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"The Promotion" by Martin Green

Martin is a freelance writer from Roseville, California.


© 2005 Martin Green


The Promotion 


     The intercom buzzed and my secretary told me that Marcus Aurelius Gonzales himself, Director of the Department of Health (and hence my ultimate boss), was on the line for me.  My first thought, as it had been whenever Marcus had called me during the last few months, was that a decision about the promotion to chief of the Health Statistics Branch, a position I'd held (but only on an interim basis) since the retirement of my mentor DeWitt Bender, had finally been made and Marcus was calling to let me know the result.  Of course, officially there'd been an examination process with extensive interviews but everyone knew that Marcus had the final say in the matter.


     "Hello, Marcus," I said into the phone.  "What can I do for you?"


     "Hi, Arnold.  I have a little project I want to talk you about?"


     So it was, once again, not about the promotion.  "What's it involve, Marcus?"


     "Collecting some cost figures.  Analyzing data.  That kind of stuff."


     "Okay, when do you want to talk about it?"   Marcus, unlike the typical department director, who'd never think of personally dealing with an underling like myself, liked to call directly when he had one of his little projects in mind, thus circumventing at least three or four layers of bureaucracy.  Besides, we'd known each other years ago in San Francisco, long before he'd become a department director.


     "Come up about eleven and I'll try to fit you in."


     "Okay.  Mind if I bring along one of my analysts.  She'll be doing the dirty work."


     "No problem.  Bring her along."


     I hung up the phone and sighed.  Marcus's little projects had a way of becoming big ones which took up a lot of staff time, and we had plenty of other projects to contend with.  Before Marcus's call, I'd been going over them: a review of birth statistics for Dr. Sanderson, head of Preventive Health, who always wanted his information immediately; an analysis of poisoning deaths for Dr. Bliss, who was equally impatient; a report on teen-age births for an Assembly subcommittee; not to mention a few other jobs that Marcus had previously given us.  The Health Statistics Branch was supposed to provide information and analysis on any kind of health issue and there wa s no shortage of issues that people were interested in.


     After mentally trying to put all of the Branch's projects in some kind of priority, my thoughts turned again to the issue of the promotion.  It was important to me, possibly vital.  I'd come into the California state civil service at a relatively late age and by necessity.  The research firm I'd worked for, headed by Tommy Flowers, scion of a fairly well-known California family, whose father had served several terms in the state Senate, had gone into bankruptcy.  This was after it was disclosed that Tommy had several bad loans outstanding and it was hinted that he'd distorted some of his poll results; the full story had never come out.


     After being, as they say, a consultant for almost a year, which really meant being unemployed and grabbing any little project I could get, I'd gotten an entry-level state research job.  This was at a time when civil service promotions were based primarily on written exams and it was possible to rise through the ranks if you had the ability, at least to a mid-level position.  After this, politics took over.


     I'd duly made it to a mid-level job in the Department of Health and probably would have remained there had not DeWitt Bender, then chief of the Health Statistics Branch for as long as anyone could remember, noticed me and made me his assistant.  He'd also seen to it that I was appointed interim chief when he retired and disappeared to Europe, no one knew exactly where.


     My staff assumed that, being interim chief, I'd eventually get the promotion to the position but I knew this was by no means a certainty.  Nowadays, what with affirmative action, women's rights, the hundreds of interest groups which had sprung up in the last decade, almost every state job hinged on political considerations; written exams had long since been done away with.


     My chief rival was a black woman, Anita Roberts, or I should say Freedom Najida, as that what she'd had her name changed to several years ago.  Being both black and a woman made her, in the present political climate, a very formidable rival.  There were also rumors that she might have some Hispanic blood, which would give her even more of an edge.  I'd worked in the same State agency as Anita, or I should say Freedom, briefly in San Francisco before transferring to Sacramento.  She was then just a year or two out of UC Berkeley with a master's degree in sociology, a big girl, overweight, whose clothes always seemed t oo tight on her.  She was clumsy with a lot of rough edges but determined and very, very ambitious.  And she'd come pretty far.


