JunoMagic's Birthday Stories Playlist 2006
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Not Fade Away: 3. Reversal Of Fortune
"Have I got the right address?" she thought as she stared up at the skyscraper. The building was a Mies Van der Rohe design, all black glass and silver steel, and its sheer size dwarfed the nervous woman who stood on the sidewalk in her blue power suit and high heels, clutching her precious portfolio. She checked the printout once again. This was the correct address for Dale Toy Company, but the only marking on the building said "Rivers Enterprises" in elegant silver letters next to the front entrance. If she hadn't been intimidated before, she surely was now.
"I am so out of my league," she told herself miserably, as she pushed open the door and entered the lobby.
The interior of the building was anything but sterile. The lobby rose two stories, and its back wall was clad in natural stone with a tall waterfall surrounded by greenery. "How did they get that tree to grow in here, behind all that black glass?" she wondered as she searched for the security desk. Surprisingly, despite the dark glass, the quality of the light was warm and golden.
"May I help you, Miss?" A security guard was seated behind a granite desk among the foliage. Clearly, Dale Toys, or Rivers Enterprises, whichever it was, had no dress code, because the man's pale hair was down to his shoulder blades and covered his ears. He was wearing a uniform in shades of green and brown that could only be described as stylish, right down to the script lettering that spelled "Hal" across his left chest pocket. She could see a revolver strapped discreetly to his hip. Equally discreet were the banks of security screens and computer monitors that flashed behind the desk.
"Yes, I'm here for a job interview. The name is Walker. I was to meet Ms. Singer from Human Resources at two o' clock."
Hal looked down at one of his screens. "She's expecting you. I'll have someone come down to take you up." The blue glow from his monitor lit his face, and she couldn't help but notice that he was incredibly good looking in an exotic sort of way. She gave herself a mental smack. Husband gone only three months and she was thinking like a hormone soaked teenager!
"If you'll have a seat . . . Ah, wait a minute, here comes someone who can show you the way," Hal said.
A tall man in yet another green and brown uniform came ambling across the lobby, dragging a bucket, mop, and a sign that said, 'Cuidado: Piso Mojado.' The left pocket of the custodian's uniform read, "Randy."
"Randy, can you take Ms. Walker up to forty-eight?"
"Sure thing. I was headed up there next. This way," he said, leading her to a bank of elevators and pulling his bucket assembly in behind him. He waited for her to enter and then punched in the floor number.
"Here for a job interview?"
She nodded. If she were anything like her jerk of a husband, this would be where she got all yuppie on this janitor's ass and ignored him for the underling he was, but Randy seemed nice enough. "Yes, there's an opening in the art department. I don't think I have much of a chance, though."
"Aw, c'mon. How do you expect to get anywhere with an attitude like that?" Randy grinned. "If they let a guy like me work here, why not you too?"
She grinned back. Although they were thousands of miles from either coast, and Lake Michigan rarely raised anything taller than a three-foot wave, everything about Randy said 'surfer dude.' He was also even better looking than Hal, if such a thing were possible, and his bright gold hair was worn in a long mane too. There was definitely no dress code at whatever this place called itself.
"I always say that a positive attitude is everything," Randy continued, as if he were imparting a deep secret of life. The elevator hummed as the two of them headed skyward. "Tell me something," he said, holding up his forearm and examining it intently, turning his hand this way and that. "Does this look solid to you?"
She blinked. That was one hell of a strange question, and she momentarily wondered if it was such a good idea to be alone in an elevator with this guy. He was topping six foot four easily, and to put it bluntly, he was built. But she supposed Hal knew his job. "Um, it looks completely solid to me. Tell me, does Dale have any kind of random drug testing?"
Randy shook his head. "Nope. There's no drug testing at all. I mean, if you get wasted on the job and screw up, don't look for much sympathy from Mr. Rivers. But you don't look like the kind of person who'd do that."
"That's nice to know." It was nice to know. She was getting damn tired of peeing in a cup every month just for the privilege of transcribing insurance forms. "I suppose that means no employee polygraphs either."
"Heck no," Randy laughed. "We don't need those here." The elevator came to a stop and the doors slid open with a jaunty 'ding.' "Here we are, floor forty-eight, Human Resources, dry goods, housewares, and ladies' undergarments."
She gripped her portfolio tighter and took a deep breath. "Well, wish me luck. This seems like a nice place to work."
"I don't think you're going to need any luck," said Randy with an enigmatic smile as the door slid shut between them.
This was like no set of offices she had ever seen. The walls were a warm earthen color and they were covered with hangings and Asian art. Subtly hued oriental rugs softened the feel of the hardwood floors. Everything seemed calculated to inspire peace and comfort. Who had designed this building interior and how much money had gone into it? she asked herself.
