Friday, March 19, 2010

Claude

Claude

by Carl R. Purdon

Claude had spent his life being embarrassed for his state. Last in everything good, first in everything bad. That was Mississippi. As a child his mother drilled him in proper English and instilled in him the belief that he was uncommonly special. You’re a French Poodle in a pack of hounds, she was fond of telling him. Claude believed every word his mother said.

Edison Life Insurance Company acquired the small family-owned agency where Claude sold insurance five years ago. Last Wednesday the branch manager threw up his hands and quit without warning, leaving ten employees without a leader. It was Claude who stepped up and assumed command of the ship. Surely the district manager of Ed Life would appreciate his initiative.

“Morning, Claude,” Beth said. Claude nodded and walked into the office he had moved into six days ago. The acting manager required more than a cubicle. He settled into the high-backed executive chair like a king assuming his throne. The chair was worn at the armrests and squeaked when he reclined. Obviously it would have to go.

Claude straightened some papers on the desk and looked around the office. Peter Moore hadn’t been much of a manager in Claude’s eyes and he intended to tell the district manager so when he arrived. It had been Claude who contacted the district office in Cleveland to tell them Peter Moore had deserted them. The office itself had potential: A few well-placed paintings, a vase atop the bookshelf beside the window, perhaps new carpet. His mother would be glad to help.

“Beth,” he said into the phone.

“Yes?”

“Any word from the district manager yet?”

“Not a peep.”

“Please, Beth, don’t embarrass me with your homey expressions when he arrives.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“And please stop referring to me in that manner. Sir will suffice.”

“I’ll try to remember that, Claude.”

Claude sighed. Since assuming the helm he had not enjoyed the respect of the staff. In fact they mocked him, but that would soon change. Beth would be the first to go. He had never liked her and soon he would be able to do something about it. His secretary would be older, more refined, and respectful of his position. Immediately he thought of his mother and smiled. Yes, she would take the position if he asked, temporarily of course. Retirement suited her too well for her to relinquish it on a permanent basis. The thought of his mother seeing him in his new office, dressed in his best suit, made him almost giddy, like a child who can’t wait to show his mother a straight-A report card.

Eight o’clock dragged into nine, then ten. Beth continued to refer to him as Your Majesty, or simply as Claude, each time he buzzed her to inquire if the district manager had arrived yet. Finally the door flew open and a man who appeared to be in his forties stopped abruptly in the doorway. Claude detected surprise in his face.

“Ah! You must be our district manager,” Claude said, rising from his chair. He hadn’t expected someone so young. At least he didn’t have facial hair. Claude detested all forms of facial hair. Mississippi would never rise from its knees with its men still so stubbornly bearded.

“And you are?”

“Claude Thompson. I’m the one who phoned your office last week when … “

“Yes, Mr. Thompson, I remember … I just didn’t expect this office to be occupied. This is the manager’s office?”

“Yes, of course. Come in. Have a seat. Would you care for coffee? By the way, I don’t think I caught your name,” Claude extended his hand as the well-dressed man closed the door and stepped toward the desk carrying a briefcase almost identical to his own.

“Chris Morgan,” he said. They shook hands and Claude gestured for his guest to have a seat. For the first time he noticed the worn condition of the guest chair and made a mental note to replace it immediately. Morgan hesitated, then eased himself down into the padded chair. Claude mentally counted to five then sat down himself. A good host never sits before his guest.

“I took the liberty of making lunch reservations at a nice little Italian restaurant,” Claude said. “You do like Italian?”

“I asked the young lady out front to order something in for lunch,” Morgan replied. “I’ve found it’s easier to get to know people over a casual lunch.”

Claude was taken aback. His role as host had been usurped by a secretary. Humiliation struggled to surface but he set his jaw and repelled it. “Yes, certainly, but I can bring you up to speed on the staff.”

“Thank you, Mr. Thompson, but I prefer making my own assessments. Someone here, I hope, will be the new branch manager.”

