Max Who

The Trinity poured into Rudy’s office like hot lead. He could almost feel the heat coming off them. If there had ever been a time to play it cool, lean on his mental preparation, this was it. He sat on the edge of his desk. It was the most casual posture he’d ever assumed in an encounter with the three.

As always, Manford Augustine spoke first. “It’s a coup,” he said, nostrils flaring slightly as if he could actually smell the money.

“It’ll give us the largest profit number in company history,” Fitch said, his typically grim expression brightening a bit. “We’ll break last year’s record.”

“We’ll max out the bonus plan,” Augustine added.

Rudy knew all this. He’d done the math. He’d employed an actuarial consultant to refine the estimates. Then he’d hired a second consultant to refine the work of the first. After that he paid the first consultant to shoot holes in the work of the second consultant. Rudy took no chances when the stakes were this high. The results were nothing less than spectacular. Each man in the room would double down on his thirty percent bonus maximum. It meant an additional sixty percent payout on their already generous salaries. For Manford Augustine, the extra payout came to more than nine million dollars. If you were in the mood for accuracy, $9,338,500. In bonus. Quentin and Fitch were not far behind. And the extra bump to Rudy’s wallet, though a fraction of this, was still more than any of his friends could spend buying a house. Carter would blanch at the figure.

A rapping at the door interrupted Rudy’s mental math. It opened without invitation and Joe Titreano slipped in. The general manager of the missile defense division and Rudy’s boss, Joe carried a bouquet of five champagne glasses gathered at the stems in one hand. With the other he drew a magnum of champagne from under his arm. No man of his rank and position had ever been more pleased to serve as bartender.

“Gentlemen,” Joe began. “May I offer you a glass of Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 1995?”

He presented the bottle to the group so they could view the silver embossed crest and lettering against the slate grey label.

Fitch frowned. “How much?”

“Don’t be vulgar,” Augustine snapped, rubbing his hands together. “Open it, Joe.”

Fitch relieved Joe of the glasses and lined them up on the edge of Rudy’s desk. Joe tore the foil from the top of the bottle, exposing the wire muzzle, which he expertly twisted off. He grasped the cork, giving Fitch a sideways glance.

“Since you ask,” Joe said. “Four thousand.”

“Dollars?” Fitch asked.

Joe’s broadening grin served as his answer.

“We’ll drink it slow,” Fitch said.

“The hell we will,” Augustine said. “We’ll throw it back like pirates.”

Joe gave the cork a twist. It popped like a time capsule being opened. Liquid gold flowed into each of the five glasses, tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide cascading to the surface and releasing their sweet vapor into the already intoxicated room.

Rudy watched, his mind flowing with the champagne. The magnum held fifty-one fluid ounces. At $4000 per magnum, it came to $78.43 cents per ounce. This meant each glass, at three ounces per, held $235.29 worth of champagne. Rudy couldn’t help it. The art of numerical dissection had always come easy to him. No doubt the bottle had come to somewhat more or less than exactly $4000. Joe had rounded, which meant the actual cost per glass was slightly different but Rudy couldn’t think about that right now.

Augustine lifted two glasses and handed one to Rudy. It was not an insignificant act. The others picked up a glass each before Augustine delivered the toast.

“To Rudy Hardwick,” Augustine said. “The man who asked, ‘what if we cancelled the post-retirement insurance benefits and made people pay for it themselves?’”

The five glasses tipped. The five men let the extravagant liquid flow over their tongues and trickle down their esophagi into their stomachs.

Augustine smacked his lips. “And I thought you were a tight-fisted prick,” he said to Fitch.

“There’s a new prick in town,” Joe said, with a nod at Rudy.

Fitch’s trademark scowl deepened almost imperceptibly. Rudy took pleasure in the old bull’s mood. Can you see the pasture? It’s time for the young bull to take over.

Joe hurried around with a refill for the group. It was amusing to see him play barmaid.

“Bottoms up, Rudy,” Augustine said. “You deserve it.” And by that, Rudy knew Augustine meant ‘I deserve it’.