A tall slender woman waited in the hallway, and she held out a long-fingered hand. "I'm Linda Singer. You must be Ms. Walker. Come this way," she said, leading her to an office whose window overlooked the lake and directing her to a chair. Linda took a seat behind a desk, where a copy of the résumé was laid out. "To begin, what should I call you? Your résumé says M. Susan Walker. Do you go by Susan?"
She hesitated. The 'M. Susan' had been Michael's idea. He thought it looked more professional on a résumé than her unusual first name, which he always said sounded as if she'd been named by pot smoking hippies. In fact, near the end he had begun calling her Sue, which she detested, when he couldn't bring himself to refer to her as something endearing like 'Honey' or darling. But now she realized he had been stealing yet another part of her soul from her by denying her the use of her name. Over the past six years she had become more and more of a wraith, and it was time to call a halt.
"No, I'm not a Sue. Susan is my middle name, after a great aunt of my father's. My given name is Mariposa, which is an excellent argument for keeping those exotic baby name books out of the hands of pregnant women," she said with a quick, rueful laugh. "But my friends call me Posey."
"Then I shall call you Posey," Linda said. "Although I think being named for a butterfly is quite lovely. Where I come from, it isn't unusual to be named after a flower or some other beautiful thing of nature. Can I offer you something to drink? Fruit juice, or spring water?"
"Some water, thank you." Posey was quite grateful as she accepted a cup of mineral water. The nervousness was making her mouth dry.
"So, tell me, Posey," Linda said, "what makes you want to work for Dale Toys?"
Before she knew it, Posey found herself responding to this friendly woman with complete candor. "For once, I want to do something I'm good at, rather than just marking time behind a computer terminal. And I'm good at doing artistic things, even though I never got to art school. I have to be honest with you -- I'm afraid I'm wasting your time. I never even finished college."
"I never went to college at all, "Linda said serenely. "Neither did Mr. Rivers. All we care about here is that you can do your job and do it well."
"Yes, Aaron Rivers, our owner. Dale Toy Company is a subsidiary of Rivers Enterprises, along with Ithilien Landscape Service, Abendstern Jewelers, and several other companies of which you may or may not have heard."
At the mention of the name, Posey did a double take. The name of Aaron Rivers rang a bell. Although not exactly a household word, she had heard it before, and nearly always in the same tone of voice as the names of Bill Gates and Howard Hughes. Rivers was reputed to be richer than God and twice as reclusive. The idea of him owning a toy company seemed incongruous, although the jewelry was spot on for his avaricious reputation.
Then the second wave of recognition hit. Dale Toys! "The blocks!" she exclaimed in delight.
As the child of intellectual parents, Posey had been subjected to any number of 'educational' toys, most of which were about as fun to play with as eating a meal of tofu and Swiss chard. But those Dale blocks had been a source of creative diversion that had lasted almost into her teens and a little after that, when she would take them out in secret to construct fantastical castles and forts, whose only limit was her imagination. There had also been a wooden railroad set whose pieces joined together in infinite combinations and . . . "And the coloring books! I cut my teeth on those coloring books! The pictures were always so beautiful, and I always felt like a real artist whenever I colored them. I think that's why I got interested in art to begin with." She broke off in embarrassment, as Linda smiled with quiet amusement at her enthusiasm.
"I'm glad to know you're familiar with our traditional products. We are trying to stay current, though, and that's why we like to bring in young talent."
"Isn't all the new talent young? I mean, the design of those blocks has been around for more than a hundred years according to what I've read. My mother said she colored in some of those same books when she was a kid, back in the fifties. If it's good, why change it?"
"We don't so much want to change as to embroider upon the past, if you will. If it's good, it can be made better. Today's innovation is tomorrow's classic."
Posey sighed. "I don't see how I could improve upon what I grew up with." Then she gave herself another mental smack -- Way to blow the interview, girl!
Linda laughed. "You let us worry about whether you're good enough. We've been around long enough to know what we're doing." She looked up as the door opened. "It's about time you showed up, Gary. Posey, this is Gary Brooke, head of the art department. He'll be your supervisor if he likes the look of your portfolio."
Oh, Jeezus, Posey thought -- another looker. The head of the art department was another dark-haired model, like Linda, tall and thin. The hair was long and covered the ears. Hadn't these people realized that the eighties were over? Not that she was complaining, because the look suited him. Maybe it was something in the water or the air of the building that did it, in which case Posey hoped to hell she got this job, because she'd like to look this good too.
