A story by Scott Pedersen
Hey, Steve. Yeah, I’m back. Sorry I wasn’t around this week.
No, I decided to go home and see my mom. My dog died.
What, you never had a dog when you were a kid?
Oh, yeah. I forgot—your family had cats.
Because I had this dog for 15 years. And my mom went through a lot so I could get him.
When I was about seven. We were living in an apartment, which didn’t allow dogs, and my mom—
Whatever. Never mind, it’s not that important. So, what did you do during spring break?
Okay, if you really want to hear about my dog, I’ll tell you, but you gotta listen to the whole thing.
Great. So, my mom was the manager of an engineering department at a job shop. That’s a company that makes parts for other companies.
So, she’s sitting in her office with a couple of her reports—reports are people who report to her. She’s the boss. Anyway, this one obnoxious engineer named Quinn—
Because she told me the story, and I remember it.
Yes, every detail. I have this memory thing. I remember just about everything.
Yeah, it helps during finals. But remembering stuff isn’t the same as understanding it, so it’s not as much help as you think. Anyway, this engineer Quinn points to a small, cylindrical part on my mom’s desk and says, “Hey, Cindy. What’s that?”
She picks it up, tosses it to him and says, “It’s a part we can’t ship. Most of them have a crook in the middle.” She says that Paul, the other engineer sitting there, is going to fix the problem.
Then Paul says, “We need to straighten them, but nothing we’ve tried works—at least not without breaking the part.”
Quinn rolls the part around in his palm for a while before saying, “I know how to do this.” He gets up to leave, and Mom and Paul watch through a big window as he walks across the production floor to the workshop at the far end of the factory.
A few minutes later he comes back and puts the part on her desk. She’s, like, totally shocked and says, “How did you straighten it?”
Quinn says, “I’m not tellin’.” Now, Mom has already just about had it with this guy and all his antics. He’s been giving her a hard time for months.
I don’t know. Probably he didn’t like having a woman boss.
No, she was still pretty new there. Quinn was the most senior engineer, and I think he liked throwing his weight around. Anyway, Mom says to him, “Seriously. How did you do it?”
Quinn doesn’t say anything and just gazes around the room. So, my mom says, “You know, I have a seven-year-old who acts like that.” That was great. I remember doing that all the time to her. I mean, all the time.
So, then Paul gives it a shot. “C’mon, Quinn, what did you use?”
“A piece of equipment. But not the way it’s normally used.”
Now Mom is really pissed off. “Stop kidding around, Quinn. We’re all professionals here. This is a big problem, and we need to solve it—all of us, working together.”
So, picture this. Quinn knows how important this is to my mom, but he just smirks and then picks a little piece of lint off his shirt. And he studies it like it’s interesting or something.
Yeah, what a jerk.
So, Mom decides to get stern with him. I don’t know why. It never worked at home with me. Anyway, she says, with her absolute most serious voice, “What did you do to this part?”
Quinn starts to frown, like he’s offended. Mister senior engineer and all. “To heck with this. I was about to tell you, but now you can forget it.” And then he gets up and leaves.
Mom looks at Paul. “Can you believe that? You’ve worked with him a lot longer than I have. Is this normal for him?”
“No,” says Paul. “He is kind of an odd duck sometimes, but I never would have expected that.”
Mom says, “Well, I think he’s a jerk. He’s always had an attitude around me. I’m going to take care of this.”
Paul looks worried. “What are you going to do? Wait, you’re not taking this to Beckley, are you? You know Quinn is really respected around here.”
Beckley was the president of the company. A British guy. Real formal acting, at least when I saw him.
So, my mom says, “You saw what happened. I’m going to get the okay to fire him. I’m not putting up with his nonsense anymore.”
Yeah, you can only push her so far. I can see why she’s had such a great career. I mean besides her being a good engineer. She stands up for herself.
Anyway, a few hours later, she goes to see Beckley. She’s heard he is coming back from an off-site meeting with a customer, so she sits in his office to wait.
And in walks Beckley. “Ah, a visitor.” He hangs up his coat and says, “How nice. I hope you’re here about something more pleasant than what I just went through.”
Mom says, “It’s not exactly pleasant.” She holds up the part. “Quinn knows how to straighten these.”
Beckley says, “He does. Well, things are starting out pleasant enough. Go on.”
And Mom says, “But he won’t tell me how he did it. He’s actually aware of a way to use equipment we own to solve this problem—which, as you know, is a major issue for us—and he’s keeping it a secret. He’s being a jerk about it. I want to fire him.”
Now Beckley is looking pretty concerned and sits down. “You do. Tell me, how long have you worked here? It’s less than a year, correct?”
Mom says, “Yes. Almost six months.”
Then Beckley says, “So, you aren’t aware that this man has gotten us out of a great many scrapes and saved more than a few contracts from cancellation. And he did it through engineering brilliance, working a frightful number of hours, all without complaint. Not to mention his considerable volunteer work, with the disabled, that sort of thing. You know nothing about any of this?”
So, Mom says, “Uh, no.”
Beckley leans forward. “Then rather than summing him up based on one incident and casting him aside, do you agree that it may be in the company’s interest to keep him on?”
And Mom says, “Yes, I can see what you mean.” What else could she say? I mean, he owns most of the company.
Then Beckley holds out his hand. “Here, why don’t you let me have that, and I’ll talk to him. But either way, I’ll need a solution from you for fixing this part problem by the end of the week. And since you haven’t completed your probationary period, let’s have your performance on this matter be the final, determining factor regarding your future here. Understood?”
I know. He was like this imperious tyrant, always polite but a tyrant.
And now my mom is under the worst pressure of her life. Beckley can probably see it in her face, because he says, “Chin up, Cindy. This is your chance to shine.”
Mom hands the part to Beckley and leaves.
