issue thirteen

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(3780 words)
In His Absence
[Updated monthly on the full moon]
Gene Albamonte
On his first day as a copywriter, he called his mother just so he could say that he was calling from his new office. He knew, however, that his mother wouldn't answer the phone. She'd be too busy fixing breakfast for his father, who had died of a heart attack a week ago.  After the sixth ring, Alan hung up. He decided he needed a walk around the office. The gray-white herringbone carpet lining the hallways shimmered under his feet. Machines hummed as information was being printed, copied, transmitted. All of these sounds were new to Alan; they drowned out the thoughts of his mother and how she couldn't let go.
His father had been a businessman, and after long days at work, he enjoyed a glass of wine at home. Alan's mother would pour the wine and sit with him at the kitchen counter. They would talk as Alan studied for college exams. He didn't live to see Alan graduate, something Alan had yet to get over. But he liked to think of his father as watching over him, proud at his success in business school, proud that his son worked in an office where people wore suits and carried briefcases.

Alan turned a corner and saw Gary Flanders, an account supervisor, pinning Burt O'Connor, a creative director, facedown on the floor. A few people stood around them, pointing, looking for someone else to stop the fight. Burt's face was blushing red and his eyes were clenched tightly. He tried to squirm out from under Gary's force, but Gary proved to be too strong, even with Burt having a good eighty pounds on him. Finally, Gary gave one last shove on Burt's back and stood up.

"Stupid old man," Gary said and raised a bent arm as if he were about to give Burt a flying elbow.  Burt slowly got up and brushed himself off. He turned toward Gary and they stared at each other. More people gathered around them, watching, stunned. Alan couldn't believe what he was seeing. While he didn't know either of these people very well, he supposed that, as a copywriter, he should be on the creative director's side.

Near the end of the day, Alan stopped by Burt's office to make sure he was okay.

"Come in and close the door," Burt said.

Burt's face was as red as his polo shirt. He had a big, round belly and a big round head, all of which balanced on matchstick legs. Alan's father had been the same way. "I'm giving birth to an elephant," Alan's father would say, "and the trunk's already showing." Alan's mother would playfully slap her husband on the arm.
"You okay, sir?" Alan said.

"Never better," Burt said, out of breath. His bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows rose with each syllable. "I'm out of here, Al. I'm giving them one more week and then that's it."

"Did you get fired?"                

"Nope. I quit. Beat them to the punch."

"So what are you going to do?" Alan asked.

Burt didn't say anything right away, which led Alan to believe he had no idea.

"How old are you, Al?"

"Twenty-three, sir."

"Twenty-three," Burt said. He sighed. "I got some advice for you. You got a credit card?"


"Use them. Go fly to Europe and take the train all around. Just you, a backpack, and a bottle of Evian. You know what Evian spells backward, don't you?"

"No, sir."

Burt scratched his head. He looked down at his desk like he'd never seen it before. "You're too young to be cooped up in an office," Burt said. "I should have taken care of Gary ten years ago." He bent down, one hand on his chair to hold himself steady, and pulled out a fresh box from under his desk. He started packing things away in it: notebooks, markers, car keys. Alan wondered if he should say something about the car keys, but decided Burt knew what he was doing.

"You're young and strong, Al," Burt said.

Alan, who was notably skinny, knew this was more set-up than truth.

"How old are you?" Burt said.

"Twenty-three," Alan said again.

"Spring chicken you are not. More like a spring chicken embryo. You mind meeting me up here tonight? Nine-ish? I don't want to be lugging my stuff out the door with everyone here right now, and I don't want to do it by myself later. I still got a week, but I want to finish this stuff up."

Alan said he'd be happy to help. When he walked out of Burt's office, Gary walked by. He raised an eyebrow at Alan and mumbled something that sounded like, "Fool."

       His mother was making a salad. Breaded chicken cutlets sizzled in a skillet on the stove next to her. The kitchen smelled like oil and bread crumbs. A half-empty wine glass stood on the counter beside her. Half the walls were white, the other half yellow, a painting project halted indefinitely because Alan's father had to be rushed to the hospital in the middle of it. Maybe she thinks Dad finished it, Alan thought. Or maybe she sees all the walls in yellow.

"Hi," Alan said.

"Hello." She didn't turn around. She was drunk. Since his father's death, Alan's mother drank for two. The night after the death, Alan had a glass of wine with his mother, to mourn with her. The wine tasted bitter, but he drank anyway. After a few glasses, he was drunk. He looked in the mirror and saw his father. His mother cried all night, but his drunkenness only made him mad at her. "Get over it!" he wanted to tell her. Afterward, he promised himself he would never drink again. He never wanted to feel that way about his mother.

