Between These Walls: Chapter 1

February 10, 2015


Had Hunter seen what he thought he’d seen? Had he given Hunter a second glance?

At twenty-six years old, after so many years, Hunter wished the temptation would release its grip on him.

Hunter’s heartbeat increased at the possibility of mutual attraction, but he steadied himself.

Surrounded on three sides by frosted glass walls, the conference room sat in an interior section on the fourth floor of a suburban professional building. Pipeline Insurance Corporation offered extensive packages for life, home and automobile coverage. Its customers ranged from individuals to small businesses to large corporations.

Hunter had pursued this potential client by phone for three months, trying to get one foot in the door to explain the benefits of his own company’s products.

Two weeks ago, he had secured an appointment for ten o’clock this morning with Jake Geyer, a manager in the technology services department.

Hunter had expected a few Pipeline staff members to attend the demo session, but at the last minute, the others had canceled. This occurred often with Hunter’s cold-call appointments and, after four years in sales, Hunter had learned not to take offense when it happened.

Side by side, Hunter and Jake sat at a large, mahogany table, facing the frosted glass walls. The polished surface of the table cast a reflection of Hunter’s laptop computer.

“So the program offers dynamic address formatting to satisfy postal standards,” Hunter explained. “The program is Internet-based and interacts live with our central server. As you know, to obtain discounted rates for bulk mail, the postal service has strict requirements that vendors must meet. Our program ensures compliance at the point of entry.”

Jake stroked the stubble beneath his chin as he examined the sample data-entry program on Hunter’s laptop screen. With one arm bent at the elbow, the sleeve of his polo shirt wrapped taut around his bicep, revealing enough shape to suggest Jake worked out. Jake wore stylish, olive-green glasses, which blended well with his dirty-blond hair and enhanced the color of his green eyes. Hunter estimated Jake was only a few years older than he. Thirty years old at best.

“I understand how meeting those standards benefits us,” Jake said, “but our data entry staff keeps a printed document of postal standards on hand. One question my director would ask is, ‘What does your product accomplish that we can’t accomplish ourselves?’”

Hunter had anticipated that question. Every prospective client asked the same question during their first meeting. But Hunter, who worked with the software every day and understood its benefits, had learned to respect his prospective clients and allow them to grasp the concept at their own paces. Moreover, Hunter had discovered that he could read between the lines. Individuals would express their own needs and desires through their comments and questions, which, in turn, helped Hunter customize a case for how his own company’s product offered a solution. For Hunter, the sales pitch focused less on convincing a client of their need than presenting his product as a hero that would save the day. Hunter believed in the product he sold. He viewed his visits as opportunities to enhance the work of others.

“That’s a good question,” Hunter said. “You mentioned on the phone that you enter a large collection of records to your database throughout each day, plus a load of address changes when people move to new apartments or buy new homes. I assume you run quality-assurance reports on those entries?”

“Yes, we deliver the reports to our data entry staff each morning.”

“Do you ever find errors in those updates?”

“Nothing major. The data entry clerk might enter a wrong digit in the street address. They might spell out ‘Street’ or ‘Post Office’ instead of using the postal abbreviations. Things like that.”

“That’s typical for my prospective clients. The benefit our program would bring is to eliminate that second step from your business process. By formatting your addresses automatically upon entry, we eliminate user errors, which increases your efficiency rate and allows your data entry staff to start its day entering new data instead of revisiting the prior day’s work.”

Hunter glanced over at Jake, who nodded. Hunter sensed Jake had absorbed and understood the details.

Shifting in his seat, Hunter scooted so his back settled flush against the back of his chair. For the last few months, he’d felt recurring soreness in his lower back. Though frequent and lasting several hours at a time, the aches didn’t occur daily. The pain level ranged from minor discomfort to occasional bursts that would stab his lower back like a knife. He could sense it wasn’t a medical issue, though, and attributed it to stress on the job.

Hunter continued his pitch to Jake Geyer.

“Plus,” Hunter added, “we receive regular updates to verify the physical existence of homes and buildings, which helps prevent a wrong digit or character in your address. Our data ensures that, yes indeed, a building actually sits at 1234 Main Street and hasn’t been torn down. That would increase your deliverability rates and eliminate the cost of mailing material to addresses that don’t exist. You can take the money that used to go down the drain in returned mail and reinvest it to increase your profit margin.”

Jake glanced over at Hunter, held his gaze for a few seconds, the way he had several minutes ago, then examined the laptop screen again. Though Hunter wasn’t sure, he thought he caught a change in Jake’s eyes during contact. Jake’s pupils had dilated a trace.

Why did he glance at me?

Sure, it’s a normal human response in a business scenario. Yet Hunter couldn’t help but wonder if Jake was focused on Hunter’s explanation of the program, or if he’d used the glance as an excuse to take a quick inventory of Hunter’s eyes.

