At its core, The
Brownshirt Mentality deals with the two things that define much of our sense of
self our lovers, and our careers. As we do the full-tilt boogie into the 21st
Century our control over the latter becomes ever-more tenuous, making it more important
than ever to hold on tightly to the former...
The Brownshirt Mentality
Everyone knew Sarah Cavanagh as the five-four human dynamo, a hazel-eyed beauty who was
always up to her eyebrows in a dozen different projects. She walked fast and talked
faster, mixing a genuine concern for others with an incandescent smile guaranteed to charm
even the most flint-hearted curmudgeon. His left arm propped on the bedroom dorrjamb,
Geoffrey Lowens looked down at his lover, still asleep in the early morning light, and
wondered how many people who knew Sarah could ever picture her at rest like this, so
placid, so quiet. Geoff often quit his early morning writing chores early just to come
back and watch her in those final moments before the alarm went off. He was seized by a
sudden desire to cross the room and stroke her auburn hair and kiss her eyelids, to waken
her by whispering a soft "Good morning" into her ear.
Instead he shook his head. Let her be, he told himself. Shes still not
in the habit of sleeping through the whole night.
Sarah and the Sandman were in the process of getting reacquainted. During the last year
of her marriage and throughout the subsequent divorce proceedings Sarah had consistently
limited her sleep to three hours or less each night -- shed doze after Letterman,
then be wide awake before four oclock, psyching herself up to play the high-energy,
life-of-the-party role that helped her avoid brooding, first about the husband who
constantly belittled her and diminished her own sense of self-worth and then, after she
had walked away from him for the last time, about the sweeping, often frightening changes
that burrowed into every corner of her life. The happy facade prevented others from seeing
how much it hurt to ring down the curtain on ten years of marriage, almost a third of her
life: she refused to be pitied and she wouldnt allow herself the luxury of being
blue. It was important, dammit, to show the world -- and herself -- that she was coping.
If the price of such a tall order was borderline insomnia, it was a price she had been
willing to pay.
These days, however, Sarah was getting a sense of normalcy back into her life -- with
Geoffs help. The two of them had met eight months before the wheels of Sarahs
divorce started turning: he had been her friend almost immediately, but it had taken
patience, trust, and a growing affection on both their parts to allow him to assume the
roles of confidante and lover.
Now here we are. Shes finally starting to sleep all night and Im the one up
before dawn to make sure I get in a couple hours of writing before we go to work.
Geoff sighed as he watched the sheet rise and fall in time with Sarahs slow, steady
breathing. Not that Im complaining. But were doing really well together,
and maintaining manuscript files on both our computers is a pain. Were wasting a lot
of money keeping separate residences, too. Maybe we need to have another talk about moving
in together permanently. . . Geoffrey turned toward the kitchen, sighing as he turned
on the coffee maker: he knew such a conversation would end the same as always, with Sarah
saying she wasnt ready to take that step -- at least, not yet.
The toast was ready and Geoff was scrambling eggs as the clock-radio in the bedroom
tripped on, filling the air with the sounds of WMOX-FM and Van Morrisons "Days
Like This." The song ended and the radio was silenced with a click, followed by a
small groan and the shuffling of footsteps. When he looked up Sarah was standing in the
hallway, yawning and rubbing her eyes like a child. "It cant be this
early," she pouted.
"Up and at em, sleepy-head." He waved the spatula in the direction of
the clock over the sink. "Time to face another thrilling week at the salt
Hes getting That Look again, Sarah thought, studying Geoffs face as he
backed the Camry into an empty parking spot. The narrowed eyes, his mouth all grim --
baby, another year in this job will kill you. You have to get out!
