It was all about the promotion. Salvaging my career. Being proud of myself again.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve never been that person who’d do anything to get ahead. I have principles. Everyone knows I have principles. And I stick to them, even when it’s hard.
So when they offered to make me Vice-President, at the fairly young age of forty-three, and a woman in a pretty much all male company, it isn’t as if I just jumped at it without a thought. There was a lot to think about. The responsibility. The stress. The time commitment, with two teenagers at home and an ex-husband whose reliability – what’s the word? – sucks.
The money mattered too, of course, although it wasn’t all that much more than my compensation at the Director level. There was upside, and increased benefits, and perks.
And there was the title. Director of Emerging Projects was nice and all that, but Vice-President of Corporate Development was a serious position, for serious people who have really shown what they can do. Ten years with the company (and almost ten years before that as a respected professional in private practice), and they finally put me on the executive team, recognizing my worth. Marlene Dix, Vice-President. It sounded good to me.
I didn’t say yes right away. I told them it was an exciting challenge, but that I wanted to discuss the impacts with my kids overnight. They didn’t push. The COO said the President really wanted me in the job, but naturally they wanted me fully on board. Take all the time you need, they said.
Maybe I should have been more cautious.
There was no reason for me to be nervous the first day in the new job, but I was. I spent an hour figuring out what to wear, suddenly conscious that my lumpy body is no longer the vision of the well-toned up-and-comer I once was. I knew my new office well, and went directly to it. After a quick inspection of its emptiness, I went to my old desk and gathered a box of stuff. Someone else would do that for me, if I wanted. But I wanted the first step to be mine. This was important. I wanted to feel it.
Yes, I was nervous.
They didn’t give me long to enjoy it. Most of the stuff was still in the box when the President’s assistant summoned me to my first executive team meeting. I’d been to executive meetings in the past, but always as part of the supporting cast sitting against the wall. This time, I had a seat at the boardroom table. There were only eight of us. I was one of them.
After I was welcomed, and everyone smiled to make me feel like I belonged, we got down to business. Without much preamble, there were budgets, and forecasts, and projects, and problems. I knew some of it. Some of the projects were ones I had supervised. I had a hand in the forecasts. But being at the table made it all feel different.
Most of the meeting, I was quiet, until the President turned to East Acadia. “Marlene,” he said. “This is what you’re here for. The initiative that will take this organization to the next level.”
I knew about East Acadia, a visionary plan to turn an old industrial area on the edge of the city into a major shopping and entertainment complex. Our borrowing for the project would by itself be more than the total value of our company. The risks were astronomical, and the rewards at least as much.
The COO kicked off the discussion. “Permits are in hand, with one small problem. Apparently at some time in the distant past, some of this land was a munitions factory. Now we have an environmental group claiming that chemical waste was stored onsite. They claim that the entire property is contaminated. If they were right – they aren’t of course – the land is simply not salvageable. It couldn’t be used for anything, no matter what we do.”
This was the first time I’d heard of this, but no-one was looking at me for comment. It was the President who continued. “The problem is this nut case Abe Townsend. Everyone at City Hall knows him, a crazy if there ever was one. He must be seventy, and he sees it as his mission to stop all development in the city. He’s the one who set up this residents’ association, saying they are fighting for the environment.”
“I’ve met Abe Townsend,” I said, speaking now for the first time. “He’s certainly an eccentric, no doubt about that, but I don’t know if I’d call him crazy. He just gets a bee in his bonnet, and has to be talked down from his perch.”
The President smiled. His smile always reminded me of a Cheshire cat, and maybe made me a little nervous. Now it seemed sincere. “I’ll leave Abe to you then, Marlene.”
And that was that.
Well, not quite. After the meeting, the President called me into his office. “We did our homework, and we have a file on Abe Townsend. This may help you.” With that, he handed me a thick accordion folder, and turned to his assistant for his next task. I was dismissed.
When I spoke at the press conference last week, and set off the chain of events that has everyone so upset, that was the context. It was all pretty normal.
* * * *
I met with Abe and some of his fellow residents at least ten times. Every meeting had the same basic pattern. They would trot out their latest test results, showing soil contamination on a massive scale. I would walk through the tremendous economic and social benefits of East Acadia, and propose more and more specific mitigation measures to limit any potential contamination.
In the later meetings, they brought pictures of parts of the property that had already become wetlands, or new forests, or whatever. They talked about nature taking control of the property and cleaning it up naturally over the next hundred years. I tried to compromise. They were not really interested in any solution that involved proceeding with redevelopment.
None. At all.
The problem was, they were pretty much right. The more I looked into it, the more I realized that there was a munitions factory, and the land was used as a chemical dump. My own expert, hired at great cost, told me that it wasn’t really possible to clean up the site. Period.
Impossible? I knew impossible wouldn’t fly with the company, but I talked to the COO and the President anyway. We looked for solutions. We hired another expert, who said the same thing. The President was adamant, though, that the redevelopment had to proceed. “This company is in too deep,” he told me. “If we pull the plug on this project, the company won’t survive. We’ll all be looking for new jobs.”
In fairness to them, they never once referred to the file on Abe Townsend. Neither did I. I had read it, sure. I never considered it further.
Like I said, I have principles.
