Up From Clay, Part II
Most of Up From Clay, my novel-in-progress, is written in the present tense, but in some chapters I reflect on past occurrences. In this blog, I want to share a chapter from the book. The main character, Mike, is thinking about a past occurrence, namely the day he was fired from his job at a law firm.
Art imitates life. I changed my former boss’ name to protect the guilty, but otherwise this description is almost exactly what happened to me when I was fired from my job at the Southern States Energy Board in February 1992.
Enjoy — or cringe, as the case may be.
I slouched toward the elevator, shoulders slumped, head hung low, a poor man’s MacArthur fleeing the Philippines. “I shall return” did not escape my lips. I was permanently defeated.
Like everyone in our law firm, I had heard whispered rumors of imminent layoffs. For some reason I never understood, I knew it was coming, but I did nothing to help myself. I was stalled in the glow of approaching headlights. Like an animal, I felt powerless to move, powerless to save myself.
Then, ominously, the morning I returned from the Nemeth deposition, I received a note in interoffice mail from J. Kentwood Nimrod, Esquire, the senior partner and chairman of the hiring committee at J. Kentwood Nimrod & Associates, P.A. Mr. Nimrod never expressed any particular desire to see me except when he descended from the 11th floor to deride my performance at employee evaluation time, but he wanted to see me that day. The note instructed me to be in his office at 11:00. As I rode the elevator up to his suite, I was reasonably certain he intended to fire me. I knew a small chance of reprieve existed, but unless the governor called to stay his hand, it did not seem likely.
J. Kentwood Nimrod, Esquire, was a legend in the New York legal community. Not since Alexander Hamilton two centuries earlier had a lawyer so captured the entrepreneurial, anything-goes spirit of the Big Apple’s rough-and-tumble legal world like Nimrod. Although not a trial lawyer, he intuitively understood the principles of legal combat and verbal jousting. At 58, the bearded, silver-haired Machiavellian was a battle-scarred veteran of innumerable political challenges to his regime. With an annual salary of well over $500,000 a year and a work day that started around 10:00 a.m. and ended between 3:30 and 4:00 in the afternoon, he held the best part-time job in New York, maybe anywhere in America. We called him the “Rainmaker” because he brought more money into the firm by eating lunch with a corporate CEO or another powerbroker than did a dozen junior associates billing 2,000 hours a year. The man could make money rain from the skies.
Since the firm’s inception in the early 1970s, many a lawyer had tried to replace Nimrod as hiring partner by placing a mentally deficient brother-in-law or a loyal supporter in his stead, but all such attempts had failed. No partner acting alone, or acting in concert with other partners and associates for that matter, possessed the clout or rainmaking ability to wrest the job from Nimrod’s iron grip.
When confronted with a group of lawyers anxious to oust him as the hiring partner, Nimrod ordered his three administrative assistants to prepare a series of thick, three-ring binder notebooks — which we privately called “data dumps” — the thicker, the better. The notebooks contained information on client names, billing records and other data detailing Nimrod’s financial contributions to the firm over the years. They were circulated to every partner in the firm to demonstrate how much business was directly attributable to Nimrod’s rainmaking abilities. The implicit threat, always present but never voiced, was that if his authority as the hiring partner were successfully challenged, he would leave the firm and take the clients with him into a new, presumably competing, law firm.
In the face of a challenge, Nimrod also called and visited with his clients. During the visit, he produced a letter to be typed on the client’s letterhead stating how pleased the client was with the firm’s services under Nimrod's watch. Lawyers who wanted to replace him as hiring partner would receive copies of the voluminous notebooks as well as letters from the clients praising Nimrod's selfless devotion to, and tireless efforts on behalf of, client interests. Again, the threat was implicit.
The outmaneuvered upstart lawyers generally decided that it would be preferable to curb their ambitions until a later, more opportune time. Ironically, no lawyer who challenged Nimrod’s leadership ever stayed at the firm for more than a year after the unsuccessful coup d’etat. Nimrod believed that lawyers with backbone had no place in his firm. This principle made my fate all the more inexplicable. I had exhibited no signs of moral courage or leadership ability during my brief tenure in his employ.