Both Sarah and Geoff worked in the financial analysis division of WrightTech, a defense
contractor struggling to retain its share of the ever-dwindling military budget. Geoff had
been there almost seven years; Sarah had transferred into Finance after three years in
Planning. Shed been two months in her new job before someone noticed her habit of
reading through lunchtime and told her she should seek out the groups very own
freelance writer. She was skeptical -- a writer, in a place like this? Su-u-u-re! -- but
curiosity got the better of her and one day she stopped Geoffrey in the halls to see what
she could learn about this intense-looking man with the receding hairline and the
It took two weeks of gentle prodding before Geoff would open up about his writing, even
longer for Sarah to convince him to allow her to read the handful of material hed
had published and the manuscripts he was currently shopping. Within a few months he was
feeling comfortable enough to tell her about the things he dreamed of writing, like the
novel based on his experiences as a wet-behind-the-ears DJ fresh out of college ("WKRP
In Cincinnati with doors blown off," as he liked to describe it). By then his
rapport with Sarah was so strong he dared show her the frustrations hidden behind his own
witty mask: incredible as it seemed to her, Sarah realized Geoff often saw himself a
failure because, no matter how much he had accomplished, he had fallen short of his own
goals. The general air of gloom at WrightTech made it increasingly difficult for him to
keep his spirits up: he got That Look far too often these days for Sarahs comfort.
She and Geoff left the car and fell into step together as they crossed the parking lot.
They walked through the main gate into WrightTechs production area, never touching
but still sharing the same space. As they headed for the Administration Building their
path took them past a large green billboard that flashed electronic messages of general
interest to employees: a gray-haired man in his late fifties was working in the booth
beneath the sign, tinkering with the programming for the days upcoming notices.
"Hi, Wally!" Sarah called through the booths open window, smiling and
waving to the older man.
"Howdy, Sarah! All ready for another exciting day?"
"Sure -- I had so much fun yesterday I thought Id do it all over
again," she replied over her shoulder, earning a rasping laugh that was the product
of too many Chesterfields and Winstons.
"Youre a pip, Sarah! Have a nice day, yhear?"
Geoff smiled warmly down at her. "My own Little Sarah Sunshine. Is there anyone
in this place you dont know?"
"Well, in Planning you get to meet a lot of people."
A grimness crept into Geoffs voice. "And now youre stuck in the Black
Hole of Calcutta along with the rest of us poor, damned souls." Sarah said nothing in
reply as they paused before the entrance to Admin. He opened the door for her and they
climbed the three flights of stairs to the Finance offices. Walking down the corridor,
they reached his desk first. She stopped, turning to face him and placing her right hand
on his chest.
"Dont let it get to you, OK, hon?"
"Well, since its you whos asking. . ." He bent down and gave her
a quick kiss.
"All right, all right, you two lovebirds."
Geoff stiffened, pulling away at the sound of John O. Barrys voice. Barry was
Manager of Financial Planning, Geoffs immediate superior. He had the annoying habit
of scuffing rather than walking, and as he moved out of his office toward them it sounded
as if the soles of his shoes were made of corduroy. "The General Hospital
auditions are one floor down, kids," Barry told them, a smile that was not really a
smile on his lips.
The gentle squeeze on his left bicep caused Geoff to bite back the retort bubbling up
in his throat while Sarah favored Barry with her most winning smile. "General
Hospital be damned," she said lightly. "We only do the big-budget nighttime
soaps, like Melrose Place!"
Barry chuckled, scuffing past them in the direction of the photocopier.
"Little Sarah Sunshine strikes again," she said softly to Geoff as she
started down the hall toward her own desk.
"Thanks," he said, giving her a last wave before turning to face what was
sure to be another day of tedium and humiliation.
It was 10:48 when Geoffreys phone rang for the first time. In the good old days
-- before the "promotion" back to the home office that had effectively killed
his career -- Geoffs phone barked almost constantly. He had been a player, one of
the people who kept WrightTechs smaller, fringe-business contracts profitable and on
schedule, working out of the companys satellite facility located sixty miles and one
county away. A lot of the satisfaction in his life had come from that role -- it
wasnt as rewarding as being able to write full-time, as hed always dreamed,
but it provided a challenge and at least a measure of fulfillment. Nowadays those
satisfactions were a memory: he felt cast off and betrayed, trapped in a living death.
The phone jangled a second time. Better not wait too long, Geoff said to
himself, or they might change their mind and hang up.
"Hey there. Have you heard the latest?" At the other end of the connection,
Roger Landrys voice sounded cocky and self-satisfied. Though they had been in
contact only occasionally since Geoff accepted his present job, four years of working
together on the corporate frontier made it easy for Geoffrey to read Rogers tone:
his old comrade-in-arms had fast-breaking news.
"You know I dont hear anything around here except the whimper of whipped
dogs," Geoffrey grunted. "What have you got?"
