Friday Night at the Office

March 13, 2009

Concrete Evidence

      Back at Nightwing Laboratories, while I ponder the depths of my humiliation in receipt for the symphony tickets from Sandy, the afternoon continues to stretch out like a delayed flight to Chicago. A fit of depression hits me—confronted by a Friday night that is now unavoidable, no plans for the evening, nothing in my refrigerator that’d be safe to eat, and no prospects of change in my life, unless, well, a date with Mark Peters turns out to be exciting. First, one of us has to ask the other out. I make a resolution to ask him to go sailing the next time I see him. He’s working on fitting out sailing yachts for a broker friend, so I could pretend that I need advice on a new self tending jib boom I want installed.
      The real thorn: somewhere, this evening, my friend Sandy Meraux will be floating down the stairs—I picture an antebellum home with a sweeping staircase—dressed to the hilt in a mini-evening gown and long black gloves which match the tuxedo of the man who will whisk her ladyship off to a fabulous ball, or at least a smoke filled bar.
      Okay, I’m driving myself crazy. I jab my intercom button. “Julie, can you come in, please.”
      “Sure boss.”
      Noel says that I have this talent for surrounding myself with people who excel at the things that I don’t do well. Continuing this line of thinking, eventually I will prove to myself that there’s nothing I do so well that I couldn’t hire someone else to do it better. I could fire myself now and save the overhead. Surely someone else should deal with the thick stack of paperwork that threatens to topple out my inbox. I have no doubt that everything awaiting my consideration comes with a pink slip marked with “needs urgent attention” scrawled in Julie’s neat handwriting.
      While I’m riding this emotional high Julie knocks at my door.
      “What’s going on, Boss?”
      Julie Leighton is my all round assistant at Nightwing Laboratories. She’s the niece of a career diplomat at the British Embassy and a cousin, she brags, of a football player for Manchester United—member of a famous soccer league, so they say. She seems to me to be as American as apple pie, so I was surprised when, after I requested a security profile on Julie to fulfill the requirements in getting the nuclear materials testing project, I was called by the British consulate general who explained firmly, albeit politely, to me that next time I should come to them before subjecting one of their citizen’s to the scrutiny of the Secret Service.  I hadn’t even thought to ask for her citizenship, a lapse that in retrospect was a mistake but serves to remind me that I am behind the times in this cold war business.
      Today Julie is wearing black slacks and an earth-tone African print blouse with three quarter length sleeves. She likes to wear sandals that have moderate heels, so with the added impression of height and slimness she looks more like a fashion model than a graduate student in marketing at Tulane. Julie has the flawless complexion of a baby’s bottom, long wavy hair that hints at a speck of Jamaica or maybe French in her ancestry, and a spark of womanly guile in her dark eyes that puts her worldliness a few points ahead of mine. I suppress a spasm of jealousy.
      “Why isn’t my phone ringing?” I want to know.
      “Lydia out at Coastal Technical Associates called and wondered if we’ve got the results from the coating tests on the steel from the rolling mil. I gave that to George.”
      “The EPA says to stay out of the governor’s business in Baton Rouge. They’ll get back to you on the corrosion thing.”
      “I told Sam you’d be busy this weekend and won’t be sailing to Bayou Lacombe. I winged that one after you told me about Mark,” Julie says with a straight face.
      “Good call. I’ll phone Sam tomorrow and see if he wants to go next week end.”
      “Cassell Coatings called for Mary Mouton. They wanted to know if we’re ready to release any of the test results on the concrete coatings. Mary wasn’t available, so I told them that the DOE would receive the results first, and Cassell’s copy of the final tests would come from the government project manager.”
      “Blain Jr. calling—again?” I worry about the frequency of calls from Cassell Coatings. I remember the amiable young man because Blain Jr. had been with his father when he signed the contract with us to do the testing of their coatings for the bid process on the Sabine River Nuclear Reactor. He was introduced as Cassell’s quality control manager—working his way up in the family business, I presumed at the time.
      “I think he’s called for Mary nearly every day this week,” Julie tells me.
      The qualifications process is fairly straightforward. We test concrete coatings submitted by several manufacturers by subjecting each of the products to the rigors of a simulated pressure wave caused by an overheating reactor core inside a containment building. The government agency approves our method, receives the reports, and makes its own decisions. The coatings companies pay us to do the tests when they submit their materials for review. The test results they eventually receive are only for their product, not the comparative performance of their competitors. Our contractual agreement is quite specific on this point and is supported by a foundation of historical litigation on product secrecy agreements.
      “Next time he calls,” I tell Julie, “Have him talk to me—okay?”
      “Okay, sure. Anything I should know?”
      I can see that she’s curious. “No, I just need to talk with him about how he’s coating the sample,” I lie.
      “There’s one thing, Boss,” she turns and looks down the hall in both directions. “Can I close the door?”