     As for me, I was now in my forties, married with three children, two of them teen-agers.  The branch chief's position would mean a significant jump in salary over what I was making now.  I was getting by, with my wife working part-time to help out, but pretty soon I'd have two kids in college at the same time and then I'd really be squeezed. I knew that if I didn't get this promotion I'd be living from one paycheck to the next for the rest of my working career.  This was just like most other State workers but that didn't make the prospect any more appealing.  At my age, and especially with my mentor DeWitt Bender gon e, it wasn't likely that another opportunity like this would come again.  It might be putting it over-dramatically but this promotion would probably determine the course of the rest of my life.


     I checked my watch; it was time to see Marcus.  I left my office and found my lead analyst, Rosemary Harper, in her cubicle, rapidly punching the keys of her computer.  "Come on," I said.  "We have a meeting with Marcus."


     She rose hurriedly and put on her suit jacket.  Rosemary was in her late twenties, a graduate of UC Davis with a degree in computer information systems.  She was quite attractive, I thought, or could be, but wore large heavy-rimmed glasses, tied her blondish hair in a bun and favored severely cut business suits which minimized while not quite concealing her full figure.  She sometimes reminded me of the movie heroine who, at the end of the film, would remove her glasses, take down her hair and prove to be beautiful.


     We took the elevator up to the Director's office on the 12th floor, I carrying a small notebook and Rosemary her leather case containing a large lined writing pad and pages of computer printout.  Dolores Ruiz, Marcus's secretary, told us he was still in a meeting but to sit down and he'd see us in a few minutes.  Dolores was a good-looking woman of about thirty.  It was well known that Marcus, who somewhere had a wife although she never appeared in public, liked to surround himself with attractive women and some even referred to his office as the 12th floor harem.  There was naturally a lot of speculation about Marcu s and his harem but nobody, not even his political enemies, had ever found out anything specifically damaging to him.


     For the next half hour, I looked through the old Time magazines which were kept in the outer office for waiting visitors while Rosemary studied her computer printouts.  Then a shaggy-haired young man came out of Marcus's office.  From his tweed jacket and khaki pants, which made him look like a college teacher, something he'd probably been the year before, I knew he must be from the Governor's office.  Dolores Ruiz's intercom buzzed and she told us we could go in now.


     "Arnold," said Marcus, standing up behind his large desk and smiling to show large gleaming white teeth.  "Good to see you.  Sorry to keep you waiting so long but these guys the Governor's brought in, you wouldn't believe them."  He shook his head.


     "No problem," I said.  "Marcus, this is Rosemary Harper, my lead analyst."


     "Glad to meet you, Rosemary.  You did that report on AIDS, didn't you?  Nice work."  Marcus, besides dealing with subordinates directly, was also unlike the typical department director in that he actually read everything that was sent up to his office.


     "Thank you," said Rosemary, flushing slightly.


     "Sit down, sit down," said Marcus, himself resuming his chair.  He ran one hand over his shining black hair, an habitual nervous gesture.  He was short and stocky, about 50 now, dark-skinned with dancing brown eyes which, I saw, took in Rosemary appreciatively as she sat down and crossed her long legs.  He wore a dark blue suit, expensive, a striped shirt and a red tie.  He looked relaxed, completely at home in the Director's office.


     "Let me tell you what I have in mind," began Marcus.  This turned out to be an examination of drug costs in a certain county, to be compared with drug costs in the state as a whole.  I'd heard that he'd been upset with the pharmacist association in that county and this seemed a project designed to get some leverage against them.  I disliked such projects, inevitable as they were.  It would take time to gather all the data and the results would never be conclusive.


     I outlined the problems involved to Marcus, trying to discourage him.  In return, he said, "Well, I'm not sure I can follow all that."  Marcus sometimes liked to play the simple Mexican although he was aware I knew he'd gone to Harvard Law School.  "But it can be done, right?"


     "What do you think?" I asked Rosemary.


     "Yes, it's feasible," said Rosemary, who'd been furiously scribbling on her large writing pad while we were talking.  "Provided we can obtain the appropriate data bases."  Data base was a term that often cropped up in Rosemary's conversation.


     "It's going to take some time though," I said.  "When would you want it completed?"

     "Oh, there's no rush, say a month or two.  I know how overloaded you are."


     "Two months," I said.  I looked over at Rosemary.  "That okay with you?"


     "Yes, I can handle that," she said.  "I don't mind working a little overtime if necessary."


