Series – The Unbearable Lightness of Being Stu Barrett: Monday’s New Ride
Stu could hardly wait to see the look on Katie’s face when she opened her door to see his glistening, baby blue Hummer in her driveway. It was the first of its kind in the city, lined all around with stainless steel chrome trim, wheels, tailpipe and door handles. On the back hatch was an impressive “HUMMER” cast in ostentatious thick chrome lettering. He imagined scores of motorists trailing behind him at night, green with envy, cursing at the radiance of their headlamps reflected back upon them with blinding intensity. The Hummer strutted along the city streets as if to say, mockingly, ‘This ain’t no Prius, beeyach.’
He was giddy with excitement and started honking his horn incessantly until she emerged from the open door. Her husband Jim, a professor at the University, cast a disapproving glance at the spectacle, and shook his head before kissing Katie goodbye. In a hurl of revulsion, the words “what a fucking asshole” spilled out of his mouth.
Katie clumsily attempted to board the vehicle. It was the first time she’d ever had to hoist herself into a cruise ship on wheels, and she wondered if there was a step ladder or gangplank to make the task easier.
“So what do you think of my new ride?” asked Stu.
“I think it’s an affront to humanity. What possessed you?”
“I saw one just like it in a magazine and just had to have my own. What a sensation!”
“That’s not quite the superlative I had in mind.”
Being an avid environmentalist – so much that she carpooled with a man like Stu – she was deflated. Stu was supposed to be an educated man of influence and esteem, yet he still buys a full-sized Hummer in spite of all the warnings of greenhouse gases and global warming. The battle’s been lost. When Katie lived in Vancouver these behemoths were driven around town by the beefcake, tattooed, frost-tipped hair, ‘Tapout’ gear-wearing cocaine dealers. Reasonable, self-respecting people would be ashamed to drive them. Jim was right, Stu is a total ass. And he’s barely able to reach his foot to the brake pedal.
“It’s not much of a contribution to the demise of global warming, is it?” she said.
“C’mon, nobody’s proven definitively that we humans really contribute to that, Katie.”
“True enough, the ninety per cent consensus among climate scientists isn’t absolute. We’d be morons to trust these scientific jerks when the anti-environment politicians and oil-lobby pundits make a pretty convincing logical argument to not give a crap about greenhouse gases. What a crock all that science mumbo-jumbo is, hey Stu?”
“Uh, yeah. That’s right.” Stu said, with a confused look on his face, detecting a slight bent of sarcasm in her comment.
Katherine Longmire and Stewart Barrett were students at the same university in their home town twenty years ago, and Stu dated one of Katie’s best friends for a few years. Since they were in the same industry they had remained in touch ever since. He and Katie had nothing in common and would never have been friends had they met on the street today. When Stu learned that Katie was returning to the city to take the helm of a large organization he was tickled. When he heard she bought a home in the same tony neighborhood, he insisted they make the effort to carpool as often as they could.
To the consternation of her husband, Katie relented. Stu’s failings were legendary in their old circles but he was well-connected and she was new in this town. She was obliged to ingratiate herself with the executive community as part of her new role, and this city was a small and insular place. She needed an ‘in’ and Stu was it.
She wouldn’t normally hitch her sails to someone the likes of Stu, but she was also a shrewd judge of her own character; she knew she was reserved and a little stand-offish. That would make it difficult to forge the networks she’d need to succeed. She’d be a benefactor from the many doors that Stu had kicked wide open wide with his bombast and golden handshakes. She’d let Stu take her to the dance, but planned on spending the night mingling with others and leaving with someone else when the night was done. The analogy made her slightly nauseous as she thought about it.
Stu was in a league of his own when it came to audacity and unearned conceit. Katie thanked the stars that they’d stopped short on intellect when they built Stu. He’d been well-endowed with guile, charm, and an over-weening sense of entitlement, which was as much as he needed to get high on the corporate ladder, but not enough to endanger too many innocent lives. He’d got near the top on his earnest alone, but lacked the foresight to seize the reins in a coup. While empowered with a prestigious position, Stu was as harmless as a tinpot dictator on a marooned island colony in the south pacific.
As they drove off Stu cranked the Hummer’s stereo system, powerful enough to be heard by the cheap seats in a football stadium.
“This is ZZ Top,” she said in disgust.
“I know, isn’t it just wicked?”
He began singing along “she’s got legs, she knows how to use them …” playing air guitar as he grimaced with unusual intensity. He seemed to forget he was driving a tank during morning rush hour.
