Day 26 in my novel-in-a-month effort:
Chapter 22: News & PR
As part of its duties and programs under this subchapter, Voice of America/Europe shall:
(1) target news and features in accordance with the findings and recommendations of the Young European Survey;
(2) conduct periodic audience evaluations and measurements; and
(3) promote and advertise Voice of America/Europe.
—Title 22, United States Code, Foreign Relations and Intercourse, United States Information and Educational Exchange Programs, Dissemination Abroad, Voice of America/Europe
While the novelist sat down an adjoining hall and cleared his desk top of tissues, Claude Dedrick sat at his own desk. Like always, it was spotless and clear of all paper and other objects. But this morning, one newspaper altered his typically desert landscape. It was the Arizona Republic from a few days before.
The story – about the boat crash – was stunning and debilitating enough. It had told in superannuated detail everything about their day at Tempe Town Lake. The “reporter” – so-called – had essentially penned a travelogue of the events from the staff’s arrival until their ignominious departure. He even had “quotations” from “unnamed sources,” ensuring that all the “facts” came out correctly.
Facts! FACTS! As if that was the goal of this yellow journalism. Where was the “fact” that Ted Castro had possessed his own God-given self control, and had opted not to use it? Where was the “fact” that Castro had not yielded when Claude wanted to nudge his boat to starboard, and he was forced into a narrowing gap between shore and hull? Where was the “fact” that Claude had made a remarkable announcement about a new client, one that had the potential to revolutionize law practice and governmental relations forever?
But the managing partner of Dedrick, Duckworth, Castro & Paine could overlook all of that. After all, what could an educated and worldly person such as himself expect from such a rag.
But what he could not forgive – what he would never forget – was the headline: “DEAD DUCK.”
Claude was consumed with anger that morning, not only at the copyeditor, the reporter, the editor, the publisher, the press man, and the delivery driver – sure, all of them deserved to be strung up by their toes or, at the least, sued.
No, his anger was more local, more familial. His anger was aimed at his firm colleagues.
How could no one have spotted this problem with their firm name? HOW?
After a lifetime as a successful, respected lawyer and supreme court justice, to have his good name reduced to – Dead Duck? It was an abomination.
Such is the nature of the tyrannical that Dedrick never once gave thought to the possibility that he – the managing partner – should have vetted the name more closely. Instead, he considered only the traitors all around him.
After analyzing each offender in turn – Tom Paine, Drew Duckworth, Ted Castro, Sarah Fujii, and even those lesser employees who cluttered up the office with their presence – he was even angrier that no one had proposed any of the many other possible names:
Dedrick, Castro, Paine & Duckworth
Dedrick, Paine, Duckworth & Castro
Dedrick, Castro, Duckworth & Paine
Dedrick, Paine, Castro & Duckworth
The best name – the very best – was the one that he had proposed so long ago to Tom Paine: The Dedrick Law Firm.
Paine, always the gentleman, had never told Dedrick directly that he disliked the name. Instead, he had asked Claude to consider waiting on the choice of name, until they had a better sense of who would be coming aboard the new firm.
To his eternal regret, Claude had delayed, and within a week, the two others were ensconced in their offices. Suddenly, proposing a single lawyer’s name as the name of the firm was more, shall we say, politically delicate. And so Claude had remained silent when Tom Paine had proposed his alternative at a meeting of the four men. And so what they had now was – Dead Duck.
It was not just that headline, Claude knew. The name had “stuck,” and he was treated to a near constant stream of e-mails from “friends” and “colleagues,” around the state and around the country, who shared with him follow up stories that included the newest firm moniker. Web sites and blog posts guffawed and chortled at the firm’s misfortune, never failing to use the “DD” name. It had been almost a week, and the deluge showed no sign of letting up. He was amazed – didn’t these people have jobs?
Unfortunately, the firm’s travails in the press and the blogosphere were not his only concerns.
First, among his own legal work that he could charge clients for, he had had to shoe horn in time to speak with his own attorney, who could address the little matter of possible criminal prosecution. How ridiculous, Dedrick thought: It was a silly boat, on a lake that wasn’t even really a lake. Why should society care? And to have to spend time with a criminal law attorney, one who represented criminals! It was almost too much to bear.
