Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Distance, Chapter 1


Nine-thirty in the morning, and the phone was ringing….on a Saturday.

“Doug Peterson,” he answered, not quite awake.

“Doug, it’s Cammie. Do you have the news on?”

“No, why would I? It’s Saturday for Pete’s sake. I was still in bed. Are you still in New York?”  Cammie was his girlfriend of four months. She was attending a conference for personnel directors; paid for in full by the country club she worked for.

“There’s been a big earthquake out West.  In Washington State of all places, and they think that Mount Rainier might have erupted, too!”

“Really? Huh,” he said, thinking, ‘What does that have to do with me?’

“Our conference has been cut short. They were going to have a big teleconference tie in to Seattle to Club Salish. I’m going to try to get a flight out this afternoon.”

“OK, let me know when you get your flight figured out.  Maybe we can hit Campagne for dinner?”

“Maybe, we’ll have to see….Oh, I have another call on my cell. I’ll call you later. Love you!” he heard as the line clicked off.

‘No sense in trying to get back to sleep,’ Doug said to himself as he opened the bedroom blinds.  The snow had let up overnight, but it was still heavy overcast, and looked damned cold.  

Doug, at forty-one, had been divorced for three years, and out of a full time job for four days, as of yesterday. His ex lived up in Wisconsin and had remarried, taking her three kids from her first marriage with her.  He hadn’t spoken to her since the divorce was finalized.  He did miss the kids from time to time, but didn’t miss paying the alimony. That ceased when Brenda remarried.
The loss of his job had hit him fairly hard.  He’d worked his way up at the restaurant supply company from loading dock worker to a division manager in twenty years of work, and as the economy soured he’d had to give out pink slips across the entire mid-west, culling the herd of employees, shrinking product lines, shedding customers. He didn’t think much of it; there had been recessions before and the company took the opportunity to eliminate the underperforming sales units, products, warehouses and staff. He was sure this would be no different…at first. When the company profits continued to slide over six successive quarters, entire divisions were shed.  The southwest…really, anywhere that the real estate bubble raged…was the first to go.  Then the southeast—Division Two—his original territory, had closed all operations.  Division One—the Chicago based headquarters territory, was the last to be pared. 
His 401K was still with the company, he was still hopeful that they’d bring him back as the economy turned around. Unemployment wasn’t great, but it would at least pay some of his bills.  He’d had to scale back on the extravagances that Camille had come to enjoy, but his credit cards were available.
After a hot shower, he turned on the cable news. The hosts were going over the earthquake that had hit the Northwest overnight, and the doubled-down disaster of Mount Rainier erupting at the same time.  The reporter at the moment was in Oregon, which had also been hit by the ‘subduction earthquake.’  Doug had never heard of such a thing.
‘Lotta people dead out there,’ Doug thought as he buttered the last English muffin in the package.  The two-bedroom apartment had a great kitchen, granite countertops, a big commercial refrigerator, and a big pantry area.  He’d never managed though, to get too far beyond enough food for dinner with the girlfriend of the month and some convenience (junk) food.  Cammie had managed to fill up part of a shelf in the fridge with yogurt, which Doug despised; and some dried fruit in one of the cupboards.  A few frozen burritos, diet frozen dinners, cans of soup that were God knows how old, and some juice concentrate, and that was about it for the kitchen stocks.  Doug flipped between channels on the plasma display; found the traditional television networks devoting all the resources of their talking heads to the disaster, along with all their spin-off and subsidiary channels. Even the sports channels were simulcasting the live feeds from New York, L.A., and the reporters trying to get into the disaster area. 

“There is simply no way to assess the devastation in the Northwest at this time due to the difficulty getting to the epicenters of the multiple earthquakes and now the airborne hazards of heavy ash fall in much of the Puget Sound area.  The magnitude of this earthquake is at least 8.0 in the Puget Sound region, probably higher…..and the fact that a major subduction earthquake has not occurred in several hundred years means that the devastation along the coastlines…and the probability of a tsunami in the Western Pacific as a result…will rival if not exceed the devastation of the Indonesian disaster….”

