by Werner A. Low
Karl’s heart exploded when his coyote suggestion was accepted. Over the years he must have put thirty ideas into the Innovation Box—which was first a wooden Suggestion Box, and then an electronic Idea Box—and he’d never gotten more than the standard, “Thank you for your contribution” note. So this was big. Really big.
The letter, from the VP of Human Resources, congratulated him on winning an “Innovator” citation. She went on to say that the Company intended to implement his idea “expeditiously,” but the $1,000 award was not contingent on the success of the idea. It was his creativity that was being rewarded. The language looked boilerplate—it was no doubt exactly the same letter that all “Innovators” received—but the signature was real, and so was the article that appeared in the company newsletter a few days later.
“I finally figured out what’s most important to these idiots,” Karl quipped to his wife, in the gravelly voice that had made him consider a career in radio many years earlier. “It isn't developing new products, increasing efficiency, or improving employee morale. It’s their precious lawn.”
A week later, Karl watched from the big windows in the cafeteria as two maintenance men in blue uniforms carried the coyote—sideways, its legs sticking stiffly out to one side—out onto the broad front lawn that separated the headquarters building from the road. He didn’t agree with where they placed it—too close to the road, he thought. He also felt that it should be looking off to the east, toward the river, because that was where the Canada geese came from. But it worked. The geese stopped coming up to graze on the lawn. They stopped almost immediately, and after a couple days they hadn't come back.
Karl basked in his success. He’d not only had a winning idea, but it was working beautifully. People he hardly knew congratulated him. And others were envious. Edwards, the skinny project accountant, was one of those. He slunk into Karl’s office a couple days after the coyote had been installed to say that he thought it would be “problematic.”
“The animal lovers will complain.”
“But it’s just a plastic decoy, Fran. It’s not hurting the geese. And it’s not hurting any real coyotes, either.”
“I still think we're going to hear from them.”
As soon as Edwards left his office, Karl went to the cafeteria to see if any activist types were out front taking pictures of his coyote. Over the next few days he was hardly ever in his office, which didn’t have a window. Instead, he’d be watching the coyote from the cafeteria or one of the conference rooms, from the lobby, the roof deck, or even the smoking area, even though he’d quit smoking years ago. Partly because of all the different viewing angles, it half felt like the coyote was moving back and forth, stalking some unseen prey.
One morning, after a heavy rain, Karl noticed that the coyote had tipped a little. The geese hadn't reappeared, but the coyote looked unnatural, like it was sick, or might fall over. He put a call into Maintenance but nothing happened. When the coyote was still crooked the next morning, Karl went out and straightened it himself, after parking his car. He turned it a little at the same time so that it was now looking more toward the river.
Karl’s phone rang almost the minute he got to his office. It was Security, reminding him that employees were not to trespass on the front lawn. The policy was explicit on this point, they said.
Karl explained that he was the one who’d come up with the coyote idea, and he’d just been straightening it. That was for Maintenance to handle, they replied, and added that the front lawn was under video surveillance.
Like a boy who’s been chastised, Karl felt like hitting something. But he took a deep breath. Their precious lawn, he reminded himself, was also the source of his success. The company made cleaning products, and an immaculate front lawn in front of a gleaming new building was an important part of their image. They’d installed a softball field, a picnic area, and even a small pond in the back of the building, but the front lawn was off-limits.
“My guess is that the lawn is saturated with fertilizers and pesticides,” Karl told his wife that night. “They probably inject it through the underground sprinkler system. That’s why I’ve never seen a single dandelion out there. And that’s maybe why they were so concerned about the geese. Not just because of the crap, but because they were worried that the birds would start keeling over. Then they’d really hear from the animal right’s people,” he laughed, clinking the ice cubes in his Scotch glass like applause.
When Karl came to work a week later and saw that the coyote was gone his heart clenched like a fist. It was the animal rights people, he thought. It must be. His head boiled with responses as he hurried to his office to see if he had an email or call explaining what had happened. When there was nothing, it only fueled his anger. It was bad enough that they hadn't told him in advance, but to not even tell him why they’d removed the coyote—it was unconscionable.
He called the office of the VP who’d sent him the congratulatory letter and asked the VP’s assistant, in a meticulously calm and polite voice, what had happened. Had the coyote been stolen? Or was it, perhaps, that some animal rights group had complained?
The VP’s assistant said he didn’t know and referred him to the Public Relations office. The Assistant VP of Public Relations told him that it was the police who’d complained. Evidently there had been several traffic accidents in front of the building. People driving by would spot the coyote, which looked quite real, and swerve into another car as they were staring at it. The accidents were minor, but the police had asked that the coyote be removed.
