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Biodiesel: A Novel  Chapter 6  "VP Public Relations"


   

Daphne Tremayne jumped behind the wheel of her Hummer and slammed the door.  She let out a fierce scream and beat the steering wheel with her fists.  She didn’t look before pulling into traffic and was oblivious to the panic-breaking car skidding sideways behind her.  Daphne sped across town towards Tremayne Fuels, blowing through every stop sign along the route.  “Carbon footprint!” she screamed repeatedly in an ear-splitting soprano.  “Carbon footprint! Carbon footprint!”

The service yard of Tremayne Fuels occupied a large parcel on the edge of the Stirling Harbor business district near the lumber yard, in a part of town that generally did not attract tourists.  A parking area for two dozen oil delivery trucks took up most of the yard.  A large truck-service garage stood in one corner of the compound next to a double-wide trailer serving as a combination dispatch office and driver’s lounge.  A couple of large storage tanks loomed in the other corner next to a filling platform.  Opposite the filling platform, surrounded by a narrow perimeter of grass and shrubbery, stood a two story building housing the company offices of Tremayne Fuels.  Daphne tore into the front parking lot and skidded into a space next to the main entrance marked ‘D. Tremayne, VP Public Relations.’

Daphne practically pulled the glass door off its hinges as she entered the building.  Inside the foyer, behind a large circular desk sat a middle aged receptionist. “Good morning, Mrs. Tremayne!” she said with perky good cheer.

Daphne leaned over the desk and let out a scream like the banshee’s bleakest omen of death.  The receptionist recoiled in terror as Daphne swept past into an open elevator.  On the second floor, she stomped past the cubicles of underlings and entered her corner office, slamming the door behind her.  Almost every drone on the floor peered over their partitions at her door, listening to the muffled shrieks coming from within.  In hushed voices they asked one another why she was screaming ‘carbon footprint’ over and over.

 

In the executive conference room, Vincent Tremayne was in a meeting with the mayor of Stirling Harbor and with three of the Village trustees.  They were putting the finishing touches on a press release regarding the alternative energy initiative they planned to unveil that afternoon on the steps of Village Hall.  Although this initiative had been in the works for months, the timing of its announcement was deliberately meant to coincide with the protest scheduled for two o’clock that day.  As the time of the announcement drew closer, Vincent gave the outward appearance of calm confidence.  Inwardly, he was exuberant.  For Vincent, this project marked a decisive moment in his entrepreneurial career.  Until now, he had managed a business that changed very little since the death of its founder.  Now the time had come for Vincent to put his distinguishing mark on things.  He knew this initiative was a gamble, yet if successful, he believed it could propel Tremayne Fuels to new heights and position it to capture even greater market share in the years ahead.  As the mayor and the trustees reworked the final draft of press release, Vincent silently mused over the events that led to this.

About a year earlier, Vincent had learned, Village officials started receiving letters from members of a very vocal community activist group demanding that all public buildings in Stirling Harbor be made ‘environmentally friendly.’  The mayor and trustees agreed to study the issue, but the activists were not satisfied with vague assurances.  Angry letters and petitions soon arrived at Village Hall demanding decisive action, and the mayor and trustees responded in a number of substantive ways.   They began by hiring engineers to assess the energy efficiency of Village buildings.  They investigated the feasibility of utilizing eco-friendly energy sources such as wind and solar power for Village properties.  They even gave fleeting consideration to installing a tide-driven electric turbine in the harbor near the breakwater.  Some options seemed more realistic than others, yet one thing became painfully apparent: conversion to environmentally friendly energy would be extremely expensive.  The officials further concluded that, given the state of the latest technology, there was no reliable alternative to oil for heat and hot water.  When the trustees and the mayor discussed this unsavory fact at public hearings, a small clique of militants accused them of not doing enough to find ways to reduce the Village’s carbon footprint.  As a result, the mayor and the trustees began meeting with Vincent Tremayne in hopes of finding a way for the Village to curtail its petroleum use. 

The fact that Vincent had a stake in this was fairly obvious, since Tremayne Fuels was the sole supplier of oil to the Village.  There was no graft or kickbacks behind this.  Tremayne Fuels had benefited over the years from being the only act in town.  In the early days, when the east end of the island was sparsely populated, no other oil company except Tremayne Fuels was willing to set up shop in so small a market.  However, as the east end grew more populous, Tremayne Fuels also grew into a thriving company supplying most local businesses and homes, as well all Village buildings, with oil.  The business relationship between Tremayne Fuels and the Village had been a smooth one until the recent agitation started.  Yet, in spite of this hubbub, Vincent was not terribly concerned about losing the Village as a customer, specifically because he knew, just as the Village officials did, that oil was indispensable.  Nevertheless, the activists’ constant outcries against oil, he believed, might serve to tarnish the image of Tremayne Fuels in the eyes of the general public.  Thus, when Village officials sought his participation in solving the current crisis, he jumped at the opportunity to orchestrate an alternative energy initiative that both the Village and Tremayne Fuels could tout as environmentally friendly.  In short, Vincent planned to supply the Village with eco-friendly biodiesel in place of petroleum.

