday casual. Today I’m sitting with a cup of coffee at my desk, bleakly staring ahead. I didn’t sleep much last night. I’m sick to my stomach. I feel personally responsible for what’s coming down. As if I could have done something to prevent the catastrophe. I keep thinking of my reps. They’ve been knocking themselves out. I really don’t want to spring this on them. They need time to prepare for what’s coming; they don’t deserve to be taken out in an ambush. Fuck Tal. He has his parachute. What will my crew have? Squat. Still, I sit immobile. With effort I finally pick up the phone to begin calling them. Then I put it down. Then I pick it up. Then I put it down, again. Up down, up down, up down. Repetitive motions that assume a life of their own.

Brrriinng. I’m startled by the incoming call. I dread all human contact. But as a reflex, I pick up the phone.

“Hello?”

“How’d it go, Sue? Did we get a huge attaboy from corporate?” This from Kevin. He’s excited, expectant.

“Not exactly.”

“What happened?”

I think of Kevin’s son and the daunting challenges that await him. Then I try to imagine the emotional and financial burdens that Kevin and his wife will shoulder. Fuck it.

“They’re shutting us down.” My voice breaks.

“What?”

“Amtech is closing all our operations outside the Midwest. There’s a meeting everyone in our team is supposed to attend. It’s scheduled for noon on Friday at the Newark Marriott. Tal intends to break the news to you then. Kevin, I’m sorry. I didn’t know . . . I just learned the news three days ago. It took me completely by surprise.” I wait what seems an eternity then say softly, “This must be quite a shock to you.”

“Yeah, you could say that.”

“Right.”

“And I’m supposed to be at this lynching?”

“I think you should. It’s important you understand all the benefits you’re entitled to. Perhaps there’s something as a team you can negotiate by attending this meeting.”

“You really think so? Are you going to be there?”

“I’ll be there. I’m sure corporate controls most of the purse strings, but who knows? Tal didn’t inform me of any of the details. He wants to break this news to you himself.”

“What difference does it make? You or Tal. Anyway you slice it, I’m still fired. I still have a family to feed. I still have to find another job. Ain’t nothing you can do about that.”

“I’m so sorry, Kevin . . .”

“What about commissions? Am I going to get paid?”

“I would think so. It seems to me corporate would want to avoid class action suits.”

“Who else on the team knows about this?”

“You’re the first. I’m about to call the other reps.”

“Well, I’m not waiting till Friday. I’m calling Tal myself.”

My first thoughts are that Kevin’s actions may not make me look good. After all, I’m not supposed to tell the reps. Tal’s sure to get pissed. Then anger kicks in. Always the fucking good girl, Sue. Remember, you’re fired. Kevin’s fired. He’s got a family to feed. If he wants to fucking call Tal, let him. Anyway, it’s not as if you could prevent him.

“Be my guest,” I say. Ashamed that my interest in my own welfare overrides my concern for my reps, I over compensate, making sure Kevin’s got all Tal’s numbers: his telephone, his fax, his pager, not to mention his e‑mail.

“What about you, Sue?”

“What about me?”

“Are you fired too?”

“Yup.”

“How much time do you have?”

“Sixty days, perhaps that means you’ll have thirty. I’ve got to stay on long enough to process the paper work.”

“Sue?”

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re very kind, Kevin. I just wish . . .” I say choking back tears.

“Sue, what more could you do? We’re screwed. That’s just the way it is.”

We hang up. Once again, I try pressing the speed dial, but can’t. Never, ever, have I tried to do anything so difficult. Parachuting into enemy territory, blowing up buildings, even arm‑to‑arm combat seems preferable. My team trusted me. They counted on me. They hustled for me. And now this. I’m about to reek havoc in their lives. I’ve betrayed them. If only . . . . Get it fucking‑over with. There’s nothing more I can do. It’s over. At least be straight with them. They deserve that.

