I laid in a state of semiconsciousness in the wee hours of the night, having been scarcely able to reach that REM sleep zone in the six weeks since my wife Gretchen gave birth to our baby boy Brayden. My mind could never quite settle in to the state of relaxation necessary to drift into deep sleep, knowing that any minute could produce a boisterous cry from the crib across the bedroom. Luckily for me it was a Friday night so I could theoretically sleep in a little later tonight and not face another day at work on little sleep. Gretchen was better able to zone out into a deeper sleep, as evidenced by her snoring that I was listening to coming from the pillow next to mine. My anticipation of a pending wake-up call was quickly validated as an emotional outburst erupted from the crib and continued for a few moments as Gretchen continued to snooze. I helped out from time to time with bottle feeding but Gretchen preferred to take the reins and I was happy to defer to her as often as possible, and tonight would be one of those occasions.
Realizing that she was fast asleep and not likely to wake up easily, I shook Gretchen awake. As she began to awaken, the all too familiar wheeze was quickly followed by an equally familiar heavy smoker’s cough, a chorus that signified Gretchen’s every awakening the same way that the sun rising in the east signified dawn. Following her first round of coughing, Gretchen grunted at the sound of Brayden’s crying realizing that it was once again feeding time. As expected, Gretchen had another priority that preceded crossing the room to feed Brayden though. She reflexively reached for her pack of Marlboro Reds 100s resting on the nightstand, opened the pack, and extracted one. Her back was to me as she lit the cigarette, but the sounds and smells quickly filled the room, allowing me to let my imagination paint the visual picture in my mind of her first cigarette in hours. A smile beamed on my face as I watched her body drearily rise from her side of the bed and slumber towards the crib. Eventually I saw the darkened profile of her face in the unlit room, the smoldering cherry from her cigarette the only illumination as it dangled from her lips erectly while she ingested a few hours worth of tobacco that her neglected lungs had been doing without. After several seconds of a brighter and longer cherry on the end of the freshly lit cigarette, a massive cloud of smoke filled the square footage in front of her face and the erect cigarette between her lips slowly went limp. There was just no way I was gonna be able to get any sleep now!
With a cork filter cigarette still dangling from her lips, Gretchen lifted Brayden out of his crib and sat down on the chair we placed next to the crib for nighttime feedings.
“Is my baby boy hungry??!?” Gretchen rhetorically asked her six-week-old son through a talking dangle and a raspy morning smoker’s voice while wrapping him in her arms and laying him across her chest. “We’ll see if we can cook something up at the all-night diner,” Gretchen continued in a voice that didn’t match the punchline. I couldn’t see specifics in the darkness, but I knew Brayden had his mouth on Gretchen’s nipple, extracting the nicotine-infused breast milk he craved and had feasted on every day and night of his short life.
As Brayden was nursing aggressively from Gretchen’s breast, Gretchen was sucking even harder from her cigarette. It dangled from her mouth only inches above Brayden’s head, removed only to ash into the butt can sitting next to her and then parked right back into Gretchen’s mouth. Gretchen proceeded to sing quiet lullabies to Brayden as he nursed, the brightly burning cigarette lightly bouncing in her lips through her “singing dangle”. Without having to deal with the harshness of Gretchen’s direct secondhand cigarette smoke exposure as Brayden did, the soothing tone of Gretchen’s lullaby voice was actually starting to work on me as I began drifting back off to sleep.
It didn’t last long, however, as Gretchen was already crushing out her cigarette in the nearby butt can and then standing up to retrieve her pack and lighter left behind on the nightstand next to the bed. Gretchen ably held Brayden up to her bosom with one arm as she walked, leaning over to pick up the Marlboro Reds 100s pack with her free hand and then returning to the chair. I was now awake again and watching as the unlit cork-filter cigarette dangled from Gretchen’s lips. She continued to lightly sing to her baby boy and this time I got to see the lighter ignite her cigarette to life, an explosion of smoke bursting from her respiratory system and appearing to migrate mostly down towards Brayden, with mom appearing to have no idea how besieged the poor kid was by her addiction. Either this kid would grow up hating smoking with a fiery passion or he’d have as much of a fetish as dad, I thought to myself.
In the moments ahead, Gretchen’s lullaby slowed to a barely audible din and then disappeared completely. I wasn’t able to fully discern the look on her face through the dim lighting, but was fully aware that Gretchen had been down in the dumps quite a bit since the delivery, enduring a mid-level phase of postpartum depression in a way I never saw after she had Kaitlyn a decade earlier. Gretchen was a very strong woman so it was an unusual look for her, and more than a little concerning as her husband. Only on a couple of occasions did she confide in me that she was dealing with some depression, but mostly wanted to quietly soldier through it in a way that left me nervous about how serious things were. It probably wasn’t that unusual for a 35-year-old mother more than 10 years removed from her last pregnancy to be overwhelmed, but I still wouldn’t have expected it from her. It didn’t seem as though she cut down on her smoking much in the final trimester of her pregnancy, but amidst this depression I had definitely noticed her consumption rate was above and beyond the four packs a day she had routinely smoked the entire time I knew her. An uptick in Gretchen’s cigarette consumption would under normal conditions be a source of excitement for me, but seeing her go through the motions on this latest cigarette robotically and joylessly was just the latest visual reminder of her unhappiness.
My eyes were adjusting to the darkness and I was able to discern how deeply Gretchen was in thought as she sat there, lighting up yet another cigarette in the moments before picking Brayden up and putting him to bed. A blast of smoke exploded out of Gretchen’s mouth and nose directly in front of Brayden in the moment before she laid him back into the crib, and I had mixed emotions as a father and a fetisher at the sight. Gretchen returned to her chair with the same vacant and contemplative look on her face, powering through the cigarette even faster than usual as she was likely planning to return to the warm bed as quickly as possible. But before she did, she reached to the pen and notepad next to the ashtray near the chair and jotted something down quickly. She began walking back to the bed soon thereafter, the stub of what had to be a very hot cigarette filter between her lips after having consumed 90% of that cigarette in about two minutes. I pretended to be asleep but through my squinting was still a bit haunted by the vacancy on Gretchen’s face as she climbed into bed, cluelessly expelling the final exhale from her cigarette straight into my face and my pillow as I laid there. The stench of fresh tobacco on her hair and breath was equally unbearable and amazingly sexy as she burrowed into her own pillow a few inches in front of me with the intense aroma of smoke still lingering on her breath.
I continued to lay there unable to sleep, at this point overwhelmed by my concern for Gretchen’s mental health and curiosity about what she wrote on that notepad. In the moments ahead, as her snoring let me know she was asleep again, I took the opportunity to find out for myself, climbing out of bed for an ostensible “trip to the bathroom” that was primarily about taking a look at what she wrote. I picked up the sticky note before walking out of the bedroom and down the hallway towards the bathroom, turning the bathroom light on and reading the note, which consisted of one word….Wilson. I put things together instantly. When Gretchen did freelance work for Philip Morris in the early years of our marriage, Wilson Stevens was her primary contact with the company. I had a pretty good idea what she had in mind when she jotted his name down and suspected I’d be hearing much more about it in the days ahead.
The following morning, it was unusually warm for Iowa in late January, so much so that we were all hanging outside taking advantage of the still conditions and late morning sunshine, watching it wither away what was left of the snow pack. I was cleaning out some junk from the garage, Brayden was napping in his bassinet on the steps near us, and Gretchen was helping our 10-year-old daughter Kaitlyn dig out her bike. It had been a couple of months since I last saw Gretchen outdoors in her trademark white tanktop and pale blue jean shorts, but the temps in the upper 40s was all it took for her to climb into them today. With a cigarette dangling from her mouth as always, I watched as Gretchen wheeled Kaitlyn’s bike out from a cramped space in the garage. I looked her body over closely in the sparse and tight-fitting outfit, noticing very little evidence that Gretchen had delivered a baby only 40-some days ago, her tanktop fitting into those jean shorts with just the faintest hint of a muffin top. She had worked hard on the treadmill to lose the weight from pregnancy and it was really paying off.
