Dead Average

28th February 1995

(2150 words)

Copyright (C) Mike Taylor, 27th February 1995
All rights reserved.

John Adams was a computer programmer -- not a particularly good one, but not particularly bad either. He was a very average man, with an average degree and an average job writing accounting programs for an average bank. He also had an averagely attractive wife, Ellen, and two average children.

But when Ellen became pregnant again, and in the same week the mortgage rate rose for the third time in a less than a year, John could see that his average salary wasn't going to be enough for his growing family.

On the night the rates went up, he discussed his options with Ellen. They agreed that he'd be paid better for doing the same work if he did it on a contract basis. So the next day he handed in his notice, registered himself with several programming agencies, and started to serve out his six weeks' notice.

John was averagely fit and averagely healthy, for a man of his average height, build and weight. So it was a surprise to everyone when, on his way to work on the Tuesday of the fifth week, he suddenly dropped dead, the victim of a not-at-all-average freak cardiac arrest. His family were distraught, and the bank he'd worked for were sad to lose him in such a tragic way. However, in light of his impending departure, they explained to Ellen, John had transferred his company pension funds to a private pension the week before his death, so they couldn't possibly give her the death benefits of his company pension.

John's funeral was held that Friday. His wife cried, his children were too young to understand properly, and the representative from his erstwhile employer stood impassively throughout the brief but dignified ceremony, looking forward to the afternoon's golf. John's body was transfered to the city morgue to await burial, and there the story of John Adams should have ended.

Henry Shaw, on the other hand, was anything but average. He was a dynamic, up-to-the-minute, go-getting rising young executive, as he often told people at parties. And he hadn't got where he was today by letting little problems get in his way. Unfortunately for him, where he'd got to today was no more than a hair's breadth away from bankruptcy -- his computing recruitment agency had been on the breadline for several months, and he knew that if he didn't make a placement this month, his company would have to fold.

So Henry was furious when he heard that a Mr. Adams, who he'd had lined up for a lucrative job at the multinational computer company JCL, had unexpectedly passed away. There was a small financial reward for Henry's company every time they even sent anyone for tests at a potential employer, and he was livid that this Mr. Adams had cheated his company of even this temporary lifeline.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, Henry told himself as he dialled Mr. Adams' number. He steeled himself for what he knew would be an awkward call.

The phone rang. It clicked. Background noise of two young children playing. Then, tired and subdued, a woman's voice: "Hello?"

Henry took a deep breath and launched straight into his pitch. At first, John's widow was understandably reluctant to help; but Henry possessed considerable charm, which he brought expertly to bear. When he'd explained the trouble his agency was in, and that John would be able to return to his schedule within a couple of days at the most, she capitulated gracefully. As Henry put down the phone, he realised he was sweating. But he was ahead of the game, for a few more days at least.

"What the hell is this?!"

Gerald Harkness, one of the programming team leaders at a nearby JCL research facility, was unimpressed by the candidate that Henry Shaw had provided for the current batch of aptitude tests. Gerald wasn't the most composed of chaps at the best of times, and Henry could see that he'd lost his cool. He tried to smooth things over.

"Come on, Mr. Harkness, there's no reason why you shouldn't administer the tests to Mr. Adams just like all the other candidates."

Gerald waved his hands around ineffectually. "But, b-but he's ... He's ..." he stammered.

"I know, I know," said Henry, in his most calming voice. "But he does meet all the requirements in our contract. I checked carefully. Your people specified a second-class degree or better, three years experience, and good references. All of which Mr. Adams has. The contract says nothing about, uh, metabolic status."

"The medical?", Gerald managed to get out. "There's a clause that says he has to pass a medical."

"I tell you, I checked. He has to have passed a medical in the last year, which he has. There's a clause saying that you don't want candidates whose blood pressure is more than 10% above normal. But that is currently not a problem for Mr. Adams, since he doesn't have any blood pressure."

In the end, there was nothing to be done. Gerald could see that Henry was right, at least according to the letter of their recruitment contract. John had to be tested just like all the other candidates. Between them, Gerald and Henry managed to wedge him into a chair and leave him sitting upright. They left a pen and pencil on his desk as per regulations, and he was allowed two hours with the other dozen or so candidates in which to answer as many of the questions as possible. Under the circumstances, he was allowed to skip the tour of the establishment which followed the tests.

Early the next day, as Henry was pondering where his next tiny slice of income was coming from, the office phone rang. It was Harkness. Henry could detect an edge of hysteria in his voice even as they were exchanging the usual pleasantries.

Harkness blurted out, "Your man Mr. Adams ... He came top in the tests."

"He did what?!"

"He came top. He scored zero. All the other candidates got negative marks. Another batch of stupid graduates ... But your man ... he, he ... Well, you know what it means, don't you?"

Henry didn't. So he asked.

"It means we're contractually bound to take him on for a six-month assessment period."