Despite his ability to play hardball when circumstances so required, J. Kentwood Nimrod, Esquire, also could be charming and witty when it served his interests. Flattery was his weapon and he wielded it deftly, with the skill of an expert marksman. He was the Lee Harvey Oswald of his field. If he ever succumbs to the efforts of an inventive or especially intelligent adversary, Nimrod has a hell of a future in Las Vegas, or perhaps in televangelism.
To those ostensibly above him on the food chain — that is, his clients — Nimrod appeared as an obsequious servant anxious to please or promise any service, no matter how expensive, impossible, or unethical. To his subordinates — employees working in the firm — he was a consummate bully, often screaming or ordering his staff to perform unethical or possibly illegal actions. Given to mood swings depending on how his impending divorce from Tammy was proceeding through family court, how much he had drunk the preceding evening, or how much “tail he was getting” (his colorful description), Nimrod could insist on one action on Monday, reverse himself on Tuesday, and adhere to the original position by the end of the week. Staffers were intimately familiar with what we called the “doe-in-headlights syndrome” — an unlucky attorney or staff person caught in an impending tantrum from the thunderclap that was J. Kentwood Nimrod, Esquire. The afternoon of my departure, I felt like that unfortunate deer: I was too paralyzed to flee even when the ending was a foregone conclusion.
As I had been instructed, I arrived on the 11th floor promptly at the assigned time. The Rainmaker was running late, so the receptionist ushered me into Nimrod’s office to await his return. I sat afloat on the cushions of his office sofa, gazing around the room like a trapped, wounded animal being circled by a relentless predator.
A huge stuffed Marlin was mounted above the desk. Below that, an autographed picture of some former governor of Oklahoma, or maybe it was Arkansas — I get my felons confused — hung on the wall, slightly tipped to the right. In the photograph, the governor and Nimrod wore swim trunks and stood on a boat dock somewhere, no doubt on a fact-finding junket at public expense. The inscription read: “That’s the good thing about you, Kent; you make me look good.”
Nimrod’s desk was a mess; it contained a scuba mask, the latest edition of his scuba newsletter, Diving in the Muff, and brochures for Grand Cayman scattered everywhere. On the credenza behind the desk, where his private telephone sat, was the latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition as well as about a billion pink “While You Were Out” message slips from former and future wives, divorce lawyers, sports psychologists, sex-toy salesmen, plastic surgeons, and hair-replacement specialists.
Next to the phone messages, I noticed my personnel file balanced on top of an old Lexitron VT 1303 word processor that was the rage during the Ford and Carter administrations. Looking around to see if Nimrod’s secretary was at hand, I stepped around the desk and opened the file.
My resume and employment history lay on top, followed by various scribbled notes about my conduct: “Mike is a troublemaker,” “Had to speak to Mike about his attitude again,” “Client says Mike is getting worse,” etc. I recognized the handwriting of my immediate superior, Arlene K. Simmons, a Nimrod protégé. A pattern had emerged: the bases were covered; justifications were in order.
I heard the jingle-jangle of the change in Nimrod’s pockets as he half-trotted down the hall. The man went everywhere in a hurry. Quickly, lest I compound my troubles, I replaced the file and slid around the desk and into my seat just as he slipped inside the office. He swung the door shut behind him.
“Sit, sit, sit,” he instructed without noticing that I was already sitting. He tossed his overcoat toward the coat rack and, for one brief shining moment, it looked as though it might successfully cross the chasm. Alas, it was not meant to be. The garment lay in a crumbled heap on the floor as Nimrod launched himself into his overstuffed executive office chair, the kind with the swivel base.
I noticed that his curly locks and scraggly beard were brighter and fuller than ever. The hair transplant had gone well. Nimrod did not look younger, true, but the badges of honor that time bestows on us all had been banished in favor of a more plasticine look that mirrored his personality perfectly. For some reason, The Picture of Dorian Gray popped into my head as Nimrod began an obviously rehearsed talk, his version of King’s “I have a dream” speech. Nimrod, no doubt, dreamed of my absence from the firm.