Breaking the attention of myself, Gretchen, and Kaitlyn was the SUV heading towards us. Kaitlyn’s face lit up with the familiar sight of Aunt Tina pulling up with her cousin and best friend Kilee in the passenger seat. I didn’t see a cigarette in Tina’s hand when she pulled up but I had no doubt one was coming, and the brief pause after the driver’s seat opened followed by the flick of a lighter and the burst of smoke filling the air confirmed my expectation. In seconds, Tina and Kilee were getting out of the SUV and heading towards the back door to pull out Kilee’s bike, Tina dangling her freshly lit cigarette as she helped Kilee guide the bike out. Kaitlyn approached as Tina and Kilee put the bike on the pavement of the driveway, the girls excited to see each other as always and immediately interacting as Gretchen approached her sister to do the same. I hoped they weren’t noticing me as I was staring intently at the two blond sisters greeting each other through talking dangles.
The girls were preparing to ride off on their bikes but there was one final order of business before their adventure began. Kaitlyn looked up to her mother as she talked to Tina and even though Gretchen was distracted and in mid-conversation, she intuitively knew what Kaitlyn wanted without any verbal cues. Gretchen reached into her jean shorts pocket and pulled out her pack of Marlboro Reds 100s. She pulled out two cigarettes, knowing Kilee would want a Red as well rather than one of her mother’s Marlboro Blacks. An extra ray of childlike sunshine beamed from Kaitlyn’s face as she took the cigarettes, placing one between her lips and handing the other to Kilee. It would have been unthinkable to imagine this a year ago and still seemed surreal at times, even though scenes like this had been standard fare at the Ellsworth home for several months now. Kaitlyn took her mother’s lighter and efficiently flicked it to fire up the cigarette that had been dangling from her lips for the last 20 seconds or so. Her 10-year-old cheeks hollowed a bit as she dragged from the light-up, a burst of smoke exhaling from her mouth and a trickle spilling from her nose as she extended her hand to Kilee to light her cigarette. Kilee still wasn’t as adept at smoking as my daughter, but she had still come a long way since the spring when I first saw Kilee smoke. Kilee pulled the cigarette from her mouth after the first drag, exhaling a healthy snootful of smoke into the winter air that was pretty amazing to see coming from a nine-year-old girl.
Gretchen and Tina continued to talk and treated the smoking show by their respective daughters like elevator music, but scenes like this simply never became “normal” for me, and I watched in awe as Kaitlyn and Kilee climbed atop their bikes, both decked out in their winter jackets with their long blond hair flowing well past their shoulders, Kaitlyn in jeans and Kilee in leggings as they began to pedal out of the driveway. But perched in both girls’ right hands were their freshly lit cigarettes. I had memories from my boyhood in the 1980s of seeing preteen girls riding home from an afternoon at the city pool on their bikes while wielding freshly lit cigarettes, but hadn’t seen such an image in a quarter-century and never expected to see it again. Yet now my own daughter and niece were providing the same visual and while the imagery was astounding, I knew some preteen boys were likely to see this and have the same feelings of arousal I did when I was their age and saw young girls riding their bikes and smoking. As I watched the girls slowly pedal off from the driveway to the street, each taking a drag from their cigarettes and exhaling, it was the first time I ever imagined Kaitlyn as being envisioned sexually by another young male, and I definitely had mixed feelings about it.
The girls continued pedaling away out of sight, heading nowhere in particular and were a few blocks from home when they unwittingly passed a squad car. The police officer inside the car got a good look at them and had to leer over his shoulder to make sure he was seeing what he thought he did. At the first crossroads, the officer hung a U-turn and followed the girls to get one final look, eventually startling them by turning on his flashing lights. They stopped their bikes wondering what the light show was about, and it wasn’t until they were stopped that they realized the cop was pulling over to talk to them. The girls were taking drags from their cigarettes the instant they made eye contact with him, and it was only then that they realized their smoking was probably what led to the cop pulling over. Kilee quickly put her hand holding her cigarette behind her back, but Kaitlyn held her original position.
“What are you girls doing?” the officer asked, measuring the situation and still in obvious shock that two attractive and generally wholesome-appearing elementary-age girls were riding their bikes around town smoking cigarettes in the year 2018.
“We’re just out enjoying this nice day,” Kaitlyn responded confidently, doing her best to avoid the 800-pound gorilla between her fingers that she knew was the reason the cop was talking to her right now.
The cop couldn’t resist a restrained smile, admiring the young girl’s evasiveness and moxie but finally called her out for it. “You girls are a little young to be smoking, aren’t you?”
Kaitlyn feigned confusion, taking a drag from her cigarette and responding, “Not really….not according to Iowa law,” through a talking exhale, obviously parroting what she had heard from her mother.
“Oh is that right?” the cop responded with an increasingly annoyed tone.
“Yes, sir! Gotta be 18 to buy but you can possess and consume at any age,” she fired back, really pushing her luck and taking another drag, drawing nervous looks from Kilee who was still hiding her cigarette behind her back and was genuinely terrified by the cop.
The cop’s annoyance was morphing into agitation that was increasingly clear by the look on his face as he sternly requested, “Please put those cigarettes out, girls.”
Kilee immediately dropped her half-smoked cigarette to the ground behind her back as if pretending she never had it in the first place while Kaitlyn shrugged and took one more intense drag, making the cop all the more impatient.
“Put it out now!” he ordered.
Kaitlyn finally cooperated, but made sure to direct her exhale in the cop’s direction as she looked up at him to push her luck even more, “My mom could have your badge for this!”
The cop seemed to know the young blond girl was right on the law, but was still appalled by seeing a child this age smoking and about her lipping off to him, and he was determined to get the better of her, “How far do you live from here? I think I’ll have a word with your mother about this and let her have that chance,” feeling assured that the girl was bluffing and that her mother would be outraged to find out her 10-year-old daughter was smoking.
“That’s fine,” Kaitlyn fired back with another nonchalant shrug, pointing to the west and saying, “I live only about three blocks from here.”
“Alright, get in the car, both of you,” the cop ordered.
“What about our bikes,” Kilee protested, clearly losing her cool as Kaitlyn maintained hers.
“We’ll worry about them later. Right now I need to talk to your mother,” he added, assuming they were sisters.
Kaitlyn began to abandon her bike on the sidewalk and approached the back of the car, continuing to lip off and adding, “Her mom is there too…you can talk to both of them.”
Kilee began to sob as she more reluctantly abandoned her bike and head towards the squad car, the tears becoming more intense when she actually followed Kaitlyn into the police car. The cop got behind the wheel and began to pull away in the direction Kaitlyn pointed to, unable to believe that the stench of cigarettes filling up his car right now was coming from the two elementary age schoolgirls he was looking at in his rearview mirror.
Tina was holding her newborn nephew Brayden and continuing to chat with a cigarette-wielding Gretchen when their attention and mine was captured by the approaching squad car coming down the block. It wasn’t until the car was slowing down in front of our neighbor’s place that we figured out the cop was stopping at our place. Once Tina saw Kilee in the backseat, she exclaimed, “Oh my God!” not fully grasping what was going.
The cop came to an abrupt stop and got out of the squad car, seeing Gretchen smoking and immediately knowing she was the one he needed to talk to. The girls got out of the squad car behind him, Kilee tearful and afraid while Kaitlyn wore a sinister smirk on her face, knowing the cop was about to get his ass handed to him.
“What’s going on?” Gretchen asked sternly, smoke spilling from her mouth and nose in the cop’s direction when the cop finally stopped a few feet in front of her and Tina.
“Ma’am, is this your daughter?” he asked, pointing to Kaitlyn.
Gretchen nodded affirmatively.
“And the other one is yours?” the cop asked, looking at Tina.
“What’s wrong officer?” Tina asked without giving official confirmation to his question.
“Ladies, I just caught both of your daughters riding their bikes a few blocks away, and both were smoking cigarettes.”
The cop seemed pretty confident his admission would elicit outrage from the women, so was rendered momentarily speechless when Gretchen responded with a passive-aggressive, “And??”
“Well,” the cop stammered, “it’s illegal for kids to smoke. You do realize that right?”
I was watching from my front-row seat in the garage as Gretchen placed her half-smoked Marlboro Red in her lips and let it dangle, and I could tell from her body language in that familiar pose that she was about to go nuclear on him.
“Officer, I’m gonna respectfully direct you to Iowa Code chapter 453A, which spells out this state’s tobacco laws and refutes your claim,” she said in a tone perfectly balanced between aggressive and respectful. “I can pull it up on my phone if you’d like and show you the language.”