“Really Stu? She’s got legs?”
Stu laughed condescendingly. He loved provoking Katie. When he was dating her best friend he had suggested they all engage in a threesome, which was met with a slap from Katie and a few good weeks without sex from Sarah. Outwardly, his penance was convincing – he was only kidding, he insisted – but inwardly, he actually believed this was a tryst both she and Katie would have jumped at. He misjudged terribly, but always knew it was worth the shot.
So, he’d given up any delusions about winning Katie over. He was resigned to the fact that she was not buying whatever he was selling. It was liberating to have that kind of relationship with at least one attractive woman. He didn’t need to put on airs or expend any effort to sustain the lie that he was refined and gentlemanly, which was exhausting. Most often he was unable to execute it without coming off as an absolute phony.
Stu wasn’t a big fan of Katie’s cerebral personality, but he relished her wisdom and was always comfortable around her. Even when she was pissed off at him, she wasn’t irate and sanctimonious. The tone of self-righteous, politically-correct indignation was so 1994, in his mind. Plus, he couldn’t stay mad at her, even if she was being a bit of a Cassandra, because she was such a stunner.
Seeing her really jazzed him in his man-glands and he liked the boost, even if it meant having to withstand hearing about all of her high-brow fancies and flaky opinions about things like the environment. Sure, the chances of a romp with Katie were infinitesimally slim, but every week somebody wins the lottery, against all odds. His hope was a powerful aphrodisiac, and it flowed like a river in the dark cavern of his vast, reptilian brain.
He pressed a button on his steering wheel, “call Betty.”
“Uh, hello Stu, what can I do for you.” Came a voice over the car speaker system.
“Hey are you at work yet?”
“No, I’m on my way.”
“Oh, but it’s, like 7:15”
“So, you are at the office?”
“No, but – ”
“All right, then. What can I do for you?” she interrupted.
“I was going to ask you if you could pick up some coffee for us?”
“For us? I’ve got my coffee, thanks”
“Oh, well could you pick some up for me then?”
“What do you want,” said Betty flatly.
“The usual” Stu said abruptly.
“What’s the usual?”
“What do mean? You know what the usual – hey-fucking-ass-wipe!” he honked his horn at a car that was changing to the open lane in front of him, but impeded when Stu sped up to prevent it. Katie swore she saw windows smashing and car alarms go off when he honked his horn, the sonic boom was so powerful.
“The usual seems to be a moving target, Stu.”
“What the hell are you talking about? What’s with the attitude?” he grimaced and looked at Katie as if to say ‘can you believe this fucking chick?’
“Let’s keep it simple. Tell me what you want at this moment, right now, and I’ll get that.” snapped Betty, her exasperation becoming more apparent over the speaker system.
“Latte, extra hot, non fat milk, with Vanilla and Toffee flavouring and a little extra cocoa sprinkled in.”
“Katie, while I’m at it, can I interest you in something?”
“Oh hi Betty, you’re a sweetheart. No thanks, I’ll bring you coffee next time I see you. And one of those brownies with whipped cream.”
“I’ll hold you to it,” laughed Betty.
Stu had a quizzical look on his face.
“When the Christ did you two become such bum chums. Kay, bye Betty!” he abruptly hung up on her.
“That was weird. You know she’s my assistant, right?”
“You know she’s got more credentials than you, right?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Did you not read her resume before you hired her?”
“Heck no. John Graham recommended her as if she was the Second Coming of the Messiah when he retired. If he thinks she’s the bee’s knees, well who am I to say otherwise? The guy’s a legend. A bit of an arrogant dick, but I give him props. He knew his shit.”
“I see,” Katie shook her head a moment and looked out her window, biting her tongue.
“Jesus, she’s my assistant Katie. What are you guys jabbing about, photocopying or something? Bitching about carpal tunnel from overtyping memos?”
That’s it, she thought.
“I know you don’t mean to be inconsiderate, but did you know your assistant has a PhD in History? She was a university lecturer until she had children and put her budding career on hold to raise them. She’s got a lot more to offer than what she’s been hired for. You know she’s as sharp as a whip because you put her to task reading your reports and verbally briefing you on them before your meetings.”
“Yeah, doesn’t everyone have people to do that for them?”
“They certainly do. They’re usually strategic advisors or policy analysts, not Executive Assistants. They are people who don’t then fetch coffee and make photocopies while they advise a Vice President on vital matters of corporate policy and operations.”