So distraught was he to have to consult a criminal practitioner, he refused to meet him at the criminal lawyer’s office. The address – in the Renaissance Building – looked respectable enough, but Dedrick couldn’t be sure. What if it adjoined a tattoo parlor, or what if he had to endure the taunts of juvenile delinquents slouching outside a pawn shop? It might be a very nice office, but Dedrick had seen “West Side Story” when it came to Gammage Auditorium – he couldn’t take the chance.
But he did not want the criminal law attorney to come to his office either. Claude assumed the man would be wearing a suit purchased at Sears, or, even worse, a sport jacket – he could not have that kind of attire in his office. But even besides that fear, Dedrick did not want his colleagues to see him in this predicament. He knew that they had been present at the boat crash, but there was no need to prolong that memory in their minds by dragging his legal matters before them.
(When he eventually met with the lawyer, Claude was surprised when the other man suggested they eat at the Ritz Carlton, and that his British bespoke suit made Claude’s own look a little threadbare.)
And it wasn’t just his criminal law attorney he had to deal with. It was the law firm representing his firm in what was shaping up to be a lawsuit filed by various parties, including the boat captain and the boat tour operator. And that caused its own brand of heartburn.
The firm Tom had retained was one of the finest in the state, but it was filled with lawyers who had previously appeared before Claude when he was an associate justice. He recalled, with some misgivings, that he had been, perhaps, a little brusque with those lawyers at times. Surely they would understand that his icy demeanor was all in the good natured back of the forth of the courtroom, and should not be taken seriously.
Claude predicted that those lawyers would be nothing but respectful and deferential in their meetings. But he also knew that there would be an underlying current of “just deserts” emanating from the counsels’ side of the table, an unspoken “I told you so.” And that, he could not tolerate. Therefore, he had managed to avoid the first meeting with the lawyers from Lowe, Witt & Howe, and he intended to miss all of the meetings, if he could – Tom Paine could handle those negotiations without him, just as he handled the hiring of name partners.
Add all of that to the fact that Claude had been staying at a hotel, at the insistence of his wife, who had muttered something about having “had enough” as she deposited his Samsonite luggage by the curb of Dromedary Road. He had acquiesced and checked in to the Biltmore, assuming it was a small hiccup in an otherwise serviceable marriage arrangement. But he began to have his doubts when she would not take his calls and when she had boxes of his cribbage trophies delivered to the concierge’s desk (“How embarrassing!”). Another clue, he thought, was the “FOR SALE” sign that sprang up outside their home. He really would have to look into this further. But the idea of paying money to see a third kind of lawyer – one whose offices were probably even worse than those of a criminal lawyer – was too much to consider right now.
There was no other way to put it: Claude Dedrick was having a bad week.
He set aside the newspaper and considered another matter. He opened his top drawer and removed a brochure.
Here it was only a few months into the grand adventure of the best new law firm in Phoenix (change that to “in Arizona,” Claude thought to himself), and he had the niggling feeling that there might be a simmering unrest at the firm.
These things are too easy to overthink and allow to become overblown, he reassured himself. After all, no one on staff had said a word of unhappiness to him. No one had tossed him an evil glance. In fact, people appeared to turn away as they saw him approach. That can’t be bad, can it?
Of course, there was that one brochure he held in his hand, the one he had discovered in the trash can. Perhaps it meant nothing, but ….
There on the cover was the most attractive photograph, Dedrick thought, of the four name partners. They stood in legally significant camaraderie, looking alternately approachable, thoughtful, distinguished, and maniacal, framed by the modern, psychedelic, loop-de-loop arch of the Phoenix Patriots Park. A shot so beautiful, Dedrick’s eyes still welled up as he stared at what he believed to be lawyer pioneers.
Soon after the photo was taken, historic Patriots Park was bulldozed to make way for some condos and a drug store. But that was neither here nor there, he thought. It was beautiful, truly gorgeous.
A few things troubled him about finding the firm brochure in a firm trash can.
First, those brochures were intended purely for the edification of clients and possible clients. They were never expected to be man- and woman-handled by employees of the firm. And aside from a staff person, he could think of no one who might have let one of these publications tumble into the receptacle.
