The next morning, just after dawn, Stephen drove from his hotel to the apartment complex where Mark and the other engineers were staying. He slowed the car as he pulled into the complex, squinting in the early morning light to see the unit numbers. The buildings were arranged around a large swimming pool, where several undernourished yet overendowed would-be actresses were already swimming laps.
"I’m in number 42," Mark had said, "right above Stu’s apartment."
"How will I know which one is Stu’s?" Stephen had asked.
"Oh, you’ll know," Mark had smiled. "It’s hard to miss."
"Hard to miss, huh?" muttered Stephen as he swung around the pool toward the back of the complex. "They all look the same to me." As he came around the next row of buildings, though, Stephen saw a strange sight. "Is that… corn?"
Each apartment unit was graced by a small, well-watered lawn, approximately ten feet deep and running the width of the building. These lawns were each bisected by a sidewalk that led to the first floor doors and a stairway up to the second level of units. One lawn, though, had been replaced by a robust garden. Stalks of corn grew five feet high and three rows deep over half of the space, with the rest given over to other vegetables. Lettuce heads clumped together conspiratorially, seeming to whisper secrets while zucchini, tomatoes, and squash leaned their vines in to overhear. Stephen even thought he glimpsed a cantaloupe peeking out from the midst of the tangled vegetation. "Ah. That would be Stu’s place."
As he pulled into a nearby parking space, Mark popped out of his door on the second floor, waved, and bounced down the stairs, pulling his hair back into a ponytail as he came. It was growing long enough to rival Frank’s horsetail now, with streaks of blond from the California sun. "So, you ready to go?" he asked cheerfully. "I ran and swam yesterday, so I’m probably only good for a couple of miles. I thought we could run down to the beach and back. It’s beautiful in the morning."
"What’s with the mini-farm?" Stephen called as Mark descended.
Mark glanced over at the wall of corn and shrugged. "They didn’t say he couldn’t. The landlord doesn’t seem to mind as long as he gets first pick of the tomatoes. Some other tenants have complained about the crows, but once Stu talked to them they didn’t seem to mind anymore. He says it gives him peace, and everyone seems to want him to stay peaceful. Myself, I’m looking forward to getting some zucchini when it’s ready."
Stephen slid out of his truck and leaned against the hood to stretch. Mark joined him.
"How do you like driving the truck?" he asked, looking around carefully for a clean place to put his hands. Finally, he shrugged, pulled his sleeves over his hands, and leaned forward to stretch his calves.
"It’s better than the hybrid," Stephen replied. "At least I can get into it without pulling anything. The strangest thing happened on the way over here, though. When I pulled up to a stoplight, all these guys hanging out on the corner starting waving to me. I didn’t know what else to do, so I waved back. Then three of them tried to climb into the back of the truck! I honked the horn and told them to get out, and they had the nerve to get irritated like I’d done something wrong. What the heck was that all about?"
"Mexicans, right?" Mark was grinning.
Stephen hesitated. "Well, I don’t want to generalize, but yeah, I suppose they could have been. Why, is this some sort of Mexican ritual you’ve discovered?"
"Not exactly," Mark laughed. "They’re migrant workers, Stephen. They thought you were trying to pick them up for a job."
Stephen blushed, chagrined. "That explains the hoes, too, I guess. Are you sure that’s what it was? They weren’t trying to hitchhike or anything?"
Mark shrugged and pointed over Stephen’s shoulder. "You could just ask. You still have one in the back."
"What?!?" Stephen spun around and peered in the pickup bed. Sure enough, a dark little man was lying there, his hands behind his head and a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. He was wearing headphones and listening to very loud mariachi music. Stephen tapped him on the shoulder and he sat up.
"Hey, Jose," said Mark.
"Hola, Mark," said the man. He cast around him for a moment before he spied Stu’s garden and turned back to Stephen. "You want me to pick the corn?"
"Um, no, I think we can handle it. Sorry about the mix-up. You can, uh, go back to the corner now, I suppose."
Jose shrugged and hopped lightly from the truck bed. "Suit yourself, man." He waved to Mark and jogged back toward the entrance to the apartment complex.
Stephen sighed, "Why can’t I ever just get a nice sedan with air conditioning? Is that too much to ask?" He wiped a hand across his brow. The day was already warm and he was sweating lightly.
