War of Words

by Loren Stephens

universal-studio-globeI moved to Los Angeles with my five-year-old son so that my ex-husband, a literary agent at the time, could take on some parenting responsibilities since he had no desire to travel across the country to Boston, which he had escaped after our divorce.

I interviewed for a job in Los Angeles with a health care company that was making millions managing and owning for-profit hospitals and nursing homes. The senior vice president Leonard Goldberg interviewed me in his casual, beige office. There was a sculpture sitting on the coffee table made out of crushed automobile parts, and Plexiglas tombstones on his desk memorializing the company’s public offerings.

After a short exchange in which he barely glanced at my resume, he offered me a job working in the corporate development department run by Bill Williams.  I had not met him, nor did he have a say in my being hired.  I should have asked to meet my future boss, but I didn’t.  Big mistake.

Williams was a Vietnam vet who joined the Marines straight out of high school.  He collected automatic assault weapons as a hobby. He wore a pocket protector, in which he stuck three pens with the company’s name engraved on them, always at the ready to write someone up.  His thinning red hair was swept into a comb-over, and his reptilian eyes scanned his department offices to make sure that everyone was in their rightful place at 9:00 a.m. sharp.  He ran his “shop” like his personal fiefdom.

I was given a corner office with floor-to-ceiling windows on the fifth floor overlooking the traffic at the intersection of Wilshire Boulevard and Federal Avenue in West Los Angeles.  My office wasn’t as large as Bill’s, but larger than those of his loyal staff, who resented me from day one.  No one spoke to me.  It was unclear what my responsibilities were, but I trusted that I would be given some meaningful work if I just waited.  And so I did. I needed this job since my ex-husband was under no legal obligation to give me alimony, and his child support barely covered my son’s nursery school tuition.  But my salary was ample – thanks to Mr. Goldberg.  I had a company car (a 1981 brown Buick) a free parking space, and enough money to rent a three-bedroom house in Pacific Palisades, just ten minutes from the ocean and a short commute to work.

I wasn’t familiar with the term “hostile work environment,” but that accurately described what I confronted every day.  It quickly became apparent that Bill Williams was trying to figure out how to get rid of me and stay in the good graces of the man who had hired me.

Bill called me into his office to give me my first assignment. “I want you to go with Wally to Apple Valley.  There’s a hospital up there owned by a group of Filipino doctors.  They think we are doing some consulting for them – how to market their services to the community.  What we are really doing is deciding if we want to buy them out. You interview the docs, and Wally will look over their books.”

Great. And the doctors were paying us to spy on them. I thought about the hospitals that had been my banking clients back in Boston.  Most of them were set up as charitable institutions owned by “Our Sisters of Whatever,” or some tony community on the North or South Shore of Boston where Board members played golf at the same club, and sailed their boats out of Marblehead or Duxbury.  The reception area of our offices in the Faneuil Hall Market area had a captain’s clock that chimed five minutes before the hour.  It hung over a Chippendale table, and a set of Spode china was prominently displayed for clients. Although the business was cut-throat, the office décor created an impression of gentility and old money. My boss, who had been a rising star at Irving Trust and New England Merchants National Bank, before he started his own banking firm, had two favorite sayings, “I take a belt-and-suspenders approach to everything,” meaning be conservative and cautious. When confronted with an enemy, he advised me, “Don’t kick a snake.”   I should have listened to him, but I didn’t.

Wally drove us the sixty miles through Apple Valley into Victorville.  The road was dusty and fringed with cactus trees; dry tumbleweed blew across the pavement.  It was hot, and the sun was burning my legs through my skirt. At the main intersection, the four corners were distinguished by a MacDonald’s, a Burger King, a Jiffy Lube, and a gas station to service truckers on their way north.  I missed the small towns and villages of eastern Massachusetts with their white-steeple churches and clapboard houses.

I don’t really remember what Wally and I talked about on the drive. He was friendly enough since we were on a joint reconnaissance mission.  What I do remember is that he had lost part of his left arm in the Vietnam War.  He had a hook that protruded out of his suit jacket.  Sometimes, he rested his elbow on the lip of the open window, and steered his car – a 1982 Black Ford Fairmont — with his knee.  “That’s amazing,” I said to Wally, as I gripped the door handle.

After our trip, we handed in our report.  The doctors at the hospital had no idea what we were up to.

