Anne Munro stood in the cluttered reception room, clutching her packet of writing samples and resisting the urge to smooth back her hair. Confidence, she told herself. You're the best they've ever seen. Oh dear and merciful powers that be, please let me get this job.
A partition divided the reception room front to back. From its other side, she heard a young woman giggling into the phone. Anne tried not to eavesdrop, but the young woman's voice was so loud that ignoring her was impossible.
"I mean, he's all, it's a semi-formal affair and I'm all, you mean he's gotta wear a tie or something and he's all, yes, we expect that since Mr. Ashby is accepting this award that ... oh, yeah, it's like in his desk or something."
Anne shook her head and slid one finger along the bottom of the samples packet, assuring herself that it was all in one piece. A few farm trucks rumbled along the road outside, and she thought about the gas station in Melville, a couple of miles back. With luck, she'd have enough gas left to reach it, once this interview was over. And with more luck, the two dollars in her purse would buy enough fuel to get her home. She sent up another brief but forceful prayer as a plump, blond man in blue jeans stuck his head into the reception room.
"Ms. Munro?" He thrust his hand at her. "Mike Thompson, vice-president. George Ashby will see you now." He eyed Anne's business suit with disapproval.
"Fine," Anne said, shaking the proffered hand. The suit, she thought firmly, did not have spots.
Mike Thompson led the way from the cluttered room down a narrow and equally cluttered hallway.
"You're here for the technical editing job," he said over his shoulder, side-stepping a pile of brown boxes.
Anne nodded, then said, "Yes, I am."
Thompson didn't respond. Anne followed him along another corridor whose walls seemed to double as a message board. Bright red tape divided the walls into squares, each square bearing a name and hung with colored self-stick notes. As they passed one square, Thompson's hand arched along the wall, collecting his own messages.
He pulled open a door and stood aside. "Here we are. Mr. Ashby, here's Anne Munro. She came."
"Huh? Oh, great, come on in," said a muffled voice. "I'll be right with you."
Anne took a breath, put on a smile, stepped inside, and stopped.
The room was empty. Not of boxes, books, and teetering stacks of paper, piled atop surfaces and in corners, but certainly empty of George Ashby. A computer screen glowed from a stand behind the desk, pulsing with a moving array of color which reminded Anne of the lava lamps so popular during her college years. A mural of forest glades and star fields competed with more self-stick notes, a yellowed software flow chart, and a bookshelf heaped with magazines and computer manuals. A partially open door in the far wall exuded steam, the smell of soap, and a voice which said, "Have a seat."
"There's a chair over by the desk," Thompson said, wedging himself into the room. Anne followed a narrow aisle between boxes and paper piles. At the end she found the promised chair and sat in it. Thompson stepped over another series of piles and, pushing a mass of papers aside, perched on the edge of the desk and stared at Anne's suit again. She held the writing samples against her jacket.
"Is something wrong?" she said.
"We at Growing Light aren't into formality," Thompson said. "We believe that starched clothes lead to starched thoughts. Mr. Ashby said that."
"I see," Anne said.
"We believe," Thompson said, still inspecting her suit, "in the free and unstructured flow of ideas."
"We certainly do," a voice behind Anne announced. She rose as a man whipped into the room, hand outstretched.
"George Ashby," he said, pumping her hand. "Glad you made it." Still in possession of her hand, he moved around the desk and held onto her a moment longer, staring into her face, before releasing her fingers and sitting. His dark, greying hair, knotted at his nape, framed a generous bald spot, but moustache and goatee were both coal black. His eyes were a pale blue, and stuck out.
"Your résumé ... Mike, where's her résumé?"
Thompson shrugged. "I gave them all to you."
Ashby glanced at the clutter on his desk top, then planted both elbows in the heaped papers and leaned forward.
"Well, it was interesting, very interesting. What can you tell us about yourself?"
Anne blinked. "Well, I have a degree from San Francisco ... "
"In what?" Ashby said.
"History. But I've had quite a bit of experience as an editor. I think most of it is in the résumé."
"I find," Ashby said, "that resumes don't cover what we really need to know, Ms. Munro. We have a very unusual business here. Do you know about us?"
"I'm afraid I don't know much ... "
"Don't be afraid," Ashby said. His smile revealed very white, very even teeth. "But go on."
"It's simply a figure of speech," Anne replied. "You produce a software package, but that's all I ... "
"Growing Light is much, much more than that," Ashby declared, finally breaking eye contact. "Growing Light is an integrated hardware and software package, of course, but we also believe that Growing Light is a way of treating people, a way of working that is very different from the ... " his hands chopped an imaginary staircase from the air, "from the structured, hierarchical modes you find elsewhere. We're a team here, Ms. Munro, a very special team." The imaginary staircase, erased with a flick of the fingers, was replaced by an imaginary balloon. "In many ways, we're trying to re-define what 'working' means." George Ashby sat back, staring at her again.
"That's very interesting," she said after a moment. "I understand you're looking for a technical editor?"
"And, Ms. Munro," he stuck a forefinger in the air, "a member of our team." The forefinger carved a circle.
He paused expectantly. "I see," Anne said.
"We have written material," Thompson said. Anne glanced at him, but he was staring at Ashby. "Manuals, guides, brochures, very interconnected and integral to ... "
"But I don't believe in job descriptions," Ashby said, interrupting him. Thompson pressed his lips together. "I think," Ashby continued, "that people work best when they find the things that expand their consciousness, that let them ... " his arms opened to the universe, " ... grow. Intention is all, Ms. Munro. Without it, nothing else matters."
