By Paul Teodo and Tom Myers
The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming novel Cross Fit by Paul Teodo and Tom Myers.
I SPENT THE NEXT COUPLE HOURS REVIEWING HVAC SPECS FOR THE OR WITH MY FACILITIES GUY, Joe Spanski, a bald, thick armed, second generation Pole from a family of Warsaw brick masons. He told me it was impossible. “Boss, it’s cooling, not refrigeration. Them people in there are alive, it ain’t the morgue.”
“That’s what he wants. Fifty-eight degrees.”
Spanski gave me a sly look. “Have you seen his wife?”
“Yeah, so what?”
“She looks dead. Maybe he likes ‘em cold.”
She did look dead. “Thanks Joe, so we can’t get any lower than sixty?” I was pretty sure Eriksen liked them cold.
“Right boss, and with that, we’ll have staff half froze.”
Joe lumbered out of my office, tool belt rattling down the hall.
It was only ten o’clock. Too long to wait. I couldn’t stand it. I needed this job. I had a mortgage, a car payment, my kid’s college debt and alimony. I couldn’t walk away. But most important I had my pride. I tried to act like I could give a shit, but getting canned would fuck with my ego.
I stepped into Jenna’s office. “I’m going for that walk now.”
“I’m going to see Greta.”
“You’re not supposed to see her till…” She paused, conflicted. We hadn’t discussed the meeting, but she knew what was in store for me. She was a Christian and loyal to me — her boss. But Greta had hired right out of high school.
I was pissed. “Tell me what you know.”
“I can’t.” She turned away hiding her tears.
I grabbed her shoulder and tried to turn her around. “For Christ’s sake tell me.”
Her body tensed.
What the hell am I doing? She didn’t deserve to be the recipient of my fear.
“I’m going to her office.”
“You know she doesn’t like when her schedule is altered.”
“I’m altering it.”
She gathered herself. “Take this, it’s pouring.” She pulled a large green and white golf umbrella from her closet, Western Highlands Medical Center emblazoned on its surface.
“Thank you. I’m sorry. I’ll be back soon.”
“God Bless you.”
I doubted it.
I BENT INTO THE WIND. Rain slopped from my shoes with every step. The storm fought the umbrella trying to turn it inside out. Tommy would tell me when you’re stressed take a walk. In the freaking rain? In some twisted way I felt if bad shit was going to happen it would be better to find out if I was soaked and shivering. Like a rat.
I stomped around the campus aimlessly, shivering, reading signs and planning my defense.
It always irritated me that in this town you couldn’t park your own car. I never felt comfortable here. I parked my own car.
An arrow pointed into the heated garage, red warming lamps glowing in the gloom. A black 7 Series Beemer shot by splashing dirty water on my knock-off Armani. Now I was soaked to my skivvies. The testicle Mr.Vitorri personally attended to in 1969 retracted, searching for someplace dry.
I was wet and freezing. I needed shelter. I headed into Building 2. When I yanked the door against the wind it whipped wide open. I thought the hinges would pop. “Nasty out there.” Rachel, our greeter (yes greeter) smiled as she handed me a small towel. I smiled back (why not?).
“You’re soaked!” She realized that in spite of the eight-hour class she took on smiling, and the three hundred dollars we were invoiced for it, a big-toothed grin when your executive vice president was standing in the doorway soaked to the bone was not in accordance with that expensive training. “Good thing you have an umbrella.” She caught on to the fact I was dripping from head to toe. She ended our awkward curriculum-driven encounter with a final cliché. “Is there anything else I can help you with?” Really? Who says that shit in real life, other than those force fed the line in a three hundred dollar an hour customer service class?
“No Rachel, nothing else.” I shook Jenna’s God’s umbrella and it sprayed on the floor, the glass entryway, and even on dear smiling Rachel. “Nothing at all.”
I stood in front of one of the vents trying to warm up and dry off. A walk in the rain had not calmed me down one bit. I was irritable, discontent, and ready for a fight.
I COULDN’T PUT IT OFF ANY LONGER. I sprinted toward the Admin. Building. The rain was relentless. Sheets of cold pellets bounced sideways off the asphalt cascading down the parking lot. The big umbrella lost its battle with Mother Nature.
Finally, I ducked under the canopy of the Admin. Building. Home free. Out of the downpour. But no. Not today. Keycard. I must have dropped it somewhere. Shit. I buzzed. Buzzed again. “May I help you?” Joan, Greta’s dour gatekeeper. Yeah, make it stop raining. Dry me off. In fact make this meeting just go away. “May I help you?” Again. Her annoyance made clear even through the garbled speaker.
“I don’t have my keycard!”
“Jesus,” she mumbled. The door clicked. I stomped into the lobby then stood motionless absorbing the heating lamp’s infrared rays. I shook like a wet dog.
No shit. ”I’m fine.”
She handed me a few useless brown paper towels from the bathroom. “You’re going to need to wait. You were supposed to meet at three. She’s clearing her schedule.”
Jenna had warned them; her loyalty split between her funnyman boss and her practical fear of the person who buttered her bread.
