A Demonic Dilemma
by Bill Prindle
Table of Contents|
parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Tom’s wake-up call sounded at seven. Having slept in his clothes, he rolled out of bed and headed directly to breakfast at the Centre. His classmates, all similarly dressed in business casual attire, watched with amusement as the disheveled new candidate gulped scalding coffee straight from the carafe and gobbled up a plate of eggs, bacon, and pastries using his fingers.
When he arrived at class, the instructor Norm Gunderson called Tom’s name.
“Mr. Teufel, have you forgotten something?”
Tom looked puzzled.
“We expect all of our candidates to become successful, and they cannot be successful if they don’t take pride in their appearance. Please return to your room. Shower, shave, put on fresh clothes. And make it snappy.”
Tom glowered at the instructor but complied, returning to the class a half hour later. When he sat down, Norm said, “How do we feel about Mr. Teufel now everyone?”
Norm began clapping and the rest of the class joined in.
“Well done, Mr. Teufel! Now you look like a success-seeker. You made a mistake and corrected it. Excellent! Okay now, let’s get started making the rest of your life the best of your life.”
The curriculum was demanding — five weeks, seven days a week, ten hours a day-- an intensive immersion in all the elements that create a successful corporate contributor. Norm’s class started each day with discussions and role-playing about appropriate clothing, proper manners, conversational skills, interviewing strategies, networking, personal style, effective presentations, handshaking, common courtesies, and posture were covered in relentless detail. Tom’s other classes would address U.S. and international corporate cultures, structures, and politics. And he was signed up for an intensive review of U.S. financial practices.
At the end of Norm’s third class, the students paired up to practice their interview skill sets, using prompts from a script, and afterwards providing positive feedback to each other. Tom’s partner was a hulking, middle-aged Texan named Dale Murcheson.
“Think of yourselves as actors playing the role of successful executives,” Norm said. “And remember, the most successful people listen — really listen — more than they talk, so be a good listener. In time, I promise you, you will become the character you’re playing. Conceive it, believe it, achieve it!”
As they worked through the script, Dale leaned close to Tom and whispered, “I got news for you, Tommy. When I go in for an interview and some twenty-something pissant sees a middle-aged guy like me, I can give him all these happy horseshit answers, but I’ll still look as pitiful as a three-legged dog.”
“Really?” said Tom.
“You can bet the farm on it, buddy,” replied Dale with a chuckle and a friendly pat on Tom’s shoulder.
At the end of class, Norm went around the room and asked each student to describe areas for self-improvement.
When it was Tom’s turn, he said, “I guess I just want to be a better human being.”
Norm said, “Class, let’s reward Tom for his honesty and encourage him on his road to success,” whereupon the entire class again broke into boisterous applause and cheering. Tom was shocked to feel himself blush.
On the walk back to his room, Tom reflected on how strange and uncomfortable the day had been. He’d often felt bewildered and inadequate. At times his wrath had almost boiled over, and he’d imagined grabbing Norm by the throat and biting his head off, which in his former incarnation, he could have easily done.
At the same time, being around so many friendly men and women — particularly his Dale — who were trying so hard to be positive and cheerful was eroding his solitudinous disposition. Despite his formerly low opinion of humans, he’d even returned his classmates’ smiles. It had felt strange to bare his teeth and not bite someone.
Most of Tom’s fellow success-seekers raced through dinner and returned to their rooms to do their homework. As Tom went through the cafeteria line, Dale waved him over to a table with five other middle-aged guys. They had about them the air of old warriors who were still game for the battle but knew in their hearts that only slaughter awaited them. They referred to themselves as the Lost Boys.
“How’d it go today, Tommy?” asked Dale.
Tom’s mouth was filled with mashed potatoes and Salisbury steak. He shrugged.
“Whatever — he did a hell of a good job getting through all that baloney, didn’t he, boys?”
The Lost Boys nodded and gave Tom some “Attaboys” and “Way to go, Tommy.”
When they’d finished dinner, Dale asked, “I’m so dry I’m spittin’ cotton. Any you guys up for a drink?”
The others said they were headed back to their rooms.
“I’ll go,” said Tom.