     "Good," said Marcus, standing up.  "Well, thank you.  I'll be seeing more of you, Rosemary.  No, you stay a minute, Arnold.  There's something else I want to talk to you about."


     We both sat down and watched Rosemary exit.  "Not bad," said Marcus.  "She'd look a lot better if she'd get rid of those glasses and that schoolmarm hairdo."


     "That only happens at the end of the movie," I said.


     Marcus laughed.  "So, how are the wife and kids?"


     "Fine," I said, wondering what was coming.


     "The two girls will soon be going to college, eh?  One right after the other?"


     "That's true," I said.


     "I've been meaning to do something on that promotion.  But there are so many other things.  You know how it is."


     "Sure, I know."


     "If it was only up to me, I'd give you the job in a minute.  We go back aways, the two of us, don't we?"


     "That's right," I said.  When I'd first met Marcus, he'd been a legal aid lawyer bringing suits on the behalf of migrant workers against state agencies, usually the Department of Health.  Then, after the election that turned out the old conservative administration and brought in the new ultra-liberal one with our present governor, Snowflake Turpin (so-called for his saying there'd be snowflakes in Sacramento on July 4th before he'd ever sign a budget cutting welfare payments, something which he'd then done the next week), Marcus had been appointed head of the Health Department's legal division and shortly after that the Department's director, the first one not a physician in its history.


     "By the way," he asked.  "How's your old buddy, Tommy Flowers?"


     "He's doing fine, as far as I know."  A couple of years ago, Tommy, after a period of obscurity following the demise of our firm, had surfaced in Sacramento as chief aide to Harlan Witherspoon, the right-wing Assemblyman from Orange County, who was now rumored to be preparing a run for governor, convinced that after four years of Snowflake Turpin's liberalism the voters would be ready for a change to the other extreme.


     "Witherspoon doesn't have a chance to be governor, you know."


     "Maybe not.  But Tommy will have fun stirring things up."


     "Yeah, he was always good at doing that.  Anyway, about the promotion. I've been getting a lot of heat on it.  Just last week I had a letter from the Women's Empowerment League on behalf of Freedom Najida.  I don't know what I can do."


     "Yeah, it's tough at the top," I said, wondering where the middle-aged men's empowerment group was.


     "Freedom Najida," mused Marcus.  "A name to conjure with.  You know, I've never actually met her.  What's she look like?"


     "She's not your type," I said.


     "I really should meet her before deciding, to be fair.  But there are so many other things.  Well, we'll see.  Meanwhile, Arnold, be patient."


     "Sure," I replied.  What other option did I have?




     I've noticed that often when the name of someone you haven't seen or thought of for a while comes up, that person makes an appearance in your life.  Back in my own office, looking over the phone messages that had come in while I was away, I found, along with those from Dr. Sanderson and Dr. Bliss (and I knew what those were about) one asking me to call Tommy Flowers.


     Since he'd been in Sacramento, Tommy would summon me to lunch every few months to pump me about what was going on in the Department of Health.  I put the messages from the good doctors aside and called Tommy's office.  When a State Assemblyman's top aide called, even if not an old acquaintance like Tommy, a civil servant responded right away.


     A suspicious secretarial voice asked me who I was, what department I represented, what my business was and then informed me that Mr. Flowers was in a conference.  I was about to leave my name and number when Tommy's drawling voice broke in, saying, "It's all right, Miss Flynn, I'll take the call.  How're you doing, Arnold?"


     "I'm fine.  Sorry to get you out of your conference."


     "Miss Flynn tends to be overly protective.  How's the health numbers game?"


     "There are more numbers all the time."


     "Marcus keepin' you hopping?"


     "As always.  Just saw him this morning as a matter a fact.  He's out to get the druggists."


     Tommy laughed.  "Why don't you come on over for lunch, say, Thursday?  You can bring me up to date."


     I mentally reviewed Thursday's schedule.  I had a staff meeting at one but could push that back.  "Sure."


     "Fine.  See you at 12:30 then at the Palace."  The Palace was the Mandarin Palace, a downtown Chinese restaurant where legislators, their staffs and lobbyists, the three groups who ran the Capital, traditionally met to transact their deals.


     "Okay.  See you Thursday."