Second, they were expensive. A five panel brochure, it was embossed and had a UV finish with spot gloss, or something. It also had die cuts to allow the insertion of a business card, and it even included a holographic representation of the firm’s logo, which would transform when viewed at an angle into a stunning view of the Phoenix Crosscut Canal (he had determined that the amount charged by the photo service for a shot of the Grand Canyon was exorbitant, and a reader had to squint hard to see the difference.)
He was not entirely sure what all of these printing features were, but he was assured by the man at the printing facility that only the most discerning customers of print services purchased all of these in this combination.
Most disturbing, though, and a point that he was rapidly deciding to ignore, was that the tiny eyeballs of his own image appeared to be, well, drilled out.
“Drilled” may be too precise a word, conveying as it does some skill and a touch that is light and sure.
No, Claude’s paper eyes had been removed individually, as if by a raccoon or angry opossum, but more likely by a paper clip turned outward, or by a pencil. The result was just a bit unnerving, but, if Claude had been in a different state of mind, he might have admitted that it was also laugh inducing. For there was his smile, a bit uneven and not entirely sincere, paired with what would appear to be Satan’s own eye sockets, bored through as if by minuscule parallel meteors.
Faced with the resentment that such an act would represent, he responded as many a managing partner has through the ages: He ignored it.
In his revisionist analysis, those two holes looked precisely like the perforations that would be caused by a staple. It was so obvious: A staffer had stapled something to the brochure, perhaps a letter to a client. When she saw that she had erred and stapled too low, she threw the brochure away.
Easy squeezy, Claude chuckled to himself.
But as Dedrick retrieved himself from the precipice of self-analysis, another oddity struck his view.
Just off the reception area, sitting on a small “occasional” table, was an object he could not at first identify.
Upon closer inspection, he could see that the piece was supposed to be a lamp. Oblong, its mass was formed out of frosted glass formed, to his mind’s eye, into the shape of an avocado, or perhaps a pear. Its base was stainless steel, and it emitted a low wattage glow that shed virtually no light at all.
Wasn’t there another lamp sitting in this spot just this morning? Dedrick specifically recalled a remarkable reproduction of a mission lamp, from the “Valley Forge” collection. It had a dull bronze patina and never failed to make him feel, just a little bit, like General George Washington whenever he saw it. And now it was gone and this … thing … sat in its place.
This kind of thing had been happening more and more, and it troubled him. The décor of the office – in an approved Colonial Nouveau – was something he took great pride in. And someone was undermining that with these modern monstrosities. Of more import, they were undermining his authority as managing partner.
He was about to summon Bernie Galvez for an explanation and replacement when Tom Paine wheeled around the corner.
“Beautiful piece, Claude,” said Paine. “Really cutting-edge. Keep up the good work.”
Just as quickly, Paine disappeared, leaving Dedrick to wonder – Do people really like this stuff? He looked at the piece more closely, trying to see through his partner’s eyes.
Just as quickly, though, he reverted to form. This man, Tom Paine, was the source of Dedrick’s uneasiness, he reminded himself. He had assured Claude that the managing partner would play a role in details large and small. But then he undermined him, hiring name partners and even Sarah Fujii. A woman! I mean, that may be OK for some of the other firms in town, but what was Paine thinking?
Ignoring the furniture debacle for a moment, Claude turned to a more immediate problem: the vehicular choice of an employee.
Driving into the parking lot every day – where the swing arm still had not been repaired, Tom noted to Claude, as if he should manage everything around here – Claude parked his Mercedes in one of a very few reserved spots. With his Mercedes out of commission, he drove his newly leased Jaguar. Staff other than partners fended for themselves in the remaining spots, jockeying for position among cars of employees of two other firms.
Claude always prided himself on the beauty and design of his car. He enjoyed the gazes of others as he passed. Ever careful to hide his pleasure in their admiration, Claude counted among his day’s most prized moments the few where he slowed his vehicle to turn into or out of the parking lot, and a pedestrian happened along to view him with envy. So enamored was he of the looks, Claude had been known to circle the block once if no pedestrians were in the vicinity.
