This is Part 2 of 5, of Executive Fear, from my book, Go West or Go Weird. For Part 1, click on this link.
Executive Fear (Continued)
He was an alchemist. Kind of as a hobby, but more like an obsession. Alchemy was a practice begun in ancient times, that concerned itself with how to change metal into gold through the process of chemistry. And so many had tried through the ages to discover such a chemical process for making gold. But no one had ever succeeded.
Otis Felp was the same. He had been experimenting for over ten years, but still with no success at alchemy.
He had started his alchemy experiments as kind of a personal joke on himself. A psychiatrist he used to see had suggested he find a hobby. Something to divert him from his office work, that might also get him more involved with the outside world. The psychiatrist reasoned that this would help him overcome his fears of the outside world. It would force him to face these fears and think about them, so that he could realize just how unreasonable they were and get over them.
Then he could finally learn how to enjoy life.
So Otis decided to practice a few chemistry experiments at home. Chemistry had been one of his favorite subjects in high school, in his less fearful days, so it was a natural hobby to choose. And it did, indeed, make him have to go to a hardware store, and a few hobby shops in the city, so he could buy equipment and supplies. So he was getting out more, and facing his fears of the outside world.
But on one of his supply-hunting trips he picked up a book on alchemy. He was an ambitious assistant bank manager at this time, and hotly coveted money, power, and position. And the experiments that the book described gave him inspiration. Inspiration to try to figure out that long-sought-after secret of how to make gold.
Pure, solid, yellow, gold!
Power. Position. Security.
But his first few attempts were only half-hearted affairs. He approached these endeavors as a lark upon himself, and did not take it very seriously. He reconstructed some of the experiments in the book, and then laughed at himself when they didn’t work.
But then he tried his own variation on one of the experiments. It didn’t work either, but it seemed to come closer. So he tried more variations.
Gradually, he became obsessed. And the psychiatrist’s suggestion of starting a hobby began to backfire. Otis was spending more and more and more of his time at home. Long hours at night stirring and pouring and boiling and mixing.
He bought up large supplies at the hobby shops so he wouldn’t have to go supply hunting very often. And he canceled his visits to the psychiatrist. He simply didn’t have the time to see him anymore, what with all the experiments he needed to do.
And he had a natural knack for this kind of work. It was an aptitude he seemed to have been born with. Well he had been born with a crippling, irrational fear, so perhaps being born with an aptitude for alchemy was some sort of compensation from Divine Providence.
Eventually, the natural genius he possessed for this hobby finally paid off. For Otis Felp devised a method that enabled him to turn heavier metals into lighter metals. And he even developed a way to control what kind of lighter metals they would turn into. It was chancy, but he did have some control.
The end product never amounted to much in weight either. But with gold at over one thousand dollars an ounce, not much weight would be needed. He could build a fortune with just very small quantities.
Problem was, he needed a metal that was significantly heavier than gold if he ever stood a chance at producing gold. And that was where the uranium came in. Uranium is one of the heaviest known elements on the face of the earth. Its atomic weight is significantly greater than the atomic weight of gold.
Otis Felp picked up the tin of yellowcake. The uranium it came from would add the weight he needed for his experiment. He kissed it, then put it in his briefcase. Tonight, tonight, he would make gold and become rich.
They were closing up the bank when he stepped outside his office. He adjusted his tie. Eyes darted about. A flurry of activity. “Good night Mister, uh, Felp.” Susan. Susan, the blonde-haired head teller.
“Good night Susan.”
“H- have a good evening!”
“Thank you.” He strode for the door. Droplets of sweat oozed from his forehead. It was like this every evening. The door was not a door, it was the mouth of a monster. It snarled and roared at him, louder and louder the closer he came to it. Just like all evenings past. With trembling hands, he pushed the jaws away and stepped outside, into the clamor and mayhem of the noisy city streets.
Here he was not in control. Here it was every man, woman, child, and creature for itself. Here anything could happen. He didn’t know what, but anything.
Anything at all could happen to him.
His armpits were soaked with perspiration, just like every evening. Even cold, wintry evenings. His eyes darted right and left. He rounded the corner of the building, and into the parking lot.
