Saturday, April 20, 2019

Dragons - Chapter 8 (DRAFT)

We marched right over to Mary’s office. In a very real way, it was a relief just to be out of my little claustrophobic compartment. It’s probably not hard to believe that those of us who occupied those small windowless rooms for one-third of our lives naturally came to view them as a kind of cellblock. Working there, you’d hear a startling number of prison metaphors being used, like “Hey, what brings you out of your cage?” or “Gosh, I feel like I’m going stir crazy today,” or “Let’s bust out of here and go get some lunch.” For me, I always knew I had been cooped up too long when Ted the mailroom clerk would come by with his little cart of deliveries, and I would feel like I was in one of those old prison escape films, with Ted as the jailhouse librarian, peddling paperbacks and selling contraband cigarettes to the cons.

But private offices were the exception. As Susan and I made our way across the office floor, it was easy to see that most staff people were assigned to tiny, wedge-shaped workstations in one of a dozen or so large pods, each such workstation radiating out from a central hub, where all the electrical and Internet connections for the computers were made. Those wires came down from the tangled mangrove swamp that existed above the acoustical tile ceiling, and were enclosed in a cylindrical tube that came down in the very center of each pod’s circle. In these pods, none of the dividers between individuals were higher than your waist, and everyone sat facing inward in a concentric ring. They were so close to each other that, if they chose, they could all stand up, link hands, and dance around their electrical pole, hopping from desktop to desktop like happy woodland sprites.

Don was in charge of the custom build-out they performed, and he said these pods were the latest in ergonomic, team-focused design, but every time I walked by them, I thought they looked more like the decrepit tilt-a-whirls the carnies trucked in for the county fair. I always half expected them to start spinning around, and for each of the workstations to begin going up and down while its occupant surreally kept banging away on his or her keyboard. The only thing missing to complete the illusion was the wet plywood flooring and the smell of horseshit.

The other thing worth mentioning about Don’s Ergonomic Pods is that the people assigned to them were under the same set of restrictions that prevented those of us with offices from hanging anything on our white walls. The company enforced a complete and utter ban on personal effects in anyone’s office or workstation. Photos of loved ones, decorative paperweights, kitschy trinkets picked up at trade shows, even coffee mugs with cute or clever slogans printed on them—they were all equally taboo. If you were caught with any of these items, Don Bascom himself would pay you a visit and swap the offending item for a printed copy of the company’s office décor and accessories policy. They said it was all part of their efforts to present a polished and professional image to the client VIPs who occasionally paid us a visit, but I think it was more about de-humanizing people so they could get you to do inhuman things. More on that later.

When we got to Mary’s office we found the door closed and Ruthie MacDonald sitting at her desk outside, wetting envelopes with one of those little sponges and sealing them with the heel of her hand. Ruthie was Mary’s executive assistant, and still is, as far as I know. Ruthie’s been with the company longer than just about anyone, and is likely never to leave it. I’m not sure she could make it anywhere else. It’s not that she’s incompetent—far from it. It’s just that she’s never worked anywhere else. She had been Ryan’s assistant before he left the company, and was the assistant to the company’s founder for years before that. I think she started working there right out of high school. And now, she’s so much a fixture in what makes that company work, I don’t think either would survive if they were ever separated from one another.

Like a lot of other executive assistants in a lot of other companies, Ruthie could make people turn cartwheels through razor wire just by looking at them askance. People knew she had the inside track to the boss’s thinking and feelings on any particular subject, and they would do anything she suggested, or even hinted at, if they thought she was giving out clues that would help them stay a leg up on their competition.

At the core, Ruthie was basically manipulating people, but she wasn’t the type to take savage glee in pulling people’s strings. Rather, she had quite a business-like approach to the task, understanding how essential it was to her and to the company’s success. It didn’t say so on her job description, but Ruthie’s primary role in the organization was to keep the boss focused on the thing that mattered most. Mary herself, like a lot of bosses, didn’t always know what that thing was, but Ruthie did. Ruthie would do whatever she had to in order to keep that thing from getting sidetracked. Certain files would get placed on Mary’s desk—others wouldn’t. Certain phone calls would be put right through—others wouldn’t. And certain people would be admitted to the corner office even if the door was closed—others wouldn’t. These were the weapons that Ruthie wielded in defense of her sacred mission, and she wielded them with tremendous skill, honed from long practice.

That morning, I could tell by the look on Ruthie’s face that we were in for a battle if we thought we were going to be admitted to Mary’s office. I surreptitiously advised Susan to keep quiet and to let me do the talking, and then closed the remaining distance to Ruthie’s desk.

“Morning, Ruthie,” I said, as pleasantly as I could. “Is that a new necklace you’re wearing?” When necessary, I believed in putting an adversary off her game from the word go, and complimenting Ruthie on her jewelry was always a good way to start.

“Why, yes it is, Alan,” Ruthie said, suddenly blushing in the overgrown schoolgirl way she had. She was middle-aged with two teenage boys at home, but was still long and lean and freckled exactly as she must have been in high school. “Desmond bought it for me on his last trip to Florida. Don’t you love it?”

Desmond was Ruthie’s husband, a small business owner who spent all his time selling custom-built parts for speed boat engines and all his money on presents for his blushing bride. Physically, they made an odd couple, with Ruthie’s tall gawkiness juxtaposed against Desmond’s dramatically shorter stature. I always thought Desmond looked a lot like Yoda, the muppet Jedi master from the Star Wars films. He wasn’t green, exactly, but he had the same nose, and his ears sort of came to a point with those long, wispy hairs clinging to them.