The cop couldn’t believe Gretchen was defending her young daughter’s right to smoke just as the girl predicted she would, grasping for a coherent comeback. “Ma’am…I realize there’s a little gray area in the law regarding possession but your daughter is way too young to be smoking–”
“No gray area.” Gretchen cut him off, taking a deep dangle drag from her cigarette as she pulled up the Iowa Code language on her cell phone and handed the phone to the cop, exhaling a cloudy blast of cigarette smoke while showing him the phone and then resuming with her talking dangle. “Children under 18 cannot purchase tobacco. It says nothing about possessing or consuming.”
The cop continued to stammer, realizing he had limited legal standing here but still disgusted about this enabling mother and the fact that her lippy daughter was gonna get off the hook. “Well the girls didn’t buy these cigarettes themselves, ma’am. You do realize it’s illegal for you or other adults to buy children cigarettes, right?”
Gretchen gave another defiant yet nonchalant shrug, rhetorically asking, “How do you know we bought them for the girls? They could have plucked them behind our backs when we weren’t looking and rode off on their bikes, couldn’t they?”
The cop was aghast and continued to stammer, “Well I suppose but–”
“And speaking of their bikes,” Gretchen interrupted him again, “will there be anything else, officer, because I see you didn’t bring the girls’ bikes back with them and I think they’d really like to get them back before they’re stolen?”
The cop had nothing else, shrugging in disbelief at Gretchen and then darting his eyes at Tina, who he figured would make for a target who was easier to intimidate. Tina fed off of Gretchen’s chutzpah and at least made eye contact with the cop until the cop pulled away. He then pointed at Gretchen and said “What you’re allowing isn’t right, ladies. I’ll let the girls off with a warning this time but I don’t want to have to make this house call again on their behalf,” he muttered, turning away back to his car and acting as though he had a leg to stand on legally to back up his claims.
Gretchen said nothing, finally removing the cigarette stub from her lips that had been dangling there for the entire encounter, a gesture that had a victory lap connotation to it, and much more subtle than Kaitlyn looking at the cop get back into his car, waving mockingly while saying “Bye, bye!” loud enough for him to hear. I cringed, fearing some blowback for my daughter from the emasculated officer as he closed the door, but he just drove away.
Gretchen then called out to the girls, “Kaitlyn and Kilee, why don’t you show Aunt Tina where your bikes are and she can bring them home for you,” volunteering Tina to drive out to the abandoned bikes.
Kaitlyn was about to get into Tina’s SUV but saw Gretchen extracting a fresh Marlboro Red from her pack and wanted to finish what she started with the cigarette she had to put out earlier, walking towards Gretchen with puppy dog eyes. “Mommy, can I have another cigarette?” she asked.
Gretchen’s mind was clearly elsewhere but she casually said, “Sure, baby,” reaching into her pack of Marlboro Reds 100s to take one more cigarette out and handed it to her daughter. Gretchen flicked her own cigarette to life and then lowered the flame to the cigarette dangling from Kaitlyn’s lips. I continued to watch from the garage, concerned that Gretchen might let Kaitlyn’s smoking habit, which we tried to limit to less than a half pack a day, spiral upward if she didn’t show better resistance in a situation like this, but seeing the combination of pleasure and victory lap on Kaitlyn’s face as she took that first drag, I concluded that I would have had just as little of willpower in the same situation. Kaitlyn turned back to Tina’s SUV and climbed inside, soon pulling out of the driveway to pick up the girls’ bikes.
Gretchen, still dangling her freshly lit cigarette with a look of fire in her eyes, immediately began dialing digits on her cell phone that she was reading off of the familiar-looking notepad from the night before. I listened as she waited several moments after dialing before saying, “Yes Wilson, it’s Gretchen Paulson from Iowa. Long time, no chat. I’d like for you to return my call at the next opportunity. I’m interested in doing some marketing work for Philip Morris again soon and I was wondering if you could guide me to some opportunities. Looking forward to hearing from you. Thanks.”
Gretchen ended the phone call at the same time as Brayden starting crying in his nearby bassinet. Her maternal instinct kicked in immediately and she swooped in to lift the baby up, bringing him to her chest, his head coming only a few inches short of the cherry of her cigarette on the way up, even though I was fully confident Gretchen knew what she was doing as she resumed her comforting baby talk to my son through a lengthy talking dangle. After all these years of marriage, I recognized the fire in Gretchen’s eyes after that encounter with the cop, and it was the first time I had seen it in weeks after Brayden was born. It seemed as though she had taken the first step in recovering from her postpartum depression, and there was no telling where it was going from here now that she was reconnecting with her primary sources at Philip Morris.
I had only heard snippets of the conversation a few hours later when Wilson Stevens got back to Gretchen, but Gretchen approached me after the call to let me know she was heading out to Richmond, Virginia, to Altria headquarters for a couple of days in the middle of next week. She was confirming that she felt doing some work would help lift her spirits and bounce back from the depression. I could tell by her tone of voice on the phone and as she talked to me now that the conversation didn’t go quite the way she hoped, but her spirit seemed strong and I knew it would do her good to make the trip. She would be taking Brayden and I’d be staying home with Kaitlyn so the two of us could continue to attend work and school, respectively. It seemed like a good chance for all of us to separate a couple of days and replenish our enthusiasm for one another.
On Tuesday morning, Gretchen left for Virginia, flying into DC with Brayden and then getting a rental car to drive to Richmond and smoking in it the entire drive despite warnings not to. She was dressed in a classy business suit that had become well outside of her comfort zone since she had become a housewife, although to be fair the young professional look had never really been in her comfort zone. Wilson agreed to meet her and then drive her past security into the parking lot. As the 60-year-old Wilson steered through the lanes of the lot looking for a parking spot, with both of them smoking cigarettes, he continued to warn Gretchen of the changes since she last worked for Philip Morris.
“I really hate to burst your bubble after you came so far but you’re not gonna recognize this place from before. It’s possible that they’ll have some work available on your end but we don’t really ‘promote’ cigarettes any more at this company. Did you hear about the company’s ‘new year’s resolution’ announced at the beginning of 2018?” Wilson asked.
Gretchen furled her eyebrow in curiosity before responding, “No I haven’t kept up on the news much lately with a newborn. What is it?”
Wilson gave her a look, pausing for effect as if warning her to brace herself before responding, “They’re going to ‘give up cigarettes’.”
A bewildered look emerged on Gretchen’s face while in mid-drag on her cigarette as Wilson pulled into the nearest parking stall he could find to the front entrance. “Give up cigarettes? What does that even mean?” she asked, with smoke ironically billowing from her face.
“Alternative nicotine products!” Wilson exclaimed in a cynical tone. “That’s what this company is all about now. They’re convinced it’s the future and that they can get out of selling tobacco entirely in a few years.”
Gretchen shook her head in disbelief while picking up Brayden off of her lap, stepping out of the car, and heading towards the entrance. “That’s insane. I didn’t realize things had gotten that bad. Is everybody here that out of touch or is it just a few naive, young executives?”
“Most of the old-timers like me are skeptical but if we’re not outnumbered yet, we’re gonna be soon. I’m just trying to hang on a few more years till retirement but every year the consensus seems to grow the other direction.”
A look of combined concern and fury grew on Gretchen’s face as she and Wilson continued to drag from their cigarettes. Gretchen broke a brief silent period by saying “Now I really wish I hadn’t left when I did 10 years ago. I like to think I’d have been able to talk some sense into these people and maybe made at least a little bit of a difference.”
Wilson shrugged as if having his doubts, “If you think this is depressing, just wait until we get inside and I give you the full tour. You’ll be meeting some ‘interesting’ people.” As they approached the front entrance, Gretchen didn’t even notice that Wilson held back near a “smoker’s pole” to finish his cigarette while Gretchen kept going to head inside, her mostly smoked cigarette still dangling from her lips. With Brayden in her right arm, she was struggling as she began to open the door and walk inside when Wilson warned from several feet behind, “Uh, Gretchen…you can’t smoke in there anymore.”
Gretchen’s head darted back towards him with genuine shock in her eyes. “What do you mean you can’t smoke in here?” she asked as if not even being able to process that. “This is Philip Morris corporate headquarters,” she added for dramatic effect before closing the door and walking back towards Wilson and the smoker’s pole.