"I've got to run out after dinner, if that's okay."

His mother said that would be fine. She asked him to set the table.

Alan poured iced tea into two glasses. His mother never touched hers. Instead, she poured glass after glass of wine. After setting the chicken cutlets and salad down, his mother put a plate, fork, and knife onto the table, where Alan's father used to sit. She pulled his father's chair out and sat in her own. She picked up the wine bottle. Alan turned away. When he looked back at her, red drops of merlot blended into the white tablecloth in front of her.

"So the first day went pretty well," Alan said.

"That's good," his mother said. She hadn't touched  her hair in a week, so it stood on end. She took off from work an extra two weeks, part of that time unpaid vacation. Alan knew that his father would want everyone to go back to their normal lives, and his mother knew this too. But her normal life stopped as abruptly as the painting of the kitchen walls.

Alan looked over at the extra place setting. "Do we need to keep pretending Dad's still alive?" 

His mother said nothing. She scooped a forkful of rice into her mouth.        

"I miss him too, you know," Alan said.

When she finished everything on her plate, Alan's mother went to the sink. Alan followed her. He put his arm around her and squeezed. She felt cold and stiff. She picked up a sponge, squirted some dish soap onto it and started washing dishes. Alan cleared the rest of the table.

"I've got to run," Alan said. "I've got to help my boss - my old boss - clear out his desk. He gave a week's notice today." He wanted to tell her more, about how a fight broke out in the hallway, but decided to save his breath.

His mother nodded as she scrubbed a dish under hot water. Steam rose from the sink's bottom. Before he died, Alan's father always stood beside his wife after a meal and helped dry and put away the dishes. Alan would sit at the kitchen table, still chomping away, as his parents washed and dried between kisses.

Now, Alan kissed his mother on the cheek and walked to the door, pushing in his father's chair. Even through the closed door, Alan heard his mother washing dishes, the sink's rushing water like television static.

       He took the elevator to the eleventh floor. There was something ominous about the agency's office at night. During the day, people bustled about, talking, yelling, fighting. The sounds of copiers, fax machines, and telephone conversations were now gone.

Burt wasn't in the building yet; his office was dark, the only things visible being the outlines of the posters on the walls and of the boxes sitting on the floor, waiting to be filled. Alan walked down the dark, empty hallways. It was as if all the people who worked at the agency had instantaneously disappeared. Their not-so-personal belongings - books they were reading, an extra pair of reading glasses, coffee mugs - sat in their offices like artifacts left behind for other civilizations to find. To Alan, the office at night seemed more of a catacomb than anything else.

His curiosity getting the better of him, Alan peered into Peter Camden's office. Peter had left his computer on. Alan shook the mouse around. When the computer woke, he saw that Peter had left in the middle of writing an e-mail. The e-mail read: Hank, sorry I missed you the other day. Maybe we can get

The agency's front door clicked open and shut. Alan walked quickly out of Peter's office, his heart pounding. He felt jittery, as if he had been caught breaking the law. The jangle of keys became louder, and Burt's large outline appeared at the end of the hallway. Burt stopped in front of his office door and turned his head toward Alan.

"You beat me here," Burt said.

"Yes, sir," Alan said. He walked toward Burt. "This place is kinda creepy at night."

Burt turned the light on in his office. "Even creepier during the day." 

Alan smiled.

"So," Burt said. He sat down in his chair and leaned back. "Where do we start?"

"We could start with the walls."

"We could. You get the Andy Warhol and the Urinals Of Ireland posters, I'll get the Miles Davis poster and the map of Europe." Burt stood up. "Europe," he said. "Now there's a continent. You got a credit card, Al?"

Alan stood up with Burt. He wondered if Burt knew he just asked the same question he asked earlier that day. He wanted to say something, but Burt had already been through enough; Alan didn't want to bring up his faulty memory.

"Yes, sir. I've got two."

"Use them. Go to Europe and backpack around. My ex-shrink used to say 'You've got to lose yourself to find yourself.'  But he was a hack anyway. Used to wear these butterfly-collared shirts with polka dots on them. And this was only ten years ago, mind you."

"I don't think my mother would like that," Alan said.

"Like what?" Burt rolled up his Miles Davis poster and put a rubber band around it.

"You know," Alan said, "if I went to Europe?"

"Europe," Burt said. "Now there's a continent. Europe's not a bad idea. Maybe I can get a job at Vickers in England. Those guys are always in the showbooks. The Clios, C.A., The One Show. All those damn award shows are fixed, believe you me. You want to know the only award show that isn't fixed?"

