took American Express
Later, it was clear that this was the problem. Unbridled consumer lust for closure coupled with the ennui of the train; both combined in a soupçon of devilment somewhere between New London and Providence.
"New London, Connecticut. New London. Rearmost car and first car doors will not open. Please move to the middle of the train to debark."
The Acela was nearly empty, this Sunday late night. A few students traversing the Northeast Corridor, filtering back to dorms and homes in alternation. Some determinedly bored business travelers held down a smattering of seats, their worn copies of The Economist and The Wall St. Journal winking assumed prosperity at the blue cloth of the bucket seats.
I had finished both magazines, taken three pages of pointless notes to myself, listened to both CDs I had with me (twice) and drunk three cups of coffee and four soft drinks since leaving Washington DC's Union Station. The last leg of the trip loomed. I determined to power through it, grimly staring at the cloth headrest cover of the unoccupied seat ahead of me. I could make an hour, easy.
"Pardon me. May I?"
The question was jolting, given the emptiness of the train. I looked up, reverie broken, into a pleasantly forgettable face. The man in the aisle carried only a briefcase and a sports jacket over one arm. I looked around the train, somewhat pointedly I am ashamed to say. My assailant laughed, taking this in stride.
"Oh, I know. I'm sorry. I just need to chat a bit. You don't mind, do you? We could fill the time." He smoothly placed the briefcase in the overhead bin and threw the sports jacket in after it with a soft clunk, swinging past me before I could object and settling into the window seat. He adjusted the seat back once before sitting back with an unmistakable air of relish.
"I love this train."
I grunted, once, and pulled out my copy of Business 2.0, opening to the editorials again. My neighbor kept talking. "I mean, look at the old ones. Five and half hours between New York City and Boston, I don't wonder their ridership was so far down. This is the life, though, really- Logan Airport isn't bad, but good heavens, New York..." he made a disapproving clucking noise and looked out the window at the heavily tinted shoreline sliding slowly by as it picked up speed. I looked over.
"You clucked." I have no idea why I said that.
"I did!" He laughed delightedly, happy (it seemed) to turn back to the dimly lit interior of the train. "I actually did. You're quite right."
I couldn't find any way of breaking off my completely involuntary conversational opening, so I brazened it out. "I haven't heard a cluck of disapproval since third grade. I had this teacher..."
"Was she English?" The interruption was followed instantly by a guilty look. "Oh, pardon me, please continue."
I laughed in spite of myself. "That's the damndest- yes, yes she was, I think. Maybe Irish. I'm not completely sure now."
"What was her name?"
"Oh..." I actually thought about it for a time, but nothing came to me. "Do you know, I can't remember."
"That's funny what people remember. You remember the cluck, but not her name."
He shook his head, then seemed to remember himself and held out his hand. "I'm sorry to interrupt your grim session."
I shook it - it seemed the thing to do - and shrugged. "Another hour plus to go. Something had to give."
"Are you a businessman?" The question was out of place; I'd never heard anyone called a businessman in person before, even those who quite clearly were. It was quite impersonal.
"I suppose I am. Hadn't thought of it that way before."
"No-one ever does. The other day, someone asked me if I was in removals, and I said Why yes, I am. Same reaction."
"Yes, I'm in removals."
"I had always thought your profession all looked like bruisers."
"No, no, that's in the British sense...just movers, really, so of course, they do. No, I'm in consulting removals, and we're a much more artistic lot."
"Artistic? How so?"
"Well, you take your average tradesman today," said my seatmate enthusiastically, turning slightly to face me. "Even the good ones - and there are some - take no joy in the chronological impermanence of the act of creation."
I confess my face must have betrayed my complete confusion. He took note swiftly and hurried to explain. "No no, it's not that they can't take joy in it. The world, though, has schooled them that the product of their labors should be a source of joy. The end product. The final output. It's a Marxist theory of completion, really; sort of ironic. The worker tricked into producing for the capitalist through pride of art."
"I suppose I hadn't thought of it that way."
"Nor should you have. I take it you're in sales management?"
I nodded suspiciously.
"Oh, don't be taken aback. You had that look of weary responsibility about you."
Somehow, he pulled it off without a trace of sarcasm, and I felt my shoulders relaxing.
"See? You can't take joy in the creation, because you've been divorced from the output. Your subordinates might. What business are you in?"
