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Archive for June, 2010|Monthly archive page

The Courtship of Douglas Péon

In postaweek2011, short story on June 30, 2010 at 6:38 pm

 

 

Copyright © 2010-2011 by Tad Laury Graham

The Courtship of Douglas Péon (Revised)

Douglas got out of bed one morning without the customary assistance provided him by his snooze alarm. His mother didn’t nag him. His father didn’t threaten him. He doesn’t feel the need for endless cups of strong coffee to motivate him; indeed, he has butterflies in his stomach and can hardly keep anything down, let alone coffee.

Douglas is excited about the next step in his life because today is the day it begins. He has practiced for more than a month and has his responses down cold for almost any form of resistance. He feels the confidence that starting over often brings, convinced that he will sway her to his way of thinking because he has learned from his failures. He is certain she will say yes, and with her at his side he believes that he will go places never before open to him.

He speculates that success with Rachel would be a major coup, would provide the basis for a strong marriage of two strong-willed minds. A bit dramatic, perhaps, but feelings often complicate reason. Emotions are what make it difficult to leave her after so many years, but logic declares the relationship already dead, having grown stagnant and indifferent in a profession that requires sustained excitement for success.

He knows he must do something to regain the excitement he once felt. He believes that Grace senses his distraction, and that she is probably of the same mind, as much as it were possible for them to share the ambition and drive of a single mind. Yet it is time. He can no longer hole up at his mother’s house and wait for destiny to arrive. He must be aggressive. He must make his first move and never look back.

 

Douglas begins this memorable event with a quick shower. There is no need for his usual morning ritual whereby he experiences a kind of half-awake / half-asleep semiconscious state, requiring a hot water massage from the top of his head to the bottoms of his feet, to bring himself fully conscious. His mood is so elevated that he alternates between whistling and humming while he showers, starting with the Everly Brothers hit song, “All I Have to Do Is Dream,” then—as he steps out onto the bathroom tiles, “here Comes the Bride.”

Everything seems perfect, until something catches his eye in the bathroom mirror. He leans forward, both arms straight, hands flat on the counter, his head slowly turning from side-to-side as he inspects his face. Something is amiss that he can’t quite identify. Then he sees it, “My God! Is that a zit? At my age?” partially hidden under a lock of hair, perceived as gargantuan in comparison with the rest of his face. “It’s the size of a baseball!” He announced, to nobody in particular.

At first he studies it, as though he had never seen one before, but then he swings into action, stretches the skin around it, picks at it, rolls it between his forefinger and thumb, slowly breaking the skin, then applies some hydrogen peroxide with a Q-tip. There, he thinks. She will never know.

 

Over the weekend, to secure a good impression with Rachel and to cultivate the new image that he has chosen for himself, Douglas purchased a gray pin stripe suit, a pair of black leather wing tips, and a black feather-edged belt to go with his new shoes. To develop some familiarity with this new look before entering the combat zone, he hangs the suit on a doorknob and gives it the once over each time he passes it. This morning, as he examines this new look for what must have been the 20th time, he begins to dress with the care and expectation of a Spanish matador. Every item of clothing laid out on the bed, in the order in which he will dress. A serious demeanor has taken hold. He is ready to do battle to gain his new life.

Douglas turns the television on to catch the headlines while he dresses, so he will be up-to-date on the world scene. She seems to admire that quality. It would help his cause. Then noticing that his new shoes were a bit dull, he sits on the edge of the bed and gives them a hurried shine. Afterwards, he finishes dressing, turns the television off and steps back in front of the mirror to tie his tie and to check his appearance.

Power ties are a problem, he thinks—perhaps it’s better to be conservative than  to risk the wrong message. He returns to the closet and places the red tie on the tie rack, selecting a light blue to complement his gray suit. He threads it around his collar, and as usual ties the knot incorrectly on the first try. He pulls the knot apart and tries again. Douglas, you idiot … you look like a New England banker! Nobody in Southern California wears a three button suit. … listen to me … she’s got me talking to myself!

OK, deep breath … slow down, breath … don’t panic … try to make the best of it. Maybe I can make a joke of it, turn it into an ice beaker.

Douglas goes downstairs, puts his jacket on the back of a kitchen chair, turns the coffee maker on—more out of habit than of need—and pours himself a bowl of cereal.  While the coffee is brewing, he goes outside, finds the morning paper in the driveway, returns and scans the headlines, again to see if he can capitalize on a bit of current gossip or knowledge of world events, although this time he is somewhat more absentminded in approach—only as an afterthought finishing up by glancing at the business section.

“Good morning, Doogy,” his mother says, shuffling into the kitchen in her bathrobe and slippers. “Oh, good, we have fresh coffee. Thank-you.”

