Friday, February 21, 2014

Fiction Friday: The Sweet Bully

Betty White as Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show in the 1970s.
Medusa smiled, but it was one of those artificial smiles that hides all sorts of venom. She seemed to ascribe to the "Sue Ann Nivens" school of passive aggression: if you say it with a smile, it isn't cruel.

Sample dialogue:
SUE ANN NIVENS: I tried to use a floral motif for each inscription.
MURRAY SLAUGHTER [READING CARD HE RECEIVED FROM SUE ANNE]: "To a fine writer whose work I always admired." Why thanks, Sue Ann. But what's that got to do with flowers?
SUE ANN NIVENS: If you spread it on the ground, it helps them grow.
Most conversations with Medusa left her counterpart feeling as if they'd been creatively insulted.

"Do you like your new hair colour?" she asked Jennifer, still smiling.

"Well," Jennifer sputtered, "it's a change, and change is good, right?"

"I guess," Medusa answered lightly. "Though my father always used to say, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it. But let's move on. Do you have the next draft of the shareholder report for me?"

As she perused the report, she steadily shredded Jennifer's dignity and self-respect with a stream of: "No, no, no. That's not what we want to say." She marked the papers liberally with indecipherable scratches. "You have to think of the audience for this. Who are you talking to?"

Jennifer, usually eloquent when put on the spot, was so flustered that her answer came out as a question, rather than a statement. "Our shareholders?"

"Right. So they want facts, but they want them easily digestible. This draft is a hard slog. All those long tangents. "

"But those provide the context." A feeble reply.

Medusa paused. "Make the changes I've suggested and then why don't we hire Fifth & Walden to rework this? Here, call Jane," and she handed Jennifer a business card, as if this had been her plan all along.

Jennifer left with her jaw clenched. She knew the report was good. She'd been doing public relations for more than a decade and knew what to look for in a well-written shareholder report. But she could never nail Medusa down as to what she was looking for. It was as if there were some Holy Grail of writing that Jennifer sought, one that Medusa had hidden so well that one could die searching for it.

She called the consultants, as she'd been instructed.

Days later, the report came back. It had been reformatted and some graphics had been added, but most of the text was unchanged. The cover e-mail commented that the document was actually very good to begin with -- clear, succinct language, good structure. Most of their work had been relatively cosmetic.

Jennifer thanked them and then brought the report in to Medusa.

"Oh, now this is much better. See?" She looked up at Jennifer. "Maybe we should send you on a course."

"Good idea. I'll see what I can find."

Jennifer had never felt so incompetent. Her stomach in knots, she went back to her desk and wrote yet another long, frank letter to Medusa, one that she would never send.

That night, she lay in bed thinking. In her darker moments, she wished Medusa would be hit by a train. Or even that she could somehow feed Medusa shit pudding, like in The Help.

But that was not in her nature. Instead, she resolved to polish her resume and start looking for a new job.

When she arrived at work the next day, she had just put her purse in the filing drawer when Marc, the director of HR approached her.

"Jenn? Can you come with me, please?" He was carrying a manilla folder.

Jennifer's heart was pounding as Marc closed the door to the meeting room.

"I want to talk to you about these," he said and placed printouts of all the e-mails that were in her drafts folder. There were eight, dating back to the time Medusa had started there.

Jennifer felt her face flushing; her chin began to quiver. Don't cry, she thought. Don't fucking cry.

She started to cry.

"Did you write these?"

"Yes. But how did you . . . You can't just . . . "

"Actually, if you look at this information technology agreement you signed, we are allowed to access any data on our corporate servers. And we do conduct random screenings to ensure that our intellectual property and commercial rights are secure. This is not the kind of thing we expect to find, but I didn't feel we could just leave it unaddressed.

"Are you aware," he went on, "that the contents of these e-mails, even though you didn't send them, could be considered insubordination and grounds for dismissal?"

Jennifer didn't speak.

"However," Marc continued. "if they are true, then you have a strong case here for harassment."

"Oh, they're true, all right! But I really don't want to get into further drama. I just want to work, to do my job, and be respected."

"That's clear from these e-mails. I do wish you had spoken up; there might have been something we could do sooner. For now, I want you to know that we have been counselling Medusa for some time on improving her relationships with other staff as well as clients.

"From reading these letters, however, I think it might be best for the two of you to have a sabbatical from each other. I've been in touch with our partners at Goldfish Socks, and they are willing to take you on under a secondment. Is that something you might be interested in?

"Yes! That would be amazing!" Jennifer almost hugged him.

"Great. You can start there this afternoon."

It was all Jennifer could do to refrain from leaping into a Snoopy-style happy dance, but she held it together until dinner that night with Craig, when she toasted her good fortune with champagne.

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