"Here it is, quick and painless, buddy -- Brand-MacDougall is looking to buy
"Thats the buzz," said Landry. "Word is old man Wineke was in a
very hush-hush meeting with the B-M boys yesterday, and theyll be getting together
Geoffrey digested this information. WrightTech was looking to refinance; it was common
knowledge that CEO Jim Wineke wanted an infusion of capital to increase the companys
competitive position. Brand-MacDougall was a cash-rich, contracts-poor conglomerate whose
subsidiaries produced land, air, and undersea vehicles for the military. Absorbing
Wright-Tech would add business backlog good through the year 2004 to the Brand-MacDougall
Propping a foot on his desk and tilting back in his chair, Geoff said, "All right.
It passes a sniff test -- how do we check it out?"
"Jesus, that job really must be turning your brain to tapioca. Its
time for a trip down the Information Highway, son! Who do we know who can help us?"
Geoff and Roger had picked up on the term "Information Highway" years before
it invaded the public consciousness. Working on the outer rim of the company, away from
the core business mix as they had for many years, it had been necessary to develop a loose
network of people who could be counted on to relay both necessary information and the
latest hot corporate gossip: many times the Information Highway had given them the
straight scoop long before it trickled down through Wright-Techs official channels.
Geoffrey rubbed his forehead with his free hand. "B-M is based out of, where,
Baltimore? Dick Fastner in the governments contracting office has connections down
there. Maybe Ill give him a call."
"Let me know what you find."
Geoffrey said goodbye, hung up, then absently scratched behind one ear, thinking. In
years past, when he had a job with real responsibilities, he would have waited until
business brought he and Dick Fastner together before mentioning the idea of a B-M buyout.
Unfortunately those days were long gone, the phone was too often still, and he no longer
saw any of his old contacts.
If only Janey were still here! She was the manager who promoted him, promising together
they would create a dynamic new role out of whole cloth, a role only he was qualified to
fill -- things would have been different had Janey stayed. But she received an offer from
outside the company that was too good to refuse and less than a month after Geoffrey had
moved into his "dynamic" new position she was gone, abandoning him to John O.
Barry, who possessed none of her vision, nor the confidence to allow his new senior
analyst to serve as anything more than a "glorified key-puncher to the stars,"
as Geoff often referred to himself.
Right now all the key-punching is done. What else do I have to do?
He picked up the phone and dialed Dick Fastners number.
I wish hed stop for lunch, Sarah told herself as she carried her Subway
veggie and bag of barbecue chips into the WrightTech Admin building. It would do him
good to get out of here for an hour every day. Of course she knew what Geoff would say
if she mentioned the idea: hed given up eating lunch fifteen years ago, during his
DJ days, and it was a point of pride with him ever since that he kept working when others
eased off and took a break.
But now hes got nothing to strive for. All he gets out of this is more time to
Sarah popped her head into Geoffs office and was surprised to find him gone; she
was even more surprised, as she returned to her own desk, to hear his voice leaking out
from among the knot of people clustered at the mouth of Erik Spenglers cubicle.
Curious, she walked over to the rim of the group.
That people were gathered around Erik wasnt unusual: he was one of Finances
few old-timers and everybody liked him, herself and Geoff included. What was unusual,
Sarah discovered as she opened her chips and munched the first handful, was the subject of
"Geoff says Brand-MacDougall is out to buy us!" one of the accountants
whispered to her.
An overhead-cost analyst, Tom Greavy, was speaking directly to Geoff. "Where does
this leave old man Wineke? B-M comes in, he suddenly becomes a small fish in a much bigger
Geoff made a dismissive gesture. "Id say there are a couple different ways
to game it. One: how much longer does Jim have before he retires? Two more years? Three?
So B-M puts in an heir apparent and Wineke gets to do all the grooming before he makes a
dignified exit. Two: Jims already found himself a new home at another company. B-M
buys, gives him a sweetheart deal, and he moves to a nice, quiet senior position and
coasts until he decides to pack it in."
"Or three: he gets an offer to move up the B-M ladder to a senior corporate
position." This from Tammi Torentino, the companys capital budgeter.
"I hadnt thought of that," Geoff nodded, "but its definitely
"What do you think about all this, Erik?" asked Tom.
Spengler, who had been silent throughout, smiled thinly, turning his hands palms-up
before giving them a diffident wave. "I think it sounds like a lot of time being
spent on something that cant be proven one way or the other."
