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Chapter no 31 – The Get-Well Card

Lesson, in Chemistry

It was a heart attack. Not a massive one, but in 1960, most people didn’t survive even minor heart attacks. The man was lucky to be alive. The doctors said he’d remain hospitalized for three weeks, followed by complete home bed rest for at least a year. Work was out of the question.

You were the one who called the ambulance?” Walter gasped. “You were there?” It was the next day and Walter had just heard the news.

“I was,” Elizabeth said.

“And he was—what? On the floor? Clutching his heart? Gasping?” “Not exactly.”

“Well then what?” Walter said, spreading his arms in frustration as Elizabeth and the makeup woman exchanged glances. “What happened?”

“Why don’t I come back later,” Rosa said quickly as she packed up her case. Before she left, she gave Elizabeth’s shoulder a small squeeze. “Always an honor, Zott. An absolute honor.”

Walter watched this whole interaction, his eyebrows raised in panic. “You saved Phil’s life,” he said nervously as the door clicked shut, “I get that. But what happened exactly? Don’t leave anything out, start with why you were there in the first place. After seven p.m.? That makes no sense. Tell me. Omit nothing.”

Elizabeth swiveled her chair to face Walter. She reached for her number-two pencil, removing it from her bun and securing it in behind her left ear, then picked up her coffee cup and took a sip. “He asked for a meeting,” she said. “Said it couldn’t wait.”

“A meeting?” he said, horrified. “But I’ve said—you know—we’ve talked about this. You are never to meet with Phil on your own. It’s not that I don’t think you can’t handle yourself; it’s just that I’m your producer and I think it’s always better if—” He took out a handkerchief and held it to his forehead. “Elizabeth,” he said, dropping his voice. “Between you and me, Phil Lebensmal is not a good man—do you know what I mean? He’s not trustworthy. He has a way of dealing with problems that—”

“He fired me.” Walter blanched.

“And you as well.”

“Jesus!”

“He fired everyone who works on the show.” “No!”

“He said you failed to rein me in.”

Walter turned an ashy gray. “You have to understand,” he said, clenching his handkerchief. “You know how I feel about Phil; you know I don’t agree with everything he says. Have I reined you in? Don’t make me laugh. Have I forced you to wear those ridiculous outfits? Not once. Have I begged you to read the cheery cue cards? Well yes, but only because I wrote them.” He threw his hands up in the air. “Look, Phil gave me two weeks— two weeks to find an appropriate way to make him see that your outrageous way of doing things actually works—that you get more fan mail, more calls, more people lining up for your studio audience than all of the other shows combined, and for those reasons alone, you should stay. But you know I can’t just waltz in there and say, ‘Phil you’re wrong and she’s right.’ That’s suicide. No. Dealing with Phil means stroking his ego, using the angles, saying what he wants to hear. You know what I mean. When you held up that can of soup, I thought we’d cinched it. Until you told everyone it was poison.”

“Because it is.”

“Look,” Walter said. “I live in the real world, and in that world, we say and do things in order to keep our stupid jobs. Do you have any idea how

much crap I’ve endured in the last year? Plus, did you even know this? Our sponsors are about to walk.”

“Phil told you that.”

“Yes, and here’s a news flash. It doesn’t matter how many warm and fuzzy letters you get—if the sponsors say, ‘We hate Zott,’ that’s it. And Phil’s research says they hate you.” He shoved his handkerchief back in his pocket, then got up and filled a Dixie Cup with water, awaiting the glug from the gallon jug, an unpleasant sound that always reminded him of his ulcer. “Look,” he said, his hand on his abdomen. “We should keep this between ourselves until I can figure something out. How many people know? Just you and me, right?”

“I told everyone on the show.”

“No.”

“I think it’s safe to say the entire building knows by now.”

“No,” he repeated, planting his palm to his forehead. “Dammit, Elizabeth, what were you thinking? Don’t you know how being fired works? Step one: never tell anyone the truth—claim you won the lottery, inherited a cattle ranch in Wyoming, got a huge offer in New York, that sort of thing. Step two: drink to excess until you figure out what to do. Jesus. It’s like you’re not familiar with TV’s tribal ways!”

Elizabeth took another sip of coffee. “Do you want to hear what happened or not?”

“There’s more?” he said anxiously. “What? He’s going to repossess our cars, too?”

She looked at him straight on, her normally lineless forehead slightly furrowed, and just like that his attention turned from himself to her. He felt uneasy. He’d completely overlooked the most critical component of her meeting with Phil. She’d met with him alone.

“Tell me,” he said, feeling as if he might vomit. “Please tell me.”

