THE LITTLE GIRL APPEARED TO BE ASIAN, maybe five or six years old, with a beautiful cinnamon complexion, hair the color of a dark plum, a small flat nose, full lips that spread joyfully over her gapped teeth, and the most arresting eyes, as black as a seal's hide, with a pinhead of white serving as a pupil. She smiled and flapped her hands excitedly until Eddie edged one step closer, whereupon she presented herself.
"Tala," she said, offering her name, her palms on her chest.
"Tala," Eddie repeated.
She smiled as if a game had begun. She pointed to her embroidered blouse, loosely slung over her shoulders and wet with the river water.
"Baro," she said.
She touched the woven red fabric that wrapped around her torso and legs. "Saya."
Then came her cloglike shoes—"bakya"—then the iridescent seashells by her feet—"capiz"—then a woven bamboo mat—"banig"—that was laid out before her. She motioned for Eddie to sit on the mat and she sat, too, her legs curled underneath her.
None of the other children seemed to notice him. They splashed and rolled and collected stones from the river's floor. Eddie watched one boy rub a stone over the body of another, down his back, under his arms.
"Washing," the girl said. "Like our inas used to do."
"Inas?" Eddie said.
She studied Eddie's face.
"Mommies," she said.
Eddie had heard many children in his life, but in this one's voice, he detected none of the normal hesitation toward adults. He wondered if she and the other children had chosen this riverbank heaven, or if, given their short memories, such a serene landscape had been chosen for them.
She pointed to Eddie's shirt pocket. He looked down. Pipe cleaners.
"These?" he said. He pulled them out and twisted them together, as he had done in his days at the pier. She rose to her knees to examine the process. His hands shook. ''You see? It's a ..." he finished the last twist ". . . dog."
She took it and smiled—a smile Eddie had seen a thousand times.
"You like that?" he said.
"You burn me," she said.
EDDIE FELT HIS jaw tighten.
"What did you say?"
"You burn me. You make me fire."
Her voice was flat, like a child reciting a lesson.
"My ina say to wait inside the nipa. My ina say to hide."
Eddie lowered his voice, his words slow and deliberate.
"What. . . were you hiding from, little girl?"
She fingered the pipe-cleaner dog, then dipped it in the water.
"Sundalong" she said.
She looked up.
Eddie felt the word like a knife in his tongue. Images flashed through his head. Soldiers. Explosions. Morton. Smitty. The Captain. The flamethrowers.
"Tala . . ." he whispered.
"Tala," she said, smiling at her own name.
"Why are you here, in heaven?"
She lowered the animal.
"You burn me. You make me fire."
Eddie felt a pounding behind his eyes. His head began to rush. His breathing quickened.
"You were in the Philippines . .. the shadow ... in that hut. . ."
"The nipa. Ina say be safe there. Wait for her. Be safe. Then big noise. Big fire. You burn me." She shrugged her narrow shoulders. "Not safe."
Eddie swallowed. His hands trembled. He looked into her deep, black eyes and he tried to smile, as if it were a medicine the little girl needed. She smiled back, but this only made him fall apart. His face collapsed, and he buried it in his palms. His shoulders and lungs gave way. The darkness that had shadowed him all those years was revealing itself at last, it was real, flesh and blood, this child, this lovely child, he had killed her, burned her to death, the bad dreams he'd suffered, he'd deserved every one. He had seen something! That shadow in the flame! Death by his hand! By his own fiery hand! A flood of tears soaked through his fingers and his soul seemed to plummet.
He wailed then, and a howl rose within him in a voice he had never heard before, a howl from the very belly of his being, a howl that rumbled the river water and shook the misty air of heaven. His body convulsed, and his head jerked wildly, until the howling gave way to prayerlike utterances, every word expelled in the breathless surge of confession: "I killed you, I KILLED YOU," then a whispered "forgive me," then, "FORGIVE ME, OH, GOD ..." and finally, "What have I done ... WHAT HAVE I DONE?..." He wept and he wept, until the weeping drained him to a shiver. Then he shook silently, swaying back and forth. He was kneeling on a mat before the little dark-haired girl, who played with her pipe-cleaner animal along the bank of the flowing river.