Sarah watched Geoffs expression darken as he said, "What time?
All I had did was talk to one person in the government to confirm that the top guns at B-M
are all here in the city this week. How is that a lot of time?"
"All right, how about the time being spent right now?"
"Seems to me thats lunch time," Geoff shot back, "and this
is at least as interesting a topic as the latest Monica Lewinsky gossip, or whatll
happen on tonights episode of NYPD Blue. But lunch time is almost over.
Ill go back to my little corner of the world and let you go back to sticking your
head in the sand."
"You didnt have to be mean to Erik," Sarah chided as Geoff walked her
back to her desk.
"When did he become the Sergeant Schultz of this floor?" Geoff snapped, ire
in his voice. "I see nuth-think, nuth-think!"
Sarah held back the first thing that came to mind, observing instead, "Not
everybody is all that interested in rumors, you know. Eriks been around for so long
he probably feels like hes heard them all."
"Maybe, but that attitude has changed the people around here from analysts to
nothing but a bunch of mindless processors."
"Right," she sighed. This was well-trod ground from previous conversations.
She knew in his old job Geoff had been given a level of independence he had grown
accustomed to; he enjoyed having the free reign to dig up data vital to the financial
stability of the companys fringe work, plus whatever other nuggets of information he
could find. Here at the home office few people ever gained such responsibility. Sarah was
willing to admit there could have been a time, before her arrival, when Finance might have
had a larger number of go-getters in its ranks than at present, and she knew that was the
group to which Geoff would naturally gravitate, yet she felt sure those people were a
minority even in their heyday. As far as she could tell, most of WrightTechs Finance
employees had never seen drastic "dumbing down" of their jobs. They probably
Annoyance was evident on Geoffs face; Sarah knew he could tell what she was
thinking, but he simply said, "I better get back to it. Are you going to be able to
leave on time tonight?"
Indicating the orderliness of her desk, Sarah nodded. "Sure. Nothing spectacular
happening here. What about you?"
"Hah! You know the answer to that -- nothing spectacular ever happens to me
It was forty-five minutes to quitting time when John O. Barry called Geoffrey to his
office. I hate this rat-bastard, Geoff thought as he stepped through the door.
Barry grinned like a carrion bird ready to feast on fresh roadkill. "Hi! Come in.
Grab a chair." His demeanor became serious as Geoffrey sat. "Geoff, this
afternoon I heard something that disturbed me, and I had to talk to you about it. I
understand you told some people Brand-MacDougall is looking us over with an eye to
"Do you deny thats true?" Geoffrey asked.
Barry rolled his shoulders in a lazy shrug. "I can neither confirm nor deny it,
though you have to admit, if it is true, there are very good reasons for wanting to keep
it quiet. B-M is a publicly-traded company. If word prematurely leaked to the press. .
Geoffrey pointed out the door, demanding, "Whos going to be talking to the
media? Who out there has the contacts? Im willing to bet Im the only person in
this division who knows any journalists, and these days my nearest reporter friend is
working in Taos, New Mexico! I dont think hed view this as banner-headline
material, even if he heard about it."
"That may be, yet there are all sorts of indirect channels for information.
Someone tells someone, who talks to someone else, who has a friend -- next thing you know,
there it is on the nightly news."
"Frankly, John, thats crap. WrightTech is always saying how it needs to do a
better job of communicating with its employees, and Finance management tells us what a
high value it places on our dedication and loyalty. If you want to back up those words
maybe you should try getting everybody together and telling them something like,
Look, there arent a whole lot of details, but this is going on and we want you
to know, even though we have to ask you to keep it to yourselves for awhile. Please
dont discuss this where prying ears can hear. If you really thought we were
loyal, youd do that. I guess what the company says and what it means are two very
"Im sorry you feel that way," said Barry, his voice taking on a harder
edge. "Unfortunately, thats your problem. My problem is, I cant have
rumors about B-M coming out of my area, and Ill use disciplinary measures if I must.
Thats why I know I can count on your discretion, Geoff."
His knuckles white as he grasped the arms of his chair, Geoffrey snapped, "Fine.
Is that all?"
"Thats it. Think about what weve discussed, and have a good
Mouth grim, fingernails digging into the palms of his hands, Geoffrey stalked out of