About Face: Chapter One

First, a few reviews:

From PeaceCorpsWorldwide:  “Having read many Peace Corps memoirs, I found About Face unusual in that it deals not with the village experience, but with what happens years later, after one returns to the “real world” and pursues a career that may or may not be affected by “the other world.”….. I imagine that writing this novel was an “about face” in [Howard’s] life.  Writing is hard work, and she is an intrepid, perfectionist writer, who, I sense, thinks about every word she puts to paper.”

From TheThreeTomatoes.com:    “You’re going to love Ruth Talbot, a 50-something cosmetic executive, who is engaged in a fiery power struggle with her new  boss, and has a younger co-worker yearning for her job and willing to do almost anything to undermine her.”

From Amazon Readers:

“…transports the reader from the current day breathlessness of New York’s business environment to the life-changing world of a 1970s Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa.”

“It’s like a self-help book for women growing into the third stage of life mated with a laugh-out-loud light novel.”

“Her characters…seem like old friends.  And just like the best old friends we think we know so well, these engaging characters each experience their own surprising ‘about faces.”

CHAPTER ONE

RUTH TALBOT LOOKED DOWN and winced. She couldn’t believe today, of all days, she’d forgotten to change out of her commuter’s red high-top sneakers into the pumps that would complete her corporate camouflage. From the knees up, she fit right in at the big meeting with the new CEO in the ultra-elegant conference room with small oil paintings in ornate frames. But her feet belonged in the playground.

“I want that list of criteria to go out to all our vendors right away. Right away. So they’ll know exactly how Mimosa Inc. will decide whether they’re in or out,” said Jeremy.

The guy from Purchasing—was his name Ralph— answered, his voice dissolving around the edges like a milk-dunked Oreo. “We use quite a lot of vendors, actually. We always have. And some of the criteria we use for them are difficult to quantify. They’re intangible, really. We’ve always—”

“Intangible won’t do. No, no. Won’t do at all. We need to know exactly, precisely how to decide who we’ll do business with. Right away. Criteria on my desk by close-of-business tomorrow. Then out to the vendors next week.”

Poor Purchasing-guy. “Intangible” turned out to be a poor word-choice.

“Next, the splashy launch of ‘Lipsticks & Scarves,’” Jeremy said as he looked at Ruth with raised brows. “The results are … shall we say … very disappointing.”

Disappointing? What’s he talking about? Ruth cleared her throat and spoke a little louder than was necessary. “These results are well within our standard for pilot programs. We can make them better, yes, you’re right about that. But that’s why we pilot, so we can tinker with the variables. Meanwhile, they’re quite decent.”

“Decent? Dee-cent, you say?”

Uh oh, she thought. Looks like “decent” goes in the garbage heap with “intangible.”

“Maybe they are what you call … decent … but no more than that. Maybe under previous management, that was good enough.” He looked around, making eye contact with everyone at the table, one by one, as if they didn’t already know he was the new management. “But not now. There’s a new sheriff in town, and now we need better than decent. We need a grand slam.”

“I agree, that’s the goal, a grand slam, but pilot programs are almost never grand slams. They’re usually singles. This one, I think, was even a double.”

I’m using baseball metaphors? How low can I go? Her disappointment in herself triggered the day’s first hot flash, a bit earlier than usual. The fire started somewhere in her chest and galloped through her neck, up to her head, while also traveling south. She felt every thread of her clothing against the sweat-sheen on her skin. To her amazement, people had said they didn’t notice anything, even when she thought she was ablaze.

“I was referring to a grand slam in bridge. All the tricks. Doubled and re-doubled. Lots and lots of points.” Jeremy smiled a quick, minimal smile, managing to move only the muscles at the edge of his lips but not engage his cheeks or eyes. With his dry skin, sharp nose, and darting tongue, he looked like a snake. Or maybe he just needed moisturizer.

“What do you plan to do about this, Ruth?”

