By the time he slithered away in high huff and handcuffs, Mike Banter had nearly extinguished what remained of the marriage of Jim and Leslie Burk. Jim was one of six sales technicians unlucky enough to work for Banter at an instrument manufacturer desperate for business and obliging to tyrants.
I knew more about Jim and Leslie—about Banter and Abday Measurement Solutions too—than either of them suspected. They usually visited separately. Leslie wanted to plant roses and would cross our adjacent driveways when I was in the backyard tending mine: nothing tricky—a row of red Double Delight alternating with pink First Prize along the back fence, Gold Medal on both sides of the driveway in front of the garage. Leslie liked Gold Medal. I helped her plant half a dozen bushes where the sun hit the Burks’ backyard right and showed her how to feed and prune. While we worked, she talked. And I listened. Jim liked beer more than roses. We’d share a cold one now and then on my patio, sometimes more. Jim talked. I listened.
Jim and Leslie, a technical writer, bought the suburban, brick-veneer two-story next to mine after a few years of apartment life close to downtown Houston. They were daunted by the mortgage but eager to make babies. Someone like me, a silver-haired widower, retired and always home, offered them assurance that people survive most of what they worry about, like staying employed and making house payments for thirty years.
Sure enough, just before February pruning a year or so after they moved in, Leslie became pregnant. She was ecstatic. Jim was too, but the new responsibility changed him, mostly for the better. Earlier, he could be nonchalant about work and career, even a little lazy, but the approach of parenthood made him serious, maybe too serious. He wondered how I balanced the responsibilities of work and a marriage that lasted fifty-four years. I told him I learned from my mistakes. Once, Jim asked if I’d ever had a bastard for a boss. Mike Banter’s reign of terror in Jim’s department, Flow Systems, started just before Leslie came home with happy news from her obstetrician.
“You make the best of it,” I answered, generalizing as I always did when discussing my former work. “The worst of them never last.”
Banter, Jim told me, rolled into Flow Systems like a tank into battle. Someone asked about his management style. “Body parts!” he replied. In his first week as department head, Banter laid off three sales techs, commandeered their biggest accounts, and spread the remaining work among survivors. He told Jim and his colleagues to make the most of nights and weekends. “If you do an outstanding job,” he said, “you can keep it.”
Leslie worried about Jim’s distended workdays and Saturdays at the office. She wondered if the load would be permanent. She wondered if Jim would have time to play with the baby, to coach sports, to attend school meetings, to participate in parenthood. She wondered all this through her first trimester and well into the second. She wondered why Jim no longer talked about work.
“Do you have kids?” Leslie asked one day.
“Well,” I said, hesitating because the question always jostled me, “no.”
Banter was worse than a tyrant. He was a bully. At one meeting, he berated one of Jim’s coworkers in front of the other techs, calling him a screw-up who shouldn’t be allowed near a pressurized system. The guy made a mistake during a training simulation about some fancy installation. In the real world, Jim said, a backup valve would have prevented disaster. Miscalculations happen. During the scolding, the guy shook and looked like he might cry.
“After the meeting,” Jim said halfway through his second beer, “I waited thirty minutes and went to Banter’s office. I told him if he ever treated me that way I’d walk.”
“Good for you,” I said.
“It was a mistake.”
“We all have lines nobody should cross.”
“I need my job,” Jim said. “With the baby on the way, I think I fucked up.”
“He didn’t fire you.”
“No, he didn’t. He just laughed.”
Leslie never mentioned the bullying part of Jim’s work. I figured Jim never told her about it. I understood why. I never wanted Margie to know when I got pushed around. Her knowing about the enemies I made was worry enough.
The closer Leslie got to her due date, the more anxious she became. I’d be touchy too, if I was carrying all that extra weight in a Houston summer and having to pee all the time.