It was a surly bunch that gathered at Logan International Airport at 5:00 Monday morning, and Stephen was far from the happiest of the lot. As he shuffled through the sliding glass doors into the terminal, he saw Mark waving cheerfully to him from across the terminal, with David and Stu beside him. Stephen wavered for a moment’s muddled deliberation. Choices: Mark (far too happy for the hour); Dunkin’ Donuts (chocolate donut or glazed stick. I wish they hadn’t done away with the crullers); Starbucks (coffee with a kick like a donkey, scone).
Deciding he needed the jolt more than a donut or company at that moment, he waved back at Mark to show that he had seen him before turning away to join the line of coffee junkies jonesing for their morning fix. Looking ahead in the line, he saw Kelvin and Frank, deep in animated debate, or at least what passed for animated at this time of the morning. Frank was gesticulating halfheartedly and trying to work up a good head of steam while Kelvin just stared listlessly forward and listened. When his turn came to speak, Kelvin leaned toward Frank and squinted at him blearily, as though to make sure that he was arguing with the right person.
Probably trying to decide who won the bakeoff, thought Stephen with a momentary glimmer of pleasure. No matter what else you might say about him, he knew how to motivate engineers: you either told them it couldn’t be done or that someone else was going to do it first. Stephen didn’t know what had honed this fierce competitive instinct in the mind of the engineer, but he suspected it was a redirection of instincts that might otherwise have been exercised in athletic endeavors. Lacking a physical outlet, the engineer poured his evolutionary need to prove himself into intellectual achievement. Whatever the reason, I’m glad the buttons are there to push.
At the front of the line, Stephen could see Ricky, explaining his multi-part coffee order for the second time and making the barista repeat it back to make sure he had all of the variables exactly right. Satisfied at last, Ricky moved to his left to let the woman behind him rattle off her well-rehearsed code sequence, which, when translated into a series of scribbles on the side of a coffee cup, resulted in a hot and flavorful beverage through a kind of alchemy that still baffled Stephen. Shuffling another step forward, he rehearsed his own order, lest he embarrass Ricky again. As he did so, he massaged his temples against the throbbing pain that threatened to beat the caffeine to his brain.
Large -- no, wait: venti -- dark roast. Do I want milk today? Then I’ll need to ask for "room," so I don’t have to pour any coffee out into the garbage. That’s the equivalent of walking around with your fly open here. Yeah, some milk would help. OK: Venti bold with room. Venti bold with room. Got it.
Another step forward. The next several customers just wanted coffee, fast. Probably commuters heading down to New York on the shuttle. Even if they had tickets on a later flight, they always tried to get onto the earlier one if they could, creating a sort of constant panicky rush hour around those gates until around 9:00 every morning. Glad I’m not doing that anymore. We may have to get up early, but it’s only once a month, and we don’t have to rush. Frank and Kelvin were next, calling a brief truce to place their orders: straight black coffee for Frank and a surprisingly frothy-sounding combination for Kelvin. Ricky must be rubbing off on him.
Then Stephen was only three people away and he began to panic. Wait, what’s my order? Americano? I can’t ask for light or they give me that wimpy blend. OK, calm down.... Large -- damn! Sorry, honey: darn! -- venti bold. With room! Almost forgot the room. I wish Ricky would stop looking at me like that. Venti bold with room. Venti bold with room.
This had happened before, and in his panic Stephen had blindly repeated the order of the person in front of him. He had not at all enjoyed his grande chai soy latte with extra foam, and he did not want a repeat of that debacle. Venti bold with room.
He made it to the counter and quickly fired his order at the young girl behind the counter. She gave him a sympathetic look and relayed the request on the next girl, who repeated it back as she worked on another order. Cocky from his success, Stephen improvised on a scone, ordering the flavor of the month, pumpkin cheesecake. Then he took his coffee, paid, and went over for milk and cream before joining Ricky in suspiciously eyeing the barista.
"I’m pretty sure this guy hasn’t completed his training yet," Ricky said by way of greeting. "They always put the new guys on these early shifts. You need seniority to sleep in. Ugh, did you see that? He completely flattened the foam! I specifically asked for extra-airy foam!" He sighed with exasperation. "Oh well, I’m sure it will be OK with a little bit of extra nutmeg."
Stephen eyed Ricky over the rim of his coffee cup. "Ricky, do you even know what regular coffee tastes like?"
Ricky shook his head sadly as he surveyed the aesthetic ruin of his drink. "I tried it once. I didn’t really like it."
The coffee run complete, the group rendezvoused in the center of the terminal with Mark, David, and Stu. Stephen surveyed his motley crew as they gathered their carry-on bags, assaying their chances for a free pass through airport security. Frank’s long hair was more unkempt than usual, as though he had refused to brush it in silent protest at having to be up so early. He looked sullen, but not dangerous. Fortunately, the security personnel didn’t work with him. Ricky would be fine: he was dressed simply in jeans and a t-shirt today, no new ethnicities to speak of. Kelvin looked like a student flying home for a break, as usual. He was unfailingly polite to officials anyway, so he never had trouble in any airports except New York and Philadelphia, where such politeness invariably aroused suspicions. David was dressed to the nines today, perhaps even the nine-and-a-halves. He would skate insouciantly through security as usual, unless one of the TSA inspectors took a liking to him and went for a patdown.
