"Sir? Yes, of course it's… Yes, Sir. I will, Sir. Good bye." Walter hangs up the phone, noting with satisfaction the final click it made. He sits back down in his desk chair, leaning back and sighing. His eyes close involuntarily and he massages his face with his fingers. What to do, what to do, he thinks. A knock on the door startles him and he jumps, quickly making a show of being hard at work.
"Come in!" Walter calls. The door opens slowly and a tall woman in boots and a red dress enters. She carries a purse, and in her hand is a clipboard. She is frowning, and her pale skin creases with the frown. Her red hair is frizzy and untamed.
"Shapiro," Walter supplies.
"Mr Shapiro. I am Mrs Hallowtree. I trust your supervisor told you of my visit and my purpose here?" Mrs Hallowtree's voice is sharp. Her eyes are not, and Walter hopes that the sharpness of her voice is jsut for show.
"Yes, yes, they did." Walter's voice almost fades away, but he forces it to be hard again. He is in control. Walter pretends he does not have to remind himself of this. "Please follow me."
"If you don't mind, I would rather ask you some questions here first. Then you can take me on a tour of the plant."
"Yes, yes, of course."
Mrs Hallowtree moves forward and sits, her back straight. She places her purse on the ground by her left foot in a practised motion. She is the picture of perfection, and Walter can't help but be reminded of the stereotype of a 1950s housewife. He swallows, and sits back in his desk, trying to look calm.
"Wonderful. Now, how long have you been in charge here, Mr Shapiro?"
"Six years. And before that I was a manager on the floor, having been promoted from an assembly-line worker."
Mrs Hallowtree consults the clipboard she has begun making notes on, then asks, as if she already knows the answer, "So how many years have you been here in all?"
"Nearly thirty. Got the job right out of high school." Walter looks proud, but then realises that his lack of higher education is probably not the best thing to mention.
"Uh huh." From the expression on her face, Mrs Hallowtree agrees. "How is the plant functioning, overall."
The question is one Walter has been waiting for. "Well, I would say that the plant is functioning fairly well. Of course, as with any factory, there are things we could improve upon, but we are doing quite well considering the circumstances. And the workers are happy to work here. Everyone works hard." He hopes the reply doesn't sound as rehearsed as it is.
"Considering what circumstances?" Here, Mrs Hallowtree leans forward and turns a page on her clipboard.
The chair creaks as Walter leans forward to pick up a pen that is out of place on his desk. Instead of putting it away, he begins to fiddle with it, clicking the cap on and off. He resists the urge to doodle on the calendar pasted to his desk. "Well, we haven't exactly been supported by the company. I'm sure you heard about the strike?"
"Yes, I did. You supported the workers and picketed with them. It caused quite a scandal back at headquarters," Mrs Hallowtree said.
She sounds amused, almost as if she has laughed about his plant many times with the board member she is probably sleeping with, and Walter tries not to wonder who he would have to fuck to get out of this mess.
Walter discretely shakes his head to rid himself of the image of he and Mrs Hallowtree fucking on the desk. He values his job and dignity too much, and he really does believe he is in the right in this situation.
"Well they had a valid point. The union did not want anything too outlandish, and I like my workers. They deserve to be treated well."
"Yes, sure." Mrs Hallowtree makes a note on her clipboard, and Walter feels a surge of confidence. Maybe he can get through this mostly intact.
"That still doesn't explain your recent actions," the woman across from him continues, and Walter's heart sinks again. "Shall we take that tour of the plant now?"
"Yes, yes. Follow me, if you please."
Walter stands up, putting the pen he had been fiddling with where it was supposed to go, then leading Mrs Hallowtree to the door. She follows him after gathering her things, and Walter opens the door for her. She walks through it without a glance at the shorter man, and waits for him to lead once more.
Walter leads the woman down the hallway and into an elevator, where they descend three floors, arriving on a deck surrounding a large space full of machinery and workers. The deck is about a story up off the ground, high enough to get a decent overview of the scene without loosing the clarity and details. Made of a metal grating, Walters boots grip it well, while Mrs Hallowtree struggles in her high heels, the heels of which repeatedly fall through.
"If you like, we could find you some more suitable shoes, Ma'am," Walter offers.
Mrs Hallowtree quickly shuts him down, insisting that her shoes function quite well. Though Walter disagrees, he wisely chooses not to say anything.
Walter leads Mrs Hallowtree to the left, listening to her hobble along, hanging onto the railing for dear life. In a way, he pities here, but then he remembers she is hear to bird-dog his factory, and he decides she probably deserves it.
"The products are manufactured here, Mrs Hallowtree. You can see the use of technology…" Walter continues the stock speech he gives to all visitors; even he can tell how fake and rehearsed it sounds. Honestly though, it's a factory. To Walter all factories are pretty much the same, with only minor differences. There is not that much that's interesting about them, and so Walter never quite understands why anyone visits them. I'm not well suited for bureaucracy, he thinks.
Mrs Hallowtree, however, seems interested, and so he continues, trying to remember to say all the right things at the right times. Finally, the bulk of the speech is over, and they arrive back at the elevator. Walter sighs.
"Would you like to see the floor too? Or maybe talk to some of the workers?" he offers, sounding too cheery for the drab room.