     The Mandarin Palace was already packed when I arrived.  A crowd of men in business suits, mostly overweight, seemed to fill up all the tables, eating and talking simultaneously, the steady buzz of their voices penetrating out into the lobby.  Henry Chin, the owner, and confidante of countless legislators, eyed me dubiously as if not believing that I belonged in his place, but when I said I was meeting Tommy Flowers he gestured to a waiter, who led me inside.


     Tommy was at a small table against the back wall, sipping at a martini, his favorite drink, a cigarette in one hand (although there was ostensibly no smoking in the restaurant).  "Sit down, Arnold," he said.  "A drink?"


     "I'll have a ginger ale."


     "Still abstentious, I see," said Tommy.  "You're missing one of the finest things in life."  Tommy and I went through this little ritual every time we had lunch together.


     "You're looking a little strained," said Tommy.


     "Thanks," I said.  "Trying to keep up with all those legislative requests.  You're looking well."


     He did.  Despite a lifetime of drinking and smoking and three or four wives, his pale blue eyes looked clear, his face was tanned and he still had his thick blonde hair.  He wore a wrinkled seersucker suit, a pink shirt and his trademark bowtie.


     "A strong constitution," he said.  We ordered and while we ate Tommy quizzed me about doings in the Health Department.  "I hear you have a hot new researcher, Rosemary something?" said Tommy.


     Tommy always knew everything.  "Rosemary Harper.  Yes, she's pretty sharp.  And works overtime even when you don't ask her."


     "A terrible precedent to set for the State civil service.  How's our friend Marcus?"


     "Doing fine.  He asked about you.  Says Witherspoon doesn't have a chance to be governor."


     Tommy shrugged.  "These liberals think they have a lock on the Capitol because they spend money to keep everyone satisfied.  He may be surprised.  But what about yourself?  Any news about the promotion?"


     "Not yet."


     "So meanwhile you're doing the chief's job without the pay."


     "Serving the public."


     Tommy lit a cigarette.  "What if you don't get the promotion?" he asked.


     I considered this.  It was a question I'd asked myself more than once recently.  "I'm not sure," I said.  "I might try to transfer to another branch."


     "You don't see yourself working for Freedom Najida?"


     "Not really."


     "What about coming over to our side?"


     "To the Legislature?"


     "Many people here have a high regard for you."


     "That's nice, but I don't think so."  I looked around at the other diners, still eating and buzzing.  "I don't think I'd fit in with those guys.  Besides, if the other side wins the election you're out on the street and I'm too old for that."

     "Ah, yes.  You've always placed great importance on security."


     "That's right.  Especially after being an unemployed consultant for a year."


     Tommy closed his eyes.  He didn't like any reference to his firm's going under.  "Yes.  Well, with a family, I can't blame you.  You realize though that if you don't get the promotion you've gone as far as you can with the State.  And when those girls are ready for college you're going to have a hard time."


     "We'll scrimp and save," I said.


     "And hard times are coming.  When Snowflake Turpin cuts welfare checks you can bet on that.  And next year's budget is going to be much rougher.  There'll be more cuts; even some civil service workers may be laid off.  Who knows, maybe they'll decide that health statistics aren't all that important."


     "You paint a pretty picture, Tommy.  Are you trying to tell me something?"


     "Just a word to the wise.  Think it over.  Maybe you'll want to come over despite the risks."


     "Well, I won't close out any of my options."


     Walking back to my office in Sacramento's usual 100-degree summer heat, I reflected on the lunch.  Tommy always knew everything.  Had the promotion already been decided and had I lost out?  In that event, was Tommy suggesting he might have a job for me?  I'd told him I'd keep my options open but I could no more see myself working for Senator Harlan Witherspoon than for Freedom Najida.




     It was three weeks later, at about 11 in the morning.  Still no word about the promotion.  The intercom buzzed and my secretary told me there was a lady who wanted to see me.  Her name was Freedom Najida; she didn't have an appointment.  "That's all right," I said.  "Send her in."


     An African princess entered my office, tall and regal in an orange robe.  I half-expected to see two retainers holding spears on either side.  "Anita?  I mean, Freedom?"


     "Hello, Arnold.  How are you?"