Becoming a producer and vendor of this ‘environmentally friendly’ alternative to petroleum had occurred to Vincent years earlier, however, the start-up costs of a biodiesel production plant made the project prohibitively expensive.  Unless he passed these costs to the consumer by markedly increasing fuel prices, he would only recoup his investment after many years of operation.  This was certainly not worthwhile.  However, given the current climate of unrest, the Village politicians seemed willing to pay almost any price to get the activists off their backs.  Vincent believed the time had come to act.  If this project proved successful, he could sell biodiesel to the Village at highly inflated prices and still come off looking like a hero.  Vincent would be hailed as a champion of environmental responsibility and still pocket a bundle in the process. 

Selling biodiesel to the Village, however, was only the first step in his larger plan.  Vincent believed that this initiative, if spun properly, might entice an environmentally conscious public to pay more for biodiesel in their homes and businesses.  To those zealously committed to saving the planet, he would sell straight biodiesel at ridiculously high prices.  For those less committed to the cause, he envisioned offering all sorts of petroleum and biodiesel blends, priced according to the ratio of the mixture, which he could market as a compromise between affordability and social consciousness.  There was no telling where this might lead.  After Stirling Harbor, he could set up new biodiesel production plants across the state and branch out into new distribution markets.

The meeting with the mayor and trustees drew to a close, and shortly before noon the final version of the press release was faxed to the local newspaper.  Before adjourning, they all agreed to meet in the mayor’s office at 1:45, just before the protest got underway.  If all went according to plan, by ten after two they would be on the steps of Village Hall jointly unveiling the alternative energy initiative to the protesters and the press.  Vincent could hardly wait.

Vincent planned to take lunch in his office and relax before the big event.  When he entered the executive office suite, his secretary informed him that his order of Chinese take-out was on his desk and that his wife had called three times that morning demanding to speak with him.  Vincent wondered what trivial thing Daphne planned to pester him with that day.  He was about to ask his secretary if she knew anything about it when he heard Daphne approaching.

“Where the hell is he?” she shouted.  “I won’t be kept waiting any longer!” 

Daphne burst into the office suite like a thunderstorm.   “Damn you!” she shouted as she caught sight of Vincent.

“Hi, baby,” he said sheepishly.  “How was yoga?”

“How could you do this to me?  I hate you!” she screamed.

“Come inside, baby, and tell me what’s bothering you,” Vincent said as he beckoned her into the inner office.  After closing the door, he timidly asked, “What’s wrong, honey?”

“You, you brute!” she fired back at him.  “How could you do this to me?”

Vincent looked at her quizzically.  “I’m sorry, honey.  What did I do?” he asked.  He had gotten used to her periodic outbursts and knew that the best way to defuse her was by playing along.  This would last about ten minutes, he figured, and then he could get rid of her and eat in peace.

“I looked like a fool today and it’s all because of you!” she said, stomping her foot.  “People hate me and it’s your fault, you carbon creep!”

“What’s a carbon creep?” Vincent inquired.

“You!” she shouted as she jabbed her index finger toward his face.  “Everyone hates me because of you and your stupid carbony oil business!  I’ve never been so humiliated in all my life!”

Vincent gingerly wheedled out of Daphne a more detailed explanation of what happened that morning.  She recounted the details of her run-in with Penny and LuluBelle and how everyone hated her because of the large carbon footprint left around the village by Tremayne Fuels.  As she spoke, he caught a whiff of Chinese food and sighed.  “Aw baby, you got it all wrong,” he groaned.  “Tremayne Fuels is the most environmentally friendly business in the world.”

“In the whole world?” she challenged testily.

“Well, maybe not the whole world, but definitely in America,” he replied.  “And to prove it, the mayor is going to give me an award today at two o’clock.  It’s going to be on television.”

“What kind of award?” Daphne asked suspiciously.

“Just calm down and I’ll tell you.  The mayor and the trustees are going to award me with a contract for the Village to purchase biodiesel from Tremayne Fuels!” he said triumphantly. 

Daphne just stared at him blankly.

“Don’t you understand, baby?” he exclaimed.  “Tremayne Fuels is in the biodiesel business.  Biodiesel doesn’t leave any carbon footprint.  It’s a scientific fact!”

“What’s biodiesel?” she asked in much calmer voice.

