Day 10 in my novel-in-a-month effort

Chapter 10: In the Trenches

 The heat and light necessary for the authorized quarters of members of the Army shall be furnished at the expense of the United States.

—Title 10, United States Code, Army, Service, Supply, and Procurement, Utilities and Services, Quarters: Heat and Light

The Secretary of the Army shall include as part of the training program for drill sergeants a course in human relations. The course shall be a minimum of two days in duration.

—Title 10, United States Code, Armed Forces, Army, Training Generally, Drill Sergeant Trainees: Human Relations Training


It was the piquant odor that first attracted notice.

The secretaries and paralegals sitting closest to the strange smell wafting their way were the first to look up, pinch their noses, and raise the alarm. They would forever regret opening their mouths to suggest there was a problem.

The estates and trusts paralegals noticed first. The canaries in the coal mine, their cubicles were shoe horned in next to a variety of subsidiary firm uses, including food and waste.

Because the restrooms were located next to the Employee Refreshment Zone, Maddie Wells at first assumed someone had left food to ripen in the toaster oven. And Stan Bersin hoped it was coming from the suite next door – they were mortgage lenders, so anything was possible over there – maybe they were grilling human flesh.

But when the accounting staff also began to peek their heads over the tops of their work spaces, and inquire if someone had perished in the office and not told them, everyone recognized that there was a problem. All eyes laser beamed in on the restrooms.

It was becoming increasingly clear that something unfortunate was going on in there.

Maddie, the brave and hearty soul, took the courageous step of venturing forth into both to examine the situation. She reported back, with evident relief, that there was nothing to see.

But diagnosing and fixing a plumbing problem is similar to doing the same with any malady of the body or soul. One’s initial impression that you have dodged a bullet by not having to view, say, an overflowing toilet or a precancerous lesion is quickly overtaken by a more serious issue. If no overflow, what’s up? If no lesion, why am I sick?

Having quickly reached the limits of their plumbing survey abilities, the nasally affected staff decided they should call the Office Administrator. Again, Maddie was their designated scout. The others gathered around to listen in on her half of the conversation.

“Bernie, this is Maddie. How is your day going?”

“Well, not so good over here. There’s a kind of an odor in our area …”

(“IT’S A SMELL, DEFINITELY A SMELL,” stage whispered her chorus of suitemates, suddenly able to state an opinion now that someone else had made the call.)

“Mmm, hmmm. I do think so; it seems to be coming from the restrooms.”

(“IT’S DEFINITELY COMOING FROM THE RESTROOMS! … WHAT DOES SHE MEAN, “SEEMS”?)

“Well, I suppose I could do that, but don’t you want to take a look?”

(“DO WHAT?”)

“But I don’t see why we should have to take care of this ourselves. I mean, isn’t this a firm problem?”

(“WHAT DO WE HAVE TO DO?”)

“Yes, well, I had no idea you knew something about this already. Was the firm going to take care of it?”

(“THEY KNEW?”)

“Talk to whom? Why has Sallie in HR been put in charge of a plumbing issue?”

(“SALLIE?”)

“So you’re the Office Administrator, you’ve spoken to the Firm leaders, and been told not to do anything?”

(“THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE. COME ON ALREADY!”)

“And if we have any more questions, we should talk to Sallie?”

(“ARRRGH!”)

“Or take a plunger to it ourselves?”

Maddie’s co-workers were unable to hear the rest of the conversation. The moment they heard her last exasperated exclamation, they all shuffled quickly back to their desks. Heads that minutes ago had poked above the surface of cubicle walls like circling and angry sharks now plunged back to the depths. Suddenly untroubled by the smell of the sewer (“It reminds me of Les Miserables,” thought one), they immediately found their work entirely engrossing.

Not so Maddie. Having been subjected to the plumbing snake of management’s decision-making via the clearly apologetic Bernie Galvez, she knew she had to do something. And that was her second mistake of the day.