"Well let's see what you have here," said Mr. Looker, as he began to shuffle through the drawings in her portfolio. She had the awful feeling that she was parading naked before superior beings, but he seemed to like what he saw. "Oooh - kay. Let's run this past Leif."
"Who is Leif?" she asked helplessly as they all stood up. She couldn't help but notice that Linda discreetly pocketed the glass she had used to drink her mineral water.
"Leif Aransen, our company Vice President. I'm taking you up to forty-nine to meet him. Consider this your second interview. I hope you don't mind a short walk," said Gary, leading her to the fire exit and heading upward.
Her feet were hurting like hell in her tight heels, but for a chance at this job, however slim, she'd walk up a hundred flights and keep smiling. She followed Brooke gamely up the stairs, only allowing herself to limp when his back was turned.
"Are you all right, Ms. Walker?" he asked, as he held the fire door open for her, noticing for the first time that she was trailing behind by several steps.
She wasn't all right. He had bounded up the steps as if they weren't even there, while she was out of breath and beginning to perspire. "I'm fine" she lied. "Just a little nervous, perhaps."
"About meeting Leif? Don't be. I've known him for a long time -- I was with him in Ith -- Italy, and I can assure you he doesn't bite. I'll tell you a secret -- he liked your drawing. A lot. You wouldn't believe the dreck the two of us have had to sift through in the past few days." Gary's pocket beeped and he pulled out his pager and scowled. "Drat! They want me downstairs right away. You'll have to find your way from here. It's the corner office, end of the hall. The door's open. He's expecting you." He was heading off before she could protest.
The corner office was impossible to miss, and the door was open, as promised. Posey knocked shyly on the frame and peered in. Nearly all the available wall space was taken up by bookshelves. Not surprisingly, most of those shelves were filled with books, but a few of them held examples of the standard Dale toys. Posey recognized the wooden train set and the blocks, along with a marble maze. The remaining bare walls were covered with photographs of gardens and what looked like framed pages from the coloring books. One of those was a picture of a group of medieval looking lords and ladies riding across a meadow with three tall white towers in the background. Posey remembered having colored the same picture when she was seven years old.
The huge desk, with its view of the lake, was empty. Instead, a pony-tailed blond man in a green sweater and khaki pants was hunched over a computer monitor in one corner, his fingers flying over a game pad. "Hang on a second, I'll be right with you." He remained intent on the computer screen, where all manner of mayhem was occurring. "Agggh - no. . . . Dammit! Well, that's it, I'm dead. Game over." He spun his chair and turned to her with a smile.
Posey gasped. He was too gorgeous to be true. A man this delicately beautiful had to be as gay as the day is long, and what a waste, she told herself. He held out a hand that would have been the envy of her piano teacher mother - those long fingers could span eleven keys easily. To her surprise, the grip was strong.
"Just how long IS the day?" he asked, with a bemused look. "You must be Ms. Walker."
"Call me Posey, please," she said, trying to recover the knack of coherent thought. "Excuse me, but that game you were playing just now, was it . . .?"
"It was, but in case you're wondering, that was research, not goofing off," he said playfully. "I want Dale Toys to develop its own line of video games, and I'm trying out the competition to see what makes a game successful."
"Er, isn't that one of the most violent games on the market? The one the do-gooders always cite as everything that's wrong with our society?"
"If you recognized it you must have played it once or twice." When she nodded sheepishly, he continued, "Well then you have to admit it kicks some serious butt."
She had to laugh at this. Instead of the Captain of Industry she had been expecting to meet, he was more like a typical nerdy kid. He didn't look much older than twenty-five, if that. "I thought Dale Toys were supposed to the gold standard of good, wholesome fun. Toys that are good for you."
He pulled up a chair for her and motioned her to sit. "I have a theory about this, bear with me. 'Fun' and 'good for you' don't need to be mutually exclusive. Computers and video games are wonderful things for teaching us basic problem solving. If at first you don't succeed, you go back and try it another way until you get it right. Even the violence isn't necessarily a bad thing. I've been in combat, and I can tell you that the natural thing is to freeze like a scared rabbit unless you've been exposed to it in small doses."
"You were over in Iraq?" she asked, and when he shook his head she continued, "Kosovo? Somalia? Not Desert Storm!"
"Ah . . . I'm a little older than I look. You probably wouldn't have heard of it or be interested." He flashed her an enigmatic smile. "I never did understand these politicians who want to censor video games and stick V-chips in our TV sets to banish every hint of violence from contemporary life, and then turn around and vote to send kids off to fight in foreign wars."
"Still, I don't think it's good for anybody to get their kicks by running over pedestrians and shooting cops," Posey said.
