“I know why you’re here,” the pudgy blind man assured me from behind his cluttered gray metal desk. “But I’d like to hear you say it.”
“Punched my boss,” I said. After, it should probably be noted, leaping over his desk and trying to throttle him. In retrospect, maybe I overreacted, but it had seemed like an excellent idea at the time.
“No doubt, that precipitated your visit. But why are you here?”
A lot of factors simply didn’t come together, allowing me to make it to the first of three scheduled anger management appointments. I failed to get lost on the way to the Staffer Support annex in downtown Orlando. A wayward jet en route to the airport didn’t drop an engine on my head. Physics hadn’t chosen me, minutes before my arrival, for the gift of spontaneous combustion.
Something told me that none of these answers, no matter how perfectly valid, would satisfy the shrink.
The framed diploma on the pale yellow wall behind him – a doctorate from the University of Central Florida – identified him as William L. Brooks, but he had insisted that I call him Billy Lee.
I sighed. “Look, I had a choice: this or unemployment.” Technically, it was this or jail on battery charges AND unemployment.
Billy Lee, certified psychologist, swiveled his chair to the right so that he could reach the door of the mini-fridge that hummed in a corner of his cramped office. “Mind if I eat a sandwich? Blood sugar.” He didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, he plucked a hoagie wrapped in white wax paper from the top shelf and a can of diet Sierra Mist from the second shelf.
Shrugging, I took the iPhone from my shirt pocket and revved up Angry Birds in silent mode.
“Please don’t do that,” Billy Lee said as he unraveled the paper encasing his sandwich.
“Do what?” A red bird arced through the air and smashed a wooden structure holding a handful of green pigs.
“It’s rude,” he continued, pulling the tab to open his drink.
“Just sitting here,” I said. With three pigs left to thwart on this level. Silently, like a ninja.
“I can hear your finger swiping,” he said. “Put the phone away, please. Respect the process.” Then he took a bite of his sandwich.
“Sorry,” I said, returning the phone to its pocket. “Some of us didn’t bring lunch.”
He sipped from the can. “Why are you here, Larry?”
“Aren’t they paying you the big bucks to answer that question?”
“The answer is more valuable if you find it on your own,” Billy Lee said. “The process, you see.”
“Who determines that value?” I leaned forward, resting my wrists on my legs and lacing my fingers. “He screwed me over. I popped him in the jaw. I’m here because I let my temper get the best of me.”
“It’s interesting the way you put that, don’t you think? ‘Screwed you over.’ How did he screw you over?”
“Didn’t you read my file?”
“That provides a more-or-less objective compilation of facts regarding your situation. I would prefer to hear your recollection.”
“Expecting a different version from me?”
“I’m not running a polygraph test,” he said. “Humor me.” He took another bite of his sandwich.
“I know, I know,” I said. “Respect the process. Where do you want me to start?”
Billy Lee shrugged. “Where do you feel like starting?”
Son of a bitch obviously wasn’t about to throw me a bone. It occurred to me that this could be part of his process, trying to be as annoying as possible to see how far he could press before I exploded like I had at Shaun Bradley. Eating lunch in front of me. Calling me out about the iPhone – I still couldn’t figure out how he knew about that. Answering questions with questions. Insisting that I was here for something other than a disciplinary referral. All of it might just be Billy Lee’s version of a stress test.
I wasn’t in the mood.
“Look,” I said, “cut me some slack, please. I’ve never talked to a therapist before.” Not entirely true, I realized almost immediately. I had interviewed a few in my capacity as a journalist. “Not about my own issues, anyway. I just want to make it through these sessions without a hassle and get back to work. Can’t we just skip the mind games? Give me the spiel. Tell me that my behavior was inappropriate. Encourage me to keep a tighter grip on my temper. Order me to apologize to Shaun.”
“I don’t work for Pulse Publications,” Billy Lee said, crumpling the wax paper and dropping it in the black plastic waste basket to the left of his desk. “I’m not here to enforce corporate orders on behalf of Human Resources. I’m here to help you, if I can. I can’t judge whether you behaved inappropriately without hearing your side of the events that transpired. Given that you’ve worked for the newspaper for nearly ten years without a similar incident, I don’t get the sense that a hair-trigger temper is a real problem for you. And if Shaun Bradley did, in fact, ‘screw you over,’ then perhaps you have nothing to apologize for.”
