I settled in the black leather chair nearest me, my back to the window, and waited for Bud as he poured himself some water in the serving area in the corner. He walked back with his water, bringing the pitcher and an extra glass with him. He set them on the table between us. "Sometimes things can get pretty hot in here. We have a lot to do this morning. Please feel free whenever you'd like."
"Thanks," I stammered. I was grateful for the gesture but more unsure than ever what this was all about.
"Tom," said Bud abruptly, "I've asked you to come today for one reason—an important reason."
"Okay," I said evenly, trying to mask the anxiety I was feeling.
"You have a problem—a problem you're going to have to solve if you're going to make it at Zagrum."
I felt as if I'd been kicked in the stomach. I groped for some appropriate word or sound, but my mind was racing and words failed me. I was immediately conscious of the pounding of my heart and the sensation of blood draining from my face.
As successful as I had been in my career, one of my hidden weaknesses was that I was too easily knocked off balance. I had
learned to compensate by training the muscles in my face and eyes to relax so that no sudden twitch would betray my alarm. And now, it was as if my face instinctively knew that it had to detach itself from my heart or I would be found out to be the same cowering third-grader who broke into an anxious sweat, hoping for a "well done" sticker, every time Mrs. Lee passed back the homework.
Finally I managed to say, "A problem? What do you mean?"
"Do you really want to know?" asked Bud.
"I'm not sure. I guess I need to, from the sound of it."
"Yes," Bud agreed, "you do."
"You have a problem," Bud continued. "The people at work know it, your wife knows it, your mother-in-law knows it. I'll bet even your neighbors know it." Despite the digs, he was smiling warmly. "The problem is that you don't know it."
I was taken aback. How could I know I had a problem if I didn't even know what the problem was? "I'm afraid I don't know what you mean," I said, trying to exhibit calm.
Bud nodded. "Consider a few experiences," he said. "For example, think of times when you've known that your wife needed the car next and you noticed that it was almost out of fuel. Have you ever taken it home anyway, telling yourself that she could fill it just as easily as you?"
I thought about it for a moment. "I suppose I've done that, yes." But so what? I wondered.
"Or have you ever promised to spend time with the kids but backed out at the last minute because something more appealing came up?"
My mind turned to my boy, Todd. It was true that I avoided doing much with him anymore. I didn't think that was entirely my fault, however.
"Or, under similar circumstances," he went on, "have you ever taken the kids where they wanted to go but made them feel guilty about it?"
Yeah, but at least I took them, I said to myself. Doesn't that count for something?
"Or how about this one: have you ever parked in a handicapped-only parking zone and then faked a limp so that people wouldn't think you were a jerk?"
"Absolutely not," I said in defense.
"No? Well, have you ever parked where you shouldn't and then sprinted from the car with such purpose that observers would think you just 'had' to park there?"
I fidgeted uncomfortably. "Maybe."