“Really? Frick. Who knew? Say, how did you know about the reading the reports thing? Did she complain about that?! Hey, if she don’t like the work there’s a lineup of people who’d be happy to take the job.”
“I wonder about that. Anyway. You might do with a little more self-reflection about how you treat your people. Even in college you had a knack for firing off at the mouth without much forethought. It’s funny in the right situation, but not when you’re in a position of power over people. Be careful. It could get you into hot water.”
“Ah, Christ Katie, not this shit again. What’d I do this time?”
“When was the last time you got Betty coffee?”
“I don’t even have time to get myself coffee, and I’m supposed to get her coffee too? As if.”
“And yet, you drink coffee and she drinks coffee. Probably a few times a day, too right? So who gets the coffee Stu?”
There was a pause. She asked, “How many times do you call her or send her urgent e-mails after hours?”
“I dunno. I don’t keep track. Hey, I’m working too.”
“You’re the one making five, six times what she makes. You’re the one who does all the delegation. She’s like a slave.”
“Yeah but, I take the heat not her. ”
“What heat? What’s your big risk, Stu?” she cut him off. “Stu, I know you don’t mean it but you’ve got to know that nobody wants to be a total lackey. There’s a limit. Figure it out.”
She wanted to say so much more, but there was still fifteen minutes left in the ride and she wanted to avoid an uncomfortable silence. Stu was unbearably child-like when pouting. Since he was driving a boat whose dimensions grossly outsized him, she didn’t want him more flustered than he already was. She held back to save herself and to avert unleashing any more of Stu’s ignominy upon the city’s innocent citizens. They’d had quite enough.
“I don’t get it. What did I do wrong?”
Later that afternoon, Stu stood up from his desk and tossed a Beany Baby toy into the window. It was his therapy for being the lone star of an organization with a legion of incompetents. He had originally bought the toy for his niece but decided to keep it when he realized how effective it was at dispersing his nervous energy. Or throwing it at people for added effect at meetings. Or throwing it firmly against a wall in the office so he could let everyone know he was not pleased, without having to hit anyone, which he really wanted to do.
“Betty!” he yelled to his Executive Assistant, who sat at a cubicle just outside his door. She casually strolled into his office, taking what seemed to Stu a mini-eternity.
“What’s with the operations Memo in the Red Folder? The Red Folder is for Executive Meeting correspondences. The Operations Memos go into the Blue Folders. The financial reports go into the Yellow folders and things for my signature in the grey folders. Easy peasy. And what the hell is this green folder all about?”
“They’re circulating a card and contribution collection for flowers for Fred Stanford. He had a heart attack last week and is recovering from a triple bypass. I thought you’d want to sign that since he’s your report.”
“Poor bastard. Well, that’s a tough break, but geez, he sure wasn’t helping things always stuffing his face with those deep fried little doughnuts. He could have used a jog once in a while!”
Stu picked up the green folder and looked at some of the inscriptions inside, shaking his head as he winced with disdain. He didn’t want to put his name on a card desecrated with saccharine platitudes and cheesy sentimentality. He closed the folder and tossed it to the edge of his desk.
“That’s okay, let’s send him something from me. Can you to take care of it?”
He reached into his wallet and grabbed one hundred and fifty dollars, handing it to Betty. She looked at him as if he’d just tapped her with a lightning bolt.
“I’d say buy him a bottle of fine wine and some gourmet cheeses, but his wife would kill me. He’s into those fruity musicals, maybe a couple of tickets for him and the wife to see Cats or Rent or whatever the hell is playing.”
He sat down at his desk, thinking about his own mortality. Fred was only three years older than him. Mind you, he was also about a hundred and fifty pounds heavier. Stu gripped at the skin of his waist, and thought ‘No worries for you, you’re lean and mean.’
As Betty was leaving his office he shouted one last instruction, “Make sure the Directors get the items get into the right folders. I have so many things I’m juggling, I can’t deal with this confusion.”
“Someone must have missed a memo,” she said despairingly, taking a sip from what was her seventh coffee of the day.
It was late in the afternoon, and Stu was preparing for an executive committee meeting on Wednesday where they’d discuss the strategic plan for the coming fiscal year. His mind had started to wander and he was feeling disorganized. But mostly, he was anxious over an upcoming round of golf with Jim Reynolds.