      The sparkle evaporate from her eyes; she folds her arms under her breasts and takes a deep breath while letting her chin sink towards her chest. What dire secret is she about to reveal? Do I want to know?
      “If it’s about Mary and Blain,” I start to say.
      She looks startled. “Oh, nothing like that, although they do flutter about a bit, don’t they?” She swallows an uneasy laugh. “No, it’s about something else.”
       Julie seems to stall out like I did when I tried my first wingover in the antique Piper Cub Sam used to own. I do wonder what she knows about Mary and Blain fluttering about.
      In a rush, “I’ve got some friends coming down from Canada on Boxing Day. We want to meet in Sacramento and go skiing. I was wondering if I could get a few days off?”
      “Well, that sounds like fun,” I’m trying to suppress my Ebenezer Scrooge reaction. Where are my great plans for the holidays?  Am I going to feel sorry for myself again this year, avoid my friends, work late on Christmas Eve, have a few drinks with the chemical sales person from Bartlett Chemical Company and my friends out at Coastal Technical Associates in Kenner?  Last year Charles popped the cork on a bottle of champagne in the lab and blew out the fluorescent tubes on the overhead fixture.
      “So, is it okay?” Julie’s voice brings me back.
      “Sure. Mind if I come along?” I think I’m joking, although the idea suddenly seems irresistibly attractive—until I see the look on Julie’s face. “I’m joking.”
      I hurry on, “How about bringing me the budget projections for next year.” I remember that we’re in October and  my bank wants to know about my equipment leases for next year—buy and amortize, lease and expense?
      “They’re on your desk,” Julie steps back and examines her wrist watch.
      I try to look bright and interested. “Oh, good.”
      “Will you need me to work late?”
      After five o’clock, already? “No, you go on home. I’ve got a few things to catch up on,” I babble on. Fat chance of Julie going home; I’m fairly certain that she’s got a date with her friends and a Friday night of fun planned.
      “Don’t work so hard,” Julie opens the door to the hall where the sweet zephyr of Friday blows.
       “Leave the door open,” I call after her.
      A few clicks set the telephone system to the weekend mode—forwarded in case of emergencies to my house phone. Through my open office door: the sounds of a coffee cup being rinsed out in the kitchenette; the rattle of the coffee pot being cleaned and dismantled; a metallic slam as Julie pulls her purse out of the bottom drawer of the front desk; a brief blast of traffic as the front door opens and closes; the final click of the lock engaging. This lab can be as quiet as a tomb.
      The four walls of my office suddenly feel incredibly confining. Where’s the old fire? Didn’t I use to race down to the end of the hall, barge into the lab, fire off questions about the tests, and offer answers to those nagging problems that ordinary mortals can’t solve?
      Anything but budget projections! I jump up and rush down the corridor towards the analytical lab. Maybe George is still here. We can shoot the breeze about solvent analysis.
      I’m putting my hand out to push through into the lab when the door slams behind me. My engineer, Mary Mouton, taps me on the shoulder.
      I try to pretend that my scream is the tail end of a coughing fit.
      “Sorry,” she backs up.
      I haven’t seen Mary up close since we talked about the test schedule for Cassell Coatings last week. I mean, we’ve waved at each other in the hall or through the lab door. Mary’s about my height, carries a sturdy, athletic figure, has a rounded face that’s structural not plump, and looks at you with brown eyes that radiate intelligence. Inside the lab her dress is casual bordering on sloppy; outside of work, I hear she’s a bit of a dresser, though I’ve only seen her once over at the Black Owl where she likes to listen to good local jazz. The administrator, me, gets all the bills and talks to customers; the lab people get to have all of the fun.
      Only Mary doesn’t look like she is having much fun. Up close, I see dark shadows under her eyes. The wrinkles at the corners of her mouth look more like stress than laugh lines. “I didn’t know you were here!” I wait to see if my heart starts back up.
      “Just finishing the steam tests on the pressure chamber,” she returns. “I was going to drop you a note on the way out.”
      Ah, I thought I heard a familiar thump earlier in the day. The sound is caused by the sudden pressure change in the heavy steel pressure chamber when the cold boric acid spray condenses the steam. “A backup run on Monday?”
      “That was the plan. The first run of coated samples yesterday didn’t look promising.”
      “That what Blain was calling about?” I want to know.
      Mary doesn’t meet my stare. “Blain’s requested to substitute a new paint formula in the test batch. He says they’ve made some improvements and wants us to test the new samples instead of the old ones. I told him he’d have to submit additional paperwork, but that you’d probably go along with it as long as the documentation was correct. Didn’t he talk with you, today?”
      “Not yet.”
      Mary looks a bit impatient, probably wanting to get out of the lab after a hard week. “I told him we can’t give him reports on the results until after the project manager gives the okay, right?”
       I nod. “If he wants to start a new series, we’ll bill Cassell Coatings only for the additional work, not for a whole new project.” I reflect that our major duty to the project was to assist the government in finding a concrete coating that would protect the containment building in case overheating of the core triggered an emergency cooling cycle.