Karl ended the call by pressing the button on the cradle with the forefinger of his left hand, cocked the handset back as if he was going to throw it against the wall, then grimaced and put it down even more gently than was necessary. He exhaled through his lips, using the image of letting off steam. It was especially frustrating because he’d felt, right from the start, that they put the coyote too close to the road. And looking at the damned cars, to boot. If the animal were to be relocated closer to the building it would solve the car problem. He took himself for a little walk to calm down and then called the PR Assistant back and told her this, adding that he’d called the manufacturer of the decoy and they concurred. The Assistant said she’d take it up with the VP, but Karl didn’t think she sounded sincere.
He left the office early, citing a meeting across town. Instead he went home. By the time Donna came home from work, at 6:30, he was drunk. When he told her what had happened with the coyote she was supportive, but not overly so.
Karl had a thick hangover the next morning, but when he pulled into the parking lot and saw that the geese had begun to return a smile sparkled across his face. More than anything he could say or do, this would spur the company to action. It might take a few days for them to work things out with the police, which would probably involve relocating the coyote, but he was pretty sure they’d reach that conclusion. Because of their precious lawn.
When nothing happened in three days, Karl called the VP of PR’s assistant to ask her if she’d passed his idea along. She said yes, she had.
“And what was his reaction?” Karl asked.
“I’m sure that he gave it careful consideration,” she replied, coldly.
“I assume he’s noticed that the geese are back,” he said.
“I imagine that he has noticed, yes,” she said. It sounded to Karl like she was about to say something else. But she stopped herself.
He stopped himself as well. Words were foaming up in him but he smiled, as if he was in the room with the woman, nodded, thanked her for her time, and concluded by saying that he’d spoken with the manufacturer of the coyote and done considerable research on its application at other facilities and would be happy to provide further information if it would be helpful. Then he went outside and bummed a cigarette off one of the smokers.
“I thought you quit,” the man said.
“I did,” Karl said, in such a tone that the man didn’t pursue the question.
It wasn't easy for Karl to wait, but he gave it a whole week. He literally marked the day in his calendar. Then, seven days to the hour after he’d called the VP’s office, he went out to the hangar-like garage where the maintenance people kept their mowers and so on. If anyone stopped him he was going to say that he was looking for a man named “Tony.” But no one stopped him.
He didn’t have a definite plan—it was just that had to do something. Nor did he expect to find the coyote out there. He figured that in their quest for absolute cleanliness and order the company would have thrown it away. If so, Karl had a couple ideas. One was to send back the Innovator plaque with a sarcastic note mimicking the letter he’d received. Even better, maybe he’d hang the plaque upside down behind his desk. Or—and this idea really excited him—he might order one of the coyotes for himself, put it on the rug in his office, and observe—when people inevitably commented—that since he installed the coyote he hadn't had a single Canada goose in his office.
Karl was so wrapped up in these little ideas that he was knocked off balance when he spied the coyote in a corner, next to bags of grass seed stacked like a levee. It looked smaller in here. And tamer. And it was looking directly at him, through the tops of its eyes, as if it couldn’t quite decide whether it was ashamed of itself, or of him.
A man wearing a short-sleeved white shirt and tie—he looked like a supervisor—was walking toward him. Karl turned and met the man’s eyes hard and was pleased to see that this had an effect. Karl was 57 years old, with distinguished looking gray hair at his temples. He was wearing a fairly expensive overcoat and carrying a leather satchel. As the supervisor drew near, Karl softened his face into a condescending smile.
“It’s Mike, is it?” he said. For that’s what it said on the man’s name badge.
The man nodded, a tad apprehensively.
“I’m Karl. Karl Edwards. And I’m here about the, uh”—he gestured toward it—“the coyote.”
The man looked over at the coyote, then back at Karl.
“They want it back,” Karl said, with a little chuckle, as if he was as amused as the next person by their reversal of position. “The geese have returned so they want it back on the lawn. But in a different spot.”
Karl pulled a memo about God knows what out of his satchel and pretended to read it.
“In the southeast corner,” he said, finally. “About halfway between the corner of the building and the river.”
When the man hemmed, Karl lowered his voice and said that this was to be done by 11:00. Was that clear?
The man nodded submissively.
Karl nodded back, said “Good,” and marched off.
Karl watched with satisfaction as the coyote was replaced. The geese did not all fly away immediately, but they began to leave in twos and threes, flying low, and by sundown they were all gone.
He kept expecting his phone to ring, but it didn’t. He didn’t get any e-mails on the subject, either. At 6:30—a bit later than usual—he drove home, noting, with satisfaction that there were no traffic accidents in front of the building.
When Karl returned to work in the morning the coyote was gone and his message light was blinking. He was to see the VP of Human Resources. Immediately.