* * * *
Give me a little credit. I kept at it for a year, trying to convince Abe and his crew to work toward a collaborative solution. And, trying to convince my company to consider creative ways to shift its focus away from East Acadia. No-one was going to budge.
Finally, I had a private, one-on-one meeting with Abe. I explained to him that I was between a rock and a hard place. If the company backed off, it would go under. Thus, that was never going to happen. He had to show some willingness to compromise.
Abe was very much the gentleman. I suppose that’s one of the reasons I was chosen as point person for this in the first place: Abe would be respectful of a lady. That’s just who he was.
But he shook his head sadly. “I know the reality, Ms. Dix. I know your company can’t give in. We have been talking and talking, but in the end I know that there will be a winner and a loser here. I’ve never thought anything else.
“You’ve really tried,” he went on, “and I respect you for that. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter. I’m pretty confident we can get City Hall and the state to say no, particularly in an election year. You should be figuring out how to back away gracefully. Or maybe you should be thinking about your personal future. Maybe you should leave before things get bad.”
For whatever reason – frustration, fear, hubris, or just fighting instincts, I don’t know why - I decided it was time to raise the investigative file. “Mr. Townsend, I’ve bent over backwards with you. I don’t think you realize how vulnerable your situation is. Your personal history makes it pretty well impossible for politicians anywhere to back you. They won’t, and you must know that. If this is about winning and losing, without any possibility of compromise, in the end my company will win. It’s inevitable.”
“My personal history?” he said. Then his eyes widened. He knew exactly what I was talking about.
I walked him through what I had in my file. As I talked, he seemed to crumple, a man who was losing all of the strength he had inside himself. He didn’t cry. He didn’t show any anger, or fear. He just fell in on himself, like a flower wilting in a time-delayed video.
My closing pitch was pretty gentle. “I want to schedule a press conference for next week. I want you there, and together we will announce a compromise that allows the project to go ahead, and protects the environment. We can do this, Abe. We should do this. Everyone can be a winner here.”
He nodded in understanding, but didn’t say anything. Silently, he got up and shuffled out of the room, clearly beaten.
* * * *
I felt like the press conference was my moment of glory. Sure, I felt terrible that I had to play dirty to get a reasonable compromise. In the end, though, it was a compromise. It was the deal that should have been done, and would have been done in the first place without Abe’s intransigence. I only played hardball because he was being unreasonable. It was justified, I thought.
The dais had the Mayor, the President of my company, and half a dozen other dignitaries, but the stars of the show were Abe, and Marlene.
I spoke first, my comments brief. I talked about the long discussions to find a solution, and I lauded Abe and his colleagues for working with the company to benefit everyone. My theme was “win-win”. I didn’t describe the deal. I had given Abe a prepared speech, so that he could present “New East Acadia”. It would play better coming from him.
When Abe stepped up to the microphone, he unfolded the speech. His first words, though, told me he was going off script.
“Just before I came up on this stage,” he said, almost too quietly for anyone to hear, “I handed my resignation to the directors of the East Acadia Protective Association. I am no longer president of the residents’ association.
“My wife Ella is not here with me today. She is at home, because this morning she learned something about my past that hurt her deeply. She didn’t want to hear it again when I tell you all about it today.”
I looked around the stage. This was bad, although no-one except me seemed to realize it yet. I started to move forward, but Abe looked directly at me. Not a hard look. More like a wounded animal, dangerous. I stopped.
“When I was fifteen, I was convicted of a crime. I was convicted of the rape of my wife’s older sister, my girlfriend at the time, who was then fourteen. I went to what we used to call reform school for four years. My wife was only twelve when it happened. I didn’t know her then, and she never knew what happened between me and her sister.
“While I came out of that experience a different person, and the records of my past shame were supposed to be sealed, somehow the East Acadia developers found out about it. They offered a trade. They would shut up about my past, if I would agree to let them proceed with their development.
“To my wife, I want to say publicly what I told her privately this morning. I can’t take back the past. There was never a reason for me to tell her what happened, and her sister was strongly against it. Her sister was happy to be the maid of honour at our wedding. Until her death two years ago, she was a close friend to both myself and my wife. A wonderful person.”
His face was grey, sagging with pain. “My past is my past. I am ashamed, and I’m sorry people I care so much about are hurt by my past. However, I won’t” – and he turned directly to look at me – “I won’t let you use blackmail to desecrate this land.”
He walked slowly off the stage without looking back. In fact, I now saw that the stage was bare. Everyone had left, except me. Thirty members of the press wanted me to answer questions. They were yelling, clamouring.
I left the stage as well, pushing my way through the microphones and cameras, saying nothing.
* * * *
While the President of my company was resigning to avoid being fired; while the Mayor was issuing a statement confirming that he had always opposed the redevelopment; while everyone ran for the hills; Abe’s exit from the stage was too late. When he hadn’t even reached his car, police were already on the way to his home, responding to reports of gunfire.
Abe and his wife had been happily married for forty-five years. By all accounts, he loved her deeply, and she loved him.
And now that was over.
You may think that’s it. The whole story.
I still had to go home, trying to ignore calls and texts on my phone about a woman’s suicide, and about her grieving husband, and about why any of this had to happen. I still had to see the looks on my kids’ faces when they heard about it. I still had to see the questions in their eyes.
So don’t ask me any more questions. I don’t know how this all happened, all right? I don’t know. I just don’t know.