Claude pondered the ramifications of Morgan’s statement for a long moment. On the one hand was the district manager’s insistence on interviewing the entire staff. On the other was the fact that he wanted to promote from within the branch. The more he thought about it the more reassured he became. After all, what could increase his chances more than an honest face-to-face comparison between himself and his fellow employees? They were unrefined and tasteless. Not a single one of them had ever attended a symphony. On that he would bet his life.

“Perhaps you should use this office to conduct your interviews,” Claude suggested. As much as he disliked the idea of returning to his cubicle, the generosity of such a gesture would certainly not be lost on Morgan. Yes, of course he would surrender the office.

“Yes,” Morgan said. “I think that would be best. I might as well start with you, since you are already here.

Claude smiled. Suddenly it hit him that he was sitting behind the desk and his superior was sitting in front of it. “Perhaps you’d be more comfortable in my chair,” Claude said. His slip of the tongue -- his premature claim to a chair not yet awarded – was regrettable, but how many times had his mother warned him not to highlight gaffs by correcting them. Chances were the district manager had not noticed.

With their places reversed, Morgan opened his briefcase and removed a manila file folder with a dozen or so pages inside. Claude noticed C. Thompson written on the tab with a sloppy hand. Claude’s own penmanship was exquisite. Morgan thumbed through the papers and moved a colorful graph to the top of the stack.

“Your sales numbers are mediocre,” Morgan said, continuing to browse the chart with interest.

“The economy is a challenge to us all,” Claude said. He could hardly be blamed for low numbers during the worst economy since the Great Depression.

“Fourth out of nine according to this chart. Three people in your branch have consistently outsold you.” He looked up and waited.

“But that means I outsold five.”

“As I said … mediocre.”

Claude allowed a nervous cough to escape him. Things were not going as planned. Perhaps Morgan was testing him – trying to see what he was made of . A good manager had to be quick on his feet. “That’s not entirely my fault, Chris.”

“Whose fault is it then, Mr. Thompson?”

“When Peter took over he changed our quota system. He forced us to push whole life policies when term is so much easier to sell. Even cancer and disability is an easier sell than whole life.”

“You don’t like selling whole life?”

“I detest it. Whole life borders on the fraudulent.”

“Whole life is our bread and butter, Mr. Thompson. The home office sets the quotas.”

Claude absorbed the sting of his mistake with a visible twitch. This was one gaff even his mother would admit had to be readdressed. “As branch manager, of course I will, uh, would enforce all company rules and regulations. Peter never told us the importance of whole life. In that he failed as a manager. Failed to communicate to his sales team.”

“And you feel you are qualified to manage this branch?”

“Without question.”

“I see here you were an arts major.”

Claude’s chest swelled a bit. He was proud of his fine arts degree.

“We tend to favor a business education,” Morgan said. “Do you have any managerial experience?”

“I am president of the Historical Society, vice president of the Theatrical Society, and served thrice at the head of the Main Street Beautification Committee. You probably noticed our beautiful streets on your drive in.”

“And all these are local clubs?”

“Organizations. Clubs are for children.”

“I see. I’m afraid that’s not exactly what we’re looking for when it comes to business experience. Have you ever operated a business in any form or fashion?”

“Well, I guess you could say I’ve been in the tax preparation business for several years.”

“Good. That might be useful. Is this primarily a seasonable business?”

Claude nodded.

“And how many preparers do you employ in the average year?”

“Just myself.”

“Yourself? I see. And how much does this business gross?”

“Absolutely nothing. I volunteer my services.”

“And your clients are … friends? Family?”

“And members of my church.”

“Let me go out on a limb here, Mr. Thompson: Acquaintances bring you their financial records and you help them fill out their taxes?”

“I’d hardly say they are of any help. Most of them wouldn’t know the World Wide Web from the Wide World of Sports.” Claude chuckled at his wit. Chris Morgan smiled politely and closed the folder.

“If you had to pick a manager from this branch, Mr. Thompson, who would you choose?”

“Myself of course.”