A glutton for punishment, I start with Chuck. He listens. I speak for what seems like an eternity.

“Don’t just sit there, Chuck. Talk to me.”

I’m waiting for obscenities. Instead, what spews from his mouth seems almost rational.

“Sue, I’m twenty‑eight. Been living in my parent’s basement for the past six years. Bet you didn’t know that. Kinda put a crimp in my sex life. And my car? D & M co‑signed. I couldn’t even fucking buy it on my own. I finally get a girl. Not a dish, but sweet enough. We’re engaged, about to set a wedding date. You know, children, the whole nine yards. Theresa’s even picked out a house. O.K., so it’s Levittown, but it’s still a house. And now you tell me this! And you know what, Sue? You’ve just succeeded in fucking up my entire life. There had better be a special place in hell for you for this.”

He slams the receiver.

Then Jimmy calls.

“I just moved into an apartment. How am I supposed to pay the rent? You tell me? Asshole!”

Followed by George.

“My daughter’s in college. I’m maxed out on loans. She’s working two jobs to get through. There goes her education. When I lose this job, I won’t even be able to pay my mortgage. I have health problems and now this. You know, Sue, after a lifetime of work all I’ve got to show for it is a measly fifteen hundred in savings,” he says with a choking voice, “and now even that’ll be gone.”

Caroline snarls, “My daughter just got braces, and my son needs a tutor. I got bills I can’t pay, and you’re telling me I’m gonna lose my job. I’m sure you’re in cahoots with them. How much did they pay you to keep us in the dark about this?”

Michael yells, “You had us busting our ass these last few months, and now we’re outta jobs. Fuck’em; fuck you!”

Izzi cries, “Oh my God, no!”

Joe’s matter of fact, “This is the story of my life. Two steps forward, one giant step back into the piss hole. Why work us so hard? For what? For this?”

“Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn . . .” is all Peter says as he slams down the phone.

“So hows about we hire a contract killer?” says Harold.

I give them all Tal’s direct line, his e‑mail, his pager. What the fuck. Let’s raise his misery index. By the end of the day, naturally, Tal gives me a call.

“Sue, I personally wanted to tell you the good news. Amtech has agreed to provide all the managers outside the Midwest with a localized outplacement service. It’s a national outfit, Career Resources Unlimited. I’ll send you the details regarding the local branch in your area.”

“Super.” I try to bring some heft into my voice, some resonance, as I add, “I can’t believe how quickly you’ve handled this.” But my response is flat even to my ears.

“And,” he continues, “you can keep the computer equipment. Amtech will even assume the costs associated with your job search for the next six months.”

“That’s great, Tal. I appreciate everything you’ve done.” I barely get the words out. Done? What has he done? Fucking nothing, that’s what.

“Sue, that’s not all.”

“What, Tal?”

“I’m very disappointed in you.”

“Why is that?”

“Your reps have been calling, e‑mailing, and paging me nonstop. And now they’re contacting other reps.”

“Really.”

“Sue, you could be fired for this.”

“I am already fired, Tal.” Fuck. Can’t believe I said that. Now I’ll have to give him some dumb‑ass explanation.

“Tal, this has been the longest, most miserable day of my life. I’m sure others will follow. But for the record, I’ve done nothing. Bad new travels, Tal. That’s a fact. The reps already had your telephone number. Did you really think they wouldn’t find out that they’re about to be fired? Did you expect them to take the news lying down? Did you actually intend to show up here on Friday, can them, and then leave? Just like that? I assure you it would be much worse if things had gone according to plan. Tal, the reps would have come expecting awards and money, not a lynching. Don’t you see how difficult this is for me? It has taken me years to build a team I could count on. One that I would fight for. And now I have to fire them. It’s not right. Who’s going to pay their mortgages?”

“They’ll get unemployment.”

“Oh, please.”