"Well, I suppose we should get started. I have that early meeting with Dick and Rod, and I don’t want to be late. 0830, Private!" He mimicked a stiff salute and began jogging after Jose.
Mark came up beside him in a moment, loping easily along. "When we get down to the beach, we can do the stairs a couple of times before we come back. It’s not much, but I’m still getting the hang of this running thing. I hope it’ll be enough of a workout for you."
"I’m sure it’s fine. I haven’t run since before Sarah was born, so I’m not sure what kind of shape I’m in. Better to take it easy on the first day back."
"OK. You’ll love the stairs. I read somewhere that the Healthy Male cover models use them in their fitness training. Now there’s something I’d like to see. I’ll bet they can do them ten times without breaking a sweat."
Stephen looked sidelong at Mark. "You really are trying to become a cover model, aren’t you?"
Mark waved his hands in protest. "No, really, I just like this new feeling of being fit. I haven’t been in shape since, I don’t know, junior high. And then I didn’t recognize it as fitness. I just ran everywhere and never thought twice about it. Then I got into computers and forgot about pretty much everything else. I’m discovering that there’s a whole lot out there beyond my screen."
"So this trip is turning into a voyage of discovery, is it?"
"Something like that, I suppose."
"Well, just promise me one thing."
"Promise that you won’t suddenly need to take off and discover yourself just before we go live."
Mark chuckled. "I promise. I’ll try to save it for after the launch."
The conversation dwindled after that as both men prioritized oxygen intake over communication. In a surprisingly short time, they reached the road that ran above the beach. Stopping for a moment to catch their breath, they looked down a rickety stairway leading along the face of the cliff to the sand 200 feet below.
"You— run— down this?" Stephen gasped. He was hardly surprised at how out of shape he really was, but he was irked to discover that Mark was breathing far more easily.
" It depends upon how I feel. I’ll either go two or three times down and back or run down and keep going on the beach; there’s an access road a mile or so that way. Today, I figured we could just do the stairs a couple of times and head back up since we’re short on time. Ready?"
"Wait— one— more minute," Stephen squeaked, then tried again in a more normal tone. "I just want to make sure I have a firm footing."
"Oh, it’s perfectly safe," Mark reassured him. "Watch out for that seventh step, though. It’s a little cracked. I don’t think you’d go through, but I usually skip it just to be safe. OK, ready?" Without waiting for an answer, he rattled down the stairs, hopping lightly over the seventh step. Stephen rolled his eyes and followed.
Twenty minutes later, Mark stood at the top of the steps, jogging lightly in place while he waited for Stephen to lurch painfully up the stairs one last time. The gap between the two of them had widened considerably from the first trip up the stairs, and by the third time -- which Mark had politely offered to skip if Stephen was too tired, an offer that Stephen had just as politely declined through gritted teeth -- Mark was actually passing Stephen on his way back up before Stephen completed the descent. Stephen was tempted at that point to turn around and just run back up the stairs again, but pride had prevented him from bailing out. Now, halfway back up the stairs for the final time, he wished he had.
"Do you need to rest before we run back to the apartment?" Mark offered solicitously. His concern seemed genuine, but Stephen wasn’t willing to give him the benefit of the doubt at this time.
"No, no need to rest. Just— let me stretch for a minute. I think— I have a cramp." Stephen leaned against the railing and pretended to stretch his calves while frantically trying to slow his breathing and his heart rate. Dear God, he thought, is this what having children does to you? Coach always told me that having sex before a meet would sap my strength, but he never mentioned the long-lasting after-effects. Considering his Catholic school experience briefly, Stephen added to himself, Maybe he figured the nuns and the fathers had that part covered.
Now that he had stopped, he realized that he actually did have a cramp forming in his left calf. He switched legs and tried to stretch it, then sat down and dug his thumb into the quivering knot that was quickly forming there. "How long have you been doing this?" he asked.
"Just a couple of weeks, but I was swimming before that. You wouldn’t believe how good that is for your aerobic capacity. I’ve never felt better!" To prove his point, Mark made as if to go down the stairs again. Stephen jumped up.
"Let’s go! Time’s a-wasting, and Sgt. Dick waits for no man!"