AT SOME POINT, when his anguish had quieted, Eddie felt a tapping on his shoulder. He looked up to see Tala holding out a stone.
"You wash me," she said. She stepped into the water and turned her back to Eddie. Then she pulled the embroidered baro over her head.
He recoiled. Her skin was horribly burned. Her torso and narrow shoulders were black and charred and blistered. When she turned around, the beautiful, innocent face was covered in grotesque scars. Her lips drooped. Only one eye was open. Her hair was gone in patches of burned scalp, covered now by hard, mottled scabs.
"You wash me," she said again, holding out the stone.
Eddie dragged himself into the river. He took the stone. His fingers trembled.
"I don't know how...." he mumbled, barely audible. "I never had children...."
She raised her charred hand and Eddie gripped it gently and slowly rubbed the stone along her forearm, until the scars began to loosen. He rubbed harder; they peeled away. He quickened his efforts until the singed flesh fell and the healthy flesh was visible. Then he turned the stone over and rubbed her bony back and tiny shoulders and the nape of her neck and finally her cheeks and her forehead and the skin behind her ears.
She leaned backward into him, resting her head on his collarbone, shutting her eyes as if falling into a nap. He traced gently around the lids. He did the same with her drooped lips, and the scabbed patches on her head, until the plum-colored hair emerged from the roots and the face that he had seen at first was before him again.
When she opened her eyes, their whites flashed out like beacons. "I am five," she whispered.
Eddie lowered the stone and shuddered in short, gasping breaths. "Five . . . uh-huh . . . Five years old? . . ."
She shook her head no. She held up five fingers. Then she pushed them against Eddie's chest, as if to say your five. Your fifth person.
A warm breeze blew. A tear rolled down Eddie's face. Tala studied it the way a child studies a bug in the grass. Then she spoke to the space between them.
"Why sad?" she said.
"Why am I sad?" he whispered. "Here?"
She pointed down. "There."
Eddie sobbed, a final vacant sob, as if his chest were empty. He had surrendered all barriers; there was no grownup-to-child talk anymore. He said what he always said, to Marguerite, to Ruby, to the Captain, to the Blue Man, and, more than anyone, to himself.
"I was sad because I didn't do anything with my life. I was nothing. I accomplished nothing. I was lost. I felt like I wasn't supposed to be there."
Tala plucked the pipe-cleaner dog from the water.
"Supposed to be there," she said.
"Where? At Ruby Pier?"
"Fixing rides? That was my existence?" He blew a deep breath. "Why?"
She tilted her head, as if it were obvious.
"Children," she said. "You keep them safe. You make good for me."
She wiggled the dog against his shirt.
"Is where you were supposed to be," she said, and then she touched his shirt patch with a small laugh and added two words, "Eddie Main-ten-ance."
EDDIE SLUMPED IN the rushing water. The stones of his stories were all around him now, beneath the surface, one touching another. He could feel his form melting, dissolving, and he sensed that he did not have long, that whatever came after the five people you meet in heaven, it was upon him now.
"Tala?" he whispered.
She looked up.
"The little girl at the pier? Do you know about her?"
Tala stared at her fingertips. She nodded yes.
"Did I save her? Did I pull her out of the way?"
Tala shook her head. "No pull."
Eddie shivered. His head dropped. So there it was. The end of his story.
"Push," Tala said.
He looked up. "Push?"
"Push her legs. No pull. You push. Big thing fall. You keep her safe."
Eddie shut his eyes in denial. "But I felt her hands," he said. "It's the only thing I remember. I couldn't have pushed her. I felt her hands."
Tala smiled and scooped up river water, then placed her small wet fingers in Eddie's adult grip. He knew right away they had been there before.