“Who is going to pay for the special care required for Kevin’s son? What about the braces for Caroline’s daughter? Or the tutor for her son? How will Chuck obtain the money for a down payment on a house? And what about all their goals and dreams? How are they going overcome these financial setbacks incurred by this downsizing?”

“They’ll survive.”

“Really? What makes you so sure? What if they have to take a twenty‑percent hit in income just to get a job. What if it’s thirty? What if they’re barely making ends meet right now? Do you have any idea what it costs to live out here?”

“They can move.”

“Just like that?”

“Yes, Sue, just like that. We all do what we gotta do. Whether we like it or not. We move. We take second jobs. We take third jobs. We beg. We grovel. We do what it takes. We survive. Even you, Sue. Even you.”

He lets me off easy. We both know that.

.     .     .     .

Sales Meeting, Newark, New Jersey, May, 1993

My entire team shows up for the meeting. They’ve all called Tal. They’ve talked with one another. They’re united. Good. Let them make their case. Maybe they’ll force Tal to sweeten their package. Perhaps this meeting will offer them a kind of closure. Why does that term always remind me of a lid going down on a coffin?

“I’m sorry to be meeting with you under these circumstances,” says Tal. “It’s been one of the joys of this job watching this team develop. You’ve done an outstanding job under extremely adverse circumstances. We came close; didn’t we? So close to making this division the standard bearer for the industry. And that was done by all of you through the sweat of your brow. You have built a business based on your extraordinary talent and initiative. Just look what you have accomplished! You can be very proud of your efforts.”

To hear him talk, you would have thought this was a fucking awards ceremony, not a shut down. They let him speak. Amazing.

Then come the benefits. Employment through June plus accrued vacation days. All commissions are to be paid. The medical coverage is generous: all reps may continue to maintain their existing insurance over the next eighteen months. But, of course, it’s federal policy—COBRA legislation—not Amtech generosity. The fine print tells the real story. The law stipulates that individuals must be responsible for the entire cost of their coverage, an amount that is double what Amtech presently charges its employees for these health benefits. Most of my reps will not be able to pay the new rates. Many will abandon medical insurance altogether until they started working for a new firm.

The rest is nothing special. Tal assures them that strong letters of reference will be supplied. Amtech will handle all matters associated with notifying their accounts. The package is what I would call a no‑frills basic severance.

“That’s it, Tal?” Jimmy asks.

“So when did you know, Tal?” growls Chuck.

“What?” says Tal.

“That we’d be fired,” Chuck replies.

Tal looks at me. What the fuck did you tell them? Yup, that’s what he’s thinking. Nothing. That’s what my eyes say.

“I was notified a few days before Sue flew out for the Dayton meeting.”

“That’s not what I hear from the grapevine,” barks Chuck.

“Since when is hearsay truth, except with you, Chuck?”

“You knew we were goners way back in January. You had us working our tails off and for what?”

“Believe me, if I had known what was going down, I would have spared us all this agony. Shit happens, Chuck. It just does.”

“Well, the package sucks.”

“Well, that’s all I have.”

“What about enabling us to utilize a local job resource center?” Jimmy asks.

Tal glances my way.

I shake my head. Wasn’t my idea.

“Well, there’s HR in Dayton,” Tal says.

“Tal,” Izzi takes the lead, “look, we know Career Resources Unlimited has agreed to provide Amtech with some basic services for several of the managers. Stop looking at Sue, Tal. She hasn’t said a word to us. According to CRU’s proposal,” she passes Tal a sheet, “they can provide us with a basic service that would enable us to have our resumes reviewed, consult an electronic job search bulletin, and attend a session on developing interview skills all for a mere five hundred per person. You’d be getting off cheap.”

“Well, you certainly have done your homework. I should have known any sales force as good as this one would be tough in negotiations. And one, apparently, that seems unlikely to accept to a lesser settlement.”

There’s irritation, admiration, resignation, and even humor in his voice. Give the guy credit. He knows when he’s bested. Give them what they want. Move on. That’s his demeanor.