Augustine tipped another ounce into his mouth. He held the glass up to the light, swirling the remaining contents. “Powerful and lively, yet delicate.”

“Just like you, Dad,” Quentin added.

This met with amused approval, except for Fitch. “The board still has to approve the plan,” he observed casually.

“They’ll approve what I put in front of them,” Augustine shot back, openly aggravated at the inference that they celebrated prematurely. “They’ll strip down and form a conga line if I hum a tune.”

Every man in the room knew the truth of it. Augustine jingled the Board members in his pocket like loose change. As for the conga line, Rudy blinked away the unsettling visual. He’d seen the Board members.

Quentin scanned the ceiling lights. “Interesting meeting you were conducting just now,” he said, winking. “Was the old guy not changing the bulbs right?”

Rudy measured the mood before he spoke. His approval rating would never be higher. He decided it was jovial enough. “That was Max. He asked to be exempt from the insurance cancellations.”

The statement stopped the room as effectively as if he’d farted loudly.

“On what grounds?” Augustine demanded.

Rudy took time to choose his words. There were things you didn’t say in Augustine’s presence. In his first year Rudy collected and kept an actual list of the words proven to set the old man off. He’d been an eyewitness to the carnage that ensued for those careless enough to stub their toes on one of them.

“Time of service,” Rudy said. “Going on fifty years. Never a sick day. Retiring next month. He believed it meant something.”

Rudy would have said he hoped it meant something but ‘hope’ was one of the words on the list. You didn’t utter it or any derivative. Didn’t think it. He’d developed a complete lexicon of substitutions he could access in real time. Belief was the approved replacement for hope.

Augustine snorted. “It means we’ve been generous enough to employ him for nearly five decades and he has nothing saved for the winter. Lack of preparation on his part does not imply obligation on ours. Fuck him.”

“If you don’t hold firm,” Fitch chimed in. “People will seize on that one exception and argue for their own. It could snowball.”

“Snowball?” Augustine sneered. “With two hundred thousand employees, it could avalanche.”

“That’s what’s wrong with the world,” Fitch observed. “Too many people wanting something for nothing. You make one exception and everyone jumps in. That’s the crack in the dam.”

“Amen,” Augustine said.

Fitch swirled his glass. “Never let an emotional issue become a financial issue.” He drained the last ounce. 

“We have plans for you, Rudy,” Augustine said. “And I’m very tolerant of success. Don’t get soft on us.”

Rudy didn’t mention Max’s four sons, all put through college on a maintenance man’s wage and without a penny of debt. Or that he’d planned on the insurance coverage for decades before having it cancelled on the eve of his retirement. Rudy had broached the topic as promised. He had no intention of putting a damper on his victory party. In the scheme of things, a maintenance worker bucking a billion-dollar windfall wasn’t a talking point.

“I wouldn’t think of it, sir,” Rudy said.   

“Now,” Augustine said, shifting gears, “The Board may ask about the jammer shipment to the Navy. Tell me I can say we’re still on schedule to ship this week so the sale stays in Q4.”

He was talking about the big radar jammer contract. The jammers made Navy jets invisible to enemy radar and the first shipment was due to roll Thursday. Two days before the end of the fiscal year. Nothing like cutting it close.

“The last report from sales is that we’re good to go,” Rudy said, reaching across his desk to pick up the forecast.

Augustine’s response came with a razor edge. “I don’t give a goddam about the sales report. Those assholes have been lying to me for twenty years. I want to hear you say it.”

It could change this quickly. The room went so silent that when Rudy let the forecast slip from his fingers he could hear the single sheet of paper slide across the desk. There was no room for doubt or indecision. He looked directly at Manford Augustine.

“Yes, sir,” Rudy said. “We’ll ship the jammers this week. Full speed ahead.” Even as he said it he made a mental note to call Slick from the airport. If he was sticking his foot in that bucket he wanted back-up from the VP of sales. Walter Fielding, a.k.a. Slick, was the lynch pin on the Navy sale. And the Navy sale was the lynch pin to the fiscal year result. If anyone was on the hook it was Slick. Rudy wanted to hear it again from his mouth. In this room, though, with these men, he could not waver in his confidence. It wasn’t done. Not more than once anyway.