Rather than walking around as she spoke and revealing her feet of canvas, she stood in place and grabbed the edge of the table. Richly grained walnut, highly polished, the color of dark rye toast with honey, it was the centerpiece of this room of beauty and good taste. Being here stimulated and calmed her senses at the same time, like walking along the beach.

The first few times at the table, she’d thought she could only say very important things. Now she knew the setting itself made anything sound very important. She concentrated on the rare pleasure of towering over people as she reviewed the figures that backed up their decision to launch the innovative packaging of lipsticks with matching scarves.

“The data told us loud and clear this was an idea worth pursuing. And the data were right, of course, based on our preliminary results. People didn’t mind buying a lipstick to match one scarf if the set was appealing and the price was right.” She looked over at Jeremy.

Disappointing? Don’t be ridiculous.

“Just out of cur-i-o-s-it-y … ” Jeremy dragged out each syllable with a deep, slow cadence to his voice, and Ruth could almost hear mournful cello music as accompaniment, “… who came up with this idea? Marketing? R&D? Perhaps even … even Dean himself?”

After forty years at the helm, Dean had sold Mimosa to B&D, a conglomerate looking to “feminize their offerings,” as it said in the press releases. Jeremy had been B&D’s Senior VP of Operations and was chosen to transform Mimosa from a small touchy-feely family-owned business to a rootin’-tootin’ buttoned-down operation.

“You know, I honestly don’t remember,” said Ruth, catching a glimpse of Judy staring down at the table to avoid giving away her authorship. “Anyway, we work as a team, so it doesn’t really matter.”

She shuffled her papers for a second. “But you’re right, we can make our results better. Why don’t we turn our attention to how to do that.”

Disappointing, indeed.

The rest of the meeting was no more boring than usual, and they did come up with a plan to redesign the Lipsticks & Scarves campaign. Ruth hoped she and her sneakers could be the last to leave.

Ordinarily, she wouldn’t have cared so much—she was senior management, after all, and had been at Mimosa for twenty-five years, so people paid more attention to her track record than her track shoes. But Jeremy had gotten rid of a bunch of people soon after he took over, quietly, no muss no fuss. Certainly, sneakers were not grounds for dismissal, but she didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot. So to speak.

She took as long as she could to put her papers together and enter notes into her organizer/planner. Red for meetings, green for phone calls, blue for To-Do List entries. Pat Givens, Ruth’s Assistant Product Specialist, made nice to Jeremy on her way out. Did she actually say she enjoyed the meeting?

But Jeremy out-waited Ruth. “I’ll see you at the benefit tonight,” he said to her.

Facing Jeremy in his perfectly-tailored suit, conservative tie, and bookish horn-rimmed glasses, she was glad she’d dressed the part for today’s meeting, invoking her standard rationalization: “It’s not phony, it’s effective packaging, as if I’m one of our products, sitting on the shelf to be seen and evaluated.”

She knew she undercut the gray suit and pearls by gelling a few spikes in her short, dark hair—the kind of spikes usually seen on 20-year-olds with multiple pierces. Oh well, her whole life was a mixed message anyway. There was the normal middle-aged middle-class corporate executive who lived in the suburbs, and then there was the overgrown hippy. Trying to integrate the two parts of her identity felt like juggling three live chickens. On an inclined plane. In high heels.

“I’m glad you’ll be there. It’s clear we disagree about the status of the Lipsticks & Scarves results, but I’m sure we’ll agree about raising lots of money for a worthy cause. I think we’ll set a record tonight. And we’ll get great publicity in the process.”

“I love opera. Turandot is one of my favorites.”

Jeremy told Ruth he wanted to follow the re-design of the Lipsticks & Scarves campaign very closely. It was his way of delving into the actual work at Mimosa. He was in high guy-talk mode as he said he wanted to penetrate, wanted to get his hands dirty. Especially the Marketing Department, which he called the heart and soul of any company. He told her to let him know about everything connected to the campaign. Everything.

