The papers got dropped off at the south door, early. Real early. Before the kid got there to connect the hose and spray down everything in sight.
As manager somebody had to think about all these little things: if the papers got wet and nobody picked them up, the boy would spray them down too. Not much chance of training him to pick them up before he sprayed, dealing with the people at the center, et cetera. So he got there early too, earlier than he had to, by franchise standards.
Putting the papers (which contrary to popular belief the franchise bought, they were not free in any way. Certainly not donated by the publisher) neatly in the custom made polished wooden racks. Before the customers came in and scattered everything around and it would never look as neat as it did first thing in the morning. Especially the one guy with the hair that looked like a dusty, thick wig who always went for the ads.
He took one himself to the office, the usual. Local section first. The fourth day in a row nothing about the cop shot dead. Did they have someone booked? In mind? If not, could that be the story? Or would that be too depressing, and thus unprintable? But no. None of that. We have a story about a jeweler whose stolen merchandise gets returned anonymously.
Then, in Eastern Idaho: the spectre. Raised in black and white. He thought he might puke right there in the office.
Snakes again. This one sounded real as hell, with court dates, possible settlements and/or penalties. It was a short article, for sure, but it was there. And how many miles away was Oregon? How many papers around the country would have the item if it was in this paper?
The kids were outside the office door at the frying range, opening compartments, the hssssh of refrigerated units. The slide and clash of bread racks.
Against usual policy he got up and pulled the office door to. Imagining the strange looks of his people outside: What it closed for? He took shallow breaths. The number--he knew where it was.
He remembered his Dad, and a certain war medal that had once belonged to his Dad's brother. How the medal was in a box in a cloth sack in a box in a trunk tucked and padlocked away and it was a rare thing for his Dad to take the medal out and savor it. This phone number was like that.
Begotten at a convention where his managerial level was the lowest to be admitted. The number belonging not to an immediate higher-up, but a moderate jump toward the farther echelons. A number not to be over-used. And certainly no one could ever accuse him of that.
Even so, this latest outburst was of significant gravity that the number had to be used. He traced the path through the desk, the drawer, the compartment, the inner compartment, the leather billholder, the envelope, the envelope within, the manila slip in the folded letter. It was written in tiny letters.
The voice deep and even, richly toned, not surprised to be receiving this call though its subject had not been treated at all previously.
"I know you know this, I'm not pretending you don't know this, but the Idaho thing--you know about the Idaho thing?"
"I'm fairly sure I understand of which you refer to, yes."
"Okay. This changes the picture considerably, doesn't it."
"Hmm. I can't foresee any change in the company's position, if that's possibly what you mean."
"But courts? Settlements? That sort of indicates to the public at large, doesn't it? Particularly in print, in newspaper print."
"I'm sure you know, as the company's counsel surely knows, the statistics regarding the public's trust of the media."
"But you have to admit this is more than word-of-mouth, photocopies passed among mothers of elementary schoolers? Not quite an Urban Myth if some judge or jury is about to award damages to a customer?
"True, it is unfortunate. Had this outbreak not occurred the company would rest in a slightly better position. But I am here to assure you that no policies have been changed. This will not affect you. You are, 'being looked after,' in a manner of speaking. But the company does not control the press, the media. This is where you have to rely on your trust for your own customers. Which, I am sure, you are capable of. We need our men in your position not to get too excited."
Something not right here. This wasn't going the way he had envisioned. Perhaps there was still some confusion.
"Did it happen? Did a second grader get bitten by a snake in one of our toy playgrounds because snakes like to hole up in the nests of thousands of plastic balls?"
"Was I there? No. Were you there? I can infer from your question that you were not. On instructions of counsel, the company does not officially know that anything like that ever happened in one of restaurant playgrounds."
This caution--it had to be a front. He backed off. Offer solutions, not problems, one of the effects of highly habitual people, wasn't it.
"Listen. Let me tell you how I feel. And I assure you I know a dozen mothers who will personally on their own time assist you. The same thing I offer: Let's just take the damn things down. Get the balls out. Gas the balls down and haul them off and tear the sets down and replace them with something a mother can see through."
"Umm--noble sentiments, but a problem there."
"Again. On advice of counsel."
"Listen. Off the subject a minute here, okay? How big a city you got there? Pretty big?