“You know, of course,” he said without preamble, leaning back with his hands touching each other at the fingertips, “we need to make some changes around here. The realities of the poor economic climate should not be lost on you, or anyone employed at this firm.”
“Changes?” I swallowed hard. How many pleasant conversations begin with an assault on the status quo?
Nimrod leaned forward, unconsciously chewing on his bottom lip. “Yes. Recently, you may know, I have been reviewing the personnel files and our financial records for the year.”
I nodded. “And?”
“It doesn’t look good,” he admitted, staring at me. “It doesn’t look good at all.”
“Hence the need for these as yet unexplained changes.”
Ignoring the sarcasm, Nimrod placed his finger on the tip of his nose. “You got it,” he said with a slight nod.
“Tell me more.”
Nimrod rocked in his chair. “It’s not easy being the boss,” he mused aloud. It was about as philosophical as he got. “But I am the coach of this team, and as the coach I have to call the plays from time-to-time.”
Never a fan of sports metaphors, I wisely chose to sit in silence. Nimrod philosophized at great length on the theme that uneasy lies the head that wears the thorny crown.
“I have spoken with Kathleen and Caroline,” he said, referring to his two loyal assistants. “And there is no escaping one undeniable fact.”
“I have a feeling that death and taxes are not considered undeniable facts in this context.”
Frowning, Nimrod ignored my remark. “We have to downsize some staff. There’s no way around it. It is unfortunate, but we live in an era of, shall we say, reduced expectations.”
I sighed. “Uh-huh. Mr. Nimrod, uh, sir, with all due respect, if you don’t mind my asking — that trip the partners took to West Palm Beach two or three months ago. Wasn’t that expensive? I mean, in an era, as you say, of ‘reduced expectations,’ shouldn’t the junkets be, you know, the first things to go?"
Nimrod, frowning worse than ever, shook his head. “What’s that got to do with anything?” he asked in a startled voice. Perhaps I had some backbone after all. He looked displeased.
“Well, sir. If we are in such financial trouble now, how is it that we didn't know about it back then? I mean, it seems like Kathleen or Caroline or somebody would have discerned that lean times were ahead. The firm should not have financed the partners’ travel if expenses needed to be cut.”
No question about it: Nimrod was distressed. He dismissed my comments with a wave of his freckled hand. “Let’s not confuse the issue here,” he said as his cheeks glowed red. He looked sunburned. “Regardless of what may or may not have happened in the past, now we have to lay off some staff members if we are to survive. It is a matter of simple economics.”
I had suspected this denouement.
“I wish I could figure out another way,” he lamented as he stroked his beard. It was difficult to tell if he was sincere or if his reflections were merely for effect, the empty gestures of a master thespian. “I have spoken with our largest clients, but even if we could bring in more work in the long term, it would not alleviate the financial pressures in the short run.”
“Are there any options besides layoffs?” I asked in a small voice.
The Rainmaker regarded me through squinted eyes. “Don’t think I haven’t done everything within my power to stop this from happening,” he said in a reproachful tone, inviting an argument.
“I have little doubt of that,” I lied. “I’m just wondering what other cost-cutting measures might be employed.”
Convinced that I was up to no good, Nimrod nonetheless decided to play along. “Such as what? If you have any ideas that would benefit the firm, Mr. Martinez, I would love to hear them.” He sounded skeptical that any idea I might have would benefit anybody.
“Well,” I said, all fear temporarily banished. “I know there are quite a few people, even associates, working at the firm — “ I tried to phrase the comment delicately — “who make salaries larger than the statistical mean. Have we explored the possibility of distributing salaries in a more linear fashion? You know, at least until this financial crisis passes. Then we can get back to the usual inequities.”
I had been too subtle, judging by the expression on the Rainmaker's face. “Huh? What are you driving at?” He leaned forward in his chair. I could see the big vein or artery or whatever it was that jutted out in his forehead when he was faced with unpleasant circumstances apart from instant gratification of his own needs.
“Could we cut some of the larger salaries?” I said, bluntly. “That way, we could keep staff members and avoid layoffs.”