Wilson nodded with a “see what I mean” look in his eyes, adding “Welcome to 2018. How do you like it so far?”
Gretchen stood there finishing her cigarette, holding a sleepy Brayden in her right arm with a shell-shocked look on her face, not even sure she wanted to work for this company anymore. But after a triple-hit drag to finish off the cigarette, she looked up to Wilson with a renewed fire in her eyes, a look Wilson was familiar with from working with Gretchen before, and he was getting a bit of a thrill opening the door for the baby-wielding Gretchen to head into the building to measure her response to the details.
Once inside, Wilson led Gretchen from Point A to Point B in the building, helping her reconnect with a few old friends lingering from back in her days as a part-time marketing employee, including a couple in the marketing department who were only able to offer a very limited palate of freelance marketing projects for Gretchen to help them with. Wilson also introduced her to many new faces, and Gretchen could usually tell by Wilson’s body language who the new people were who differed with his own vision for the company as well as Gretchen’s.
At one point, Wilson led her down a hallway and pointed into a cube farm office setting and warning Gretchen that “We’re not gonna even set foot in this part of the building. These are the official ‘enemies within’ at this establishment.”
“Seems like there are plenty of those around here,” Gretchen fired back with a rare aura of defeat in her voice.
“This is the tobacco cessation wing of the building, mandated by the federal government to function with dollars raised by this company from the sales of the very product this company is supposed to be promoting,” said Wilson.
“So they’re effectively paying millions of dollars per year for negative promotion of their own company’s product line?” Gretchen added, just to make sure she was understanding him right.
“Pretty much,” Wilson fired back. “But they operate entirely untethered from the tobacco wing of the company, so they don’t answer to any of the same bosses you or I do. They just walk into our building every day, look down their noses at us, and then spend the company’s money to fill their own pockets and bad mouth this company.” Wilson looked at Gretchen to see her fury escalating. “Depressed yet?” he finally added.
But right when Gretchen didn’t think things could get any worse, she laid eyes on an attractive mid-20s brunette with a bubbly demeanor, her long dark brown hair styled in a way that looked as though she stepped right off of a Hollywood movie set, decked out in what was clearly an expensive blouse and business skirt with high heels, stepping out of the women’s bathroom and walking down the hallway to her office. The young brunette recognized Wilson and warmly greeted him. Wilson greeted her back and then took the opportunity to introduce her to Gretchen, although Marisa was primarily drawn to the baby boy Gretchen held in her arms.
“Marisa, I’d like to introduce you to a former marketing department colleague of mine. This is Gretchen Paulson…she mostly did freelance work here about a decade ago and is interested in maybe coming back to do some more work for us. And Gretchen, this is Marisa Lair, she’s the head of the ‘alternative nicotine product’ department.” Gretchen and Marisa shook hands, looking each other in the eyes and getting a mutually frosty vibe from the other. Gretchen immediately saw through Marisa’s bubbly exterior and sensed a prissy girl of privilege, likely the daughter of a current manager, who probably never had a cigarette in her mouth in her entire life but was already a department head before 25. For her part, Marisa could still smell the smoke on Gretchen and could tell from the draw lines on Gretchen’s mouth and her slightly leathery cheekbones that Gretchen was a heavy smoker, which repulsed her particularly in the context of the baby boy Gretchen was holding. Wilson immediately picked up on the chilly reaction between the two, and even though Marisa played nice by diverting her attention to Brayden and talking sweetly to him, he knew the animosity was only going to intensify as they got to know each other more and become familiar with the other’s work.
“Gretchen, why don’t I give you and Wilson a quick tour of my department,” Marisa said, motioning them to follow her down the hall towards her department’s cube farm. With Marisa’s back to them, Gretchen fired a look toward Wilson that practically screamed “I don’t like her!” to which Wilson could only smirk in response. Marisa was jabbering on and on mostly with small talk until she walked into the office area and picked up her sales pitch with words too unpleasant for Gretchen to ignore.
“It’s such an exciting time to be working here at Altria as we ramp up our efforts to move away from analog cigarettes completely in the years ahead,” Marisa gushed. “We’ve had some success in recent years with our electronic cigarette selection but we’re most excited about the IQOS technology which will pave the way for this company’s expansion in the new century!”
“IQOS?” Gretchen inquired, having heard the term before but never having heard a formal explanation of the product.
Marisa pressed forward with her preprogrammed sales pitch. “The primary principle behind IQOS is ‘heat not burn’. That’s what makes them a safe alternative to traditional cigarettes. The IQOS is pen-shaped and is chargeable like a cell phone, vaporizing miniature tobacco sticks when the heat is applied without all the nasty carcinogens that come from conventional cigarettes. This makes them safe for the user and the people around them,” Marisa said briefly darting her eyes towards young Brayden in a way that really raised Gretchen’s ire.
“I heard a lot of the same big talk about electronic cigarettes six or seven years ago, but that market has been stalling out. Why are these IQOS gonna be any different?” Gretchen asked, trying to camouflage her defensiveness as much as possible, particularly while enduring the pageant queen smile that seemed permanently smeared across Marisa’s face as she peddled this product line that made Gretchen so angry.
“We’ve already been selling them in 29 countries, and in Japan in particular, sales have been extremely encouraging. We’re awaiting FDA approval and are confident that if we get it, we can change this company’s marketing strategy and ride the storm out amidst deeper regulations against our flagship tobacco products. In five years, we may very well be done selling traditional cigarettes altogether!” Marisa concluded with a flourish.
“Well I hope you’re gonna wait for this old tobacco guy to retire before you shut down my department completely,” Wilson said with a nervous laugh, trying to be as lighthearted as possible to break the tension in the room.
Marisa let loose a phony, over-the-top giggle and then fired back with “Don’t worry….we’ll find something for you guys to do! There will be plenty of need for more employees in my department.”
Gretchen joined in on the laughter, although hers was more clearly put-on than Wilson’s and Marisa’s as she could not endure playing nice with this girl any longer. “Excuse us,” Gretchen said, laying on thick an extra layer of sweetness that she hoped Marisa would be able to sense was as passive-aggressive as it was intended to be, “but I think Wilson and I are gonna step outside and have a cigarette, but it was really nice meeting you, Marisa.”
“You as well!” Marisa added, keeping the escalation of phony bubbliness rising to keep pace with Gretchen’s. “And best of luck getting back on board here. I look forward to seeing you and your little guy in here again!”
Gretchen gave her one final sinister smile before closing with “Oh I definitely think you’ll be seeing more of me very soon,” the twinkle in her eye intimidating Marisa a bit in the split-second before she and Wilson turned away, drifting off down the hallway out of sight.
Moments later, Wilson and Gretchen walked towards the front entrance that they entered about 45 minutes ago. Partly in an act of defiance and partly because she hadn’t gone this long without a cigarette since she gave birth to Brayden, Gretchen placed an unlit cigarette in her mouth for the final 50 yards of her walk towards the entrance, raising some eyebrows of the people she passed before getting outside and firing up her cigarette, taking in a massive snort of smoke right off the light-up after such a lengthy nicotine-free detour. Wilson lit up a cigarette of his own, but was a few steps behind Gretchen every step of the way. Gretchen began pacing back and forth near the smoker’s pole, her agitation waking Brayden who began crying and raised her stress level even higher.
“This is a total disaster!” Gretchen exclaimed. “It’s way worse than anything I could have imagined. I don’t know how you can deal with these people every day.”
“I tried to warn you. You’re not gonna be happy here if you come back”, Wilson replied.
Gretchen raised her left hand defiantly, clutching her cigarette between her forefinger and middle finger with the kind of intensity Wilson figured just might break the cigarette in half. “Don’t you worry, Wilson. I am coming back here…and when I do, it’s not gonna be me who is unhappy. It’s gonna be those people!”
Wilson chuckled sympathetically, figuring it was just Gretchen’s trademark bluster, but then recalled that she delivered on that big talk in the past. “You have anything in mind?”
Gretchen paused for a moment, holding Brayden comfortingly in one hand and dragging ferociously from the cigarette in her other hand, the gears clearly turning in her head as she was deep in thought. Finally after about 10 seconds of reflective silence, Gretchen opened up. “What would you say the make-up of the board of directors is in terms of old-school versus new-school? And how much do you have their ear?”