"Ah, software, might've guessed. Yes, of course. Have you read The Soul of a New Machine?"
I admitted that I had.
"In that book, now, the manager was in fact artist. The engineers argue, at the end, over what in fact the manager had created, and one die-hard (who happened to be correct, if you ask me, which you didn't, I admit) said that the manager had created the machine, without setting hand to tool or drafting table once. Others objected, saying he'd created the atmosphere, the team, the, oh, whatever; his supporter, though, was adamant and stated unequivocally that this manager had created the machine - it was more his creation than any of theirs, especially given (as Kidder had mentioned earlier in the book) no one person any longer had a complete picture of what every part of this computer they were building did - it was too complex."
I just shrugged, fascinated despite myself.
"So fast-forward. Now, no matter what your team ships, or doesn't ship, you don't create. There is no thing that flows out into the world with your name and stamp on it. There is a product, but it's not yours, it's the corporation's. Despite all this, I'm willing to bet that you motivate your programmers and testers and the like by telling them that it's theirs, that they'll get their name on it."
"Yes, of course."
"Well, there you go. Still, I'm a tradesman, not an engineer; I can't deal in the finished product, because rather than make things, I make happenings."
"Removals are happenings?"
"Of course. Anything that happens, is a happening, and a removal...happens. No other way to say it. Now, this isn't as permanent as having my name on a software box or even on a project in the minds of the industry - "he laughed at a private joke- "...but it'll do. It'll do for me, for now, and that is what keeps us going, isn't it."
"I guess it is."
"Hmm." He settled back, looked out the window for a few moments, and turned back, his smile dimmer but still quite friendly. I chanced the question.
"What do you remove?"
His expression brightened, slightly, inwards. Secret jokes, again. "I remove problems."
"You're a troubleshooter?"
"You could say that. You could, indeed, say that."
"What sorts of problems?"
He leaned in slightly closer and lowered his voice. "People problems."
I leaned away, slightly, but he sat back again cheerily, the secret passed. "People problems. Are you a hatchet man?"
"Exactly!" He beamed. "You do catch quickly, I so miss that in the average traveler."
I tried to recall my favorite pejorative hatchet man nickname. "What did they call Jack Welch? 'Neutron Jack?'"
He looked a bit blank. "I don't know the gentleman."
"Corporate raider slash turnaround artist. Formerly with G.E.. They called him that because his usual modus operandi was to nuke all the people and leave the buildings standing when he took over control of a troubled company."
"Ah! Neutron Jack, yes, I get it, that's quite good." He was silent for a moment. "Still, I can't say I would imagine he operated like me, as a craft. Too many layers; too much bureaucracy, too impersonal, really, to operate in the moment not the act."
"You've lost me again." I felt like I'd earned the right to say that.
"Well you see, when he axes people, he does it by issuing orders, making plans - he can't coordinate their actual removal, not the time or the occurrence."
"Why would he?"
My companion looked at me a bit sorrowfully. "Well, that's the act, you see - the happening. That's what makes it a craft, a trade in happenings, and not simply a job."
"You mean individually fire them? Watch the whites of their eyes, that sort of thing?"
"I suppose, yes, in that context."
"That's a bit disturbing. I can't imagine anyone wanting to do that who's quite right in the head."
"But then it's just a job. If you care, really, about the happening, you'll take care of every detail personally, really. Of course, as a consulting removals expert, I suppose I have an advantage; my jobs tend towards the smaller scale, allowing me to take personal pleasure in the work."
"You take pleasure in that?"
"No, not in doing it, of course, but in the staging of it and the management of the happening. If my lot is to make this happen, then I wish to make it happen in as...perfect a way possible, and I've found through experience that only the personal touch has a hope of succeeding."
"Hm. I'm not sure I can imagine a firm hiring a high-price consultant to take care of one or two jobs."
"That's true; most of my work is personal contracts, not corporate. Although the enterprise market is looking up, recently...still, I do prefer private arrangements."
I was tiring, and black humor was roiling in me. I thought idly of the people in my business that I would remove, if given the chance. Phipps, in accounting, for sure. Always audited my expenses with that particular zest of the determined sadist. Ms. Cantrip, my boss's secretary, who lorded her small bit of power over us supplicants every chance she got. "I can see where folks hiring you would have a desire to have it done right."