“That’s what I want to hear,” Augustine said. He raised his empty glass, staring into it expectantly. Ever vigilant, Joe darted over to refill it with the Krug Clos d’Ambonnay 1995.

It took three rounds to drain the bottle. Nearly enough money to buy insurance for Max and his wife for three months. Every penny of it to be converted into five streams of pale urine spattering into the gleaming porcelain of the executive suite washroom.

Rudy faced the windows and the sprawling Pax-Jupiter campus. The city of Atlanta stretched beyond it. He’d built a world for himself here. A world on the verge of expanding in ways he couldn’t have imagined when he walked in the door as an intern twelve years earlier. He’d learned to manipulate it, to bend it to his advantage. Keeping company with men he didn’t like was part of the price. He excused Quentin from this. The son would take over in time. He wasn’t his father. Until then, it was what it was. 

He watched their reflections in the flawless glass that lined his office as the men behind him spouted vainglorious bullshit to each other. Regardless of their buoyant mood, he knew very well that any misstep on his part would result in his immediate shunning and dismissal.

Rudy had seen it before. At the first sign of indigestion the Pax-Jupiter Corporation would excrete him from its steaming rectum like last night’s dinner. The problem wasn’t that you made a deal with the devil. The problem was that once your deal went sour you weren’t even welcome in Hell.

But that burden could wait for another quarter and for whatever poor schmuck inherited his job once Rudy made his leap. After his insurance coup delivered the biggest result in company history he’d be a made man. Untouchable. Just five more days and the result was in the bag.

Motion far below caught his attention. It was Max, on the sidewalk, making his way back to the maintenance shop with the ladder and bundle of fluorescent tubes under his arms. Even from this height, it was noticeable. Max’s steady gate had what might be perceived as a spring in it. Perhaps while Max walked he replayed their conversation. Perhaps Max thought of his wife. Perhaps in his mind they were already strolling hand in hand on that beach in Pepsacola.

Rudy told himself not to assign to empathy what could be explained by the tide of champagne rushing through his bloodstream. Don’t get soft. Max would be fine. He’d rearrange his finances to make things work. People typically exaggerated the severity of their plights and Max, just one example of thousands, would sing a sad song if offered the music. Fitch had it right on that count. Make one exception, the whole thing crumbled. 

“The Board has to approve this by Friday so we can release the accruals and claim them as profit,” Rudy said, from the window. “We need to set a timeline for cancelling the benefits.”

“Leave the approvals to me,” Augustine said. He set his glass on the desk and the other men followed him out.

Rudy let them get out of sight before checking the time. His flight left in ninety minutes. He picked up his laptop bag, extended the handle on his wheeled garment bag and walked to the mahogany cubicle that served as the nerve center of the executive suite.

“You ready, Mom?”

Mary Osgood Martin, aka Mom, glanced up from her keyboard. She’d been the executive assistant to the team for twelve years. Mom had watched Rudy’s rise from the beginning. Had protected him in the early days when he needed a guardian angel. She was the closest thing Pax-Jupiter would ever have to a social conscience. Everyone in the suite called her Mom. Even Augustine.

Today she was his taxi to the airport. “Cutting it a little close, aren’t we?” she asked.

“I wouldn’t be happy any other way.” He pulled up Slick’s number on his phone. He needed to hear him say the jammers were in the bag.

Rudy waited as it rang, rifling through details in his head. “And I need you to send a memo when you get back.”

“To?”

“Max.”

“Max who?”

Rudy said nothing. 

“You don’t even know his last name, do you?” Mom asked. 

“I don’t need to know his last name. You know it.”

“What do you want to say?”

“Request denied.”

“That’s it?”

“Let’s go. I can’t be late.”

Mom shook her head, grabbed her purse and followed him to the elevator.

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