She’s really stressed out now. She goes to her office and tries to get some paperwork done. Pretty soon she heads to the production floor and finds Paul working on some noisy machinery. She shouts so he can hear her. “Any new ideas?”
“No,” he says. “Hey, how did it go with Beckley? Did you get the okay to fire him?”
Mom says, “No, but Beckley’s going to talk to him. I can’t imagine Quinn keeping his secret from the guy who signs his paycheck.”
Paul shuts down the stamping press, and all of a sudden the place is really quiet—I mean, for a factory. “I hope you’re right,” he says. “‘Cause we are digging a dry well here.”
Mom says, “Listen, Paul, keep trying, okay? Anything you can think of.”
He says, “Sure. You look a little panicky. Are you all right?”
Mom hesitates. “I just called the bank to stall on getting a mortgage. No need for one if I won’t have a job. I’m dreading telling my son. All he talks about is how we’re going to get a house so he can have a dog.”
Paul says, “Ooh. Well, I’m going to give it everything I’ve got, believe me.”
Yeah, later that day she told me we might not be getting a house after all. It was after supper, while we were sitting on the couch. It was a worse feeling than when my parents told me they were getting a divorce. Or maybe it was just because it was one thing on top of the other.
No, I haven’t seen him in a long time. He stopped paying child support and basically disappeared.
Yeah, it was really hard for my mom financially. She even still has that old couch. And she hasn’t gotten new carpeting, either…
Yeah, I’m still here. I was just thinking. I guess that’s how she could afford to send me here…
No, I’m not crying. Shut up.
Okay, so listen to this. The next day Mom goes back to Beckley’s office and says, “Excuse me, do you have time to approve an assignment I want to make? It’s pretty important.”
Beckley says, “Well, I have a meeting shortly. But I think I have time, if it won’t take too long.”
Mom sits down and says, “I thought about the things you told me about Quinn. And I’d like him to be the lead engineer on the next project. He’s not booked up, he’s got the right experience, and…”
Beckley raises his eyebrows. “Hmmm? What else?”
And Mom says, “I want to show that there are no hard feelings.”
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” he says.
Mom is a little surprised but not exactly disappointed. “Oh. Well, of course, if you have another project in mind for him.”
“No,” says Beckley, “it’s not that. The reason it’s not possible is that he no longer works here. I fired him.”
“Fired him? But I just saw him this morning.”
“It happened only a short while ago,” Beckley says.
Mom leans back in her chair. “Wow, after that illustrious history you told me about, he must have done something pretty bad.”
“He did,” says Beckley. “It was very bad. Very bad indeed.”
Mom tries not to smile, but she’s about to burst. “What was it?”
Beckley says, “Do you remember that part you handed me the other day? I asked Quinn to tell me how he straightened it.” Now Beckley takes a sip of tea and then carefully sets down his teacup.
Mom is going nuts with suspense. “Yes? And?”
“He refused,” Beckley says. “Can you imagine?”
Beckley smiles at her just a little bit, picks up his folder and heads for his office door. Then he stops and looks back. “Why so glum? I thought you didn’t like him.”
So, now my mom is still stuck with this problem she has to solve. And what does she do? I’ll tell you what she doesn’t do. She doesn’t go to her office and sulk. She goes straight to the workshop. She lifts up tools on shelves, pulls open workbench drawers, pokes around inside cabinets.
Then Pickles—she’s the workshop supervisor—puts down what she’s working on and stands there watching my mom.
Yeah, that’s her nickname. I like it.
Pickles finally says, “Hey, Cindy. What are you looking for?”
Mom says, “Did you happen to see Quinn out here yesterday? Using a piece of equipment?”
“Yeah, I saw him. But he didn’t use any equipment. He just took one of these.” Pickles holds up a box of perfectly straight parts.
Mom’s jaw drops. “Did he say anything?”
Pickles nods. “He said he needed it to play a joke on someone.”
“You’ve got to be kidding”
Pickles leans back on the workbench. “You know, ever since he told me he’s retiring, he’s been a real goof-off. He wants to quit now, but his wife is making him stick it out until the end of the year. He wants out of here real bad.”
Mom takes the box of parts and says, “Well, at least we get a few good ones off the line. Now all we have to do is make millions of them and pick out the few straight ones. Haha.”
Pickles says, “No, these aren’t off the line. I straightened these. I didn’t say anything yet because I was still figuring out how to scale it up.”
Mom can hardly believe it. “Wait—you straightened them?”
“I know it’s not my job,” says Pickles, “and the engineers are already working on it.” She’s looking pretty sheepish about it, but Mom is, like, super happy, right?
So Mom says, “No, no, don’t apologize. Just show me how you did it.”
Pickles pulls a cobbled-together piece of equipment across the workbench and demonstrates. It takes about two seconds to fix one of the parts, and my mom is blown away. “This is really clever. This is beautiful. You just solved all my problems. If you only knew.”
Pickles is all smiles now and says, “I’m glad to help.”
Mom says, “If you don’t mind, I’m going to have Paul work with you to scale this up.”
After hearing that, Pickles is just beaming. “I don’t mind at all.”
Mom is leaving the workshop when Pickles yells, “Hey, you should do Quinn a big favor and find a reason to fire him!”
“Consider it done.” Clever lady, my mom.
Yeah, things worked out pretty well. I mean, Quinn got to retire, so to speak, the company got its problem solved, my mom got a good performance review—and a mortgage so she could buy us a house—and I got a dog, which means it worked out better for me than anybody.
Steve, the only reason you don’t agree with that is because you always had cats. It’s not the same.
Yeah, I’ll see you later. On the Commons around seven.
Yeah, it was hard. At least I got to see him one last time. Thanks for saying that.
This work was featured in our spring/summer 2020 issue.