Doug watched the map of the quake and volcano disaster areas, reaching from southern Oregon through southern British Columbia, across both eastern Washington and Oregon, and into Idaho.  He’d had many business contacts in the Northwest….it was almost a certainty that some of them had died.   He was interrupted in the channel surfing by his cell phone ringing. His ex-wife’s ring tone; “The Bitch is Back,” by Elton John. It seemed appropriate right after the divorce, but he’d never changed it, despite her kids calling him a few times a year. He was beginning to realize she was right about him…not that he had any intention of changing; he liked his life.

“Hey, Bren.  How’s it going?” he said, trying to surprise her with civility.  He wasn’t angry anymore…he really didn’t have much emotion toward her at all, he realized.

“Hi, Doug.  I…just wanted to make sure you were OK.  I thought you might still have that old travel schedule. You would’ve been in Seattle…” She was right, first month of the quarter, middle of the month meant Seattle, then Portland, then San Francisco. He hadn’t had that schedule in eighteen months, since the economy started to really tank.

“I’m fine. I’m in Chicago,” he said, weighing the aspect of breaking the news of his termination. ‘Tell her or not?’ he thought. ‘Not right now,’ he answered himself.  “How’re the kids doing?” knowing perfectly well they were doing fine.

“They’re fine. I was just….concerned; that’s all. Kids were, too,” she said, probably correctly.

“The West Coast Division was shut down eighteen months ago,” he said truthfully. “Company’s contracted quite a bit,” he said, not telling her that he’d been part of the contraction.

“OK. I’ll tell the kids, then,” Brenda said.

“Everything OK in Wisconsin?”

“Yeah, actually. Kids took forever to settle into their new schools.  They’re playing broomball over on the pond behind the house while they can.  Big storm coming in tonight,” she said.  She’d remarried about a year after the divorce. The kids had sent a picture taken in front of the house…it looked huge.   “Doug, I better go now. Matt will be home any minute.”

“Thanks for checking, Bren. Take care,” he said, meaning it.

“You, too,” she said, and the line clicked off.   New husband, new house, new city, new life. He’d stayed in his adopted hometown, she’d moved back to Wisconsin, not far from her parents.  He put the phone back into the charging cradle and it rang again immediately…Cammie again.

“Hey, babe—get a flight?” he asked.

“No, and we’re not going to get one. What’s out there at the airport is booked solid. We’re supposed to get a nor-easter’ by tomorrow morning. I’ve been trying everything.  It’d be stupid to try to drive.”

 “You might be sitting there awhile.  Hope you brought a good book.”

“Lakeshore Club is picking up the tab, and this is a five star hotel on Central Park. I think we’ll be well taken care of!”

“Keep me posted.”

“I will!  I can’t wait to get home—I have some new things to show you!”

“Really…do tell,” Doug said, knowing exactly what she was talking about.

“Yvonne and I went out last night.  We found the greatest little shop!  I hope you like black!”

“As long as you’re in it, or out of it…it’s all fine with me,” he said, wondering if another round of phone sex would be on the schedule today.

“I’ll be both,” she said in her distinctive seductive tone.   “Have to go now—we’re going to do a little more shopping. Fifth Avenue calls!”  she said, giggling. 

“We’ll talk later,” he almost got out, as the phone clicked off.

Cammie’s passion was her image, and she took it as seriously as anyone took anything.  Her apartment closets were neatly organized by season and color, with matching shoes, handbags, and all the other necessary accessories for a country club personnel director. The two bedroom apartment had no room for guests as the second bedroom had a central island devoted to more clothing storage, as well as lighting that could be adjusted to model the clothes and makeup for the many social functions that she organized.
Doug indulged Cammie as much as he could, which utilized a fair percentage of his discretionary spending on attracting her, landing her, and maintenance.  Things came with prices, including relationships.  In his dead marriage, he’d allocated perhaps too much money on his own on-the-road entertainment, and not put enough away for retirement or for college funds for the children that Brenda brought into the marriage.  The stress of Brenda’s expectations of him financially grew to the breaking point.  He realized that she was right, too late of course.  No matter now, she was being taken care of the way she expected, her kids were provided for.  It had worked out in the end, as things always do.  That he was frequently enjoying the company of a supple twenty-seven year old soothed old wounds.