A few days later, Denise, Bill’s secretary, invited me out to lunch at a Hamburger Hamlet.  I was grateful that she was extending an olive branch.  During lunch, she asked, “So what do you think of Mr. Williams?”

Something came over me.  I went into free fall.  “Well, he’s crude, he’s rude, and he’s not particularly bright.  I don’t get how he’s a senior vice president of the company.” The only explanation for my indiscretion, was that I was under the misconception that Denise and I were part of a sisterhood – women trying to get ahead in a man’s world.  But I was wrong.

She smiled.  “Must be hard for you to work for him with your East Coast education.  He never went to college.”

I took the bait. “Frankly, it is.  I’m used to reporting to MBAs. You know, Harvard MBAs. The company I worked for in Boston didn’t hire anyone with less than a BA.”  I was now out of control.  “My boss was a senior vice president of one of the oldest banks in Boston before he started his company in 1970. His first client was Massachusetts General Hospital.  His wife is the granddaughter of Isabella Stewart Gardner – of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.”  I stopped.

Denise nodded politely. “I don’t know much about Boston.  I grew up right here in Los Angeles.  My parents are from the Philippines. I’m the first person in our family to graduate from college.”

“Your parents must be very proud of you.”

She took a sip of her ice tea and changed the subject. “So how do you think you’re doing here after a month?”

“I’m not entirely sure.  Bill criticized the memo I wrote about the doctors up in Apple Valley.  I used the term ‘hubris.’  He took a red pencil and crossed it out, telling me I was being pretentious.” Then I admitted, “Maybe I was.”

“He follows the rule, ‘Keep it simple stupid.’ ”

“It works for him, I guess.”

“Don’t underestimate him. He’s a genius at what he does.  He’s been around a long time.”  A warning shot across the bow.  She waved the waitress over and took the check when it arrived.  Then she added, “He’s done a lot for the higher ups.  They count on Bill – I mean Mr. Williams — to handle relations with our third party payers.  You know:  Blue Cross, Medicare, Medicaid.”  I didn’t need a primer on hospital reimbursement, but I kept quiet. My stomach was in knots.

I handed her my credit card.

She stopped me. “Oh, no, lunch is on me. Instructions from the boss.”

“So he knew we were having lunch together?”

“Oh, yes. In fact he suggested it.  Wanted me to get to know you better.” She snapped her pocketbook shut. “And I have.”

A week later, I was told to pack up my things and that I’d be moving down one floor to a windowless office – the dungeon. I got to keep my company car, and I was thrown an assignment every now and then, but I was excluded from departmental meetings.  I never heard from Mr. Goldberg. I should have quit, but I was desperate to keep my salary and benefits.  I didn’t know the Los Angeles landscape well enough to walk out the door before things got worse for me.

Within a year, the company downsized and I was the first to be let go.  The one person who had risked befriending me said, “I’m surprised you lasted this long.  Bill has been gunning for you since the day you had lunch with his girlfriend Denise.”


“You didn’t know?  She’s his mistress.  He’s married, but they’ve been together for five years, on and off. His wife knows all about it.  That kind of thing goes on from the top down.  The chairman runs the rent on a condo for his girlfriend through the company books. Shit dribbles downhill around here.”

She went on.“Denise is responsible for having circulated your employment contract throughout the department with your salary on it.  Everyone knew you were making more than they were. That’s why no one would speak to you.  They all resented you.  Plus, the rumor – which Bill fabricated — was that you are Leonard Goldberg’s mistress and that’s why you were hired in the first place.  Bill was just waiting for the right moment to get rid of you without antagonizing him. With the downsizing, he just used ‘the last hired, the first fired,’ principle.”

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  In hindsight, Bill did me a favor. I never would have resigned.  I needed him to fire me, and he did.  I suppose I could have filed an unlawful termination lawsuit, but by that time I was just happy to get out of jail.  I had built up a sufficient network of contacts to make a seamless transition into another position.

That’s not quite the end of the story.  A few years later, the company was indicted for Medicare fraud, and on the list of guilty parties was Bill Williams.  He took the fall for the reigning triumvirate.  Mr. Goldberg went back to his private law practice, as did many of the others in senior management, and a nonprofit medical facility at a major university was named after the chairman of the company in recognition of his eight-figure charitable contribution. The third owner started his own public relations firm handling crisis management.  No one thought they would get caught for doctoring the books – a clear cut case of hubris.


Category: Fiction, Short Story