He leaned back. "Mr. Thompson was hired as a site technician, but he wanted to do management work, and now he's the vice-president in charge of our daily operations. And he does an excellent job."
"Mr. Ashby gave me a chance to believe in myself," Thompson said solemnly, "and I ran with it. I would never have come so far, if he hadn't made space for me."
"Mike, that is, Mr. Thompson has been doing all our technical writing," Ashby said. "But of course, his talents take him in more useful directions. Don't they, Mike?"
Thompson shrugged. "We are growing very quickly," he told Anne. "We need someone with the desire to keep up with us."
"I see," Anne said. "I'm sure you noticed, from my résumé, that I haven't held a paid position as a tech editor. But I've done quite a bit of volunteer and free-lance editing work. I have samples, if you'd like to see them."
"Excellent," Ashby said. Anne lifted the writing samples across to him. He took the package and dropped it on the desk, causing another paper quake. Thompson went around the desk to look over his shoulder.
"Excellent, excellent," Ashby muttered, flipping quickly through the pages.
"Mr. Ashby is a speed reader," Thompson said without looking at her. Anne smiled.
"Very impressive," Ashby said. "Mike?" He offered the binder. Thompson took it and returned to the edge of the desk, where he held the binder in his lap and resumed staring at Anne's suit. She quelled the urge to stare back at his paunch.
"You mentioned manuals and brochures," she said.
Ashby smiled. "Everything," he said. "We produce hardware and software manuals, user documentation, installation guides, in-house manuals, a newsletter, update reports ... " His hands carved a turret of papers in the air. "It's team work, you understand, but we need someone to mentor the process, to shape a cohesive sound, a special feel that says immediately, 'This is Growing Light.'"
"I understand," Anne said. "Many companies have style formats ..."
"No, not a format," Ashby said. "I don't believe in rigidity, Ms. Munro." More chopped stairs, which fattened into circles as his hands invoked ideas. "I want this to flow from who we are, an organic, natural process that's part of ... part of our own definition of ourselves. Yes. I want a feel, a touch, a sense of who we are and what we mean." The hands, momentarily still, bracketed a triumphant smile. Thompson, however, just scowled.
"And," Ashby continued, "I want that sense to be part of everything we produce here, from the manuals all the way to team memos. I need a team worker who can develop that. Can you do that, Ms. Munro?"
"I believe that I ... "
"But the important question, Ms. Munro." Ashby leaned so far forward that he almost rested atop his desk. "The most important question is, Ms. Munro, do you really need this job?"
Anne leaned away from him and stared back, wondering if George Ashby had heard a single word she'd said. But despite economic recovery elsewhere, California was still mired in recession, and Anne had to juggle mortgage payments, Danny's school clothes and child care costs, the grocery bills, the ancient pump in the well house, the drip in the kitchen roof, insurance bills, taxes .... She took a deep breath and nodded,
"Yes, Mr. Ashby. I really need a job."
Thompson snorted. "What are your salary requirements?" he asked.
Anne looked at him. "Well, in San Francisco a technical editor makes a fair amount. Of course, I know that salaries are lower here. But I am experienced and," she said with manufactured confidence, "I am very good at what I do. Certainly it would depend on benefits."
"Flex time," Thompson recited. "Profit sharing. Medical and dental benefits. A week of paid vacation to start."
"And you set your own schedule," Ashby said. "We don't believe in rigid timetables, as long as you put in forty hours a week. People with children appreciate that."
"I can see why," Anne said. "I do have a young son."
"Our benefit package includes child care," Thompson said. "People seem to like that."
"Good. Is that full medical and dental coverage?"
"Absolutely," Ashby said. "We pay your premiums, and you can use the benefit plan to cover your dependents."
"That sounds fine," Anne said. "In that case, I think about thirty thousand a year would be adequate."
Ashby and Thompson looked at each other: Thompson triumphant, Ashby satisfied, Thompson surprised, Ashby smug, then Thompson's face went blank. Ashby rose.
"Well, good talking to you. We'll discuss you with our Personnel Committee. Mr. Thompson, find someone to give Ms. Munro a tour, would you? Ms. Munro, thank you very much. We'll get back to you."
Anne shook his hand, trying to ignore the cold lump in her stomach. She followed Mike Thompson into the corridor.
"He's in a hurry," Thompson said. "He's going to accept a major award." This time his stare was very serious, and directed at her face. "The world is beginning to acknowledge his vision."
Before Anne could reply, Thompson had stuck his head into the next room.
"Ms. Baker! Do you have a minute?"
"No," an irascible voice replied, followed by an irascible face. "What now?" Ms. Baker wore leather pants, a sweatshirt with Albert Einstein's face across its front, and a number of improbable colors in her hair.
"This is Anne Munro. Show her around." Without waiting for a reply, Thompson went back into George Ashby's office and shut the door. The door re-opened immediately.
"And make sure she gets to run Growing Light," he said.
"Yeah, sure, okay," Ms. Baker said to the closing door. She turned to survey Anne, hands on hips. "You been hired?"
"No," Anne said. "I just interviewed."
Ms. Baker laughed. "Quite an experience, isn't it? I'm Cynthia Baker."
"Anne Munro," Anne said, shaking her hand. "Are you management too?"
"We're all management here," Cynthia said. "I'm the senior site technician. You know, when the customers can't figure it out, I do it for them. Come on, we'll start at the back and work our way to the front. And when that's done, I'll sit you down with Growing Light."