“No trouble,” he says.

She takes a wooden tray from the cupboard and places two cups of coffee, a sugar bowl and a small creamer on the tray. Douglas folds the newspaper into its former unread size. “Thank you for letting me stay with you,” he says, handing her the paper.

“Of course,” she says, as she tucked the newspaper under her arm and picked up the tray saying, “I would never turn you away, Doogy. You’re my son.” Then her face reddened and she seemed to stumble for the right words. “I’m so rude,” she began, “I should have asked how it’s working out. I need to take more interest in your problems.”

“No problems, Mom. Everything is working out just fine.”

“Good for you,” she says, “I can hardly wait to meet her and I’ll be thinking of you all day, I promise.”

“I love you, too, Mom.”

Yes, I should have said that, too,” she mumbled, as she climbed the stairs.

Too excited to finish his breakfast, Douglas pushes himself back from the table, smiles his best salesman-like smile, and says, “Here goes nothing!” He gets up, walks to the front door, pauses, then goes up stairs and changes into a 2-button suit and his British walkers. He returns a few minutes later, walks outside to his car, starts the engine and backs out of the driveway.

Douglas arrives early and parks out back where he has always parked. Because the offices are not yet unlocked for business, he makes his way around front and enters where the company receptionist watches the comings and goings of everyone who works for the agency. As he enters the building, the receptionist comes out from behind her work station and pulls him aside.

“Good morning Mr. Péon,” she says. “John is looking for you and he is hopping mad about something.”

“Oh? What’s it about?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Péon. The last time he came by here he said the minute you get here I should tell you ‘to get your ass down to my office. ”I’m sorry for being so crude, but he really did say it.”

“I see,” Douglas says. “Then I’ll just get a cup of coffee and head on down.”

“He also said that you shouldn’t stop for coffee.”

“No coffee?” … The last time John shut down the coffee pot, we had just lost an account.”

“I wouldn’t know about that, Mr. Péon. I don’t drink coffee, so that’s one problem I couldn’t have caused. Whatever happened, he’s plenty cranky.”

Douglas puts his briefcase in his office, removes his jacket and carefully hangs it on the hook on the back of his door. He picks up a pencil and a legal tablet and walks down the hall to the corner office.

“Go right in, Mr. Péon. He’s expecting you,” his admin says.

“Good morning, John,” Douglas says as he enters John’s office, trying to sound cheerful and in control of the situation.

John ignores him, continues reading a document until he comes to a logical stopping place. Douglas is feeling uncomfortable, understands the pause as a slight, meant to put him in his place. It can’t be the Macmillan Account, he thinks. Then he switches tactics, Please, God, don’t let it be the Macmillan Account. John finally looks up and in one motion leans back into his chair, brings his right hand up to his face, fingers touching his cheek and chin, left hand crossing his chest and tucked under his right elbow, as if to say, what am I going to do with you? He doesn’t speak immediately, but then deliberately, “Are you leaving Grace?”

“Where did you hear that?”

“Never mind, just answer the question.”

“I’ve been toying with the idea, John, but I haven’t decided.” Still standing, he casually slides both hands into his pockets and avoids eye contact by looking in back of John, eyes unfocused, rather than directly at him.

“I think you are lying.” John says, emphatically, as he leans forward, both forearms on his desk, hands clasped, eyes fixed on Douglas in a cold stare.

“You have no right to call me a liar, John.” Feeling the hackles of his neck tighten, his right hand unconsciously moves to the affected spot at the back of his neck and gently rubs. “Nobody has the right to call a man a liar without proof.”

“I didn’t say you were a lier, Doug. I said you lied. There’s a difference.”

“I am not a liar! Anyone who says differently better have proof. Just who the hell is spreading this malicious gossip about me?”

“I found your notes in your desk after you called in sick. Your action item list was right on top, and it says, ‘tell John I’m leaving Grace for personal reasons’, but it ends with a question mark.” Again, he leans back into his chair.  “Are you?”

“What are you doing going through my desk?” Douglas raising his voice, slightly more agitated.

John is livid. Coming all the way out of his chair, leaning still farther forward, hands firmly anchored to the desktop through his nuckles, “Looking for the sales pitch to Macmillan & Company!”—now escalating the volume—“and it isn’t your desk … as your employer, it’s my desk! While we are on the subject, you are quite lucky you still have a desk! Where were you yesterday? … You damn sure weren’t at home sick.”

“I moved in with my Mother last month!” Douglas blurts it out, then he stops himself for a few seconds. He begins to blush, to feel shame for having moved back home with his mother and her boy friend. “My present situation dictates that I make alternative arrangements,” he said softly, but he knew he had already gone too far. “Nothing is final,” Douglas says. “You’ll be the first to know when I figure it out.”

