Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Oil Men

Below is a brief excerpt from Chapter VI of my novel in progress, Only the Dying. In this segment, two men from the Standard Oil Company of Indiana have shown up in Bentonville, Indiana, unannounced, looking for Walter Brogan, my protagonist. When they find him, they invite him along on a walking tour of a possible building site for a new bulk plant facility for the storage of fuel oil. The site is alongside the B&O rail line on the outskirts of town where a decrepit ruin of an old factory now stands. Brogan understands that the invitation amounts to a job interview. The time is early September, 1930.

‘Al McCready is dead,’ the older man said when Brogan had stopped talking.

This was not what Brogan had been expecting to hear, of all intelligence that the men from Standard Oil of Indiana might have been there to impart. He was dumbstruck, and slowed his progress through the grass to nearly a stagger. Al McCready, dead? He had never known the man to seem robust, but passage from this world was not something that had struck him as being imminent. Although it was true that Brogan hadn’t exactly counted McCready among his close friends, he had been an associate, and for a few years running was his sole connection to the possible change in profession that the three men now seemed to be on the way to discussing. In short, the news came as a shock.

‘Had he been ill?’ Brogan asked.

Spenlow looked at his red-haired colleague, who exchanged a silent glance with him.

‘We were thinking you might be able to tell us,’ said Spenlow.

‘Me?’ asked Brogan. ‘No, I’m sorry. I didn’t know the man well enough to know that. Sure, we spoke a lot, but we never got into that kind of thing. McCready is – or, was – he was a bit rough around the edges. Smoked a lot. But if he was sick or not, I never knew.’

‘In that case, I’m sorry to have to tell you. It was a surprise to us too, as you can imagine.’

‘Any news about what happened?’ Brogan wanted to know. By the time they had reached the old building and were standing adjacent to its flaking southern end.

‘He was found in his home, in the bathroom. Looks like an accidental death. That’s all I really know, and couldn’t tell you much more than that in any case, on account of the inquest that is just underway,’ Spenlow related.

‘Sorry state of affairs,’ commented Doyle abruptly, and Brogan was about to agree, but then saw that the other man wasn’t even talking about McCready. He was peering into a shattered window close to where they stood, into the darkened interior of the old factory. ‘We’d need to come in here and level all of this right quick.’ This last comment was directed to Spenlow, almost as if the preceding conversation had never taken place.

Insensitive son of a gun, thought Brogan. McCready put in over a quarter century of service to this crackerjack’s outfit. But he said nothing.

‘You said he was found in his bathroom?’ Brogan asked. His thoughts had immediately flown to Ilse Heinricks and her tragic death two years before.

‘That’s right. Damned tragic,’ replied Spenlow. He shook his head. ‘Anyway, I didn’t want to mention that while you were eating with your whole family. But it was one of those things that got us out here now. McCready’s untimely death accelerates the process. We’ve got Fred Means in there temporarily, but he won’t be delivering to this area. We need a new facility.’

With that, he began looking over the decrepit building. He walked around the corner to the west side. The breeze tousled the grass. A wasp buzzed near Brogan’s head. He waved at it impatiently, not knowing quite what to say next. He was still a bit flummoxed by the news about McCready, but didn’t want to ask more questions on the matter. Something made him feel that Spenlow, representing Standard, knew more than what he had indicated about the death, but there was no legitimate basis for this feeling. Only the inclination of his own gut.

Spenlow had opened a small distance between himself and Brogan. He gestured to Doyle to join him, and for a few moments the two of them spoke in inaudible tones. Doyle made broad sweeping motions with his arms, and pointed in particular directions. Brogan, standing off to one side, realized the younger man was describing a potential layout of the site. Spenlow nodded here and there. It began to occur to Brogan that Spenlow was doing more of the talking because he was the officer type, a man who made decisions. Doyle was the foot soldier, as it were; the man with the trade knowledge. Although he seemed rather young to have expertise, he clearly was directing the thought process.

Brogan stood off to one side and remained quiet. He didn’t want to seem impatient. But the truth was he had left Benson on his own at the station, and, more to the point, he still didn’t know what the precise purpose was for these men to bring him out here with them. He had an idea, of course, that they were interested in recruiting him, but they had yet to make mention of this. They must have picked up something in Brogan’s demeanor, however, for Spenlow broke away from Doyle again and wandered across the grass towards him once again.

‘Sorry, Brogan. We were thinking things over.’

‘What are you thinking about?’ Brogan asked. He thought it wasn’t out of line to ask, since they had brought him out this way after all.

Spenlow pulled a white handkerchief out of the inside pocket of his suit jacket. He removed his barbershop hat with one hand and mopped his brow with the other.

‘Well, if we’re going to put a bulk facility in here, we’ll need a man to run it. You know that. The fact is, we’ve got a job to fill. McCready recommended you to us. In fact, he brought your name up some time ago. That doesn’t surprise you, I take it.’

‘No sir. We spoke about it. He told me months ago he would mention my name. I’ll be up front about that.’

‘Hopefully you’ll be up front about everything, Brogan. That’s the sort of man we’re looking for.’ Spenlow now regarded him with great scrutiny and a stone face. Doyle had his back to them, still looking back and forth over the land.

‘Of course, Mr. Spenlow. I didn’t mean otherwise,’ said Brogan, rubbing his hands together.

‘I’m sure you didn’t, sir. And while we’re talking straight, I’ll tell you this. We’re here because of McCready’s, let’s say, “enthusiasm” about you as a good candidate. But we’ve got questions, too. A couple concerns. I don’t mind telling you about them. I’d like to know what your answers would be to those concerns.’