“Well there are nine on the board. I’d say three of them are dinosaurs like me who aren’t fully on board with the new executive mindset. Three others are fully on board with it. The remaining three are probably persuadable either direction. But two of the old-timers are retiring from the board at the end of this year so the window is pretty narrow for whatever hostile takeover idea you’re floating. And I mean, I’ve been with this company for more than 30 years so I have plenty of connections and there are a fair number of people who owe me favors. You’d be stretching my capital about as far as it could go with whatever you have in mind though.”
Gretchen nodded, still deep in thought. “You remember some of the proposals I shared with you a decade ago how Philip Morris could untether itself from the tobacco settlement agreement, right?”
“I do,” Wilson responded, although with obvious doubt in his eyes. “They were certainly interesting proposals but especially after another decade of entrenchment and an even sharper antismoking posture inside and outside of the company, that’s gonna be harder than ever to implement.”
Gretchen nodded, taking the final drag off of her Marlboro Red and then defiantly tossing the butt past the smoker’s pole to let it roll into the lot, finally adding “I know…..but give me a little time and I can figure this out.” She paused again, fishing out another cigarette and lighting up, a blast of smoke exploding from her face to engulf Wilson and especially Brayden still held in her arms but no longer crying. “Give me three months! Three months and we’re gonna take this company back, Wilson!”
Wilson had no idea how she was gonna pull this off, but the fire of determination in Gretchen’s eyes all but convinced him that she somehow would. This was gonna be a fun way to end his career at the company if he could help her get this done.
The next night around 7:30 p.m., I was on the phone with Gretchen as she got back to her hotel room, having signed off on the small marketing projects she agreed to do, but let me know that the projects would just be a cover for her efforts to make much bigger changes within the company in the months ahead. I knew Gretchen enough to know that details would be scarce beyond that and she would prefer to let me experience whatever she had up her sleeve in real-time rather than tipping me off with further context, intrigued as I was to know more. I could hear Brayden crying in the background and Gretchen cut the call short to attend to him. But just as I put the phone down, I heard the soft footsteps of a child approaching me and turned to see Kaitlyn in her pajamas, her adorable little face clearly preparing me to be buttered up for something.
“Good news,” I told her. “Mom’s gonna be back tomorrow afternoon. She says she’s missing us…and you in particular!”
Kaitlyn smiled and excitedly responded “That’s great!” but I could tell something else was on her mind.
“I can have her call back and talk to you after she gets done feeding or changing Brayden. Does that sound okay?”
Kaitlyn nodded affirmatively before finally finding the courage to steer the conversation to her real priority. “Daddy, can you do me a favor?”
“What is it, sweetheart?” I asked, slowly starting to put together what she was probably gonna ask.
“Can you go to the store and get me some more cigarettes? I ran out a couple of hours ago,” she requested with perfect puppy dog eyes. I knew Gretchen gave her a full pack on Monday night before she left and told her they’d have to last her until Thursday when she got back, and was explicitly instructed by Gretchen to ration her cigarettes to last till she got home.
“I don’t know, honey. Your mom won’t like it if I get you more.”
“I know but she didn’t get me enough for all this time. I can’t wait till after school tomorrow for another one!” she said, a tear starting to form in her eyes that finalized all of the convincing I needed to deliver upon this request from my daughter.
“Okay then,” I said with a mock exasperated tone, attempting to convey that this was against my better judgment, but I’m sure Kaitlyn knew by now that I was putty in her hands with a pretty minimal amount of arm-twisting. “Let’s hop in the car and get you some more cigarettes!”
The sad look on Kaitlyn’s face immediately turned to jubilation as we put our coats on and headed to the car. We made the four-block trip to the nearest gas station and her energy was palpable to a somewhat scary degree over the prospect of getting a fresh pack of cigarettes for tonight and tomorrow. I parked the car in front of the store, left it idling, and then headed inside to make a rare purchase of Marlboro Reds 100s, something I hadn’t done in years as Gretchen typically took care of all the cigarette purchases in bulk. Kaitlyn’s face was beaming as I got back to the car and handed her the pack of cigarettes. It was surreal watching my 10-year-old daughter begin to pack the unopened pack against her wrist repeatedly like a seasoned pro, quickly getting around to tearing off the cellophane and opening the box to reveal 20 fresh cigarettes just waiting for her. She pulled out a cigarette and dangled it from her lips for a few seconds while fishing a lighter out of her coat pocket.
“I can get that for you, sweetie,” I offered, reaching my hand out for her lighter. She handed it to me and I flicked my daughter’s cigarette to life. Even though she’d been smoking in front of us for almost a year now, this was still probably the first time I had ever fully noticed the magnitude of refreshment and satisfaction that consumed her body after her first drag off of a cigarette the way I did just now, her face unable to contain how good the smoke felt in her lungs before it came spilling out of her mouth and nose and spreading throughout my car.
“Thanks so much, daddy,” she finally got around to saying after her respiratory system had finally fully processed that first drag, spurts of smoke still spraying from her nose in the seconds before she placed the cigarette in her mouth for another substantial drag. I was pulling out of the station and heading back home, cracking the window as little as possible so my daughter’s smoke would remain inside. As we pulled back on the street, Kaitlyn piled on the compliments with “You are so cool about smoking for someone who doesn’t smoke.”
I tried to keep a poker face and added, “After all these years with your mother, I’ve just gotten used to it I guess,” not realizing I had just opened another can of worms.
“It’s kind of funny that you and mom ended up together since she smokes so much and you don’t. Most nonsmokers think smokers are gross!” Kaitlyn responded.
I sat silently for a moment before firing back with a generic, “Sometimes opposites attract as they say” before changing the subject to something less incriminating. Kaitlyn may not have understood yet why I was so into her mother, but being a young smoking blond as adorable as she was, I knew it wouldn’t be long before some lucky young boy with similar preferences to mine would educate her on the matter. Seeing her chug away at her first cigarette from the new pack I bought her, filling my car up with smoke and exhibiting a smoking style that was just impossible to reconcile coming from a fifth grader, I knew I was no more than a year away from some serious paternal problems dealing with all the young boys falling over each other to court the daughter of the woman who had been my dream girl a generation ago.
Gretchen returned home the following day and informed me she was about to undertake what she hoped would lead to a hostile takeover of Philip Morris and that she may end up installed as the new CEO. At first I thought she was exaggerating for dramatic effect, but it didn’t take me long to realize she was deadly serious about it, holding herself up in her work room in our home for hours on end in the days and nights to come, studying webpage after webpage and reading through reams of documents she picked up from the local library, all amidst a ubiquitous haze of unrelenting cigarette smoke. Even when I caught her in one of her workouts on the treadmill, I could tell her mind was fully consumed with whatever scheme she had in mind to turn herself into the pro-tobacco equivalent of Erin Brockovich. It concerned me that her mind wasn’t as focused as it needed to be on her young son, but she always seemed to be there for him when needed and her psychological health was undeniably in a better place having swung to the other side of pendulum from depression to full-throttle intellectual engagement.
I knew better than to ask for specifics as Gretchen never tipped her hand unless absolutely necessary, but as the days turned into weeks, her body language and the escalating fire in her eyes helped let me know that she was onto something. Her business degree had gone underutilized in the last 10 years, but all that pent-up energy was about to be dropped like an atom bomb on the nation’s largest tobacco company.
One night about three weeks after she returned from Virginia, I was walking into Gretchen’s smoke-filled work room to see if she needed any help with Brayden sitting in his crib in the room, but I got to the doorway just as she had Wilson Stevens on speakerphone. I couldn’t resist hovering outside to hear the conversation for a little bit of context on what Gretchen had dedicated her life to these last few weeks.
“I’m almost there, Wilson….I just have to put a couple more puzzle pieces together!” Gretchen exclaimed passionately with explosions of smoke bursting from her mouth and nose like fireworks.
“I agree that you have a pretty good outline of a workable plan here, Gretchen, but before I start lobbying the board for a special emergency restructuring meeting, I need you to put those final pieces together,” Wilson responded. “The swing votes on the board won’t be receptive to throwing out the company’s long-term business model unless you can present them a logistically credible plan to boost not just demand for traditional cigarettes, but a supply chain to feed that demand.”