And then they laugh. Everyone. Even Tal. I could cry with relief. No swearing, no yelling. Their voices are forceful, but cordial. Things go smoothly after that. They achieve a kind of consensus. Tal promises to do his best. They count on him to do what is right. An hour later, the meeting’s over.

.     .     .     .

Sure enough, Tal comes through. The negotiations struck by my team for job placement services become the standard for reps outside the home territory. It’s a victory of sorts. From there, the downsizing proceeds without a hitch.

In the weeks and months that follow, I occasionally get calls from my former reps.

“Help me land this job?”

“Gladly, where do I send a reference letter?”

I rave about them. I extol their virtues. Izzi, Peter, and Kevin even call me when they get hired. But eventually, we lose touch. Just as well. In my new position as a marketing executive at Symtech, I won’t be able to help them. While my job has a bit more cachet and financial opportunity than theirs, the truth is that I, too, am just a rep. I now represent a manufacturing firm that specializes in fully integrated electronic sensors and controls. My customer base is utilities, and my territory is nationwide. What could I possibly do to help them?

Anyway, I tell myself, they don’t have the credentials. So what do I have to feel guilty about? And if they do call, I’ll refer them elsewhere. That’s all I can do. That’s all anyone can do. The fact is we’re no longer a corporate family. Each of us travels alone now.

Then one day George pierces my armor. He rings me four months after I have begun working at Symtech.

“Could you get me a job there, Sue? I have some experience in electronic controls.”

I hear desperation in his voice. I remember his health problems. So I agree to pass his resume along to personnel, despite my misgivings. In the nineties, you prefer to travel light. You give nothing; you take whatever you can. George’s over the hill. He’s potential dead weight. I’m not sure he’ll cut it in this newer, faster barracuda pace of industry. I barely keep up myself. When personnel asks for my appraisal of George, I’m even‑handed, some might even say generous. I just don’t go out on a limb. Another thing not done in the nineties. A week later, our municipalities group invites George in for an interview. He thanks me, oozing with gratitude.

“It’s nothing, really.” I say. Nothing, indeed.

And that’s it. George is never brought back for a second meeting.

I don’t check to find out why. In the end, I’m almost relieved that he won’t be working for the same company. His performance—or lack thereof—is no longer my concern. I don’t want to feel responsible for anyone. George never calls me again.

However, don’t think I have it so easy. My job isn’t stellar. I take a twenty‑five percent hit in earnings that year. I rarely see Tom. I travel constantly. I have no contact with my new cohorts. The job’s employment, not a career. In the nineties, there don’t seem to be careers. You’re either employed, desperately trying to land a job, or sinking into the abyss. No one I know is sitting fat and pretty. No matter what they say. Look around. Look at their houses, their cars, the desperation in their eyes, the hype in their voices.

Still, I have a job. It pays some bills, although Tom and I have creditors to pay. When things don’t improve, we move into a smaller house. Then we sell our sloop, Egia. These measures are necessary, we say. They make good financial sense. Besides, how are we to sail when I’m traveling all the time? But when the buyers haul Egia away, Tom won’t look. He shuffles back through the kitchen door. That night he skips dinner and heads to bed early saying only, “We had to sell her, Sue.”

Not an ounce of blame. This from a guy who has never asked for anything. Not even for Egia. It was I who insisted we buy her. But right from the start, she was his passion. A love built of fiberglass. Oh, the hours he devoted to her; the pleasure he had sailing the seas with her, despite our arguments and mishaps. But now she’s gone. And I feel as if I’ve thrust a stake through his heart.

That’s when I decide on a bigger sloop, thirty‑six feet, diesel, fast. And brand new, a Jay. I have a picture of her tacked against my wall. I’ve set myself a goal of three years to bring her home, but not a word to Tom. Her name will be Anemophile, lover of wind. I can just imagine her there in front of me breezily sailing along the cusp of dreams.