He beamed again. "Exactly! It's pointless, really, to have it done impersonally. No message, no management of consequences, no handling of extraneous complications. Why, you yourself look like you could stand with a problem or two removed."
I started, guiltily. Surely he couldn't know about Aaron Formin in the corner office, about whose digs I'd been thinking. But his eyes were clear of guile. "Well, sure, there are a few I'd like to have done with..." I broke off wistfully.
"That's not a problem. Like I told you, I specialize in managing all manner of complications for a successful removal. I'm not concerned with authorization or even knowledge of other principals."
"You mean, I could hire you to remove other folks at my firm, even though you don't work there, and they're in no danger of being fired?"
He laughed again. "Why, certainly. I'm a removals consultant, after all. I work for the client. That would be you." He rummaged in the pocket of his shirt and came up with a card, which he handed to me. "Would you like to take a standard removal?"
"How much?" I flipped the card absently, lost in the fantasy once more.
"Quite reasonable. Five thousand dollars each."
He wasn't laughing, even if I was, inside. "What forms of payment?"
A shrug. "Sometimes we take purchase orders, but in the case of a personal contact with no references..." he managed to bow apologetically while seated - "...I'm happy to take the usual methods, plastic, etcetera." He spelled out 'etcetera' with such diction that I had to think of it as a whole word, not an abbreviation.
"Certainly. Most pleased."
"I'd take one."
"You would!" He was, if anything, even happier. "That's wonderful. You see, the art isn't dead; trade isn't dead. Responses such as yours make the trips worthwhile. Now, let me see, I don't have any brochures, I'm afraid, but it's really quite simple. There's a telephone number on that card. When you've determined which removal you'd like, simply call that number. Be quite sure, however, for we take no responsibility for miscommunications, misdirected removal, or even withdrawal of the contract - once called in, the removal is scheduled and I'm afraid we cannot change our schedules once it's in. The trade is very demanding, schedule-wise."
"I do understand." I chuckled. "Wouldn't want to remove the wrong person, or deal with wafflers."
The interruption was subtle. "Providence. Providence, Rhode Island, five minutes."
He looked up. "Oh dear, that's my stop. " He stood, retrieved his briefcase and jacket from the overhead, and shook my hand from the aisle. "I'm so glad to do business with you."
"Hey, I never gave you the credit card information." I grinned at him.
"Not to worry, sir. We have everything we need." He grinned right back, with such certainty my own faltered, and set off up the aisle. I looked at the card. There was a single telephone number printed on the card, in the center, beneath the word 'REMOVALS.' That was all. I turned to look out the window in time to catch the stranger giving me a jaunty wave as he walked off into Providence's station.
All the way to Route 128, I looked at the card. Just a telephone number.
I thought about it, suddenly not laughing, and put the card in my wallet.
The next week was a disaster. The younger crew, after my job, were quick to be solicitous about the failure of my prospective client in D.C. to sign on, sharpening their knives. My seniors had a sort of gentle paternal air which, in the tech field, I'd begun to associate with a certain dread in my stomach and the smell of civil service offices and many, boring government forms, and small checks.
I didn't think about the number at all, at least, until Thursday. Formin wandered in to announce that he had been put on the account of the DC client, and that things were looking up. I gritted my teeth at him, smiled, and produced a stack of Things That Needed Doing to get rid of the smirk on his face. I filled out forms and wrote reviews for an entire hour, breaking a pencil and blotting my favorite pen. Cursing, I rummaged for the pen cap in my pocket, and came out with the card stuck in the pen clip. The number winked at me. Fantasies of Formin standing in an unemployment line overcame me, and in a sort of culmination of the entire bad week I found myself dialing.
It was a woman's voice, not the man from the train. "Yes, I have a removal to schedule, please."
I could almost see the calendar slide into place on her desk. "Certainly, sir. What is the problem?"
"Aaron Formin, damn it." I laughed bitterly at myself, and shook my head. "Look, I'm sorry to bother you. The joke just seemed-"
"Sir, I have you penned in for next Tuesday. Thank you very much."
"Wait! Wait, what do you mean? I haven't even told you-"
"Don't worry sir. We have everything we need." (click).
I stared at the phone, bemused. What the hell?
The weekend brought no solace.
