Location: missionCREEP > MouthWash > Man in the Basement > Section:  1    2    3    4

Section 2: This Does Not Bode Well at All

The next day Claire and I had lunch together in the Ajax cafeteria. Away from HR she was much more relaxed and open. She attempted to explain Ajax's project numbers and the mysterious man in the basement.

"Project numbers are the basis of Ajax's accounting system," she explained. "If you don't have a project number, it's like your project doesn't exist. Since the man in the basement controls all the project numbers, he controls the money throughout the entire company."

"Meanwhile, my project slowly wastes away," I said, "but I get no indication as to why I'm not given a number, and I can't do a damn thing about it!"

"Lloyd, please, keep your voice down," she said looking about nervously, as if someone, perhaps the man himself, were watching and listening. "It's not wise to talk about the man like that. If the wrong person overhears this conversation, we could both be terminated. The less you and I know about the man in the basement, the better."

"But why does he work in the basement?" I said, lowering my voice.

"Evidently he's got his headquarters down there or something," she said.

"He needs a headquarters to dole out project numbers?"

"That's as much as I know," she said.

"Have you ever met him?"

"No, no one has," she said. "All I know is that he's real powerful, and you don't want to get on his bad side. Whenever he's in a bad mood, he fires people. He sends security guards, and they escort you out of the building. They don't even let you clean out your desk."

"What a heartless jerk!" I proclaimed.

"Just one piece of advice, Lloyd," she leaned in and whispered. "Keep your voice down, especially when talking about the man in the basement. In fact, don't talk about Shropshire at all. He has ears everywhere."

Another couple of weeks went by and still I hadn't received a project number. I spent every day revising the application, and each afternoon I placed a new version in the Project Number Request Bin at HR. And every day Claire and I had lunch together.

As the days and weeks went by, the application became more personal and heartfelt. It became a kind of journal where I recorded intimate personal details. I eventually admitted that I cared not a wit for the fortunes of Ajax. I wrote long explanations about the major decisions I had made in my life, such as my refusal to pursue normal full-time employment with a corporation like Ajax. I described the cruelties I had suffered as a result of my appearance. I bemoaned the endless disappointments and humiliations of my love life.

I also worked on the project, at least what I thought needed to be done on it. For the most part, I was left alone, and I was productive.

I passed Josephine in the corridor one day, and we stopped to talk.

"Still no project number," I said and shrugged in resignation. "I've revised the application and re-applied dozens of times. On the plus side, the application has developed into a beautiful piece of writing, if I do say so myself. It's a fine example of what a project number application can achieve."

"That's all very nice, Shorty, but it's irrelevant if you don't receive a project number. Something must be seriously wrong. I'm not sure the company can tolerate this situation much longer."

"You may not know this, Josephine, but I'm up and running with the project," I said. "I'm not sure it's exactly what you want, but I'm giving it my best shot. Stop by my office some time, and I'll show you what I've done."

This got Josephine laughing, and it took her a few minutes to regain her composure. "Oh, you contractors crack me up. But seriously, I'm going to have to re-evaluate your situation, Shorty. There must be some reason for the delay. Maybe the man in the basement sees a flaw in your personality that makes you inappropriate for this project or for Ajax. These types of things don't get past the man."

"What is he, some kind of weird-o, cult leader type?"

She sighed. "I'll pretend you didn't make that remark. You must show more restraint if you're going to continue at Ajax. Let me give it to you straight, Shorty. If you don't receive a project number by the end of the week, we'll have to let you go. It would be in everyone's best interest."

Her cell phone rang. She put it to her ear. "Hello, honey-pie ... Not feeling well? ... Well, no wonder after last night ... Yes, you certainly did go a bit overboard ... Lie down and I'll take care of everything when I get down there, you big galute."

She chuckled and slipped the phone into her pocket. "What was it we were talking about, Shorty?"

"About firing me," I said with an Ajax smile.

"We don't use crude terms like that around here, Shorty. We would simply terminate your contract."

"You won't send security guards to haul me off, will you?" I asked, half in jest.

"I'm sorry, Shorty, but that's just how things are done around here. Standard procedure. Don't take it personally."

The next few days were not good ones. I paced, I worried, and I prayed that the man in the basement would send me a project number, but it didn't happen. I even stopped revising the project number application. What was the use?

I convinced myself that the man in the basement had it in for me. Clearly, Shropshire was plotting against me. As if being short and hairy bad enough.

I kept expecting a couple of security bulls, lead by that cretin Poot, to barge into my office and run me off, kicking and screaming.