"Yes, I would."
Mrs Hallowtree continues to be content to be led, and so Walter leads her into the elevator, and out onto the floor. The manager for this area of the floor, Tommy, sees them and runs over. Tommy waits patiently for Walter to notice him, and tries to smooth up his appearance some.
"… This is Tommy, the floor manager for this section of the assembly line. Tommy, this is Mrs Hallowtree."
Tommy reaches out a hand, realises it's streaked with grease, and pulls it back, apologising. He gives Mrs Hallowtree a nod instead, and either ignores politely or doesn't notice the look she gives him.
"If you would follow me, Ma'am, I can show you how we work here?" Tommy offers.
"I'd rather just talk to some… cleaner workers, if that works for you, Tommy." Mrs Hallowtree seems unaware of the condescending tone of her voice. She obviously is not used to the level of informality Walter tries to foster in his plant.
"Yes Ma'am, of course." Tommy turns and walks over to a couple workers putting parts together. He talks to them momentarily, and then leads them back to Mrs Hallowtree and Walter. "This is Hankie and Sarah. They've been working here together for the last ten years or so?" Hankie and Sarah nod. "They met here, and are now married." Tommy smiles, and Hankie and Sarah obligingly nod at each other. They are used to being the workers always shown off to visitors, but they don't mind.
Walter stands back a bit and watches the others talking. He tries to smile reassuringly at the other workers still working.
"How do you like this plant?" Mrs Hallowtree asks the couple.
"We like it a lot," Hankie answers her.
"It's not a bad job. And we can rely on the management here to fix things that need to be fixed and deal with other problems," Sarah adds.
Mrs Hallowtree makes a note on her ever-present clipboard. "Good. And would you say that Mr Shapiro is a good boss?"
Sarah and Hankie cover the momentary confusion at the use of Walter's last name well. He usually asks visitors to call him Walter, but he does not feel comfortable enough this time to ask Mrs Hallowtree. Besides, she didn't even mention her last name.
Sarah good-naturedly mocks Walter's stock phrase. "Yes, yes, of course."
"What about you, H- Hankie?"
Tommy laughs quietly at Walter's slight blush. "We've been friends for years," he says. "He's a good friend and a good boss. And he never mixes them up."
"Them?" Mrs Hallowtree enquires.
"Being a boss and being a friend. Some people do. But Walt doesn't."
"Ok. Thank you very much." With that, Mrs Hallowtree dismisses Hankie and Sarah and Tommy, though Tommy hangs around. He stands with Walter as Mrs Hallowtree walks a ways along the line of workers, occasionally asking one or two at a time questions.
"She's scary," Tommy comments to Walter.
Walter says, "I hadn't noticed."
Tommy laughs a bit again. "I know you did. And she's hot too."
"Yes, yes, well, you always have had strange taste in women."
"Don't pretend-" Tommy begins, but Mrs Hallowtree is back again.
Mrs Hallowtree manages to find the elevator by herself, though she waits for Walter to press the button. Walter says a quick good bye to Tommy, then jogs over to the elevator.
"Back to your office is fine," Mrs Hallowtree graciously lets Walter know. He presses the button, and then tries to hide his dislike of the woman he needs to please.
The image of him, bet over his desk naked and tied up, while Mrs Hallowtree stands over him with a whip definitely does not enter his mind.
In Walter's office, Mrs Hallowtree does not deign to sit. Instead, she walks around the perimeter of the room, inspecting the walls. Walter sits in his chair and picks up the pen again, waiting.
"Good. The main branch will be in contact with you shortly, Mr Shapiro," Mrs Hallowtree says sharply. Her eyes have lost the softness that was in them earlier in the meeting, and Walter tries not to be afraid for his job again.
He gets up and shows Mrs Hallowtree to the door and down the hallway, before she curtly lets him know she can find her way from there. Walter resists the urge to hang around or follow her anyway, and walks slowly back to his office with a limp he is usually better at hiding.
Once he is back in the relative safety of his office, he picks up one of several walkie-talkies in a drawer and speaks into it. Tommy's laugh sounds tinny through the handheld device, and his reply is staticy. Walter doesn't need to hear though; he can guess what Tommy has said.
Downstairs, Tommy yells over the crowd of workers and machines, and many visibly relax.
Tommy leaves the floor and takes the well-hidden stairs up to Walter's office. He enters without knocking, and sits on the edge of Walter's desk. Walter is leaning back in his chair, hands over his eyes once again, but he reaches out to touch Tommy's knee, resting his hand there and trying not to caress the other man's leg.
Tommy leans down and gently presses a kiss to Walter's forehead.
That night, Walter sits on his back porch, smoking a cigarette he has sworn not to smoke. After some time, Tommy comes out and joins him, sitting in the older man's lap. Tommy is heavy, but Walter enjoys the weight. When Tommy leans against Walter's shoulder and kisses his neck, Walter suppresses a moan.
"I think she might fire me," Walter confesses.
Tommy is silent for a moment, then, "I don't think so. Sure, you are very lax with rules, and the environment is very informal, but the workers like it. They appreciate it, even if some find it too odd."
Walter sighs. There is nothing he can do about it now, and so he might as well make the best of the time he had.