Since the divorce, had become fully vested in the corporate 401K, which he could have done at age twenty-six, instead of forty. The inheritance from his late parents was spread between several high-performance mutual funds, which hadn’t really performed anywhere near as well as his broker had said they would.  With Cammie part of his life though, he really didn’t mind.  She made him feel much younger, although fourteen years still separated them. He had a long way to retirement, and even with the real estate bubble now deflated, and all the banking bailouts and shenanigans, he was still optimistic about his financial future. As the television continued repeating the same aerial coverage of damage in Portland, and the volcanic cloud aimed like a fire hose at Puget Sound, he thought about his job search plans for the coming week, and his plan to present himself to his prospective employers.  He’d filed for unemployment immediately after his exit interview; an ordeal that took three hours and was one of the most humiliating things he’d ever had gone through.  He hit the ‘mute’ button on the TV, leaving the reporters to speak with their blank looks to a glass lens.
He’d made a few contacts over the past few days to former clients and a few competing companies, with some potential for interviews in his field of expertise. There were only a handful of major restaurant supply houses in the nation, and fewer that could handle equipment leases and purchase, operation and maintenance; fewer still that could negotiate all the details of supplying large and small restaurants with everything needed to thrive, including contract food production. 
Leinhardt National had been one of those firms, an old school, well-respected company that had been slow to adapt to the obvious signs of the economic slowdown; his own V.P. had a long talk about it in his exit interview. Regent Performance Group had moved quicker, reducing their overhead ahead of the real slowdown, positioning their business units to leverage their strengths, and making a few overtures to Doug over a year ago.
He’d spent a few days analyzing the Regent business model, including reverse-engineering their service areas from the locations of national distribution centers. What he noticed is that Regent had radically realigned their service model to serve only the highest performing profit centers. Leinhardt National on the other hand, served virtually all significant population centers, large and small, essentially subsidizing the smaller operations from the large. Where Leinhardt failed was continuing to support the bleeding smaller markets, while not capitalizing on their established marketing presence and branding.  Regent was smaller by more than half, but had four hundred percent more national advertising than Leinhardt, and a policy of eliminating any business element that had two successive quarters of lower than projected performance. ‘Brutal, but necessary,’ Doug thought to himself. ‘This isn’t a business for the weak.’
Regent would be the first call on Monday morning. He spent the next hour creating five different resumes, each tailored to the five companies he’d pursue this week.  By the time he was done, he realized he was missing the pre-game for the NFC division playoffs.   He hit the mute button again, not looking at the screen.

“Unprecedented resources are being routed to the Pacific Northwest for the rescue and recovery effort,” the President said, “and we share your suffering and are mobilizing all available resources to respond to this disaster. National Guard as well as FEMA and regular units of the military are responding at this time in rescue efforts and clearing access roads and stabilizing bridges into the Northwest. Emergency shelters are being set up throughout the region, with evacuations planned in heavily affected areas. Michael Brown, Undersecretary for Homeland Security, will now comment on our current situation from the Homeland Security Headquarters.”

“Good day.  The series of earthquakes that struck the Pacific Northwest along with the sudden eruption of Mount Rainier have created an unprecedented emergency in the history of the United States of America.
The nation is faced with tens of thousands of dead, a number that is certain to rise. The physical devastation has destroyed one of the most advanced technological centers in the nation, as well as key elements of our national security and military infrastructure. Rescue teams from around the world are being recalled to home soil at this time with the first teams already on the ground, moving into the Seattle region from the south. Serious damage from the subduction earthquake is present in virtually all of Western Washington and Oregon; southern British Columbia. Secondary earthquakes were triggered within minutes of the initial quake by the main quake, resulting in further damage hundreds of miles inland, well into Idaho.
The quakes were strongly felt from mid California well into Canada, with extensive damage reports from the entire Pacific Northwest and into western Montana. The full extent of the lahar flow that initiated at Mt. Rainier in the initial event is not known at this time, nor is the extent or depth of ash fall in the Seattle region. As we stated earlier this morning, the current low-pressure system is causing strong winds moving from the southeast to the northwest, which has had the effect of directing the majority of the eruption toward the urban areas of King County….”