Stephen looked over to Mark and decided that it was just as well that he had shaved his beard. He was letting his hair grow longer, which meant that it was sticking out in all directions at the moment. With beard intact, Mark’s look might not have screamed "terrorist," but it certainly would have muttered, "willing recruit." Stu, on the other hand, had an imperturbable calm about him that was almost spooky. Watching him as they walked, though, Stephen decided it was a good calm, a comfortable-with-one’s-place-in-the-world calm, not a ready-to-come-face-to-face-with-God-at-any-moment calm. He hoped that the officials of the Port of Boston agreed.
As they waited in line, Mark continued the conversation with Stu that had been interrupted by everyone else’s arrival.
"OK, what about this: your only sister is trapped under a large tree, and the only way that you can save her is with a chainsaw. Do you compromise your beliefs and use the chainsaw to save her, or refuse to use the chain saw and let her die?"
"I have two sisters. What happened to the other one?"
"Killed in a freak blender accident while visiting a chocolate factory."
"That’s a shame," said Stu pensively. "She loved chocolate."
"So what do you do?"
"How did I get the chainsaw in the first place?"
"It was left behind by the loggers who felled the tree. They panicked and ran off when they saw what happened," said Mark impatiently. "Now tell me, do you save your sister or not?"
"Is it my older sister or my younger one?"
"Why? Do you like one more?"
"No, it’s just that my younger sister is a fairly extreme Buddhist, so she probably wouldn’t mind being crushed by a tree," Stu mused. "She would probably find some poetry in it, and expect to be reincarnated as a song bird."
"It’s your older sister, then," replied Mark. "She’s not a radical eco-terrorist or anything is she?"
"No, she’s very normal. In fact, I can’t figure out how she got into the woods with me in the first place. She hates being outdoors."
"Well, now we know why: it’s a dangerous place. So do you use the chainsaw or not?"
They were nearly to the metal detectors now. Stu pulled a pocket watch and a handful of change from his pockets and set them in a small plastic bowl. "You know, Mark, it’s not like I think I’ll go to Hell if I pick up a power tool. This is a lifestyle choice, not a religion." He eyed the X-ray machine suspiciously. "I never trust these machines. How do we know what really goes on inside that thing? For all we know, there’s a guy in there replacing all of the watches with fakes and selling the real ones. Or worse, it could be scanning all of the data on our hard drives and uploading it to a massive government database."
"Why Stu, you almost sound like a genuine conspiracy theorist," Frank commented from behind him as he pulled his laptop out of his bag and prepared to feed it into the machine. He paused for a moment, then shrugged and put it on the conveyor belt. "They probably already have a file on me anyway," he muttered.
"If by ‘conspiracy theorist,’ you mean a shut-in who believes that the moon landing was faked and JFK is living in sin with Elvis on a secret CIA compound in Cuba, then no, I’m not," replied Stu. "If you mean someone who questions the little intrusions into our everyday life in the name of protecting us from unspecified evil," he gestured meaningfully with his shoes before he fed them to the X-ray machine, "then guilty as charged." Seeing the raised eyebrows on the large security official standing on the other side of the metal detector, he added hurriedly, "Not literally."
"You still haven’t answered the question, Stu," challenged Mark from the next machine. He was busy pulling an astonishing array of metal objects from various pockets in his pants, shirt, and vest, generating a mixture of amusement and annoyance from the people in line behind him.
Stu sighed. "I save her of course. And then I go home and give myself twenty lashes with a knotted rope as penance."
Mark stopped short just before walking through the metal detector, causing the man behind him to bump into his back. "Really?"
"Oh. I knew that."
"I’m sure you did." Stu inspected the plastic bowl as it slid out of the X-ray machine, then turned to question the bored baggage inspector. "Hey, didn’t I have 68 cents before? I only see 66 here."
Even with the Venti bold with room zipping through his body, his head still throbbed. Coffee was no substitute for sleep, Juan Valdez be darned. He closed his eyes and prepared for a nap. He was too tired to even look at the Globe that he had grabbed from the front step as he left. A whole week of uninterrupted sleep ahead. There are some benefits to traveling for work. He nodded off then, and slept right through the in-flight meal, the movie, and both snacks. He didn’t mind: the menu hadn’t changed.
There was something inhumane about sending someone back three time zones and expecting him to work, Stephen decided as he stuffed himself behind the wheel of his rental car. He wanted nothing more than to go to the hotel and have the beer that his body was telling him it was time for, and which he so richly deserved, followed by half an hour of Monday Night Football before he fell asleep. Instead, he had to go to the CouldBU office to meet their new CEO, who would probably want to talk for hours about his vision, his credentials, his plan for "motivating the troops," and who knew what other kinds of crap -- sorry, Jenny: "garbage" -- before he would let anyone leave.
