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Day Thirty: Excellence

Clayton held the original copy of his cartoon in front of him, as though a thin piece of Bristol board would be able to protect him. Across the office, behind the vast desk that had been passed to him by his father and his grandfather before him, Arlen Lamarck held a copy in his wide and terrible hands. He was glaring at it as though he would set it on fire with his gaze, and Clayton could see the paper crinkling at his touch.

The plush, book-lined office seemed to be unnaturally warm. Clayton desperately wanted to wipe his forehead, but that would mean attracting additional attention from Mr. Lamarck, and that would be bad. Oh so very bad.

“So the cat,” Lamarck said, “wants to know where the remote control is.”

“Ye- yes, Mister Lamarck,” Clayton said. His mouth was dry and his mind was racing, trying to run through hundreds of possible conversations. All of them seemed to end in failure. “Because it wants to know…”

“It wants to know what is on…” Lamarck looked up from the cartoon, his small, sharp eyes latching onto Clayton’s gaze. “The Cattoon Network.”

Clayton wanted to point at the picture, but his hands wouldn’t unclench. “Yes, Mister Lamarck. You… you see the Red Sox cap in the background?” Lamarck glanced down and up again. “The cat is from Boston, you see, and… and…”

Lamarck growled, Clayton was sure of it. “The Cah-toon Network?”

“Heh.. Yes! A pun, you see, on the way that people in Boston-”

“I know how people in Boston speak, Mister Doyle. Everyone knows how people in Boston speak, Mister Doyle.” He flexed his fingers and tore the cartoon in two. Clayton whimpered as Lamarck’s voice rose. “This cartoon is just about as funny as a turd in my morning coffee!” The torn pieces of paper disappeared into his massive fists and were turned into crumpled, unidentifiable balls.

When Lamarck stood, it was as though a mountain was rising. He was a big man, made large by blood, by a rich life, and a lifetime love of the outdoors. Though he had gotten rounder in the years since he took over Lamarck Publishing, he still exuded physical power and strength. Most people, such as thin and brittle Clayton Doyle, believed that he could snap them in half if he so chose.

To their credit, they were usually right.

Lamarck smiled, and Clayton flinched. “You’re new here, Mister Doyle, so let me explain something to you.” He started to walk around from behind the desk, and all Clayton could think was, Please don’t let him touch me – I think I’ll go mad if he touches me. “And because you’re new, I will give you a little bit of advice.” He put an arm around Clayton’s shoulders, and it felt like an entire person was riding him piggy-back. He clenched his teeth.

“Lamarck Publishing was founded on a single cornerstone, Mister Doyle,” he said. “Do you know what that was?”

Clayton shook his head, but not too fast.

“Pity. They really should tell all you new employees. It would make everything so much easier.” He patted Clayton on the shoulder, and it was like a punch. “This company was founded on the cornerstone of excellence, Mister Doyle. The unwavering belief that one should only present one’s absolute best. All else -” he plucked the Bristol board from Clayton’s trembling hands. “All else must be discarded. Forgotten. Destroyed.”

He lifted his arm and walked slowly back to his desk. “This… thing you have submitted to me,” he said, holding up the cartoon by one corner, “is not your best. It isn’t even close to your best.” With one swift move, he tore it in half, and flung the pieces behind him for the secretary to clean up later. “And it most certainly isn’t excellence. he wiped his hands on his suit jacket. “I cannot allow this.”

Clayton tried to speak, but the words weren’t there. He had spent two nights trying to come up with a joke, with something funny to print, and that was what he had to show for it. A cat. With a Boston accent. For a moment, he wanted to explain, to protest, to defend what he thought was funny, and Lamarck must have seen the incipient defiance in his eyes. “What, Mister Doyle?” Lamarck said. “You have something to say?”

“I just thought -”

“You thought? You thought what? That you could waste my time with this crap?”

“No, sir, I-”

Lamarck pounded a fist on the desk, and everything jumped, including Clayton. “Then what did you think, Mister Doyle? Did you think I would overlook this?”

“No, sir.”

“Did you think I would permit this to stain our publication?”

“I – no, sir, but-”

“But what, Doyle?” He held up a hand, and for a fleeting moment, Clayton was sure it was bigger than his whole head. “Let me guess, Doyle – you did your best. You tried your hardest. Paah!” Clayton blinked. He’d seen that word used in books, but never heard anyone actually say it. “You have a comfortable job now and the prestige of working at Lamarck Publishing and you think you can just slack off? Hand in whatever tripe pops into your head before deadline? Is that your ‘But,’ Doyle?”

“No, I-”

“Then you think I am an idiot, do you? You think that I am stupid enough to run into the ground the company that my father, and his father, and his father before him worked so hard to build? You think that I would see my birthright wasted just to assuage the entitled ego of a young artiste like you? Is that it, Doyle? Is that what you wanted to tell me?”

“NO!”

They were both taken aback for a moment. Lamarck blinked, and – against all his better instincts – Clayton filled the silence. “I came here because Lamarck is the best publishing house in the city. Because this is where the greats started – Mantini! Cafarella! Mackeray!” On the third name, he actually poked Lamarck in the chest, and swiftly withdrew his hand behind his back. “I came here because I thought this was a place for art! Where I could explore my talent and become something better. Become…” The manic energy that had powered him suddenly fell cold as he realized what he was saying.

“Become what, Doyle?” Lamarck asked quietly. “Another Mackeray? Another Mantini?” He leaned in close. “Do you think that’s what you’ll become?” Those sharp, deadly eyes seemed to invite challenge, but Clayton had nothing left. All those words… They were just words. He would compare himself to the greats? Him? A boy who drew cat cartoons?

“You’re right, sir,” Clayton said. He dropped his gaze to the floor. “I’ll get my things.” He turned, slowly, towards the door, which seemed so very far away, and each step across the deep carpet seemed to take a lifetime. He would have to move, of course. Probably go back home. Admit to his father that he’d been right all along. Somehow look his brother in the eyes again.

He got all the way to putting his hand on the knob when Lamarck rumbled behind him, “Wait.”

Clayton turned. Somehow, the giant man was right behind him. He hadn’t heard a thing. Lamarck was holding the torn pieces of the cartoon in one hand. “Take this with you,” he said. Clayton felt his heart sink as he accepted the ruined work.

Lamarck reached past the stunned Clayton and opened the door. “I expect a new drawing tomorrow morning. Now get out.”

Once on the other side of the door, Clayton looked around, not entirely sure where he was. He still held the torn cartoon in his hands. The inevitable shame he had imagined slowly slid away, and Lamarck’s words came back in their place. Excellence, Clayton thought. The word rolled through his head and filled him like sunlight through a window. Excellence.

I can do that.

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