"Not her hands," she said. "My hands. I bring you to heaven. Keep you safe."
WITH THAT, THE river rose quickly, engulfing Eddie's waist and chest and shoulders. Before he could take another breath, the noise of the children disappeared above him, and he was submerged in a strong but silent current. His grip was still entwined with Tala's, but he felt his body being washed from his soul, meat from the bone, and with it went all the pain and weariness he ever held inside him, every scar, every wound, every bad memory.
He was nothing now, a leaf in the water, and she pulled him gently, through shadow and light, through shades of blue and ivory and lemon and black, and he realized all these colors, all along, were the emotions of his life. She drew him up through the breaking waves of a great gray ocean and he emerged in brilliant light above an almost unimaginable scene:
There was a pier filled with thousands of people, men and women, fathers and mothers and children—so many children—children from the past and the present, children who had not yet been born, side by side, hand in hand, in caps, in short pants, filling the boardwalk and the rides and the wooden platforms, sitting on each other's shoulders, sitting in each other's laps. They were there, or would be there, because of the simple, mundane things Eddie had done in his life, the accidents he had prevented, the rides he had kept safe, the unnoticed turns he had affected every day. And while their lips did not move, Eddie heard their voices, more voices than he could have imagined, and a peace came upon him that he had never known before. He was free of Tala's grasp now, and he floated up above the sand and above the boardwalk, above the tent tops and spires of the midway toward the peak of the big, white Ferris wheel, where a cart, gently swaying, held a woman in a yellow dress— his wife, Marguerite, waiting with her arms extended. He reached for her and he saw her smile and the voices melded into a single word from God: Home.
THE PARK AT RUBY PIER REOPENED THREE days after the accident. The story of Eddie's death was in the newspapers for a week, and then other stories about other deaths took its place.
The ride called Freddy's Free Fall was closed for the season, but the next year it reopened with a new name, Daredevil Drop. Teenagers saw it as a badge of courage, and it drew many customers, and the owners were pleased.
Eddie's apartment, the one he had grown up in, was rented to someone new, who put leaded glass in the kitchen window, obscuring the view of the old carousel. Dominguez, who had agreed to take over Eddie's job, put Eddie's few possessions in a trunk at the maintenance shop, alongside memorabilia from Ruby Pier, Including photos of the original entrance.
Nicky, the young man whose key had cut the cable, made a new key when he got home, then sold his car four months later. He returned often to Ruby Pier, where he bragged to his friends that his great-grandmother was the woman for whom it was named.
Seasons came and seasons went. And when school let out and the days grew long, the crowds returned to the amusement park by the great gray ocean—not as large as those at the theme parks, but large enough. Come summer, the spirit turns, and the seashore beckons with a song of the waves, and people gather for carousels and Ferris wheels and sweet iced drinks and cotton candy.
Lines formed at Ruby Pier—just as a line formed someplace else: five people waiting, in five chosen memories, for a little girl named Amy or Annie to grow and to love and to age and to die, and to finally have her question answered—why she lived and what she lived for. And in that line now was a whiskered old man, with a linen cap and a crooked nose, who waited in a place called the Stardust Band Shell to share his part of the secret of heaven: that each affects the other and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one.
What do Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computers, Karl von der Heyden, former CFO of PepsiCo., and twenty other top executives at Fortune 500 companies have in common? The answer is they have all been “interim managers”, hired on a temporary basis to come and revitalise a firm with their own special brand of magic. And then leave. In fact, such short-term employment contracts are becoming the norm at all management levels. And if they are good enough for the likes of Jobs, they are good enough for the rest of us.
Provided you can stand the insecurity, there has never been a better time to get a job. The old “smokestack” industrues of mining, shipbuilding and steel may be gone, but with the arrival of the New Economy, what we are now increasingly seeing is highly paid project teams created for particular assignment for a specific period of time. Once the project is completed, the team is simply disbanded. No hard feelings – just thanks abd goodbye. There’s no promise of more work, but if you’ve done a good job, you’ve added to what human resources people call your “employability”. You’ve enhanced your career prospects with another firm on a similar short-term basis.