The tee time he’d scheduled was perilously close to Wednesday’s meeting. If things got out of hand at the meeting, he’d have to find an excuse to skip out, which wasn’t easy but could be done with some pre-planning. He didn’t want to postpone the game, because he was eager to kick Jim’s ass. Jim had been bragging for weeks how the time he spent playing in Arizona over the winter months knocked about two shots off his handicap. He couldn’t stand losing to that fucking guy.
“Booyah,” he said aloud as he motioned a golf swing in the air, leaving Betty confused. She reflexively flinched, fearing she had crossed the line of fire in one of his vitriol-infused Beany Baby tosses. She’d been pegged off a couple times in this way, and was starting to believe that these friendly fire incidents, as Stu referred to them, were less than accidental.
Stu was becoming a superb golfer, having had plenty of time to practice since he became Vice President of the organization two years ago. When he was just a Director it wasn’t as easy to dish off urgent tasks to get away for a tanning session, a round of golf, or a mid-day hamam at the local spa. Being second in command, he had thousands of people at his disposal at HQ and across the land to whom an infinite number of tasks could be delegated, whether urgent or not. He could spread the work out evenly so as not to impose with the last-minute nature of his requests, when suddenly a tee time had come available. Although, he balked at the idea there were people in the organization who would feel ‘imposed upon’ by a request that came directly from his office.
He’d made the office and the organization a well-oiled machine since taking the co-captain’s reins. He codified everything from the structure of e-mails sent to the senior executives, the format of memos where his signature was required, and systematized the colour of the correspondence folders between operational units. He changed the company logo, the uniforms worn by the front-line service staff, and re-tooled the organization chart across the land. He threw out old policies and introduced new ones. He fired people he despised and hired others that were team players. He instituted regular meetings for managers across the land and required them to send reports to HQ every two weeks. Any report would do, as long as it was a report.
All that was left on the plate was to stem the tide of toxic employee morale that had led to a mass exodus of talent and expertise from the company, and to reverse the sharp decline in the company’s performance since he and Norm were brought on board. But that was all academic. He had resolutely left his indelible stamp on the face of the organization. The smooth waters to future success had been charted, and those remaining on board were liberated of the naysayers and dead wood that slow the engines of progress.
Stu took note of Betty’s coffee. “Hey, uh, what’s with the coffee? You get any of that for me? I’m bushed.”
“No, I didn’t, but if you want, I’ll make you an espresso in the espresso maker you have there,” she said, pointing to the mini wet-bar at the corner of his office which was stocked with wine, spirits, and a $4500 espresso maker. It was rarely ever used but was, according to Stu, a cool looking appliance in a man’s office. She was hoping he’d prefer the solitude to the noise of her fussing with the machine. She was wrong.
“Love one. While you’re at it, maybe you could just grab that little bit of trash and left over refreshments and toss ‘em.”
He’d had a mid-afternoon session with Norm Penstrom, the company President who had a penchant for stuffing handfuls of gummie bears in his mouth and sipping hot chocolate through the ends of a Twizzler licorice tube. Norm had a habit of kicking his shoes off when he and Stu met, which filled the room with an unbearable stench.
Stu doused the carpet with air freshener whenever Norm left, griping privately to Betty, “Christ Almighty, has the guy ever heard of fucking foot powder? There are creams for that shit at the spa. Do you think it would be uncouth if I got him a year’s supply as a birthday gift or something? Can you get one-a those smelly candles for me to burn for a few hours?”
Most times Stu and President Norm Penstrom would break into an arm wrestling match when they couldn’t decide on which of them was going to attend some corporate junket in Europe or South America. Stu lost today’s best of three series, and Penstrom won the rights to a coveted meeting in Rio de Janeiro. It was a tough pill for Stu, who’d grown weary of coming out on the losing end of these battles. But Norm had a height advantage, standing five feet six inches tall – a full three-inch head-start. To compensate for the disadvantage, he’d taken to pumping iron more intently, and had even kept a dumbbell under his desk so he could do curls whenever he felt like it.
As he waited for the espresso he grabbed a memo off his desk, plucked one of the fifteen red rollerball pens from a container on his desk and began intently reading a memo from the Red folder. Periodically his brow would furrow and he’d frantically scribble something on the page in red ink.
