by guest writer Deke Pohl
Five years ago, at the time of these events, my application for a part-time job at a harness racing website flew to the top of the queue. My fast-tracking was no surprise. My name is Deke Pohl. My last name may not mean much to you, but my uncle, Thaddeus Pohl, is a big deal in the world of harness horse racing. He owns over a hundred horses, outstanding horses, top-flight racehorses, top-shelf broodmares, weanlings, and yearlings.
Pre-COVID-19, the website office was in a vacant tanning salon in a lonely strip mall. The staff consisted of three people, three cubicles, three desks, three computers, and a blue sofa that sagged in the middle. Anna was perky and sexy in an Olive Oyl sort of way. Rodney, the boss, looked and acted like a 30-year-old Woody Allen and had a neurotic obsession with spreadsheets and billing statements. And then, me.
I liked Anna. Asking her out for a date crossed my mind. There were possibilities because she seemed to view me, if not with lust, at least as an exotic spider in Hawaiian shirts and sweatpants. Every day, at some point, Anna would teleport herself next to my desk, and we had our usual conversation.
“Deke, do you have a minute?”
“I have every minute until quitting time.”
Then she would nudge me to contact a customer, design a layout, write about some harness race, help with a format, or ask if I had any angles to drum up more advertising; you know, crazy stuff.
The day of the incident was hectic. My nerve ends, frayed.
For an intense hour, I had been busy at my computer playing MultiMystiqueWarfareIV – the cyclone rises, just killing it. I was in the zone, at level NINE, probably my best day at the office. It was easy to avoid my phone vibrating on my desk, but then Anna loomed.
“Deke, do you have a minute?”
“Not right now.”
“I think we can sell a big ad.”
“Not right now.”
“A stallion owner is a bit of a… well… a manly man. I think it would help if you talked to him. I have all the specs.”
She leaned forward, “Come on, Deke, it’s your job. We need this. Quit screwing around.”
Then the unthinkable happened. Anna reached her bony wrist across my keyboard, and using a pink fingernail, tapped “Quit.”
Her action stunned me. I sat upright and blinked. My screen flashed, “SAVE?” Before I could slice off her hand with my Silver Sword of the Mist, she hit “NO.”
My screen went blank. So did my brain.
Perhaps it is for the best that I do not remember my exact words. I do remember they were loud. Poor Anna reeled backward. When her shoulders touched the wall, she slid down into a semi-crouch. Rodney stuck his head out of his cubicle at the clamor and then jerked it back like a saloon keeper during an old western shootout.
All I heard was Rodney’s disembodied voice. “Go home, Deke. Stay home.”
I immediately snapped back to sanity, sprang from my chair, and extended my hands to help Anna.
She made a windshield wipers motion with her hands and shook her head no.
“I’m so, so, so sorry, Anna, I…I….”
I left. I didn’t even know I HAD a temper. It was like I stored up for this single solitary two-second explosion. I regretted my outburst almost as soon as it began and have regretted it every minute since.
Rodney fired me with a text message.
My four-month career with the harness racing website business was toast. I sent Anna a long email explaining the inexplicable. She did not respond. I sent her a text every day for a week until she finally texted back that she accepted my apology. She wrote that the incident was not a big deal, and perhaps she over-reacted.
We continued to text, not every day, but we both desperately wanted to put my outburst in our rear-view mirrors. I sent her a few books. I cut back on the video games.
Two months later, at the time of year when a horse racing site has half a chance to sell enough advertising to pay some bills, a text popped up on my phone.
Deke – would you consider coming back? Rodney.
* * *
My extended family is your basic multiple freeway pileup of marriages, divorces, separations, incarcerations, feuds, and chaos. Pohl people often seem to be the stepchild of a second cousin’s niece once removed.
Face to face, the Pohl family rarely agrees on anything – except my Uncle Thaddeus. Everyone loathed him. I was six years old when Thaddeus made multi-millions in the shale industry. Suddenly, to his relatives, he was not so bad. Uncle Thad was quirky. Many in the Pohl clan scrambled for his contact information. When Uncle Thad laughed at the concept of sharing a penny, he returned to being loathed — but pending further evaluation.
The only thing Thaddeus Pohl seems to enjoy is the sport of harness racing.
If Rodney had dug a little deeper during my original employment application, he might have discovered that I barely knew my Uncle Thaddeus. Still, family ties once again led me back to harness racing, the website, and the dark side.
* * *
Rodney, my former boss, came right to the point when we met at The Vegan Steakhouse.