The Corporate Ladder
In the past it was different. You worked hard, pleased an insufferable boss – ypu had a job for life. True, you were little more than a wage slave, but if you stuck to the dress code, played by the rules and made a few powerful friends along the way, you could climb to the top of the corporate ladder by the age of fifty, take early retirement at fifty-five and drop dead at fifty-six.
Then along came “re-engineered 90s” and changed all that. According to Jerry Yoram Wind and Jeremy Main at the world-leading Wharton School of Management, big companies like AT&T “finally woke up in 1995 and said: ‘Oh, my goodness, we have 40.000 people too many’.” Mass redundacies followed. In April 1997 Newsweek ran a cover story entitled ‘Corporate Killers, the public is Scared as Hell’. The killers were giants like General Electric and IBM. Now managers were kicked out at fourty-five and on the scrap heap at fourty-six.
The tables have turned, the fourty-three million jobs lost in the United States alone since 1979 are more than compensated fir by the 70.2 million jobs created in the same period. Now it’s our empoyers who are afraid we’ll take our expertise elsewere. With so many job opportumities, severe skills shortages in many industries, fewer barriers to entrepreneurship and easier access to start-up capital, we’ve never been so empowered. Never mind the corporation. What about me?
In a study carried out for Management Today by RHI Management Resources, sixty-seven per cent of managers put a job for life at the bottom of their priorities. Amongst the under-35s the figure was seventy-seven per cent. Ninety-one per cent of those younger managers said career development was the resposibility of the individual. Fifty-five per cent of them wanted to retire at fifty-five or younger. All of them wanted the flexibility to work from home or even telecommute. All of them said they would dump their present company in an instant if they were offered something ‘sexier’ by another employer.
The Rat Race
Mark Albion, founding partner of You & Co., and co-founder of Students for Responsible Business, approves of this new opportunism. “You learn where you fit in by not fitting in,” he says. “You learn what you want to do by doing what you don't want to do. If you're offered a ‘big’ job, take it. You might love it. But you might not find it as satisfying as you’d hoped, and it will be a jumping-off point for what you really want to do.
“His simple message seems to be: “Don’t get really good at something you don’t want to do.” And remember to get a life along the way. For, as comedian, Lily Tomlin once put it: “The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat”.
Which of the following viewpoints support the opinions expressed in the article? Which opinion do you most agree with?
1. "To make a living is no longer enough. Work also has to make a life." (Peter Drucker, management guru)
2. "In the past we said to employees, ‘Do as you're told and you have a job for life. Then we betrayed them.’ (AT&T manager who preferred not to be named)
3. "Ambitious young people should be reasonably patient and hold the success of the company as more important than their own success." (Sir John Egan, British executive)
4. "No longer can one expect to sell 100,000 hours of one's life to an organization." (Charles Handy, business writer and thinker)
Against the Clock
Complete all the expressions below. Use the clues in brackets to help you.
1. Hired on a te ...... basis. (opposite of permanent) (paragraph 1)
2. Short-term employment co ...... . (what you sign when you join a company) (paragraph1)
3. Once the project is completed, the team is simply dis ..... . (broken up) (paragraph 2)
4. You've enhanced your career pr ....... with another firm. (chances of being successful) ( paragraph 2)
5. You worked hard, you had a job for li ....... (until retirement) (paragraph 3)
6. True you were little more than a wa ….. slave. (the money your employer pays you) (paragraph 3)
7. Managers were k ..... o ….. at forty-five and on the scrap heap at forty-six. (fired) (paragraph 4)
8. So many job op ... . (openings) (paragraph 5)
9. Severe skills sh ... . (opposite of surplus) (paragraph 5)
10. Sixty-seven per cent of managers put a job for life at the bottom of their list of pr ... . (essential requirements) (paragraph 6)