"Oh, right, your meeting. I almost forgot. Well, the endorphins should help dull the pain of that conversation, anyway."
"That, and the six ibuprofen that I’m going to take when we get back to your apartment," Stephen muttered.
"Nothing. Let’s get moving." Stephen turned and began limping slowly back up the road, gathering some speed as his body readjusted to moving in the horizontal plane again. They ran back slowly, Mark taking it easy and Stephen trying to look like he was. When they reached Mark’s apartment, Stephen quickly showered and changed his clothes, then waited as Mark did the same. Inspired by Stu’s eco-friendly example, they had decided to drive in together to save gas. They arrived at the office at 8:10, giving Stephen just enough time to hobble gingerly into the building and drop off his briefcase before meeting Richard. Mark bounded along lightly beside him.
"What ran over you?" Frank asked when they entered their communal office space. Stephen glared at him, but lacked the energy to respond. Instead, he turned to the coffeemaker that Connie had placed in the one open corner of the room. Fortunately, coffee was already brewed. Unfortunately, it tasted like dirty dishwater, and lightly brewed dishwater at that. Stephen grimaced and barely refrained from spitting it back into the cup.
"What is this?" he gagged.
"Some organic brew that Thomas is trying," replied Frank. "It’s not coffee, exactly. More like a mixture of spiritually and chemically balanced plants that produce a brownish, coffee-like concoction. It’s supposed to promote weight loss. He says Connie recommended it, so I suspect that she’s mad at him again. Why do you think we were so glad to go to Starbucks yesterday?"
"Hmph. I should have done that today. I hate the idea of going into this meeting with fuzz on my brain."
"What are you talking about, Stephen?" chirped Mark. "I don’t even need coffee when I run. Doesn’t it just make you feel alive and ready to pounce on the day?"
"Hmm… no." Stephen peered blearily at his watch, then slowly turned to leave. "Gotta go. I have to get all the way down the hallway in seven minutes."
Six-and-a-half minutes later, Stephen tottered into Richard’s office. Richard was nowhere to be seen, but a rhythmic grunting sound was emanating from the space between his desk and the wall. Afraid of what he might see but drawn to look nonetheless, Stephen walked carefully to the desk and peered over. Richard was doing pushups in full office dress, his crisply starched white shirt crackling as it stretched over his back at each apex.
"98… 99… 100!" Richard ended his last pushup with a clap, flipped over, and consulted his watch. "Hmm, two minutes twenty-eight seconds. A little slow this morning. Must be that steak I had for dinner." He looked up and saw Stephen leaning over him. "Ah, good morning, Mr. Connelly! I’m glad to see that you are a punctual man like myself. Let’s go, we don’t want to keep the brass waiting." He jumped to his feet and clapped his hands together again, then checked his perfectly creased pants for carpet lint before marching briskly out of his office, Stephen limping along in his wake.
"Is Rod actually here?" asked Stephen when he caught up and saw that they were headed for the executive suite.
Richard brayed out a laugh, "Why would he need to come here in person now that I’m here? No, he’s at his ranch in Colorado preparing for Thanksgiving, I think. He just prefers to do the conference calls in his office. Better acoustics."
"Ah," Stephen replied, and lapsed into silence, conserving his energy for the walk.
Rod’s office was the same as Stephen remembered it, with one exception: the old office chair had been pushed to one side and replaced by a larger wingback leather chair. As they entered the office, Rod’s voice boomed out of the space between the headrests. "Morning, boys! How do you like my new chair? I got the speakers built right in, so it sounds just like I’m sitting there with you, having a cozy chat. There’s a camera in the headrest, too, so that we can see each other eye to eye. Well, I can see you, at least. Pretty neat, huh? I thought it would make people more comfortable. If it works, I’ll have one put in at all my companies. It costs $5,000 or so, but I think my people’s peace of mind is worth it, don’t you?"
"Absolutely, Poppy," agreed Richard. He had walked directly to a spot slightly behind and to the right of the chair and settled into a parade rest stance.
Rod’s irritation crackled through the room. "Dammit, Dick! I told you, it’s ‘Rod’ in the office. We’re not at my daughter’s cotillion. In fact, I wish some people had never been there." The last comment, muttered under his breath, was still caught by the sensitive microphone. Richard, however, didn’t hear it, as he was already apologizing.
