issue twenty-eight

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(2924 words)
       I can't complain. I've got a good job. There's a lot of variety in my life. I've got a stable marriage, even though my wife and I don't see each other that often. We each pursue our own activities.

I enjoy going to work. My manager is a good guy. The other day, as I was working at my computer, he came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. "You know that brochure on the ZZZ350 you were going to get out?" he said. "A customer asked me about that the other day." My manager was not at all intimidating. It's true I've let that brochure slide. I'm not even sure which engineer is supporting that box now. Most of them have gone on to bigger and better things.

The other day one of the programmers came into work completely nude. She's not very attractive -- skinny, wears big glasses. She just sat down at her computer and started working. She's pleasant enough. I don't know why she came into work naked. Programmers are weird. I know she just had a baby a couple of months ago. Maybe she got overheated.

I get plenty of exercise. After work I play on this basketball team -- that is, when I can find the gym and when I remember to take my ankle braces. It's just an industrial league. I used to be quite a gunner. Now I'm content, when I get in, to play good D, shoot only when I'm open, and get a few assists.

I don't always get in the game. That annoys me. I want to get some exercise. I look down the bench toward the coach, and he pretends not to see me. Sometimes I'll play half the game. Sometimes I'll even start. In some games I'll get 10 or 12 points, and even get a basket on a dunk. That really feels good. These days everyone and his brother can dunk. Guys five feet seven can do it. I'm five eleven. Pretty good for an older guy.

There is one problem at work. I don't get paid. It's not that I'm a volunteer or an intern. I just don't get paid. I mentioned this to my boss the other day. "Believe me," he said, "I'm working on it."

I do take some time off. I mean, you can't get docked a day's pay if you don't get paid. I don't like to take too much time off though. I feel like I'm letting down the team.

The other day I went to visit to my old company. I don't know why I went -- either just out of nostalgia, or maybe to see if I could get a paying job. Actually, I didn't expect the company to still be there. The building was in Manhattan, on Fifth Avenue, between Twenty-Second and Twenty-Third streets. It must have been sandblasted or rebuilt or something. The lobby was completely different -- shiny, light-brown marble. I looked at the directory, and there it was! My old firm. Still on the fifth floor.

In the lobby, the elevator was in a different place. And there were two of them. On the fifth floor, the door opened onto a hallway that ran along the Fifth Avenue side of the building -- right where the president's office and his adjoining conference room used to be. The reception area was in the same place, but it looked different. There used to be a long counter. Behind that counter was a switchboard and filing cabinets. When the company hired two new secretaries, they put their desks along the wall opposite the one behind the counter. 

The counter was gone, replaced by a desk and a gleaming metal backdrop with flared metallic sides. The backdrop looked like a gigantic version of the backplate to a tennis trophy I had. The secretaries' desks were replaced by easy chairs positioned around a small, black circular table.

Yellow lights flashed across the metallic backdrop. A receptionist sat behind the desk. She looked like she was on stage.

I'd say she was in her late twenties, early thirties. She had short, auburn hair and thin, classic features. She seemed petite, but it's hard to tell when someone is sitting down. You might even say she was beautiful.

When she saw me, however, she was all business.

"Can I help you?"

"Uh, no," I replied. "I'd just like to look around."

I walked to the right, toward where my old office used to be.

"Sir," she called out, "you can't go in there unless you have an appointment to see someone."

I returned to the front of her desk. "I used to work here," I said. "It was my first job after I got out of the army."

Her tone softened. "How long ago was that?"

"Fifty years."

Fifty years? Could it be? I did the math. It was fifty years.

"Well," she said, "I mean, have you kept up with anyone currently here?"

I did keep in touch with the managing editor for a while after I left. Henry Chipton. The Chipster. There was a vast difference in age between the stream of reporters and editorial assistants coming through this place, looking for a few weeks' or few months' work to put on their resumés, and the older writers and editors who seemed forever trapped in their low-paying jobs. The Chipster had been at least sixty, and with his wrinkled face he looked older. That would make him 110 now.

"Unfortunately not," I said. "I haven't really kept up with anyone."

She shrugged her shoulders. There was one guy -- Warren Rentman, the administration supervisor. I didn't particularly like him. But he and I were the only two younger employees who persisted there, probably because we had managerial-type jobs.

"Could you perhaps see if you have any record of a Warren Rentman?"