It was also pretty well known that Claude’s vehicle was – let’s admit it – the most expensive car in the lot. Among his partners, Claude kept a strict mental accounting. Ted Castro drove a very nice brand new Lexus – nice, thought Dedrick, if you were on food stamps. Drew Duckworth somehow angled his large frame behind the wheel of an Audi TT. That car, Dedrick had to admit, was a head turner. But Drew ruined the effect – and brought joy to Claude’s score card – by driving slowly, rear hatch up, so that he could cram in the crate containing his corgi. Any glances of lust or admiration that might be directed Duckworth’s way as he approached were turned to smiles and sniggers as his car passed, the pink tongue of the dog drooling down the rear of the finely engineered automobile.
And don’t even get Claude started on Tom Paine’s Land Cruiser. What would possess a former justice – a Chief Justice! – to drive such a vintage behemoth was beyond Claude. Dedrick almost wanted to recommend a change to Tom, but he could never assure himself that Paine wouldn’t go out and purchase a Bentley, or an Aston Martin, forever upstaging the managing partner.
What troubled Claude today, though, was the car – or cars – of that paralegal, Stan Bersin.
The first sign of trouble that Claude spotted occurred just this morning. As he had wheeled to a stop in his assigned spot, he glanced to the right and was struck by the glint of what looked like a lollipop red roadster.
Upon closer examination, he was startled – it was a Jaguar.
Perhaps none of the ensuing problems ever would have occurred if the automobile had been of any other manufacture. If the car had been an Austin Healy, or a BMW, or even a Rolls Royce, Stan Bersin may never have come to such an unhappy pass with the firm’s managing partner. But, instead, it was a Jaguar.
A Jaguar XKE, E-Type, in fact.
Could this car, thought Dedrick, this car that is parked in a nonlawyer staff member’s space, be a coincidence? Why did this car appear today for the first time, the first day that Dedrick himself drove a Jaguar? Was this a joke? Was this some kind of challenge? And a STAFF member? How could a nonlawyer staff member be driving that car?
Claude tried hard to get the fact out of his head, and had almost succeeded, when he pulled into the parking lot two days later and saw – a pale blue Citroen 2CV.
And then his paranoia grew when, just a few days later: the bulbous beauty of a Porsche 356 Speedster.
And then his paranoia multiplied when, two days later: the sporty sexiness of a Triumph TR2.
His self centered focus on the slings and arrows of outrageous machinery leaped and bounded even more, when, over the next week, every few days, he witnessed the presence of:
the washtub cuteness of a Fiat Sport Abarth Berlina;
the raciness of a Shelby Cobra;
the quirkiness of a Studebaker Avanti;
the might of an Aston Martin DB5;
and the surprise of a Delorean.
Claude Dedrick had almost rounded the bend with anger and jealousy. For this employee had brought to a competition something that Claude was incapable of bringing: verve and imagination. If he could buy it, Claude Dedrick was the man; but if he had to BE it, Claude was up a seriously long river without a paddle.
It did not take Dedrick long to discover that it was Stan Bersin driving the seriously beautiful machinery. Most mornings, he could hear fellow staff members asking Stan what he was driving today. They oohed and ahhed over the vehicles, alternately envious of and pleased for the paralegal.
In all the time he had been at the firm, Claude thought to himself, no one had ever oohed and ahhed over his car. He discovered that the raw scent of rivalry and jealousy smells different from the sweet smell of joining in another’s good fortune. But to the managing partner, it was a distinction without a difference. Bersin had to be brought down.
And his opinion shifted not a whit when he learned that Bersin was not ultra wealthy, or that he had not hit the lottery. No, Bersin had an uncle who died, leaving the cars, not to his nephew, but to a charity. But the uncle wrote in a codicil that his nephew Stan was permitted the use of the cars for one month’s time, after which they must be delivered, in good working order, to the Corgi Rescue, Arizona Precinct (CRAP). He knew Stan loved those cars, but the uncle loved corgis more.
So Stan had made good use of his month, driving a different car every few days. So enamored was he of the wheels, that when, at the end of a day, he would deliver a car to the nervous possession of CRAP, he barely minded that he then took a city bus across town back to his apartment. This was the best month of his life.
But it was about to take a turn for the worse.