Frequently he’d utter in an exasperated tone “Ah, no, no, no.” and then cross something out on the page feverishly. Then his mind would wander. He had to take the Hummer to get detailed after work before his dinner meeting with the Director of another organization. ‘Where does the time go?’ he thought. Then he wondered if it would be obtuse if he got one of the summer interns to take his Hummer out for the detailing it was going to regularly need. He rationalized it was to their advantage because they’d be doing the VP a favour, which would be good for their career. This was going to be the plan from here on out.
He looked at his hands, and was dismayed by the tone of his spray tan. It was more orange than he had expected. Without the enhancement he was pasty and gaunt-looking, which he reckoned accentuated the slightness of his stature. But now he was concerned he looked like a prize-winning pumpkin. He would insist the problem be rectified at his next man-Zilian body waxing and pedicure at the spa.
“Betty, does this hand look orange to you?” he asked.
“Yes. Yes it really does. That spray tanning place you go to is the pits. There are better ones, my friend has this – ”
“More than I asked for Betty,” he said. And turned to the memo at hand.
At four o’clock he poked his head out his office door, “I think I asked for these memos to be in Papyrus 14-point font,” Stu said in a huff.
He rushed out of his office, showing the two-page Memorandum marked up with red ink from top to bottom, side to side, to Betty. On the top it read in all caps ‘FONT: PAPYRUS. PAPYRUS. PAPYRUS. IS THIS TOO DIFFICULT FOR YOU?’
“Hmm, haven’t we been using the Garamond font for ages?”
“Uh, noo-ooo. Remember the memo we sent out? It’s been Papyrus for at least a month now. Christ, how difficult is it to get the font right? It’s just a bloody font.”
“Stu, this is due to the President close of business today, why don’t we just make these little changes ourselves?”
“It’s only four o-clock, there’s plenty of time. Like I’m not busy enough I have to correct their mistakes? Cheese-us.” he snapped.
“So we’re going to send it back and tell them to make it the way it’s supposed to be. And tell them my signature line should read P. Stewart Barrett. The P needs to be there. And I hate that word there,” pointing at the word, ‘synergies.’ “It’s too jargony.”
“You used this word in your speech and it’s being paraphrased as such in the note.”
“Well, this isn’t a speech. This is a Memo, so …” he said, looking at Betty, his eyebrows raised condescendingly in anticipation, waiting for her to finish his sentence.
She paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. “We use one language for speeches and another for memos?”
“Don’t get smart, Betty,” he warned with a narrowing of his eyes.
He didn’t become a VP to be made to feel like an ass by his Executive Assistant. He’d make her needlessly re-type a memo that he’d ‘lose’ tomorrow, he thought. That’ll keep it real. He began to turn his thoughts to tonight’s dinner meeting. ‘What account would I charge that meal to?’ he wondered. Betty will figure it out.
“What would you recommend I change it to?”
He rolled his eyes and huffed, caustically “What do I care? Any other word.”
“But you seem to have a preference. Why don’t you – “
“Too many questions,” he said, flicking his hand in the air as if swatting a swarm of mosquitoes from his presence.
Turning on his heel and walking in the other direction, he yelled one final instruction as he shuffled hurriedly past a female subordinate who he didn’t recognize. She meekly said a flowery “Hello Mr. Barrett,” quickly sidestepping and stumbling as he barreled down the centre of the narrow thoroughfare, his eyes trained on his mobile. As he passed her he wondered ‘who teaches these people to dress? Man, where are we recruiting, the bloody Amish colony?’
“And tell them to remove a paragraph!” then he stopped in his tracks, tilted his head and looked skyward.
Without looking back to Betty he yelled. “No! Make that three. Three paragraphs. Gonzo! There are too many bloody paragraphs in that Memo. It’s not a bloody novel, people!” he shook his head as he dashed off to catch the elevator.
“Coming right up, memsahib.” Betty whispered to the young woman, curtsying as she did so.
The woman, just hired out of university, looked emboldened, and said “why does he have to be such a jerk? Is it a job requirement at his level?” she asked.
“Thankfully no, dear, so don’t fret. It’s the man that makes the job, not the other way around. Remember that next time anyone uses their rank as a bludgeon to your dignity.”
Betty grinned as she sat down at her computer and replaced the word ‘synergies’ with efficiencies, and didn’t delete three paragraphs because it would have made the memo totally meaningless. She signed it “Stewart Barrett” without the P, because that was pretentious, and she knew damn well from his passport Stu’s name was Stewart Percival Barrett.
And all of it was done in Garamond font, because she never did send the memo instructing that correspondences be done in Papyrus; a ridiculous font for a place of business.