"You're right on that score," he agreed. "That's why I like this one better." He held up another CD case with a familiar logo.
"Oh, yes, that's one of my favorites!"
"Right. There are hundreds of ways to beat each level, and you lose points for killing a civilian or a cop. In fact, the fewer people you kill and the less noise you make, the higher your score. Of course, this character's an assassin, and that's a bit of a problem. We don't want the kiddies thinking that's a good idea.
"What I'm after is a game that's fun to play, challenges you to use your brains and your stealth to get through it, has a quality look to the graphics, and has a story behind it that doesn't leave a bad taste, morally speaking."
"I don't know the first thing about writing computer code," she protested.
"You don't have to. We have the tech division for that. What I need from my art department are people with imagination and the talent for making an imaginary world believable. I couldn't make a realistic drawing to save my life, and that's why you're here. I liked that leaf of yours."
He pulled out a printout of the scan she had sent and laid it on the table. "Did you bring the original with you, by any chance? I'd really like to have it, if you did. I'd be happy to pay you for it."
"Don't be silly," she said, taking the original from her portfolio and handing it over. "It's just a piece of computer paper with number two pencil scribbles on it. Keep it."
"But that's the point. You can draw with an actual pencil, on real paper, and it doesn't look like every other piece of generic computer art we got in this week. I think that if I ask you for a mountain, or a cave, or a giant spider, you can give me one without it looking like a bad cartoon."
"I can try -- that's all I can promise."
"That's all anyone can ask." The phone chirped, and Leif excused himself to answer it. While he spoke, Posey did the usual polite phone-call thing and stared out the window at the lake, pretending not to listen to the one-sided conversation. "Hello . . . Already? Well, it's a lock regardless. Word from on high. . . . Just for curiosity's sake, what were the results?" He flicked a quick glance in her direction and smiled. "Ah! I thought so." He said a quick good-bye and hung up.
"Well, Ms. Walker, do you have any questions?"
Did she have any questions? Where to start? "I guess my first question is, when will I hear about a follow-up interview, Mr. Aransen?"
"You won't." Her face fell. "There's no need for another interview. You're hired. And it's Leif. I never cared much for ceremony. That's more my father's thing."
"Didn't they tell you? Aaron Rivers is my father. I may get a corner office, but Dad gets the executive suite. That's the way it's always been and will always be. And I'll tell you a secret -- that's fine with me."
Well that explained a lot, she thought. Why someone in his mid-twenties would be a corporate vice president, and why his office would resemble a giant playroom. The different surnames puzzled her a bit. Was Leif the result of a brief early marriage, with Leif taking the name of a stepfather? Or maybe no marriage at all? Stranger things had happened among the rich and famous, and it was none of her business. All that mattered was that it was a paycheck as long as the job lasted.
"How soon can you start?"
"As soon as you need me."
"Good, report to Linda tomorrow and she'll get you oriented. You can wear what you like, of course," he said with a pointed look at her suit and heels, "but I'd strongly suggest business casual, or even jeans. I think people do a better job if they can actually move, not to mention not being in pain." To illustrate the point, he held up a foot clad in a driving moccasin, and flexed his toe cheerfully. He had long legs to match his fingers, and he was incredibly flexible, she noticed.
Yes! she thought, with a mental thumbs up. No more pantyhose!
"Here's a copy of your job agreement, benefit package and salary. Is there a problem?" he said, as her eyes shot up at the figure. "Not enough?"
Shut up, idiot, and don't blow this, she told herself. "No, it's fine. Quite generous, really."
"You may find yourself doing assignments for some of our other companies -- Ithilien Landscape in particular. I hope you like plants, Ms. Walker."
"Posey," she corrected, "Especially if I'm supposed to call you Leif. And I like plants just fine."
"Good. You may also find yourself designing some jewelry. It all depends on what you're good at. We'll re-negotiate the salary down the road. If and when."
She had no problem with that whatsoever.
"Oh, Posey? You do have a question. It's been written all over your face since you walked in here," Leif said mischievously. "You deserve an answer."
Oh, please, she prayed, don't let him have picked up on the 'gay' thing!
"The hair? Long, flowing, flaxen-waxen and down around our ears? It's . . . it's part of our religion."
She nodded politely. A religious observance. Of course. This being multi-cultural Chicago, she was used to turbans and yarmulkes aplenty. And back in Wisconsin, in Richland Center, there had even been Amish, with those fringe beards. It was all part of the code of Midwestern Nice -- you never commented on anyone's religion. You just accepted it without question, no matter how outlandish, although she had to say, this long hair was one of the more aesthetic customs she had seen.
"Tomorrow, then," he said.