Ruthie leaned forward, obviously intending for me to take a closer look at her newest prize.

“It’s really nice,” I said, caressing the pendant between my thumb and forefinger. “Is it twenty-four carat?”

“Of course,” Ruthie said with some indignant dismay. “Desmond knows all the best places to shop. He has some very reliable connections on both coasts. He would never be taken in by one of those charlatans who pawn costume jewelry off on the tourists.”

I wasn’t so sure. The pendant was a little teddy bear, and looked distinctly like something you might see hanging off a twelve-year-old’s charm bracelet. But I kept this thought to myself, knowing I had to keep Ruthie in a good mood if we were going to get inside.

“It’s stunning,” I said with as much sincerity as I could muster, and then adroitly shifted gears, pitching my voice much more quietly, as if we were sharing a secret. “Hey, what’s on Mary’s calendar today? You think you could find me a few minutes of her time?”

I watched as Ruthie’s green eyes hardened. They lost the soft glow associated with her fond feelings for her puckish husband and the gifts of tribute he constantly offered her, and gained the calculating shine associated with her realization that something was up. She looked briefly at Susan standing impatiently beside me, then once quickly around the office to see who might be within earshot, and then focused laser-like on me.

“What’s going on?” she said.

I knew there was no way we were going to get inside without telling Ruthie some piece of what we had come to say. Like that mythical ferryman over the river Styx, only Ruthie could take us where we wanted to go, but she wasn’t going to do it without a little something for her change purse. And Ruthie’s preferred form of currency in these situations was information—inside information about what was really going on within the company. It’s what she hoarded and what gave her the ability to perform her job as well as she did. But I couldn’t come right out and tell her. That would be taking the risk that she wouldn’t deem it important enough to interrupt whatever Mary was doing on the other side of the door.

I aped Ruthie’s actions from a few moments before, looking furtively around at our surroundings. “I can’t tell you,” I said quietly, indicating with a tilt of my head that there were too many people walking by that could overhear us. “Not out here.”

I saw the sparkle in Ruthie’s eyes intensify, but she was a practiced master, and was frankly better at this game than I was. She turned those eyes down towards Mary’s calendar and slowly began shaking her head.

“I don’t know, Alan,” she said. “Mary’s got a pretty full schedule. I shouldn’t interrupt her unless it’s something that really needs to be dealt with today.”

And then she looked back up at me, her eyes still bright, but this time with the coy satisfaction of knowing that she was in control, and that I wasn’t getting inside unless I spilled the beans.

“Not just today, but right now,” Susan said suddenly, her voice not loud, but also clearly not pitched to avoid being overheard. “The company may be facing some serious liability for sexual harassment.”

Although I felt like strangling Susan for speaking out of turn, her words certainly caught Ruthie’s attention. Forget the twinkling eyes, if Ruthie had been a lioness I could now envision her licking her chops. But Ruthie was not someone to be trifled with, and that’s why I had cautioned Susan to let me do the talking. I had seen many other people in the company try to manipulate her—giving Ruthie only tidbits of information that sometimes didn’t even lead to some bigger scandal—in order to gain access to the boss’s circle of control. Without exception, they all came to regret their actions. The hapless ones found themselves merely boxed out of the influence they had envisioned for themselves. But the calculating ones—those who had angered Ruthie by treating her cavalierly in their own quest for power—one way or the other had a habit of finding themselves cashiered entirely out of the organization. Despite what Susan had reported—even if it was one hundred percent true—I wasn’t sure that Mary would see the same threat to the company that Susan did, and so I wasn’t planning on playing the sexual harassment card with Ruthie in order to get inside. If Mary didn’t see things Susan’s way, then Ruthie was liable to interpret such a ploy as a kind of bait and switch, and was likely to extract some form of punishment on us at a later date.

I watched as Ruthie slowly mastered her excitement and gave me a critical look—obviously waiting for me as the supervisor to confirm or refute the accusation of my direct report.

I swallowed my anger. “It might rise to that level,” I said diplomatically, but then turned partway towards Susan and spoke a little more tersely. “We’d like to brief Mary on what happened and get her read on the situation before making a judgment.”

Ruthie considered it for a moment or two more, and then put her envelope sponge aside. “Wait here,” she said, as she got up and moved towards Mary’s closed office door, her long legs sashaying beneath an ankle-length skirt. She knocked three times in quick succession, but didn’t wait for a reply before opening the door and poking her head inside.

I took the moment to turn fully towards Susan and give her my angriest look, but she fearlessly glowered back at me, clearly satisfied with her impression that she had gotten us inside.

“Got a few minutes for Alan Larson,” Ruthie said, the question mark not in her tone nor on the end of her sentence.

“What?” I heard Mary’s voice say from inside the office. “Now?”

Ruthie nodded her head, and turned part way back toward me. “He’s here with Susan Sanford. They’ve got something important to tell you.”

“All right,” Mary sighed. “Show them in.”

I skipped forward immediately, motioning for Susan to follow. Ruthie took a step back to give us access to the doorway and ushered us smartly inside. She followed us in and closed the door behind her, pressing her back against its frosted glass. I didn’t say anything. I knew being a fly on the wall during the conversation that was to follow was her payment for letting us in the dragon’s lair.

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“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

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