The man’s voice startled me, and I began to smile stupidly.
I’m not sure that I was daydreaming, fantasizing there on the pavement, but I suppose that I was.
“Hello, Mr. Abbott,” he said. “Better weather than the last time you were here.”
I watched the driver– Sam– swing the luggage and place it gently in the trunk. He opened the door, cautioning me about the slush at the curb. He had already taken his little sign from the window since Mr. Abbott was here now.
“Last time you really got stuck in that storm,” he continued. “How are things at the home office?”
“Good, good.” I could have said busy, busy, but what difference would it have made? He stopped talking and nosed the large car out into the traffic. It isn’t that I did not want to talk, but I was just distracted. Not unhappy, just distracted. And maybe a little sad. I had to face the usual meetings ahead and other things, but I won’t burden you with that now.
When you are the big guy, you have to travel– that’s it. Pam doesn’t mind. She knows the score and has for a long time. It’s funny, but you read about couples that plot and plan their lives as though they were moving boxes on a chart. It was never like that with us; we just sort of fell into things. I suppose I am gone more now than when I was a junior exec, but it’s not all that different. She has her activities and friends. I sometimes wonder, when she is alone, if she regrets the children thing. Still, it was something we both– at least tacitly– decided.
“Settle back, Mr. Abbott, you look like you could use some sleep.” I saw him craning his head back. Was he just concerned about me or nosy? Not sure.
I thought I would rest for a moment, but I knew I would not sleep. I never do in cars or planes. I read an article once about people who take naps at work. Just shut the door and close your eyes, the article recommended. But I would never do that. It would be a sign of weakness, don’t you think?
When I saw Sam there with the sign at the airport, I thought of one of my fantasies. You see these signs with cars and drivers. Suppose you hopped into a car and just pretended to be the person the car was waiting for? The driver would take you someplace. That could be quite the surprise, quite the adventure. How long would it be until the ruse was discovered? You might never return to your old life.
I crumpled the bill into Sam’s hand and entered the lobby, a sterile looking place. There were pictures in the lobby of the mansion that used to stand on this site. It was a wondrous structure with turrets and gargoyles– charming and romantic and utterly unsuited to the factories of finance which occupied the neighborhood now.
“Good to see you, Mr. Abbot. How are things up north?”
I had forgotten the guard’s name– they all look the same with their blazers and dark ties. I asked him about the weather here and the latest scores, hoping that I would remember his name, but I did not. He had one of those little name tags, but it would have been awkward to stare at it.
They had wanted to give me a large office, but after all, I was only visiting, and I had the big place back at our home headquarters in Boston. I had a modest private office, near the other executives. The rest of the staff was a floor down, in the open, warehouse-like settings that seem to be so popular.
My assistant, Barbara, had a cup of coffee ready for me at my desk. “Your schedule, Mr. Abbott.”
We were one of those companies that encourage everyone to call everyone by first names, but Barbara ignored that rule. And she dressed conservatively, making her look older than her years.
“Hello, sir.” I did not have to look up. I knew it was Paul. Beaming and bald, he had the appearance of a disc jockey or entertainer. He was always rubbing his hands together, eager for the next challenge.
“How was the flight, Peter?”
“All right,” I said it slowly enough to that he would get the message.
“Is nine still good?”
“It’s fine, Paul. I’ll see you then.”
Still smiling, Paul left the room and closed the door. I had taken my folders out and spread them on the desk. Young as I am– forties aren’t old, are they?– I’m still a paper guy. I’ve got all the gadgets, of course, but there is something comforting about words and numbers on a page. The numbers were bothering me. This office was not performing. As I looked out at the worker bees, I wondered how many of them knew that. Something would have to be done– no, I would have to do something. I did notice some unfamiliar faces, but most had been here since we opened the office three years ago. Maybe that was the problem.
