Tuesday, August 31, 2004

The sweetest lasagna I have ever eaten

"Please hold for Dan Johnson."

[Cue Jeopardy! theme]

One minute goes by. Then two.

"Steve! What have you learned today?" Dan Johnson says, finally.

To take a nap when I hear "Please hold for Dan Johnson," beeyotch.

"Preparation H is not toothpaste," I say.

"Hahahahahahhahahahaha!!!" He laughs his way into a coughing fit.

OK man, it wasn't that funny.

He finally catches his breath. "Steve, Steve, Steve. That was great. Do you mind if I use that in my keynote speeches?"

Dan goes around the country making keynote addresses at conventions. Nice work if you can get it.

"Sure. So what can I do for you?"

"Steve, are you still serious about taking this division manager's job?"

"Yes, very much."

"Good. Mike Stevens [chairman of the board] will be there tomorrow to have lunch with you. Have a good meeting and the job is yours."

"Wow! That's great news! Thank you, sir!"

"No problem at all. Mike's a very nice guy. You're going to do great. Good luck, Steve."


Wednesday. Mike Stevens strides into the office. Except for his suit, he might as well be the copier repairman: Short, bald, and overweight. He barely warrants a glance from the employees walking by.

We chat for a while before heading out. "Hold my calls," I say to Lila as we walk past. I can see her icy glare from the corner of my eye.

I'm actually a bit depressed, and have been all day. I'll feel a twinge of sadness gnaw at me while staring at an Excel spreadsheet, or talking to an agent on the phone, and realize that I just caught a whiff of Lila's shampoo or saw a Post-it with her handwriting on it.

I am an asshole. Yeah, I have needs, and I don't apologize, and I even enjoy the pursuit of my "interests", but Lila didn't deserve to be hurt that way. All this time, she has never been anything but awesome to me. Someday I will appreciate her the way I should - if it's not too late.

Mike and I go to Contessa, an exclusive Italian restaurant. I have been dying for their lasagna all day.

"Dan Johnson is very fond of you," he says, sipping his Dewar's and water.

"I'm fond of him too."

"Don't know why he likes you so much," he says, smiling. "He really went out on a limb for you. You must laugh at his jokes."

"Yeah, some people will do anything to get ahead," I say. He laughs.

"Steve, I don't want you to feel like you're on a job interview. But I have concerns. I know you care about this company, and I know you're very talented, but the board of directors has worked very hard to get this company back to where it is now."

"I know."

"Forgive me for being blunt," he says, "but how do I know you aren't going to fuck this up?"

"I won't."

"No one plans on it," he says, smiling. "Of all the poor managers in the world, none of them admitting to being poor beforehand."

"So why ask then," I say, smiling.

He glares at me. OK, that was a little ballsy on my part.

"Tell me about the Jim Bentley incident," he says.

Jim Bentley is an agent in Florida. His clients were beseiged with letters from the Insurance Commissioner due to a bureaucratic snafu in our office.

"I had just taken over as director of operations," I begin.

"So you start out with an excuse!" he says, cutting me off. "Bad form, Steve. Is that what you're gonna do when I call you and ask why your margins are off? Make an excuse?"

This guy is quickly turning into a royal prick.

I smile. I won't let him rattle me. "That's good you don't want this to feel like an interview," I say.

"I mean it, Steve."

"I don't make excuses, only explanations," I say. "We sent out some paperwork to the state on the wrong forms. It happened under my watch. I take full responsibility. But that mistake was the result of a procedure that had probably been in place since before I was born. And I was the one who changed it."

He nods. This incident happened three years ago. If that's the only thing he has on me...

"I have to be honest with you, Steve. I have a bad feeling about this. District manager is a tough job. People burn out in this position. A lot of people don't make it. There's a lot of travel. A lot of late nights. This is the real deal, Steve. This isn't college."

"This isn't COLLEGE?" I say, squinting at him.

"Well, I, what I mean is...."

Yeah, I can give as good as I get. Ass licker.

"What I mean to say is, this is a tough job. Very tough."

"I can handle the job. My work is my life right now. I don't require much sleep. I enjoy travel. And this office's revenue has jumped considerably since I've been here."

"And I suppose that's all your doing?" He says, smiling.

"ALL mine? No. PARTLY mine? Yes."

He takes a folded-up piece of paper from his breast pocket. "Has Dan Johnson spoken to you about the compensation for this job? And the background check?"

Compensation? Did I get the job?!

"Yes he did." I tell him the salary that Dan quoted me.

He shakes his head NO. He unfolds the paper and places it in front of me. I almost choke on a crouton.

The number Dan gave me represented a $20,000 raise. Mike's number is almost a $35,000 raise. It's well over 100k. My house didn't cost much more than this!

"I like your number better," I finally manage.

He laughs out loud.

"Corporate legal is going to call you. We need to do a background check, and verify everything on your resume. There's no lies on your resume, are there?"

"Of course not."

"And you haven't been arrested, or in prison?"



"I want you to spend a lot of time at corporate as you get started. I want you to get to know some people, learn some things."

"I appreciate that."

He extends his hand to me. His oxford shirt is blindingly white and pressed as smooth as marble. His initials are stitched into the cuff. His cuff links are black onyx; terribly expensive.

As I shake his well-manicured hand, it hits me: Mike is a big-time player, probably a millionaire many times over. Yeah, he's above me on the org chart, but we are "colleagues" now. I'm in his league. I'm a heavy hitter! ME! This overweight, dorito-chomping, video-game-playing dork is a legitimate corporate big shot.

"Congratulations," says Mike. "You're the youngest DM in the history of this company."


I drop Mike off at the airport and head back to the office. I am happy over the promotion - ecstatic - but I'm more depressed than before. All I want to do is call Lila and tell her the news. And I can't.

It dawns on me that there is something I should have said to Lila that I did not; something that is very hard for me to say, some words that almost never cross my lips.

I buy a yellow rose on the way back to the office and put it under her windshield wiper. I tape a little card to it:


Maybe someday she will forgive me.