      “Tell Cassell Coatings that we won’t need a new contract. We’ll hold the old reports and process only the new samples. I can’t see anything wrong with that.” I’m calculating that running a new batch will be cheaper than wasting time going through a new set of paperwork. The only thing we had to do was make sure the chain of custody proved that we tested the correct set of samples.
      “That’s all, then?” Mary shrugs out of her lab coat and tosses it into the hamper the maintenance people leave in the hall every Friday.
      The words are on the tip of my tongue. I want to ask her if she’d like to go out with me tonight—two women taking in a bar or two or listening to some jazz at the Black Owl.  I feel a certain affinity for Mary. Like myself, her background is technical and based on a rational view of things. We both live in a city that personifies ambiguity, and New Orleans is not a particularly safe city for a woman alone. I suppose she comes from one of the old city families with Mouton for a name. “You got something exciting planned for tonight?”
      Mary straightens out the collar on her blouse where the lab coat has creased some wrinkles into the fabric. “You know, you and I ought to go out some evening,” she takes me by surprise with the statement. “I see you working late all of the time. I hope your social life doesn’t suck like mine?”
      I almost blurt out a question about her going out with Blain Jr., but that was only a rumor passed along by Julie and definitely none of my business. Instead, “Things are a bit slow.” Who am I fooling? Substitute immobile.
      “Look, I’ve already got an engagement for tonight,” she says, looking brighter, “so why don’t we set aside Friday, next week?”
      “Daniel Bujeau will be doing a new set at the Black Owl and I know you like to go there because I’ve seen you at a back table a couple of times.”
      More surprises. How could I have missed Mary at the Black Owl? I say as much.
      “Sometimes I sit back of the stage,” she explains.
      “Look, I got to go, now. You up for it next week?” she asks me.
       “I’d like to,” I sound feeble like I’m about to file a claim on work waiting, budgets to be balanced, or proposals to be written.
      She’s got me pegged. “Well,” she looks a little disappointed in me, “if you change your mind, let me know.”
      “By Wednesday,” I promise, “and have a nice weekend,” words that I aim at Mary’s back. She is hurrying down the hall and waives a hand over her shoulder. I’m envious that she has somewhere to go. I turn to the door across the hall. Maybe George has something exciting to tell me.
      George Bailey is cleaning up his bench.  A stack of beakers, flasks, and other odds and ends of glassware have been deposited into the rubber coated baskets awaiting the labware washing service to pick up. He’s a genious at analytical chemistry and I feel very lucky to have stolen him from the local USDA lab.
      “Hi, Morgan,” George looks uneasy through his thick, horn rim glasses.
      George is very reclusive and very large. He wears his hair cut like a marine, he studies Bach fugues in his spare time, and so far as I know he had one love affair several years ago after which he figured he wasn’t cut out for the company of women. I guess he doesn’t see me as a woman. He’s like a gentle giant, and he has this nervous twitch when something is bothering him.
      “Everything okay?” George tries unsuccessfully to suppress the nervous twitch.
      “Fine, George, fine,” I try to speak soothingly. “Anything unusual or interesting today?”
      Slipping into technotalk eases his nervousness. “The tests for lead in the school ground soils turned out positive,” he gulps. “We can say for sure that the New Orleans public school system is positively swimming in lead.”
      Shit. The reason why we got the contract was to prove the lead contamination was below the limit. Personally I would be glad to deliver the bad news to the schoolboard. My accountant, on the other hand would look with disapproval on more lost business.
      “Well, that’s great, George,” I lie.
      “You really think so?” He slides his glasses off and wipes at them with a some lens paper while falling into his embarrassed aw-shucks mode. “I won’t have to give the report, will I?” he nearly loses his glasses during the nervous convulsion.
      I forget how large George’s eyes look when he removes his glasses. “Of course not, George,” I say, then I add as I see vague disappointment blossom on the innocent cheeks, “unless of course you want too. It’s good work and it’s yours, after all. You should get full credit for it.”
      “N…n…no thanks,” he stutters, gathers himself, “not this time,” he says. “Maybe I could do it next time?”
      “Say, you doing anything tonight?” I ask cautiously.
      “Oh, I’ve got two hours on the new pipe organ at the Presbyterian Church” he fairly bubbles over, twitches and nerves instantly put aside at the thought of his music.
      “That’s great!” What a liar I’ve become. “Well, I just stopped by to see how you were.” Visions of a bottle of Jack Daniels beckon me to my lonely lair. Oh how sorry I can feel for myself on Fridays.
      “Sure, nice of you to ask,” he manages to get something personal out.
      I left it at that, letting the door swing shut after me. What the hell was I thinking about—seducing George?

About charles frenzel

I've been writing all my life. I've also painted, composed, sculpted, contributed to molecular research, advanced some mathematical concepts, lived on a sailboat, and worked for a Nobel Prize winner. Nothing in my life has pleased me more than to share my life with my wife and friend of over forty years.

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