Jake tapped the edge of the laptop. “So this is the program here?”

“Sure is. I can walk you through a demo if you want.”

Jake slid his chair toward the laptop, leaned in closer to the screen. And closer to Hunter.

Jake set his glasses aside to view the screen, so perhaps he was nearsighted. Hunter noticed Jake’s eyes were closer to olive than standard green.

Hunter picked up the scent of a fresh shower. The scent was pleasant but possessed a sharp tang. Men’s shower gel.

Hunter’s heart rate began to roll with the steady pace of a treadmill. A quiver ran up his thighs. His right arm rested on the mahogany table an inch from Jake’s.

Hunter wished he didn’t enjoy the proximity. Such simplicity would come to his life if he could free himself from the appeal he found in other men.

When in the company of others, often he wondered if he was the only one who struggled like this.

He forced himself to refocus on the screen ahead.

“Here’s a sample program for a magazine subscription company.” Hunter waved his finger over the program window. “The company isn’t real.”

“How about the colors and layout? Our software application is branded with our logos and a couple of company Intranet links. Is this what the program would look like if we purchased it?”

If we purchased it? When a client started talking about purchase scenarios, Hunter considered it a positive indicator. Hunter smiled with fresh vigor. He stretched his lower back to the left, then to the right.

“We integrate our software into yours. We’ve done it that way with all our clients. Our product is compatible across any format you throw our way.” He pointed to a small icon of a company logo beside the address line. “We incorporate that little icon into your screen in case you’d want to visit our website to research a particular address further. Other than that, you won’t notice a difference onscreen. It’s seamless; everything else gets woven in behind the scenes. We store our data on our own server, so you maintain full privacy of your data.”

Hunter paused to allow the logistics to soak in, swiped his finger along the laptop’s touchpad, then tapped it. “We’ll create a new record for Hunter Carlisle.”

As he hit the keys on the keyboard, Hunter kept his eyes glued to the screen. But in his peripheral vision, he saw Jake tilt his head and run his fingers through his hair, the way you do to make yourself appear casual. But then, as Hunter continued speaking, he noticed Jake had broken his gaze from the computer. Jake’s irises moved toward Hunter’s face and lingered there, assuming Hunter didn’t notice. Hunter felt a flutter in his chest. He could hear the soft sound of Jake’s breathing.

If Hunter could create a product, he would invent a method to read another person’s mind. In times like these, a mind-reading tool would allow him to decipher why Jake studied him with such intentness. For all Hunter knew, Jake could be trying to figure out whether Hunter was an honest sales person who believed in his own product. Yet Hunter couldn’t help but wish for a kindred spirit, someone who struggled with the same attractions he did.

For someone to find him attractive—a mutual attraction.

He wanted to ask but knew he couldn’t mix personal affairs with professional business. Not that he would dare to out himself anyway.

Hunter cleared his throat. Jake’s eyes darted back to the screen.

Okay, he didn’t want Hunter to know he’d sneaked that glance. The question for Hunter was, Why?

Statistics would render chances slim that Jake held any attraction toward Hunter. Hunter knew the percentage of those who concealed homosexual urges was small. But he also knew that percentage wasn’t zero. Hunter remained aware that, with all the people who crossed his path in a year, someone out there harbored the same secret he did.

The question was, who are those someones? For Hunter, attempting to find the answer carried, at minimum, a heavy risk. And Hunter hadn’t sharpened his senses enough to detect those someones on his own.

The what-if scenarios, like the one in which he found himself right now, felt like mental torture: a continual flow of questions never asked and never answered. After all these years, it exhausted him.

“In my mailing address, I typed the full words ‘Street’ and ‘Suite.’ Also, I typed ‘4738’ as our street number—but our address is 4739. There’s no building at 4738,” Hunter said. “Now, keep an eye on that address line when I move to the next field.”

When Hunter moved his arm, he brushed Jake’s arm by accident.

But Jake didn’t move his arm right away. Usually others did. It took Jake an extra second before he even blinked.

With a hit of the Tab key, the cursor moved to the next data field. In the address line, as Hunter had predicted, the street number changed to 4739 and abbreviations replaced the full words Hunter had mentioned.

“And that’s how it works, in real time,” Hunter said. “Without those abbreviations, a piece of mail to that address would not have qualified for a discounted mailing rate. And with a nonexistent street number, unless your postal worker delivered it on his own initiative, the piece of mail would have returned to you, with the cost of postage wasted. And with our program, your data entry staff wouldn’t have needed to correct the address in the morning, despite the address errors typed into the record. Multiply that by the thousands of addresses you enter and use per year, and it can add up to a lot of savings.”