“Under the circumstances, we should delay the Macmillan dog and pony show a couple of days,” John says.

“I would agree,” Douglas says.

“You want my opinion? Of course not, but I’m going to give it to you anyway.

Compared to Grace, you’re still a kid in this industry. You’re nothing without her. She taught you all you know, literally made you what you are. But you think you did it all.”

“Please don’t make this personal, John.”

“It is personal, Doug. Personally, I never would have brought you into the family business if my father hadn’t made me promise on his death bed.”

“Don’t start on me, John. I honestly think if I hear that story one more time about Grace’s father I’ll go postal.” Again, Douglas had stepped over the line. He needed a way back, and quickly found it.

“What can I do to help with Macmillan?”

“Nothing. … I’ll handle him personally. It’s the only credible answer when he asks why they don’t get you.”

“You’re sure you want to do this?”

“I called them first thing this morning. You’re already off the account. The official story is that subsequent reevaluation of the requirements revealed the need for a more experienced principal consultant for the start up phase. They may also have gotten the idea somewhere that your stomach isn’t up to the challenge.”

Et tu, Brute! Douglas whispers.

Leave your mother’s address with my admin so I know where to send your personal belongings.”

“I guess that’s fair, John.”

“Get out, Douglas, before I pop a gasket and let you know how I really feel!

Douglas is already through the doorway when John takes his parting shot: “The next time you see her, ask her how long the last guy lasted.”

“What are you talking about?” Douglas says, coming back to the open door.

“Just go!”

Douglas, angry again, stomps off. He stops by his office to get his jacket and briefcase, then goes by the receptionist station and says, “Hold my calls. I’m gone for the rest of the day.”

“Oh, that reminds me … someone named Rachel called.”

“Rachel?” Douglas says, “What did she want?”

“She said you would know.”

“Well, I don’t!” He says, then heads for the parking lot.

 

Douglas spends the rest of the morning at the Starbucks down on Bitter Street near the office, where he decides that given what John already knows, he had better update his resume. This takes the form of enhancing his duties and playing down some of his weaknesses. Satisfied with his more impressive skills update—”more accurate,” he would say—he submits it to Kinkos over the internet, where it is printed, assembled, and waiting for him to pick up before meeting Rachel for lunch.  For now, his mind isn’t on the little lies he tells in his dossier. His mind is on Rachel, and to some extent Grace, and on how they both seem so different in what are similar environments, yet have the same fundamental approach to the industry. He begins to wonder if he really were able to dump Grace after all she has done for him, and questions how a relationship with Rachel might play out over time.

He decides to wait until he calms down before returning Rachel’s call. He is out of control and needs to “get his act together.” The coffee helps. For some unknown reason when he drinks coffee, unlike most people, it has a calming affect. As he starts his second cup, he pulls out his cell phone and speed-dials the number.

She is quite happy to hear his voice and had called only to ensure that they were still on for lunch. He says, “Yes” and she is all the more excited, for which she apologizes saying, “I guess I don’t get out much. More-and-more, it seems like my life revolves completely around my job.”

Douglas says, “We’ll have to change that, you need more balance in your life.”

After the call, time passes more quickly while Douglas engages in what he describes as one of his many bouts of ‘soul searching,’—because he wants to do the right thing. However, as the lunch hour draws near, he undergoes a transformation, a personality change of sorts, whereby he steps outside of himself and into his alter ego, the persona that plays to win, the one that will never be told no for very long. In this frame of mind, his first stop is Kinkos, where his newly acquired skills jump off the page, proclaiming winner to all who would see, and then onward to the Black Angus where he and Rachel will be having lunch and the most important conversation of his life.

The hell with John, he thinks. Who does he think he is? He has no right to butt into my personal decisions.

Once inside the restaurant, Douglas begins to psych himself up for the challenge. He soon finds himself talking to, and occasionally answering, himself out loud. He has been over his approach so many times that its beginning to sound like a script from a stage play, in which Douglas plays all the parts—until he begins to draw unwanted attention. He stops his rehearsal and quietly begins to meditate.

 

“Hi, Douglas! How are you?”

He didn’t see her come in. Mistake number one, he notes.

“Great! How about you?”

“Feeling good about this,” Rachel says. “I really have been looking forward to our lunch date.”

“Yes, me too!” Me too? I must sound like an over eager school boy. Trying to recover, he adds, “I see E&M stock is up a few points.”

“I’m not surprised,” Rachel says. “We just won a big contract, but you already know that, don’t you? … I’m impressed. It was only announced last night.”

“Yes, I know,” Douglas said, but he didn’t.

“I like to keep up on business and world events,” he added, but he could have just as easily said the Chargers, the Padres, or the ponies at Del Mar, all of which would have been accurate.