“Well, it’s kind of like oil, but it’s not made from petroleum,” he said.  “It’s made from used cooking oil and it’s one hundred percent biodegradable.  No carbon footprint!”

“Wait a minute!” she said.  “I thought we sold oil.  I’m the vice president in charge of public relations so I should know!  Tremayne Fuels was an oil company.  When did it change?”

Vincent weighed his words.  “There’s no fooling you, Daphne,” he admitted after some hesitation.  “You’re right.  We were an oil company.  We still are, in fact.  It’s just that, well…, now we’ve decided to start selling biodiesel.  Biodiesel burns like oil but it’s actually the most environmentally friendly fuel known to mankind.  The mayor and trustees are so happy about it that they’re holding a press conference this afternoon to tell everyone that they are going to use our eco-friendly biodiesel in all the Village buildings from now on.  When the public hears about this there will be dancing in the streets!”

“So you mean to tell me you’re not destroying the planet?” Daphne said.  “They laughed at me when I said Tremayne Fuels was environmentally friendly.”

Vincent chuckled and shook his head in feigned disgust.  “Listen, baby,” he said.  “Anyone who said that Tremayne Fuels is bad for the environment is going to eat their words.  I’m going to let you in on a little secret, but you must promise not to tell anyone.  There’s a rumor going around that I’ve been nominated for the Nobel Prize.”

Daphne eyed him suspiciously for a long moment.  “Well, what about me?” she finally said in exasperation.  “Everyone will think you’re so great, but how do I come off?  I’m the one everyone was laughing at this morning!”

“Baby, what are you talking about?” he replied with an air of shock.  “You’re the one who’s going to announce this at the press conference today!  You’re in charge of public relations.  Everyone in town will know that you’re the company executive responsible for eliminating our carbon footprint!”

“I’m going to announce it on TV?” she asked cheerfully.  “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?  I could have let people know.”

“Daphne, baby,” Vincent said with grave sincerity.  “I didn’t think it was fair to burden you with too much work.  You’ve been so busy lately designing our new refrigerator magnets.  I thought it best just to surprise you when the time came.  Today is the day we go public, and I can’t do this without you!  Won’t you be at the press conference with me?”

“Of course,” Daphne replied effervescently.  “How is my hair?”

“Beautiful, as always,” he replied.

Vincent realized that he would somehow have to squeeze Daphne in as part of the entourage on the steps of Village Hall that afternoon.  He quickly wrote out a statement that she could read and encouraged her to go over it a few times to make sure she had it right.  Daphne said she would meet him in the mayor’s office as instructed, but that she needed to run a few errands around town beforehand.  She was on her cell phone as she left, making a last-minute appointment for a manicure.  When she had gone, Vincent heaved a sigh of relief and told his secretary to hold his calls for the rest of the afternoon.

 

                                                                     *             *             *

 

The protesters began assembling in front of Village Hall shortly before two.  Some carried signs that bore slogans such as “Reduce-Reuse-Recycle,” and “Love Your Mother” emblazoned over an image of the Earth.  Many among the group were regulars at the Gaia Yoga and Women’s Holistic Wellness Center, but a few men swelled the ranks as well.  Most of the people in the crowd wore tie-dyed tee shirts and Earth shoes.

The protest organizers set up an ad hoc headquarters across from Village Hall where they erected a folding table.  Upon it were piled stacks of leaflets outlining the organization’s demands, which volunteers started distributing to passers-by.  Among the organizers were Penny and LuluBelle.  Penny was still carrying a clipboard.  A bullhorn, which LuluBelle hefted menacingly, now augmented their arsenal of activist accouterment.  Darryl, a third organizer whose arrival had been eagerly anticipated, joined a small cluster of protesters near the folding table just before two o’clock.  He sported a tie-dye tee shirt with the slogan “Save the Whales” sprawled amidst the psychedelic swirl.  Darryl’s face was partially obscured behind a pair of boxy post-cataract sunglasses, giving him the appearance of a geriatric arc welder.  He was carrying a placard with the words “Think Globally-Act Locally” stenciled on it.  The other organizers eyed him expectantly. 

After an awkward silence, Penny spoke.  “Well?” she said impatiently.

“I can’t!” Darryl replied with exasperation.  “I just can’t come up with a good protest chant.”

“Damn it!” Penny said as she threw the clipboard down on the card table.  “After all the protests you led in the ‘60s and you still can’t come up with anything?  We were depending on you!”

“I tried,” the old radical exclaimed.  “It’s not so easy to come up with something catchy.”

“Haven’t you got anything?” Penny asked.

“Well, we might recycle some old anti-war chants,” he said hopefully.  “They might work.”

“Like what?” she inquired.

