Saturday, April 6, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 7 (DRAFT)

You know, I should probably just start telling you the story. I’ve jumped around so much, you probably think there isn’t a story here at all, that I’ve just come here to wring my hands and make fun of people. Well, that’s not the case. There really is a story here—in many ways it’s the story of my own downfall—and if I’m going to tell it properly I have to go back to shortly after I got that promotion to deputy account executive.

I told you about the meeting Mary and I had attended, the one where she pretended to take me under her wing and re-introduce me to all the VIPs in the non-profit organization we served. Well, there was another meeting going on in another city at the same time, one I would have normally attended in my old role as a department head.

My job before the promotion was overseeing all the educational programming for my client organization, including a big national conference they conducted each year to keep their members up to date on the latest breakthroughs and developments in their field. This other meeting was a smaller workshop, and instead of me attending they sent my replacement, the new education department head, a freshly-hired woman named Susan Sanford. A couple of members of the education department staff went with her, and they really did most of the work at these kind of events. Susan’s role—and mine before that—was to act as a kind of figurehead, taking credit for everything that went right and assigning blame whenever something went wrong. Had it not been for the competing VIP meeting Mary wanted me to attend, I probably would have gone with Susan to introduce her around the way Mary introduced me, but in all the rush to get things done—and remember, under Mary’s leadership there was always a rush to get things done—it wasn’t considered essential and Susan was sent to make her own introductions.

Now, there are three pieces of background information you’re going to need to put what I’m about to tell you in perspective. The first is a little bit about Susan—truly one of the nicest and most forthright people I’ve ever met. No, really. I’m not kidding. She was nice, and when I say nice, I primarily mean that she actually had empathy for others. She had worked directly for a number of nonprofits before joining the company, and had brought much of their compassionate perspective with her. She honestly cared about the people she worked with. She wanted what was best for them. As a supervisor, Susan sought to develop an open and personal relationship with each person that reported to her. She wanted to get to know the whole person—not just an employee, but the real someone with a life and interests outside the office. She earnestly looked for ways to develop their personal strengths and leverage those traits for the good of the organization. She was conscientious, supportive, and caring.

She didn’t stand a chance.

Her meeting lasted a day longer than the one I attended, and the morning she returned she found me in my office.

“Alan,” she said gravely, shutting the door behind her. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

She startled me. I was blowing the steam off my coffee and when she spoke I nearly spilled the whole cup in my lap. Being startled happened a lot to those of us whose positions in the company warranted private offices, because all of those offices were small—so small that the only reasonable way to arrange the furniture was with the desk set facing against the back wall. If you tried turning it around so you could face the door while sitting at your desk—and believe me, some of us had tried—you were forced to literally climb over your desk in order to get behind it.

I spun slowly around to face Susan. I had no idea what was coming next, but whatever it was, it was serious. I said she was nice, but I also said she was forthright, and when she walked into my office that morning I could tell she was ready to take the gloves off. Susan never messed around. If she had something to say, she’d tell it to you straight and not put any varnish on it. Normally, she had this kind of laid-back hippie sensibility about her. It was partly the way she dressed—especially the fringe vest and distressed sandals she wore on casual Fridays—and the way she wore her hair—parted down the middle and hanging long around her face. But it also manifested itself in the way she approached life and human interactions. Like everything was cool in a metaphysical way except those things that were clearly not.

To Susan, certain things were Appropriate, and other things were Inappropriate. If it was Appropriate, then cool, man, let’s joke and laugh and have a good time because we’re all just monkeys trying to find something sweet on this big spinning planet of love. But if it was Inappropriate—if you said something even the slightest bit off-color or risque—then Susan was liable to get up and walk out of the room on you. That’s just the way she was. The line between proper and improper was as clearly defined as that center part in her hair. I didn’t know what Susan needed to tell me, but something had clearly crossed that line.

“Have a seat,” I told her, indicating the only other piece of furniture in my tiny office, an old and misused conference room chair whose bolts needed tightening.

“I don’t want to have a seat,” she said hotly. “I’m too angry to sit down.”