Alan nodded.

"The Westminster Dog Show," Burt said. "No way that son-of-a-gun is fixed. All those breeds. Seven of them." Burt counted them with his fingers. "The herding group, the hound group, sporting, non-sporting, toy, terrier, working class. My wife and I watch that show every year."

Alan laughed. "Every year?"

Burt smiled and said, "You betcha. And I'm being serious when I say they ain't fixed, too. You've got seven different judges, one judge for each breed. Then you've got an entirely different judge for Best In Show. And then that judge writes down her choice in that little notebook thingy. Do you know how hard it would be to fix that? Nearly impossible. You got a dog, Al?"

Alan shook his head. His father always wanted one, but always said they didn't have the time or the money. "Never had one."

Burt looked as if this was the most horrible thing he had ever heard. "My wife," Burt said, "breeds golden retrievers. I'd say we breed them, but really I don't want anything to do with the breeding part. I just like playing with the little guys. You should call her sometime. At work, she's always at work. Maybe I can talk her into giving you one for free. Here." Burt scribbled on a piece of paper and handed it to Alan. "Her name is Eloise, in case you can't read my writing. Don't be afraid to call her. She's a dear. Can't believe I can still say that after thirty-five years. I always kid her and say, 'Seems like thirty-five-hundred.' Ha!"

They worked quietly at first. With each minute of silence - nothing but the rustle of papers being stashed in a box and the occasional grunt as Burt picked up a heavy package - Alan felt closer to him. When Burt looked around the office and let out an under-the-breath "Hmm," Alan felt like he was watching his father.  He felt like it was only a matter of time before Burt explained how he was giving birth to an elephant and the trunk was already showing.

"So. Why do you want to work here?" Burt asked, breaking the silence.

Alan dropped a notebook into a box. "I'm sorry?" Alan said.

"Yes, you will be, after you work here for a while. I asked you why you wanted to work here."

To make my father proud, Alan wanted to tell him, but as much as he liked Burt, he didn't want to get into that deep of a conversation with him yet. Burt had a week left, and Alan felt that, if the right time should come, he would talk about his father.

"Because most advertising is bad, and I wanted to put my two-cents in to change that. And I like writing the good stuff. It's fun."

"Hmm," Burt said. "That's a crock. I mean, I'm sure it's half true, but I wish you'd tell me the other half."

Alan put the last pile of notebooks into the box and said, "Why did you want to work here? In advertising."

"Because I sucked at everything else." They both laughed.

Near eleven 'o clock, Alan put Burt's last few trophies into a box. He held the last trophy before him - a short, thick, gold pencil. Alan recognized it as a One Show award, one of the most distinguished in advertising.

"That was a good day," Burt said, his eyes half shut. "The only time the show wasn't fixed." Burt smiled. "Did I ever tell you what show is the only one not fixed?"

Alan put the trophy into the box beside him as Burt talked about the Westminster Dog Show. This time around, Burt forgot one of the breed types.

"Working class," Alan said.

"That's the one," Burt said, and then packed away the last few things.

       In the morning Alan found his mother in the kitchen washing dishes. He jangled his keys, but she didn't turn around to acknowledge him.

"You ever think about getting a dog, Ma?"

Still, his mother said nothing.

"Dad always wanted a dog. Remember?"

She kept scrubbing the dishes.

"I'm going to work now. I'll call you later," Alan said. "Love you."

He had an idea to sneak around to the backyard and peek at his mother. He hid behind the live oak not far from the kitchen window. His mother still scrubbed away, her eyes never leaving the sink. She looked to her right and said something as she placed a dish into the dish rack. Her mouth moved. Alan wondered if she ever actually heard him talk back.

       At 9:30 in the morning, Burt still hadn't shown up for work.

Sitting in his office, Alan buzzed Ron, his other creative director, to see if he had heard from Burt this morning, but Ron never picked up the phone. When Alan buzzed the front desk, the receptionist said Ron would be in a meeting all day preparing for a business pitch.

"Have you heard from Burt at all this morning," Alan said.

"Uh, no," the receptionist replied.
Alan looked up Westminster Dog Show on the internet to kill time. Michael La Fave had been the announcer. Thomas H. Bradley III was the chairman of the Dog Show Committee. A Kerry Blue Terrier won the year's Best In Show. A picture showed the Terrier with its breeder and a man who looked almost like Burt, except Burt had less hair and a bigger head. Alan logged off and tried Ron again, but still had no luck.

"Alan," a deep voice said. Gary stood in the doorway with his hands in his pockets. Usually Gary's short hair was pushed perfectly forward with a little scoop up front. But now, Gary's hair was tousled. He had dark bags under each of his eyes.