"No. As far as cities go, it just qualifies."
"But it's a city, right?"
"Well, you hardly have a problem, right? Not a lot of snakes in a city."
"For--agh!--sakes, this is Louisiana! Every night a jungle grows where you left a sprig of weed. Water everywhere. Snakes fall off the trees here, I mean to tell you. If there's a possibility snakes really like to get in those balls, I need to know!"
"Hmm. Well. In that case."
"Yeah. Kid gets bit by a snake, my office can be found, which is more than I can say. . . "
"In that case, back to counsel. All I can tell you."
"Doesn't counsel think getting rid of these balls would be a good idea? Even if it does turn out that it's all been some kind of fake, some herpetologist proves that snakes find that certain kind plastic actually toxic--"
"Well, in a word, No."
"No? Why not? Why the hell not?"
"I'm not saying I'm counsel. Just sometimes you have to trade on trust. You know that. There's a certain amount of delegation that has to be done to keep a restaurant in operation. You know. Same thing with franchise policies. You delegate someone to know the right thing. Or the best way, failing that."
"And counsel says not to get rid of the balls, even if there's just a suggestion?"
"Pretty much, yes."
"And their reasoning?"
"Well, as I understand it, and this has not been explained to me, let me notify you, but is my own following of the situation: up to a certain point of not, provability, but verifiable knowledge, an event can be disregarded--provided its publicity value falls below a certain critical point."
"We can effectively if not absolutely say an event did not happen so long as undue attention is not focused upon it as an event. Now what can then happen? The event can achieve undue status, a certain notoriety. Such as happens from time to time, and I'm not saying the Oregon thing has achieved so." A pause. "And in that case another strategy must be followed. But let's be honest. In this world of child molestations, infant murders, natural disasters, deadbeat dads, how likely is it a snake bite will cause hysteria?"
"I see." Lightly drumming his fingers.
"But. There is another scenario. The issue of rectification before the fact. Restitution a priori. What's wrong with this picture?"
"You got me. What?"
"Simply this. Where counsel comes in: Certain actions imply guilt where no guilt lies. And no one wants that to happen."
"If we remove the balls, then we're in trouble."
"Not badly said, although it must be noted that I was not the one who said that precisely."
"It's better to have a kid bitten by a snake than to remove the balls and make sure one never gets bit."
"In a way it sounds crazy. But I'm sure you as a manager appreciate the need to have the foresight to take the long run into account. By that I mean the cost to consumers. Litigation is big bucks, right? The company pays counsel's bill, the customer pays the company's bill. Nobody wants to give an otherwise needed extra quarter for a burger.
"It bogs the whole system down. Ripple effect."
"Uh-huh. Hey listen, can you hold just a minute I got another call, just a sec, I mean I realize who I'm tying up on the phone, it'll only be a minute okay?" The hold button. Lit red. He watched it a while.
Then he bent down to the wall where the phone line went in. He unplugged it. The paper slip lay before him, and the long trail of envelope, box, compartment, etc.
He tore the slip in half. And again. How many times were you supposed to be able to tear any thickeness of paper in half, no matter how large or small? He lost count.
Outside, to take a look. He could not remember the last time his Dad ever looked at the medal. His Dad was dead anyway. He doubted if anyone knew where the medal was.
He opened the door, looked through past the front window. Customers already. The playground equipment sat in the early morning light, damp from the Louisiana humidity.
On his way he passed the paper rack. The papers were already scattered, a complete mess. And the black haired guy sitting there, looking at underwear ads. Unaware anyone saw him make the tiny folds and tears necessary for a keepsake.
"Excuse me sir, I guess that's okay for you to do, but those papers are really not your property." And he moved on outside.
A few moments later the two black girls leaning together at the counter to learn the register are met by an unkempt guy with thatchy hair. "Uh, can I get some scotched tape? I messed this up by accident." In his hand a ragged piece of colored paper.
"Uh, no sir. We don't have none."
"Uh, thanks anyway. Will, you--will you tell that guy with the tie I'll buy him another paper, and bring it back here, soon as I can go home and get some money?"
Then he left.
"He some kind of upset."
"Yeah. It aint like Mr P. to harass somebody that way. He usually a nice man."
"Naw. I meant that funny man there. I thought he gone cry."
"I know who you meant, girl."