Darryl ran through a few tired adaptations of chants that were effective during Vietnam War protests nearly half a century earlier.  Most were tepid at best.  Finally, the organizers settled on a retread of an old standby.

“OK, people,” Penny said.  “We’re going to chant ‘hey hey, ho ho- dirty oil has got to go!’”

LuluBelle sneered.  “Lame bourgeois crap!” she spat.  “I won’t be caught dead chantin’ that through no bullhorn!”

While the debate over a suitable protest chant continued, workers began setting up a podium and loudspeakers on the steps of Village Hall.  The activists across the street didn’t notice this until the task was almost completed. 

“What’s that?” Darryl said, pointing to the vacant podium.

“Beats me,” replied Penny.  “We’d better get started.”

At the stroke of two, the cluster of community organizers shuffled across the street to stand on the sidewalk directly in front of Village Hall.  LuluBelle, who had relinquished charge of the bullhorn, crossed her arms and scowled in disgust while Penny tucked the clipboard under her arm and turned on the device.

“People,” Penny shouted, “our voices will be silenced no longer!”  The bullhorn made her sound particularly shrill.

The harangue went on for about five minutes as Penny recapped the group’s demands, which by now had become boringly familiar to everyone in Stirling Harbor.  After another five minutes of uninspired chanting and sign waving, some activity was noticed in the vestibule of Village Hall.  To the curiosity of everyone in the crowd, the mayor, flanked by Vincent and Daphne Tremayne, stepped up to the podium.  All five Village trustees took places on the steps behind them, as if posing for a group photo.  The mayor tapped the microphone and began to speak. 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the mayor woodenly announced.  “Citizens of Stirling Harbor, today is a landmark day in the history of our village!  For today we declare our independence from environmentally unfriendly oil!”  He uttered this last sentence in a rising crescendo, expecting applause.  None was forthcoming and the group of protesters stood silent, waiting for some explanation.  After an awkward pause the mayor continued, “Today, we are here to announce that beginning this week, the Village will be switching to clean burning, environmentally friendly biodiesel in each and every public building!”

A number of protesters applauded and a few offered up whistles and cheers.

The mayor spoke for a few minutes, offering vague platitudes about the virtues of biodiesel before announcing that this new public policy was made possible because of the selfless efforts of a visionary entrepreneur committed to saving the environment, namely, Vincent Tremayne, president and CEO of Tremayne Fuels.  The crowed offered more enthusiastic applause as the mayor turned the microphone over to the Village’s new benefactor.

Vincent spoke for a good ten minutes about the alternative energy initiative and confirmed that he was, indeed, the architect of the plan.  He spoke with great enthusiasm about biodiesel as an alternative to oil in people’s homes and businesses and vowed that Tremayne Fuels would blaze a trail to the brave new world of environmentally friendly energy.  He addressed the crowd with the modulation and tenor of a politician campaigning for office.  Most of the protestors seemed to forget their original purpose for assembling and cheered Vincent as if they’d come for his speech.  Daphne stood next to the mayor, discreetly trying to spot the television cameras.  She was waiting for Vincent to hurry up and finish so she could make her big announcement.  By this time, a reporter and photographer from the Stirling Harbor Gazette made their way to the front of the crowd.  As the reporter scribbled notes, the photographer diligently snapped pictures of Vincent and the cluster of dignitaries surrounding him.  At length, after much applause and cheering, Vincent concluded his remarks by introducing Daphne, saying she had an important announcement to make.

Daphne took her place at the podium and flashed a seductive smile directly at the photographer.  Many protesters pointed to her and excitedly murmured her name.  The ecstatic cries of “Daphne! Daphne!” swelled as the vice president of public relations looked out and waved her arm in pontifical blessing over the protesters.

When the tumult subsided, Daphne announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the era of petroleum is over!  Welcome to the future!”  With that, the crowd erupted in joyous applause and cheers.  Daphne stepped in front of the podium and stretched out her arms to the cheering throngs and blew kisses to her well-wishers. 

Many of the protesters wept and embraced in concentric group hugs.  Spontaneous song broke out.  Soon the whole assembly rapturously sang “Let the Sunshine In” in unison while the group on the steps of Village Hall withdrew inside.

As they entered the building, Daphne daubed away tears and whispered in Vincent’s ear, “They love me!”

The protest organizers looked at one another and frowned.  “What’ll we do now?” Penny asked disappointedly. 

In the middle of the street, Darryl, wearing his post-cataract sunglasses, wandered about in confusion.  Finally, with nothing better to do, he unzipped his fanny pack and withdrew an apple.  He stood eating it in silence, trying to figure out what just happened.

Chapter 6 of Biodiesel: A Novel by George H. Monahan.  Available on