A half hour later, the NFC Division playoff game started, Packers against the Saints. Snowing at Lambeau, but there were empty seats, unheard of in the regular season, let alone in a playoff. Throughout the game, the commentators broke in with news from the Northwest, and neither team seemed to play with the spark of a potential championship contender.  The telecast was free of commercials as well. When there was a break in play, the network went to either the national anchors, now in shirtsleeves and looking as if they’d been up all night, or to regional affiliates.  Crawlers on the screen already were asking for donations through the major charities.
New Orleans won, thirty-one to twenty-eight.   Later that evening in the AFC, the Patriots beat the Chiefs.  Doug’s dinner was a large combo pizza and three beers.

January Fourteenth
9:30 p.m.

“Now they’re saying Monday at the earliest!” Cammie said with an irritating whine.

“Your boss is with you. It’s not like you’re going to have a tough time explaining,” Doug said.  She sounded a bit off, he thought.

“I didn’t plan on five days here, and I didn’t bring that many outfits.”

He thought about a proper response, and wisely decided there wasn’t one. The more she talked, the more he realized there seemed to be something wrong.

“Cam, are you OK? Feeling all right?”

“Of COURSE I’m just FINE! I’m stuck here without clothes to wear and we’ve eaten at all the restaurants and I NEED TO COME HOME!” she said with more than irritation, but with anger.  

“Well, OK. Just asking,” Doug said, becoming concerned.

“I just don’t know how to do this. I don’t know what to do!”

“Hey, Cam, is Julie there?” Doug asked. Julie Forsythe was the country club manager, and Cammie’s boss.

“Sure. Hang on a sec,” she said, not even questioning why Doug would want to speak with her.

“Hello, Doug?” Julie Forsythe said.

“Hi, Julie.  Uh, I’m not sure how to ask this, but is Cammie OK?  She sounds, a little ‘off’,” he said.

“Well, I’m fine Doug.  Yeah, this delay is really unexpected. I’m hoping we can get home soon,” Julie said. Obviously she couldn’t answer directly.

“Is she having some sort of medical issue?”

“Yes, it sure is coming down outside,” Julie said. “I think it’s probably going to get worse.”

“Can you manage this?” Doug said, increasingly worried.

“I don’t think so, I think the hotel will have to help clear all that snow.”

“I can call the front desk, and contact the concierge.  Hopefully they’ll have a house doctor that can drop in.  Do you know of any meds she’s on?”

“No, not even remotely,” Julie said. “She just went into the bathroom. Doug, she has a serious problem. I think she’s manic depressive or obsessive compulsive or something. She’s got six outfits that she hasn’t even touched yet.  She brought four suitcases for this trip. Have you ever seen her act like this?”

“No. Never,” he said. “Is there anything in her personnel file about this? You’re her boss…”

“Can’t review any of her medical files due to privacy laws, and I’ve only been there five months.  Cammie’s been there longer, so I’ve had no reason to look at her file in any detail.”

“I’ll call the concierge when we get off the phone,” Doug said.

“Sounds great!  We’ll see you then, Doug. And thanks for everything—here’s Cam,” Julie said, handing the cell phone back.

“Hey, babe. Sorry to hear about your dilemma.  Anything I can do?” Doug said, not quite knowing how to deal with the stranger that had his girlfriend’s voice.

“From CHICAGO? Right,” she sneered. “Get real.”

“Just trying to make it easier,” he said, looking for the exit door to the conversation.

“Then SEND ME SOME CLOTHES!” she yelled before ending the call.

“Well, that was pleasant,” he said to the phone.  Doug opened up a web browser on his laptop and found the hotel number.

An hour later, Julie called him back. Cammie had resisted talking to the concierge and doctor, but within a few minutes had decided everything was fine, and went with the house doctor to a local hospital.

Doug didn’t get much sleep that night. 


  1. Another GREAT one in the making!!

  2. WOW!

    Interesting to see it from an outsiders perspective and I can't wait to see where this one goes.

    I already love the potential twists with the new characters.

  3. thank god you started another one

  4. Shaping up as a great read!.. nicely done...


Comments are welcome!