We take turns feeding the company, and I always dread when it’s my turn. I don’t mind the cooking, mind you, or the expense. It’s just that I have wretched luck when it comes to getting across the finish line. You know how some people can’t throw a picnic without it raining cats and dogs? Same here. I’ve been in this company for five years, and almost every time, the alarm goes off while I’m cooking. Most of the crew expect this when it’s their turn, and they plan for interruptions. They bring a main-dish salad made in advance, or something that can stand on the pot for hours, like beans or chili con carne. I guess I’ve got a contrary streak; I like to cook fussy things with precise timing, like seafood or pasta. And when it’s too late to turn back—RING!!!
It happened again tonight. I was finishing up angel hair with a fresh grape-tomato and basil sauce, and the alarm sounded for a fire at a chemical works, a real monster that four other companies responded to. We came back near the end of our shift, and had to force down the mush left in two pots. There wasn’t a single wisecrack about my bad luck. I had cooked for eighteen, and that wasn’t the number that sat down to eat.
That order was suspicious from the start: over two hundred tons of our lowest-grade girders, all to be shipped to one address in Southern California. The contractor assured me they were for a housing development, two-story buildings only, but his order included lots of fittings useful only for a tall commercial building. The day they were due to arrive, I flew out from O’Hare to check up. Sure enough, an hour after the cranes unloaded the last shipment in a big empty suburban lot, a new crew pulled in and started moving the steel to a downtown location. I went straight to the D.A.
It was in the news before my plane left LAX. The contractor confessed he had bought off a building inspector and made up phony bills of lading for the steel shipment; the savings on the cheap steel was enough for him to gamble he’d be safely dead before the first big quake brought all sixteen stories crashing down. I walked into my office expecting a hero’s reception, and got a pink slip from the company president.
Lanyon put on his best ward heeler impression when he gave me the news. The steel was already paid for, I should have played dumb, we can always deny complicity if we play dumb, why did I expose the contractor and discourage others eager to buy whatever we sold them, no questions asked. In the middle of cleaning out my desk, I took time to email my side of things to the new board chairman; to my surprise, that wasn’t a futile gesture. Heir apparent Grosvenor hadn’t inherited his father’s amorality gene, and said in his reply how he admired me. He was scheduling a special meeting at six, and Lanyon and I would both attend. Grosvenor said that the directors cared less than we did about doing good for goodness sake, so he would have to argue my unilateral decision as smart PR, a wise move to avoid possible bad publicity for the company. I could still end up looking for another job, or Lanyon might have to rehire me, or Lanyon himself could be the one who ends up job-hunting. Does capitalism have checks and balances based on morality? The jury comes in at six this evening.
You wouldn’t believe how many dogs and cats are turned loose on the streets by people who wanted them just for education, to show their kids what comes from mating. Earnest mothers and fathers want their kids to witness the miracle of birth, and then the newborn puppies and kittens are expendable. There’s a poster in our business office showing a cart full of euthanized animals on their way to the incinerator; the caption reads “Witness the Miracle of Death.”
Robert Laughlin lives in Chico, California. His “Men at Work” stories will be collected for book publication at a later date. Laughlin has published 100 short stories, two of which are storySouth Million Writers Award Notable Stories. His website is at www.pw.org/content/robert_laughlin