She then began to tell me what happened at the meeting she had just attended with two members of her staff. And here’s the second piece of background you need. Both of these staff people were young women, one of them not over thirty and the other not older than twenty-five. I had just been their direct supervisor as the former education department head, and I knew that they and a number of other young women in the company had formed a pretty tight bond with one another. They worked long hours, were largely underpaid, and were occasionally ogled by the mostly older men who served on the volunteer committees of the non-profit organizations we served. They were, in fact, a clique. And Susan, try as she might, just wasn’t going to be accepted as part of their club.

Susan explained that at their closing dinner—another long and drawn-out affair in another anonymous hotel ballroom with yet another rambling after dinner speaker—she and her staff people sat at one of the tables near the back of the room. That was typical, staff almost always sat apart from the participants at events like this. It wasn’t until you reached my or Mary’s level in the company that you were expected to fraternize with the volunteers and pretend like you had something in common with them. What was not typical is that they were joined by one of the workshop participants—a scheming and lecherous creep named Wes Howard.

He was a real piece of work. Pushing sixty, the most youthful thing about him was his full head of hair and the way he always tried to make himself the life of the party. He drank gin and had this down-home Texas drawl that you could feel crawling up your legs after he had one too many. I had even given Susan a warning about him before we had left for our respective meetings. If someone was going to get ogled at one of the events we planned, nine times out of ten it was Wes Howard who would be doing the ogling.

As usual, Susan didn’t mince any words.

“That man is a predator, Alan. He acts like everything is innocent, but he preys on women, and he pushes things as far as they will go.”

“My god,” I said, fearing the worst. “What happened?”

Susan’s face flushed red, as if she was embarrassed by what she had to say, but her voice was strong and direct. “They all had too much to drink,” she said flatly. “He kept pouring the wine and they kept drinking it, and before long they were whispering things to each other, and Amy and Caroline were giggling and laughing like a pair of schoolgirls.”

Amy was the older of the two. She had been with the company for close to six years. Caroline was younger and had been there less than two. As far as I knew, the company was the first job after college for the both of them.

“And him!” Susan nearly shouted. “Him! Sitting there between them, egging them on with his devious smile and that sick twinkle in his eye. A dirty old man with a stray hand on each of their thighs. It was disgusting!”

“He was…touching them?” I asked. “What did you do?”

Susan shook her head. “Alan, I have never been more embarrassed in my life. They were talking about me. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they would whisper to each other and then look over at me and laugh. Like I was some kind of joke to them. Like I was too stupid to understand any of their secret gags. I felt humiliated. I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know what he would do if I left. They were so loud. They’d had way too much to drink and the whole room heard them and saw the way they were acting.”

I began to feel sick inside as Susan was telling me this. In some ways it certainly sounded like Wes Howard’s modus operandi—and that’s the third piece of background information you need. At events like this, good ol’ Wes had a habit of inviting himself along with a group of staff people at the end of a long day for drinks at the hotel bar. He’d done it dozens of times before. He’d wind up buying most of the drinks, cracking most of the jokes, and invariably sit himself next to the most attractive young woman in the group. Amy and Caroline had often been part of these groups, acting in ways that frankly stretched the boundaries of a strictly professional relationship.

It was Inappropriate, sure, but they were young and trying to have fun, and as long as there was a supervisor or someone like that present, things never went too far over the line. Of course, it didn’t help that Wes was well respected in his profession and had some powerful connections in the organization. He’d been on the leadership track for years, and even though he’d not yet found his way onto the board of directors, everyone agreed it was just a matter of time. He probably should have been at the VIP meeting I was at—I think he was actually on that invitation list—but had evidently made a different decision about where he belonged. It’s true that in the company we had come to think of his affinity for young women on our staff as something that needed to be managed rather than dealt with. But having said that, it’s also true that in my experience, I had never seen Wes, Amy, or Caroline act in the way Susan was describing.

“The whole room heard them?” I asked. “What do you mean?”

“Exactly that,” Susan said. “The whole room heard them. They were laughing so loud the speaker could barely complete his talk. People at the other tables kept telling them to quiet down, and they’d stop for a little while, but soon they’d start whispering again, and before you knew it, Amy would burst out with that ear-splitting laugh she has. You know the one I mean?”

I certainly did. When Amy laughed it sounded like a howler monkey had gotten stuck in a trash compactor. I nodded my head.

“It was awful, Alan, unbelievably awful. When the speaker finished, everyone just got up and left. Everyone in the room was embarrassed by what had happened. There was no Q and A, no closing announcements—everyone just got up and left. And the three of them just kept goofing around and laughing.”

