“We need to talk.”
No other four-word sentence manages to combine a plea with a threat quite so effectively. I ought to know. I hear it often—from subordinates and superiors, from friends and family. In every case, my blood pressure spikes, my palms grow sweaty, and I start looking for a way out. As in “Oh, no we don’t.” Not that I ever say that. But I want to.
I look at the person who’s just ruined my day. “Can it wait, Wendy? I have a meeting in”—quick peek at watch—“about two secs.”
“That’s what you said the last time.” Her pudgy arms are crossed, her thick brows furrowed. I’ve seen that look before. But, right now, I just can’t deal with it.
“I’m sorry. It’s just— I’m all tied up in those Pangaea negotiations these days. If I miss even one session, who knows what will go wrong?”
She spins on her heel, stalking off down the corridor, her three-inch spikes gouging holes in the industrial-grade carpet.
“I’ll catch you later!” I holler.
The meeting is actually at three o’clock, which would, theoretically and otherwise, give me plenty of time to deal with Wendy’s issues and still be able to meet Rachel for our regular lunchtime tryst. Only, I don’t want to talk to Wendy. She’s a pain in the ass. Always telling me gossip and things I’d be better off not knowing—especially because I can never seem to remember when I’m supposed to keep a secret and when it’s okay to pass the rumor on.
Anyway, I have enough on my plate. Rachel, for example. Lately, she’s been pushing for “commitment.” Like I’d ever leave Judy and the kids. Rachel doesn’t want to meet me at the hotel this time, suggesting lunch at Tony’s instead, defending her choice with, you guessed it, “We need to talk.”
No, we don’t. We need to find stress-releasing sexual oblivion in each other’s arms like we usually do. I‘m perfectly willing to fund the room (and the occasional champagne from room service), but don’t want to have lunch with Rachel. And I certainly do not want to talk in the sense that she intends. In fact, I’m tempted to cancel our little rendezvous and let her wonder—hopefully, worry—what that means. I do, after all, have to prepare for the three o’clock.
I am dreading it. Mort wants us to say yes; I think we should say no. Mort’s my boss. Even at this late date, I continue to marshal the facts, canvassing my colleagues in search of support. Nearly everyone agrees with me. Save the Earth’s Wildlife (aka STEW) should not permit Pangaea Publishing to use our name, not to mention our logo, in a new, internationally circulated photo magazine—“the rival of National Geographic”—that will feature gorgeous full-page photographs of the Earth’s endangered ecosystems. Pangaea has already lined up the VISA and MasterCard mailing lists of customers who pay in full monthly. (They’re the only ones who could possibly afford a subscription as the magazine will not carry advertising.)
And, okay. I was tempted use that loathesome same four-word sentence on Mort when the idea first manifested itself three weeks ago. But Mort and I have difficulty dealing with each other face to face. He hates my guts. I think he’s stupid. So I sent him an e-mail outlining my reasons: STEW has always conditioned use of its logo on our approval of editorial content—for obvious reasons. Yet, the proposed new magazine’s publishing schedule does not allow sufficient time for content review. Mort’s counterargument: “We can always do what other journals do: We’ll just have Pangaea put a disclaimer at the front of the magazine that the views expressed are not necessarily those of Save the Earth’s Wildlife.”
Like people ever read the fine print.
Aside from editorial reasons too numerous to mention, I have other reasons, too: If STEW could afford to publish a full-color, glossy photo magazine, we would already be doing it—and controlling the editorial content. But we can’t afford it—both financially and politically. Financially, magazines published by nonprofits are a black hole sucking up nonrestricted funds faster than they can be solicited. Politically, we know that donors of restricted money want it spent on conservation, not a costly collection of photos that, one hopes, will eventually be recycled into something more environmentally helpful.
Mort’s counterargument to that: “But we’re not publishing it. Pangaea is. This way, we can have our cake and eat it; and the donors won’t have a leg to stand on.” (Mort always uses clichés.)
Then I get the call from Alex, the editor I deal with at Eden Press, publisher of our scholarly books. He’s married to our board liaison, Delia. Rumor has it Alex has been angling for a job at Pangaea Publishing as the Washington editor of the hoped-for glossy. “We need to talk,” he says.
“Not now, Alex. I’m up to my ears. Let’s catch up after the three o—”
“How could you do it!” he screams.
Yanking the phone away from my ear, I say, “Do what?”
“Everybody knows where you’re coming from. You’re a f***ing troglodyte!”
“You don’t have to talk like—”
“Are you paying attention? You’re days are so numbered. When I told Mort you’ve been going behind his back—”
“Nobody speaks to Edgar without going through Vicky,” he snarls. (Edgar’s the chairman of the board; Vicky’s our executive director.)
“Well, I certainly haven’t.”
“Is your name Ted?”
Actually, it’s my nickname, which is what everyone calls me. But no way would I be so foolish as to go over Mort’s head—and Vicky’s—to the chairman of our board. I have a very clear mental picture of Edgar’s reaction if I were ever to say, “We need to talk.” Nuh-unh.
Stunned, I hang up. Then I call Delia. “Your husband is furious with me,” I tell her. “He thinks I’m pulling an end run with the board on the Pangaea thing.”
“Oh shit,” she replies. “I told Wendy to give you a head’s up. I guess she . . . Damn. It’s my fault. I sent Alex an e-mail tipping him off that Ted had a little chat with Edgar about risks versus rewards on Pangaea.”
“I wasn’t talking about you, Ted. I was referring to the other Ted. Ted Fulton. Alex’s boss? He doesn’t want Alex to leave Eden. Oh dear. Let me call him and straighten this out.”
It’s too late—in more ways than I thought, as I notice the time. One o’clock. An hour late for a lunch I forgot to postpone, cancel, whatever. Rachel will be furious, so furious that she might at this very moment be calling my wife, saying, “We need to talk.”
Oh, God. Lose the wife and kids? Lose the afternoon delight? Why not go for the trifecta? Mort’s been looking for a reason to dump me, and now he has it. Alex can explain about the Ted mixup all he wants. It won’t change Mort’s mind. In fact, it’ll make his day. Even if I could manage to pull off a complete turnabout at the three o’clock meeting (something my conscience mightily resists), I’m eventually going to be canned.
I wonder if there’s any way I can save my job. With a heavy sigh, I head down the hall and poke my head inside Mort’s office. “We need to talk.”