Although Claude very much wanted to put Bersin in his place, he wisely decided against his first thought: Torch them in the parking lot. With the lawsuits pending from Claude’s previous activities, he wanted to avoid a repeat of the legal fallout. But what could he do?
Little could he have guessed, but deliverance was about to come his way, all without his having to do anything. And it arrived courtesy of a firm nicety instituted by Tom Paine, an “employee benefit” that Dedrick had always detested.
Like many work places, Dedrick, Duckworth, Castro & Paine had an “employee of the month” award, a fact that rankled against Dedrick’s firmly held notion that pay – cash money – should be the only incentive workers need to keep their shoulders against the grindstone. But Paine apparently believed otherwise, that some sugar would assist them in keeping the means of production humming.
Claude Dedrick routinely ignored the EOM award; his own secretary had won it once, and he had never known. But this month, amidst the delightful stacks of faxed menus on his desk (which never seemed to stop, he enthused), there was a brief memo from Bernie Galvez, congratulating Stan Bersin on being named this month’s honored employee.
That alone would not please Dedrick, especially were he to discover that it was Stan’s generosity in sharing rides in the cool vehicles that had cemented his award. No, Dedrick’s revenge came about through the machinations of Matilda Hayes, the firm’s IT wunderkind.
Let me explain.
When the firm originally opened its doors, a simple push pin and push letter board had been used, on which the receptionist would post the day’s events. But Matilda – with Claude’s backing – had insisted that this approach was too backward for a top notch firm. She had purchased and installed a 42 inch plasma screen monitor in the lobby, which displayed a scrolling avalanche of information. It told what conference rooms were in use for what meeting (“Jefferson Room: Reparations for Past Harms meeting/Lowe, Witt & Howe”). It reported on noteworthy facts about the firm (“Justice Claude Dedrick to represent Arizona’s Speaker of the House in Historic Matter”). And it reported who had been named the employee of the month.
Much to Claude’s eventual benefit, Matilda Hayes (1) took the monthly photograph of the winning employee, and (2) viscerally disliked Stan Bersin.
Her distaste for Bersin sprang from temperature. The thermostat next to his cubicle also controlled her work space. He liked his space to be a temperature conducive to human life on an inhabited planet. She preferred a temperature at which rock turned molten and paper spontaneously burst into flame. After some initial attempts to placate Matilda in regard to her hell fire, Bersin had given up, and set the thermostat as he wished.
That would be a fateful error.
Bersin was a bright guy, and he should have suspected something when he arrived to work on the day Matilda was to take his photo. He should have suspected, because there were doughnuts in the office, which there never were. He adored doughnuts, perhaps as much as he adored cool cars. And all of the doughnuts were covered in powdered sugar. Stan Bersin’s adoration for the doughnut was magnified at least sevenfold when powdered sugar was present. He indulged mightily, never suspecting that a refined trap had been laid for him.
Stan was finishing his third doughnut when Matilda bent her head into his cubicle.
“Ready for you, Stan, whenever you’re ready,” Matilda chirped breezily.
She had never sounded so amiable. Stan Bersin, intoxicated by the demon sugar, was deaf to the warning shots.
He strolled into her ship’s cabin sized office. Even with the thermostat set at a reasonable level, her space was ablaze with the heat of six CPUs and two servers, not to mention her four monitors. What kind of she-devil, Stan thought, needed it even hotter?
“Won’t take a minute, Stan the Man,” said Matilda. “Stand right there while I take a snap.”
While she focused her camera, she offered Bersin one last clue that evil was afoot.
“Have you lost weight?” she asked, causing Bersin to blush in that splotchy way of his.
Matilda aimed the camera again, saying, “Let me get a few more,” but then she paused, in a way that Stan later realized was calculated.
“Stan,” said Matilda, gesturing toward his face with her free hand. “You’ve got some kind of schmutz there on your cheek. No, there. Higher. Yeah, it’s sugar. No, no, over a little bit.”
In a calisthenic that Stan Bersin would regret for thirty more days, he marched his tongue up out of his mouth and over his face, searching for the stray powdered sugar. He also – unwisely – used his eyes to help locate it, causing them to wander and cross like a hyena suffering a seizure.
