ISSUE FOUR
August 1998

Bruce Canwell

Bruce Canwell Bruce Canwell has been a freelance writer since 1989. His criticism and journalism have appeared in several publications, including The Portsmouth Press and Comic Book Week. His fiction has appeared in such small-press magazines as Prologue, Shadow Sword, and Millennium.  He writes for comic books.  Batman Chronicles: The Gauntlet (with acclaimed artist-and-collaborator Lee Weeks) gave readers the never-before-told first adventure of Robin, The Boy Wonder. Since then he has completed more Batman stories, and is currently reunited with Weeks on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. for Marvel Comics.


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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

 

I.

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. She’s 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 -- she’d doze after Letterman, then be wide awake before four o’clock, 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 wouldn’t 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 Geoff’s help. The two of them had met eight months before the wheels of Sarah’s 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. She’s finally starting to sleep all night and I’m 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 Sarah’s slow, steady breathing. Not that I’m complaining. But we’re doing really well together, and maintaining manuscript files on both our computers is a pain. We’re 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 wasn’t 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 Morrison’s "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 can’t 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 mines."

 

 

II.

 

He’s getting That Look again, Sarah thought, studying Geoff’s 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. She’d been two months in her new job before someone noticed her habit of reading through lunchtime and told her she should seek out the group’s 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 smoke-gray eyes.

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 he’d 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 Sarah’s 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 WrightTech’s 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 day’s upcoming notices.

"Hi, Wally!" Sarah called through the booth’s 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 I’d do it all over again," she replied over her shoulder, earning a rasping laugh that was the product of too many Chesterfields and Winstons.

"You’re a pip, Sarah! Have a nice day, y’hear?"

Geoff smiled warmly down at her. "My own Little Sarah Sunshine. Is there anyone in this place you don’t know?"

"Well, in Planning you get to meet a lot of people."

A grimness crept into Geoff’s voice. "And now you’re 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.

"Don’t let it get to you, OK, hon?"

"Well, since it’s you who’s 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. Barry’s voice. Barry was Manager of Financial Planning, Geoff’s 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.

 

 

III.

It was 10:48 when Geoffrey’s 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 -- Geoff’s phone barked almost constantly. He had been a player, one of the people who kept WrightTech’s smaller, fringe-business contracts profitable and on schedule, working out of the company’s satellite facility located sixty miles and one county away. A lot of the satisfaction in his life had come from that role -- it wasn’t as rewarding as being able to write full-time, as he’d 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 Landry’s 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 Roger’s tone: his old comrade-in-arms had fast-breaking news.

"You know I don’t 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 WrightTech."

"No!"

"That’s the buzz," said Landry. "Word is old man Wineke was in a very hush-hush meeting with the B-M boys yesterday, and they’ll be getting together again today."

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 company’s 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 portfolio.

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. It’s 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-Tech’s official channels.

Geoffrey rubbed his forehead with his free hand. "B-M is based out of, where, Baltimore? Dick Fastner in the government’s contracting office has connections down there. Maybe I’ll 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 Fastner’s number.

 

 

IV.

 

I wish he’d 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: he’d 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 he’s got nothing to strive for. All he gets out of this is more time to stew.

Sarah popped her head into Geoff’s 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 Spengler’s cubicle. Curious, she walked over to the rim of the group.

That people were gathered around Erik wasn’t unusual: he was one of Finance’s 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 the conversation.

"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 pond."

Geoff made a dismissive gesture. "I’d 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: Jim’s 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 company’s capital budgeter.

"I hadn’t thought of that," Geoff nodded, "but it’s definitely another possibility."

"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 can’t be proven one way or the other."

Sarah watched Geoff’s 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 that’s lunch time," Geoff shot back, "and this is at least as interesting a topic as the latest Monica Lewinsky gossip, or what’ll happen on tonight’s episode of NYPD Blue. But lunch time is almost over. I’ll go back to my little corner of the world and let you go back to sticking your head in the sand."

"You didn’t 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. Erik’s been around for so long he probably feels like he’s 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 company’s 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 WrightTech’s Finance employees had never seen drastic "dumbing down" of their jobs. They probably never would.

Annoyance was evident on Geoff’s 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 any more."

 

 

V.

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 buy."

"Do you deny that’s 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, "Who’s going to be talking to the media? Who out there has the contacts? I’m willing to bet I’m the only person in this division who knows any journalists, and these days my nearest reporter friend is working in Taos, New Mexico! I don’t think he’d 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, that’s 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 aren’t 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 don’t discuss this where prying ears can hear.’ If you really thought we were loyal, you’d do that. I guess what the company says and what it means are two very different things."

"I’m sorry you feel that way," said Barry, his voice taking on a harder edge. "Unfortunately, that’s your problem. My problem is, I can’t have rumors about B-M coming out of my area, and I’ll use disciplinary measures if I must. That’s 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?"

"That’s it. Think about what we’ve discussed, and have a good evening."

Mouth grim, fingernails digging into the palms of his hands, Geoffrey stalked out of the office.


continued

 

Bruce Canwell: Fiction
Copyright 1999 The Cortland Review Issue FourThe Cortland Review