The sick feeling in my stomach got worse. I looked uncomfortably around the room and felt distinctly like the walls were closing in on me. There were no windows in my office. For whatever reason, the space we occupied had been configured with all the offices lined up along one long wall. It was the one that backed up against the building’s parking structure and, as a result, none of the offices had any windows. That left me with four bare walls and a door. The walls were bare—and painted a snow-blinding white—because company policy said we couldn’t hang anything on them. No framed art, no tacked up posters, no bulletin boards—not even an ass-kissing photo of our fearless leader or a plaque engraved with the company’s incomprehensible code of ethics. Don Bascom was known to say that the reason for the ban on wall hangings was that they didn’t want to be constantly patching holes in the walls as people moved in and out of the offices. He sometimes even said it with a straight face, not realizing what message it conveyed regarding his expectations for your tenure with the organization.

Now, I simply focused my attention back on Susan, doing my best to ignore my enveloping sense of claustrophobia. “What did you do?” I asked.

Susan looked at me resolutely, folding her arms across her chest. “I left, too. I’d had enough. I know what you told me about keeping an eye on him, Alan, but even I couldn’t take it anymore. I no longer cared what he might do to Amy or Caroline, I was so angry and humiliated. I just had to get out of there.”

I didn’t like the sound of that. Leaving Wes Howard alone with two young, attractive, and inebriated staff people was a mistake any way you looked at it. “Did you say anything to them?”

I know Susan could hear the unease in my voice, but she stood her ground. “I told them to act their age—all three of them—but they just laughed at me.”

Susan didn’t see them for the rest of the night, and the next morning she and Amy and Caroline all met each other at the airport for the flight home. Susan, being Susan, had by then recovered her natural empathy and wanted to know if they were both all right, if Wes had done anything Inappropriate after she had left.

“Amy told me to mind my own business,” Susan said. “She said they were both big girls and knew how to take care of themselves. But she was hiding something. Something they were both ashamed of. It seemed neither one of the them was standing as tall as they once had, and Caroline never said a word and never looked me in the eye.”

Susan paused, her eyes momentarily staring down at her feet, and her lips pressing together into a tight line. “I don’t know what that son of a bitch did,” she said direly as her venomous eyes popped back up, “but he took advantage of one or both of them, I’m sure of it.”

At this point my mind was racing, the claustrophobia growing and seeming to propel my thoughts forward. I was clearly looking for a way out, and I forced myself to take a step back. What exactly had Wes done? Susan was certain he had gone past impropriety and into some kind of assault, but she had no real proof, and neither one of the two possible witnesses had told her anything. For all we knew he had done nothing more than walk them back to their hotel rooms and kiss them on the foreheads. Neither Amy nor Caroline liked Susan, and they both had evidently had too much to drink the night before. Their reaction to Susan in the airport could have been nothing more than their contempt for her filtered through the head-pounding fuzz of their wine hangovers.

“What are you going to do about this, Alan?” Susan’s hostile tone interrupted my train of thought. She was angry—justifiably so—and made it clear that she expected someone to read the riot act to Wes Howard. She expected someone to confront him and tell him to keep his sick old hands off the junior members of our staff. And she was looking squarely at me.

I had been deputy account executive and Susan’s supervisor for less than three months. I had sent her to this meeting, had cautioned her against Wes’ behavior, and had instructed her to keep an eye on him to prevent things from getting out of hand. It’s what we always did when we knew he was going to be at an event, but those strategies hadn’t prepared me to deal with anything like this.

Wes Howard was one of the favored few—a VIP among VIPs—and Mary would have never promoted me if she hadn’t thought I had learned the lesson that wherever the VIPs are concerned, you puckered up first and asked for forgiveness later. And yet here was Susan Sanford, a woman new to our organization, but one honest and true and with a moral sense as yet uncorrupted by the company’s twisted priorities and politics, making accusations against him that, if true, should not just keep him off the board of directors, but probably land him in jail. I didn’t know what to do. And while I struggled to come up with the solution on my own, those damn white office walls of mine seemed to keep pressing in on me from all sides.

“Let go talk to Mary,” I said.

+ + +

“Dragons” is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. For more information, go here.

This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

Image Source

No comments:

Post a Comment