Sallie Forster was a human relations professional – of sorts. Her path to her current position was circuitous: General Studies major, English major, Business Information Systems major, call center operator, bookkeeper, call center operator, desktop publisher, advertising sales traffic coordinator, administrative assistant, call center operator, substitute teacher, barista, call center operator, Director of Human Relations for the Dedrick law firm.

Her interview for the position with Justice Claude Dedrick did not go especially well, until they hit on the topic of call centers. He was fascinated by the concept of people who were able to provide value without ever having to engage in human being to human being personal contact. Fortunately for Sallie, she had a certain, shall we say, expertise in that area. As a result of her extensive background in not dealing directly with people, she was named the Director of dealing with people.

Life can kick you in the pants, can’t it? she thought with a smile.

In fact, she was smiling while she thought that very thought when Maddie Wells knocked on her door.

Sallie, by nature, was not really so opposed to speaking with people. But she knew that the managing partner discouraged such interactions, even by the firm’s HR professional. So when she heard the knock, she immediately tried to look busy, or harried, or both. Unfortunately, she had not even one scrap of paper on her desk, so the effect did not translate as she might have hoped.

“Sallie, do you have a minute?” asked Maddie.

“Busy, very busy – ” replied Sallie, opening and closing her drawers, but seeing nothing that would convey her sense of purpose.

“ – adding staples,” she finally settled on, slamming the hardware on her desk top and focusing her eyes on a new task requiring fine hand eye coordination.

“Well, this won’t take long,” said Maddie. “May I come in?”

Sallie’s better nature got the better of her judgment. She looked around quickly for Claude Dedrick and then waved Maddie to a chair. In truth, she missed human interaction and wished there were more HR issues to take up her day.

“I just got off the phone with Bernie Galvez – “ Maddie began.

“Love him!” interrupted Sallie, “I mean, what a sweetie! Just the other day, I needed these pictures hung,” waving her hand toward photos of whales and kittens – in separate frames – over inspirational messages, “and he dropped everything to come put them up for me.”

“Yes, well, that’s great,” continued Maddie. “But I raised a building issue with him today and he told me I had to talk with you. He said he’s been told not to do anything about it.”

“Oh, you must mean the plumbing,” Sallie said with evident relief. She seemed very pleased that she could identify the problem immediately.

“Yes,” responded Maddie with surprise. “The plumbing. It stinks, or it’s backed up, or something. What can we do?”

Sallie wrinkled her brow, and repeated what Claude Dedrick had told her.

“The plumbing is being examined by all of the proper authorities. Certain tenant improvements were for gone – “

“Foregone?” asked Maddie.

“Yes, that’s it, foregone,” Sallie squeaked thankfully. She continued.

“ – were foregone in the best interest of the financial welfare of the firm. We are examining those and other choices, and staff should understand that the leadership of the Dedrick law firm will make the proper choices at the proper juncture.”

“Are you reading from something?” asked Maddie.

“In the meantime,” Sallie continued in a rush, her head bent at an odd angle, “staff are encouraged to address the situation themselves. Plumbing implements are available for that purpose – “

“You are,” said Maddie, her voice and body rising. “You’re reading something in your top drawer.”

Sallie spoke more quickly, like a 33 rpm album set to run on 45 speed.

“ – and staff will be expected to take turns clearing any obstructions that occur. Especially the staff seated closest to the restrooms.”

“You’re kidding, right?” demanded Maddie.

Trying her best to appear to be speaking naturally, Sallie concluded.

“Not at all. The Dedrick law firm knows that good nasal health is not a laughing matter – “

(She had ad libbed that part, and was very pleased with herself.)

“ – and trusts that our staff will agree and do their part to perform valuable health affirming plunging duties in this interim period of analysis and possible action.”

Sallie took a deep breath and sat back in her seat. Too quickly, she closed her top drawer with a slam. Still and all, she thought she had performed her assigned task well.

“I can’t believe it,” said Maddie, walking out of the office.

“Have a good day,” Sallie called after her. “Please stop in any time!”

Nice girl, Sallie thought. A really nice girl. 

CHAPTER 11 is next.