Nimrod thumped his finger on his desk and stood. For a moment, I thought our discussion had come to an abrupt end. Clearly, he was angry with my suggestion.
“Cutting salaries will not help,” he said, not yet ready to dismiss me from his office and his firm.
“Why not?” I figured at that point: nothing ventured, nothing gained.
Through gritted teeth, the coach of our team paced over to the window and turned his back to me. “Overhead, Mr. Martinez. We have a tremendous overhead. You have no earthly idea how much it costs to run a cutting-edge law firm. Computers, library support, electricity, liability insurance. Cutting salaries won't help with the overhead. We can’t charge clients for overhead, you know.” Turning, he smiled. “At least not directly.”
“What's our overhead rate?” Nimrod hated to be asked tough questions, but I could not stop myself.
“I don’t want to get into that,” he said, wheeling his arms in furious circles, always theatrical. “I did not ask you in here to discuss the firm’s overhead rate. I refuse to drill down into the weeds with an associate.”
“No, sir. I didn’t think that's why I was called onto the carpet.”
The change was instantaneous; Nimrod’s attitude softened perceptibly as he slipped into his overstuffed chair. He loved to play good cop-bad cop from one moment to the next. I was conscious at each instant that I bore witness to a master performance by a master thespian. The sincerity of the facade almost stole my breath.
“Let’s be clear. You’re not being called onto the carpet,” he corrected me, chewing on his bottom lip. “I must take issue with such a characterization.”
“Well, sir, I beg to differ. The firm’s attitude since the layoffs were first discussed has been to purge the ‘troublemakers’ — ”
Unaccustomed as he was to outright confrontation without the normal camouflage of verbal repartee and double entendre, Nimrod seemed momentarily taken aback by the brashness with which I asserted myself for the first, and no doubt last, time during my career with the firm. “Now, look here, sir,” he said, frantically groping for purchase where none was to be had. “I realize you might be upset, but I resent your tone!”
“Resent it if you will, Mr. Nimrod. But I’m just telling you that I feel like a persona non grata around the office and I always have.”
Nimrod feigned shock. “Well, sir, you are welcome to feel anything you like,” he said with great distaste. Nimrod did not enjoy discussing nebulous, non-billable concepts such as feelings. He always advised new associates to “keep it concrete” when writing briefs or discussing cases in lieu of pontificating on abstract concepts that did not bring money into the client’s, and by extension, the firm’s coffers. “None of that Yale Law bullshit in the real world!” he often said. “Philosophy be damned!”
“You see, Mr. Nimrod — ”
“ — I take no ownership — none whatsoever — of an employee’s feelings.” He spat out the words as though they tasted indescribably bad. “If you feel that you have been slighted in some way, then I suggest you either formulate your displeasure into an actionable complaint or else suck it up like a man!”
The performance built to a crescendo and I sat powerless to do little more than observe its intricacies, layer upon layer of neurosis revealed for my viewing discomfort. Spittle flew from the Rainmaker’s lips. His sunburned cheeks glowed bright red. His new locks hung down, drooping into his eyes, giving him a vaguely familiar wild-man look. He reminded me of old photographs of Stonewall Jackson, ol’ Blue Light, on the eve of a great battle when he was infested with so much piety and supernatural confidence that only the sound of distant musket fire could wrest him from the grip of his passion.
Nimrod’s performance could not last forever, however; the final curtain was inevitable. “I will not sit here and listen to your disrespectful, smartass comments,” he said, slapping his fist down on his glass desk and knocking the plastic shark paperweight almost an inch into the air. “Goddammit! I am the hiring partner here! I don’t have to debate my practices with anyone, especially an associate!”
J. Kentwood Nimrod, Esquire, wore righteous indignation like the Shroud of Turin.
I looked down at the carpet. One does not argue with a tyrant over the inequalities of the regime.
“Now, then,” he said, calmly after a moment, smoothing his hair back from his face. “As I was saying, we need to cut some staff. My decision will affect quite a few jobs. Yours is one of them.” He took a breath, a quick fortification against doubt. It was a potent elixir. “Ahem. Effective immediately, you will no longer be associated with this law firm. I believe you will find a generous severance package of two-weeks’ pay upon your departure at the end of the day. Please provide your files to Arlene prior to leaving.”
