My nightmare started at a familiar place: my desk, with me looking down upon a sales chart that resembled a cliff. Next to the chart was a telephone that was silent–the kind of silent that, in a dream, you feel in your temples like a migraine.

Obviously, the anxieties of the day had come to bed with me. Business is tough. Tremulous nights are the norm.

Then my nightmare took a turn: The phone rang! It was a piercing clang, a smoke alarm. My hand shot out and grabbed the receiver.

The caller's voice was a cross between Groucho Marx and Mickey Mouse. I could only make out a few words: "Job ... order ... now!"

Suddenly, the phone receiver turned into a fish, slipped out of my hands, and flopped around on my desk. I grabbed the fish and put it back in the phone cradle. It looked at me with its black eyes, gills flapping desperately, and it spoke.

"Don't take that lead," the fish told me.

But I was already heading out the door. I hadn't had a new lead in a week. Business is terrible. We need every job we can get.

My nightmare shifted, and now I was at the jobsite. I stood at the front door of a large house undergoing a renovation. Without knocking, the door swung open, and I met the contractor, the owner of the Groucho-Mickey voice. He handed me a martini and motioned me inside.

Groucho-Mickey stumbled around the jobsite, speaking in his peculiar voice that I still couldn't understand. His right hand held a circular saw that he occasionally fired up, cutting wildly into the walls and floor. His left hand held a can of beer as big as a keg. In between his fits of cutting and his squeaking, slurring explanations of what I was presumably to price, he took long draws off his keg, punctuating them with extreme belches.

Groucho-Mickey took me to the back door and pointed to a woman in the yard, whom I presumed was the homeowner. She wore a cheerful sundress and stood beside her swimming pool, desperately trying to clean a year's worth of leaves and dirt with a net. And oh yes: The woman's head was that of the fish.

"Don't take this job," Fish Woman said.

"I have to," I implored. "Do you know what is happening out there? Business is terrible!"

Fish Woman turned fully into a salmon, slid out of her dress, flopped to the swimming pool, and slipped into the murky darkness of the dirty water.

"She doesn't know what she is talking about!" I shouted at drunken Groucho-Mickey the contractor. "I know I wouldn't even be talking to you any other time, but I need more business!"

With that, I drained my martini, and my nightmare dissolved again.

When it re-formed, I was back in my office, desperately typing an estimate for drunken Groucho-Mickey. But my fingers were sardines, wiggling and flopping uselessly against the keys. I was overcome with a frantic feeling, a sense of great urgency, of time slipping through my fish fingers.

The sales chart on my desk came to life. Sales were falling, falling, falling. The paper grew and grew to contain the plummeting sales line.

I had to finish this estimate, the very life of my company depended on me making this sale!

Just then, my sardine fingers revolted and bent backward to face me.

"Don't take this job! Don't take this job!" The choir of tiny little fish voices cried. I had to bite off my own fingers just to stop their chant.

Then I woke up–terrified, sweaty, and hungry for sushi.

I drove to the office and spent a solid hour reflecting on the nightmare. I concluded it was a warning that, no matter how tough things get, sound business practices must still prevail. If a lead is not qualified, it still is not worth your time. If a prospect is suspect (or drunk), don't take the job.

Listen to the fish.

I finally shook off the effects of the nightmare when my worried office manager appeared at my door.

"There's a contractor here," she said. "I can't understand a word he is saying, but he has a martini for you."

Tad Troilo is a manager for Cranmer's Kitchens by Design in Yardley, Pa. 215.493.8600
E-mail: [email protected]