This was an unanticipated development for Henry, but he wasn't going to complain, as the placement fee would resolve his cash-flow crisis, at least until the end of the month. Of course, there was another awkward phone call to make to the widow, but he'd never expected recruitment consultancy to be easy. He thanked Gerald for the information, then hung up the phone and celebrated his success with an early lunch.

Gerald Harkness wasn't a happy man. He'd never been happy for as long as he could remember, not even as a child; and the recruitment of a corpse into his department wasn't making things any better. That night, he drank himself into a stupor. And the next morning he was late to work. Gerald's Boss -- known to his minions only as "Boss" -- wasn't impressed, and ticked him off severely at lunchtime; Gerald knew that he had to watch his step if he was going to keep his position as a team leader.

John Adams, by contrast, had a very successful first day at work. He required no training and no on-the-job help. He sat quietly in front of his terminal all day, not disturbing anyone. Gerald's Boss could see that John was an ideal employee, and by the end of his first week, he was extolling John's virtues to the other programmers. "Take a look at this man and learn a lesson," he told them. "He's undemanding. He doesn't waste all his time making tea and chatting about the weather. He's a good listener who never interrupts. He's the kind of man we need here at JCL!"

The other programmers could see the Boss's point. It was true that John was rather boring; and he didn't seem to have much of a life outside work. But at least he didn't monopolise the conversation all the time, talking about himself -- in stark contrast to those dreadful people in Marketing, who seemed to brag constantly about their most recent sexual conquests. What was more, with so few really productive programmers in the department -- and so many really bad programmers -- John's work record looked rather good. Better than average, anyway.

Before the end of his first month, John was a very popular man in his department. Even Gerald took to confiding in him. One Tuesday evening, everyone but John and Gerald had gone home. John was still in the office merely because that was his usual routine; but Gerald was desperately trying to catch up with his work. The Boss had given him another roasting that day, and an ultimatum: "Clean up your act by the end of the week, or you're busted down to junior programmer."

Gerald explained all this to John. While John didn't exactly sympathise, and had no advice to offer, he did at least sit patiently, listening without interrupting, as Gerald poured out his numerous woes. By the time he'd finished, Gerald felt a bit better. Blinking back the tears that he'd have been ashamed for anyone but John to see, he patted John on the shoulder. "Thanks old buddy," he said. "You're a good man. You're starting to smell a bit, but you're a good man."

Friday evening arrived, and the Boss called Gerald to his office at five o'clock. Gerald had worked late into every night that week, and had cleared his backlog; but he could see by the Boss's frown that the news wasn't good. The Boss tried to break it to him as gently as he knew how, but Gerald knew what was coming.

"We appreciate that you've done your best this week," the Boss said. "But it's not just that. Your heart's not in it. This job doesn't mean everything to you, and that's what we need here at JCL. Take a look at Adams, for example ..." Gerald sighed inwardly; he'd known this was coming. But the Boss ploughed on, not noticing Gerald's inattention:

"The guy is here every morning before I arrive. He's still here every evening when I leave. He never leaves his desk at lunchtime, he's never hung over. Hell, he never even goes to the toilet! Can't you see that's the kind of dedication we need?"

Gerald nodded mutely.

"OK. Good. So I'm making Adams team leader in your place. He'll be in charge of a group of a dozen programmers. You'll be one of them. Just see that he has everything he needs."

Again, Gerald nodded. In the back of his mind, a seed of resentment towards John began to germinate. But he knew there was nothing he could do. John had no character flaws, no vices -- no weaknesses at all, in fact.

As the months passed, everything John was involved with seemed to turn to gold. At the end of the six probationary months, his services were retained, and the sizable placement fee tided Henry's recruitment bureau over for another month. In the months and years that followed, John's meteoric rise continued. He was rapidly promoted, eventually replacing the old Boss as head of the entire research facility. The new Boss was uniformly liked and respected by all of his minions. He allowed the programmers to get on with their work without interfering; he didn't throw his weight around, didn't keep changing the department's research directions on a whim. Productivity soared.

By the time John was invited to become a board member, three years later, he was in such a state of disrepair that he had to be pickled. Nevertheless, in his new position as a director, he was once again exactly the kind of man his superiors had been looking for. His strong-but-silent brand of wisdom was so highly prized that an AGM of the major shareholders voted to issue him with shares of astronomical value, and so his widow was able to abandon her continuing and futile attempts to claim a life-insurance settlement from John's pension company.

Five years after his death, John became the Managing Director of JCL International Inc. Sadly, the pickling had come too late to save the integrity of his body, and a few bits had dropped off, nestling in the bottom of his six-foot-tall jar. All the same, his ten-year incumbency as MD was the most profitable decade in JCL's history. So it was with great regret that the shareholders accepted that the decomposition had reached such an advanced stage that cremation was necessary. John's second funeral was held fifteen years after his first, and this one was attended by all the regional heads of JCL world-wide.

Later that year his ashes were elected president of the USA.

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