"Sorry, Rod, sir. It won’t happen again."
"And why are you standing behind me? I can’t see you when you stand there. Here, turn the chair so I can see you, too," Rod ordered. Richard leapt forward to rotate the chair toward himself. "No, that’s too far, now I can’t see Stephen. Turn it back. Back, I said! No, too far the other way. All right, now I’m getting dizzy. You know what? Just put it back the way it was. I’ve already seen all three of your facial expressions, so I’ll just guess what you look like while we’re talking. Go back where you were." As Richard readjusted the chair with a few final twitches, Stephen heard Rod mutter, "I thought that girl had more sense."
Stephen was growing increasingly uncomfortable with this family scene, and decided that the best course of action was to bull ahead. The sooner they were done, the sooner he could be back at his corner of Thomas’ desk, popping ibuprofen. "So, I hope that you have been happy with our work so far, Rod," he ventured, trying to look directly into the chair’s electronic eyes.
"Oh, your programmers are doing fine, just fine. Dickie tells me that they seem to really respond to discipline. I’ve had some of my pet geeks in Singapore take a peek at some of the code, too, and they tell me it’s top-rate. At least, I think that’s what they said. Maybe it was ‘too late.’ I have got to start having them reply to me in writing. That’s not much better though. Some of their emails read just like the instructions that came with my DVD player, you know? Haw!"
"Haw! That’s a good one, Rod!" Richard guffawed.
"Thanks, Dickie," Rod replied, mollified somewhat after the chair positioning debacle. "Anyway, Stephen, as far as I’m concerned, hiring ADD to help with the software engineering on this project is one of the least boneheaded things that Brad and Robbie did."
"Um, thanks?" Stephen replied, thinking, I’ll make sure to put that on my next status report: "Client continues to damn with faint praise."
"Now, as for those artsy types: you know, Fancypants and the guy who looks like the center from Texas A&M. I talked with Robbie, Brad, and some of our other marketing folks, and they’re not happy with what they’ve seen so far."
"What other— sir, we haven’t talked to anyone in marketing yet. If you’ll pardon my asking, how could they not be happy with what they’ve seen?"
"That’s just it: they haven’t seen anything, and they’re not happy about it. Marketing is a hungry animal, Stephen. If you don’t feed it, it’ll eat you instead."
"But you told us to stop! Did you mention that to them when they asked why they hadn’t seen anything?"
"Now, calm yourself, boy. Everyone’s still friendly here, so there’s no need to start playing the blame game like a bunch of Washington pansies. When I said that I ‘talked to them,’ I didn’t mean that I talked to them myself. What the hell do you think VPs are for? I read the notes from the meeting that the VP of Brand Marketing sent over. The point is, your design team isn’t cutting it. We’re going to find a replacement."
Stephen ran both hands through his hair and took a deep breath to calm himself. There was no sense getting in a shouting match with a chair, especially one that seemed to have made up its mind before he even got there. "Well, that’s your decision, of course. It will significantly affect the project schedule, though, so I’ll talk to the team and get back to you with a new—"
"No, no delays! We told our investors that we’d be live in time for the Oscars, so it’s full speed ahead. You tell your engineers to keep working, and we’ll take care of the pretty stuff. Chuck Marquette, our newest VP in New York, is already on it. He has all kinds of contacts in the advertising industry, so he should be able to find some warped geniuses for us to use."
Stephen felt the now all too familiar sensation of a conversation slipping away from him. Richard’s eyes drilled into him from his left, but he kept his eyes focused on Rod’s chair as he made one last valiant effort to wrestle it back to reality. "I’m not sure exactly how that will work. Setting aside the fact that they’re in New York and we’re here, how are we going to make sure that their design fits what we’re building?”
"Hmm, I hadn’t thought of that." Rod was silent for a moment. "I’ve got it! You can keep Fancypants and the lineman on as your consultants! They’ll talk to the other design team in their own language and make sure that everything will work!"
Clearly, he’s never seen two designers try to come to a practical decision, thought Stephen. Sensing that he had no other choices, though, he acquiesced. "I’ll talk to them as soon as we get back to Boston. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to see whatever the New York team comes up with."
