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In the Black: Phlegm Brains

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This particular January morning, though, Dirk Rangely seemed to walk through the manufacturing plant in a daze, mumbling incoherently to himself, “H-the-ho-r-yo-toda…”

He was so curiously oblivious to the friendly, grass-roots hellos he so consciously cultivated that a buzz of whispered conversation followed in his wake like the wind through the dry, summer grass of Kansas prairies. Mort Mortenstein, Vice-President/Finance, noticed that those distant horizons upon which Dirk Rangely usually fixed his steely, Marketing gaze were evidently clouded. Mort Mortenstein clenched hard on his pipe, baring his teeth in a hungry grin.

“So, have you read the latest Memo?” Mort Mortenstein probed cautiously as he met Dirk Rangely halfway down the hall at the drinking fountain. Neither he nor Dirk Rangely noticed the young man bent over the drinking fountain sucking at the loop of cool water.

“Memo??!!” Dirk Rangely blurted out in anguished surprise, betraying the root of his sullen mood. Dirk Rangely had not actually read Y.T. Erp, Sr.’s latest memo, but he had eavesdropped on two people discussing its potential ramifications in the company cafeteria, and had quivered with horror at each of their envisioned scenarios. He carefully surveyed Mort Mortenstein’s shorter, pudgier body and the three-piece suit that strained in places to contain it, momentarily awed at this self-inflated accountant’s ability to detect another person’s open psychological wound and stick his finger directly into it. “Oh, er, sure—of course. You, Mort?”

“I most certainly did,” answered Mort Mortenstein earnestly. He pressed his advantage. “Do you think it will help our position in the marketplace?”

“Huh? Who the hell can tell, Mort?” Dirk Rangely said, gingerly passing his hand over the top of his head covered with thick, yet restrainedly curled, salt-and-pepper hair. “I’m beginning to worry about the Old Man and his cryptic memos.”

“He works in mysterious ways, to be sure,” Mort Mortenstein said, adjusting his ever-present, yet never lit pipe from the right side of his mouth to the left. “But let’s not forget his New Year’s Memo of 1957. He quite literally saved the company.”

“Well, I’m not really that worried about the Old Man,” hedged Dirk Rangely, suddenly sensing danger. After all, Mort Mortenstein’s department was in charge of Payroll with a capital ‘P’.

“A stroke of genius to sell size three-sixty O-rings as Hula Hoops after that Navy contract went down the tubes.” Mort Mortenstein chuckled around the stem of his pipe, which added sinister overtones to his laugh. “The books never looked so good—as black as spades.”

“Did I say worried? Actually, that was a poor choice of words,” Dirk Rangely squirmed.

“Then, there was the Memo of 1958.” Mort Mortenstein was relentless. He ground his teeth on the stem of his pipe, causing the hairs on the back of Dirk Rangely’s neck to rise. “We called it the Sputnik Memo. Now, that was a memo.”

“Of course, maybe the Old Man has been under a lot of pressure lately.” Dirk Rangely glanced feverishly up and down the hall for escape from this conversation with Mort Mortenstein. He might have been able to bow out by taking a drink of water, but that idiot was there, apparently trying to drain the Missouri River single-handedly.

“And then, the Memo of 1964,” Mort Mortenstein intoned softly. He took the pipe from his mouth and pointed the stem directly at Dirk Rangely’s heart like a deadly weapon. “I shed a bitter tear. We all did.”

“I’ll bet lawyers are behind all of this right-hand/left-hand stuff.” Tiny beads of sweat began to form on Dirk Rangely’s upper lip. “Or it could be Engineering.”

“Well, Dirk, I’d love to stand here and shoot the breeze all day long with you, but I’ve got numbers to crunch.” Mort Mortenstein stuffed his pipe back into his mouth and smiled savagely, pleased with himself at so unnerving a fellow executive. He walked past Dirk Rangely, giving him a hearty slap on the shoulder. Dirk Rangely thought he heard Mort Mortenstein chuckling to himself as he walked back to his office in Accounting. “And the Memo of 1960—what a sense of humor. What a sense of humor!”

“You know, the Company benefit plan does not cover accidental drownings in a God damned water fountain,” Dirk Rangely barked at the youth still hunched over the drinking fountain. When the boy stood up and turned around, Dirk Rangely found himself face-to-face with Y.T. Erp, Jr. It was quickly becoming one of those days. “Christ Almighty—just joking, son—just joking. You know, a joke, eh? So, how about that Mort? What a character, eh? Of course, how much can you say about a man whose favorite Marx brother is Zeppo?”

Y.T., Jr. shrugged his shoulders.

“So, anyway, you’re still around, eh?” Dirk Rangely put his arm around Y.T., Jr.’s shoulders and began walking down the hall, pulling the teenager along with him. “Are you down on the shipping dock still?”

“No, sir. I’m working maintenance with the Sugarman,” Y.T., Jr. said respectfully, while at the same time eying Dirk Rangely with suspicion.

“Oh yes, that’s right. That’s right. I recall now, but, hey, shouldn’t you be back at old Harry Truman High?”

“I took an early graduation so that I can start college sooner. Classes don’t start until the twenty-fifth, so I’m putting in a few more weeks here at work for extra spending money.”

“College, eh? Ah, yes.” Dirk Rangely’s eyes suddenly focused far down the hall at nothing in particular. Y.T., Jr. was amazed at how glassy Dirk Rangely’s eyes had become on cue and wondered if this man had ever been allowed to attend any institute of higher education anywhere. “Well, believe me, the days you spend haunting those ivy-covered halls will be the best you’ll ever know. So, which university will you be attending?”

“University of California at Berkeley.”

Dirk Rangely stopped dead in his tracks, knowing that Y.T., Sr. had been a Harvard Man after which he had been a Navy Man (not Annapolis either?) before he became the Old Man, and wondered what to make of this apparent act of disrespect and rebellion on the part of the younger Erp. Dirk Rangely vaguely recalled news reports a few months back concerning students in California stirring up trouble over something typically inane like Civil Rights or Free Speech. If he wasn’t careful, he could get sucked into the middle of an Erp family civil war right there and then. This day had certainly been fraught with danger—first the Memo, then Mort Mortenstein and now this. Dirk Rangely hoped that it was not portentous of the rest of the year to come. Rising to the occasion, he smiled down at Y.T., Jr. and said as sincerely as he could, “Well, I’d love to stand here and shoot the breeze all day long with you, but I’ve got numbers—I’ve got a million and one things to do. Remember what I said, college days will be the best days you’ll ever have,” Dirk Rangely smirked and gave Y.T., Jr. a hearty slap on the shoulder. As he began walking down the hall, he called back to Y.T., Jr., “Good luck to you.” And then under his breath he muttered, “You’ll need it.”

“Good morning, Mr. Rangely,” a secretary said as she passed Dirk Rangely in the hall.

“Hi-there-how-are-you-today, Margaret?” Dirk Rangely responded like one of Pavlov’s dogs.

Y.T., Jr. watched Dirk Rangely say hello to everyone he passed in exactly the same way. He wondered if Berkeley, California, would be far enough from Kansas City and if January twenty-fifth would come soon enough to get him the hell away from the abundance of phlegm-brains surrounding him before they drove him crazy.


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