     "Fine.  Uh, sit down."  It was Freedom Najida, but no longer awkward and clumsy and at least thirty pounds lighter.  Her black hair was in a modified Afro.  Her strong features, now that were not obscured by layers of fat, were striking: flashing brown eyes, stern nose, determined jaw.  The orange robe, I saw, was a long dress that came down almost to the floor.  Although it covered her completely (and although I knew it to be a sexist thought), it seemed to call attention to her breasts and hips.


     "I hope you don't mind me barging in like this, Arnold," she said.


     "Not at all.  It's a pleasant surprise."


     "My Director got sick suddenly and I had to fill in for him at one of those inter-agency conferences.  Boring as hell, needless to say.  You know how they are."


     "Sure," I said, although I'd never come close to attending one of those conferences myself.


     "This morning's session ended a little early, thank God.  So I thought I'd look you up.  I know you're waiting on the same thing as I am."


     "The big promotion?"


     "Yes.  I don't suppose you've heard anything."


     "No, and you?"


     "Nothing.  They seem determined to drag it out as long as possible.  I did want to let you know, if I do get it, I'd be happy to have you stay on.  I'd welcome your help."


     "Thanks," I said.  That sounded like an awfully confident statement.  Although she'd just said she heard nothing, maybe she had.  "Was Marcus at the conference?" I asked.


     "No, Marcus never wastes his time on those things."


     I made an instantaneous decision.  "Too bad," I said.  "He's told me he'd like to meet you."


     "Well, I'd like to meet him, too."


     "Let me see if he's in."  I dialed Marcus's office.  "Hello, Dolores," I said.  "Is Marcus free?"


     "Let me see," she replied.  "Wait a minute, I'll put you through."


     "Yes, Arnold," said Marcus.  "What do you have for me?"


     "Well, I have some early results from that druggist study," I told him, although they weren't actually ready yet.  "I also have a visitor in my office I think you'd like to meet."


     "Oh, what's she look like?"


     "Like nobody else you've seen before."


     "I'm intrigued.  All right.  I have a meeting in 15 minutes but come on up."


     As I led Freedom to the elevator, I noticed everyone turning to look at her.  In the Director's outer office, Dolores Ruiz's eyes opened wide.  "Go in," she said.  "He's expecting you."


     "Thanks for seeing us, Marcus," I said as soon as we entered.  "This is Freedom Najida."


     Marcus's eyes took in Freedom from the top of her Afro to her sandal-shod feet.  "I'm glad to meet you at last," he said.  "Please, sit down."


     We all sat.  "Well, Freedom, what brings you to Sacramento?"


     Freedom told him about the interagency conference.  Marcus inquired solictiously about her Director's health.  He asked Freedom about her most recent activities.  She described them to him.  He asked her more questions.  They found they had a lot of acquaintances in common.  I sat back in my chair, feeling like a spectator at a tennis match.


     Finally, Marcus looked in my direction, seeming surprised that I was still there.  "Arnold, you said you have something for me on those druggists?"


     "Yes," I began.


     Marcus looked at his watch and said, "Damn, I'm due at a meeting.  But Freedom, since you're here in Sacramento, we must have lunch.  I'll tell Dolores to push back the meeting and make reservations for us at the Palace.  Have you ever eaten there?"


     "No, I haven't," said Freedom.


     "Then you'll have to.  It's an experience."  Marcus was suddenly in a flurry of activity, getting up from behind his desk, striding toward the outer office to talk to Dolores, holding out his hand to indicate to Freedom that she should accompany him.  At the door, he looked at me.  Was I going to be invited to lunch as well?  "Still here, Arnold," he said pointedly, "I'll see you later when I have some time.  Have those druggist figures ready."


     "Right," I said.  "Have a nice lunch."




     It wasn't until two months later that Marcus called me again.  He wanted to discuss another little project with me.  No, I needn't bring Rosemary Harper along; he knew how busy she must be.  Just the same, I took the results of the druggist study, just compiled by Rosemary.  As I'd thought, they looked inconclusive.


     Marcus's new little project was a review of medical costs over the last five years to show, as he was sure they would, that adjusted for inflation they'd gone down since he'd been Director.  I told him we had the druggist costs but hadn't completely analyzed them.