Monday was, if anything, worse; Formin was congratulated in staff meeting for his progress (on my account, damn it) and I found myself on the receiving end of a staff cut and a project acceleration, in the same meeting. By Tuesday morning, I found myself unwillingly dragging myself into work early, coffee aftertaste still acid in my mouth, to try to find a solution to the hole I was in by overworking.
There was a somber mood in the office. I could tell by the number of people around the coffee machine, all standing and not drinking. I punched up a cup of hazelnut. "Somebody die?"
The looks turned in my direction were equal parts fear, superstition and anger. Cold ice ran up my spine, the coffee forgotten. I turned back to the small crowd of sudden strangers. "Someone did die?"
Nods. Cantrip lowered her cup. "Formin. He went under a truck this morning on 128."
I ran for my office, knees shaking, and tore my desk apart until I found the card, resting under my telephone. I dialed the number. It rang five times, and there was no answer.
By lunch, I had convinced myself that it was a coincidence, however. By quitting time (after leaving a meeting in which I had been told, with sympathy, that I would be shouldering Formin's accounts as well as my own...but not to worry, the commissions would reflect the extra work) I felt guilty at thinking of the day's events as a windfall.
The suspicions eased. Work, suddenly challenging in the face of the extra responsibility, took on a new interest for me, and the bump in my paycheck at the end of the month simply sealed my newfound return to enthusiasm.
The next week, my (new) secretary brought me my mail. I went through it with coffee, which was unfortunate, because reading the corporate Amex bill I spat the brown liquid all over my (new) desk.
REMOVALS LTD. read the charge. $5.000.00 USD.
Cold sweat ran down my spine. It wasn't a joke.
Five thousand dollars.
Then my panic turned the corner. Where was I going to explain that charge? Especially to...to...
I frantically punched the number on the bill's charge line, relieved at the woman's voice. "Removals."
"Hello, this is-"
"Hello, sir. Do you have an order?"
I was brought up short. "I..."
"Or do you need to speak to billing?"
"I need to speak to billing, I think."
"Certainly. One moment, please."
I sat back in my chair slowly. The enormity was just now closing on me, in the fashion of one of those awful dreams which is most terrifying for its unceasing insistence that yes, you're really awake, so stop trying to pinch yourself, since it won't help.
"Billing, removals." The voice was male, and familiar.
"Hello! Hello, this-"
"Ah, hello, sir! How are you? How was the service?"
"What? Good God, the service? I didn't...I mean, I can't..." I realized who I was talking to, and fear shut off my words.
"Oh, of course, that's right. Accounting, my mistake. I'm terribly sorry, sir, I had completely forgot you were on a corporate card."
"You mean I don't..."
"No, no, sir, I said we handle complications. This would certainly qualify. Let me look into it and get back to you. There may be a chargeback coming to you, or a credit if we can set things right."
"I-" He'd hung up.
The afternoon crawled. Driving home, I tried to chase the growing ice in my stomach with Scotch, but as unsuccessful. I sat in my living room, in my empty house, and stared unseeingly at the dead fireplace. The phone ringing was a complete non-surprise.
"Good evening, sir." The lady was back. "We're quite sorry. We'd like to offer you a removal credit, if that helps."
God help me, it did. I thought of Phipps, savagely reminding myself of every time he'd cut me for ten or twenty dollars on a traveling expense report. "I suppose it does, yes."
"Wonderful. How can we help you?"
I dangled the phone receiver in my hand, unable to answer, and hung up on her queries. Who the hell was I to decide? What had purchasing power and happenstance bought me into on the train? Describable only as a Faustian overdraft, I supposed. The laugh was bitter when it came, and I finished my Scotch.
The click was soft, and the cool circle on my neck failed to shock me.
The voice, familiar, was sad. Funny, that. "Yes. I hadn't thought, originally, that you'd want to settle up in person."
"Oh, I want to settle up." I threw the Amex card over my shoulder, and heard it slap lightly onto the coffee table. "That'll just about do to screw me out of humanity, don't you think?"
"I'm sorry you feel that way. Phipps would, of course, be entirely on credit. No cost to you."
"Not a chance."
He sighed. "In a way, I suppose I'm glad. This is much more final, don't you think?"
"I do." I was calm, fey.
"It's been a pleasure doing business with you."
Many years ago, a friend and I wrote a page of opening lines for stories. This one's opener was number one on the list.