“Besides yourself.”

“Hmmmm, besides myself you’ve got a pretty dry pool here, Chris.”

“If you had to pick one.”

“If I had to pick someone from this branch … besides myself … you know, honestly, I think I would have to bring in someone new.”

“What about George Dunn? His numbers are impressive. Impeccable yearly reviews.”

Claude laughed. “I’m afraid the branch wouldn’t last a month with George Dunn at the helm.”

“Really? Any particular reason?”

“The man’s a rube. Give him this office and there’ll be a deer head hanging from the wall before the week is out.”

“I take it you don’t like deer heads.”

“Oh, I adore them … on the deer.”

“Isn’t hunting a southern tradition?”

“Sadly. But so are obesity, teen pregnancy, and a general disdain for education. Edison Life can certainly do better than George Dunn. Of that I can assure.”

Morgan dismissed Claude and asked him to send in George. Claude settled into his cubicle like a king sitting on a toadstool, resigned to the fact that Chris Morgan was as inept as a district manager could be when it came to recognizing potential. After a few minutes he dialed his mother and told her she may have to cancel the party she had planned for that evening. Things were not going as planned. He might not get the promotion.

At noon everyone gathered around the large rectangular table in the conference room. Like in the manager’s office the chairs betrayed signs of wear. Beth had preset the table with paper plates, plastic forks and spoons. To add insult to injury, after the men were seated, she supplied them with canned soda’s and take-out pizza. Claude couldn’t remember the last time he had dined with paper and plastic.

Claude ate in silence while his fellow employees laughed and batted around office stories, like the time Harley Rice blew his upper plate into his retirement cake while trying to blow out the candles. He was embarrassed for the rubes. But why was Morgan laughing with them? No, Claude deduced, he’s not laughing with them – he is laughing at them. And why wouldn’t he interview everyone? The more he thought about it the more he became convinced he had conceded his chances too quickly. He was a French Poodle among hounds. Let the hounds bay. It is the poodle that wins the blue ribbon.

After lunch the interviews continued until everyone had sat across the desk from Chris Morgan. Claude carefully examined their faces as they exited the office and filed back to their cubicles. None had the exuberant look of someone who had just hit one out of the park. With each downcast face Claude’s hopes transformed into expectation. Edison Life wanted to promote from within the branch. He called his mother and told her he thought the party might be a go after all.

When everyone had been interviewed Morgan called Beth into the office. It pained Claude that she would know before anyone else, but then she was the secretary and responsible for the paperwork made necessary by such a promotion. He imagined her face the moment Morgan told her that it was he, Claude, who would be her new boss. Firing her would be a pleasure. No more your majesty from that one.

Finally Morgan emerged from the office and asked everyone to join him in the conference room. It was a hushed migration into the room that had been so cheerful just a few hours ago. Claude’s pulse raced as he took his seat and waited for everyone else to do likewise.

“First let me thank each and every one of you for your time today,” Morgan began. He droned on and on about the importance of a manager knowing the day-to-day details of branch operations. Claude listened to the praise being heaped upon the new manager with an inward smile. Morgan was describing his attributes to a T. His only fear now was that he would stand too quickly in anticipation of his name being spoken aloud. Patience, Claude.

There was a spat of applause. Claude realized he had been so caught up in his own internal conversation that he had not been listening to Morgan. Had he missed his name? Beth rose and stood beside the district manager. What nerve she had injecting herself into his moment. Of course he had missed his name. Claude stood and looked around the room. Everyone was still looking at Morgan. Had he stood too quickly? Had he done the one thing he had tried so hard to prevent? Why was no one looking at him? No one except Morgan, that is, and wasn’t his expression an odd one? Then Beth looked at him and smiled. Suddenly Claude realized: They were looking at her.

THE END


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Author: Carl Purdon

Carl Purdon was born in Pontotoc, Mississippi in 1964 and currently sthere with his wife and two children. Writing has been a favorite pastime of his for most of his life and he is currently seeking representation for his recently-completed novel.

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