I tried to pull myself together. I decided that if a project number did not arrive by the end of the week, I would pack a few things and simply stroll out of the building in a self-respecting manner. I would not be hauled off like a common criminal. I also swore to myself that I would never again work anywhere with a lavender and peach color scheme.

Predictably, a project number did not arrive by Friday. On my way to the cafeteria for lunch that day, I passed Josephine in the hall.

"Last day, huh?" she said.

"Looks that way."

She reached out, shook my hand with both hands, and with astonishing sincerity and an enormous smile said, "It's been great working with you, Shorty, really. We truly appreciate and respect all the work you've done for us. Best of luck."

"All what work?" I asked, but she was off, mumbling baby talk into her cell phone. I was left standing in the middle of the corridor staring slackjawed in her direction.

I found Claire in the cafeteria and sat down with her.

"Hi, Shorty," she said.

"Claire, please. It's Lloyd."

"Oh, yeah, right. Sure, Lloyd."

Except for the exchange of few pleasantries, we ate in silence. She didn't bother to initiate conversation, and she didn't look at me.

"Is something wrong?" I said.

"No, of course not," she said and laughed nervously.

"This may be my last day."

"Yes, I know," she said.

"Who told you?"

"You know how it is, Shorty-er, Lloyd. There aren't any secrets at Ajax."

"You mean people are talking about my project number problem behind my back?" I asked loudly.

"Keep your voice down," she said. "Intense behavior is frowned upon at Ajax, you know that. Are you trying to get me in trouble?"

Several people from adjacent tables were staring at me with clear disapproval. I glared at them, and they immediately looked away.

"The only thing I'll miss at Ajax is you, Claire."

"Lloyd, that's very nice of you, but you shouldn't--really--"

"Claire, maybe we could see each other sometime after I'm gone, somewhere far away from all this Ajax weirdness."

She stood and picked up her tray. "I'm sorry, Lloyd. I've got to go."

I grabbed her arm. "Claire, this isn't like you. Tell me what's wrong."

"Let go," she whispered, her eyes filling with tears. "I can't see you anymore. I'm sorry, Shorty. It's out of the question. Not until you get a project number."

She pulled away and rushed off. I sunk down to the seat and stared at the table for several minutes. My world was falling apart because of a stupid number.

Just then it came to me. I would become a self-starter. I'd take the ball and run with it. So I stood and shouted, "I'll get a project number, one way or the other!"

Nearly everyone in the cafeteria was watching me.

"And none of you can stop me," I shouted as I ran from the cafeteria.

I spent the next hour or so in my cube analyzing my options, reconsidering the risks, and trying to drum up some courage. Then I made my move. There was no sense waiting.

I took off down the Ajax corridors as if I had been born to walk them. My strides were long and confident, my posture upright. The Ajax employees gave me a wide berth. I sensed fear as well as admiration in their faces.

When I reached the door, I stopped and stared at it. Above it was a sign that read, "Restricted Area. Keep Out." It was the door to my destiny, the door to the basement.

As I reached for the door handle, I heard a voice calling my name. I turned. It was Claire.

"I knew I'd find you here," she said. "This is crazy, Lloyd. Don't do it. You could get hurt."

"Claire, I just want to talk to Shropshire. Despite our differences, I'm confident both parties will remain calm and that a win-win solution can be found."

"You don't know that," she said. "The man--he's unpredictable. God knows what he'll do."

"I've made up my mind, Claire. Besides, what do I have to lose? Even you don't want to be seen with me."

She took my hands in hers. "I'm so sorry, Lloyd. I was foolish and rude. I want to spend time with you, and I don't care about your project number problems."

"But what about my height impairment? And I'm sure you noticed that I'm rather hairy."

"I don't care about any of that, Lloyd. I just want to be with you. Don't go, please."

I gazed into her eyes and saw what looked like yearning, although I wasn't certain because yearning is something I've seen so infrequently in a woman's eyes.

"We could leave right now," she said. "The hell with Ajax."

"Claire, this is something that has to be done. I've got to confront Shropshire and demand a project number, one that's mine and no one else's."

Several employees had gathered around. I grabbed Claire and kissed her. The employees clapped. I had a feeling that they knew what I was about to do.

Just then I heard Poot's voice. "Stop, that's a restricted area," he shouted.

Poot was leading a group of security guards in riot gear down the hallway toward me. "Grab him. He's a contractor!" Poot shouted.

With that, I opened the door, and down I went, down, down, down into the cold, dark, lonely, dangerous basement. It hardly mattered that I tripped on the first step and rolled down the entire flight of stairs. I knew that Claire cared about me, and that was the only thing on my mind.

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