With that, Hunter allowed his words to settle. He would let the prospective client have the next word, to which Hunter would respond.

Jake leaned back in his chair. He crossed his leg, stroked his chin.

“I can see the benefit behind it,” Jake said. “The question for us would be, ‘Does the benefit outweigh the cost?’ That’s the first thing my director would ask. Our data entry people enter 95 percent of the data in its correct format. So for those remaining cases, are we spending more money on data entry hours than we would spend on the cost of the product? Looking at the cost structure you emailed me yesterday—well, I hate to say it, but I just don’t see how we’d end up ahead.”

Hunter dreaded that response. As good as his company’s product was, and as much money as it could save a client, their current efficiency rate proved a wild card every time. Hunter had no way of knowing those efficiency rates when he entered into these initial meetings, and clients tended to avoid answering that question if he asked too early.

Jake’s reply wasn’t good. Demonstration meetings like these were uphill battles from the onset, so Hunter entered them prepared to counter a variety of possible scenarios. In each case, he would help the potential client see the long-term value his product offered. But in one sentence, perhaps without realizing it, Jake had all but shut down Hunter’s case. In one sentence, Jake had addressed not only their present situation, but also applied high-level analysis and reached a conclusion. And he also served as gatekeeper to everyone else at Pipeline Insurance Corporation.

Hunter decided to go for the next-best scenario. If he couldn’t sell the full product, he would try to sell one of his company’s smaller products.

“I understand what you’re saying,” Hunter said. “Although the solution I demonstrated for you is our top-notch, flagship product, we also offer a range of other services to help improve efficiency.”

In a halfhearted manner, Jake thumbed through a brochure Hunter had laid on the table earlier. “Do all of your services require integration into the software? Do you offer a standalone product we could use on an as-needed basis? That would reduce our cost of implementation.”

Hunter winced inside. He saw where this conversation was headed, and it wasn’t headed toward a sale. He knew he couldn’t offer a viable alternative to meet their needs. The discomfort in Hunter’s back inflamed further.

“The software-integration aspect is a foundational piece of all our products. In fact, it’s one quality that sets us apart from other data providers because it provides a seamless user experience.”

Jake shifted in his seat. “I’m afraid you’d have a tough time selling that to my director. With the upfront costs that would come with integrating the software, and the work involved by the tech staff on our end … I can tell you right now, he won’t go for it. I can pass along to him anything you’d like me to pass along, but I’ve walked through enough projects with him to tell you there won’t be a sale.” He drummed his fingers once upon the table. “To be honest, I could tell from the literature you emailed yesterday that the software wouldn’t be a good match for us, but I wanted to give you a chance to stop by anyway, in case I’d misunderstood some of the details.”

Jake glanced at Hunter. Hunter caught a twinge of disappointment in his eyes.

“Man, I’m sorry,” said Jake, one young adult to another. “Working together would’ve been good.”

Hunter appreciated the remark. He also wondered if Jake had meant his comment about working together at face value, or if he’d referred to getting to see Hunter more often, had the deal worked out. Hunter couldn’t decipher the answer. Though he would never admit it to a soul, the latter notion incited a longing inside him.

“Hey, I understand.” Hunter bit his lower lip, started shutting down his laptop, and retrieved a flash drive from his saddle bag. “I’ll leave this flash drive with you. It contains a demo of our product for you to pass along to your director. If he expresses interest, feel free to contact me, okay?”

Jake reached out to receive the flash drive. Their fingertips brushed. Jake’s eyes caught Hunter’s again, as if searching for a potential next move. Hunter wanted more time to see what, if anything, hid behind the signals—or non-signals—he’d detected from Jake.

In the end, however, professionalism disallowed either man from asking questions or taking another step. In a social context, or if they knew each other better, perhaps they would have had more flexibility.

But today they didn’t.

Hunter hoped the forlorn expression in Jake’s eyes meant what he wished it did.

Chances were, it didn’t. But the fact that someone like Jake—a peer, an equal, and a handsome one at that—might have looked at Hunter and considered something more …

It left Hunter with a surge of warmth combined with the ache of another letdown.

Whether out of courtesy or a desire to savor the final moments their paths would cross, Hunter didn’t know, but Jake walked him down to the lobby.

They shook hands. They exchanged formal smiles. And Hunter walked out the door as Jake turned back toward the elevator.

Five steps out the door, with more than enough time for Jake to have reached the elevator, Hunter glanced back.

Through the glass walls of the lobby, he noticed Jake lingering at the elevator, glancing back at him.

The elevator door opened. Jake seemed to hesitate for a split second, as if caught between options of what to do next, then turned and entered the elevator.

Hunter nodded.

Another opportunity … vanished.

Excerpt Copyright 2015 John Herrick