I've strayed into a dream, she told herself, as she left the office and made her way down to street level. She never allowed herself to think that it had all been just a little too easy.
* * *
Halfway through her first day, so far so good. She had reported to Linda Singer at 9:00 a.m. sharp and been given a quick tour of the building, or at least those parts of it that would concern her. The commissary and an employee fitness center with locker rooms and showers were on the third floor. The next twenty floors upward were devoted to production work and shipping for the toy company, although Linda informed her that there were toy factories in other locations around the globe as well. Above that were offices for the various Rivers subsidiaries, of which there were many, including an airline and a shipping company, Whitestone, in addition to the jewelers and the landscape company she already knew about. The offices of the landscape service, Ithilien, occupied the uppermost floors, just below number forty-seven, which housed the art department.
Posey had expected a maze of cubicles of the sort she was used to working in, but the art department was a pleasant surprise. It was open plan, with the work areas being separated by print tables or banks of greenery. Most of the workstations had a direct view of daylight through the windows, and those that did not were against walls that held books and artwork.
"How can you be creative in ugly surroundings?" Gary had said, noting her awe. Her own workstation was set in against the bookshelves, "For inspiration, if you need it," Gary had told her, but she could see eastward through the screen of ferns toward the vista of the lake.
She had a drafting table, and a desk with a computer and peripherals, including a good scanner. She spent the morning exploring the art library in the shelves and the software in her computer.
When lunchtime came, she took the elevator down to the commissary. Even that place was suitably aesthetic. The long refectory style tables were of wood, rather than plastic, and the lighting was subtle. The food was simple, but good, consisting of various breads, cold meats and cheeses, and a large selection of fresh fruit and greens. There was no cash register - the meals were included in her pay package, and Linda had told her that she could come early to take her breakfast there and stay later for her supper if she wished.
She took a tray and a plate, which she filled with nut bread, chicken and a chunk of Gouda cheese. A bottle of mineral water topped it off.
But now she was having one of those high school moments. There were groups of workers from the factory floors sitting at the tables, but she hesitated to intrude on an already established circle of friends. Some of them were chattering away in Spanish, others spoke Polish, and yet others spoke Arabic, none of which she could understand. Shyly, she passed them all by and took a seat alone in a corner.
"How have you enjoyed your first morning with us?" said a gentle voice from her side. It was Linda, and Posey was grateful to see a familiar face. "May I sit with you?"
"Of course." Linda's company was like water in the desert. "It's a bit overwhelming. I'm not a snob, but none of them seem to speak English."
"Most of our factory staff are immigrants. And no, it's not because they can be hired for less money." Linda paused and Posey was briefly ashamed, for she'd had that very thought. "Mr. Rivers was the son of an immigrant, and he likes to see newcomers being given an opportunity to make a decent life for themselves."
'That's refreshing," Posey said. "It's too bad not all of the employers in the metro area think that way. Chicago has a lot of immigrants, and it's all too easy to exploit them."
"I wish you'd tell it to the people who seem to think we're pulling some kind of shenanigans by paying a living wage and benefits," Linda laughed. "We get more visits from the IRS than every other employer in the area combined, or so it seems."
"Strange you should mention that, Linda," said a youngish man in a brown tweed suit who brought up a tray and sat down next to them. "Big trouble on the top floor this morning. Only this time it was a visit from INS. They took Kemal from down in shipping and receiving. Said something about a problem with his work visa."
"That's crap, Glenn! I checked his papers out myself." Linda sounded exasperated. "This is terrible -- Fayah's due to give birth in three weeks. Are they going to deport him?"
"Not if Aaron has anything to say about it. He's got Sid and Morrie on the case right now. Those two'll have Kemal out by tonight, or tomorrow at the latest. Of course it didn't improve Aaron's mood any," he sighed. Then he brightened. "Who is this? I don't think we've been introduced."
"This is Posey Walker from the art department. Posey, may I present Glenn Butler, Mr. Rivers' personal assistant."
Glenn wasn't quite as drop dead good-looking as either Gary or Leif, but his smile more than made up for it. "Art department, eh? I hope you like plants. Leif will have you designing gardens before you know it."
"I like plants just fine. But at the moment they plan to have me drawing gamescapes. The first one seems to be a pastoral countryside with little houses set into the sides of the hills. Plenty of plants in that one."
Glenn shook his dark hair. Obviously he was yet another practitioner of the mystery religion at Rivers. There was a warm twinkle in his slate grey eyes. "Ah, Leif's video game. Dale Toys moves into the twenty-first century. Brave new world! I'm still having a hard time remembering what age we're in."
* * * * * * *
To be continued . . .
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