     "Oh, those.  They can wait.  Have Rosemary get on the medical cost study right away."  I recalled seeing a couple of news reports questioning Marcus's handling of the State's money.


     "All right."


     "But have her take a look at the druggists anyway when she has time.  I need to have some ammunition against those bastards."


     "Okay."  I stood up to leave.


     "Just a minute, Arnold," he said, running a hand over his hair.  "I have something else to tell you.  It's about the promotion."


     I braced myself.  So this was it finally and Marcus was going to deliver the bad news himself.


     "You've got it, of course."


     For a moment, I didn't take it in.  "I have it?" I said, not too brightly.


     "Yes.  I'm only sorry it had to take so long.  But you have no idea how many pressures were being brought to bear. It's really a pleasure when the person most qualified gets the job.  It doesn't happen often."


     "Well, thanks.  What about Freedom Najida?"


     "Oh, yes, Freedom."  Marcus paused.  "You'll be glad to hear she's going to be here in Sacramento, at the center of things where she belongs.  I'm making her my special assistant."


     "Your special assistant?  For what?"


     "Her job duties haven't been worked out yet," Marcus said smoothly, "but I'm sure she'll be invaluable.  If nothing else, I can have her handle any angry doctors who barge into my office."


     "I'm sure she'll be good at that."


     Marcus laughed.  "Yes," he said.  "Well, congratulations."


     "Thanks.  I'm still not sure I believe it."


     Marcus laughed again.  "Come on," he said.  "That was a sly move, bringing Freedom in to see me that day.  You knew I wouldn't be able to resist her."


     "You told me you wanted to meet her."


     "So I did.  Well, congratulations again.  There'll be an official notification, of course.  As soon as the paperwork gets done.  There's always the paperwork, isn't there?  Oh, and why don't you and your lovely wife come to dinner this weekend.  We're having a few people over."


     "Fine," I said.  "We'll look forward to it."




     When I returned to my office it was noon and everyone else seemed to have gone to lunch.  I sat down and looked out the window.  So the long wait was over and I'd gotten what I'd wanted.  The privilege of dealing with people like Doctors Bliss and Sanderson for the next God knew how many years.  Doing studies for people like Marcus who already knew what they wanted the results to be.  And now going to dinners with the type of people who did business at the Mandarin Palace.  Hell, stop your complaining, I told myself.  At least you'll be getting a lot more money.  Isn't that what counted?


     The phone rang.  "Hello, Arnold," said Tommy Flowers.  "I wanted to offer my congratulations on the promotion."


     Good old Tommy.  He always knew everything.  I wondered if he'd played any part in it.  "Thanks," I said.


     "For once they made the right choice."


     "I suppose you also know that Freedom Najida's going to be Marcus's special assistant."


     "Yes, I'd heard that.  I'm looking forward to meeting her.  I hear she's really something."


     "She is that."


     "Well, I have a date at the Palace.  I'll have my secretary call soon and we'll do lunch there again."


     "Sounds good," I said.


     I left my office and, on a hunch, looked into Rosemary Harper's cubicle.  She was there, staring intently at her computer screen.  She looked different.  She wasn't wearing her glasses.  I remembered that she'd mentioned something about getting contacts and evidently she had.  She'd also let her hair down and it flowed over her shoulders.


     "Hi, Rosemary," I said.


     She gave a little jump. "Oh, I didn't hear you," she said.  "You surprised me."


     "I'm sorry."


     "That's all right.  Oh, congratulations on your promotion."


     "Thanks.  How'd you hear?"


     "Oh, you know," she said, smiling.  "Word gets around."


     "I know."  I wondered if she'd already established her own personal pipeline to Marcus.  I also wondered if that had anything to do with the change in her appearance.  "Well, do you think you can tear yourself away from your computer and have lunch with me?  I need somebody to help me celebrate.  It's too late to go to the Mandarin Palace but we can make it into the Retirement Building cafeteria."


     "Sure," she said.


     We walked out of the building.  Sacramento on a fall day actually seemed pleasant.   A few men in the street turned for a second look at Rosemary, who was wearing a short dress instead of one of her severe suits.  She'd gotten rid of her glasses and let down her hair so the story, I thought, or this episode of it, must be over.  Come what may, I had the promotion.










All work is copyrighted property of Martin Green.






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