I really couldn’t imagine a parallel universe – let alone this one – where I wouldn’t be forced (if not feel personally compelled) to tell my boss that I was sorry for socking him in the jaw and trying to strangle him. “That sounds like a trap,” I said. “You can pretend we’re pals and this is all for my own good, if you want, but the newspaper does pay for your services, doesn’t it?”
“It does.” He glanced toward his fridge. “Want a drink?”
“No,” I said. “Thanks.”
“You’re a skeptic,” Billy Lee said. “That’s your job. I understand that. If you want to sit here in silence for the next thirty minutes and play your game, that’s fine. I get paid no matter what and your boss is none the wiser because I am bound by confidentiality. However, I think you’re in crisis. I believe I can help you, if you let me. But this doesn’t work if it’s just me trying.”
“If that’s true, what about your claim that you know why I’m here?”
The therapist chuckled. “Larry, you’re not the first person I’ve treated. Chances are, you’re not as special as you might want to think.” He shrugged. “But if it helps you with the process, the point is to explore through conversation and introspection until you reach a conclusion. Probably, it’s the one I’ve got in mind. But maybe you’ll surprise me.”
For two weeks, I had ignored the posting pinned to the bulletin board of the break room wall in the Sanford bureau of The Orlando Pulse.
Of course, the day it came out, I read it. Mike Tannebaum was leaving the Volusia County bureau, which meant an opening for a new chief. I’d been assistant bureau chief in Seminole County for about three years. From time to time, I felt itchy for a change. I got my start at the Pulse as an intern in Daytona. It would make sense to apply for the job, from a practical perspective.
But I owed a lot to Randy Pierce, who had been a reporter in Volusia for more than a decade, knew the community inside and out, and had subbed for Mike when he went on vacations. Randy shared his apartment with me during my internship and made sure that I did more than fetch coffee. He tipped me off to some great assignments that helped establish me at the newspaper.
So, I put the Volusia job out of my mind.
Then, one afternoon, most of the staff was either at lunch or on their way to check out reports of a small plane crashed near Lake Monroe and Interstate 4. I was at the wall map of Seminole County, wondering how close the plane might have gone down to my house, when Will James wandered out of his office. As he walked toward me, the editor of editorials looked around at the vacant cubicles and asked: “Something you said?”
“Must’ve been.” I crossed my arms and nodded toward the map. “Plane went down. Maybe in the lake. Maybe into your subdivision.”
He smirked. “Listen, had you thought about the Volusia job at all?”
“Thought about it,” I said. “Forgot about it. Randy’s the natural choice.”
Will shook his head. “That’s the thing. They don’t want Randy.”
“Seriously? He’s got the experience.”
“Politics. Too conservative.” I hadn’t heard that about Randy before. “Plus, he lives in Lake County with his family and he’s not willing to move.”
“That shouldn’t keep him from doing the job.”
“Shouldn’t,” Will said. “They’re talking about external candidates, Larry. If you don’t go for this, the job’s going to an outsider.”
So, there it was. Move it or lose it.
I moved it. I felt guilty, like I was betraying Randy, but in a dwindling print journalism market with limited options for advancement, this seemed like the right choice to me.
I called Shaun Bradley that afternoon. “You know that Volusia job?”
“I want to be considered for it.”
“Well, that makes the candidate pool you and, let’s see…you.”
All roses and daffodils, right? Yeah, I thought I was a shoe-in too.
Then, two weeks after that, Shaun called. I was at my desk in Sanford.
“Look, Larry, I appreciate your interest in the bureau chief position in Volusia County, but we’re going with Randy Pierce.”
“I…” I didn’t know what to say. Given what Will had told me, this turn of events made absolutely no sense to me. None at all. Of course, it finally occurred to me that Will might have lied. I had never directly asked Shaun whether he wanted to promote Randy, although his implication that I was the only candidate in the running sure felt like confirmation that he wouldn’t. “Randy’s the obvious choice,” I said. That’s where I left it as I hung up.
But that’s not where I left it.
I walked into Will’s office and shut the door.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Remember the guy they didn’t want?”
“They’re promoting him.”
“You said they didn’t want him.”
“That’s what I heard.”
“You said if I didn’t go after it, they’d hunt for an external candidate.”
“Right,” he said.
“I went after it. They didn’t pick me. They picked the guy you said they didn’t want.”
“I thought you had it locked.”
“Now? Now I think they used you to pressure Randy to get what they wanted out of him.”
“Everybody I talked to made it sound like you were the pick, Larry. Shaun must’ve used that to leverage Randy, make sure that he stays in line and does what management wants for him to get the job.”
“Used me,” I repeated.
“It really sucks, man. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”