Things were not that bad. We had expanded, and maybe we did that too quickly. Still, we did show growth and profits quarter after quarter. I wasn’t brought in as the rainmaker guy– I was the clean-up-the-mess guy. The company’s founder had been dismissed, and the board was looking for a way to fix things. I gave them that. I remember sitting across from people who had been with the firm since its start, and now they were being thrown away.
I decided to call home before things got too crazy. “How are things with you, Pam?”
“Good, busy.” I liked it when she answered quickly. It almost made me believe her. Then there was the silence that always took up much of our conversations these days. She sighed before she said that I must have had a good trip. There was no question mark at the end as though she expected my flight and connections to be uneventful.
“I’ll be back tomorrow– should be no problems with the weather.”
“Good, Peter. Maybe we can go out.”
That was all. I suppose that we might be acquaintances or roommates, but that is what happens often. Everyone knows that.
I looked at Paul, knowing what I had to say, but not sure exactly how to do it. You read all those management books which tell you that low performers know how bad they are. Still, the boss has to say something to him. Otherwise, if there are legal complications, the person could say that he was never directly given the message. Paul wasn’t that bad of a leader. He had good staff under him, but things could get much worse– unless there were changes.
I had learned that it was better to wait, to let things sink in. I knew how badly he felt, and I tried to put on my coaching face.
“I can make the changes, Peter. I know I can.”
“I’ll be back next month, and we can go over the goals then. I just wanted to be clear with you how serious this is, and that we all need to see some good results here.”
He did not hang his head like a whipped dog– in fact, he looked straight at me, almost defiantly, almost angrily. That was good. I hoped it would translate into something positive out on the floor.
When I got to the hotel, I almost wanted Pam to call, but then I knew she wouldn’t. I had already spoken to her that day, plus she had learned over the years not to call me at work, unless it was a matter of life and death– and there aren’t many of those. Polite and respectful: that was the way I liked it. We both liked it that way.
I suppose my marriage wasn’t that bad. We had enough money, and we were able to get away when we wanted. Having children was something we discussed, of course, and it’s not like we didn’t try or anything. I suppose we were both relieved when we got to the end of that journey.
Pam liked to fuss whenever I would sneak a kiss or grab her ass, fake-smacking at me with her hand and complaining. You’ll be sorry, I said. One day I won’t go after you anymore.
And now that day had come– and gone.
“Will we get to see more of you, Peter?” someone asked me.
“Sure, if you can handle more of me.” I didn’t need to look at their faces– they were all laughing softly and smiling politely. Even poor Paul was making the best of things although it had to be obvious to his underlings that things were not good or I would not promise more visits.
“We’ve had a pretty good run here folks,” I continued. “I want to thank all of you for your hard work and long hours. The people on the board have noticed too. Right now we just need to worry about the calls we got while we were out enjoying ourselves.”
It’s important to know how hard to push and how soon to let up the grip. I still don’t think I have mastered that.
I stayed late that night. I called Pam, and we had our usual brief conversation– she reported on things at home as if she was reading from a list. We both said good night, pleasantly. I told her about the flight home. The travel weather was better, but you never knew.
It’s always rushed the day you leave. Meetings get crammed into meetings. But always your eye is on the clock, knowing what the lines at the airport would be like. Paul was pretty sullen that morning. I did not try to buck him up.
The driver was on time. He was one of those guys with a thing in his ear. You thought he was mumbling to himself, but he was talking to central command. I gave him my usual tip and swung the roller bag into the crowded pack of travelers.
Before I took off, I called Pam. I always joked to her that I would be on autopilot when I landed, and that was why I called. We both laughed, initially, at the tired joke. The car service had sent a text that my usual driver was out, and they would send a new person, not specifying that it would be a man or woman
It was colder than I expected as I pushed past the bundled people, clutching their coats tightly and waving their arms at hoped-for drivers.
I saw my car. A woman driver was holding my sign. The men and women drivers dress the same. What would happen if your woman driver showed up wearing an evening dress instead of the monkey suit?
I had made sure that my phone was turned off.
I smiled at the woman and looked beyond her as though I saw another vehicle.
Then I walked on.