I plopped down on the cream-colored leather chair, water sluicing off, running between the cushions. Carefully placed in front of me on a cut glass coffee table was a stainless steel carafe, tall and elegant, and two mugs, engraved in gold with the hospital logo. Precisely spaced spoons, napkins, sugar, sweetener, cream, and two cookies were rigidly arrayed, discouraging disturbance. Just like when I interviewed three years ago. It didn’t impress me then, and it didn’t now.
“She’s ready for you.”
I looked up, startled. “Ready?”
“You came to see Greta?” She looked down on me knowing full well what was about to happen. “She cleared her schedule.” Her voice like my third grade nun, Sister Lillian. Judgmental, arrogant, and punishing. I was ready for her to complete her chastisement with “You boob!” and smack me with her ruler.
“Thank you.” I said meekly, disappointed that I was so terrified.
“You make the staff uncomfortable.”
“Bullshit.” What the fuck did I say that for?
“See. You blurt things without thinking.”
She led to me to Greta’s office in accordance with her training. I knew my way but we were an organization that operated appropriately and people were led into Greta’s office, you didn’t stroll there on your own.
Greta didn’t look up when I walked in. I stood wet and silent as a servant, dripping on the blue sculpted carpet.
Her desk was actually a large table with ornately carved legs exuding French elegance. I know shit about furniture, but if this wasn’t Louie-the-something-French, nothing was. In contrast the papers in front of her were strewn about. A marble pen holder engraved Greta Washburn Chief Executive Officer, emphasized her importance. Neat piles of red, blue, and tan files were stacked to the left. Expensive paintings of pastoral waterfalls cascading down mountains with gurgling brooks and dark green trees hung evenly on her walls. A fish tank off to the right, flat black fish eyeballing me through the glass and a potted Norfolk Island pine big enough to climb guarded her back.
I stood silently, waiting, as she continued to pretend she was reviewing exceptionally important documents, peering through her Kate Spade reading glasses.
Tired of this subservient crap I snorted. She looked up dropping her glasses to their diamond chain. “Oh, I’m sorry. Take a seat.” She pointed with her pen to the smallish chair strategically placed in front of her desk just for this encounter. “Coffee?”
“No. No thanks.” I could be a smug prick. But now, at the moment of truth, I was starting to sweat into my already wet suit.
“You’ve been here, how long? Four or five years?”
“Three.” I tried not to sound like I was correcting her.
“Fit. I’m not sure how to describe it. You know it when you see, feel it.” She paused, looked down, and sighed, “and you know when you don’t.”
Like porn? No don’t say that.
Suddenly, the gorilla was back. I tried a deep breath, but it didn’t prevent the trembling. I had all that debt. But it was just stuff. Getting fired was so belittling I wasn’t sure I could continue. Without a drink.
“Fit?” I’d needed to say something. “I went to your classes.” Too defensive.” I’ve tried to be more tactful.” It was stupid, but I forged ahead. “Can you give me more of what you mean?”
Her lips twisted like she’d just swallowed bad medicine. She knew I was staring at her mouth and I could tell she didn’t like it.
“We have a culture. People here.” Again with the lips. I tried not to look. She placed her hand over her mouth. She poured a glass of water from a crystal pitcher engraved with two tennis players. I hated the game. “The way people treat each other. You,” she paused, sipping the water, ice clinking in the glass, “act different, it makes people feel awkward, uncomfortable. It insults them.”
I do that. I know. Sometimes because that’s the way I am and sometimes because I feel awkward. It’s worse with women. I don’t fit. And there were women everywhere around here. I needed this job. But I needed not to have my ego torn from my chest more than this job. How could I tell people that I got canned, separated, replaced, whatever the buzzword was this month for getting fired?
But I tried. “We’re ahead of budget. Three years ago you were in the… crapper. People are happy. Patient Satisfaction rising.”
“You make the staff uncomfortable.”
“Bullshit.” What the fuck did I say that for?
“See. You blurt things without thinking. You confront our doctors. This morning with Bjorn.”
The asshole already got to her. “He’s an asshole.”
“Again. You don’t think.”
Actually I think about what I’m going to blurt out and then I do it anyway. That gets me into trouble.
She was right. I didn’t fit in here. Fuck her and these pampered, arrogant, indulgent, kiss-ass doctors. I decided right there I wanted out. “Thank you for the opportunity to work here. I learned a lot from you.” I was unaware I could say such bullshit so sincerely.
“You don’t mean that. You don’t respect me. It’s written all over you.” I didn’t, it was, and like the asshole I am, rarely tried to hide it. Now I saw where it got me. Out the fucking door.
“You may not believe this Greta, but I am sorry if I have caused you or others any harm.”
She studied me. She looked down at her desk. Shook her head. Face softening. Lips normal. “You have a lot of talent. Learn how to use it without shoving it in people’s faces.”
“I do that when I’m feeling less than.” I did, and I also knew that an asshole doesn’t evoke much empathy.