Gretchen paused to catch her breath, having worked herself into such a lather from both the heavy smoking and her hostile takeover plan against corporate tobacco that she was wheezing and breathless, finally repeating to Wilson that “I’m almost there!! But if we’re gonna pull this off you’re gonna have to know exactly who to trust and exactly who has to be left in the dark. Timing will be everything when it comes to lobbying those swing votes on the board. We can’t let the enemies within find out about this until the day the emergency board meeting is announced.” Gretchen paused again, catching her breath as well as her smoked-out lungs could before moving on to her next thought, repeating, “I really think we can do this, Wilson! Give me a couple more weeks and I think I can have a presentation for the board that they won’t be able to say ‘no’ to.”
Wilson still seemed a tick skeptical when he responded, “If anybody can do it, Gretchen, it’s you. Keep me informed and I’ll do whatever you ask of me.”
The conversation was winding down and I took a few steps back before it officially ended, not letting Gretchen know that I overheard her. Once I knew she was off the phone, I approached again and went inside. Even after being with Gretchen for 18 years, sometimes I would walk into a smoky room and be absolutely overwhelmed by the smoke density, and tonight was one of them. It took me a moment to gather my bearing walking into this cesspool of air pollution that Gretchen probably wasn’t even aware was as intense as it was. I volunteered to take Brayden off her hands for a bit, and wasn’t gonna take no for an answer based on the air quality. For a brief moment, the fiery passion in Gretchen’s eyes was on hold and she gave me a look of genuine love and affection as I carried Brayden out of the room. It was nice to know her obsession with this project hadn’t completely drained her of her humanity, and I looked forward to more moments like this when she got this project behind her.
Four more weeks had passed before Gretchen informed me to drop everything and get on a plane with her to Richmond, Virginia, for an Altria board of directors meeting that would change everything. It was in the middle of a busy period at work and this send-off would not go over well at all with my bosses, so I really hoped that whatever Gretchen was trying to pull off would go according to plan. Wilson Stevens’ wife agreed to take Brayden for the night of the meeting so that Gretchen could make her presentation to the board without distraction. As for Kaitlyn, she had already seen her mother at work in this kind of setting at the school board meeting last year where she grilled the board members about Kaitlyn’s smoking suspension, and was looking forward as I was to seeing Gretchen at the top of her game again.
At 7 p.m. in the board room, the board chairman banged the gavel to call the meeting to order, with a few in the room clearly in the dark about what this unscheduled meeting was about and more than a little visibly rattled by what was going on, particularly with this attractive young blond woman in a business suit that they’d never seen before standing near the podium.
“Board members,” the chairman opened, “at the request of long-time marketing department manager Wilson Stevens, I’m calling this special meeting to order. A young lady who has worked with this company in the past has come up with a business proposal that she believes can change the course of this company’s long-term growth plan. She presented the plan to Mr. Stevens, and Mr. Stevens has in turn advised enough members of this board that they decided to hold a meeting to hear and vote on her plan.”
Guffaws filled the air among the three board members completely unaware until just now that such a coup was underway, as the board chair continued, “If you think this sounds like a hostile takeover attempt in the works, then I would say you are reading the situation correctly.” More nervous reaction ensued on one side of the boardroom table as the chairman introduced Gretchen to the stage. The protesting board members quickly became quiet wondering what this blond woman who looked more like a Hollywood model than the architect of a corporate coup could possibly have to say that would provoke such a radical response from at least five members of the corporate board.
“Good evening, members of the board. I realize the conditions of this meeting have caught some of you by surprise. I apologize for that but I believe it was the only way to keep this company I love from self-immolating. I worked for this company for three years in the mid-2000s and although my role was limited, I saw signs of a company that was losing its focus even then. When I returned to the company back in January to tour the facilities, I saw signs of a company that, with all due respect, had completely lost its mind….”
Gretchen reached into her pants pockets and pulled out a pack of Marlboro Reds 100s, laying it on the table for the board members to see. “This is what this company is about. I recognize the need to diversify and expand your product line to change with the times, but the product I laid before you just now is what made this company and what has produced profits for it in the national and international marketplace for more than a century. The notion that we would ever “give it up” is the final phase of a defeatist mindset from within that has been a cancer on this company for far too long now and must be amended before the bottom falls out….”
“The problems in this company didn’t start with the 1998 tobacco settlement agreement with the states, but that was when the problems became irreversible as the mindset of far too many became fat and lazy, willing to settle for the terms of a deal by a government sworn to our destruction, accepting the terms of locking in market share above all else even knowing that the market would ultimately collapse. But it doesn’t have to be this way. With a little imagination, this company can regain its bravado…regain its swagger…and regain its emaciated customer base. And we can do it with the same product that put us at the top of the Fortune 500 pyramid in the first place….not some hail mary alternative nicotine product destined to fail.”
“Let me stop you right there,” muttered a board member named Gene Blair who Wilson had warned Gretchen would be the toughest critic of her plan. “This company is heavily invested in the IQOS product line. We’re not gonna throw it all away just because some cipher walks in to one of our board meetings with a lot of big talk promising to take us back to the good old days which we all know are gone forever.”
“First of all,” Gretchen fired back, “your investment in IQOS is the first thing that needs fixing. Prior attempts to coerce tobacco users into using your alternative products have all turned into bottomless pits of wasted money. It’s always possible that this time, doing the same thing will produce a different outcome, but most of the countries that have introduced IQOS into their marketplace have not seen brisk sales, and certainly not brisk enough to be introduced as an intended replacement for traditional cigarettes. The same federal and state governments that have negotiated in bad faith with this company for the nearly 20 years since the tobacco settlement agreement will continue moving the goalposts if you play along with their efforts to kill analog cigarettes in exchange for more favorable treatment of IQOS…..”
“The bottom line is that robust sales for your product can only be attained through advertising, and the government is not gonna give you a green light to advertise this or any other alternative nicotine product to the degree needed for it to be profitable if it’s happening at the same time as you’re wiping out the market for traditional cigarettes at the FDA’s discretion.”
Lewis Anderson, one of the three swing board members, chimed in with a comment, “That makes sense to a degree but we’ve been neutered on our ability to effectively advertise traditional cigarettes as well, so doesn’t that mean cigarettes and IQOS will be operating with an equal degree of promotional roadblocks? It’s not as if we can abandon the alternative nicotine product market based on hypothetical advertising limitations but expect sales to tick up for conventional cigarettes with even more strictly enforced advertising limitations.”
“Actually, that leads me to the core of my cigarette revitalization plan, and it involves taking off the shackles that have chained us to the tobacco settlement agreement and its limitations on our business model. This company’s board agreed to the terms of that settlement nearly 20 years ago, but if I’m bestowed Chief Executive Officer duties, I will rip that agreement up on grounds of bad-faith negotiation by the other parties and renegotiate entirely on our terms…”
Nearly every member of the all-male board of directors was captivated by Gretchen’s convincing delivery, and even though reaction to the specific terms of her presentation was mixed, it was very clear she was putting considerable points on the board amongst her skeptics as she continued.
“…I’ve researched this company’s history and was actually surprised to see how big of a role the state of Missouri played in the tobacco business. And it makes sense. The Missouri River Valley running from the west side to the central portion of the state has prime tobacco-growing land and the state’s location makes it a center of gravity for distribution to consumers across the country. But over time, Missouri lost its claim on being a tobacco hub. Missouri made sense for this company a half century ago…and it still makes sense today. The infrastructure from the halcyon days remains largely intact. The descendants of former tobacco farmers still long for the profitable days of old. The state has the lowest taxes on tobacco in the country, up and down the supply chain. And the state is more than ever centrally located to deliver to our customer base. And this is all merely the tip of the iceberg as to why Missouri is our future which leads me to the boldest gamble of my proposal…”
“Philip Morris reclassifies its corporate status as a cooperative, with 51% of shareholders forming LLCs attached to the new base we set up in Missouri. Wilson Stevens, myself, and several other managers in the company have already made a number of phone calls to the descendants of hundreds of the old Missouri tobacco farms and interest was through the roof in transitioning back to tobacco based on the profits expected from such a venture. Give me 12 months and we’ll have hundreds of thousands of new acres of low-tax tobacco product growing in the state of Missouri, enlarging the supply to meet what I’m positive will be surging demand. And where will the new demand come from? Advertising! And that’s the real beauty of the reclassification plan I propose. Philip Morris agreed to the terms of the 1998 settlement agreement that put such serious limitations to our ability to advertise…..but the Philip Morris that agreed to the terms of that agreement will not exist anymore, at least not 51% of the company…..”