All the while, Matilda was pressing the silent shutter, over and over, like a photographer catching the dying moments of the Hindenburg.
“That’s it, got it, get out now, gotta get back to work,” she suddenly exclaimed, pushing the startled paralegal out her door, which struck closed with a slam.
Within fifteen minutes, the result of Bersin’s misguided trust was posted on the electronic marquee.
“EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH – STAN BERSIN”
… it read, next to a larger than usual photograph of the EOM.
When historians show us the earliest photos ever taken, they are grainy, and mottled, and blurred. They feature their subjects poorly, grim faced and severe, and they seem to be moments from the grave, if not underground already.
Those photos were bright and happy wedding snaps compared to the monstrosity that was displayed in the firm lobby.
Bersin’s left eye gazed skyward, his right eye somewhere closer to the horizon. His tongue reached upward in a way that would cause viewers to wince at the enforced familiarity. His cheeks and forehead were wine-splotchy with effort, and the muscles in his neck bulged, frighteningly. A dab of white discoloration flecked across one cheek, making his pallor appear corpse like.
The overall effect was of a news photo of a man encountering his end while strapped into an electric chair. But just a smidge worse.
The chuckles began immediately. They grew throughout the day, eventually reaching Bersin’s own mottled ears.
He turned pale white when he saw the image, and he wasted ten minutes banging on Matilda’s door. Too late, he spotted a Post-It note on which she had scrawled “On Vacation – Back in Two Weeks.”
His next stop was the managing partner’s office. Stan was about to make Claude’s day.
“Have you seen the marquee?” demanded Bersin.
“I’m sorry,” said Dedrick. “Who are you?”
“I’m Stan Bersin, an estates paralegal. I work right outside your office.”
“Oh, yes, yes,” soothed Claude, all buttercream frosting. “Of course. What can I do fro you, Dan?”
“Stan. And I am the employee of the month – “
“ – Thank you. But my EOM photo is posted on the electronic marquee, and it’s a disaster. I’d really like to have it changed or taken down.”
“Changed? Well, I’m sure you’ll understand when I tell you that the ‘EOM photo,’ as you call it, is hardly the highest priority at the Dedrick law firm.”
“Of course not, but – “
“And we’re unlikely to expend resources on changing a perfectly good picture.”
“It’s no extra resources. Matilda took a dozen pictures – and then she chose the worst one.”
“Did she, Dan? So you think an employee deliberately tried to choose a bad photograph of you?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Because – ? “
“Because she has never thought the thermostat was set hot enough.”
Dedrick paused and let that ridiculous statement hang out there for a bit. He knew that it was factually correct, but he had no intention of letting Bersin know that.
“Be that as it may, Dan, why not just ask Matilda to change the photo?”
“Because she’s disappeared on vacation for two weeks,” he replied, almost in tears. “I had no idea she even planned a vacation.”
Claude was pleased that he had filed away his approval of her vacation request, signed by him only fifteen minutes before.
“Well, it would appear, Dan, that’s there’s not much we can do right now. IT does have its procedures, you know.”
“But there must be something you can do,” said Stan. “You’re the managing partner.”
“There is much that I can do,” said Dedrick, standing up from his chair. “I am an extremely busy man, so I will return to work. I suggest you do the same, Dan. After all, people are still dying, are they not? At least often enough to keep an estates paralegal busy.”
Stan nodded in defeat and trudged back to his cubicle.
The indignities multiplied. Within days, the horror that was the photo had been shared via cell phone and social media, so that viewers in places as far afield as Iceland and Arkansas all knew there was an odd fellow employed at some Phoenix law firm. From there, it had gone viral and was featured in a YouTube collage of misfits titled “Buddy, Can You Spare a Clue.”
Spotting the marquee and misinterpreting the photo, the county bar association vice president nominated the firm and the managing partner for a prestigious award. Thus, in another month, the law firm of Dedrick, Duckworth, Castro & Paine, and its managing partner Claude Dedrick particularly, were honored for his commitment to the principles of diversity, and “for hiring those whom other firms may have overlooked.”
At the awards dinner, the powdered sugar-covered dessert was Claude’s favorite: the beignet, known as “the French doughnut.” He ate two.