She turned to her computer screen. "Sorry," she said, shaking her head. "Nothing. This goes back only thirty years."

"Well, thanks for trying," I said, turning to leave.

"Wait," she said. "Would you like me to see if you can visit with Mr. Martin? He's been here forever."

She looked toward the office to the far left, then turned back to me and smiled conspiratorially. "I mean," she said softly, "he's one of our most senior people. I'm sure he'd have time to talk to you."

"No, thanks," I said. "But thanks very much for trying. You've been very kind."

       I've been recalled into the army. This is the second time that's happened. My third tour of duty. I don't understand it. I've served my time -- twice. The first time it was two years active duty, two years active reserve, and two years inactive reserve. At the last active reserve meeting, someone asked, "What the fuck is the inactive reserve?" "You're inactive," someone else said. "You don't do anything." "Then why does it exist?" "Just to make it easier for them to call you back."

Well, I finished the two years inactive reserve, got my honorable discharge, and they still called me back. Twice. And apparently without too much trouble.

Everyone feels that there is no chance of this unit's getting sent into combat. It's just the same boring, reserve-type duty. Only it's active duty. Look, at least it's a paying job.

Wearing our olive-drab fatigues, we sit on gray footlockers in a large, empty room. They could have at least given us those sharp new camouflage fatigues. The other guys are all younger than I am. They're all bitching and moaning about the recall. "Look," I say, "there's nothing you can do about it. You've got to make the best of it." A few heads nod in begrudging agreement. "Believe me," I say, "the individual days drag, but the overall time goes by like a shot."

It does for me. I'm out, and back at work. We work in a large, square room, each of us with his computer against a section of the wall. Private offices, or even double offices, are a thing of the past. There aren't even any cubicles. There's nothing in the center. At least you can't trip over anything.

My manager walks quickly toward my workstation. He's youngish, maybe in his early thirties, heavy-set, and bright-faced.

"We did it," he exclaims. "You're on the payroll!"

The slender programmer, fully clothed today, turns toward me and smiles. My manager's enthusiasm is contagious. "That's great," I say. "How did you do it?"

"I was very straightforward. I went to the director and told him that it really was not fair that you were working here and not on the payroll. 'He does good work,' I said. 'True, he's been a little late with the brochure, but he did serve that stint in the military, and the brochure is low-priority anyway.' And what do you know? The director agreed."

"I appreciate what you've done."

"And," my manager says, jabbing a finger at me, "it's retroactive to the beginning of the month."

My wife and I take a short vacation. It has nothing to do with my getting on the payroll at work. We planned this several months ago. Ironically, my getting paid at work makes absolutely no change in my lifestyle.

We go to my favorite hotel. It's a big, sprawling place with indoor tennis courts and large suites that don't drive you into bankruptcy. The kids have all joined us, with the wives, grandkids, and significant others. We have two connecting suites, each with its own entrance door. Everyone is off doing his or her thing. I have my tennis gear, so I head down the hill toward the indoor courts.

The building is a disappointment. I don't remember it being this drab. It's like a warehouse. The courts themselves are Har-Tru -- the green, soft stuff that's easy on the knees. That's a plus. Indoor Har-Tru courts. Each court is separated from the others by a wall rather than by netting. Only one court is being used. There's a guy, maybe in his mid-forties, with pretty good groundstrokes, playing an older guy who's a hacker.

The courts look a little sandy. I walk right onto the court being played on to check out one spot. I don't know why I do that. It's a no-no to even walk around the perimeter of the court while there's a point being played.

The spot is really soft. I mean, you could hit a shot with a lot of backspin, and the ball would just lie there, or perhaps bore its way into the court. The guy with the good groundstrokes plays around me. I back off toward the baseline. It's obvious that he tries to volley any shot going toward that soft spot.

"Stick around," he says, hitting a backhand. "I'm supposed to play you next."

I don't remember signing up for any tournament. If soft spots are the only problem with these courts, that's not too bad. Looking up, I see there's a balcony on each end of the court. I don't like that.

I seem to have gotten involved with some form of extreme tennis. Sometimes there's a tree right on the court, and you have to serve around the tree. It's a challenge. Depending on where the tree is, you have to decide whether to use your slice, kick, or cannonball serve. Then there's the other problem. My racquets get vandalized. Someone makes them wobbly at the throat, rendering them useless. Sometimes I have to hit the ball with my hands. You just have to do the best you can.