It was there, miles and miles and miles away. But he could see it. His car. A speck of remote safety. So far off. He felt like running, but knew better. Better not to panic, he thought. Better not to show any fear. Don’t show any fear at all or maybe something will attack you.
His eyes darted left and right. His car was still impossibly far away. Then he did what he did every evening. He imagined he was on a long, moving conveyor belt that was carrying him swiftly to his vehicle. It was carrying him to safety. It was rescuing him.
A few more quick paces and he was there. Desperately he fumbled with the key fob, finally pressing the correct button. He opened the door, jumped inside, slammed it and locked it.
Well, relative safety.
He was still not home yet. But the car could get him there pretty quickly. As long as it didn’t break down or wreck. That was his biggest fear. No breakdowns needed. No accidents needed. No traffic tickets needed. He must get out of the city jungle and into his safe home as soon as possible.
And into the city streets of Mumblegum he motored. Mumblegum, the city that depended upon him, and others like him. But still a dangerous city. A dangerous city in a dangerous world. He had to get through the traffic snarls of Mumblegum and into the safety of his home as quickly as he could. But also as carefully as he could. The city was no place to have an accident. Then he’d be stuck out in the open. In a dangerous place. Then anything could happen to him.
Anything at all.
He did not know what. He had no idea what. But something could happen to him. Something deadly. Something horrible. Something specifically and directly aimed at him that would destroy and kill instantly.
He had this feeling every evening. A feeling that something terrible would happen to him. A premonition, you might call it. Of awful, impending doom. This was the fear that gnawed at his heart and soul every day. Every day that he left the safety of his home or office and ventured into the mean streets of Mumblegum.
His psychiatrist, so long ago, had called it agoraphobia. Agoraphobia is an irrational fear of open, public places. An irrational fear of being in an uncontrolled environment.
“Otis,” he had said, “you have a severe form of agoraphobia. You must do something about it right away before it ruins the rest of your life.”
That psychiatrist had been full of statistics, facts, and figures. Yes it was obvious to Otis Felp that the psychiatrist too liked to hide behind paperwork. Graphs and charts. Surveys and studies.
But according to the psychiatrist, around two percent of the population has agoraphobia. And maybe more. It’s a rather common phobia, you see. Especially amongst white-collar workers and executives like Otis.
That Otis could believe. Oh yes, he had seen his own fears in others of his type. Other business executives. Many a time he had looked out the windows of his bank and seen a hapless executive caught outside. More often than not the man was walking quite fast, with eyes darting all around. There was fear in those eyes. Definite fear. Perhaps irrational, perhaps not, but definite fear.
But the psychiatrist had called his agoraphobia “severe.” That distinguished him from most other agoraphobics. And most other executives, he supposed. Perhaps that was the reason he had not been as successful as most other executives his age. Bank manager was as high as he sensed he would ever go in the world of business. And it had been a slow road just getting to that.
But most execs his age had roared on past him. They’d gone on to be chairmen of boards, presidents of their own companies, mayors, senators, and other positions that spelled high power and success. So why had he foundered at bank manager? “Severe” agoraphobia was the only reason he could think of.
His agoraphobia was too severe to fight. But others could fight theirs. Other executives were brave enough to get out, at least every once in a while. Get out and face the mean, terrible world. Get out and turn a few wheels manually if they had to. Get out and use their backs.
And they could be brave enough to venture out and attend functions, and Rotary Club meetings, and conventions, and such things. They could make contacts and network with others who could assist their ambitions.
They could move up in the world, because they were willing to face the outside every now and then.
But “every now and then” means that most of the time they were just like Otis Felp. Most of the time they, too, would hide behind their paperwork, inside their offices, trying to control the world with pen and ink.
But sometimes, sometimes, they could build up enough courage to work a few, fleeting moments—a few, fleeting strategic moments—in the outside world. And that was the advantage they had over Otis. And he envied them for their courage.
It was a courage he felt he would never have.
But gold, gold, perhaps gold would make up for it. He could have his success by producing a fortune in gold. But only if he could uncover the secret that so long had eluded science. The secret of alchemy. The secret of manufacturing one’s own gold.
End of Part 2. Come on back tomorrow, for Part 3.
Categories: Series (Stories): Go West Or Go Weird