The VP’s assistant motioned him to go right in. The VP closed the door, motioned for Karl to take a seat in one of the chairs in front of her desk, and then told him, in a very calm and careful voice—a voice that sounded almost caring—that a number of people were insisting that he be dismissed immediately. With cause. In that case he would not only forfeit the customary severance package and outplacement assistance, but would jeopardize his pension plan and any unvested or unexercised options. And she would find it difficult to give him a good reference.
Karl swallowed, hard.
She sighed and looked out the window. “You’ve been here almost twenty years,” she said, “and we value your commitment and your service. So I don’t want you to say anything right now. I’d like you to take this afternoon and tomorrow off, use the long weekend to give this matter the careful consideration it deserves. Then please come see me on Monday morning, at 9:00, and tell me what your thoughts are.”
Although the woman had been very polite, Karl’s impulse, on leaving, was still to slam the door. Or throw a chair against the wall of the anteroom. Or, as he was leaving the parking lot, to drive his car onto the lawn. They were idiots. And all the more so when they hid between their insincere smiles. He should have stuck with radio. He should have left this place ten years ago!
When he got home he hit the bottle again. This time he got no support from Donna, who also cautioned him, in very clear terms, to not do anything stupid.
That weekend they sat down together and calculated that it would cost him a staggering sum if he lost his pension and stock options. He said that perhaps he should just quit on his own, that it was time. But they both knew that he’d have a difficult time finding another job that paid even half as much. At his age. In this economy. In this state.
So Karl swallowed his pride. When he went back to work on Monday he thanked the VP for her advice. He said he was sorry he’d gotten out of line and he appreciated being given a second chance.
She accepted his apology and shook his hand while looking him straight and hard in the eye, much as he’d looked at Mike.
Karl’s one satisfaction was the geese. They’d not only returned, but had come in greater numbers. Every afternoon he saw the maintenance men shooing them away and picking up after them. He didn’t think it was likely that the Company would try the coyote again, but he thought it was remotely possible, and that gave him some hope.
Then, quite suddenly, a month and a half later, the geese were gone. Nor did they just dwindle. One day he looked up at lunch and they were gone. All of them. They hadn't migrated, either. Perhaps a few had, but there were still geese down by the river—he could see them from the roof deck.
At first, Karl was disappointed by the disappearance of the geese. Then his disappointment twisted into intrigue as he wondered what was keeping them away. That intrigue mounted into excitement as he imagined the possibilities for revenge this might present, because whatever method the company was using, it was likely to have a dark side.
He didn’t do his research at work, because the company audited your use of the Internet. If you did too much shopping, or chatting, you got a call. If you looked at a porno site, you got fired. So he did his Web research at home.
His first thought was chemicals. He read that there were a number of chemicals that repelled geese, or made them sick, and there were issues involving all of those substances. Contamination of the river, and the groundwater. Contamination of other animals—or even people—who might eat the geese. And so on.
If it was chemicals, Karl thought, he’d have something on them. But it didn’t seem to fit. The geese didn’t graze on the lawn and then get sick. They approached, then turned away without landing. Whatever it was, they could sense it from the air.
He looked next at sub-audible noises, such as taped cries of distress from other geese. Or the sounds of coyotes or wolves. That must be it, he thought. He rented some sophisticated audio equipment, thinking that noises like that might also have injurious effects on human beings. He scanned all the frequencies, but heard nothing.
He was disappointed again, but again his disappointment rebounded into excitement. The more exotic the technique they were using, he thought, the more leverage it might give him. For example, if it was some sort of radiation, he’d really have something. The Press would compare the place to Chernobyl!
In much the same way that Karl had, over many years, worked on suggestions that he’d hoped would win an Innovator award, he now dreamed of discovering what the Company was doing to repel the geese. In the evenings, especially after a drink or two, he’d rehearse the scene when he confronted management with his findings. And not just the VP’s of PR or HR, but the President himself.
“What is it that you want?” the man would ask in a cowed voice, after hearing Karl’s findings. “It is money? Stock? A promotion?”
Karl first thought was that he would shake his head softly from side to side and say no, he didn’t want money, he didn’t want a raise, or even a promotion. He only wanted two things in return for his silence. He wanted an office with a view of the front lawn and the river. Ideally a corner office. And when he looked out his window he wanted to see his coyote out there. What’s more—and this thought came to him suddenly—he wanted the coyote to have been moved to a slightly different spot each morning, as if it was stalking something.
Karl smiled, thinking of how the president’s eyes would widen as he heard this. But then, an instant before opening his mouth to give his little speech, he realized that this wasn’t really what he wanted—to be in a nice office with a plastic coyote on the manicured lawn. In fact, it was pretty much the opposite.
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