"Hi, Gary."

"Alan," Gary said, "I'm sorry you had to see that the other day." He put his hand to his head and pat his hair down. When he lifted his hand, the hair immediately sprang back up. "Especially with you so new here," he continued. "Burt's a good guy. We worked together for a long time. But he has some problems. I'm sure you know that, though."

Alan nodded, although he had no idea what Gary meant. 

"How're you settling in?" Gary said.

"Fine," Alan said. "Have you seen him at all today?"

Gary cleared his throat and put his hands in his pocket. "I thought you heard," he said.

Alan shook his head. He dug his thumbnail into the palm of his hand.

"Burt was let go yesterday, Alan."

He didn't like the way Gary said "Alan" after mentioning this about Burt. It felt patronizing. Even so, Alan wanted to respond to Gary's statement, but he didn't know how.

"Burt's got problems," Gary said. "What happened between us was a result of Burt's lay-off, not the cause. He's sick. He has Alzheimer's. He forgets things. He makes things up. And it's only gotten worse."

Gary apologized for having to break the bad news and walked away. Alan walked to his office door, head bowed. The jagged arrowheads of the herringbone carpet wavered, making him dizzy. The copiers and printers and fax machines drummed and screeched from the hallways. He closed the door, the latticework of window panes on the door thick enough to at least dull the noise. Immediately after sitting back down, his thumbnail dug away at his hand. Eventually, his palm felt raw and dry. As much as he didn't want to believe Gary, he did. It explained Burt's repetition. It made as much sense as Alan's own mother pretending her husband was still alive.

Alan got Burt's home phone number from the staff directory and dialed the seven digits. Nobody picked up. He hung up and dialed again, but still, nobody picked up. He pulled out the slip of paper with Eloise's work phone number on it that Burt had handed him last night and dialed the digits.

"Department of Housing and Family," a young lady's voice said through the receiver.

"May I speak to Mrs. Eloise O'Connor, please."

A pause. "Uh, honey. Eloise no longer works here," said the lady, her voice almost a whisper now. She had gone from Happy Secretary Woman to Concerned Woman.

"I'm sorry?" Alan said.

"Honey, Eloise passed on. It was about a year and a half ago now."

Alan hung up the phone.


       The office became darker as the sun set. He closed his eyes in joy each time he heard the front door open and click shut. Some people had to walk by his office to leave, and when they did, Alan smiled and waved. Gary walked by, but instead of slowing down and saying good night, he just kept his steady pace and waved good-bye. Around eight-thirty, Alan walked around the hallways. Everyone was gone.

He sat down in Tiffany Graham's office and read her upcoming appointments scribbled on her calendar: haircut, 5:30; dinner at Ameretto's at seven; don't forget to pick up chocolate mousse for Janie. Alan sat down in Devone Johnson's office and counted the number of stuffed animals: three Teddy bears, two elephants, a monkey, and a giraffe. He sat in Barry Hogan's office and threw darts onto the dartboard hung on the opposite wall: a 16, 20, and a 2. Over in Bill Warwick's office, Alan stared at a picture tacked to a bulletin board of a beautiful woman standing somewhere in some foreign country, maybe Italy. She leaned against the railing of a footbridge, old white buildings covered in relief sculptures in the background. The woman's brown hair fell onto her olive-skin shoulders. Her eyelashes appeared to be in the middle of a flutter, and her smile made her face glow. Alan sat in Bill's chair and put his fingers on the keyboard. He wished again that his dad were alive to see him working in an office, becoming somebody. He wished his mother would at least try to move on.

The keyboard's keys felt soothing under Alan's fingers. He pressed the little square buttons with authority: tap tap tap. Alan pretended that the office was bustling again, another day at work. An inconsiderate woman yelled at her intercom from what sounded like a conference call with a client. From around the corner, the printer mooed with activity and the light from the copier splashed against the wall, the result of someone not closing the cover before hitting "Copy."  Burt walked into his office and handed him a job. "We need this by tomorrow, in the a.m.," he said. He thanked Alan and smiled. Alan kept tap-tapping away on the keyboard. Ghosts of words scrolled across the dark gray monitor, as Gary stopped by to say hi and Alan's father toured his baby boy's first real-job's office, and the woman in the picture waited for Alan to get home so they could plan their next vacation to Europe. The Westminster Dog Show was happening at Madison Square Garden and Eloise had one of her golden retrievers in the running. Everything was perfect again for the few minutes that Alan hit the keys.


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This work is copyrighted by the author, Gene Albamonte. All rights reserved.