“Drastic times call for drastic measures. We’re dying here. And we’re not gonna be saved by the tobacco iPod we’re about to bet the farm on. Obviously our advertising empire from the 1950s is never coming back but by slithering out of the tobacco settlement agreement and getting a fresh start, we can be the highest bidder in billboard advertisements in key demographic areas….we can put shiny, glossy ads in magazines again…hell, we can even bring back the Marlboro Man and the Virginia Slims ‘you’ve come a long way, baby’ girls….and it will all be perfectly legal.”
“Oh c’mon,” continued skeptic Gene Blair fired back. “It’ll take five minutes for the Justice Department to file a lawsuit against us if we try something like that.”
“Let ’em sue!” Gretchen fired back, anticipating the rejoinder. “We can spend years appealing whatever rulings come out, and by the time all appeals are existed, even if we lose, the combination of our advertising and our getting a leg up on our chief industry competitors will have increased tobacco sales so much that we’ll lock in a new customer base that will last a generation.”
Gretchen was feeding off the energy of the confrontation and trying to contain her elation upon noticing approving nods by some on the board and chin-stroking consideration from others who she was convinced she was winning over. Before opening the meeting up for questions, all of which she was fully prepared for, Gretchen made a quick closing argument, again holding up that pack of Marlboro Reds 100s she showcased at the beginning of her presentation, unable to suppress one of her recurring smoker’s coughs before beginning to speak.
“I ask you to give me three years as the head of your company, following my business model, and if profits increase by anything less than 25% at the end of those three years, I will tender my resignation and let you guys get back into the lithium battery business. But you guys are all millionaires today because of selling these,” Gretchen said, pointing to the pack of cigarettes, “…and I submit to you that your only chance of staying millionaires is by selling more of these. Being the architects of our own demise has to stop tonight.”
Gretchen was grilled for another hour of intensive questioning, and I was captivated trying to read the body language of the swing votes. I figured Kaitlyn would become bored listening to the adults talking about business, but her eyes were big as saucers watching her mother fight for the product that she loves and her own ascent through the glass ceiling of a male-dominated company. Kaitlyn was fidgeting around, and I knew she really wanted a cigarette, but if Kaitlyn needed one, Gretchen really had to be jonesing, as became increasingly clear as I observed her body language, and I was a little nervous one of her critics on the board would end up in a headlock the longer their questioning deprived her of her nicotine fix.
Everybody was ready the meeting to be over, and after well over two hours, it was about to be. The board’s final vote was coming, and I knew it was gonna be close. As the roll call for the hostile takeover plan went around the room, the votes that were expected to be “ayes” were and the votes expected to be “nays” also fell in line as predicted. When the first of the swing votes was a “no”, I felt my heart sink in my chest, expecting imminent defeat, but the eighth board member voted “yes”, leaving only one vote left and a 4-4 tie. Lewis Anderson let the tension build as he clearly could go either way. It was as if a light went off in his head when he announced, “I think this young lady is onto something. Count me in. It’s an ‘aye’.”
Gretchen proceeded with a passionate fist pump of victory as the board members responses really laid bare the civil war within the company that Wilson had warned about. Kaitlyn erupted in applause, running up to the podium to make sure she was the first to congratulate Gretchen, moments before Wilson came over to formally salute “Madam CEO” for pulling off the impossible. Mixed emotions were running through my head knowing how much my family’s life was about to change, but after giving me two children and nearly 15 years of wedded bliss, it was time for me to defer to Gretchen to proceed with this opportunity of a lifetime.
But despite her command of the Philip Morris board of directors at that podium, it was darkly ironic that a 100 millimeter red and white box she’d been using as a prop for her presentation still controlled her, and I knew it wouldn’t be long until she fled for the exit with that pack in one hand and her daughter in the other. I followed them outside to make sure I didn’t miss the look on their faces for that first post-victory cigarette. And I knew for as much fun as Gretchen had tonight sealing the deal on this hostile takeover, she’d have even more fun delivering the big news to the rank and file the next day.
It was 8:55 a.m. the following morning at Philip Morris corporate headquarters, inside a large conference room that was beginning to fill up with dozens upon dozens of befuddled and nervous employees directed to gather for a special emergency staff meeting. Most of the employees walking into the room were looking around to see which departments were and were not present in the conference, completely in the dark about what was going on but seeming to recognize it might not be good news.
I was sitting up on the stage at a small table next to a couple of company executives, and to my left near the podium was Wilson Stevens next to my wife, who was holding Brayden, and Kaitlyn was standing to her right. Gretchen had ditched her business suit from the night before and was decked out in her trademark outfit of tight-fitting white tanktop and even tighter-fitting pale blue cutoffs. With her casual apparel, only a few of the employees in the crowd who were introduced to Gretchen several weeks earlier when she toured the facility recognized her. Most figured she was related to Wilson somehow and couldn’t connect why this casually dressed blond mother was hovering near a podium front and center at this surprise meeting.
As Wilson touched the microphone, it made a brief screech that rapidly quieted the room and directed all eyes towards Wilson as he began to speak. “Thank you to everybody who showed up here today. I doubt any of you are aware of this but there was a board of directors meeting last night and some very substantial changes were made that will alter the trajectory of this company. That’s all I’m gonna say for now, but I’m gonna turn the mic over to…..our new CEO….Gretchen Paulson.”
A crescendo of audible gasping filled the room as the crowd watched Wilson yield the podium to Gretchen, still holding her three-month-old son in her right arm next to her chest, and it took a while for the noise to abate before Gretchen started talking. “Hello to everyone. As Mr. Stevens just said, my name is Gretchen Paulson. Some of you have met me before. And indeed, this company’s board of directors did install me as the new Chief Executive Officer last night. Some of you are probably very concerned right now about your position in this company. Some of you SHOULD be very concerned right now! I’ll make things as brief as possible. This company is going to refocus our energy towards the product that made us successful in the first place,” she said, again pulling out her pack of Marlboro Reds 100s and hoisting it above her head for the entire crowd to see, “….and this is that product.”
Gretchen then proceeded to lower the pack of cigarettes back to the podium and extract two cigarettes. The first she placed in her mouth, drawing more gasps of horror from the crowd of employees, particularly after she flicked her lighter and ignited the cigarette, a cloud of smoke erupting in front of her and quickly engulfing the airspace of the baby whose head was resting on her shoulder. As the crowd watched Gretchen hand 10-year-old Kaitlyn–who was decked out in a white tanktop and jean short cutoffs identical to her mother’s–the second cigarette, the abject horror on the faces and voices of the crowd reached another decibel level. Kaitlyn accepted her mother’s light and I watched her cheeks hollow as she ingested a snootful of smoke that filled her little lungs. The sweet nicotine relief that filled her young face reminded me of that night in the car the month earlier. Kaitlyn seemed to be feeding off the crowd’s negative response almost as much as Gretchen, mugging for them as she released an exaggerated stream of smoke outward in their direction.
Gretchen began speaking again through a couple of light smoker’s coughs, the cigarette bouncing up and down in her mouth as she made formal introductions. “In my left arm is my three-month-old son Brayden and to my right is my 10-year-old daughter Kaitlyn. My commitment to this company and the primary product it sells should be clear that I trust it enough to consume it around them and let my young daughter consume it. Unlike this company’s posture for the last two decades, I will not run and hide in shame from our primary product…I will embrace it. I will advocate for it. I will celebrate it. And I want and expect my employees to do the same….”
Gretchen quickly moved onto the next thought through a talking dangle. “I assume most of you have your phones in here. I want you to turn the volume way up and then click on the company website for either our smoking cessation assistance page or our alternative nicotine product page.” Gretchen had been keeping her eyes peeled since the room started filling up, hoping to see Marisa Lair, the head of the alternative nicotine product division who she tangled with the prior month, and finally laid eyes on her at the very moment Marisa was dialing up her cell phone as instructed, a look of terrified anticipation on her face as she was checking out the website to see what Gretchen was doing with Marisa’s life work.
