The Audience
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Once upon a time, there was a fellow we will call Arnold, who had attained a position of some standing in the corporation and was satisfied with things in general.

"Look," he would say to himself in the mirror every morning. "I appear young and vigorous next to many of the bloated, wheezing fellows I ride next to on the train every day. I command a legion of troops. I can still see my toes without leaning over too far. I am making money. I am therefore relatively satisfied with things in general." And he did feel just that way a lot of the time.

Now, Arnold had a big job, and that meant he was very busy busy busy, e-mailing and retailing and meeting and greeting and selling and shilling and billing and buying and lunching, brunching, and munching, and of course managing all over the place, which left very little time for thinking about how he stood in the corporate hierarchy. That he mostly left to the prevailing winds. "I don't have time to waste on evaluating my standing in the infrastructure," he said to himself.

But one day he realized that it had been weeks since he had enjoyed more than a brief, perfunctory conversation with his boss, whom we shall call Hal.

"Gee," Arnold said to himself. "It has been weeks since I have enjoyed more than a brief, perfunctory conversation with my boss Hal." A little worm of disquiet hatched in his duodenum, where, as you know, such creatures find a most hospitable environment. Then he picked up the phone and dialed Hal, who resided in another building way across town.

"Hello," said Arnold to Kelly, Hal's assistant. "This is Arnold. I was wondering whether Hal is around, just to chat."

"I'll see," said Kelly. "So," thought Arnold, "he is there. And he will surely speak with me, his loyal and trusted subordinate with whom he has shared so much." Then, in the background, he heard Hal's distinctive voice, and it said, "I'll call him back."

"He'll call you back," Kelly said, and hung up.

"Okay," Arnold said into the dead receiver, and his heart shriveled up in his chest and in his head there was a lightness that made him want to lay his noggin on the blotter.

Where had he gone wrong? He had been so friendly with Hal! They had shared many meals, and drunk sambuca together on dozens of occasions, and there was a warmth between them that transcended the relationship between boss and subordinate. They were, in many ways, contemporaries, allies, and friends. Or so Arnold had thought. Now, well...perhaps things were not as he had believed them to be. Hmmm.

That afternoon he was unpleasant to several young people who depended on his counsel, good opinion, and affection. By 7:00 P.M., when it was obvious that Hal was indeed not going to return his phone call, he went to the train station. On the platform, he purchased a double portion of Absolut from the vendor.

Things went on this way for several weeks. Not that Hal did not, eventually, return Arnold's telephone messages. Of course he did. They conversed many times. But for some reason Arnold found these interfaces cold, rushed, and emotionally unsatisfying, and they served to deepen rather than assuage his feelings of confusion, melancholy, and hurt.

Often during that time he would lie awake at three in the morning and search his bosom for an answer. Had he done something wrong? Was Hal angry with him? Why this sudden exile from the kingdom? Had someone else come along to rob him of the love of his master? Was some dank political winding sheet being prepared for the carcass of his career? What was he to do?

After a while he stopped the phone calls to Hal altogether. "If he wants me, he will call me," thought Arnold with a small pout that he attempted but failed to stifle, even to himself. And the silence between Arnold and his lord deepened, and he was filled with what can only be described as the grief that attends a lost love.

One day in the third month of this ordeal, Arnold was working very hard in his office, to all appearances an ultrasenior executive in the full flush of his power, confidence, and majesty. Inside, however, he was little more than a trembling mound of emotional jelly looking for a container to hold him. His telephone rang, and since his secretary had stepped away, he answered it himself.

"Hey, Arnold," said Hal on the other end of the line. "I'm upstairs in the boardroom for a couple of minutes. Could you come up and give me a hand with something?"

Arnold hung up the phone and stared out the window. This, he supposed, was one of those pivotal moments that tell the difference between happiness and misery, success and failure. In the next few minutes, all would be revealed. He went upstairs for his audience with Hal.

The boardroom was empty, except for his dread liege, who stood in imposing silence at the end of a gigantic teakwood table.

"Come over here, will ya?" said Hal. He was looking at two objects, one in each hand.

"Yes, Hal," said Arnold, and approached.

"Which do you think looks better with this shirt?" said Hal. "I've got this big dinner with Armbruster & Finch and I have one of these blue pinstriped shirts on, and I dunno, I can't tell whether I should go with the striped club tie or the solid blue from Tiffany's...." He held out two neckties with a look of complete befuddlement on his face.

"Gee, Hal," said Arnold, taking the ties and looking them over. "I like this one." He held out the club tie.

"Okay," said Hal. "Then I'll take the other one!" He cracked up, slammed Arnold on the shoulder, and began to put on the blue cravat. "I haven't seen you in a dog's age, man," he added, as an afterthought. "How you hangin'?"

"A little low and to the right," said Arnold. Then both men laughed altogether too loudly.

"We gotta have lunch sometime soon, but now I gotta run." Hal had walked to the door of the boardroom, his arm around his executive serf. "Kelly!"

Kelly came around the corner holding a topcoat and an umbrella. She seemed enormously happy to see Arnold, and in fact put an arm around his shoulder and kissed his cheek. Then she whisked Hal into the elevator and off the floor.

Arnold went back to his office, closed his door, and poured himself a small dose of the single-malt Scotch he kept in the bottom drawer of his desk for just such an intellectual emergency. "The whole thing was about nothing!" he said to himself in amazement. "Nothing! It was my mind! Nowhere else! He's in the middle of his life and his world and he hasn't thought a bit about me! God, what a jerk I am!" And an overwhelming flood of love and relief swept over him for the man he was bound to serve. And as far as we know, that feeling lodges there still.

Nowadays, when Hal calls, our friend Arnold is a very happy man. And when that call does not come? He's still a little sad, but he doesn't lose sleep about the situation anymore. "Like the man said," he tells himself, "it's business. It's not personal."

And then he goes home to his wife, his children, and his dog, who pretty much always comes when he calls.

By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at