From the moment I received the memo, I suspected he would fire me; nonetheless, I was devastated. A world of difference exists between suspecting that one might lose a job, and knowing. The words were swords; they wounded me with their sharp edges.
Nimrod, a master chameleon, continued to present an Academy Award performance. With tears streaming down his face, he expressed his hopes that I would land on my feet. He sympathized with my plight and, in an apparently spontaneous attempt at magnanimity, authorized me to use the office copier and fax machine for as long as I needed to, or for the first two weeks after my departure, whichever was shorter.
As the Rainmaker mouthed promises to provide me with glowing recommendations while I searched for a job in the midst of the largest recession in a decade, I slipped away from his grasp to seek asylum in happier days. Sitting in the back row of Reverend Wilkerson’s church, I was a teenager again. Wake sat next to me as we listened to his father’s sermon, as inspirational and dramatic as always.
“The Lord does not grant us miracles unless we are deserving,” the big man exclaimed in his confident baritone, a decent imitation of the actor James Earl Jones. His voice echoed into the rafters. “He does not want life to pass us by. The Lord helps those who help themselves.”
“I’ve heard this one only about a billion times,” Wake whispered to me. His remark was punctuated with a giggle.
I shot him a dirty look, but my friend was oblivious to my disapproval.
“Get up off your knees,” Reverend Wilkerson urged his flock, scaring several young children sleeping in the second row into crying. Their parents scurried outside to soothe their frightened offspring.
“The Lord helps those who help themselves,” the reverend said, pounding the lectern. “He can show us the way. He can guide us in our spirit. But we must meet Him halfway. We must commit ourselves.” It was an awfully liberal theology for the Hortense crowd, but they gazed up at the man of God impassively, without comment, like lambs to the slaughter.
“Man, the Bible tells us, has feet of clay. And, man, who comes from clay and returns to clay, is human and vulnerable. Thus, God does not expect us to be more than we are, more than we can be. He does not expect us to rise up from the dead on this earth, as did His only begotten son, our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. But He does expect us to do the next best thing, my friends. He expects us to rise up from clay by leaving behind our fear and indecision. He expects us to be the very best human beings we are capable of being. We must not sell ourselves short. That, friends, is the job of man on earth. That is how man may know God on earth.”
“Praise be to God,” Wake whispered. “Hallelujah!”
“Now, I know some of you have had problems,” the reverend said in a slightly softer tone. “Jobs are hard to find. The economy is depressed. These things I know. It is hard to overcome these and other obstacles.”
“Tell ‘em, daddy.” Wake guffawed. It sounded forced, fake.
“Oh, Wake, you’re evil,” a girl’s voice whispered. I turned and, much to my astonishment, beheld a sixteen-year-old Nell sitting nearby. She and Wake appeared to be drunk.
“I know many of you have turned to drink in an effort to hide your despair,” the reverend said, unaware of the commotion in the back row. “But your answers are not in a bottle. You must ask the Lord for help. And you must help yourselves. Just because obstacles are in our way, we must not lose faith in God the Almighty. Remember Job! Help yourself and God will help you, too. ’Hide them all in the dust together; bind their faces in the world below. Then I will acknowledge to you that your own right hand can give you victory.’”
“If you don't get help from Charter Hospital, for God's sake, get help somewhere,” Wake said with a cackle.
Several people around us whispered, “sssshhhhh!”
“Praise the Lord, and pass the booze.” Wake giggled, releasing a muffled guffaw that brought another round of disapproving glares from the people seated one pew in front of us.
“Ssshhhhh!” a lady in a bird hat said.
Wake found the woman’s appearance to be hilarious and responded with more stifled fits of laughter. “Blackbird singing in the dead of night,” he whispered through tears. “Take these broken wings and up and die!”
I feared we would be ejected at any moment with a scandal to explain to Reverend Wilkerson afterward. I elbowed Wake, but he elbowed me back. Nell draped her arms around both of us, eliciting disapproval from the other churchgoers with her easy-going hint of sexuality.