Were most men like Phil? In Walter’s opinion, no. But did most men do anything about men like Phil, himself included? No. Sure, maybe that seemed shameful or cowardly, but, honestly, what could anyone actually do? You didn’t pick a fight with a man like Phil. To avoid these outcomes,

you simply did what you were told. Everyone knew it and everyone did it. But Elizabeth wasn’t everyone. He put a trembling hand to his forehead, hating every bone in his spineless body. “Did he try something? Did you have to fight him off?” he whispered.

She sat up in her chair, the light of her makeup mirror providing an extra aura of fortitude. He studied her face with fear, thinking this was probably the same way Joan of Arc looked right before they lit the match.

“He tried.”

“God!” Walter shouted, crushing his Dixie Cup in one hand. “God, no!” “Walter, relax. He failed.”

Walter hesitated. “Because of the heart attack,” he said, relieved. “Of course! What uncanny timing. The heart attack. Thank the Lord!”

She looked at him quizzically, then reached down into her bag, the same bag she’d taken to Phil’s office the previous night.

“I wouldn’t thank the Lord,” she said, pulling that same fourteen-inch chef’s knife out of her bag.

He gasped. Like most cooks, Elizabeth insisted on using her own knives. She brought them in each morning and took them home each evening. Everyone knew this. Everyone except Phil.

“I didn’t touch him,” she explained. “He just keeled over.” “Jesus—” Walter whispered.

“I called an ambulance, but you know how traffic is at that time of day. Took forever. So while I waited, I made good use of my time. Here. Take a look.” She handed him the folders Lebensmal had waved at her. “Syndication offers,” she said as he registered obvious surprise at the contents. “Did you know that we’ve been syndicated in the state of New York for the last three months? Also, some interesting new sponsorship offers. Despite what Phil told you, sponsors are falling all over themselves to be part of our show. Like this one,” she said, tapping an ad for the RCA Victor company.

Walter kept his eyes down, staring at the stack. He motioned for Elizabeth to hand him her coffee cup, and when she did, he downed it.

“Sorry,” he finally managed. “It’s just that it’s all so overwhelming.”

She glanced impatiently at the wall clock.

“I can’t believe we’re fired,” he continued. “I mean, we have a hit show on our hands and we’re fired?”

Elizabeth looked at him with concern. “No, Walter,” she said slowly. “We’re not fired. We’re in charge.”

Four days later, Walter sat behind Phil’s old desk, the room swept clean of ashtrays, the Persian rug gone, the phone buttons ablaze with important calls.

“Walter, just make the changes you know need to be made,” she said, reminding him that he was acting executive producer. And when he balked at the responsibility, she simplified the job description. “Just do what you know is right, Walter. It’s not that hard, is it? Then tell others to do the same.”

It wasn’t quite as easy as she made it sound—the only management style he knew was intimidation and manipulation; that’s how he’d always been managed. But she seemed to believe—god, she was so naïve!—that employees were more productive when they felt respected.

“Stop flailing, Walter,” she said as they stood outside Woody Elementary awaiting yet another conference with Mudford. “Take the helm. Steer. When in doubt, pretend.”

Pretend. That he could do. Within days, he’d made a series of deals, syndicating Supper at Six from one coast to the other. Then he negotiated a new set of sponsorships that could double KCTV’s bottom line. Finally, before he could chicken out, he called a station-wide meeting to update everyone on Phil’s cardiovascular condition, including Elizabeth’s role in

saving his life, and how, despite the “incident,” he very much hoped everyone would continue to enjoy their meaningful work at KCTV. Out of all those things, Phil’s heart attack got the loudest applause.

“I asked our graphic artist to create this get-well greeting,” he said, holding up a gigantic card featuring a caricature of Phil making a winning touchdown. But instead of clutching a normal football, Phil was clutching his heart, which now that Walter thought about it, maybe wasn’t the best choice. “Please take the time to sign your name,” Walter said. “And if you’d like, add a personal note.”

Later that day, when the card was delivered to him for his own signature, he glanced at the well-wishes. Most were the standard “Feel better!” but a few were a bit darker.

Fuck you, Lebensmal.

I wouldn’t have called an ambulance. Die already.

He recognized the handwriting on the last one—one of Phil’s secretaries.

Even though he knew he couldn’t possibly be the only one who’d hated the boss, he’d had no idea what a large club he belonged to. It was validating, sure, but also gut-wrenching. Because as a producer, he was part of Phil’s management team, and that meant he was responsible for pushing Phil’s agenda while ignoring those who ultimately paid the price for it. He reached for a pen and, for the fourth time that day, followed Elizabeth Zott’s simple advice: do what was right.

MAY YOU NEVER RECOVER, he wrote in huge letters across the middle. Then he stuffed the card in an enormous envelope, put it in the out basket, and made a solemn promise. Things had to change. He would start with himself.

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