Niles Oberlin smiles at the cleaning lady as he pours his morning coffee at the company sink. “I can’t believe that employee of mine did such a stupid thing,” Niles says. The woman smiles and nods. She doesn’t speak English very well and is more occupied with wiping off the counter than what the balding accountant standing next to the sink is trying to tell her. But she’s five foot two and since Niles rarely gets to look anyone straight in the eye, he’s not passing up such a rare opportunity.
“He got caught walking in the hallway without a piece of paper in his hand, “ Niles says leaning in to her confidentially. Her dark eyes widen. He takes that for comprehension. “And Jack Vandemere catches him. Can you imagine?” He looks at her and she at him trying hard to match his expression.
“Bad enough to get caught by one of directors, but the VP, the guy who made the damn rule.” He shouts out a laugh, she does likewise. “The guy who’s fired people for walking the halls without a piece of paper in their hand, he catches him.” They are practically nose to nose. “Can you believe it? That poor dumb bastard.” He raises his arms in the air, she mirrors his move. Then as though turning off a radio he grabs his coffee and leaves; the cleaning lady shrugs as she sprays the counter and begins wiping it down.
Rudy Ruskin is in his cubicle in the accounts payable department. He is looking online for concert tickets instead of matching the pile of invoices in front of him with purchase orders so they can be set up for payment. He scrolls down a site announcing an upcoming tour of the Dave Matthews Band when Niles walks in on him. Rudy quickly minimizes the screen.
“No, no, no,” says Niles. “Never minimize a screen when your boss is so close. You get caught every time, like I just caught you. Best to leave it up and talk your way out of it, you got a better chance.” Rudy turns red his blotchy complexion matching his red hair parted to one side and falling in front of his right eye. He brushes it away with his hand, but it immediately falls back in the same place. “But, I—”
“No need to explain, says Niles.” You got bigger problems.” Niles pulls the spare chair in Rudy’s cubicle up close to him. “So Vandemere caught you.”
“I didn’t have a chance—”
Niles raises his hand traffic cop style. “Stop right there. I warned you about this. I said never walk in the halls without a paper or something in your hand. So what did you do?” Rudy leans forward, his string bean body bending at the waist. “I was only going—“
“You walked in the hall empty-handed after I told you not to do it,” Niles says chopping his hand in the air, “but you did it anyway. What’s with that…uh…you didn’t believe me….I’m not hip enough…I don’t listen to your music…well for your information I may be a short, bald 55-year-old, but I listen to young music…ever hear of Dave Matthews?” This time Rudy’s words are stopped before they leave his half-opened mouth.
“Anyway, no matter. Vandemere wants to see you in his office after lunch. That’s one o’clock sharp. Don’t be late and.hey…what can I say…I gotta’ be honest. He’s fired people for doing what you did. Sorry to say, I can’t help you. Wish I could, but you’re on your own with big Jack. Good luck. I hope it works out.” Niles gets up to leave, then turns back at Rudy whose face is now redder than a match before it is struck.
“You know, I sort of blame myself. We should have had more talks like this.”
Jack Vendemere’s office is the classic corner version with a twist. Halfway along the front wall there is a doorway leading to a small patio. Mr. Vandemere can be seen standing on this patio as people come to work and as they leave in the evening. He often stands, his hand in the trouser pocket of his black Armani suit, his polished bald spot surrounded by silvery gray hair cut flawlessly around his head. His eyes are blue darts that scan every action and his voice a resonant bass that would be the rallying point should the room unexpectedly fill with water. As Rudy enters Jack is sitting behind his mahogany desk looking down at a lone piece of paper, the only item visible on the entire surface.
“So, Mr. Ruskin, a pleasure to meet you,” says Jack as he stands up to shake Rudy’s hand, the whole scene reflected in the mirror finish of the desk. “Please, sit down.” He motions toward a chair in front of the desk.
“Accounts payable, right?” Rudy nods.