“Talk to HR about your separation package and your rights. You can come back this weekend and clean out your personal belongings or do it today. Your choice. Please place the articles on this list in this envelope and deliver to HR by Monday.” She handed me the list and the envelope. She extended her hand. I grasped it. She gripped mine firmly. “I wish you well.”
I believe she did. But I wasn’t feeling it. Maybe that’s part of what she meant about fit. I get these feelings, they burn inside me until they force their way out. They do me no good. And here I was again.
Everybody knew. Her assistant. Jenna. Security, who now stood at the door, just in case. They reported to me. I was the last to know. My pride was shattered. Fear filled my chest. I tried to hold my head up. It’d be over soon. I’d done it to others. Now it was my turn. The second time for me. The first time. I was a kid, twenty-two, helper on a beer truck. I wasn’t stealing, it was the driver. I didn’t rat him out.
Out the door. The torrent had turned to a drizzle. I walked aimlessly towards my car searching for my keys. Should I leave? Go back to my office? It really didn’t matter. Two hours ago I was in charge of multi-million dollar budgets and hundreds of people, who at times respected or feared me. Now some would be celebrating and some might be mourning my demise. Shortly, I’d be forgotten. Everybody survives without you, to think they won’t is bullshit. Anything else is an over assessment of my importance. I’m just a guy. Not a savior.
The wind had died. I was both sweating and shivering. I felt very much alone. A year was going to be hard to get.
I had nothing to report, and no one to report to. It was barely noon. I hadn’t spoken to my ex in twelve years. My two boys were gone, one in Fiji teaching yoga and meditation, the other living in the city at a job he’d just started. They didn’t need my grief. My dog loved me, but lately it seemed like I bored him. Most likely when I got home I’d find a pile on the floor to welcome me.
I’d clean out the office later. I found my car in the visitor lot where I always parked. I pressed my fob. Nothing, not a twitch or honk or anything. Again. Nothing. Dead. Just like me. I stabbed the key into the door and twisted the lock open. I slid into the seat. My soggy suit stuck to my chilled skin.
And yes, Rebecca was gone. After four years she’d left the ring on the nightstand and shut the door. She had pushed for that ring. But we never set the date. Never called me her fiancé. Walked out with a sad look on her face, but not enough sadness to get her to stay. Maybe we weren’t a good fit either. I don’t think it was the drinking. I kept that from her pretty good. And the few times I didn’t she joined in. Her reasons were just as clear as Greta’s. “We’re going nowhere. We don’t communicate. You’re far away and we have no future.” Stuff I knew was more true than not. So instead of fighting for us, I let us drift away.
She was right. I didn’t fit in here. Fuck her and these pampered, arrogant, indulgent, kiss-ass doctors.
A triple Dewar’s White Label with a splash of water would go good right now, but I was almost at a year. The last time I had that drink I woke up in Mexico laying on a cot embracing a bearded goat. Turns out I’m not a farm animal kind of guy. So I couldn’t let Rebecca’s rejection and the evisceration by Greta with all its accompanying humiliation drive me to the bottle.
I could hear Tommy telling me “cunning, baffling, powerful”. He talked like that. He was my sponsor. And he worried too much.
I should call him. I always felt better when I did. He’d chew my ass. But I was sixty, not a kid. And I just got fired.
I started the car. Cold air blasted my legs. I was jumpy, rubbing my hands together, waiting for the air to warm. Some idiot was barking on sports talk radio. I didn’t need his big mouth yelling at me. He was trying to make everything sound important or profound, but like he was from the neighborhood. He probably was a media-wise shill, from an Ivy League school, knocking down a couple hundred K a year, selling Viagra to guys who didn’t have anything better to do in the middle of the day. Now, I was one of them. How long before I started calling in?
I’d call Tommy instead. He’d give me his crap, and I’d listen, then feel better, and then he’d throw in, “Let’s go to a meeting.” A meeting was his answer for everything. Sometimes, you know, it’s not. Sometimes you have to hit the problem between the eyes. He’d always say “Pause, pray, proceed.” Sometimes it was just too much. I threw on Puccini’s Tosca instead. Depressing as hell, full of torture, murder, and suicide, but the music was beautiful.
I backed up the car. The white Crown Vic I signed a requisition for just months ago edged closer. For Christ’s sake, what did Greta think? I was going to go nuts? Randy, the old guy, sat behind the wheel, Brylcreemed hair and weird handlebar mustache. Junior, his sidekick, a steroid pumped over-caffeinated blonde kid coiled next to him, ready to jump out of the car. Both carefully watching to make sure I left without incident. Security. Highlands’ finest.
I threw it into gear. Randy and Junior in pursuit. What the hell, give them something to do, I’d liven up their day, and make them earn their money. I drove slowly around the campus heading towards Greta’s office. Would they just follow me or flip on their lights? Training would indicate caution, but no lights. I shouldn’t be doing this. One was old, near retirement, and the other’s juice-strained mind was totally unpredictable. As I exited the campus they looked relieved, staring between the wipers on the Crown Vic. With a nod they each saluted, acknowledging my final departure. I was touched by their deference and as always, disappointed in my behavior.