Stephen briefly considered bringing the whole team to the meeting rather than leaving them to settle into their new offices, but decided against it. Much as he and his misery might like company, no one else had done anything worthy of such punishment, yet. The day, sadly, is young, though, and Frank could still decide to mess with me between now and then. He smiled grimly at the thought of Frank and a professional chief executive in the same room together. Oh, the fun we could have! Maybe I will bring Frank along. No, better to save him for when the CEO needs disciplining. In Stephen’s experience, the higher an executive climbed in the food chain, the more uncomfortable he was around engineers. They were just too likely to tell you what they really thought, a shocking concept in the rarefied air of the boardroom.
Squirming uncomfortably, Stephen tried to find a way that he could sit so that his knees weren’t pressing against the car’s steering column. He had a car to himself this time, such as it was. The rental company had lost his reservation and there were barely enough cars to go around; the vacant-eyed girl behind the counter had mumbled something about a convention around a mouthful of pigtail. Since he would be leaving at the end of the week while the others stayed behind, Stephen had pulled the black spot in the rental car lottery. He was stuck with the hybrid.
"Besides," Kelvin had added, eyeing Stephen’s vehicle before sauntering off to climb into his air-conditioned tank, "I couldn’t get my suitcase in there. Since you only had to pack for a week, you’re the only one of us with a bag small enough to fit in that trunk. That is a real trunk, isn’t it? It’s not like one of those fake drawers in front of the sink?"
What exactly is this a hybrid of, anyway, a skateboard and a driving lawnmower? As Stephen tried to get out and adjust the seat, he realized that he had no idea how he had gotten his legs in the car in the first place, and he now had no hope of maneuvering them back out. If only I’d paid more attention in that Mommy Yoga class we went to, he thought wryly. Putting two hands on the oil-stained asphalt of the parking lot, he pulled himself back out of the car headfirst -- Look: Standing Dog! I guess I do remember something. Or was this Weeping Camel? -- then squeezed his head and shoulders back inside to look for the release that would allow him to slide the seat back as far as it could go.
"Whoever drove this last must have been a midget," he grumbled as he reached under the seat. "Eww, make that a gum-chewing midget." The pounding headache was back. He started to massage his temples, but caught himself just in time and sniffed his sticky fingers. "Mmm, grape." He reached across and wiped his hand on the carpet on the passenger side. It was not a long stretch. Sighing, he reversed direction and carefully folded himself back into the seat. Reaching around a knee, he placed the key in the ignition and turned. The car puttered to life with a sound like a racing lawnmower. Salsa music blared from the speakers, the whole car jumping with each thump of the drums.
Sighing again, Stephen backed out of the parking slot and drove to the entrance, where the others were waiting in their much larger vehicles. He felt like the clown car at the back of the circus parade, right behind the elephants. Better behind them than in front of them, I suppose, Stephen thought, I doubt this cracker tin could sustain a direct hit from a pedestrian, much less an SUV.
While he waited for the others to check out and exit the lot, Stephen fiddled with the car radio’s presets. For a terrifying moment, he thought the radio was stuck on AM, but after a bout of "percussive maintenance" -- basically beating on it with the palm of his hand and, eventually, his shoe -- it switched to FM. He set the stations that he had carefully memorized on his last trip, excluding the "all divas" station that David had found, and settled on jazz for the drive to the office. He drew as deep a breath as he could in his current position, let it out, and drew another, willing himself to calm. At least the air conditioning worked, even if the vents blew the cold, dank air directly up his nose. It really wasn’t so bad as long as he didn’t try to move both of his legs at the same time.
When Stephen arrived at CouldBU’s office park an hour and fifteen minutes later, moving both legs was really no longer an option. He had become trapped in the middle of a phalanx of SUVs on the 405 and missed his exit, ending up in Brentwood Heights before he was able to wedge his car into a crease between the shiny black behemoths. Judging from the looks on the suntanned faces above him, this was a rather shocking move for a car of his stature. Hybrids were supposed to be seen and not heard, he gathered: a necessary balancing of petroleum karma, perhaps, but like recycled toilet paper, better left to the more fanatical edge-dwellers of polite society. He had given them a merry wave through the sunroof -- with all five fingers, he was proud to note -- and shrugged off their concern. After years of driving in Boston, squeezing into a space that was more or less the same size as his vehicle while traveling at upwards of 70 miles per hour was as natural as cheering for the Red Sox. In fact, his only real disappointment in the move was that the car he cut off didn’t have New York plates.
By the time he finally backtracked to the correct exit -- he wasn’t comfortable trying to find his way on surface streets yet, though he sensed that it might have been faster -- both legs were developing serious cramps where they pressed against the steering column, and he felt the beginnings of a groin pull coming on. If he was going to survive this trip, he would have to either catch a ride in one of the other cars for the rest of the week or embark on a serious stretching regimen.
On the bright side, he was able to park right next to the building, in one of the five "compact" spots that were normally only used by the night cleaning crew. He pushed the door open with his knee, then grabbed said knee with both hands to pull it out of the car. Several minutes later, he was free and hobbling bowlegged to join his team.
"Howdy pardner," Frank drawled. "Had some trouble bustin’ that little dogie, did ya?"
Stephen was too tired to muster even a fake laugh. "Want to trade? There’s just enough room in the back for your wit."
Continue to Chapter 11