‘Then go ahead, Mr. Spenlow.’

The older man smiled. ‘Brogan, I consider myself a reasonably good judge of a man’s character. I think that’s part of what got me to where I am right now. And you strike me as a decent fellow. You’ve got some backbone. And you seem to work pretty hard. Standard of Indiana can appreciate those qualities.’

‘I suppose I have some pretty good reasons to work hard,’ Brogan said, shrugging. ‘More reasons every day, I’d say, if you read the papers.’

‘I assure you, sir, that I do. Good jobs aren’t exactly easy to come by nowadays. Which is why we feel we need to select our man wisely. To tell you the truth, Mr. Doyle here is of the opinion that you might not have the experience required to do this job. We know you haven’t been in the business for long. What would you say that?’

Brogan eyed the redheaded man. He still didn’t turn towards the two of them, even though he was certainly within earshot. This Brogan found irritating.

‘I’d say if he has questions about what I can or can’t do, maybe he ought to ask me about them himself.’

Now the younger man did turn around. Quickly. His eyes blazed, but he did not advance towards Brogan.

‘Now listen here—’ Doyle began.

Spenlow held up one hand. His eyes remained on Brogan. He waited a moment before speaking. Brogan stood his ground and looked at Doyle straight on.

‘Look, Brogan,’ said Spenlow. ‘This isn’t personal. I appreciate that you have self-confidence. But the fact is that Doyle’s correct. You do lack experience. You’d have to hit the ground and learn the distribution aspects of this business in short order. Pumping fuel is one thing, sir; handling it on a regular basis is quite another. I need not tell you that aside from all business issues, there are also safety concerns that we would need to have assurance that you would be able to understand and address.’

Brogan took his eyes away from Doyle and paid Spenlow his direct attention. He still didn’t like, or much respect, what he could ascertain of the younger man’s character. But he knew that Spenlow’s points were valid, and he could sense that his opportunity was on the line. There would not be a whole lot of other chances to land a more suitable position, he thought.

He realized that Spenlow was giving him the chance to speak. So he decided to make his own thoughts clear.

‘Mr. Spenlow, I understand that you’re concerned about my experience. It makes sense that you would be. But if you don’t mind my pointing this out, it doesn’t seem to be too big of a problem, or your employer probably wouldn’t have sent you out here to find me. I’m sure you men, and Standard Oil, aren’t interested in wasting time.’

‘You got that right, Brogan,’ said Doyle, still looking him over.

Brogan ignored the interjection. He continued: ‘I’ll tell you this much. I think I can handle the job. I’m strong, I work hard, and I’m local. And I’m looking for a more promising situation in order to better protect my family. There’s no shame in saying that. Now, I don’t know if you folks teach your employees or if I need to go out and spend some time up in Gary or Calumet talking to other men that handle fuel or what. I do know I spent a lot of time talking about the way it works with Mr. McCready.

‘I’ll learn the job. You can bet on that. If you’re looking for a man that’s serious, who will make you feel right about your choices, Mr. Spenlow, I am that man.’

At that moment, as Brogan finished speaking, what might have been a lingering moment of silence suspended between the three men in the grass was splintered by the long, low rumble of a freight train’s whistle. The approach of a trainful of supplies seemed to Brogan to lend the whole situation a good feeling, a kind of unspoken confirmation that the location was appropriate, and the need to find the right man for the job was, for all practical purposes, the last piece of the puzzle.

‘That’s good to hear, Brogan,’ said Spenlow. ‘Very good. Now, let’s take a few more minutes before we get you back to the station to talk about what a bulk plant down here might look like. Come with me.’

He walked around the edge of the building, clapping Doyle once on the shoulder as he did so. Brogan followed after them.


Duke Altum said...

Pretty cool little 'teaser' here Mutt... and here's a little connection that won't be an accident (in your eyes) but was cool for me to check out - the other night I was looking through again the non-fiction companion piece to this, A Father I Am (which, BTW, you wrongly dis whenever it comes up but I insist is not only still good reading, but is going to emerge as a crucial piece of family history for future generations... I guarantee that...) and there is a whole little chapter in there about your visit to the site of the former "bulk plant." So it was really interesting to read that right after reading this, to sort of jump back in time along with you and imagine how what is now (present day) more or less defunct may have gotten there in the first place! It was kind of a cool, mind-bending sort of "Christmas Carol"-y glimpse of both past and future in one shot... also I noticed you mention a sign in that narrative (the non-fiction one) for a place called "McCready's"... so it all comes full circle!

This whole experience together, reading the fictional account of the past, seeing the real place in the present and knowing it's the future to the characters, and seeing the name reference come up in two different ways was strangely like the experience of watching LOST... but that's a conversation for another time I guess!! Bbbbbbbbbbb...

Anyway I also wanted to say that I really liked the dialog here... even though brief, it seems believable to me and I'm impressed how you are somehow able to jump back into these characters' heads after being away a long time... shows you really know them, having "lived with" them for years now! Nice work all around... alls I can say is, keep the ball moving forward on this, at all costs! Don't stop until you've hit pay dirt...

Dr.Al said...

I'm not sure the I like the characterization of Al McCready as a little rough around the edges. Aren't al those judgments quite relative? Now Bill McCready certainly was a lot more rough around the edges than Al McCready is. But then again, I'm not sure that you know the McCready clan all that well.
Al McCready