But balconies are the worst. In some tournaments, they make you serve from the balcony and get the ball around the tree. With a normal service motion, you fall into the court after you hit your serve. From the balcony, you can fall right over the side and onto the court.

The hacker seems to be making a comeback. I decide not to wait around. I'll head back to the room, take a shower, and then see what the kids are doing.

There are six rows of elevators in this hotel. The area is done in bright gold and red-tinted marble. It is somewhat pretentious. My wife doesn't like this glitzy stuff. I don't mind it, as long as the elevator gets me to where I want to go. On this day, it doesn't. I get on a damn express elevator and the first stop is the fifth floor.

I'm not even sure what our room numbers are. I think we're on the second floor -- rooms 215 and 217. I get off at the fifth floor and take what I think is a local. It goes right back to the lobby.

I could go to the registration desk and ask one of the clerks where the local elevators are. I could also check what room numbers we have. Guys hate to ask what their room numbers are. The clerk might not even tell me, suspecting that I might be an impostor. If I could see the area of the hotel where our rooms are, I'm sure I would recognize the side-by-side entrances. I might as well take the stairs up. Even with the mezzanine level, it's only three flights.

I go through an exit door and approach not a flight of stairs but a bank of six huge escalators. Those things have to go up at least four flights. This is getting to be a problem.

I look at my watch and see that it's already two thirty. I haven't eaten lunch yet. I decide to go straight to the dining room and forget about going back to the room first.

I go through another exit door, and what do you know? At least something works. I'm right in the dining room.

The dining room at this hotel is huge. It's at least the size of a football field. There are circular tables all down the length of the room. Each table has a white tablecloth. On the other side of the room, where a lunch buffet must have been, there are long, rectangular tables also with white tablecloths. Busboys wearing red-and-brown uniforms are clearing off the few cloth napkins and wine glasses that remain on the tables. It doesn't bother me that lunch is over. There's a little café on the other side of the room that remains open all the time. It's a nice little place. You can sit there, have some lunch, read a newspaper, and nobody bothers you.

I walk across the dining hall to the café. There are just a few customers there. A waiter signals me to sit anywhere I like. I grab a paper from a shelf and sit down at one of the tables. I order a turkey sandwich on a croissant with lettuce and tomato, no mayo. Today they have a nice blackberry cobbler for dessert. I get a glass of cranberry juice to drink. It's very pleasant here.

After I'm finished, I hand my credit card to the waiter and then sign the receipt. As I walk back toward the main dining room, a short, swarthy man in a black suit approaches me.

"Excuse me, sir," he says. "Could I talk to you for a moment?" He's holding a narrow scroll of paper.

"What's the matter?"

He's very polite. "Sir, you've eaten at our café several times, and each time, until today, you've walked out without paying."

I don't believe him. I have eaten here several times, but I can't remember just walking out without paying the bill.

"Really? Are you sure you've got the right person?"

"Yes, sir. Absolutely sure."

"Are you sure the bill wasn't charged to my room?"

"Our restaurant is not affiliated with the hotel, sir."

"Well, why didn't someone stop me?"

"Sir, we knew you were a guest at the hotel and we did not want to embarrass you."

"Do you have something to substantiate this claim?"

He hands me the scroll of paper. It is a record, in duplicate, of my restaurant charges, starting from the day after we arrived. I try to remember where else I might have eaten, but I can't think of anything.

I put the bill on one of the tables. The total charge comes to $157. I add a modest tip, sign the bill, and take my receipt. I can always cross-check this bill with my hotel bill to make sure I'm not being double-charged.

I start walking across the dining hall toward the exit door. When I reach the circular tables, I start to feel very tired. Really, really tired. I've got to sit down somewhere.

I slump into a chair by one of the circular tables. A Latino busboy sees me and comes rushing over to me.

"Sir, are you all right?"

"I'll be okay," I say. "I just have to rest for a moment. Am I in your way here?"

"No, no, not at all," he says. "Just take your time. Take as long as you want."

I sink back in the chair and start to drift off. I have this recurring dream that I'm in a room, lying in bed on my back, with my back and head slightly elevated. An elegant, white-haired woman comes into the room and looks at me with such concern that it breaks my heart. I want to tell her I love her, but I can't speak. I hate that dream.


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Bill Carr. All rights reserved.
Bill Carr