“Right. And how long have you been with us?”
Rudy clears his throat. “Six months.”
“Right a beginner. Like it here?”
“Yes,” Rudy sits bolt upright. “Very much.”
“Good,” Jack nods. “Like the people, your boss? What’s his name…?”
“Niles,” says Rudy, “Niles Oberlin.”
“Right. Good lady.”
“Man…Niles is a man,” says Rudy.
“Of course he is,” says Jack, “and a damn good one.” Jack rocks back in his chair regarding a gold clock inscribed with his name and title sitting to his right. He takes out a gold cross pen and rights something on the paper in front of him. “We seem…reasonable to you? Fair—”
“Oh yes,” says Rudy. “Fair, always. Very fair.”
“But this rule I have….about not walking in the halls without a piece of paper in your hand. That must seem a little unreasonable to you?” Rudy feels his face flush. He laughs as he shifts his weight in the chair.
“I wouldn’t say unreasonable, I…I don’t see that it’s all that important, but if that’s the rule…”
“Yes, that’s the rule,” says Jack. “What were you doing in the hall when I caught you?” “I…I don’t know…checking things out.”
“I…I don’t know…checking things out.”
“You didn’t have enough work?”
“No, that’s not it at all,” says Rudy. “It’s just that—” There is a sudden ringing noise that Rudy can’t quite place. It seems to be coming from everywhere an echo bouncing off the four walls. Jack deftly reaches into his suit pocket and retrieves an earpiece and a blackberry. He fits the earpiece in place and answers with a low and direct, “Yeah.” Rudy stands up to leave as Jack converses with the caller. He stands waiting to be told whether to leave or sit down. But Jack pays him no mind. He finishes the conversation and stares straight ahead. Rudy begins to tentatively walk back to his seat.
“I do have plenty of work, I only…” Rudy sits down and notices Jack is staring to his right. As he begins speaking, he leans slowly in that direction, trying desperately to infringe on Jack’s field of vision.
“…I felt insulted, I only wanted to see what it is that we do, what’s behind those bills I get and have to pay everyday.” Jack suddenly returns from the orbit of his last phone call. He stares at Rudy.
“Really? And what good would that do?”
“It would be good to get to know the operation, become more valuable…” Jack leans in toward him, his eyes slightly watering. Rudy is mesmerized by the entire Jack package…the bold blackness of his suit with the gray vertical lines and the contrast with the ultra white, starched shirt. The multicolored tie practically shouts at him.
“You want to be valuable here? Don’t worry about what goes on. Leave that to your underlings. Learn now, the most important thing. “Jack holds up a shiny white index finger.
“Cultivate your image. It’s the package that gets you ahead.”
“But I was reading this book,” says Rudy, “about how important it is to find improvements, understand the flow of the operation from the ground floor.” Jack glances at his watch with the gold band that practically charges you to check the time.
“Forget the book. Listen to me.” Jack leans in again. “You’re the book. You’re the knowledge. Make people believe they have to come to you to get the right answer. Cultivate that image now. Walk in the hallways like you got a purpose, always have something in your hand. It will serve you well.” Jack pushes his chair back from the table and extends his arms.
“That’s what I did. And I come from a long line of successful packagers.” He smiles his teeth as white as a shark’s. Rudy is suddenly conscious of his shirt tail being out and begins to poke it back in his trousers with his hand. He does it slowly at first trying not to be detected, then more quickly his hand moving up and down. Perspiration begins to form on his forehead. Jack watches Rudy his lips slowly parting, his breath moving in and out more quickly. Jack reaches down and gives his crotch a quick scratch. He slides his chair forward again.
“So. Remember that and believe me, you’ll do well here. That’s all.” Jack says. Rudy gets up to leave touching his stomach as he becomes aware of a metallic taste in his mouth. “Hold it,” says Jack. “You’re forgetting already. Here.” He hands him the paper he was writing on during their talk.
“You can throw it away when you get back to your desk.”