This is not good, she thought. Yes, the Marketing Department is important. Yes, he needs to understand the work of the company. No, looking over her shoulder is not the way to do it. She wasn’t some entry-level newbie who needed close supervision. That second “everything” put her on alert.

“How about if I—”

“Just send me the relevant material as it comes up.” He looked at the antique clock on the wall, then at the expensive watch on his slim wrist. “I’ve got to go.” He looked down at her feet. “And I guess you’ve got to jog back to your office.”

On the way back to her own little piece of Mimosa real estate on the other side of the eighteenth floor, Ruth thought it was going to be hard to break in this new CEO. It was clear he wasn’t going to be the “I want to be your friend” type of boss. More like the “Me Tarzan, You Jane” kind. Or maybe “Control Freak.” Two control-freaks battling it out, she thought. Not a pretty sight.

And someone was going to have to teach him the value of intangibles. She hoped it wouldn’t have to be her.

Once, as a Peace Corps volunteer, she’d tried to convince a villager to incorporate vegetables into the traditional fish-and-rice diet because of good things called vitamins. The woman shifted the baby on her back, reached into her basket for a lumpy whitish tuberous yam, and held it close to her eyes.

“You can’t see them, they’re very small. But they’re there.”

Thankfully, she was more successful than Purchasing-guy had just been. She wondered what that twenty-three-year-old version of herself would have thought of this fifty-three-year-old version, the Marketing Director of a cosmetics company. Actually, she didn’t really wonder, she knew.

Back then, she lived in a hut with one orange crate for clothes and one for books. She was saving the world, or at least making a difference to the people in her village. Every moment of every day was, if not giddy—she did experience homesickness and doubt, not to mention diarrhea—at least related to every other moment, directed either at her worthy goals or physical needs. The individual cells in her body felt more than just alive, they fairly vibrated. A far cry from talking about selling cosmetics.

Had it been thirty years or thirty light-years? Why can’t her past and present finally learn to shake hands and play nice?

Rather than explaining to her imaginary younger self that the compromises she’d made in her life were justified—“I had to earn enough to send Josh to college; besides it’s not just makeup, it’s skin care, too”—she strong-armed the thought from her consciousness with an audible “Oh well.”

Her staff had gotten to her office before she did. When she joined them, they were ready to pounce. “Lordie, lordie, Ruth, that was … well … it wasn’t great, you know? Don’t you agree? I mean …” Judy somehow managed to wring her hands and bite her thumbnail at the same time.

“It was abundantly clear that Jeremy didn’t like our results,” said Pat. “But I wouldn’t disagree with his priorities. Profits are the name of the game.” Her deep voice, always surprising from such a small body, made crankiness and anxiety difficult to distinguish.

“Profits certainly are important, Trish.” She saw Pat flinch at the use of her childhood nickname and start to tap the toe of one tasteful navy-blue pump like a metronome. It was a low blow, Ruth knew, but so was disloyalty.

Tom interrupted his choppy, disconnected gait. “What did you think of the meeting?”

“It was the first launch under Jeremy’s watch, so let’s assume he’s being a little defensive. He did pretty well at B&D, so he must know something. And he clearly has his own style,” she said with as straight a face as she could muster, “but that’s the way it goes. He’s the boss. We have to get used to it.”

No need to worry them yet. She felt the vertical crease between her eyebrows starting to deepen into the Grand Canyon of the Forehead as the antagonists in her familiar internal battle started warming up: Why did she do this job? Because she liked it. Why did she like it? For the creativity and the validation of her talent. Was that enough, and was it time to leave? Yes, and don’t be ridiculous.

Turning to the Lipsticks & Scarves redesign, they constructed an action plan and divided the tasks to be done, from manufacture to packaging to advertising. Later, when their work started to bear fruit, she’d think about “keeping Jeremy informed,” whatever that meant.

For the moment, though, the few last-minute details for tonight’s benefit were numero uno on her prioritized To-Do list. She’d take care of them and then, she hoped, be able to leave early. It probably didn’t even pay to change out of her sneakers.

One Response to About Face: Chapter One

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