They got into Dale’s Cadillac and drove to Billy Bob’s. The building was vast and dimly lit, echoing with country and western music and smelling of roasted meat and stale beer. In addition to a stage and dance floor in the back, there were various “corrals” set aside for Tex-Mex food, an immense open barbecue pit, a sushi bar with the sushi chefs wearing cowboy hats, a Chinese buffet, bull-riding machines, and a video arcade featuring games involving firearms.
They settled in the Bora Bora Lounge, warmly illuminated by red, blue, and orange paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling, a faux thatched roof awning above the bar, and thick red candles on all the tables. Hawaiian music drowned out the nasal whine of the country music. They sank into a worn red vinyl banquette and a grass-skirted waitress took their order: two Scorpion Bowls.
As they sipped the enormous drinks, garnished with floating gardenias, they chatted about their classes. Tom asked Dale how he’d wound up at the Executive Transformational Centre.
“I screwed up royally — that’s how I wound up here and it’s my own damned fault. I was a hotshot with my law degree and MBA and worked my way up to CFO at Diablo Financial Investments. I cranked out mortgage packages and financial instruments with more twists and turns in ’em than a barrel of snakes. It was a license to print money.”
Dale took a long draw on his drink. “And I was slick, buddy. I could talk the legs off a table and a fund manager into buying an investment neither one of us really understood ’cept it would make money.
“Then Bane & Company comes along, takes Diablo private, loads us up with debt, and sends us into bankruptcy. They had me fire most of my staff, and then this pipsqueak named Willard calls me into his office, tells me I’m fired, and hands me a severance package, which includes what he calls ‘executive repurposing.’
“I told him to take his executive retraining and put it where the sun don’t shine. So there I was — out of a job and screwed seven ways to Sunday. If I wasn’t one of the most foolish, blind, and greedy SOBs in Texas, then God’s a possum.”
Tom knew plenty about greed, and Dale’s sins didn’t sound all that bad. The eleventh-century Hungarian king who insisted on being buried in a solid gold casket so heavy ten oxen had to drag it to the mausoleum — now, he was greedy, along with a few other mortal sins.
“You don’t seem foolish and blind to me,” Tom said. “A little greed’s not so bad.”
“Nice of you to say so, buddy. My biggest mistake was thinking my life would never change, you know? But change it did.”
Tom nodded because he realized that is exactly what he’d thought too.
“I spent all the money I made, and a lot I didn’t have. I was leveraged up the ying-yang — big-ass house, third mortgage, credit cards maxed out, pricey vacations, four cars, expensive wife, two ungrateful kids in private colleges. I thought I’d get another job right away. Hell, I thought, who wouldn’t want to hire a rainmaker like me?”
“I’d hire you,” Tom said. “You did great in the interviews today.”
“Yeah, well, I wish you’d been sittin’ across the table from me at some of the interviews I had. Anyway, seven months later, I’m bankrupt, the house is gone, wife ditto, and my kids won’t speak to me except to ask for money I don’t have. As far as this economy goes, I’m damaged goods: overpriced and overaged. Recruiters can smell desperation on me like I’ve stepped in dog shit. So I changed my mind about taking on Bane’s training program, and here I am having a Scorpion Bowl with you.
“I tell you, Tommy, this might be my last chance. I swear that if I catch another break, I will never, ever screw up again like I did. Hey, you wanna finish this?”
Dale pushed his Scorpion Bowl across to Tom who drank it down and ate the decorative gardenia blossoms as well.
“Whoa there, pardner, easy does it! How ’bout you? How’d you wind up here?”
“I got reorganized too. I hadn’t really done much for eons, and the next thing I know, here I am in a Motel 666. You think they got anything stronger to drink?”
“I like your attitude, Tommy, but it’s time to blow this peanut stand.” Tom took out his wallet, but Dale insisted on paying. “My treat, buddy.”
Dale drove back to the motel and staggered a bit when he got out of the car. He wrapped a beefy arm around Tom, and they walked unsteadily back to their rooms.
“’G’night, buddy,” Dale called out as he shut his door.
Tom went back to his room, consumed the contents of his replenished mini-bar again and did his homework assignments. He fell asleep around 4:00 a.m. and dreamt he was back in his hammock.
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Bill Prindle