“Your Uncle called. He was unequivocal. If his nephew does not get rehired, there will be no advertising from him. And last year, he spent a lot of money advertising yearlings and stallions on the site.”
“Rodney, this is weird. My uncle is a stranger to me. I don’t think he could pick me out of a police line-up.”
He shrugged, “This gets even weirder. Your uncle wants to buy my harness site. He knows the harness horse business, and he seems to think he knows Internet commerce.”
Tilting my head, I asked. “So, do you want me back at my desk?”
“Ah, no, we thought you might like to work from home.”
* * *
Uncle Thad Pohl summoned me to his farm office the following afternoon. His Shale Bale Breeding Farm was picture-postcard beautiful. Uncle Thad was not. All he needed was to allow his horseshoe of gray hair to reach long straggles, and Ebenezer Scrooge would no longer be a creature of fiction. He had piercing green eyes, reading glasses on the tip of his pointy nose, and hunched shoulders. Wow.
Uncle Thad did not shake hands, nor did he catch up on the Pohl family. He gestured to a chair in front of his desk and said, “See this?” He pointed out a window toward a herd of horses grazing in a lush paddock, “It isn’t cheap.”
He snarled, “Selling yearlings pays the tab. Last year, my advertising tab was too high. That will not happen this year.”
As I kept up my impersonation of a bobblehead doll, he continued, “You are going to make sure every yearling of mine is on the plate of buyers who have money. You will do it with that site.”
“So, I am assuming you want me to develop advertising and pump up the prices on Shale Bale horses or give you a family discount?”
“No. I would not let you muck stalls. Your resume looks like a rap sheet.”
“You are here for three reasons.” Thad held up a creepy trio of fingers, “You know how to run a website, you are a sketchy character, and you will be doing some sketchy stuff.”
“Like tomorrow, you fire the other two at that website thing.”
“What? They are very nice people. They are the ones doing the work, selling the advertising, writing the articles.”
“They are gone. Your job is simple — make my horses look good and make other people’s horses look bad. Can you do that, Dwight?”
“Yeah, right, Deke. You just keep the lights on, or whatever you call it in Web-land. I’ll take care of the money and the thinking.”
“But without Rodney and Anna, advertisers will leave, hits will go down. A web is all about hits.”
“I don’t care about hits. I overheard a couple of serious yearling buyers gabbing about how they check out the stories on that harness racing website every day with their morning coffee.”
“What about content?”
“I don’t care if you put up naked women in jog carts. Post some touchy stuff, real fake news, whatever. Get yourself hated and controversial — but not sued. Just make sure the buyers I need stick around and don’t let anything get in your way.”
“I assume you want me to ramp up visits and advertising rates.”
“Wrong. We ain’t selling ads. Well, maybe a few to make us look legitimate.”
“Everybody needs to sell.”
“Donald, you almost made sense.”
“Whatever. I don’t want other outfits pushing their horses on the site. I want you to filter out the competition. On this site, under your new management, discourage competition and give my horses more of a buildup than Lady GoGo.”
He is not the kind of man you correct, so I just said, “Wow… that’s a bit harsh. And it’s Deke.”
“Yeah, right, Deke. Harsh is what got me to the top of shale mountain. Harsh will make me money selling my harness horses online. If I ran this sport, things would be better with the right grease, but that’s another story. Business is harsh, Drake.”
* * *
The following morning, I took the helm and downsized the website staff. Do you know how you think something will be awful but end up not so terrible? This was not one of those times. Tears rained down; sexual favors tendered.
Then I told Anna.
The storm subsided, and I played my card of peace and joy. Despite appearances, history, and actions, I’m a happy ending sort of guy.
I said, “Anna, Rodney, calm down, take a breath. My uncle looking for a monopoly is a good thing for you. Here is how I see it. Uncle Thad is offering you a tidy sum to take over your racing site. You get the money, and you get out from under the building lease, which we all know is a stupid expense. All you do is open a new site in your home office. You started this one, so transferring to another one shouldn’t be a problem.”
They said nothing, just looked at me. So, I sweetened the deal.
“You have a good reputation. You get to keep the advertisers you hustled up and nurtured. He doesn’t want them. And remember this, I will be your major competitor. Talk about downhill sledding. I will even give your new site a nice push before screwing up the old one for Uncle Thad. The situation is perfect. You get money, a fresh start, lose the rent payment, and you get rid of me.”
My soon-to-be ex-coworkers looked at each other in silence. After a few beats, they smiled. Rodney high-fived me. Anna hugged me and said we should grab a coffee.
See? A happy ending.