I saw my grandmother, a woman who lived 500 miles away and who, until that moment, had never met Wake in all the days of his life, marching down the aisle toward us. Her facial expression was stern, angry. She bore down on us with a ferocity she did not normally possess.
“Listen,” she said, grabbing my arm and Wake’s tie. “I don’t know if you boys got ahold of some bad liquor or what, but I want you to be QUIET!”
Her remark was so loud that Reverend Wilkerson halted his sermon in mid-sentence. “Is there a problem?” he asked in a mighty voice. All eyes turned to monitor the response.
“How’s that?” I asked, snapping back to reality.
Nimrod stared at me, irritated. “I said, ‘is there a problem?’ You seemed to be daydreaming.”
“I’m just in shock,” I said. My hands shook. My back was wet with sweat.
Nimrod’s performance, already noteworthy, became even more impressive as he slipped into empathy mode. “I know this is hard for you,” he half-whispered. “But think what it’s doing to me. It hasn’t been easy for me to make this decision. But I had to. I am the head coach. It is important to me that all the good work we do here at the firm continues. But it cannot continue until we rightsize.”
Rightsize? What kind of a word was that? It implied that the firm would be better off if it discarded worthless baggage, deadwood. Ah, the irony of it all. The firm was top heavy; too many generals and not enough soldiers, in Nimrodspeak. After all, it is the soldiers who recoup the overhead. But when the generals make the decisions, God help the soldiers, who always make the best cannon fodder.
I stood, my heart pounding in my chest. “I guess that’s it,” I said with a sigh. Just thinking about clearing out my office with the file cabinets crammed full of documents, papers, books, magazines, a half-finished novel, various personal mementos, and months’ worth of clutter was a daunting task to someone facing an impending job search.
Rising, Nimrod extended his hand timidly. “I hope,” he said, biting the hell out of his bottom lip, “we won’t have hard feelings towards one another. You know I’ve always respected you. You, sir, are a fine young man with much promise. You will be missed around here.”
I was shocked. My mouth dropped open, forming a perfect “O” of surprise. I felt the words “fuck you” on my lips, but instead I said nothing. I shook his hand. Inside my chest, my heart ached for the loss of my identity. The firm had been my lover, my mistress, my outlet for more emotions than I cared to admit. Only at that moment, after she had rejected me, did I understand my lack of perspective.
Nimrod did not move to stop me as I stumbled down the hall, into the elevator, and eventually toward my floor. Minutes later, as I stepped into the doorway of what used to be my office, I gasped. In the thirty minutes or so since I had left, someone — a group of someones — had descended, like locusts, upon my little oasis near the men’s room. The walls were bare. For the first time in months, I could see the fake mahogany finish of my desk. My personal effects, diplomas, papers, books, and photographs had been haphazardly shoveled into several Xerox cardboard boxes and stacked in the corner. Much to my dismay, I saw that my framed law degree had a spider-webbed crack in the glass. What my movers had lacked in sensitivity they had compensated for in speed. They were nowhere to be found.
On top of the box nearest to the door lay a typed note. “Your final check will be mailed on the eighteenth,” it began without preamble. “The firm administrator will contact you forthwith regarding your pension plan and COBRA benefits. Leave your key and files with Arlene, Room 1105. All personal effects must be removed from the building by 5:00 p.m. today.” The note was not signed, although it bore the stamp “J. Kentwood Nimrod, Esquire, managing partner” on the signature line. On the back was a listing of unemployment offices and a map showing directions to the closest one.
Ordinarily, I would have been furious. I would have taken up arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, ended them. But at that moment I was emotionally exhausted. One week earlier the biggest headache I had experienced was juggling my trial calendar. But time and circumstances had altered my terrain radically.
Quietly, almost lovingly, I closed the door behind me, one last time sealing myself in my office against further unpleasantness. I leaned against the wall and slid to the floor. All around me lay the boxes of my life and career. Like an obituary, those mementos summarized my life, at least part of my life that existed for a time. Cradling my head in my arms and gently stroking my framed law degree, I sobbed for the loss of my paycheck and my pride.