The waiter shows them to a table while they continue their small talk. Rachel, trying to seem more personable, begins describing her last vacation. She used her travel points to go “down under,” and spent a couple of weeks relaxing in the Cradle Mountain Lodge in Northern Tasmania. She especially enjoyed learning about the wild life, which was capped by a 4-wheeler night excursion into the habitat of the elusive Tasmanian Devil.

She was surprised to learn that she was spending her vacation in a tropical rain forest that was slowly disappearing because the road crews had cut a path through the trees, not realizing the damage they would inflict on the natural canopy. Once set in motion, each year it opens a little more on its own because the under belly of the forest bottom is exposed to the outside, upper world, and there seems to be no way to reverse the process.

“Goodness, she said, I’ve gone on and on. I must be boring you to tears.”

“Not at all,” he said. “I find it all very interesting.”

“How about you? Go anywhere interesting for your vacation?”

Douglas’ last vacation was to Las Vegas, but he didn’t think that would make much of a story so he described a neighbor’s trip to Africa to “save the children,” claiming it as his own. Rachel was impressed and said she would like very much to have taken that trip, and hinted that perhaps if things worked out between them they might both go there next year.  “I know its positively shameless to put in a plug for the company every time I see you, Douglas, but Edward & Martin is very keen on motivating employees to be active in community projects, so they might underwrite some of the out-of-pocket expenses.”

“Really?” Douglas says.

“Yes, really,” Rachel says.

Douglas had already settled on Cancun, should things work out, but he knew better than to broach the subject just yet.

Rachel continues, “E&M really is like family. I know it’s almost cliche in this business, but they do have a great bunch of people working for them. Only this morning, I was having trouble with a client, and two of our partners took time out of their busy schedules to blue sky the problem and to help figure out a solution.”

“You don’t often see that,” Douglas admits.

“I know,” Rachel says, “but it really helped to resolve the issues and to get back on track.”

“It’s exactly what I would have done,” Douglas says. “I believe in teamwork, and in supporting company success over individual success, because without the company, there are no individual successes.”

“I would agree, but wouldn’t you agree that success in anything depends mostly on finding the right individual—the perfect match who can make things happen?”

“Yes,” Douglas says. “In business, for example, every box on an organization chart is a problem and every candidate for filling that box is a solution. Your best fit would be a solution who truly understands, and is qualified to fix, the problem.”

“What a perceptive way to describe it,” Rachel says. “The only example I could think of is how important selection of a spouse is to a successful marriage. I have to ask, would you say that you, personally, are a good fit, within the boundaries of your own definition?”

“Absolutely! I’m both problem solver and confidant.”

“Confidant?”

“I watch your back, so to speak, and if you need someone to lean on, I’m the guy you can always count on.”

“I like the way you think, Douglas. My sources were right about you.”

“E&M sounds like a fine place to work, Rachel, and I know I can bring a lot to the table. … maybe even a client or two.”

“Did you bring your resume?”

“I just happen to have it,” he says, and he pulls a copy from his briefcase and hands it to her.

Rachel reads it over quickly, looks up and says, “Tell me Douglas, for the record, why are you leaving the John Grace Agency?”

“Grace has become very closed, not very flexible, spends too much time on internal politics and employee competition, rather than focusing on beating the market competition. Like E&M, Grace was founded by one man who attempted to run it like a family, but—off the record—it has often been a dysfunctional family. I think they are losing touch with their customer base.

“Dysfunctional?”

“I would rather not say too much about their internal difficulties. I make it a point never to discuss the shortcomings of my employers with the competition. You understand … you wouldn’t want me to speak ill of E&M.” He smiles, faintly at first, but then more broadly as he realizes he has just pulled off shifting the conversation away from criticizing Grace while showing himself to be fair and impartial.

“Of course. … just between us guys, Douglas, I’ve known John personally for many years. He was the one who gave me my start in the business.”

“Isn’t he the greatest? He was my first big break, too.”

“He is,” she agreed. “That’s why I have already taken the liberty to talk with him about this opportunity, to get his assessment of how you would do.”

“I trust everything is in order?”

“He speaks highly of you, says you deserve a shot.”

Why that sneaky little bastard! “Well, … as you probably know … I am the backbone of his organization.”

“It’s O.K., Douglas, you don’t have to sell me. John’s input alone makes the rest of this process not much more than a formality. Welcome to the family,” and with that she reached over the table and firmly shook his hand.

“Thank you,” he says, then he smiles. I guess leaving Grace is not so difficult, after all, he thinks.

Rachel returns the smile.  Now if only I can get him to dress more like a New England Banker.

Copyright © 2010-2011 by Tad Laury Graham

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