"There you go, all settled! And don’t worry about getting snippy with me earlier, Stephen," Rod’s voice boomed magnanimously, "this project has been stressful for all of us. Dick!"
Richard snapped to attention. "Yes, sir!"
"Have you been paying attention? That’s how you handle a problem. Look at me when I’m talking to you!" Richard grabbed the chair and spun it to face him. "Whoa, not so fast! That, son, was the art of delegation, and delegation is the soul of leadership. Let the people who know what they’re doing do it, and get out of their way. I hope you were taking notes."
"I was, Rod, don’t worry."
"Good. Now get out of here. I have to go kill a turkey and start it brining."
As Stephen and Richard walked back to their offices, Richard kept up a constant stream of semi-intelligible chatter that Stephen assumed was meant to be encouraging. With a mixture of military aphorisms about regrouping and taking new hills with maimed soldiers, Richard seemed to be trying to make Stephen feel better about having a third of his team partially fired. Not surprisingly, it didn’t help. When they reached Richard’s office, he stopped and stuck out a hand for Stephen to shake.
"We’ll see this through together, soldier. You worry about the creative types and I’ll keep your boys here on track. Don’t worry: they won’t slack off on my watch, and we’ll make that deadline." Grinning ferociously, Richard shut his door. As Stephen walked away, a rhythmic grunting began to emanate from behind the closed door.
Stephen returned to a full house. Besides the four ADD engineers, Connie, and her assistant, Greg and Thomas were in the corner behind Thomas’ desk, deep in hushed conversation. "I just figured out why Richard’s here," Stephen exclaimed. "He’s Rod’s goon."
Seven heads turned toward him with variously puzzled expressions on their faces. Connie’s assistant ignored him.
Kelvin glanced at the others in the room, then back to Stephen. "OK, I’ll be the one to ask this time. Rod’s what?"
"He’s Rod’s goon. Look, you know that big guy on the Bruins, the one with no front teeth?"
Kelvin continued his role of straight man. "You’ll have to narrow it down a bit more for me. I don’t follow the team, but I’ve seen them on the news and as far as I have observed, you just described all of them."
"No, you’d know this guy if you saw him. He’s the really big one with the lumpy face. They just traded him from the Rangers. Dang, what’s his name?" Stephen snapped his fingers as he tried to remember.
"Gorniczyk," said Greg. Noting Stephen’s surprise, he smiled wryly. "Hey, it can’t all be interior design and trying on women’s clothing. Though I enjoy that, too, when hockey’s not on."
Nonplussed, Stephen continued. "Right, Gorniczyk. Thanks, Greg. Anyway, he’s the Bruins’ goon. He doesn’t skate very fast, and he can’t handle the puck worth a—he’s slow with the stick. But he’s big, he’s mean, and he could body-check a Zamboni. He’s the enforcer. His job is to keep the other team in line, slow them down when they get close to the net, and to drop his gloves and start punching people when all else fails. Basically, he enforces the coach’s will on the ice."
"So he’s like a project manager?" asked Frank with wide, innocent eyes.
Stephen threw a whiteboard pen at him. "Kind of, though not nearly as handsome, nor as smart. He’s really just a bully who found a way to make his tendencies pay."
"Shut up, Frank. So here’s what I think happened. I think Rod realized that he has no idea what’s going on here, and that he doesn’t understand enough about what we do to know whether we’re doing any work at all. Now, he doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who lets a little ignorance get in his way. In fact, he thinks that ignorance is a sign of a good delegator. But he can’t let a bunch of geeks get the upper hand, so he sends Sgt. Dick in to keep everyone in line. He’s not expected to manage the project so much as to keep everyone on their toes and working hard. Rod knows that Richard doesn’t have the capabilities or training to make a decent technical decision; that’s what we’re for. Richard’s supposed to wander around and enforce Rod’s will on the ice."
"That’s very interesting, Stephen, and you win the analogy of the day award," observed Kelvin, "but what good does that do us? We still have this goon circling around us and looking over our shoulders all the time."
"Hey, I just came up with the idea! Give me time to think it all the way through. I can say this, though. There are only two ways to beat a goon: outmuscle him or outskate him." Stephen looked around the room for a moment, tallying his resources. "Yeah, we’re gonna have to outskate him."
Sunday, May 04, 2014