In seconds, phones throughout the conference began to sound off with an 80s-era musical backbeat and a deep baritone loudly voicing the lyrics, “Never gonna give you up….never gonna let you down…never gonna run around and desert you….” On the website was an image of Rick Astley, performer of the song playing on everyone’s phone, along with bright graphic letters reading “You’ve been Rickrolled!” Fascinating as it was to watch the crowd’s continued shocked reaction to this latest revelation, I had a hard time taking my eyes off of Gretchen who was just having way too much fun up at the podium exacting revenge on these people…and also watching Kaitlyn who was enjoying her cigarette and looking up to her mother with a hero worship for the powerful example she was setting.
“Okay turn them down now!” Gretchen shouted with the cigarette still dangling from her mouth until the volume was turned down on the phones to cut off Rick Astley’s voice. “If the Rickroll is any indication, this company is no longer gonna be in the business of driving away customers or steering them to products with substantially lower potential demand. So to the employees of the alternative nicotine product division, we will not be requiring your services any longer…” Gretchen made direct eye contact with Marisa Lair as she twisted the knife, “….security will lead you to your office and you will be given 30 minutes to clean off your desk and exit the premises after the adjournment of this meeting….”
The eruptions of horrified outrage got louder before Gretchen motioned for further silence and then outdid herself with the next knockout punch. “As for those of you in the nicotine cessation department working in our office, you will be given 15 minutes to clean off your desks and vacate the premises.”
More groans of horror filled the room as Gretchen offered a small olive branch as a long granny ash fell to the podium off of the cigarette still dangling from her lips. “This company expects to grow substantially in the coming years and will need new employees. Those of you in the eliminated departments who share in the company’s renewed commitment to selling and promoting tobacco are welcome to reapply starting tomorrow. Your applications will be given consideration on a case-by-case basis….” Gretchen again made eye contact with Marisa, cattily adding “…but obviously some of you have a better chance of getting your jobs back than others.”
Morale in the room was about as low as it could possibly be in any room as Gretchen concluded her blistering introduction to the elements of the company she just took over that she believed most endangered its future, doing her best to control her labored breathing as she raised her voice. “Today is a new day at Philip Morris. The company has a much more exciting future than it did 24 hours ago, but that doesn’t involve the work that most of the people in this room were doing. I look forward to seeing some of you again…and I look forward to never seeing others of you again. We’re preserving this company’s tradition and it’s future…and, starting today, we’re not gonna be one damn bit ashamed of it any longer. I’ll now bring in security to guide our furloughed employees back to their offices to clean out their stuff. Those of you still on board can return to your desks and continue to make this company great. I’ll be settling into my own new office and will be seeing some of you around in the weeks ahead.”
As the shellshocked room full of mostly “former” employees began to filter out of the room, with security waiting for them outside the conference room to lead them back to their offices, Gretchen finally removed the two-thirds-smoked cigarette from her mouth and looked to Wilson. The cigarette once again had a long ash and she held it up to show Wilson before saying, “We need to get ashtrays back in every room here by the end of the day.”
Wilson nodded and smiled, proud of Gretchen for accomplishing what he never believed could happen. Gretchen then began making not-so-subtle lustful eyes at me, dragging intensely from her cigarette and exhaling my direction. She was clearly bursting with sexual energy having just lived out such a long-standing fantasy, something she’d dedicated her life towards in the last couple of months. I smiled back, taking the bait and wondering how Gretchen would finesse a situation where her sexual needs required very immediate gratification in such a public setting.
For her part, Kaitlyn was darting her eyes back and forth as she dragged from her own cigarette and flicked her ashes all over the floor, picking up on the crackling sexual energy between her mother and father. When I diverted my eyes off of Gretchen and noticed Kaitlyn’s reaction to our eye contact amidst Gretchen’s playful smoke rings headed my direction, it was as though a light went off in Kaitlyn’s minds that she now knew the answer to the question she had raised in my car that night a month earlier regarding why Gretchen and I ended up together despite the smoking divide.
Wilson picked up on the vibe as well and volunteered to take Brayden and Kaitlyn off her hands for a while as she “settled in to her new digs”. Gretchen quickly agreed, handing Brayden to Wilson and giving Kaitlyn a nudge in his direction as well.
They hadn’t been out of the room five seconds before Gretchen turned my direction with an even more intense sexual passion in her eyes, making a point of grabbing her purse before strutting on over to me and grabbing me by my hands. “Let me show you my new office!” Gretchen said, fluttering her eyelashes while pulling me in the direction of the back exit that Wilson just went out.
Gretchen led me by hand down the hallway, making little effort to disguise her intentions from anybody she walked by. She led me down a few long hallways until we got to the largest office I had seen so far in the building, which I knew belonged to her as the company’s new chief executive. I entered the room and had a brief window to observe the fancy desk and chair of her roomy new office, but Gretchen regained my attention when she closed the door behind me, leaning against the door as she opened her purse and pulled out a huge Churchill-sized cigar.
“Oh damn I’ve been waiting a long time to light this bad boy up,” she said, placing the celebratory “victory cigar” into her mouth as she so often does on these occasions and handing me the torch lighter to fire it up. The room began to fill with cigar smoke as Gretchen puffed from it as it lit, her sexy bare legs beginning to tremble with sexual energy to the point that she rested her butt against the office door as well. For several moments, I continued to fire up the cigar, and only when Gretchen knew it was fully lit did she passionately tell me through a blast of smelly cigar smoke directed straight at my face, “Take me now!” in a voice far too loud for office hanky-panky.
I guided Gretchen to the desk and hoisted her up onto it, and as I began to unzip her jean shorts, it hit me that the photos on the desk belonged to the ousted CEO whose job Gretchen had just taken over, and we were about to defile his desk before he even had a chance to come in and clean out his stuff. It seemed so wrong but I knew Gretchen was getting off on it as I pulled her jean shorts and panties off, exposing her extraordinary moist genitals to the surface of her new desk as she unzipped my jeans and pulled them down. As I thrust my dick inside of her, I watched as she shot her head in pleasure, the giant cigar sticking straight above her face along with billowing plumes of dirty smoke.
Gretchen spread her legs wider on the desk as I continued to thrust myself inside of her. The sex had just started and it was already the most passionate sex I’d had with her since Brayden was born. Whatever residue of postpartum depression that had been lingering a month ago could not have been a more distant memory now as her hips quivered from the sexual pleasure and the cigar smoke belched out of her mouth, filling the room with a smoky haze only moments after having been lit.
I knew Gretchen all too well as a sexual partner at this point and played to her fantasy, calling her the “queen of big tobacco” and paying homage to her power and how she holds the fate of thousands of people in her hands. She fed off the energy while accepting my hard cock repeatedly, responding with a rising tide of passion….a tide that continued to rise as I flipped the script and started taunting her with inquiries about “who is the only person who gives orders to the queen of big tobacco?” and “who is the only person who gets to make the queen tremble and lose all control??”
“You, Mark, you!!!” Gretchen shouted through the cigar still clutched in her mouth, before pulling me onto the desk on top of her, our bodies knocking over the photos that the previous CEO left on his desk as I continued to service her while she laid vertically on the smooth oak surface. I remained atop her, probing the tender female parts of this otherwise tough-as-nails corporate executive for several more minutes. As we reached climax, our explosive exchange of bodily fluids that represented such a passionate renewal of our marriage following the birth of our second son would end up being a mere footnote in what would be the biggest day of Gretchen’s life.
I took a good look at her beautiful face and the hulking cigar clutched in it as she slowly cooled down from her forbidden copulation and listened to her exhausted and smoked-out lungs softly wheeze, reconciling the aftermath of sexual domination so obvious on her face with the iron woman face I had just seen on that podium less than a half hour earlier. Our lives were about to change in a big way, but I would cherish the opportunity to see the incredible contrasts between tough and tender on the face of the love of my life. I figured that the rewards of her professional life would feed the passion of her personal life in a way that there would be plenty more opportunities for me to experience this contrast. It scared me that given that we were parents to a newborn son and had a young daughter who needed her mother more than she’d probably be able to see her in the near future, but seeing Gretchen’s performance on that stage last night and today made it abundantly clear that her skills in the business world needed to be shared with the world once again.