A Demonic Dilemma
by Bill Prindle
Table of Contents|
parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Over the ensuing weeks, Tom ascended the evolutionary scale from fumbling slob to future corporate contributor. Some of his progress was attributable to the awakening of his supernatural intelligence, which allowed him to absorb new materials in a fraction of the time it would take a human.
But much of his success stemmed from his admiration for Dale, whom he watched closely and whose behavior he emulated. For instance, when Tom shook hands now, he enclosed his fellow trainee’s hand in a friendly enveloping two-handed grip or briefly patted the other person’s shoulder.
Like Dale, he smiled and joked and called people he barely knew “buddy” or “my friend.” He found himself affecting Dale’s West Texas drawl.
At the end of the fifth week, the class voted on achievement awards. Tom won “Most Improved.” Dale won “Friendliest.” They each received a handsome ballpoint pen.
To celebrate, Dale, Tom, and few of the Lost Boys headed for the Bora Bora Lounge to share some Pu-Pu Platters and a couple rounds of the drink special called Humanity’s Downfall. The Lost Boys congratulated Tom on his rapid improvement.
“Truth be told, Tommy,” Dale said, “you were a bit rough at the start, eating with your fingers that first day and showing up in class looking like a piece of chewed twine.”
A lanky guy named Harvey, from South Carolina, chimed in. “Remember in the third class, when Norm asked Tom what he’d do if one of his co-workers got the promotion that had been he’d promised and Tommy here says, ‘I’d kill him’?”
Everyone roared, and Harvey added, “Then Norm says, ‘Mr. Teufel, be serious now. What would you do?’ and Tommy says ‘Tear his arm out of its socket?’ and says it all innocent-like.”
“You’re a hoot and a half,” said Reed, an ex-VP from a leading salty snack manufacturer. “Gentlemen, a toast to the Tominator!” He enjoyed assigning nicknames to his friends.
Tom knocked back his drink and basked in his classmates good-natured joking. But at the same time, he felt a shadowy, inchoate anxiety rising inside him. Something had come unmoored, something was not quite right, but he didn’t know what it was.
On the last day of classes, Norm reminded them that on Monday, the first round of corporate recruiters and executive search firms would arrive at the Centre to interview potential candidates. He instructed his students to quiz each other and ask tough questions.
“Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong,” he encouraged.
Tom and the Lost Boys had agreed to take Friday night off and practice over the weekend. After dinner, Tom returned to his room to watch The Exorcist but was interrupted by a knock at his door. It was Dale.
Tom took two beers from the mini-bar and opened a bag of corn nuts. Dale slumped into the armchair.
“I’m embarrassed, Tommy. I’ve always thought of myself as a tough, confident guy. Now, I’m not sure what the hell I am anymore. I’ll tell you straight out — these interviews got me scared as hell.”
Tom was alarmed to see that the amiable, breezy Dale was gone. Sitting before him was a paunchy, defeated, middle-aged guy, with worry circles under his eyes and shoulders sagging in defeat.
“I know what’s going to happen. I’ll be sitting in front of a guy half my age who’s gonna be thinking, ‘Hell, this is like interviewing my father.’ Who in hell wants to hire his father?” Dale drank off half his beer.
“Tommy, would it be too much to ask for you to run through those interview questions with me? Try all those tricks: the multi-part question, the rapid-fire questions — all that crap.”
“Dale,” Tom replied, “it will be my pleasure. I will show you no mercy.”
“I knew I could count on you, buddy!” Dale said.
They sat across from each other, Tom taking the role of coolly evaluative recruiter. At the beginning, Dale was tentative, but as they worked their way through the interview and the questions got more complex, Dale’s confidence and natural charm returned. They wrapped up around 2:00 a.m. and agreed to practice on Saturday and Sunday too.
* * *
After Dale left, Tom suffered a panic attack so overwhelming that he couldn’t sleep. He went for a long walk around the Transformational Centre grounds and tried to locate what it was that was so deeply troubling him.
While he sat on a bench next to the landscaped pond and listened to the splashing waters of the fountain, he used some of the problem-solving techniques Norm and the other instructors had taught them. What would I have to do to relieve this feeling? he thought.
The only thing he could think of doing was helping Dale, but that also seemed to arouse his sense of disquiet. Back in earlier times, Tom would have tempted faltering souls like Dale and the Lost Boys with greed and envy to entrap them in a web of mortal sins. It wouldn’t have taken much with guys like them.
But since his arrival at the Transformational Centre, he’d been so touched by the kindness Dale and the others had shown him that his only desire now was to return it in kind, especially for Dale. He even paid Dale the highest tribute of which he was capable: he wanted to create a Dale Murcheson action figure to add to his collection.
But his anxiety would not be stilled. I’m not the demon I used to be, thought Tom. But is that bad? And what does that make me now?
Tom raced back to the motel and knocked on Dale’s door. When it opened, Tom wrapped Dale up in a tight hug.
“Whoa, easy does it, pardner. You have a bad dream or something? Something you want to tell old Dale?”
Tom said, “I like you.”
“I like you too, buddy.”
They regarded each other awkwardly for a moment, and Tom went back to his room. He was filled with an exhilaration he’d never before experienced. He was determined to make the rest of this chapter of his life the best chapter of his life
* * *
Copyright © 2016 by Bill Prindle